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Of the 27 races run at the Cheltenham Festival, the Glenfarclas Handicap Chase, or the Cross Country as it’s better known, is perhaps the easiest to solve. Now, before you think I’ve gone mad, let me clarify: that doesn’t mean it’s easy to solve; just that it’s easier than most of the other races.
Bold statement made at the top of the piece, let’s look in more depth at what it takes to win this unique challenge, and which nags are best placed to plunder the prize.
This will be the ninth time the Cross Country Chase has featured at the Festival, and the first five were all won by a horse priced 4/1 or shorter. Since then, things have got a little more random, with 25/1, 13/2 and 11/2 winners… or so it seems.
But closer inspection shows that the big-priced winner, A New Story, had finished 3rd and 4th in the two previous renewals, so knew exactly what was needed. 13/2 winner, Sizing Australia, had also run in the race before, finishing eleventh (but had three other placed finishes over the course outside the Festival).
And last year, I suspect that Balthazar King, though well fancied, profited most from the ugly and unnecessary (in my opinion) fatalities of Scotsirish – who I thought was banker material – and Garde Champetre. He too had had a previous look at the course, when running out in the comedy race run at 2011′s December meeting here.
So, all winners had cross country experience, and that looks a stone cold certainty for a likely winner of the race.
The next thing to note is that Balthazar King was the first non-Irish-trained winner of the race and, again, I feel he wouldn’t have won had Garde Champetre and Scotsirish completed the course. Let me put that another way: I will be strongly favouring Irish entries over British ones.
Indeed, A New Story – at fourteen years young – failed by just a head to match Balthazar King and retain the Irish stranglehold on the race. And ex-Irish Wedger Pardy was next best, back in third.
So look to the Irish entries for the most likely winner.
Enda Bolger is a specialist trainer in these types of races, and his reward is that he’s trained four winners from the eight renewals, plus three runners up. With the loss of Garde Champetre, and the retirement of the likes of Spot Thedifference and Heads Onthe Ground, it seemed Enda’s grip was loosening. But he’s got some new names to go to war with this time around, most notable perhaps, Arabella Boy, who uncharacteristically unseated on his sole spin around this weird circuit.
Respect Enda Bolger’s entries.
The nature of this contest on this course is different from any other race at the Festival. The Cross Country course is inside the Old and New Courses, and winds its way inside and out like a knotted shoelace. As such, whilst stamina is needed – it’s most of four miles, after all – there’s never an all out gallop because the tight turns and many and varied obstacles don’t allow for too much use of the accelerator pedal.
The race does often look wide open turning in for the final quarter mile, before thinning out to just a couple of contenders, and so a turn of foot / something in reserve is crucial.
A New Story was second last year, as I’ve written, aged fourteen. He won it aged twelve, as did Native Jack and Spot Thedifference. Ten year olds have also bagged a brace of Cross Country Chases at the Festival.
I do have a slight suspicion that the days of the veterans enjoying a last day in the sun are passing, and that this is – if not quite a young man’s game – at least the province of the eight to ten year olds.
There are plenty of familiar names entered which are older than that – the likes of A New Story, Freneys Well, Double Dizzy, Wedger Pardy, Uncle Junior and Sizing Australia – but I’m happy (unless the price is too good to resist) to look towards the new breed and generally favour eight to ten year olds.
Weight is probably less important here than in any of the other handicaps at the Festival. Again, I suspect it’s because of the tight track constitution, but the upshot is that the experienced cross country boys prevail over the seemingly attractively-weighted newcomer brigade time and again. Heads Onthe Ground was the only winner to carry less than 10-08, and he had already garnered plenty of cross-country experience, including when third over the course at the previous December meeting.
Ignore weight, and instead favour cross-country experience.
As a specialist sort of race, there are a few key trials for this. The previous year’s renewal is a good place to start, with three winners – one repeater – coming back to claim the prize the following year. Also, the PP Hogan Chase at Punchestown in February has had a bearing with three winners of that coming on to win here. And the December meeting cross country chase is perhaps the best form guide of all, with fully six of the eight winners having run there.
A recent hurdle spin has been used by three winners too.
Favour horses which ran in one or more of last year’s race, the December Cross Country here, the PP Hogan Memorial Chase, and/or a hurdle race last time.
OK, so that’s the sort of profile we’re looking for. Now how do the contenders shape up against it?
Well, the first thing to say is that they currently bet 6/1 the field so there is a nice enough return to aim at, whichever horse wins. Also, there are four places paid on the race as a handicap, so there might be a couple which look close to banker place material.
Sharing favouritism are last year’s winner, Balthazar King; Arabella Boy; and, Outlaw Pete. Balthazar has a win and a place in his last two Cross Country starts here at Cheltenham, and won on the park course as well in between. He comes here in great form, we know the track holds no fears, and he is the right sort of age.
But it’s difficult to follow up in this contest – only one repeater despite the specialist nature of cross country chases – and he was readily outpointed by Uncle Junior, albeit on ground which might have been too testing for him. In fact, the ground is likely to be on the soft side this time, having been like a road (criminally so, in my view) last term. That give will probably blunt Balthazar’s speed and he’s not for me, despite an otherwise robust profile for the race.
Arabella Boy is clearly held in high regard by the Bolger team, and is likely to be the pick of his possible quartet. He won the PP Hogan last time, having previously unseated at this course late in the race at the Grand National fence. He’ll be spot on for this but must have it on the soft side to show his best.
Outlaw Pete won that last day when Arabella Boy unseated, and was given a very nice stalking ride before quickening away smartly. It’s interesting that he’s taken his chance in a couple of conventional handicap chases since, thus avoiding a clash with any of his rivals here. Outlaw Pete has form on all ground but prefers some cut. He’ll probably get that, and ought to be thereabouts again if his jumping holds together.
Uncle Junior and Bostons Angel come next, and both have experience of this course. Uncle has won the November race here for the past two years, but has finished 78U on his three runs later in the season. He was a well held fourth to Arabella Boy in the PP Hogan and it’s difficult to envisage him reversing the form here.
Bostons Angel was even further behind that day, having run up to Arabella Boy and Outlaw Pete on his previous two starts. He looks one paced and whilst likely to be thereabouts is also likely to find at least one too good.
Former winner, Sizing Australia, is a 14/1 shot but I feel fairly confident his best days are behind him now, and he’d need the going to be at least good to make the frame. The course is currently soft, good to soft in places.
A couple of interesting entries figure next, in Big Shu and Chicago Grey. The former was a length behind Arabella Boy at Punchestown last time, but in all his races he’s given the impression that he barely gets three miles, let alone the (relatively easy, granted) near four miles here. He’s also yet to have sight of this course and, on balance, he can beat me if he’s good enough.
Chicago Grey has two wins at Cheltenham, including in the four miler at the Festival, and he also won last time out. But he’s never even raced in a cross country chase, and that’s a massive negative in a race like this.
The rest probably don’t count, though A New Story is worth an honourable mention, with an incredible race record of 34132. Yes, he’s fifteen now (!), but he was fourteen last year when beaten only a head, and twelve when he won the race. He goes on any ground and was given a lovely prep in a hurdle race last week. 33/1 (8.25/1 a place 1-2-3-4) is too big despite him being a serious veteran even in the context of a race like this.
Finally, Reste Demohaison is a mildly interesting French raider. Although only eight, he’s a thoroughly experienced cross country horse, having already had seventeen races over fence, wall and birch in his native France. It remains to be seen who will ride, and that is a factor here, for sure. He stays the trip and has bundles of seasoning, so might just offer a run for your money.
Overall then, it’s a race which is unlikely to be as competitive as the current 6/1 the field implies, which means there is value for us early birds before most people focus even remotely on the contest.
Arabella Boy retains a slight stamina doubt, but his jumping is usually assured and he’ll get a grand ride from Nina Carberry, who I assume will continue her association. And Outlaw Pete must be thereabouts if he can carry the bigger weight this time.
But I am drawn to A New Story. He never seems to have much form coming into this race, and he’s as old as Cleeve Hill itself. But. But… he’s 34132 in this race, and was just a head shy of winning as a 14yo. That was a taking prep last time over two miles – ahem – and 33/1 offers plenty of throwaway value.