Championship Play-Off Final: Michael Owen’s View
There is plenty of rain forecast for the opening day of he 2019 Cheltenham Festival and I would imagine the ground will be a combination of soft and good to soft for the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle which gets the greatest show on turf on the road later today.
Al Dancer was a comfortable winner of the Betfair Hurdle last time and has won all four starts over timber for Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies. He heads the market at 9/2 but my two against the field are Fakir D’Oudairies and Elixir De Nutz (1.30) with marginal preference for the latter.
The each way selection (9/1) has been off the track since making all in the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle back in January and trainer Colin Tizzard has kept him fresh for today. BetVictor are betting each way four places on the race and I would be disappointed if he didn’t give Tom O’Brien a good run from the front. Note Brandon Castle will also try to make all, and I hope O’Brien does not get embroiled in a battle for the lead with the pair cutting each other’s throat.
There is also plenty of pace in the Arkle with Knocknanuss and Ornua guaranteed to make it a real test and, much as I would like to see Lalor win, I do feel the race will be set up for Glen Forsa (2.10). The seven-year-old has won all three starts over fences starting at three miles and working backwards to his fluent success over the minimum trip at Sandown when he thrashed Kalashnikov last month.
The latter did not appreciate going right-handed last time and will be better going anti-clockwise today, but I hope to see Mick Channon’s progressive novice maintain his unbeaten chase record. The each way selection is 4/1 paying four places.
Coo Star Sivola (12/1) did us a favour when landing the nap in the Ultima Handicap Chase 12 months ago and the ground has again come right for Nick Williams’ chaser who loves Cheltenham and is only 3lbs higher in the weights this afternoon.
The nod, however, goes to Up For Review (2.45) who gave the outside up to no one when finishing an eye-catching third in the Thyestes Chase last time behind stablemate Invitation Only who is going for Gold on Friday. The selection is 17/2 (five places) and he is another each way recommendation. Give Me A Copper has been the best backed horse antepost with Paul Nicholls making optimistic noises about his unexposed chaser who will run in the colours of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Buveur D’Air (5/2) was not at his brilliant best in last year’s Champion Hurdle but he still followed up his 2017 success. He will join an elite group of hurdlers who have won the race three times – also Hatton’s Grace 1949-51, Sir Ken 1952-54, Persian War 1968-70, See You Then 1985-87, and Istabraq 1998-2000 – if he triumphs today and must have every chance of joining that pantheon of greats.
Nicky Henderson’s champion looked better than ever when beating Samcro in the BetVictor Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle earlier in the season and I am willing to forgive his Christmas Hurdle defeat to stablemate Verdana Blue. That said this is the acid test for Buveur D’Air who must give 7lbs to the brilliant mares’ Apple’s Jade and Laurina (3.30) and the each way vote goes to the latter who is 7/2 with BetVictor.
The selection should get a good tow into the race with Apple’s Jade sure to make it a true test and that should suit the Mullins’ mare who is unbeaten in all six starts over timber including when running away with the Mares’ Novices event here 12 months ago. This is by far the stiffest test she has been asked and it could be a bridge too far but if she is anywhere near the lead coming up the hill she must go close with the soft ground a plus.
Last year’s Mares’ Hurdle winner Benie Des Dieux (4.10) looks to hold outstanding claims as she bids to follow up her win from 12 months ago. Mullins suggested this was his best chance of a winner at the Festival and she is a shade of odds on at 5/6 to double up.
I’ve backed both A Plus Tard (8/1) and Good Man Pat (4.50) in the Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase with the latter getting the each way vote (5 places) for Alan King at 16/1. The selection has only had three starts over fences, but will love the ground, has looked a natural over the larger obstacles and represents the inform yard of Alan King. Note the British have saddled the winner of this race nine times in the last decade.
Ok Corral has been favourite for the concluding NH Chase since his victory at Warwick in January although the form has taken a few knocks since and I am sweet on the chances of Ballyward (5.30). It would not surprise me if the selection (3/1) went off market leader especially if trainer Willie Mullins has had a good opening day coming into the last race.
The selection had not been asked a serious question when Discorama – who reopposes today – came down at the last at Naas in a Grade 3 Novice Chase and was left to come home clear. Paul Nolan’s Discorama looks the danger to me, but I hope Ballyward, who finished fourth in the Albert Bartlett last year, will send Irish eyes home smiling this evening.
Elixir De Nutz (1.30) 9/1
Glen Forsa (2.10) 4/1
Up For Review (2.45) 17/2
Laurina (3.30) 7/2
Benie Des Dieux (4.10) 5/6
Good Man Pat (4.50) 16/1
Ballyward (5.30) 3/1