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Friday, 21 March 2014
Cheltenham 2014 - the aftermath (part 4)
I arrived early at the course so that I had time to wander around the shopping village and take in the atmosphere of Gold Cup day. The crowd at Cheltenham, especially on Gold Cup day, is very different to what is probably flat racing’s equivalent which is Ascot Gold Cup day. The crowd in the “Club” is much more genteel and older. There is certainly an almost complete absence of women under 30 for instance at Cheltenham. I managed to bump into Sir Alex Ferguson in the shopping village (no, he wasn’t looking for a replacement for David Moyes) who couldn’t find his way to the owners & trainers reception area.
The day opened with the JCB Triumph Hurdle for 4yo’s and I must admit I thought this year’s 4yo hurdlers were a modest bunch. I was surprised that there was good support for Callipto from 13/2 into 11/2, but then that may well have been justified as he was holding every chance approaching 2-out when his stirrup broke and jockey Daryl Jacob could only hang on to the line. They say bad luck comes in three’s and, after losing the Pertemps Final Hurdle the day before by the smallest of margins, the worst was yet to come for Jacobs. The benchmark for the form is Guitar Pete who came in 3rd 5-lengths by the winner TIGER ROLL. The Irish trained Guitar Pete has been performing at around 138-142 since winning in November and tho’ he’s consistent, he’s not been improving. On the other hand TIGER ROLL is on an upward curve and, being a half-bro’ to the Group 2 winner Ahzeemah (who could be a big player in Cup races on the flat in 2014), there’s a lot of potential in him. Fair play to trainer Nigel Hawke who bought the horse unraced out of the Darley stable in August’13 for £10,000 and then sold him on to Gordon Elliot for £70,000 in December after winning his racecourse debut in November. The 2nd-placed Kentucky Hyden merely ran up to form, and the remainder were all beaten on merit. My money in the race was on Broughton, but he never picked up at all and, as he should have really enjoyed this ground, his performance was a mystery.
The County handicap hurdle is one of the Festival’s “great” races, and this year it was no exception with 3 horses separated by only a couple of pounds battling it out on the run-in. Finally, Nicholls captured a winner with LAC FONTANA – his only winner of the Festival. The horse hit all the major trends in the race: it was a 5yo (they’ve now won 8 of the last 16 running’s of the race); it was rated OR139 (the last 9 winners have now all been rated between OR131-139); and - most importantly – it was trained by Paul Nicholls who has now trained 4 of the last 5 winners of this race trained in the UK. Throw in the fact LAC FONTANA was a LTO winner over C&D and you could almost say he was a good thing. The 2013 “Fred Winter” winner Flaxen Flare sets the standard, and therefore the 2nd and 3rd Artic Fire and Montbazon must consider themselves unlucky losers having both run personal bests. Montbazon had run 4th in the 2012 “Supreme” hurdle (possibly a better year than most) after which he’d missed 2-years thru’ injury, returning to the track last month when he ran down the field in the competitive Betfair hurdle at Newbury; the perfect “prep” race for the “County”. Being just 7yo, Montbazon could have a great deal of improvement in him and he’s only been raised 7lb by the handicapper to OR147, and he could well be a 155+. The runner-up Artic Fire looks very exciting as this was only his 6th race. He’d flopped LTO at Leopardstown when the ground was probably too soft for him, but he’d shown a lot of potential before that when staying-on best of all to be 3rd at Fairyhouse. Stable jockey Ruby Walsh was booked for this ride until he suffered an injury in the Triumph Hurdle, and the speculation is that had he been in the saddle this one could’ve won.
The Albert Bartlett was next up. Unfortunately for Daryl Jacob, his horse spooked on his way to the start and careered thru' the railings throwing the jockey from the saddle onto the hardstanding of the Best Mate enclosure where he broke some bones in his shoulder. As I said, bad luck comes in three's. This novice hurdle run over 3-mile is a race with some very strong trends despite only being run for the past 9 years. My contention is that very few novice hurdlers have the stamina to stay 3-mile at Grade 1 level, so finding the winner of this race should be more simpler that with other novice championship races. This year, we had the longest odds winner in the history of the race, VERY WOOD at 33/1. The only race trend that he met was that he’d never run in a “flat” race, having started-off in point-to-points. He hadn’t proved quick enough over 2-miles so had been pushed up to 2m4f for his penultimate race before the Festival where he was 3rd of 3 to the race-fav of the Albert Bartlett: Briar Hill. Essentially, this didn't look hopeful, as tho' he wasn’t beaten far (3-lengths) he was receiving 10lb from Briar Hill on that occasion. Even tho' he did stay-on well that day, it was a leap of faith to fancy him for this. Even so, stay on he did and he clearly saw the 3-mile trip out best of those who finished. He could prove to be a very good staying chaser. Race-fav Briar Hill fell mid-way thru’ the 2nd circuit with just under a mile still to run, and the assumption is he would’ve gone close to winning this had he not fallen. My selection in the race was the 16/1 chance Deputy Dan and, as you might expect, I was giving him a good shout when he quickly went 3-lengths clear entering the straight brushing aside Kings Palace who ran well below the form he’d shown earlier in the season. Deputy Dan came into the race a LTO winner having a grade 2 novice at Warwick in January with subsequent Betfair hurdle winner Splash Of Ginge in 3rd. On a line thru’ Masters Hill (2nd at Warwick, and 2nd to Kings Palace at Cheltenham in December) Deputy Dan had a bit to find but he is clearly on an upward curve. He possibly went to the front too soon and his jockey Leighton Aspell has only ridden one winner at Cheltenham in the past 5 years.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup was looked at in depth in Monday’s blog (Cheltenham 2014 – only the bookies were smiling!). During the course of this week I’ve given the race a bit more thought and, on reflection, the ride given to the winner LORD WINDERMERE was a supremely confident one by Davy Russell. Altho’ the objection to the winner was raised by the rider of the runner-up On His Own, having watched the replay, more sympathy should be given to the 3rd-placed The Giant Bolster who was given a hefty bump when jumping the 2nd-last fence by On His Own who had veered right off the rail. That must have cost The Giant Bolster at least a length, maybe more, at a vital stage of the race. I’m even more convinced now that Silviniaco Conti is one-paced and should have gone for home earlier, pressing home the advantage. Certainly, with the benefit of hindsight, it can be considered that had he not fallen in 2013 at the 3rd-last Silviniaco Conti would probably have beaten Bobs Worth as that horse never looked like passing him in this year’s Gold Cup, and “Conti” actually pulls away from Bobs Worth in the final 75 yards. I never like going back and revising ratings, but perhaps we all jumped the gun and were a bit generous in our opinion of Bobs Worth after winning the Gold Cup last year.
After the Gold Cup, there is the relaxed atmosphere of the Foxhunter Chase, and this was run at a good pace for the grade. When assessing this race, the first thing to do is omit from consideration any horse older than 10yo which took out 8 of the 24-runners. Sure enough, the winner was the 8yo TAMMYS HILL who also happened to have the highest rating, OR134, in the race. There were 3 horses rated OR133, and they came 3rd, 4th and 10th. Like the NH Chase over 4-miles run on the first day of the Festival, paying attention to the official ratings may be the easiest and most sensible thing to do. TAMMYS HILL was given a great ride by his inexperienced rider who was having just his 12th ride under rules; but Mr JJ Smyth has now managed to win on 6 of them. TAMMYS HILL has been very consistent on the Irish hunter chase circuit and merely had to run to form to be involved in the finish, having only fallen once in 29 chase and PTP starts before winning this. The runner-up was Carsonstown Boy, rated 25lb inferior to the winner, but all his best form was on good ground or quicker, and he clearly relished the conditions. At 10yo tho’ he’s had his day in the sun. On The Fringe ridden by the very talented Nina Carberry, was expected to start fav, but drifted from 4/1 to 11/2. Right there with every chance 2-out, he seems best on ground with some give and he was never going to beat the winner. Of the horses older than 10yo, Pearlysteps in 5th did best of all, but even he wanted ground a lot softer than this.
I’m going to post this today and come back to it with a look at the final couple of races on Friday’s card.