Cheltenham Racecourse held a press conference in the Panoramic Restaurant at the track today, 13 days before The Festival 2018 commences.
The weights for the 10 handicap races were unveiled with three official handicappers present to explain their thinking, the last four race entries were revealed, the ground conditions were explained and various trainers told of their hopes for the 28 races over the four days, Tuesday, March 13 to Friday, March 16.
There is record prize money of £4.6 million during the four days.
Please find below relevant bullet points:
*The current going is Good to Soft, Good in places. A snow flurry or two was witnessed, though green remains the predominant colour of the Old Course (used on the first two days) and the New Course (used on the last two days). However, Simon Claisse, Head of Racing and Clerk of the Course, revealed:"The forecast means we do expect an alpine scene here come Friday afternoon, if not Saturday. We could have between four to six inches of snow through Gloucestershire, but the good news is that temperatures are expected to rise after the weekend. No frost is expected from Monday onwards. The snow may hang around until Wednesday or Thursday next week. It is a long way out, but the week of The Festival is looking as though it could be really nice to us and quite mild. The groundstaff have done a great job since Festival Trials Day [January 27] and the course has dried out significantly in the last 10 days with little rain on the track. We've had covers down in some areas of the track, mainly where the Old and New Courses meet and they are just being picked up now because the last thing we want is snow on covers - it takes longer to melt. Currently, we are Good to Soft, Good in places on all courses, but expect to see that change over the next three or four days."
*Charlie Longsdon on Pendra (owned by J P McManus)"Pendra is in good form at home. He doesn't race much, only once or twice a year and this will be his fifth run at The Festival. Arguably, he should have won twice at The Festival already. I think the plan would be to go back for the Kim Muir. He came to me late last year, because he had a slight leg problem in April, but he's in good form now and could have run earlier this month. Whilst there is no plan for which race he will go for, he was second in the Kim Muir last year, so he could head back there as he is on the same handicap mark. Ballydine is also in good form. He won nicely on his third start back over fences at Sandown and I think the handicapper might have given him a chance. He's had quite a few soundness issues and he had two years off after his novice hurdling career, so he isn't the easiest to train and he hasn't been quite right since Sandown. We are in a race against time to make The Festival, but if we have to miss Cheltenham, there are plenty of other races he could go for. Bentelimar might struggle to get in. He could be the best handicapped horse of ours and he is crying out for better ground. I think if he doesn't get in, he could go to Kempton on the Saturday after Cheltenham."
*Neil Mulholland on Kalondra:"Kalondra is probably my best chance of a winner at The Festival. He's racing off 145 and therefore just gets in the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase and has been in good form this season. He has won at Cheltenham this season and seems to enjoy the track. He ran well in the Coral Cup last year, when beaten 10 lengths, and has been rated 147 this season, so he's been dropped 2lb and has a good chance here."
*Tom George on Double Shuffle in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup:"Double Shuffle is in good form. He has improved physically in the last couple of years and was an excellent second to Might Bite in the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day. He was always up in the firing line that day in second or third and stuck on really well to the line - I'm very happy with him. We've been fortunate that we've had a fair few G1 horses and he is one of them. He likes Cheltenham and was third here as a six-year-old in the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase and I'd be delighted if he was placed in the Gold Cup. Somerville Boy won well in the Tolworth Hurdle on ground he didn't really enjoy. He is slick over his hurdles and has plenty of speed, so we may go for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, although he could also run in the Ballymore. He ran well at the track earlier this season and is improving. Black Op is sharp and can keep up a gallop. We would be going into unknown territory if we went for the Albert Bartlett and he does have plenty of speed. They won't go too quick for him in the Ballymore, so we haven't made a decision yet as he does also have the pace for the Supreme. God's Own is in great form at home and just didn't jump well enough last year. He has come into his own now and he looks really good. He's already got his summer coat. Physically, he is a lot stronger. Singlefarmpayment was running well in the Ladbrokes Trophy before falling and hopefully back here, in the Ultima Handicap Chase, which he finished second in last year, he a good chance."
*Harry Whittington on Saint Calvados: "Saint Calvados is set for the Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase and is in good form at home. I think he'll handle the track and he's improved with every run this year. The only slight worry would be if it was good ground as I'm not sure whether he'll like good ground due to his breeding."
Warren Greatrex revealed that La Bague Au Roi is the best horse he has trained so far and the mare, unbeaten in three starts this season, will either run in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle or the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle.
*Nicky Henderson revealed: "Divine Spear has been dropped 2lb following defeat in Scotland (Musselburgh), but I think the track and a decent horse beat him. Thienval was third in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual last year so he might go back again. Style De Garde will run in the Fred Winter, but will be near the top of the weights and the race has quite a small number of entries as the four-year-olds seem a bizarre bunch. Brain Power is a very good work horse, he did what I expected him to do and he needed an away day at Kempton Park as we cauterised his palate after he fell at Ascot in the Clarence House Chase. He was very good as was L'Ami Serge who will run in the Sun Bets Stayers Hurdle."
*Ben Pauling about Le Breuil: "He's a lovely horse, but he's been difficult to train as he's had slight foot problems all year - he has had remedial shoeing. We've got him sorted now hopefully and he seems very well at home. He did a piece of work at Kempton yesterday and he would have come on for that. He will do another couple of bits of work and he could be very well handicapped. He's in the Pertemps and the Coral Cup, but I think he is more likely to go for the Coral Cup."
*Olly Murphy, who has only been training for six months, will have two or three runners at The Festival including Hunters Call, who runs in the Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle. He said: "I have looked after him and he has a nice weight of 10st 7lb. He needs 20 to come out to run so we will be keeping our fingers crossed. Preparations have gone well and he is in good form. He goes well when fresh."
*British Horseracing Authority Head of Handicapping Phil Smith, who is retiring in the summer, has done his last set of weights for The Festival. He revealed that the 2018 Ultima Handicap Chase will be the highest class edition by far of the three mile, one furlong, handicap chase he has presided over, with 15 horses rated over 115.