In Germany, they refer to the busy period of football over the Christmas holiday as the “Englische Woche”, literally English week. It’s a catch-all term, used primarily to refer to mid-week football, but becomes especially apt over Christmas and New Year. When Bundesliga footballers have their feet up, Premier League teams must deal with around half a dozen games. While it’s not make or break across a 38 game season, the Christmas and New Year period is clearly essential for setting teams on their way to the business end of the season.
And yet, the same could also be said for horse racing. On Boxing Day, for instance, there are 11 meetings across the UK and Ireland, and the busy schedule continues into early January. While there are some spectacular individual highlights – King George VI Chase, Christmas Hurdle – the fixture list also sets us on the road to Cheltenham.
So, what did the Festive period tell us about the big races at Cheltenham 2020? As ever, we got some intriguing clues, but there were also some tantalising questions raised. Below, we look at the four feature races to see how they are shaping up:
Champion Hurdle – Epatante Looks a Star in the Making
The Christmas Hurdle isn’t always the most useful indicator of success for the Champion Hurdle, but when you look at some of the winners down the years – Faugheen, Buveur D’Air, Binocular – it certainly shouldn’t be ignored. So, it’s understandable that Epatante has shot to the top of the Champion Hurdle market after a barnstorming performance on Boxing Day at Kempton. The mare, trained by Nicky Henderson, is now priced at 3/1 by 888sport for the big one on opening day. Others, like Saldier (6/1) and Pentland Hills (7/1) are taking in money, but Epatante finally seems to have found her rhythm.
Queen Mother Champion Chase – A New King Could Be Crowned
In November 2019, something happened in racing that hadn’t occurred for over four years – Altior lost a race. The 19-race winning streak came to an end at the hands of Cyraname at Ascot, and it gave punters who bet on Cheltenham something to ponder over the coming weeks. Altior still has his status as co-favourite at 7/2 for the Champion Chase, alongside Defi Du Seuil. But, for once, it doesn’t look a sure thing for Altior. On the other hand, Altior has but one tiny blip on his chasing record, coming after a 210-day lay-off. Write him off at your peril.
Stayers’ Hurdle – A Clear Favourite
Of the four feature races, only the Stayers’ Hurdle betting markets show daylight between the favourite and the rest of the field. Paisley Park, who took the Stayers’ last year, has been given odds of 11/8, relatively short given that we are talking about ante-post betting. Paisley Park has been perfect since exploding onto the scene in autumn 2018, and he looked in good nick in his first appearance of the season in late-November. If the Cap Fits (7/1) seems to be the most likely challenger. But things could change between now and mid-March, so perhaps hold your fire on this one.
Gold Cup – The Biggest Puzzle
One would argue that the most prestigious race at the Festival is also the hardest to call at this point. Last year’s winner, Al Boum Photo, leads the market at 4/1, but there is a suggestion that he’s there because he has the fewest question marks over his performances. The most intriguing name to watch, however, is Clan Des Obeaux. The double King George VI Chase winner failed in his audition for the Gold Cup last year, but the 8/1 odds will tempt plenty of punters given his heroics at Kempton on Boxing Day. Kemboy (7/1), Lostintranslation (7/1), Santini (8/1) and Delta Work (8/1), all of whom look like potential winners, add to the puzzle. Put simply; this is anyone’s guess. But that also means you can find a bit of value in the market.