Cheltenham Racecourse staged its annual press conference ahead of The Festival™ presented by Magners today, Wednesday, 26 February, in the Princess Royal Grandstand.
The Festival™ presented by Magners takes place over four days from Tuesday, 10 March to Friday, 13 March inclusive.
Minehead-based Philip Hobbs has recorded 20 winners at The Festival. His headline act this year is once again Defi du Seuil, winner of the G1 JCB Triumph Hurdle in 2017 and what is now the G1 Marsh Novices' Chase in 2019.
Hobbs said: "All is going well up to this stage, but we still have a couple of weeks to go to keep them in one piece. Most of the work is done and it is just a matter of ticking over.
"Defi Du Seuil is very good and everything has gone well since he won at Ascot. Personally, I would prefer if Chacun Pour Soi and Altior did not get there, as it would be much easier! If they are all there and Defi could win, it would be great. Having gone unbeaten all season over two miles, the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase was the obvious race to go for.
"If I had to guess, Thyme Hill would be more likely for the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle. It looks a slightly easier race and I am sure the three miles will suit him, but if the ground was very soft and the race cut up, he may go for the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle instead.
"Sporting John is more likely for the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, although he is in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle as well.
"Pileon has only had three runs over hurdles and won the last two very easily, albeit in extremely moderate affairs. His first run was maybe his best when he was fourth here in a good novices' hurdle in the autumn. He will run in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle I would imagine.
"Jatiluwih will go for the Pertemps Network Final with his owner David Maxwell riding him. He should have a decent chance.
"Deise Aba in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase would be an obvious one and maybe Zoffee in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. They would be our main ones."
Gloucestershire-based Nigel Twiston-Davies has 17 Festival successes to his name and his team in 2020 is again headed by Bristol de Mai, who goes for the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup after finishing third in the race in 2019.
Twiston-Davies said: "Bristol de Mai is in good shape ahead of the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup. I am amazed that Santini is favourite for the Gold Cup and we are 33/1. We were giving Santini 2lb in the Cotswold Chase and looked all over the winner at the bottom of the hill, but then we slipped on landing and that cost us the race. I think we have a great chance.
"Ballyandy has run against Pentland Hills twice this season and beaten him twice. He loves Cheltenham and will run better than his price suggests in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
"We have a got a few for the handicaps, including Cogry, who does very well around here, but they are all 25/1 or 33/1. But with a bit of luck, they could win."
Alan King has saddled 15 Festival winners and will be well-represented again in 2020, with his team led by Sceau Royal in the G1 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
King said: "Sceau Royal will probably take his chance in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, provided the ground is not bottomless. He was a very good third in it last year, but this looks a stronger renewal. He has been a marvellous horse and if it was not for Altior, he would be a multiple G1 winner, but we know our place. If he could finish third or fourth, it would be a great achievement.
"Who Dares Wins will run as long as the ground isn't heavy. The handicapper left him alone on 147 after he won on Saturday, so the Ultima Handicap Chase could well come into the reckoning now. He will certainly go up to three miles and it will be that or the RSA Insurance Novices' Chase.
"Harambe is just back cantering after being brought down in the Betfair Hurdle. The Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle may come a bit too quickly, but we will see how he is.
"Lisp and Ballywood are in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase. Ballywood would want decent ground, whereas to Lisp it would not matter. Lisp is only a novice, but I have won it with a novice before (Oh Crick in 2009)."
Kim Bailey is based not far from Cheltenham at Andoversford and has trained four Festival winners, headed by a memorable double in 1995 when Alderbrook took the Champion Hurdle and Master Oats won the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Bailey said: "I have certainly got my best team coming here for a long time. I have five horses and I would not swap any of them. They are all in good form, they all look well, and they have been trained for their races, so fingers crossed they all get here in one piece.
"Vinndication runs in the Ultima Handicap Chase. He worked this morning and I was delighted with him. He has only run once this season, which won't do him any harm as he has not been chuntering around on heavy ground all winter. He has won seven out of nine. He got beat at Sandown last season and we weren't hugely happy, but Defi Du Seuil and Lostintranslation were the two horses that beat him, so in hindsight it was a very good race.
"Imperial Aura will go for the Northern Trust Company Novices' Handicap Chase. He worked with Vinndication this morning. He has only had the three runs over fences and two of them have been here, so he has experience around the racecourse. He virtually had a walkover the first day at Fakenham and there were only four other runners when he came here in December, whereas when he ran here January at least there were 12 runners. He had a race amongst other horses, which was important. He comes here with a very live chance.
"The owners of Two For Gold are coming to see me on Monday, when we will have a final discussion about where he will run. I think it is likely that we will drop him back in trip for the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate, which Darna won for us a few years ago.
"New Tide will go for the National Hunt Chase, while Espoir de Romay will go for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle and Chester Williams will ride him."
Fellow Gloucestershire handler Ben Pauling has chalked up two winners at The Festival, most recently with Le Breuil in the 2019 National Hunt Chase.
Pauling said: "Global Citizen has never encountered an undulating track when he has been right. He is obviously very effective on a Flat track, but I will hold out the hope that he can produce the goods here as well in the Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase. He did a piece of work yesterday and is in very good nick. He has been laid out specifically to come here fresh, as he is best fresh. There have been no hold ups. I would love it if the ground is a bit quicker than soft. If it got very soft, I would maybe swerve it and head to Aintree.
"I was very pleased with Kildisart on Saturday [finished fifth]. That was much more like his old self back on a bit of better ground. I think he would have a live chance in the Ultima Handicap Chase.
"Le Breuil is in the Ultima and also up there in the betting for the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase. He will probably run in one of the two in preparation for the Grand National."
Jonjo O'Neill's 26 Festival wins included Synchronised's memorable 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup success. He came close to a second success in chasing's Blue Riband in 2017 with Minella Rocco, who runs this year in the St James's Place Foxhunter Chase.
O'Neill said: "Minella Rocco is in great form ahead of the St James's Place Foxhunter Chase. He has had plenty of help along the way this season. He has had two runs and two wins, but the two fancied horses did not really turn up on the day. Hopefully, he has the same luck here! I think obviously dropping down a gear or two has helped him. He should have a sporting chance.
"I will leave the decision regarding where Annie Mc runs up to Simon Clare - then I can blame him if it goes wrong! She is in grand form and has had an easy trip to here, with small fields, although she jumps well to be fair. She is a genuine mare and should run well.
"Cloth Cap did not perform great at Doncaster [finished second of four], which was disappointing. We were hoping he would run well there and go on from that. He has had a few problems at home, albeit nothing serious. Richie [McLernon] rode him in work yesterday and felt he was on the way back, although Cheltenham may come a bit quick for him. Hopefully, we will have him back. The long-term plan would be the Scottish Grand National."
Jamie Snowden enjoyed a first Festival success in 2014 with Present View taking the Novices' Handicap Chase. The Lambourn handler is enjoying his best season ever, having already beaten his previous best tally of winners (43 as of today).
Snowden said: "Thebannerkingrebel has had a wind op on the back of the Betfair Hurdle and it may be tight to get to the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle. We will see how he is.
"I think Thomas Macdonagh would have a chance in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle. He won three races in the early part of the winter and loves soft ground. He disappointed a bit in the G2 River Don Novices' Hurdle [finished last], but he did not stay the three miles that day. The drop back in trip for the Martin Pipe on the back of a wind op should give him a chance.
"We have also got Adrrastos in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase on the Friday. He prefers slightly better ground compared to Thomas Macdonagh, so we will have to see how the week pans out weather wise for those two.
"I think Kiltealy Briggs is a nice horse. He is in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle. He finished third in a G2 trial race here in December. He is also in the EBF Final at Sandown next weekend, so we will have to decide if he goes there or here for the Albert Bartlett.
"Fact Of The Matter came here yesterday for a pop around [the Cross Country Course] and had a good time of it. Taking on Tiger Roll off level weights is probably not the best thing in the world and he will struggle to win, but he loves it around here. All being well, after Cheltenham he will go to Punchestown for the banks race."
Warren Greatrex broke his Festival duck in 2015 when Cole Harden won what is now the Paddy Power Stayers' Hurdle. The Upper Lambourn trainer is set to be represented in the same race this year by Emitom, who was the impressive eight-length winner of the G2 Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock Park on 15 February.
Greatrex said: "Emitom has come out of Haydock well. He is all good and back on track. I doubt he can beat Paisley Park, but we will give it our best shot. He has only disappointed us once and that was down to my error rather than his. He is only a six-year-old and I think there is plenty more to come.
"La Bague Au Roi is in the Ultima Handicap Chase and the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate. We will see nearer the time but, having seen the weights, she is off 11st 2lb and that could be quite appealing. She has never run in a handicap and is probably ready to have a go in one.
"Bob Mahler will go for the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase. He won the Edinburgh National at Musselburgh last time and is improving all the time. We won this race a few years ago with Missed Approach and he would have the same sort of profile.
"Portrush Ted will run in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle or the Coral Cup and Encore Champs will go for the Northern Trust Company Novices' Handicap Chase."
Harry Whittington, who trains at Sparsholt in Oxfordshire, is bidding for his first Festival winner but has a decent team assembled for this year.
He said: "We were delighted with Simply The Betts on Festival Trials Day and now he will have to mix it with the big boys in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate, which won't be easy. Hopefully, he can continue on an upward curve, as he has been in great form all year.
"Rouge Vif will go for the Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase. It looks quite open this year, although of course it won't be easy. My horse has improved with every run and had a wind op after he finished fourth here in December. They always say the second run back after a wind op is the better run and he won the Kingmaker well. I don't plan on doing any fast work with him now and he will just tick over until the Arkle. He has form on all ground, but I think he is better on better ground.
"Saint Calvados will go for the Ryanair Chase. He is very different to Rouge Vif in that he is better when he is fresh - there is no doubt about that. After his run on New Year's Day [finished second], we decided it would be best if he came straight here. He is in fabulous shape and I could not be happier with him. It is not going to be easy against the likes of A Plus Tard, Min and Riders Onthe Storm, but if the ground is very testing, he will have a chance."
Exciting young trainer Olly Murphy, who is based in Warwickshire, is also after a first Festival success.
He said today: "I think Brewin'upastorm in the Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase is our best chance of a winner. He has not done a lot wrong. I know we have not seen him for a while, but he is very good fresh - he won his bumper, novice hurdle and novice chase first time out. It does not bother me that he has not had a prep run. The Irish look like they have a fairly strong hand in the race, but I am looking forward to my lad.
"Itchy Feet has been priced accordingly for the Marsh Novices' Chase. He is a horse that people love to knock, particularly after Laurina did not turn up in the race at Sandown. At the same time, four of them jumped the second last upsides in a G1, and I don't understand what more people want horses to do because he was a facile winner in the end.
"Skandiburg would definitely have a chance in the Pertemps Network Final. He won over course and distance around here and has been mapped out for the race for the last six months. He has a proper running style for the Pertemps, as he races behind the bridle and should come home strong."
Also chasing a first success at The Festival is Fergal O'Brien, who is based at Withington in Gloucestershire.
O'Brien said: "I think Champagne Well is our best chance in the handicaps - he goes for the Coral Cup. He has done nothing wrong all year and probably got outstayed last time when second in the River Don at Doncaster. The drop back in trip to two miles and five furlongs will suit, and his form here earlier in the season looks solid.
"The Festival is a great time of year. We have a lot of owners down and there is no secret that I just love Cheltenham, whether it is The Festival or the October meeting. We have not had a winner at The Festival yet, although we came close with Barney Dwan in the Pertemps a few years ago. It would be great to get one."
Neil Mulholland enjoyed Festival success in 2015 with The Druid's Nephew in the Ultima Handicap Chase.
Of his 2020 team, Mulholland said: "The Young Master finished third in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase last year. He is rated 144 and has been around for a while, but he still finished third last year and then came out and finished second in the bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown. Sam Waley-Cohen will ride and is obviously a positive booking for an amateur race.
"Fingerontheswitch has been very consistent this year. He was second in the Sky Bet Chase last time, having won a good pot in Kempton the time before that. Millie Wonnacott gets on very well with him. Ideally, I would like to run him in the Ultima Handicap Chase but, if he does not squeeze in, he could go for the Kim Muir as well.
"Kansas City chief may get in to the Pertemps Network Final. He needs nine or ten to come out, I think. He may squeeze in there. It was only a couple of runs ago that he was running off 117 a Taunton, so he was better handicapped then!"
Cheltenham's Clerk of the Course Simon Claisse said: "We had a bit of snow last night and there could be some tonight and into tomorrow, but we will take that OK. We have been soft or heavy ground ever since the Saturday of The Showcase and we disappointingly lost the Friday of The November Meeting, but I am very happy with where we are.
"The forecast is not too troubling. It does continue to be unsettled, wet and windy, but nothing we have not seen before. The total rain in the forecast I have, which is up until Saturday week, is actually less than the total we had in the 24 hours before The November Meeting. I am very happy with the way things are looking beyond Saturday week, as there is a suggestion that it could get milder, although that is a fair way off for any forecaster.
"If I gave a ground assessment today, both chase and hurdle courses I would describe as soft. The cross country is soft, heavy in places, but that is only around the top loop. I am not a gambling man, but I would suspect we will start the meeting on soft ground. I can't remember which year it was, but we kicked off the meeting on soft ground and, come the Friday afternoon, it was quick enough good. It can change quickly here."
Ian Renton looks ahead
Ian Renton, Regional Director, Cheltenham & The South West, Jockey Club Racecourses, said: "We have a few changes this year. There are some great new sponsors - it is wonderful to welcome Paddy Power back into the fold with the Stayers' Hurdle. We have also got Northern Trust, Daylesford, and Close Brothers is now sponsoring the Mares' Hurdle.
"This year, we have something called The Park. It is an additional area of entertainment. People can go down there and there is plenty of different food and drink outlets, plus a bit of music.
"I am really looking forward to The Festival. Those of us who were out in Ireland last week, it was brilliant visiting Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins and seeing the horses there. They will probably account for a quarter of the horses racing here over the four days. When you see the likes of Chacun Pour Soi, Delta Work and Tiger Roll, it brings it closer to home. That was a real treat to see them up close.
"I think it is going to be one of the great Festivals. The Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase looks to be one of the great Champion Chases we have seen.
Regarding the Coronavirus outbreak, Renton added: "The racing industry is in close touch with the government. At the moment, the government is doing a brilliant job in restricting any issues in this country. I am sure that will continue, and we really look forward to The Festival in two weeks' time."
The Festival™ presented by Magners 2020 race programme
Day One - Tuesday, March 10 (Old Course) - prize money £1,175,000
1.30pm Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 87y £125,000
2.10pm Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase (Grade 1) 1m 7f 199y £175,000
2.50pm Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 3m 1f £110,000
3.30pm Unibet Champion Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 87y £450,000
4.10pm Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 3f 200y £120,000
4.50pm Northern Trust Company Novices' Handicap Chase (Listed) 2m 4f 44y £70,000
5.30pm National Hunt Chase (Amateur Riders' Novices' Chase) (Grade 2) 3m 5f 201y £125,000
Day Two - Wednesday, March 11 (Old Course & Cross Country) - prize money £1,020,000
1.30pm Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 5f £125,000
2.10pm RSA Insurance Novices' Chase (Grade 1) 3m 80y £175,000
2.50pm Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3) 2m 5f £100,000
3.30pm Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1) 1m 7f 99y £400,000
4.10pm Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase 3m 6f 37y £65,000
4.50pm Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3) 2m 87y £80,000
5.30pm Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Grade 1) 2m 87y £75,000
Day Three - Thursday, March 12 (New Course) - prize money £1,195,000
1.30pm Marsh Novices' Chase (Grade 1) 2m 3f 166y £150,000
2.10pm Pertemps Network Final (Handicap Hurdle) (Grade 3) 2m 7f 213y £100,000
2.50pm Ryanair Chase (Grade 1) 2m 4f 127y £350,000
3.30pm Paddy Power Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 7f 213y £325,000
4.10pm Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate (Handicap Chase) (Grade 3) 2m 4f 166y £110,000
4.50pm Daylesford Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2) 2m 179y £90,000
5.30pm Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Amateur Riders' Handicap Chase 3m 2f £70,000
Day Four - Friday, March 13 (New Course) - prize money £1,200,000
1.30pm JCB Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 179y £125,000
2.10pm Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3) 2m 179y £100,000
2.50pm Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 7f 213y £125,000
3.30pm Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1) 3m 2f 70y £625,000
4.10pm St James's Place Foxhunter Chase 3m 2f 70y £45,000
4.50pm Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 2m 62y £110,000
5.30pm Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (0-145) 2m 4f 56y £70,000
Cheltenham Racecourse is situated in Prestbury on the northern outskirts of the historic spa town of Cheltenham. The Home of Jump Racing, Cheltenham Racecourse is the venue for the world's pre-eminent Jump meeting. The Festival™ presented by Magners, which happens in March over four days every year, next takes place from Tuesday, 10 March, to Friday, 13 March, 2020 inclusive and tickets are on sale. Set against the beautiful backdrop of the Cotswolds, Cheltenham Racecourse is a stunning natural arena and offers the highest-quality action throughout the Jump season.