Cheltenham Festival 2015: Day One Preview, Trends, Tips
The biggest event in National Hunt racing is finally upon us once more, and the collective noisy exhalation as the tapes rise for race one - the Supreme Novices' Hurdle - will be enough to extinguish many an inferno, such is the joy and anticipation engendered by these four days in the Cotswolds.
Seven races make up the Tuesday card, four of them Grade 1 contests, and Willie Mullins has robust claims in all of that top notch quartet.
Before we start, don't forget there's a tipping competition here on geegeez with some excellent prizes this week. Here's how you can get involved.
And there is a new bet which might be of interest to some (it is to me!). The Irish Tote are offering a Pick 4 on the first four races (Supreme, Arkle, Festival Handicap Chase, Champion Hurdle). Find out more here.
1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle Preview
I previewed the Supreme Novices' on 17th February, nominating a couple at huge prices in Seedling and Silver Concorde, both of which were 33/1 at the time. I also threw in 6/1 Nichols Canyon to win any race at the Festival, with his final target being unknown at that time. Two of those are now shorter propositions to hit their respective targets, though Silver Concorde has not been declared.
Douvan remains the most likely winner, his easy victories to date in decent times supplementing a home reputation where trainer Willie Mullins has called him "as nice a horse as we’ve ever had going to Cheltenham". Given that Mullins has 33 Cheltenham Festival winners already in the locker, that's some statement.
Now, of course, the run up to the Festival is renowned for enough hot air to fuel a transatlantic balloon race; but still, such a statement from the normally measured Closutton trainer needs respecting.
The plot is thickened by similarly bullish noises emerging from the Seven Barrows camp of second favourite, L'Ami Serge. His trainer, Nicky Henderson, has been quoted thus: "I am not saying L’Ami Serge is the best I‘ve ever had but he’s looked good in all his starts. He’s been very professional and has everything you look for and better ground will suit him.”
Sound bites can cloud judgement, and it is probable that both will have to record a career high to claim the opening race prize. But that's a comment which applies to the rest of the field too, and the top two in the market have to make smaller leaps than most.
In a race perennially typified by unexposed 'could be anything' types, and with bookmakers offering generous concessions to those backing losers - or losers behind Douvan - it's worth shopping around and taking a punt on whatever you like.
Likely Pace Angles:
A couple that like to get on with it, in Some Plan and one of Willie's four, Tell Us More. Douvan and Sizing John might also race up with the pace, and it looks likely to be a very stern test from the tape rise.
Suggested day of race play: Back Douvan for £25 with Hills and anything else for £50 with Paddy. If Douvan wins, you'll collect at Hills and get your money back (as a free bet) on the Paddy loser. If Douvan doesn't win, you have a chance with Paddy and get your money back (as a free bet) with Hills.
0.5 pt win Silver Concorde 33/1 Non-Runner
0.5 pt win Seedling 33/1
Best Supreme Novices' Hurdle offers:
a. William.Hill (all customers)
Money back as a free bet if your win or each way bet doesn't come in. Max stake £25. Click here to get this offer.
b. Padd.yPower (all customers)
Money back on all losing bets if Douvan wins the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Max stake £50. Click here to get this offer.
c. Sky.bet (all customers)
Money back as a free bet if your horse loses in the Supreme. Max stake £25. Click here to get this offer.
d. Coral (all customers)
Place a £20 win or £10 each way bet on the Supreme, and get a free £5 bet for every winner Ruby Walsh rides on Tuesday. Click here to get this offer.
2.05 Arkle Challenge Trophy Preview
Another of the early preview races, the Arkle was considered on 26th January here, and Vibrato Valtat advised each way. He was nominated at 20/1, and is now around 5/1, so we have the value at the very least.
That value has long evaporated, and with Un De Sceaux hovering around the 4/6 mark, he's hardly an attractive proposition either, especially given that he bids to become just the second front runner in the last 34 Arkles to prevail.
Still, both have solid chances, particularly UDS, as any ratings agency will tell you. But Mullins' second hotpot of Day One has yet to race at Cheltenham, and this is a track where plenty of tall reputations are unhinged. He is the most likely winner - by some considerable margin - but he can't be a bet at the price, unless you have a lot of sixes that you're prepared to lose in pursuit of fours...
Each way a quarter the odds, or betting without UDS, are both interesting markets. And I'm tempted to top up my ante-post play on Vibrato Valtat with a day of race interest in Court Minstrel. He's unexposed, and can be forgiven his most recent defeat on account of the soft ground. Back on quicker turf, and with Cheltenham form in the book, 33/1 is attractive.
For pennies, Gods Own could come back to a bit of his early season form on spring ground, but it's a fair old leap of faith.
And the final option is to make an each way bet with Paddy, perhaps on one of those mentioned above, who offer money back as a free bet on the win part if Un De Sceaux scores, up to £50.
Likely Pace Angles:
Un De Sceaux will go from the tape according to all known thinking. But there are others that like to lead too: Dunraven Storm, God's Own, and Sail By The Sea have all been leading in their chase careers to date.
Suggested day of race play: Back your fancy (perhaps Court Minstrel) each way up to £50 with Paddy. If Un De Sceaux wins, you'll get your money back (as a free bet) on the Paddy loser. If Un De Sceaux doesn't win, you have a chance of the win as well as the place with Paddy.
1pt e/w Vibrato Valtat 20/1 (1/4 1-2-3)
Best Arkle Trophy offers:
a. Padd.yPower (all customers)
Money back on all losing bets if Un De Sceaux wins the Arkle. Max stake £50. Click here to get this offer.
b. B.oylesports (all customers, MOBILE only)
Money back as a free bet on bets placed via mobile if Un De Sceaux fails to win the Arkle. Max stake £25. Click here to get this offer.
2.40 Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase
The first handicap of the week, and I'm not ashamed to admit I find Cheltenham Festival handicaps a little beyond me. That said, with ten of the last fourteen runnings of this race going to a horse priced 10/1 or shorter, shy punters such as myself have a bit of a chance.
12/17 winners since 1997 finished 1-2-3 last time out, and last time out winners specifically have a very good record (seven winners from 60 runners, and a profit of 23 points at SP).
Horses aged seven to ten have won all bar one of those seventeen renewals (94%), from 77% of the runners.
Only one of the 75 horses rated above 145 has won.
Ned Stark is a leading fancy, and he ticks the boxes too. A novice - novices have a fine record - Alan King's seven year old has run just four times over fences, winning three of those events, including a Grade 2 over this trip last time. Most of his form is on soft ground, but he has won on good to soft.
He's open to further improvement, and looks a solid play, especially given King's record in the race: two wins and a third (plus Bensalem, who was travelling like the winner when falling two out) since 2004.
Jonjo O'Neill also has a great race record, with three wins from just eight runners since 2009. Even with that impressive CV, it's hard to get too excited about either Dursey Sound or Lost Legend, at 40/1 and 50/1 respectively. The former is four pounds lower than when second on fast ground in a Listed handicap chase at Market Rasen last September, form which is mildly compelling but doesn't look good enough; the latter has run as though this trip is beyond his stamina reach.
JP McManus loves a winner at Cheltenham - don't we all?! - and he's got more than just Dursey Sound in here. Indeed, the main plunge of the week has been on his Pendra, trained by Charlie Longsdon. Third in the novices' handicap chase that closes the Tuesday card last year, he's been held back for this since a fair - but no better than that - fourth of eight at Newbury in late November. That's a long break and, although the wind op has been levied since, he's too short to bet despite potential to step forward after just six chase starts.
More speculatively, The Druids Nephew stays well and has decent track form, and Barrakilla could improve for the step up in trip. But I'm happy to punt Ned Stark for small money.
Likely Pace Angles:
Annacotty, Azure Fly, Black Thunder, and What A Warrior all go from the front, but this has the look of a bit of a strung out field in the early part of the race. Those who race close to the pace could be favoured, and that brings in the likes of Ned Stark, Smart Freddy, The Druid's Nephew, Barakilla and Indian Castle amongst others.
Tips: Ned Stark 8/1 general
Best Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase offers:
Look for a bookmaker paying enhanced place odds. Winner Sports, bet365, BetVictor and Betfair Sportsbook are all paying five places at time of writing.
3.15 Champion Hurdle
The Champion Hurdle is the feature on Day One, and the pinnacle for a speed hurdler. In what has the look of a transitional season, Faugheen has seized the market initiative with a bulldozing dominance that has seen him win all eight of his careers starts without coming off the bridle.
That octet includes the Grade 1 Neptune Novices' Hurdle at last year's Cheltenham Festival, and that race has been a solid portent to future Champion Hurdlers, with the likes of Istabraq and Hardy Eustace going on to win multiple Blue Ribands.
Faugheen has a bit to find on the book, of that there is little doubt, but it is the manner of his wins as much as the horses he's beaten that really stands out. His wins include a trio of Grade 1 scores, where the in running comments concluded with the following phrases: "drew clear before last, ridden out", "very easily", and "impressive".
I am rarely taken with the manner of a horse's victories - just as well, because I wouldn't consider myself a judge of such things - but I did have the biggest bet in my portfolio for Cheltenham this year on Faugheen at 8/1 after that Punchestown demolition job.
He has been off the track a long time now - since Boxing Day - and he has to take on tougher opponents, but he clearly has more in the tank. If any bookie is brave enough to offer north of 6/4, he's a bet. At the moment, he's probably a bit skinny, though comfortably the most likely winner to my eye.
The New One is the horse I cannot have. If he wins, fair enough, I got it wrong. But I just don't think his form amounts to all that much. If Faugheen has been beating up inferiors, he's at least done it with zest. Whereas TNO's struggle to get by 149-rated Bertimont (who?!) gives him a stone and more to find with Faugheen on a line through Purple Bay.
Now I'm not for a minute suggesting that inference of collateral form is correct, but it does rather detract from the claims of the second favourite. Prior to that he beat Vaniteux less than five lengths in a race working out appallingly; and before that he won a Class 2 beating Zamdy Man, no better than a Grade 3 horse. Keep going back and he beat Hint Of Mint, 0 from 4 since, by just over two lengths.
Despite his ostensibly unlucky run in last season's Champion Hurdle, I simply cannot see how he is the 3/1 second favourite. That Champion Hurdle run showed that he probably wants more of a trip, as when winning the Neptune two years ago. He just doesn't have the pace of Faugheen, nor the class. At least, I don't think he does.
Jezki is hard to fathom. He's the reigning champ, and he's not had his conditions since. Fair enough, but he was the beneficiary of a brilliant Geraghty ride last year, and I don't believe that McCoy has the finesse to pull off some of the stunts that BJG and Ruby do. McCoy is more driven, and better at galvanizing horses, but Ruby and Barry are better horsemen and, dare I say it, better race riders. In my opinion.
Still, he looks highly likely for the frame, and 5/1 each way will show a positive return for a podium finish, with a bit of a chance of claiming top honours. If there is any value in this market - and I don't think there probably is - then he'd be it.
Hurricane Fly will not be quick enough. He's obviously an incredible horse: a horse of a generation. But aged eleven, against a tuned-to-the-moment Jezki and the machine called Faugheen, he's not going to win. Like Jezki, he might make the frame, but he's only the right price at 8/1 and not a value one.
I feel that Arctic Fire has been flattered by his proximity to the Fly and Jezki this season, and I don't expect him to hit the board, and the rest surely don't count. This really ought to be all about Fo-heeeeen!
Likely Pace Angles:
Faugheen can make his own running if necessary, though Kitten Rock does have the look of a spoiler with the aim to set things up for Jezki. Of course, Faugheen doesn't need to lead so may sit tight behind any trailblazing tactics.
Tips: Faugheen if 6/4 or bigger, otherwise watch a great race with a valueless (to my eye) market
Suggested day of race play: Look out for bookies trying to 'get' Faugheen, and take any 6/4+. Take your pick in the 'without' market especially if, like me, you're against The New One.
Best Champion Hurdle offers:
a. 88.8sport (NEW customers)
Get 4/1 Faugheen to win the Champion Hurdle (paid in cash, NOT free bets). Max stake £10. Click here to get this offer.
b. Winner.Sports (NEW customers)
Get 4/1 Faugheen to win the Champion Hurdle (settled at SP in cash, enhanced odds paid in free bets). Min/Max stake £10. Click here to get this offer.
4.00 Mares' Hurdle
No Quevega this year but, even without the winner of six of the seven Mares' Hurdles, her trainer Willie Mullins has a ready-made replacement in the shape of Annie Power, who will win this barring accidents.
Her best trip is two and a half miles, she is rated half a stone and more superior to her field, and she's only been beaten once - when a close second in the World Hurdle last term. Whether she failed to stay or not is a moot point. What is clear is that she loves this trip and this ground, and she has proven she acts on the track.
She might add 50% to any other wager you care to strike during the Festival or beyond, or for the more loaded guns, she might be playable to win plenty, as she still retains a soupçon (or perhaps a scintilla) of value in my view.
Alternatively, we can bet each way, without the favourite, or have a cut at an exacta. Glens Melody is credible but terribly short at 7/2 despite a facile Listed race win at Warwick last time. She was flattered by her three-quarter length proximity to Quevega last year, that one being the recipient of a rare moderate ride from Ruby and having to work very hard to make up her ground.
One that I like, despite a 106 day absence, is the 2013 Aintree 4yo Hurdle winner, L'Unique. She was third in the race last year, having been given a fairly tender ride I felt. She is held up in her races and, with a few mares likely to push on from the get go, the race could fall apart nicely for her. 8/1 without Annie Power looks a fair bet.
Polly Peachum, who is above L'Unique in the market but below Glens Melody, has been off for as long as the suggested 'without' wager, having pulled up in the same race. She probably wants a bit further than this, and could be outpaced. Similar comments apply to Carole's Spirit, who might want cut underfoot too.
Likely Pace Angles:
A big field of 16 declared, and a few that habitually run from the front, including Annie Power. She's joined in the early pace group by Bitofapuzzle, Carole's Spirit (who I can see trying to make this as stern a stamina test as she can, given she wants three miles), and Sureness.
Tips: Annie Power looks very likely to win. And L'Unique may offer each way or 'without' value.
Suggested day of race play: L'Unique each way without Annie Power, at 7/1 Skybet (1/4 1-2-3)
Mares' Hurdle offers:
4.40 National Hunt Chase
Four miles, 25 fences, novice chasers, amateur jockeys: if your idea of a Cheltenham bet is in this race, you're a braver (or more foolhardy) man or woman than me!
That said, and despite the precarious race conditions, it has been a punter-friendly race since the class ceiling was relaxed. Changes in 2002, 2006 and 2010 have brought about four winners at 5/1 or shorter in that time.
That, however, needs to be balanced by the presence of a 40/1 winner, two more at 33/1 and a further victor returning 25/1 in the same period. The coin spins a final time to reflect the fact that the last four winners were priced 8/1 or shorter, and the last seven were 14/1 or shorter.
Grade 1 form seems to be more material now the race is open to classier animals, and interestingly young horses (specifically five- and six-year-olds) are one from 67 since 1989 (thanks to Paul Jones for that stat). That counts against Very Wood, Cogry and Vivaldi Collonges.
I have to be honest and say this race doesn't interest me a great deal, even now it's a classier affair. Very Wood was a bet I made for the RSA Chase non-runner money back, and I'm disappointed to see him turn up here. He does stay, however, and he won a Grade 1 last year, so if he can jump round he's an obvious chance, albeit one factored entirely into his price of 7/2. He absolutely needs quick ground and his form on deeper can be totally forgotten.
Alan King's Sego Success is next in the betting. Winner of his last two, the latter a Listed novices' chase on soft ground, he'll have the considerable services of Sam Waley-Cohen, the Gold Cup-winning amateur. But there are reservations for me. First, he's been winning on flat tracks, second he's been winning on soft ground, and third he's by Beneficial who doesn't get progeny that stay four miles. (In fact, he's had just two winners beyond 3m3f, from 106 runners, and one of those was at 3m4f - 6/4 chance Salsify in the 2012 Stratford Champion Foxhinters'. The other was Beneficial's very first runner at a marathon distance, GVA Ireland, in the 2006 Midlands Grand National).
Next in at around 8/1 are The Job Is Right and Cause Of Causes. Both are Irish-trained, and both have very good amateur jockeys aboard. The Job Is Right ran second to Very Wood in a fair Galway novices' chase on good to yielding, but that was over 2m6f. Despite winning on softer at three miles, this is an entirely different test. He did have decent quick ground form over hurdles, but it's not in the same league as Very Wood.
Cause Of Causes is very experienced, with 26 career starts, ten over fences. He was a close second to Spring Heeled in the Kim Muir last year at the Festival, which proves a) he goes on quick ground, b) he has some class, and c) he goes well for an amateur. As such, he has to be on the shortlist for this race.
The top official rated in the race is Sandra Hughes' Thunder And Roses. Third behind Very Wood in a Grade 2 last time, the problem with this potentially emotional winner (trained by the daughter of the late Dessie Hughes) is that all his best form is on softer.
Willie Mullins runs the King's Theatre gelding, Perfect Gentleman, and his son rides. But he doesn't look likely to stay this far, and is a bit of a sticky jumper in any case.
No, by a process of elimination, this does look good for the jolly. And the each way play, if such a thing excites you, looks very likely to be Cause Of Causes, who will probably be backed as a result of his form last year at the Festival.
Likely Pace Angles:
Royal Palladium and I Need Gold should force the pace. Perfect Candidate, The Job Is Right and Vivaldi Collonges could be in the next group, and possibly Perfect Gentleman if not held up to get the trip. Very Wood will likely not be too far from the pace as well. Cause Of Causes looks likely to play his hand fairly late in what might be an attritional affair, on the second circuit at least.
1pt win Very Wood
1/2 pt e/w Cause Of Causes
National Hunt Chase offers:
None so far, but look out for a bookie paying four places if you're betting each way.
5.15 Novices' Handicap Chase
One of the newest races at the Festival, the clamour for places in the field has led to a most compressed handicap in the past couple of years. In 2013, just eight pounds separated top and bottom weight; last year it was nine pounds; and this year it is a mere six.
As such, all horses can be said to have publicly demonstrated very similar levels of ability to date. The winner, though, will be the one best suited to conditions and, tellingly, who has kept the most talent under wraps.
It is therefore no surprise that eight of the ten winners of this race failed to score on either of their first two chase starts; that eight of the ten winners were first or second last time out; and that five of the last six winners were making their handicap chase débuts. Such is the nature of this race.
Those with attractive profiles in that context include Generous Ransom, Thomas Crapper, Horizontal Speed and Keltus.
Nick Gifford's Generous Ransom has won over the distance and at the course, and his best form is on the soft side of good. He failed to win on his first two chase starts, and was perhaps unsuited by the flat track test at Kempton betwixt soft ground victories at stiffer Sandown and Cheltenham. He looks an obvious player.
Mouse Morris runs the consistent Dromnea, winner of two of his six chases and third in the other four, the most recent of which was a Grade 2. He looks as though his best trip is two and a half miles, but he also looks like he needs soft or heavy ground to perform optimally.
This is a race the Irish have won just once, and I'd be thinking they'll still be looking for strike two when dusk shades the sky tomorrow evening.
Horizontal Speed looks a contender. Placed efforts behind Golden Hoof, Southfield Theatre and Saphir Du Rheu in his first trio of chases read well enough - though he was beaten miles in the middle run - and he got off the mark comfortably when slamming Red Devil Boys over this trip and on this ground in early January.
A 59 day absence is not insurmountable, and trainer Philip Hobbs has a fine recent Festival record, scoring with three handicap chasers since 2010. When you consider that Horizontal Speed was first or second in nine of ten bumpers and hurdle races earlier in his career, he becomes quite attractive.
Thomas Crapper has been well supported, and both he and Keltus have chances, sneaking in as they do at the bottom of the weights. Robin Dickin's lad is yet to win in five chase starts to date, but second place runs behind Vibrato Valtat, Three Kingdoms and Irish Saint, and a close third to Court Minstrel, read extremely well in the handicap context. This was his trip over hurdles, and he was second in the Martin Pipe handicap last season. Definite chance.
Keltus runs for Paul Nicholls, and has a similar profile. Fourth in the Fred Winter last term, he's been looked after in three novice chases this season, most notably when close up behind Court Minstrel. Although his trainer's record in Festival chases in recent seasons is lamentable, that's likely down to happenstance more than an ebbing of ability in the Ditcheat handler. Thus, Keltus merits serious consideration.
Likely Pace Angles:
Stellar Notion could get a soft lead even in a field this big. That said, Keltus, Killala Quay, Golden Hoof and Horizontal Speed are all capable of taking a turn on the front. Interestingly, perhaps, Thomas Crapper has led twice and been held up twice in his last four runs. On his winning runs he has assumed a variety of positions, and that pace agnosticism should help him.
1pt Thomas Crapper at 8/1 Coral
1/2 pt Horizontal Speed at 16/1 Skybet, Boyle, Betfair Sportsbook
1/2 pt Keltus at 12/1 Ladbrokes
Novices' Handicap Chase offers:
Look for a bookmaker paying five places.
BetVictor and Betfair Sportsbook are already five places, and there are sure to be more following suit.