An Early Look Ahead to the 2018 Cheltenham Festival

The National Hunt season might be over but keen horse racing fans will already have one eye on the 2018 Cheltenham Festival. Without a shadow of a doubt, it is up there with the most eagerly anticipated racing events of the year – arguably more so than the world-famous Grand National and Royal Ascot, a flat meeting attended by none other than Her Majesty The Queen.

With four days of exhilarating action, racegoers will don their finest tweed suits and prepare for plenty of Guinness throughout the week. There is a real party atmosphere in and around Cheltenham during Festival season and the social side of things helps to attract a much wider crowd than those meetings that tend to focus purely on racing experience.

But at the end of the day, that is what most people are interested in: the racing. Over the course of the meeting, the finest thoroughbreds, jockeys and trainers will go up against each other in some of the most prestigious events in racing. In recent years, Willie Mullins has dominated the Cheltenham Festival but fellow Irishman Gordon Elliott was right up there as well this year. Both trainers are in fine form at the moment and we could see another titanic battle in 2018...

Day One: The Champion Hurdle

Remember Annie Power? World renowned jockey Ruby Walsh was on the verge of winning a four-timer in the Mares’ Hurdle on the opening day before Annie Power’s agonising fall at the final fence. That result would have cost bookmakers over £1 million in payouts but it wasn’t to be. Twelve months later, she was back and competing in the Champion Hurdle, the highlight of Day 1 at Cheltenham – and she romped home to set the record straight.

“Ruby Tuesdays” was born on that famous day in 2014 and plenty of punters will already have a close eye on Walsh’s potential rides next year. For the Champion Hurdle, it is a bit of a lottery. First of all, the race is always very competitive. There will be injuries along the way, but not enough to diminish the quality of opposition in this race. 2017 Triumph Hurdle winner Defi Du Seuil will be well-backed despite his young age – he has won seven out of seven since joining trainer Philip Hobbs and he could be the one to beat.

For Walsh, it might be a case of riding either Faugheen, a two-time Cheltenham Festival winner, or Limini who, like Annie Power, would receive the mares' allowance for going up against the boys. Should Limini run, you’d have to fancy her based on her efforts so far. She is no Annie Power but she would certainly be in the mix. Don’t discount this year’s winner Buveur D'Air, either – an exceptional horse in his own right and he ticks all the boxes to repeat next year.

Day Two: Queen Mother Champion Chase

Douvan headed into this year’s race as the red-hot favourite but the Mullins mount was found lame midway through the race and finished a disappointing seventh as Special Tiara romped home for a shock success. Barring another major setback, Douvan will be back to redeem himself after his subpar effort in 2017. Prior to that run, he had won 13 races in a row – including eight Group One victories. At the time of writing, he is 11/4 to win the race in 2018 and that is exceptional value considering his talent.

But the current favourite, Altior, has claims of his own. Trained by the well-liked Nicky Henderson, Altior last tasted defeat in April 2015 and he has gone from strength to strength in recent years. Winner of the Supreme Novices Hurdle last year and the Arkle this time around, natural progression suggests that the Champion Chase will be his target. For years, racing fans have been praying for an Altior-Douvan matchup and a fiery battle could be on the cards come next March.

One horse to watch is Great Field. Trained by Willie Mullins but owned by JP McManus, the lightly raced six-year-old has proven himself at Group One level and he may be aimed at this race at next year’s Festival. His lack of Cheltenham experience could work against him in the betting ring but with two major meetings at the track before the Festival, Mullins might see how he handles the famous course – expect him to feature prominently if he runs.

Day Three: Stayers Hurdle

Another major race, another shock in 2017. Nobody expected Nichols Canyon, a former Champion Hurdle competitor over 2m 4f, to challenge prominently but he did – and the well-fancied favourite Unowhatimeanharry couldn’t handle the pace. With Walsh on board, Nichols Canyon cruised round to snag victory at 20/1. Can he do it again in 2018? He is the ante post market leader at the time of writing but this renewal looks much tougher and it could prove prudent to look elsewhere in the market.

Penhill, for example, showed plenty of quality when winning the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at this year’s event and he could be the one to back here. Available at around 16/1 with most bookmakers, he represents solid value for each way bettors. The Walsh factor may sway punters to go for Nichols Canyon but, should both run, Paul Townend’s booking should be enough to give him the edge over his stablemate.

Another one to consider for this race is Wholestone. He was third when seven lengths behind Penhill at this year’s meeting but trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies has hinted at a longer trip. Stamina shouldn’t be too much of an issue in 2018 and he can handle the spring ground whether it is good or soft. With a bit of luck, Wholestone will be fit and raring to go and the Stayers’ Hurdle might just be his race. He isn’t unbeatable by any means but he can finish in the places and is backable at 20/1.

Day Four: The Gold Cup

Around 80,000 people will travel to Cheltenham for Gold Cup day and the 2018 edition could be the best yet. Sizing John, trained by Jessica Harrington, was a worthy winner this year after springing a late charge to pip Djakadam and Native River to the finishing post. After a few unsuccessful bites at the cherry, Djakadam’s time could be up and the enigmatic Yorkhill, a real character in the sport, may get the nod for the Walsh-Mullins combination.

On his day, Yorkhill is a supreme talent. With regular schooling, he has the talent to win a Gold Cup but he is difficult to back at a short price. Even Mullins himself has criticised the horse in the past for his poor jumping and he is a bit of a risk. Instead, it might be better to look at Thistlecrack. Colin Tizzard gave fan favourite Cue Card plenty of chances to go and win a Gold Cup but he kept on falling short – Thistlecrack can step up and romp home.

Injury hampered his chances of winning in 2017 but he will bounce back stronger than ever and this could be his race to lose. At the time of writing, the 2016 King George winner is a 5/1 shot to win the Gold Cup in March and plenty of punters will be backing him to do just that. If he gets back to his brilliant best, he will be very difficult to beat.