The intensive research is complete, the data has been sifted, the numbers crunched, and the hunches backed.
Yes, the 2018 Cheltenham Festival is finally upon us, and despite a host of shorts-odds favourites, there’s still plenty of value to be had at national hunt racing’s showpiece event.
Elephant Sport has drawn up a shortlist of five of the best bets of the week at Prestbury Park.
5) Oxford Blu – Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle – 20/1
Formerly trained by Sir Mark Prescott, Oxford Blu has twice won on the flat, including over 2 miles and 2 furlongs.
He has since made the switch of stables and joined rookie trainer Olly Murphy, who despite his inexperience has been making a name for himself as a shrewd handler who has a good record with ex-flat horses.
Blu has won and has been placed second in just four starts for Murphy so far, and the Fred Winter may well have been the target for some time.
Although he lacks the class of others, he is battle hardened with plenty of experience and has form on both soft and heavy.
It looks likely that champion jockey Richard Johnson may well take the ride and off a mark of 10st 3lbs he looks to be very well handicapped.
With conditions likely to be testing, Olly Murphy’s charge should be staying on strongly when others have cried enough so Oxford Blu looks to have a very solid each way chance.
4) Dortmund Park – Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle – 14/1
Dortmund Park has a lightly raced profile who looks a likely improver off what looks to be a lenient mark of 11st 5lbs.
Trained by Gordon Elliott and owned by the powerful Gigginstown House Stud the five-year-old has had just the four starts with a 50%-win strike rate. Elliot knows what it takes to win the race having won this contest last year with Champagne Classic and Dortmund Park looks a similar type.
Having travelled powerfully in a Grade 1 Novice Hurdle at the Dublin festival, he couldn’t quite finish off his race as powerfully as the winner and finished back in fourth.
However, he drops back two furlongs in distance meaning he should see out the trip strongly and looks to be a live player in the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle.
3) Sam Spinner – Stayers Hurdle – 9/2
Trained by Jedd O’Keeffe with Joe Colliver onboard, Sam Spinner would prove to be an incredible story should he enter the winner’s enclosure.
Currently the joint-favourite alongside Supasundae he still represents value, particularly with the forecast soft-heavy going which he has proven form on – conditions which will cause question marks surrounding the other market principles.
He arguably has the best form in the book and has had nine career starts winning seven times – never failing to finish outside of the top two.
If he hailed from a bigger yard Spinner would undoubtedly go off a much shorter price, and although Joe Colliver is an inexperienced jockey, the 26-year-old has won on the horse four times, so that shouldn’t be so much of a concern.
Although Sam would be a great story, he would also prove to be a big money-spinner should he land the Stayers Hurdle, as he’s many peoples idea of the bet of the week.
2) Un De Sceaux – Ryanair Chase – 11/8
It’s remarkable that people continue to doubt Un De Sceaux despite everything he has achieved to date. Willie Mullins’ 10-year-old has had 20 starts winning an incredible 15 times.
Time and time again we hear that when selecting Cheltenham winners, festival form is one of the key indicators too look at – of which Un De Sceaux has in abundance.
He’s only ever been beaten at Prestbury Park once – where he came second to the brilliant Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase – and he’s won an Arkle, as well as last year’s Ryanair – a crown he is attempting to defend.
Just weeks ago he could be backed at around 7/2, a price which would have made him the best bet of the festival.
However, following the ‘beast from the east’ along with the forecast rain providing his ideal soft going conditions, bookmakers have slashed his odds to around the 11/8 mark, and it looks likely that he could yet go off odds-on come race day.
Despite the slim pickings on offer, Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair Chase looks to be the banker of the festival.
1) Our Duke – Gold Cup – 7/1
We couldn’t provide a five to follow without coming up with a selection for the festival’s most prestigious event, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which this year looks on paper to be a wide-open renewal.
Might Bite has had an ideal preparation, and the winner of the King George looks to have a good chance, but history shows he has a tendency to veer across the track up the run-in, which is a major concern.
Native River has had a light campaign targeted at a second crack at the Gold Cup, but stats show it’s very difficult to win the race after failing to win it previously.
Even though the ground should have dried up a bit by Friday, it will probably still be on the slow side, conditions which Native River tends to thrive in.
However, the way in which Our Duke travelled in the Irish Gold Cup at the Dublin festival was eye-catching, until a bad jumping error put a halt to his momentum. Despite the blunder, the winner of the 2017 Irish Grand National ran-on strongly to finish fourth.
Jessica Harrington’s charge made another jumping error when getting the better of Presenting Percy while conceding 7lbs.
But jockey Robbie Power went on record to say Our Duke’s jumping was not a problem and the error was down to a lack of concentration rather than ability, something the extra pace of the Gold Cup will aid.
Another positive is the trainer-jockey partnership of Harrington and Power who took the prize with Sizing John 12 months ago.
In what looks a wide-open contest, should his jumping hold up, at 7/1 Our Duke could blow the field away to land this year’s Gold Cup and provide Harrington and Power with back to back victories in the Festival’s flagship.