The waiting is over. The talking stops. We’re here at the 2023 Cheltenham Festival and we’ve got soft ground! Isn’t that just typical after the prolonged dry spell we’ve had this season? Normally your winter form is on soft and spring form on good, but this year it’s the other way around. The form is going to be difficult to weigh up and it’s worth looking at horses with soft ground form from last season.
Whatever you do keep a close eye on the weather. Cheltenham drains so well that if it stays dry it will improve throughout the day.
1:30 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
The ground is a big plus for FACILE VEGA in the Supreme. He won the Champion Bumper last year in monsoon-like conditions. He will need to settle better than he did the last day in Leopardstown, but the pace of the race isn’t likely to be as intense as it would have been on good ground which reduces the hustle and bustle. That will hopefully help him relax a bit and he’s the most likely winner to me.
I think his stablemate Il Etait Temps will be his biggest danger. He was good at the Dublin Racing Festival and I’d just be slightly worried about the ground for Marine Nationale. I know he won the Royal Bond on soft, but he looks like a horse that will be better on a sounder surface. Barry Connell is very keen on his chances, though.
Of those at bigger prices, I do think Strong Leader can go well for Olly Murphy. He came from a long way off the pace to be second to Encanto Bruno over course and distance in October. He hasn’t had the chance to run in a Graded race yet, but he’s from the family of Strong Flow and he’s impressed me as an individual.
2:10 Arkle Challenge Trophy
It looks like a bit of a match between El Fabiolo and Jonbon in the Arkle. El Fabiolo was so impressive in Leopardstown. Jonbon wasn’t in Warwick, but he wasn’t in Haydock before the Supreme last year either. Nicky [Henderson] is a master at bringing his horses to the boil for Cheltenham and you were never going to see the best of him last time. El Fabiolo may just need to brush up his jumping a touch.
I actually think DYSART DYNAMO represents good each-way value in this. He has one way of running but loves soft ground and jumps really well. He can put the others under pressure and Cheltenham should suit him better than Leopardstown.
2:50 Ultima Handicap Chase
In these big handicaps, there is always a trade-off between those who are more exposed and those who are more inexperienced. Novices have a very good record in the race and FASTORSLOW strikes me as a horse who has got more to come. He was second in the Coral Cup last year and Martin Brassil fancied him in that. He certainly knows how to prepare one for the big day.
He was 13 lengths behind Dunvegan in a Grade 1 the last day but that was over two miles and he needs further. Dunvegan is a good yardstick in any handicap. This is as competitive as they get but he looks a fair each-way play.
Corach Rambler and Into Overdrive are the obvious ones, while The Goffer won well in Leopardstown at the Dublin Racing Festival, but THE BIG BREAKAWAY interests me. He is still only eight and hasn’t run since finishing second in the Welsh National. Prior to that he was also second in a decent handicap in Haydock and don’t forget he was third to Monkfish in the Brown Advisory a couple of years ago. He still has potential.
3:30 Champion Hurdle
Obviously I will be watching this race with particular interest and conditions shouldn’t be an issue for CONSTITUTION HILL. He handled them fine in Sandown last season, winning the Tolworth on heavy ground. His temperament is perfect for the cauldron that is Cheltenham.
Everything he’s done so far has been faultless. He’s won all five races under rules by at least 12 lengths and all the reports from Nicky’s are very positive. Nico [de Boinville] is such a calm jockey and is always unfazed by the big stage.
State Man will be the biggest test he has faced so far. He strikes me as a horse who won’t have a problem with the conditions. He’s one of those staying two milers – he won the two and a half mile Grade 1 novice in Punchestown last year.
For me it will be Constitution Hill first, State Man second and then there is a good battle for third. I have been fancying I Like To Move It for that after his impressive win in the Kingwell, but I’d be a little bit worried about the ground.
4:10 Mares’ Hurdle
I still think HONEYSUCKLE is the one to beat here. It is obviously of interest that last year’s winner Marie’s Rock comes here rather than the Stayers’ and I think that is a sensible decision given the ground. Her performance in the Relkeel was very good and she adds a strong layer to this race. Honeysuckle didn’t run badly at all in the Hatton’s Grace and although there is a slight concern about the ground, I think she just needs a step up in trip now – like Shishkin.
BRANDY LOVE has some very solid form and is the each-way angle in the race for me. She’s the only horse to beat Love Envoi. The fact she jumps left shouldn’t be a problem round here.
4:50 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle
BAD is really interesting for Ben Pauling and even more so now that he’s booked Rachael Blackmore for the ride. He won really well in Bordeaux in November and although we don’t know how strong that form is, he does look well treated.
Byker ran an eyecatching race in Naas in his prep and that race has produced the winner in three of the last four years.
5:30 National Hunt Chase
Gaillard Du Mesnil is definitely the one to beat in this but he’s not a horse that excites me. Soft ground will suit MAHLER MISSION and as long as it’s still testing by the end of the day, he looks the best each-way bet. He won well on soft to heavy two starts back whereas good or yielding has tended to catch him out a bit.