s opening days of the Cheltenham Festival go, this gets little or no better. Could we see the performance of the greatest of all time, Constitution Hill, in the feature or will the hype-train derail?
Despite a dry February, they likely kick off on soft ground, a welcome situation for the track staff, the recent snow and cold snap ensuring limited drying in recent weeks. High winds are expected today, some rain due later in the week.
The Festival gets underway with the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (1.30), the picture for which got rather murky at the Dublin Racing Festival, where the previously unbeaten Facile Vega bombed out behind stablemate Il Etait Temps. Willie Mullins’s criticism of Paul Townend’s ride was somewhat out of the blue, but it is no surprise that Townend stays loyal to the son of Quevega.
He cannot be a confident pick, yet if Facile Vega bounces back, he ought to have enough class. Marine Nationale remains unbeaten, but likely would have preferred better ground.
The make-up of the Sporting Life Arkle (2.10) is enticing for punters. Nine run, but most are 33-1 or bigger, so the other four have to be afforded close scrutiny. Jonbon is a beautiful specimen and has done little wrong over fences for trainer Nicky Henderson. Owner JP McManus also relies on Saint Roi, who could have run elsewhere — perhaps a tip in itself.
The key is the near certainty of a strong pace. Dysart Dynamo and El Fabiolo, both stablemates of the selection, like to go forward, as does Effernock Fizz. This should play to the strengths of the hold-up Saint Roi, who was impressive on his last completed start.
Bookmakers will be fighting for your custom with extra each-way places in the Ultima Handicap Chase (2.50), and with good cause, as it is devilishly difficult on paper, but Fastorslow is a sporting nap on day one.
The record of Irish trainers in this race is dire, but trainer Martin Brassil has laid out last year’s narrow Coral Cup second for this race and it seems no surprise that the tongue tie goes back on. Last year’s winner, Corach Rambler, is 6lb higher in his repeat bid, but still seems likely to go off favourite.
The Unibet Champion Hurdle (3.30) looks to have a genuine superstar for the first time perhaps since Hurricane Fly won 10 years ago, but the expectation is that Constitution Hill will be even better.
It seems incredible now that he was sent off 9-4 in the opening race on this card 12 months ago, when he produced one of the greatest novice displays ever seen at a racetrack.
Henderson’s son of Blue Bresil is set to go off the shortest-priced favourite in the history of a race first run in 1927. If he were somehow scratched, State Man would be a similarly short price to win the race. Indeed, the straight forecast of Constitution Hill beating the Mullins runner is odds-on.
Two previous Champion Hurdle winners, Honeysuckle and Epatante, clash in the Close Brothers Mares’Hurdle (3.40). This has so much going for its narrative, Honeysuckle bidding to win again after two heavy defeats, but Brandy Love may have too much toe for Mullins now she finally goes left-handed.
The Fred Winter (4.50) looks tough, with Tekao perhaps a vulnerable favourite. Bad, well-backed in recent days and ridden by Rachael Blackmore, is a shot in the dark on British debut.
Mullins has his shortest-priced runner of the day in the Wellchild National Hunt Challenge Cup (5.30) in Gaillard Du Mesnil, but each-way preference is for Mahler Mission, trainer John McConnell having an outstanding season.