2014 Punchestown Festival Day One: Preview, Trends, Tips
Cheltenham and Aintree are collections of fading memories, and the pleasantly unimpeded vista of Newmarket's Guineas meeting is firmly in sight. But, before this weekend's first two Classics of the season, we'll have enjoyed the first four of five days of Festival fun from Punchestown.
We kick off on Tuesday with three Grade 1's and, in varying degrees of depth - reflecting the level of quality on show - let's waltz through the trends and form, and attempt to sniff out a winner or three. It all starts at 3.40pm, with the...
3.40 KILDARE HUNT CLUB FR SEAN BREEN MEMORIAL CHASE
A hunter chase with limited form on show, but it's run over the banks course and has been a fair pointer to cross country stars of the future. Recent winners have included Big Shu, Zest For Life, and Wedger Pardy, all talented sticks in the banks and ditches stakes.
Enda Bolger has won this three of the last four years, and four of the last eight; and there's not been a year since at least 2003 when he didn't saddle one of the first four home.
Seven to nine-year-olds have won seven of the last nine renewals.
The longest price winner in the last decade was 9/1, with three favourites obliging.
This is a tough race to kick off with and to turn complete guesswork into educated guesswork, we have the pointers above - allied to the market - to steer us. In truth, the form such as it is, is extremely moderate.
Enda Bolger is a logical place to start, but his quartet are all very much on the young side, with three of them aged five, and the other aged six: the four youngest horses in the race. Jockey bookings would suggest that Be Positive and Phar And Away are the pick, but it's worth keeping in mind that Bolger's recent trio in the race were all ridden by different pilots.
Be Positive was having his first run since October when appearing to fizzle out of steam three weeks ago. That will have brought him on, and with Nina Carberry steering and the hood applied first time, he makes most appeal in this guesswork puzzle.
Lord Hawksfield was second in this last year, and on slightly quicker ground could go close to winning if in the same mood - it certainly doesn't look a hard race; and Arthur Moore's Linnel, ridden by last year's winning jockey, Mr T Donworth, will appreciate the quicker ground and has bobs of form to be involved.
Stonesinmypocket had a reasonable spin around here in the PP Hogan, and that form looks decent in the context of this moderate affair.
I clearly have no solid opinion, but it would hardly be a shock if Be Positive took this. Lord Hawksfield and Linnel might be value against the Bolger battalion.
4.20 HERALD CHAMPION NOVICE HURDLE (Grade 1)
Fortunately, it gets classier, if not easier. We find ourselves fathoming a Grade 1 novice hurdle over two miles, where Cheltenham Festival winner Faugheen drops back fully five furlongs in distance.
The roll of honour for this prestigious event includes Champion Hurdlers Jezki, Hurricane Fly and Brave Inca since 2004, so if Faugheen did have the speed for this, he'd be a formidable player in next year's Champion.
16 of the last 17 winners were 1st, 2nd or 3rd last time out, with ten winning.
Five and six year olds have won 15 of the last 17 renewals.
All of the last seventeen winners came from the top four in the betting.
The clear form pick is Faugheen, impressive winner of the Neptune at Cheltenham. Despite walking through three of the last four hurdles, he was hugely impressive and, even if jumping that sloppily, will probably win. He could well attempt to make all and bulldoze the opposition into submission. Faugheen is a huge horse and although I think resolute galloping his metier, it will still take a smart one to beat him in this much greater speed test.
Willie Mullins trains Faugheen, and also trains second favourite, Valseur Lido, a stylish Grade 2 winner at Fairyhouse last time. He was beaten eleven lengths by Vautour at Cheltenham and it's possible the ground beat him rather than the opposition. At this two mile trip he's three from four, but it's likely to be similarly quicker turf to that Cheltenham defeat and he looks vulnerable to nippier types.
Sgt Reckless has had a long season and, though he does have form to be a player, he's not for me. He could well disappoint after plenty of battles already, including both Cheltenham and Aintree.
This will be the quickest ground Real Steel has encountered and he could improve for it. He'll have to though, as he was a well enough beaten second to Valseur Lido last time.
The one who might run well enough to get second, and at a price as well, is Western Boy. He ran poorly at Cheltenham, a disappointment that was put down to a bad back. He's been treated for that since, and connections are hopeful of a big run. Ignoring his moderate Festival excursion, Western Boy has a satchel full of high class novice form which makes him the equal of most of these bar the jolly. I'm happy to take him to run for silver.
Faugheen will most likely win. He's a brute of a horse and has both speed and stamina. His jumping is sloppy but he still won impressively at Cheltenham, and this is a weaker field - albeit a potentially speedier one - than he thumped there.
Western Boy looks a dribble of value in the exacta.
4.55 BRAGBET.COM HANDICAP HURDLE
A good handicap hurdle, and one where a case can be made for every single runner in the field. As such, it makes tipping tricky, and I have my eye on one or two at big prices. I'll not spoil that right away but, instead, we ought to consider the recent history in the quest for pointers.
Six to nine year olds have won nine of the last ten runnings of this race. Interestingly, perhaps, nine of this field - exactly half - are aged four or five.
8/10 winners carried 10-07 or less. Only trends buster Snap Tie and the classy Mansony were able to carry more than that to victory, and both shouldered eleven stone-plus.
All of the last ten winners were double digit prices, ranging from 10/1 to 33/1. The average was 16.3/1.
I'd have to cover every horse in the race to be sure I'd mentioned the winner, and that doesn't make sense. In a race like this, we need to be looking for a horse at a price. The favourite might win and scupper us, but history shows that there's been little point in taking such an unimaginative path to the betting window.
A trendy approach might be to look at low weighted horses aged six to nine. That would discount all bar five: Cool Macavity, Glen Beg, Rocky Wednesday, Absolutlyfantastic, and Star Of Aragon.
It's a brave Brit that brings a handicap hurdler over to Ireland to take the home team on, and Hendo has failed in his fourteen previous attempts since 1997, with just one of them making the frame. I simply cannot believe that the over-raced Cool Macavity has enough in hand to fend off the plot squad, and at 14/1 he makes zero appeal (cue romping win!).
Glen Beg has a better chance to my eye, though she has had a busy campaign too. She got outsped late on at Aintree the last day as well, and a place may be her best chance once more.
Rocky Wednesday is dropping down the weights quicker than Shirley Crabtree on the cabbage soup diet, and his jockey's seven pound claim means he races off a lowly 116 here, compared with 130 just five runs back. You have to do something to get that high a rating in the first place and, in Rocky's case, it was win a good handicap hurdle at Leopardstown. Apart from an apparent lack of form, his other big problem is that he might want it softer. He'll be interested soon on muddier turf but is overlooked here.
Absolutlyfantastic is tempting, and at 20/1 as well. He needs quickish ground and two miles, and the return to hurdling after a spell chasing (and running with merit on the flat in between) is an interesting roll of the dice. He has plenty of decent form and a mark of 121 today converts to 10-05 on his back. He's been off since October last year, but that's because of the unsuitable ground, and the trainer is quoted as expecting a big run (the horse has won off a break previously).
Of the non-trends majority, top weight City Slicker has a lot on to concede all round, but he ticks a heck of a lot of boxes. He's three from three here at Punchestown, a bit of a specialists' track; he won his only career start on good to yielding, the officially prevailing going; he's won five of his nine races at the two mile (or so) trip; and he's won two out of three in big fields.
He has a fat line of green across the Race Analysis Report, and is shortlisted accordingly. It will clearly be hard to give the weight to some better handicapped horses, but there is not a better profiled horse for this race, and he's a 25/1 shot.
The top two in the betting are Lucky Bridle and Sea Beat. I backed the latter ante-post for the Fred Winter, and he was balloted out due to his low rating. He's not run since so is still as well handicapped and they have obviously been waiting for this better ground. If he's man enough for the job after just three runs, I'm fairly sure he's got the engine for it.
Lucky Bridle is a very short price really. 7/2 in a race like this assumes an awful lot and, while being a lightly raced Willie Mullins horse with Ruby Walsh riding does offer comfort to those with more nervous dispositions, it's an awful wager in a race like this, win, lose or draw. He's only run twice over hurdles in his life and has a weight of 11-02 to defy. Sure, he was a very talented flat horse, but this is not a place for inexperienced nags, especially when the trainer says "he can be a hard ride".
If you habitually bet this type of horse, you're losing money no question. I won't be backing him, and I can't recommend you back him either. He's got an obvious chance to win, but he's a dreadful price.
I'll take two at fancy prices in Absolutlyfantastic and City Slicker. The former looks to have plenty in his favour, though he will have to overcome that layoff, and he does seem to be accumulating a lot of placed efforts in relation to his win strike rate. The latter has all the weight, but has earned it, and has a 100% course record from three runs. He's optimally suited by the conditions, weight aside, and can run well at big odds.
5.30 BOYLESPORTS.COM CHAMPION CHASE (Grade 1)
The second Grade 1 of the night, and it looks a bit sub-par in truth. A field of ten will take in two miles of the Kildare countryside, and bid to emulate the likes of Sprinter Sacre, Sizing Europe, Big Zeb, Master Minded, and Moscow Flyer. Even with Sizing Europe in the field, there's nothing of that ilk contesting this year. The 2014 version of Sizing is a somewhat opaque shade of his former self which, incidentally, is perfectly fair given he's now a twelve year old.
Eight winners also won last time out, but the other nine since 1997 finished as low as sixth. All did finish however.
All seventeen winners in that time frame were aged between six and ten. That includes the large majority of the runners as well, and is not especially meaningful.
There's very little to go on here from a trends perspective.
A poor renewal, the top rated horse in the race is just 164, and that's perennial loser, Somersby. Next best is another Grade 2 animal, Module, on 163; and then come Hidden Cyclone and Sizing Europe on 160. The rest are rated 157 or lower, and that should never be enough to win a Grade 1 chase.
I just can't have Somersby. He's as doggy as Snoop Doggy Dogg's dog, and has flattered to extract cash from punters' pockets on myriad occasions. In finishing second to Sire De Grugy twice this term - the most recent of which was in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham - he does have the best form claim. But his ability to sustain defeat in the face of prospective victory in that running-on-promising-so-much-just-never-quite-delivering sort of way makes him the perennial unlucky punters' horse. If that's you, best of luck, and I hope he gives you a day some day. He ain't my bag. Not. At. All.
And yet, he's beaten Module, and he's the next highest rated horse. Module will surely never win a Grade 1 chase as long as at least one of Sprinter Sacre, Sire De Grugy or Simonsig shows up. But none of them are here. And this is a hounds' jamboree of a top class race.
Hidden Cyclone too is a paid up member of the Silver Medal Club, at late at least, and has had his card stamped by Chairman Wenger on his last three runs. He too has run up to Sire De Grugy. And Benefficient. And Dynaste. That last run, in the Ryanair, showed he has stamina as well as a bit of class, and also confirmed his comfort on a sound surface.
In fairness to Hidden Cyclone, he's won half of his twenty career starts, and has been placed in seven of the other ten. He looks nailed on to run close to the frame - probably into it - again, and I favour him over both of the British raiders.
Sizing Europe would make a great story if he could bag this. It won't happen, but it would make a great story. Can someone please explain to me what happened to this horse in the 2008 Champion Hurdle?!
In a race full of has-been's and never-will-be's, it might be prudent to look for a less exposed up-and-comer. In that context, Savello makes more appeal than many, despite neither being especially unexposed nor necessarily offering to sprout wings any time soon. Winning the Grand Annual at Cheltenham carrying 11-05 was a huge effort - the best weight-carrying performance in the race since Edredon Bleu back in 1998. That horse went on to be second and first in the next two Champion Chase's at the Cheltenham Festival and, while Savello is a bit older than EB was, he could still have upside from his current mark. He'll need to as it's twelve pounds below Somersby's.
The rest are a cast of minor actors all trying out for the lead in this B movie of a Grade 1, and I'd be disappointed - though not surprised - if one of them wins it. Ballynagour is the only one with notable potential, but he's a winner when fresh and a stopper when not, as far as his recent race record goes.
In a Greyhound Derby of a Champion Chase (have I said enough rude things about this race yet?), I will take a tiny slice of Savello. Most of his rivals will be queueing up to lose, and he might not be. Hidden Cyclone is next best. Somersby would at least uphold the form, albeit by upholding it as moderate.
6.05 GOFFS LAND ROVER BUMPER
No no no. You're on your own here. The bad news is that this is the fifth leg of the Pick 6 (we should be so lucky as to still be rolling), and the third leg of the jackpot (we will still be rolling!).
The last seven years have produced three winning favourites and four more winners at 14/1 twice, 16/1 and 33/1. Ouch.
Willie Mullins has won it three times since 2006, and not always with 'the right one'.
6.40 GROWISE CHAMPION NOVICE CHASE (Grade 1)
Possibly the best race of the night. Seven highly promising staying novice chasers lock horns in what might be a fairly attritional battle.
Only seven years to go on, but four winners also won last time out, two finishing fourth and one pulling up. The three non-winners all ran at Fairyhouse on their previous start.
Six of the seven were aged six or seven.
All seven had run four or more times over fences.
Djakadam is the favourite here, and he is a horse of immense promise. Still only five, that could be a part of his problem. He's younger than all winners to date, and has also to prove that he has the requisite stamina for a three mile slog on his first attempt at beyond 2m5f. Moreover, he's expected to be ideally suited by softer conditions - as his record implies. He's also only had three chase starts, less than all seven winners thus far. That's a lot of question marks about a market leader, regardless of how much promise he exudes, and for that reason I'm out, as they say.
Morning Assembly looks the solid call. Proven on better ground and at the trip and in the grade, he ran a corker when third at Cheltenham; and he's four from five here at Punchestown. That gets bonus points, remember, and his trainer is happy that he's bouncing at home. 3/1 looks fair, though he too might like a bit more cut.
Ballycasey is talented but he fell in a pre-Cheltenham schooling exercise, and he fell again at Fairyhouse the last day. If you can find a bookie refunding on fallers, he's a fair bet. If you can't, he's probably not. Not at 5/1 anyway.
Don Cossack's course form is 522, the last run being when scouting Morning Assembly's hind quarters. He's arguably been a bit over-rated - certainly on what he's shown so far - and may again find (at least) one too good.
Carlingford Lough is another sloppy jumper. After unseating two starts back, he hit most of the fences on the way around in the RSA Chase, before finishing sixth. If he can avoid the birch a bit better he'd have a reasonable chance at an interesting price of around 6/1. But there is just the slight niggle that he's had plenty of tough races.
Mozoltov is yet another with questionable jumping talent, publicly to this point at least. But he does have an engine and, if the longer trip settled him a bit better at the obstacles, he could improve. Clearly, also, he has to demonstrate his stamina for the job, but being by Kayf Tara offers some hope on that score.
A really interesting, and competitive, race. Not one to go mad in, but I quite like Morning Assembly, and can see Mozoltov running a belter too if he can remain upright.
7.15 FINLAY MOTOR GROUP INH FLAT RACE
Another bumper and your guess is still as good as mine... I hope by this point you don't need a winner, and that you're keeping your powder dry for tomorrow's round two. (I also hope that I am in a similar position!)