It’s therefore fair to conclude that the marathon contest is one of the safer betting options at the four-day meeting and I’m confident that Willie Mullins’ top-weight UNCLE JUNIOR will maintain the stranglehold well-fancied Irish runners seem to have on the race.
Firstly, it’s crucial to note that the ground on the Cross Country is threatening to be lightning quick (good to firm at slowest). The rattling of hooves will be music to the ears of my selection who won over these fences on firm ground back in November. He has stamina in abundance and even though he is shouldered with top-weight, that hasn’t proved much of a problem as two previous winners have had number one on their saddlecloths.
He will have to be at his best to see off stablemate and favourite Scotsirish, not to mention last year’s winner Sizing Australia. However, the former still has it to prove over these fences, while the latter is up 5lb from 12 months ago. Uncle Junior looks a rock-solid each-way bet (places down to fourth) at 9/2 with Coral.
The JLT Specialty Handicap Chase at 2.40pm is one of the biggest betting events of the week and Alan King will be hoping he can win it for a second year running with the progressive Hold On Julio. Bensalem won this for the yard last year and Hold On Julio looked a horse going places when hammering Neptune Collonges at Sandown last time.
The nine-year-old made plenty of mistakes that day, though, and he will find it very difficult to win this if he doesn’t jump much better. The vibes over the past few weeks haven’t been particularly positive and although he goes there with a chance, he’s too short for me at a best price 7.8 on Betfair.
We’ve already backed Nick Gifford’s TULLAMORE DEW at 20/1 with Coral and that doesn’t look too bad now seeing as he’s a top price 10/1 with the same firm. He has run really well at the last two Festivals and has a great chance of finishing in the frame.
Quantitativeeasing was a really impressive winner of the big handicap chase here in December and the way he finished that day suggested he will relish this step up to three miles. However, he has to carry top weight this afternoon and with only five of the last 26 winners carrying 11st or more, he is passed over.
The one who I want to keep on side is David Pipe’s THE PACKAGE. The nine-year-old was sent off favourite for this race in 2010 and only just lost out to Chief Dan George by a head. He’s been off the track since November of that year and has therefore been dropped to a mark 2lb lower than two years ago.
His fitness has to be taken on trust, but if any yard can bring a horse back from a long layoff to peak on the big day then it’s David Pipe’s. The Package has also gone well fresh in the past and with the excellent Timmy Murphy in the saddle, the 6/1 with Paddy Power should be taken.
There are a couple of other runners who interest me – none more so than Donald McCain’s Our Mick, who has always looked like he would appreciate this sort of trip. Ian Williams’ horses continue to run well and Baile Anrai has a good chance at around the 16/1 mark, but I’ll stick with Tullamore Dew and The Package.
The final race of the opening day is the Pulteney Land Investments Novices’ Handicap Chase. Ferdy Murphy’s Divers did this column a big favour in this race last year and he has another interesting candidate in the shape of Going Wrong who has won his last two. The yard is starting to hit form at the right time and don’t rule out this nine-year-old with Davy Russell an intriguing jockey booking.
We already have the likely favourite TRIOLO D’ALENE in the book at 10/1 and he is the current market leader at 6/1 with Coral. I’m not deserting him as the Nicky Henderson yard are very confident that he is well ahead of his mark, but there’s no point going in again at 6/1 when we’re on at nearly double the price.
It could be a huge day for Alan King and he relies on Bless The Wings, who won over course and distance on Trials Day. He wouldn’t be without a chance but he went up 8lb for that success. Hunt Ball has gone up an incredible 74lb this season and it would be great for him to win just to see what his eccentric owner Anthony Knott does in the parade ring. However, I think the handicapper might just have his measure now.
Gary Moore’s VINO GRIEGO is a pound lower than when finishing fourth in this race 12 months ago, so it’s worth having a few quid each-way on him at 25/1 with Coral.
I will be at the course all week and you can follow me on Twitter @BillEsdaile for all my views.
THE PACKAGE e/w 2.40pm Cheltenham
UNCLE JUNIOR e/w 4.00pm Cheltenham
VINO GRIEGO e/w 5.15pm Cheltenham
TULLAMORE DEW 20/1 e/w 2.40pm Cheltenham
TRIOLO D’ALENE 10/1 e/w 5.15pm Cheltenham