Arkle Challenge Trophy 2015 Preview, Trends, Tips
The Arkle Challenge Trophy, or Arkle for short (!), is the second race on Day One of the Cheltenham Festival, and it's a two mile burn up for novice chasers. This year, it may also feature a perfect storm for each way punters, such is the strength of the favourite and so many are the doubts about other runners near the top of the market. The flip side is that we're not yet non-runner no bet, but as you'll discover, I think there are grounds for taking the chance...
Arkle Challenge Trophy 2015 Trends
The Arkle is a pretty strong trends race, as the below - gleaned mainly from horseracebase - will illustrate.
Age: 15/17 Arkle winners since 1997 were aged between five and seven. They won 88% of the races whilst representing 74% of the runners. Those aged eight and above are two from 55 in that time (12% winners from 26% runners).
Last Time Out: 13 of the last 17 Arkle winners also won last time out (76% winners from 51% of the runners). Another two finished second.
Layoff: Those lining up for the Arkle after more than two months off the track have an excellent record. Western Warhorse, Simonsig and Sizing Europe all won the Arkle after a layoff in the last five years; and, moreover, Champagne Fever, Baily Green, Cue Card and Somersby were all second off similar rest patterns during that time. That was from just twelve starters who had been rested that long.
Since 1997, five of the 17 winners (29%) had a 60+ day layoff, from just 34 runners (16%).
Hurdle Rating: A bit more of a manual search, this one, so I don't know from what subset of the runners, but all bar one of the fourteen Arkle winners since 1997 to have a hurdle rating were 142 or higher.
Number of chase starts: Winners since 1997 have had between one (Western Warhorse, Well Chief) and five (Moscow Flyer) prior chase starts, with the norm being between two and four.
Miscellaneous: All of the last 17 winners had already won a race of at least two miles and a furlong. Given that 24% of runners in that time have failed this criterion, it looks material.
Arkle Challenge Trophy 2015 Form Preview
I write this on the day that Un De Sceaux has impressively dismantled a pair of highly promising novices in the Irish Arkle, and been lauded unanimously by the press as a consequence. That takes UDS' record now to ten wins from eleven starts (fell as the 1/8 favourite the other time) and, crucially, a first Grade 1 victory has been achieved with the tenderly handled talent.
In fairness, he's needed tender handling, due to his voracious appetite for jumping and running. He is the Forrest Gump of the equine world, and consequently he is a sight to behold. It was interesting to note that in the Irish Arkle he ran far less freely than he can, ultimately sauntering away from his rivals.
To measure the performance, we must consider the other pair, Gilgamboa and Clarcam. The former was rated 140 over hurdles, but is likely a better chaser than hurdler: that makes sense given he's only had eight career starts, including today's run. Clarcam is rated 140 over hurdles (by the Irish assessor), too. But he already had a Grade 1 win to his name, accounting for Ted Veale and a woefully under-performing Vautour.
They are two of the best Irish novices, and they were beaten pointless. Fifteen lengths was the official margin of victory, UDS getting his usual lead and jumping accurately if a little high over his fences. It certainly didn't check his momentum and it's nigh on impossible to imagine either of the vanquished pair turning the tables at Cheltenham under similar conditions.
But there's the key: they darned well will not be similar conditions at Cheltenham. For a start, there's a fairly good chance that the ground will be quicker. Further, it's a certainty that he will face more rivals, though possibly not a hatful more. And he may not easily get his own way in front, though he is highly likely to lead. Finally, the lack of experience of the course means it's unknown how he'll handle it.
It is perfectly possible that Un De Sceaux will answer all of these remaining questions with aplomb, and bound clear in the manner of the superstar he's looked to date. But even money is not to my tastes, and certainly not when it renders the rest of the market 'game on' for the archetypal each way bet to nothing.
Although he is without question the winner 'on paper', the Arkle tends to be run on grass. Undulating, usually quicker-than-Irish-racing, deeply competitive grass. Oh, and did I mention that UDS has only ever won once on quicker than soft? And that on his career debut in a mile and a half bumper in the provinces.
To clarify, and (belatedly) summarize, the sportsman in me hope UDS wins and wins well. The punter in me has to find something with which to take him on, especially on each way terms.
Here's how the top of the market looks right now:
|Un De Sceaux||Evs|
|Gitane Du Berlais||33/1|
Working down the list, Vautour's best chance of running in this race is if Un De Sceaux gets injured, or connections decide to go for the Champion Chase itself. Given that Mullins has Champagne Fever for the latter race, it looks as though UDS will run here and the Ricci-owned pair will go JLT and Champion Chase respectively.
All of which leaves Josses Hill as the undisputed second choice in the book. Second to Vautour in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last season, Josses Hill has jumped really poorly on both fencing starts. First, he blundered his chance away against the very good Ptit Zig; and then he took a long time to get the better of Solar Impulse in receipt of two pounds over the relatively easy fences at Doncaster.
His hurdle rating of 150 makes him a player, but his jumping does not impress when looking to the cauldron of Cleeve Hill. Although the historical record of fresh horses is excellent, I'd actually like to see him run again before the Festival to give him a chance to brush up his technique under match conditions. As it stands, he'll be a hairy old ride for Geraghty.
Clarcam is next in at 16/1, but how can this lad beat UDS? True, he doesn't need to in order to pay 4/1 a place, but he does need to show up - not a given - and he won't be in receipt of the ten pounds weight for age he received there, instead having to race off levels. He'll probably appreciate good ground, but doesn't look good enough.
Vibrato Valtat and Ptit Zig are the two horses priced at 20/1, and the latter would undoubtedly be the bet if he was lining up here. However, the strong likelihood is that he'll go for the longer JLT Novices' Chase and a clash with Vautour. If/when bookies go non-runner no bet in this race, he's a must play each way, though his odds will truncate significantly as a consequence.
Until then, stablemate Vibrato Valtat looks more interesting than most. 'Only' rated 140 over hurdles, he's improved plenty for chasing. Indeed, but for a fairly unspectacular ride by Sam Twiston-Davies, he'd be a perfect four from four over fences.
He ended up second on his other run, and showed that form to be all wrong by reversing the places with Dunraven Storm next time out in the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase. He's since added a Grade 2 to his tally, and a decent Grade 2 at that.
The second, Three Kingdoms, overcame a howler on Saturday to chin Solar Impulse at Doncaster; Deep Trouble, who would have been third but for a last fence fall, is rated 147 over hurdles; and the possibly regressive God's Own and definitely regressive Grandouet were further back.
He jumps very well, does Vibrato Valtat, and he's more experienced than many at the top end of the betting. Furthermore, if he doesn't race again before Cheltenham, he'll have the 60+ day layoff on his side, with the form and match practice already in the bag. 20/1 appeals.
Gilgamboa, traveling well until a pretty bad mistake against UDS, is a 25/1 shot. He's still a tad unexposed after just seven starts, but he was stuffed out of sight in the Supreme last year, and he was last of three in the Irish Arkle, albeit coming out second best at the weights.
Sgt Reckless is eight now, but actually has very few miles on the clock. He's unbeaten in a single chase start - an everyday novice event at Uttoxeter - and has since run fifth to Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle, and won a Class 5 all weather maiden over a mile and a half. That could best be described as an unorthodox preparation, though he may run over fences again before March.
He is a talented lad, and his form ties in quite closely with Josses Hill on Cheltenham running (bit to find on Aintree running, a very different track). He is probably better than a 25/1 shot, but is less of interest than VV, to me at least.
We move to the 33/1 pokes, and Three Kingdoms, mentioned in dispatches already. His form ties in really well with Vibrato Valtat, on which basis you might think I'd be tempted by the price. The problem - and it's a big one - is that he's disappointed on both his Festival runs.
17th in the Fred Winter and 12th in the Supreme (albeit not that far back) does not give enough confidence even at the price, despite a third place finish in a big field handicap hurdle which represented the pick of the weight-carrying feats. There will be worse 33/1 shots, but I expect there to be better ones too.
Could Court Minstrel be a better one? Rated 154 over hurdles, and the same over fences prior to a last of four behind Vibrato Valtat, that run can be discounted on account of the soft ground. Trainer Evan Williams was quoted as saying beforehand that Court Minstrel wouldn't want it soft, and yet he still ran him.
It is unlikely to be soft ground at Cheltenham, and Court Minstrel won there on his previous start. A margin of less than three lengths to the second horse tells only part of the story as Williams' horse lagged up, jockey Paul Moloney taking a pull before the last and bounding away from his field when unleashed.
On top of the ground, he could make the frame. But, after that last day whacking, he's likely to retain his price until either a) he runs again, or b) the bookies go non-runner no bet. I'll be backing him with the NRNB concession when I can.
Apache Stronghold has done all his hurdling and chasing over two and a half miles or further, so a drop to two miles looks extremely unlikely, while fellow Irish entry Sizing Granite looks flattered by his defeat of Lieutenant Colonel (third favourite for the World Hurdle).
That leaves Willie Mullins' Gitane Du Berlais, who is more likely to contest the JLT if anything (all career runs on soft or heavy); and Alan King's Grumeti.
Third in the 2012 Triumph Hurdle and winner of the Grade 1 4yo equivalent at Aintree, Grumeti has not had a lot of racing since. He's still only seven, and is rated 151 over hurdles which is higher than most of his rivals. He has also won two of his three chase starts. The defeat was at the hooves of Vibrato Valtat, by less than four lengths, and on his reappearance after six months off course.
The merit of his last day win is probably under-rated. It was soft ground, on which just one of his eight prior wins had been recorded, and he was only third choice in a field of four. Jockey Wayne Hutchinson had to get serious with him some way out (probably on account of the ground) but Grumeti kept finding like the class horse he is, and he looks to be a lot better than his official rating of 142.
The problem for ante-post backers is that that is a very attractive mark with which to go at the Grand Annual Handicap Chase, a race in which connections (trainer King and owners the McNeil family) opted to run Kumbeshwar off a similar mark in 2012. Court Minstrel is quoted at 16/1 for the Grand Annual incidentally, despite being nine pounds higher. Grumeti is much better than a 40/1 shot, but not until his likely destination is known.
Arkle Challenge Trophy Tips
It's a race which revolves around Un De Sceaux, who could easily justify the hype that surrounds him. He has looked a very good horse to date, but as an even money chance with just one run in G1 company, and none in the Cheltenham Festival hotbed, I have to look elsewhere.
The problem is where, with the next best market rivals retaining deep reservations. Josses Hill is too inexperienced for such an unnatural fencer; Vautour is highly likely to run elsehwere; Clarcam and Gilgamboa ought not to get closer than the fifteen lengths they were beaten in the Irish Arkle; and Ptit Zig is more likely to face Vautour than UDS.
In the circumstances, I think VIBRATO VALTAT looks a very solid each way punt with Ladbrokes and 888sport both 20/1 and a quarter the odds 1-2-3. He might ideally want a bit of juice in the ground - and he's more likely to get that on day one than any other, meteorological intervention notwithstanding - and he has class, experience and perhaps a bit more to come.
Although I can't recommend them this far out, I will be keeping an eye on both Court Minstrel and Grumeti when the firms start offering non-runner money back, as well as Ptit Zig. They each have cases to be made for them, and the former pair look better than their bare ratings.
1pt e/w Vibrato Valtat 20/1 Ladbrokes / 888sport (1/4 1-2-3)