The National Hunt season may be a few weeks old already but Cheltenham’s Open Meeting provides the first real chance to assess plenty of the big-race contenders for the campaign ahead.
A total of eight Graded and two Listed races over the three days hints at the sort of quality we are set to enjoy in Gloucestershire, while some tricky handicaps provide ample opportunity for some big-priced winners.
The Paddy Power Gold Cup and the Greatwood Hurdle may be the feature contests of the meeting, but there are plenty of other events to mull over first.
Here are three things we cannot wait to find out when the dust settles at Prestbury Park…
Could we see a changing of the guard in the cross-country division?
The likes of Uncle Junior, Balthazar King and Any Currency have been regular names in Cheltenham’s cross-country races in the last few years, but times could be a changing.
Rivage D’or claimed the event at the Festival eight months ago on his first foray into the sphere, but he could bump into plenty of newbies to the banks on Friday.
Of the 22 currently engaged, less than half have experience in cross-country contests, so it could be tricky to weigh up the form.
Grand National runner-up Saint Are clearly thrives over unusual fences, while Champion Court and his love of Prestbury Park could be rekindled when Martin Keighley sends him out under Andrew Tinkler. Enda Bolger, a supremo in these races has already managed to see Colour Squadron end his 19-race losing run since taking care of him from Philip Hobbs; could this be his calling?
Is there life in Sprinter Sacre yet?
Since returning from the heart condition that saw him pulled up at Kempton on Boxing Day 2013, Nicky Henderson’s former champion chaser has been somewhat of an enigma.
While few would have expected him to return at his brilliant best, the way in which he folded tamely at Cheltenham in March might have suggested the time was right to retire the nine-year-old.
He was then firmly put in his place by Special Tiara a Sandown in the Celebration Chase to end a winless campaign.
Nevertheless, his handler insists that he is still very much a racehorse of quality and is set to run him in the Shloer Chase on Sunday.
Victory at Prestbury Park could see him take in the Tingle Creek next month en route to another crack at regaining his crown. How likely that whole scenario is however, remains open to plenty of scrutiny.
How many future Festival winners will we see?
Some will snarl at how once the jumps season begins everyone starts talking about the Cheltenham Festival, but there is no denying its importance in the calendar.
And the Open Meeting is by no means too early to be looking for those March winners. Last year four horses ran at this meeting before triumphing back in Gloucestershire four months later, while a further eight placed at an average price of just over 11/1.
The likes of Penglai Pavillion (Neptune Novices’ Hurdle), Kings Palace (Ryanair Chase), and Garde La Victoire (Arkle) are all prominent in the betting for Festival races next year, and are likely to be seen over the coming few days.
Most intriguing though is 2014 World Hurdle winner More of That who is set to make his chase debut at Cheltenham and could well be one to watch in the JLT Novices Chase or the RSA should he deliver the goods.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.
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