History has proven the Festival to be a ruthless environment where only the toughest, most talented survive. This week will be no different. Some hotpots will enhance already lofty reputations while, for others, the bubble will burst. As ever, the challenge is what to trust and what to oppose, writesmakes his picks.
SHISKIN (Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Tuesday)
Favourite-backers have had their fingers burnt in the opening race of the Cheltenham with Douvan and Vautour the only market leaders to oblige in the last decade.
With Envoi Allen heading to the Ballymore, this year’s renewal has an open look to it but Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin is the right favourite having left quite the impression when bolting up at Newbury in January, a tour de force he repeated at Huntingdon last month. What he beat is open to debate but the change of gear he showed at the business end of proceedings was deeply impressive. He could be the real deal.
NOTEBOOK (Racing Post Arkle Trophy, Tuesday)
Six of the last 10 renewals have been won by odds-on favourites, statistics that bode well for Henry De Bromhead’s charge.
Notebook was no star over hurdles but he has been transformed by the bigger obstacles, winning all four starts, a sequence that includes Grade One success at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting and at the Dublin Racing Festival.
That said, he did get quite worked up in the preliminaries ahead of that recent success and that raises concerns about how he’ll cope with the intense Cheltenham atmosphere.
It’s also the case that, while he’s put together an impressive winning sequence, he hasn’t yet delivered a display that says he’s miles better than his opposition. He’ll undoubtedly be a tough nut to crack but, all in all, there’s enough question marks to take him on.
EPATANTE (Champion Hurdle, Tuesday)
When she flopped in the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle last year, it was hard to envisage a set of circumstances that would see Epatante favourite for the 2020 Champion Hurdle. But that’s where we are.
Last year’s winner Espoir D’Allen is no longer with us while injury has ruled out the likes of Buveur D’Air, Saldier, and Klassical Dream. In stark contrast, Epatante has taken giant strides this season, winning a handicap at Newbury in November before taking the step up to Grade One company in her stride when winning the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
That’s the single best piece of form on offer and, if she runs to a similar level tomorrow, the boys will struggle to give her 7lbs.
ENVOI ALLEN (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, Wednesday)
Last year’s Champion Bumper hero has carried all before him over hurdles this season, winning all three of his starts, two of them Grade Ones. He hasn’t blown away opposition but he has never looked in real danger and that tendency to do little more than required bodes well for his longevity. He’ll be a short price but he deserves to be a short price and it’ll rank as a massive disappointment if the Irish banker fails to deliver.
ALTIOR (Queen Mother Champion Chase, Wednesday)
Having got back to winning ways at Newbury last month, it’s hard to argue with Altior shading favouritism for the Champion Chase. After all, he’s a four-time Festival winner chasing a record-equalling third win in this race. Yes, he surrendered his 19-race unbeaten run when beaten by Cyrname at Ascot in November. There's no shame in that but he had a particularly gruelling race first-time out that day and you probably have to go back to the 2018 Champion Chase to find the last Altior performance that truly had a wow factor.
He was no more than workmanlike when retaining his crown last year and, with Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi lying in wait, this is unquestionably a much hotter renewal.
TIGER ROLL (Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, Wednesday)
Like Altior, Tiger Roll will be seeking a fifth Festival success this week and it’ll be massive anti-climax if Gordon Elliott’s charge doesn’t win this race for a third time ahead of a tilt at a third successive Grand National at Aintree next month.
The 10-year-old has only run once this season, finishing a perfectly satisfactory fifth over hurdles at Navan last month.
That race, run over an inadequate trip, should have him spot-on for this and the hope is victory here will tee him up perfectly for his date with destiny at Aintree.
APPRECIATE IT (Weatherbys Champion Bumper, Wednesday)
Willie Mullins has saddled nine winners of this race and can make it a perfect 10 in 2020, courtesy of this hugely promising Jeremy gelding. Beaten into third by last year’s Champion Bumper winner Envoi Allen in a point-to-point in February 2018, Appreciate It is two from three this season and the authority with which he won at the Dublin Racing Festival last month strongly suggests he’s a star in the making.
PAISLEY PARK (Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle, Thursday)
This is a race with a history of producing repeat winners and nothing has happened this season to suggest Paisley Park won’t retain his crown. Emma Lavelle’s pride and joy has had a lighter campaign than last season but comfortable wins at Newbury and Cheltenham suggest he’s every bit as good as he looked last March. With credible rivals thin on the ground, he looks as close to bombproof as you’ll get.
SOLO (JCB Triumph Hurdle, Friday)
“He strikes me as being in the model of Master Minded,” was the post-race assessment of Paul Nicholls after Solo powered to victory in the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton last month. Given Master Minded’s achievements, praise doesn’t come much higher. A considerably stiffer test faces the French recruit in the Triumph as Goshen, Allmankind, and Aspire Tower – confirmed frontrunners all three – lie in wait. If that strong-willed trio soften each other up, Solo could cash in. As could his supporters.
AL BOUM PHOTO (Gold Cup, Friday)
Having had the exact same preparation as last year it’s no surprise the reigning champion is at the head of the market to retain his crown. After all, he was an incredibly impressive winner on the day and is only an eight-year-old so age is on his side.
Against that, repeat Gold Cup winners are incredibly rare and this year’s renewal looks a stronger one with Santini, Delta Work, and Lostintranslation emerging as fresh challengers. Al Boum Photo may be fend one or two of last year’s novices but the suspicion is he won’t be able to account for all three. Honourable defeat may beckon.