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1.20 - Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m½f)
No Cheltenham roar this year as The Festival goes behind closed doors for the first time and the traditional curtain-raiser is also down on numbers. The Supreme had 15 contenders last time around but just the dead-eight will start here - some solace at least for punters seeking an each-way bet in the race as there will still be three places to play for.
The Willie Mullins-trained Appreciate It is one of two impressive unbeaten hurdlers in this line-up and already a dual Grade 1 winner in Ireland this season in his three starts. Last year's Champion Bumper second has Festival form and brings solid credentials in a race his trainer seeks to win for the seventh time. Mullins has a formidable record in the Supreme but the likes of Melon and Getabird have also been turned over recently as hot-favourites.
Appreciate It has comfortably held off the likes of Irascible and Ballyadam in Ireland this season and should hold sway over them again - though Henry De Bromhead's charge is certainly worth considering for place money at a big price. Blue Lord, also trained by Mullins, continues to improve and while the French import has ground to make up on his stablemate, a career-best is very likely today.
For Pleasure and Grumpy Charley have work to do and so the British challenge will be headed by Soaring Glory and METIER. The former won the Betfair Hurdle last time out and winners of that race tend to go well in this, but it was very much a maybe/maybe not from connections in terms of going for this contest and - in first-time cheekpieces - Jonjo O'Neill's challenger may settle for a supporting role.
Harry Fry's Tolworth winner Metier was rated 90 on the Flat for Andy Slattery in Ireland and has been most impressive in three starts over timber. He showed a real turn of foot at Sandown in January despite the tacky ground and his speed could be a crucial attribute here as the Cheltenham opener might get tactical given the small field.
Five-year-olds are right at home in this race (five winners since 2010) and this classy sort can come home best from the back of the last if Sean Bowen has him within range of the market leader.
1.55 - Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 2m)
The news late last week that Energumene was out of the Arkle was a dramatic blow to this contest, such was the level of intrigue about a possible Anglo-Irish showdown between Willie Mullins' powerhouse and Nicky Henderson's long-time Arkle favourite SHISHKIN. Sadly, that dust-down will have to wait for another day.
It surely paves the way for last year's Supreme hero to give the Master of Seven Barrows wins number seven in this great race.
Henderson has dealt with the pressure of a raging-hot Arkle favourite in recent times with Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig and Altior and he has, again, charted a faultless course with Shiskin this season. Two wins around Kempton were followed by a leisurely swatting aside of the re-opposing Eldorado Allen at Doncaster in January. This is his first taste of a Grade 1 over fences and his toughest challenge thus far, but the manner in which he overcame trouble here last March bodes very well and he should win this.
That's not to say that Allmankind cannot give him a race for Dan and Harry Skelton. He's going to go off in front here and the absence of Energumene as company will surely benefit him. He has been prone to some errors, though not yet the sort that have threatened to bring him down, and he does appear quite clever in that regard. Just 4lb split this pair on ratings and Allmankind is a genuine test for Shishkin.
The aforementioned Eldorado Allen has not laid a blow on either of the market leaders at Sandown or Doncaster this season. It's hard to see that changing.
The Irish challenge is now led by Franco De Port for the Mullins team and Henry De Bromhead's Captain Guinness. Both have improvement to find, but Rachael Blackmore's mount was unlucky to be brought down in the Supreme last March when going well and might have given Energumene a race last month bar coming down two out in last month's Irish Arkle. His trainer has a fine record in these two-mile chases and he could outrun his odds.
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2.30 - Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 3m1f)
The first handicap of the meeting and a race in which well-fancied horses tend to excel. They also tend to be British-trained, with Tony Martin's Dun Doire (2006) flying home to score 15 years ago the most recent Irish success.
At the front of the market this year we find Happygolucky for Kim Bailey and David Bass. He was fourth in the Martin Pipe at this meeting last year, likes the track and has been near faultless thus far over fences (2-3, beaten ½-length in between). He hasn't been seen since winning over C&D in December and is a big player off 5lb higher.
Just behind him in the betting are Aye Right and One For The Team - the latter representing a Nick Williams yard that won this in 2018. It should be no shock if one of that front-end trio prevails but it is worth playing deeper in the market for even a place.
To that end, it might be worth chancing PYM for Nicky Henderson, the trainer looking to win this for the second time in three years. His two starts in early 2020 were poor, including in a Grade 1 novice over three-miles here, but his December 2019 demolition of Imperial Aura over this C&D still lingers in the memory. He's not the most straightforward but is clearly talented on his day.
He won well on his comeback at Sandown (3m, good) in November before disappointing at Newcastle 20 days later. He is proven to go well fresh and his trainer is most adept at target-training. This will have been an aim for some time and Pym is a fair each-way price at around 16/1 to give it a go.
3.05 - Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy (Grade 1, 2m½f)
After the great Dawn Run in 1984 we had to wait 32 years to see another mare winning the two-mile Championship when Annie Power gained her Cheltenham redemption in the 2016 Champion Hurdle. Now, it looks extremely likely we could see the fairer sex making it three wins in just six years.
Reigning champion Epatante is back to defend her crown but this looks a better race than the one she won 12 months ago and, more pertinently, she comes into this off the back of a tame surrender to Silver Streak in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton (where she was 1/5fav to win).
She had effortlessly won the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle before that and should bounce back, but she needs the best run of her career to hold onto this crown.
Evan Williams' Silver Streak set off at a fast pace and was never headed in that Festive showpiece at Kempton. Getting his own way here won't be anything like as easy, with Aspire Tower and Goshen probable rivals. They all must raise their games, though Goshen is of course most interesting.
Few will forget his Triumph Hurdle exit last year and none would deny Jamie Moore a redemptive success of his own. It has been a mixed bag since however and while last month's Kingwell victory at Wincanton was a pleasing sight, how much scrutiny that form can take is debatable. The runner-up Song For Someone didn't have a good day and Goshen has much more on his plate now.
Willie Mullins runs three, with last year's second Sharjah ahead of Saldier and French import James Du Berlais - just five-years-old and debuting here for the yard in deep water.
The one they all surely must fear is HONEYSUCKLE, gutsy winner of the Mares' Hurdle on this card last March. Taking out Benie Des Dieux in that race was no mean feat and Henry De Bromhead's charge has gone from strength to strength this season.
She made it a 'Perfect 10' when beating Abacadabras by 10-lengths in the Irish Champion Hurdle last month, the best effort of her career thus far in terms of pure polished performance. She's tactically versatile and should hold her position even if this is frantic. The extra stamina she possesses as a Grade 1 winner over 2m4f comes in very handy and she can become the 'Queen of the Cotswolds' on day one of the 2021 Cheltenham Festival.
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3.40 - Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)
This is revolving around Concertista for the Willie Mullins team. The Festival's record breaking trainer has already won this race nine times and last year's Dawn Run winner is joined by stablemates My Sister Sarah and Great White Shark (Cesarewitch winner) in a three-pronged attack.
Concertista was very impressive when dispatching now-former stablemate Dolcita by 12-lengths over 2m1f here last March and had of course been narrowly denied in the same race a year previous. She has won both starts in Ireland this season and has been at the head of the market for this contest for a long while.
It's far from a gimme for her, however. Both Dame De Compagnie (Coral Cup) and Indefatigable (Martin Pipe) were Festival winners here in 2020 and command respect, while Black Tears has beaten the favourite in the past.
Nicky Henderson thinks Floressa might sparkle upped in distance but the big threat could be the 2019 winner of this race, ROKSANA. She was of course a fortuitous winner that day after Benie Des Dieux crashed down at the last, but her form this season is better than ever.
She has won a pair of Grade 2 at Wetherby and Ascot either side of finishing third behind Stayers' Hurdle favourite Paisley Park in the Grade 1 Long Walk in December. There's a slight worry about the drop back to 2m4f but this track should be just about testing enough and she's a key player on form this season. It was disappointing not to see her tackle the Stayers' (where she'd have got 7lb from the boys) but the Skelton's clearly believe this test is within her compass again.
Minella Melody was bitterly disappointing at this meeting last March in the race won by Concertista and has finished second to that rival on her last two starts in Ireland this year (ahead of the likes of Black Tears and My Sister Sarah latterly). Hard as it might be to see her turning that form around, the discrepancy from the 11/10 favourite to the 28/1 about Rachael Blackmore's mount does seem rather too dismissive.
4.15 - Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m½f)
Paul Nicholls' three wins in this race is a joint-record and there's plenty reason to believe Houx Grix might make it four for the Ditcheat supremo now. The French import ran well for a long way in the Grade 1 Finale at Chepstow in January before tiring into third behind Adagio and Nassalam (carries top-weight in this, beaten since at Haydock). It's probable there's significant improvement to come from Houx Grix here and a mark of 128 certainly appeals.
His chances also give a nod to Oliver Greenall's HOMME PUBLIC, just a neck behind him over hurdles at Auteuil (2m1½f, heavy) in the autumn. He was held on UK bow at Catterick last month by the re-opposing Tinnahalla but impressive 16 days later in taking a Market Rasen maiden (2m½f, soft) in strong fashion. He is 3lb better off with his old foe from France and is much bigger in the betting now. He should give an excellent account.
Elham Valley has been disappointing since his impressive Sandown win in December for Fergal O'Brien, though the runner-up paid a nice compliment to that form back there on Saturday.
Saint Sam and Youmdor are possible players for the Mullins machine, while Cabot Cliffs is more than capable of having a say from 137 for the Skeltons and joins Sage Advice on the shortlist.
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4.50 - Sam Vestey National Hunt Challenge Cup Novices' Chase (Grade 2, 3m6f)
The decision of Royale Pagaille's connections to go after Gold Cup glory on Friday rather altered the landscape in this contest and it's most likely that connections of GALVIN will have breathed a sigh of relief.
This contest has been his target ever since he won decisively over an extended three-miles at the Showcase Meeting here in the autumn. He was pipped by Imperial Aura as a novice over 2m4f here last March but has won all four starts since. That course win in October was his first run beyond 3m and certainly offered plenty incentive to tackle this marathon. He pushed aside the re-opposing Soldier Of Love in ready fashion and is the one to beat now.
Soldier Of Love is one of two runners for owner Malcolm Denmark and trainer Paul Nicholls and their other contender, Next Destination, is a big threat.
He had missed 920 days prior to his runner-up effort behind Roksana in a Grade 2 hurdles event at Wetherby in October and has been a real success story for Nicholls, having made the move from Willie Mullins' yard. He held off Fiddlerontheroof in a Grade 2 at Doncaster last time (3m, soft) and has plenty scope for further improvement as a chaser after two wins in this sphere so far.
Galvin's former stablemate Escaria Ten is a player too, while Nestor Park could be one for this marathon journey for a Ben Pauling team that saddled Le Breuil to win two years ago.
Remastered is 3-3 over fences for David Pipe and repelled all challengers at Ascot (3m, soft) having made the running. He's ideally after more testing ground than now seems likely, but is much-respected at any rate.