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Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Cheltenham Festival Review - what we learned (part 3)

The 3rd day of the Festival opened with yet another single-number runner race, and another odds-on fav.  The Marsh Novices Chase, run over a trip just-shy of 2m4f, was expected to be a near "walk-over" for Envoi Allen.  He was one of the Cheveley Park contingent that had recently moved to Henry De Bromhead, and went to the start unbeaten in his previous 11 races.  This race had a bit of depth to it though, with top handicapper Chatham Street Lad providing a good yardstick, and the 7yo's Chantry House and Shan Blue looking potentially better than their Official ratings. Unfortunately, Envoi Allen only reached the 4th fence as there it looked like he jumped a bit early with his front legs brushing through the fence and his back legs hitting the fence causing him to crumple on landing: it looked a novice mistake to me, possibly due to him not getting a clear view of the fence. That left the "raters" with a conundrum: rate the race or rate the winners' performance? Shan Blue was allowed to set a fierce pace for the next 10-furlongs taking some bold, and perhaps reckless, jumps; but he was a spent force by the time he turned into the home stretch with 3-furlongs and 2 jumps left. I've no idea what Harry Skelton was thinking with this tactic. Coming to 2-out I thought Asterion Forlonge was going the best (see below), but he didn't stay-on as strong as the Henderson pair of Chantry House and Fusil Raffles. As such, Chantry House ran-out a strong race and became the 3rd winner at this Festival to progress from last years Supreme Hurdle (alongside Shishkin and Heaven Help Us). This was only the 7th race for Chantry House, so there's plenty of scope for improvement, but you could not rate that win at 165 which is the rating RPR gave him - a rating bettered by only Yorkhill (166), Vautour (175) and Sire Des Champs (168) in recent years - unless you think Envoi Allen is already a 175+ chaser (I don't). I was more impressed by Fusil Raffles who jumped really well, and the 6yo will surely mature well, and he looks a potential top-class staying chaser. To give the form some perspective, Asterion Forlonge was btn 18-lengths into 4th in the "Flogas" Chase over 2m5f by Monkfish. Remember: rate the performance, NOT the race.

The Pertemps Handicap Hurdle is one of the great "gambling" races of the Festival, and one that I enjoy having a go at, and this year I was successful in selecting the winner, Mrs Milner.  Trainer, Paul Nolan, only sent one horse from Enniscorthy, Ireland to the Festival (he was also expected to send Latest Exhibition for the NH Chase), and the mare was a ready winner. Prior to running at Cheltenham on 14Nov last year she hadn't shown much worthwhile form, but that day she was just beaten by On The Blind Side over 3-miles and was only raised 4lb by the BHA handicapper to OR134.  She followed that run by qualifying on 28Dec, and then would surely have gone close in the Mares' hurdle at Leopardstown (won by Festival winner Heaven Help Us, with another Festival winner in Telmesomethinggirl in 3rd) had she not fallen at the 5th flight.  Confidently ridden by Bryan Cooper, she met a lot of trouble before the 2nd-last, but had enough in the tank to burst through in the straight and win by a clear margin.  Watching the race, the fav The Bosses Oscar was also ridden with confidence by 7lb claimer Jordan Gainford, but did not respond. I can't quite work out why when Mrs Milner and The Bosses Oscar met on 28Dec, there was only 9lb separating then in the handicap, but in this race there was 17lb.  Of the others, Milliner finished with a storming run, and I'd be interested in that one next time out. 

The Ryanair Chase over 2m4f & 127 yards has developed into a Grade 1 chase worthy of the Festival, and this year it provided possibly the most spectacular performance of the Festival: quite simply, Allaho took this race apart.  The race was all over bar the shouting at the 3rd-last fence when the only serious challenger Min dropped-out exhausted and was pulled-up.  Mister Fisher made a bad mistake at the 3rd last which indicated his tank was empty and he was also pulled-up. Kalashnikov tried to keep up, but was outclassed, and the rest never came close to getting in a blow. Via Fakir D'oudairies, I've rated Allaho's run at 162 but he must be good for another 7-10lb as he coasted home over on the run-in. There's nothing else in the race that comes out with any kudos, other than Kalashnikov who probably showed his best trip is not a yard more than 2m4f.  Given that Mister Fisher gave Kalashnikov 3lb and a beating when they met on the "New" Course over 2m4f, he was disappointing.

The Stayers' Hurdle saw 15-runners go to post in what many thought was an open race: but not readers of this blog! Back on 24th February I advised taking the 14/1 about about Flooring Porter, and I wish I'd advised adding to the wager when Thyme Hill was withdrawn. The Cheltenham Festival advertised the disparity of the official ratings between Britain and Ireland, and this race is a great example of that. The Irish-based trainers provided 4 of the 1st-5 home, yet the highest-rated horse by 5lbs was 2019 winner Paisley Park on OR165.  The 4th highest was 2020 winner Lisnagar Oscar who unfortunately fell when going well, and even the 66/1 Sam Spinner held a rating of OR157 which suggested he should have beaten the 4th placed Beacon Edge rated OR155!  I tie my ratings to the Official Ratings, and I've no idea what Racing Post Ratings (RPR) does. Being the ratings provided by the UK's only daily racing paper, it is vitally important that RPR are both realistic and reliable. I understand ratings are not the be-all and end-all, if they were finding winners would be a piece of cake; but if they don't stack-up then - to the casual punter - the integrity of horseracing comes into question. I've found in recent years that once a horse reaches OR150+ in ability, ratings are increasingly unreliable; so I stick with my own. I reckon Flooring Porter is the best winner of the Stayers' Hurdle since Thistlecrack in 2016, and he should be back to win again next year.  He wont have things all his own way though, as I was impressed with Noel Meade trained Beacon Edge in 4th as this 7yo was having his 1st attempt at 3-miles and showed his close 3rd (btn under a length) to Honeysuckle over 2m4f on 29Nov was no fluke. Before 2-out he looked like going close, but just didn't stay well enough; maybe next time he will. Noel Meade sent only 3 horses to Cheltenham: Beacon Edge, the Juvenile Hurdle winner Jeff Kidder, and Curious Bride who was well beaten in the Juvenile Hurdle, but won a competitive maiden hurdle on 18Jan - definitely one for the alert list. Make note of Noel Meade's horses next year.  The other horse to make a note of is Vinndication who ran a cracker. Having given Champ 6lb and a beating when a novice hurdler, we should have expected a good effort, but his was better than good, and I will be keen to be on him when he's back over fences, which could be in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury.

The "Plate" handicap chase over 2m4f & 127yards saw a massive successful gamble on winner The Shunter who became the 3rd winning fav in 4 years after 5 years of double-figure odds winners. The handicapper has raised The Shunter 9lb for the win to OR149 but that was only his 6th chase race, and I think we will see him back here for the Paddy Power handicap chase in the Autumn. Readers of the blog will know I tipped Farclas for the Ultima Handicap Chase on the opening day, and having watched his performance in this race staying-on strong over what I think is an inadequate trip to be 2nd: then I'm fairly sure had he run in the Ultima, he would have gone very close. If Farclas goes for the Grand National on 9th April, I'm sure he will go close. This was a good handicap chase, and I'm sure a lot of future winners will come out of it. In 5th Assemble ran a cracker and it showed why he'd been highly tried in Grade 1 novice company in Ireland. Staying the trip is imperative in these Festival handicaps, and any stamina doubts are exposed: A Wave Of The Sea didn't get the trip. And some horses do not enjoy the hustle & bustle of a big field, and we will see a different horse when they race against fewer than 10 rivals: Caribean Boy and Sully D'Oc AA are better in smaller fields.  

The Mares' Novices Hurdle confirmed the rise of Henry De Bromhead as a trainer at the top of his game.  This race had only been won by Willie Mullins' trained horses in the past, but De Bromhead provided the 1st-2 in this race. My impression is that this was a poor year. The winner Telmesomethinggirl is improving, but is 12-15lb behind last years' winner Concertista. Most of the field are no better than OR130 hurdlers.  The Alan King trained The Glancing Queen is the yardstick, as she was a OR124 "bumper", and appears to be no better than that as a hurdler.  She was given a mark of OR131 when 3rd to Bravemansgame in the Grade 1 Challow hurdle on 29Dec, but I've already written about the inflated rating he has after being outclassed in the Ballymore Hurdle behind Bob Olinger.  Our official handicapper should rate the performance, not the race.

The "Kim Muir" handicap chase over 3m2f is one of my favourite races of Festival; a proper staying handicap.  My selection Storm Control ran a grand race, leading until 2-out and staying-on to be 5th. Old-campaigner Shantou Flyer ran his customary gallant race to be 3rd, and while the 11yo isn't as good as he was, he usually shows his best here at Cheltenham.  The 8yo Cloudy Glen is tricky to catch right, but when he's on a going day he's a very capable chaser - unfortunately, he can just as easily throw-in the towel, so it was no surprise to see him start at 33/1, and he probably would have won this race were it not for Mount Ida being a blot on the handicap!  Mount Ida had shown little form as a hurdler, but was entered in the Mares' Novice Hurdle (won by Concertista) last year, finishing 10th, so maybe there was promise on the gallops. On her chase debut on 22Nov at Cork, she was 3rd of 9 over 2-miles; and improved on that effort NTO on 06Dec when winning over the same C&D. For her 3rd chase, and final run before the Kim Muir, she ran in a Grade 2 novice chase over 2m4f which was won by Colreevy (who went on to win the Mares' Chase at the Festival). That 2nd place was nothing to write home about, and to be fair, I could not understand why Mount Ida was the 3/1 fav for the Kim Muir on that form; but it seemed all Ireland knew she was a winner-in-waiting.  Mount Ida trailed the field for the early part of the race and looked like being pulled-up - she traded at 1000 on the exchanges - but despite continually lurching right at every jump so plugged-on.  In the final mile, she picked-up the leaders very easily and the further they went the better she looked.  She's a half-sister to Sizing Tennessee, last seen winning the Ladbrokes Trophy handicap at Newbury in 2018, and I expect we will see her trying to emulate that win later in the year.  This race was run at a strong pace for the 1st 2-miles, and it showed as a lot pulled-up late in the race. Plan Of Attack, 4th in the race in 2020, fell 3-out when going well and I expect he'd have finished alongside Cloudy Glen in 2nd or 3rd. Plan Of Attack holds a Grand National entry and he's currently 66/1 - but if he'd run 3rd in this race, he certainly wouldn't be those odds - very interesting, but he does need 20+ horses above him in the handicap to come out.


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