With the Cheltenham Festival almost upon us, we had a natter with The Guardian’s racing editor Tony Paley, for his take on this year’s National Hunt extravaganza.
Q: Cheltenham continues as a four-day festival despite speculation it could bestretched into the weekend at some point in the future. How likely do you think this is?
TP: I don’t think it’s likely at all. I think the five-day Festival is dead in the water after the recent consultation process which revealed so many who were opposed to the idea. Cheltenham don’t seem minded to have a Saturday meeting as part of a four-day Festival either which I think is a big shame as I think you could tap into a huge new audience. ITV would love it and I think they’re right and racing is wrong not to exploit that potential to broaden the meeting’s reach even more.
Q: Constitutional Hill is arguably the biggest favourite this year in the Champion Hurdle. Aside from Nicky Henderson’s mighty 6yo, who would you say is the closest thing to a certainty?
TP: There are shorter-priced hotpots but the one I like the most and feel most confident about aside from the imperious Constitution Hill is Edwardstone in the Champion Chase. Arkle Trophy winners have a great record in the Champion the following year and Edwardstone ran a mighty race on Trials Day when only just failing to catch Editeur Du Gite and I think it was very significant that his trainer Alan King said he would improve a lot for that.
King is planning to have only two runners this week – “there’s no point in sending horses there just to make up the numbers” – and I get the very strong impression he’ll be gutted if his horse doesn’t win.
Q: The weather in the build-up to the festival has been making headlines. Though the worst of the cold looks to be over from a turf perspective, might conditions impact the markets adversely? Could we see some surprise winners with the softer ground? Any tips?
TP: The ground is by far the single most important variable in horse racing. Until as recently as a few days ago we were expecting quickish ground and the tips and the markets were skewed in that direction. Then the forecasts went about face and the snow and rain came. The very latest from the clerk of the course is it’s most likely to be soft by the time the tapes rise on Tuesday and it’s always the case that the more testing the going the more the shocks. There is the possibility of plenty of rain on Thursday and I fancy proven soft-ground performer Stage Star (1.30) to run a big race in the Turners Novice Chase. He’ll be out of trouble at the front, has course-and-distance form and is a great jumper which cannot be overestimated around Cheltenham. It’s a hot race but he’s still a double-figure price and looks a cracking each-way bet.
Q: Cheltenham of course is happy hunting ground for Willie Mullins and the Closutton native is again huge favourite for Leader Trainer at this year’s festival. Is there any way you think Mullins can be beaten to the prize for a fifth time on the bounce?
TP: I was all set to oppose Mr W Mullins with the ground set to ride quicker than normal but now it’s set to be soft I think it’s folly to do so.
I like races where there’s a false favourite but Willie now looks unopposable. I wouldn’t be backing him as I don’t bet at those odds but he looks set for a stellar week.
Q: As far a Champion Jockey goes, Mullins’ number one Paul Townend is an equally short price to notch the most wins this year and defend his crown. Could Nico De Boinville or outsider Danny Mullins yet have a say?
TP: Nico has the leg up on the Nicky Henderson hotpots and is the obvious one to back if you fancy having a punt in this market, especially as Paul Townend has some tricky choices to make.
Q: Rachael Blackmore took the same prize two years ago but has endured a difficult season. After so many wonderful wins in the past – especially in front of the stand – are you expecting her to make a resurgence at Cheltenham or has the field now overtaken her?
TP: She’ll be hoping Honeysuckle can do her a favour on day one but I don’t think she’ll even win what looks a terrific Mares Hurdle on that one despite them ducking Constitution Hill in the Champion Hurdle. Her current odds of 16-1 are an accurate reflection of her chances I’m afraid.
Q: Is there a particular horse you are looking forward to seeing at this year’s festival?
TP: Constitution Hill, Constitution Hill and Constitution Hill. We may see the most outstanding hurdling performance of a lifetime on Tuesday in the Champion Hurdle and I can honestly say I’ve not look forward to seeing a racehorse more on the track since the truly great Frankel. William Hill are offering even money till Tuesday morning – it’s like finding money in the street!
Q: Finally, Cheltenham often throws up a number of long-value winners during the week. Have you got your eye on any value punts?
TP: Petit Tonnerre (2.10, Friday) has been trained with this meeting in mind and looks a possible JP McManus plot dropped down in trip for the County Hurdle for which he’s on offer at 25-1.
BestofBets were speaking to The Guardian’s racing editor Tony Paley