Six battles not to be missed at Cheltenham

The Festival has a long and storied history of producing compelling duels and, with the 2020 renewal rich in promise, Darren Norris picks six battles not to miss.

Six battles not to be missed at Cheltenham

The Festival has a long and storied history of producing compelling duels and, with the 2020 renewal rich in promise, Darren Norris picks six battles not to miss.

Shishkin v Asterion Forlonge, Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Tuesday, 1.30pm)

It seems strange to suggest a race might be rendered more exciting by the absence of an unbeaten horse with a monstrous reputation but that might just be the case with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

Had he run here, Envoi Allen would have been a short-priced favourite to oblige for Gordon Elliott and most would-be rivals would be running in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle in order to avoid the menacing shadow cast by last year’s Champion Bumper hero.

Instead, those who would ordinarily have run in the Ballymore will now take their chances over this shorter trip and, consequently, the Supreme will be strong in both quality and quantity.

Gold Cup-winning owners Joe and Marie Donnelly tick both boxes with Shishkin and Asterion Forlonge, trained by Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins respectively.

Shishkin wasn’t on many people’s Supreme radar when he fell as early as the second obstacle on his debut over hurdles at Newbury before Christmas but he made amends at the same venue in mid-January when a turbo-charged finish evoked memories of stablemate Altior at his imperious best. Shishkin did the same over a longer trip at Huntingdon last time out, a bloodless victory that suggests a fast-run two-mile contest should really suit.

On paper, Asterion Forlonge has even better credentials as he’s unbeaten and already has a Grade One on his CV having won the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival last month. He did jump slightly to his right at times that day but he ultimately galloped his Leopardstown rivals into submission and this frontrunner looks sure to go close in the Festival opener. Withstanding Shishkin’s finishing effort will likely prove his stiffest challenge. How he copes that that task promises to be fascinating.

Notebook v Cash Back, Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase (Tuesday, 2.10).

In 2018, eight runners from the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival went on to score at Cheltenham.

One of them was Footpad who won the Irish Arkle before following up at Cheltenham. And the Leopardstown race again looks the key form-guide for this year’s race after Henry De Bromhead’s Notebook extended his winning sequence to four when narrowly getting the better of the Willie Mullins-trained Cash Back after a titanic struggle last month.

Having pulled out all the stops on that occasion, Notebook deserves to be Arkle favourite but was unruly before that race – taking Rachael Blackmore on an unwelcome tour of Foxrock - and that raises doubts how he’ll handle the preliminaries at Cheltenham.

And with Cash Back rapidly on the upgrade, Notebook faces another stern test. It would be far from the biggest shock of the week if Cash Back turns the tables on his rival to give Mullins a fifth Arkle success in six years.

Benie Des Dieux v Honeysuckle, Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle (Tuesday, 4.10).

Much of the pre-Cheltenham build-up has centred on the final Festival destination of these two high-class mares with crack at Paisley Park in the Stayers’ Hurdle being mooted for Benie Des Dieux while connections of the unbeaten Honeysuckle were torn between this race and the Champion Hurdle.

But, regardless of the ultimate outcome, the decision to run both here is the right one as, even getting the mares’ allowance, Benie Des Dieux would have struggled to lower the colours of the mighty Paisley Park over three miles while two miles is sharp enough for Honeysuckle and the evidence of her underwhelming Irish Champion Hurdle success suggests she doesn’t jump slickly enough to win the English equivalent.

That’s not to say they’re not classy mares - and this intermediate trip looks ideal for both. As a six-year-old, Honeysuckle has youth on her side but the nine-year-old Benie Des Dieux looked better than ever when winning the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park on her only start this season.

Having fallen with the contest at her mercy last year, Willie Mullins’ mare has unfinished business with this race. In Honeysuckle, she faces a serious adversary but the suspicion is Benie Des Dieux will lay the ghost of 2019 to rest.

Champ v Minella Indo, RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase (Wednesday 2.10).

Last year’s RSA was arguably the race of the week with the (now) sidelined Topofthegame getting the better of Santini and Delta Work, two live contenders for Friday’s Gold Cup. And this year’s renewal includes a handful of horses who could go on to be live contenders for the Blue Riband in 2021, namely Champ and Minella Indo.

Owned by JP McManus and named after 20-times champion jockey AP McCoy, Champ has always had a big reputation. A dual Grade One winner over hurdles, Nicky Henderson’s charge won his first two starts over the larger obstacles before falling when seemingly cruising to victory in the Dipper Novices’ Chase on New Year’s Day. That’s obviously not ideal but he’s generally a sound jumper and clearly has a serious engine and a lot of class.

Like Champ, the Henry De Bromhead-trained Minella Indo has two Grade One hurdles successes on his CV, the first of which came in last year’s Albert Bartlett when he sprang a massive surprise at odds of 50-1.

He probably lacks the star quality of Champ but he’s a relentless galloper who’ll keep on grinding when most of his rivals have cried enough. That contrast in styles is what makes this duel so exciting.

Altior v Defi Du Seuil v Chacun Pour Soi, Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase (Wednesday 3.30).

It will be a shame if lameness denies dual champion Altior the chance to claim a record-equalling third win in the day two feature.

Seeing him up against Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi over two miles would be some sight. That said, even if he is confined to his box, it will still be a race to savour.

After all, Defi Du Seuil already has two Festivals wins to his name and is unbeaten in three starts this season, a winning sequence that includes the Tingle Creek and the Clarence House Chase.

He seems to have been around for ever but he’s still a young horse and we probably haven’t seen the best of him yet. For his part, Chacun Pour Soi will be out to give Willie Mullins one of the few major prizes not yet on his illustrious CV and he beat Defi Du Seuil decisively at Punchestown at the end of last season.

A fascinating tactical battle looks in store because Chacun Pour Soi, an electric jumper, will ensure there’s no hiding place and that means Altior, should he line up, may struggle to get away with hitting his customary flat spot.

Defi Du Seuil lacks the scope of his market rivals but he’s a streetfighter who’ll hang in there and fight all the way to the line.

This could be epic. Correction: This will be epic.

A Plus Tard v Min, Ryanair Chase (Thursday 2.50).

An impressive winner of the Close Brother Novices’ Handicap Chase at last year’s Festival, A Plus Tard seemed to have his limitations exposed when a distant third to Delta Work in a Punchestown Grade One on his final start last season.

Not so. Henry De Bromhead’s charge proved he can cut it in top level company when getting the better of Chacun Pour Soi at Leopardstown at Christmas. Unsuitably good ground denied him the chance of repeating that impressive feat at the Dublin Racing Festival but that may prove a blessing in disguise as he’ll arrive at Cheltenham a fresh horse.

Min did run in that race but, while he had to settle for second behind Chacun Pour Soi, he lost little in defeat in a race run at a ferocious gallop. Unlike A Plus Tard, he has yet to win at the Festival but he was an honourable second to Altior in the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the 2018 Champion Chase before finishing fifth to the same horse last year.

That tells us he can’t beat Altior but his overall CV makes for impressive reading and, away from his rival’s large shadow, Min may well be able to make it fourth time lucky. And if he does, nobody could begrudge him.

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