The Cheltenham roar as the tapes go up on Tuesday lunchtime will be a little different with no Ruby Walsh banker to get the Festival crowd animated.
This year's Cheltenham Festival will give a few other jockeys a chance to shine. Walsh's heir to the Mullins throne, Paul Townend is as big as 2/1 to be top jockey at the festival, whereas Ruby with similar books was regularly odds-on, an indication that this could be a year of big changes.
Supreme Novices Hurdle 1.30
The last time Ruby Walsh didn't ride in the Supreme Novices hurdle on the second Tuesday of March, there was no Supreme. The festival was called off back in 2001 for the foot and mouth outbreak.
"I just hope that whoever goes and rides more winners at Cheltenham than me has as much fun as I did doing it"
It will be a different feeling for @Ruby_Walsh at the #CheltenhamFestival this year... pic.twitter.com/JOJ186PI2g
— CheltenhamRacecourse (@CheltenhamRaces) March 9, 2020
The market for the festival opener is dominated by the colours of last year's Gold Cup-winning owner Joe Donnelly with Asterion Forlonge and Shiskin generally disputing favouritism.
Willie Mullin admitted Asterion Forlonge has surprised him, having initially suspected he was a stayer, and he may well be right in time. Klassical Dream won last year despite Ruby Walsh calling him "slow." The last winning favourite was the mighty Douvan, also for Mullins and Walsh.
Asterion Forlonge will wear the second hat colours as "is traditional" according to Mullins who trained Hedgehunter to win a Grand National in the 'away' colours of the owner Trevor Hemmings.
If Townend is to inherit Walsh's crown, winning the Supreme would be a good initial copycat act.
Arkle Novices Chase 2.10
The Arkle is a regular haunt for winning favourites, although some Champagne Fever backers will dispute that. It's still unclear how he was beaten by the unheralded 33/1 shot Western Warhorse in 2014.
Around that upset, Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig, Un de Sceaux, Douvan, Altior and Footpad have all obliged at short prices. With no Nicky Henderson runner, the shortest-priced UK based runner is Brewin'upastorm.
— Henry de Bromhead (@HenrydeBromhead) February 1, 2020
Olly Murphy trains the son of Milan who is two from two so far over fences having finished fourth at the Cheltenham Festival last season.
Notebook has been a revelation over fences for Henry DeBromhead and Rachael Blackmore. DeBromhead won this race with Sizing Europe a decade ago.
Should the run of winning favourites continue in the Arkle, then Notebook could kick off an incredible week for Blackmore and DeBromhead who have a stellar cast to line up over the course of the week.
Champion Hurdle 3.30
This year's Champion Hurdle will be overshadowed by the other grade one races on day one as it is euphemistically referred to as "an open renewal," in other words, a substandard one.
Epatente is looking to become only the third mare to win the race since Dawn Run in 1984. Annie Power she is not. There is every chance that even if Epatante wins the champion Hurdle on Tuesday she will still only be the third-best mare to run on the day.
— Racing TV (@RacingTV) March 9, 2020
Every year the Cheltenham preview scene reminds use how the introduction of Mares' races waters down the competition and course form is crucial. Yet Epatante is favourite for the Champion Hurdle after a terrible run at the Festival in a mares only race last year.
Locating the winner in an "open renewal" is fraught with danger, but perhaps leaving the assessment to the person whose job it is to ascertain who the best horse in the race is, the Handicapper.
Officially, it's Sharjah and he's a double-figure price who was a little unlucky to be brought down in the race last year.
Ok technically Epatante is three pounds well in against Sharjah, but the price should be ample compensation.
Mares Hurdle 4.10
A quick glance towards the heavyweight boxing scene is ample evidence that sports fans rarely get the clashes they actually want. That will not be the case in this year's Mares' Hurdle.
Benie des Dieux v Honeysuckle is very much on. Benie has the higher rating and but for a final flight error would be looking for a hat-trick in the race.
After much deliberation & discussion with @HenrydeBromhead & Kenny Alexander, Honeysuckle will go for The Close Brothers Hurdle @CheltenhamRaces next Tuesday & not The Champion 🤞🤞🤞🍀🍀🍀🏇 pic.twitter.com/zA11fDmjjB
— Peter Molony (@Pmolony1Peter) March 3, 2020
Honeysuckle has done nothing wrong, well apart from a slow jump at the last when leading in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown. It didn't stop her winning, crucially.
Honeysuckle is unbeaten, Benie des Dieux's only defeat was in this race last year. Something has to give.
Honeysuckle's best runs have been right-handed, Benie des Dieux's best performance was over three miles.
The clash of the day is in arguably the most maligned race of the festival, the one the purists bemoaned for keeping Quevaga away from the Stayers' Hurdle.
Willie Mullins claims this is the best mare he's trained, on Tuesday she comes up against her most formidable opposition. Perhaps at the prices, Honeysuckle is the bet, but team Mullins will not countenance defeat if pre-Cheltemnham chat is to be believed.
National Hunt Chase 5.30
The not-quite four-miler in its slightly new format still closes day one. Authorities hope a spectacle like last year is avoided, where only four horses finished the slog.
A rarity for Willie Mullins is a horse with just one festival entry, everything gets options, usually at least. That was not the case with Carefully Selected in this race.
Carefully Selected - are you with or against the short-priced favourite in the National Hunt Chase?
Interesting stuff here from Ruby, who reports this horse has schooled much better since his last run #RoadToCheltenham @LydiaHislop
Big-race guide ➡ https://t.co/eynfSbZ3dR pic.twitter.com/aUVuXzagf3
— Racing TV (@RacingTV) March 9, 2020
Only amateur riders can participate in the National Hunt Chase, so it was jokingly put to Willie Mullins that his son Patrick (champion amateur rider) was in charge of the entry of this horse. "Well I wasn't anyway" was the reply of Mullins senior as he immediately distanced himself from the situation.
Carefully Selected has course form having finished second to Relegate in the Bumper two seasons ago and while his jumping is not the slickest, the fact that this has so clearly been the plan makes his status as favourite worthwhile.
To oppose the favourite, looking to the top riders is key. Jamie Codd, Derek O'Connor, Patrick Mullins and Barry O'Neill are excellent riders and have shared six renewals of this race between them since 2011. They have an enormous advantage over some of the other more corinthian riders in the weighroom.