Cheltenham Festival Day Three Preview / Tips
It's half way, and most will be either up or down by this point. For those up, the temptation to draw stumps and enjoy the profit is probably pretty weak; and for those down, there is certainty that other opportunities will manifest themselves just yet. Onwards, for we've work to do, on Day Three of the Cheltenham Festival jamboree...
1.30 JLT Novices' Chase
[Previewed 7th March]
The JLT Novices' Chase (formerly Jewson) will be run for just the fourth time, having been incepted in 2011. Clearly, then, trends are of limited utility. However, with top class chaser Sir Des Champs already on the roll of honour, the signs are that this event is deserving of its newly-elevated Grade 1 status.
It is run over the intermediate distance of two and a half miles.
2014 JLT Novices' Chase Trends
There is little to go so far, with just three runnings in the book, but a couple of things already spring out. Firstly, like the RSA Chase, it's been dominated by seven-year-olds so far. Seven of the nine podium positions have been claimed by this age group (78%) from just seventeen runners (50%).
The Irish have outperformed their numerical representation, with all three winners thus far (100%), from just ten runners (29%). Whilst it is foolish to get too carried away by these data, it is certainly not foolish to consider the Irish form in some detail, especially given the 20/1 success of Benefficient in the race last year.
Interestingly, all three had at least three chase races going into the JLT, and each had won or finished second in two Grade 1 or 2 races. 20/1 Benefficient actually won a Grade 1 on his previous start!
Felix Yonger, though an eight year old, makes plenty of appeal on the basis of these skeletal trends.
2014 JLT Novices' Chase Preview
Willie Mullins' Felix Yonger is the ante-post favourite for this race, and it is easy to see why. Good enough as a hurdler to finish second in the 2012 Neptune, he then missed a year due to injury. Now eight, he's a 'logical seven-year-old' with that absence in mind.
Unbeaten in his first three chases, including a Grade 2 where he trumped the leading Irish novice chaser this season, Defy Logic (injured, misses the Festival), he was expected to extend that sequence at Limerick on his penultimate outing.
Stablemate The Paparazzi Kid, something of a Limerick course specialist (3/3), lowered Felix's colours that, and he was beaten nine lengths on heavy ground by Trifolium in the Irish Arkle, a Grade 1, last time.
That form reads very well, especially when you consider his form on yielding or better ground reads 102111 - the 02 being unplaced in the Champion Bumper as a 66/1 shot, and second in the Neptune as mentioned.
Compare that to his form on softer - 2211522 - and this scribe is left with the impression that Felix Yonger's class has got him close that many times. His form with the best Irish novice chasers gives him every chance in this, and his track and trip form is an important bonus. 5/1 looks at least fair. I'd imagine he'll be a good bit shorter on the day.
The best of British come next, with Wonderful Charm and Oscar Whisky heading up the home offence. Wonderful Charm is trained by Paul Nicholls, Oscar Whisky by Nicky Henderson, and there is little between these two old adversaries, both equine and human! Indeed, last time out, Wonderful Charm failed by half a length to pass Oscar Whisky in a Cheltenham novice chase. The former was conceding eight pounds to the latter however, and comes out a good bit better on the ratings.
The negative for me, as in pretty much all cases, is that Wonderful Charm has been off the track for 90 days. It's tough to defy a three month layoff against tip top oppo.
Oscar Whisky has raced twice since meeting Wonderful Charm, winning both times in very small fields. First, he overcame Taquin de Seuil by three-quarters of a length; and then he saw off Manyriverstocross in workmanlike fashion. Whilst he's not been flashy in his four run novice chase career thus far, he has been effective.
At nine years old though, and with seventeen hurdle runs to his name, I've had an ongoing niggle about his jumping. Specifically, it seems to me that long-time hurdlers who convert to chasing make a different 'shape' at the fences. That, clearly, can be troublesome, and I have a similar reservation about Rock On Ruby in the Arkle.
Both Oscar and Ruby are obviously very talented animals, and it is far from inconceivable that they could both win their respective races. But, at the prices, and with the fencing niggle - as well as their age - I'm siding against the pair.
Vukovar and Taquin de Seuil are 8/1 chances, and it is probably fair to say that both would appreciate some dig in the ground. Vukovar was an expensive acquisition from France for the excellent Harry Fry. In two British efforts to date, he was beaten by the enigmatic Mr Mole on good to soft before waltzing away from Open Hearted over a longer trip and on softer ground.
Open Hearted is a decent marker, having been rated 145 at the time of that defeat, and Vukovar's demolition, albeit in receipt of a stone, was impressive. He too has not run since Christmas, though, and even though I have enormous respect for young Harry Fry and young Vukovar, there are enough reservations - time off, inexperience after two chases, ground preference - to overlook him here.
Taquin de Seuil did have an earlier verdict over Oscar Whisky, also at Cheltenham, and on good ground. That was a decent performance given his predilection for deeper underfoot, and he may have benefited from a less battle ready rival that day. I think the market has it spot on, with Oscar Whisky likely to come out on top between the pair if both jump round.
We then head into double figure prices, with Sizing Gold and Djakadam 12/1 pokes. All of Sizing Gold's form to date has been on soft or heavy, and good ground at Cheltenham would be a worry in that context. Although the trip should be ideal for this son of Flemensfirth, he's inexperienced with just a couple of chase runs thus far, and he fails to catch the eye from a value perspective.
Djakadam is equally inexperienced, but ran a scorcher to see off Bright New Dawn by four lengths in Grade 2 company on only his second chase run. He's a five year old, like inaugural winner Noble Prince, and though all his form is on soft or heavy ground, his action suggests he might actually improve for terra firmer. He looks a very dangerous 'floater' if he shows up here.
There's little to excite me in the remainder of the entries, with the possible exception of Double Ross, a wildly experienced eight year old with bags of course form. Trained locally by Nigel Twiston-Davies, he's had six spins around the Cheltenham circuit, all at intermediate distances and, though he has thirty lengths to find with Felix Yonger on 2012 Neptune form, he's improved a stone as a chaser compared to his official hurdle rating.
His chase form at Prestbury Park reads 112, all in Grade 3 handicap chases, and this boy is battle-hardened. He was only beaten a length and a bit by Wishfull Thinking last time, both carrying over eleven stone, and that's proper handicap form. If it becomes a street fight, Double Ross has more moves than most.
2014 JLT Novices' Chase Tips
Felix Yonger looks a strong favourite here, and I really like his chance. He's already achieved more on ratings than any of the three previous JLT winners did in claiming this prize, and he looks to have conditions perfectly in his favour.
The worry about Wonderful Charm's absence puts me off his chance, despite the fact that he's probably had legitimate reasons - waiting for better ground - for that. He may well come out best of the British, though at the prices I prefer Double Ross as an each way play.
The real wild card is Djakadam and, if he turns up and jumps as well as he has, he could improve past all of them. He looks a potential future Gold Cup winner, and reminds me a little of Sir Des Champs.
JLT Novices' Chase Selection:
Felix Yonger 5/1 Seanie Mac (Non Runner Money Back)
JLT Novices' Chase each way alternatives:
Djakadam 12/1 SkyBet (Best Odds Guaranteed, Non Runner Money Back)
Double Ross 14/1 SkyBet (Best Odds Guaranteed, Non Runner Money Back)
2.05 Pertemps Final Handicap
A three mile handicap hurdle, and a tricky trappy troublesome one at that.
Pertemps Final Trends
Seven winners since 1997 (16 renewals) won last time out. That was from 66 runners and was worth a profit of 25.5 points at SP.
15/16 winners since 1997 were aged six to nine. 5yo's are 0 from 36, though nine of them have made the frame. 10yo+ are 1 from 47 (repeat winner, Buena Vista).
Only two of those sixteen winners were rated above 142.
All sixteen winners in that period last ran between two weeks and three months ago.
Pertemps Final Preview
I'm not expecting to get the winner in this race. Just so you know. With that said, let's take a look at a few of the more likely lads.
Fingal Bay probably has too much weight, but that's because he has a largely very compelling profile. Hurdle form of 111121 is pretty impressive, the 2 coming in a Grade 1 hurdle at Aintree (and one of the 1's also in Grade 1 company). He was rated 153 and on the up over hurdles when he switched to fences, but then injury intervened. In the time he was off, the handicapper dropped him to 142 and Fingal Bay duly won with gratitude.
Now back to 148, although he has plenty of weight to carry, it's hard to say he's badly off at the ratings. After all, he travels so well on the front and he's five pounds lower than his top mark, without having done anything sub-standard to merit it. He is a very big horse so carrying weight is somewhat offset by that, and I'd expect him to run well for the in-form Hobbs team (winner and fourth in the Cross Country, with Balthazar King and Duke Of Lucca on Wednesday).
Grand Vision was good enough to be third in the Grade 1 Albert Bartlett of 2012 over course and distance, and gets in here off a mark of 142. Given trainer Colin Tizzard's Festival record with handicappers, that looks workable, and this chap has hit the frame in all three runs on a sound surface. Brendan Powell is the stable's job jockey these days, and I'd not be at all surprised to see Grand Vision run a very solid race.
At the other end of the field, Pateese is another Hobbs horse with a squeak. Second to Coral Cup winner, Whisper, two starts back, he was freshened up with a run down the field in a hot Newbury race in February. That was a livener for this, I suspect, and he did run in the race last year off the same mark. He's probably got a bit to find, as odds of 50/1 suggest, but there are reasons for a shard of optimism.
On The Bridge has been off the course since last October, and that's probably too long in truth, but trainer Jeremy Scott is a dab hand at bringing horses back fit and this chap looks to have an each way sniff, given a likely patient ride form Nick Scholfield. He'll love the trip and the ground, and was a good fourth to Trackmate last time.
McCoy's mount, If In Doubt, may struggle to beat stablemate, Fingal Bay, and his McManus-mate, Josies Orders, has been humped with an extra stone for his facile win 48 days ago.
I'm a fan of Jessie Harrington's Jetson, and what a week it would be for the yard if he could follow up Jezki's Champion Hurdle win of Tuesday. He won the Punchestown qualifier, and the Pertemps winners that emerge from that qualifiers have normally been 'looked after' in mid-division to preserve their ratings.
In that context, Seefood, second in the Leopardstown qualifier at Christmas, looks a player. Although something of a frustrating sort, with places galore but just three wins to his name - and none since November 2012 - Seefood has some cracking form in defeat. He goes on any ground, as a close up third to Foildubh illustrates, and trainer Dessie Hughes won this with Oulart in 2005.
As with all the big field handicaps, there's a fair chance I've not even mentioned the winner, such is the depth of the fields.
Pertemps Final Tips
Although he'd be a stats buster, I'd love to see the top weight, Fingal Bay, carry all before him in this. He's come back from injury seemingly as good as ever and, if that's true, then he still has upside potential off a mark of 148, and has the frame to lug the lead too.
Of the rest, Grand Vision is a tempter for the wily Colin Tizzard; and Seefood may prove best of the Irish. Pateese might run better than a 50/1 shot.
Pertemps Final selection:
Fingal Bay 7/1 bet365 BOG, FIVE places
Best Pertemps Final each way:
Grand Vision 14/1 bet 365 BOG, FIVE places
Seefood 14/1 PP BOG, FIVE places
2.40 Ryanair Chase
[Published 29th January]
One of the newer races in the expanded four day Cheltenham Festival, the Ryanair Chase is rapidly making a name for itself as a coronation procession for middle distance chasing champions. Run over two miles and five furlongs, and with seventeen fences to jump it is a true test of speed, stamina and athleticism, and the tapes go up at 2.40 on Thursday 13th March.
At the time of writing, the race looks to be an excellent betting contest, mainly because the ante-post favourite and reigning Ryanair champion, Cue Card, has been declared by his trainer to be "85 per cent likely" to run in the Gold Cup and, therefore, miss this race.
Moreover, there is a good chance that third favourite, Al Ferof, will run in the Gold Cup rather than the Ryanair as well, although this will not be decided until after the Denman Chase, scheduled for 8th February.
That leaves only Benefficient, last year's Jewson Chase winner (for novices' over the same course, and distance), at single figures for the contest, and he too is also engaged in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. It's then 11/1 bar this trio of uncertain entries, which underscores my keenness to have a bash at the contest.
Let's first see if there is anything to be gleaned from the past runnings of the race...
Ryanair Chase Trends
First run in 2005, there are now nine years' worth of data to trawl, and the key points from it include the following.
Just three of 23 last time out winners followed up in the Ryanair, with another three (from 19) winning having been second on their previous start. 19 of the 42 horses to have finished 1-2 in their last race were placed in the Ryanair, at a rate of 45%. That was from 44% of the runners, making the 67% win rate noteworthy.
Eight- to ten-year-olds have claimed seven of the nine Ryanair's, and 19 of the 27 place positions (70%), though that is only in line with their numerical representation, having been responsible for 72% of the runners.
Only 14/1 Albertas Run has won at a bigger price than 6/1, so whichever horse we back at a bigger price, we should be looking for it to truncate in the betting before the big day. With the possibility of two or three of the main fancies swerving the race, there's every chance of finding a 'shortener'.
In such a classy race as the Ryanair, it is hardly surprising that ten of the 25 runners officially rated 165 or higher were placed, with four of them winning. That's 44% of the winners, and 37% of the placed horses from just 26% of the runners.
As with all Cheltenham races, it takes an exceptional horse to defy a significant layoff, and all nine Ryanair winners ran within 90 days of their Festival success. 25 of the 27 (93%) placed horses did too, from 84% of the runners. Aside from Quevega, it is good sense to exclude any horse without a run in the previous 90 days at the Cheltenham Festival.
The most interesting trend with regards to the Ryanair however may be that eight of the nine winners of the race so far had already won at Cheltenham beforehand, though not necessarily at the Festival. That's 89% of the winners from just 52% of the runners.
Placing even greater emphasis on track form is the fact that eight of the nine winners (89%), and 19 of the 27 (70%) placed horses, had been placed at least twice before around Cheltenham. And that from just 51 runners (54%).
Six of the nine Ryanair winners were previous Grade 1 winners, with another two having already notched in Grade 2 company.
Those which fit the profile closest include Dynaste, Menorah, and First Lieutenant.
Ryanair Chase 2014 Preview
Cue Card is the defending champion and ante post favourite for this year's Ryanair Chase. He obviously handles conditions fine, and has been in excellent form this year, including when winning the Grade 1 Betfair Chase over about three miles at Haydock in November. Since then he's run a game second in the King George VI Chase at Kempton, and comes to the Festival in top form.
The problem for punters is that he's more likely - much more likely according to his trainer - to go for the Gold Cup than the Ryanair and, as such, the 3/1 BetVictor (non-runner free bet) is far more appealing than the 6/1 Paddy Power, where you'll lose your cash if Cue Card doesn't start in this race.
Benefficient is more likely to take in this event, though he too is engaged elsewhere, and he underlined his credentials firstly by winning the novices' equivalent of the Ryanair, the JLT (was Jewson), and secondly by fending off all-comers last time in the Grade 1 Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown.
The problem here is that Benefficient's Grade 1 score the last day was over two miles and on soft ground and, despite the persistent rain that continues to fall, it is expected to be quicker than that - and will certainly be further than that - in middle March. In any case, his form is probably half a stone or more behind that of Cue Card.
Al Ferof, a 7/1 chance, is another that may take the Gold Cup route. His King George third, eleven lengths behind Cue Card, left suspicions that he doesn't truly stay the three miles there - and therefore would struggle to get the almost 3m3f of the Gold Cup trip. There are some, however, that believe he was outpaced at Kempton, and was staying on at the finish.
My take is that he didn't stay, a perception which is at least partially supported by no previous rules effort beyond the 2m5f Ryanair trip. In fact, the only two runs at that distance culminated in a Grade 1 third in a novice hurdle at Newbury, and a win the Paddy Power Gold Cup over the course, and distance, of the Ryanair.
He's entered in the three mile Denman Chase on 8th February, and a call on which Festival target to tilt at will be made subsequently. If Al Ferof lines up here, he has a very good chance - form figures of 2F1141 at Cheltenham, and 214 at the Festival underline that. 6/1 non-runner no bet with bet365 is the logical play, especially with trainer Paul Nicholls hinting that the Gold Cup is slightly preferred at this stage.
First Lieutenant is yet another horse with multiple entries, and which might go the Gold Cup route. He ran second to a resurgent Bobs Worth at Leopardstown over Christmas, though the form of that race is hard to quantify. To wit, the winner had run a stinker in the Betfair previously; the third, Rubi Ball, was bidding to replicate smart French form but hasn't won for two years and eleven starts; the fourth, Sir Des Champs, was essentially having his first start of the season after a very early (and crashing) fall the time before. He ran a bit flat, and has been withdrawn for the remainder of the season.
Of the remainder, nothing was rated higher than 154, and only the veteran Prince de Beauchene was distanced from the field. In other words, it was a muddling race.
In First Left's defence, he has an extremely consistent profile - 14 places from 17 chase starts - but against him are just three wins from that number. Given that he was readily outpaced in the Ryanair last year; and that his five subsequent starts have all been at within a furlong of three miles; and that Sir Des Champs (same owner) is out of the Gold Cup... I'd say he's more likely to go the Gold Cup route. Betting of 11/1, but only 6/1 non runner no bet tells a tale, and he's not for me. Too many chances, too few wins.
Next in is Dynaste and, after a disappointing performance in the King George, he's receiving specialist treatment at home. The latest bulletin from trainer David Pipe was far from fulsome, with the trainer noting, “He is improving steadily (but is not yet 100 per cent) and is still receiving regular treatment from [physiotherapist] Mary Bromiley."
Dynaste plugged on quite well behind Benefficient in the Jewson/JLT last year, but he was expected to win that day, so the silver medal can still be marked a tad disappointing. Overall then, the price doesn't really offer too much for value punters.
The best backed horse of recent days is Willie Mullins' Marito, a faller when starting to make ground in Benefficient's Cheltenham win last year. He's had a low key prep since, with a close second to an under-par Hurricane Fly in the Morigana Hurdle followed by a straightforward conversion in a Listed chase at Tramore.
Marito did have the 162-rated Roi Du Mee three lengths back in that contest, but he doesn't look good enough even off a revised rating of 154. He may also want deeper turf than he's likely to encounter at Cheltenham in March.
Although there are still a number of contenders priced at 20/1 or shorter, most of them have serious questions to answer currently: the likes of Riverside Theatre (inconsistent, unseated last time), Module (lightly raced and a stone below what's needed), Captain Conan (stamina doubt on this stiff track and maybe more likely to contest Queen Mother Champion Chase), and Arvika Ligeonniere (may be better right handed and disappointed badly in the Champion Chase last year).
Of the oily rags, Menorah has plenty of course form and has been in the first three in nine of fourteen career chases, including three Grade 1's. The problem for his fan club is that he's also pulled up twice in his last four starts, including when running a clunker in last year's Ryanair.
If his mid-February prep goes all right, he is at least solely entered in the Ryanair at the Festival. He's 20/1 non-runner free bet with BetVictor and that's not the least tempting offer on the bookies' table.
Ryanair Chase 2014 Tips
Betting of 6/1 the field attests to the wide open nature of this year's Ryanair and, with lingering doubts about which race several of the leading candidates will contest, this is a minefield for punters. With some bookmakers offering either non runner no bet or non runner free bet, we can take a chance on a couple against the top of the market.
Cue Card does have BY FAR the most compelling profile for the race, and is a model of top class consistency. He definitely merits some sort of insured investment, as he could be a 7/4 chance on the day if lining up in this (and, of course, it's free bet time if he runs in the Gold Cup instead).
Al Ferof at 6/1 is also a price with a bit of scope assuming he lines up. I think he will and, therefore, I think the 6/1 non runner no bet is worth taking.
The rest are varying degrees of unpalatable, and the best outsider could be course veteran, Menorah. His Cheltenham form is 111543P2 and he does have talent on his going days.
Ryanair Chase win selection:
Al Ferof 6/1 bet365 (non-runner no bet)
Ryanair Chase saver:
Cue Card 3/1 BetVictor (non-runner free bet) - Non Runner
Best Ryanair Chase outsider:
Menorah 20/1 BetVictor (non-runner free bet)
3.20 World Hurdle
[Previewed 2nd March]
Despite including the historically significant Big Buck's within its field, the 2014 Ladbrokes World Hurdle is a very strong contender for worst Championship race at the Cheltenham Festival.
Whilst such an opening statement may seem harsh, it is rooted in the reality that Big Buck's is favourite as a venerable eleven-year-old, despite having only run once since 1st December 2012. And that run was a defeat.
So, does this possible weakness atop the betting pile offer value further down? You bet your booties it does; the only slight issue is in trying to identify just where further down we ought to be snooping. Perhaps the recent history of the race can guide us...
World Hurdle 2014 Trends
The trends for this race are rather skewed by the fact that three horses - Big Buck's, Inglis Drever, and Baracouda - are responsible for nine of the last twelve winners of the race. Nonetheless, they did have plenty in common aside from being multiple World Hurdle winners.
Age: Every winner since 1987, and every winner bar Crimson Embers since the race changed to its present format in 1972, has been aged six to nine. Crimson Embers was eleven, like Big Buck's, and was winning for the second time having previously scored as a mere whipper snapper aged seven.
Recent form: Seventeen of the last twenty World Hurdle winners finished first or second last time. Two of the other three finished third, and one finished fourth. All of the last sixteen winners were returning to the track within three months. Of the handful (14) absent for longer, they've failed to make the frame between them.
Rating: Of the dozen World Hurdle winners since 1997 with an official rating, all bar Anzum in 1999 and Solwhit last year were rated at least 157.
This would give us a trends shortlist of At Fishers Cross, Rule The World, Zarkandar, Annie Power, and More Of That.
World Hurdle 2014 Form Preview
The market is dominated by two horses with serious question marks over their chance. Big Buck's, as mentioned, is eleven, and has raced just once in the last sixteen months. That was a game third place in the Cleeve Hurdle and it might be argued that he performed admirably to finish so close after such a long absence. It could, however, also be argued that he had a hard enough race that day after the long break.
Most pertinently from my perspective, it can be argued that he ran some way below his best. There will be plenty of sentimentalists who want to back Big Buck's, and he unquestionably retains a chance in a race that he's made his own in recent seasons, winning on each of the four times he's contested it. But the price does not allow for sentiment. Not one bit.
While the sponsors' quote of 5/4 is offensive in any language, the more sensible 2/1 generally available is still not even remotely tempting. Sure, Big Buck's can win. And he's one of those lads you'd be happy enough - or at least grudgingly accepting - if he nutted your pick in a photo.
The other market leader is the unbeaten Annie Power, whose winning streak now extends to ten. What it does not extend to is a victory beyond 2m5f, and that in a three horse dawdle. Will she stay? Probably. Will she stay and win at Championship pace? Possibly. Is she any value at 5/2? Not really. Although there is a further question - will she even run in this race (she's also quoted in single figures for the Champion Hurdle and the Mares' Hurdle, the latter of which she's odds on 'with a run') - that is mitigated by the non-runner no bet concession widely available.
It's hard to quantify the level of ability of horses yet to be beaten, and she's won by clear daylight in each of those ten races. But... she does have to prove she will stay, and that's enough - just - to ensure this scribe looks elsewhere.
So if that's the top pair with questions to answer at short enough prices, where does the value lie against them?
At Fishers Cross is the third market choice - just - and is also the choice of Tony McCoy for his guv'nor JP McManus. At Fishers Cross was unbeaten in six races last year, including the Grade 1 Albert Bartlett at the Cheltenham Festival, and the Grade 1 Sefton Novices' Hurdle at the Aintree Festival. He's a horse that has had well documented back problems, and they seemed to plague him in the early part of this season.
But, after a break, his last run - in the Cleeve Hurdle - was much better: a staying on short head behind shock winner Knockara Beau. At Fishers Cross would have won in another stride, and was staying on stoutly, an ideal attribute for the World Hurdle.
Just three-quarters of a length behind was Big Buck's but, if At Fishers Cross' back issues continue to be managed, I can't see why the form will be reversed. The latter is progressive at just seven years old and the former is surely on the wane now, aged eleven. 9/1 is a solid enough play.
Next come More Of That and Rule The World at around 10/1. More Of That has had just the four runs, winning all of them, and has progressed into a very promising horse. He was last seen three months ago, however, and although the form of his two length defeat of Salubrious in the Grade 2 Relkeel reads well enough, that's a long absence to defy. Moreover, he has to prove that he sees out this longer trip. It's possible that he'll improve for it, but he'd need to. As progressive as he undoubtedly is, that combination of time off and unproven stamina is enough for me to overlook him, especially as Tony McCoy has done likewise. A lovely prospect, all the same.
Rule The World has been first or second in eight of his ten career starts, and won five of them including a Grade 2 and a Grade 3. But... all his winning has been on a soft surface, and almost all of it - a facile maiden hurdle win aside, when he likely totally outclassed his opposition - has been in small fields. He ran his best race, though, when second in last year's Neptune to The New One, and his low key prep has been geared totally to the World Hurdle.
Rule The World has improved from race to race this term and, if the ground is soft, I think he'll have a good chance in what looks to me to be an open race.
It is quite hard to believe that 10/1 shot Zarkandar is only seven years old, as he seems to have been around for a good while. Paul Nicholls' charge is a model of consistency, with twelve of his fifteen hurdle runs finishing in gold or silver medals. He's a triple Grade 1 winner too, including the Triumph Hurdle of 2011, and has finished fifth and fourth in the last two Champion Hurdles.
The step up to three miles is taken on trust, as with a number of his rivals but, unlike some of them, he acts on any ground. It is easy to envisage Zarkandar running a nice race, but - for me, at least - it is hard to see him out-staying all of the field, especially if nemesis Annie Power shows up (she's beaten him comprehensively twice already this season).
It's 16/1 bar those, which brings in Noel Meade's Monksland. That trainer's lamentable record at the Cheltenham Festival (2 from 87 since 2003) is widely known, but of more concern must be the 440 day absence Monksland bids to overcome. Surely not.
Of the remainder, Fingal Bay would be mildly interesting at 25/1 or bigger. He won nicely on his first start after fifteen months off and didn't look to have a hard race there, so any fears of the dreaded 'bounce' (when a horse runs poorly on second start after a long break, having run well in a battle on that first run back) should be unfounded. There is a more pertinent question regarding whether Fingal Bay is anywhere near good enough, and connections have another option in the Pertemps. Should he line up here, that would be a positive sign, and non-runner no bet allows for absence.
World Hurdle 2014 Preview, Trends, Tips
The 2014 World Hurdle is a really tough race to unravel with so many if's and but's. It is not a race I will be piling into, and I cannot recommend any horse with confidence. However, I do feel the top of the market looks a bit suspect and, consequently, I'm happy to take a couple against Annie and Buck's.
At Fishers Cross showed far more of his previous zest last time out, implying his back problems have been resolved. If he gets to the Festival in the same physical form, then he can be expected to improve a notch or two on that last run, which might be good enough.
If the ground is on the soft side, and at time of writing (2nd March), it's still too early to say (though the official line is soft currently), then Rule The World comes into it. He's a relentless galloper who would benefit from as much mud as possible, where others may struggle to get home in such conditions.
World Hurdle Selection: At Fishers Cross 9/1 BetVictor BOG
World Hurdle Alternative: Rule The World 10/1 BetVictor BOG
4.00 Byrne Group Plate
A race for trainers as much as horses, with the Pipe's (Martin and David) responsible for six winners since 1997; Venetia Williams rowing in with three (including 33/1 and 50/1 shots); and Nicky Henderson bagging a brace. That's three trainers (counting the Pipe's as one) winning eleven of the last sixteen versions of this prize. Clearly, they require close scrutiny in the entries.
Byrne Group Plate Trends
Five last time out winners claimed this prize since 1997, and thirteen horses placed 1st to 5th on their previous start.
All ages from five through to eleven have won this.
Since 1987, only three horses have shouldered more than eleven stone to victory.
18 of the last 22 winners had run at the Cheltenham Festival before.
Byrne Group Plate Preview
Our three trainers to follow - Messrs Pipe, Henderson and Madame Williams - have seven runners between them, for most of which a credible case can be made. Last year's winner Carrickboy has just four pounds more this time and he's bidding to become the first repeat winner since Henderson's The Tsarevich won in 1985/6.
Whilst he's not out of it, and we know he's fine with conditions (though it was a bit softer when he won last year), I slightly prefer stablemate, Shangani. He'd run a string of good efforts in defeat before finally scoring in Grade 3 handicap company last time. A five pound rise for that is fair, and he could have more to come on a sounder surface - his French form including a win on firm. 20/1 is very attractive given his trainer's recent record. Venetia also runs Benny's Mist, which will probably win on the basis that I've not discussed it in any detail here!
Henderson's brace in the race are the formerly smart Nadiya de la Vega, and Giorgio Quercus. This trip and ground at Cheltenham (winner here on good to soft) could be right up her street, and she's slipped down to a perch two pounds below her last win. 20/1 is again most appealing.
Giorgio Quercus has run four stinkers around here, and I doubt even the services of top amateur Nico de Boinville (beat McCoy aboard Whisper on Wednesday) can get this fellow close to winning.
And David Pipe runs Ballynagour and Wetak. Ballynagour was a huge punt for this last year before finishing eighth, and he looks like a horse with bleeding problems to me. Such animals tend to run their best races fresh, so the 117 day layoff can be seen as a positive. On balance though, he's unlikely to get to the finish without over-exerting himself and I'm afraid that could mean another 'P' by his name.
Wetak has come over from France and ran a nice enough race at Ascot on his British debut before tipping up. The Cheltenham fences are not easier than their Ascot counterparts and he'd be hard to recommend.
Of the rest, Team Tizzard have Third Intention, and this super-consistent fellow has been running in Grade 1 and 2 events. This represents a significant step down in class and, with Champion Court keeping his weight below eleven stone, he has a chance to at least make the frame again. Track and trip look spot on, and ground is fine too.
The Irish have a lamentable record in this, and pretty much all of the Cheltenham handicaps, so Sraid Padraig is worth the swerve on that basis, despite his upward momentum. Getting whacked eleven pounds for winning last time hardly flags him as well rated either.
JP McManus' pair, Tap Night and Colour Squadron, don't look well enough treated either, despite the burglary job attempted with the former last time when McCoy just didn't make any effort. I'm prepared to go on record and say it's disappointing that he's allowed to get away with these sort of 'handicapping' rides, despite the undoubted largesse of his trainer towards the sport.
Changing the subject, John's Spirit should run a good race without being well enough handicapped to repel all opposition.
Byrne Group Plate Tips
Wide open and worth taking two or three at prices, win only. So that's what I'm going to do.
Three win bets against the field:
Shangani 20/1 Betfair Sportsbook BOG, FIVE places
Nadiya de la Vega 20/1 Betfair Sportsbook BOG, FIVE places
Third Intention 14/1 bet365 BOG, FIVE places
4.40 Kim Muir Challenge Trophy
Kim Muir Trends
In contrast to most of the other handicaps at the Festival, just four last time out winners were able to double up here since 1997. And just seven of those sixteen Kim Muir's were claimed by a horse that finished in the first FOUR last time out!
Seven to ten-year-olds have won 16/16 since 1997, though those aged eight or nine have won 15/20 since 1993.
Look for the best jockeys in this race, and favour the higher weighted horses.
Kim Muir Preview
A lot of my friends think Indian Castle is the bet of the meeting. I think a lot of my friends are barking for nominating a race like this in which to play the banker card. But, having seen my own 'banker' do no better than third (Big Shu), I'm going to take a good hard look at this fellow.
Indian Castle has a winning habit. He also has a winning jockey in Derek O'Connor. And he has an in form trainer in Donald McCain, whose horses came right just in time for the Festival. Trip and ground should be fine, and looks highly likely to run a most honest race. Whether something is a bit better handicapped is the question.
Spring Heeled is a sneaky one for the Irish, Jim Culloty's horse having run a couple of below par efforts since a sequence of pleasing ones. Consequently, he's slipped down the ratings a few pounds, and he also got a quick reccie of this course back in November. He's been off a while, though, which is not ideal but does have the services of Robbie McNamara (won the Bumper on Wednesday) in the saddle.
Last year's winner, Same Difference, has slipped back to a rating of 141, just four higher than when winning last year. He was all out to beat Sentry Duty then and, with no recent form to speak of, it requires a leap of faith to side with him, despite the pull of history.
Right at the bottom of the weights, a horse of Dessie Hughes' catches my eye. Hunting Party was running a sequence of fine races on top of the ground, before an early fall and a sub-par effort on soft ground. Back on good turf, and off a nice little break, I can see this chap outrunning odds of 25/1. In a race where horses with a last time out top four finish have failed to claim the pot more often than not, Hunting Party is the play.
Kim Muir Tips
Obviously not a race to be getting excited about unless, like my mates, you think Indian Castle is a cracking bet. I'll be certainly including him on the placepot, but at the prices I prefer the low-weighted Dessie Hughes-trained Hunting Party, who will appreciate a return to quicker ground, and will stay this trip much better as a consequence.
Kim Muir Speculative:
Hunting Party 25/1 Stan James BOG, FIVE places
More obvious Kim Muir pick:
Indian Castle 7/1 Betfair Sportsbook BOG, FIVE places