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Sunday 17 March 2013

Cheltenham Festival 2013 look-back Part 1

What a great festival 2013 was and we were blessed to witness some truly brilliant performances.
From a personal point of view, I hit the target with my only 2pt antepost wager CUE CARD who was recommended to those who received my Cheltenham Bulletin when he was priced at 5/1. I also advised a further 1pt on the day of the race and the horse did not disappoint.

I was at the Festival on Thursday and met up with some old friends and had a great time. For once, it seemed that we all won good money on the races, some planned and some fortuitous. Myself, I did really well with the win of CUE CARD and that result ensured that I was ahead about £400 by the end of the Festival. I was with an old friend at the time of placing my wager on-course and he enjoys placing larger wagers than me. Nicknamed “the Wad”, he placed 5 times the amount that I placed on CUE CARD at odds of 4/1 with a rails bookie.
After that race, I crossed the course from the “Club” into the Best Mate Enclosure where a few other old friends where located. The Best Mate area is one step away from complete debauchery, it is total mayhem, especially in the Guinness tent.  One old friend there asked my advice on the next race and I gave him the racecard numbers for a couple that I fancied in that race and the following one. He returned a few minutes later clutching his Tote tickets and confessed that he had mixed-up the races and the numbers and had put his money on the wrong pair of horses; he had placed win & place wagers on both selections and a reverse forecast (exacta) on the pair. He contemplated changing the slips but then thought he’d let fate take it’s course. I told him when I lived in Hong Kong, a punter had made a similar error placing an accumulator wager in error and won the equivalent of £40,000. We watched the race and the further the horses ran the more animated my friend became: his Tote betting slip were £5 win & place on SUPER DUTY; £5 win & place on SAME DIFFERENCE; and a £2 reverse forecast (exacta) on the same pair.
As fate would have it, they finished 1st and 2nd in the Kim Muir with SAME DIFFERENCE paying a win dividend of £18.90 and place of £4.40; SUPER DUTY paid to a place £2.40, and the Exacta paid £130.00. It could only happen at Cheltenham.

My thoughts on the opening couple of days racing at the Festival are as follows.

From the opening race, the Supreme Novices Hurdle, the Irish challengers went toe-to-toe with the British entries and were superior. CHAMPAGNE FEVER was given a brilliant tactical ride to bravely make-all and beat the hot fav MY TENT OR YOURS by half-a-length.  Whether JEZKI would have finished ahead of this pair with the benefit of a recent run (Jezki had not run since 27-Dec) we will find out in due course. Make a note of the name BRIGHT NEW DAWN who was beaten less than 2-lengths by Champagne Fever on 09-Feb and did not come to Cheltenham.

I’ve always thought that Irish novice chasers hold an advantage over the British novices as they are tested more during the season and so have greater experience when they arrive at Cheltenham. That certainly seemed the case thru’out the festival and BAILY GREEN took the wind out of the sails of SIMONSIG in the Arkle. Sure, Simonsig won but he was made to work hard by a novice running his 16th (yes, his sixteenth) chase. This was a weak Arkle, and if Simonsig is the best 2-mile novice chaser around then his seniors have nothing to fear next season.

I’m surprised the winner of the JLT Speciality Handicap Chase GOLDEN CHIEFTAIN was only 28/1 as I wouldn’t have penny on him even now with the benefit of hindsight. The only thing that was a pointer is that he’s now won 3 of the 4 races he’s run in March during his career. 

The Champion Hurdle was a great renewal. I make no secret of the fact that I have not been a fan of HURRICANE FLY, and I have consistently thought he was overrated.  Not any more, this performance was better than his win in 2011 and on a par with Binocular’s performance when winning in 2010. Even with ROCK ON RUBY going chasing next season – a mistake in my opinion to make the change so late when he’s still a grade 1 hurdler over 2-mile – it will be a tough ask for the “Fly” to come back and win again as a 10yo, but he sets a high standard. Of the others, ZARKANDAR should go chasing as he’s not good enough to win a Champion Hurdle, and BINOCULAR should now be retired.

Not so QUEVEGA who again showed she is the best mare in NH racing by a long, long way. She is so far ahead of the other mares that she should have no problem returning next year for a 6th win in the Mares Hurdle.

The Rewards4Racing Novices handicap chase over 2m4½f was very competitive and exciting. The winner RADJANI EXPRESS returned to form having flopped on heavy ground LTO. The level of form is set by runner-up ACKERTAC who was having his 13th chase race (of which he’s only won one). Ackertac clearly enjoys racing at the Festival as he was 5th in this race last season behind Hunt Ball when he was rated 2lb lower. On the face of it, a lot of these novices did not run up to their best but one who caught my eye was VULCANITE. He picked-up the leading bunch coming downhill easily enough but then his rider tried to find room along the rail for the final couple of fences and was not only denied a run but badly hampered. I think with a clear run he’d have finished ahead of OHIO GOLD who was beaten 9-lengths into 3rd. Definitely one for the notebook.

Day 2 started with the National Hunt Chase over 4-mile for Amateur Riders, and it went straight to form. I’d written in my Bulletin that this race had been won by the top-rated (on Official Ratings) for the past 2 years and, in 2011, the top-rated had beaten the 2nd-top-rated into 2nd. Guess what? The top-rated BACK IN FOCUS (OR150) beat 2nd-top-rated TOFINO BAY (OR149) to record a £16.80 Exacta and a £18.03 Computer Straight Forecast. Not only that, but 3rd-top-rated RIVAL D’ESTRUVAL (OR143) fell at the 2nd-last fence when looking like the winner, and 4th top-rated GODSMEJUDGE (OR139) was 3rd. The 8yo Back In Focus remains unbeaten as a chaser having won all 4 chase starts and looks a potential Irish National winner (run at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday). If RIVAL D’ESTRUVAL goes for the Scottish National he must be followed.

The Neptune Hurdle won by The NEW ONE looks very solid form, despite the sedate pace of the race. It corroborates well with the Albert Bartlett novice hurdle over 3-mile which was won by AT FISHERS CROSS and this pair met and were separated by only a neck when they met at Cheltenham in January. THE NEW ONE absolutely murdered this field with a phenomenal turn-of-foot which made the others look flat-footed. I’m not sure why the pace set by PONT ALEXANDRE the Irish 6/4 fav was so sedate as he clearly needs a stiff stamina test over this trip, and we may see improvement when stepped up to 3-mile. The early quotes of 8/1 for the Champion Hurdle for THE NEW ONE look skimpy to me as the horse has yet to run to a high speed rating. More interesting is the runner-up RULE THE WORLD who‘s half-bro’ Venalmar was also 2nd in this race in 2008 but was injured next time out at Punchestown and never really recovered. His half-sister One Gulp was also very talented but was retired to the paddocks after sustaining an injury as a 5yo in 2008, otherwise she may have prevented QUEVEGA from winning her initial Mares’ Hurdle in 2009. RULE THE WORLD looks to have a lot of potential, especially when going chasing.

The RSA Chase, the Novices’ Gold Cup, had a most unfortunate result with BOSTON BOB falling at the final fence with the race apparently at his mercy. He had swept to the front 3-furlongs out before the tight home turn and managed to negotiate the 2nd-last at speed. He still held an advantage at the final fence but, in my opinion, he was “spooked” by the tarpaulin covers protecting the ground for Thursdays racing which were protruding under the rail. As such, he was unbalanced as he approached the final fence and crashed thru’ it. Would he have won? I think so on the balance of probabilities, as he’d won the PJ Moriarty Chase LTO in Ireland beating the winner here LORD WINDERMERE and the runner-up LYREEN LEGEND. Given it was his first attempt at 3-mile, LORD WINDERMERE stayed the trip well and he’ll make a grand handicap chaser but his form this season does not suggest he’ll step up in grade to being a Gold Cup horse next season.  LYREEN LEGEND will be similarly challenged to make a step-up in grade. The rest of this field were outclassed, in some cases a long way out and, as the pace was modest, it suggests this race wasn’t one of the better years. The 5/2 fav UNIONISTE was yet another losing 5yo in this race – remember, the last successful 5yo won in 1950 (even subsequent Gold Cup winner Long Run could not defeat that stat in 2010).

The Champion Chase brought out the best in SPRINTER SACRE and we finally saw what he is capable of. By my ratings (on a line thru’ Wishfull Thinking) he’s on 185, tho’ he may be capable of finding a few more pounds if pushed. I’m certain that SIZING EUROPE could have finished closer to him but for the mishap of missing a stride and nearly going down on the entry to the home turn. His jockey also allowed him to canter to the line after the final fence when he was beaten.  He’s not the best horse we’ve seen, but SPRINTER SACRE is not far off.

If we did not know just how good a trainer Willie Mullins is, then producing FIVEFORTHREE off a break of 2 years (his previous race was the World Hurdle in 2011) and coming 3rd in the ultra-competitive Coral Cup handicap hurdle was a phenomenal effort. That said, it was a huge effort by Alan King to send both the 1st and the 2nd for the race; MEDINAS and MEISTER ECKHART.  On my alert list since early November, MEDINAS has improved with every run this season and this win with 11st 10lb in a time that was 5.50 seconds faster than THE NEW ONE in the “Neptune” suggests connections should be eyeing a Champion Hurdle attempt next March, even tho’ in 10 previous hurdle races he’s never run at a trip shorter than 2m4f. This was a seriously good performance. Also make note of Emma Lavelle’s Fox Appeal who beat Medinas in that race last November giving him 3lb. MISTER ECKHART looks like being a very exciting novice chaser next season.

I’m not sure what to make of the result of the Fred Winter Juvenile  Hurdle other than it was another race that confirmed the superiority of the Irish novices as the winner FLAXEN FLARE had finished behind subsequent Triumph Hurdle winner OUR CONOR when he last ran. This field was spread-eagled after the final flight and (as the race-time wasn’t spectacular) this may have been a weak field.

How on earth BRIAR HILL was allowed to start the Champion Bumper at odds of 25/1 being ridden by Ruby Walsh and trained by Willie Mullins is beyond me. With a dam who is an unraced sister to BOSTON BOB (fell at the final fence when leading in the RSA Chase) it is clear BRIAR HILL has a big future. Definitely one for the notebook, but he could be a very exciting staying chaser in time as he’ll probably be aimed at the Neptune hurdle in 2014.

Days 3 & 4 are to follow.

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