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Friday 21 March 2014

Cheltenham 2014 - the aftermath (part 4)

The 4th and final instalment of the Cheltenham Festival review for 2014.
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.

Thursday 20 March 2014

Cheltenham 2014 - the aftermath (part 3)

On Thursday and Friday of the Cheltenham Festival 2014, it was my turn to be at the course. It is the annual pilgrimage: a couple of days with old friends sharing plenty of Guinness, more than a few laughs, and the odd tear. Not all could be with us this year, but we are hoping for a full complement in 2015. From my point of view, I consider Thursday to be the best day’s racing of the Festival.

The day opened with the JLT Novice Chase over 2m4f. This was only the 4th running of this interesting intermediate distance chase and I’d made my mind up some weeks earlier which horse was going to carry my money: TAQUIN DE SEUIL. I have to admit that, watching from the stands, I thought the horse couldn’t win before 4-out as he’d made so many jumping errors and jockey AP McCoy was already hard at work. But, on the run-up to 4-out, he found his way and quickly put himself into contention. He was very game (under a hard ride) and did just enough to hold off the renewed challenge of long-time leader Uxizandre. It was a bold effort for the 6yo Uxizandre to try and make-all, but it was a change of tactics brought-about by a poor run on 21-Feb when 5th of  6 at Warwick. A winner over 3m1f as a hurdler, he probably found the ground a bit quick as 3 of his 4 wins have come on soft ground. I’ve rated this race thru’ the consistent 3rd-placed Double Ross whom I’ve judged to have run to 149, and it looks like the handicapper has done the same. As such, TAQUIN DE SEUIL ran to about 151+ in my book but there is potential for an improved rating once his jumping is sorted out, altho’ he doesn’t look like a Gold Cup horse to me. Not so Uxizandre, who looks like having more to come when racing over 3-mile on soft as a chaser.  

The Pertemps Final (handicap) hurdle is a race I look forward to having been on the winner a couple of times in the past few years. Not so this year, as the winner was the well supported 9/2 fav FINGAL BAY.  Given he’d beaten dual Festival winner Simonsig in Dec’11 at level weights after which he’d been rated OR153, and he’d not been disgraced as a novice chaser (ran-out on 3rd and final chase outing picking up a tendon injury which kept him off for 429-days), he looked the proverbial “good-thing” in this off OR148 even tho’ that meant he was carrying top-weight in this competitive handicap. This performance suggests FINGAL BAY is as good as he ever was and, as an 8yo with a chase rating of OR146, he should be followed.  You have to feel sympathy for Paul Nicholls sending out the 6yo Southfield Theatre to be 2nd with 11st 11lb. He’d been a very progressive novice hurdler last season, but appeared to have plateaued when 3rd in the Wincanton qualifier on Boxing Day in December. The break since has benefitted him, and connections felt hard-done-by losing this in the photo. He’s well thought of at home, and expected to make into a decent chaser next season. This race was won in a time faster than the World Hurdle run later in the afternoon which, to me, puts a question-mark over the value of the form in that Grade 1 race.

Onto the Ryanair Chase, and here we witnessed what I consider was the performance of the Festival from the winner DYNASTE who had the highest chase speed rating of the Festival, by a long way.  Trainer David Pipe captured his 2nd Grade 1 event of the Festival and, in my opinion, had DYNASTE run in the Gold Cup he’d have won that race. He absolutely bounded up the hill and I reckon he’d have won by a lot more had his rider wanted to. This was only his 8th chase race and, so long as he stays away from soft/heavy ground, he looks to be one of the best chaser’s in training, probably 2nd only to Cue Card at this sort of trip. My money was on Al Ferof who ran his 3rd 160+ performance this season but, as in his novice season, his form has tailed off. If I were Nicholls, I put the horse away to come back fresh for a tilt at the Paddy Power in November, a race he won off OR159 in 2012, as he’d run off only 3lbs higher. In 2nd was Hidden Cyclone, who had shown his liking for the C&D when 3rd in the Paddy Power last November – in fact the 1st-5 in the Paddy Power all ran well at this Festival with Rajdhani Express (5th in the Paddy Power)  taking 3rd place here.  Always highly tried, he’s not quite top-class but is a consistent sort but may have found this ground too lively (6 wins from 8 runs on soft ground) and he was never going to show the stamina to hold the winner (only 1 win from 6 starts beyond 2m4f; but 9 wins from 13 starts at 2m4f or less). Rajdhani Express won the novices handicap chase last year off OR140 and followed-up 39-days later with an emphatic win at Ayr (Scottish National meeting). He is a horse that has to be fresh to run to his best, and it was interesting that he came here off a 117-day break. Hunt Ball looks back to his best, and he will be very interesting if kept to this sort of trip NTO, as he doesn’t stay much further.

Onto the World Hurdle and another Grade 1 event. This year’s race was centred on the comeback of Big Bucks and whether he still had the ability to win as an 11yo. After what looked a promising run at the trials meeting in January, I thought the horse had it in him to do it again. However, by the day of the race, I had come to my senses and realised that the Cheltenham Festival is not a place to be putting faith in 10yo+ horses.  This race was run in a time 5.30 seconds slower than when Big Bucks won in 2012, or approximately 21-lengths slower on similar ground. The time was lost mainly in the 1st-half of the race, during which the pace was pedestrian. The race was won by MORE OF THAT who I’m sure did not have this race on his radar when winning at Wetherby off OR130 on 2nd November. He followed that up win another win at Haydock, and you have to wonder where this leaves the runner-up that day, Blue Fashion, who was running his UK debut for Nicky Henderson and hasn’t been out again since. It was his next race when winning the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham in December that put a tilt at the World Hurdle in the frame and he didn’t disappoint, looking even better on this first attempt at 3-miles. My opinion is that he stayed this trip best of all and it will take a very good horse to lower his colours over hurdles at this trip. The runner-up Annie Power is likely to go chasing next season, as is the 3rd placed At Fishers Cross, and that means the 3-mile hurdle division is wide open for domination. I’ve rated the race thru’ the consistent Zarkandar who I rate at 160, which puts MORE OF THAT on 169.

In each of the 3 years that I’ve been issuing my Cheltenham Festival Bulletin, I’ve written “whatever David Pipe sends for this has to be considered” when previewing the Byrne Group Plate. Do I follow my own advice? This year I did not advise a selection in the race as I was bamboozled by the 23-runners; but perhaps I should. The winner was David Pipe’s BALLYNAGOUR who had been the 7/2 fav for this race last year. Running off a rating of OR140 (3lb less than in 2013) he carried only 10st 9lb thereby meeting both of the weight trends in the race (under 11st, and rating between OR128-141).  The horse is apparently tricky to train, is reported to have bled on his last 2 runs, and has to run very fresh – hence he came into this off a break of 117-days. Whatever, I’ve never seen a handicap chase won at the Festival as easily as BALLYNAGOUR won this. He hacked-up winning by 8-lengths, with another 6-lengths to the 3rd.  What makes the performance even more impressive was that Colour Squadron in 2nd was the 5/1 fav having been identified as a “blot” on the handicap by many. You have to feel sorry for Colour Squadron who has improved with every run yet still remaining a maiden over fences. BALLYNAGOUR has been raised to OR155 for this win, but that may not be enough to hold him. I’d expect to see him next in the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at Cheltenham in November, which will probably also be the autumn target of Colour Squadron. Coming in 3rd was Tatenen (beaten fav for the 2009 Arkle) with possibly a career-best effort. He loved the ground (don’t go near him on soft going) and this 2m5f trip (never won beyond 2m7f) and he could be worth bearing in mind at Aintree next month in the Topham handicap chase. This race had plenty of depth, and Johns Spirit put in another improved run to be 4th.  He doesn’t have a natural Aintree target as he doesn’t stay 3-mile and I can’t see him going for the Topham. Finally, 5th placed Third Intention gave a good plug for the RSA winner O’Faolains Boy, but he probably found this trip a bit short and, having run 2nd to Dynaste in the Mildmay Novices Chase at Aintree last year over 3m1f, he could do better than Johns Spirit who ran 3rd in the 3m1f “Listed” handicap chase that takes place before the Grand National at Aintree. Of those behind, Bless The Wings has not run well since winning at Newbury on 30Nov12 off OR145 tho’ he did show promise of a return when on suitable good-to-soft ground at Ascot last November. He’s now slipped to OR137 and, when getting the right ground over a 2m4f or 2m5f trip, he could scoot in.

The day’s racing came to a close with the Kim Muir handicap chase for amateur riders.  Being for amateurs, choosing your rider is just as important as selecting your horse in this race and, sure enough, the best riders dominated proceedings. The winner SPRING HEELED was ridden by MR RP McNamara who has vast experience in the saddle. Ms Nina Carberry rode the runner-up Cause Of Causes, and she has even more experience. In 3rd was Roberto Goldback and he was ridden by Gold Cup winning amateur, Mr Sam Waley-Cohen. With this in mind, I made Buddy Bolero my selection in the race as he was ridden by Ms Katie Walsh who is one of the most experienced amateurs in racing. Buddy Bolero is also trained by David Pipe and came into this race on the back of a good win over hurdles, and the horse had also run 4th in the 4-mile NH Chase at the Festival last year, so I assumed that stamina would not be a problem. Unfortunately, it was the ground that was a problem for Buddy Bolero as it was too quick for him. The winner SPRING HEELED was making a return visit to Cheltenham having run well till 2-out over 3m3½f off OR142, so this 2-furlong shorter trip was perfect for him. He had not enjoyed the soft ground LTO but, even so, came into this race 6lb worse off with the runner-up here Cause Of Causes. No Irish trained horse had won this since 1983, but both 1st and 2nd were Irish trained and both were well fancied by connections. However, Cause Of Causes (being a 6yo) could not overcome the age stat of no winner in 20 years being younger than 7yo. This pair finished well clear of the 3rd horse, and I think this form looks very strong. Ballabriggs won this race before going on to Grand National glory the following season, and I can see SPRING HEELED doing the same for his talented Irish trainer Jim Culloty.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Cheltenham 2014 - the aftermath (part 2)

The 2nd-part of my review of the Cheltenham Festival 2014, with the focus on Wednesdays racing.

Readers may want to use these notes to prepare an antepost portfolio for next years Festival, or just include horses identified as having "potential" into an alert list. Most major horseracing websites operate email alert lists, and I use that operated by www.easyodds.com but www.racingpost.com and www.sportinglife.com also operate alert lists.

Wednesday started the same way as Tuesday, with a Willie Mullins novice hurdler routing his rivals to take the "Neptune" novices hurdle over 2m5f.  FAUGHEEN, who cost only 12,000 Euro's, massacred this field, winning by over 4-lengths. Mullins also supplied the 3rd-placed Rathvinden. The plan for FAUGHEEN is to go chasing next season, but given his lack of respect for the hurdles I'd like to see him jump a fence first before having a wager on him. The runner-up Ballyalton also goes chasing next season and looks a potentially exciting recruit altho' his form on soft ground is a concern.  With Royal Boy a non-runner the English challenge focused on Red Sherlock, but he ran a stinker and may have been suffering from a long season (this was his 5th race), and I'm prepared to give him another chance.

The RSA (Novice) Chase is always eagerly awaited as it's recent history is filled with Gold Cup winners: Lord Windermere, Bobs Worth and Denman; but don't forget Albertas Run who twice won the Ryanair Chase. The betting suggested the race was wide open with 13/2 joint-fav's and, with half-a-dozen still holding every chance after 4-out, the race looked like having a blanket finish. However, two emerged and quickly went well clear with O'FAOLAINS BOY eventually beating Smad Place by just a neck with the remainder 6-lengths behind. Smad Place loves Cheltenham, having twice run 3rd in the 3-mile World Hurdle, but the "good" ground may have been a bit quick for him. Interestingly, he never won beyond 2m4f as a hurdler and it may be that the Ryanair Chase in 2015 is a more likely target than the Gold Cup. As for O'FAOLAINS BOY, he met the trends for an RSA winner and trips of 3-mile-plus are his battlegound. Looking back, he probably should've won his chase debut; and he scoped dirty when pulling-up on his 2nd chase race. As such, his win at Ascot on 15-Feb (in what looks now a good novice event) was a helluva comeback effort. He was brought slowly into this race by Barry Geraghty and did not have a clear pssage coming down the hill but, when asked for his effort, he was not found wanting. The handicapper has raised him 12lb to OR156 but that could be light, and the Hennessy GC in November looks a great place to start next season. Of the others, none could say they were unlucky. Sam Winner stayed-on well on ground that was too-lively for him and he could be a good handicap horse next season. My selection in the race was Corrin Wood who tried to make-all and failed, with his jumping failing him once tired.

The Coral Cup handicap hurdle saw Get Me Out Of Here run 2nd at the Festival for the 4th time in 5 years, and for the 2nd time in the Coral Cup. He's also been beaten by a margin of a head or less on 3 of those occasions - unlucky, or what? The race time was almost 4 seconds slower than the Neptune run over C&D (won by Faugheen) so the form of this race may be hard to get a handle on. However the fav Dell' Arca ran 5th and he's what I've used to rate the race which puts the winner WHISPER on 157. This hurdler has improved with every run this season and has been on my alert list since running 3rd on his seasonal debut with 11st 12lb over this C&D on 15-Nov off OR137.  He therefore came into this race on a career-high of OR153 which I felt was too much for him. Given he was expected to go chasing this season, it's likely that's what he'll be doing in the autumn and he looks to have a bright future. Of those behind, I’ll give a mention to the ex-JLT Chase winner Noble Prince who ran a cracker to be 7th.   After an injury in early 2012, he’s not been the same horse since. My selection Vendor made headway coming down the hill having been last of the 28-runners for most of the race, but I felt he was caught-out by the bunching of the field as they turned into the straight for final flight. He could prove interesting if turned-out again quickly.

The Queen Mother Champion Chase was the feature race of the day, and the only debate was whether the race-fav SIRE DE GRUGY could reproduce his form this season at Cheltenham – the scene of 2 of his 3 chase defeats (the other was at Aintree, in April last year, where his jumping fell to pieces). His form held up, and he was able to easily put this mediocre field to the sword. In hindsight, his SP of 11/4 was a gift as if he’d been trained by Henderson, Nicholls or Mullins then he’d have started at 5/4. It was great to see old-timer Sizing Europe challenging 2-out but, we have to be honest and not kid ourselves, he’s not anything like the horse he was.  Even at his peak in 2011, Somersby was no better than a mid-160 horse (rated RPR165 when 5th in 2011 Champion Chase) so how he can be considered 2lb better on RPR167 now is beyond me. He maintained the slight advantage over Module that separated them when they met at Exeter in November, and I reckon he ran to that rating again – 158. That puts SIRE DE GRUGY on 164 which puts him 3lb behind Voy Por Ustedes and makes him the worst Champion Chase winner in 10 years. As such, he’s certainly worth opposing for 2015 for which he’s a 4/1 chance. My speculative wager on Kid Cassidy was soon going astray as the horse’s jumping was poor but, when he gets his act together, he’s well-up to his OR160 rating.

Next on the Wednesday card was the Cross Country Chase and I’m not going to bother reviewing it. The front 3 came to the final fences in the straight looking like any of them could win, but none looked to have the resolution to go through with it.

The Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle is always a tough task for the punter to find the winner of and, with 33/1 chance HAWK HIGH being successful, this year was no different.  Paul Nicholls always has a good go at this race, and his 3 runners finished 2nd, 4th and 7th.  The winner HIGH HAWK was having his 5th run over hurdles and had won twice already but, LTO, he’d not handled the heavy ground at Haydock – which is not surprising for this winner on good-to-firm on the flat. The runner-up Katgary was running his debut hurdle in the UK having last run in France in November – hard to fathom this one but should have a good future. Also with a big future is Orgilgo Bay in 3rd whose half-bro Third Intention ran 5th in the Byrne Group Plate on Thursday. He loved the good ground having run poorly on soft/heavy in his previous couple of runs, and could well be the sort that comes good at Cheltenham in March.

The Champion Bumper drew the day to a close. For once, this race did not go to a horse trained by Willie Mullins altho’ he supplied the runner-up with Shaneshill, a half-bro’ to the useful Northumberland Plate and Doncaster Cup winner Far Cry.  The race was won by SILVER CONCORDE who, unusually, did not come into the race unbeaten. What was also unusual was the horse ran unsuccessfully in a couple of bumpers in the summer of 2012 before being off the track for 18 months. Connections have plans for a flat campaign this year, so we may see a lot more of the horse before the autumn.  

I’ve taken the 20/1 offered about O’FAOLAINS BOY for the Gold Cup in 2015, and I’d have liked to have taken similar odds (or longer) about SMAD PLACE for the Ryanair which (judging by this year’s running) could be a weak Grade 1 next March. But, so far, SMAD PLACE isn;t included in any Ryanair antepost lists.  My thoughts are that Sire De Grugy can certainly be opposed for the next QM Champion Chase, tho’ I’d like to see Sprinter Sacre win a race before wagering on him for that one. In the meantime, Arkle winner WESTERN WARHORSE at 20/1 and Arkle runner-up CHAMPAGNE FEVER at 12/1 both look capable of developing into 165+ chasers in the 2-mile division.

Monday 17 March 2014

Cheltenham 2014 - the aftermath (part 1)

The Cheltenham Festival opened with the spectacular destruction of the Supreme Novices hurdle field by race winner VANTOUR. This race looked well up to standard and we will be seeing plenty of those that contested the race winning next season. VANTOUR looks an immense propect; the race time compared favourably with the Champion Hurdle run later over C&D altho' he'll need to find another 12lb+ of improvement in the next 12 months if he's to take the Champion in 2015. That said, he wasn't pushed to win this race and trainer Willie Mullins has an abundance of hurdling talent at his disposal for next season. Connections suggested his future next season will likely be over fences, in which case the Arkle looks more like his next target than the Champion Hurdle. Of the others, for a 7yo Sgt Reckless finished very well to be 4th and he's very lightly raced for his aged. He was last and detached from the main group coming down the hill before the 2nd-last flight but, after that flight, he scythed thru' the field and could well have been 2nd with a better-timed run. Highly regarded at home, he could prove to be a very useful to follow as a novice chaser next season.

The Arkle was the scene for my 1st wager of the Festival on Dodging Bullets. Unfortunately, he didn't find the improvement I thought he might on the ground. He'd also run poorly at the 2013 Festival and that, combined with a lack of a win over 2m4f, in hindsight suggested he wasn't going to win an Arkle. The race turned out to be the first of a number of "turn-ups" for the bookies (with racing being conducted on heavy ground for most of the season, the good ground found at Cheltenham in March was always going to result in some surprise results) with 33/1 chance WESTERN WARHORSE winning on only his 2nd chase race. The horse looked beaten 3-out, but rallied in the final quarter-mile to lead on the line. Where he goes now is anyone's guess, but he'd only a 6yo and he coule just be the sort of odd-ball that succeeds at the very top of 2-mile chasing. The odds of 20/1 antepost for the Champion Chase look interesting from an eachway point of view as there's no guarantee Sprinter Sacre will come back to racing in the form he showed in 2012-13. The runner-up Champagne Fever ran a cracker, but just failed. He needs more experience, but so does the winner.

The "Festival" handicap chase was a terrific race, run a full 18 seconds faster than in 2013. Trainer, Jonjo O'Neill supplied the fav in Alfie Sherrin (who won the race in 2012), now an 11yo. This was totally against the trends with the last 11yo winner at the Festival being Mr McGoldrick in 2008 at 66/1. However, O'Neill also supplied the eventual winner HOLYWELL who broke the "trends" mould by carrying the biggest weight to victory in this race since Unguided Missile with 11st 10lb in 1998. A novice running in only his 6th chase, this performance matched his efforts as a hurdler, which were considerable. This was his handicap debut in which he ran off OR145 but, if you consider he split 2013 World hurdle winner Solwhit and 3rd-placed Smad Place in the Grade 1 Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree last April at level weights, and that Smad Place was just beaten in the RSA Novice Chase on Wednesday last week over C&D; then you've got to think he'd have gone close in that had he taken part. He could be a shoo-in for the Hennessy at Newbury on 29th November. In fact, the 50/1 offered for the Gold Cup in 2015 looks interesting too. I passed over Holywell to make Tour Des Champs one of my 2 selections in the race (the other being King Massini who fell at the 6th).  I also selected Tour Des Champs for this in 2013, and I was hoping he'd run better this year off a 10lb lower rating. Unfortunately, he ran to exactly the same rating - 131 - in my book, tho' he almost stayed-on again (after being outpaced coming down the hill) to take 4th. He looks set for another bold bid in the Scottish National (in which he ran 4th off OR134 last April). Chasing home the winner was the 6yo mare Ma Filleule trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by the talented 5lb claimer Nico De Boinville. Off the track since winning on 27-Dec, this was only her 3rd chase race in the UK (she'd run 5 times over fences in France) and she looks very progressive. Of the other couple I noted in the race, Buddy Bolero missed this and went for the Kim Muir instead; and Vintage Star did not look happy at all and fell at the 5th fence. He ran poorly on his only other visit to Cheltenham and this is clearly not his course, so the run is best ignored.

The feature race of the opening day was the Champion Hurdle and, this year, we said goodbye to one of the last of the previous generation of jumping stars - Hurricane Fly. Sentiment got the better of me, and I made him my selection which, on reflection, was silly. Sure, he'd beaten subsequent Champion Hurdler JEZKI in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on 26-Jan but that, on reflection, was a false run race. Since the 2013 Festival, Hurricane Fly had lost 7-10lb of ability, while we knew from the Christmas Hurdle run at Kempton on 27-Dec that The New One and My Tent Or Yours had both improved +7lb in the same period. In all his runs to date, JEZKI had not shown form at this level before, tho' the potential was always there. The improvement has been put down to the use of a 1st-time hood, but the use of more prominent tactics as well as improved hurdling is possibly more of a reason for the improvement.  I've rated the race thru' Hurricane Fly who I reckon ran about 7lb below his winning form of last year at 162. That puts JEZKI and My Tent Or Yours on 167 (compared with an RPR173 rating for the pair). Being just a 6yo, it's anticipated that JEZKI will be hurdling for the next couple of seasons and he looks the one to beat in 2015. Much was made of the interference suffered by The New One when the 5yo Our Conor fell fatally at the 3rd hurdle. However, he was quickly back on terms and tracking My Tent Or Yours 3-out. He lost most ground when outpaced coming down the hill and looked to be floundering before the into the straight. His forte is his stamina, and he ate up the rising ground, but I doubt he'd have won whatever had happened during the race.  Both The New One and My Tent Or Yours went on to Aintree last season, and The New One looks the horse they have to beat in the Aintree Hurdle over 2m4f which will suit him much better than the stiff 2-mile of Cheltenham.

There's not much to say about the Mares Hurdle won by QUEVEGA, other than Willie Mullins has the 3 of the best mares in training in his yard. Whether QUEVEGA would've beaten Annie Power in this (she ran in the 3-mile World Hurlde instead, and finished 2nd) is debateable, as we wont know the full strength of QUEVEGA until she's run at Punchestown. What you have to realise is that in order to win a race like the Mares Hurdle from a break of 320-days, the horse needs to be many pounds superior to the opposition. Last year she was 20lbs better than the runner-up, and this year she looked to hold the same superiority. There's not much between Annie Power and QUEVEGA based on the former's 2nd in the World Hurdle, maybe only a couple of pounds.

The 4-mile NH Chase for amateur riders very nearly gave me a winner on the opening day when my selection Shotgun Paddy - the highest rated horse in the race on OR151 - was beaten just a neck into 2nd by the underrated winner MIDNIGHT PRAYER. We have to consider Shotgun Paddy a near miss as he jumped very poorly thru'out the race and even a better jump at the final fence probably could have won him the race. As we were on at 5/1 it was particularly gutting as he had probably 7lb advantage over the winner on my own ratings (12lb advantage on official ratings). It was only the winners 5th chase, and he'd shown his potential when winning his chase debut on 31-Oct in a quick time. He unseated his rider NTO, and then bounced back with a good 2nd that showed his debut was no fluke. He won his 4th chase at Warwick on 08-Feb at very short odds (there being only 3 rivals) before winning this. Providing the handicapper is kind, MIDNIGHT PRAYER could have the Scottish National in his sights (trainer Alan King won that with Godsmejudge in 2013 after that one ran 3rd in this race). At just 7yo, Shotgun Paddy looks a very exciting handicap prospect once his jumping is sorted out.

The day ended with the Rewards4Racing novices' handicap chase which was wide open coming to the final fence. I'd reduced the 19-runners to a shortlist of 3, which included the eventual winner PRESENT VIEW. You cannot back them all, and I thought he was a tad high in the weightsafter winning at Kempton on 22-Feb, even tho' he needed to win that to guarantee an entry in this. There should be plenty of improvement to come from this 6yo who is expected to stay 3-mile, and it is great that trainer Jamie Snowden has won his first race (of hopefully many) at the Cheltenham Festival. The runner-up Attaglance, remains a maiden chaser tho' this course, trip and ground suit him best. He's failed to stay in his 3 starts beyond 2m6f. Soft ground is probably best for the 3rd-placed Pendra, who put his poor run in the Coral Cup hurdle behind him with this effort, and we can expect some improvement from the 6yo.  Buywise in 5th is another who wants softer ground than he got today, and this was a brave display in the circumstances. My selection Persian Snow looked like out-running his long odds and taking a place till he was badly squeezed for room on the turn-in for home, and then unbalanced when jumping the final fence, both of which cost him dearly.

Cheltenham 2014 - only the bookies were smiling!

What a Festival it was - absolutely terrific sport from the start of the first race to the finish of the last on Friday. Betting-wise, the highlight for me was the win of TAQUIN DE SEUIL in the JLT Novices Chase which opened the day's racing on Thursday. I was there on Thursday and Friday, and this was my first wager on-course. The winner met all the trends that I'd extracted from previous year's results, and I was happy to advise a win-wager at 9/1 on the morning of the race on the blog. The horse had also been advised as part of the Cheltenham Bulletin sent out to those who had donated to the blog during the jumps season since 30th September 2013.

That wager was very nearly eclipsed on Friday when DEPUTY DAN - advised at 16/1 - went over 3-lengths clear on the run-up to the final flight in the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle. However, his rider possibly went for it too soon as his "tank" was empty jumping the final flight and he had nothing left to hold off the staying-on winner.

Friday was all about the Gold Cup - and there were plenty of reputations left in tatters after that race. It would seem that some trainers held in high esteem may need to go back to the drawing-board when planning campaign's for next season. I know when I was in my 20's it was not difficult for me to run 2 or 3 miles at a good pace, or play an hour's football without any training. Thru' my 30's it would usually take a game or two to get me to peak fitness. But, into my 40's, it became more necessary to work at my training in order to maintain a level of ability. My opinion is that the Gold Cup fav Bobs Worth just wasn't fit enough to win this year - and you cannot get a horse to peak race fitness on the gallops. He's not been within 10lb of the form he showed when winning the Gold Cup in 2013 in his 3 runs since this season and, had he gone on to run at Aintree or Punchestown after winning the Gold Cup, he may well have run to an even higher level of form.

My selection in the race Silviniaco Conti, possibly lost his chance of winning when Cue Card was withdrawn from the race on 25th Feb. As was shown in the KGVI, the strong pace set by Cue Card is perfect for the one-paced Silviniaco Conti as he has the high cruising speed to keep up, and the stamina to keep going when Cue Card empties out. I was hoping (before the race) that his jockey would make his move early, possibly 6-out, and really stretch the field making full use of his stamina. He needed to be at least 5-lengths clear at the final fence to maintain a winning advantage. He's not a Gold Cup horse, but he could well win a Grand National.

You cannot take anything away from the winner LORD WINDERMERE and it was tremendously brave of the connections to allow the horse to take part given that, before the race, he looked to be outclassed. And that is the lesson we have to draw from this race! When stood in the stands with my mate "The Wad" before the race, we both agreed that the field in its entirety was nowhere near as strong as it had been a few years ago. He had placed wagers on a couple in the Gld Cup, but his wager on the day was on the possibly improving 7yo Triolo D'Alene.  I know from old that "The Wad" places a lot respect on Hennessy form but, personally, I thought the latest Hennessy (run at Newbury) was a poor one. The results since appear to have backed that opinion up with LORD WINDERMERE becoming only the 3rd horse to win from the 16 that finished (the other two being Cloudy Too and Houblon Des Obeaux) that day. The Gold Cup winner clearly relishes running at Cheltenham in March and it's possible that his RSA triumph in 2013 was underrated. The form of that RSA Novice Chase has worked out well, with the runner-up Lyreen Legend running 6th in the Gold Cup finishing just under 7-lengths behind the winner. It is through Lyreen Legend that I have rated the Gold Cup of 2014. With a rating of OR153, my rating of Lyreen Legend was at 154 - and that puts the Gold Cup winner LORD WINDERMERE on 161. Racing Post Ratings (RPR) have the winner at 170, which I feel is a bit rich especially as the race-time was 7.69secs slower that that of Synchronised winning in  2012 on very similar ground. If LORD WINDERMERE is on 161, it means that runner-up ON HIS OWN matched his Bobbyjo Chase winning performance of 22-Feb. It also suggests that 3rd-placed THE GIANT BOLSTER ran to his official rating of OR160.

The result just goes to show that race-reading is as just as much part of finding the winner as reading the form. Knowing what they do now, I'm sure that connections of the main contenders would do things differently. Bobs Worth would almost certainly have had another run between the Lexus and Cheltenham, possibly the "Denman" at Newbury; and Paul Nicholls would have instructed Noel Fehily on Silviniaco Conti to really push the pace as soon as he felt the front-runners were starting to paddle.

What of the rest of the Festival? I'll be looking at it in more detail over the coming weeks and months. Regular blog readers will know that I take a back-seat with punting during the flat season, and I'll be using the time during the summer to re-assess the form in the light of the Aintree and Punchestown festiva;s which are still to come.
What I'm thinking of doing with regards to Cheltenham is revamping my approach and the how I present my Cheltenham Bulletin for 2015. The "trends" for the Festival are well known now, and there are many ways of finding out which trends match which races. What there isn't (yet) as far as I know is a service that provides a shortlist based on the trends that matter.

As for the Gold Cup for 2015, I've taken a leaf out of my mates textbook. I did write above that "The Wad" had placed a couple of wagers on the Gold Cup, one on the day on Triolo D'Alene and the other 12-months ago - a speculative antepost wager on the winner of the RSA Chase LORD WINDERMERE. Tho' as he said before the race on Friday, were Lord Windermere being offered at 125/1 he wouldn't have a wager on it.  As such, I've taken the 20/1 on O'Faolains Boy, the 25/1 on Smad Place, and I've also taken the 25/1 about Dynaste who I thought put up a performance that would have won the Gold Cup had he gone for that instead of the Ryanair.

Friday 14 March 2014

Cheltenham Gold Cup - Day 4 (Friday)

A great day for the blog yesterday with selection TAQUIN DE SEUIL winning for the blog at 9/1 (advised) and an SP of 7/1. He didn't look the winner for most of the race as he didn't jump well, but the magical AP McCoy got him running again.
My other selection Buddy Bolero, was the subject of a sustained gamble but never looked happy on ground that was too fast for him, and he fell when beaten.

1:30  Triumph Hurdle for 4yo’s (2-miles & 1-furlong)
Since the introduction of the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap  the Triumph Hurdle has developed into a serious Grade 1 contest in which the best 4yo hurdlers can show their promise. 
·         17 of the last 20 winners won LTO.
·         17 of the last 20 winners had won at least two hurdles;
In recent years the race has been dominated by Nicky Henderson (who provided the 5th & 6th in 2013), Paul Nicholls (who provided the 2nd & 3rd in 2013) and Alan King who have each sent out 2 winners. This years field looks a moderate bunch and it may pay to try your hand with either Broughton who looks progressive, or Pearl Castle who meets the major trends.

No selection advised.

2:05  Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle (2-miles & 1-furlong)
My favourite race of the final day and (as it happens) one of the most competitive of the NH season, a real cracker of a race. 
·         5yo’s have won 8 of the last 15 runnings;
·         Irish trainers have won 6 of the last 7 runnings;
·         3 of the last 4 successful UK trained winners were trained by Paul Nicholls;
·         The last 8 winners were rated between OR131 and OR139 (Ted Veale was rated OR134, and carried 10st 6lb)
·         8 of the last 12 winners ran in either the Boylesports Hurdle at Leopardstown, or the Betfair Hurdle run at Newbury.

No selection advised.

2:40  Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (3-miles)
Introduced in 2005, this race celebrates its 10th anniversary and, in my opinion, it already has a roll of honour that makes it a worthy addition to the Festival race roster.
·         4 of the 9 winners started at shorter odds than 2/1;
·         Just 1 of the 9 winners started at longer odds than 9/1 (the exception being Berties Dream (2010) at 33/1)
·         No previous winner raced on the flat.
·         7 of the 9 winners had previously run at Cheltenham
·         7 of the 9 winners had run a race over 3-miles
Personal notes
Run over 3-miles, there is no hiding place for those lacking in stamina and it will likely that the winner will already have won over the 3-mile trip but (as with 2011 Bobs Worth) that is not a necessity.  In my opinion, the ability to stay 3-mile at this Grade 1 level is comparatively rare, especially amongst novice hurdlers.
At the odds you have to oppose Briar Hill who is racing mainly on hype having beaten very few horses in his previous races over hurdles. I looked at this earlier this month and I am drawn to DEPUTY DAN at 16/1 as one who looks much better than his odds.

DEPUTY DAN, £5 eachway @ 16/1 available generally.

3:20  Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase (3-miles and 2½ furlongs)
The race considered to be the climax of the meeting.
This is always an emotional race, and the connections of the runners will have been aiming their horses at this for the past year. Last year’s winner Bobs Worth will line up to defend his crown.
·         14 of the last 15 winners had already won a race that season;
·         The last 13 winners were all in the 1st-3 in the betting;
·         Only Best Mate (in 2003 & 2004) has retained the Gold Cup since L’Escargot in 1971 – a feat that has escaped Kauto Star, Denman and Imperial Commander in recent years.
·         No winner aged 10yo or older since Cool Dawn (aged 10yo) won in 1998 (and he was a 25/1 outsider) and before that Cool Ground (also 25/1) who was also a 10yo when winning in 1992.
Only the very best staying chasers have been winning the Gold Cup in the past 15 years or so, and to be considered amongst the very best, they’ve been contesting the best races, such as the KGVI Chase at Kempton, and the Lexus at Leopardstown.
It is very likely that readers will have already formed an opinion on which horse they will be supporting in the Gold Cup. It is that sort of race, a race of strong opinions and the taking of sides. Virtually nothing that I write here will persuade anyone to alter their opinion.
I am a rock solid SILVINIACO CONTI supporter and that is where my money is going.

SILVINIACO CONTI, £20 win @ 4/1 win Stan James

4:00  Christie’s Foxhunters Chase (3-miles and 2½ furlongs)
After the “climax” of the Gold Cup, the crowds are allowed the respite of another “traditional” race at the Festival, one that gives the professional jockeys some time to take in the satisfaction of riding in the feature race. 
·         21 of the last 23 winners were no older than 10yo (last year’s winner Salsify was a 8yo);
·         23 of the last 28 winners were a LTO winner (last year’s winner won LTO)
This race can change complexion in a heartbeat. For the past couple of years, several horses have gone off like scalded cats in an attempt to create an unassailable lead – it hasn’t worked.  Tired horses fall and, last year, Oscar Delta (3rd in 2012 and 2011) was unfortunate to unship his rider on the run-in after the last fence when in a clear lead.  As I wrote last year “the formbook goes out of the window with this race as the chances of most in the race will depend on whether their amateur jockey can stay in the saddle”.
Only 4 from 23 starters completed last year, with most pulling-up before the final fence leaving the 40/1 chance Doctor Kingsley to be 4th nearly a quarter-of-a-mile behind the winner, so don’t throw away those betting slips mid-race. Using the trends filters above reduces the field from 24 to 9 possible winners.

No selection advised.

4:40  Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap hurdle (2-miles & 4½ furlongs)
2014 sees the 6th running of this competitive race.
·         For years 2009, 2010 & 2011, it was run as a 0-140 handicap, for 2012 & 2013 it was run as a 0-145 handicap;
·         2 of the 5 winners were relatively untried and/or relatively unexposed as hurdlers when they won this race.
Like the other handicap hurdle races, you are looking for an unexposed, lightly raced horse that should have won LTO and is 16/1 or shorter in the market. Trainer Nicky Henderson has targeted this race since it started and it’s likely he’ll continue to do so. This race looks a nightmare for the punter.

No selection advised.

5:15  Johnny Henderson Grand Annual (handicap) Chase (2-miles & 110 yards)
The race that draws the curtain on another Cheltenham Festival.
This race winner has started at odds of 12/1 or greater, 5 times since 2006.
·         14 of last 15 winners had raced in no more than 12 chase races (in 2013, Alderwood was having just his 5th chase race);
·         9 of the last 13 winners were rated OR129 – OR134;
·         The last 3 winners were rated OR138 – OR145;
·         Since 1998 when Edredon Bleu (who went on to win a Champion Chase in 2000) won with 11st 6lb, no horse has won carrying more than 11st.
·         Alderwood in 2013 was the first successful fav since 2004.
This race seems to be getting better quality entrants.
Despite the rise in quality, and the average rating of the race-winners, we still have to go back to 1998 for a winner that carried more than 11st.  Nicky Henderson always has a good go at this race (as it’s named in honour of his father) with 6 runners in both 2013 and 2013 with a winner and 2 x 2nd’s.
Mullins and Walsh combine on PASSAGE VENDOME currently 28/1 (Bet Victor and Stan James) and this horse meets the trends of weight, rating and experience. He has to be an eachway wager.

PASSAGE VENDOME, £5 eachway @ 28/1 (Bet Victor and Stan James)

Thursday 13 March 2014

Cheltenham Festival - Day 3 (Thursday)

It was another tough day at the Festival yesterday.
Willie Mullins brought out another outstanding novice hurdler in Faugheen, but his novice chaser Ballycasey was outclassed in the RSA Chase, as was my selection Corrin Wood.  
The Coral Cup again went to a runner in the Welsh Champion hurdle LTO in Whisper, which was a bit of a blow as he's been on my alert list all season. My selection Vendor scythed thru' the field but was caught-out by the sharp bend into the straight which held him up.
Nothing could stop Sire De Grugy winning the Champion Chase and an SP of 11/4 was a gift. My selection Kid Cassidy would never have won and looked out of sorts and outpaced.

We need a winner!  I've been thinking that I've been trying too hard to find a long-odds winner, so just a couple of wagers today.
1:30 JLT (was “Jewson”) Novices Chase (2-miles & 4-furlongs)
The day opens with the 4th running of this intermediate distance championship race for novice chasers.  Having only been run 3 times, race trends are thin on the ground. That said,
·         All 3 winners have been rated (at one time) OR142 or better meeting the same criteria of Arkle winners and were above average hurdlers. As such, I’d give preference to those that have attained a rating of 142+ over hurdles.
·         All 3 previous winners contested a hurdle at the previous year’s Cheltenham Festival.  
I’d stick to the tried and trusted LTO winners (certainly no worse than 2nd) selection method.
This is a tough 2m4f, so your selection should have proven stamina over this trip but not, in my opinion, a win over trips in excess of 2m6f – that is a negative.
The market leaders look opposable with Wonderful Charm not having run since 13th December, and Felix Yonger not looking good enough and not (in my oinion)improving as an 8yo.  Taquin De Seuil looks to have a great chance being just a 7yo and already looking a much better chaser than a hurdler, and he was 6th in the Neptune hurdle last year, so he wasn’t a bad hurdler either.  I think he’ll prove better on the day than the 9yo Oscar Whisky who does not seem to ever run to his best at the Festival.  On what we’ve seen to date, I can’t have Vukovar, and Djakadam is too young at 5yo. An interesting fact is that all 3 winners of this race (so far) have run at the previous year’s Festival, and this is where Double Ross scores, but I just have a fear that he’s not good enough with a rating of OR152 as he’ll need to find another 7lb+ to win this race.  The race seems a perfect fit for the LTO winner Taquin De Seuil as he was rated better than OR142 as a hurdler, he ran at last year’s festival, and he’s not contested a chase race over 3-mile. He’s 9/1 and that seems fair value

TAQUIN DE SEUIL, £10 win @ 9/1 (generally available) 

2:05 Pertemps Final Handicap Hurdle (3-miles)
When you have to go back to 2003 to find the last successful fav, and to 2005 for the last horse to win at odds under 14/1, you will understand that this race has been a tricky one for punters to solve over the years.
·         15 of last 21 winners carried between 10st 7lb and 11st 3lb (Holywell carried 11st 4lb);
·         10 of the last 22 winners won LTO.
This is a race which is targeted by certain trainers: with Jonjo O’Neill and David Pipe amongst the most successful. Due to handicap compression, it is possible that the 2014 winner will carry more than 11st 4lb. It should be noted that Phil Hobbs supplies both top and bottom weights – a tactic used by David Pipe in 2013 with success, so take note of SO FINE on 10st 13lb. Personally, I like my selection in this to be “in-the-van” and amongst the leaders thru’out.  David Pipe’s Top Wood made-all to win LTO after 12-months off the track; and both Grand Vision (3rd in the 2012 Albert Bartlett) and Uncle Jimmy travel well. So Fine has been kept off the track since running 3rd here on 13th Dec.

No selection.

2:40   Ryanair Chase (2-miles & 5-furlongs)
This race is now firmly established as a worthy Festival Championship race, and is producing winners of the highest order. I was fortunate enough to nominate last year’s winner CUE CARD as a 2pt win selection at the antepost odds of 5/1 in the 2013 Bulletin.
·         Winning course form at Cheltenham – 8 of the 9 winners previous winners had won at Cheltenham (Riverside Theatre in 2012 was the exception).
·         Winning form in a Grade 1 chase – 5 of the last 6 winners (since the Ryanair became a Grade 1 chase) had previously won a Grade 1 chase (Imperial Commander in 2009 was the only exception).
·         The Irish have yet to win the race, and they supplied the 2013 fav First Lieutenant.
This race has only once been won by a horse at longer odds than 6/1, so stick to the market leaders. My main antepost selection on this race is AL FEROF and I’m on at 6/1 and I’m not deserting him now. This is his trip and ground and he’s a previous Festival winner too. Racing at 3-mile and dropping back to 2m4f did for Dynaste last season, and I’m expecting that to happen again – and he was behind AL FEROF when they met on Boxing Day. Irish challenger Benefficient is the only LTO winner in the race but he hasn’t shown himself good enough to win this and, I reckon, he would probably have done better in the 2-mile Champion Chase. I have already placed a wager antepost on AL FEROF, £10 eachway @ 6/1, and I'm not adding to that wager as at the time I expected Dynaste to go for the Gold Cup.

3:20 World Hurdle (3-miles)
This race has been totally dominated by BIG BUCKS since 2009, and even tho’ he missed last year thru’ injury, he’s back again in 2014 and is the fav to recapture his crown and win his 5th World Hurdle. Last year’s winner Solwhit – the first Irish winner in 17 years – will not be returning to defend his crown having been retired.
·         The age of the winner should be between 6yo and 9yo;
·         Good recent form is very important and the winner will likely have run 1st, 2nd or 3rd LTO;
·         The betting market is usually good at highlighting the winner and it is unlikely that the winner will not be amongst the 1st-4 in the betting (certainly at odds less than 10/1);
·         It is very likely that the winner will have run at last year’s Cheltenham Festival;
·         The last horse to win this after taking part in a Champion Hurdle was Nomadic Way in 1992.
Can BIG BUCKS recapture his crown? The last two winners which did not run at the previous year’s Festival were both prevented from doing so by injury - Inglis Drever was injured in 2006 and won in 2007; and Solwhit was injured in 2012 and won in 2013. BIG BUCKS ran a tremendous race when returning from a 14-month layoff to run 3rd in the Cleeve Hurdle, and a repeat of that effort off level weights should see him win.

Any advised wager would be purely sentimental, no no wager advised.

4:00 Festival Plate (was Byrne Group) Handicap Chase (2-mile & 4½-furlongs)
Last year, for the 2nd year in succession, I tipped the runner-up when Vino Griego just failed to overhaul the 50/1 winner Carrickboy. I did write that with winners at odds of 25/1 (three times), 33/1, and 66/1 in past 10 years, don’t be afraid of backing your own judgement and opposing the market – and now you can add 50/1 to that list!
·         17 of the last 21 winners carried under 11st;
·         13 of the previous 16 winners came here off a break of no more than 39 days (in 2013, Carrickboy won off a break of 43-days);
·         19 of the last 21 winners were rated between OR128 – OR141;
·         In 2012, Salut Flo was the first winner in 13 years to win at odds of less than 12/1;
·         Irish trainers have only won this race once since 1951.
·         Trainers David Pipe, Venetia Williams and Nicky Henderson have great records in this race.
Last year I wrote: “whatever David Pipe sends for this has to be considered” and, having sent out the winner in 2012 and 2010, and capturing 4th in 2011, I’ll reiterate that.   In 2013 the race was won by Venetia Williams who has now won this 3 times recently (in 2013, 2009 & 2007 plus supplying the runner-up in 2009, 2006 & 2005) and trainer Nicky Henderson (won it 2006 & 2005).

No wager advised.

4:40 Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge (for Amateurs) Handicap Chase (3-miles, 1-furlong & 110 yards)
This is another Festival race, which is suffering from “handicap compression”.
As such, the overall interpretation of the long-term weight trends for this race are changing as most of the field will be carrying more than 11st.  
·         5 of the last 9 winners have carried 11st 6lb or more
·         No winner in past 20 years younger than 7yo;
·         Only 5 of the last 34 winners was a 7yo;
·         The last Irish trained winner was Greasepaint in 1983.
Another handicap usually targeted by David Pipe altho’ last year his 3 runners finished down the field.  Also note Donald McCain’s entries (he won this race in 2007 & 2010) as he supplied the 2013 runner-up who was beaten just a head.  Nicky Henderson (who won this race in 2005, 2002 & 1990 also usually does well.   With  5 of the last 9 winners carrying 11st 6lb or more, this race is being won by the better class horses.
I fully expected BUDDY BOLERO to go for the Festival handicap chase on the opening day, but he's come for this instead and has talented Katy Walsh in the saddle. Odds of 16/1 look generous for this horse who ran 4th in the NH Chase last season.

BUDDY BOLERO, £10 each way @ 16/1 with Coral.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Cheltenham Festival - Day 2 (Wednesday)

Not the best start to the Festival. 
  • Dodging Bullets never looked like being involved in the finish of the Arkle.
  • King Massini fell early on in the h'cap chase and then Tour Des Champs just failed by a neck to recapture 4th spot and a return on the eachway wager.
  • Hurricane Fly was finally overshadowed, with Jezki surprisingly taking the Champion Hurdle on the run-in from My Tent Or Yours.
  • Shotgun Paddy only just failed by a neck to take the 4-mile NH Chase.
  • Persian Snow looked like being in the 1st-4 till being squeezed on the home-turn and unbalanced when jumping the final fence, while Present View (my other shortlisted runner) went on to win the race.

1:30 Neptune Investment Novice Hurdle (Grade 1) over 2 miles & 5f
Possibly the most important novice event (chase or hurdle) of the Festival meeting, if not the entire NH calendar and it seems inappropriate to have moved this race to open the 2nd day of the meeting.
·         24 of the previous 26 winners had run in at least 3 hurdle races;
·         18 of the last 21 winners to have won at least twice coming into the race;
·         19 of the last 23 winners had won LTO;
Personally, I would ignore all those outside the 1st-6 in the betting on the day, as this is not a race for shocks.  All the market leaders meet the major criteria, apart from Rathvinden who did not win LTO.  It seems almost certain that the winner will come from Faugheen, Red Sherlock or Royal Boy (now a non-runner: lame) - but this could be an odd year. I don't like the fact that Faugheen has not run in 2014, and so my preference is for RED SHERLOCK, tho' I will not be surprised if an outsider wins.

This is a no-bet race for me. too many variables.
2:05 RSA Chase for Novices (Grade 1) over 3-mile & 110 yards
This race does occasionally throw-up some quality winners with Denman (2007) Albertas Run (2008) and Bobs Worth (2012) all going on to future Festival success at the highest level.
·         The last 14 winners had raced at least 3 times over fences.
·         18 of the last 21 winners had at least 9 NH starts (hurdles and chases count, but not bumpers).
·         18 of the previous 21 winners were a novice hurdler the previous season;
·         7yo’s have provided 12 of the previous 13 winners;
·         14 of the last 24 winners had won a 3-mile+ chase before winning this (tho’ the last 2 winners, Lord Windermere & Bobs Worth, both failed this stat);
·         It is nearly 50 years since a horse won the race without a run since 31st December;
·         No winner in 22 years had been placed in a Graded or Listed hurdle over less than 2m3f – for instance; 2013 winer Lord Windermere had run in a Grade 1 hurdle over 2m2f and came 4th of 7 runners.

The winner of this race will have been born to be a 3-mile and it’s likely that the eventual winner will have not run on the flat (except in a “bumper”) and will have only been novice hurdling.  Chasing experience is what counts here not potential ability and Irish horses do well in this race.  The winner is likely to have run in a Grade 1 novice chase already and, in Ireland, that means the Dr PJ Moriarty Chase run at Leopardstown.  The last 4 Irish winners –Lord Windermere (2013), Boston’s Angel (2011), Weapons Amnesty (2010) and Cooldine (2009) - all ran in the PJ Moriarty Chase.  As such, pay close attention to the form of Ballycasey, Don Cossack and Carlingford Lough, altho' Ballycasey does not have enough experience, despite great talent.
For such a talented field, only the following meet all the major criteria:
Annacotty, Corrin Wood, Many Clouds and Samingarry.
The one that catches my eye most is the unbeaten CORRIN WOOD at 11/1, as he should be joint-fav. Of the Irish, Don Cossack could be the best over this 3-mile trip.

CORRIN WOOD, £5 eachway & £5 win @ 11/1 (Stan James & Bet Victor)
2:40 Coral Cup Handicap hurdle (Grade 3) over 2-miles & 5 furlongs
This race is a fiercely competitive handicap invariably run at a strong gallop. As such, it has some strong trends worth following, probably due to the large number of starters each year.
·         7 of the last 11 winners won LTO;
·         15 of last 20 winners had already won a race earlier in the season;
·         12 of the last 14 winners were aged 7yo or younger;
·         Only 2 of the last 8 winners came into the race of a break of less than 42 days.
·         11 of the last 13 winners had only won one previous handicap.

It is not unusual for runners with big weights to do well in this race. 
This is a competitive handicap, so usually a horse with no more than 3 runs this season (9 of last 17 winners had run no more than 3 times that season) are the most likely to be on the upgrade. The are a few that interest me on the trends: the LTO winners Waaheb and Calculated Risk, and also Vendor. Waaheb may struggle on this ground, but is very lightly raced. Calculated Risk does not have Costello in the saddle and that is a negative for him. While VENDOR was not beaten far LTO in the Betfair Hurdle and he goes well here having run 3rd in the Fred  Winter in 2012. He followed that run with a win off OR136 and he runs off OR138 in this. He can go close and odds of 16/1 look fair as the sponsors (Coral) go 5-places eachway.

VENDOR, £5 eachway @ 16/1 (Coral pay 5-places)
3:20 Queen Mother Champion Chase (2-miles)
·         The last 14 winners of the previous year’s Arkle to take part in the QMCC have been placed at least (unlikely that 2013 Arkle winner Simonsig will take part).
·         9 of the last 13 winners have contested the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown.
·         31 of the last 32 winners had an SP of no greater than 11/1.
·         11 of the last 12 winners won a Grade 1 chase prior to winning this race

Race-fav Sire De Grugy is rated by me 163 at best, which puts him with striking distance of Sizing Europe if he runs to his best at a track he loves. The next best rivals are the Irish trained Arvika Ligeonniere and Benefficient. Of that pair, I prefer Benefficient but he’s yet to better 160 on my ratings and so the advantage remains with Sire De Grugy. Last year, KID CASSIDY ran a cracker in the Grand Annual to be 2nd and well clear of the 3rd. He could be placed at long odds and may even give the fav something to think about.
KID CASSIDY, £5 eachway @ 12/1 (Bet Victor & Stan James)

4:00 Cross Country Handicap Chase (3-miles & 7-furlongs)
This is not my favourite race and I’m pleased that it’s been moved from the opening day to the back-end of the 2nd day  It is not one that I will spend much time contemplating and, in its revised position on the card, I doubt many others will either.
Previous experience of Cross–Country chases is a plus. Last year I suggested avoiding horses aged 8yo or younger due to their poor record in the race, and then the 8yo Big Shu went and won. As he’d run 2nd in a Cross-Country chase LTO he had the experience required and, as he followed-up at the Punchestown Festival in April, he looks to be the one to beat. Big Shu returned on 2nd Feb 14 with a decent 2nd in a Cross-Country chase at Punchestown which should have him primed to defend his crown.

This is a no-bet race for me.

4:40 Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (2-miles & 110 yards)
Being one of the more intriguing races of the Festival, I am disappointed that it has been pushed back further into the afternoon to accommodate the Cross-Country Chase. This is a race which has some trends similar to the Centenary Novices Chase.
Your looking for a horse that fulfils these 3 factors:-
·         less than 5 hurdle runs and;
·         less than 2 hurdle wins;
·         a winning run coming LTO.
This is the 3rd edition of my Festival Bulletin and for the previous two editions I’ve written: “I’ll be looking for a lightly-raced, LTO winner… … If it’s a filly, more the better”.
Only 3 fillies went to post in 2012, one of which was UNE ARTISTE who won @ 40/1. There were no fillies entered in 2013.
·         5 of the last 7 winners won LTO (neither of the last two winners won LTO);
·         Only 2 of the 9 winners of this race had won more than once over hurdles;
·         7 of the 9 winners had run in 3 hurdle races or less;
·         Fillies have provided 4 of the 9 winners; 2012 winner Une Artiste was 1 of only 3 fillies in the race, and 2011 winner What A Charm was one of only 2 fillies.
·         This race has the shortest average period since a run of just 20.90 days with 5 of the 9 previous winners last running less than 21-days before winning this.
Paul Nicholls must have felt cheated as not only did he send out the 2nd & 3rd in 2013, but he also supplied the 6/1 fav Saphir Du Rheu who has since developed into an OR160+ hurdler.
This race is always a potential “bookies benefit” being even more difficult to predict than the other handicaps as it consists of a large field of unexposed 4yo’s.
In the 9 years this race has been run, only 10 horses at odds under 10/1 have finished in the 1st-7 home. While none of the 3 runners at odds under 10/1 ran well last year; in 2012 two of the 3 at odds under 10/1 ran 3rd and 4th; and in 2011, 3 of the 5 runners at odds under 10/1 finished 1st, 4th and 7th.  In 2010, just 2 of the 24 runners were under 10/1 and they finished 1st & 2nd.

This year there is a filly in the race: Azza @ 20/1 trained by David Pipe.
There are a few ex-French horses having their UK debut. This race is just too "dark" for me.

This is a no-bet race for me.

5:15 Weatherby’s Champion Bumper “open” NH Flat Race (2-miles & 110 yards)
This isn’t one of the races that I look forward to at the Festival as usually “bumper” form is thin on the ground.
·         12 of the 21 winners (race 1st run in 1992) were unbeaten in bumpers;
·         9 of the last 13 winners were no longer than 14/1 in the betting;
·         Only 2 winning fav’s in the last 13 renewals;
·         Irish-based trainers have supplied 16 of the 21 winners.
·         This race has been won three times recently (in 2003, 2007, and 2009) by a horse coming off a break of more than 84 days.
For the 2nd year in succession, Willie Mullins won the race in 2013 with a horse that was NOT his stable 1st-string. This was a prime example of not seeing the wood for the trees by becoming too wrapped-up in race-trends.  Mullins has now won this race 8 times in its 21 year history, and 6 of those winners came to the Festival having run in just one bumper beforehand. This year, Mullins has 3 runners in this race - Black Hercules, Killultagh Vic and Shaneshill - but I cannot favour one over the others.

This is a no-bet race for me.

After the Festival is over, I will be preparing a review of the Festival and looking for performance pointers for Aintree and next season.