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Saturday, 31 March 2018

Cheltenham Review 2018 - Day 4 (blog 999)

For the final day of this year’s Festival I was in the "Club" thanks to one of my readers providing a ticket for the day.  I have to admit being very pleased with the developments at Cheltenham and it looks 1st-class.  I’m tempted to become a member even though I live in Brighton (memo to myself: must go racing more).

Remember, when this review of the Cheltenham week is completed, I will cut and paste all the pages together and have a permanent tab for it (on the right) so that readers can easily refer to the notes.  I've also decided to include some stats & trends in the notes and (during the course of the next 12 months) I will add more notes to it so that readers are able to have a more complete reference going into the 2019 Festival.

Triumph Hurdle (4yo's only) run over 2m1f
Personally, I thought this was a weak contest for the highest grade juvenile hurdle of the season, and so it turned out.  The winner was a maiden, the first since maiden winner of the race in 38 years (Heighlin in 1980), and that suggests most of this year’s contenders had not had enough racing. The winner FARCLAS has shown considerable improvement with each of his two runs since his hurdling debut, and he certainly stayed up the hill on the run-in.  A winner over 12f on the flat in France last summer, I'd say he'll end up best over 2m4f.  How good was he in this? Compared to the County Hurdle, the next race run over the same C&D, FARCLAS ran a time about 8lbs better than the winner of that race, so I'd say he was 145+, possibly 150 - he won't be winning a Champion Hurdle.  The runner-up Mr Adjudicator had beaten the winner when they met LTO, and it's possible that he only improved a few pounds on that earlier performance.  The horse I will be taking from the race is the 3rd-place SAYO who was having only his 2 run for trainer Willie Mullins, as he stayed on very strong defying his 33/1 odds.  He had clearly shown promise at home to gain an entry in this race, and if he improves again with this experience under his belt, he could be useful.
The fav Apple's Shakira was disappointing, but then the filly had looked laboured when winning the "trial" over C&D in January. And my selection Redicean will be seen in better light when returning to a flatter track on better ground.

County Hurdle (handicap) run over 2m1f
This is one of those races I wish I had taken a chance on. The winner MOHAAYED had run well in the Country Hurdle in 2017 as a 5yo and, going back to his 3yo flat career, he'd been classy enough to run 6th in the 2015 Irish "2000 Guineas” won by Gleneagles.  Interestingly, he'd run at Kempton's Boxing Day meeting before running in this race both this year and last year, but this time he'd come straight to the Festival without another run. He'd also clashed with Chesterfield (4th in this race) at Christmas and in the Scottish Champion (handicap) hurdle last April and the form of those races had worked out well. There was a doubt – even by his trainer – that he’d handle the soft ground, but his jockey Bridget Andrew (3lb claimer) rode a great race. The runner-up Remiluc had won at the "trials" day here on 27th Jan off OR139 and had proven competitive since off his new rating of OR144, and so the form of this race looks solid. There was a substantial gamble on Flying Tiger who went off the 6/1 fav but he was never in with a shout.  The winner of the "Fred Winter" Juvenile (handicap) Hurdle last year, Flying Tiger will likely bounce-back NTO on better ground as he looked well handicapped coming into this off OR140 based on his run in the Kingwell Hurdle LTO but he didn’t seem able to cope with the large field in this race on this soft ground.

Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle run over 3-miles
This is a race that I this is a good fit at the Festival and we’ve had some very good winners of the race over the years since it was introduced in 2005, including last years’ winner Penhill taking the Stayers’ Hurdle on day 3 this year.
Ideally, you want a horse that has already won over 3-miles but this years’ favourite Santini had not and, on this soft ground, that showed. Yes, he’d won on heavy ground here at the “Trials” meeting beating Black Op (2nd in the Ballymore on Day 2 to Samcro) over 2m4f, but that’s not the same as a 3-mile win.  He was my selection for the race anyway, as I do think he was probably the best horse in the race (and I still do) but he was beaten by a combination of trip and ground. There were no stamina concerns about KILBRECKEN STORM who had won over C&D in December, but he’d blotted his copybook when a well beaten 3rd LTO over 2m4½f at Newbury. For this race, we had a strong pace-setter in Fabulous Saga who set a good clip and stepped-up the pace as they went up the hill on the 2nd-circuit and then tried to steal the race by heading-off quickly down the hill opening-up a good lead. This undoubtedly distorted the race as when the leader went to the 2nd-last flight he was still in an 8-length lead as he turned for home. For me, only the 1st-5 properly stayed the trip well and possibly had the race not been spoilt by the tactics of Fabulous Saga who faded into 7th on the run-in, then we could have seen the runner-up 8yo Ok Corral and Santini dispute the finish. The horse that could prove the most interesting long-term was the 5th Tower Bridge who was bred to be a Derby winner but never ran on the flat and was gelded and sent hurdling. This 5yo has improved rapidly since his hurdle debut in November and it would be no surprise if he tackled some 2-mile-plus “cup” races on the flat this summer        

Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase run over 3m 2f & 70 yards
I’ve already reviewed this race in my “Clash of the Titans” blog, however this was possibly the race of the century (so far). It was certainly the best Gold Cup that I’ve seen in my lifetime, even better than the Kauto Star vs Denman race. Personally, I think this race confirmed (again) that trends are a guide: they are not the be-all and end-all of selection. Too many people dismissed the winner Native River on account that he was 3rd last year, and horses placed the year before never win, do they? Also, he’d only had one race this season prior to the Gold Cup, and horses don’t win Gold Cup’s with such a meagre race preparation, do they? Well, yes they have, and yes they do.  
I had already made NATIVE RIVER my selection for the race, but when I learnt on-course that the rails had been moved opening-up a strip of fresh ground I knew the lead horse would have a distinct advantage, and I knew that lead horse would be Native River – as such I doubled my stake on-course. Can Native River return and win again next year? It is possible as he’s young enough to do so, but as we’ve seen with his stablemate Thistlecrack, keeping chasers fit to win and absent from injury is a difficult task in itself apart from winning the race itself. My own formlines worked out well with regard to Might Bite who is possibly a better horse at 3-mile on a flatter track, but has yet (in my opinion) to show he can justify his current (inflated) rating of OR172.  In 3rd, the 8yo Anibale Fly has improved rapidly this season and he was staying-on well in the final quarter-mile.   He holds a Grand National entry and running well in the Gold Cup has been a good preparation for that race in the past so he could do very well at Aintree.   Staying the trip wasn’t what Road To Respect did, and he will enjoy a drop back to 3-mile; in fact I think he’d do better trying for the Ryanair Chase next season as 2m5f could be his optimum trip.  

Foxhunter Challenge Cup (Open) Hunter Chase run over 3m 2f & 70 yards
My policy with this race is to put a line through anything 11yo or older, and then sort on the official ratings to find the best horse, as they all carry 12st.  I also like to find a selection to be a prominent runner, as I’ve noticed that those not “in the van” as the field heads out on the 2nd circuit struggle to get into the race from there on. Unfortunately, this led me to the 9yo Volnay De Thaix on OR147 who was always a better hurdler than chaser under rules, and it showed in this race as he was struggling to stay involved from a long way out.  As they went out on the 2nd circuit this year, Top Wood the eventual 2nd was in the front-3, and both Cousin Pete and Barel Of Laughs who dead-heated for 3rd where just behind the leading group. Eventual winner PACHA DU POLDER, and Caid Du Berlais (who finished 5th) where towards the rear of a tightly packed group that, for once, were going a sensible pace on this soft ground.  Having reviewed the race video, I feel the youngest of this group the 9yo Caid Du Berlais was the horse who was travelling the best, and looking the most likely winner from before the 3rd-last fence, and he only ran out of puff on the run-in and then only in the final 150 yards. I’ve followed Top Wood for a few years and he was a blog selection the last time he won in Mar16, and he was going well until falling in the Kim Muir Chase here NTO off Or138, but he’s lost his way since then.  Going point-to-pointing has given his confidence a boost but we had no way of knowing that before he ran, hence his odds of 50/1. Barel Of Laughs was 3rd in this race last year to Pacha Du Polder at 100/1 and proved that was no fluke with this run, but he’s a 12yo now and not improving. 
This was only the 3rd run under rules for Cousin Pete, who has won all 6 of his 10 completed races in the PTP field, and he also won at Cheltenham back in 2016, so we knew he could handle the track. Along with Caid Du Berlais, Cousin Pete has every possibility of coming back next year to win this. 
As for PACHA DU POLDER, you have to wonder that if he’d had a proper rider and not Victoria Pendleton back in 2016, then he could have secured a hat-trick of wins in this race. He goes well at Aintree and the Foxhunters there must be the next target.

Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle run over 2m4f & 56 yards
Another “nightmare” of a handicap hurdle for the punter, where you are looking for an unexposed, lightly raced horse that possibly should have won LTO and is 16/1 or shorter in the market.
The 1st and 2nd BLOW BY BLOW and Discorama met in a maiden hurdle in December with Discorama winning (in-receipt of 3lb) on that occasion. As such, on 6lb better terms, the 33/1 about Discorama was good value if you considered Blow By Blow had a chance. However, Blow By Blow had since won a Grade 3 hurdle LTO very easily and that was thought to have scuppered his handicap mark as he was raised 12lb to OR144. Not so, he led for most of the race and was clear on the home turn and never looked in danger. This was a smart performance from Blow By Blow and the only downside is that the winner is a 7yo and will likely go novice chasing next season.  
From a hurdling point of view, the 5yo Discorama in 2nd performed wonders to come from last and beat some decent handicappers in the process. Connections reckon he stays further than this trip and his run in this suggests he does too.  Discorama was the only horse trainer Paul Nolan sent to the Festival and he is one that should be followed.

Johnny Henderson Grand Annual (handicap) Chase run over 2-miles & 67 yards
The “get out” stakes but really this race is too competitive to wager big money on. As with other handicap chases, you are essentially looking for a lightly raced horse that has form around Cheltenham, with the potential to improve.
The winner LE PREZIEN fit the bill perfectly as this was only his 10th chase race, and he had run 5 of those races at Cheltenham. On the downside, he had run in this race last year coming 8th off OR146 when a novice chaser, but his form this season was improved. Le Prezien had run 2nd here in October over the 2-mile trip (on the old course) and had followed that up with a good 3rd in the BetVictor Gold Cup over 2m4f in November.
In 2nd was Gino Trail who is a very consistent performer and so a good yardstick, and he is also a C&D winner. In 3rd was another consistent performer in Top Gamble who last season was not far off top class and ran 4th in the Champion Chase won by Special Tiara, at which time he was rated OR159. I thought his run here to be 4th over an unsuitable 2m5f on 1st Jan was a good one (he had run 3rd in the same race in 2017 off OR159 and again in 2016 off OR153), but the handicapper thought otherwise, and so he started this race on OR149. I reckon the form of the race looks very solid given the proximity of the 2nd & 3rd. Furthermore, in 4th was Theinval who was 3rd in this race last season off the same rating of OR141, and all this points to Le Prezien running a rating off 155+ and although the handicapper has re-rated him at OR157 he could be capable of beating that and winning again.

So there you have it, a look-back at all the races of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival. This was a good Festival for me and followers of the blog selections would have done well, including being on the Gold Cup winner Native River, one of 4 winners posted on the blog during the week.

This is blog 999 and my next blog – my 1000th – will be a personal milestone for me and will be a celebration of that achievement with a look back over highlights (and maybe some of the lows) of the last 8 years since I started blogging in March 2010.    

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