It was a bumper weekend of trials (and tribulations), dear reader, for those horses, jockeys, trainers and owners who dream of Cheltenham Festival glory when the tapes go up on the 2010 renewal, which starts in just five weeks time.
Many a fancied runner headed to the start line over the last couple of days, and below are my thoughts on those that look like champs, and those that look like chumps.
Plus, I've also got a first glance at the Grand National and a shocking cautionary tale as we look set for another cold snap this week.
So let's reprise the weekend action, and what it told us about Cheltenham prospects for the horses in action. The first star to warm up was Binocular. And it's fair to say that his facile win in a three horse race, against two relatively moderate and exposed horses, was no more than a limber over the timber. Reported to have come right back to his best before the run, he looked clumsy over most of the obstacles and - whilst he won as he liked - this was not the performance of a champion in the making.
That he was cut in some lists and eased in others for the Champion Hurdle tells you all you need to know about how conclusive a trial this was and he is still not for me.
In the 2.05, Sandown's second race, the then 2nd favourite for the Triumph Hurdle lined up. He was the untried over hurdles According from the Nicky Henderson stable, and he was sent off a warm 11/10 shot. That he was last of the finishers puts multiple nails in his Cheltenham coffin, and he's drifted out to 33/1 now (from a pre-race 10/1). Personally, I'd be quite surprised if he lined up for the Triumph and, if you've backed this one, sorry but I think you've done your money. (And what were you thinking when taking 10/1 about a horse who hadn't even run over hurdles?!)
The next quadruped to put best hoof forward in this parade of potentials and prospectives was another from the Nicky Henderson yard. This time it was the turn of the extremely promising Punchestowns, second in last year's World Hurdle and being aimed at the RSA Chase this season.
He won easily in the end, but that should not cloud our judgment about the merit of the run in the context of the big novice chase at the Festival. Punchestowns has now beaten a total of seven rivals in winning a very soft Grade 2 and a warm Grade 1. He remains inexperienced, needs a lot of work to get him fit, and his jumping is certain to come under far closer scrutiny in the hurly-burly of the RSA Chase, where there's likely to be closer to 20 runners than the five here.
Indeed, two of the five were 150/1 outsiders, and a third was rated a slightly above average 138 over fences. A comfortable eight length victory on Saturday, but I'd not be rushing to take the 11/4 with Victor Chandler, nor even the 7/2 best price with Ladbrokes. Punchestowns is a horse with massive talent, but he's far from the finished article and I'll be taking him on come March.
Over at Wetherby, there was another trial for the RSA Chase, in which Weird Al defied Knockara Beau by a couple of lengths to put himself forward as perhaps the pick of the Northern hopes. Although the Beau was beaten here, he's the type of doughty individual that does well in the RSA Chase, and I reckon there are worse 33/1 chances, although a place may be a better hope than outright victory.
Meanwhile, at Doncaster there was yet a third RSA Chase trial (and we've not even got to Sunday's Irish action!), which saw Tazbar eventually pull away from front-running Bedlam Boy, and leaving the Henderson pair, You're The Top and Dave's Dream, labouring in third and fourth spots.
Although Tazbar didn't travel brilliantly, he clearly stays very well, and out-gutsed these with something to spare. This looked a deeper race than the other trials, and it would be very difficult to make a case for any of the vanquished here reversing form with the winner, who was decisive if not wholly impressive.
Unfortunately, Tazbar is more likely to head for a novice at Aintree than Cheltenham, and that patience may look like prudence come early April, as he'll be a fresh horse.
Elsewhere on an excellent Donny card, several mares put their cases forward for the David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle at the Festival, notably the gallant but hard to win with My Petra, and her Saturday conqueress, Zarinava.
Although the David Nicholson race is over half a mile further, and even despite the stamina reservations of trainer Jessie Harrington, her mare was not stopping at the finish here. Indeed, she outstayed My Petra in the manner of a beast that wanted a little further.
Whether she'll run at Cheltenham (and in the Mares Hurdle) remains to be seen, but she traveled over fine (twice!), and won going away. Her win gives a significant form boost to her previous scourge, Voler La Volette, who has won her last four and is a 7/2 chance for Cheltenham. Given that last year's winner and ante-post favourite, Quevega, hasn't run since being down the field at Auteuil in May, Voler may be a decent bet. That said, Quevega is scheduled to race this Saturday at Gowran Park.
In a nutshell then, I don't think the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle picture is any clearer now than it was three days ago!
Woolcombe Folly won the Lightning Novices' Chase and got quotes ranging from 16/1 - 33/1 for the Arkle, but I doubt this one will be competitive in that race.
Lastly from Doncaster, and unquestionably not least, a horse by the name of Kalahari King veritably cantered home in what looked a thoroughly competitive Handicap Chase off top weight. Given that it was his first start since April last year and he was expected to need the run, this was mightily impressive.
And, in a year when there's reservations (in my mind at least) about the top three in the betting - Master Minded, broken rib; Twist Magic, serious track issues; Big Zeb, jumps badly in top class - and now that my banker each way bet, Forpadydeplasterer, has been scratched with an injury (leaving a big hole in my ante-post portfolio pocket), Kalahari King looks a proper bet for the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
I was hugely impressed with this run, and he's bound to come on a ton for it (he was a 10/1 shot because he was not expected to be fit enough to win). He was only beaten a short head in the Arkle last year over course and distance, when Forpady just touched him off, and he's got to be there or thereabouts if coming on as I believe he will for this seasonal debut.
Stepping over the Irish Sea, as it is so easy to virtually do, Naas' Saturday card featured the Arkle favourite before and after his trial in the Opera Hat Novices' Chase. Captain Cee Bee, former winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, was the horse and he fairly dotted up as expected. He's now as low as 3/1 for the Arkle, a race which this year looks as though it will take a heck of a lot of winning, and - even though he'll improve for better ground - I won't be availing myself at that price, despite his undoubted ability.
Sunday's card at Leopardstown was as good as any meeting anywhere outside of the major Festivals, with not one, not two, not even three, but FOUR Grade 1 races, the highlight - ostensibly at least - being the Hennessy Gold Cup.
They started the fiesta with the Spring Novices Hurdle, in which trends banker Pittoni won as he liked (and as highlighted at my Irish site,Â www.horse-racing.ie). He's quoted as a 16/1 shot (as low as 12's) for the big 4yo hurdle, and I'd still be looking to the British in that race.
The next Grade 1 featured the most impressive trial probably anywhere in the run-up to Cheltenham. The machine that is Dunguib laughed heartily at his opposition as he ambled home under restraint. When will we see this horse off the bridle for goodness sake? (In fairness, though that was a rhetorical question, the answer is, almost certainly, 'next year', when he takes on the Champion Hurdle aspirants).
The time of the race was far and away the quickest on the card, and the manner of his win was just stunning. Although it wasn't a championship race like the QM Champion Chase of 2008, Dunguib reminded me of Master Minded that year in the class and ease of his win.
Given that it will be the opening race of 26, and that he's likely to face around two dozen opponents, Dunguib is hard to knock as the Irish banker, the British banker, the Swiss banker, and the merchant banker of the meeting. If both he and Big Buck's win, the bookies might struggle to reach parity over the course of the other 24 races. (Ah, diddums...)
If you haven't seen that race, check it out at youtube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vP7K_2SUR6c
I've just watched it again and, whilst his jumping has scope for improvement, he looks like he could win the Ascot Gold Cup on the bridle! Ladbrokes are prepared to stand him at evens, but he's a general 4/6 or 8/11 chance for the Supreme. He doesn't fit many of the trends for that race, but then nor did the exceptional mare Like-A-Butterfly when she won. Bar a fall, he can't be beat in my opinion. Machine.
With barely time to catch one's breath, the next race was a far more competitive event, with the Dr PJ Moriarty Memorial Chase a fine trial for the RSA Chase (yes, another prep for that race!). There was a quartet of horses trading at 4/1 or shorter, all of whom had aspirations of Cheltenham glory. In the event, none of them lifted the trial, as largely unheralded Citizen Vic, a 12/1 poke yesterday, beat them all.
It didn't answer too many questions with Cheltenham in mind. Zaarito, whose jumping has already failed four tests in his last seven starts, might have won if he hadn't headbutted the last. Four F's in seven runs is way too many to make him a bet for the RSA Chase, though he remains the most capable in this field.
Of the safer conveyances, Weapon's Amnesty, who has Festival form when winning the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle last season, was staying on well and finished second. He'll relish the stiffer test at Cheltenham and may prove best of the Irish yet. He's as low as 8's in a place and available at 12/1 elsewhere, which looks fair if not terribly generous. I'm sure he'll be staying on when most are done in March.
With doubts about the fitness of Mikael d'Haguenet, the other Irish horse who must have a squeak (despite never racing abroad before) is prolific and classy Pandorama. He's going straight to the Festival, which isn't a negative, but he won't want the ground too fast. Weapon's Amnesty on the other hand will take conditions as he finds them, and looks perhaps the best Irish each way.
Finally from the Leopardstown card, the Hennessy Gold Cup saw Cooldine and Joncol conclude their Cheltenham Gold Cup preparations with a race to savour. Joncol it was who prevailed yesterday, staying on resolutely to see off Cooldine. Whilst it's clear that Joncol's seasonal target was the race yesterday (job done!), Cooldine's connections definitely had an eye to the Festival.
I'd not be steaming into the 14/1 on Cooldine, as I don't even think 7/2 a place is especially good value, but he is comfortably the pick of the Irish. But I don't think that's saying too much this time around.
But wait, there's more! Yes, we're still not finished in a marathon round up of preparatory runs. Musselburgh enjoyed a moment in the spotlight yesterday too, when it staged a series of trial races.
Most significantly, perhaps, was the performance of Gordon Elliot's Carlito Brigante. In my opinion, he was the pick of the Irish challengers for the Triumph Hurdle, and he underlined that status here by beating Ultimate fairly snugly.
He's a battler, and he likes to hear his hooves if possible, so the expected faster ground at Cheltenham won't be an issue. On a strict formline through Baccalaureate, whom he gave a twenty length beating to here, he'd have to be close to favouritism, given the latter's victory over Pistolet Noir at Cheltenham.
Whilst I suspect that's a very dubious line to take, there's no questioning the battle-hardy qualities of Carlito, and he goes to Cheltenham as the comfortably best of the Irish. Personally, I believe that the best of the Brits are a few pounds better this season (as they usually tend to be in the Triumph), and it will be interesting to see how he goes.
Phew! Any the wiser? Most of these horses will not race again before the Festival, so this post might be one to file away and return to in the days before the racing, when we're all doing a spot of revision prior to our four days of betting examinations.
After such a long exposition of the Cheltenham Festival, it seems somehow contrary to also mention that I'm currently reviewing the Grand National field from a trends perspective. This is a labour of love for me, and I always try to steal a march prior to the publication of the weights (which, this year, will be on Tuesday 16th February) and grab some much-loved value wagers.
I usually end up with about ten horses with varying degrees of a chance, but mostly at big old prices, so if you'd like to follow me in, stay tuned later in the week.
Finally today, a cautionary tale which stopped me in my tracks this morning when I read it. Back in mid-December, I invited Geegeez readers to apply for a few writing spots on horse-racing.ie. I was delighted with the response, and with the quality of the respondents. One guy in particular wrote a wonderful piece, and I wrote back afterward inviting him to discuss the position further.
That was the last I heard from him... until last night when he posted a comment on the blog, which I read this morning. His story is shocking, and I'll not reproduce it here, but will instead link to the comment. I had mentioned to Carole (my girlfriend) a couple of times since that I was surprised not to hear back from this guy. As such, his comment was particularly poignant for me.
It's not my place to preach - aside from the occasional sermon on betting discipline or what have you - but, please, as we await the onslaught of another cold snap this week, drive carefully.
I'll be back tomorrow with my Grand National thoughts, and also an effective approach to locking in a profit.