Day 2 of the greatest show on turf, the Cheltenham Festival, is expected to feature a Royal Procession as its centrepiece. Douvan, long odds-on in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, will take some stopping but there are six other races where win betting may offer more appealing - if less secure - propositions.
An intermediate distance Grade 1 novices' hurdle features horses considered not to have the requisite speed for the Supreme or the necessary stamina for the Albert Bartlett. That is probably an unfair way to describe a race which has proven a pretty reliable barometer to the following season's Champion Hurdle.
This season's field is spearheaded by the exciting Neon Wolf, trained by Harry Fry. He's unbeaten in a point, a bumper and two hurdle races, the most recent of which was the Grade 2 Rossington Main Novices' Hurdle at Haydock. There he beat Elgin by nine lengths, pouring on the pressure from the top of the straight and eventually drawing clear.
That form looks fair, with runner up Elgin filling the same position behind River Wylde in another G2, and scheduled to run in Tuesday's opener, the Supreme.
Good ground, which it may be by post time, is an unknown for a horse that has raced exclusively on soft or good to soft, and if there is a chink in the Wolf's armour, it could be his ability to handle - and quicken - on faster turf. Still, he's comfortably the most likely winner.
The leading man in the Irish challenge will be Bacardys, who stayed on well to run down stablemate Bunk Off Early in the Grade 1 Deloitte over two and a quarter miles last time. This extra three furlongs should suit and, as with Neon Wolf, the Supreme - Bunk Off Early's Festival target - will give us a line to the merit of the form.
Bacardys has previous Festival form, having been a two length third in the Champion Bumper last season and would likely be unbeaten over hurdles if not falling on his timber-topping debut.
Messire Des Obeaux is, like Bacardys, a Grade 1 winner, having scored in the Challow at Newbury on New Year's Eve. He's since found Keeper Hill a neck too good when collared close home in the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon. It's possible he was dossing in front that day, and/or that trainer Alan King had left a bit to work on, so MDO is a definite place player.
Keeper Hill, for his part, is progressing apace and was completing a hat-trick of novice hurdle wins in the aforementioned Sidney Banks, in receipt of eight pounds. He's quite stoutly bred so it wouldn't be any surprise if he continued his upward trajectory with a bold showing. 20/1 will be attractive to some.
Ben Pauling is a trainer quietly making a name for himself, and he has a couple of nice novices here this week. High Bridge runs in the Supreme on Tuesday before Willoughby Court, impressive winner of the Leamington Novices' Hurdle at Warwick last time, lines up here.
Fifth to Bacardys in the Aintree Bumper last April, he's two from three at this trip, the defeat coming on hurdles debut at Market Rasen. Even allowing for lack of fitness that day, he probably should have still got it done, and I have it in my mind that it may have been the quicker ground there which prevented him.
His form on soft reads 1151, while on quicker it is 321. That may just be coincidence but it's a niggle as is any horse being beaten at Market Rasen winning a Grade 1 novice race at the Cheltenham Festival.
The mare, Shattered Love, was only a half length behind win machine Airlie Beach in a good ground Grade 3 earlier in the season. More recently, had the well-regarded Forge Meadow some way behind over two and a quarter miles on soft, form that may flatter her given Asthuria would probably have beaten her but for tipping up at the last.
One general point, which I've touched on specifically a number of times above: look at the Supreme on Tuesday for a line on some of the horses who may have run just in front or behind them in the Festival opener; and consider runners in the Albert Bartlett in light of the performance of runners in this race. As Tony Keenan has written elsewhere on this site, these collateral form lines often work out very well.
Most Likely Winner:
Neon Wolf 2/1 Coral
Each way value play:
Keeper Hill 20/1 Hills
NEW customers: Bet £10, and get a free £2 bet on EVERY race at the Festival (21 of them remaining)
A race which has been pilfered from somewhat by the rise to prominence of the 'four miler', the National Hunt Chase, the RSA has nevertheless historically proved a good pointer to Gold Cup aspirants of the future.
Clear favourite, though not at a short price in a confused market, is Might Bite. There is little doubt that this horse has demonstrated the best level of ability in the field, but that was when failing to complete in the Feltham at Kempton on Boxing Day. 'Failing to complete' demands a little additional clarity: a known nutcase, he was gunned into the final fence by Daryl Jacob and just belly flopped into it. Asked for a big one, he declined the request.
Jacob probably took more flak than was merited for the tumble: sure, he didn't need to roust Might Bite between the last two; but his conveyance almost tried to refuse such was the flimsiness of his attempted leap. He has 'previous' according to his trainer, and simply cannot be countenanced as a bet for all that he might run away with the race. If you want to be with him, look for a book offering faller insurance.
Second choice is last year's World Hurdle runner-up, Alpha Des Obeaux. He was clear second choice behind Thistlecrack that day but has had issues since. Those issues came to a head when a burst blood vessel led to him pulling up at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting. It was, so the rumour mill has it, a bad bleed and may have left an emotional scar. However, freshened up since, Mouse Morris has few peers when it comes to training a horse for a target, so that fact this lad boarded the ferry offers hope to his backers.
I don't like his patchy form or that last day incident so he won't be for me.
Likewise, Acapella Bourgeois is not for me. Even allowing for more talent than that with which he's been credited after Roger Loughran rode his rivals to sleep in a Grade 2 at Navan, he won't get a soft lead in this RSA. Any of Flintham, Marinero, Might Bite, As De Mee, and Delusionofgrandeur may take him on in what seems likely to be a stern test of stamina.
One who will appreciate the stamina test and who acts on good ground as well as softer, is Whisper. This is his second attempt at chasing after an abortive mission two seasons ago where he ultimately reverted to hurdles. Last term was a damp squib, his three winless efforts concluded with a drubbing in the World Hurdle.
He may have been rejuvenated by a second stint over the birch. His December win over 2m5f at this track has worked out well, with runner up, Baron Alco, winning a novice chase on his next start before claiming silver in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles, and other subsequent winners in behind. But I just wonder whether he's quite good enough these days, having had twenty career starts already. If he could match his hurdle rating of this time two seasons ago, in the low 160's, he'd be a penalty kick. But he's looked a stone below that form since.
Royal Vacation looked a plodder in the Feltham, but was the main beneficiary of Might Bite's purler. Elevated most of a stone to 143 after that fortuitous win, he proved it no fluke by winning a decent novices' handicap chase on Trials Day at Cheltenham. He's now on a mark of 152 with a progressive profile and grinder's attitude, just the sort to run well in this. He'd be the first Feltham winner to land the RSA, but then if Might Bite had stood up he'd have been beaten a dozen lengths in second there, and plenty of Feltham placed horses have won the RSA.
Of the rest, Bellshill could be interesting if lining up. Beaten out of sight in the Supreme last season, he's shown that a truer test of stamina suits better with a second placing in the Grade 1 Sefton at Aintree and a win in the Grade 1 staying novice hurdle at the Punchestown Festival, and over fences with a brace of two and a half mile victories. The latter was in Grade 2 company, but Bellshill was struggling when coming down behind Disko in the Grade 1 Flogas Novice Chase over 2m5f.
It might be that he needs more of a stamina test and, if that's right, he comes here fresh and proven as a spring horse, that Supreme disaster notwithstanding.
Two rags that I thought could outrun their odds in the four miler look like showing up here instead. Marinero was being backed for that National Hunt Chase before swerving that contest, and he'll love the combination of a trip and fast ground.
Aurillac has been doing all his best work late and with a bit more runway might have won three of his last four (ignoring a pulled up effort in the standing water at Hereford last time). In what looks set to be a searching examination of heart and lungs, he is no 80/1 poke, though he may still struggle to make the first four. I'd still expect plenty of others to cry enough before him.
It's an open race and I have no really strong opinions but there are a few worth consideration as value options.
Two against the field:
Royal Vacation 12/1 boylesports
Bellshill 9/1 general
Massive priced crackpot play:
Aurillac 66/1 Skybet [1/5 1-2-3-4]
This is not my idea of a betting race. Tombstone is very short but has obvious claims, being classy enough to finish fourth in last year's Supreme. A defeat of Jezki last time reads well enough regardless of which Jezki turned up that day, but you just can't be betting a 4/1 in 26 runner handicaps. Well I can't anyway.
I'd rather have a look at the next trio, all lurking around the 10/1 mark. Automated has been shoved up a lot for a last-to-first win in a Grade B handicap hurdle last time. Only a length in front of Scoir Mear, they pulled twenty clear of the third in what should have been a competitive handicap. Trained, like Tombstone, by Gordon Elliott, this strong-travelling closer should be fun to watch.
The novice Peregrine Run will relish this return to terra firmer after running very well in defeat in the Grade 2 Leamington Novices' Hurdle last time. It was soft bordering on heavy there, the Peregrine having flown home on his previous four starts on good ground. Trained by Pat Fahy, whose Morning Assembly - his first Festival handicap runner for a decade - ran fourth in the Ultima last year, Peregrine Run has a verdict over Albert Bartlett second favourite, Wholestone, in the Grade 2 Hyde Novices' Hurdle over course and distance.
And at bigger prices, Scoir Mear might go well. Automated looked set to swoop by this chap that last day but made heavy weather of it, and a return to faster conditions might be in Tony Mullins' horse's favour. He's two pounds better off with his vanquisher there, and two and a half times the price.
Not a race to get stuck into - not for me at any rate - but I'll take a small piece of...
One who could run well:
Peregrine Run 10/1 [check for extra place concessions, possibly first six]
Coral are paying 1/4 1-2-3-4-5-6
Skybet, Paddy are paying 1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6
bet365 are paying 1/4 1-2-3-4-5
A race in which I traditionally have a strong opinion and in which this season I did not. Until about six weeks ago... I wrote then that I thought Cause Of Causes was a very big price at 12/1 NRNB in this post. He's now 4/1 top so I was right about the price at least. Regarding his chance, it depends on how well he's responded to the reported 'extensive schooling' he has undertaken since a listless sortie over the quirky course in January.
That he finished fifth that day was remarkable because, for most of the near four mile race, he was unsighted. That said, fifth was 42 lengths behind first. His Festival record in the last three seasons is 211, beating 59 of the 60 rivals he's faced in the process, and he loves quick ground. There is a niggle about his hold up run style and 4/1 barely factors that in, but rumours of an extended sabbatical at trainer Enda Bolger's yard offer hope, especially for those of us already on at the bigger prices (soz!).
First that day was Urgent De Gregaine, extremely confidently ridden by Felix de Giles despite his 50/1 quote that day. He's a late scratch for the Festival version leaving second home, Cantlow, as a slightly stronger jolly than before the French raider's confirmed absence.
Cantlow is not the sort to be relying on. He has won over course and distance, in the December handicap version, but has been beaten twice on these pistes, narrowly as mentioned last time but more heavily in the Festival renewal last term. As a pupil at Bolgers' famous banks academy he has every chance of going well, and as he eases out towards the 3/1 mark, he becomes worth the risk. But he's not there yet. Watching brief.
Any Currency is probably a bit long in the tooth now meaning the each way value might now lie with Auvergnat. Almost certain to be in the frame when unseating Rachel Blackmore at the 26th obstacle on Trials Day, Enda Bolger's seven-year-old was third in the Risk Of Thunder Chase last November and won the PP Hogan last month, both over Punchestown's banks course.
The PP Hogan has historically been the best trial for the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, and 8/1 in a couple of places is perfectly fair.
Yet another from the Bolger battalion is Quantitiveeasing, a horse which makes Cantlow look like German engineering-reliable. Third in the race last year, he then won the La Touche Cup at the Punchestown Festival and wheeled back two days later to finish second, both over the banks fences. Not seen since trailing his field in a Galway handicap hurdle in late October, 12/1 doesn't offer enough meat on his pretty flaky bone.
A better play might be Usuel Smurfer. He didn't look the most genuine at Punchestown last time, lugging in and then resisting Katie Walsh's urgings to go by Auvergnat, but the way he closed on the home turn was eye-catching and he's a 16/1 poke. That was his first run for Alan Fleming and his first for a year and a half, so perhaps he just ran a bit green. Either way, if he brings a similar level of form he could get on the premises.
Sausalito Sunrise is the highest rated British horse in the race but has no form over the fences, while Bless The Wings has been highly consistent in racking up a course and distance string of 3422. The latter is twelve now and will do well to hit the board again.
In summary, I like the chances of Cantlow and Cause Of Causes but the former's price is currently too short (would be interested at 3/1) and the latter's has truncated too much to be played. Auvergnat looks very solid each way, and Usuel Smurfer is the most interesting of the bigger prices.
Most likely winner:
Cantlow or Cause Of Causes
Auvergnat 15/2 e/w Coral
Bigger price hopeful:
Usuel Smurfer 18/1 Skybet
bet365, Ladbrokes, Coral 1/4 1-2-3 (most others are 1/5 1-2-3)
You don't seriously want a tip from me in this, do you? A ream of ex-French and ex-flat four-year-olds, most of whose ability lights have been hidden under bushels, in a big field Cheltenham cauldron. Yuk.
Nobody can possibly know the exact, or even approximate, merit of a majority of the field so anyone finding the winner is more lucky than good. In my opinion. Still, it's the last leg of the placepot, and I did fluke the winner last year. Good old Diego du Charmil.
Divin Bere's form has been boosted by Master Blueyes and, curiously, his rating has not been reassessed in light of that one's Adonis victory. That is his first and only run in Britain to date, having previously raced in France where he was second in a couple of Auteuil three-year-old hurdles. Presumably off for two months since to protect his mark (139), he is an obvious candidate.
Dolos is another ex-Frenchie and though his UK form is a little more patchy, he was thought highly enough of to run in the Grade 1 Finale at Chepstow. A strong pace could be just what this Paul Nicholls-trained runner needs, his handler having won the race the last twice and three times since 2010.
Pick of the Irish is Tony Martin's Long Call, according to the betting at least. Whilst obviously deeply respecting money from such an uber-shrewd yard, I'm really struggling to see the case for this one.
There used to be an angle here in backing the highest rated flat horse. If that's to cop this year it will be Nicky Henderson's Percy Street, a general 25/1 shot. Rated 98 on the level, he's only 124 over hurdles which could allow for some upward expansion. Hendo won this with his second choice, Une Artiste, at 40/1 in 2010 so perhaps lightning can strike twice. Penny plays only if you fancy betting on it!
One from the top:
Divin Bere 13/2 Betfair Sports
Two from anywhere else:
Dolos 12/1 general
Percy Street 28/1 Skybet
Betbright are 1/4 1-2-3-4-5 (if you can get more than 23p on with them)
Out of the frying pan and into the fire... If the Fred Winter field have generally declined the chance to show their hand to the 'capper, the Champion Bumper field have generally not progressed sufficiently in public to form a reliable hierarchy.
Historically this was an Irish benefit, the raiding party taking 14 of the first 17 renewals. But, since Cue Card's triumph in 2010, the score is 4-3 to the home team. This is most likely a product of the exorbitant fees British owners are prepared to pay for maiden point winners, but the fact is that things are a lot more equal these days. Thus, simply working through the Irish form, still less searching for Willie Mullins' best fancied runner, is no longer the shortcut it once was.
So let's start with the new vogue for the British players, principle among them perhaps being Western Ryder. Although beaten on his fourth and most recent start in National Hunt races, Warren Greatrex's five-year-old son of Westerner was giving the highly-touted runner up a stone and a half. There's a lot to like about this lad: he's game and he finds plenty off the bridle. Against that is that he's been beaten twice (soft ground both times, unbeaten on quicker) and he's not the kindest traveller. For what it's worth, only one of the 63 horses to finish second last time managed to win, 2/1 favourite, Liberman, way back in 2003. Since then, 42 last day runners-up have tried and failed to claim this prize.
That would count as a knock for Nicky Henderson's Claimantakinforgan too. Only sixth behind Western Ryder in a Listed Ascot bumper, he was then beaten by Black Op, giving that one seven pounds. And the same applies to Imperial Eloquence, in front of Claimantakinforgan when runner up to Western Ryder in that Ascot race.
A less fashionable runner but one boasting an unbeaten hat-trick is Peter Atkinson's Irish Roe. Owned by the trainer, this lass followed up easy wins at Perth and Sedgefield with a dead heat over course and distance in a Listed mares' bumper. That was a steadily run encounter and I expect she'll be better suited by the truer test of the Champion Bumper. Whether she's good enough is another question, but there was a lot to like about the way she forced herself into the photo that last day. She's been absent four months but, in receipt of seven pounds from the boys, she could give a run for your pennies at around 25/1.
So, after all that, the balance of probabilities is that the prize will be won by the Irish, but with which horse?
Carter McKay has long been favourite and is presumed to be the pick of the Willie Mullins pair. In winning his two bumpers to date, at Naas and Leopardstown, he has not impressed me particularly. He didn't seem to find a huge amount off the bridle having travelled much better than the re-opposing runner-up, Bakmaj.
That one has since franked the form, and bolstered his own credentials, with a comfortable five length win on good ground at Leopardstown. He won hands and heels that day, too, so was value for more than the official margin. 16/1, four times the price of Carter McKay, seems fair enough with more to come likely.
The likes of Someday and Fayonagh have won their bumpers impressively, though what the form is worth is hard to know. They both come here as unexposed and potentially top class.
Guesswork really but I'll take a small piece of some of the bigger priced unexposed ones.
Three unexposed at reasonable prices:
Someday 8/1 general
Fayonagh 12/1 Betway
Irish Roe 25/1 general
bet365, Coral, Ladbrokes are paying 1/4 1-2-3-4
Paddy, Skybet are paying 1/5 1-2-3-4
And so ends the first half. The second half is usually tougher so hopefully we're a pound or two ahead of the game at this stage. If not, a good winner on Thursday or Friday will paper over plenty of cracks!
p.s. what are your day two picks?