The coronavirus has dominated the news agenda in recent months but, mercifully, this week another C word takes centre stage: Cheltenham 2020 has arrived. Rejoice and be glad.
Of course, in the greater scheme of things a sporting event is nothing in comparison to a virus wreaking havoc on the world, but one of the great things about sport is its capacity to provide escapism from everyday life.
For racing fans, nothing compares to the thrill and anticipation of the Cheltenham Festival. And day one promises plenty even if the Unibet Champion Hurdle looks the weakest renewal of the day one feature in many years. But short on quality doesn’t mean short on intrigue and this is a fascinating puzzle.
The one thing that can be said with certainty in advance is Epatante deserves to be favourite, a state of affairs nobody would have anticipated when she disappointed in the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at last year’s Festival.
The Nicky Henderson-trained mare has only run twice since, winning a Newbury handicap in fine style in November before taking the step up to Group One company in her stride when justifying a big gamble in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day. That’s the single best piece of form on offer and her 7lbs mares’ allowance only adds to her appeal.
The obvious concern is last year’s underwhelming Cheltenham effort but Henderson has argued ever since that the vaccine she had to have in the aftermath of the equine flu knocked her for six.
Take that race out of the equation and Epatante is unbeaten in Britain. If there is a superstar in this race hiding in plain sight it’s surely her.
If Epatante flops and there is to be a massive shock - Not So Sleepy could provide it. Hughie Morrison’s charge bolted in at Ascot before Christmas and a line can be drawn through his last run as a standing start effectively ended his Betfair Hurdle bid before it had even begun. If he gets loose in front, he could outperform his odds.
The nap comes in the opening race, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, where the Henderson-trained Shishkin is taken to land what shapes as a top-class renewal. The selection hasn’t yet achieved as much as leading Irish contender Asterion Forlonge but the way he pulled clear at the business end of proceedings at Newbury in January and Huntingdon last month suggests he could be a bit special. If he’s within striking distance of Asterion Forlonge approaching the last that blistering turn of foot could prove decisive.
Willie Mullins boasts a fine recent record in the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy, one that can be enhanced by the progressive Cash Back. The eight-year-old was just touched off by Notebook after a stirring duel at the Dublin Racing Festival last month but may be able to turn the tables with Henry De Bromhead’s charge.
Notebook is unbeaten in four starts over fences but he has his quirks and the way he played up in advance of that most recent Leopardstown run raises question marks about how he’ll cope with the Cheltenham preliminaries.
That those pre-race antics didn’t stop him winning illustrates the ability he possesses but, at twice the price, Cash Back makes marginally greater appeal.
Mullins may also be able to get the better of De Bromhead in the last of the day’s four Grade One contests, the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle, where Benie Des Dieux is fancied to lower the colours of the unbeaten Honeysuckle. Benie Des Dieux would be unbeaten for Mullins had she not fallen at the last flight when in command of this race last year.
Irish Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle will give her plenty to think about but Benie Des Dieux is taken to set the record straight.
Carefully Selected can crown a fine opening day for Mullins by winning the Grade Two National Hunt Chase in the hands of the trainer’s son, Patrick. His jumping doesn’t always convince but he’s three from three this season and if he gets around he’ll be hard to beat.
The Ultima Handicap Chase looks fiercely competitive but there’s a lot to like about The Conditional. A course and distance in October, he then ran a cracker to finish second in the Ladbrokes Trophy a month later. The David Bridgwater-trained eight-year-old didn’t stay the 3m5f trip when fourth at Warwick last time out so the half-mile drop in trip should suit and being dropped 3lb will aid his cause. Off a light weight, he shouldn’t be too far away.
The Gordon Elliott-trained Galvin gets the tentative vote in the Northern Trust Company Novices’ Handicap Chase. The six-year-old has not yet got his head in front in three races this season but each run was an improvement on the one before and this has long been his Festival aim. A big run can be anticipated.