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National Hunt enthusiasts make no secret of the fact that the highlight of their year is the Cheltenham Festival.
No sooner had the flat season ended than thoughts turned to the reappearance of the top jumping horses with all roads leading to Cheltenham in March. The 28 races offer £4.5 million in prize money with some estimates putting Cheltenham betting turnover in excess of £400 million.
One of the most eagerly awaited appearances of the 2019-2020 season was that of Altior, Nicky Henderson’s record-breaking two-mile Champion. With four successive Cheltenham Festival victories and a record 19 successive wins under his belt, the decision had been taken to step him up in trip. Consequently, Altior figured in the ante-post betting for the Champion Chase, Ryanair Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Henderson elected to take the bull by the horns and take on Cyrname in the 1965 Chase at Ascot. Cyrname was the only horse officially rated superior to Altior on the back of two explosive course and distance wins last season. Nico de Boinville never really looked happy on Altior and the combination laboured into second place on the sticky ground.
The race opened all avenues for the impressive winner who is now expected to start favourite in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. Altior could yet line up there but the suspicion is that he could return to two miles and seek a hat-trick in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. His likely opponents there include the Tingle Creek winner Defi Du Seuil and his Punchestown conqueror, Chacun Pour Soi.
The Cheltenham betting on the Champion Hurdle has been left wide open by the loss of two of the leading contenders. Dual Champion Hurdle winner Buveur d’Air suffered a surprising defeat in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. He had been left as market leader for the Champion after last year’s runaway winner Espoir d’Allen suffered a fatal injury. Unfortunately it now looks highly unlikely that Buveur d’Air will be there either after suffering a freak injury during his comeback race.
Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Klassical Dream and the progressive Saldier have emerged at the head of a reshuffled market. The Champion Hurdle is one of several races for which William Hill offer “non-runner-no bet” terms early in the New Year. Check William Hill betting offers on selected Cheltenham races. A Champion Hurdle rarely goes by without Henderson having a say and he still has hopes for Pentland Hills and Fusil Raffles.
No horse has won back-to-back Cheltenham Gold Cups since Best Mate secured his third consecutive victory in 2004. Al Boum Photo was a clear-cut winner last year, ending the long wait for trainer Willie Mullins in the blue riband event. Mullins has already made it clear that a similarly light campaign awaits the horse this year, almost certainly involving one prep race at Tramore in January.
Stable companion Kemboy has been cleared to resume racing after a ban imposed by Horse Racing Ireland was lifted in late November. His owners, the Supreme Horse Racing Club, had been temporarily barred from entries pending an investigation into allegations of overselling horses. Kemboy unseated his rider at the first last year but made amends at Aintree.
Lostintranslation jumped his way to the top of the Gold Cup betting when denying Bristol De Mai a hat-trick in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. Colin Tizzard won the 2018 Gold Cup with Native River and looks to have another star chaser on his hands.
The record of repeat winners in the Stayers’ Hurdle is much more impressive and Paisley Park remains on course to defend his title. Emma Lavelle was delighted with his reappearance win at Newbury in November and he is already looking like banker bet material.