I’VE worked in the horse racing industry for 30 years but this will be my first Cheltenham spent in Ireland.
I joined Boylesports’ outstanding team almost a year ago, at Punchestown time, and ever since I’ve been coming to terms with the Irish devotion for racing, which builds to a peak in March.
My background is Irish — my wife’s people are from Kerry, my parents are from Meath, my father has worked with horses all his life — so I was, I thought, acutely aware of how popular the sport is here.
Yet I have still been pleasantly overwhelmed by the extent to which racing occupies people’s hearts and minds. Everywhere I go people want to talk about Cheltenham; tips, form, trainers, jockeys and, of course, horses. This does not happen to the same extent in England, so I feel very much like I have come home.
Like many people in the bookmaking industry, the annual trip to Cheltenham is not something I make. The place I want to be is here in the office, on the racing floor, while the team predict what’s going to happen next and react to the ever-changing market. There is nowhere I’d rather spend the four days.
Wherever you’ll be for the festival, your experience will be enhanced by backing a few winners. So I’ll try and point you in the right direction.
The Supreme Novices Hurdle: JP McManus’ My Tent Or Yours — who will be under AP McCoy — wouldn’t look out of place in the Champion Hurdle and is a good value favourite at 13/8.
The Champion Hurdle: The storied combination of Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh will be trying to recapture the crown with Hurricane Fly that they won in 2011. Hurricane is a worthy favourite, but I wonder: is he really any different to last year, when he was beaten? I like the look of Countrywide Flame. He’ll improve on better ground and is a good eachway punt at 16/1.
Banker Double: Simonsig in the Arkle and Quevega in the OLBG Mares Hurdle — 6/4 the double. It’s not impossible that if Quevega wins well, she’ll turn out on Thursday in the World Hurdle.
Queen Mother Champion Chase: Barry Geraghty and Sprinter Sacre are 1/4 in the feature race and it’s hard to look beyond them. This could be the best two-mile chaser we’ve ever seen — though people with long enough memories will point to Flying Bolt from the famous Tom Draper stable.
Coral Cup: Abbey Lane (14/1) won the featured Boylesports hurdle in Leopardstown at the end of January and we will have to pay a e100,000 bonus to his connections if he wins. He’s definitely got a good eachway shot. This is one of the most open races of the week.
Neptune Novices Hurdle: Locally-trained The New One stands out here. He is trained by Nigel Twiston Davis, who always does well at the Festival. He’s second favourite behind Willie Mullins-trained Pont Alexandre but I think The New One’s form is impressive and at 9/2 he is decent bet for a winner.
Ryanair Chase: The feature race’s betting is headed up by Cue Card (3/1) who was a recent impressive winner (Betfair Chase at Ascot). He’s locally trained. This race is open, with lots of horses entered in other races.
Pertemps Final: The favourite is Sam Winner (4/1). He was strongly mentioned by Paul Nicholls on his recent media day and is a horse a lot of people are talking about. An each way alternative is According to Trev 16/1. If there’s no rain — which is quite possible — he will love the ground and I can see his price coming in.
World Hurdle: If Quevega comes into this race then it gets an entirely different complexion. As things stand the fancied picks are Oscar Whiskey (4/1) and Reve di Sivola (4/1) — only a head separated on last run at Cheltenham end of January.
The Noel Meade-trained Monksland (6/1) is not without a chance yet for whatever reason, he hasn’t enjoyed the best of fortunes at the festival.
If Quevega runs, she has an outstanding chance. If not, Reve di Sivola could stay the trip better in a tactical race.
Champion Bumper: This race has been won an incredible 15 out of 20 times by the Irish. This year Golantilla, who cost €375,000 and is trained by Tony Martin, is the talking horse all winter. He represents our worst result in ante-post books. Priced at 6/1.
Triumph Hurdle: The Dessie Hughes-trained Our Conor is 4/1 favourite here and his form is impressive. What makes this story more intriguing is the small syndicate of enthusiastic owners in charge, as opposed to one of the powerhouses. It just shows that the little guy can still produce potential champions.
Gold Cup: This is Bobs Worth v Sir Des Champs and has a real Britain v Ireland feel. Bobs Worth won last year’s RSA Chase and was impressive when winning the Hennessy Gold Cup in Newbury in November. We’ve made him our favourite ever since. The Willie Mullins-trained Sir Des Champs won last year’s Jewson Novices’ Chase. Realistically, he is Ireland’s best chance of winning the Gold Cup since 2006 (War of Attrition, same colours). However, I just feel that his jumping may not stand up to it at this level and fancy Bobs Worth.
Grand Annual Chase: Alderwood, trained by Tom Mullins and owned by JP McManus, catches the eye. Unlike a lot of Irish horses, he is happiest on better ground. He is likely to get that so has an excellent chance.