Not much of an intro needed here, it's obviously the biggest week of the year for those of us involved with betting and trading. Here's today's Irish Independent column for day one. Race by race guide near the bottom:
Min looks exciting but the figures add up for Altior
These days, the sport known as bandy is similar to ice hockey - but the original game came from 16th Century France, and was actually a form of tennis.
It later became a stick-based game and while the Irish already had hurling, Bandy became popular for a while in Britain. When the ball was passed from player to player, it was said to be 'bandied' about and keeping the ball out of the hands of the opposition by regular passing was one of the skills of the game.
With Cheltenham finally here a lot of tips and information, reliable and otherwise, will be bandied about this week but as I say every year, the form book is your best friend when it comes to the top class races and the quality doesn't get any better than this.
While horse racing and betting is often accused of being corrupt, at least you can be sure that every single horse will be trying its best this week and with so many special offers from bookmakers, it's actually become a little easier to make a profit following the top horses in recent years.
Although we all love bagging a nice-priced outsider, you certainly need a good reason to oppose the better horses at Cheltenham and those that dislike backing favourites should consider being a little more flexible in certain races for the week that's in it.
To illustrate my point about the form standing up, take the clear top-rated horse (on official ratings) in the non-handicaps: such horses have won 36 times from 112 races (32pc) since 2008. Had you stuck a tenner on each, you'd show a profit of €240. I'm not suggesting you blindly bet without further analysis, but considering that simple approach has shown a profit in seven of the last eight festivals, the top form horses should always be your starting point.
On that note, the Nicky Henderson-trained Altior looks a solid bet around 7/2 in the opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle (1.30) with a rating of 155, 2lbs ahead Willie Mullins' favourite Min.
My main worry for Min is that he can get slightly worked up at the racecourse and tends to race keenly. While the likely speed of the Supreme Novices' might suit him, the hustle and bustle nature of the race, plus the atmosphere from the crowd, might be unsettling.
Altior won a significant contest last time at Kempton and although he hit a flat spot mid-race, he showed true class when asked to up his game by Nico de Boinville.
Henderson hasn't won this since 1992 but with a place strike-rate of 47pc in the last ten years, his horses are almost always thereabouts.
The Champion Hurdle (3.30) has been blown wide open with Arctic Fire and Faugheen out, and I get the feeling that some punters are latching on to Annie Power almost by default.
She was supplemented for the race as expected which is a big vote of confidence, but it's over two decades since a female horse won and a price of 7/4 or thereabouts is a little short for me.
Instead, a chance is taken on stablemate Nichols Canyon, expected go off at 5/1. A below-par run in the Irish Champion Hurdle is forgiven as he'd had a tough race previously and I expect him to bounce back to form today.
STAT ATTACK: ULTIMA HANDICAP CHASE
Despite sending a total of 19 runners to the Ultima Handicap Chase (2.50) down through the years, Paul Nicholls has never had a winner.
In the early 2000s, quite a few were fancied including Colourful Life (7/1), Royal Auclair (7/1) and Ad Hoc (twice at 5/1 and 7/1) but more recently, his horses have went off in double-figure prices. It seems the market called it right, with the record of his last six runners reading 05UPU7.
Still, the Ditcheat handler hasn't lost faith and is represented by general 14/1 shot Southfield Theatre today.
GUIDE TO DAY 1
Min has so far lived up to the hype winning both races since coming to Ireland, but he was 4/11 and 1/7 so this is his first real test and he could be vulnerable to the likes of Altior. Nicky Henderson's charge will also be tested like never before - but he has won over the course and distance which may just give him an edge.
Willie Mullins has named Douvan as his best chance of a winner this week so it's no surprise to see him as short as 4/11 in the betting. Sizing John was second to Douvan over the Christmas at Leopardstown and may be the one to follow him home again.
The Warren Greatrex-trained Out Sam is a worthy favourite around 11/2 off a mark of 139. He beat Milansbar at Newbury last time and that form has been boosted with Milansbar going on to win at Exeter. Jonjo O'Neill's Holywell is another one for the shortlist.
A wide-open renewal which can go to Willie Mullins' second-string Nichols Canyon. He appeared tired when third in the Irish Champion Hurdle which came quite soon after his success over Identity Thief in the Ryanair Hurdle. Stablemate Annie Power is obviously the big danger but looks a little skinny in the betting.
Once again, the strength of Willie Mullins' day-one team is evident, and Vroum Vroum Mag can justify her price around evens to make it an eight victory in-a-row for the stable in this race. She's extremely versatile and has now racked up eight wins in as many races over both timber and fences.
This looks quite tricky but odds in the region of 7/1 seem quite fair for Native River. Trained by Colin Tizzard, the gelding seemed distracted at Wetherby last time but he has a bit of talent deep down, and the application of cheekpieces should help him concentrate.
Willow's Saviour won a novice chase at Fakenham last time and a mark of 138 looks quite lenient. Dan Skelton's nine-year-old was a decent hurdler in his time, beating Ptit Zig to win the Ladbroke Hurdle at Ascot in 2013.
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