Our experts answer the big questions and come up with some bold predictions
Who will be the horse that dominates the 2017-18 season?
James Pyman Altior. Unbeaten over hurdles, yet to be conquered over fences – and I don’t see that changing.
David Jennings Defi Du Seuil. Mega Fortune and Bapaume are good horses and he beat them silly in the Triumph. He has everything and he could dominate well past 2017/18.
Tom Park I can't wait to see Faugheen back on a racecourse. If he is anywhere near back to the level he was at before his injury there's not a horse in training able to lay a glove on him – he's known as the machine for a reason.
Keith Melrose Altior. He has ability, charisma and owners that count as the little guy in these days of high-rollers. On top of that, the campaign that's been floated for him is the type a boxing promoter would pick for a top two-mile chaser.
Stuart Riley One bad run, when something was clearly amiss, and everyone seems to have forgotten how wondrously talented Douvan is. The horse he used to beat for fun is now the Gold Cup hero and I'm sure he’d put Altior in his place if they met.
And who is the horse you are most looking forward to seeing?
Pyman I’m going to be greedy and name two from the same stable – Colin Tizzard’s Thistlecrack and Cue Card. With Thistlecrack it’s unfinished business; he was brilliant in the King George then lost nothing in defeat when outstayed by Many Clouds. Fingers crossed he returns from injury the same horse and has an uninterrupted season culminating in the Gold Cup. Cue Card is a legend – by miles my favourite horse of recent times.
Jennings Altior. We’ve been blessed with some absolute superstars in recent years and this onde is right up there. Every time he runs it’s box office.
Park I can't wait to see Might Bite be unleashed. I’ve never seen a horse do what he did at the festival and if there is a horse who is untouchable it could be him. Odds of 50-1 to win the Triple Crown is good value given we don't know just how good he is yet.
Melrose For better or worse, Yorkhill. His temperament's on a knife edge and he might lose the plot altogether at some point, but hopefully not before we get to see him prove that he's the most talented chaser in training.
Riley There are few more mesmerising sights than Ar Mad attacking the Railway fences and I hope they go to the Tingle Creek because there’s not a horse alive he couldn’t put under pressure around there.
Which horse will dominate all winter but disappoint come Cheltenham?
Pyman This describes Death Duty last season – and I’m sensing a Groundhog Day moment. He is a top-class chaser in the making on soft ground, and could mop up Grade 1 novice chases in Ireland this winter, but there is a question mark hanging over his effectiveness on decent spring ground so you couldn’t back him ante-post for Cheltenham.
Jennings Death Duty. I’m not saying he won’t get there eventually, but his tall reputation scared everything off last year and he found it all so easy beating up small fields all winter that when stepped into the heat of festival combat he looked all at sea. I can’t see him getting any more experience at the coalface before March.
Park Dare I say it, Altior. The 2m chasing division looks as competitive as it has been for many years and Willie Mullins holds three almighty threats in Douvan, Min and Great Field.
Melrose Counter intuitively, I think it might be Sizing John. The evidence says he's a speed-and-class model of staying chaser and they tend to suit 3m at Haydock, Kempton and Leopardstown at least as well as 3m2f at Cheltenham. Additionally, going by the current Gold Cup market (alas, it rarely materialises), many of his main rivals will want to make it into a war.
Riley Our Duke. He gallops for for fun but he can’t jump for toffee. His dominant style and the slower pace of Irish races should allow him to get away with it all winter, but come the spring he’ll blunder away his chance.
How was that favourite? Give us a horse currently at the head of a Cheltenham market whose ante-post prominence will spark incredulity come March.
Pyman Gordon Elliott has paid £210,000 for maiden point winner Invincible Cave and he could be anything. However, the probability of a horse who has yet to run in a bumper winning a Grade 1 which attracts 20-odd runners each season is surely less than the 3.8 per cent implied by his 25-1 odds.
Jennings Fox Norton in the Ryanair. With Altior around at 2m and the staying division stacked those 2m4f races could be deep this year. It is easy to see him turning up at Cheltenham without a win to his name and double the price.
Park I'm surprised Buveur D'Air is as short as he is for the Champion Hurdle. You have to go all the way back to Hardy Eustace for the last back-to-back winner of the race and I don't think last season's race was the strongest. Should Faugheen return and Defi Du Seuil prove himself in senior company, Buveur D'Air may be struggling to even place.
Melrose Yanworth in the RSA – or any festival novice chase for that matter. He's got a kink and I would have doubts over whether he's really cut out for fences, though his ability will obviously carry him so far.
Riley Stayers’ winner Nichols Canyon. Since the start of 2016 he has won just two of his nine starts, so a few defeats and a walk in the market seems probable.
Who is the best handicapped horse in training?
Pyman You need to be Nostradamus to find the correct answer but a horse who is well-treated is The Organist. She has been revitalised by returning to hurdles and would have gone close to winning a handicap at Cheltenham on her final start last season but for being badly hampered. Midnight Tour won that race and was raised 12lb.
Jennings No Comment. He was second in handicaps at Aintree and Punchestown and is absolutely thrown in off a mark of 145. They may want to go novice chasing, but something like Haydock’s Fixed Brush Hurdle would be his for the taking.
Park When Willie Mullins picks up a new recruit from a different yard he often finds a stone in improvement. This was highlighted by Total Recall, formerly of Sandra Hughes, and her best horse last season, Acapella Bourgeois, has also moved to Mullins. He looks sure to win a big handicap off 149 – he could be a Gold Cup candidate by the end of the season.
Melrose It's still If In Doubt if he can ever get the hang of jumping fences. Otherwise, the horse who is going to turn up in a big handicap and make me wonder how it has ever got in off 144 is River Wylde.
Riley Brian Ellison’s Nietzsche. He was third in the Fred Winter – beaten half a length – and a mistake at the last did not help. The form’s worked out well with the runner-up ruffling Defi Du Seuil at Aintree and the fourth winning a Grade 2 at Fairyhouse. He is just 6lb higher.
If you could target any horse at any race, who would it be and why?
Pyman Tully East in the BetVictor Gold Cup. Last season's Grade 1 festival novices are usually too high and he won the novice handicap at the festival with authority and remains on a favourable mark. The third and sixth then ran well at Aintree, so the form looks solid enough. Cheltenham is his track as he is usually strong at the finish.
Jennings Djakadam for the King George. He doesn't stay 3m2f at Cheltenham, but 3m around Kempton, where his electric jumping would be a huge asset, looks right up his street.
Park I'd be pitching Apple's Jade up against the boys in the Stayers' Hurdle. You can ignore whatever she does in the winter because she is an absolute superstar come spring and I'd be shocked if she wasn't good enough to beat Nichols Canyon and company.
Melrose Yorkhill for the Queen Mother. Putting him up against Altior and Douvan at Cheltenham would have 2004 Tingle Creek potential.
Riley Un De Sceaux in the King George. If ever there were a horse designed for a race it is this combination. He would make it a fantastic spectacle and it would take a mighty good one to get past him.
Which handicapper can win a Grade 1?
Pyman There is room for a handicapper to transition to Grade 1s in the 2m hurdle division given the lack of depth. Campeador was in the process of easily defying a mark of 142 in a valuable handicap at Fairyhouse last December when crashing out at the last. The way he travels in his races suggests he could be a Grade 1-horse in the making.
Jennings: Can you hear that? It’s the No Comment drum. I’m not going to stop banging it. If and when he goes chasing expect him to clean up, but I’d keep him over hurdles and win a Stayers’ Hurdle personally.
Park Sizing Codelco looked supremely talented when demolishing two competitive handicap fields to score at Aintree and Punchestown. A mark of 160 puts him just a few pounds behind the main Gold Cup contenders and he could be the dark horse this season.
Melrose Fred Winter fifth Diable De Sivola was one of the eyecatchers of the festival last year. He is rated 132, very much built for fences and is trained by Nick Williams. That last point is important, because Williams has just the sort of race-planning flair to win a decent handicap hurdle before taking him over fences, where he could easily prove graded-class as a novice.
Riley Fountains Windfall. He had them all beaten out of sight before the home turn when winning a Grade 3 handicap at Aintree, only being kept up to his work and maintaining his eight-length margin all the way up the straight. He could develop into a serious staying hurdler in what is easily the sport’s weakest division, or target a top-level novice chase.
Who/what will be this season's surprise package?
Pyman Pingshou. The decision to stay over hurdles suggests he is viewed as a potential Champion Hurdle horse and he is generally on offer at 50-1 for that festival race. He proved at Aintree last season that he has the pace to be competitive against the best hurdlers and is open to further improvement.
Jennings Well this may not actually surprise you now but, wait for it . . . No Comment.
Park I think it would be foolish to rule Colin Tizzard out of the trainer's title race. He has bundles of young talent at his disposal and, in Sizing Codelco and Native River, has two early candidates for the Grand National, which can play a huge part in deciding the title. I think there are worse 9-1 bets out there.
Melrose Given where the money is concentrated these days I wouldn't be expecting miracles, but the north appears in slightly better shape than in the last couple of seasons. Lucinda Russell might expect a spike on the back of training the National winner, Donald McCain is just a Graded horse or two away from a fully fledged comeback and you would hope it's only a matter of time before Sandy Thomson gets some more smart types.
Riley Jonjo O’Neill. He’s had a quiet few years by his standards with his last two tallies lower than anything he’s posted since the foot-and-mouth-interrupted 2000-01 season. But consequently he has a stable full of well-handicapped horses and there aren’t many better at capitalising on a favourable mark.
Which horse will improve most for the switch to fences?
Pyman Willoughby Court was a smart novice hurdler but has the faculties to be a stone better over fences. He has the right frame for chasing, an unflinching attitude, and his inclination to make the running will mean he will get a good sight at his fences.
Jennings Can I say No Comment? Okay, I’ll give you another one. Topofthegame. He just screams chaser in the making and I can’t wait to see him over a fence.
Park Petit Mouchoir. He was running a superb race in the Champion Hurdle before making a mess of the penultimate flight. He jumped well in his sole point-to-point and looked a natural on debut.
Melrose Finian's Oscar had the air of a chaser playing in the shallows last season and would be a fairly obvious choice, for all he'll need to sharpen up from Chepstow. I'll also be watching out for Monalee, who still seemed a bit raw over hurdles but has the looks and technique of a chaser as well as demonstrable class.
Riley Movewiththetimes. He chased home Ballyandy in the Betfair Hurdle and was well fancied for Cheltenham before a niggle ruled him out. He’s an impressive-looking, scopy sort and fences should be the making of him. He made a pleasing start at Cheltenham on Friday and there should be plenty more to come.
Which horse will not sparkle over fences, revert to hurdles and become a major player?
Pyman I'll remember to ask Santa for a crystal ball this year! It’s not that big a stretch to believe Thistlecrack could run in the Stayers’ Hurdle. Connections are hopeful he will be back for the King George, but to be pitch-perfect in the Gold Cup he might need at least a couple of spins over fences and should he return any later than Christmas it might be a struggle to get his preparation right. The Stayers’, which he won two seasons ago, might then look an attractive option.
Jennings Sutton Place. He could have won the Champion Hurdle but they didn’t run him and it’s easy to see them doing a Buveur D’Air and working that out halfway through this season.
Park The obvious candidate is Yorkhill, whose jumping problems have been well documented. I don't think there is a more talented horse in training and if connections decide to go for the Champion Hurdle I certainly wouldn't back against him. However, his jumping was fine in the JLT and he is surely Willie Mullins' best chance of winning the Gold Cup.
Melrose Yanworth is the instant reaction, but is there any chance at all we will see Thistlecrack back over hurdles? He didn't string two good rounds of jumping together last season and connections are reportedly already considering a dabble at Newbury, so the seed will have been sewn if he doesn't light it up back over fences.
Riley Our Duke isn't the best over his fences and he's in the same yard as the Gold Cup winner, so a few costly mistakes this winter could cause connections to consider the switch.
Which novice could be capable of winning in Grade 1 open company?
Pyman I don’t think those trainers with top novice chasers will be in a hurry to take on Altior, so staying novices are more likely to be pitched in at the deep. I will nominate Willoughby Court given I’m predicting he will improve markedly for fences.
Jennings Petit Mouchoir. Under-rated over hurdles, he looked a natural over fences on debut and if Douvan does step up in trip the two-mile scene becomes a very soft division in Ireland.
Park I'm really looking forward to seeing Finian's Oscar over fences. While I'm sure connections will keep him in novice company, he wouldn't be out of his depth against the senior brigade – he's a future Gold Cup winner in my opinion.
Melrose The two main chasing divisions look so strong at this early stage. If Barters Hill still has his impressive engine intact and he jumps a fence better than a hurdle, it's possible connections will be tempted into a Gold Cup trial given they've already lost a season with him.
Riley The staying hurdlers look a moderate bunch so if I had a talented novice I’d be sorely tempted and given his reputation Samcro looks an early contender. More Of That proved inexperience is no barrier.
Who will roll back the years and be this season's comeback kid?
Pyman Donald McCain trained 100-plus winners every season between 2010-11 and 2013-14, and was just one shy in 2014-15. However, two seasons ago he managed just 53. 80 winners last season was a step back in the right direction, and the yard has hit the ground running this time with 36 successes on the board and a healthy 19 per cent strike-rate. The stable’s recent resurgence suggests big-race winners could start to flow again this winter.
Jennings Coneygree. That run at Punchestown was something else and having got that out of the way they can get stuck into him with real confidence. He could do a Denman in the Hennessy, the gallop he’s capable of going is just so hard to live with.
Park Comebacks are so rare, which is what makes them so special. Faugheen will be unbeatable if he returns the same horse and Douvan's run at Cheltenham was too bad to be true. Both will dominate their races in Ireland but their day of destiny will come at Prestbury Park.
Melrose All or nothing, this, because he could as easily be retired on the quiet before November's out, but the Faugheen of old would have half a dozen lengths on Buveur D'Air so I hope it's him.
Riley Thistlecrack. I would love to see him back and as good as ever because he is just outrageously talented. It’s not an easy injury from which to fully recover, but Colin Tizzard is a genius.
Who will improve for a step up in trip?
Pyman Disko ran a fine race to finish third in the JLT, but he lacked the finishing speed to match Yorkhill and Top Notch in the closing stages and then improved for a longer when landing the 3m½f Grade 1 at Punchestown. I'm convinced he'll be even better over the Gold Cup trip and at 33-1 is an interesting outsider for the premier staying chase.
Jennings It’s rare you come across a Trevor Hemmings horse that doesn’t improve for a step up in trip and given what Cloudy Dream has done 2m and 2m4f, he could be a star by the end of the season.
Park I don't think we will see it but I'd love to see Douvan step up in trip. You can put a line through his Cheltenham run last season – he clearly wasn't right – but he would surely be a force in races such as the King George and possibly the Gold Cup. Sizing John couldn't get close to Douvan when they faced each other over 2m and I imagine the result would be the same over any trip.
Melrose It's still not clear to me if Apple's Jade is a top-notch stayer in the making or just lacks gears over shorter. I would very much like to see her tried over 3m this winter and, if it works out, it would take a genuine champion to beat her in the Stayers' Hurdle.
Riley Douvan. The horse he used to toy with won a Gold Cup with ease. Just imagine what he could be capable of stepped up in trip.
And who needs to come back down in distance?
Pyman Barney Dwan stays three miles, but given how strongly he travelled in last season’s Pertemps Final I would be inclined to believe his best trip might be an intermediate 2m4f.
Jennings Vroum Vroum Mag. She's won the Grade 1 Champion Hurdle at the Punchestown festival two seasons ago but raced over two and a half and three miles until the same festival this year. With the likes of Apple's Jade, Let’s Dance and Limini about the Champion Hurdle may even be the softer race.
Park I can't believe I'm saying this, but Cue Card. I've spent years convinced he is the best stayer in the game but he was so impressive in what was admittedly a poor Ascot Chase there could be more to come from him at that distance, even as a 12-year-old. He isn't good enough to win a Gold Cup anymore but I wouldn't back against him in the Ryanair should he show his usual enthusiasm.
Melrose Maybe Whisper. I'm not sure he'll truly stay a stiff 3m2f but we should at least get to see in the Hennessy. Even if he sticks to staying trips beyond that, he will run into better horses. A mid-160s horse like him would have more chance of top honours going down the 2m4f route and I think he'd cope with the increased pace.
Riley Sutton Place. You won’t convince me he wouldn’t have won the Champion Hurdle if he’d run in it and I’d like to see the three-mile experiment shelved.
Which horse wins a Grade 1 this season by the biggest margin? And name the race?
Pyman There have been 19 Grade 1s since 2005 won by 19 lengths or more, 17 were chases, with 15 run over 2m4f or further. Given I think Altior will be the dominant force in the chasing division, I’m predicting a landslide victory for this exceptional horse in the 2m4f Melling Chase at Aintree.
Jennings Altior in the Tingle Creek. He’ll scare off anything with the engine to beat the ambulance home.
Park Although the Irish may have the arsenal to properly test Altior at the festival, he will have it his own way in Britain and he's looked a different league to his rivals in his two chase starts at Sandown and I imagine he will win the Tingle Creek by a long way.
Melrose A front-running staying chaser who beats up a small field in a bog – so let's say Our Duke in the Lexus.
Riley Nicky Henderson will have the trainers' title sewn up before the final day of the season and the chance to avenge his Cheltenham defeat by Douvan will tempt him into running Altior at Punchestown, so Ar Mad in the Celebration Chase.
And finally, one bold prediction please?
Pyman Cue Card to win the Grand National. I would love to see connections gear his season around a tilt at the most famous chase. You couldn’t be confident he will stay 4m3½f, but he was not stopping at the finish of the 3m1f Betway Bowl last season and loves Aintree with form figures at the venue of 122212.
Jennings Lad Of Luck to win Supreme Novices' Hurdle. You heard it here first.
Park Forget returning with a bang, Faugheen is going to explode back into racing like a nuclear bomb and nothing will be able to even get near him. Fair play to Buveur D'Air last season, he did a good job keeping the Champion Hurdle throne warm, but Faugheen is the rightful king.
Melrose Minella Rocco to go off bigger for the Gold Cup than he was last year- and win it.
Riley This year’s King George winner to earn a higher RPR than Kauto Star’s 191 – for his 36-length beating of Madison Du Berlais. It could be an incredible field, with a ton of pace, and the last one standing could put serious distance into high-class horses.