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Tuesday 29 March 2016

2016 Cheltenham Festival Day 1 - review

It can pay dividends to look-back at the Cheltenham Festival with a clear eye, and assess the results as fairly as possible. It was an exercise that I didn't so last year, so I'll hopefully make up for missing out last year.

The Festival opened-up with one of the most anticipated races of the day, as many had the 4 Mullins fav's on the first day in doubles, trebles and accumulators.  The Mullins fav for the Supreme Novices Hurdle was Min, who had run inly twice this season, and was coming into the Festival off a break of 66-days. At this point, I will refer you to an excellent free-issue stats breakdown that has been issued by PROFORM - it is well worth becoming a registered free member to this site just for the excellent free issue stats. This looks a particularly good "Supreme" even by recent standards, as there appears to be more strength in depth, as even Mister Miyagi in 6th came into this race off a 110-day break and should find improvement. The race was run in a time only 0.90secs slower than the Champion Hurdle later in the day, and that was won in a course-record time. The quick times throw some doubt on the ground description of good-to-soft, and it was likely a lot more "good" than soft. The race was run at a strong pace thanks to Charbel who was only headed after jumping 2-out and only just failed to hold-onto 4th (much to my chagrin). The pace suited both Min and the eventual winner ALTIOR, and it was the Henderson-horse who was the most impressive, quickly establishing a winning margin on the run-in. He looks sure to challenge Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle next season. Min is likely to go novince chasing next season; whereas Buveur D'Air (a half-brother of Punchestowns) could stay hurdling over trips of 20f+. In 4th, Tombstone is another likely to be better as a chaser next season over trips of 20f+. I was very impressed with Charbel who came in 5th as he led for a long way, and he could develop into a high-class horse if stepped-up in trip.

The "Arkle" was a shoo-in for the 1/4 odds-on fav DOUVAN once his only realistic challenger Vaniteux fell going for a big-one at the 2nd-last fence. While I doubt Vaniteux would have beaten Douvan, he would certainly have run 2nd and the horse that filled that spot, Sizing John, has looked very ordinary this season. Overall, this Arkle has no real strength in depth and, for me, the jury is out on Douvan - he should make a high-class 2-mile chaser but will he win a Champion Chase?  I can see Vaniteux making a useful handicapper next season, especially if he remains on OR152.

One of my favorite handicap chases of the year is the 3m1f Grade 3 chase on the opening day. It was a anti-climax this year (for me) as my selection lost his jockey mid-race when stumbling on the flat - he wasn't even jumping a fence! As such, I think Beg To Differ can be kept on the right side as he was progressing well to that point. This years race looks a cracker of a result, with high-class hurdler the 7yo UN TEMPS POUR TOUT winning a strongly run race.  Given he went into the race running off OR148 it was a great effort to win beating last years Gold Cup 4th Holywell fair and square. The winner has been raised 11lb to OR159 and I agree with that assessment, as Un Temps Pour Tout looks a potential Gold Cup horse.  This was, after all, only his 4th chase race, and LTO the trip of 2m5f was too short for him even though he was staying-on strong over the final half-mile (we should have paid more attention to that run). For his initial couple of chase runs he was just learning the trade after being a high-class 3-mile hurdler: he won the French Champion Hurdle over 3m1f (with Thousand Stars 10-lengths back in 2nd) and he ran well to be 6th in last years World Hurdle. He runs well at Cheltenham, stays well, and will be 8yo next season, and I'd rather take 40/1 about him for next years Gold Cup than many others quoted at shorter odds who (realistically) have next to no chance of winning. The runner-up Holywell always comes good at this meeting (he won the 3-mile Pertemps Final Hurdle in 2013; he won this handicap chase in 2014; he was 4th in the Gold Cup in 2015) and I'm surprised he didn't go for the Gold Cup. Had he run to this level in the Gold Cup, he would have run 3rd (based on my own ratings) and collected 3x the prize-money he won here. When you compare the race time with his winning time of 2014, it is bang there (remember, this year the race was extended by another 110 yards). This race was tip-top form.

Considering he started off running over 7-furlongs on the All-Weather at Wolverhampton, The Young Master has come a long way and he's only 7yo (seems to have been around for years). This was only his 2nd career-run in March and he's never run in the period April-August so we are unlikely to see him again before the autumn, so the suggestion is these were not his ideal conditions - but what a run! He's actually gone DOWN a 1lb in the handicap to OR148 and he has to go on the alert list for a race this autumn. The 4th home was Morning Assembly who actually beat this years Gold Cup winner Don Cassack when they met in November 2013. That was the last time he won, and he went on to run 3rd (behind O'Faolains Boy and Smad Place) in the 2014 RSA Chase. He missed last season entirely,  and was off the track 21-months before returning in January this year. He's entered in the Grand National (for which he's 33/1) and I'd normally say such a horse would be a good wager, but he tried to go with the leaders in this from 3-out and quickly emptied-out. He could be placed, but I could not see him winning a Grand National.  Nigel Twiston-Davies always aims a young stayer at this race, and this year he had two in Algernon Pazham (who readers of the blog know well) and Ballykan, and they both ran well. The good thing is that Algernon Pazham completed a race for the first time since running 2nd earlier in the season, this should be a huge confidence boost and he could run a big race NTO.  Ballykan is a lot better than this and he heads for Aintree and the "Topham" Chase.

The Champion Hurdle brought together possibly the weakest field for the race that I can remember. That a horse can come into the race not having raced in almost 2-years, and come 2nd says it all. Sure, Annie Power won well, but all she had to do was run to her rating (at OR162 she had the highest rating in the race) and, together with her mares' allowance, she was virtually unbeatable. Personally, I didn't think she was able to run to OR162 as my ratings had her at  about 160 over 20f+, but at 2-mile I had here at about 155.  There is talk of her returning next year to defend her crown, but I wouldn't bother as Faugheen is possibly 10lb better than her, maybe more.  I can't see any of this field returning next year and winning; and their only hope is to go chasing (which is what The New One should have done in 2014-15).

The Mares' Hurdle yet again went to a Willie Mullins trained horse (he's won every running bar the first one in 2008) in Vroum Vroum Mag, and I can't see another horse beating her next year (other than Annie Power, but that's unlikely).  My wager on The Govaness went astray when she fell at the final flight (and was fatally injured) when disputing 2nd and she'd probably have been placed.

The result of the National Hunt Chase was very interesting as there had only been one 6yo winner since Boraceva in 1989 (that was Tricky Trickster in 2009), yet the 1st-2 home were both 6yo's: Minella Rocco and Native River. This race has recently gone to the highest-rated runner (all horses carry 11st 6lb) and Native River was the joint 2nd-top rated at OR149 (the other was Pont Alexandre who pulled-up with a fatal injury). My money was on the top-rated Vincente (OR153) who was going very well till hampered by a loose horse 3-out. He's been dropped 7lb to OR146 which seems like an over-reaction by the handicapper.  It's fair to say that (prior to this race) Minella Rocco has not progressed well this season over fences, after looking a very decent novice hurdler last season. He finally got his act together LTO at Ascot over 3-mile when 2nd to Vyta Du Roc doing his best work that day in the 2nd-half of the race.  The same thing happened in this, as he was under pressure mid-race before making progress in the final mile of this 4-mile race.  There's talk of him being a potential Gold Cup horse, but his running style is more suited to marathon races.   Native River is more interesting, as he's had a busy season and this 2-mile (Listed) hurdle winner looks well handicapped if dropped back to 3-mile.  The Irish trained Measureofmydreams is tricky to weigh-up as he's a bit of a dark horse.  This trip looked like it stretched him and, again, a drop to 3-mile (a trip over which he won on 14-Feb) looks the right move to bring the best out of him.   This 4-mile trip certainly extended Southfield Royale, and this 6yo has time on his side.  He looks better than his half-brother (Southfield Theatre) and looks a potential 160+ chaser next season over trips around 3-mile.

The closing race of the opening day, the 2m4f & 110 yards novices' handicap chase, was run at a strong pace. The winner was the 9yo Ballyalton who was 2nd here to Faugheen in the RSA Novices Hurdle in 2014. He came into this race with potential and nothing more as his novice form this season over fences was nothing to write home about. He is very lightly race for a 9yo and I expect he will be highly tried over the coming months to make up for lost time (he was off the track for 20 months till returning last November). After winning in January at Doncaster, I noted Bouvreuil for this race and he did connections proud by only just failing to win. He was also 2nd in the Juvenile Handicap Hurdle here last year, so clearly loves Cheltenham and maybe next year he will get his head in front. It is possible that Double Shuffle went for home too early and paid the price.  As such, he escapes the attention of the handicapper and has been raised only 3lb to OR141, which looks a workable mark for this improving 6yo.

Reviews of the remainder of the Cheltenham Festival races are to follow over the next week before focus turns to Aintree and the grand National.

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