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Friday 26 March 2021

Cheltenham Festival Review - what we learned (part 1)

Taking a time-out and reflecting on the results of the Cheltenham Festival when the dust has settled is a good idea as you can see things you possibly overlooked (deliberately?) before the race in a new light.

This was a very different festival mainly due to the reduced numbers of entries and, in some cases, runners in the races; however the competition and quality of the race winners was not affected materially. That was evident right from the opening race when the smallest field in decades lined-up for the Supreme Novices Hurdle.  There is no doubt that Appreciate It is as good a winner as we've seen of this quality novice hurdle, but the rest were found wanting.  My immediate impression was that Appreciate It could be a Champion Hurdle winner, but on 2nd-thoughts, his future likely lies over fences, as he'd have to improve another +12lb to challenge Honeysuckle and (at 7yo already) that's unlikely.

The Arkle was another race with a tiny field, but we've come to expect this now, and Shishkin became the 7th odds-on winner of this race in the past 10 years. It's more of a showcase nowadays than a race. How good is Shishkin? The Racing Post have rated him at 174 which is just 2lb below Sprinter Sacre at the same stage, and 4lb better than any other winner since 2012. I've gone back through my ratings, and I had Cue Card (2nd to Sprinter Sacre) at 3lb better than Shishkin; so I think there's still a lot to prove from the Arkle winner.

I've already looked at the Ultima Handicap Chase result, and the only thing to add is that 7yo One For The Team stayed on very strong over the final half-mile, and his granddam Elaine Tully produced Grand National winner Rule The World and Ballymore Hurdle 2nd Venalmar, and we could see plenty of improvement if he steps up to marathon trips: he looks a Welsh National possibility. 

The Champion Hurdle was dominated by the mare Honeysuckle and if she returns next year as an 8yo then she will be tough to beat.  I've not yet given up on Goshen, but he clearly has bad memories of his Triumph Hurdle experience at Cheltenham.  It was interesting to see the 5yo James Du Berlais run in this race.  Trained by Willie Mullins, he's obviously a lot better than he looked, and one to keep an eye on - expect to see him run well at Punchestown next month.

The Mares' Hurdle was a decent race, the form worked out well - although Concertista ran a tad below her best; but you cannot fault the winner Black Tears or her rider Jack Kennedy who was hard-at-work from the 3rd last flight. Where Black Tears goes now, I'm not sure as I don't think there' much improvement left in her as a hurdler. Roksana had her limitations exposed, she's a rock-solid 150 hurdler, and super consistent, but she's at her limit and it is remarkable that she has garnered £250,000 in earnings 

I'm not sure how punters allowed Jeff Kidder to start at 80/1 for the Juvenile Hurdle. Trainer Noel Meade may not have sent many winners out at recent Cheltenham Festivals, but he's one of the best trainers in Ireland. The Mullins-trained Saint Sam was clearly laid-out for this race, with a rating of OR139 looking lenient, but Jeff Kidder was btn less than 3-lengths by Saint Sam at "levels" when they met on Boxing Day in a Grade-2 hurdle won by Zanahiyr (after which the winner was made fav for the Triumph Hurdle). If connections thought Saint Sam was well-in on OR139, I hope the lads who owned Jeff Kidder had a decent "touch" on their gelding, as based on that Boxing Day run he should have been on OR135 at least, so he was chucked-in off OR125 and won like it too!  In 5th was Dermot Weld's first runner at the Festival in a few years, so he clearly thought Coltor had a chance off OR127. And the presence of Elham Valley in 3rd and Houx Gris in 4th should have pointed us towards the chance of Adagio in the Triumph Hurdle on the final day, as he beat them both easily on 09Jan21..

The opening day ended with the NH Chase over 3m6f and again, the form worked out really well.  My selections Next Destination just lacked a bit of speed in the final quarter-mile to gain a winning advantage, and that looked the only thing that split him and the winner Galvin.  We first saw Galvin when 6th in the 2019 Ballymore Hurdle. He was back again in 2020 when 2nd in the Novices Handicap Chase (now run at Sandown) over 2m4f, and he was kept racing thru' the summer winning his next 4 races including an extended 3-mile chase at Cheltenham on 23Oct. I have to admit I did not think he was good enough to win this race, and if his rating goes up from OR152 then he could struggle. Ditto Next Destination who has the extra burden of being 9yo, and he's going to have to run in marathon chases with lumps of weight next season off OR153. The 3rd-placed Escaria Ten looks to have a better future as this trip was beyond him (he looked like winning coming to the final fence) and a drop back to 3-mile should see him win a decent race. It's not beyond the imagination to see him lining-up in the Gold Cup next season, and he's firmly on my alert list.

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