Our Road to Cheltenham series kicks off nice and early this season, with the Follow The Money team keeping an eye of some of the key 2018 Festival markets following racing over the weekend...
The autumn leaves are falling from the trees, the annual chatter of enquiring when the clocks go back has commenced, which means only one thing - the jumps are back.
Thus begins the inaugural frozen footsteps on the long and winding winter road to those four faithful days on Cleeve Hill in March. In the first of our popular weekly series we will take a look at the main championship races and a look back on the opening weekend's action at Chepstow, as one of the highest profile protagonists unfurled one of his main antepost hopes for Prestbury Park.
Interestingly, at present only two of the four defending champions of the principal races stand at the top of our antepost markets to retain their crowns. In the Champion Hurdle Buveur Dair 4.67/2, looks solid at the top of the market. His mid-season switch from fences to hurdles paid off handsomely last March and one would have to think a return to this two mile blue riband hurdle event will be this 6yo's target all season.
In terms of opposition the main danger may come from within the same ownership as JP McManus' authoritative Triumph Hurdle winner Defi Du Seuil may attract support at 9.08/1.
The shock of last year's festival came in the Champion Chase as the Rich Ricci-owned flying machine Douvan, 4.57/2, spluttered at 2/9 SP to leave many a tear in an Irish punter's eye, ufortunately sustaining an injury mid race which left fellow Irish-trained stalwart Special Tiara, 90.089/1, to pick up the pieces and put yet another Emerald Isle winner on the board.
Judging by the champion's price in our antepost market a repeat win is not expected. This may be due to the presence of the crack novice Altior, 2.68/5, at the head of affairs. Last year's runaway Arkle winner is being aimed at this race and if Douvan can come back to full form hopefully we will see the potential clash that has all jump fans excited.
The Stayers Hurdle market has a very familiar look to it as antepost favourite all last winter Unowhatimeanharry, 9.08/1, is vying for favouritism with defending champion Nicholas Canyon, 7.87/1. These two rivals had a ding dong battle at Punchestown with Harry Fry's charge just coming out on top.
Maybe the value in this market lies with the loveable Lil Rockerfeller, 26.025/1, who split the top two at the festival last year. Races like the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby should see new contenders emerge in the coming weeks.
Friday's feature event of course is the Gold Cup and this market may be the one that invokes most discussion. Surprisingly defending champion Sizing John, 8.615/2, is not favourite. Punters maintain the faith in former festival winner Thistlecrack, 6.25/1, whose long awaited return from injury is something worth eagerly anticipating.
Behind these two titans of the game snapping at their heels are the impressive novices Our Duke, 10.519/2, and Might Bite, 11.010/1. One just hopes in a deep looking Gold Cup 2018 that this exciting bunch of staying chasers can reach the main event in one piece.
This weekend saw the chasing debut of exciting 5yo Finians Oscar. Reaction was mixed as the Colin Tizzard-trained gelding still remains at the head of our JLT Novice Chase market and near the top of both the Arkle and RSA Novice Chase markets.
Punters may remain wary until they know the exact target but this former point-to-point winner will need to brush up his sketchy jumping for new jockey Bryan Cooper if he's to live up to any hefty Cheltenham Festival aspirations. It's worth remembering that connections bypassed the festival last year, suggesting that the flatter Aintree track would be more to his liking.