The UK’s Cheltenham Festival is the biggest national hunt meeting anywhere in the world, drawing huge media attention as the leading jumps horses battle it out in their respective divisions. From now until April, all roads will lead to the Gloucestershire-based track as the leading runners look to improve their fitness, pick up some tidy prize money and gain experience ahead of the Festival.
With the jumps season now up and running, there will be plenty of ante-post betting and interest in all of the leading races over the next few months as the entries are already open for the big meetings. It’s a crowded field with a handful of competitive options, so here are five horses which could grab the headlines at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival meeting in March.
Fayonagh – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
Last season’s Champion Bumper winner Fayonagh has already made a winning start to his hurdles career as he broke his maiden at Fairyhouse earlier this month. The six year old was impressive at the Festival in the only flat race of the week where he finished strongly in the 22 runner field. Gordon Elliott’s runner proved his victory at Cheltenham was no fluke when he landed the Grade One national hunt flat contest at the Punchestown Festival just a few weeks later. A peek at Racing UK’s form guidereveals huge potential.
Elliott will be hoping Fayonagh can follow in the footsteps of his stablemate Labaik who landed the opening race of the Cheltenham Festival, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2017. He made no mistakes on his seasonal debut and he should get another 2-3 races under his belt in Ireland before travelling over to the UK in March where he is +1000 to prevail in the novice contest over two miles.
The last horse to win the Champion Bumper and then score in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle 12 months later is Champagne Fever who had back-to-back Festival victories in 2012 and 2013.
Faugheen – Champion Hurdle
2015 Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen has not run since his success in the Irish Champion Hurdlein 2016, however, Willie Mullins’ star hurdler is set to return to action this season where his first assignment is likely to be the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown. Before his setback, people within the sport were talking about Faugheen as being one of the best 2m hurdlers in modern history. He has won 11 out of his 12 races so far, seven of which has been at Grade One level.
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Reports from Ireland suggest Faugheen is over his injury now and has been working well during his gallops. He will need to pass the test on his return to racing but as long as he does come through the Grade One race, he is sure to improve throughout the campaign where the target will be Champion Hurdle in which connections will be hoping he can regain his crown in the feature race on day one of the Festival. A cursory browse through the tips at Timeform suggest he is one to watch.
Douvan – Queen Mother Champion Chase
One of the biggest surprises of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival was Douvan’s defeat in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Going into the 2m chase, Douvan had won all nine of his races over fences and was regarded by many as the most impressive horse in training in national hunt racing. Sadly for connections, he picked up a stress fracture in his pelvis which resulted in a below-par performance as he could only finish seventh.
Like his stablemate Faugheen, Douvan does have to return and prove that he is over his injury. The seven year old may step up in trip this season which opens up a number of races including the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. Although he has been campaigned over two miles for the majority of his career, there have been many horses who have been able to get three miles at Kempton as he track is not as demanding as other course such as Cheltenham.
It is unclear at this stage as to which race connections will prefer to run at the Festival in 2018, however, if he is back to full health, he will take some beating in whichever contest he lines up in.
Unowhatimeanharry – Stayers’ Hurdle
Unowhatimeanharry dominated the stayers’ hurdle division last season, winning four of his five races in an impressive campaign. Unfortunately his sole defeat came in the biggest race of the year at the Cheltenham Festival. There is no reason as to why the nine year old can’t continue to have success when he returns from his summer break. Harry Fry’s runner is not a flashy horse, however, he has the perfect blend of stamina and a turn of foot which he can use in the closing stages of his races.
The stayers division begins with the Grade Two Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury. Unowhatimeanharry won that race by six lengths last year and unless any of last season’s novices make an impact early in the season, Fry’s reliable runner is likely to go off as the favourite for the Stayers’ Hurdle.
Sizing John – Cheltenham Gold Cup
Last season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Sizing John is set to go for the Chase Triple Crown in the 2017/18 campaign which requires the horse to be successful in the Betfair Chase, King George and Cheltenham Gold Cup. If he is able to pull that treble off, he will earn his connections a £1 million bonus.