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Tuesday, 11 December, 2018

Ten points to consider in the run-up to the greatest show on turf

48-hour declarations a huge boon for punters

Douvan and Ruby Walsh in action at Punchestown
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Ten thoughts about Cheltenham 2018:

1 It is a magnificent thing that, for the first time, all races at this year’s festival will be subject to 48-hour declarations, which has had the effect of creating a golden window for punting.

This will be between just after 10.30am and 1.30pm on Tuesday, during which time people will be able to bet on the first three days of the meeting knowing exactly who is running in which race and with a reasonable though not entirely certain idea (see point 3) of what the ground will be like.

In addition the bookmakers will be ultra-competitive on both price and each-way terms (see point 2) and even though we won’t know Friday’s final fields, there will be no either/or issues there because if any leading contender has not been declared for a race on the previous three days we can assume as long as it is fit it will run on the final day.

This is the period in which I will be constructing my life-changing multiple and generally getting on a large percentage of my festival wagers.

Well done to the people who decided to make the Festival a 48-hour dec-fest. Now go the whole hog and make it apply to all jumps races.

2 Ante-post betting on Cheltenham has never been as unappealing as during these last few months.

Quite apart from the multiple options horses have these days, the sudden losses of form and the sad instances of gifted horses being denied the chance to show how good they are on the big stage because of injury, the each-way element of long-range betting has been spoilt by a general refusal to budge from a standard fifth the odds the first three in non-handicaps.

These are the orthodox terms for such races but it was almost always a quarter the three for Cheltenham with most firms until a couple of years ago.

Now, of the leading companies, only bet365 is prepared to go a quarter the odds for placed horses, which is disappointing.

I’m not even sure the non-runner no bet concession is that helpful as it just leads to substantial drops in prices. It’s fine for certain horses who may have a fitness doubt but I’m largely happy to take my chances at bigger odds on the basis you are likely to benefit from a rival horse having to miss the festival as you are to suffer from your one being ruled out for whatever reason.

We need to wait to find out how much rain has got into the ground

3 Bets on the official going on day one of the festival should be settled on the second race, not the first. This is because, with the best will in the world, no clerk of the course can be certain how the terrain is riding until there has been a race on it.

You can don your wellies, coax the small terrier from his warm spot beside the Aga, grab your best stick and wander around the turf prodding away to your heart’s content but even a man with the intimate knowledge of Cheltenham of Simon Claisse cannot really know for sure what the going description should be until an actual race has taken place and he can ask the jockeys what they think and use official times as a guide.

I’d hate, for instance, to take a large price about heavy only for the Sky Bet Supreme to be run on ground previously given as soft changing to heavy when it becomes apparent the rain had affected the turf more drastically than had been estimated.

4 Be in no doubt what a great result it is that Ruby Walsh is fit to ride next week. Cheltenham is largely about horses but a small number of elite jockeys help generate interest in the festival and Ruby is one of them.

The Walsh-Mullins combination is now legendary and it will send a pulse of electricity through the course and get tongues wagging in betting shops if they start clocking up the winners.

At 38, Walsh hopefully has a few Cheltenhams left in him but we are very much in the "enjoy him while you can" period.

5 Faugheen and Douvan are the big unknowns of the week. These epic beasts are on the bill but nobody is quite sure how prominently to position their names on the posters.

How good, how fit, how ready are they after all they have been through? If either were to win it would bring a lump to every throat and represent Willie Mullins’ finest achievement.

I still think Douvan might be the best jumps horse I have ever seen but injury has prevented him being able to prove that.

Can he really come back good enough to serve it up to the mighty Altior? It has to be a major doubt but all I know is if the two of them are side by side swinging into the home straight on Wednesday we can prepare for one of the most spellbinding moments in the sport’s entire history.

More by Bruce Millington

Bidding a fond farewell to groundbreaking Stan James

Belgium's golden boys could be the real deal

Time to ensure handicappers are neither seen nor heard

No need for any replays to expose VAR as a ruinous farce

New tournament offers a bright spot on dull international calendar

6 The two-mile hurdling scene is in a slightly discomfiting state. This time next week that might be shown to be an absurdly daft statement in the wake of a momentous dust-up between Buveur D’Air and Faugheen in the Unibet Champion Hurdle, but the probability is Buveur D’Air will retain his crown with ease.

Unless Faugheen has somehow been successfully prepared for a return to his superb best by Mullins, this is likely to be a weak field with My Tent Or Yours, admirable but now 11, set to go off second or third favourite.

This might just be a one-off year and the 2019 field could be studded with stars, but the worry is that there is a shortage of talent coming into the hurdling funnel, caused in no small part by a lot of the decent stamina-laden Flat horses who would historically have gone over timber being sold to race in Australia.

7 How big will the big screens be? In recent years I have been noticing the screens racegoers use to follow the action are a fair bit smaller than most of those that are used at far less important meetings.

Lovely though it is to be able to appreciate Cheltenham’s stunning backdrop, it would be nice if the course could get some bigger screens this year.

8 Some advice to those doing all four days for the first time: while all the focus these days is on responsible gambling, responsible drinking is also vital if you are going to get the trip.

I have seen a few capable quaffers in my time confidently dig in for the four-day session only to become a crumpled wreck by Thursday.

The combination of heady excitement, a long time wandering around in cold temperatures and bucketloads of beer can turn the hardiest drinkers into the weakest kittens by the end of the week.

9 The Gold Cup is an absorbing puzzle. I’m against Might Bite (King George run unimpressive, RSA run weird), and while I’m the forgiving type in most areas of life that last run of Sizing John puts me off him.

Native River must have a great chance but is on the skinny side and on a line through Cloudy Dream I’d sooner back Definitly Red, who might not be good enough but has the stamina and the toughness to make the frame.

The one I like most, though, is Our Duke, a ridiculously easy winner of the Irish National last year and impressive against Presenting Percy last time having run below par twice in between times following back problems.

10 Here are some other tips: Summerville Boy looks far too big in comparison to the excellent Kalashnikov, who he beat on testing ground at Sandown, in the Supreme. Petit Mouchoir can turn the tables on Footpad in the Racing Post Arkle. Next Destination will be a danger in whatever race he goes for. Un De Sceaux is likely to go off bigger than he ought to in the Ryanair and should win again, and the same applies to Apple’s Shakira in the JCB Triumph.

Have a wonderful week and if you just want one bet that gives you an interest in every race back Ireland to win the Prestbury Cup. One firm goes 4-5 that Ireland has most winners but the general 8-11 is also fine.

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While I’m the forgiving type in most areas of life that last run of Sizing John puts me off him
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