THE week before Cheltenham is unusually tricky as I pretend to be busy at work, although in reality I am planning my antepost portfolio with what I hope to be military precision.
Our Cheltenham Festival special is always eagerly awaited, but even I feel we may have bitten off more than we can chew in offering money back* in the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle if your horse finishes second, third or fourth.
Top jockey Ruby Walsh agrees and has described the offer as “bookmaking suicide” and declaring that “punters will have them for breakfast”!
So as you’re no doubt hungry I’m going to have to tip up something in this contest and I’m opting for Nicky Henderson’s Josses Hill, runner-up to stablecompanion Royal Boy on his last start in the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Kempton in January, at a current 12-1.
It was slightly disappointing that he was beaten that day, but it was only a battle and not the war and there are reasons to believe why he might be better at Prestbury Park.
Jockey Barry Geraghty was convinced that he’s a two-miler that day and the ground was soft enough at Kempton – even if it is only a bit quicker at Cheltenham, I think that will help him enormously.
The Tolworth was only his second start over timber so he should still be improving and it’s also just possible that he will be suited by a stiffer track like Cheltenham – so far he has only run on flat courses and that famous hill could bring out the best in him.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase is Wednesday’s feature and I’m hoping for an Irish winner in the shape of Arvika Ligeonniere, who really impressed me when winning the Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown last month.
Everyone makes a fuss that this horse jumps right-handed and, to be fair, he did it a couple of times when he could only muster a third behind Benefficient in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas.
But I was intrigued to read his trainer Willie Mullins state recently that they’re planning to do things a bit differently this time, which would imply a possible change in riding tactics, and the champion trainer will have given his charge plenty of jumping practice at home at his Carlow nerve centre.
I’ve always loved the way this fella jumps his fences and I’m definitely inclined to give him one more chance around Cheltenham. His official rating of 166 makes him one of the best horses in the race and only a few pounds behind favourite Sire De Grugy, who has his own questions about going around the track.
The selection’s win in last year’s Ryanair Novice Chase at Punchestown proved that he was among last season’s best novices despite the Arkle reversal and he’s been very good in his first season in the senior ranks with just the one defeat in four starts mentioned above.
Turning to the rugby and England and Ireland are both 6-4 joint-favourites to win the Six Nations and much as it hurts me to say it, I think the former will prevail.
The English take on Wales at Twickenham on Sunday and I think they will win, mainly due to their half-back advantage courtesy of the in-form pair of Danny Care and Owen Farrell, who have both scored in every match in the tournament.
But the key statistic is that this campaign in matches between the four countries going for the title, the home team has won every time.
Playing at the Stade de France is always a tricky affair and I’m afraid Ireland’s last match there could mean the English lifting the trophy.
Now England to win the Six Nations; Tuesday, 1.30pm, Cheltenham - Josses Hill; Wednesday March 12, 3.20pm, Cheltenham - Arvika Ligeonniere
*maximum refund €50/£50