Saturday at Cheltenham was life-affirming stuff for a National Hunt aficionado. Trials Day provided for top class racing, a "pattern interrupt" in the narrative, and some excellent rehearsals for the next meeting at the track, March's four day Festival jamboree.
The headlines were rightly grabbed by Alan King, whose 122.75/1 treble courtesy of Smad Place, Annacotty and Yanworth confined Willie Mullins to a rare afternoon in the glorious midwinter shade. But if the likes of the first and last of King's Cheltenham treble, and Colin Tizzard's super staying hurdler, Thistlecrack, screamed their Festival credentials, others whispered their intent in altogether more subtle tones.
The Trials Day 'Quiet Run' Blueprint
First, the blueprint. A horse with at least a touch of class being targeted at a Cheltenham Festival handicap, whose final prep was on Trials Day. I have used an odds ceiling of 20/1 in both the Trials Day and Festival handicap races as a barometer of "a touch of class", so caveat emptor as regards whether you believe that sounds reasonable.
Anyway, if you think that's fair, then consider that in the last three years, twenty horses went to post at 20/1 or shorter for a Festival handicap having been 20/1 or shorter on their prior run on Trials Day: a score at a score and a score.
Their finishing record in the Festival handicaps was P52177P54P7P71173160.
Although that may not look fantastic on first sighting, it is worth noting the following:
- The four winners (20% strike rate) were worth a profit of 30 points at starting price, having been achieved at odds of 16/1, 11/1 twice and 8/1.
- The additional three placed horses (35% place strike rate) meant a profit of 34.12 points betting each way.
- No fewer than 15 of the 20 horses (75%) finished in the top seven in races where the average field size was 23.1
The winning quartet were Irish Cavalier, The Druids Nephew, Lac Fontana and Rajdhani Express; and it may be especially worth noting that the first and last of those ran in the novices' handicap chases both on Trials Day and on the opening day of the Festival.
Listing those horses who were 20/1 or shorter on Saturday is not really the route to insight. However, if we consider the fact that, for a fair few contenders, they will have been brought closer to concert pitch by their weekend 'gargle', that offers the chance to flex my bulging opinion muscle!
Un Temps Pour Tout
This lad was sent off 3/1 favourite for the novices' handicap chase, and he ran an, erm, eye-catching race when a never nearer 17 length fourth. He's rated 152 so that discounts the 0-140 novices' handicap chase that closes the Tuesday Festival card; but a couple of pounds lower would set him up very nicely for a tilt at the Festival Handicap Chase (3m1f).
He was a Grade 1 winner over hurdles in France as recently as last summer and is rated 163 in that sphere. A perch close to a stone lower over fences looks mightily attractive come Festival time, should connections opt for the handicap route. Even if they went for the RSA, he only has a few pounds to find on hurdle ratings, which might make the current 33/1 tempting (though, personally, I'd wait for NRNB if you like the look of that).
In the same race, Jonjo O'Neill was giving this former French racer his first sight of UK fences, let alone Cheltenham's stiff obstacles. Given a very quiet waiting ride, Rezorbi was creeping into contention when unshipping at the second last.
It looked a nasty fall but, if none the worse for it, this young fellow - only just turned five - looks a credible contender for the Novices' Handicap Chase off anything close to his Saturday mark of 138. It is hard to foresee the handicapper nudging him up, or indeed down, after a run where promise readily outpointed performance on the day.
Another Jonjo jobber, Johns Spirit was second in the 2014 Paddy Power Gold Cup (having won it the year before), sixth in the King George of the same year, and fifth in last year's Ryanair Chase. Those last two runs were off a mark of 160, and the nine year old was lining up off just 148 on Saturday.
With a known dislike of heavy ground, it is perhaps odd that his last two runs have been on the seriously sodden stuff. Perhaps odd, but probably not, because he's likely to get dropped at least three for this never nearer plugging on fourth. A rating of 145 would render him eligible for the Kim Muir, though that three and a quarter mile trip is probably on the long side.
More likely is a tilt at the Brown Advisory Plate, in which he'd race off close to eleven stone. He's quoted for the Plate and the Ryanair, but you surely don't spend all year managing your mark to run in a level weights Grade 1. As such, the 25/1 available for the Plate looks a gift, albeit one without a refund policy should he fail to line up.
The Young Master
The Cleeve Hurdle is a strange place for a good handicap chaser to show up, on the face of it at least. And yet it is the exact same hole that The Druids Nephew assumed prior to his decisive day one win in last year's Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase.
TDN ran a well beaten fifth of six in the 2015 Cleeve, having already secured a chase mark with which connections were happy. TYM ran a well beaten sixth, and at 25/1 too. So, while he doesn't quite fit the blueprint, he probably has some potential from a handicap chase mark of around 148.
He ran in the RSA Chase last year, and was found out, but back to handicap company - probably in the same race The Druids Nephew won - and on slightly better ground, The Young Master could show a good bit more interest. A general quote of 20/1 for the race reflects that view.
There was a lot to like about both the winner and second's - Solstice Star and Cheltenian - performances here, but both revealed themselves still further to the 'capper with their ready ease on the eye.
Back in third was the one to take from the race, as Paul Nicholls' former French inmate made a taking UK debut off a rating of 138. Frodon travelled like the winner through the race before blowing up as though in need of this and, as a four year old, he'll have the Fred Winter - for which he's currently 25/1, the same price as the same trainer's similarly ex-French Fred Winter winner last year - as his target.
As well as Qualando, the aforementioned Fred Winter winner, Nicholls also bagged the Coral Cup with another ex-French recruit, Aux Ptit Soins, in 2015. Therein lies an emerging blueprint within a blueprint, and 25/1 may again be worth the chance, despite an alternative entry in the Triumph Hurdle and the lack of the non-runner no bet safety net.