festival season

Expert view: How you should view these 5 Cheltenham favourites

Donn McClean runs the rule over Altior, Paisley Park, A Plus Tard, Champ and Envoi Allen as race week approaches.

THE CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL. So many races these days, so many decisions.

Like the favourites: which ones to support, which ones to oppose.

Here are five of them:

Envoi Allen – Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (probably)

down-royal-festival-day-two-down-royal-racecourse PA Envoi Allen, ridden by Davy Russell. PA

Envoi Allen has never been beaten. He has raced eight times, once in a point-to-point, four times in bumpers and three times over hurdles, and he has never lost.

An impressive winner of his point-to-point when he was with Colin Bowe, he has continued his progress under Gordon Elliott’s care. After landing his first three bumpers in Ireland last season, the Cheveley Park Stud horse battled on well to win the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham in March.

He was impressive in winning on his hurdling bow at Down Royal in November, and he showed pace as well as class and determination to win the Grade 1 Royal Bond Hurdle at Fairyhouse in December, before stepping up in trip to two and a half miles and landing the Grade 1 Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle at Naas in January.

He proved that he had the pace for two miles in the Royal Bond, when he beat his classy stable companion Abacadabras, a pure two-miler, but two and a half miles probably suits him even better. He won by three and a half lengths last time at Naas, and he left the impression that he would have been able to give a fair bit more if more had been required.

There are lots of positives. He is classy, he is trained by Gordon Elliott and he will be ridden by Davy Russell, he has Cheltenham Festival winning form and, because he has never been beaten, we still don’t know where the ceiling of his ability is. He will probably face big challenges from Sporting John and the two Bigs, Getaway and Breakaway, but it is correct that he is clear favourite.

Recommended: Don’t oppose

Champ – RSA Chase

randox-health-grand-national-festival-2019-ladies-day-aintree-racecourse Paul Harding Champ and Mark Walsh after winning the Doom Bar Sefton Novices' Hurdle at Aintree last year. Paul Harding

Champ is a significant player in the RSA Chase picture, no question. Nicky Henderson’s horse was a highly progressive novice hurdler last season, his season culminating in a game victory in the Grade 1 Sefton Hurdle at Aintree.

He won his first two chases this season, showing a lot of courage in the latter contest to stay on as well as he did and beat Black Op in the Grade 2 Berkshire Chase at Newbury’s Ladbrokes Trophy meeting in November. He almost certainly would have won the Dipper Chase too at Cheltenham’s New Year’s Day meeting last time had he not come down at the second last fence.

But he is short, and it is not ideal that he goes to Cheltenham on the back of a fall.

You can easily argue that Minella Indo should be even closer to him in the market than he is. Henry de Bromhead’s horse is a Cheltenham Festival winner, he sprang a 50/1 shock in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle last year, when he led from a fair way out. Then he went to Punchestown and followed up in the Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle.

He shaped well on his chasing bow behind Laurina over an inadequate two and a half miles at Gowran Park in November, and he stepped up nicely on that last time when he stayed on well to win his beginners’ chase over three miles at Navan.

He wasn’t overly impressive visually, but he was game and strong, and the runner-up, Captain Cj, enhanced that form when he came out and won the Grade 2 Ten Up Chase next time.

Also, that was just Minella Indo’s second run of the season, his second run over fences. He progressed last season with racing as the season developed, and there is every chance that he will improve on his Navan run, perhaps significantly. His credentials look at least as strong as Champ’s, and he is a bigger price.

Recommended: Oppose (with Minella Indo)

A Plus Tard – Ryanair Chase

rachael-blackmore-celebrates-winning-on-a-plus-tard Morgan Treacy / INPHO Rachael Blackmore and A Plus Tard at Leopardstown over Christmas. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

It is difficult to argue with A Plus Tard’s credentials in the Ryanair Chase. He is another Cheltenham Festival winner for starters, he won the Close Brothers Chase at last year’s Festival.

Okay, so the Close Brothers Chase (it’s the Northern Trust Company Chase this year) is a handicap chase for novices, and A Plus Tard was racing off a mark of 144 when he won it. But he couldn’t have won it any more easily than he did. He travelled like the most likely winner from a long way out for Rachael Blackmore, and he kicked on from the second last fence and put 16 lengths between himself and his closest pursuers by the time he reached the winning line.

The handicapper raised him to a mark of 160 after that, and he proved that he was worth that type of rating when he finished second behind the 168-rated Ballyoisin in the Grade 2 Fortria Chase on his debut this season. Then he proved that he was probably worth more when he beat Chacun Pour Soi in the Grade 1 Paddys Rewards Club Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival next time.

So Chacun Pour Soi was making his seasonal debut that day, he probably improved on that to beat his stable companion Min in the Dublin Chase next time. But A Plus Tard stayed on strongly to beat him nicely, racing over two miles and a furlong, a distance that is probably short of his best.

He should be happier over the intermediate distance of the Ryanair Chase. And we know that he can excel under Cheltenham Festival conditions. He will face stern competition from Min and Frodon and Riders Onthe Storm and the others, it is shaping up to be a fascinating Ryanair Chase, but he is only six and he has raced just seven times over fences. There could be even more to come from him.

Recommended: Support

Paisley Park – Stayers’ Hurdle

aidan-coleman-onboard-paisley-park-celebrates-winning Dan Sheridan / INPHO Aidan Coleman onboard Paisley Park. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Paisley Park is a monster. Emma Lavelle’s horse improved dramatically through last season, winning the Long Walk Hurdle and the Cleeve Hurdle and the Stayers’ Hurdle, and he has continued this term where he left of last term, winning the Long Distance Hurdle and the Cleeve Hurdle again. He is bang on track for the defence of his Stayers’ Hurdle title.

Unlike the Gold Cup, the Stayers’ Hurdle is a race that fosters repeat winners. Big Buck’s won it four times, Inglis Drever won it three times, Baracouda won it twice.

Paisley Park is odds-on to successfully defend his crown, and it is difficult to argue with that as things stand. He has won his last seven races, and he beat Summerville Boy in the Cleeve Hurdle last time with more in hand than the bare winning margin.

City Island is a fascinating contender, last year’s Ballymore Hurdle winner, returning to hurdles after a truncated time over fences, and Penhill appears to be inching his way back towards his best, and Emitom was impressive in winning the Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock last time, but they all have to step up a fair way if they are going to trouble the favourite.

The only caveat is Benie Des Dieux’s presence or absence. If Willie Mullins’ mare runs here instead of in the Mares’ Hurdle then, in receipt of the 7lb mares’ allowance, she could put it up to Paisley Park.

Recommended: Don’t oppose (unless Benie Des Dieux runs)

Altior – Champion Chase

nico-de-boinville-celebrates-on-altior-after-winning-the-betway-queen-mother-champion-chase Dan Sheridan / INPHO Nico de Boinville celebrates on Altior after winning the Champion Chase at Cheltenham a year ago. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

With Altior, Chacun Pour Soi and Defi Du Seuil all set to line up, the Queen Mother Champion Chase is set to be one of the races of the Festival.

Altior has won the last two renewals of the race. He is a phenomenon. He has never been beaten over hurdles, and he has been beaten just once in 16 runs over fences.

That was in the Christy 1965 Chase at Ascot in November, when he and Cyrname went toe-to-toe. He didn’t race again after that – he skipped a potential engagement in the King George and everything – until he returned in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury two and a half weeks ago, and won well. Back on track.

In Chacun Pour Soi and Defi Du Seuil, however, he faces two top class adversaries. Winner of the JLT Chase over two and a half miles at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, Defi Du Seuil has raced exclusively over two miles this season so far, and he has proven that he has the pace for the minimum trip at the highest level. Philip Hobbs’ horse is three for three this year, a Shloer Chase, a Tingle Creek Chase and a Clarence House Chase, and he is in the form of his life.

Chacun Pour Soi beat Defi Du Seuil at Punchestown last May, and he was impressive in winning the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival earlier this month.

Both Chacun Pour Soi and Defi Du Seuil are progressive second-season chasers who go into Cheltenham on an upward curve, and you can argue that 10-year-old Altior should not be shorter in the betting than both of them.

Recommended: Oppose at the price

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