CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL DAY ONE CONTENDERS: Epatante vs Pentland Hills in the Champion Hurdle and Benie Des Dieux’s revenge mission on Roksana in the Close Brothers Hurdle

  • We are just a week away from the start of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival 
  • In first of a look at the big races, Sportsmail starts by looking at some race trends
  • SAM TURNER (Robin Goodfellow) highlights some of main contenders on Day 1

We are just a week away from the start of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival. 

In the first of a look at the big races, SAM TURNER (Robin Goodfellow) starts by looking at some race trends for races on day one and highlights some of the main contenders.

Paul Townend riding Al Boum Photo winning the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup last year

The last 11 winners were all aged either five or six while the past eight winners had all won a Graded novice hurdle. The last 11 winners had run a minimum of four times over hurdles.


Fell on his Newbury hurdling debut when well fancied but has made amends since at that venue and in a tidy Huntingdon event. Lacks a run at Cheltenham or a Graded win but appears to have the class to overcome those deficiencies.


Races in the same colours as Shishkin and impressed over the minimum trip when landing a Grade 1 Leopardstown event last month. Stays strongly and boasts plenty of class but may be more at home in the Ballymore.

Asterion Forlonge stays strongly and boasts class but may be more at home in the Ballymore


Chased home the imposing Envoi Allen in the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse before Christmas and wasn’t hard pressed to beat three rivals in Grade 1 company over Christmas. Would appreciate better ground as he doesn’t lack pace.


Ploughed through the mud to win at Sandown on his last two starts, including in Grade 1 company last time. Will arguably be better suited by further than this two-mile trip, but if the emphasis is on stamina he will prove a major player.

2.10 Racing Post Arkle Trophy 

Sixteen of the past 18 winners were successful in Grade 1 or Grade 2 company over hurdles or fences while the last 10 winners all won last time out Nicky Henderson has saddled eight horses with a hurdle rating in excess of 145; four won and three finished second.


Four from four over fences and little surprise he is excelling over the larger obstacles given the size of him. Battled on gamely to see off Cash Back at Leopardstown in the Arkle Chase after bolting to the start. Had previously powered to an impressive success at the expense of Fakir D’oudairies and has the size and scope to keep progressing.

Notebook (L) is four from four over fences and no surprise he is excelling over larger obstacles


Would arguably have beaten Samcro on his penultimate outing at Fairyhouse when that rival departed but found Notebook too strong at Leopardstown when he couldn’t dominate. The softer the ground the better and his precise and enthralling jumping should ensure he is in the mix.


Two from two over fences with both wins coming at right-handed tracks and his fourth place in the Ballymore last year confirms he has the temperament for the Festival. Inexperience over fences remain a slight concern but boasts plenty of class.


Required that Notebook pull out all the stops in Grade 1 event at Leopardstown following two wide-margin victories at Navan and Naas. Another that likes to race prominently and could prove a menace to all if finding an early rhythm.

3.30 Unibet Champion Hurdle 

Only two winners since the turn of the century did not compete a previous Cheltenham Festival (12 of the last 21 had won at the Festival). The record of five-year-olds is 2-102 in the last 33 years, although Espoir d’Allen bucked that trend last year. Only one of the last 13 winners had run more than 12 times over hurdles.


Impressed when extremely well backed in the Christmas Hurdle and the handicapper believes she has improved 22lb in two victories this season. Didn’t excel at this meeting last year and recent reports she has been coughing are a little concerning, but connections believe there were a host of reasons for that modest display and she certainly deserves another chance to put last year’s effort behind her.

Nicky Henderson’s Epatante impressed when extremely well backed in the Christmas Hurdle


Last season’s Triumph Hurdle winner has polarised opinions this term with an encouraging effort in the International Hurdle preceding a frustrating display at Haydock in a trial for this event. He looked home and hosed that day but appeared to pull himself up in front and connections have since tinkered with his wind. Remains a major player given his ability to travel powerfully.


Yet to suffer defeat in eight career starts, seven under rules and, although she was workmanlike in the Irish Champion Hurdle, her admirable attitude was again in evidence. Given she has won over 2m4f, a severe test of stamina at the minimum trip would be to her liking and it remains doubtful if she has reached the ceiling of her ability.

It remains doubtful if Irish Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle has reached ceiling of ability


A high-class mare over staying trips, but can she prove as effective over the minimum trip? Won her comeback by 21 lengths at Gowran and would have landed the mares hurdle 12 months ago but for falling at the last with the race at her mercy. Has other entries, but would be a fascinating contender if supplemented for this.

4.10 Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle 

Willie Mullins has won nine of the past 11 runnings while no horse that won or was placed in the last 11 renewals wore headgear. British-bred mares are 0-78 despite providing 40 per cent of the runners.


A hot ante-post favourite for this, it would perhaps be a surprise if connections went elsewhere given they are usually happy to run wherever their representative is the shortest in the market. A costly departure at the last flight 12 months ago, she would be a strong fancy for this year’s renewal if Honeysuckle was to reroute to the Champion Hurdle.


An admirable mare who would fit nicely into this field with this trip on easy ground appearing her optimum conditions. Another with a host of different options though so hard to be dogmatic about her chance.


Capitalised on the last hurdle departure of Benie Des Dieux last year and posted a season’s best at this venue on New Year’s Day when beaten by Summerville Boy. Clearly handles Cheltenham and soft ground well and looks likely to be in the shake up once more.

Roksana capitalised on the last hurdle departure of Benie Des Dieux at the Festival last year


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