MIGHT IT BE ANOTHER GOLD CUP FOR HENDERSON?
Might Bite showed both his immense talent and his propensity for quirkiness when winning the G1 RSA Insurance Novices' Chase in 2017. The Nicky Henderson-trained gelding virtually pulled himself up after the final fence, but ran on again to snatch victory.
Since then he hasn't shown any outward signs of temperament, and took the G1 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day on his last outing. Can he progress again to triumph in Friday's G1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup under Nico de Boinville - already a winner of the race aboard Coneygree in 2015? The markets think so - although he has drifted a little to around 4/1 since it became apparent that the ground conditions at Cheltenham this week would be very soft.
Seventeen horses will oppose Might Bite on Friday. Native River, trained by Colin Tizzard, has crept closer to sharing favouritism with Might Bite - he was third in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup last year behind Sizing John, beaten only two and three-quarter lengths. Going conditions should suit him and he has the champion jockey, Richard Johnson, in the plate.
Minella Rocco was second in the 2017 renewal for Jonjo O'Neill and runs once again. He hasn't come close to that form since, however, and fell on his last outing in the Unibet Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. Mark Walsh takes the ride.
The winner of that Leopardstown race on February 4 was Edwulf, who beat Outlander (Gordon Elliott and Jack Kennedy) by a neck. If the Joseph O'Brien-trained nine-year-old is victorious at Cheltenham, it will be a real fairy story, as Edwulf collapsed here in the National Hunt Chase last year and spent two weeks at a local veterinary hospital recovering. He is ridden by the top-class amateur rider Derek O'Connor, who bids to join Sam Waley-Cohen (Long Run, 2011) in the brief list of Gold Cup-winning amateur jockeys.
Our Duke, representing last year's Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning team of Jessica Harrington and Robbie Power, is a leading fancy for the 2018 race at odds of around 7/1. He won the 2017 Irish Grand National and is proven on heavy ground.
Willie Mullins has four runners: Killultagh Vic (Ruby Walsh, 9/1), Total Recall (Paul Townend, 14/1), Bachasson (33/1) and Djakadam (33/1). Astonishingly, Mullins - the winning-most trainer in Festival history - has yet to conquer the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, despite finishing second six times.
Paul Nicholls does know what it is like to win this peak of the Jump racing season - he has four victories under his belt (See More Business, 1999, Kauto Star 2007 and 2009, Denman 2008). This year he runs Saphir De Rheu, partnered by Sam Twiston-Davies.
Definitly Red showed he relished course, distance and conditions when winning the BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase here in January, and Brian Ellison's charge will be a popular choice with punters at odds of around 10/1. Danny Cook takes the ride.
Second that day was the Harry Fry-trained American, who was supplemented into this race on Saturday at a cost of £27,500, and jockey Noel Fehily will attempt to go one better this time.
Road To Respect may only be seven years old but the Noel Meade-trained winner of the Brown Advisory and Merribelle Stable Place Handicap Chase at the 2017 Festival has a progressive profile and won a Grade One over three miles at Leopardstown at Christmas. Sean Flanagan will be on board once more.
The Irish squad is rounded off by Tony Martin's Anibale Fly, a 25/1 chance who has the advantage of Barry Geraghty, who has twice ridden the winner of the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, in the saddle.
Nick Williams' Tea For Two exited at the second fence in last year's Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, but made amends by taking the G1 Betway Bowl at Aintree three weeks later. He is unlikely to enjoy the ground, but jockey Lizzie Kelly's confidence will be high following her success on Coo De Sivola in the Ultima Handicap Chase on Tuesday.
Shantou Flyer finished a close second to Coo De Sivola on Tuesday, but Richard Hobson has declared him for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, for which he is the outsider of the field at 100/1. James Bowen will be on board for the second time within four days.
The field is completed by Double Shuffle (Tom George and Adrian Heskin), who has finished second on all three of his outings this season and who got to within a length of Might Bite in the King George.
FRINGE AND PACHA BACK FOR MORE IN ST JAMES'S PLACE FOXHUNTER
Twenty-four horses have been declared for Friday's St James's Place Foxhunter Chase, including dual winner On The Fringe and last year's victor Pacha Du Polder.
The last-named, having carried novice Victoria Pendleton into fifth spot two years ago, and given Bryony Frost a Festival first in 2017, will be partnered by Harriet Tucker, 22, a groom who works for trainer Paul Nicholls. Tucker has ridden just once under Rules, on Pacha Du Polder when the pair were third to Warden Hill (also declared) at Doncaster, and she is still eligible for novice riders' races on the point-to-point circuit.
Her mount is one of four runners for Nicholls - the others being last year's runner-up Wonderful Charm, Virak and Unioniste - while Rose Loxton, one of his senior members' of staff, trains Caid Du Berlais, who will be partnered by six-time British point-to-point champion and Festival-winning rider Will Biddick.
The first six from last year's running of hunter chasing's greatest prize are back to try again, including the Phil Rowley-trained, third-placed Barel Of Laughs, who was a 100/1 shot on that occasion. On The Fringe was fourth last year, one place ahead of Balnaslow - who went on to land Punchestown's Champion Hunters' Chase - and two in front of Minella For Value.
Nina Carberry renews her association with On The Fringe, while Jamie Codd, who rode the horse last year, replaces Rob James on the ante-post favourite Burning Ambition, a seven-year-old from Pierce Power's Irish stable.
Young Hurricane, who downed better-fancied rivals when landing last season's Stratford Champion Hunters' Chase - the third leg of the sport's triple crown - runs for the Yorkshire stable of Guy Brewer, while Newmarket trainer Richard Spencer bids for the rare double of a Royal Ascot winner and one at The Festival inside 12 months. Having won the Coventry Stakes with Rajasinghe he saddles Sir Jack Yeats.
On BHA assessment the top-rated horse is Volnay De Thaix, the mount of Jack Andrews, who can turn to big sister Gina for advice on how to ride the track. She won last year's Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Chase on Domesday Book.
KELLY WALKING ON AIR IN THE PRESS
Buveur D'Air's second Unibet Champion Hurdle victory yesterday was the top equine performance on day one of The Festival, but Lizzie Kelly's Ultima Chase win stole media hearts.
Her success on Coo Star Sivola provides today's newspapers with a wealth of joy-grabbing photos and quotes that get to the heart of Jump racing's highs and lows. Kelly does not hold back in speaking of her emotions, but the Daily Mail's Marcus Townend spots something of factual interest to racing historians and followers of women's sport when writing: "Lizzie Kelly made history when she became the first professional female jockey to win at The Festival," the other 11 having been amateurs. The headline above his article is 'Lizzie's a star', which is matched in the Daily Star.
A trio of photos in The Times' racing special is headlined 'Kelly beats her demons to fall back in love with The Festival', and The Daily Telegraph prints a similar homage to the heroine alongside a Paul Hayward-written testament.
Kelly's joy was, in part, a reaction to the knocks she endured last year, when missing a winning ride on Flying Tiger and unseating in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup. Jack Haynes' Racing Post report of her win quotes her saying: "Someone said to me Cheltenham is tips, tickets and disappointments. How could anyone think something so beautiful is so desperate? I knew what they meant by the end of last year."
The Daily Mail headline 'Fall comes before pride for Lizzie the Cheltenham champ' sums up Kelly's two Festivals, and the same paper joins other tabloids (Daily Mirror, Daily Star, The Sun) in claiming jockeys Bryony Frost and Harry Cobden will 'make history' as rivals in a Festival race, today's RSA Chase. The paper quotes 'A source' for this revelation, but given that a woman first rode a winner at the meeting 35 years ago their knowledge of weighing room trysts in subsequent seasons is remarkable.
A photo of Kelly, her hand planted across a disbelieving face, dominates the front cover of the Western Daily Press, which headlines the shot 'Queen Lizzie's tears of joy'. The same picture makes it into the Racing Post, which also runs a photo that captures a female groom from Amy Murphy's stable screaming home narrowly-defeated Kalashnikov in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Why humans imagine vocal encouragement will make any difference to a horse race remains a mystery, but we have all done it.
Noel Fehily is not the sort of man to leap around when triumphant, but after winning yesterday's opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle he told the Daily Express's Chris Goulding: "It makes the difference between a good season and a bad season."
Buveur D'Air's victory deserves the space it receives in large and colourful photos in The Guardian and on the front of The Times' and The Sun's racing supplements. 'D'Air to dream' is The Sun's headline above the sub-head 'Hendo wants to do an Istabraq', and win the race three times with the same horse, although he has already done it with See You Then (1984, '86, '87).
Racing Post writer Alastair Down summarises the opening blows from yesterday, and then adds: "Welcome back to Wonderland." The quantity of high-class horses, stunning performances and outstanding human achievements, performed in front of a shoulder-to-shoulder and eclectic mix of spectators, and set against the backdrop of Cleeve Hill, does generate a sense of wonder.
Today's racing maintains the five-star theme, headed by Samcro in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle and Altior in the Sky Bet Queen Mother Champion Chase. Looking for value against Samcro, the Racing Post's Paul Kealy and Tom Segal suggest each-way bets on Black Op and Duc Des Genievres. Altior fan Newsboy of the Daily Mirror reckons 'Alt on his own', but Chris Cook of The Guardian opposes the favourite with Min, who "loves testing ground", and the same horse is tipped by Michael Verney in The Irish Independent. That paper's focus of day one was not Lizzie Kelly or Buveur D'Air, but Ruby Walsh, who rode two winners. Writer Vincent Hogan quotes trainer Willie Mullins saying: "Ruby is a bit like [Irish rugby great] Johnny Sexton - he's one in a million." As if England needed reminding of the threat to the national side at Twickenham on Saturday.