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Monday 19 March 2018

Cheltenham Review 2018 - Day 1 (blog 996)

I start my review of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival with the 1st day attempting to find any nuggets of information that I can make use of in the coming weeks, or maybe even place a long-term wager for the Festival 2019.  This is my 996th blog posting.

Supreme Novice Hurdle over 2m & 87 yards
The betting market sent off the Irish trained Getabird as the 7/4 fav but, with only 2 previous hurdle races, Getabird did not have enough race experience for this event and faded into 11th place. We will hopefully see the horse have better days.  The race was won by SUMMERVILLE BOY and the form between him and the runner-up Kalashnikov worked out very well.   The pair had met at Sandown in January when Summerville Boy beat Kalashnikov by 4-lengths at level weights, and while there was only a neck between them in this passing the post, Summerville Boy was very nearly taken out of the race at the 2nd-last flight and showed great courage to recover from that position.  Kalashnikov had already shown his worth in winning the Betfair Handicap Hurdle at Newbury in February, and he repeated that form in this race. With luck, both horses should have a great future ahead of them. In 3rd place, Mengli Khan was the best of the Irish challenge and he ran better than expected, finishing a length ahead of Paloma Blue, who has strong form-links with Samcro who won the Ballymore Novices hurdle on Day 2 of the Festival.  Overall, the novice hurdlers this season look a very strong bunch and we could well see next years Champion Hurdler emerge from them.

Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices' Chase over 2-mile
A very poor turn-out of just 5 runners for the premier novice chase at the Festival but we may have seen a good winner of this race in FOOTPAD. I've rated Footpad 8lb better than Altior's winning performance in 2017 but, as we saw with Altior winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase  this year, it may be that Altior doesn't handle Cheltenham well but he has the class to win here anyway. This performance from Footpad was, in my opinion, comparable with the win in the race by Douvan in 2016.  Before the race, I could not understand the reason behind the support for the 5yo Saint Calvados: while he looks a capable novice chaser, nobody in the UK or Ireland sought to buy the horse as a hurdler and since his late UK chasing debut on 30-Dec he's not really been highly tried and it was disappointing that the ill-fated North Hill Harvey could not hold hit jumping together when they met at Warwick on 10-Feb as - based on this run in the Arkle - Saint Calvados would have been exposed. As for Petit Mouchior, the horse barely stays 2-mile as a hurdler and on this heavy ground and having to jump fences (not hurdles) his stamina was always going to be suspect.  Even so, I expect Petit Mouchior to eventually be a 160+ 2-mile chaser.  I expect that Brain Power will need to step-up in trip to justify his OR156 rating as he's not a top-class 2-mile chaser.

Ultima Handicap Chase run over 3m1f
Always a very competitive handicap chase and one in which the trends-players can find a lot of answers.  Handicap chases, in my opinion, are very simple - you are looking for unexposed horses who have demonstrated ability but have yet to be fully assessed by the handicapper.  To fit this criteria, they are essentially young (no older than 8yo), LTO winners with less than 10 chase races. This years winner - COO STAR SIVOLA - fitted the bill exactly, being a 6yo novice chaser, having only his 6th chase race, and being a LTO winner over 3-mile. He had also won on soft ground, and won at Cheltenham as a hurdler, plus he'd run well enough to be placed 3rd (in 2016) and 4th (in 2017) and two previous Cheltenham Festivals. He was on my shortlist of likely winners, alongside Vintage Clouds who race 3rd and Singlefarmpayment (5th). Others on my shortlist were Minella Daddy (12th) and Gold Present (PU - broken blood vessels). The manner in which Coo Star Sivola won suggests he could end up a 155+ chaser and he should be followed.  The big surprise for me was the performance of the 8yo Shantou Flyer in 2nd as this was his 24th chase race, and while he was a winner of a 3-mile chase at Cheltenham as a novice, he was only rated OR133 then, and he was racing off OR152 in this race. All his other 5 career wins have been at around 2m6f and he looked well exposed and handicapped to the hilt. However, in this race everything fell into place: he loves Cheltenham, all his best form has been on soft or heavy ground and he came into the race having run well (without winning) in 3 races since 1st Jan.  In 3rd, Vintage Clouds showed he appreciated the testing ground as he's essentially a grinder, but I think he needs further than 3m1f. And I think you can say the same about Beware The Bear, and as he does not appear to have any ground preference he looks set for a win over a marathon trip this Spring.

Champion Hurdle
A field of 11 runners went to post, headed by the OR169 rated BUVEUR D'AIR who won the Champion Hurdle last year. Personally, I thought this was a poor renewal as 6 of the 11 had official ratings of 156 or lower and, of the others, Wicklow Brave (OR164) hadn't jumped a hurdle in 11 months (since he won the  Punchestown Champion Hurdle); Elgin (OR161) had been supplemented after winning a poor Kingwell Hurdle; Faugheen (OR167) was now a 10yo and it was debatable just how much ability he retained and if he was worthy of that rating; and while Melon (OR160) ran a cracking race over C&D in December he had flopped LTO in the Irish Champion Hurdle in February and so was on a recovery mission.  All in all, the race was Buveur D'Air's to lose - and he very nearly did that! As they turned for home, I thought the eventual 3rd Mick Jazz was going the best but, when asked, he found little and merely stayed on up the hill. It was Melon who came closest to taking the crown and (when you consider this was only his 7th hurdle race) this 6yo with another year of improvement could be a potential champion in March 2019.  The plan is for Buveur D'Air to remain a hurdler in 2018-19 and defend his crown next year but, on this display, he's going to find winning a 3rd Champion Hurdle extremely tough.

Mares' hurdle run over 2m4f
This race revolved around the odds-on chance Apple's Jade who had won this race last year and run 2nd in the Triumph Hurdle as a 4yo.  She held every chance before 2-out but quickly came under pressure and it may have been the ground that stopped her as she was beaten when odds-on the last time she raced on heavy ground. The winner BENIE DES DIEUX missed all the festivals last season, but then she's raced as a chaser since joining the Mullins yard and is unbeaten.  They clearly thought she had the speed to get involved in this race on this heavy ground, and the plan is to return her to chasing, but that may be revised now. Midnight Tour ran a cracker to be 2nd and, in retrospect, her odds of 33/1 were an insult seeing as she won a Listed race over this trip on the "new" course last April. While 3-mile may be beyond her, she is certainly at her best around 2m4f and is very consistent. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was La Bague Au Roi who found litttle once headed on the run-up to the final flight at which she made a significant error which effectively took her out of the race. It's very likely the 6yo Apple's Jade will stay in training and on better ground next yeart she will be hard to beat, as she's well up to competing in the Champion Hurdle when at her best.

National Hunt Challenge Cup (amateur riders) Novices' Chase run over 4-mile
In recent years this race has been the most significant staying novice chase at the Festival, much more influential than the RSA Chase run over 3-mile. Whether this race will be as significant this year is debateable as it was won by the 10yo RATHVINDEN who just beat the 7yo mare Ms Parfois with another 10yo in Sizing Tennessee in 3rd.
This is a race which is invariably won by the horse with the highest official rating and so it proved again as Rathvinden started with a rating of OR150 (joint highest with Mossback who fell at the 18th fence and was unfortunately, fatally injured).  Rathvinden ran 3rd in the Neptune Hurdle (now Ballymore) won by Faugheen in 2014 but missed a couple of years through injury before starting his chasing career in earnest last May as a 9yo. He won 4 races before the 1st October and had been competing in top-class novice chases since then.  Prior to this race, Rathvinden had run in the top-class Flogas Novices Chase (used to be the Dr PJ Moriarty Chase) and wasn't out of it when losing his rider. You have to think that, but for injury, he could have been a Gold Cup horse, and I reckon he will now be aimed at the 2019 Grand National.
Technically, Ms Parfois was the highest rated as she benefitted from a 7lb mares' allowance which, when added to her rating of OR146, put her 3lb ahead of anything else in the field.  Her trainer aimed her at this race after she won at Warwick over 3-mile in January, and although she isn't top-class she should make a good staying handicapper next season in the marathon chases.
Only 6 finished this race from the 16 starters and other than the 1st-2 the remainder were outclassed apart from the 7yo No Comment who was having only his 2nd chase race.  He was thereabouts half a mile out, but didn't stay this trip and a return to 3-mile should see him do better.

Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase run over 2m4f & 74 yards
Always a very competitive race and this years event was no different with just 8lb covering the entire field.   The 1st-3 pulled clear of the remainder, and the winner MISTER WHITAKER had previously won the Novices Chase run here over 2m5f on "Trials" day in January. He looked to win that race with a tonne in-hand and although he was raised 8lb for that win, most judges thought that was nowhere near enough - and so it proved. In 3rd that day was Sizing Tennessee, so his good 3rd in the earlier NH Chase over 4-mile franked the form. Mister Whitaker has improved with every run as a chaser, and he could be capable of running in a higher grade than this, but I think he will be a top-class 3-mile handicapper next season, as he's a better horse than his 10yo half-brother Broadway Buffalo.
The runner-up Rather Be hadn't tried this trip in his previous 3 starts as a chaser, but he had won over 2m4f as a hurdler at the Aintree Festival last April after which he was rated OR143. As such, running off the same mark in this chase, he looked well handicapped.  He is certainly unexposed at this trip and could be very exciting, just like the winner.
There didn't seem to be any hard-luck stories amongst the beaten horses and the 5/1 fav Any Second Now was over-rated and running off a mark of OR145 which he hadn't justified on the track.

I will be continuing this review of the Festival over the coming week.

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