Ivan Yates: 'Keep stakes on a tight rein in Cheltenham's brutal betting bloodbath'
Three days of meaningful votes await - tomorrow (withdrawal agreement); Wednesday (no deal); Thursday (Article 50) - and yet the latest historic Anglo-Irish conflict is a mere sideshow to the annual nerve-tingler in the Cotswolds.
This week, the Westminster Brexit drama must take a back seat to captivating Cheltenham.
Nothing on earth absorbs like Prestbury Park: 28 winners will create indelible lifetime memories.
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But the 2018/19 season has been unlike any other - winter watering required due to minimal rainfall; equine flu; new vaccination procedures; many novices not seeing a racecourse; and Willie Mullins (WPM) without an array of Irish banker bets.
Ironclad Cheltenham punting rules are more applicable than ever: be cautious; most hyped horses are overrated, unable to maintain ultrafast pace on a left-handed undulating track; festival course form and ratings are imperative; be selective; don't pay to be educated (through losers) where no form lines exist between Irish/English novices; watch and learn for Aintree, Punchestown and beyond.
Here is my investment portfolio plan for the week:
Tuesday: The opening Supreme Novice and Arkle chases are watchers. Give me a free bet, and I'd side with Colin Tizzard's grey Elixir de Nutz (1.30) to make all, cling on to a place, and Lalor (2.10) to repeat his November course win. Paul Nicholls's Give Me A Copper has been laid out for the Ultima handicap Chase (2.50).
The Champion Hurdle is truly epic. Three of my ATM horses (bet & collect) - Buveur D'Air, Apple's Jade and Laurina - oppose.
Dual champion Buveur D'Air cost me pain by getting chinned at Kempton - I'm reluctant to overlook defeat and last year's struggle to overcome Melon, although Nicky Henderson has proffered plausible excuses. Apple's Jade is better going right-handed, but her front-running tactics could set it up for close finish. My heart wants Laurina's potential to be limitless and remain unbeaten. I can't oppose her.
The main bet on day one is Benie Des Dieux (4.40) in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle. She likes softer ground. Given that six horses died at last year's festival, clerk of the course Simon Claisse will ensure some give.
The Ruby Walsh/WPM team are legends at producing winners here without a prep run (Quevega and Pennhill repeatedly). Benie's official rating of 151, plus course form, coupled with other top mares opting for tougher races, makes her a solid bet. If there's a week banker for WPM, it's her.
Ballyward (5.30) should give Patrick Mullins a great chance in the finale four-miler, following his recent Naas win. He was fourth in the Albert Bartlett last year, jumps safely and stays forever.
Wednesday: The season's pecking order for all novices remains unestablished. Best of the Irish in the Ballymore (1.30) are Battleoverdoyen (really liked him at Naas) and classy City Island (Sean Mulryan sponsors the race/deserves luck), whereas I'd oppose Delta Work in the RSA (2.10) because he jumps too low at some of his fences.
My biggest bet of the week already is Altior in the Champion Chase (3.30) - hopefully the 'good thing' of the entire festival.
A truly exceptional champion, he's going for a record 18 consecutive wins to match the legendary Big Bucks. At nine years, he's peaking now. He loves this track, no ground conditions or race pace seems to phase him or Nico de Boinville. Despite being odds-on, he's my max bet - no way back if he loses.
The Cross Country Chase follows, where National hero Tiger Roll (4.10) looks banker material for Gordon Elliott/Gigginstown on the strength of his incredible course record of triple wins in the Triumph hurdle, four-miler and this last year. I was in Navan to witness his shock 25/1 graded hurdle success - what a horse. Get on.
The Bumper is remarkable for the paucity of WPM runners, but Blue Sari (5.30) was excellent at Gowran Park. Wherever Joseph O'Brien's Sempo next runs, I'd want to be on him after his mighty Thurles display.
Thursday: My least favourite festival card, with trappy contests and no blue-riband race.
The Stayers' Hurdle (3.30) is the feature grade one and Faugheen is heavily punted to recover his former glory. He's 11 now, and I've lost the faith despite his three-mile Punchestown Festival win last year. Emma Lavelle's Paisley Park's stamina and massive improvement culminate in a top rating of 168. He can repeat his Cleeve Hurdle distance/course success in January.
Other tentative selections on the day include: JP McManus's Defi Du Seuil (1.30); Jessie Harrington's Walk to Freedom (2.10); Footpad, whose overreach problems are resolved (2.50); and Posh Trish (4.50). I hear Jonjo O'Neill has laid out Sky Pirate to win a festival handicap, perhaps running in the Kim Muir (5.30).
Friday: An awesome card kicks off St Patrick's weekend, culminating in Cardiff. I'm genuinely excited about JP's potential superstar Sir Erec - afraid to whisper that he's the next Istabraq.
His flat run in the group one at Ascot on Champions day was top drawer for a rookie. Joseph O'Brien and the shrewdest of 'faces' are raving about this agile hurdler.
He's clearly the best of the Irish juveniles on both Leopardstown runs, while his stablemate routed the locals on trial day.
He seems a good thing in the Triumph hurdle (1.30) and is the final day's best bet.
Paul Nicholls has laid out Magic Saint, a potential big improver with a handy weight, to win the Grand Annual (4.50). Elliott may go in again on Dallas Des Picton in the last (5.30).
The Gold Cup is the most prestigious and valuable (£625,000 - €759,000) race of the week, with a totally open competitive field.
The Irish are strong: real talking horse Presenting Percy (dual course winner) has a favourite's chance; WPM seeks to break his hoodoo with four, any of which could place, but Kemboy has the most scope. Nicholls is really talking up Clan Des Obeaux, but may not stay.
In the past two years, I've made good profit on backing Native River to be placed (odds against) - he's never fallen, stays forever; whatever beats him wins.
It promises to be an unrelenting brutal betting bloodbath - be lucky. And keep stakes on a tight rein.