Some of the most memorable moments and biggest shocks in Cheltenham Festival history have happened on the opening day of the four-day National Hunt horse racing extravaganza.
From dramatic falls by Annie Power, Benie Des Dieux and Buveur D’Air to stars like Altior and Douvan delivering, the Tuesday of the Festival has it all. A look at the running order for day 1 shows what great variety is on offer in terms of the type of horse racing events at Cheltenham.
Novice contests over hurdles and fences, plus competitive handicaps all over different distances make the first day of the Festival arguably the most diverse. So, what can we expect from Cheltenham day 1 based on former years? If the past is any indicator, then horse racing fans and punters are in for a real treat.
Like the three other days following it, there are seven races on the first day of this prestigious meeting. Opening the Festival is the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle over about two miles.
Willie Mullins has won four of the last seven renewals of the traditional Cheltenham curtain-raiser and the Irish champion trainer could run Asterion Forlonge, an impressive Grade 1 scorer at the Dublin Racing Festival, in the race this year.
The same owner has Shishkin in Nicky Henderson’s stable, however, and there’s Abacadabras from the Gordon Elliott yard to consider. He too is a Grade 1 winner in Ireland. Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle runner-up Captain Guinness completes a strong hand of Emerald Isle raiders.
Who will sparkle in the Arkle?
Mullins has again recently dominated the Arkle Challenge Trophy, also over about two miles but for novice chasers, yet it’s fellow Irish trainer Henry De Bromhead who has this year’s favourite, Notebook. He is unbeaten in four starts over fences and has won two Grade 1 races in this sphere for owners Gigginstown House Stud.
It’s hard to see Mullins’ main hope Cash Back reversing Leopardstown form with Notebook, despite the trainer winning four of the last five Arkle renewals. The favourite’s claims look pretty solid here.
Before getting to the main business of Cheltenham day 1, there’s the Grade 3 Ultima Handicap Chase for stayers over about three miles and a furlong. Entries for this competitive event will be revealed nearer to the Festival.
Wide-open Champion Hurdle
Injury to Buveur D’Air and the tragic death of last year’s Champion Hurdle hero Espoir D’Allen means we are guaranteed a new winner of the big race on the opening day at Cheltenham. Henderson and leading Irish owner JP McManus have had the most success in this race’s history with seven and eight wins respectively.
That makes Christmas Hurdle heroine Epatante of obvious interest as she is trained by Henderson for McManus. Only four mares have won the Champion Hurdle in its long history, however.
Other contenders for this Cheltenham day 1 feature include Pentland Hills and Saldier. Klassical Dream’s participation depends on him recovering from lameness that caused him to miss the Irish Champion Hurdle.
De Bromhead needs to decide whether the unbeaten Honeysuckle takes up her entry in the Champion Hurdle or goes for the Mares’ Hurdle, where she could face Mullins’ 2018 winner Benie Des Dieux.
Irish trainers and their horses have dominated that two-and-a-half-mile race at the Festival since it was introduced in 2009. Roksana capitalised on Benie Des Dieux’s final flight fall to win the Mares’ Hurdle last year, so she and runner-up Stormy Ireland could be back for another crack at the race.
Changes to National Hunt Chase
Day 1 at Cheltenham rounds off with two races for novices over fences. First is the Listed two-and-a-half-mile Close Brothers Handicap Chase. Again, entries will be revealed when the Festival draws near.
The Grade 2 National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup caused controversy with only three finishers last year. Cheltenham stewards felt they had to discipline some of the amateur jockeys, who are the only ones permitted to ride in the race, for their conduct with wider public attention on the Festival.
That has resulted in some alterations to the National Hunt Chase this year. The distance has been reduced by about a furlong-and-a-half down from almost four miles. There are two fewer fences for the horses to jump.
Conditions of the National Hunt Chase have also changed. Horses must have finished in the first four of at least one race over two miles and seven-and-a-half furlongs to qualify. Amateur jockeys need to have competed in and won a certain amount of races under National Hunt Rules too.
Irish raiders Carefully Selected and Champagne Classic are at the head of the betting. The former is trained by Mullins and set to be ridden by his son Patrick at the Cheltenham Festival.