Nadiya De La Vega can strike for Henderson in Paddy Power

Bill Esdaile
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THE National Hunt season kicks into overdrive this weekend with Cheltenham’s Open meeting. This is one of my favourites of the whole year and it promises to be a three-day extravaganza of jumping action.

Some great horses have won the fixture’s highlight, tomorrow’s Paddy Power Gold Cup (2.30pm), but it has to be said that this year’s renewal doesn’t look the strongest.

The Pipe family have dominated this race over the years with nine wins, eight for father Martin and just the one so far for his son David. But ante-post punters suffered a blow yesterday when it was decided that Dynaste wouldn’t take his place in the line-up.

There must have been concerns at Pond House that lightning would strike twice after another of the stable’s star greys, Grands Crus, disappointed in this contest 12 months ago.

However, the yard rely on Ballynagour who looked a superstar when making his first British start at Warwick last season. He was then sent off favourite for the Byrne Group Plate but bled in that race and, although he could be best first time out, he is too fragile to warrant backing in this. Johns Spirit romped home at Cheltenham’s last meeting and is still attractively weighted, but horses who have won that race have a terrible record following up in this just a few weeks later.

That said, NADIYA DE LA VEGA won the same contest last year and finished a respectable third in the big one. She races off a 5lb lower mark tomorrow afternoon and her record when fresh suggests that she is the value at around 12/1. The daughter of Lost World is four from four on her seasonal reappearance and, although it’s a shame that AP McCoy isn’t riding, 10st 3lb is a massive stretch for the champion jockey. Andrew Tinkler enjoyed some good days last season and can enjoy another here, this time in the JP McManus silks for Nicky Henderson.

Champion Court has been well backed all week and is probably still on a fair mark. He has excellent place claims, but is short enough now at 6/1 with Coral.

Nigel Twiston-Davies has a good record in the Paddy Power and I’m going to throw a few quid on his sole representative ASTRACAD. The seven-year-old probably isn’t quite good enough, but he has run two solid races this season and he should give us a good show for our money at 25/1 with Coral.

Sunday’s big race is the Greatwood Hurdle (3.15pm) where Henderson could land a big race double thanks to last year’s second CASH AND GO. Formerly trained in Ireland by Eddie O’Grady, the selection was a Grade One winner in his novice hurdle season and he races off exactly the same mark as 12 months ago.

A fast run race over two miles on decent ground is exactly what he wants and I just think he will have too much for his rivals. Take the 5/1 with Coral.

Pine Creek is the big danger after his classy win at Ascot last time, although he is yet to race at Cheltenham and the hill could find him out. Ifandbutwhynot is another threat after winning well at this meeting last year. However, he has gone up in the weights and may just be in the handicapper’s grip now.

■ Pointers…
NADIYA DE LA VEGA e/w 2.30pm Cheltenham

ASTRACAD e/w 2.30pm Cheltenham

CASH AND GO 3.15pm Cheltenham