Cheltenham Festival finally kicks off tomorrow (Tuesday) with the course the softest it’s been for this meet in decades.
For some stupid reason I’ve been golfing on top of a hill at Lilley Brook in Cheltenham today and it was decidedly squishy underfoot, while it drizzled all day too, so anyone expecting conditions to improve ahead of the first race are clutching straws; it’s going to be a slog in a bog.
The thing with heavy ground is sometimes even the soft ground horses can’t go through it, but it should only be seen as a positive for Champion Hurdler Buveur D’Air’s defence, as he’s a proven mudlark and by some distance the form horse in this race.
That said, such is his dominance in the betting market that bookies have eventually let the prices of some realistic challengers slip to the interesting zone.
It’s difficult not to be drawn to YORKHILL, a Grade 1 winner at the past two festivals, who has been badly out of form in two runs this season and has earned himself a friendless 14/1 quotes – he’s 16/1 with WillHill.
That’s a staggering price given his back class – almost as staggering as the fact he’s been switched to this two-mile hurdling championship from his initial target at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Gold Cup.
So we’re all staggered then, and even Ruby Walsh has jumped off him in favour of his old ally Faugheen, who himself has been a shadow of his former glory this season.
Realistically there was no decision there – Walsh would have been mad to get off this all time great hurdler – and jockey bookings don’t really impact Yorkhill’s chance.
I am left wondering if the stars have somewhat aligned for Yorkhill, though, as we know he goes through heavy ground and stays further than two miles, which are absolutely essential qualities to have to have any chance in tomorrow’s race.
I don’t foresee a mad pace tomorrow as it’d be very brave to make the running in this field on this ground, and if it had been good ground my primary concern about Yorkhill would be his ability to jump and travel at the speed of a Champion Hurdle field.
Those fears are greatly reduced by the conditions, and with his stamina proven you’d have to imagine Yorkhill will be in the mix at the business end provided his jumping holds up, which makes him very interesting at the prices.
The biggest concern would be whether he’s up for it mentally, as he’s looked decidedly flat on his two starts this season and hasn’t been his usual handful of a self.
If anyone can reignite the spark then it’s his trainer Willie Mullins, and it’d be wise to remember that his two best performances of his career have come at the Cheltenham Fesitval.
I think Buveur D’Air will win with Faugheen not too far behind, but I simply can’t convince myself that Yorkhill doesn’t have the raw ability to beat the former when at his best, so he makes so much sense as a big priced each-way bet in a fairly dire Champion Hurdle.
I prefer the 1/4 odds each-way quote of 14/1 rather than the bigger 1/5 odds quote of 16/1 with WillHill, as the place return is greater and that’s by far the most realistic return scenario.
0.75pts each-way Yorkhill @14/1, 15:30 Cheltenham, Tuesday (1,2,3, 1/4)