Cheltenham Festival picks and plays for March 12, 2024

March 11th, 2024

Despite a couple of big-name defections, the Cheltenham Festival looks set to be its usual exciting celebration of jumps racing this week. Unfortunately, ill health has forced out unbeaten British hurdler Constitution Hill from attempting a Champion Hurdle repeat, while much-hyped Irish jumper Marine Nationale is also going to be missing from his intended target, the Arkle Trophy. But there’s still plenty of interest going for punters — not the least of which is how horses in any race will topple the behemoth that is the Willie Mullins stable from Ireland.

Don’t forget TwinSpires’ Cheltenham $10 money back offer, where those who opt in will get up to $10 back on unsuccessful win bets if their horse finishes second or third.

Here’s a look at possible plays for day one.

Race 1, 8:30 a.m. ET: Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (G1), 2 miles, novice hurdlers

Mullins is set to make his mark right away with potentially half the field here, even given that his pre-post favorite Ballyburn is missing this in favor of the Gallagher Novices’ Hurdle on Wednesday. His two most exciting runners are unbeaten #8 Mystical Power, a daughter of Galileo and outstanding hurdler Annie Power, and #12 Tullyhill, an impressive winner at Punchestown Feb. 18.

Outside the Mullins clan, the toughest are probably English hope #5 Jeriko Du Reponet, unbeaten in four starts, and #9 Slade Steel, second to Ballyburn at his last start. If Ballyburn is as good as he is made out to be, Slade Steel might be the one to seek out here.

$10 win/$20 show: #9 Slade Steel
$1 trifecta: 8, 9 with 8, 9, 12 with 5, 8, 9, 12

Race 2, 9:10 a.m. ET: Arkle Trophy (G1), 2 miles, novice steeplechasers

An unusually difficult edition to handicap of this race, which normally features a couple of standouts. #3 Gaelic Warrior has shown plenty of talent, but mostly at further than two miles and he was surprisingly rolled last time out. It might be best to follow the form of the Irish Arkle, in which #5 Il Etait Temps rallied to beat #2 Found A Fifty, despite not jumping the last all that well. Il Etait Temps has been a little disappointing at Cheltenham in the past, but he probably deserves another chance in this.

$10 win/$20 show: #5 Il Etait Temps
$1 trifecta: 2, 5 with 2, 3, 5 with 2, 3, 5, 8 

Race 3, 9:50 a.m. ET: Ultima Chase, 3 1/8 miles, handicap steeplechase

Usually this is an open event with plenty of chances, and many runners could win without surprising. Mullins has just one runner here, but it’s the favorite, #7 Meetingofthewaters. At his last three starts, he’s scored two victories and then lost his rider when hampered at his most recent race.
He’s clearly a top chance, but Mullins’ Irish rival Gordon Elliott has a brilliant record in Cheltenham handicaps and his runner #6 The Goffer looks a great chance. Fourth in this race last year, he hasn’t shown much this term and thus gets in at a lighter weight. He looks a likely prospect.

$10 win/$20 show: #6 The Goffer

Race 4, 10:30 a.m. ET: Champion Hurdle (G1), 2 miles, open hurdle

Since winning his maiden at his third start in February 2022, the only defeat of #6 State Man came in this race last year when the freakish Constitution Hill dominated him. With that runner out of the way, State Man is likely to be backed as unbeatable — especially since his earlier market rival, stablemate Lossiemouth, is set to run in the Mares’ Hurdle instead.

State Man may well be money in the bank, though it won’t be very much money. Perhaps the best option is a sneaky bit on Constitution Hill’s stablemate #2 Iberico Lord. He has made great strides in handicaps this season and if the ground comes up soft at Cheltenham, he looks a decent each-way bet.

$10 win/$20 show: #2 Iberico Lord

Race 5, 11:10 a.m. ET: Mares’ Hurdle (G1), 2 1/2 miles, mares, hurdle

#6 Lossiemouth will definitely be the leading fancy here, and understandably. In seven starts over sticks, she’s only been beaten once, somewhat unluckily, and she announced her return to racing with an emphatic victory over Love Envoi on this track Jan. 27.

Whether she is past the post is another thing. This will be her first race past two miles, and she faces a couple of high-quality stablemates, #1 Ashroe Diamond and #2 Echoes In Rain, and a former winner of this race, #8 Marie’s Rock. Echoes In Rain, who’s been taking on State Man this season, should find this easier and is worth an each-way go at potentially reasonable odds.

• $10 win/$20 show: #2 Echoes In Rain
• $2 trifecta: 6 with 1, 2, 7, 8 with 1, 2, 7, 8

Race 6, 11:50 a.m. ET: Boodles Juvenile Hurdle, 2 miles, 4-year-olds, handicap hurdle

Never an easy race to line up given the unexposed form of these juvenile hurdlers. Elliott looks to have a big chance with #2 Ndaawi, a decisive winner at Naas Jan. 28, while Mullins is well-represented with #3 Batman Girac and #4 Miss Manzor. But on exposed form, the one to watch could be #7 Milan Tino. He was not far from second in Grade 2 company at Cheltenham last start and should appreciate the drop in class.

$10 win/$30 show: #7 Milan Tino
$1 box exacta: 2, 3, 4, 7

Race 7, 12:30 p.m. ET: National Hunt Challenge Cup (G2), 3 3/4 miles, amateur jockeys, novice steeplechasers

Always an interesting clash. #1 Corbetts Cross has as much ability as any of the runners but seems to get into trouble, running off at the last when in contention for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle last year and then falling at his most recent race. If he gets things right, he’ll be tough. So will the Willie Mullins-trained #2 Embassy Gardens, winner of both his starts this term.

However, I’m supporting Gordon Elliott’s #6 Salvador Ziggy, who seems best over large fences these days and who has run well at Cheltenham off a long break in the past.

$10 win/$20 show: #6 Salvador Ziggy