Cheltenham Festival 2020 tips and best bets for Day One

Get ready for the roar — the tapes are set to rise for Cheltenham 2020.

The four-day extravaganza, under threat from the coronavirus epidemic, got the green light only after a crucial government meeting with administrators from leading sports, including the British Horseracing Authority.

“We have been very encouraged by the Government’s wish for business to continue as usual in this country —including sporting events like the Cheltenham Festival,” the track’s Ian Renton said last night.

A crowd close to 60,000 will flock to the home of jump racing today – and they can get the meeting off to the perfect start by backing EPATANTE to land the Unibet Champion Hurdle (3.30).

With 17 runners going to post, the race has acquired the reputation of being the most open for years.

But trainer Nicky Henderson, who has won the race a record seven times including twice in the last three years, has the standout candidate in JP McManus’ mare.

She routed her rivals by five-lengths in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Put away for this afternoon’s test, Epatante is strongly fancied to take another step forward to plunder the £264,610 first prize.

1.30

NEWSBOY’S 1-2-3

1 SHISHKIN

2 FIDDLERONTHEROOF

3 ABACADABRAS

Shishkin is fancied to get Nicky Henderson’s Cheltenham 2020 off to a flying start.

Sent off at 8-11 to make a successful start over hurdles at Newbury in December, the impressive Kempton bumper winner came down at the second flight.

But Nico de Boinville’s mount made handsome amends with an 11-length victory stroll at the Berkshire course in mid-January.

And my selection completed his Festival preparation by humbling Shan Blue by the same margin in the Listed Sidney Banks Memorial Novices’ Hurdle at Huntingdon last month.

That trial is run over an extended two miles and three furlongs, but Shishkin has the speed to cope with the step back to the minimum trip.

That he has hardly come off the bridle to achieve a British Horseracing Authority rating of 153 shows now far the son of Sholokhov has come in two completed outings over hurdles – and Shishkin has hardly scratched the surface.

Fiddlerontheroof moved up to the highest level to take Sandown Park’s Tolworth Hurdle by six lengths in January and is another capable of better.

The fact that his only defeat over hurdles came at the hands of stablemate Envoi Allen also makes Abacadabras worthy of the utmost respect.

2.10

NEWSBOY’S 1-2-3

1 ESPRIT DU LARGE

2 NOTEBOOK

3 ROUGE VIF

Esprit Du Large, a going-places Grade 1 winner over fences, has surely been underestimated by the bookmakers.

His two wins from four attempts over hurdles rate no better than fair form, but the six-year-old was bought as a chaser in embryo – and has thrived in that sphere.

Second in a novice handicap at Carlisle in October on his fencing bow, Esprit Du Large went one better in style at Exeter the following month, beating Coolanly by two and a quarter lengths.

Punters largely ignored Adam Wedge’s mount for the top-level Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown Park in December – he went off at 14-1.

But Esprit Du Large laughed at those odds with a sound-jumping defeat of Nube Negra, the pair 13 lengths clear of the third horse.

My selection can rate higher yet, and the likely stern test at two miles – several front-runners are in opposition – should suit him down to the ground.

Notebook and Rachael Blackmore have proved a potent combination over fences – Henry de Bromhead’s seven-year-old has beaten Fakir D’Oudairies and Cash Back in scoring in the top tier on his last two races.

The favourite is feared, while Rouge Vif is capable of making the podium.

2.50

NEWSBOY’S 1-2-3

1 WHO DARES WINS

2 VINNDICATION

3 MULCAHYS HILL

Who Dares Wins is of definite interest as he combines his handicap chase debut with his first foray beyond three miles.

As a novice with just three tries over fences to his name, Alan King’s eight-year-old is locking horns with more experienced chasers in the 23-runner field.

But the son of Jeremy has had plenty of racing on the Flat – he flew home to capture last summer’s Northumberland Plate at Newcastle – and has also had 13 starts over hurdles.

After seconds at Kempton Park and Plumpton – the latter defeat as the 2-7 favourite – Tom Cannon’s mount came good at the third attempt in the Sunbury track’s Grade 2 Pendil Novices’ Chase over two and a half miles, in which he stayed strong to beat Southfield Stone by three-quarters of a length.

His running style suggests three miles and a furlong will see him in a better light still, and a mark of 147 looks fair for a horse whose trainer landed this race with the rookie Fork Lightning in 2004.

Top weight Vinndication scored easily when upped to three miles at Ascot and warrants a second look with Kildisart and Mulcahys Hill others to throw into the melting pot.

3.30

NEWSBOY’S 1-2-3

1 EPATANTE

2 DARVER STAR

3 SILVER STREAK

Epatante is poised to explode the myth that the 2020 running is an ‘open’ Champion Hurdle.

Of the 17 horses who take part, there is one runner responsible for the single best piece of two-mile hurdles form this season – and who still has the profile for further improvement.

That horse is Epatante.

Nicky Henderson’s mare returned to the fray at Newbury in November, leading home a Seven Barrows 1-2-3 on the Ladbrokes Trophy undercard by six lengths, before raising her sights for the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle – for which she went off a well-backed 2-1 joint-favourite – at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.

Barry Geraghty’s mount justified the support in taking fashion, making headway in the straight before flashing clear on the run to the final obstacle to beat last year’s Champion Hurdle third Silver Streak by five lengths, with Ballyandy a further three and a quarter back in third.

Saved for Cheltenham, Epatante gave her connections – and backers – a scare when coughing at the end of last month.

But both blood tests and tracheal washes failed to detect a viral issue, and Henderson, with seven successes the leading trainer in the Tuesday feature’s history, is back purring over the six-year-old’s well-being.

It’s hard to make a convincing case for any of my selection's rivals, but the novice Darver Star continued his upward curve when second to Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, while Silver Streak has possibilities of taking home a minor medal for the second year running.

4.10

NEWSBOY’S 1-2-3

1 BENIE DES DIEUX

2 HONEYSUCKLE

3 LADY BUTTONS

Benie Des Dieux is preferred to Honeysuckle as the two best mares in training go toe to toe.

Since joining Willie Mullins four winters ago, Benie Des Dieux has won all of her eight completed starts over hurdles and fences, including when capturing this race two years ago.

Her only defeat came 12 months ago when the nine-year-old daughter of Great Pretender came down at the final flight of her title defence – with the prize at her mercy.

Paul Townend’s mount gained handsome compensation at the Punchestown Festival before returning to her native France to land the Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil last May.

After Benie Des Dieux returned from a 250-day absence to slam stablemate Penhill by 21 lengths in the John Mulhern Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park in January, Mullins opined that she could be the best of her gender to pass through his hands. High praise indeed.

Honeysuckle extended her unbeaten record over timber to seven with a gutsy victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown last month and is not passed over lightly.

Stormy Ireland, a stablemate of Benie Des Dieux, the admirable Lady Buttons and last year's winner Roksana are all candidates for the bronze medal.

4.50

NEWSBOY’S 1-2-3

1 GALVIN

2 EARLOFTHECOTSWOLDS

3 IMPERIAL AURA

Galvin looks attractively weighted for his attempt to break his chasing duck on his handicap debut.

Last year’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle sixth got his career over the larger obstacles to a less-than-perfect beginning when coming down four out in a Galway beginners’ chase won by stablemate Battleoverdoyen in October.

Davy Russell’s partner got round safely to finish fourth to Ronald Pump at Fairyhouse the following month, and completed his build-up for today with a running-on-from-the-back second to Salsaretta at Punchestown a fortnight later.

Galvin has been off the course since, but the absence is of no concern for a horse who has had Cheltenham’s novice handicap chase as his long-term aim.

This six-year-old certainly has more to offer on his fourth attempt over fences, and a British Horseracing Authority rating for his debut in the handicap sphere certainly looks within reach.

Espoir De Guye followed a first chase victory at Exeter with a 10-length margin at Ascot four days before Christmas and Venetia Williams’ six-year-old looks set for another good account despite a stone rise in the weights.

Hold The Note, Imperial Aura and, at bigger odds, Earlofthecotswolds also enter the picture in a race of near-endless possibilities.

5.30

NEWSBOY’S 1-2-3

1 SPRINGFIELD FOX

2 NEWTIDE

3 CAREFULLY SELECTED

Springfield Fox is the value alternative to hot favourite Carefully Selected.

Unbeaten in outings starts in points, Tom George’s grey has left his hurdles form – a fall and two second placings from three starts – way behind since being sent chasing.

Making his debut over fences in a novice handicap at Chepstow at the end of January, the son of Sagamix jumped with pizazz en route to a 12-length supremacy.

And Springfield Fox was once again sure-footed to defy a 10lb rise at Exeter last time, surging up the hill to humble Ocean Cove by 17 lengths.

His British Horseracing Authority rating of 142 fully entitles Springfield Fox, ridden by the trainer’s son Noel, to take his place in the National Hunt Chase line-up, and the three-mile, six-furlong distance looks tailor-made for this exciting stayer.

Carefully Selected has captured Grade 3 contests at Punchestown and Naas on his last two visits to the racecourse and undeniably brings and element of class to the race – but is prone to the odd jumping error.

Newtide is two from two over fences and has the profile to make his presence felt, along with Gold Cup winner Sam Waley-Cohen's mount Lord Du Mesnil.

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