Cheltenham Festival: The stars of 2016 that you should back in 2017

Champion Chase winner Sprinter Sacre deserves to be retired says Mike
Champion Chase winner Sprinter Sacre deserves to be retired says Mike

The 2016 Cheltenham Festival may be over but that hasn't stopped Mike Norman looking ahead to next year's renewal, highlighting the winners from last week to keep an eye on in 2017 as well as marvelling at the Willie Mullins domination...

"Sprinter Sacre has had a fabulous career, and a very difficult one health wise. Every vet and test in the world may be telling us that he's fine, but he has nothing more to prove, isn't getting any younger, and certainly isn't getting any faster."

"All they have to do is add two more races and then we can have five days of Cheltenham", said one pub-goer on Friday night, no doubt regretting that the 2016 Cheltenham Festival was over, and with it his chance of filling his pockets even further with the bookies' cash.

Last week at Cheltenham will largely be remembered for the unprecedented number of winning bankers - Douvan, Vroum Vroum Mag, Vautour, Thistlecrack, Limini, and On The Fringe, all won as short-price, and very well backed, favourites, while the likes of Annie Power and Don Cossack were winning jollies in two of the week's biggest races.

Even when the likes of Min, Yanworth, and Un De Sceaux were turned over, they failed only to their extremely popular market rivals, Altior, Yorkhill, and Sprinter Sacre.

In other words it was a bloodbath for most bookmakers and a goldmine for punters, perhaps the likes of which we'll never witness again.

But the bookies will recover, they always do, and our attentions are already turning to next year's festival. Who from last week impressed enough to keep in mind for 12 months time, and will the Willie Mullins domination of recent festivals continue?

Let's start at the very beginning.

Ignore the Supreme winner in Champion Hurdle

Arguably one of the most impressive winners of the week, Altior, is available to back now at 8.88/1 for the 2017 Champion Hurdle.

But that is surely a price worth swerving for the time-being. The Supreme Novices' Hurdle has been a relatively poor breeding ground for future champion hurdlers in recent years with only 2004 winner Brave Inca going on to taste subsequent Champion Hurdle success (2006) this century.

In fact, most recent winners of the Supreme - the likes of Al Ferof, Champagne Fever, Vautour, and Douvan - were campaigned as chasers in their very next season. And do we have any reason to doubt that Faugheen will be back just as good as he was prior to his recent injury set-back, and that he'll be campaigned down the Champion Hurdle route again?

Perhaps a better indicator of future two-mile star hurdlers has been the Neptune Novices' Hurdle, won previously by the mighty Istabraq (winner of three Champion Hurdle crowns), Hardy Eustace (two Champion Hurdle victories), regular Champion Hurdle contender The New One, and of course, the brilliant Faugheen.

This year's Neptune winner Yorkhill is available to back at 11.010/1 for next season's Champion Hurdle, and he rates the most sensible option at this stage of all last week's novice hurdle eyecatchers.

What next for the Mullins super mares?

Without any intention we've already alluded to how strong a hand Mullins is likely to hold in next year's opening-day feature, and yet we haven't even discussed the possibility of reigning Champion Hurdler Annie Power defending her crown. She can be backed at 8.07/1 currently.

For Mullins the options are endless. Brilliant Mares' Hurdle winner Vroum Vroum Mag isn't even listed in any 2017 ante-post markets at this stage, and for good reason. Will she be allowed to defend her crown, or will the stable's exciting prospect Limini be aimed at the Mares' Hurdle.

Will we see Vroum Vroum stepping back in trip for the Champion Hurdle, like Annie Power did, or will we see her step up in trip and go for the World Hurdle, like Annie Power once did? Or will she revert back to Chases?

Will Thistle be given a crack at defending World Hurdle?

Staying on the World Hurdle, last week's superb winner Thistlecrack is a 4.03/1 chance to go back-to-back, like so many have in the past, in that particular race, but that has to be a no-bet at this stage despite him being the best staying hurdler on the planet, and by some distance.

A Novice Chase campaign, with the Gold Cup - for which he can be backed at 12.011/1 - being the ultimate aim (a la Coneygree), could be on the agenda for Colin Tizzard's fabulous stayer.

Options open for brilliant Vautour

For the second Festival in succession - and some might even say three - Vautour was, for many, the most impressive winner of the week. Re-routed from the Gold Cup to the Ryanair Chase the seven-year-old once again jumped superbly and blitzed his rivals.

If we knew for certain the he would be aimed at the 2017 Cheltenham Gold Cup then he would be a bet at this stage at 9.08/1.

But the problem we have is that Vautour is good enough to win any race he goes for, over hurdles or fences, and it only takes one injury to another of Mullins' stable stars (or to himself) to have a huge effect as to which race he runs in.

There's no denying that Don Cossack was much the best horse in last Friday's Gold Cup and he deservedly took the honours, staying on powerfully to deny Djakadam, who was runner-up for the second season in succession.

He is easily good enough and young enough to go back next year and defend his crown, and odds of 7.613/2 at this stage are very fair.

Don't back sensational Sprinter for a repeat success

And so we give the last mention to arguably the most sentimental victory of the week, Sprinter Sacre's win in the Queen Mother Champion Chase even made the 10 o'clock ITV news!

It was an extremely pleasing victory of course, but call me an old romantic if you like, I just would have liked Nicky Henderson to announce his retirement there and then.

Sprinter Sacre has had a fabulous career, and a very difficult one health wise. Every vet and test in the world may be telling us that he's fine, but he has nothing more to prove, isn't getting any younger, and certainly isn't getting any faster.

Early quotes of 9.08/1 to win the 2017 Champion Chase make no appeal whatsoever as he'd be bidding to become just the second 11-year-old in 40 years to win this prestigious race, and at a time when the Mullins yard can boast the likes of Arkle winner Douvan - 2.56/4 fav to win next year's Champion Chase - and this year's runner-up Un De Sceaux, it's just not going to happen.

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