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Cheltenham 2018: Fantastic Footpad has yet to show full talent

 

By Wayne Bailey

Well, the earth has travelled 584 million miles around the sun over the past 365 and a quarter days and, once again, we find ourselves in that glorious position just before the Cheltenham Festival kicks off.

In some ways, this is the best bit. There are so many possibilities ahead, and the optimism among punters is infectious.

There will, of course, be small fortunes won and lost this week and there will be plenty of people left battered and bruised from their battles with the bookmakers come Friday evening.

But for now we can be sanguine and look forward to a fantastic week of sport. The big thing to keep an eye on is the weather.

A few years ago, I mentioned that professional gambler and Timeform founder Phil Bull once told racing commentator Jim McGrath that you can analyse all the factors you want in this sport - such as jockey, trainer and trip - but, if the ground is wrong, none of it really matters.

It's unusual to get heavy ground at the Festival and I heard one bookmaker say he's hoping for plenty of upsets today.

With that in mind, I decided to check how well or otherwise the national hunt favourite performs based on the ground, fully expecting the jolly to be worst on heavy.

To my surprise, the ground description 'heavy' actually tops the table for best performing favourites, with a strike rate of over 39 per cent.

One horse that won't mind some cut in the ground is Footpad (NAP), which trades around 5/4 for the Arkle (2.10pm).

Willie Mullins' exciting six-year-old kicked off his chasing career with a win on heavy ground at Navan, in which he jumped beautifully and finished with plenty in hand to beat Gordon Elliott's Brelade, despite the conditions.

He was absolutely brilliant when beating a strong field in the Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas and later put Petit Mouchoir, which had beaten Footpad a number of times over hurdles, to the sword in the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novices' Chase at Leopardstown last time.

That horse will make a race of it, but I suspect Footpad has improving to do, and this will be my biggest bet of the week.

In the Champion Hurdle (3.30pm), it's impossible to oppose Buveur D'Air but at 4/7 a lot of punters will sit this one out.

The manner in which he's been winning Grade One races is really eye-catching and, although he hasn't faced much of a test and was long odds-on in each of his last three races, he's barely had to come off the bridle and appears to have boundless talent.

I'll be very interested to see what Patrick Mullins has to say about Faugheen and, while we'd all love to see him come back to his brilliant best, his latest two losses have shown there's something not quite right.

Connections hope cheek-pieces will give him a spark, but it's a big ask to take on an in-form Buveur D'air.

RACE-BY-RACE GUIDE TO DAY 1

1.30pm: UNBEATEN Getabird will be very popular in the betting for Willie Mullins and is hugely respected. But he'll be quite short, and preference is for Kalashnikov around 4/1. Amy Murphy's charge was beaten in the Tolworth, but bounced back at Newbury last month and should have more to come under Jack Quinlan.

2.10pm: JUST five horses go to post for this year's Arkle and it's surprising to see that Footpad is still odds-against. He beat nearest rival in the betting Petit Mouchoir at Leopardstown last time, and there's no reason to believe that form will be reversed.

2.50pm: NIGEL Twiston-Davies' Cogry has excuses for his loss to Casse Tete last time as the distance was too short, and he also lost a shoe. His jumping can be suspect, but he's won a couple of times at Cheltenham and was second in the Scottish Grand National, so is capable of a big run. At 20/1, he can be taken each-way.

3.30pm: IT would be great to see Faugheen bounce back but there was definitely something amiss on his latest two races and he doesn't look the force of old. That leaves the race at the mercy of Buveur D'Air, Nicky Henderson's superstar which has been winning Grade One races with ease.

4.10pm: SINCE winning this race last year, Apple's Jade has taken a Grade Two and three Grade Ones. The class act here, she'll like the ground. Back racing against her own sex, she's impossible to oppose but has a short price to match.

4.50: PATRICK Mullins was unseated from Rathvinden last time, and that came after another Leopardstown race in which Rathvinden failed to complete when brought down early on. That's a bit of a worry, but he normally travels quite strongly, and he's now won four chases from 10. If he jumps well, he'll go close around 7/1.

5.30pm: NIGEL Twiston-Davies' Ballyhill won a handicap here on New Year's Day off 133 to earn his first win over fences, and he might be in with an each-way squeak around 20/1. His jumping let him down in a similar race here at the end of January, but his trainer has named him as one that can go well again today, rated 138.

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