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Irish to strike first at Cheltenham Festival
The clash between England and Ireland is one of the enduring features every year at the Cheltenham Festival and Irish eyes are expected to be smiling after this afternoon’s opening round of action.
Five of the seven races could quite conceivably be won by raiders from across the water, with Ireland’s legendary top trainer Willie Mullins leading the way with a first day treble, courtesy of Un Atout, Hurricane Fly and Quevega.
Nap selection Un Atout has yet to taste defeat. But then neither has he tackled the sort of opposition he will face in the William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, which opens the card. Runaway winner of his only bumper last term, he has coasted through his two hurdle races this season, looking a top-notch prospect.
He will need to be to beat the likes of hugely impressive Newbury winner My Tent Or Yours, prolific Irish scorer Jezki, Dodging Bullets, who ran so well in last year’s Triumph Hurdle and who has done little wrong this term, and his own ultra-smart stablemate Champagne Fever. But I feel Un Atout can come out on top under Davy Russell and give his burgeoning career a mighty lift.
The Stan James Champion Hurdle was dealt with in some detail in yesterday’s column, and while hopes are high that John Quinn’s Countrywide Flame can run a big race for North Yorkshire, the tried and tested Hurricane Fly is fancied to score for Mullins as the 2011 hero bids to become the first horse since Comedy Of Errors in the mid-70s to regain the crown after finishing a below-par third last year to Rock On Ruby.
The OLBG Mares’ Hurdle has the name of Quevega stamped all over it. She has won this race in each of the last four years and although there are plenty of hopefuls taking her on, if she is in the same form as in previous seasons, she will be terribly difficult to overcome in the hands of Ruby Walsh.
Ireland’s first day haul can be further increased by the Enda Bolger-trained Arabella Boy, a talented and versatile gelding, who looks more than capable of running a huge race in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, and Carlito Brigante, trained by Gordon Elliott, in the Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase. Admirably consistent and twice a course winner, he looks sure to go well.
The Racing Post Arkle Chase has earned star billing and promises to be one of the races of the meeting. Clashing head-to-head for the first time are Simonsig and Overturn, two horses who have made a big impression this season over fences.
Simonsig is two-from-two, which means he lacks the experience of most previous winners of the Arkle. But he looks a class act. His trainer Nicky Henderson and jockey Barry Geraghty speak of him in the highest possible regard.
Only two nine-year-olds have ever previously won the Arkle and the expected soft ground is against Overturn making it three.
The only other race is the wide open JLT Speciality Handicap Chase. But Jonjo O’Neill and Richie McLernon have every chance with Merry King.
1.30 Un Atout (NAP), 2.05 Simonsig, 2.40 Merry King, 3.20 Hurricane Fly, 4.00 Arabella Boy, 4.40 Quevega, 5.15 Carlito Brigante.
Today’s other meetings: Sedgefield, Southwell and Wolverhampton.
1.55 Tartan Blue, 2.30 Hellbender, 3.05 Frontier Fighter, 3.45 Misleading Promise, 4.25 Masterful Act, 5.05 Marcus Caesar, 5.40 Seamster.
Tomorrow’s other meetings: Cheltenham, Huntingdon and Kempton.