Matthew Glazier looks at the most popular horses running at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival
It’s the four-day meeting which sees thousands of racegoers flock to Prestbury Park for an annual pilgrimage, while millions more racing fans book the week off work to enjoy the thrills and spills from Cheltenham as the cream of the National Hunt crop battle it out in the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase and Gold Cup.
Despite the absence of Sprinter Sacre, this year’s Festival will see several superstars line up over the four days and we have previewed ten of the biggest names that will be making an appearance between Tuesday 11 March and Friday 14 March.
1. Bob’s Worth (Gold Cup) 15/8 @ Paddy Power
What better place to start than with the favourite to win the 2014 Gold Cup? Bob’s Worth obliged as favourite last year and the Nicky Henderson charge is once again the horse to beat this time around, with the bookies having recently trimmed the nine-year-old from 9/4 to 15/8 in the betting, with his starting price likely to be even shorter.
Bob’s Worth was superb when winning the Lexus Chase and appears to love the Cheltenham hill, while jockey Barry Geraghty has every confidence that this horse can actually improve on last year’s showing when he was thought to be less than 100% despite winning the blue riband race of the Festival.
2. Hurricane Fly (Champion Hurdle) 11/4 @ Betfred
Another defending champion returning to Prestbury Park, with The Fly having reclaimed his Champion Hurdle crown in 2013 following Rock On Ruby’s surprise victory twelve months earlier. The Willie Mullins charge is looking for a third success in this race after claiming the spoils in 2011 and he has reigned supreme in Ireland this season.
The ten-year-old has to buck a few trends in order to win the Tuesday showcase race for a third occasion, although Ruby Walsh steered him to victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle at the end of January, even if Our Conor was upsides the champion at one stage and threatens to improve for that particular run.
3. Big Buck’s (World Hurdle) 5/2 @ Paddy Power
A true legend of the Festival who will be bidding to win his fifth World Hurdle after a hiatus of fourteen months with an injury. Big Buck’s returned to the track in January and ran relatively well in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, finishing third behind Knockara Beau and At Fisher’s Cross on heavy ground.
Trainer Paul Nicholls claims he was happy with the horse’s performance that day and claims that Big Buck’s will find plenty of improvement when it comes to this three-mile encounter, with the eleven-year-old having proved hard to pass throughout his career although time isn’t on his side any more.
4. Annie Power (World Hurdle) 15/8 @ William Hill
The Irish are now starting to slap down their money on this exciting six-year-old who will receive a mares allowance when she runs in the World Hurdle. The smart money always said that Annie Power goes over three miles against Big Buck’s, with trainer Willie Mullins having convinced the owner of this unbeaten horse that this is where the best chance lies.
Under Ruby Walsh, the horse has barely put a foot wrong and an eight-length victory against Zarkandar at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day suggests that she would get the three-mile trip.
5. Our Conor (Champion Hurdle) 4/1 @ William Hill
Paddy Power report there will be heavy losses if the Irish raider lands the spoils in the Champion Hurdle and it’s possible that the five-year-old will be sent off favourite in this race, having been the subject of some sizeable bets leading up to the Cheltenham Festival.
Dessie Hughes prepared Hardy Eustace for two victories in this race and believes his young star has the makings of a champion, having demolished the opposition in the Triumph Hurdle in 2013 when winning by a colossal distance. The fact that he was breathing down the neck of Hurricane Fly last time out suggests he can go very close on 11 March.
6. Silviniaco Conti (Gold Cup) 3/1 @ bet365
With Cue Card set to miss the Cheltenham Festival, many think that the Gold Cup will be a straight shoot-out between Silviniaco Conti and Bob’s Worth, with the former winning the King George after outstaying all his rivals on Boxing Day, demonstrating that this is a stamina horse who wouldn’t mind some cut in the ground.
Some claim that the eight-year-old was “all out” when falling in last year’s renewal although Nicholls believes that the horse has upped his game since the previous season and his performance at Kempton was a significant improvement on the Betfair Chase where the charge finished third.
7. Champagne Fever (Arkle) 3/1 @ William Hill
Willie Mullins could be set to enjoy an amazing Day One at the Festival and the bookies have been shortening Champagne Fever in recent days, with last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner very likely to go off favourite for the Arkle, having made all when winning last year’s opener.
However, there’s a big concern over the horse’s jumping over timber when the seven-year-old made a blunder that saw him finishing third in a Grade 1 Novice Chase at Leopardstown on Boxing Day, with plenty of stiff competition being provided by Trifolium, Dodging Bullets and former Champion Hurdle winner Rock On Ruby.
8. Al Ferof (Ryanair Chase) 9/2 @ Paddy Power
Paul Nicholls confirmed the horse is very likely to line up for this race rather than the Queen Mother Champion Chase, with the nine-year-old running valiantly over three miles in the King George before connections decided to bring him back in distance.
Heavy ground didn’t suit Al Ferof in the Denman Chase although we shouldn’t forget that the horse won the Paddy Power Chase at Cheltenham last season and appears to be primed for a big run in what has become a significant race at the Festival.
9. Irving (Supreme Novices’ Hurdle) 5/2 @ William Hill
Paul Nicholls won this race with Al Ferof and there’s every chance of him being in the winners’ enclosure after the Festival curtain-raiser, with money coming for a talented six-year-old who was a facile winner in a Grade 2 at Kempton in February.
Five straight wins cement the horse’s credentials for this race, with Willie Mullins set to provide stiff opposition in the form of Vautour and Valseur Lido.
10. Quevega (Mares Hurdle) 4/5 @ Coral
On the basis that Annie Power swerves this race, we should expect a big plunge on this talented mare claiming a sixth victory in the Mares Hurdle, with Quevega having produced the goods on five consecutive occasions.
As always, it’s a calculated gamble on the horse considering how lightly-raced she has been throughout her career, although Willie Mullins always has her right on the big day and she doesn’t look like having much to beat with the exception of Cockney Sparrow and Sirene D’Ainay.