Countdown to the Cheltenham Festival -- snapshot look at the big four races

A CHAMPION AT CHELTENHAM -- Paul Nicholls, champion jumps trainer, pictured at Cheltenham on the eve of the 2015 Festival, where he has leading fancies in most of the big races.  (PHOTO BY: David Davies/PA Wire)

A CHAMPION AT CHELTENHAM -- Paul Nicholls, champion jumps trainer, pictured at Cheltenham on the eve of the 2015 Festival, where he has leading fancies in most of the big races. (PHOTO BY: David Davies/PA Wire)

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Racing fans have been helped through the dark and damp midwinter months by the prospect of the Cheltenham Festival just around the corner.

Four days of the best Jumps racing in the world, all soaked up by an infectious party-like atmosphere matched by few other annual sporting beanfests.

After a plethora of Festival clues at tracks from Newbury to Naas and from Liverpool to Leopardstown, the serious trials and prep races have been run. Now we wait. With bated breath.

As I write, only 16 days remain before the tapes rise for the opening race, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. So punters up and down the country will be making plans to arm themselves with all the Festival information and insight they can muster ahead of the great week.

The market is littered with advice ranging from tips to trends and packaged via books, newspapers, websites, social media, social evenings and pub banter.

For those new to the frantic countdown, it must be a bit bewildering. But in my view, four pieces of punters’ weaponry are essential purchases.

From Weatherbys, spend about £25 on their legendary Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide, compiled by Paul Jones, plus access to e-mailed reports from the best and most informative Festival Preview Evenings in the UK and Ireland.

From the Racing Post, for just £14.50, add to your portfolio their fabulous Festival Collection, which comprises a book and a newspaper to guide you through every race

Immerse yourself in all four in the days leading up to the Festival, and you’ll quickly discover why the event has evolved into such an obsessive pilgrimage for so many of us!

It won’t be long either before many of the bookies are tempting us to put our money where our mouths are with their non-runner-no-bet concessions. So it’s an opportune moment to take a brief look at the the big four championships races of the Festival.

BETFRED GOLD CUP

A big field is almost guaranteed for the blue riband event of the week because although there is a stand-out favourite in Betfair Chase and King George winner SILVINIACO CONTI, he is vulnerable. Paul Nicholls’s nine-year-old has already failed twice in the race (including last year without excuse) and even the trainer himself admits he is better on flat tracks such as Kempton and Haydock.

Nevertheless, Nicholls also insists Silviniaco is an improved horse this year for the treatment of serious stomach-ulcers and for the fitting of cheekpieces. But opponents are still queueing up to take him on, including the trio who collared him on the run-in in 2014, LORD WINDERMERE, ON HIS OWN and THE GIANT BOLSTER.

Lord Windermere and On His Own also hail from this season’s main two Irish trials, the Lexus Chase and the Hennessy, won respectively by ROAD TO RICHES, who has enjoyed a flawless campaign, and the gritty CARLINGFORD LOUGH, who will be AP McCoy’s final ride in the race. The likes of Nicholls’s second string, SAM WINNER, and BOSTON BOB, also emerge from those trials with plausible if outside credentials.

However, this year’s Cheltenham showpiece boasts a cluster of less exposed, potential improvers from both sides of the Irish Sea too, all adding spice to the mix. Willie Mullins’s number one hope, DJAKADAM, has been talked up all season as a Gold Cup horse, even though he’s only six and lacks experience at the highest level, while FOXROCK, just a year older, might yet take his chance for Ted Walsh. Over here, MANY CLOUDS, winner of Newbury’s Hennessy Gold Cup, has developed into a high-class stayer with an attitude to die for, last season’s top novice, Jonjo O’Neill’s Cheltenham specialist HOLYWELL, is back to form and always at his best in the spring, and likeable grey SMAD PLACE is as consistent as they come. A spanner has also been thrown into the works by exciting front-running novice CONEYGREE, who has tackled fences only three times but who posted a performance last time that entitled him to go very close on Friday 13th March. All in all, a wonderful race is in prospect -- and I’ve not even mentioned the 2013 winner BOBS WORTH!

STAN JAMES CHAMPION HURDLE

In contrast to the Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle on the opening day of the Festival is likely to attract a small, but highly select, field, spearheaded by the admirable veteran HURRICANE FLY, arguably the greatest hurdler in the history of the sport. They says he’s never at his best around Cheltenham, yet he’s won the race twice, among a world-record tally of 22 Grade One triumphs, and will bring the house down if he can complete a hat-trick at the age of 11. He has looked tougher than ever this term, completing three victories over the reigning champion JEZKI. Trainer Jessica Harrington remains confident that her JP McManus-owned seven-year-old can gain revenge at Cheltenham, where the track and better ground seem to suit. But key factors in 2014 were the the application of a first-time hood and the jockeyship of Barry Geraghty, for whom Jezki does seem to go better than AP McCoy, who will on board this time.

In any event, their duel might be rendered meaningless if the new kid on the block, FAUGHEEN, lives up to his lofty reputation. The unbeaten seven-year-old has taken the transition from novice company in his stride and while the nuts and bolts of his form this term is not the strongest, the visual impression he has made continues to be spectacular -- to such an extent that Ruby Walsh looks likely to desert Hurricane Fly to ride him. I just wonder if connections might live to regret not giving him a prep race in the last couple of months to further his experience.

Easily the pick of the home contingent is THE NEW ONE, who has rattled off five wins on the spin since finishing third last year. Too much has been made of how unlucky Nigel Twiston-Davies’s star was in the 2014 contest. Yes, he suffered early interference, but he was handy enough coming down the hill, only to get a little outpaced before powering home late. He has the ability to win a strongly-run renewal, but would be happier if the race was run on the stiffer New Course.

It would be a shock if the winner came from outside this quartet, especially as the appalling record of five-year-olds rules out the progressive KITTEN ROCK. But ARCTIC FIRE, a stablemate of Hurricane Fly and Faugheen, won’t be far away on the improvement he’s shown this term. He’s a banker to relish decent ground, and Mullins has always rated him very highly.

LADBROKES WORLD HURDLE

Last year signalled the end of the glorious Big Buck’s era in the staying hurdlers’ division. Sadly, the exciting youngster who pinched his crown, MORE OF THAT, faces a race against time to make this year’s gig after a troubled absence since disappointing on his return last November. The 2014 runner-up ANNIE POWER will also be missing because her target is the shorter and easier mares’ race, so the World Hurdle podium is very much up for grabs.

Paul Nicholls is two-handed with the steely SAPHIR DU RHEU, whose error-prone novice chase campaign has been put on hold, and the classy ZARKANDAR, who finished fourth last term but has yet to convince that he stays a stiff 3m. And a couple of chances also await Nicholls’s great rival Nicky Henderson, who fields the lightly-raced BLUE FASHION and another to have reverted to hurdles from a tilt at fences, WHISPER, impressive winner at both the Cheltenham and Aintree festivals last spring.

The record of Irish-trained challengers is poor, but LIEUTENANT COLONEL seems overpriced on the improvement he’s shown for a step-up to 3m and would be a fitting winner for the yard of the late Dessie Hughes, who died earlier in the season. The Hughes charge has twice defeated hardy veteran JETSON, who might be ten but is one of the few horses to have conquered mighty mare Quevega.

The ground might not have enough dig in it for another seasoned campaigner, REVE DE SIVOLA, or another Irish raider, DEDIGOUT, and while former champion hurdler ROCK ON RUBY has been impressive over 2m4f this term and loves Cheltenham, his stamina is far from guaranteed for this trip.

Of the rest, David Pipe’s UN TEMPS POUR TOUT has a bit to find on his re-appearance performance at Cheltenham in January, but he is a high-quality animal in the making.

BETWAY QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE

This is shaping up to be a classic and the highlight of the four-day meeting. A shootout between the last two champions, SPRINTER SACRE and SIRE DE GRUGY, both returning from illness or injury, would be enough to satisfy most purists. But throw in the likes of DODGING BULLETS, CHAMPAGNE FEVER and MR MOLE as well and you have a mouthwatering prospect of epic proportions.

At his scintillating best, Sprinter Sacre would win. There’s no doubt about that. Whether or not we will see that best again, after his heart scare, remains open to debate. But his long-awaited return to the track, at Ascot in January, was encouraging and after coming out of the race well, I expect jockey Barry Geraghty to ride him much more positively at Cheltenham and leave no stone unturned.

Fewer question-marks hover over last year’s winner Sire De Grugy. He was burly and jumped sloppily on his return at Newbury last month, but his old bounce and exuberance were undoubtedly back when trainer Gary Moore sensibly opted to give him another prep run at Chepstow on Saturday. We now need to find out whether, after his hip injury, he will properly let himself down on better ground at Cheltenham. He will definitely need to in what is a much deeper renewal of the race than 12 months ago.

Should either of the champions come up short, waiting in the wings are the Paul Nicholls duo Dodging Bullets and Mr Mole, whose dramatic improvement this term has underlined the skills of the Ditcheat handler. The former, bred by Frankie Dettori, is the 2m chaser of the season so far after landing a Grade One double on the back of a beefed-up training regime and the fitting of a tongue-tie. While the latter has been coaxed into putting natural ability before quirkiness and bolted up in a Grade Two contest last time, despite losing several lengths at the start.

And then there is Champagne Fever. Cheltenham Festival specialist if ever there was one, having landed the 2012 Bumper and the 2013 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and somehow missing out on the hat-trick by a whisker in last season’s Arkle. Trainer Willie Mullins has flirted with much longer trips this season, but he palpably failed to stay in the King George. He’s in much finer Festival fettle than he was in 2014, when still thrashing Dodging Bullets, and it’s not hard to envisage the eight-year-old grey making them all go from the front on his return to the minimum distance and his favourite track.