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Cheltenham Festival 2018 race-by-race review

These reviews of the Cheltenham Festival races were originally posted on the blog in March 2018, and any subsequent amendments will be shown in blue.

My opinion (as someone who has over 50 years experience of gambling on horse-racing) is that it is best to stick with simple, strong race trends.  Invariably, races are won by a race-fit, in-form and improving horse.  Do not ignore the obvious, and don't try to seek an "edge" where there isn't one. Use trends to provide a shortlist but never forget the maxim: it is horses that win races, not trends - your final assessment should be via the formbook.

One the strongest trends is Last-Time-Out winners: in the past 10 Festivals there have been 244 races, and 131 (54%) of those races were won by a last-time-out (LTO) winner. In some years, it has been possible to wager on every single LTO winner at the Festival and still finish in profit! 

Also, the greater number of races run at the Festival has resulted in the better quality horses being "spread-thin" resulting in market-leaders winning more often. Why? Because connections have more targets from which to choose.  Consider novice chasers - 15 years ago we have just the "Arkle" over 2-mile and the RSA run over 3-mile; now we also have the JLT run over 2m4f and the re-designed NH Chase run over 4-mile. So, do not overlook a market leader in one of these races - it may be the best value in the race. 

The 2001 Festival was lost to the outbreak of Foot & Mouth disease, and I've used that break to measure my trends from. Since that lost Festival, there have been 417 races and only 42 have been won by a horse off a break of more than 84 days (12 weeks). What is more significant is that the same races keep cropping-up with winners off a long course absence: 
The X-Country Chase - with 6 winners
The Mares Hurdle - with 5 winners (all being Quevega)
The Grand Annual (handicap) Chase - with 4 winners
The "Bumper" - with 4 winners
The Foxhunter Chase - with 3 winners
If you remove all those 84+ day winners from the stats, the average break before a winning effort at the Festival is 41 days. 

DAY 1 - Supreme Novice Hurdle over 2m & 87 yards
Since 2001, 14 of the 17 winners won LTO.
The mean number of days since previous race (for the winner) is 39 days.
Since 2001; Labaik (2017) and Go Native (2009) won off a short 16-day break, and in all 12 of the 17 won off a break of 40 days or less - the others being Captain Cee Bee (2008) 115 days; Cinders And Ashes (2012) 52 days; Douvan (2015) 59 days; Altior (2016) 80 days, and Summerville Boy (2018) 66 days. 
On the day of the race it invariably pays to stick the the 1st-4 in the betting and (if you are an antepost fan) that's the angle to play. The 2018 winner Summerville Boy was running in his 5th hurdle race, and that means that the last 10 winners have all had 4 or more hurdle races.  You should be able to make a selection on 1st February that will likely be a market leader. 

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.

Day 1 - Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices' Chase over 2-mile
Since 2001, 13 of the 17 winners won LTO.
The mean number of days since previous race (for the winner) is 44 days.
Essentially you are looking for a high-class hurdler that runs a winning debut as a chaser with that debut coming before 7th December.  The 2018 winner Footpad had won a graded chase, and there are not many such races for novice chasers - make note of graded chase winners.  It is likely that this race will continue to have less than 10 runners going to post, and the favourite will more than likely win. A great race for an antepost bet, and you should be able to confidently make your selection before Christmas preceding the race. 

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.

Day 1 - Ultima Handicap Chase run over 3m1f
Since 2001, 8 of the 17 winners won LTO.
The mean number of days since previous race (for the winner) is 30 days - so it is imperative that your selection has had a good recent run. Since 2001, those that have won off the longest breaks were Joe's Edge (2007) off 114 days; Wichita Lineman (2009) 94 days; and Youllneverwalkalone (2003) 58 days - most winners had their "prep" race for this on the final Saturday in January.  
Look for a novice or 2nd-season chaser with less than 10 chase runs - you are trying to find a horse that is ahead of the handicapper. The 2018 winner Coo Star Sivola ran off OR142 and only 2 of the last 11 winners have won from a rating under OR142. 

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.

Day 1 - Champion Hurdle
Since 2001, 13 of the 17 winners won LTO.
The mean number of days since previous race (for the winner) is 49 days.
The best form for this race is usually the result of the previous year! It is was not unusual for Buveur D'Air to follow-up his win in 2017, but he may struggle to repeat in 2019.  Ideally, you a looking for a horse that is already a Grade 1 winner over hurdles, and only one (Annie Power in 2016) winner had run in more than 11 hurdle races from the the last 12 renewals - so you do not want too many miles on the clock.

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.

Day 1 - Mares' hurdle run over 2m4f
Since 2001, 9 of the 11 winners won LTO (race was first run in 2008).
The mean number of days since previous race (for the winner) is 173 days, but this is distorted by 6-time winner Quevega who won 5 times off a break of over 300 days. Without Quevega, the mean number of days is 31 days. Personally, I think this race is increasing in quality. 

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 was 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 little 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 year she will be hard to beat, as she's well up to competing in the Champion Hurdle when at her best.

Day 1 - National Hunt Challenge Cup (amateur riders) Novices' Chase run over 4-mile
Since 2001, 6 of the 17 winners won LTO.
The mean number of days since previous race (for the winner) is 46 days.
In recent years, the official ratings has been the best guide, and 2 of the top-3 rated in 2018 finished 1st & 2nd (the other fell). Due to the 4-mile trip, chasing experience is a good guide to a horses chance, and 2018 winner Rathvinden was having his 11th chase race, and the 2nd Ms Parfois was having her 6th chase race.  One of the best betting races of the Festival once you know what is running at the 48hr declaration. I'm expecting Rathvinden to be aimed at the 2019 Grand National (40/1 with Paddy Power). 

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.

Day 1 - Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase run over 2m4f & 74 yards
Since 2001, 8 of the 14 winners won LTO (race was first run in 2005).
The mean number of days since previous race (for the winner) is 33 days.
The 2018 winner Mister Whitaker was the 3rd winner in the last 6 years to come out of the Timeform Novice Chase run at Cheltenham on the last Saturday in January. This is a tightly-handicapped novice chase with likely less than 10lb covering the field. You need an improving horse that won LTO - note that 7 of the last 10 winners WON LTO.

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.

Day 2 - Ballymore Novices Hurdle run over 2m5f
Since 2001, 9 of the 17 winners won LTO.
The mean number of days since previous race (for the winner) is 52 days.
The last winner aged 7yo or older was French Holly in 1998 - stick to 6yo's and 5yo's. 
Possibly the best "novice" race of the season (chase or hurdle) and the horses that win this are seriously top-drawer and will usually already have won a graded hurdle. Most winners have their final prep run in February and a minimum break of 28-days is required coming into this race. Stick with the market leaders.

The day opened with one of the most anticipated races of the meeting - to find out whether SAMCRO was the "real deal" or not. Starting the 8/11 fav, Samcro travelled strongly throughout, led after jumping 2-out and never looked in danger after that.  I've rated the race via the 3rd-placed Next Generation who I thought ran to his rating of OR150, he certainly didn't better his rating as he didn't seem to handle the course. As such, I've given 6yo Samcro a rating of 158 but he could be a lot better than that.  We won't be seeing him again before the autumn and connections are deciding over the summer whether to have a go at the Champion Hurdle or to go chasing in 2018-19.
I was very impressed with the runner-up Black Op as he looked a bit "green" despite this being his 4th hurdle race. He took a bit of time to respond to Samcro leading from 2-out but, when he got going, he motored - so much so, he demolished the final flight. Even with a cleaner jump at the last he would not have beaten Samcro, but we would have seen Samcro pushed more. The downside with Black Op is he's a 7yo and he must go chasing next season - he cannot afford to hand around.
The form of this race looks top quality and it's likely the 1st 3 will all go onto better things.

Day 2 - RSA Insurance Novices Chase run over 3-miles & 80 yards
Since 2001, 10 of the 17 winners won LTO.
The mean number of days since previous race (for the winner) is 31 days.
Only one recent winner (Don Poli in 2015) did not have their last prep race in mid-February. Horses that win this race generally have not been top-hurdlers as chasing is the game for which they have been aimed. Experience is the key and those starting chasing before 31st October is a good guide.

On paper, this field of 10 looked one of the strongest of recent years for this race with 7 of the 10 rated OR150 or higher; and the 3 weakest runners either fell when beaten or pulled-up.  The Irish challengers dominated the race and it's likely they would have provided the 1st-3 had Al Boum Photo not fallen 2-out. The race was won by the 7yo PRESENTING PERCY who had won the 3-mile Pertemps Final handicap hurdle at last years festival off a rating of OR146. As such, this trip was not a problem for him, and he's already won over 3m5f in Ireland. The more I look at this race, the more I think it was one of the best RSA Chases we've seen since Denman won in 2007. My only doubt is over the race-time of 6m 32.40 which was very slow even for soft ground, and it could mean that the form of the race could be a bit dodgy - time will tell. We've not had a soft ground RSA since 2002 (in 2001 the Festival was cancelled due to the outbreak of Foot & Mouth disease) but, on good-to-soft ground Denman ran the race in 6m 06.80 and last year Might Bite won in 6m 08.80 - it leaves food for thought. On a plus-point for trends followers, Presenting Percy ticked every good trend for this race. However, Monalee was easily brushed aside by the winner when challenged, but he ran 3rd in the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle last year and I expect he will be a better horse on good-to-soft ground or better.

Day 2 - Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle run over 2m5f
Since 2001, 8 of the 17 winners won LTO.
The mean number of days since previous race (for the winner) is 50 days.
Don't overlook those running off a very long break, Aux Ptit Soins (2015) won off a 181 day break; Sky's The Limit (2006) won off 102 days; Naiad de Misselot (2008) won off 83 days; Ninetieth Minute (2009) off 80 days. Although the 2018 winner hadn't won a race that season, 14 of the last 16 winners had.  

While the trends for this race (being a handicap hurdle) are not as strong as some races, the winner BLEU BERRY did not meet many - if any - of the main trends. He wasn't a LTO winner, he hadn't won a race earlier this season (this was only his 2nd race since running at the Punchestown Festival last April), and he had only won 3 novice hurdles before this - albeit one was a Grade 2.  As such, although carrying 11st 2lb off OR143 he was, if fit and in form, more than capable of winning. Possibly the reason for his 20/1 odds was that, due to the injury to Ruby Walsh, Paul Townend had opted to change from this horse onto the race-fav Max Dynamite who ran no sort of race at all and came in last of the 22 finishers - which goes to show that even those closest to the horse don't really know how it will perform in the race.  Bleu Berry is likely to go chasing next season.
To be beaten by a 20/1 chance was bad luck for Topofthegame (who was my blog selection @ 9/1) who led from after the 2nd-last and was only caught close home. Such was the domination of the Irish trainers this year, trainers like Paul Nicholls have to really go the final mile to have any chance of a winner, and this looks top form for the 6yo. Unlike the winner, Topofthegame did tick all the trend-boxes but, in doing so, was more exposed, and he was an unlucky loser having to concede 6lb to a dark-horse like the winner.
In 3rd was the 7yo mare Barra who clearly loves it here as she was 2nd in the Mares' Novices hurdle last year and appears to be very consistent, if one-paced. She will not do any better than this, and I expect she's headed for the breeding paddocks soon.

Day 2 - Queen Mother Champion Chase run over 2-miles
Since 2001, 13 of the 17 winners won LTO.
The mean number of days since previous race (for the winner) is 49 days.
It will take a mighty horse to lower the colours of 2018 winner ALTIOR should he line-up in 2019. This isn't a race in which to seek an outsider, stick to the market leaders which are already Grade 1 winners over this trip.

On paper the field for this race looked top-class, as it contained last years QMCC winner in Special Tiara, and two previous "Arkle" winners in Douvan and Altior, plus a "Tingle Creek" winner in Politologue - however, too many of this field of 9 were either too old, or long out of form to be serious contenders; and that showed in the final quarter-mile.
I thought the pace for this race was ordinary and that opinion is given substance by the manner in which Ordinary World - who was beaten 15-lengths into 3rd in last years Arkle - picked-up the leaders on the run to the 3rd-last when he was out with the washing half-a-mile earlier.
The character and complexity of the race changed at the 4th-last fence when long-time leader Douvan, took-off too early and hit the fence hard giving horse and rider no chance.  Had Ruby Walsh been in the saddle would he have leapt with such reckless abandon? This left Politologue in a reluctant lead but he really does not have the pace for these top-class 2-mile chase's and would be best stepped-up to 2m4f and he certainly would not have been beaten by Cloudy Dream had he contested the Ryanair Chase, and he may even have pushed the winner.
Both Ordinary World and Politologue quickly conceded ground on the run to the 2nd-last and the lead was taken up by 10yo God's Own who has seen better days but he's always been a consistent performer here over C&D. In the 2015 Arkle, I rated him at 158, and in the QMCC of 2016 it was 155, in 2017 it was 153, and this year I've rated him 157 for coming home 3rd beaten 18-lengths.
Before the turn into the straight, the fav ALTIOR looked to be in trouble, as he was hating the ground and - if you can recall - he didn't seem to enjoy winning the Arkle here last year. As such, the Willie Mullins trained Min looked like he may make it 5 wins from 6 chase races as they approached the 2nd last - but that feeling was quickly put to bed by the winner.  ALTIOR looked like he sprouted wings as he turned into the straight, and in just a couple of strides he moved from a "struggling" 4th and into a decisive lead at the final fence, then it was race-over. I've rated the performance at 175 such was his superiority over this field at the end. Douvan has come nowhere near that level of form, and those who think he can beat Altior need to have a sit down.
Connections of Min must feel hard-done by as in any "normal" year, Min would have been a good winner with a rating of 168 - in fact, on my ratings he would have won the last 4 QMCC's.  He can be followed with some confidence over 2-mile on the Irish circuit.

Day 2 - The Cross-Country Chase run over 3m6f
Not a race to linger over, is this one. But, with a bit of forethought you could have had the winner if you were a cynic. Gordon Elliot trained Cause Of Causes to win this last year after he cantered around over C&D earlier in January (a race won by Urgent De Gregaine).  This year, the horse chosen for the canter was TIGER ROLL, and the experience set him up well to win this race fairly comfortably.  You have to remember that he won the 4-mile NH Novices Chase at the 2017 Festival, before quickly throwing-in the towel in the Irish National  at Fairyhouse in April 2017. Personally, I think Tiger Roll is a horse best caught fresh off at least a break of 100-days and he would not be on my shortlist for anything this side of October. What do I know? TIGER ROLL went on to win the Grand National in his next race, and he was my main selection!

Day 2 - Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap hurdle run over 2-mile & 87 yards
The profile I have of a potential winner of this race is a horse with no more than 5 hurdle runs of which no more than 2 have been winning runs.  The eventual winner VENEER OF CHARM (who ran off OR129) ticked those boxes, with this being his 4th hurdle race and though he'd won his debut hurdle in the manner of a horse that should be rated 130+ he'd looked a less than ordinary horse in two subsequent runs. His SP of 33/1 was no surprise in the circumstances, and you have to wonder why he even took part in this race.  If you found him, well done, but I think the winning jockey would have told his own dad to bet on something else in the race. By comparison to the winner, the runner-up Style De Garde also won his hurdle debut, but at Newbury and (unfortunately) syndicate manager Harry Herbert then talked of the horse going to Cheltenham and being in the Triumph Hurdle after that win - and those comments have probably resulted in a rating of OR137 when (given his subsequent run) his rating should have been about 131-133, and that would have made a big difference in this race, about £25,000 of difference in prize-money.

Day 2 - Weatherbys Champion Bumper run over 2-mile
I knew very little about bumper form before this race, and I know very little about it now. Willie Mullins supplied the 1st-3 home and 5 of the 23 runners. His "worst" horse ran 7th. Unfortunately, the stable money was not on the winning mare RELEGATE, but I expect they will have plenty of opportunity to recoup the losses - and I expect to see the winner back here next year probably winning one of the Mares' only races.

I usually find Day 3 to be the most exciting of the week (for me) but this year the day did not really capture either my imagination or that of the crowd.  Certainly the reception for the winner of the Ryanair Chase, which was the feature race of the day, was muted.

Day 3 - JLT Novices Chase run over 2m4f
There is no doubt that this race has had stronger fields in the past, and of last years field of 8 there were 5 runners on an official rating above OR150.  This year a field of 9 runners included only 4 with a rating above OR150 so, for my race selection, I went with the horse with the highest official rating in Modus (OR154) as he'd run well at the 2017 Festival in the 2m5f Coral Cup (handicap) hurdle and I thought he had the "class" to succeed - I was wrong.  Despite winning 3 of his 4 novice chases (fell in the other one) he'd only beaten 6 horses in the process and, in this race, he was totally outclassed. The same could be said for Invitation Only (OR152) who made a serious error 4-out that cost him any chance, but he was in last place when that happened anyway.   Finian's Oscar (OR152) is well thought-of at home but the 6yo is yet to show sufficient ability on the course as a chaser and he was another that was outclassed.  The only other horse rated OR150+ was Henderson's Terrefort, who arrived from France and had quickly won 2 races over this 2m4f trip and was a worthy 3/1 fav.  Unfortunately (for him) he came up against a proven stayer, and Grade 1 winner, in the mare SHATTERED LOVE.  Normally, I would suggest ignoring a horse in this race with winning form over 3-miles, but Shattered Love relished the soft/heavy ground and stamina was necessity asset. Prior to this race, her only defeat was by stablemate Jury Duty last November, but 12-lengths back that day was non-other than Presenting Percy (who we saw winning the RSA Chase so easily on Tuesday) the form was in the book! She was brought to challenge 2-out by her jockey Jack Kennedy (this was his only ride of the day, and the 2nd-leg of a unique treble over 3 days of the Festival for Jack) and the mare never looked like not winning.  The 7lb mares' allowance meant she was effectively running off 151 (her OR144 plus 7lb allowance).  The future looks bright for Shattered Love and  I expect that the 5yo Terrefort should also develop into a top-class chaser.

Day 3 - Pertemps Network Final (handicap) Hurdle run over 3-miles
Never the most easiest race to fathom for the punter, but they got it right this year as the fav and 2nd-fav were 1st and 2nd and could only be split by a nose on the line.  What's more, both horses were trained by Gordon Elliott - the man of the moment. The race winner was DELTA WORK a 5yo who'd looked nothing out of the ordinary until stepped up to 3-mile on 29Dec where he ran 2nd in a Grade 2 novice hurdle. He ran 3rd for the qualifier at Punchestown and to be the 6/1 2nd-fav for this he must have been showing good form on the home gallops. Beaten a nose into 2nd was stablemate Glenloe
who had run well without winning this season and came here off a break of 77-days.  Typically, the winner of this race comes off a break of 35-days and having not had a run since 28Dec may have cost this horse the race. That Elliott could proved the 1st & 2nd in such a competitive handicap demonstrates the strength in-depth at his disposal, and English trainers Nicholls, Pipe and King - all capable of providing a handicap coup - must be pulling their hair out. Connetable in 3rd is a good yardstick and this was his 18th hurdle race, but he's not won a hurdle since Feb16 and is one-paced. While David Pipe's 8yo Taj Badalandabad  ran out of his skin to be 4th, the foiled coup must be that of Alan King's Who Dares Wins who came into this race off a break of 122-days since running in the qualifier on 13Nov. He led jumping the final flight but could not stay up the hill on ground that was a bit too soft for him. Back in September, Who Dares Wins won the Cesarewitch Trial over 2m2f at Newmarket on the flat and going back to last years Festival, he was 3rd in the Coral Cup.  He is much improved and I expect he will now go for the Chester Cup, a race he was 4th in last year after that Coral Cup run.

Day 3 - Ryanair Chase run over 2m5f
On paper, this looked a stronger race than last year when it was won by the virtually unopposed Un De Sceaux.  This year, we had the top-class 12yo Cue Card in the field who had shown he wasn't far off his best when chasing home Waiting Patiently in the Ascot Chase over 2m5f on 17Feb. I thought that race was the strongest form on offer, and made Cue Card my selection on that basis.  Personally, I think Un De Sceaux has led a charmed life as a chaser as when he's met a true Grade 1 performer he's not been up to it - beaten by Fox Norton at Punchestown, and twice beaten by Sprinter Sacre.  Sure, he's beaten Sire De Grugy twice, but that horse was well past his best when they met. Unfortunately, we never found out whether Cue Card was capable of winning this race, as he never looked happy from the off and pulled-up with 6 fences still to jump - and he has subsequently been retired from racing.
At that point, Un De Sceaux took up the lead jumping exuberantly, but I've always thought his stamina as a chaser was suspect as, apart from his win in this race last year (and that was a very weak race), he's not won another chase race over a trip longer than 2m1f.   Sure enough, BALKO DE FLO who had chased home Road To Respect in the 3-mile Grade 1 Christmas Chase on 28Dec (with a good few top-class staying chasers behind them) was eased into the race taking-up the running 3-out after which his stamina ensured he was in command and Un De Sceaux had no response. The winner did make a mistake at the final fence but he never looked like losing on the run-in.  The good yardstick Cloudy Dream stayed-on into 3rd and I've rated the race via him as he is - in my form book - a rock-solid 150 performer.  That puts Un De Sceaux on 158, which is exactly the same rating I gave him for winning this race last year, and Balko Des Flo is rated 163 (I awarded him 160 for his 2nd in the Christmas Chase).  I cannot see BALKO DES FLO ever winning a Gold Cup except in a weak year, and this 2m5f trip seems to be his optimum, so I expect he will be back again to defend his title next year.

Day 3 - SunBets Stayers' Hurdle run over 3-mile
Since this race was dominated between 2005-2012 by Inglis Drever and Big Bucks (who won on 7 out of the 8 years in that period) this race has had a fairly open look about it, mainly as top-class 3-mile hurdlers are thin on the ground.
The race this year looked more competitive (than last year) and there were 6 horses of the 15 runners with ratings of OR160+.  Unfortunately, two of them (The New One on OR161 and Yanworth on OR163) had earned their ratings over shorter trips than 3-mile, and we had surely seen the best of the 10yo Unowhatimeanharry (OR163).
The remaining trio all looked strong contenders: Sam Spinner (OR164), Supasundae (OR164), and Wholestone (OR161). As it happened, none of those won the race as the winner of last year's Albert Bartlett novice hurdle over 3-miles - PENHILL - took the race despite having been off the track since 26 April last year. Penhill was held-up in last place for much of the race and clearly benefitted from the slow pace set by the 9/4 fav Sam Spinner as when the pace eventually quickened for the final 6-furlongs, Penhill (a top handicapper over 12-furlongs on the flat) easily picked-up the leaders and led going into the final flight.  Because of the slow pace of the race, I don't think we saw the best of Sam Spinner who could not quicken on the run-in and came home in 7th, but the 6yo was only having his 8th hurdle race; he will be a better horse next year.  The slow pace did not help the very consistent Wholestone was 3rd, but he did stay-on strong on the run-in when he saw some daylight as he looked boxed-in on the run-up to the final flight. I'd expect Wholestone to go chasing next season.
Possibly the unluckiest horse was the runner-up Supasundae (who won the Coral Cup handicap hurdle at last years Festival) and he came to win the race before the final flight, but the winner had too much stamina. This was his 3rd try at 3-miles and each time he's run 2nd, but this 8yo has not stopped improving since joining Mrs Harrington in Nov16 and he could be one to follow at either Aintree or Punchestown on better ground. This is not an easy race to rate because of the slow pace for the first couple of miles, and I've given the winner PENHILL a rating of 160.

Day 3 - B A & M Stable Plate handicap chase run over 2m5f
As with the other handicap at the Festival, this race is gradually getting better in quality.  Last years' winner was Road To Respect who was rated OR145 at the time (and is now rated OR168 and finished 4th behind Native River in the Gold Cup). I doubt this years' winner The Storyteller can repeat that feat, even though he came into this race rated OR147 however, this was only his 4th chase race so we could see plenty of improvement and he's bred to be a 3-mile chaser. What, in my opinion, holds the form back is that we had 3 older horses in the 10yo Splash Of Ginge, 9yo King's Odyssey, and 11yo Ballyalton filling the minor places. The trip and ground were perfect for Splash Of Ginge who ran to his form when winning here in November, and that suggests The Storyteller ran to a rating of 152 (Racing Post rates him at 161).  In 3rd, King's Odyssey again demonstrated his love for Cheltenham and I remember seeing him win the Timeform Novices Chase over C&D in Jan16 but he's not come close to matching that run since but he's not far off it now and if he stays on this mark of OR139 he could find a handicap before the season ends. Ballyalton won the Novices handicap chase over 2m4f at the 2016 Festival, but was then off for 18-months due to injury. He also loves Cheltenham and he is very consistent.  I note that he holds an entry for the Topham Trophy at Aintree over 2m5f and that race looks perfect for him especially as he stays on OR138.

Day 3 - Mares' Novices Hurdle run over 2m1f
The winner of this race LAURINA completely dominated proceedings, and ran away a very easy 18-length winner.  I've rated the race via the runner-up Cap Soleil and that puts Laurina on 153, but she could easily be 160+.  The disappointment of the race (for me) was Maria's Benefit, but she had already disputed the lead with another Mullins' trained mare Cut The Mustard and that tactical manoeuvre did for her chances.

Day 3 - Fulke Walwym Kim Muir (Amateur riders) handicap chase run over 3m2f
This race is one of my favourite's of the Festival and I've had some good luck in it. I've been following MISSED APPROACH all season, and though he's run well, he hasn't won in over a year.  He did though run well to be 2nd in the 4-mile NH Chase last year, and I've since thought this trip of 3m2f would suit him best.  Sure enough, he made all - although when he hit the last fence I had my doubts that he'd last up the hill. This run was as good as his effort in the NH Chase last year and Missed Approach could win again this season.  In 2nd was Mall Dini who won the 3-mile Pertemps Final handicap hurdle in 2016.  He ran a cracker and is also handicapped to win NTO.
I didn't know what to make of Squouateur coming into the race as although he started fav for this last year, and was running off the same OR135 rating, he had yet to win from 10 chase races. He does have some good form in the book and his rating was fair, but I'd say he's a grinder and a bit one-paced.  Old timer, the 12yo Double Ross ran a cracker, up with the pace throughout and this was his best run since coming 3rd to Native River in the 2016 Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury. He's entered in the Grand National and while that trip may be beyond him as a likely winner, he could hang on to be in the places. Finally, the 7yo mare Actinpieces was given a cracking ride by the jockey on last years winner of this race, Gina Andrews. This trip is probably a tad longer than she wants but a return to a 3-mile trip should see Actinpieces back in the winners' enclosure.
As usual, jockeyship is key in this race and it was no surprise to see JJ Codd (3rd), Zac Baker (4th), Gina Andrews (5th) and Sam Waley-Cohen (6th) involved in the finish.

The Final day of the Cheltenham Festival, and a much-awaited clash in the Gold Cup.

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 BerlaisCousin 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.

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