In our Cheltenham Festival timefigure Lucky 15, we suggested that Ballyward in the National Hunt Chase (17:30) was one of our best bets of the meeting, and with the runners and riders now confirmed, there is no reason to think any different. Indeed, if anything, following the rain that has fallen since and with another half an inch forecast, we are even keener on him now with the emphasis likely to be even more on stamina.
A timefigure of 150 at Naas when beating next-time-out Grade 2 winner Chris’s Dream is the best chasing form on offer, and though Ballyward has three lengths to make up on OK Corral from last year’s Albert Bartlett, the six-year-old is clearly a much improved horse this year. The same can’t yet be said of the nine-year-old OK Corral, whose Warwick form hasn’t stood up so far.
The opening Supreme Novices Hurdle looks a wide-open affair with Al Dancer, Grand Sancy, Angel’s Breath and Fakir d’Oudairies virtually inseparable from a time perspective. Of the quartet, Angel’s Breath is perhaps open to the most improvement, while both Al Dancer and Fakir d’Oudairies have winning course form to their name. Al Dancer has impressed most of all from a sectional perspective, and is arguably better still than his overall timefigures suggest, but Klassical Dream had far better hurdles form in France than Fakir d’Oudaries and has won both his races in Ireland, so we’ll keep our powder dry here.
Lalor has been at or near the head of the market for the Arkle (14:10) since making a winning chase debut here back in the autumn, but he has questions to answer on both overall and sectional times, and on top of that hasn’t been seen since a defeat at Sandown in November. One-time Arkle favourite Kalashnikov would enter considerations if he could reproduce his 2018 Supreme second, but he was trounced seemingly fairly and squarely by the fast-improving Glen Forsa at Sandown last time.
All that said, the Irish duo Duc des Genievres and Us And Them have the best time credentials. The former was impressive in winning at Gowran last time out by fifteen lengths in a timefigure of 155 over two and a half miles, while Us And Them has found only Le Richebourg too strong on his last couple of starts. This race promises to be run at a fair lick and Duc des Genievres’ proven ability and stamina makes odds of 13/2 look too big.
Much like the Supreme, there is very little to separate the main contenders on time in the Champion Hurdle; Apple’s Jade has the best (162) bare timefigure this year but dual champion Buveur d’Air recorded a figure of 167 when winning the first of his two Champion Hurdles, and both he and Melon posted 161 when fighting out the finish last year. Laurina hasn’t yet properly had the opportunity to post a fast time, but some of her sectionals since arriving from France suggest she is good enough to play a part too, while Brain Power was an improved horse last year over fences despite his jumping issues, and a 159 timefigure suggests that he, too, is right in the mix for a place at least in what looks a corking heat.
Anyone looking to timefigures to shed some new light on the Mares’ Hurdle will probably be disappointed. 2018 winner Benie des Dieux has a 9 lb advantage on time and though she hasn’t been seen this season, her trainer is a master at producing horses to win this race first time out. Roksana is interesting back at two and a half miles, having finished behind Santini and Buveur d’Air in falsely-run races on her last two outings, and she could hardly have been more impressive when winning a truly-run handicap from a BHA mark of 130 at Newbury last spring (timefigure of 132). Of Benie des Dieux’s rivals, she looks the one open to most improvement.
Kildisart is not the finished article and @benpauling1 believes there's more to come from his smart chaser. The trainer would love a crack at the novices' handicap chase on the first day of the Festival— Racing TV (@RacingTV) January 26, 2019
Ante-post ➡ https://t.co/yooymOtYbQ pic.twitter.com/y3Mxs3VZkP
So far as the handicaps go, Tower Bridge makes obvious appeal in the Close Brothers at 16:50 having finished second to Duc des Genevieres last time, but preference in the same race is for topweight Highway One O One whose last-time-out second to Kildisart was achieved in a very good time and looks really strong form. Chris Gordon’s runner has been raised 2 lb for that, but time will probably show he was up against it giving the up-and-coming winner weight, and the return to a big-field handicap scenario for the first time this year, as well as softer ground, will suit him ideally.
Back Duc des Genievres to win the Arkle at 13/2
Back Highway One O One to win the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase at 12-1
Back Ballyward to win the National Hunt Chase at 11/4