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And they’re off

Sport
And they’re off

MICHAEL DUFFY

WELL it has finally arrived. The build-up to the Cheltenham Festival 2007 has been an intense one, dripping with speculation, but all the talk will count for nothing on Tuesday next when the starter lets them off for the first of what should be 24 exhilarating races.
I will in attendance for the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of the festival and naturally I am hugely excited about experiencing one of the most unique sporting atmospheres for the very first time.
This week we will focus on the first two days of the festival and try and find some winners although the fields for the prestigious handicaps are far from finalised at this juncture. The first day’s racing is arguably the best of all with regard to quality.
The first race, the Supreme Novices Hurdle got the Irish off to a flyer in 2002, 2003 and 2004 when heavily gambled on favourites Like a Butterfly, Back in Front and Brave Inca all obliged but the last two renewals have gone to the English in the shape of Arcalis and Noland.
The Irish challenge this year is headed by the talented duo of De Valira and Hide the Evidence. For me De Valira is Ireland’s best chance of success but the one they all have to beat is Amaretto Rose, who could give Mick Fitzgerald a dream start is what is likely to be his last Cheltenham Festival. The crucial factor is this six year old mare will be receiving a full seven pounds from the aforementioned duo. She won’t be inconvenienced by soft ground and could get favourite backers off to a flyer. If your looking for an outsider, you could do a lot worse than having a few quid on the impressive Catterick winner Sir Boreas Hawk, available at 40/1 with Boyle Sports.
The English totally dominate the Arkle with the Irish amazingly having only four entries. Gemini Lucy looks to be the only one of the four with any chance but the main players here are most definitely Fair Along, Don’t Push it and Lennon, with My Way De Solzen likely to go for the Ryanair Chase. My preference is for Don’t Push it, whose only defeat has come to Denman. He has yet to come under real pressure over the minimum distance but is a solid jumper with bundles of class.
The Champion Hurdle is truly a race to savour and I could write about the permutations all day long. Instead I will simple say that I feel Hardy Eustace is in as good a shape as he ever has been and is my choice to emulate his achievements of 2004 and 2005. Every one knows why Detroit City and Brave Inca are huge dangers but I also feel that Iktitaf will not be far away. Bar one bad run, his form is solid and at 16/1 is well worth an each way flutter.
The other three races on the first day can go to New Alco in the William Hill Handicap Chase (he loves this course and will appreciate ground and trip), Heads on the Ground (who may just get the better of stable mate Spotthedifference in the Cross Country Chase) and Gaspara for David Pipe in the lottery that is the Fred Winter Hurdle.

Wednesday sees three hot-pots go to post for the three big races and we get underway with the Ballymore Properties Hurdle where the Irish banker Aran Concerto will most definitely go off favourite. He does look a special animal but may be a chaser in the making. I think that Henrietta Knight’s Ringaroses could also be something special and at 10/1 with Boyles he makes more appeal at present.
Denman is all the rage for the Sun Alliance Chase and rightly so as he looks streets ahead of his rivals. His defeat at the course last year is a worry but he should have enough class to see off Cailín Alainn and Patsy Hall, who can run a big race at odds of 20/1.
The Queen Mother is probably the trickiest race of the festival to work out. All four at the head of the market have every right to think they will win and it really is so difficult to separate them. However, Well Chief has beaten horses of the calibre of Kicking King around this course and his turn of foot could be the deciding factor.
A horse that interests me in the Coral Cup is Oulart, who won at the festival two years ago, and looks to be back in form. He has options over fences later in the week but his best form is most definitely over hurdles.
Finally, Leading Man has been laid out for the Kim Muir and is one to definitely watch out for while the bumper looks particularly open this year. Soft ground complicates the issue but one proven on the surface with a stylish victory at Punchestown is Cane Brake’s brother, Judge Roy Bean, who can provide John Magnier with another big race victory and emulate Pizarro. Enjoy the first two days. Next week we will preview days three and four.

SELECTIONS
Cheltenham Tuesday
2.00 Amaretto Rose
2.35 Don’t Push it (nap)
3.15 Hardy Eustace
4.00 New Alco
4.40 Heads on the Ground
5.20 Gaspara

Cheltenham Wednesday
2.00 Ringaroses (nap)
2.35 Denman
3.15 Well Chief
4.00 Oulart
4.40 Leading Man
5.20 Judge Roy Bean

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