The first seven races of the Cheltenham Festival 2012 are behind us, and the remaining twenty now loom large...
For me personally, it was carnage. Not just punting losses which are always expendable and tolerable in equal measure.
But the loss of two horses I held as warriors.
I'm not one for sentimentalism, nor for kneejerk reaction, but it is now time that Jockey Club Racecourses dispense with the false information around their Cheltenham going descriptions.
Scotsirish and Garde Champetre, the two who paid the ultimate price on the cross country course, may well have taken their chances irrespective of the going description. But I strongly suspect that the actual going was more akin to firm, hard in places, than the advertised conditions.
Indeed, a final time fully 12.3 seconds quicker than standard lends credence to my contention.
I'll write on this more in due course, when I have both more time and more evidence. For now though, suffice it to say that I don't believe it was coincidence or solely misfortune that those horses passed on the track yesterday.
Let's move on, for despite the sombre notes, this remains a festival of equine sport, and there is much still to consider on the bright side...
...including Sprinter Sacre's demolition of a short field in the Arkle. He outjumped them, outran them, and outclassed them, and finished up the hill as well as he started down it.
It's hard to see what will trouble him in the champion chase division, with Sizing and Big Zeb well into double digits age wise, and both Al Ferof and Cue Card highly likely to go up in trip.
To today. Whatever Tuesday had in store for you, there are no guarantees that Day Two will see you continue that trajectory, whether it was up, down, or flat line. So, with the wallet charged, let's hurtle forth into the...
1.30 Cheltenham - National Hunt Chase
The four miler. For amateur riders. Aboard novice chasers.
If ever a race was designed NOT to bet in, this is surely it.
Last year, Chicago Grey was the first outright favourite to win for nearly twenty years, and in the last nine years there have been winners at 40/1, 33/1 twice, and 25/1.
We want a horse that finished in the first four last time out (as twelve of the last fourteen did). We also probably want a horse aged seven or eight, as ten of the last twelve were.
An interesting fact is that, since 1997, eight of the fourteen winners had run either three or four times over fences. From an average of 6.5 contenders each year, that group has included winners at 11/1, 9/1, 33/1, 40/1, 5/1, 25/1, 10/1 and 33/1 !
In fact, using these three stats (age, last time out placing, number of chase starts) creates a lovely mini-system, which has found five winners from 49 runners, and made a 68 point profit at SP.
Given that it's been responsible for twelve placed horses, you can increase the strike rate from a little over 10% to a little under 25% and get four more points profit by dividing/doubling your stakes and betting each way.
- Aged 7 or 8
- Placed in first four last time
- Had three or four previous chase starts
The four who qualify are Iron Chancellor, Universal Soldier, Allee Garde, and State Benefit.
Perhaps Allee Garde and Iron Chancellor will appreciate the ground the best.
Of the non-winning years with this approach (2007, 9, 10, 11), all bar Chicago Grey had been handicap chasing, and Chicago Grey had lots of course form and ran in a Grade 1 novice last time.
2.05 Cheltenham - Neptune Novices' Hurdle
Back to the Grade 1 stuff, and the Neptune - over 2m5f - is a good test of a horse's speed and stamina.
The clear focus is on five and six year olds, and only one of the last fourteen renewals has gone to a horse priced higher than 12/1, so maybe this is a race in which to focus on the top of the market.
With Willie Mullins (wisely?) going to the longer 'potato race' (Albert Bartlett) with his seven year old, Boston Bob, we have a clear favourite in Simonsig.
Simonsig has a decent profile for the race, but is trained by Hendo (Nicky Henderson), who record in this race is 0-22, and in recent years he's had horses beaten at 4/1, 11/2, 6/1, 9/1 and 10/1. Indeed, his best finish from those was fifth with Finian's Rainbow in 2010.
He has a favourite's chance but isn't for me. Personally, I'm looking to the Irish here, as they've won four of the last six.
This brings in Monksland and Sous Les Cieux. Whilst the former is trained by Noel Meade, whose Cheltenham record is moderate, and the latter is trained by Willie Mullins, whose Cheltenham record is not moderate, I have a slight preference for the Monk.
Sous Les Cieux travels very well in his races, but has been a bit sketchy with his jumping, and that's a worry here. Saying that, he did remarkably well to get second in the Deloitte last time, having been miles out of his ground and passing all bar the front-running 50/1 winner, Benefficient.
That one re-opposes here, but it's hard to envisage him getting his own way in front to the same extent in a Cheltenham Grade 1.
Monksland has been off a while, but he was authoritative in seeing off Lyreen Legend and the rest last time, and that one has franked the form since by winning a Grade 2. I don't buy the 'Meade Cheltenham hoodoo' theory and this is a trainer who is having an annus mirabilis this season (29% win rate and 40 points level stakes profit with all hurdlers).
Meade reckons Monksland will be better on better ground - he's only run on soft to heavy so far, and will get the word 'good' and possibly the word 'firm' in the description here - and I think this chap has a very good chance.
Of the rest, Batonnier was impressive last time here at Cheltenham and travelled into it beautifully there. But that was a major step up in his form, and it's possible he won't repeat it. In any case, he's likely to need to be able to improve on it by around seven pounds, and I don't see that happening.
Make Your Mark is another interesting Irish contender, who was third on heavy ground behind Boston Bob last time in a Grade 2. He might be better on good going, as when winning a maiden hurdle by ten lengths the time before, but he needs to improve a stone and more to feature here, which is probably too much, despite the fact that he is bound to improve to some degree.
Monksland for Meade, to give him his second win in the race since 2006, and for me.
2.40 Cheltenham - RSA Chase
The staying novice chasers return to the fore, this time the classiest among them, for the RSA Chase, a slog through three miles and half a furlong. With Grands Crus headed here, the market is made for anything you else you might fancy.
I'm against GC. He is the probably the best horse in the race, but a real stamina test against street fighters is unlikely to see him in his favoured light. Plus, he's been off longer than any winner in the last 48 years! And, he won the Feltham on his last start, a 'staying sprint' around Kempton, which has yielded no RSA winners from the seventeen Feltham winners which tried to double up.
Of course, he could upset all those stats. But it's unlikely, to my eye at least. And that means value elsewhere.
The next in, and my idea of the winner, is Bobs Worth. This chap was beaten in the Feltham by Grands Crus; he was beaten in the Reynoldstown by Invictus; and in each defeat my belief in his RSA credentials waxed.
He's three from three here at Chelters, all over hurdles. He stays like only Les Dawson's mother-in-law stays. And he's a scrapper. If he doesn't get run off his feet early (which is possible) and if he jumps a bit more cleverly (which is necessary), he'll be the one barreling up the hill when white flags are the order of the hour.
Elsewhere, there are a few dark'uns lurking. I loved Join Together's win here in December. His jumping that day was the epitome of exuberant. The way he pinged the last gave me the impression that he could have gone round again, and he clearly comes here with a chance. He jumps and he stays.
But... he's not been seen since that day, which was over three months ago. And that is a big negative. A huge negative. Why has he been off? Must have been a niggle or he'd have run, surely?
The RSA is a race for match fitness, and the last nine winners had placed in a Grade 1 or 2 chase. Join Together has not run above Class 2, which is some way short of the merit of others in this race. He's a very nice horse, but I doubt this will be his day.
Then comes the Gigginstown horse, First Lieutenant. Won here last year. Won here last year off a long break. So he's one horse where it's possible that he could overcome that match fitness. And Rock On Ruby did it yesterday.
But still, it's hard to ignore the record of nearly half a century of history. And, in any case, he's not been that brilliant thus far over fences, albeit on softer ground than he'd want.
Bobs Worth for me.
3.20 Cheltenham - Queen Mother Champion Chase
The feature race of the day, and one I've covered elsewhere - here in fact .
Essentially, I believe this is 'bar a fall' for Sizing Europe, and I hope he wins. He's a great horse, with a great Cheltenham record, and I'd like to see him cement that here.
The opposition are mainly has been's and never-will-be's. Big Zeb may be better than his last run, but he's not fifteen lengths better, and he needs to find that much to tie with Sizing, who is a better horse here in any case.
Finian's Rainbow doesn't have much in the book to imply he can beat Sizing, and I make him a weak finisher.
So we're into each way value territory again, and my two against the field are Kauto Stone and Blazing Tempo.
Read the reasons why in my Champion Chase preview.
4.00 Cheltenham - Coral Cup
Not until the twelfth race of the meeting are we greeted with the first of the handicap hurdles, the Coral Cup. Run over 2m5f, this is a proper stamina test for participants, and many are rolling sideways after the turn for home.
Younger, lower-weighted horses are the ones to side with. Specifically, eleven of the last twelve winners were aged five, six or seven; and only Sky's The Limit won this off a higher mark than 11-02.
Last year's winner was Carlito Brigante, for Gordon Elliot and Gigginstown, and they were confident of another great effort this year, with Toner d'Oudairies.
But he's been withdrawn, presumably because of the ground, and they rely on joint-topweight Carlito for the double.
To the stats: all of the last nine winners had won at least once in their last four starts.
Those who have include Tenor Nivernais, First Fandango, and Veiled.
I love Venetia Williams at Cheltenham, and Tenor Nivernais is of interest to me. The ground might just be quick enough though. And both First Fandango and Veiled have plenty of fast ground form.
As a former course winner in a Listed contest, Veiled gets the vote.
Not, though, a race I'll be playing for more than pennies. Too hard.
4.40 Cheltenham - Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle
You wait twelve races for a handicap hurdle, and then two come along at once!
There are only seven years of info to work with, but some decent themes are manifesting themselves already.
We're looking for late developers (relatively at least), with all seven winners not having won prior to their third start, and not having made their British/Irish debut before late November.
An amazing stat, courtesy of Paul Jones, is that three of the seven winners were the highest rated flat horse in the race that year. Moreover, last year, the highest rated flat horse beat the second highest rated flat horse. Given they were priced at 9/1 and 33/1, that’s of interest in a big way.
And still further, another top rated flat horse finished second. The top-rated flat horse is Lemon Drop Red, rated 81.
He has the traditional three runs and win at the third attempt profile, and looks interesting for those two points alone.
This race is a bit too hard for me, but the ones with three runs after late November, and only a last time out win (or no win at all), constitute some sort of shortlist, and are – flat rating in brackets:
Argocat (75), Edeymi (-), Soliwery (-), Lemon Drop Red (81).
5.15 Cheltenham - Champion Bumper
After two impossible handicaps, it gets no easier as Wednesday's 'getting out stakes' is the flat race for young, unexposed horses with very little cross-pollination of form lines.
Here is a true case of pays your money, takes your choice.
Best Irish form horse I'm told is Moscow Mannon. Best British is probably Village Vic, though Horatio Hornblower could improve past him.
Aside from that trio, I find the once raced winners of interest as they've popped up at 12/1 and 40/1 in the last four years. Of those, Il Presidente, Many Clouds and Cool George might be most interesting.
This isn't a race I bet in especially, but I will probably have a small interest on Horatio Hornblower, Il Presidente and Cool George. Moscow Mannon is well respected.
And that concludes a particularly tricky looking Day 2 card. I think (and hope) Sizing Europe can do the business. I also want to see Bobs Worth prevail, though the ground may have gone more in Grands Crus' favour (in terms of making the race less attritional).
After that, Monksland may be the next best. And after that, it's time for the prayer mat.
The very best of luck with your 'death or glory' picks, and let's hope that when we speak tomorrow, we're talking of glory not death for our beloved and most valiant four-legged friends.