Smith-Eccles’ guide to Cheltenham winners

SPORTS BETTING with BettingBanter: STEVE SMITH-ECCLES looks ahead to the Cheltenham Festival and offers his top tip for each day of the meeting which begins on March 15

Although the handicaps have now been officially announced, too many horses are double declared to make too much sense of them in advance, although subscribers to Betting Banter will be getting online updates and emails to keep them up to date with the latest news.

Much can change over the next week (including, of course, the odds quoted here; they are correct at time of publication, but do re-check online), but we can offer some insight to the championship events on each day of the meeting.

Tuesday, Mar 15: Champion Hurdle

This looks to be a match between Irish raiders Solwhit and Go Native.

Go Native’s form this season is second to none, with a win in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle followed by victory in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, thus putting him in line for the £1,000,000 bonus put up by WBX if any horse wins all three contests.

The track and uphill finish at Cheltenham is my main concern for the seven-year-old, who is offered at 6/1 by SkyBet, but with so much money at stake you can be sure the whip will not be spared if the chips are down at then end of the race.

Nicky Henderson should go to the race double handed with Zaynar (too one-paced for my liking and may get done for a turn of foot) and last year’s winner Punjabi who at 20/1 looks to me to be the each way value. He had little more than a racecourse gallop when winning his last race but jumped a lot better than he had done this season, so he could be coming to himself at exactly the right time, and his handler certainly has a habit of getting them ready for the big occasion.

Wednesday, Mar 16: Queen Mother Champion Chase

This race really looks to be at the mercy of favourite Master Minded, the winner for the past two years. After a shock third behind Well Chief on his reappearance, he was found to have a rib injury which enforced a break, but he bounced back with a spectacular victory in the Game Spirit Chase last time out, despite attempting to uproot the final fence.

Up to then he had jumped immaculately and, at his best, he is a machine. Stable companion Twist Magic could be an each way alternative and is unlikely to finish outside the first three.

Thursday, Mar 17: The World Hurdle
Oh dear, much as I would dearly love to be able to suggest a big priced alternative to the odds on favourite Big Buck’s, I simply can’t. He is the best hurdler in training by some margin and stands head and shoulders above all his rivals on all known form lines.

To put it bluntly, he looks to be a steering job here for jockey Ruby Walsh and cannot be opposed, possibly the banker of the meeting.

Friday, Mar 18: Cheltenham Gold Cup
While this looks to be a match between 9/4 shot Kauto Star and his 6/1 stablemate Denman, though to me there can only be the one winner.

Kauto’s form is outstanding and he has both stamina and speed, so however the race pans out will not bother him in the slightest, whereas Denman has to prove himself again after unseating AP McCoy when already beaten at Newbury.

The way he went out like a light after his first mistake makes me wonder if there is something wrong with the 10-year-old that vets’ examinations and tests have failed to find. I could not back him with someone else’s money at this stage.

Each way dark horse

For those who like a riskier bet, Hidden Universe could be the one for you in the bumper on the Wednesday afternoon.

Trained by Dermot Weld, he won his only start to date at Leopardstown, quickening up nicely despite the heavy ground, and I am told he has improved hand over fist at home and could be something special. Pat Smullen has been booked to ride and he is being gambled on as we speak and it would not surprise me if he went off favourite on the day.

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