Cheltenham 2018: Horse Talk’s best bets for the Festival

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Punters in the Guinness Stand watching the race unfold at Cheltenham. Pic: Dan Abraham – (Courtesy of Cheltenham Racecourse).

Horse Talk with Simon Jackson:

Top horse-racing tips and the latest news.

CHELTENHAM takes centre stage from March 13 to 16 as the best national hunt horses in Europe go head to head in a mouthwatering array of jump racing’s most coveted prizes.

The Cheltenham Festival combines four days of the best national hunt racing in the world, played out on the spectacular setting of the Gloucester racecourse.

At the time of writing, the final fields have yet to be revealed. But while trainers put the finishing touches on their potential Cheltenham runners, here are some early tips.

Buveur D’Air: (Unibet Champion Hurdle)

Buveur D’Air is taken to get favourite backers off to a great start by securing back to back victories in the Unibet Champion Hurdle, the feature race on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival.

Nicky Henderson’s charge tries to become the first horse to win the two-mile hurdling championship in sucessive years since Hardy Eustace bagged the double in 2004 and 2005.

The son of Crillon has recorded three victories this term, the Grade 1 Unibet Fighting Fifth Hurdle, the Grade 1 Unibet Christmas Hurdle and most recently the Listed Contenders’ Hurdle at Sandown Park.

The Sandown victory was the seven-year-old’s ninth win in 10 starts over hurdles; his sole defeat was when third, in the 2016 Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle behind stablemate Altior, who heads the betting for this year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase.

“Buveur D’Air is better than some of my Champion Hurdlers,” said Henderson who has won the Champion Hurdle six times. “Binocular was a very good horse, while Punjabi was probably not the greatest Champion Hurdler. See You Then won the Champion Hurdle three times.

“Buveur D’Air’s greatest asset is his jumping – he is so quick it is frightening. He measures them so precisely – it is like hurdlers in athletics – absolute precision.

“He is just very good at jumping. I think he is improving – he is getting stronger. When he was third in the Supreme Hurdle to Altior at The Festival two years ago, we knew he was a good horse on the way up.”

Altior: (Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase)

Altior is fancied to justify his place at the head of the market by winning the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase in the feature race of day two of the Festival.

The winner of the 2016 Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and 2017 Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase is unbeaten in 12 runs over obstacles and recorded his seventh successive chase win in the Grade 2 Betfair Exchange Chase over an extended two miles at Newbury last month.

The four-length victory over reigning Betfair Tingle Creek Chase winner Politologue was all the more impressive as it was the eight-year-olds first run for 287 days after being side-lined with a breathing problem.

Trainer Nicky Henderson is delighted with how well the son of High Chaparral has progressed and he is strongly fancied to add to Henderson’s record tally of Cheltenham Festival winners.

“Altior is very, very good after Newbury,” Henderson said. “Newbury was as a good as one could have possibly hoped for. The timing of the race was fantastic.”

The New One: (Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle)

The New One can secure the greatest success of an already remarkable career by winning the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle on St Patrick’s Day at his 15th start at Cheltenham.

The three-mile distance of the Stayers’ Hurdle is a step into the unknown for the 10-year-old who has won 20 of his 36 starts and more than £1million in prize money; with the majority of victories recorded over two miles.

The furthest Nigel Twiston-Davies charge has won over is two miles and five furlongs, the most memorable at that distance was when winning the 2013 Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle.

The New One has run with credit in four appearances in the two mile Champion Hurdle that includes a desperately unlucky third place in 2014 when almost brought down in the early stages, before rallying from an impossible position to finish a close third.

The extra distance of the Stayers’ Hurdle may now work to this speedster’s advantage and he is taken to prevail at lucrative odds.

“Sam [Twiston-Davies – trainer’s son and jockey] has been keen to try The New One over three miles for a long time,” Nigel Twiston-Davies said.

“The New One would have a good chance if he stays the trip. We’re not going into the race confident about the trip, but if does stay – people are telling me that he will and that he’ll improve for the trip – then he has a very good chance. He’s won races having been held up so that isn’t an issue.”

Native River: (Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup)

NATIVE RIVER was third in the 2017 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup and is fancied to improve on that effort this year by winning the feature race of the Cheltenham Festival.

Native River enjoyed a stellar campaign last season, defying a big weight to win the Hennessy at Newbury in November before landing the Coral Welsh National at Chepstow in December and the Grade 2 Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury in February. He then finished two and three-quarter lengths behind last year’s Gold Cup winner Sizing John, who has been ruled out of this year’s Festival.

The eight-year-old returned last month with an emphatic 12-length success in the Denman Chase to secure back to back victories in the Grade 2 contest.

Trainer Colin Tizzard believes he has improved physically this year.

“He’s a lot stronger this time around, he’s in great form and we had him ready from Christmas,” Tizzard said. “The manner of how he won at Newbury was equally as good as he’s ever been. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the hardest race of the season, they go flat out.

“We had Native River ready for Newbury – he had been to Larkhill three times as we didn’t want him to get tired or injured and we wanted him to do himself justice so he was ready for that.

“He is bound to improve for that run, every horse does, and we’ll see if he has a nice clean run to Cheltenham and how much he has to improve to win the race, but he is absolutely lovely at home.”

Horse Talk with Simon Jackson. Showcasing horse racing in London and the south east.