In the first of two preview night reports this week (the second will appear on Friday after the London Racing Club's evening on Thursday), I'll relate the opinions of a panel of five who collectively covered most of the necessary elements of horse racing.
Indeed, in place of your butcher, baker and candlestick maker was seated a jockey, a trainer, an owner, a journalist and a bookmaker. By name they were Jack Quinlan, under-rated and articulate young jockey at John Ferguson's stables; Noel Quinlan, wily and shrewd Newmarket trainer and winner of the Fred Winter with Silk Affair in 2009; Tony Stafford, denizen of Fleet Street's racing fraternity; Barry Dennis, old Cap'n Bismarck himself; and, David Johnson, Grand National and Cheltenham Festival-winning owner.
The room was packed with a capacity hundred crowd, including Tony Gale (300 appearances for West Ham and nearly as many for Fulham) and Zinzan Brooke, a Rugby World Cup winner and holder of 100 caps for New Zealand.
As well as being informed by the panel, the audience were entertained royally by Ian Irving who is, I must say, a very funny bloke.
Anyway, enough with the scene-setting and onto the meat of the matter: what did our panel think would win at Cheltenham Festival 2013? Here is a potted review of their thoughts.
Supreme Novices Hurdle
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a unanimous vote for My Tent Or Yours, the favourite. Jack, who had got closest to MTOY when running up aboard Cotton Mill in the Betfair Hurdle last time out, was very impressed with the horse which beat him. He's hopeful that Cotton Mill himself can run a big race in the County Hurdle, which looks the most likely of his three engagements at this stage.
Barry Dennis was the only other with a strong view (surely not!), and he reckoned MTOY would win "from here to the second last".
There was a split decision here between the slight odds-on jolly, Simonsig, and the second favourite, Overturn. Most people were of the opinion that there was little between them and that Overturn represented better value.
My own view, for what it's worth, is that the fact that none of the first three in the market (Arvika Ligionniere is next in) have raced against each other, or against horses which have raced against each other, makes it a guessfest.
Barry Dennis weighed in here, and felt that nine-year-old Hurricane Fly was opposable at short odds and should be layed at any price up to 5/2, which is the price he feels the Fly will be sent off on Tuesday next. In fact, at time of writing - and this may be a short-lived promo, William Hill go 3/1 about Hurricane Fly.
Against Hurricane Fly, there were a few opinions, none especially strongly held, though David Johnson and Barry Dennis were favouring Grandouet as an each way bet to nothing. Everyone respected the chances of the Fly though felt he offered no value at 7/4. (They might have felt differently if the 3/1 was on offer then!)
Again, a few opinions. Big bad Barry wanted to lay Dynaste at the price - too short at 2/1 he said - and David Johnson reported that Dynaste was not certain to go for the RSA, but more likely there than the Jewson. The Pipe team think Dynaste is the biz and are extremely hopeful of a big run.
Tony Stafford was also a fan of Dynaste.
The Quinlans were more interested in the chance of Boston Bob, last year's second in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle and a horse looking like he's crying out for the stamina test this normally is.
Queen Mother Champion Chase
There was no dissent in the ranks with regards to the prospects of Sprinter Sacre, who was considered 'bar a fall' material, with many of his prime ante-post market rivals possibles for other races.
As Dennis said, the second and third choices - Sizing Europe and Cue Card - may well go for the Ryanair, and then it's 16/1 bar. So, if you like ANYTHING here, you might get plenty of each way value.
David Johnson suggested buying the winning distance might be the play.
In other Wednesday races, Purple Bay, from the John Feguson team was reported to be a very nice horse which will "definitely get up the hill" in the Champion Bumper. He's a 25/1 shot, and it's a race full of completely unexposed 'could be anything' types. In that kind of caveat emptor setup, you could do worse than nibble each way at Purple Bay.
The Fred Winter also got a mention, for two reasons. Firstly, Noel told us that his Sky Khan would probably run there. He's entered on Wednesday at Fontwell and, if he acquits himself well and comes out of that fine, he'll go to Cheltenham a week later with bits of an each way squeak.
One for which there was more of a rumour was the plot job, Another Sensation. This was put up by David Johnson, who has the right connections to know that this fellow has a chance. His form of 28U doesn't immediately mark him out as winner material, but he was probably going to win his last race, and he's reportedly improved a bundle since last seen on the track. 16/1 is the general best price available, including with bet365 who are non-runner money back and best odds guaranteed.
The panel was a little undecided here, due to some doubts about running plans, but the one which got a strong mention - and I'd have to agree - was First Lieutenant. Having been available at 12/1 as recently as early February, he's now a best priced 9/2, but the trip looks tailor made, and he's got plenty of top class form and Cheltenham Festival form (winner of the Neptune in 2011 and 2nd to Bobs Worth in the RSA last year).
Three strongish views here: Tony Stafford was very sweet on the chance of Monksland, which he felt is guaranteed to stay where some are not, and has top class form over in Ireland and at the Festival (third in the Neptune last year).
David Johnson bought into the Monksland case as well, but was more interested in Wonderful Charm if it runs in this race rather than the Coral Cup.
Jack made a compelling case for Peddlers Cross as a horse which has won a Neptune, been second in a Champion Hurdle, and didn't like fences. I think he has a point and, with Peddlers still only an eight year old, he does seem to be something of a forgotten horse in here. He's a general 10/1 shot and that looks perfectly reasonable, as he's at least as likely to stay as Oscar Whisky, and has bags of class.
Onto Friday, and the panel made it a three way go between Rolling Star, Our Conor, and Far West. Noel was in the Our Conor camp, but respected Rolling Star too; Jack was Rolling Star after the way he quickened away up the Cheltenham hill in his prep race; and Messrs. Johnson and Dennis were Far West'ers, though DJ feared both of the other two.
Given that trio is around the 9/2 mark each, and it's 16/1 bar three, that was about right I guess.
The Gold Cup saw big shouts for Bobs Worth and Long Run. The latter, Cap'n Bismarch declared, would be 3/1 if ridden by McCoy, Geraghty or Walsh. I'm not sure I completely agree with that, but I can see the logic around him being a longer price than he perhaps ought to be at around 7/1. That represents some sort of each way value if you think he can (or has) regain(ed) the effervescence of his Gold Cup-winning season.
Noel wanted a sentimental Gold Cup winner and was rooting for Imperial Commander.
In other races, David Johnson offered a few words of encouragement in the directions of Sam Winner in the Pertemps (5/1 favourite currently), and Gevrey Chambertin in which ever race he runs in. He's most likely to run in the Martin Pipe Conditionals' handicap, but it is still to be decided, so do bet with a non-runner no bet firm.
Noel Quinlan rowed in with Tricky Trickster in the Foxhunters', evidently feeling that the stamina test and better ground would play to his strengths more than than the flat heavy trip at Ffos Las last time. 12/1 is fair enough. DJ has the second favourite in the same race in the shape of Chapoturgeon, about which he is hopeful rather than expectant. My own feeling is there's a slight niggle about seeing out the trip, but he has to be a contender despite that.
David Johnson - Gevrey Chambertin (whichever race he runs in)
Barry Dennis - Long Run (Gold Cup)
Tony Stafford - Monksland (World Hurdle)
Noel Quinlan - Imperial Commander e/w (Gold Cup)
Jack Quinlan - Rolling Star (Triumph Hurdle)
After the preview, Barry Dennis was asked about on course bookmakers and the lack of competition. He responded that it had become an arbing game for them now, as most have commission-free accounts with BetDaq and therefore are simply laying a short price than they can back on the exchange to guarantee a profit.
His own view was that he'd rather 'dig ditches' than do that for £200 a day... and yet that didn't stop him from doing it. So, ultimately, I got the impression that he'd lost some of his passion for the bookmaking side of the game, and that perhaps on course bookies' days are numbered.
My take is that if no bookmaker wants to have an opinion and take a stand against a horse, and if they want to burgle people with offensive place terms, then they get what they deserve: extinction.
The hackneyed 'the racecourse won't be the same place without bookmakers' argument is similar to the 'football team is too good to go down': it simply doesn't stack up to reality. Bookies need to grow their respective pairs back and start laying a proper bet on a horse against which they have a view. Until that time, they remain an endangered species, though not one that the World Wildlife Fund will be fighting to protect.
A very enjoyable evening, and one from which a few interesting insights were gleaned (not always the case at such events).
I enjoyed the experienced voices of Stafford, Dennis and Johnson; and was impressed most with the articulate, considered responses from young Jack Quinlan, a jockey who rides as thoughtfully as he speaks, and who deserves a lot more chances than he's currently getting. Perhaps a move away from Newmarket to a more mainstream NH community will see his career leap forward. I certainly hope so.
As a final point in support of that, I just arbitrarily asked my racing database to tell me how Jack has done on horses priced 6/1 or shorter. It was a mild surprise - and robust support of the notion that he's an underrated pilot - to see that he's made a profit of over 30 points at Betfair SP (over 15 at industry odds) just blindly backing all of his mounts priced 6/1 or less!