Declan Rix

Declan Rix sets the scene for the Cheltenham Festival's big chase and hurdle races, the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle.

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THE TALKING IS NEARLY OVER

Well, festival day one declarations are now in and the talking is nearly over – the 2019 Cheltenham Festival is upon us. With final fields yet to be known for cards on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday there is still some scope for pre-race drama, but fingers crossed there are no more causalities to add to Le Richebourg, Penhill, Honeysuckle et al, and the likes of Santini and Sir Erec make their respective races.

As been said, written and recognised by many others, we head into four days of battle on the back of the strangest National Hunt season ever recalled. For me anyway. “Unseasonably fast ground” has been a staple phrase uttered from November to March, where the going in Ireland and Britain has in no doubt affected trainers up and down the lands.

Of course, some have thrived given the stock they possess, Joseph O’Brien in Ireland feels like he has closed the gap on Elliott and Mullins this ‘winter’ in part thanks to the going, while in Britain the resurgence of Paul Nicholls has been tangible and welcomed. Of course, suggesting the Master of Ditcheat is in some renaissance phase would be over-the-top, he always punches above his weight, but it feels like there is genuine Grade 1 class among the ranks again, headed of course by leading Gold Cup contender Clan Des Obeaux.

Cheltenham Festival 2019
The scene is set for the 2019 Cheltenham Festival

Last season’s Gold Cup once more reminded us of what a great race the Blue Riband event is, and if Friday can serve up what Native River and Might Bite did in 2018 we are in for a spectacle that will lead to another dose of adrenaline-ridden shakiness.

That was a battle to savour, one I’ll never forget, but have such races now left their mark on the careers of Native River and the ten-year-old Might Bite? Where the latter is concerned, on this season’s evidence that looks to be the case. It will take one of Festival’s greatest ever training performances from Nicky Henderson and his team to see the son of Scorpion home. I just can’t see it, however.

I can see Native River winning, hardly a bold shout on last year’s winner, currently priced at 4/1. I do feel the likes of his Welsh National, Hennessy Gold Cup and on Gold Cup heroics are starting to take their toll on the gallant grey though. He was comfortably below his best at Haydock in the Betfair Chase and was a huge disappointment in the King George but less than ideal tracks on goodish ground are plausible excuses.

There is no doubt if he reproduces last season’s level of form in winning this race, he will be hugely tough to beat, but the combination of now maybe being below his best due to wear and tear and competing on likely quicker ground means he is potentially brought closer to the younger and classy legs of Clan Des Obeaux and Presenting Percy.

The main talking point about this race is undoubtedly the preparation, or there lack of, concerning Presenting Percy. Last season’s runaway seven-length winner of the RSA won’t have jumped a fence in competition in 366 days when he lines up on Friday and has only run once, winning over hurdles, but this unorthodox prep has clearly been caused by the elements in Ireland this season.

His trainer has taken a safety-first approach with his horse, much to the dissatisfaction of race fans. It’s easy to see why some have vented their frustrations as we all want to see the best horses run. Should Presenting Percy win, it won’t matter a jot what preparation was undertaken, because it will have been good enough.

If Presenting Percy loses, I feel Kelly will be unfairly criticised, but let’s remember, it has been a truly bizarre season and the trainer had the best interests of the horse at heart.

So, my tuppence now, where I shall part with my own hard-earned, on the potential winner; with festival form, course form and a horse likely to have little issues with the trip and ground, it’s Presenting Percy who gets the nod. 

Bring it home, Percy!

The week’s Champion Hurdle is another fantastic race to savour, especially in recognising we could potentially see a historic three-time winner of the race in Buveur D’Air. A hatrick of successes would in no doubt make him one of Prestbury Park’s greatest, but it will not be easy in taking on Apple’s Jade.

The Gigginstown House Stud-owned mare is a substitute in the race for stablemate and the much lauded Samcro, on pre-season narratives, but the impressive 2018 Neptune Novices’ Hurdle winner has been out of sorts this campaign, misses the festival and is simply replaced a better horse on all-known form.

From the start of the season, based on form, and now in conjunction with price, I’ve been against Laurina in the Champion Hurdle and despite the big mare coming here on the back of a career best effort at Punchestown I haven’t seen anything to change my mind. Of course, I’m not saying she can’t win, anything can win in this great game, but 7/1 is a fairer reflection of her chance and that’s even factoring in her desired soft conditions, which it looks likely she’ll get.

Apple’s Jade looks the most likely winner, and the 9/4 on offer is most certainly fair, but her coming here on the back of such a huge win has me wondering could it leave a mark? Factor in last season’s below par effort here, which she had excuses for to be fair, and the slick-jumping Buveur D’Air without Apple’s Jade looks a fantastic bet a 7/4. I make that odds-on.

Declan Rix
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