Seven races gone, and twenty more to come, as we wade into Day Two of the 2011 Cheltenham Festival. I will be there today, cheering and hollering if I'm lucky enough to have anything that looks like it might win... and this is where my money will be going.
1.30 National Hunt Challenge Cup Chase
My views on amateur rider races are well known in the Geegeez community. In short, I don't very much like them. In point of fact, I can't generally stand them. But this is the Cheltenham Festival, and I must set aside my personal grievances with such contests and attempt to identify some value amidst the chaos that will undoubtedly ensue through the fully four miles and 25 fences that separate this hapless and hap-hazard bunch of novice horses and riders between the tapes going up and the majority of them coming down.
In fairness, about half will get round, many in their own time. But it is not a race where many punters will have identified their 'Festival banker', if such a thing even exists.
To thin out the field, let's borrow some historical principles. Specifically, we need something that is mature enough, and has sufficient stamina (and at least hinted at it).
The market generally gets this race wrong, and the reason for that is because it's not a race like the others that these will have previously contested. It's four miles around Cheltenham. So if you can spot a plodder who needs further (I wish we'd entered Night Orbit in here - I really think he'd have had an outside chance) then you might have found the winner, assuming both horse and pilot can jump.
It's also prudent to add that Jonjo O'Neill has saddled an incredible four of the last nine winners of the race, though none in the last three years. Two of the other trainers in the last few years to saddle the winner here were Nigel Twiston-Davies and Ferdy Murphy, both of whom excel with staying chasers. So look to the teams who do this best.
The ones I like are Aberdale, Pearlysteps, Some Target and Sona Sasta. I know that's four but it's a braver soul than me who goes to war in this race with less than a handful!
Aberdale is trained by Jonjo, is bred for and should improve for a trip, has won over three miles, and is generally a safe conveyance.
Pearlysteps is another who has looked better the further he's gone. Indeed, his only chase win was when not out-plodded over 3m2f on soft ground. He bagged a 2m4f hurdle on good ground to hint at versatility in that regard, and is another with a chance.
If I'm going to side with an 'obvious' one in the race, it's Some Target, who won over 3m4f in a Punchestown handicap chase. The going needs to be taken on trust, and it's not actually a great race for the Irish, but Willie Mullins' nag has decent enough prospects with the 'clear round' caveat.
Rounding out my quintet is David Pipe's Sona Sasta. He stays, is two from two over fences including in a decent enough race at Newbury, and comes from a stable that have plenty of ammo to aim at a race like this. He also has the able assistance - in the context of this race - of Mr J J Codd, who has at least proven he can win at the Festival when grabbing the 2009 Kim Muir, another race for amateur riders.
Selection: Sona Sasta
Each Way: Pearlysteps, Aberdale, Some Target
Others shortlisted: Cannington Brook (non-runner)
2.05 Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle
A two mile five furlong novice hurdle won by some very good horses in recent years, including Peddlers Cross last term. We're looking for an existing level of high class form in the book here, which helps to explain why nine of the last ten winners returned 12/1 or shorter. Even Massini's Maguire, when winning at 20/1 had already finished second and third in grade 2 contests.
So discount anything without top form already. Alas for me, that excludes my ante-post punt in the race, So Young. I backed him at 14's and he's now as short as 10/3 favourite. On the bright side, Willie Mullins has trained two of the last three winners of the race, so he knows what it takes to go close here. Fiveforthree, the 2008 winner, also had a similar low profile build up to the race.
Of the more proven beasties, it's hard to look beyond the flag-bearers for the British and Irish formbooks. Bobs Worth's win in the race with the same name as this back in January here, where he powered past Rock On Ruby, Habbie Simpson, Backspin and the rest, was excellent. Surprisingly, he misses this race in favour of the Albert Bartlett.
Likewise, Oscars Well's double Grade 1 wins are hard to crab in the context of his own back yard, but different ground andÂ opposition here will present a very different challenge. Nevertheless, he did the job with something in hand last time and could improve more than Bobs. If he handles the quicker ground, then he must be very tough to beat.
Selection: Oscars Well (So Young backed already)
Each Way: Habbie Simpson
Others shortlisted: Bobs Worth
2.40 RSA Chase
This is a race where in my opinion far too much has been made of Time For Rupert. He's won two novice chases here over shorter trips, and he's won them well enough. But the last of that pair was in early December and the form of neither race has worked out especially well.
Furthermore, it DEFINITELY doesn't follow that a very good hurdler makes a very good chaser. If Mikael d'Haguenet is not a good enough example, then consider Big Buck's himself, who only went hurdling in the first place because he was below top class as a chaser.
Two chase starts means Time For Rupert is inexperienced, and that could be costly here. No run since mid-December means that many of the horses here could have improved past him. Or at least one or two.
As you've probably gathered, I think that 9/4 is a poor price. I'm not saying Time For Rupert won't win. He has plenty of class and could do no more than prevail in his two chasing runs. But in a race of this nature, where all of the last eleven winners had three or more chasing experiences under their belt, there is no margin for upside in a price around 2/1.
Looking at the rest of the field, demonstrated class is an imperative, as is consistent win or place form. My shortlist comprises five, some of whom don't now run here. They are Jessies Dream, Magnanimity, Quito de la Roque, Wayward Prince, and Wishfull Thinking.
I'd taken a chance with Quito de la Roque, representing last year's owner, The Gigginstown Stud (or Mr Ryanair if you prefer). He'd won his last two easily enough, both Grade 2 novice chases, and both of sodden turf. It was to be taken on trust that he could translate that form to a sounder surface but, although that is a hardy perennial that is proven to be bunk on numerous occasions every year at the Festival, connections felt the ground had gone against him so he's scratched.
Nevertheless, as a general rule of thumb, the fact that a horse has done his winning on a soft surface when all his races have been on such going, doesn't preclude it from actually improving for a faster track. That won't be the case with my ante-post punt here, but there's generally much more margin for forgiveness in a bookie quote of 20/1 than there is in one of 2/1 - about ten times as much! 😉
Wayward Prince is in here, and is another of interest. He never does it the easy way, which arguably makes him look worse than he is (or, arguably, makes him look just as good as he is!). His recent wins have been game enough, and he's unbeaten in three tilts at the big brutes, including in a Grade 2 last time and in a course and distance jaunt last November. 10/1 in places looks fair.
Aiteen Thirtythree has beaten precisely nothing of note in decisive fashion in two starts over fences. Again, he's inexperienced at this level and the trainer was loathe to run him here, which says a fair amount to my eye. That said, the boy clearly has a big engine and connections would love to unearth their 'new Denman' (won this in 2007), so whilst it wouldn't surprise me if he won, I won't be backing him.
Magnanimity is hard to spell. It took me four goes to type that just now, so I'm going to call him Magna from here (that was better, typed it first time!). He was beaten a head in a Grade 1 chase last time over a shorter trip of 2m5f, and his stamina has to be taken on trust, which ultimately I'm not prepared to do here. He might improve for the step up in distance, but most winners have shown already that three miles is their game.
That leaves Jessies Dream and Wishfull Thinking, both of whom are horses I like. The former may be Gordon Elliot's best chance of a Festival winner this year (perhaps excluding Plan A), and is actually in my ten to follow (which is nothing to crow about, as it happens!). He got beaten by Magnam... Maganinini... Magna last time out, but that was a muddling three runner job, and his stamina didn't kick in there.
It may also be possible that he flailed a bit in the heavy going, as his previous wins were on slightly quicker surfaces. He's won over 2m6f, which is still not three miles and I do wonder about the length of this journey. If he were mine (wouldn't it be lovely?!), I'd be more inclined to go at the Jewson, over 2m5f, and for which he is also entered. Not for me in this contest.
Wishfull Thinking is now confirmed to run in the Jewson.
Selection: Wayward Prince
Each Way: Magn... esium Sulphate
Others shortlisted: Jessies Dream, Time For Rupert
3.20 QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE
One of the best races of the Festival, and Wednesday's feature, is the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Big Zeb, last year's winner, takes on Master Minded, the winner in 2008 and 2009, as well as last year's Arkle winner, Sizing Europe, and a robust supporting cast.
It's a race the bookies are clearly finding tough to call, with divergent views about whether to make Zeb or MM the favourite. With six horses available at single figure odds, it's clearly no two horse race, though, so let's go deeper into the form and previous winner profiles.
Firstly, Somersby has won just two of his seven chase starts and, whilst he might well make the frame, I just don't see him winning this. Nor, more obviously according to the odds board at least, can I envisage unlikely triumph for outsiders Mad Max, I'm So Lucky and Cornas.
Golden Silver didn't enjoy it here last year, and one swallow (or, less figuratively, one victory over Big Zeb) does not a summer nor a Queen Mum winner make. Consistent and likeable but not good enough to win a Cheltenham Champion Chase (now there's a cha-cha-cha if ever there was one).
Now let's deal with the two horses in the race that would upset me if they won: Sizing Europe and French Opera. The former has (in)famously cost me plenty with his Cheltenham exploits, as I've backed the bad runs and swerved the win here in the Arkle last year.
The latter was a big ante-post Arkle play for me last term, so it was frustrating (amongst other things) to see him re-routed to lug top weight in the Grand Annual, a task which history repeatedly demonstrates it is impossible to win from. That he was just nailed and finished second hinted to my extremely biased brain that he'd have gone very close in the Arkle.
Academic as that may first appear, it does mean that French Opera and Sizing Europe, my two betes noires (is that how you spell it in the plural?) are closely aligned on Cheltenham form at least. Both could run well, but I can't quite see either being good enough to win.
All of which leaves four contenders. Woolcombe Folly is a complete conundrum to me. Clearly, he's improved massively in the last two seasons. But what does the trainer make of him, I wonder? He ran him in a pair of handicaps earlier this season and, although he was impressive in winning them, dominating sub-par oppo is a different matter from taking on the big boys.
That statement is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that when Woolcombe Folly was stepped up to the Arkle field last year, he finished last of twelve, so adding a solitary duck egg to a string of 1's that stretches back three seasons.
I suspect that he'll be outclassed again here, and it could indeed be another 0 in this chap's rather impressive 'binary' career.
Captain Cee Bee is next, and he wasn't quick enough to pass Sizing Europe in the Arkle last season, so why should he be now? He was also spanked by Big Zeb and Golden Silver last time. He can be expected to do better now with the faster ground, but it's tough to believe he can win.
All of that eliminating leaves two, Big Zeb and Master Minded. But I don't think the finish will be fought out by the pair of them.
Rather, I think that Big Zeb will win, from a chasing posse comprising all or some of Somersby, Sizing Europe and French Opera. Master Minded has I think ceded best to his precocity and is now on the downgrade.
His win in this race as a five year old in 2008 has to be seen to be believed. It remains one of the most monstrously preposterously dominant performances I've seen in a championship event. But last year, he was trumped by not one rival but three, and this year there seems to be more strength in depth again.
I would certainly not begrudge Master Minded winning. On the contrary, I think it would be a fantastic achievement. But the ground might be the key to him. It's interesting to note that two of the only three defeats he's had in recent seasons were on good ground. There's a fair chance he'll encounter that here again.
So it's Big Zeb for me, not confidently, but hopefully. I actually won't be betting in this one and will hope to get through the placepot with Zeb or Sizing or French Opera.
Selection: Big Zeb
Each Way: Sizing Europe, French Opera
Others shortlisted: Somersby, Golden Silver
4.00 Coral Cup
Ah, the Coral Cup, welcome respite from those tricky Championship events in the form of a twenty-something runner three mile handicap hurdle! But, casting aside the obvious lunacy associated with trying to solve a puzzle such as this, there are some good historical pointers as to from where the winner might emerge ('to from'... that didn't sound right - is it grammatically correct?).
First, this is almost exclusively the preserve of the younger guns: 5 to 7 yo's have notched ten of the last eleven runnings. Second, weight stops trains and horses in three mile handicap hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival. So I'll be looking under the 11-03 mark for the winner.
Now let's chuck in recent winning form, ideally this season to thin out the pretenders from the protagonists. More specifically still, how about a last time out win? Six of the last eight winners were following up a win elsewhere in their final prep run.
One that snugly fits the bill (no, not Call The Police... the bill - geddit?) is Tiger O'Toole. He won a very competitive handicap from Walkon and uber-course specialist Lough Derg as Ascot last time, and the 25/1 is cracking value here. It's true that he's not won beyond 2m4f, but the way he finished last time gives hope that there may be more to come. The price also factors in that degree of distance uncertainty.
I'm happy with my Â£15 at 41.6 on Betfair... 🙂
Others to consider are Aegean Dawn (too much weight with 11-03?); Call The Police (too old at eight?); Battle Group (not good enough?); and Ballyhaunis (a player in my opinion).
Obviously in a race of this nature, there are about twenty further 'others to consider' but for the sake of simplicity - and fully cognisant that such basic filtering may well throw the bambino out with the eau de bain (now there's a linguistic bastardisation the likes of which you don't see every day!) - but these are my few against the many.
Selection: Tiger O'Toole
Each Way: Ballyhaunis
Others shortlisted: most with less than 11-04!
4.40 Fred Winter Juvenile Novices Handicap Hurdle
I had my eye on one here, called Domination, and was both surprised and disappointed to see him withdrawn at the five day stage. He would surely have been close to the frame, if not challenging to win. Pity. No matter for there are still plenty to go at, and there's some decent emergent trends to assist.
As another of the novice handicaps at the Festival, winners of this have tended to fit the conspiracy theorist profile. In other words, they've neither won too early nor too often to be lumbered by the handicapper.
More specifically, all of the last five winners (there has only been six runs for this prize) won last time out, and in each case they had not won prior to their third - and handicap mark-defining - hurdle start.
Two of the quintet had run up hat-tricks prior to turning up here, the other three had just those three runs, consisting of two hints at ability and one concrete demonstration of the same.
There are no entries with a sequence of 1's in their recent form, so let's focus solely on those who have progressed in three runs to date and who won last time out. If that seems simplistic, tell me afterwards, when I've won or lost because at this point I've got my fingers in my ears and I'm not listening!
[Besides which, it is a braver and far more cerebral fellow than me who can assimilate the collateral form lines of so many surreptitious novice and handicap hurdle runs to date!]
The shortlist on the three runs and a win last time profile is as follows: Whitby Jack, Plan A, Paintball and Kayef. I've watched some of the runs of these chaps hoping to report something, but in truth the market has it about right as far as I can see.
Plan A's level of form - third behind Sam Winner over course and distance here, and a cosy winner after finding trouble in running last time - is the clear pick of it. And Sanctuaire won this as favourite last year. I think the 6/1 is very good value and can see him being a fair bit shorter at the off.
I know a few people have gone with Whitby Jack, and connections (the shrewd Gary Moore yard) are respected. But whilst he was undoubtedly allowed to coast home on his second start over obstacles, his win last time is tough to rate as much more than moderate. He raced on the quicker ground all the way round, beat nothing of any note whatsoever, and jumped awfully. 12/1 would not be for me, despite the nigh on certainty of improvement for better ground and the fact that this is the target.
Paintball and Kayef are the two I like at the prices. Charlie Longsdon is a trainer on the up (seventeen winners last season, 31 and counting this term), and Paintball has at least shown credible form in his improving fledgling career.
A frustrating sort on the flat - eight places from fifteen flat starts, but only two wins - he looked liked that might be the case over timber too, when runner up on debut. Next time he floundered in the heavier going, and finished sixth when a shortish favourite.
Finally, at the third time of asking he managed to win, and comprehensive it was too, by a dozen lengths in a reasonable field. He lines up with a shout.
The one I have backed already (actually, one of two with the absent Domination) is Michael Scudamore's Kayef. Formerly owned by Hamdan al Maktoum and raced in France, where he won a minor even at Lyon, Scudamore Snr. has always had an eye for a decent French-bred, and the Â£30,000 they paid for him may be recouped here.
He ran in two decent races where he showed progression from the first to the second (9th behind Sam Winner at Cheltenham, 4th in a decent race on heavy ground at Sandown) before bolting up at Sandown in another fair juvenile event. 25/1 looks good value for a speculative poke at a horse with the right profile.
Selection: Plan A
Each Way: Kayef, Paintball
Others shortlisted: Whitby Jack
5.15 Weatherbys Champion Bumper
I did once back the winner in this race, but I was drunk at the time and chose the horse for his name (Total Enjoyment, in 1994). So many 'could be anything' types that it amazes me how much money is hurled around the betting ring. It's quite possible we'll have left the track by the time they go off for this one as it's certainly not a favourite race of mine.
Big field form and a last time out win do little to pare things down to a shortlist,Â nor does age. 4yo's have an acceptable record with two from forty obliging (5%), and given that they were at 40/1 (Cue Card, last year) and 16/1 (Rhythm Section 1993, beat another 4yo) that'd be a nice way to turn a profit.
A stab in the dark is Ericht, who won a good race at Newbury won by Al Ferof the year before. That one went on to conquer all bar the runaway Cue Card in this last season, and Ericht might go one better.
I'll back him up with Knight Pass, who has slaughtered the opposition in his two runs to date, and will improve again. Erm, they'll pretty much all improve again...
It wouldn't surprise me if Oscar Magic or Cinders And Ashes ran decent races as the four year old representatives, either. But then nothing in this contest would surprise me and it's most definitely one to keep the powder protected if not totally dry.
Each Way: Knight Pass
Others shortlisted: Oscar Magic, Cinders And Ashes, everything else!
And that concludes the Wednesday, Day Two, Cheltenham Festival preview. I shall be there, and very excited I am too (it's a long time since I've been and I've almost forgotten how impossible it is to get a bet on, go to the toilet, get a drink or anything to eat,Â see the racing, leave the track, etc).
I'll have my Thursday thoughts probably on Thursday morning, so look out for those.
In the meantime, how was Tuesday for you? And what do you like tomorrow? Leave a comment and share the joy / misery with us. We know how you feel... 😛