Horse racing fans will tomorrow rejoice as the Cheltenham Festival kicks off once again.
Whether you're a well-schooled punter or fancy having your first flutter, here are five of the best Irish runners to take a look at.
Douvan (Champion Chase, Wednesday)
Only the already-rich could gain significant financial benefit from backing Douvan to win the Champion Chase, and that is a fair reflection of his apparent superiority in the two-mile division.
With the exception of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle of 2015, he has started odds-on for all starts for Willie Mullins, and remains unbeaten since his debut in his native France, almost three years ago. Quite possibly one of the best horses ever to travel from Ireland to the festival, he should provide a first Irish- trained success in the race since Sizing Europe, in 2011.
Let’s Dance (Mares’ Novice Hurdle, Thursday)
Quite possibly the bet of the meeting should she line up for the Mares’ Novice Hurdle on Thursday. Her performance against Slowmotion, at Leopardstown, was breath-taking and, while not as visually exciting last time, it’s quite likely we will see an even better performance this week.
The trip may be considered on the short side, but she is a strong traveller, adept jumper, and has the pace to burn off her rivals.
Yorkhill (JLT Novices’ Chase, Thursday)
An extremely talented horse, he upset one of the British bankers of the 2016 festival when proving too good for Yanworth in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle and, while his technique over his fences hasn’t impressed everyone, his class remains obvious, something which is not as apparent in his rivals.
Top Notch looks the best of the British contingent, but lacks scope and will find these fences a true test.
Death Duty (Albert Bartlett Hurdle, Friday)
One of last season’s top bumper performers in Ireland, he is unbeaten in four outings over hurdles, and is held in the highest regard by trainer Gordon Elliott, who has made favourable comparison to 2016 Gold Cup winner Don Cossack.
Elliott is the coming force in Irish National Hunt racing, and yet there is a feeling this horse’s price has held better than if it were trained by Mullins. Will we reflect on this in years to come, and wonder why we didn’t take advantage when we could?
On The Fringe (Foxhunters’ Chase, Friday)
The leading hunter chaser of recent seasons, On The Fringe won this race in 2015 and 2016 and, in both years, went on to complete the ‘festival treble’ by winning at Aintree and Punchestown.
He is 12 years old, and has some young pretenders chasing his title, but his recent prep should have put him spot-on for this, and his experience can ensure he completes the hat-trick.
And if you're looking for an alternative option, here are the best of the British going to post over the next week.
Altior (Racing Post Arkle Trophy, Tuesday)
Probably one of the biggest certainties, if there is such a thing, of the entire meeting. Nicky Henderson’s seven-year-old cannot stop winning, and has looked thrilling over fences. If he gets round safely, he wins doing the proverbial handstands.
Neon Wolf (Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, Wednesday)
Make no mistake, he is the real deal. Trainer Harry Fry loves this horse. A brilliant winner of a Supreme trial at Haydock on his last start, this giant should adore stepping up in trip at Cheltenham. There is also rain forecast, which is good news.
UnowhatImeanharry (Sun Bet Stayers’ Hurdle, Thursday)
Fry, just like the rest of us, has been knocked for six by this one’s progress over the winter. The nine-year-old is on a winning run that stretches back to November 2015 and he is head and shoulders above his rivals in what is a fairly uninspiring staying department.
Defi Du Seuil (JCB Triumph Hurdle, Friday)
The dogs were barking about this one long before he made a facile hurdling bow at Ffos Las and he has more than lived up to the positive chatter. Philip Hobbs’ inmate is already a Grade One scorer and possesses that all-important course know-how, having claimed three wins at Cheltenham this winter.
Native River (Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, Friday)
He might not be a ‘sexy’ horse, but does he get the job done. The Hennessy and Welsh National hero lacks the superstar status of the sidelined Thistlecrack, but staying prowess is almost as important as class in the Gold Cup. Trainer Colin Tizzard will no better than anyone that he fulfils every possible criteria need to win the big one.