2014 Champion Bumper Preview, Trends, Tips
One of the hardest races of the Festival to unravel is the only one without any obstacles to clear: the Champion Bumper. The last race on day two, this is a contest between twenty-plus thoroughly unexposed talents, where potential ability is considerably more important than what the rookies have achieved on the track to date. Despite this seemingly unfathomable proposition, there are some fair trends to assist the whittling process.
2014 Champion Bumper Trends
16 of the 21 Champion Bumpers have been won by Irish-trained horses. Willie Mullins is singlehandedly responsible for half of those winners, including at odds of 12/1, 16/1 and 25/1 in his last three successes.
Fourteen of the last sixteen winners also won their previous start. The other two winners finished second and fourth last time out.
Cue Card was precocious enough to win this as a four-year-old, as were Rhythm Section (1993) and Dato Star (1995). There have also been four six-year-old winners. The other fourteen winners were aged five. In the past sixteen years, 5yo's have been responsible for 31 of the 48 placed horses (65%) from 58% of the runners.
Six of the last sixteen winners came here off a single previous run; three had two runs; five had three runs; and two had had four previous races.
All of the last sixteen winners and all bar two of the placed horses were sent off at 8/1 or shorter on their final start before contesting the Champion Bumper.
2014 Champion Bumper Preview
It takes a certain amount of progression to win the Champion Bumper, as you might expect. But how much? Again, as you might expect, this is one of those 'how long is a piece of string' type questions, but there is at least a pointer in the historical performances of Cheltenham Champion Bumper winners.
I looked at those winners with three or four previous starts; those with two previous starts; and those with a single prior race. The full data is below, based on Racing Post Ratings. Each line shows: horse name - form figures - RPR/RPR/RPR - Champion Bumper winning RPR.
3 or 4 previous runs
Dunguib - 211 - 102/132/146- 151
Cork All Star - 111 - 109/119/136- 138
Hairy Molly - 2131 - 113/103/127/131- 133
Missed That - 011 - 85/103/134- 136
Total Enjoyment - 311 - 108/116/122- 135
Liberman - 2112 - 97/111/93/127- 142
Monsignor - 134 - 113/121/116- 138
Average improvement from best to Champion Bumper winning RPR: +8
2 previous runs
Champagne Fever - 21 - 126/138- 142
Cheltenian - 21 - 115/118- 138
Pizarro - 11 - 126/127- 152
Average improvement from best to Champion Bumper winning RPR: +16
1 previous run
Briar Hill - 1 - 115-141
Cue Card - 1 - 110-138
Cousin Vinny - 1 - 126-138
Joe Cullen - 1 - 118-149
Alexander Banquet - 1 - 115-142
Florida Pearl - 1 - 134-136
Average improvement from best to Champion Bumper winning RPR: +21
This is interesting, as it implies we can expect a twice-raced horse to improve twice as much as a more experienced entry if it is to win here, and we can expect a sole starter to mature by around a stone and a half on Racing Post figures.
These are benchmarks only, but they can help when looking at so many 'could be anything' types. In a race which has returned winners at 50/1, 40/1, 33/1, 25/1, 16/1 and 14/1 three times, I will begin the form preview at the 'raggy' end of the market...
...and the first horse to take my eye is David Pipe's Seven Nation Army, a 33/1 shot (86 on Betfair). This son of Rock Of Gibraltar flopped on heavy ground last time, having previously looked progressive on his first race of the season. Horses have overcome a last time out defeat to win the Bumper, and it's a race that owner Roger Brookhouse is fond of, having won it with Cheltenian in 2011.
I'm not suggesting that Seven Nation Army is the most likely winner, but he could run well at a huge price, given expected improvement for better ground, and his established level of form when winning a decent Listed bumper at Newbury on soft.
Another expected to enjoy the quicker turf is Stack The Deck. A son of Beneficial, he was outstayed by Black Hercules on soft the last day, but should travel better for longer on sounder footing.
Our Kaempfer took a big step forward when 3rd last time out on this course, and on good ground. It is not out of the question for him to improve the required amount based on his ratings, though there would be more likely candidates.
Definitly Red is unbeaten in two heavy ground runs, the second of which was a Listed contest, and his sire Definite Article gets plenty of good ground horses. With the prospect that decent ground could see him take another step forward, Definitly Red is interesting at 25/1.
Silver Concorde has obviously been hard to train, his three runs being spread over three seasons. Still a six year old, however, Dermot Weld's Dansili gelding traveled easily before extending away from Volvalien and the rest. That form looks fair and, though he hasn't run since late December, the Champion Bumper is a race where horses can win off a longer than normal absence.
Winner of his only start, El Namoose will be bidding to give trainer John Ferguson his first Cheltenham winner, and though the form of his Musselburgh win isn't working out amazingly, he could hardly have been more impressive there, strolling away for a four length verdict. He was moving away from his field at the finish, and is bred for this sort of job.
Golantilla was actually 3rd in this last year, though he was below that form when thumped by Killultagh Vic last time out. He will surely improve for that seasonal bow, but has less scope than many and looks susceptible to at least one of many potential huge progressives.
Value At Risk represents controversial trainer Philip Fenton, who is being investigated for possession of steroids. The BHA conducted their own tests on his Cheltenham-bound horses (a trio completed by former Champion Bumper winner, Dunguib, and Last Instalment) and found no traces of steroids, thus clearing the Fenton team to make the trip.
Ignoring the sideshow, Value At Risk boasts some strong form. He was second on his first and only start last season, in a race which has worked out very well. Behind that day were Western Boy (twice a winner since and less than a length behind Supreme second favourite, Vautour, in a Grade 2 last time), Wicklow Brave (a subsequent five time winner and third favourite for the Supreme), and Gambling Girl (winner of three since, including a mares' Grade 3).
Since that fine debut, he's won his other two races in workmanlike fashion, first when making all and holding on from Windsor Park (winner since), the pair clear; and last time when traveling well before quickening clear of Draco. His amateur pilot is a slight concern, but that didn't stop stable mate Dunguib claiming this prize in 2009.
Vigil could be a second entry from the Dermot Weld yard, and this two-time starter looks to have a lot more to come. A three length runner up on his debut (third has won since, winner not raced again), he followed up in good style in a Leopardstown bumper a month ago. He was extremely impressive there, traveling beautifully before extending away without coming under pressure, and on a line through solid yardstick Valvolien he must have a chance, especially granted average progression.
And that leaves a Willie Mullins trio, Shaneshill, Killultagh Vic and Black Hercules. The last named is currently favourite for the race, but that looks like it might change, as he wants more give in the ground. He took plenty of time to get going the last day and, though he eventually pulled eight lengths clear of the Montys Meadow and Stack The Deck, he looks an out and out stayer.
Shaneshill on the other hand should improve for better ground and could well go off favourite late on Wednesday afternoon. He looks a nice big sort and he finished his race off really well when beating The Herds Garden et al last time. That race has worked out poorly so far, with none of the dozen subsequent starters winning, but the victor could not have done any more. Shaneshill has been absent from the track since the end of November, most likely awaiting better ground.
Mullins was quoted on these two thus, "Black Hercules is a good horse and that was a good performance. He´ll be entered for the Cheltenham bumper but whether he´d be as effective on good ground remains to be seen. He might have another run before we decide. The same owners have Shaneshill and he might be a more suitable horse for the Cheltenham race"
Killultagh Vic might just be better than both. He bolted up by sixteen lengths from Golantilla in a performance that was visually stunning and earned a Racing Post Rating in accordance with what the eye saw. I do have a nagging doubt that the winner was flattered by the second 'blowing up' (lack of fitness telling, rather than exploding, mercifully), and it's enough for me to look elsewhere.
Finally, one well worth noting for the future is Royal Vacation, from the Cue Card connections of Mrs Jean Bishop and Colin Tizzard. Like Cue Card when he won the Champion Bumper, Royal Vacation is a four year old. Unlike Cue Card, he didn't win on his debut, but he did run an extremely eye-catching race. It would not be exaggerating to say he was tailed off turning in at Ascot, and yet, by the finish he was a closing four length fourth.
He earned an RPR of 104 for that and hinted at the sort of improvement Cue Card found with the manner of the performance. Cue Card earned a 110 for his Fontwell debut win before going on to notch a 138 in taking the Champion Bumper. A similar scale of improvement would put Royal Vacation in the shake up and it is interesting that connections are willing to pitch him into the race. A shilling each way at 50/1 could see a place return.
2014 Champion Bumper Tips
As you'll have gathered from the above, it's a wide open race. The nature of results historically attests to the borderline pointless ambition of trying to nominate a winner and, with that in mind, I'll take a couple of big prices and a shortie against the field.
I really like the look of what Vigil has done so far, and his run style - effortlessly cruising through his races - will be well suited to a test like this. Dermot Weld wouldn't have the best record at Cheltenham - 0 from 27 since 2003 - but he has seen one of his five Champion Bumper runners make the frame (Rite Of Passage), and Vigil could at least match that achievement. 10/1 is worth taking.
Of the Mullins triumvirate, I prefer Shaneshill, despite the 102 day absence and the ostensibly poor form of his last win. I think he traveled really well, a huge asset in this as I've alluded to already, and he could bounce off the expected goodish ground. He's 8/1 with Hills (all in run or not) and I can see him going off favourite on the day.
As a throwaway bet, Royal Vacation could offer an exhilarating thrill. He'll not be asked to do anything in a hurry, but if he can hang on to the shirttails of the main pack until they turn in, it's possible to envisage a swashbuckling dash up the Cheltenham hill. Of course, he may also fail to replicate that last day finish and/or show it to be moderate form in the context of this race. But 50/1 overstates that probability, in my opinion.
Most likely winner (tenuous):
Shaneshill 8/1 Hills
Each way alternative:
Vigil 10/1 bet365
Huge priced rag with a tiny squeak:
Royal Vacation 50/1 bet365