PAUL Nicholls started the 2011 Cheltenham Festival with a bang thanks to Al Ferof’s victory in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and he could end it in style this afternoon. The champion trainer won the Triumph Hurdle in 2008 with Celestial Halo and he holds outstanding claims this afternoon with SAM WINNER, Zarkandar and Brampour.
Ruby Walsh has opted to ride Sam Winner, who is two from two at Cheltenham, and that is a tip in itself. Zarkandar was very impressive at Kempton last time and Brampour is also well regarded at home, but Sam Winner comfortably beat Grandouet at Cheltenham in November and is a strong fancy at 7/1 with Paddy Power.
There are a whole host of other contenders, including Unaccompanied, Smad Place and Third Intention, but the other one to back is Nicky Henderson’s A MEDIA LUZ. This filly was an impressive winner at Huntingdon last time and before that had chased home both Grandouet at Newbury and Sam Winner here. Henderson has won the last two runnings of this race and at 10/1 with Victor Chandler she is a decent each-way bet. She was very keen on her first start in this country, but her trainer is a master with these young hurdlers and she is better value than her stablemate.
The Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (2.40pm) is another open looking contest and Bobs Worth is very short now at 3/1 with William Hill. The form of his win against Rock On Ruby here last time was boosted when that rival almost took Wednesday’s Neptune, but he is stepping up in trip and you really need to stay to win this race.
Nicholls has always liked JOIN TOGETHER and although he sees him as a future chaser, he has an excellent chance this afternoon. He was third to one of today’s rivals Court In Motion at Exeter on his debut, before narrowly being denied by Mossley over today’s course and distance in December. However, instructions to his French jockey were lost in translation that day and he absolutely bolted up at Chepstow last time when ridden more forcibly. That is the key to him and with Ruby in the saddle I fancy him to hold off all comers.
As with all races at the Festival, there are a number of threats and Court In Motion would be a big danger if the rain arrives. Philip Hobbs has had a good few days and Kilcrea Kim won a competitive handicap hurdle at Sandown last time. Champion Court has potential and with Ireland having won the last two renewals, it would be unwise to write off the chances of Willie Mullins’ Gagewell Flyer.
However Join Together is a confident selection and should be backed each-way at 10/1 with Paddy Power.