Last year I decided to do a Ante-post diary which resulted in a 19 points profit overall thanks to victories for Thistlecrack (3/1), Don Cossack (7/1), On The Fringe (5/2) and Ballyandy (12/1) as well as healthy each-way returns on the likes of My Tent Or Yours (20/1), Buveur D’Air (12/1), Yanworth (9/1) and Bloody Mary (14/1).
For those of you who may be new to my Ante-post Diary, I will run through the general format from week to week. In each update I plan to go through the four Championship races (Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, World Hurdle & Cheltenham Gold Cup) initially before discussing the novice divisions over hurdles and fences. Obviously as we get closer to the Festival the handicaps will also be discussed in depth as well as some of the other shoulder races and bets will be recommended where necessary.
On the back of feedback that I recieved lasy year I will also be putting up selections during Cheltenham Festival week once the markets have been fully formed. This will largely be focussed on the handicaps at the meeting, which by my own admission could have been covered in more detail last year and in order to give them more attention, I will post small updates the night before each race. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I will be putting up a bet in each race but it gives me the flexibility to find a last minute selection once the fields are a little clearer.
MY ANTE-POST DIARY -2016/2017
Annie Power heads most lists for the Champion Hurdle but she missed her first possible engagement of the season in the Morgiana Hurdle having reported to have worked badly in the week leading up to Punchestown. There is no long term concern about the mare and with the Mullins bandwagon yet to get fully rolling it shouldn’t be too long before she is out.
Her stablemate Faugheen, with whom she also shares favouritism for the Day one showpiece missed the same race with a bruised foot. He has not been seen on the racecourse since running away with Irish Champion Hurdle last January and this slight niggle has delayed his comeback further.
Despite those notable absences, Mullins was able to record a sixth successive victory in the race courtesy of Nichols Canyon who made just about all to win by twelve lengths under Ruby Walsh. The visibility was poor at Punchestown so it is hard to know just how good he was but he was well on top as he appeared out of the gloom over the final hurdle. He is best priced 25/1 for the Champion Hurdle, in which he finished third last year, although it was indicated afterwards that he would be going up in trip which suggests the World Hurdle is more likely to be on his agenda than the Champion.
In fact the current Champion Hurdle market has a number of horses on the list who are unlikely to take their chances with the likes of Yorkhill, Altior, Buveur D’Air and Min all seemingly likely to head over the larger obstacles this winter. That means that at present we have two horses at around 5/2 and the rest are 16/1 bar, which might suggest that there is an each-way bet to be had but there isn’t anything that jumps out at present.
Ch’Tibello got the better of Melodic Rendezvous and My Tent Or Yours in the Betfair Price Rush Hurdle a couple of weeks ago but for all Dan Skelton’s five-year-old improving, I find it hard to see him ending up as Champion Hurdle class by the end of the season. The disappointment of the race was My Tent Or Yours who travelled well for much of the way but just couldn’t pick up in the heavy ground and Noel Fehily wasn’t overly hard on him. He should be better on a sounder surface in something like the Christmas Hurdle but he will be ten come March and despite his fine effort last season, you would have to think his best days are behind him.
The Fighting Fifth last weekend also failed to throw up any Champion Hurdle clues as Irving got the better of Apple’s Jade in a tight finish. We know enough about Irving to know he isn’t a real top drawer performer and the runner-up will be stepping up in trip for her next assignment. It is worth mentioning that Petit Mouchoir was going as well as anything when coming down three out and despite that fall he could be the one to take out of the race.
The disappointment of the race was Sceau Royal who came here on the back of smooth successes at Cheltenham and Wincanton but he seemed to struggle on this slower surface. After starting the season well last year his form tailed off and it might be that he is one who runs best fresh. Regardless of the reason for his below-par display, this run confirmed if it weren’t already apparent that he is some way short of Champion Hurdle class.
Willie Mullins has the market leader for another of the championship races here as Douvan who won all six of his starts as a novice last season, is currently best-priced 8/11 to be the Champion Chaser come March. If you had to ask me now what would win the Champion Chase, clearly this chap would be top of the list and despite the six-year-old holding entries in the John Durkan over 2m4f and the King George over 3m, all the indications are that the Queen Mother Champion Chase will be his primary target come the Spring. He was close to faultless last season and personally I think he would have an excellent chance in the Champion Hurdle were something to happen to either of his stablemates. At this stage it looks his to lose but there is plenty of water to go under the bridge before March so there is no appeal in 8/11.
In terms of opposition, his closest market rival at this stage is Fox Norton who is two from two this term, having added the Shloer Chase to his handicap success at Cheltenham last month. He was purchased by Ann & Alan Potts after his reappearance win and they chose to move the horse from the yard of Neil Mulholland to Colin Tizzard. The six-year-old was a ready winner of that Grade 2 contest but personally I think 7/1 is plenty short enough at this stage. I don’t think there is any doubt that he has improved over the summer but when you consider he was beaten 11 lengths by Douvan in the Arkle and 32 lengths by Douvan at Aintree, he looks to have plenty more improving to do yet. He also sustained a cut in his latest victory which means he misses this weekend’s Tingle Creek but all being well he should be back for a Spring campaign.
It could be that Willie Mullins has two of the biggest “dangers” to Douvan in the shape of Un De Sceaux and Champagne Fever. The former had his limitations exposed in the Champion Chase back in March as he just couldn’t quicken with Sprinter Sacre on a sounder surface, although he did run on in the closing stages. He won over 2m5f at Auteuil in May and he looks likely to be stepped up in trip this term. Champagne Fever didn’t make it to the track last term but despite being keen and fresh on his reappearance, he managed to get his head in front, landing a Listed Chase at Thurles just last week. That was over 2m6f but afterwards his trainer raised the possibility of him going back in trip and although he suggested that 2m in a Grade 1 might be asking a lot, he didn’t rule it out.
On this side of the Irish Sea, it could be that Gary Moore holds all of the cards and he will have been delighted to see Sire De Grugy get back to winning ways at Ascot a couple of weeks ago. Jamie Moore was frank in his assessment of the ten-year-old’s chances in Grade 1 company afterwards suggesting that he didn’t have much chance of beating Douvan and it is hard to see him making an impact on the Champion Chase.
Moore’s best chance could be Ar Mad who improved out of all proportion last term winning his last four starts over fences including the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown in December. He suffered a condylar fracture in the lead up to the Festival last term which saw him miss the rest of the campaign and we should learn more about his wellbeing this weekend. He has entries in both the Tingle Creek and the Peterborough Chase and we should see where we stand with him. The one question we have yet to answer is whether he is as good left-handed but I suspect we might not know that until March.
The last of Moore’s potential Champion Chasers is Traffic Fluide although in a recent blog, Moore suggested that the six-year-old would not be seen until February at the earliest.
With last year’s runaway World Hurdle winner Thistlecrack now bound for a career over fences, it seems the only chance of him running in this race is if something went awry on his next two outings. If this is the case then it gives the race an open look, especially when you consider that Faugheen currently heads most markets. Whilst it is true that the eight-year-old won a novice hurdle over three miles in his younger days, in the last two years over two miles, he has proved himself arguably as one of the best Champion hurdlers ever. Of course I realise that connections also have Annie Power but I think throwing Faugheen in here would be the wrong option, for all I think he would probably win.
As always there are last season’s novices who will be bidding to make an impact in open company and Unowhatimeanharry put down a sizeable marker when winning the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury last Friday. The eight-year-old won with plenty in hand on the day under Barry Geraghty and given his form at Cheltenham as a novice it is easy to see why this race is likely to be high on his list of targets. Back in second was Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Ballyoptic who didn’t jump as well as he can, perhaps an impact of his fall at Wetherby last month. At this stage he looks to have plenty to find if he is to become a World Hurdle contender.
Alan King’s Yanworth is high on many lists and his performance in the Coral Hurdle this month suggested that he was more of a World Hurdle horse than a Champion Hurdle horse. He showed a good attitude to wear down the game Lil Rockerfeller and win with three-quarters of a length to spare. On the face of it, the performance was slightly underwhelming but I think he might just have needed the race more than connections thought and he still had enough to get the job done. I suspect that stepping up to three miles will probably bring about further improvement but I still think he is short enough at around 8/1.
If we have an early contender for a novice chaser going back over hurdles it could be One Track Mind who made a mistake at the first on his chasing debut last week and it didn’t get much better after that. The Grade 1 winning hurdler eventually completed but ran well below expectations and whilst connections are keen to stick down the chasing route for the time being, he could be one worth watching if switched back to the smaller obstacles come the Spring.
I will actually be putting a bet up in the World Hurdle this week but you will have to wait a little longer to find out who it is.
There is only one place to start with the Gold Cup as the major seismic disturbance in the Gold Cup market was the loss of Vautour earlier this month. A brilliant horse both over hurdles and fences, he turned in some devastating displays at Cheltenham, most notably in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the JLT Novices’ Chase. Much was made of his Cheltenham target last Spring and a poor piece of work meant he went down the Ryanair route rather than Gold Cup. Personally, I found it hard to see him lasting the 3m2f of a Gold Cup trip but I suppose we will never know.
Looking ahead to March, it is something of a strange market at present as we find ourselves with a novice who has only raced over fences three times heading the field. Of course the novice that I am referring to is Thistlecrack who carried all before him over hurdles last year and has been sent over fences this year with the target of becoming the second novice since Captain Christy in 1974 to win the race as a novice. Now, I should start by saying that you would be hard-pushed to find a bigger supporter of this horse than me as I have had him in my Jumpers to Follow list since he won at Wincanton in early 2015, however I think his price is quite absurd at present. His jumping was much better at Newbury on Saturday particularly at the open ditches, which had caused his supporters some alarm at Cheltenham on his second start but he did most of that in second or third gear. The test will come when he has to travel in fourth or fifth gear and then we will see just how his jumping holds up, but in reality we probably aren’t going to see that scenario until the Festival (unless connections decide to take in the King George over Christmas). With all of those questions still to answer 7/2 is too short and I think it means that there are others in the market who could be too big.
Clearly his stablemate Cue Card looks to have plenty going in his favour and in the opinions of many, he would have won in March had he stood up. Personally I don’t subscribe to that view but he is a high-class chaser as we saw when bouncing back from a below-par return to land the Betfair Chase a couple of weeks ago. The way he cruised clear of some smart rivals including the returning Coneygree suggested he retains all of his ability at the age of ten and that he will once again be a force come March. He will be eleven by the time Cheltenham comes around though and surely there are more appealing options.
As for the returning Coneygree, I thought he ran well for a long way, jumping boldly under Richard Johnson but he just got understandably tired in the closing stages. His trainer admitted afterwards that he probably had him a bit short and the heavy ground will have only exaggerated the tiredness. With that run under his belt, how he fares in either the King George or the Lexus over Christmas is likely to show us how much ability he retains.
Last weekend also threw up a third potential Gold Cup runner for the Tizzard team as Native River showed some fine qualities to win the Hennessy at Newbury. He gallops and stays very well which suggests that he would be suited by the gruelling test of a Gold Cup but I’m not sure he has the requisite class to actually win the race.
As for last year’s winner Don Cossack, reports on his wellbeing were quite bleak through the summer but just last weekend his trainer indicated that the nine-year-old was back cantering. He suggested that a return was not imminent and that his likely schedule was to have one run around February before heading straight to Cheltenham. He is as big as 12/1 for the race which seems big at the minute but there isn’t much sense in backing him at the moment.
I think we will just let time tick by for a few weeks on the Gold Cup because it is still early days (especially without NRNB) for us to be making a selection with so many factors yet to become clear.
Novices over both sets of obstacles can be notoriously hard to pin down to races because as well as ability, targets are often also dictated by what else the yard has in the race or whether there looks to be a standout performer in the race. With that in mind, I don’t want to get too bogged down in which races horses are likely to target but I have split them up in the copy according to which races they look likely to end up in at present.
Our first clues in the Supreme market came as early as September as Moon Racer and Ballyandy lit up a fixture at Perth by taking each other on in a novice hurdle. Racing close together throughout, it was David Pipe’s seven-year-old who found a little extra after the last to win by three-quarters of a length.
The pair renewed acquaintances about six weeks later at Cheltenham’s Open Meeting and with Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horse getting a 4lb pull in the weights, he was fancied to reverse the placings with that rival. However, that proved not to the case as, in a steadily run affair, Moon Racer quickened up the Cheltenham hill to win readily and stake his claim as a Supreme horse. He now finds himself as short as 6/1 for the Supreme and having only been beaten once to date, it is hard to look past him. As for Ballyandy, I suspect he will end up in the Neptune and personally I think he would have a leading chance if lining up.
Throughout the summer there are often horses who are talked about with the following year’s Cheltenham in mind and one such horse this time around was Senewalk who found himself as 8/1 favourite for the Supreme without having run in Britain or Ireland. However, he made his debut at Punchestown just over a week ago and having looked ok for most of the race, he faded tamely after the third last and was well beaten. His trainer Willie Mullins seemed to indicate afterwards that he felt the horse might have a wind problem but may give him the rest of the campaign off and bring him back as a novice next year.
A similar talking horse has been Jenkins who was a wide-margin winner of a Newbury bumper in April before finishing a close second at Punchestown later that month. Nicky Henderson’s four-year-old was well touted ahead of his hurdling debut last week at Newbury and despite being a little untidy with his jumping, he really picked up in the closing stages to win impressively under Barry Geraghty. There is still plenty for him to work on as he showed plenty of inexperience but he couldn’t be in better hands and it is no surprise to see him high up on many ante-post lists.
A couple of other Henderson inmate who made a winning start to his seasons was Lough Derg Spirit. The four-year-old won a novice hurdle at Kempton at the beginning of last week, jumping accurately before coasting clear between the final two flights under Jeremiah McGrath. He was very professional and having been bought for £190,000 in May, he looks to have a bright future ahead of him. Having come from the Irish pointing field it is no surprise that he is more forward in his development but he could end up in the Neptune come the end of the season.
Looking at the intermediate race in the novice hurdling division, it was hard not to be impressed with Robin Roe, who made a winning debut over hurdles at Aintree in October. The winning pointer was successful on his only bumper start last term and there was a lot to like about the way he won at Aintree. He really powered clear of his rivals after the last and was eased down close home to win with twelve lengths to spare at the line. He could now head to the Challow Hurdle over Christmas, where we are likely to learn more about where he stands with the other leading novices.
Gordon Elliott’s Death Duty also threw his hat into the ring with an impressive victory in the Grade 3 Monksfield Novices’ Hurdle, his second victory over hurdles to date. The five-year-old travelled strongly to the second last, before stretching clear of his rivals and was only pushed out to the line to win by an extended seven lengths. He had some pretty smart bumper form and looks to have either the Neptune or Albert Bartlett as suitable targets come the Spring.
His target could be determined by where his stablemate Blow By Blow is steered, as the five-year-old now with Gordon Elliott looks likely to play a major role wherever he turns up in March. He is the only horse to have beaten Moon Racer in public and having moved to the Elliott yard from Willie Mullins over the summer, his reappearance is eagerly anticipated. In a recent stable tour his new trainer suggested that he probably wanted a trip but at this stage plans looks pretty fluid.
As well as Death Duty, Gigginstown look to have another useful staying novice in the shape of Blood Crazed Tiger who is so far three from three over hurdles. The five-year-old also seems to have relished the step up to three miles on his last two starts including when winning in Listed company earlier this month. There is no doubt that he will need to improve on the form he has shown so far to be fancied in a race like this but he finds plenty for pressure and in a race where attrition is often the order of the day.
It is a long way off but one horse who I thought might improve for a step up in trip is Elegant Escape who made it two from two over hurdles when winning at Ascot a couple of weeks ago. He looked to be losing the argument on more than one occasion in the 2m 5f contest but rallied gamely to get the better of Laser Light and in the end, looked to outstay his rival. He was only beaten narrowly in a point-to-point in April and it would be no surprise if 3m became his trip before the end of the season.
It is too early to be even considering a bet in the Triumph as we most likely haven’t heard of the leading contenders just yet. Having said that I think it is worth highlighting a couple of performances which have taken the eye in the early part of the season.
Joseph O’Brien played a big part in Ivanovich Gorbatov winning in March and he looks to have a strong team of juveniles to go to war with this year now that the license is in his own name. He has acquired a number of cast-offs from Coolmore and one such horse Landofhopeandglory looks to have a bright future having won both of his starts over hurdles to date. It is worth noting that on both occasions his main rivals have been from his own stable but he was rated 102 on the flat and on what we have seen so far, he looks to have plenty of potential over obstacles.
The other one to mention is Philip Hobbs’ Defi Du Seuil who won with his head in his chest at Cheltenham’s Open Meeting. He cruised round under Barry Geraghty and quickened up well when squeezed to win with plenty in hand. I’m not sure the form of those in behind is up to much but he was much better than them on the day and he seems to enjoy a bit of cut in the ground.
I mentioned last year when advising Vaniteux for the Arkle how much Nicky Henderson’s runners are to be respected and although that particular horse could not deliver the goods, he looks to have the one to beat this year in the shape of Altior. Last season’s Supreme winner looked a chaser all over last year in terms of his size and he made no mistake at Kempton on his chasing bow earlier this month. In truth it turned into more of a schooling session than a race with his only rival unable to go the gallop but Noel Fehily was suitably impressed with the ante-post favourite. I suspect that we will get a better idea of his chasing prowess this weekend as he looks set to take in the Henry VII Novices’ Chase at Sandown in which he is likely to take on some higher class rivals. Sandown is notoriously tricky particularly over two miles as the test is so relentless and this should be a good test of his metal.
His nearest market rival at this stage is Min who chased him home in the Supreme in March and looks set to renew acquaintances at some stage this term. He made his chasing debut at Navan at the weekend and he was just about foot perfect in a field of seventeen. Ruby Walsh made sure he was towards the head of affairs throughout so the five-year-old had a clear sight of his fences and he jumped well. He went up a couple of gears between the final two fences and having popped the last, he stretched clear to win well at the line. He clearly has a bit to find with Altior on their Supreme form but Rich Ricci mentioned that they had ironed out some problems with Min and hoped they could close the gap if they met again.
This is unlikely to be a two horse division however as Identity Thief has also gone down the chasing route and already has a Grade 2 success to his name. He won the Fighting Fifth last term before finishing sixth in the Champion Hurdle in March and if he can transfer that form to fences, he wouldn’t have much to find with the likes of Altior and Min.
It has been a while since the north had a horse as exciting as Cloudy Dream and at this stage he looks to be capable of going to the very top over fences. He is two from two over the larger obstacles and his latest victory against more experienced rivals suggested that he was ready for a step up in grade. The ground would have been soft enough for him on that occasion but he handled it well and he looks likely to head to the Wayward Lad at Kempton over Christmas for his next start.
One final horse to mention is Charbel who beat a couple of useful performers in the shape of Top Notch and Le Prezien on his chasing debut in October and they have gone on to boost the form since. Kim Bailey’s five-year-old looked a natural over the bigger obstacles and I am therefore surprised he is as big as 33/1 for this race and the JLT, especially when you consider that for the Arkle, Top Notch is as short as 14/1 and Le Prezien 16/1.
The four-year-old Clan Des Obeaux laid down a pretty good marker when running away with a Grade 2 contest at Newbury last Friday. Having made the odd mistake on his chasing debut at Chepstow, he seemed to benefit for that experience as he jumped much better last week. He never really came off the bridle as he sauntered clear on the run-in. There must be more to come from him with that being only his sixth start under rules and whilst he could make up into an RSA horse, I suspect that this will be his race come March.
He could be joined in that race by Politologue who made an impressive winning debut over fences, beating the useful Vintage Clouds by ten lengths under Harry Cobden. The five-year-old saw the 2m5f trip out very strongly which suggests stamina is his forte and he looks likely to be a better chaser than hurdler. With March in mind it is worth noting that his only below-par display last year came in the Coral Cup on quicker ground and he does seem to be better with cut in the ground.
With Barters Hill out for the season, we have already lost one potential star from this division but there are plenty waiting in the wings including Alpha Des Obeaux, who may have failed to perform on his chasing debut at the beginning of October but he has wasted no time in recording two victories over fences. The latest of those came in Grade 3 company over 2m4f where he ran on strongly late on and I think he will only improve again once stepped up to 3m.
As we have discussed already, Nicky Henderson has a wealth of talent at his disposal in most areas and this is no different. Different Gravey hasn’t had too much racing to date but he looked a natural over the larger obstacles when winning at Ascot a couple of weeks ago. He did make a slight error at the second last which can be forgiven but once David Bass shook him up he really started to motor and he pinged the last. A winning pointer over 3m, he has only tried 3m once under rules at Aintree but I wouldn’t be concerned about him trying it again come the spring.
At this very early stage, one who stands out at a big price for the RSA is Martello Tower who won the Albert Bartlett at the Festival in 2015. His connections decided to stick down the hurdling route last term without success but there was plenty to like about his chasing debut at Navan for all he was beaten a couple of weeks ago. That run came over 2m1f which would have been much too short for him but he ran on strongly in the closing stages. He looks likely to step up in trip this weekend which should reveal more but he looks a lively outsider at this early stage of the season.
JEZKI (World Hurdle) – 1pt e/w @ 14/1 (bet365, Betfred)
As I discussed earlier re the World Hurdle there are a number of horses towards the head of the betting who are at this stage unlikely to line up in this race. That means that there are some horses who are bigger prices than they should be and at this stage I think Jezki is a big price at 14/1.
He missed all of last season having been found to have heat in his foreleg but the indications are that all is well with the eight-year-old and he is set to return to action at Leopardstown over Christmas.
It is worth bearing in mind that he was 6/1 joint favourite for the World Hurdle before being ruled out last year, having improved a good deal for stepping in trip when winning the Aintree Hurdle over 2m4f and the World Series Hurdle over 3m at Punchestown. He has always been a high-class performer having won eight Grade 1s including a Champion Hurdle and if he returns with the same ability he left with, he could take all the beating in this race.
Clearly that isn’t a given but he likes Cheltenham, stays three miles and in my opinion he should be about 8/1 rather than 14/1 so I think he is a good horse to start my ante-post diary with for this year.
With everything still up for grabs in the quest to become Champion Jump Trainer, Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls look likely to slog it out all day and the pair look likely to dominate the opener.
However, Mullins is fancied to come out on top here with VOIX DU REVE. The French import had a lofty reputation upon joining the team at Closutton and was mooted as a Triumph Hurdle contender even before taking to the track for his new connections. His debut didn’t quite go to plan as he could only finish in a dead-heat for second in a Fairyhouse Grade 3 as the odds-on favourite. On the face of it though, that wasn’t a terrible performance given the ground was likely much softer than we would have wanted and his failure to settle early on brought about some needless jumping errors. Triumph plans were shelved on the back of that but he was still held in high enough regard to head to the Cheltenham Festival and contest the Fred Winter. He was quietly supported in the lead up to the race and settled much better this time round. Under an enterprising ride by Ruby Walsh, he made eye-catching headway on the inner and looked to have every chance until crashing out at the last. It would be hard to say that he would have won, but he was staying on best of all and looked likely to overhaul eventual winner Diego du Charmil if traversing the final flight safely. The handicapper has taken note by raising him 5lb but that may not be enough in what looks a much weaker contest here and if feeling no ill effects from his untimely tumble last month, he should take the world of beating.
Nicholls has had his juveniles in fine form this year and looks likely to trouble the selection most with the unexposed Tommy Silver. He had a pleasing debut at Newbury in December, finishing a close second to a more experienced rival in Fixe Le Kap. He was quite rightly well fancied in the Scottish Triumph Hurdle and duly obliged in ready fashion, making all for a pillar-to-post success. He headed to the Cheltenham equivalent as a live outsider and didn’t disgrace himself in seventh, held up out the back before staying on. He is a rangy sort who no doubt will find his forte over fences in the not too distant future but he clearly has a decent level of ability and would be the forecast selection.
Of the remainder, the one that appeals most is Ashoka for the in-form Skelton team. The brotherly jockey and trainer combo of Dan and Harry have enjoyed landmark victories in recent weeks and the string has been in blistering form. Their runner here was beaten 11 lengths by the re-opposing Tommy Silver at Musselburgh last time out but that was off level weights and he now has a 13lb pull with that rival today. Connections suggested that the spring might be his time on the back of his debut win in December and it will be interesting to see how he goes here on the back of a two month absence.
VOIX DU REVE – 2pts win @ 5/2 (William Hill)
2.55 Sandown – Bet365 Oaksey Chase (Grade 2)
Philip Hobbs’ Menorah has won the last two renewals of this race and in what looks a fairly moderate field for the Grade, it is hard to rule him out entirely this year. He is most definitely the elder statesman in the race at the age of 11 but hasn’t been seen since finishing third behind Don Poli and Many Clouds at Aintree in December. The absence wouldn’t concern me too much considering that he has gone well fresh in the past but it is hard to know how much ability he retains at this stage of his career. On his best form, he would have an excellent chance but he has to concede weight to most of his rivals here and I think one or two may be able to take advantage of that weight concession.
The market leader looks likely to be Willie Mullins’ Valseur Lido who chased home stablemate Vautour in the Ryanair Chase last time. Prior to that you will recall him taking a dramatic fall in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown where he seemed to have the race at his mercy and he also departed early in the King George at Christmas. That would give his critics a bit of encouragement, especially here at Sandown where jumping is paramount. The race conditions seem to favour him but he is a suspect jumper to say the least and 10/11 is too short despite the fact that if he stands up he will probably win.
Instead it might be worth taking a chance on Willie Mullins’ other runner BALLYCASEY who hasn’t won since November 2014 but he ran well at the Cheltenham Festival this year before running well for a long way in the Grand National last time. He has plenty to find on official ratings with the market leaders but he receives at least 5lb from all of his rivals and is reported to be in good form at home. I can see Paul Townend hunting round on the nine-year-old and if he can stay in the race, he could pick up the pieces should the others fail to fire.
BALLYCASEY – 1pt win @ 16/1 (William Hill, SkyBet)
3.35 Sandown – Bet365 Celebration Chase (Grade 1)
This looks another opportunity to see the big two in the two-mile division go head-to-head once more, with Sprinter Sacre looking to confirm his superiority over Un De Sceaux from their meeting in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham.
With the ground looking fairly quick at Sandown Park, clear preference is for Nicky Henderson’s stable star and only significant rain would put his participation in doubt. Sprinter Sacre clearly had the upper hand over his Willie Mullins-trained rival and if he runs, I find it hard to see how the placings would reverse, even if Un De Sceaux got his own way in front. The stiff finish will suit the ten-year-old down to the ground and he should finish an amazing season on a high.
The other worry with the mount of Paul Townend is that he is liable to make a mistake or two – Sandown Park’s railway fences are certainly not the type to forgive any trait of that kind, so he’ll have to be spot on all the way round to make it a real contest with his Cheltenham conqueror. Un De Sceaux looks to be a lot better with a bit of cut in the ground, so any rain before the race would be hugely welcomed by Mullins, who could do with him winning if he’s to challenge for the Trainers’ title.
Paul Nicholls has enetered three in the race; Dodging Bullets, Solar Impulse and Ulck Du Lin, but they look as if they’re running for prize money at best, so in terms of an alternative, it could be best to look at former Champion Chaser Sire De Grugy, who enjoys Sandown Park – unbeaten here over fences – and the tough jumping, stiff finishing test it provides. He was only three-quarters of a length behind Sprinter Sacre in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton Park in December, while he was beaten five lengths by Un De Sceaux at Ascot’s Clarence House Chase in January, so he clearly has to improve to reach the level of the top two, but could mix it for a long way.
It might not be big or clever, but in his pomp, you were lucky to find SPRINTER SACRE at ½ in any race and if he’s anywhere near that kind of level after a brilliant Championship season, Evens could represent decent value for a horse that surely wins if he runs as well as he did at Cheltenham.
SPRINTER SACRE – 3pts win @ 11/10 (Bet365, Paddy Power)
4.10 Sandown – The bet365 Gold Cup Steeple Chase (Handicap) (Grade 3)
In recent times, favourites have had a pretty appalling record in this race although the winners have not been impossible to find – a third of the last 9 winners were sent off at single-figure prices.
With that taken into account, SOUTHFIELD THEATRE is a tentative selection to land back-to-back renewals for Paul Nicholls – and put him firmly on the front foot in the race for the Champion Trainers’ title. The eight-year-old proved to be highly progressive over hurdles and developed into one of the top staying novice chasers last year, running Don Poli close in the RSA Chase. This season hadn’t particularly gone to plan with some below-par performances in a pair of Listed Chases but he seemed to back on the right track in the Ultima Handicap Chase last time, brought down as he was beginning to work his way into contention. I thought he had a great chance in that particular contest so it is a no-brainer to think he will go well again off the same mark.
Most in the field have more questions than answers about their form but the biggest dangers may come from Neil Mulholland’s yard. The Druids Nephew never got involved in the Grand National last time but should find this test and the drying ground firmly in his favour. Denis O’Regan partners him again this afternoon and it may be an idea for him to be positioned more prominently than at Aintree, where he seemed to lose interest.
Like the selection, Carole’s Destrier failed to complete in the Ultima Handicap Chase at Cheltenham, which was a bit of a surprise given that he was quietly fancied. That run seemed to be too bad to be true and if he can bounce back to form, he must be considered a leading player still only 5lb higher than when landing the London National over course and distance back in December.
The final one of the Mulholland trio, The Young Master, arrives here in the best form of the triumvirate and in truth, he rarely runs a bad race. He landed a couple of valuable handicaps as a novice last campaign before just outclassed in the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. He has again proven to be competitive this campaign, finishing third in the Ultima Handicap Chase last time out, and now finds himself only 4lb higher than his last winning mark. It is easy to forget that he is only a seven-year-old given the amount of experience he has had, and with his best days still in front of him, a big pot of this nature should be well within his compass sooner rather than later.
The last two winners of this race shouldn’t be discounted and Hadrian’s Approach is of most interest having crept in at the bottom of the weights. Nicky Henderson’s charge has had his problems throughout his career but was a deserved winner of this two years ago and arrives here off a 2lb lower mark. He has only had four runs since that win and shaped with promise on his seasonal debut in the Betbright Chase back in February, travelling well before just being found out for a bit of fitness late on. He didn’t get past the first in the Grand National so arrives here fresh and can make his presence felt once again.
Just A Par is up against it given he remains 7lb higher than when successful in this last year. He had disappointed in a couple of hot handicaps early in the season before bouncing back to form when second at Exeter in March. He never got involved in the Grand National latest although still saw out the finish and would have a job on his hands to score a repeat with those exertions only a fortnight behind him.
SOUTHFIELD THEATRE – 1pt win @ 8/1 (Paddy Power)
4.45 Sandown – Bet365 Select Hurdle (Listed Race)
Unbeaten in Britain and Ireland, Vroum Vroum Mag deserves her place at the head of the market here. Her smooth win in the Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival didn’t look to have taken much out of her, so she should be nice and fresh going into this encounter with the boys. Officially, she’s run to a mark of 154 though, not an insurmountable number for a couple of others in this field, so while I certainly find it difficult to see anything else beating her, at a best price 8/11 she may be worth a swerve in the hunt for some value.
Interestingly, Nicky Henderson has decided to move Vaniteux up in trip to 2m5f and return him to hurdles after he unseated in the Arkle at Cheltenham. The seven-year-old did finish second to Rock on Ruby over an extended two and a half miles at Cheltenham back in January 2015, so it’s certainly not impossible that this distance will be within his reach. 154 was incidentally his highest achieved mark over hurdles, so he might be closer to Mullins’ mare than you might think.
One horse for whom the distance won’t be a problem is PTIT ZIG, who has been kept back for most of the Spring by Paul Nicholls after finishing a 12-length second to the sensational Thistlecrack in the Cleeve Hurdle in January, running a very nice race before the subsequent World Hurdle winner bolted up the hill away from him. This is a horse that has recorded an official rating of 159 over hurdles and this does seem to be his optimum trip, so there’s no reason why he won’t go well here. He’s versatile regarding ground conditions, any rain certainly won’t bother him, and his only visit to Sandown (back in April 2013) resulted in a win, so he likes the track too. At 7/1, he could be a bit too big in the market and could be the one to put down the most serious challenge to Vroum Vroum Mag.
Silsol and San Benedeto look to once again be on a prize money hunting mission for Paul Nicholls, while Ubak and Court Minstrel may just find this level above them carrying 4lb more than the rest, even though Gary Moore’s inmate has done some excellent work on his last two starts, third and first in two Grade 3 handicaps at the Cheltenham and Aintree festivals respectively.
PTIT ZIG – 1pt e/w @ 7/1 (General)
5.20 Sandown – Bet365 Josh Gifford Novices´ Handicap Chase.
This looks a tricky little handicap with a number of horses in here with chances including Calipto who runs for the first time since December. That day he was a disappointing third although it is worth bearing in mind that the winner was subsequent Grade 1 winner Tea For Two. He is clearly of interest on his handicap debut here but he has never really convinced me as a chaser so far and I think he could be worth taking on at the head of the market.
Thomas Crapper has long been touted as a chaser to keep an eye on and he finally managed to get off the mark at the twelfth attempt at Newbury earlier this month. The cheekpieces seemed to do the trick that day and having gone up just 3lb for that success, he should still be competitive off his revised mark.
Another one of interest is Emma Lavelle’s Junction Fourteen who won his first two starts over the larger obstacles including the Grade 2 Rising Stars Novices’ Chase at Wincanton in November. He attempted to concede weight to all his rivals in a Grade 2 at Ascot next time but must have been out of sorts because he was well beaten before weight even became a factor in the race. Clearly his wellbeing has to be taken on trust but he doesn’t look unfairly treated off 141 and he could play a big part if ready to go on his return to action.
However, the one who takes my eye the most is one of Paul Nicholls’ other runners AS DE MEE who has plenty of form here, having won the EBF Final over hurdles last season and he has been placed twice in Grade 1 company at Sandown this term. The most recent of those was finishing six lengths behind Bristol De Mai here in February which was a good effort and I think he can be forgiven his next two runs at Cheltenham and Aintree. The fitting of blinkers for the first time should sharpen the six-year-old up and despite being high enough in the weights, it is hard to see him not being in the frame tomorrow afternoon.
AS DE MEE – 1pt e/w @ 10/1 (Ladbrokes, BetVictor)
5.55 Sandown – The bet365 Handicap Hurdle Race.
This could well turn out to be the decider in the race for the Trainers’ title and both Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls come here mob-handed.
Nicholls has four chances in the finale headed by Red Hanrahan. The Yeats gelding was a £150,000 purchase on the back of his win in an Irish point last March but only really started to show signs of repaying that hefty sum at Fontwell last week. He was travelling well until tipping up at Wetherby in October and that seemed to affect him as he threw in a couple of below-par efforts at Ascot and Chepstow on his next two starts. He won impressively just eight days ago and an opening mark of 130 looks fairly reasonable but the way he veered when well in control after the last that day certainly tempers enthusiasm in a contest such as this. Nevertheless, he is the pick of stable jockey Sam Twiston-Davies, so must be respected.
Stablemate Alcala has an altogether more convincing profile in recent times, landing a novice event at Fontwell in February before running a blinder to finish third in the Grade 3 EBF Final at Sandown on Imperial Cup day. He carried that form to Ayr last Saturday when runner-up to Impulsive American, who has gone in again since, and on the face of it looks fairly treated off just 1lb higher. However, he doesn’t have Harry Cobden taking off a handy 5lb this time round so may have to settle for only the minor honours once again.
Cobden’s allowance will instead be put to good use on Qualando who has started to show the sort of form that saw him land the Fred Winter at the last Cheltenham Festival. He finished a good second at Taunton in February, his first solid piece of form since the Festival, and again filled the runner-up spot back there last time out. The first time blinkers seemed to keep his mind in the right place that day so he can remain competitive with the headgear applied once again.
Chartbreaker completes the quartet and sneaks in at the very foot of the weights. He was far from disgraced on his handicap debut at Kempton earlier this week and it is rather interesting to see him turned out again so quickly in a stronger contest. He stayed on into third on Tuesday but the race had developed before he mounted his challenge so it is of little surprise to see first-time blinkers reached for. A 1m6f winner on the Flat in France, he probably requires a stiffer test than this in truth but has the right man on board in Tom Cannon to come rattling home with a strong run at the finish.
Willie Mullins has three chances to boost his pot with BELLOW MOME looking like his best chance for success. The five-year-old arrives here in search of a hat-trick following wins in a Punchestown maiden hurdle and a Limerick novice so is bang in form. The bare form of those wins doesn’t look particularly impressive but considering how heavy the ground was, which definitely didn’t suit him, he showed a great attitude on both occasions to still stick his head out in front. The drying ground here should be right up his alley and a big run is expected.
Mullins’ other pair are owned by Champion Owners Gigginstown House Stud and remain of interest but there are more question marks about these two. Burgas is the pick of Bryan Cooper but he looks to be up against running off a 3lb higher mark than when pulled up at Fairyhouse last month. The drop in trip will likely be in his favour but I suspect more will be needed on these terms. McKinley is fairly well treated on his best form considering he was a Grade 1 winning novice last season. He has been campaigned over fences this year so far with mixed success and his jumping has left a lot to be desired. It is little surprise to see him return to the smaller obstacles but again looks up against it unless a stark return to form comes about.
Of the remainder, Royal Vacation turns up in the best form following wins at Taunton and Plumpton. He has always been well thought of by connections and was even thrown in the deep end in the Champion Bumper two years ago having finished fourth on his only start in an Ascot bumper. He ran into a couple as a novice last year but that may have helped his development and he duly broke his duck at the first time of asking this campaign. The six-year-old has his best days ahead of him and although he looks to be a chaser in the making, could well make his mark here.
Kilcrea Vale is an interesting case and doesn’t particularly look well treated on what he has achieved so far. An opening mark of 147 looked pretty steep but he didn’t disgrace himself in a Grade 3 handicap at Ascot in January, finishing sixth having been asked for an effort far too late. He will have no easy task off top weight here for a horse so inexperienced but if lives up to the hype, he could prove to be a cut above the rest of the field.
BELLOW MOME – 1pt e/w @ 8/1 (Bet365, BetVictor)
This race often attracts runners who tackled the Coral Cup and Pertemps Final at the Cheltenham Festival, as connections bid to right the wrongs off their March exertions. It is therefore no surprise that these races can often be a strong guide and this year’s race sees a number of horses take part who ran in those races at Cheltenham. There are nine runners who ran in either race, with plenty of interest likely in Arpege D’Alene and If In Doubt who finished second and third respectively in the Pertemps. From the other race, Long House Hall (2nd) and Ubak (3rd) will be bidding to put in another bold display.
Looking through the form book, we can see that eleven of the last twelve winners of this race had won a race earlier in the campaign, which means that we don’t want to be taking chances on horses ending a long losing sequence. Just over half of this year’s field have found their way into the Winner’s Enclosure this term but some of those yet to taste success this season include At Fishers Cross, Ruacana, Kings Palace and Join The Clan.
Another interesting stat which is worth bearing in mind is that ten recent winners had run over fences during the season, possibly ending up here following aborted novice chase campaigns. Whatever the reason, this group is clearly worth keeping an eye on and there are ten such performers in this year’s field. The list includes Silsol, If In Doubt, Arpege D’Alene, Ubak, Long House Hall, Kings Palace, Join The Clan, Mydor, Rolling Maul and Murryana.
One final thing to bear in mind is the poor record of five-year-olds in the race, having only won two renewals in the last 28 years. A stat that doesn’t bode well for the trio of five-year-olds in this year’s field, Squouateur, Pinnacle Panda and Ballycross.
I have already mentioned what a strong guide the Cheltenham races are and with that in mind, it is hard to see If In Doubt being out of the shake-up. He encountered all sorts of problems in running and was carried across the track by drifting rivals in the closing stages. That run suggested he was right at the top of his game and having only been raised 4lb for that effort, he must have a good chance of going well again. He looks the pick of the McManus runners and Barry Geraghty has gone for him accordingly. He looks tailor-made for this race having struggled to compete at the top level over fences and although he looks likely to be favourite, he looks a major player.
The horse that finished just in front of him at Cheltenham, Arpege D’Alene also finds his way onto the shortlist and is still fairly lightly-raced having run just the five times over hurdles. He too is back over hurdles having not taken to the larger obstacles and connections have reached for the cheekpieces in a bid to eke out further improvement from the six-year-old. The Nicholls team are keen to have some winners this week and like his rival, a repeat of his Cheltenham run would see him go very close.
Our final member of the shortlist is Dan Skelton’s Long House Hall who was staying on strongly up the Cheltenham hill over 2m5f in the Coral Cup and as a result looks set to relish the step up to 3m for the first time. He won his first start over fences last May but unseated early on at Cheltenham in October and this was his first run back since then. He only went up 3lb for his most recent effort so there should be more to come, and as long as he gets the trip, he could well find himself hitting the frame once again.
In truth, the race is wide open and if we had a larger shortlist we could probably include about ten horses! Some of the ones unfortunate to miss out on the list include Gary Moore’s Ubak, who was third in the Coral Cup although the step up to 3m is not entirely sure to suit. Gordon Elliott is often a man to watch in these races and Eshtiaal who was most progressive last Spring has snuck in at the bottom of the weights here. I should also mention Urban Hymn who represents the Malcolm Jefferson team, who landed this race with Cape Tribulation in 2012. He returns from a lengthy absence here but was a Grade 2 winner over hurdles as a novice and as long as he is fit and ready to go, he could be one to watch at a bigger price.
If In Doubt
Long House Hall
2.25 Aintree – Ez Trader Mersey Novices´ Hurdle (Grade 1)
As has been the case for most of the Grade 1 novice hurdles this week, the market is often a strong guide as to the outcome and this race is no different, with fourteen of the last eighteen winners having started first or second favourite. The Neptune winner Yorkhill dominates the betting at around the 2/7 mark with his nearest rival being Paul Nicholls’ Le Prezien, who won at Kelso on his most recent outing.
Interestingly, fourteen of the last nineteen winners of this race finished no worse than seventh at the Cheltenham Festival but that only applies to three of the runners in this year’s field. As we know Yorkhill was imperious in winning the Neptune for Willie Mullins, whilst his stablemate Bello Conti chased him home in fourth. The only horse to run with credit at the meeting was Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Flying Angel, who having won the Imperial Cup at Sandown, finished a good second behind Ibis Du Rheu in the Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle on the final day of the meeting.
In terms of age, the five-year-olds look to have the marginal advantage having accounted for six of the last ten winners. This year they are represented by Bello Conti, Flying Angel and Le Prezien although the six-year-olds hold a strong hand so it might be worth taking this trend with a pinch of salt.
With all things considered, it is very hard to get away from the chances of Yorkhill who beat a well-fancied rival in Yanworth when winning the Neptune. He has shown himself to be versatile over 2m and 2m4f and is arguably the most exciting novice hurdler in the Mullins yard at present. His odds mean that it isn’t really having a bet on him but his form looks rock solid and he appears to have very few kinks in his armour. He is pretty versatile ground wise so any rain would not harm his chances and he certainly looks the one to beat.
Nigel Twiston-Davies ran Splash Of Ginge in this race two years ago, finishing second to Lac Fontana and he runs another smart handicapper this year in Flying Angel. He finished third in the Betfair Hurdle, first in the Imperial Cup and a close second in the boys race at the Cheltenham Festival. He is in the form of his life at present and has form here but will probably be found wanting at this sort of level.
Instead, the second place on the shortlist goes to Paul Nicholls’ Le Prezien who despite missing Cheltenham, matches quite a few of the rest of our trends. The Nicholls yard have won this race three times in the last decade and there was plenty to like about this horse’s Grade 2 victory at Kelso last month. He has only been beaten twice since coming to these shores and as long as the step up to 2m4f suits, he looks the most likely to follow home the favourite.
3.00 Aintree – Doom Bar Maghull Novices´ Chase (Grade 1)
First thing’s first, I won’t insult your intelligence by going through the trends and eventually coming to the conclusion that Douvan has a chance. It’s pretty much as simple as: “if he jumps the fences, he wins.” His Arkle victory was imperious and he’s never once looked in trouble, so if any of these here can serve it up to him, I’d be very surprised. The fact that Sizing John avoided Douvan to run on Thursday of the Grand National meeting tells you a lot in itself.
But even given his apparent invincibility, he certainly faces a challenge on the trends given that there have only been two Irish-trained winners since 1989. Both Alisier D’Irlande and The Game Changer fall foul of this, but between them they make up the top three in the market, where the winner has come from in every renewal but one since 1996, so it’s a case of major swings and roundabouts here.
17 of the last 21 winners of the race also competed in the Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival, so that’s a mark-up for Douvan, third-placed Fox Norton and The Game Changer, who finished fourth in the race. Also a strong trend for the race is that 16 of the last 17 winners in this traditionally small-ish field raced prominently from the outset, so with Alisier D’Irlande, Douvan and Fox Norton all preferring to bowl along close to the pace, it could boil down to these three.
Interestingly, 10 of the last 15 winners were bred on the continent and the classic argument that French horses seem to mature quicker than their British cousins looks to be backed up by the evidence in this. Again it’s the ‘top three’ that emerge on the trends that fit this bill; Douvan, Fox Norton and Alisier D’Irlande.
Obviously it’s Douvan who comes out on top of the trends table and is the clear selection using whatever criteria you’d choose to use, but if you’re looking for something in the ‘without Douvan’ market, or one to take advantage if the unthinkable happens and the magnificent Mullins chaser doesn’t make it around, it’s Fox Norton who could be the one. He’s currently around 20/1 in the usual market and stayed on well in the Arkle to take third. Trained by Neil Mulholland and ridden by Noel Fehily, he’s got a top team behind him and he does look an improving sort worthy of a place on the shortlist.
3.40 Aintree – Liverpool Stayers´ Hurdle (Grade 1)
Much like the Melling Chase on Friday, we had hoped that the trends would throw us a lively outside to topple the favourite Thistlecrack but if anything they have only further strengthened his claims at the head of the market. I don’t think many people would argue about him being touted as the best staying hurdler in training and he showed just how good he was when running away with the World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. Most of the horses who finished behind him that day have swerved this engagement and it looks a formality for him to continue his winning sequence.
For what it is worth, nine of the last ten winners had finished first or second at this meeting before, something the market leader achieved when winning the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle twelve months ago. Eight of the last ten winners had finished in the first four in the World Hurdle and the Cleeve, Long Walk and Long Distance (of which Thistlecrack has won all three) often serve as good guides for this race. I think you will agree that barring accidents, it is very difficult to oppose Colin Tizzard’s eight-year-old.
In terms of a danger, the only other Grade 1 winner over hurdles in the field is Gordon Elliott’s Prince Of Scars who landed the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas. He has won his last three starts and is clearly improving but wouldn’t want the ground too quick at Aintree on Saturday.
If there is a Grade 1 winner in waiting in the field it could be Different Gravey who blitzed his rivals when winning a handicap by sixteen lengths at Ascot in February. That was his first run since last April and the way in which he did it suggests that there is more to come from the six-year-old. However he us yet to run over further than 2m4f under rules and this longer trip could well find him out.
The final one to mention is Willie Mullins’ Shaneshill who finished behind Thistlecrack at Punchestown at the end of last season but turned in his best effort over fences when second in the RSA last time. He could be a better horse than when we last saw him over the smaller obstacles and may outrun his odds of around 14/1.
Prince Of Scars
4.20 Aintree – Betfred Handicap Chase (Listed Race)
Always a conundrum, this three-mile Listed contest has attracted 15 interesting runners this time around and it’s a mix of improvers and experienced stayers that will take to the fences on Saturday afternoon.
Despite winners being at double-figure prices three times in the past five years, there are a few trends that can certainly help us narrow the field down, including all of the last five winners being rated in the select bracket of between 134 and 138. Just five fall into this area; Warden Hill, Roc d’Apsis, Cernunnos, Mystifiable and No Secrets, but the presence of Virak in this year’s race off a mark of 157 significantly skews the weights, so this range could well end up being a little low this year, bringing horses like Thomas Brown and Racing Pulse into the picture, who are rated 139.
Speaking of the weights, only one horse in the last 12 years has won when carrying more than 11st, so clearly Virak is up against it off top weight and also giving every other horse 11lb at least. Cloudy Too is the only other horse to have to shoulder more than 11st, so even though the trend doesn’t rule out too many, it certainly shows us the gap in ratings between the top and the bottom.
As with many of the winners on Grand National week, 11 of the 19 winners of this race ran at the Cheltenham Festival, but this presents us with a problem – none of the horses who match the two previous trends meet this one as well. However, there is a get-out clause in that 19 of the last 23 ran in either March or April, proving a saving grace for Cernunnos and Mystifable.
Only two of the last 17 winners were aged over ten years old, so that’s a black mark next to No Secrets, Cloudy Too, Maggio and Al Co, while there has amazingly never been an Irish-trained winner in any of the 39 runnings of the race, again giving No Secrets and Maggio the task of turning around history.
Interestingly for a three mile handicap chase on Grand National day, two of the last four winners of the race have been novices, a boost for Racing Pulse, Thomas Brown and Coologue in this year’s renewal and interestingly, all these three feature near the top of the trends table.
Speaking of which, we come to our shortlist – there are two that sit atop the trends and Rebecca Curtis’ Racing Pulse and Harry Fry’s Thomas Brown are the two that hit five out of six targets. The former seems to be one of those horses that is either on or off on any given day and is a risky proposition, but if the seven-year-old comes into the race in the right mood, he can certainly mix it at this level. A decent midfield effort in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase was his last run and the step back up to three miles here should help.
However, three places in front of him on that day and running off top-weight was Harry Fry’s Thomas Brown who just couldn’t reel in the leading pack on the quicker ground. This slightly softer ground and step back up in trip to three miles should sit him well and this is a horse that’s always been highly regarded by his good stable. The probable rain overnight will help this horse and if he can be kept interested by the excellent Noel Fehily, he could have a superb chance here.
Completing our shortlist for this one is the more experienced Knock House, who was a good fourth in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham and is partnered by the excellent Nina Carberry once again. He gets to run off 1lb lower than at the Festival and has to go well in a field than looks weaker than in that race.
5.15 Aintree – Crabbie´s Grand National Chase (Grade 3) (HANDICAP RACE)
Despite Many Clouds’ famous win last season, nine of the last ten winners of the Grand National have been aged between nine and 11, so this is certainly not a race in which younger horses have done well yet not a race for those past their prime either. The last time, previously to Many Clouds, that there was a winner younger than nine was 14 years ago when Bindaree landed the spoils for the Nigel Twiston-Davies team and before him you have to go back to another eight-year-old, Party Politics who won in 1992. Seven horses aged eight take part in the race this season, including Wonderful Charm, Gilgamboa, Unioniste, Ucello Conti and The Last Samuri, so while that age group hasn’t had a great record in the race, there’s certainly plenty of class in their ranks this year. Onenightinvienna and Vieux Lion Rouge will both be bidding to become the first seven-year-old to win the race since Bogskar triumphed in 1940. Although Many Clouds managed to break the trend last year and the class of the eight-year-olds in the race does seem to rise every year, it’s probably safest to steer towards the nine to eleven-year-old age group when making your selection.
An equally strong trend is that a win over a distance of three miles or further is something that all of the last ten winners had on their CV. In fact this trend can be stretched back to 1970 and it is hardly surprising given the extreme stamina test the race provides. There are nine members of this year’s field who still have these major doubts surrounding their stamina including Ballycasey, Ballynagour, Gilgamboa and Buywise – given how far this run goes back, it seems wise to rule these horses out at this stage, especially with some cut in the ground forecast, making really getting the trip all the more important.
Given the perceived effort that horses have to give in the Grand National, it might be sensible to support a horse returning from a long lay-off. However, the statistics suggest that a run within the last 50 days is the optimum, accounting for nine of the last ten winners. The only exception during this period was the 2012 winner Neptune Collonges who managed to win following an absence of 56 days. Whilst you might still be thinking this makes little difference, consider that the last winner to defy the trend before Neptune Collonges was Aldaniti in 1981. This year there are eight of the field who will attempt to buck the trend including the likes of First Lieutenant, Soll, Sir Des Champs and Black Thunder. It seems that match practice goes a long way in the Grand National and it would therefore seem sensible to stick with those who have run in the last fifty days, putting them in peak shape for this unique test.
The Irish angle is one to take good notice of, especially considering 13 of the last 17 horses to win the race were bred in the country and Irish-trained horses have been successful in seven of the last 17 renewals. Although the Irish trainers haven’t had a successful contender since Gordon Elliot’s Silver Birch won in 2007, it does seem high time that one came along, so when you look at the very strong entry including the well-fancied contenders Goonyella, Morning Assembly, Boston Bob, Gallant Oscar and Ucello Conti, they could be the ones to regain the crown for Ireland.
Twelve of the last 19 winners of the Grand National has finished at least placed in another ‘national’ of some shape or form either in Ireland or in Britain, something Goonyella, Shutthefrontdoor, Vics Canvas and Rule The World all gain a boost from. Of course Many Clouds and Saint Are, last year’s 1-2 in this race also meet this criterion, but only one of the last 73 horses to have won or placed in this great race had managed to win it the following year, so those mark ups should possibly be taken with a pinch of salt.
One final factor worthy of mention is the betting market. One of the great attractions of the Grand National is that it is perceived to be something of a lottery where big-priced winners can often prevail. In the last ten years, we’ve seen 33/1, 100/1, 33/1, 66/1, 25/1 and 25/1 winners, with no winner under 14/1 in the past five renewals. The rising quality of the race has seemed to make it even more unpredictable than ever before, with even more horses possessing the required ability to win the race actually taking part. In fact, there are very few also-rans in this year’s renewal and it’s very difficult to totally rule out many at all, so don’t home in on the first few in the market and forget the rest, the winner of the Grand National can come from anywhere.
Goonyella – 9/10
Shutthefrontdoor – 9/10
Many Clouds – 7/10
Holywell – 7/10
Oddly for a 40-runner race, only one horse stands a point clear of the rest at the head of the trends table. JJ Burke’s mount GOONYELLA has the experience of running in the Scottish, Midlands and Irish Grand Nationals, finishing second, first and seventh in those respectively. He’s always looked the perfect type for the Aintree Grand national and if trainer Jim Dreaper has him in top form, the ground, trip and big field will hold no fears for him. He carries a nice racing weight at 10-8 and, at his 20/1 price, looks a decent bet for this year’s big race, just as long as he takes a little better to these national fences – he’s unseated and finished ninth in the last two Becher Chases.
After finishing fifth in last year’s Grand National under Sir A P McCoy, Shutthefrontdoor comes into this year’s renewal a year older and with plenty less expectation to carry on his shoulders. Trainer Jonjo O’Neill has a great record in the race and owner JP McManus’ colours are often carried well in Grand Nationals. O’Neill seems to think that the extra year of maturity will help this horse stay the trip better and he’ll have to after weakening at the elbow in 2015’s renewal – he travelled very well through that race, possibly too well and if he can get into a good rhythm and save a little more energy, he could be right there at the business end again. The trends have him as a clear second pick and also at 20/1, he’s certainly a very fair each-way bet.
Last year’s winner Many Clouds has history against him, with only one of the last 73 winners or placed horses going on to win again, but with a perfect preparation and a clear love of the track and trip, he’s absolutely impossible to rule out. Yes he carries a little more than last year and may of his rivals have pulls at the weights, but he’s still only nine and could well have improved. His price may have gone at 8/1, but he looks sure to run well again.
Amongst the group of seven horses who tick seven of the ten trends boxes is another Jonjo O’Neill trained horse, Holywell, who is infamous for only showing his best form in the spring time. He ran very well behind Un Temps Pour Tout at Cheltenham, who went off favourite for the Grade 1 Mildmay Novices’ Chase here on Friday ahead of RSA winner Blaklion, and if he can carry that form on here to a venue he’s usually gone well at and stay the trip, he’ll hold superb claims as he’s officially 4lb well-in. 16/1 certainly looks fair for a horse of this high ability.
6.10 Aintree – Pinsent Masons Handicap Hurdle
The final race of the meeting is this handicap hurdle for conditional and amateur jockeys and the first thing to note is that four of the last seven winners finished no worse than fourth on their most recent outing. This suggests that we should be focusing on horses arriving here in form rather than praying for one to bounce back to their best form following a string of poor efforts. Just over half of this year’s field sit on the right side of this trend but some of the ones to miss out include Ivan Grozny, Nabucco, Dell’ Arca, War Singer and My Manekineko.
It is also a race that has tended to favour horses with a recent run under their belt, no doubt due to the fact that you have to in the peak of health to win a race as competitive as this one. Six of the last seven winners had had a run since the beginning of March, which is bad news for Dell’ Arca, Madfuninthewest, Chieftain’s Choice, War Singer, My Manekineko and Sir Chauvelin who all arrive here on the back of breaks.
If official ratings are anything to go by, it might be worth bearing in mind that all but one of the seven winners were rated in the 130s. If we apply that to this year’s field then that eliminates the top weight Ivan Grozny (141) and at the foot of the weights, everything from Automated (128) down to Sir Chauvelin, who is rated 127.
The final factor to bear in mind is that the Irish have a pretty poor record having had just one winner from twenty runners in previous renewals. That would be a concern for supporters of the well-fancied Automated and his stablemate Tempo Mac as well as Mr Boss Man, Sir Ector, Ivan Grozny and My Manekineko.
With all that in mind, one horse who comes firmly into the reckoning is Boite who returned from a lengthy absence to finish second at Newbury last month. He was just found wanting for race fitness in the end and with that run under his belt, he looks likely to put up a bold show here. He has yet to finish outside of the first two in four starts over hurdles and he has useful conditional Harry Bannister doing the steering. He fits a lot of the patterns that we have just discussed and looks a likely player for the frame at around the 10/1 mark.
Another worth keeping an eye on could be Philip Hobbs’ Allee Bleue who having finished fifth in the Imperial Cup last month, returned to novice company to register a wide margin success a couple of weeks later. His mark has been left unchanged following that success and he looks another who can make an impact returning to handicap company. He is one of the less exposed runners in the field and with more to come, he rates a strong contender for the frame.
The shortlist is completed by Dan Skelton’s Master Jake whose victory at Sedgefield a couple of weeks ago, took his record to three wins from five starts over hurdles. He has been ridden by today’s rider Bridget Andrews on his last three starts so she knows the horse well and he seems to enjoy being ridden towards the head of affairs. That could keep him out of trouble in such a big field and with the trends seemingly speaking in his favour, he rates a lively outsider at around the 16/1 mark.
You could easily make cases for several more of the field including Harry Whittington’s Bigmartre who has run in graded company this term as well as Nicky Henderson’s last time out winner Nesterenko and Brian Ellison’s Always Resolute.
I thought it best to go through my selections one by one and as you will see, I have included their finishing position and their SP as well as the odds at which they were advised.
VANITEUX (Arkle) – 1pt e/w @ 10/1 (UR, 8/1)
Nicky Henderson’s seven-year-old ran a mighty race here and whilst I don’t think he would have beaten Douvan, I think he would have finished second had he not unseated at the second last. The better ground seemed to bring about massive improvement from him and he was just going too quickly at the second last to get himself organised. It was slightly disappointing that he failed to give us an each-way return but he could gain compensation at Aintree should the winner decide to swerve that meeting.
MY TENT OR YOURS (Champion Hurdle) – 0.5pt e/w @ 20/1 (2nd, 10/1)
Arguably the most speculative of my ante-post bets, when I put him up in my first issue I expected he would probably have a straightforward campaign but instead as we know he went straight there without a run. Whilst Nicky Henderson got plenty of credit for getting Sprinter Sacre back to win, he deserves equal credit for getting My Tent Or Yours to run so well having been off the track for nearly two years. He was always travelling strongly behind the leader Annie Power and only got tired as they started to climb the famous hill. He stuck to his task to hold on for second place from Nichols Canyon and with a run under his belt, who knows what would have happened.
THISTLECRACK (World Hurdle) – 2pts win @ 3/1 (1st, Evens)
One of four winners for me this week, Colin Tizzard’s eight-year-old confirmed himself as the best staying hurdler in training with another dominant display in the World Hurdle. His critics were hoping that good ground may reduce his domination over his rivals but much like the Long Distance, Long Walk and Cleeve Hurdles earlier in the season, he was vastly superior to his opponents. To be honest I was surprised that he didn’t go off shorter than Evens considering his nearest market rival was Cole Harden at 15/2. However it made no difference to us as we were paid out at 3/1 following his success.
DON COSSACK (Cheltenham Gold Cup) – 1pt win @ 7/1 (1st, 9/4)
I advised Don Cossack for the Gold Cup following his fall in the King George because at the time, it seemed that the bookmakers had overreacted to his mishap by pushing him out to 7/1. The ground on Gold Cup day was perfect for Gordon Elliott’s horse and it saw him produce his best performance since winning at Punchestown last April. I’m sure Cue Card supporters would point out that their horse was going well when coming down but I felt Don Cossack was going as well as anything and he looked to have plenty in hand up the hill at the end. I suspect he would have won whatever but of course we will never know.
SOUTHFIELD ROYALE (National Hunt Chase) – 1pt e/w @ 12/1 (4th, 5/1)
Neil Mulholland’s six-year-old attracted support in the market following news that Nina Carberry would be riding him and he continued to be backed on the day before eventually being sent off the 5/1 favourite. He raced in midfield for much of the contest and looked to hold every chance turning for home but a blunder at the second last halted his momentum and whilst he stayed on, he couldn’t go with the front two. My initial reaction was that he probably just didn’t stay the 4m trip as well as his rivals as he had been a little keen for the first circuit. He just missed out on the places for ante-post rules which was a little frustrating but he is still fairly lightly-raced and can build on this effort.
GIBRALFARO (Triumph Hurdle) – 1pt e/w @ 20/1 (9th, 25/1)
This selection looked to be going well for much of the winter but a poor run at Kempton in the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton saw Alan King’s gelding go from one of the favourites to an outsider for the Triumph. He was fitted with cheekpieces for his Cheltenham assignment and whilst he got tired late on, I thought he ran much better here than he did at Kempton. He is still an entire and I would be surprised if connections didn’t geld him in the near future as his trainer commented recently that his mind may not have been entirely on the job.
BUVEUR D’AIR (Supreme) – 1pt e/w @ 12/1 (3rd, 10/1)
One of two runners in the opening race of the Festival for Nicky Henderson and whilst he took the race with Altior, Buveur D’Air was far from disgraced in third. He was ridden towards the rear of the field by Noel Fehily and he made good headway to move into third at the last. He chased Min up the hill for second and whilst he stayed on well, he couldn’t pick the front two up. It would have been hard for him to come from so far back and he probably lacked the pace of the front two. The Neptune was long mooted as a possible target and it appears as though he will step up in trip at Aintree, however he got the week off to a solid start here.
MORE OF THAT (RSA) – 2pts win @ 5/1 (3rd, 6/4)
Of the horses that I advised at shorter odds he was probably the most disappointing having been well-backed in the weeks leading up to the Festival. The ground seemed to have come into his favour but he never really looked happy towards the rear of the field as Barry Geraghty was always niggling away on him. To his credit he responded to the pressure to deliver a strong challenge turning for home and it was only after the final fence that his effort petered out. He was reported to have bled afterwards which could explain his below-par display because on his best form you would have fancied him to get the better of Blaklion and Shaneshill.
BLUE HELL (County Hurdle) – 1pt e/w @ 14/1 (22nd, 8/1)
We were a victim of bleeding again here as Alan Fleming’s six-year-old ran no sort of race in the County Hurdle. He was held up early on by Adrian Heskin and stayed at the rear of the field for the duration of the race. It was a most disappointing effort and clearly all was not well as he ran well below the form that saw him win last time. Normally once a horse bleeds I tend to leave them alone but he could be worth keeping an eye on if he turns up in the not too distant future as this was definitely not his true running.
YANWORTH (Neptune) – 1pt e/w @ 9/1 (2nd, 11/10)
Following Yanworth’s victory at Cheltenham in January this looked a pretty strong selection with Alan King’s six-year-old having gone odds-on in most places. In truth that was the scenario until Yorkhill was declared for this race instead of the Supreme and that move soon pushed Yanworth towards the Evens mark. In the race he didn’t seem to do much wrong although he probably went a little wider than ideal for much of the race. He seemed to lose ground on the winner turning for home and although he was gaining at the finish, he looked to win with a bit in hand. In truth he was probably just beaten by a better horse on the day and the advantage of backing him each-way at a bigger price is that you don’t feel so bad when they get beat.
ON THE FRINGE (Foxhunters Chase) – 2pts win @ 5/2 (1st, 13/8)
Following the retirement of Prince De Beauchene and Long Run, I was pretty sure that On The Fringe would retain his title and whilst he had to work much harder this year, he did just that. He drifted for the race following his reappearance at Leopardstown and even during last week he was available at 3/1 and 7/2 for the race. However the money came for him on the day and he was sent off the 13/8F under Nina Carberry. He hit the front just after the last and dug deep to hold from the fast-finishing Marito. Clearly the extra year has taken its toll on the now eleven-year-old but he still sets a pretty good standard in these races. As long as he comes out of this race he will attempt to land the treble he won last year by running at both the Aintree and Punchestown Festivals.
BLOODY MARY (Mares Novice Hurdle) – 0.5pt e/w @ 14/1 (3rd, 7/1)
The diminutive mare was selected ahead of her British debut at Taunton in February and whilst she didn’t exactly pull up any trees, she did well to win on what was slower than ideal ground. The quicker ground at Cheltenham certainly played into her favour and whilst she couldn’t go with the winner Limini, she stuck to her task well to finish a gallant third. This was another solid each-way return for us and it just kept the points ticking over for us. Having raced so prominently at Cheltenham, she may be better suited by Aintree if connections can find a suitable target for her.
BALLYANDY (Champion Bumper) – 1pt e/w @ 12/1 (1st, 5/1)
The trends suggested that multiple bumper winners tend to be beaten by less exposed types in this race but Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horse set a solid standard all season and got his reward here. He started to get shuffled back as the field came down the hill and if I’m honest I thought our chance had gone at that stage. However he responded well to the Sam Twiston-Davies drive to put his head in front on the run to the line and hold on from the rallying runner-up Battleford. He was my biggest winner of the week and being my first winner it was a relief for him to get the job done for us.
OUR KAEMPFER (Pertemps Final) – 1pt e/w @ 20/1 (5th, 9/1)
For the purposes of ante-post betting he was considered a loser but he ran a fine race to finish just three lengths behind the winner. Having been held up by Noel Fehily, he found himself racing alone up the hill and his wandering under pressure probably cost him a place or two in the closing stages. This sort of race suits him well and with a bit more luck he can pick up a nice prize before too long. Some firms were offering 5 places on the day but my ante-post bet only applied to the first four places, such is life.
CAROLE’S DESTRIER (Ultima Handicap Chase) – 1pt e/w @ 14/1 (PU, 14/1)
In truth, Neil Mulholland’s eight-year-old never really got into the race before making a shuddering mistake on the second circuit. His stablemate The Young Master finished third so perhaps we were on the wrong one from the stable. That is the second time that he has been beaten at Cheltenham now and having won at Kempton and Wetherby, it might be that he prefers a flatter track.
POLITOLOGUE (Coral Cup) – 1pt e/w @ 12/1 (20th, 9/1)
I think the ground just got too quick for Paul Nicholls’ five-year-old who has run well this winter but just found this faster surface a little too lively. His sire’s progeny tend to enjoy soft ground and that would suggest that my suspicions are probably right. He raced keenly on the outside of the group and showed up well for a long way but dropped away tamely in the closing stages. He is worth sticking with as long as there is cut in the ground.
In summary, I have to say that I am pleased with the final results from my diary and we posted a 19 points profit overall. It is also worth noting that of the 16 horses that made it to their respective engagements, fourteen were sent off at shorter prices than they were advised at. I tend to stick with my selections to the bitter end but if some of you got involved in laying some of your liabilities off, that is worth bearing in mind.
Finally, I hope that you have enjoyed reading the weekly diary as well as my selections.
Synchronised’s was also the highest rated Midlands National winner since Young Kenny in 1999. Both horses were rated in excess of 140 but they appear to be the exception rather than the norm. The most successful band appears to be from 135 or lower, a trait shared by seven of the last ten winners. That also suggests that the top nine as they appear in the racecard have a very tough task on their hands.
As well as a low weight, proven stamina has also proved crucial in this slog over four miles, one and a half furlongs. With this in mind, none of the last ten winners did not have a win to their name over three miles or further prior to winning this contest. This is a major concern for supporters of Mad Brian and Cultram Abbey who have yet to win over the required distance.
Goulanes, who won this race two years ago wasn’t your typical winner in that he was pulled up on his most recent start. Seven of the last ten winners came here on the back of finishing in the first three on their most recent visit to the racecourse. This goes in favour of just over half of the field on this occasion including last time out winners including Milansbar, No Planning and Fourovakind.
One thing that most winners of this race have in common is their ability to jump well, in fact only two of the last ten winners had fallen or unseated in their chasing careers prior to victory here. There are a few in this renewal with patchy jumping records but the six to focus on are Katkeau, Milansbar, Spookydooky, Subtle Grey, Sizing Coal and Courtown Oscar.
It really would be splitting hairs trying to separate the past ten winners by age. Therefore, if we group the runners together, those aged seven, eight and nine are the most successful having taken nine of the last ten renewals. This does not bode well for supporters of the older generation such as Summery Justice, Rigadin De Beauchene, Fourovakind, Golden Chieftain and Mad Brian who will all be attempting to win at the age of ten or above.
The final factor worthy of consideration is the betting and despite Goulanes and GVA Ireland landing the spoils for favourite backers, on the whole it has been something of a graveyard for market leaders. The current favourites are Jim Dreaper’s Sizing Coal and Neil King’s Milansbar but both will need to defy this trend to get his head in front.
COURTOWN OSCAR – 7/7
Subtle Grey – 6/7
Count Guido Deiro – 6/7
COURTOWN OSCAR tops the shortlist with all things considered as the seven-year-old matches each of the trends that we have mentioned. Philip Kirby’s gelding has been progressing well this winter and has now won three of his last five starts over fences. He has managed to sneak in at the bottom of the weights and with stamina appearing to be one of his biggest strengths, he could run well at what are likely to be sizeable odds.
He is joined on the shortlist by Subtle Grey who finished in front of Courtown Oscar at Carlisle last month and also looks a horse on the up. Donald McCain’s seven-year-old already looks likely to be a better chaser than a hurdler and the only trend he misses is the one relating to weight as he carries 11st 2lb here. He has never run over this far before but he has looked solid stayer in the past so is worth a go at this extreme trip.
The shortlist is completed by Count Guido Deiro who only got into the field following the withdrawal of Peter Bowen’s Berea Boru. His only negative amongst the trends is his jumping as he has twice unseated his rider in just eight starts over fences. He was last seen winning impressively over hurdles at Newbury in February and on the back of that effort he looks potentially well-handicapped over the bigger obstacles. He is also at a big price at 20/1 and if he can get round then he will have more than half a chance.
COURTOWN OSCAR – 0.5pt e/w @ 25/1 (Bet365, William Hill, Coral)
As the field size of the Triumph has decreased after the creation of the Fred Winter, the race has become an altogether more predictable affair than it used to be. Eight of the last 11 winners came from the first three in the betting and ten of them from the first five. The current top three, Ivanovich Gorbatov, Zubayr and Footpad also come out pretty well at the trends, so they all look solid propositions, while Sceau Royal and Connetable are challenging to get in the top three in the market and can’t be knocked hugely either when you look at their form.
Nicky Henderson saddled the 1-2-3 in last year’s renewal and has a sensational record overall, with six out of the eleven winners. This year, he’s only entered one in the race; Consul De Thaix, so it’s surely to keep an eye on the horse, even though he’s currently a 33/1 shot.
All of the last six winners had either finished first or second in a Grade 1 hurdle or won a Grade 2 hurdle, and only four horses in this year’s field satisfy that criterion: Footpad, Zubayr, Apple’s Jade and Who Dares Wins. The first two in that list also won the main trials in Britain and Ireland for this race, Zubayr in the Adonis at Kempton and Footpad in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown.
Despite the early domination of this race by horses that had come from a flat background, three of the last six horses to win the race had no flat run at all and were National Hunt horses right from the start. Whether the experience gained by the more streetwise flat horses is becoming less important or not, it certainly does seem that unless a horse was very good on the flat, rated at least 82 – like Ivanovich Gorbatov who is rated 103 on the level – the National hunt types have caught up. Footpad, Connetable and Apple’s Jade are just three who fit the bill here.
One trend that has yet to be broken is that horses that have been off the track for more than 55 days have never won, and if Apple’s Jade, Sceau Royal or Leoncavallo are to win this race, they’ll have to rewrite that certain piece of history.
Only three of the last 11 winners had any more than three runs over hurdles, indicating that if a trainer has a horse they fancy for this race, they usually keep them relatively under wraps throughout the testing winter season. Footpad, Connetable, Sceau Royal and Leoncavallo have all had more than three runs over timber and despite the experience they have gained, there could well be more unexposed contenders waiting in the wings to improve past them.
The two horses at the top of the trends table, as I mentioned before, have won the two best trials for this race and Zubayr and Footpad will surely hold great claims in this race. While the Willie Mullins trained four-year–old has plenty of experience over hurdles, he’s never set foot on decent ground and that has to be a worry, even though he’s clearly got a lot of ability and is highly thought of.
Zubayr must be at least as equally highly thought of given his purchase price of €380,000, and his win on his first run for Paul Nicholls in the Grade 2 Adonis Hurdle was impressive. He only falls down on two key trends by virtue of not being trained by Nicky Henderson and not having a flat rating after two decent runs at Longchamp – he may have been rated above 82, so this could be harsh on the horse. He has followed the same path that the same stable’s Zarkandar did en-route to winning the Triumph and Paul Nicholls has been thrilled with the horse since he arrived from France.
Consul De Thaix is an interesting entry in the top 4 in the trends table, especially given his run at Cheltenham on heavy ground was full of promise. He could well improve on better ground and that experience would not have been lost on him. The JP McManus-owned four-year-old was less than two lengths behind Nicholls’ Clan Des Obeaux, who is half the price in the market. He’s far too big at 33/1 and could be worth a flyer under Mark Walsh, but JP’s retained jockey, Barry Geraghty is on the market leader.
There’s been a wave of bad feeling towards Ivanovich Gorbatov since he finished fourth in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle behind the likes of Footpad and Let’s Dance, but when you watch the race again, the horse was never happy. He didn’t travel or jump the same way he did on his debut when he comfortably disposed of Let’s Dance and I’m convinced that given a stronger pace on better ground, we’ll see the Ivanovich Gorbatov the market thinks is there. He wasn’t chased after once the front three had pressed on and he’s likely to have plenty more in the tank – the money that’s come for him can’t be for nothing.
However to conclude, Zubayr is the horse with the trends and the momentum behind him and he goes to Cheltenham with a huge chance of mirroring his stablemate Zarkandar’s achievement. Footpad seems to be the chosen one from the Willie Mullins stable this time around and hold good claims, while Ivanovich Gorbatov needs to bounce back from his last run, but has plenty of ability if the good ground helps him. An outsider to run into a place could be Consul De Thaix for Nicky Henderson, who is unexposed and already had track experience.
Consul De Thaix
2.10 Cheltenham – Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle
Although this is usually a frenetically run race with 26 runners, there does seem to be an emerging trend that the top five in the market do well, nine of the last 15 winners have been in that bracket, so as the market currently stands, Great Field, Superb Story, Blue Hell, Wait For Me, Starchitect and John Constable (depending where you bet) can fall into that well-fancied category.
That same frenetic nature of the race, though, means that you don’t want to be chasing any keen or hard-pulling leaders for too long – held up running styles do very well in this race and there hasn’t been a winner this century that has raced close to the pace. This could be a worry for Starchitect, Wait For Me and Great Field, even though the latter two will probably be made to sit in midfield here due to their keen-going tendencies.
Ireland holds something of a stranglehold on this race recently, not such a surprise seeing as it’s named after Vincent O’Brien, but they do seem to have the right type of unexposed horse to bring over and take this with, year after year. Willie Mullins has taken this three times in the last six renewals and his Great Field, Dicosimo and Ivan Grozny need to be respected. However, don’t discount Paul Nicholls-trained runners, as he’s got a great record for Britain, having won the race three out of the last ten years and he’s also got three contenders this year, All Yours, Modus and Some Plan.
61 horses have tried to make their handicap debuts in this race, yet none have been successful on the day, so be wary of Wait For Me, while only five of the last 17 winners had experienced the Festival before – a black mark next to the likes of All Yours, Dicosimo, Some Plan and Sternrubin to name but a few.
An interesting angle on the race is that horses who have run the previous summer (before 1st August 2015 in this case) have won seven of the last eleven renewals. Henry Higgins, Blue Hell, Sternrubin, Cheltenian, Draco and Kayf Blanco are the six that fall into that category and will appreciate the good ground on offer.
Due to the shape of the handicap changing over the years, the statistic that only three horses have won carrying more than 11st 2lb is becoming a little false considering the bottom weight last year carried 11st. This year, 10st 12lb is the bottom mark and I’d expect that the winner could further drag this trend through the mud, but if you still want to apply the criterion, the likes of Superb Story, Wait For Me, Modus, John Constable and Starchitect would be high on your list.
This race is normally won by an unexposed horse from across the Irish Sea or at the Nicholls yard, and there are plenty to get our teeth into here. Nicholls looks to have decent chances with All Yours – subject of some good reports at preview evenings that he’s attended – and Modus, who will love the better ground and a stiff two miles.
The Irish cohort is headed by Great Field, who has been well-supported, but there’s plenty of juice left in his 9/1 price. He hacked up on his Irish debut at Leopardstown and even though he’s been allotted a high mark of 147, judging by that performance and the impression he made on good ground in France, he could still be nicely handicapped. Barry Geraghty is on board and he’s the clear pick of the JP McManus horses.
Blue Hell seems to have been specially laid out for this race by trainer Alan Fleming but he’s been hit pretty hard by the British handicapper for a three length win over Diamond King last time out. He’s gone up a huge 22lb for that and even though Diamond King went on to take the Coral Cup on Wednesday, it’s a lot of weight to be carrying extra. Still, on the bare form of that race, where he also beat Henry Higgins, he has to be in with a shout.
Superb Story is a very interesting contender for Dan Skelton and while he’ll have to become the first British trainer to win this race since 2005, he has a horse that looks pretty well handicapped on his two-length second to Old Guard at this venue in November. The good ground will be perfect and after his Long House Hall ran a cracker to finish second in the Coral Cup, it’s clear the stable’s in good form.
All in all, the market seems to have pinpointed the good ones here, Blue Hell holds claims in a race he’s been targeted at since last summer and All Yours looks to be the Nicholls first string in a race he excels in. Superb Story could make an impact off a low weight too, but even though he carries 11st 7lb, it is Great Field that jumps off the page. He’s hugely unexposed, will improve for the better ground, has the services of JP’s top jockey and happens to be in the stable of the most successful trainer of recent times when it comes to this race.
2.50 Cheltenham – Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
The Albert Bartlett has been one of those races where you just can’t beat course form, distance form and top class form. Not only have all 11 winners of the race contested a Graded hurdle, but six have won over three miles and seven have run at Cheltenham before over timber.
This instantly narrows the field down greatly, giving us Unowhatimeanharry as the only horse that fulfils these criteria. It’s strange to see only one of the 20 runners fit all these trends, and as a result, Harry Fry’s eight-year-old instantly goes on the shortlist at a tidy price of 14/1. In being rapidly progressive and winning his last four starts, Unowhatimeanharry has progressed to a mark of 152 over hurdles, higher than that of the long-time ante post favourite Barters Hill.
Another damning stat for some horses is that only one winner has ever not had a run in the calendar year before winning this, showing that you have to be 100% match fit to win what can become a real slog of a race. It’s a major worry for the Willie Mullins-trained trio of Gangster, Bachasson and Long Dog, who will be ridden by Ruby Walsh here.
Speaking of Mullins, this is one of the very few races that he has done surprisingly poorly in over the years, with no wins from 18 runners, including the defeats of three short priced favourites – something that has to be a worry for backers of the before-mentioned trio, Up For Review, Balko Des Flos, Open Eagle and Bleu Et Rouge. Still, that seven-strong hand suggests it’s a hoodoo he desperately wants to break.
No winner of this race had run less than three times over hurdles, showing that experience is key, and if you tie that into the fact that five of the eleven winners were second-season novice hurdlers, it’s clear that this isn’t a race for the feint-hearted. Aurillac, Balko Des Flos and Fagan may find it all too much this early on in their careers.
Interestingly, if you’d have backed seven-year-olds blind, you’d be running at a 27% profit over the eleven years, so take notice of Definite Outcome, Hit The Highway, Open Eagle and Up For Review.
All in all, this is not a race where you’re likely to see some will-o-the-wisp, unexposed horse cruise through the race and turn on the style. Even on the expected good ground, this will inevitably turn into survival of the fittest and that is why Barters Hill can’t be ruled out, even though the ‘good’ may be quicker than he’d ideally like. He’ll stay all day and he’ll keep finding for pressure, I don’t think the hill will be a problem and the unbeaten star of Ben Pauling’s stable has a favourite’s chance.
But there are serious dangers in this, starting with the unanimous trends pick, Unowhatimeanharry, who has progressed beyond all recognition this season and looks just the right type to grind things out when it matters. Whether he’ll be good enough to beat these top-drawer younger horses is yet to be seen, but he’ll run a solid race after being diverted to this from his initial target, the Pertemps.
Lurking one behind Harry Fry’s horse on the trends table is an intriguing contender for Rebecca Curtis in Definite Outcome. Now he may not have run over this trip yet, but all his runs suggest he’s crying out for it. Staying-on third places to Thomas Hobson in heavy Ground at Warwick and Roadie Joe in the Grade 2 Persian War at Chepstow are decent bits of form and when Flying Angel won the Imperial Cup last weekend, Definite Outcome’s one and a quarter length win over him suddenly looks very good indeed. Now he may well be 50/1 for a reason, but with JJ Burke booked to ride, he could be a fantastic outside bet.
Shantou Village is the backed horse as we speak and even though he was pummelled by Yanworth on soft ground in the Classic Novices’ Hurdle here in January, that race often translates well to the Albert Bartlett. He clearly likes better ground more than what he raced on that day and should improve plenty, so the booking of Richard Johnson and the market confidence is very significant.
3.30 Cheltenham – Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase (Grade 1)
Only 1 of the last 15 winners didn’t come from the first three in the betting so we should focus our attention at the business end of the bookies’ boards. All of those 14 winners were 8/1 or shorter which is a step in the right direction for the likes of Don Cossack, Cue Card, Djakadam and Don Poli.
An overriding feature of the Gold Cup is that those beaten on their first attempt have a terrible record when it comes to redemption. They boast an unenviable record of 0/58 this century which is a blot in the copy book for Djakadam and Road To Riches amongst others.
On the flip side, second season chasers have a very attractive record with 8 of the last 15 winners. It seems that a previous defeat in the pinnacle of The Festival is difficult to overcome so those up-and-coming sorts who haven’t enjoyed defeat in the Gold Cup have made hay. Don Poli is the only leading fancy in this year’s renewal that is a second season horse.
Although Gold Cup disappointment is a distinct disadvantage, previous Festival success has proven to be a marked positive with 8 of the last 15 winners having won at The Festival before. Surprisingly, only four of this year’s field fall into that category which is a big plus for Cue Card and Don Poli.
It is understandable that with the rigours of the staying chasing division taking their toll, horses that have arrived here after a long break have an eye-catching record. 9 of the last 15 winners hadn’t run in the calendar year so it is evident that to be a Gold Cup winner, arriving here fresh is a good start. Only Don Poli and Cue Card have been absent since the turn of the year which boosts their chances somewhat.
Not only is t beneficial for a horse to have had a well-earned break, you don’t want a horse that has been overworked during the campaign heading to the Gold Cup. None of the last 8 winners had ran more than 3 times during the season which is a good sign for the Willie Mullins pair Don Poli and Djakadam.
On the subject of Mullins, although the Closutton team have dominated most of the big National Hunt races throughout the season, but he hasn’t enjoyed the same sort of success in the Gold Cup. He is 0/14 so far but has had a couple of close shaves in the last few years with the likes of Djakadam and On His Own so the tide may be turning.
You would have thought that experienced campaigners would be the way to go for the Gold Cup given the elongated 3m2f trip and the perennial stern stamina test but horses aged 10 or over have a dreadful record of 0/65, including four favourites. Factor in that 14 of the last 15 winners had had 12 or less chase starts and that reads as pretty grim reading for Cue Card followers.
With the Gold Cup being widely renowned as the best jumps race in the world, it will come as no surprise that you need a genuine horse to succeed. Those wearing headgear have an abhorrent track record of 0/35 in the last 15 renewals which doesn’t help the chances of Djakadam.
Although a risky proposition, Don Poli, is a fascinating contender and performs best on the trends. We know by now that he never looks that comfortable in his races and apparently shows very little at home but the results don’t lie and he has only ever been beaten once over fences. In last year’s RSA, he raced a bit lazily as the race hotted up but once he knuckled down to his work, he showed he has those extra gears that a championship level horse requires. Whether he can get away with that in the pinnacle that is the Gold Cup is another matter but if he is still in contention as they enter the home straight, it would take a great deal of bravery to back against him. Who can forget the likes of Lord Windermere and Synchronised winning from what looked to be hopeless positions in the last few years.
Don Cossack looks to be the first string of the Gigginstown ‘Dons’ on jockey bookings and few could argue with that. In winning the Melling Chase at Aintree last year, he recorded the highest rating for a chaser all season and has carried on in a similar vein this campaign, his only blip being a fall in the King George when still well in contention. The only knock against him is that he has never really produced it on the big stage at The Festival, falling in the RSA two years ago and finishing well beaten in third in last year’s Ryanair.
The veteran Cue Card has bounced back to form this campaign in no uncertain terms having endured a spell in the doldrums last season. A wind-op has certainly worked the oracle with him and he showed for the first time that he truly stays when landing the King George on Boxing Day. There will always be that nagging doubt about him though and the extra 2 1/2f in front of him in the Gold Cup could be just enough to put paid to his chances. That being said, he would be one of the most popular winners of the week and we have already seen an old-stager storm back into the big-time on the world stage when Sprinter Sacre landed the Champion Chase on Wednesday.
Last year’s runner-up cannot go without a mention and Djakadam would have probably been a lot shorter in the market had he not tipped up in the Cotswold Chase last time out. That is a concern as he has now failed to complete on 2 of his 3 starts at Prestbury Park but he showed in last year’d Gold Cup that he has all of the credentials of a proper championship horse. Vautour’s defection to the Ryanair was mooted by connections as being down to concerning preparations but I think connections already have a ready-made Gold Cup winner in their arsenal and he may be the best value in the race.
4.10 Cheltenham – St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase Challenge Cup
It can be tempting when faced with a race of this nature to look for a familiar face in the field, which usually leads punters to side with formerly smart handicappers who are now trying their hand in this new sphere. However, the stats suggest that you are better off siding with genuine point-to-point or hunter chase horses as all but three of the last 27 winners of the race started their life in those races. This splits the field exactly in half this year with some of those sitting on the right side of the pattern including On The Fringe, It Came To Pass and Current Exchange. Pacha Du Polder is amongst those bidding to defy this trend having begun his career on the flat in France.
In recent years it is fair to say that the Irish have dominated proceedings having won the last five renewals. This is probably due to the fact that the hunter chase scene tends to involve younger horses on the other side of the Irish Sea and that can mean that horses can still be improving when sent over from Ireland whereas over here the older performers tend to have their best days behind them.
In terms of the best trial for this race, the Leopardstown Inn Hunters Chase run at Leopardstown in February is as strong as any having produced the last four winners. This year’s renewal saw You Must Know Me come out on top ahead of It Came To Pass who lines up here for Jim Culloty. On The Fringe also finished seventh having come runner-up in the race twelve months earlier.
The betting market has also served as a strong guide on the whole with six of the last seven winners going off no bigger than 15/2. The 33/1 shot Zemsky threw a spanner in the works in 2011 but on the whole it appears worth following the market. Last year’s winner On The Fringe has been favourite for a long time to retain his crown with Paint The Clouds his nearest rival at around the 13/2 mark.
If we look at the reigning champion a little closer, a repeat of last year’s performance would surely make On The Fringe very hard to beat. He won with plenty in hand that day, barely coming off the bridle in the process and he subsequently went on to follow up at Aintree and Punchestown for a notable treble. His trainer reported that he would need the run prior to his return to action and there is no question that he ran well below form. The sounder surface and the benefit of that run should see some improvement from him and he looks a leading player once again. One slight negative would be that he is eleven now which would make him the oldest winner since Earthmover who was 13 when winning in 2004.
Jim Culloty’s It Came To Pass is in the early stages of his career having had just four starts so far, winning a point-to-point in November before winning on his hunter chase debut at Limerick the following month. He ran a fine race in defeat last time and at the age of six can only just be starting to find his best form. He is so far unproven on a quicker surface which he is likely to face tomorrow afternoon but he is by far the least exposed in the line-up and has several trends going in his favour.
Another Irish contender could be Henry De Bromhead’s Aupcharlie who was previously a smart performer for Willie Mullins as well as his current connections over fences. He has won his last two starts in point-to-point company, with his latest effort seeing him beat the smart Marito by half a length. He seems fairly versatile in terms of ground having run well on better ground in the past and he could be a live contender.
Of the British contingent, it would appear that Warren Greatrex’s Paint The Clouds has the best chance according to the market at least. He was sent off favourite for this last year but was inconvenienced by the rain on Friday and will be much more at home on this quicker ground. He confirmed that all was well with an impressive victory at Doncaster last month and he has experienced amateur Sam Waley-Cohen in the saddle. Apart from the fact he is trained in Britain, he comes out pretty well on the trends and can’t be left off any shortlist with conditions likely to be in his favour.
It Came To Pass
On The Fringe
Paint The Clouds
4.50 Cheltenham – Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle
Like some of the other races this week, this race hasn’t quite made it to the ten-year anniversary yet so we only have seven years’ worth of patterns to get our teeth into. Having said that there are already a couple of strong trends emerging the first of which is that all seven winners were either novices or in their second season over hurdles. Like many handicaps this could be down to the fact that younger horses are generally less exposed than their elder rivals and are perhaps one step ahead of the handicapper. The four who miss out in this instance are Handiwork, Sky Khan, Goodwood Mirage and Urano.
In quite a few of the Festival races horses wearing headgear often perform better in the grand scheme of things, particularly if they are wearing them for the first time. However, in this race all of the 34 runners to have run in headgear have been beaten. I should point out for purposes of clarity that this does not include horses wearing tongue-ties. There are no less than eight of this year’s field wearing headgear so it seems best to steer clear of Handiwork, Bivouac, Qualando, Ibis Du Rheu, Matorico, Jetstream Jack, Sky Khan and Goodwood Mirage.
I should also point out that Willie Mullins has a particularly strong record in the race having won three of the first seven renewals, including the last two. He has no less than four representatives this year in the shape of Buiseness Sivola, Childrens List, Whiteout and Urano. Gordon Elliott has been a strong supporter of this race in previous years and came agonisingly close to a first success last year when Noble Endeavor was beaten in a photo. He has three goes again this year with Squouateur, Westend Star and Jetstream Jack.
We have only had one winning favourite in this race so far which doesn’t look good for supporters of Squouateur who currently heads the market at 5/1. The five-year-old has won three of his last four starts over hurdles and looked to win with plenty in hand on the most recent of those. He has gone up considerably in the handicap since then but still looks to be progressing and has a very capable jockey in the shape of Jack Kennedy. He will have to carry the burden of favouritism around with him but he still looks a major player.
There are quite a few horses who appeal at slightly bigger prices including Childrens List who represents the all-conquering Willie Mullins stable. He had a good time of it in the summer winning twice and having had a small break, came back to finish second over three miles at Leopardstown in January. The sounder surface should be perfect for him having won on good ground in the summer and considering the record of his stable, he looks to have a good chance at around 16/1.
His stablemate Buiseness Sivola also comes out well on the trends and has the assistance of Lizzie Kelly in the saddle. He won a Grade 3 back in April last year before finishing second in Grade 1 company and despite not showing much form this term, it could be that he comes right at this time of year.
Of the British contingent, Flying Angel stands out having won the Imperial Cup at Sandown last Saturday and is turned out again quickly. His jockey Ryan Hatch has already been amongst the winners this week having partnered Blaklion to victory in the RSA and he seems to get on well with this five-year-old. Last time out winners have shown a significant profit in recent years in this race and under a 5lb penalty, he looks to have a big chance.
Dan Skelton saddles another last time winner in the shape of Work In Progress who will definitely appreciate this sounder surface. He has been creeping up the handicap all year and in terms of the trends he looks to have very few kinks in his armour. He is still fairly lightly-raced over hurdles so could still be improving and Bridget Andrews will approve able assistance in the saddle.
Work In Progress
5.30 Cheltenham – Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase Challenge Cup (Handicap)
The curtain comes down on the 2016 Cheltenham Festival with the Grand Annual and history tells us that festival form carries plenty of weight in this particular contest. In fact only two of the last twelve winners had not run at this meeting in the past which is bad news for nine of this year’s field. Some of the leading fancies without festival form include Dandridge, Rock The World and Sizing Codelco so it might be worth bearing that in mind as we consider some of the other trends.
As well as festival experience, age has also been an advantage in recent times with nine of the last 12 winners having been aged eight or older. Just under half of this year’s field fall outside this bracket but last year’s first, second and third Next Sensation, Eastlake and Croco Bay all make the cut.
In terms of official ratings, the last five winners have all been rated at least 138 which is good news for all but two of this year’s field as Raven’s Tower and Dandridge both miss this stat with marks of 137.
Another key stat to consider is the strength of the Irish challenge as they have taken the race in two of the last three years. Whilst low in terms of numbers, the quintet of Irish raiders all look to have decent chances on the face of things so they could well maintain their fine record in this year’s race.
With novices also having a solid record in the race, it is hard to overlook Velvet Maker who has run into Douvan on his last two starts over fences. Those runs both came in Grade 1 company on soft ground and a drop in grade combined with a sounder surface could see this seven-year-old run very well. He has always been highly thought of by connections and although he is younger than ideal for this race at the age of seven, he still looks a solid shortlist contender.
Joining him on the list is another Irish raider in Rock The World who has been off the track since winning a novice chase at Cheltenham in October. He would not have been suited by the slow ground during the winter so has obviously been kept back for something like this by his connections. He has yet to finish outside of the first two in six chase starts and looks another solid prospect.
Previous winner Savello also comes out well on the trends and runs here off just 3lb higher than when winning the race two years ago for Tony Martin. Now in the care of Dan Skelton he has been mixed hurdles and chases this term and following a below-par display at Ascot last time, he is fitted with a tongue-tie for the first time. He is another who is likely to be suited by the better ground on offer and rates a solid chance for the home team.
The shortlist is completed by last year’s winner Next Sensation who gets in here off just a 1lb higher mark than twelve months ago. He is likely to make a bold bid from the front under Tom Scudamore and it will once again be a case of whether anyone can catch him. The return to better ground should enable him to leave his recent form behind and the nine-year-old rates a strong contender for the frame.
Rock The World
We have only had five previous renewals of the JLT so the trends are still in their infancy but there are a couple of strong patterns that we should be paying close attention to.
The first of these is that all five winners had run at the previous season’s Festival, with two of those following up from a victory the previous year. The quartet of runners who fit this trend in this year’s field were all beaten at this meeting twelve months ago with Zabana arguably faring best having finished runner-up in the Coral Cup behind Aux Ptits Soins. Outlander, L’Ami Serge and Black Hercules were the others to have run here last year so that seems to be one positive mark for each of them.
A pattern which is almost as strong is that the last four winners had all won on their most recent visit to a racecourse. This may seem fairly obvious in a Grade 1 but there are several of this year’s line-up who fall at this hurdle. As De Mee chased home Bristol De Mai when last seen and L’Ami Serge was no match for Violet Dancer at Warwick, whilst Three Musketeers and Zabana also finished down the field on their most recent starts. Black Hercules can perhaps be forgiven for falling last time, having had the race at his mercy when coming down at the final fence but he nevertheless failed to complete.
If we try to narrow down the field a little further we can see that four of the last five winners had already finished in the first three in a Grade 1 chase. That narrows our field of ten down to three, Bristol De Mai who won the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Chase at Sandown, As De Mee who chased him home that day and Outlander who won the Flogas Novice Chase at Leopardstown last month.
To deal with these one by one, As De Mee has run well in these sorts of races all season but despite being placed in two Grade 1 chases, he is yet to get his head in front over the larger obstacles. He looks to be comfortably held by Bristol De Mai on their run at Sandown and it is hard to find a reason why the form may be reversed here.
That is mostly because Bristol De Mai was well on top when winning last time and seems to have improved considerably since stepping up to 2m4f earlier in the season. Nigel Twiston-Davies had a winner yesterday with Blaklion and holds this five-year-old in high regard. He had been running well on slow ground earlier in the season but his Sandown run was on a slightly quicker surface so that suggests that he can cope in these quicker conditions. He comes out well on the trends and is a must for the shortlist.
However, the standout appears to be Outlander who is three from three over fences and beat a good field when winning at Leopardstown last month. As well as the trends we have already discussed, four of the last five winners were trained in Ireland and were novice hurdlers last season, which fit perfectly with Willie Mullins’ eight-year-old. He sits towards the head of the market which is always a good thing in these top-class events and he looks a major contender.
At the head of the market alongside the two I have mentioned is Garde La Victoire and despite winning a Grade 2 over two miles here in November, I’m not sure whether he is up to this sort of class. His jumping has also been a little low in the past and I think he has a bit to find with the likes of Bristol De Mai and Outlander over these obstacles.
Outside of the front two, it is hard to get away from Black Hercules, who has done very little wrong over fences until falling last time. He has always looked likely to be a better chaser than a hurdler and that appears to be coming to fruition. As we saw in the RSA all members of the Willie Mullins team need respecting and if you forgive him his last fence fall last time, he looks worth a place on the shortlist.
In summary, I would probably go with Outlander, although both Bristol De Mai and Black Hercules will no doubt ensure he doesn’t have it all his own way.
Bristol De Mai
2.10 Cheltenham – Pertemps Final (Listed Race)
As should be expected in a race like the Pertemps, the more experienced contender tends to be more able to cope with the hustle and bustle of a premier three mile handicap hurdle. 7 of the last 10 winners were at least eight-years-old which is a good sign for the quintet in this year’s filed which includes If In Doubt.
To take this a step further, the only five-year-old to win the Pertemps Final was back in 1988 which is a worrying sign for Box Office in this year’s renewal.
Last time out winners are normally the way to go when looking at Graded races but they have also had a decent record in the Pertemps. 7 of the last 15 winners had a ‘1’ next to their names which boosts the chances of If In Doubt, Cup Final and Missed Approach.
The Pertemps Final has yielded two Grand National winners in the last 10 years and we have seen a distinct increase in the number of chasers taking part in this particular contest. Their record is altogether rather eye-catching with 6 of the last 10 winners having ran over fences. Nearly half of the field have contested a chase at some point in their careers including If In Doubt, Flintham and Join The Clan.
The class of horse contesting the Pertemps is increasing year on year and each of the last 5 winners won off a mark of at least 138. In the future, horses rated 138 may struggle to get in altogether but the likes of Leave At Dawn (137) and Saddlers Encore (135) have something to prove here.
9 of the last 11 winners had won over at least 2m7f prior to lining up here. Proven stamina has been key in a race like the Pertemps which is not run at the run of the mill pace in your usual three mile handicap hurdles. Ten of this year’s field fall down on this stat including the well fancied Our Kaempfer.
The Irish have a pretty average record in this race compared to others at The Festival having only supplied 2 winners in the last 15 renewals. In truth, the Irish haven’t really targeted this race over the years but it is still a concerning stat nevertheless for the likes of Rathpatrick, Leave At Dawn and Mall Dini.
The record of Irish-trained runners is pretty troubling but nowhere near as alarming as the fact that no French-bred horse has won this race in the last 15 renewals from 64 that have tried. This is a surprising statistic given that French-bred horses have been well and truly on the up recently and it Is not like they have been no-hopers as Sam Winner, Chartreux, Miko De Beauchene and Robin Du Bois have all been beaten when sent off favourite. This puts a black mark against the quartet of French-breds in this years’ line-up, Arpege d’Alene, Box Office, Dubawi Island and Un Ace.
We all know how much JP McManus thrives on landing handicaps at the big Festivals and he turns up here with a strong sextet of runners. If In Doubt is the clear trends pick and would have to be afforded a great chance on the back of his ready win at Wincanton on Boxing Day. He was well fancied in this two years ago and was heavily backed on the day but could only manage to finish ninth despite looking likely to challenge approaching the last. He has progressed since then though, albeit over fences and looked a potentially classy sort when landing the Sky Bet Chase last year. He was even far from disgraced when fifth in last year’s RSA. He disappointed on his seasonal debut in the Hennessy Gold Cup and reverted back to the smaller obstacles on the back of a sticky jumping display. He clearly stays very well and having the Champion Jockey-elect Richard Johnson in the saddle can only aid his chances.
Another of the McManus contingent to perform well on the trends is Cup Final for the Nicky Henderson team. He is very lightly-raced and arrives here with bundles of potential. He is bred for greatness, being out of Asian Maze, and has always been well thought of by connections despite having a few niggling injury problems over the years. The Pertemps has been the goal for him from the outset this season and he needed to win his qualifier to stand a realistic chance of getting in the field, which he did in nice style in ground that didn’t suit. Going into that Musselburgh race, there were question marks about whether he would stay but he soon dispelled those worries as he kept on well on the run-in for the win. He does seem to have been overlooked by Barry Geraghty which is a tad puzzling but has strong credentials nonetheless.
Flintham is a strong statistical pick but does have a 9lb rise to overcome for his narrow win at Warwick in January. He progressed rapidly over the sticks last campaign, landing a trio of handicaps, and was pitched into some pretty fierce company to round off his season in the Grade 1 Sefton Novices’ Hurdle. Being a full-brother to the yard’s Carruthers and a half-brother to last year’s Gold Cup winner Coneygree, it didn’t come as a shock that he was tried over fences but his jumping left a fair bit to be desired and he soon returned to the smaller obstacles. His win last time out wasn’t particularly impressive but it was run in pretty attritional conditions and he showed a good attitude to stick his head in front. This is his highest ever handicap mark however and although he looks to be going the right way, Charlie Deutsch’s 5lb claim could well be invaluable.
In a strange turn of events, Leave At Dawn has perhaps the most to do to overcome the trends. His only real plus is that he isn’t French-bred which is a pretty damning verdict of you looked solely at the statistics. However, if you look at his overall profile, he certainly has to be high on the shortlist. He impressed when landing a handicap at the Open Meeting in November and qualified for this with a canny run in at Leopardstown over Christmas, where he finished a never nearer fifth. On the back of that run, he was immediately touted as a Pertemps contender and will certainly prefer the better ground here. He has the assessor to thank for getting in to the race as he would have been way out of the reckoning if the British handicappers hadn’t raised him 5lb from his Irish mark. As the pick of Barry Geraghty, he has to enter the reckoning.
If In Doubt
Leave At Dawn
2.50 Cheltenham – Ryanair Chase (Grade 1)
With all but one of the last eight winners of this contest having won at Cheltenham before, it seems that course form is something that often gives horses an advantage. If we apply that to this year’s field then it splits it exactly in half with eight on either side of the divide. Many of you will remember Vautour’s scintillating display in the JLT last year, twelve months after Taquin Du Seuil landed the same prize. Dynaste won this race in 2014, whilst his fellow grey Al Ferof is no stranger to Prestbury Park having won both the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Paddy Power Gold Cup here. The list is completed by Champagne West, Captain Conan, Village Vic and Annacotty.
As far as races go for being a guide for this race, you could do worse than look at Kempton’s King George as five of the last eight winners took in that particular engagement. This is largely because horses try the 3m trip at Kempton and drop back for this or because this race is often a little less competitive than the Gold Cup. As we know, in this season’s renewal Vautour was collared right on the line by Cue Card, with Al Ferof back in third place. Valseur Lido also lined up at Kempton and looked booked for fifth place when coming down at the final fence.
Despite being largely considered to be the lesser younger brother of the Gold Cup, the official ratings of the last eight winners suggest that this is well worth its place as a Grade 1. All but one of the last eight winners was rated 161 or higher and when looking at our field for this year, there are five such horses who fit the bill. Vautour tops the list with a whopping 176, some 11lb clear of Al Ferof and Road To Riches, whilst Vibrato Valtat and Valseur Lido both sit on a mark of 161.
The more that you look at the trends, the more difficult it is to get away from the favourite Vautour who heads here following connections’ decision to abort plans to run in the Gold Cup. As well as the trends we have discussed, two more which work in his favour are that five of the last eight winners made all or most of the running and only two of the last eight had won last time out. As I have mentioned he is well clear on official ratings and if he turns up in the same form as twelve months ago in the JLT, then he could be very hard to beat.
There will however be plenty queuing up to have a go at him including Al Ferof who may have finished a fair way behind him at Kempton but has never really convinced me as a true three-miler. This intermediate trip looks perfect for him and he seems to have enjoyed something of a renaissance since joining the Dan Skelton team. It is not unfair to say he has plenty to find with the favourite and whilst he looks to have solid claims on the trends, it is hard to see him getting involved here.
One of those towards the head of the market Road To Riches must also come into consideration for all that this trip is probably shorter than ideal for him. A gallant third in the Gold Cup at last year’s Festival he won the Clonmel Oil Chase in November before chasing home Carlingford Lough in the Irish Gold Cup last time. Like the favourite, he has to overcome the poor record of Irish runners in the race but class often prevails here and it is hard to see him being too far away.
One at a big price who looks to have plenty going in his favour is former winner of the race Dynaste who has largely been campaigned over three miles on soft ground in the last couple of years. His run last time was a better one over this intermediate trip but more crucially I think the quicker ground that he is likely to encounter will bring about massive improvement from him. The Pipe yard have already found themselves amongst the winners this week and whilst it is hard to see past Vautour, I could see him hitting the frame at sizeable odds.
Road To Riches
3.30 Cheltenham – Ryanair World Hurdle (Grade 1)
Trends-wise, the World Hurdle is a good race to quickly eliminate horses with certain profiles – no horse older than 10 has won the race this century, all 56 runners in headgear this century have been beaten and only Big Bucks has won the race this century after an aborted chasing campaign – so Bobs Worth, Knockara Beau, Saphir Du Rheu, At Fishers Cross and Un Temps Pour Tout would have to really break to mould to win this.
There has only been one Irish winner of this race since 1995, possibly because it is the least valued of the four Championship races at the Cheltenham Festival (especially from an Irish perspective). It hasn’t stopped the Irish contenders from running well in many renewals, but it still puts a black mark next to the chances of Alpha Des Obeaux, Martello Tower and Lieutenant Colonel.
With just five horses not falling foul of these strong trends, it gives us an interesting early shortlist right away, but as in all Championship races at The Festival, class is very important. Winners this century were 15/19 in 3m Graded hurdles during the season and it seems as though the trials for this race do really represent good pointers. Thistlecrack has utterly blown away the competition so far this season, winning the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle, the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle and the Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle by six, eight and twelve lengths respectively. This is beyond solid form and it makes him an incredibly tough nut to crack (excuse the pun). His runs on good ground at Aintree and Punchestown at the back end of last season deal with any concerns that he won’t be as good on better ground, he clearly deals well with the unique Cheltenham track and it’s hugely difficult to pick holes in him.
However, one very intriguing stat that the strong favourite falls foul of is that eight of the nine individual winners this century had won a Grade 1 or 2 over 2m5f or shorter. In fact, many of the leading contenders, both in the market and in the ‘trends table’, including last year’s winner Cole Harden, don’t satisfy this criterion. One horse who does is Kilcooley, and Charlie Longsdon’s charge joins Cole Harden and Thistlecrack on seven out of ten boxes ticked. Kilcooley improved significantly for the jump up to three miles and is very unexposed at the trip, but worries about the ground and his lack of big-race experience temper enthusiasm a little.
Another who is unexposed is Paul Nicholls’ Aux Ptits Soins, whose only run in this country was his win in the Coral Cup last year. Even though he’s never been this far in his life, four of the nine individual winners this century hadn’t either, so it’s certainly not something to be too afraid of. Add this to the fact that the stable are talking of this horse as a future Gold Cup prospect and they’re not sure whether Sam Twiston-Davies has made the right decision in riding Saphir Du Rheu (last year’s runner-up) over him, then you’ve got plenty of grounds to be hopeful of a good run at a decent price.
But, 14 of the 15 winners this century have been from the first four in the betting, so at the time of writing, this suggests it’s hard to look past Thistlecrack, Cole Harden, Alpha Des Obeaux and Saphir Du Rheu.
To be brutally honest, on everything we’ve seen this season, it’s going to take an unbelievable performance or one that is so much improved from anything we’ve seen before, for any of these to beat Thistlecrack. He has the best form on all types of ground and, incredibly, seems to still be on an upward curve. You can’t get ahead of yourself too much this early in a horse’s career, but the lightly-raced eight-year-old looks as if he could be a real Gold Cup contender sooner rather than later. Even if Cole Harden improves as Warren Greatrex expects for the better ground, he’s still got a couple of pounds to find with the favourite judging by the rating allotted to him after he won last year’s renewal and a similar comment applies to the experienced pair of Saphir Du Rheu and Whisper. Maybe it’s best to look to the more unexposed contenders in the field for other potential rivals and as joint-top rated on the trends, Kilcooley looks a useful type at a big price, while Aux Ptits Soins isn’t far behind in the table – staggering considering he’s only had one run in Britain – and if he’s as good as the whispers suggest, he could go very well.
Aux Ptits Soins
4.10 Cheltenham – Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate
It seems that in the world of trends, something odd is happening here. There are three horses that match nine of the ten key trends – Fingal Bay, Tenor Nivernais and Quincy Des Pictons. Now the first two are perfectly plausible winners of the race, especially Philip Hobbs’ chaser, but the final table topper, the twelve-year-old Quincy Des Pictons is currently 100/1 in some places. He’s shown close to nothing at all since his last win (over Renard and Deputy Dan) on heavy ground at Chepstow in December 2014 and was last seen being beaten twelve lengths over hurdles by the now 117-rated Tanit River. Clearly, this is not an improving horse, he’s not a horse with any good recent form on a sound surface and this one looks to be a clear anomaly, or it would be one of the Festival’s biggest ever shocks.
Now that’s out of the way, even though many trainers target horses at races like these, it’s interesting to see that it really is the under-the-radar contenders that make the biggest splash, with only one of the last 15 winners of the race being in the top four in the market or any smaller than 12/1. This is a black mark against the ante post gamble of the race Johns Spirit, Stilletto, Fingal Bay and Art Mauresque, even though the last three mentioned can all be found at 12/1 and above at the time of writing.
Horses trained by the Pipe family or Venetia Williams have combined to win six of the last ten runnings of this race, an unbelievable record which has to be taken notice of. David Pipe has three in the race this year: Kings Palace, Ballynagour and La Vaticane, while Williams has Dare Me, Niceonefrankie, Tenor Nivernais and Tango De Juilley declared – plenty of bullets to keep their fine record going.
All of the last seven winners of the race have carries less than 11-00 and ten horses fall foul of carrying more here, however, there is still the impact of the claiming jockey to consider and seeing that Venetia Williams’ Niceonefrankie has Charlie Deutsch taking 5lb off the horse’s back is an interesting nugget indeed. He was allotted 11-00 anyway, so he wasn’t far off satisfying the trend and even with the possibly unfair black mark in this box, he’s only two ticks behind the top three.
He’s a horse that is ridden prominently, which is another positive, considering nine of the last ten winners have all been prominently raced at the very least. It’s always difficult to come from the back in competitive, often messy encounters like these and it’s no surprise that prominently positioned horses do well. I’d be wary of horses with hold-up styles like Johns Spirit and Ballynagour, even though the latter wasn’t close to the front when winning this two years ago.
Only one of the last eleven winners won on their last start, so the likes of La Vaticane, Dare Me and Stilletto take a hit here, while there hasn’t been an Irish-trained winner since 1982, so Buckers Bridge, Ballycasey, Empire Of Dirt and Baily Green would have to shake off the weight of the record books if they were going to win here.
To be perfectly honest, this is a race that has been as close to a ‘lottery’ as you can get at the Festival; it’s hugely unpredictable and could be an excellent opportunity to look for something at a big price with the ability to get involved from a decent-looking mark.
Fingal Bay runs off a mark of 141 here and with Richard Johnson on board cannot be overlooked. He tops the trends table and his form could be argued as some of the very best in the race, with a win in last year’s Pertemps Final and, after chasing a strong pace in soft ground, a good fourth place in this year’s Hennessy standing out. He looks an extremely solid proposition and could still be a decent price at 12/1. The only worries are if the trip is a little short for him at 2m5f and if (probably when) he gets latched on to in the market. The poor record of fancied horses is unsettling, but he looks set to be popular on the day and should run a good race.
Paul Nicholls’ Stilletto draws the eye off a relatively low weight and could be well-handicapped, while Art Mauresque is a contender with a decent chance, especially now the ground is coming right for him – the quicker the better. He also has some good track form, including a very good sixth in the Paddy Power in November, so he certainly doesn’t have a lot to find off a mark of 144.
Venetia Williams’ four in the race are all interesting in their own way, with Tango De Juilley looking to have plenty of ability and is now being ridden by talented claimer Jack Kennedy, Tenor Nivernais carrying plenty of weight but having Aidan Coleman on board to try and continue his excellent C&D form and Dare Me bouncing back to form in a big way at Ascot last time out.
However it is her ten-year-old Niceonefrankie that catches my attention most. He’s often saved for better ground and in placing a good second in unsuitable soft-ground at Warwick – to a very good horse in Taquin De Seuil too – after almost three months off; he proved his wellbeing and could be a great bet at around 20/1 given he’s not been harshly campaigned with this race in mind. Fingal Bay and Art Mauresque could be the ones to chase him home, while Stilletto was targeted at this race as soon as he won at Leicester last time out, if not before, and holds claims.
4.50 Cheltenham – Trull House Stud Mares’ Novice Hurdle (Grade 2)
With this being the inaugural running of this particular contest, we have no trends to go on but if the mares’ hurdle on Tuesday is anything to go by then it could be that the Irish have the stronger hand having filled five of the first six places.
The ante-post favourite has long been Willie Mullins’ Limini and the talk of her being her connections’ best chance of the week have only further increased the expectation around her. The Mullins team have obviously had a great week and it would be no surprise to see her go close but she is short enough at 4/5 considering she has only had two starts over hurdles. In fairness she looks pretty versatile in terms of ground and is definitely the pick of the Irish battalion.
Gordon Elliott saddles Whistle Dixie who was third behind Limini when last seen in January but she showed good form on a sounder surface last Spring and it could be that she improves for the sounder surface here. She clearly has plenty to find with the market leader but the drop back to two miles and better ground could bring her closer to that rival, especially in receipt of 5lb.
On this side of the Irish Sea, Nicky Henderson has long had a reputation for mares and he saddles three runners here, with two of them Robins Reef and Chocca Wocca both owned by the race’s sponsor. The latter was a smart bumper performer last year and overcame a lengthy absence to win at the first time of asking over hurdles at Market Rasen in February. The ground was probably slow enough for her that day and you would expect her to benefit physically from that run.
Henderson also saddles Bloody Mary who was a multiple winner in her native France and overcame testing conditions to win at Taunton on her British debut. She is not the biggest but she looks to have a good engine and she really knuckled down last time to put the race to bed. She had form on good ground in bumpers in France and despite also conceding 5lb to all but two of her rivals, she looks the pick of the Henderson trio.
However, it could be Brian Ellison’s Smart Talk who gives the favourite most to think about having accounted for Limini’s stablemate Morning Run at Doncaster last time. She has now won four of her last five starts over hurdles and her run on quick ground at Doncaster last time was very impressive. On official ratings at least she is top of the tree and more importantly she has had plenty of racing so she should be battle-hardened. Having won over further than two miles I imagine she will be ridden prominently to make use of her stamina and it may be a case of whether the others can catch her.
Overall, the vibes suggest that Limini is likely to follow in the footsteps of her stablemates Vroum Vroum Mag and Annie Power and find her way to the Winners’ Enclosure but Smart Talk and Bloody Mary can ensure she doesn’t get everything her own way.
5.30 Cheltenham – Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Handicap Chase
The overlying trend in this contest is that we don’t have to look for an in-form runner. Only 1 of the last 9 winners had won a chase, other than a beginners or ungraded novice chase, earlier in the season. The Package had been pulled up on his previous run and well beaten in sixth prior to winning this last season so don’t put off if your fancy has been out-of-form. The likes of Cause Of Causes and Indian Castle have been particularly below-par but are just two that tend to save their best for this meeting.
In the last seven years, all but one of the placed horses has been ridden by a non-claiming amateur. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the more experienced amateurs hold the edge but they are really over-performing here. It is nearly almost the case the top trainers will try and obtain the best amateur going so it is best to stay focussed on those who have shed their allowance. Jamie Codd is undoubtedly top of the pile with 3 winners in the last 7 years which is a big plus for Cause Of Causes.
As previously mentioned, the top jockeys have been the way to go and the market has followed suit. Although this has been seen as a bit of a free-for-all in the past, 6 of the last 7 winners were found in the top six in the market so that is where the main focus should lie. This puts a tick in the box of the current top six Cause Of Causes, Doctor Harper, The Giant Bolster, Sambremont and Upswing.
Each of the last 16 winners had run over 3m on their latest start. The Kim Muir has experienced a few changes in conditions in recent times and this has made the already tough contest even more stamina-oriented. With proven staying-power a solid statistic, this has to raise question marks about Doctor Harper who, although successful at 3m over the sticks, he has not as yet been further than 2m1f over fences.
With this being a contest for amateurs, although they are usually fairly proficient, jumping fences is still the name of the game and any bit of help the horse can give their pilot is a certain bonus. Horses that have fallen or unseated earlier in the campaign are 0-61 since 2005 which is a worrying statistic for Knock House, Silvergrove, The Giant Bolster, Sambremont, Ericht and Splash Of Ginge.
Phenomenally, given that Irish amateur jockeys have fared very well, those trained on the Emerald Isle have a fairly dismal record with Spring Heeled the only Irish winner since 1983. However, they have been improving of late but it is still not a great sign for the three in this years’ line-up, Cause Of Causes, Sambremont and The Job Is Right.
The horse that performs best at the trends here is Indian Castle for the Ian Williams yard who are in fine form on the back of their debut Festival success with Ballyalton on Tuesday. The now eight-year-old was heavily backed in this race two years ago and looked on course for a place until blundering at the last and eventually finishing seventh. He then suffered a spell in the doldrums until running a blinder in the Ultima Handicap Chase last year in fourth. He comes into this race in very little form again but the handicapper has finally relented and he now finds himself on a much reduced mark of 134. In the last couple of years he has been trained with the Festival in mind and this term looks no different so he could be value at a big price to at least run into a place.
Another that has been out of form recently is Cause Of Causes. He was a gutsy winner of the National Hunt Chase last year having finished runner-up to Spring Heeled in this contest two years ago. He has been given some fairly tough assignments, including the Grand National, since his victory here last time and his latest run in a Grade 2 chase over two miles was purely to get him on the right track for another crack at Festival glory. Gordon Elliott has once again employed the services of leading amateur Jamie Codd for the ride which can only be a good thing.
JP McManus has a pair of leading chances and has snapped arguably the two strongest riders available. Derek O’Connor, who struck aboard Minella Rocco on Tuesday, has been jocked up on Upswing who, unlike the previous pair, has had a very good campaign so far. He was well beaten in an early season beginners’ event on his chasing debut but evidently benefitted from that pipe opener and opened his account at the next time of asking in nice. Unequivocally, his best run to date came in the Grade 3 Murphy Group Handicap Chase at Cheltenham’s Open Meeting where he chased Sausalito Sunrise home to finish second by 1 ¼ lengths. That form is rock solid with the winner now rated 19lb higher than on that day. He can be forgiven a below-par effort in the Welsh National latest in conditions that can only be described as dire and has been given a well-earned break on the back of that run. He does tend to hit a flat spot but evidently stays very well and will be in the mix.
David Pipe has landed 2 of the last 5 runnings of this race and he has a quartet of runners here as he looks to improve on that already decent record. Doctor Harper is regarded as his best chance for a third win in six years but he has a couple further down the bookies’ boards that are of great interest. Top Wood arrives here in fine fettle following a wide margin win at Ludlow last time out and despite carrying a 5lb penalty here, he is still officially 6lb well in. In truth, that race wasn’t particularly the strongest but he couldn’t have won any easier and the fact he showed a marked return to form is a big plus.
The other one to note from Nicholashayne is Alternatif who has proven to be slightly frustrating since coming over from France. However, he hasn’t finished out of the frame under National Hunt rules in that time and can be relied upon to run his race. He was a solid second on his chasing debut over an inadequate trip before running with great credit in third in a hot handicap at the Open Meeting. He cheekily ran out a length winner at Fontwell next time and that form has turned out to be pretty smart with the runner-up Pete The Feat proving highly competitive in handicap chases and the third Ziga Boy going on to land the Sky Bet Chase in January. He didn’t disgrace himself last time out either, only folding late on when running out of puff in very heavy ground and should be able to give a good account of himself once more off the same mark.
Cause Of Causes
Day two gets underway with the fifth Grade 1 of the meeting and by far the best guide for this race has been the betting with all but three of the last 21 winners coming from the first four in the betting.
Yanworth had been a short-priced favourite in recent weeks but the addition of Yorkhill, who had appeared bound for the Supreme has seen Yanworth’s price drift, although he still retains favouritism. Yorkhill sits second in the market just ahead of his stablemate A Toi Phil and it is 20/1 bar the rest. This would seem to indicate that we are best to focus on the front three in the market and this will largely be the focus of our analysis.
Another pattern worth consideration is that Irish-trained horses have won six of the last ten renewals. This is largely down to Willie Mullins who has saddled three winners in that time, although Mouse Morris, Noel Meade and Dermot Weld have also found their way onto the roll of honour so it would appear that at this intermediate distance, those on the other side of the Irish Sea appear to hold an advantage. They make up just under half of this year’s field with Mullins saddling a quartet of runners (A Toi Phil, Bello Conti, Thomas Hobson & Yorkhill) and Dermot Weld sending over last year’s Champion Bumper fifth Vigil.
It is not surprising given the quality of the race that horses with previous Graded race form have often performed well down the years, in fact 11 of the last 18 winners had a Graded success over hurdles to their name. Looking at this year’s field, there are five horses who can boast such form on their CVs. A Toi Phil won a Grade 2 at Leopardstown in January over 2m4f and his stablemate Thomas Hobson won a similar race at Warwick the week before. Dan Skelton’s Its’afreebee beat a subsequent Grade 2 winner when winning at Haydock in January and as we know Yanworth blitzed his rivals in the same company at Cheltenham at the end of the month. The only Grade 1 winner in the field is Yorkhill who won the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown beating another of today’s rivals O O Seven.
With all of those factors above considered it is hard to get away from Yorkhill who comes in here unbeaten in four starts under rules. It is fair to say that he is still fairly light on experience having only had two runs over hurdles but he won his maiden hurdle over 2m4f so I wouldn’t have too many concerns about the trip. He would have been fancied for any race at the Festival and it is interesting that connections have decided to go down this route rather than running him in the Supreme. He ticks a lot of the boxes in terms of trends and overall it is difficult to see many kinks in his armour.
Had he not been lining up then I imagine that Alan King’s Yanworth would have been odds-on for this contest and with good reason having looked mightily impressive when winning at Cheltenham in January. He put a couple of smart rivals in Shantou Village and Champers On Ice to the sword that day and barely came off the bridle in the process. In truth he has hardly put a foot wrong in his career to date and ran well to finish fourth in the Champion Bumper at last year’s Festival. For all but the fact that he isn’t trained by Willie Mullins he is closely matched on the trends with Yorkhill and it is hard not to bill this as a two-horse race.
As for A Toi Phil he continued his rapid progression when winning at Leopardstown last time and in the process beat Acapella Bourgeois who subsequently went onto land the a Grade 2 at Thurles the following month. He seems to have put the temperament issues he had in the past behind him and looks worthy of his place in the line-up. As we have discussed his trainer has a fine record in the race but with four darts it is hard to see what the pecking order is. I suspect that he is likely to follow the front two home and can’t be dismissed out of hand.
If there is one at a big price to spring a surprise then it could be Dermot Weld’s Vigil for all that the last 50 horses aged seven or older to run in the race have all been beaten. He finished just behind Yanworth in the Champion Bumper twelve months ago and his trainer is no stranger to success in this race. The ground was slower than he would have liked when he finished third behind A Toi Phil in December and on this sounder surface, he could run better than his sizeable odds suggest.
Overall, I find it hard to split the front two Yanworth and Yorkhill but at the prices I would probably just side with the latter, considering how strong he is on the trends.
2.10 Cheltenham – RSA Chase (Grade 1)
The last fourteen winners of this race had all contested a Grade 1 or 2 chase before coming here and that is something that all but one of this year’s field can boast. The exception is the well-fancied More Of That, who has had two starts in novice chases but hasn’t been seen since winning at Cheltenham in December. He has been well-backed and fancied by a lot of people but as you will see as we go through a few of the major trends, he has quite a few to overcome. No More Heroes is the only horses in the line-up who has winning form in Grade 1 company over fences courtesy of his wins at Fairyhouse in November and Leopardstown in December.
This race often appeals to horses who have always had jumping fences as a target and that is backed up by the fact that 12 of the last 15 winners all had just the one season over the smaller obstacles. Interestingly this splits this year’s field absolutely in half with the four on the right side of the trend being Blaklion, No More Heroes, Roi Des Francs and Shaneshill. This of course is another negative for More Of That who effectively had three seasons over hurdles, for all that two of those campaigns were just one run.
It is also worth noting that seven of the last nine winners had run at the previous season’s Cheltenham, something that all of this year’s field did, apart from… you guessed it More Of That who missed the rest of last season having run below par in Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury on his return to action. If you want to kick the former World Hurdle winner whilst he is down then you could mention that only 1 winner in the last 50 years hadn’t run in the same calendar year and only one winner since 1998 had less than three chase starts to their name.
In terms of a particular race that has stood up well in recent years as a guide then you could do worse that look at the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle which has thrown up four of the last six winners of this race. Only Blaklion and No More Heroes lined up in last year’s race, finishing third and pulled up respectively. Both have done very little wrong over fences thus far and look to have plenty going in their favour.
Overall the first horse we have to deal with is More Of That who as has been mentioned above looks to be right up against it in terms of the trends. In his defence, there are not many World Hurdle winners who go on to ply their trade over fences as they usually stay down the hurdle route. He has been kept off the track by a lack of suitable ground in the last few months rather than a setback and on his hurdles form at least, we know that he is a Grade 1 performer. He does have it to prove over fences though and with the prices as they are at the moment, there is more than enough reason to be taking him on.
For many of the months leading up to the Festival it has been No More Heroes who has found himself at the head of the market and he hasn’t put a foot wrong in three starts over fences this season. Gordon Elliott’s seven-year-old was perhaps a shade unlucky when finishing third in the Albert Bartlett last year but has looked every inch a chaser throughout the campaign. He too has to overcome the absence statistic having last run in December and a slight concern would be quicker ground having appeared to handle soft ground so well during the winter.
Unlike some of the Grade 1 races in which the favourites have dominated, this race has thrown up the odd winner at a bigger price and there are a couple at bigger prices which make some appeal here. The first of these is Blaklion who matches plenty of the trends and won at Cheltenham in December. He has since gone on to win the Grade 2 Towton Novices’ Chase at Wetherby and he looks likely to be staying on at the end of proceedings here.
Roi Des Francs is another who can’t be entirely ruled out having won his last two starts over fences. He beat stablemate Pont Alexandre in a Grade 2 last time and having finished third in the Martin Pipe at last year’s Festival, we know he goes well around Cheltenham. He also has the assistance of Ruby Walsh in the saddle which is always a positive here and he could run better than his odds of around 12/1 suggest.
To conclude, No More Heroes looks the one to beat especially with so many negatives around More Of That. Roi Des Francs looks the most likely to follow him home with all things considered.
No More Heroes
Roi Des Francs
2.50 Cheltenham – Coral Cup
As you will no doubt be unsurprised to hear, the Coral Cup has a plethora of horses who come out well and top the ‘trends table’. Seven horses match six of the top eight trends, so we have to apply some kind of order of importance to these trends.
Probably the most important trend over the years has been to win a race during the same season, but as over half the field have done this, that doesn’t help narrow things down. However, as eight of the last 14 winners had won a race last time out, that certainly does help to focus the sights – only four of the 26 runners have done so; Rock The Kasbah, Diamond King, Politologue and Baoulet Delaroque.
The latter two mentioned above also tick the box that tells us that French-breds have won eight of the last 14 renewals from just 74 representatives in those 14 races. Another to note when checking this category is Blazer, who disappointed in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury after looking all-over a hugely well-handicapped prospect when winning at Leopardstown.
As only three of the last 15 winners of the race had run at the Cheltenham Festival before, it could be wise to look for those who haven’t been exposed to the track before and funnily enough, all seven of the top-trends picks haven’t. In addition to the five mentioned previously in this preview, Commissioned and Brother Tedd get a nod here.
None of the last 11 winners has run in the last 32 days before the race, indicating a horse needs to be properly prepped and readies for a race of this nature. Only Politologue doesn’t fit this trend from those clustered at the top of the trends table, but with a 31-day break, he’s clearly not far off and you’d have to be willing to overlook the fact that he ran a day late to satisfy the trend. If you gave Paul Nicholls’ charge that extra point, he’d be the clear trends pick, as well as being in the same ownership and stable as last year’s winner Aux Ptits Soins.
This is a tough race and the fact that second-season hurdlers have dominated over the years shows that you have to have a horse that can cope with the hustle and bustle of a fast-run 26-runner contest while at the same time being fairly lightly-raced and unexposed. This puts a black mark in the boxes of Diamond King, Baoulet Delaroque and older contenders like Volnay De Thaix and Call The Cops, who also have to carry big weights.
The Coral Cup has always been a minefield for punters, with often 100 horses competing to get in to a high-quality 26-runner handicap, so these days it’s often prudent to look at the real quality in the race. Volnay De Thaix is clear top-rated in the contest and with the services of 5lb claimer Freddie Mitchell, he shouldn’t be overlooked at a big price, especially considering he finished sixth in this last year with only 3lb being taken off by Peter Carberry.
Rock The Kasbah has had an excellent season, winning valuable races at Haydock and Ascot after beginning his season with a good second in the Silver Trophy at Chepstow in October. He looks sure to run well, even off an 8lb higher mark than his last win. However, the horse that finished half a length second to him that day, Baron Alco, has only gone up 6lb in the handicap, so if you think Rock The Kasbah will go well, Gary Moore’s inmate will enjoy the better ground and could well have a huge chance at a big price from near the foot of the weights – he’s also only a point back from the leaders in the ‘trends table’.
Paul Nicholls won the race last year and his hand this time out looks very strong again. Although he is relatively inexperienced, Baoulet Delaroque looks a progressive type, defeating a decent field including Value At Risk and stablemate San Benedeto at Huntingdon last time, but it is to the same colours that won the race last year that I’m instantly drawn.
Politologue is very close to being the undisputed trends pick and over and above that, he’s shown he can handle the course, coming to make what looked to be a winning challenge at Cheltenham in December before ducking out and unseating Sam Twiston-Davies. He’s probably very well handicapped and surely holds very strong claims indeed.
One other to mention is Blazer, who surely went into his last race at Newbury too soon after winning at Leopardstown and could have plenty more progress to come on better ground. Arbre De Vie also hails from the Mullins stable and seems to be the favoured one by the market. His fourth in the Albert Bartlett reads very well now and even though he comes into this off the back of a spin over fences, he ticks the boxes you’d want for a big field handicap at Cheltenham. Ruby Walsh has chosen to ride stablemate Blood Cotil however, and that’s the only concern.
The best-backed horse in the run up to the race has been the Gordon Elliott-trained Diamond King, who easily won a Punchestown handicap in January and then was put away for either this race or the Martin Pipe. Despite the good vibes, he’ll have to improve plenty as he’s been raised 8lb for that win and there are plenty of horses in this that are most certainly up to winning a competitive handicap off 144.
All in all, if we combine the trends pointers and what we’ve seen on the racetrack, Politologue looks to have a cast-iron chance here for the same connections as last year’s winner. Nicholls seriously considered the Neptune for this horse and if he has that kind of quality, he should go close at around 10/1. Arbre De Vie is a classy animal though and with David Mullins taking 3lb off his back, he could be right in the mix. Gary Moore’s Baron Alco is an honest type who should outrun his 33/1 price and Blazer could well have plenty of improvement to come with Barry Geraghty on board.
Arbre De Vie
3.30 Cheltenham – Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1)
12 of the last 15 winners of the Champion Chase ran in either the previous year’s renewal or the Arkle, which shouldn’t really be too much of a surprise given the specialist nature of the two-mile chasing division. The Arkle has proven to be the better guide of the two having supplied 7 of those 12 winners (including 4 of the last 5) which is a big plus for last year’s 1-2 Un De Sceaux and God’s Own.
The Tingle Creek has proven to be the best guide over the years with 11 of the last 15 winners taking part in the Sandown Grade 1 at the beginning of December. The timing of the race means that the majority of the top two-mile chasers tend to line up here rather than trying to avoid each other in the lead up to Cheltenham. This is a tick in the box for this season’s 1-2 Sire De Grugy and Special Tiara as well as the fourth-placed Somersby.
In this race in particular, it is important to be up with the pace. With the speedy nature of the contest, it has turned out to be very difficult for those held up to chase down those in the front rank. 9 of the last 15 winners were in front as they turned for home so we really do need to look for a horse likely to race up with the pace. Un De Sceaux and Special Tiara are two of the more likely trailblazers in the field.
As with so many other Festival races, French-breds have really started coming to the fore of late. 5 of the last 9 winners of the Champion Chase originated from across the Channel and three of this year’s field were bred in France. Another positive for the favourite Un De Sceaux as well as former Champion Chasers Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy.
The top three in the betting have dominated this contest in recent years winning 14 of the last 17 renewals and even the other three further down the bookies’ boards weren’t shock winners (only one winner started bigger than 10/1 since 1993). It seems prudent to keep attentions at the head of the market and at the time of writing, Un De Sceaux is the jolly, Sprinter Sacre is the clear second favourite with reigning Champion Chaser Dodging Bullets completing the trio.
Second season chasers have held the edge in recent times delivering 10 of the last 13 winners. On a similar note, no winner in the last ten years had run in more than 13 chases and there has only been one winner older than nine since 1998. In short, the Champion Chase tends to go to an up-and-coming chaser rather than an old-stager. This puts a nail in the coffin for Sprinter Sacre, Sire De Grugy, Somersby and Felix Yonger.
Unsurprisingly, Un De Sceaux, comes out on top statistically by a country mile. The only blemish (if you can call it that) is that he didn’t run in the Tingle Creek as he matches every single other trend. Last year’s Arkle winner is many people’s idea of the banker of The Festival and few could argue with that. He has still never been beaten when completing which is a stunning record and the manner of his wins in last year’s Arkle and the Clarence House Chase back in January was ultra-impressive. The only knock against him is that he has tended to race a bit keenly on a couple of occasions and has tipped up a couple of times when throwing in a lazy jump. However, he looked smooth as silk at Ascot last time out and it would take a brave man to oppose him here.
Last year’s Champion Chaser, Dodging Bullets, was imperious in the two-mile chasing division last campaign but he has had a few injury problems and didn’t quite look like the same horse on his comeback run at Newbury last month. He will almost certainly be much better for that run but this year’s renewal looks a hell of a lot tougher with the likes of Sire De Grugy and Sprinter Sacre back to somewhere near their best and the aforementioned Un De Sceaux looking virtually unbeatable.
Special Tiara seems to quietly go about his business and doesn’t seem to grab any headlines. He attempted to make all in this last year and ran a stormer to finish third beaten only three lengths. People forget that he is a Grade 1 winner in his own right and the argument remains that he would have added another to his tally were it not for interference at the last in the Tingle Creek. He is potentially the most interesting runner outside of the favourite as he will likely force the pace with Un De Sceaux. The Mullins inmate hasn’t really been joined at the front over fences and Henry De Bromhead’s charge will certainly be alongside him in front rank. He has shown that he stays well from a strong pace and has a great chance of running into a place once again.
Any talk of the Champion Chase can’t pass without mentioning Sprinter Sacre. Undeniably, he is not the dominating force of old, but he has shown much better form this campaign with an easy victory in the Shloer Chase followed by a battling display in the Desert Orchid Chase. It may be that the time has been and gone for the now ten-year-old and the memory of how easily he folded in last year’s renewal is hard to dispel, but everyone knows what he is capable of on his day and a much better showing this time round is fully expected.
Sire De Grugy completes the trio of former winners of this race and he, like Sprinter Sacre, has showed much improved form having experienced a troubling time of it last campaign. He finished fourth in last year’s Champion Chase and never really got involved in truth but has been much better this campaign, landing the Tingle Creek (albeit rather contentiously). However, he was held by Sprinter Sacre in the Desert Orchid and readily held by Un De Sceaux in the Clarence House do may have to battle it out for only the minor honours.
Un De Sceaux
4.10 Cheltenham – Glenfarclas Chase (Cross Country)
The market has tended to be a solid guide with 8 of the last 11 winners coming from the top three in the betting and, in theory, that trend should continue with this race now being run as a conditions event rather than a handicap for the first time. With all horses on level weights, it should be easier to predict the winner so that is a good marker for the top three at the time of writing – Josies Orders, Balthazar King and Quantitativeeasing.
The idiosyncrasies of the cross country course have scuppered more than a few jockeys over the years so having an experienced pilot aboard is crucial. Both Davy Russell and Richard Johnson have won two renewals in the last ten years while Nina Carberry racked up a hat-trick of wins from 2007-09. Russell partners last year’s victor Rivage D’Or, Johnson goes in search of a thrird win aboard Balthazar King while Carberry partners the favourite Josies Orders.
It is not only specialist jockeyship that is required for a cross country race, but the training methods also come under the microscope. Enda Bolger has been the man with a plan in this sphere over the years and landed 4 of the first 5 renewals. He hasn’t been as prolific in recent years but that may just be a case of other trainers catching up with him and he has monopolised the cross country races at Cheltenham so far this campaign with Josies Orders.
Age has been a big factor when it comes to the cross country course and it shouldn’t be too much of a shock that the more experienced campaigners cope with the rigours of the discipline better than their younger rivals. Seven-year-olds have a particularly poor record (0/10), which is a bad sign for Valadom, but taking this a step further, 7 of the 11 winners were veterans. That means a tick in the box for the likes of Quantitativeeasing, Balthazar King and the 15 years young Uncle Junior.
It is a distinct advantage to have run in a cross country race of some description prior to heading here, as you would expect to be the case, but none of the 11 winners to date had run in more than six cross country races before. This is a bit of a baffling stat due to the specialist nature of the race and would be a concern for the likes of Balthazar King, Quantitativeeasing and Any Currency.
Last year’s winner Rivage D’or tops the trends with the only drawback being that he isn’t in the top three in the betting. That is hardly a surprise as since his impressive win last year, his form has been distinctly below-par. The other factor that will possibly have an adverse effect on his chances is the switch to level weights but the cross country is a specialist race and he has been there and done it so should be written off at your peril.
Balthazar King is another that performs well trends-wise with the only real detraction being that he has ran in seven cross country races. Normally, Irish runners are the way forward which would be a negative for him if he wasn’t the only domestically-trained horse to have enjoyed success in this race. The wily veteran hasn’t ran a bad race for nearly three years but the biggest concern is his wellbeing following a nasty fall in last year’s Grand National that not only nearly ended his career, but his life. It is a near miracle that he has returned to the track and connections report that he is back in good order so he must hold leading claims.
The talking horse in the cross country division this campaign has been Josies Orders and Enda Bolger’s charge has swept the floor with the opposition since his switch from conventional fences. He was in the midst of running a big race in last year’s La Touche Cup when hampered and unshipping Derek O’Connor two out. He duly made amends a couple of days later when landing the second cross country at the Punchestown Festival and has monopolised the races at Cheltenham this year in no uncertain terms. He represents connections with the strongest record in the race and is a worthy favourite.
His stablemate Quantitativeeasing looked to be every bit the winner last year until unfortunately being carried out two flights from the finish. He undoubtedly would have had his say in the finish had he not suffered that unfortunate incident and has performed with credit since. He was a decent second to Uncle Junior in the La Touche Cup and comfortably landed the Risk Of Thunder Chase back in November. It is telling that he has been kept apart from Josies Orders and although he looks to be the second string on paper, he is entitled to a big chance in his own right.
Another worthy of a mention is Ballyboker Bridge who has quietly progressed into an accomplished cross country performer. He landed the P. P. Hogan Memorial for the second successive year on his latest start, accounting for a trio of Enda Bolger contenders in the process. He was well on his way to running a big race in the La Touche Cup last year until falling two out and was far from disgraced in third behind Josies Orders and Sire Collonges at Cheltenham in December. For a nine-year-old, he has relatively few miles on the clock under Rules and looks to be getting better with every run in these conditions. Whether he’s good enough to win is up in the air but he does look capable of snatching a place.
4.50 Cheltenham – Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3)
In the last three renewals of this race, Paul Nicholls has trained 50% of the winners and placed horses – that’s some record, so his runners: Diego Du Charmil and Romain De Senam have to be given some serious respect no matter their form or position in the market.
The first mentioned of that pair also ticks the box in terms of only having three runs over hurdles, a trend that seven of the 11 winners of the race have also fallen into. Wolfcatcher, Messire Des Obeaux and the well-fancied Campeador also fulfil that criteria among others.
Only four runners in this field have run in races against their elders, which is something of a shock considering that 6 winners of this race in the past have done just that. Harley Rebel, Romain De Senam, Paddys Runner and Chic Name are the horses with that experience here. Speaking of experience, a Cheltenham run is not one that any winner has had before, so just as Romain De Senam and Chic Name receive a smiley face, they also receive a big red cross in the trends box, joining Coo Star Sivola and Duke Of Medina in falling foul of that trend.
Every horse that has ever won this race had run 37 days or less previously before coming to the Festival and nine winners had run within 25 days and this does seem a trend to keep on-side, especially with juveniles who can go on and off the boil in no time. However, with more than half the field not having run in that time, it doesn’t seem trainers take much notice of it. Wolfcatcher, Harley Rebel, Messire Des Obeaux, Ardamir, Fixe Le Kap and Voix Du Reve are just a few of the horses with the recent run under their belts, while the two fancied runners in the market, Diego Du Charmil and Campeador have 133-day and 81-day absences to overcome.
This race has traditionally been something of a lottery when it comes to the betting market and with the last four winners all going off at prices between 25/1 and 40/1, it’s certainly not a good idea to be dismissing those that the bookmakers view as outsiders. Top trend-hitters Harley Rebel and Wolfcatcher are two that fall into that big-priced bracket and are certainly interesting.
The headgear angle is another fascinating one and follows the trend of the Festival as a whole, where any aids can help a horse come to life and show the required improvement to win a race like this. Four winners have done so in headgear and while that’s not a staggering stat in itself, when you look at the prices (40/1, 25/1, 9/1, 33/1) it’s clear that a buzzy four-year-old with form that may not look good enough initially could benefit from the calming, settling influence of headgear in a busy race like this. The familiar names of Diego Du Charmil, Harley Rebel, Wolfcatcher, Campeador and Voix Du Reve are among those with the assists in this year’s renewal.
Now obviously, juvenile form and trends are very difficult to put together into a solid argument, but there are certainly three or four that stand out on their profile. Firstly, Paul Nicholls’ Diego Du Charmil has been the subject of the full power of the Hype Machine, being hammered into 6/1 even though he hasn’t been seen on a racetrack in this country before. However, he was campaigned very considerately in France and from what the Nicholls yard has let escape in Chinese whispers, could be one of the best handicapped horses at the whole festival.
Joining him at the top of the trends pile is John Ferguson’s Wolfcatcher, who finished fifth in the Adonis Juveinle Hurdle at Kempton won by expensive Truimph Hurdle fancy from the Nicholls yard, Zubayr. Now although he’s not up to Triumph standard judging by that, he could be well handicapped off a mark of 137, especially on decent ground. The worry is that Jack Quinlan is on board and Aidan Coleman has chosen to ride Jaleo from the same stable instead. Jaleo hammered the reopposing Our Thomas by thirteen lengths last time out at Catterick and he does look the more unexposed candidate.
Possibly one of the most interesting horses in this is Neil Mulholland’s Harley Rebel – he hits nine of the twelve key trends, and despite only running on the 12th March in some horrible conditions at Sandown (and winning very nicely) he has to be of interest. If he’s come out of that run well and is ready to go here, he could be one to run well at a price – he’s improved hand over fist in his last few runs and will appreciate the well-run test at this distance. Tom Scudamore is a good booking and off a mark of 130, in the same 124-133 range that has provided 10 of the 11 winners, (just a 5lb penalty to carry for that 14 length romp at Sandown) he could be well-in. It’s also interesting to note that from four penalised runners in this race, two have won.
Willie Mullins’ record in this race is poor, but Voix Du Reve could be the horse to change that – he was narrowly beaten by useful hurdler Newberry New on his Irish debut in a Grade 3 and if he settles better with his first time hood, he could be significantly better than his mark. He may not satisfy too many of the trends, such as being a big price or running against older horses, but he’s clearly talented. The other well-backed Irish contenders, Campeador and Missy Tata also have some good form to bring to the table and have to be considered; especially knowing that Cheltenham was on Gordon Elliott’s mind for both, very early on in their careers.
Messire Des Obeaux is certainly another very intriguing competitor, running very well on his British debut behind useful juveniles Frodon and Fixe Le Kap, who runs off top weight here. He receives 10lb from that rival, 2lb more than last time, and could well reverse placings with that rival. He’s a half-brother to Paul Nicholls’ Bouvreuil and if he has that kind of ability, could go nicely here given the anticipated improvement from that first run. Alan King is a dab hand with these young horses and this could be another one from France that takes top rank.
To conclude, it’s Nicholls’ Diego Du Charmil that makes the most appeal, even though he hasn’t been seen in Britain yet. His mark has been protected and he’s one that the Nicholls yard is massively keen on. Harley Rebel is very interesting at a huge price if he’s got over his exertions at Sandown just 4 days ago, while Messire Des Obeaux is entitled to be right there if he improves for better ground and that good run at Haydock. I’m convinced that Voix Du Reve will run well here under Ruby Walsh too, and he has a shot of ending Willie Mullins’ poor record in the Fred Winter.
Diego Du Charmil
Voix Du Reve
Messire Des Obeaux
5.30 Cheltenham – Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Grade 1)
Out of all of the races at The Festival, the Champion Bumper has proved to be the place to be for last time out winners. 21 of the 23 winners had a ‘1’ next to their name so we can pretty much rule out any horse that wasn’t a winner last time out. This doesn’t apply to most of the fancied runners but is a distinct negative for First Figaro.
Cue Card is the only winner this century that started his career racing in Britain with the other 14 all starting off over in Ireland. This is hardly surprising when you consider that most of the contenders head over the Irish Sea but even three of the British-trained runners had started their careers in the Emerald Isle. This damages chances of Coeur Blimey and Ballyandy somewhat
A lot of the trends regarding the Champion Bumper are more guides not to be put off. As mentioned previously, a last time out win is important but being beaten earlier in their career doesn’t seem to be a disadvantage. In fact 9 of the last 13 winners had been beaten in a point or bumper prior to lining up here.
Another thing that punters would normally look for is a recent run but this something else that hasn’t had a massive bearing on the result. 7 of the 15 winners hadn’t run in the calendar year, coupled with the fact that second season horses have won 9 of the 15 renewals (including the last 4), means that those horses that ran last season and have been off the track for some time should still be considered.
Willie Mullins is the unofficial ‘Bumper King’ and he has landed this race on no less than 8 occasions. However, the market pick of the Mullins brigade hasn’t always been the way to go as only twice in the last ten years has the shortest-priced runner performed best. Mullins has 7 runners in this year’s race with Augusta Kate the market selection.
It will come as no surprise that the majority of the Willie Mullins contingent perform well on the trends but Bacardys stands out as slightly ahead of the others. The only trend that he falls down on is the fact that he isn’t a second season horse, although that could be argued as he did run in a couple of points last campaign. He is the big market mover in the offices with Ruby Walsh booked to ride which may come as a surprise to some as of the Mullins septet, he was the least impressive last time out. Don’t forget that Briar Hill was a relative outsider when picked by Ruby back in 2013.
Very Much So rates second best but it is difficult to be confident about him given he has been off the track for nearly two years now. He did show good battling qualities when landing the Goffs Land Rover Bumper at the 2014 Punchestown Festival and that has proven to be very solid form with the runner-up, Snow Falcon, landing the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle last month. As previously mentioned, Mullins doesn’t always strike it rich with his apparent first string so he could be decent value at a price.
Another of the Mullins raiders that appeals is Castello Sforza who many have been waiting to appear since his victory in the valuable Sales Bumper at Fairyhouse’s Easter Festival last year. On the back of that win he was purchased by JP McManus and hasn’t been seen since. He fits pretty much all of the trends and has the ideal profile to land this contest.
Although the top Mullins selection hasn’t always led home the Closutton challenge, Augusta Kate cannot be ignored. She is the joint-second highest-rated horse in the field and that puts her ‘well in’ with her 7lb allowance. She has only contested Mares’ races so far which is a slight concern but you couldn’t argue with the manner in which she landed a Listed contest on her latest start, travelling smoothly throughout before asserting and coasting clear of her rivals.
The Champion Bumper is perennially all about Willie Mullins but British runners don’t have that bad a record and the home charge this year is led by Ballyandy. Nigel Twiston-Davies has always thought the world of this horse and he showed a high level ability on only his second start when landing a strong-looking Listed bumper over course and distance. The way in which he knuckled down that day was impressive for only his second start and he showed similar tendencies when only narrowly failing to defy a penalty in another Listed contest at Ascot next time out. By far his most eye-catching performance was at Newbury last time out where he put his speed to good use and went through the gears like a classy animal for a resounding victory. Arguably, he boasts the strongest form on the book here and is by far the best chance of upsetting the Mullins applecart.
Very Much So
Having landed the last three renewals with Champagne Fever, Vautour and Douvan, the triumvirate of Ruby Walsh, Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci clearly must be feared. To win a Festival race in three successive years with three different horses is an almost unheard of achievement and is a massive plus for their runner in this year’s contest, Min.
With 17 of the last 19 Supremes going the way of a last time out winner, this is a strong trend and one not to be ignored. Although a lot of the horses running who had been beaten on their previous start were no-hopers, the likes of Cue Card, Cousin Vinny and Marcel were all sent off favourite and failed to overcome this distinct negative. Six of this year’s field failed to win on their latest start including Tombstone, Bellshill and Silver Concorde.
Irish-trained runners have a fantastic record in the Supreme having landed 10 of the last 15 renewals. Taking it a step further, the market has generally been a strong guide and half of those winners were also favourites. This is another tick in the box for Min while the fancied horses from Britain, Altior and Buveur D’Air, have something to prove.
Despite having a rough time of it for a good few years, French-breds have really started to come to the fore, taking 3 of the last 5 renewals. Only three of this year’s line-up hail from across the Channel which is a step in the right direction for Min, Buveur D’Air and Petit Mouchoir. Taking this a step further, each of the last two winners were second season novices having been beaten in France, a trait shared once again by Min.
Although seen as a stamina test at the trip, the Supreme has surprisingly leant itself to those ridden prominently. In recent years, Vautour and Champagne Fever made virtually all the running while Douvan and Cinders And Ashes were both in the front rank turning for home. We have become accustomed to Ruby Walsh going from the front in recent times and this should be no different with Min who has tended to race freely (sometimes overly so) in his last couple of starts.
In recent years, the fancied runners have prevailed but in 5 of the previous 6 years, the winner was sent off at double-figure odds. With the possible changing of the tide, this isn’t as bulletproof as it once was but if you fancy one at a bigger price, you certainly shouldn’t be put off.
With the Champion Bumper being one of the toughest tests of stamina in bumpers, it comes as little surprise that the previous season’s premier National Hunt flat race has a solid bearing on the Supreme. 4 of the last 13 winners had finished in the top 5 in the Champion Bumper and whilst it seems difficult to double-up (only Champagne Fever has managed it in the last 20 years), those that ran with credit seem to have a solid record. None of the top 5 last year take their place here but Supasundae wasn’t beaten far into sixth having been far too keen early on.
An over-riding factor that has become apparent in recent years is that you don’t want a horse that began their career on the flat. No winner since Ebaziyan in 2007 has started their careers on the level while only 1 out of 48 runners who have come from the flat have been placed. Only Penglai Pavilion of this year’s line-up started out on the flat which is a big black mark for him.
The lack of a recent run is a concern when it comes to the Supreme and only one winner since 1993 had obliged having not run in the calendar year. This is a particular concern for Altior as he has proven to be very keen in his races and hasn’t been since running at Kempton on Boxing Day. Although Min has been seen this year, he has still been off the track since early January which would rate as a negative given how freely he has been in his races to date.
With the Supreme regarded as a stern test of stamina, it is somewhat of a surprise that those to have raced over further than 2m2f have a relatively poor record here. Only Champagne Fever and Al Ferof had run beyond 2m2f under Rules from the last 11 winners. Five of this year’s field fall down at this hurdle including Bellshill and Tombstone.
Unsurprisingly, Min has proven to be a very strong pick on the trends and comes out well clear of the rest of the pack. He only falls down on a couple of things, one being the potentially ailing trend of being in double-figures and the fact he has been off the track for a while. The fact that his profile matches so closely to each of the last two winners can’t fail to impress and while question marks can be raised about what he has achieved this season, the end result cannot be faulted. He could do with settling better in what will undoubtedly be his toughest test to date but Willie Mullins singled him out as his one for the Supreme back in October, lofty expectations given the embarrassment of riches Closutton has at their disposal.
Altior isn’t the strongest trends horse by some way but as the highest-rated horse in the field, he warrants a great deal of respect. His demolition of Open Eagle was mightily impressive at Kempton and, unlike the market leader, he has shown he has the minerals to tough it out in a ding-dong battle when staying on well over course and distance at the Open Meeting in November. It is a concern that he has been off the track for so long but he is far from inexperienced having had four runs in the space of just over two months early in the campaign and should arrive here as a fresh horse.
One that outperforms his odds when it comes to the stats is Charbel from the Kim Bailey yard. The five-year-old was a hefty purchase on the back of his fourth-place finish in the Punchestown Champion Bumper last year. He looked a decent prospect over hurdles and ran within 3 lengths of Neptune favourite Yanworth in a Grade 2 at Ascot (albeit as the winner was eased down). Arguably, his best performance came last time out in the Scottish Supreme Trial where he made every yard and finished well clear of the rest of the field. His front-running tendencies will likely help him out here.
Another of the Brits attempting to halt the charge of the Irish is Buveur D’air who comes here officially 1lb better than Min. He also finished 2 ½ lengths ahead of Altior in a Listed bumper last year, although he was in receipt of 10lb, so although he may not have had the most glamorous of build-ups to The Festival, he is definitely here on merit. He destroyed the potentially smart Wait For Me on his hurdles debut at Newbury back in November and followed up with another facile victory at Huntingdon in January to finish off his preparation for this. His running style however does mean that he will likely be waited with which hasn’t been the greatest of plans over the years.
With the Irish so dominant in recent times, it is a bit of a surprise that Min aside, on paper, their challenge doesn’t look to be as strong as it could be. Bellshill has been rerouted here instead of the Neptune, a somewhat puzzling decision given a drop in trip didn’t seem the obvious move. He was a convincing winner of a Grade 1 at Navan in January but was beaten out of sight in the Deloitte a month later. His stable did send out a 1-2 last year with Shaneshill, holding a similar profile, finishing runner-up to Douvan so it may be the case that he is in here for place money only.
Supasundae looks the most interesting of the Irish contingent outside of the favourite and he does perform pretty well on the trends. He would have performed even better had he finished a place closer in last year’s Champion Bumper, but he was made to pay for being too keen early on when finishing sixth. Upon winning at Leopardstown at Christmas, the Supreme was mooted as his seasonal target and not many could disagree on the back of his blistering performance. He could well outrun his odds here and we shouldn’t forget that he comfortably accounted for Yanworth in an Ascot bumper last season.
2.10 Cheltenham – Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase (Grade 1)
The market has undoubtedly been the best guide for the Arkle down the years and 14 of the last 15 winners went off shorter than 9/1. Three of this year’s field fall under that bracket which is a tick in the box for Douvan, Vaniteux and Sizing John.
With 6 of the 13 runners who recorded an RPR in excess of 160 over hurdles winning, this shows that we really need to look to a class act when hunting for the Arkle winner. Only Sizing John and Baltimore Rock fall foul of this stat which puts a black mark against their name.
Staying along the class route, 8 of the last 11 winners had won a Grade 1 or Grade 2 chase prior to lining up here. The top two in the market, Douvan and Vaniteux, are the only two that have landed races of this Grade which keeps our attention at the head of the market.
Nicky Henderson has a fantastic record in the Arkle having landed the contest on no less than five occasions, including 2 of the last 4. Those last two winners were the superstars Simonsig and Sprinter Sacre so this gives the chances of Vaniteux a real boost.
A big negative for the odds-on favourite Douvan is that no winner of the Supreme has followed up in the Arkle since 1965. In the last 8 renewals, five have tried and failed including Noland, Captain Cee Bee and Champagne Fever who were all sent off favourite.
Seeing as the usual profile of the Arkle winner centres around the more fancied runners, it is no surprise to see the two market leaders stand head and shoulders above the rest of the pack.
Vaniteux is particularly strong on the trends for this race as he seems to tick pretty much every box. He has always been one of the better horses of his generation without ever really hitting the heights but has done very little wrong in his first season over fences. He was ultra-impressive on his chasing debut at Kempton in November and was only narrowly ran out of it in the Grade 2 Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase back at that venue at Christmas. Surprisingly, his victory in the Grade 2 Lightning Novices’ Chase was his first graded victory in either code and although it wasn’t a flashy success, he showed a good attitude to battle his way clear on the run-in.
However, it looks likely that he will have to play a supporting role once more as Douvan enters the race as the one to beat. Described by Willie Mullins as ‘a different species’, he has been near untouchable since joining the team at Closutton. He was a superb winner of last year’s Supreme and looks set to end the hoodoo of the Supreme-Arkle double, an accolade that hasn’t been achieved since Flyingbolt in 1965. His chasing career has been virtually faultless with only a couple of final fence mistakes when coasting home putting a blot on his record book. Ruby Walsh has customarily tried to make all aboard the superstar in each of his three chasing starts and it is very likely that he will employ the same tactics here now that the field has drastically cut up.
Henry De Bromhead must be sick of the sight of Douvan as Sizing John has finished runner-up to Mullins’ charge on three separate occasions. He is a talented horse in his own right and was an impressive winner of the Grade 2 Craddockstown Novices’ Chase back in November. However, he was once again put in his place by his nemesis in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown’s Christmas Meeting. He can be relied upon to run his race and hasn’t been out of the frame over obstacles but it would take an unprecedented amount of improvement to turn the tables with Douvan.
Aside from the favourite, The Game Changer has been the talking point of the race and he arrives here in search of a four-timer. Gordon Elliott’s experienced campaigner had a fruitful summer campaign, landing a trio of Grade 3 novice events and has since had a break from the track. He is definitely a spring/summer campaigner and was well-fancied in last year’s County Hurdle only for the ground to go against him as it ended up soft. He came within a head of gaining redemption at the Aintree Festival and ran a cracker in third at Punchestown a couple of weeks later. The suspicion is that the ground may still be on the soft side for him here and that may just put paid to his chances.
2.50 Cheltenham – Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3)
The fact that all 15 winners since the turn of the millennium registered their best RPR over at least 2m7 ½f shows that we need a horse that will stay the trip in what usually turns out to be a fast-paced affair for a 3m+ chase. Only five of this year’s line-up haven’t achieved their best RPR over this trip which is a bad omen for the likes of Shanahan’s Turn and Band Of Blood.
The first place to look in most Graded races is for a last time out winner and, surprisingly, the same can be said about this race. 7 of the last 13 renewals have been won by a horse with a ‘1’ next to their name which bodes well for the five that applies to in the field here, Kruzhlinin, Out Sam, Theatre Guide, Carole’s Destrier and Beg To Differ.
This is one of the strongest races at The Festival for horses sporting headgear with each of last four winners wearing some kind of aid. It shouldn’t be seen as a negative that a horse doesn’t go to post with one accompaniment or another but just don’t be put off by a runner that usually sports some kind of headgear.
Jonjo O’Neill is one of the top trainers of staying handicap chasers and he is the man to follow in this race especially. He has trained 3 of the last 7 winners and is doubly represented this time round with Beg To Differ and the 2014 winner Holywell.
In contrast, Paul Nicholls has an unenviable record of 0/18. He has had three third-places courtesy of Ad Hoc (twice) and Royal Auclair but that certainly puts a dent in the chances of Southfield Theatre.
Despite the rigours of this stern stamina test, novices and second season chasers have had a better record than expected. 12 of the last 15 winners fell into this bracket and 7 of the last 10 winners had less than 10 runs over fences. It seems that the more unexposed types sneak into this race while ahead of the assessor so it is best to concentrate on those with this kind of profile. Fancied runners, Holywell, Theatre Guide and Kruzhlinin fall foul of this trend.
Being one of the stronger races of the week for Festival form, a previous winner cannot be ignored. 2 of the last 7 winners had won at The Festival before and of this year’s field, only Holywell, who won this in 2014, and Spring Heeled, 2014 Kim Muir winner, have enjoyed Festival success previously which gives them a leg up on their rivals here.
There is a common misconception that handicaps are a lottery and are won by big prices. This is true in some cases but certainly not here with 11 of the last 15 winners being found in the top four in the betting. At the time of writing, Out Sam heads the market from Holywell and Kruzhlinin with Morning Assembly, Carole’s Destrier and The Young Master close in behind.
Tactics in handicaps differ from race to race but there is a strong trend here for those to have been held-up or raced in mid-field. As mentioned previously, they tend to set off at a fair lick for a 3m1f chase so that obviously lends itself to those who have conserved that extra bit of energy as they turn into the straight.
This is perennially one of the most exciting races of the season and this season’s renewal looks ultra-competitive so should be no different.
Beg To Differ comes out on top of the trends and will extend Jonjo O’Neill’s already stellar record to 4 wins in 8 years if he does prevail. He was steadily progressive over hurdles last campaign and has started to find his feet over fences, landing the odds at Sandown last month in fine style. However, his jumping did leave a bit to be desired that day and he will need to iron out those errors to play a leading role here. If he continues his upward curve, he will be entitled to figure but he does look the stable second string.
Jonjo’s apparent first string is Holywell who landed this back in 2014. When he readily accounted for Don Cossack in the Grade 1 Mildmay Novices’ Chase a month later, he looked to be one of the premier staying chasers but he never really kicked out on from that point although did run a couple of good races when in the frame in both the Gold Cup and Betfred Bowl. His recent form does look concerning but he always runs his best races in the spring and has been dropped a handy 6lb by the handicapper. The fact that he has won two races at The Festival before is a massive positive and if he is in anything like the form he has shown here previously, he could well be a class above the rest of the field.
Neil Mulholland is a trainer that has been making waves and his pair here must be respected on the back of his win with The Druids Nephew last year. Carole’s Destrier is the more interesting of the two and he rarely runs a bad race. Mulholland skipped The Festival with him last year in favour of a crack at Aintree, where he was sent off a well-backed 4/1 second favourite to Saphir Du Rheu in the Grade 1 Mildmay Novices’ Chase. He was well beaten, possibly feeling the effects of a long season but lost little caste in defeat. He had an ok pipe-opener in the Badger Ales Trophy where he finished fifth but was quietly impressive when winning the London National at Sandown. On that evidence, he looks to stay all day which will undoubtedly hold him in good stead here.
His stablemate, The Young Master, is probably the better renowned of the two having created quite an impression last season, landing the Silver Cup at Ascot in fine style. He was pitched in at the deep end at last year’s Festival in the RSA and has had some similarly tough assignments since. He was well fancied in this season’s Hennessy Gold Cup only to unseat at the first and ran with credit when fourth behind the highly progressive Wakanda next time out. His latest spin over hurdles can be ignored and he could still be a young chaser ahead of his mark.
The real talking horse in the last few weeks has been Out Sam. The young chaser has improved markedly for the switch to fences and was though of highly enough to contest a Grade 2 on only his second chasing start. He is not only a strong trends pick, but he has very solid form in the book as well. He easily defeated Milansbar in a three-runner novice event at Newbury, who has since gone on to land a handicap in decent fashion and now holds a rating of 145. Factor in that Warren Greatrex’s charge was giving the runner-up 4lb, 139 now looks to be a very lenient mark.
Beg To Differ
The Young Master
3.30 Cheltenham – Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy (Grade 1)
Running well at the previous Cheltenham Festival seems to be the strongest trend for a modern Champion Hurdle with 15 of the last 17 winners registering a placed finish – eight of those had actually won too. Nichols Canyon and the three Triumph Hurdle graduates, Peace And Co, Top Notch and Hargam are the only four to fit this trend, but clearly Annie Power would have also been on the list if she hadn’t dramatically come down at the last in the 2015 Mares’ Hurdle.
Eleven of the last 17 winners were trained in Ireland and, as you might expect, the entry from across the sea is strong again this year despite the absence of last year’s Irish 1-2 in Faugheen and Arctic Fire. The Willie Mullins-trained trio of Nichols Canyon, Annie Power and Sempre Medici join Henry De Bromhead’s Identity Thief in the raiding party and between them; it looks as if they could have the market, and most likely the race itself, cornered.
But as one of the most open-looking Champion Hurdles in recent times, it could well be another good chance for the average SP of the winner (currently 10/1) to rise. There have been three winners at 16/1 or bigger in the last 12 years, and that’s a significant percentage in a Championship race. Many of this year’s ‘outsiders’ are younger, improving horses, so it would be foolish to rule out anything simply based on their position in the market, especially something like Camping Ground who, despite his price of 20/1, is the official top-rated horse in this year’s race and could still be unexposed in this sphere after just seven runs over hurdles.
With only one of the last nine winners having run more than 12 times over timber, it seems that experience is by no means any guarantee of success, so black marks go up against The New One, who may well have missed his chance to win the big one when he was at the top of his game a couple of years ago and Lil Rockerfeller, this season’s revelation in handicaps, while ante-post favourite and supplementary entry Annie Power only just squeezes onto the right side of the fence.
Having said that, five-year-olds haven’t reached the top of the tree since Katchit’s win in 2008 (1 win from 94 runners since 1985) and it’s been six or seven-year-olds that have dominated the race in the last ten years with seven wins between them. Even though this race does look hugely open, last year’s aforementioned Triumph Hurdle trifecta could well find this a step too far so early in their careers along with the admirable Lil Rockerfeller.
This is a very difficult race to make head or tail of – Nichols Canyon comes out narrowly on top in terms of boxes ticked, with stablemate Sempre Medici, a current 25/1 shot, lurking one behind. It’s fascinating that Mullins’ supposed 3rd string, ridden by David Mullins, comes out so close to Nichols Canyon and if he had finished a little closer to Wicklow Brave in the County Hurdle last year after encountering trouble at the last, he could well have joined him at the top of the ‘trends table’. There has been some support at big prices for the horse and if the ground continues to dry out, he could be in with a chance, even though neither Ruby Walsh nor Paul Townend will be aboard.
The joker in the pack here is My Tent Or Yours, who after being off for two years, was always unlikely to fair brilliantly when looking at the trends. Even so, he is still a Grade 1 winner, has placed in a Champion Hurdle and on his best form, would take a lot of beating here. If Nicky Henderson has the horse at his best after the long break – something he’s done many times before – he could have a great chance, but that’s a gargantuan ‘if’.
Oddly, the top rated horse in the race, Camping Ground, has never even competed in a Grade 1 race, let alone won one, and over a trip short of his best he’ll surely struggle to keep pace with the proven top performers here, a comment that could also apply to Lil Rockerfeller.
As for the Triumph Hurdle top three from last year, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Hargam improving past the battler Top Notch and the out-of-sorts Peace And Co on the probable good to soft/good ground. Mark Walsh has been booked for the ride and if you look at the form of the Christmas Hurdle, run on sticky ground Hargam wouldn’t have enjoyed (looked deeper than the official ‘good to soft’ description), he was just under a length behind The New One, so there’s potential for more there at a decent price (25/1). As for Nigel Twiston-Davies’ charge, the trainer says he’s happier than he’s ever been with him coming into a Champion Hurdle and he can’t be ruled out if putting his best foot forward. However, he’s looked laboured recently and it’s almost as if there’s still something ailing him – he’s been outpaced in these good races before running on time after time and I just wonder whether his chance went in 2014.
Although Identity Thief is high on the list as an improving young horse who could well have the scope to make a splash at this level, especially on better ground than when he gave Nichols Canyon a fright at Leopardstown, in the end it’s certainly difficult to look too far beyond the Mullins entries once again, particularly considering connections shelled out £20,000 to make sure Annie Power got a run and Nichols Canyon is the only horse to have ever bested Faugheen.
Graham Wylie’s six-year-old looks an extremely solid proposition as a six-time Grade 1 winner and should benefit from a positive ride that will see him in his best light, while that could also benefit the mare, helping her to settle. The nagging doubt for me with Nichols Canyon is that, even more so on better ground, this trip may be too short for him and any injection of pace coming round the home turn from Annie Power could find him quickly off the bridle and chasing her vainly up the hill.
It’s been odd to see and hear the amount of negatives people have been coming up with when mentioning Annie Power – yes she’s probably way too short in the market, she does have a 0 from 2 record at Cheltenham (unlucky last year and outstayed over 3m in 2014) and no this wasn’t the plan from the start of the season, but she’s clearly still an extremely high-class mare, who has a lot of speed and staying power in a potent mix. The 7lb mares’ allowance is huge in this context and the fact that Ruby Walsh stays faithful to her tells you a lot given the proven quality of Nichols Canyon. She’s the most likely winner for me, even though she’s not a strong betting proposition, and it will be very interesting to see if the two stablemates dictate the pace from the front and whether that means they’ll take each other on too much. In the end, I can see both Nichols Canyon and Annie Power being right there over the last and that’s when the weight difference could tell.
The Mullins yard have also dominated the 2m division for a couple of years now, and although it may require more to replicate the 1-2-3 the yard had 12 months ago without Faugheen, Arctic Fire and Hurricane Fly, Sempre Medici cannot be overlooked lightly and he looks a big each-way player at 25/1. He’s an improving horse and I can easily seem him being in the mix for the money.
4.10 Cheltenham – OLBG Mares´ Hurdle (Grade 1)
The feature race for mares at the Festival in still in its infancy compared to many of the other races at the meeting but there are a couple of patterns that should help us to find the winner.
In terms of trainers, it is fair to say that Willie Mullins has a strong record having saddled all but the inaugural winner of the race. The exploits of Quevega and Glen’s Melody mean that both Gitane Du Berlais and warm favourite Vroum Vroum Mag both warrant plenty of respect as they bid to continue their trainers winning run.
Of those with runners this year, Nicky Henderson also has a good record because although he has yet to saddle the winner, he has had two seconds and a third in the last eight years. Last year’s runner-up Polly Peachum returns for another go this year and having gone within a head of victory twelve months ago, she surely looks likely to be involved in the finish once again.
However, runners from the Ditcheat stable of Paul Nicholls have not fared well for all he has only had two representatives in the race’s short history. That would ring alarm bells for supporters of Tara Point who bids to defy an absence of more than a year as well as bidding to reverse her stable’s record in the race.
By far the best guide for this race has been the betting market with six favourites and one winning favourite having obliged since Whiteoak won at 20/1 in 2008. In the absence of ante-post favourite Annie Power, her stablemate Vroum Vroum Mag has taken over that mantle and is as short as Evens to get her head in front. Her nearest rival in terms of the betting looks to be Polly Peachum at around the 6/1 mark ahead of a number of mares between the 12/1 and 14/1 mark including Aurore D’Estruval, Bitofapuzzle and The Govaness.
In truth whichever way you look at the race, either in terms of trends or not, it is hard to get past the first two in the market. Willie Mullins is sending a massive team over to Cheltenham this week and it is no surprise that Vroum Vroum Mag is well fancied on what could be another blockbuster start to the Festival. She arrives here unbeaten since moving into the care of Mullins two years ago and had her first taste of Britain when winning the Warfield Novices’ Hurdle at Ascot in January. This has historically been a pretty good trial for this race despite being over three miles and the way in which she won that day suggests that she will take high rank again here. As I have mentioned above, she comes out strong on the trends and in the form book and looks worthy of her place on the shortlist.
However, last year’s renewal has also served as a good guide in recent years and therefore last year’s runner-up Polly Peachum deserves a strong mention. The eight-year-old has been a fine servant to Nicky Henderson and showed a fine attitude to win in ground she would have hated at Sandown in January. Her form tells us that she will improve for a better surface which should see her right in the mix once again here. Annie Power looked all but unbeatable twelve months ago but I’m not sure the same can be said for Vroum Vroum Mag just yet and so she might be worth taking on at the prices. Whilst her official rating is lower than this time last year, her last run was arguably a career best in far from ideal conditions and a repeat of her run last year could see her turn the favourite over.
There are a host of interesting mares at bigger prices including Harry Fry’s Bitofapuzzle who was just a neck behind Polly Peachum in last year’s race. She subsequently went on to win a Grade 1 novice hurdle at Fairyhouse but despite winning on her chasing debut in December, she doesn’t seem to have taken to the larger obstacles. All appears to be well with the mare according to connections and if she had been running over hurdles in recent months I imagine she would be half the price that she is at the moment (14/1). She does stay a bit further which can be important up the Cheltenham hill and she looks likely to play a major role.
Rebecca Curtis’ Aurore D’Estruval should also not be judged too harshly on her run at Ascot last time, where the six-year-old appeared unsuited by the step up to 3m. However, I understand the mare has had a wind operation since then so it could be that there was more to it than meets the eye that day. When previously in the care of John Quinn she looked a major player for this race twelve months ago before suffering a setback in the run-up to the Festival and having run with encouragement in the Relkeel Hurdle on her return to action, I think she can play a major role. She was second in the Fighting Fifth against the geldings in the not too distant past and if the wind op has done the trick, she could be a shade overpriced at around the 12/1 mark.
I briefly mentioned Tara Point in passing above and whilst I fancied her at a big price for this race last year, I have a couple of doubts about her this time around. The main ones being that she has been off the track for over a year and that she is pretty light on experience having had only three runs over hurdles. I’m sure that Paul Nicholls would have liked to have got another run into her before the Festival but it just hasn’t happened and whilst she clearly has potential, I am happy to air on the side of caution this time around.
Another who narrowly missed the shortlist was The Govaness who has won at Cheltenham in the past and who got within a head of Polly Peachum at Sandown earlier in the year. She failed to back that effort up subsequently at Ascot and although she often runs well at Listed level, she is often found wanting in this higher grade so I would be happy to leave her out here.
To conclude, there is plenty to like about the top two in the market Vroum Vroum Mag and Polly Peachum but at the prices I might just side with Nicky Henderson’s mare. Bitofapuzzle who finished third last year and Aurore D’Estruval make most appeal of those at slightly bigger prices.
Vroum Vroum Mag
4.50 Cheltenham – 146th Year of the National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup
One thing about this race that is beginning to come to the fore, both in terms of trends and in what we see on a yearly basis, is that class and proven ability are coming to the fore. Four of the last six winners had already run in a Grade 1 chase, while three of the last five were top rated. Vicente leads the rankings this season, while Southfield Royale, Native River, Pont Alexandre, Shantou Flyer and Bally Beaufort have all contested Grade 1’s.
The class angle doesn’t just extend to the horses though, being an amateur riders’ race, an experienced, quality jockey makes the world of difference. JJ Codd, Patrick Mullins, JT McNamara, Derek O’Connor, Katie Walsh and Sam Waley-Cohen are but a few names who have won this over the past ten years, and I’m sure you’ll agree they’re right at the top of the tree when it comes to the amateur sphere. Add Nina Carberry to that mix and there’s your list of jockeys to watch in this.
Experience has been very important in this recently, with all the winners since 1999 having run in at least 3 chases, and at least one of those before 31st October of the previous year. Horses that match both of these trends are just the right types to be looking at, so it’s another tick in the box for the fancied runners; Southfield Royale, Native River, Noble Endeavor, Vicente and Shantou Flyer.
Speaking of the fancied runners, the last five winners came from the front four in the market, so with the current top four reading: Minella Rocco, Noble Endeavor, Southfield Royale and Native River/Pont Alexandre, depending where you bet, its further adding to the momentum behind these few at the top of the market and the ratings.
This looks to be a race where the trends back up the market view and it’s difficult to see far past the first six or seven. Southfield Royale emerges on top of the trends league and with Nina Carberry booked and stable-confidence flowing, he’s certainly coming into the race with a strong chance if he stays the four miles.
Native River looks a thorough stayer who will be well suited to the race and even though he doesn’t have one of the top amateurs on board, Mikey Legg certainly isn’t a back-marker in his field. Don’t forget, he’s already a Grade 2 winner, after taking the Worcester Novices’ Chase at Newbury and has been running in some tough contests this season. He shapes as though he’ll be better the further he goes and this could be right up his street in first time cheekpieces – another positive trend (headgear wearers have a decent record).
One such tough contest was the Towton Novices’ Chase at Wetherby, where Native River was third, but ahead of him was Definitly Red, who has begun really nicely over fences, finishing a close second to Black Hercules and Blaklion in decent races. Sam Waley-Cohen is an intriguing booking for the Brian Ellison-trained seven-year-old and he must go there with a better chance than his 16/1 price suggests.
Patrick Mullins is another top amateur and he gets the ride on an interesting entry in Pont Alexandre. This horse has plenty of class about him, but falls short on the experience front. Still, he has some very good form in Graded chases and is entitled to go well, even though I’m not sure he wants four miles.
Gordon Elliott’s Noble Endeavor is a classy animal who has run well at the Festival before and he has the assistance of JJ Codd, but he’s another who has some stamina doubts and hasn’t shaped clearly like he wants an extreme test. He was beaten by Measureofmydreams (Katie Walsh up) last time out and he reopposes here, so it will be interesting to see if that form holds up over this extra mile.
Minella Rocco has certainly been the gamble of the race after Derek O’Connor was booked to ride and he’s another that’s shaped as if this extreme test will help him. His jumping is still a massive worry and the fact he’s trained by Jonjo O’Neill is too – he has saddled five runners since 2008 and they’ve all been unplaced. All in all, he’s way too short at 5/1 in a competitive race like this given those concerns.
Vicente, as top rated in the race, surely comes in with a huge chance if he stays the distance under Will Biddick, but trainer Paul Nicholls has an appalling record in the race, 0 from 16, even with plenty of fancied runners. He was also beaten by Shantou Flyer at this venue over an extended three miles in October, so you’d need to see plenty of improvement if he was to win this.
All in all, Native River has most looked like this trip will bring out the best in him, but even though I think he’ll go well in his first-time cheekpieces, Southfield Royale looks the perfect type for this. A real stamina test on good ground will be spot on and Neil Mulholland’s booking of Nina Carberry is a pointer in itself. Definitly Red could be one to reach the frame at a price.
5.30 Cheltenham – Close Brothers Novices´ Handicap Chase
Whilst the Irish raiders are expected to have a successful week on the whole, their recent record in this contest suggests that we are better to steer clear of them in this race. Tom Taafe’s Finger Onthe Pulse was the only winner for the Emerald Isle in 2008 which is bad news for their three representatives this year.
To deal with them individually, Henry De Bromhead sends Domesday Book over having chased home Douvan in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown in January. He was well on top when winning at the second time of asking in December at Limerick but he has yet to tackle 2m4f over fences and he looks high enough in the weights judged on what he has done so far. Willie Mullins’ McKinley finished just ahead of him at Navan in December and was also found wanting when stepped into Grade 1 company last time. He won a Grade 1 over 2m4f when running over hurdles last season so the trip should be fine and he looks the pick of the trio. As for Bridgets Pet, Alan Fleming’s nine-year-old is one of the most experienced in the field and beat the smart Morning Assembly at Fairyhouse last time, albeit over an inadequate trip for the nine-year-old.
With only 4lb splitting the top and bottom horses in the field, it is unlikely that weight will make too much difference; therefore those towards the head of the weights are at less of an advantage than would normally be the case.
The ante-post favourite Aloomomo carries 11st 10lb and has been raised 11lb since winning at Newbury’s Hennessy meeting. The six-year-old was very progressive in the early part of the season and comes here having won his last three starts over the larger obstacles. He ran over hurdles in February to prepare him for this assignment and was far from disgraced, finishing third behind two smart rivals in Yala Enki and Mr Mix. His trainer is confident that his ascent up the weights isn’t insurmountable and whilst he is short enough at the prices, he is a must for any shortlist.
One thing worth keeping an eye on throughout the week are horses in first-time headgear and one horse and the horse at the top of the weights Ballyalton has been fitted with cheekpieces for the first time here. He was a smart novice hurdler a couple of years ago, with his season culminating in finishing second behind Faugheen in the Neptune here. He subsequently missed the following season and it is probably fair to say that he has been a little disappointing over the larger obstacles thus far.
His best effort came when chasing home Aso at Market Rasen in January over 2m5f and this intermediate trip looks his optimum. His jumping is obviously a concern having fallen last time but the sounder surface and the aides should sharpen him up. It is hard to say how well-handicapped he is at present but a return to anything like his best hurdles form would mean he is thrown in here off 140.
Colin Tizzard’s Fourth Act is another fitted with cheekpieces for the first time and comes here on the back of a wide-margin success at Wincanton last time. He went up 11lb for that win which has seen him sneak in at the foot of the weights here and like Ballyalton, I’m sure connections will be hoping that the cheekpieces bring about further improvement. The market probably has him right as one of the outsiders however.
Another in first-time headgear is Thomas Brown who wore cheekpieces last time but now gets blinkers fitted on the back of a far from straightforward display. He never seemed to be going at Kempton last time before unseating his rider and it isn’t the first time that he has shown signs of temperament. He was well-backed a couple of weeks ago for that race but his attitude would be a concern for me and I think it is worth looking elsewhere.
Perhaps it would be better to look towards Tom George’s Double Shuffle who finished ahead of Fourth Act when winning at Ludlow in December. He is only a six-year-old and conceded 11lb to the Tizzard horse that day and having won by three-quarters of a length it is hard to see the form being reversed with only 1lb between them here. He had two spins around Cheltenham in the Autumn and the Spring ground is likely to be right up his street. At the age of six, he is entitled to still be improving, especially having had only three starts over fences and with six-year-olds having won the last three renewals, he looks to have plenty going in his favour.
So too does the improving Javert who is two from three over fences thus far and whose only blip came when unseating Sean Bowen at Newbury in November. The seven-year-old has been a revelation since being fitted with a hood at the beginning of this season and the nature of his latest win at Doncaster suggested that a further rise in the weights may not be enough to stop him. He seemed better for the step up in trip last time and given how well he jumped I would have no concerns about him around here.
If there is to be a trends buster which wins this race then it could be Dan Skelton’s Willow’s Saviour who won the race in which Ballyalton fell back in November. He was no match for Ar Mad in Grade 1 company next time and basically had an exercise gallop at Fakenham last month when winning hard held under Harry Skelton. He was a good hurdler a couple of years ago and I believe that this race has been the target for some time. At the age of nine, he would be the oldest winner in the last decade but for all the negatives, I still find it hard to see him finishing out of the frame.
If there is to be a massive shock then two at bigger prices which catch my eye are Killala Quay and Five In A Row. The former has had eight starts over fences and despite jumping to his left last time, he still managed to find enough in the closing stages to get his head in front. He should be suited by going the other way and with Richard Johnson keeping the ride, he could make a bold bid from the front. Five In A Row has won three of his last four starts over fences and got up close home to beat Sametegal at Musselburgh in February. That rival has since come out and won a big prize and having snuck in at the foot of the weights here, Brian Ellison’s eight-year-old looks a lively outsider.
Overall, I don’t think there is much between Aloomomo and Ballyalton, whilst the improving pair Javert and Double Shuffle look to have plenty more to come at this early stage of their chasing careers. If I was pushed I would probably have to go with Willow’s Saviour who rarely runs a bad race and his shrewd connections have lined this race up for some time.
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