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Cheltenham 2017: Irish eye big prizes at festival - top tips

There's a bit of a low-key atmosphere about the Cheltenham Festival — which gets underway on Tuesday — in view of stars such as Annie Power, Faugheen and Thistlecrack being missing.

But once the starting tape drops below Cleeve Hill at 1.30, the annual battle between Ireland and England will be as fiercely competitive as ever.

Two unopposable favourites, Altior in the Arkle Chase and Douvan in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, are sure to be included in ‘accas’, but then we know what happened with Annie Power a couple of years ago, coming down at the last when well clear and saving the betting industry in the region of £10m.

The team from Ireland, and in particular from the Willie Mullins yard, is not as strong as usual but will still get more than their fair share of winners — and 7/1 for a tie in the number of English and Irish winners may not be far off the mark.

One that must be supported — and can be with maximum confidence — is Gordon Elliott’s Death Duty in Friday’s Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle. Snap up the early prices because he will shorten as the race nears.

Trainer Elliott is very bullish about him. Duty has the speed and stamina and a big future awaits as a chaser. The horse is considered to be further forward than Gold Cup winner Don Cossack was at this stage of his career. That being the case, Duty has to take all the beating.

Those looking at a decent treble should take Death Duty with Altior and Douvan, on offer between 7/2 and 9/2.

The ground will be a big factor in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday (3.30) and with it expected to be soft Moon Racer is an interesting sort and should be placed but is probably more likely to go for the Supreme Novice (1.30) instead. Tom Scudamore sees him as his best chance of a Festival winner.

Mark Walsh comes in on Yanworth with Barry Geraghty sidelined and it can turn into a memorable day for him in the JP McManus colours.

Trainer Alan King commented: “I don’t know Mark (personally) but he’s a very good rider.”

Don’t be put off by the fact that he has not had a Festival winner in 19 races — that’s only because he’s had to play second fiddle to the likes of Geraghty and Ulster great AP McCoy. Walsh is a Grade 1 winner in Ireland, taking last year’s Irish Gold Cup on Carlingford Lough. Such is his book of rides next week, he is 10/1 third favourite to be top jockey with Ruby Walsh the 8/13 ‘jolly’.

McManus also has the Nicky Henderson-trained Buveur D’Air who has been brought back to hurdling and has more than a decent chance but Yanworth, winner of the Christmas Hurdle and then the Kingwell at Wincanton, was second to Yorkhill in last year’s Neptune, a race which is often a solid pointer to future Champion Hurdle winners. The selection will be coming up the hill while others are fading.

Neon Wolf must not be opposed in Wednesday’s Neptune Novice (1.30pm). He keeps on improving and has held his form superbly all season for trainer Harry Fry. His last win at Haydock was imperious and Noel Fehily was full of praise for the horse in the pre-Cheltenham Belfast show earlier this week.

Elliott would prefer to run Empire Of Dirt in the Gold Cup but is being overruled by owner Michael O’Leary who wants the horse to run in his own race on Thursday. It’s one Gigginstown has never won and the Ryanair (2.50) is very much the target with the Irish Gold Cup runner-up supported accordingly, despite the presence of Willie Mullins’ favourite Un De Sceaux.

One outstanding bet on Thursday is Uknowwhatimeanharry in the Stayers Hurdle (3.30). Another great ride for Fehily and destined to join the all-time greats as a stayer. He’s not big in stature but keeps on pulling it out and is only hitting top gear when opponents are wilting.

So many questions surround Friday’s Gold Cup (3.30) and there have to be doubts about Cue Card being good enough at 11 years of age. No horse has won the race at that age since the great Mandarin way back in 1962.

Djakadam didn’t have the best preparation last year and jockey David Casey said this week: “He is absolutely fine and bouncing and should take a lot of beating. Cue Card has no chance.”

There’s always a plunge horse on the day and it’s likely to be Djakadam.

He goes to Cheltenham with a second place in the Irish equivalent behind stable-mate Outlander who’s also in the line-up.

Native River will have his supporters as he jumps well and will have no problem in staying the trip.

A battler, he’s the main threat to the Mullins horse, with the leading Irish trainer deserving a Cheltenham Gold Cup success.

Cheltenham selections

Tuesday: Moon Racer (1.30pm); Yanworth (3.30pm). Wednesday: Neon Wolf (1.30pm); Empire Of Dirt (2.50pm). Thursday: Uknowwhatimeanharry (3.30pm). Friday: Death Duty (2.50pm);

Djakadam (3.30pm)

 

QUALITY: Altior is one of the big favourites at the Festival and (inset right) top trainer Willie Mullins

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