Cheltenham Festival Day One Preview / Tips
1.30 Supreme Novices Hurdle
The opening race of the 2014 Cheltenham Festival is the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and the collective exhalation of breath as the tapes rise after 361 CheltFest-less days at Prestbury Park might be enough to create its own micro-weather system in the Gloucestershire hills.
The Supreme is always a strong race, bringing together the cream of the novice ranks from both sides of the Irish Sea; and that convergence of form lines has often seen lofty reputations lowered a peg or two. This year may be no different, as the market is dominated by two horses - one British, one Irish - and if both are beaten there will be jam aplenty on winning punters' bread.
This is also a race where the bookmakers focus a disproportionate number of their concessions, keen to get cash in virtual wallets, and I'll incorporate that into my tip suggestions at the close.
2014 Supreme Novices Hurdle Trends
Age: Thirteen of the last sixteen winners were aged five or six. But, from much smaller entry sizes, horses aged four, seven and eight have also won a Supreme during that time. The data is somewhat inconclusive as to whether there is a favoured age group, despite what some trends peddlers may tell you. In fact, five and six year olds won 81.25% of the races from 81.6% of the runners, meaning they very slightly under-performed against numerical expectation.
Last time out: Fourteen of the last sixteen winners also won their previous race, and it has been a profitable angle to follow progressive form displayed by under-rated horses against the 'reputation horses'. Indeed, backing all last time out winners during that period (from 1997) was worth a profit of 22.25 units at SP. Last time out winners have won 87.5% of the Supremes, from just 40% of the runners.
Days since a run: Fourteen of the sixteen winners (87.5%) under review last ran between 16 and 60 days prior to claiming their Supreme Novices' crown. They accounted for 73% of the runners. Not one of the 31 horses to be returning within two weeks even placed.
Experience: Fourteen of the sixteen winners (87.5%) had had between two and four hurdles starts, from 61% of the runners. The most inexperienced winner since 1997, in terms of total races run, was Menorah with five starts. This counts against the likes of Gilgamboa, Josses Hill, and Valseur Lido. This is a tough race, often with a lot of scrimmaging, and street smarts is a most desirable attribute.
UK vs Ireland: The Irish lead 9-7 in the period under scrutiny, and from far fewer runners. Their success computes to 56.25% of the wins (and 37.5% of the places - eighteen) from 31.75% of the runners, exactly a hundred.
Those trends point to the top four in the betting - Irving, Vautour, Wicklow Brave, and Vaniteux.
2014 Supreme Novices Hurdle Preview
The logical place to begin the form preview is with the trends horses, especially as they spearhead the betting lists too. Before that, though, it will pay to keep in mind the average improvement Supreme winners found from their previous run.
Using Racing Post Ratings as a guide, each of the last ten winners found significant improvement from their last run, and all bar Menorah scored a career top in the race. The range of improvement from last run to winning Supreme run was +6 to +36. The average was +14 and, even removing the outliers (+6 and +36), the average improvement from last run was +12.25.
What does this mean, and how can we use it? In a nutshell, it means that the winner can be expected to record a significantly higher performance figure in this race than he has previously, and most likely in the 7-14 range on RPR's.
The average winning Racing Post Rating was 152.9 in the past decade, so it is reasonable to expect an unadjusted (i.e. Racing Post card RPR minus seven pounds - trust me on this!) of 139 - meaning a published figure of 146 - to be the minimum to achieve the likely required improvement.
You know when you start trying to explain something, and you wished you hadn't... Let's move on!
The favourite, at around 5/2, is Irving. This decent flat horse in Germany - a son of Singspiel out of a staying German mare - has made a blemishless start to his hurdling career. In his four wins from four runs, he has won two Grade 2 events, both in taking style, and has been awarded a handicap rating of 149.
Aside from the form, Irving has no marked ground preference, which is one less thing to worry about if you're a fan. On the downside, he does still look a bit novicey at his hurdles, a comment which applies to plenty of his rivals too, of course.
Vautour is pushing him for favouritism as a 3/1 shot, and will be the first of many Willie Mullins-trained horses to run during the week. Since coming over from France, where he was second on both starts, Vautour has rattled off a two month hat-trick of wins, culminating in a cheeky defeat of The Tullow Tank in a Grade 1 event.
That last success earned him a rating of 154 from the Irish handicapper, which is a few pounds higher than Irving. I wasn't all that taken by the manner of his victory that day, as I felt the second was given plenty to do. The time before, Vautour just outgunned Western Boy when a 1-4 shot.
Overall, whilst I have no doubt he can win, I don't think he's any value whatsoever so to do, and my quest for a bet continues.
Stablemate Wicklow Brave took a little time to come to hand, finishing mid-division in a bumper on his first career start. That was at the Punchestown Festival and a month later he ran a very close second in a big field back at the same track.
The next stop on Wicklow Brave's Irish tour was the Galway Festival where he broke his maiden at the third attempt, again in a big field and this time on good ground. Since that day, he's been unbeaten in four further races, two bumpers and two hurdle contests.
The last of those was a Listed affair, where he strolled away from Lieutenant Colonel in the style of a most progressive animal. Indeed, his Racing Post Ratings have improved from 105 to 110 to 120 to 131 to 146, and that most recent number gives him little to find with the top pair.
I like this chap - he travels extremely well in his races - but I do have a concern about his hurdling, which was sloppy at the finish of the Listed win. If he can improve that side of his game, he's a major player in the Supreme at around 7/1.
Vaniteux has been the recent springer in the market, and that's primarily on the basis of improvement in his work at home, which is said to be scintillating. This Nicky Henderson inmate was looking like the stable second choice, after Josses Hill, but the indications are that Barry Geraghty will ride him now, and strong support has seen his price cut from 25/1 a week ago to a top offer of 12/1.
But for a blunder at the last in a good novice hurdle on Boxing Day, he might well be unbeaten in three starts since switching from point to points, and he has verdicts over Vibrato Valtat and Portway Flyer (effortlessly) either side of that last slithered landing.
His easy last day success was over two and a half miles and that strong staying aspect to his game - hinted at in his pointing career - will be a solid asset in a very fast race such as the Supreme. If his jumping holds up, there's a chance Vaniteux can find the required improvement to land those recent wagers.
Stablemate Josses Hill is on 16/1 alongside Gilgamboa and Valseur Lido, two Irish raiders. Josses Hill was comprehensively outpointed by Faugheen in a Punchestown bumper on his debut, but won well on his next two starts.
He was elevated to Grade 1 level last time out and just found wanting by half a length to another stablemate, Royal Boy. Josses Hill looked likely to prevail jumping the last and had the rail to guide him to the line, but was outbattled by his more experienced, and seemingly stronger staying, team mate.
I don't feel Josses Hill has the necessary combination of experience and class to beat all in a Supreme, though that was a significant career best last time out. It's a bit disconcerting, too, that he was beaten by a stable mate last time and has a better fancied stable mate entered in this.
Gilgamboa is a really interesting one. Although he's only had four career runs, they include wins the last twice in handicap hurdle company, the latter of which was the highly competitive Grade B Boylesports Hurdle. There he beat Flaxen Flare, himself a Festival winner last year, by an assertive length and a quarter, the pair a couple and more clear of some lightly weighted rivals.
Flaxen Flare was spotting the winner five pounds, taking his rider's claim into account, and was officially rated a stone better. Gilgamboa has been nudged up from 128 there to a new mark or 140, which seems sensible based on the figure and proximity of his nearest neighbour in the Boylesports.
That number gives him exactly a stone to find on Vautour, according to the Irish handicapper, and who am I to argue with him? The fact is, if the handicapper is even nearly right, it's asking an awful lot of Gilgamboa to improve not just the stone or thereabouts to catch Vautour, but also the extra seven pounds on top which is the usual improvement demonstrated by Supreme winners.
Valseur Lido was bought privately from France by Gigginstown's bottomless fund, after a narrow but comfortable win in a Lyon Parilly flat race. The second that day has won since, at Pau, and the form looks fair. His Irish contract has begun well with easy back-to-back victories over first Voluptueux and most recently King William.
I say "most recently", but it was in fact before Christmas, and that's a major concern. The balance of history - and common sense - says that a fairly recent run, and probably in higher class, is usually required to win a Supreme. Although he's 16/1 that's not enough to tempt me, given the big negative.
The rest don't look good enough, but there is one wild card left in the pack. If the aforementioned Faugheen was to show up here, he'd have a huge chance befitting his huge frame. This is a horse that walks over his hurdles rather than having to jump them, and he's a serious player for whichever race his connections pitch him.
He's won from two miles to three, from good ground to heavy, and in fields ranging from seven to 22. His cruising speed is so high, as a consequence of that massive stride, that he'd surely have no problem if rocking up here. But he is still more likely to take in either the Albert Bartlett or the Neptune.
2014 Supreme Novices Hurdle Tips
Plenty of unexposed material here, as you'd expect, and sifting through the strings of 1's by horse's names is a tricky task. It will clearly be no surprise if either Vautour or Irving win the 2014 running of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, but nor does it look a value route to take into the race.
I quite like the look of Wicklow Brave, and he's worth backing with either SkyBet or Paddy or both, at 13/2.
If you back him - or any other horse in the race - with SkyBet, and the favourite wins, you'll get your money back as a free bet, up to £25.
And if you back him - or any other horse in the race - with Paddy, and your horse finishes second, third or fourth, you'll also get your money back as a free bet, up to £25.
Tentative Supreme Tip:
Wicklow Brave 13/2 SkyBet (money back as free bet if favourite wins) / Paddy (money back as free bet if selection finishes 2nd, 3rd or 4th)
Each way choice:
Vaniteux 12/1 Paddy (money back as free bet if selection finishes 2nd, 3rd or 4th)
2.05 Arkle Chase
The second race on a stellar opening day of the Cheltenham Festival 2014 is the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy, a novice chase run over two miles. This is a serious test of speed and there's no hiding place for frail jumpers or doubtful stayers, as they'll set off fast and maintain the gallop all the way to the finish.
It's a race that has been the springboard for many a Champion Chase winner, and even in recent times has heralded the arrival of the likes of Sprinter Sacre and Sizing Europe, Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop. Make no mistake, it takes a tip-top birch-bouncer to bag the Arkle.
In this post we'll consider the recent Arkle trends, as well as the form profiles for the main contenders, before honing in on a tip or two. Let's start then with the trends.
Arkle Chase 2014 Trends
Age: The Arkle tends to be a race for young upwardly mobile types, and established hurdlers looking to break into the top echelons of chasing have struggled at the sharp end. The last 24 Arkle winners were aged five to eight, with a notable number of fancied older horses turned over.
In 2002, Barton could only manage seventh at 9/2; a year later, Adamant Approach fell when a 7/1 shot; and, more recently, Captain Cee Bee was only eighth as the 5/2 favourite in 2010; and, last year, Overturn was turned over at 7/2, finishing no better than fourth.
It's a young nag's game, and Rock On Ruby (nine) will be bidding to become only the second horse aged older than eight to win the Arkle since Sir Ken way back in 1956.
Experience: Although Simonsig had just two chase starts to his name last term (and Champleve and Tiutchev likewise at the turn of the century), and Well Chief had just a single outing over the big'uns in 2004, the general level of experience for Arkle winners has been three (three winners) or four starts (eight winners) since 1997. The brilliant Moscow Flyer had already run in five steeplechases when he lined up for, and won, the 2002 Arkle.
Form: Since 1997, only one of the 57 horses to finish outside of the first two in their prior start has won. Contraband, a 7/1 shot and possibly the worst Arkle winner in living memory, was that horse. Indeed, Contraband's previous third place was the ONLY placing outside of the first two that any Arkle winner since... well, as far back as Racing Post records go, which is at least 1988. The strong percentage play is to demand a 1-2 finish the last day.
UK or Irish? The Irish have saddled 58 runners since 1997 in the Arkle, with just three winning (5% srtike rate). The British have saddled 13 winners from their 142 runners (9% strike rate) in the same time span. Looking only at those horses priced 12/1 or below, the figures come down to Ireland 3-23 (13%) and UK 13-76 (17.1%). Thus, the UK trained runners have enjoyed an edge, but perhaps not as marked as first meets the eye.
Arkle Chase 2014 Form Preview
For what is normally a fairly well established market, the 2014 Arkle looks wide open at time of writing. Champagne Fever, winner of the Cheltenham Bumper and Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the last two Cheltenham Festivals, heads the betting at 4/1. He's closely followed by Trifolium and Dodging Bullets, both 6/1 shots, and Rock On Ruby, an 8/1 play.
It's then 10/1 Valdez, 11/1 Hinterland, and 16/1 bar those.
Champagne Fever deserves to be favourite. After all, we know he loves that Cheltenham hill, using it twice now to winning effect, having been beaten earlier in both seasons. This term, he has also been bested, and into third place too, by Defy Logic and Trifolium. Whilst he'll not be beaten by Defy Logic at Cheltenham - that one struggling with injury - the fifteen length margin of defeat and that significant trend he has to overcome are concerns.
However, on the plus side, if the ground at Cheltenham comes up good to soft, as it normally does, his record on that sort of quick turf reads 111. On balance, whilst I hugely respect Champagne Fever, I can't bring myself to bet him at 4/1. He was 16/1 when winning the Cheltenham Bumper, and was available at 16/1 shortly before winning the Supreme (returned 5/1).
He is entered in the PJ Moriarty Chase, a Grade 1 over 2m5f, on Sunday.
Trifolium has a more traditional Arkle profile, with chase form of 1221, the latter two efforts in Grade 1 company. He was a slightly unlucky third in the 2012 Supreme on good ground, but was nine lengths too good for Felix Yonger in the Grade 1 Irish Arkle, and eleven lengths in front of Champagne Fever when second to Defy Login in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase. He is the form choice and, with no doubts about the course or the ground, looks a solid bet at 6/1.
Dodging Bullets is another whose chase form is hard to crab. He's three from three over fences, including Grade 2 victories the last twice. One of that pair was at Cheltenham, but the worry with this chap is that he's twice come up short at the Festival - 9th in the Supreme last year and admittedly a respectable fourth in the Triumph in 2012. Dodging Bullets is entered in the Kingmaker at Warwick on Saturday, if it beats the weather, but with Paul Nicholls' thirteen Arkle runners in the past decade yielding no wins and just two in the frame - a list which includes five horses at 4/1 or shorter - he's not for me.*
*My thanks to Gavin Priestley's Cheltenham stats book for that nugget
Rock On Ruby is a horse I love. He's a Champion Hurdler as recently as 2012, and was second in last year's Champion Hurdle. But he's nine now, and was hurdling a long time. Whilst he has been very clever on the rare occasion he's missed a fence, and he has undoubted class, I just feel that there's no coincidence in the stats about nine-year-olds here, and have to reluctantly overlook him. If there's one to beat me, I hope it's Harry Fry's Rock On Ruby.
Valdez is unbeaten in three over fences, and saw off Irish raider, Arnaud, last time. He was entitled to, though, off level weights and officially rated ten pounds his superior. Still, Valdez was coming back from a break and stayed on very takingly up the pan flat Donny run-in, implying he'll enjoy the stiffer circuit and sharper match fitness in the Arkle. At 10/1, he offers a bit of scope for each way players, and trainer Alan King is massively respected.
Hinterland has been off the track since winning the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown in early December, and he's not currently got any entries. That's just too long a layoff for me to entertain and, while he could run between now and the Festival, he's no value to win the Arkle as things stand, especially given his trainer Paul Nicholls' aforementioned bad record in the race.
We're then in the realms of the 16/1 bar brigade. While Felix Yonger is a top priced 16/1, he might well go to the longer JLT Novices' Chase, and the best price with a non-runner concession is 10/1 which makes little appeal.
Grandouet is mildly interesting. True, he has been blighted with jumping issues throughout the big days of his career, and true, he's looked a bit off colour this season. But he was going like the winner in the Champion Hurdle last year when coming to grief - albeit a fair way out - and he is capable of a big run. 16/1 non-runner free bet isn't the worst wager in the Arkle.
Arkle Chase Trophy 2014 Tips
It will be clear from what you've read so far that I think Trifolium looks a very solid bet for the 2014 Arkle. He's got a perfect profile - seven year-old with four chase starts, all in the first two, and a win in Grade 1 company last time. He goes on any ground, though may be best on the easy side of good. He jumps well and should be able to race prominently. 6/1 non-runner free bet is the bet in the race for me.
Of the British squad, whilst I fear and respect Rock On Ruby, I'm happy enough to take a chance on the unbeaten Valdez being able to improve enough to make the frame. He looks like he'll stay well and is generally a decent jumper. 10/1, again non-runner free bet, is fair each way value.
Arkle Challenge Trophy 2014 Selection:
Trifolium 6/1 BetVictor Non-Runner Free Bet [advised 6th February 2014]
2.40 Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase
The first of the handicaps, and I'll be taking a less comprehensive form view on these races, on the basis that almost every runner has a bit of a chance and I could cover 80% of them and still miss the winner! Nevertheless, there will be pointers aplenty for each of them. Let's get started...
Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase 2014 Trends
The following trends are since 1997 (16 renewals) and are courtesy of horseracebase
Age: 15/16 - 94% - (and all since Flyers Nap in 1997) were aged between seven and ten, as were 55 of the 59 (93%) placed horses during that time, from 77% of the runners. Exclude the youngest and oldest competitors.
Form: 10/16 (62.5%) won at least once in their last three races, from 44% of the runners; 14/16 (87.5%) were 1-2-3 during that time, from 79% of the runners. Six of the 54 last time out winners claimed this prize, and they were profitable to back blindly. So much for handicap plots!
Weight / Rating: Only one winner carried more than 11-02 to victory, and just 13 of the 59 places went to horses weighted higher too. Since the turn of the century, all bar one winner had a weight of 10-12 or less. The highest rated winner since 1997 was Unguided Missile (149, 1998) and no subsequent scorer has been rated above 143.
Market: Just one favourite has scored in the last sixteen runnings, and only two second favourites. Don't be afraid to take a price about a couple!
Experience: Like a number of the Cheltenham Festival handicaps, those with limited experience - and therefore more scope to improve - have dominated. Since 1997, 13 of the 16 winners (81%) had ten or fewer chase starts, as did 36 of the 59 placed horses (61%), from 154 runners (52%).
Combining these elements, we're looking for a lightly-raced, low rated seven- to ten-year-old, that finished in the first three in at least one of its last three starts.
Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase 2014 Preview
It's a sequence that will be broken at some point of course, but the fact that the last fifteen winners were rated 143 or below looks telling. That equates to a weight of 11-04 this year, but those carrying more than eleven stone have struggled. I want a horse which has won in its last three starts, too, which means I'm focusing my attention on a shortlist of King Massini, Standing Ovation, Wrong Turn, Muldoon's Picnic, and Green Flag. Relax is excluded from consideration as I'm sure he wants it softer.
Green Flag is a novice and a winner of three races this year, two of them on good ground, and the last two in novice handicaps. He then ran a fine second to Annacotty in the Feltham before unseated on the flat last time (clipped heels). He is a safe jumper for one so inexperienced, and the combination of decent ground and a fair weight makes him of at least some appeal at 14/1.
Muldoon's Picnic is a far bigger price - 33/1 - and yet he stays well and handles good ground. He too is a novice that has won in a handicap, but that small field Class 3 victory was quite a different prospect to what he's facing here.
Wrong Turn is likely to shorten in the betting from his current 16/1 for two reasons: firstly he's trained by Tony Martin, a man with a fine Festival record and a dab hand at placing handicappers to optimal effect; and second, he's won his last three completed handicap chases. Given he's fallen in two races during that sequence, Coral's offer of money back on fallers might be worth availing, though they are shorter than other firms, presumably for that reason.
Standing Ovation was protecting a four race unbeaten record when well enough beaten in a similar race at the November meeting here, but they may have been a 'sighter' for this. Moreover it came just six days after he'd won a Listed handicap chase at Wincanton, which might have taken more out of him than first met the eye. His recent run on soft ground at Kempton can be forgiven, as all his form is on quicker, but that will have blown the cobwebs away and he's a contender if he can track the early pace.
And King Massini is another novice on the upgrade. He too ran within a few days of a win here in an attempt to take advantage before a big hike in the ratings, and was successful in so doing. However, he's not run since mid-December and that is enough to count him out for me.
As with all Cheltenham Festival handicaps, there are loads of others with chances, but I like those key trends, and will take my chances on that basis.
Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase 2014 Tips
The betting is suggesting that one of either the age (Alfie Sherrin) or weight (Holywell, Hadrian's Approach) stats will take a beating this time, but a big chunk of recent history points to taking a chance elsewhere.
I'll side with Green Flag, a most progressive sort that has been first of second in twelve out of thirteen completed starts. He clipped heels and came down the last day when going well as the even money favourite, and his second place in the Feltham - albeit ten lengths behind the winner - showed he has some class to go with his battling qualities.
If Green Flag is right at the historical ratings threshold for the race, and peering over the weight threshold with 11-04, then Standing Ovation and Wrong Turn are snug fits on all historical counts, and both are serial winners, having each scored thrice in their last five starts. At 20's and 16's respectively, they are worthy of each way attention with a bookie paying five places.
Green Flag 14/1 Coral (money back on fallers)
Best each way options:
Wrong Turn 16/1 Skybet
Standing Ovation 20/1 general
3.20 Champion Hurdle 2014 Preview, Trends, Tips
It's the fourth race of 27, and arguably the best. Yes, this year's Champion Hurdle is a chuffing howitzer of a speed scrap, featuring established class versus rising stars in a battle of the generations. It's also a fiendishly difficult punting puzzle, and in this post I'll attempt to piece together the key known elements.
Champion Hurdle 2014 Trends
Age: The only two double-digit aged winners since the Champion Hurdle was first run in 1927 were Hatton's Grace (won aged 9, 10 and 11 1949-51) and Sea Pigeon (aged 10 and 11 1980-81). Hurricane Fly bids for a third Champion Hurdle aged ten.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Katchit was the only five-year-old to win the Champion since the first of See You Then's hat-trick in the race in 1985. Katchit, like Our Conor - who bids to win as a five-year-old this time, was returning to Cheltenham as the winner of the previous year's Triumph Hurdle.
Six to nine year olds have won 28 of the last thirty Champion Hurdles.
Last time out: 41 of the 48 win and placed horses since 1997 finished first or second last time out. They also accounted for fifteen of the sixteen winners during that time. The other winner finished third the last day.
Cheltenham Form: Twelve of the fourteen winners since 1997 to have previously raced at Cheltenham had a place record of at last 75% at the track. Ten of them had a 100% place record at the track. The New One was 'only' sixth in the Champion Bumper.
Days since a run: Only Rock On Ruby, absent since Boxing Day, had failed to run earlier in the same year as when winning the Champion Hurdle since 1997. The New One has been absent since the same day as Rock On Ruby was.
Champion Hurdle 2014 Preview
In truth, there's very little to glean from the trends except that Hurricane Fly's age negative is mitigated by the feat of other serial winners. Likewise, Our Conor is bidding to emulate Katchit in following up a Triumph Hurdle win with victory in the Blue Riband. The New One has a couple of minor knocks, but it would be careless to omit him from consideration on those grounds alone. Jezki finished fourth last time out, which is worse than any winner this century, but again, context is needed there.
What about the form book then? Where does established form suggest we should cast our wagering net? Let's start with the veteran champ...
Hurricane Fly missed his first intended engagement at the Festival back in 2010 after a late injury ruled him out. He made up for that in 2011 by repelling the valiant Peddlers Cross in the Champion Hurdle.
In 2012, some folks - including me - feel he should have won again. Given plenty to do at the top of the hill, it seemed that Ruby Walsh on the Fly was exclusively preoccupied with what Tony McCoy - aboard Binocular - was doing. Walsh was looking to cover McCoy's every move, and so he did. Unfortunately, the bird had flown in front of them, with Overturn setting the race up for Rock On Ruby. Hurricane Fly was a never nearer five length third, besting Binocular into fourth in the process.
Last year, there was no such error (if indeed you subscribe to the notion that jockeys - contrary to what some of them bleat - actually can, and do, make mistakes). Walsh shovelled on the coal at an appropriate juncture, and his willing mount reversed form with Rock On Ruby to claim Champion Hurdle number two.
The Hurricane is now unbeaten since that Ruby reversal in 2012, which was his only defeat since November 2009. True, he's often duffed up the same nags in short fields in Ireland. But if that's crabbing the champ, then it's hard to argue with his record when he's ferried over to Gloucestershire.
However. How. Ever... He is a ten year old now, and in the likes of The New One, Our Conor, My Tent Or Yours, and Jezki, he faces a brand new battalion of fleet-footed aspirants. Allied to that, his form this season - whilst undeniably progressive from race to race - has been at a lower level than last season.
Indeed, according to Racing Post Ratings, his best run this year (RPR 168) fails to measure up to his worst run last year (RPR 169). I love Hurricane Fly. I have a deep reverence for him too. But it would be disappointing for the near future of the Champion Hurdle if at least one of his young upstart rivals wasn't good enough to do him for toe.
But which one?
The New One has been a talking horse for a long time. And, in his defence, he's done plenty of talking on the track too, with a record that shows only one run - the 2012 Champion Bumper - outside the first two. But that's a sequence which does include three - granted, narrow - defeats in his last six races.
And, having failed to pierce the 170 Racing Post Rating barrier to date, as well as having a longer than ideal absence to overcome, I think he's terribly short atop the market at 11/4.
The next pair in the betting, at 9/2 or so, are Our Conor and My Tent Or Yours. Our Conor was a breathtaking fifteen length winner of the Triumph Hurdle last year. That race hasn't worked out brilliantly, and he's been beaten in three starts since.
First, he finished fourth in a big field flat handicap at Naas; then he ran third - beaten six lengths behind Hurricane Fly in the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle at Christmas; and last time, he was just a length and a half behind the fly in the Grade 1 Irish Champion Hurdle.
Dessie Hughes has brought him on slowly this year, as undoubtedly has Willie Mullins with the Fly, and I think it will be very close between the pair on the opening day of the Festival. Our Conor bounded up the hill last year, and it's not hard to see him doing the same again this term. He too has something to find on the numbers, though.
That hill would be the question mark with My Tent Or Yours who, a slight wilting behind Champagne Fever in last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle aside, has a good looking profile for the race. He sneaked a prep race in a jumpers' bumper a month before the Festival and that should have him cherry ripe to give his best.
Whether that is quite good enough, against rivals who may finish their races better remains to be seen. He does have the beating of The New One on Christmas Hurdle form, though, and it's quite hard to see why he's a bigger price than that rival. [Note, as I write, there seems to be some unease in My Tent Or Yours' price, and an announcement from Henderson's yard should illuminate further].
Assuming Annie Power goes for the World Hurdle, Jezki is next at around 10/1. He was undeniably disappointing last time when fourth of four in a tactical scrap with the Fly, Our Conor, and pacemaker, Captain Cee Bee. If that run can be ignored - and I'd suggest it can, as it hardly compares to the full tilt of a Champion Hurdle - then he has little to find with both My Tent Or Yours and Hurricane Fly.
Little to find, yes; but he does have to find it, and that's a leap of faith I'm not really prepared to take.
Un De Sceaux is another expected absentee, which is a pity, because his heart-on-sleeve bamboozling front-running style would have been a fascinating sub-plot to the race.
Ignoring the outsiders Grumeti, Ptit Zig and Thousand Stars, the only remaining possible is Melodic Rendezvous. And, if it came up boggy on day one, he'd be a very interesting contender. Let's be clear, despite being a 20/1 shot, he's a Grade 1 and triple Grade 2 winner. Moreover, he's won six of his eight hurdles starts, and was plainly 'wrong' when down the field in the Fighting Fifth, a race in which recent Champion Hurdler Binocular was also turned over.
He's a very good horse, and managed second to Champagne Fever in the Punchestown Champion Bumper on just his second lifetime run. Coming here off the back of a workmanlike performance when seeing off Zarkandar in the Kingwell Hurdle - itself a strong trial for the Champion Hurdle - Melodic Rendezvous had plenty of 'tightening up' to do in the intervening four weeks, and trainer Jeremy Scott seemed quietly excited at his charge's prospects at a recent London Racing Club event.
Champion Hurdle 2014 Tips
The 2014 Champion Hurdle is a really trappy race. It's not clear from where the pace will come, and it's not clear what the ground conditions will be. The best guesses are that the supplemented Captain Cee Bee will lead, and that the ground will be good to soft.
If that comes to pass, then the value - such as it is in a race where the bookies have a strongarm grip on the form - might be with Melodic Rendezvous, who can go on good to soft, at 20/1. My Tent Or Yours has, I think, a better chance than The New One at a bigger price IF he's untroubled by that injury scare.
It's a race in which I've been waiting until the day to back up my Melodic Rendezvous ante post ticket. But, now the day is here, I'll most certainly be using Ladbrokes' 'Money Back as a free bet if Hurricane Fly finishes first or second' offer to back My Tent Or Yours. That is a cracking concession as the old boy looks nailed on to run his race, and we'd need two to get by him, one of which is not My Tent Or Yours, in order not to at least get a second bite of the Cheltenham cherry.
Champion Hurdle selection: My Tent Or Yours 4/1 Ladbrokes (money back as a free bet if Hurricane Fly is first or second)
4.00 Mares' Hurdle
The Mares' Hurdle is now in its sixth year and, since Whiteoak won the inaugural running, there has only been one further name etched on the pot: Quevega. That fragile but immensely talented lass has bagged the last five renewals and, as such, has made trends analysis somewhat pointless, for the win part at least.
Quevega bids for an almost imponderable six-timer in the 2014 Mares' Hurdle and, if age has yet to catch up with her, she'll be very hard to beat once more. So, from a trends perspective, I thought I'd look at the profiles of the placed horses - as well as Whiteoak and Quevega in winning year one - to get a flavour for what's required to go close in the Mares' Hurdle.
[Clearly, it's far from a scientific basis from which to strike a wager, but it should be indicative at least.]
Specifically, then, we've got the first three from 2008 and 2009 (Quevega's first win - we'll include her once only); and the placed horses from 2010 onwards, for a total of fourteen in the sample.
The majority of win and placed horses were aged six and seven, with nine of the fourteen in the sample being in that group. Two five year olds have won it, Whiteoak and Quevega first time, but they've failed to add a placed effort to that.
On official ratings, of the thirteen in the sample with a rating, just six were rated 140+, with five of those rated 150+. The remaining seven were 139 or less, and they may offer some value as they include some big-priced beasts.
Only three of the fourteen had failed to win or place in Graded company previously, and two of those had Listed form. Ten of the fourteen had run over hurdles nine or fewer times.
Stamina is a key requirement here too, with twelve of the eighteen win/placed horses (including Quevega all starts) having won at further than the two and a half mile trip. Backing two-milers in this may not be a smart move. And that's interesting, because two of the next three in the betting - Cockney Sparrow and Down Ace - have yet to race beyond an extended two miles. Indeed, all of Cockney Sparrow's hurdle form is on flat tracks and Cheltenham's undulations will be a further - literally - challenge. She looks a place lay to me.
Down Ace does at least have a three mile point win in the bag, and looked to need every yard of it when just nailing Blue Buttons in a decent Listed novices' hurdle at Taunton last time. She fluffed the last two flights there, though, and will need to be better. If she is, she has place prospects. Too much of an 'if' for me.
Vying for second favouritism, and a much more robust option than the Sparrow in my opinion, is the French raider, Sirene d'Ainay. She almost nicked it from the front last year, as Quevega got caught in traffic after four out. It was a most impressive effort from the champ to get up that day, and Sirene d'Ainay may have been flattered by her proximity. Nevertheless, she was two lengths and more too good for the rest, and comes over in equally good heart this term. Hers is an obvious podium prospect.
The trip will hold no fears for Glen's Melody either and, if she lines up, this Grade 1 winner could give her Mullins stablemate something to ponder. She does seem to need soft ground to give her best but, with the rain still falling, that's a possibility on the first day of the meeting.
I'm against any mare - except Quevega - coming into this off a break of longer than two months. A couple have made the frame, but absences longer than three months have proved insurmountable for all bar the mighty Mullins mare. So it is that Cailin Annamh gets the bullet, and she also has to have fast ground to show her best.
There'd be no such ground, fitness or stamina worries about Highland Retreat, and Harry Fry's seven-year-old mare has been a star player for Team Seaborough this term, notching a hat-trick sealed with a Grade 2 win over three miles on heavy ground. Prior to that she'd won a Listed race over a similar trip on good ground and, though she may get outpaced mid-race, she'll stay on far better than most. 20/1 is tempting, though that is without the non-runner money back concession.
Swing Bowler ran a better race in the Betfair Hurdle last year than she did this term before clunking in the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham and, while that might have been a blip - she was off for almost the whole year afterwards, implying injury - it's hard to recommend her.
And then, of course, there's the ten-year-old five-time winner, Quevega. As well as a nap hand here, she's also registered Grade 1 successes at the last four Punchestown Festivals and, if she turns up within seven pounds of her best, she'll win. She's won this race by 14 lengths; 4 1/2 lengths; 10 lengths; 4 lengths; and a hampered-in-running one and a half lengths. She's ten now, and that won't make life any easier, but she has yet to show any sign of regression, and just might be value at 8/11.
I don't have enough elevens to win a meaningful amount of eights, and for that reason wasn't going to play this race at all. But then I saw Betfred's refund offer (see below), and now I will be backing either Sirene d'Ainay (8/1) or Highland Retreat (16/1) win only, with Quevega on my side.
I may also place an exacta sort of bet, with Sirene d'Ainay and Highland Retreat (and perhaps Glens Melody) to grab silver. I may further play the trifecta, throwing a number of big priced 'oily rags' underneath.
Unless you have deep pockets and a strong nerve, this was a race to savour, as it may be the sixth coronation procession of the Queen of Cheltenham, HRH Quevega. But with the Betfred money back offer, we can both savour it and cheer for something else. Nice work, baldy!
Betfred - Money Back if Quevega Wins
Betfred are refunding all bets (as a free bet) up to £25 on the Mares' Hurdle if Quevega wins. Offer applies to win stakes and the win part of each way bets, and it's a bloody good one! Applies to new and existing customers. Click the link below to register if you don't already have a Betfred account.
4.40 National Hunt Chase
I've got to be honest. I can't stand this race. It's cost me a placepot on too many occasions. A four mile novice chase for amateur riders is about as close as I can think of to how NOT to frame a Cheltenham race. I do accept that others have a different view and, despite the success in the last three years of the top of the market, this is a contest where you are taking a heck of a lot on a wing and a prayer.
It used to be the worst betting race of the meeting, but has improved with the latest ruling allowing novices of all ratings in. The last three winners were the highest rated horses, and that 'all rating' concession is only four years old.
National Hunt Chase 2014 Trends
Ignoring my own disdain, there are some interesting trends, as follows. Thanks again to horseracebase for these.
Last time out: 14 of the last 16 National Hunt Chase winners (87.5%) finished in the top four on their prior start, and 39 of the 48 placed horses (81%) did likewise, from 73% of the runners.
Rating: Since the rule was changed to allow any novice in, as opposed to imposing a ceiling rating, the cream has risen to the top. The last three winners all had a rating above 145 and two of them were rated 150+. They were also all market leaders, and this may be material.
Layoff: None of the 48 runners to race within two weeks of the National Hunt Chase won, and only two placed.
National Hunt Chase 2014 Preview
This will be a short preview. I'm going to look only at the top four in the ratings. They are Shotgun Paddy, Shutthefrontdoor, and Foxrock.
Shotgun Paddy earned his 151 rating by winning the Betfred Classic, a Grade 3 handicap chase, beating Carruthers et al. He is a thorough stayer and may be the best horse in the race, as his rating implies. However, all his form is on testing ground, and that just might be his unpicking here.
Shutthefrontdoor represents trainer Jonjo O'Neill and owner JP McManus. Jonjo has won this five times in the past and he has a very good chance of getting a sixth this year. Shutthefrontdoor has looked an out and out stayer on more than one occasion and, if his jumping holds up, he ought to be bang there. A top price of 4/1 may not be enormous value but this could be a thinned out field by the time they start their second circuit and, if he's still standing, he'll plod on well.
Foxrock is the fly in the ointment. Winner of a big field beginners' chase over 2m6f in late November, he's since run third to Carlingford Lough in a Grade 1 and won a Grade 2, both at three miles. He has some form on decent-ish ground and as such has a fine chance.
Midnight Prayer is rated twelve pounds below Shotgun Paddy, but only seven beneath the best of the rest, and he loves to hear his hooves rattle. Alan King's nine-year-old ought to stay and was unlucky to unseat when hampered three starts back, and might be the best each way bet, if such a thing exists in a race like this.
National Hunt Chase 2014 Tips
Some people like this race more than me. Actually, most people like this race more than me. Still, it does look between the top four in the ratings, and I'm against Shotgun Paddy on the basis of the ground. Of the two favourites, I prefer Shutthefrontdoor.
And as a win and place option, Midnight Prayer offers more hope than most.
Selection: Shutthefrontdoor 3.8/1 Betbright
Best each way: Midnight Prayer 10/1 Seanie Mac
5.15 Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase
A new race introduced in 2005, and one which has quickly seen a 'profile type' emerge.
Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase 2014 Trends
Eight of the nine winners were first (five) or second (three) last time out.
Seven year olds have won six of the nine renewals, though the placed horses have strong representation from six to ten!
There has been a strong upward trend to the winners' ratings. The inaugural winner was rated 123, nine pounds lower than any subsequent winner. Since then, three of the last four winners were rated 139+.
This is a race in which lots of horses are desperate to 'get a run'. As such, there is usually a compressed handicap. Put another way, most of the horses with the highest weights take up their option to run. All bar that first winner have been carrying 10-11 or more. The last three winners carried 11-04 or more.
All nine winners ran 16-60 days ago, as did 30 of the 36 placed horses.
Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase 2014 Preview
I'm looking for a recent runner that finished first or second last time out, and has form in a similar contest.That still leaves about half the field, headed by top weight, Ericht. He finished fifth in the Coral Cup last year, when rated 134 over hurdles. Although this shorter trip is not certain to suit, he comes here in good form, goes in the ground, and has some track history.
Manyriverstocross is one of the more interesting players. Second to a laboured Oscar Whisky last time in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices' Chase, a literal interpretation of that form would make him a snip. Good enough as a hurdler to win a Grade 2 over this kind of trip, the guts of Manyriverstocross' form is on top of the ground. He's not a frequent winner, but he has a touch of class and could be nicely handicapped on that last run, for which he was unchanged in the ratings.
Present View is a consistent type and recorded a career best when sluicing up last time in a Kempton handicap chase over this trip (Class 3). He's been whacked by the 'capper for that and this will be much tougher. It's also quicker ground which may not suit as well as the soft turf that last day.
Dursey Sound has finished second on his last two starts but, in so doing, has beaten just one horse! Prior to that he unshipped twice in a row, and would be - at best - an unreliable proposition.
Ahyaknowyerself is an interesting one. He's actually been dropped five pounds for winning by seven lengths last time! A 147 rated hurdler - finished less than five lengths third to Melodic Rendezvous - he gets in here off 135, and that looks generous. I'm not saying he'll win this - I'm not saying any horse will win it! - but he's well in against the pick of his hurdle form and he's a consistent fellow to boot. He does have to prove he stays, but 25/1 could be fun.
Ex-hunter Festive Affair and lightly-raced Buywise have both raced almost exclusively on deep ground and, while that doesn't mean they can't act on quicker, it's a bit of a leap of faith. Meanwhile, Buthelezi beat former Fred Winter winner, Une Artiste, last time on good ground and sneaks in at the bottom the list. He's probably not that well handicapped however, and I'd prefer a couple further up the lists.
Of the trends busters, Attaglance and Up To Something are most appealing. The former won the Martin Pipe here two years ago and, though he's yet to win over fences, there's an arguement that he's been waiting for precisely this day and this race. Track and trip should be fine, and he's two pounds lower than that Festival-winning handicap mark, if you like to assume parity in ratings across the disciplines (a dangerous game at best!)
The latter is joint top weight on the basis of a fine run behind JLT fancy, Wonderful Charm. His mark has been nicely protected since by running first on too soft, and then over too far. Noel Fehily has been booked, and both he and trainer Charlie Longsdon are in good form.
Ohio Gold represents the wily Tizzard team, who won two handicaps last year. They also had this boy finish third in this race, and he may again get onto the podium.
Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase 2014 Tips
Very tricky, but a couple with decent-looking chances are Manyriverstocross and Up To Something. More speculatively, Ahyaknowyerself might go well for a long way unless/until his stamina runs out.
A couple of things to keep in mind here are 1) if yours is a dodgy jumper (this is a novices' race, after all) bet with Coral if they're price competitive, and 2) try to bet with a bookie paying an extra place if you can find one. I'll flag them on twitter in the morning @geegeez_uk
Ohio Gold, 3rd in this last year and two pounds better in, may make the frame again.
Manyriverstocross 10/1 888sport (five places)
Each way alternative:
Ohio Gold 25/1 general
Two at huge prices:
Up To Something 40/1 Betbright
Ahyaknowyerself 33/1 Betbright