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Sunday, 27 March 2022

Cheltenham Festival 2022 - thoughts for the future

In the (sober) light of day, it's a good idea to take a look back at the races and results of the recent Cheltenham Festival with an unbiased opinion to consider the performances, and to make note of any lessons learned. 

There were some tremendous performances by horse and jockey, and one of the very best came in the opening race when Constitution Hill didn't just run away with the Supreme Novices Hurdle, he put up one of the best performances seen on the track in many a year. This was comparable - if not better - than that of Altior, and he's a year younger at 5yo than that great horse was when he won this race.  Altior peaked at OR175, so will Constitution Hill top that rating and challenge the OR188 rating achieved by another Henderson champion: Sprinter Sacre? With the horse in good hands, Henderson looks set to improve his already great record in the Champion Hurdle next year with Constitution Hill.

The Arkle was not one of best, but it was a very solid performance from the 8yo Edwardstone.  What the future holds for him, I'm not sure, as I think he will struggle when coming up against the likes of Energumene, Shishkin and Ferny Hollow. My speculative selection Haut En Coulours looked like being involved before 2-out but it was not to be.  He's only a 5yo and he will have better days.

Honeysuckle has dominated the 2-mile hurdling division for a couple of years, but that's because the opposition is lacking depth. There was no Sharjah this year, Goshen is too unreliable, and Abacadabras hasn't developed into a proper Grade 1 hurdler.  If Honeysuckle were mine, I would be retiring her to stud with reputation intact.

The NH Chase was a shadow of better days, with just 6 runners, and 4 of those had no chance on form - although for some odd reason Vanillier was sent-off the 11/4 3rd-fav.  The race fav Run Wild Fred is a one-paced plodder who has now come 2nd 6x in 11 chase starts, and in beating him Stattler merely had to complete the race. However, it was a very strong pace set by RWF, as the race-time was 20sec faster than when Galvin won the race last year. No doubt Stattler has improved for going chasing, but so has stable-companion Galopin Des Champs - and GDC beat Stattler over 3-miles easily in a Grade 1 hurdle at Punchestown last April.  It will be interesting which of the pair develops into the Mullins Gold Cup horse for 2023.

It's difficult to know what to make of Sir Gerhard, as he could do no more than win, but he was made to work, and the overall pace was "sedate".  Remember, he only just beat stable-companion Kilcruit in the "bumper" in 2021, and that horse was put in his place in the Supreme by Constitution Hill. For me, Sir Gerhard was a fortunate winner of a weak race. He has a lot more to prove. 

The "Brown Advisory" Grade 1 novice chase over and extended 3-miles was a proper race. A strong field of 9 runners, and the 9/4 fav L'Homme Presse won with confidence.  The runner-up Ahoy Senor is a good yardstick and a horse I can see excelling over marathon trips, but likely to be just short of winning a Grade 1 chase over 3-mile. What was disappointing was the "fall" of Farouk D'alene 2-out when going very easily and with jockey Davy Russell looking like he was holding a double-handful. He was beaten by NH Chase winner Stattler on 30Jan, but showed his liking for soft/heavy ground 3-weeks later when beating Beacon Edge over 3-mile - Farouk D'alene would have gone very close to winning had he not fallen, and odds of 33/1 for the 2023 Gold Cup look interesting.

How on earth did I miss Commander Of Fleet and let him go off at 50/1 with not even £2.50 eachway on? In March 2019, on rain-soddened ground, he split future Gold Cup winner Minella Indo and Ryanair Chase winner Allaho in the Albert Bartlett over 3-miles. Sure, in the intervening period he's had problems resulting in just 3 runs in 30 months before finishing last of 5 in a 2m7f hurdle race at Thurles. He probably would've won NTO but fell 2-out; but he won his 3rd come-back race - a Grade B handicap at Navan in December. He didn't look up to Grade 1 or 2 in his next couple of runs, but wasn't beaten far when 3rd in a Grade 2 LTO only 22-days before winning this. 

I've said all I need to say about Energumene, he was my biggest winner of the Festival.  Over the same C&D later in the day, Andy Dufresne was unlucky to meet a resurgent 10yo Global Citizen who turned the formbook upside-down. This race looks rock-solid and while I do not expect the winner to repeat the performance, Andy Dufresne and the 3rd Frero Banbou, and 4th Editeur Du Gite look well handicapped.

I was at the Festival on Thursday and Friday, and the opening race the Turners Novices' Chase was disappointing. It was a mis-match between Galopin Des Champs and Bob Olinger; and let's be honest Bob Olinger would not have been in the 1st-3 in any of the recent running's of this race - he was very fortunate. It would not surprise me to see Bob Olinger revert to hurdles as he's never going to be a Grade 1 chaser based on this run. Galopin Des Champs came into the race on OR164 and he's well up to that level, possibly better as he would have won this race in a time significantly quicker than Allaho in the Ryanair Chase later in the day - he could be a Gold Cup horse in 2023. 

The Pertemps Handicap Hurdle over 3-miles is a race I have a good record in: and I tipped Third Wind for this on the blog.  He'd run 4th in this race in 2020, and he'd shown himself to be a better horse since then but he is a tricky ride needing a lot of work and having to lead close home. 

There's nothing much more to say about Ryanair Chase winner Allaho or Stayers' Hurdle winner Flooring Porter - they are both clearly the best in their division and should both be back here next year to make it a hat-trick of wins. I tipped Flooring Porter and I still cannot believe he went off at 4/1, so a personal thanks to Willie Mullins for running Klassical Dream, and creating the value in the betting.

I could not look back at the Festival without a mention of Coole Cody: since joining Evan Williams in August 2020 he's run 14 times in the intervening 19 months, 4 times - with 3 wins at Cheltenham. In that period he has been remarkably consistent - compare his form with the younger Spiritofthegames who ran 3rd in this race. Just 16 months ago, Coole Cody received 9lb from "Spirit", on 17Mar he was giving him 9lb. 

In the "Kim Muir", the 10yo Chambard was an interesting winner in that this was his Cheltenham debut, it was his first chase race with more than 10 runners, and it was his 6th run since 1st Jan - most Festival winners only run once between Christmas and running here.

It's been a few years since the Triumph Hurdle produced an outstanding horse, but Vauban could be just that. This race looked above average, and though the pace was moderate (the race was run 4.60 secs slower than the County Handicap hurdle over C&D) when the pace quickened Vauban always looked in control. He's likely to be racing on the flat for the next 18 months, and I doubt he will jump another hurdle until November 2023 - but he could be considered for the Champion Hurdle in 2024.

A potential Champion Hurdle horse for 2023 could be the County Hurdle winner State Man: if you ignore his French debut, this was only his 2nd completed hurdle race - yet he was ridden with supreme confidence in one of the top handicaps of the season.  He's been raised 10lb by the handicapper to OR151, and I think he could be 160+.  He's likely to go for a Grade 1 at Punchestown.  The runner-up First Street was also ridden with confidence, and he could be a very interesting novice chaser next season.

The Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle over 3-miles is developing into a serious race despite 7 of the last 10 winners starting at odds of 14/1 or longer; and The Nice Guy winning at 18/1 is no negative on his potential future.  The Mullins stable main hope was runner-up Minella Cocooner, but he was soundly beaten 5-lengths. The dam of The Nice Guy is a half-sister to Massini's Maguire who won the 2007 Ballymore Hurdle, so class runs through his veins. This was his 1st attempt at 3-mile and the way he won suggests he could be a top-class novice staying chaser next season.  Don't give up on Minella Cocooner, as he met a good one here.

The final race of this review is the Gold Cup, and I don't think anyone will disagree with me that we saw one of the best Gold Cup performances of the last 10 years from A Plus Tard. It's hard to believe that he won the novice handicap chase over 2m4f at the 2019 Festival off OR144 - since then he has been super consistent.  He is at his best coming off a strong pace and I can't see anything beating him next season, even if he returns about 7lb below this. Mullins has a handful of potential Gold Cup challengers: Stattler, Galopin Des Champs, and Allaho - while Gordon Elliott could have a decent one in Farouk D'alene - but, other than Allaho, they need to find significant improvement. 

My fantasy "yankee" for the 2023 Cheltenham Festival is (odds from Paddy Power):-
Champion Hurdle: CONSTITUTION HILL @ 2/1
QMCC: ENERGUMENE (as I expect Shishkin to step-up in trip to 3-miles) @ 7/2
Stayers' Hurdle: FLOORING PORTER @ 5/1
Gold Cup: A PLUS TARD @ 4/1  

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