Brought to you by Betfred’s Matt Hulmes
EVERY National Hunt bred horse with an ounce of ability has their sights set on the Cheltenham Festival which makes the racing the most competitive of the season.
But there are winners to be found and one at the festival feels doubly good than any other.
With the injection of extra prize money this season the Ryanair Chase on Thursday will attract a stellar line up without detracting from the main spectacle, the Cheltenham God Cup on the final day.
Last year’s spectacular winner Un De Sceaux will bid to retain his title and will be the banker of plenty. Of his 26 races, he has won 20, been runner-up on three occasions and fell twice. He doesn’t know how to run badly and put in some legendary leaps during the race 12 months ago.
I fancy the chances of a fellow Irish raider though. Michael O’Leary has never won the race he sponsors, but that looks set to change in 2018.
Step forward Balko Des Flos. He has important festival experience as was fifth in the Albert Bartlett two years ago and was still travelling well when departing four out in last year’s JLT.
He showed his appreciation for this trip on decent ground when comfortably landing the ultra-competitive Galway Plate in August and ran a lifetime best when chasing home Road To Respect in the Christmas Chase at Leopardstown.
He has been freshened up for this and has leading claims.
The Stayers' Hurdle 40 minutes later looks wide open once again.
Supasundae showed great speed to win the Irish Champion Hurdle last time and this has been his target since winning last year’s Coral Cup.
Victory for Sam Spinner would be the final chapter in an incredible story for the North of England, heralding from the small yard of Jedd O’Keefe.
However, it could be that man Mullins holding the key once more after winning it last year with the ill-fated Nichols Canyon. He saddles Albert Bartlett hero Penhill, who hasn’t been seen for eleven months, but its Bacardys who is worth the investment.
He is trying to follow in the hoofprints of Big Bucks by landing this prize after an aborted chasing campaign. He hit the deck over the larger obstacles over Christmas but is a dual Grade 1 wining hurdler, was third in a champion bumper and is a big each way player.
Onto the big finale, the Blue Riband of steeplechasing, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
While I do see many prizes heading over the Irish Sea, this is one that will be staying at home.
Reigning champion Sizing John has to overcome a poor showing at Leopardstown over Christmas, and while something did come to light, he still has to prove his well-being in this hottest of cauldrons.
His stable companion Our Duke has jumping frailties and I think best of the Emerald Isle challengers will be Christmas Chase winner Road To Respect. He was mightily impressive in the Festival Plate last season and has continued to improve.
Might Bite leads the home challenge but we know about his quirks and for me he still has stamina to prove.
The most solid candidate is Native River. He was third last season on the back of victories in some gruelling races like the Welsh National and Hennessy.
This season he arrives here fresh after defending his Denman Chase crown at Newbury five weeks ago. He jumps, stays and is a relentless galloper.
For me, whoever finishes in front of Native River wins the 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
As for the best bets of the meeting, Irish eyes can be smiling after the Cross Country as usual as Tiger Roll can land a third Festival victory in his new discipline while Sugar Baron must be in the betting bank for the Kim Muir.
Please remember to gamble responsibly.