With just three weeks to go until the Cheltenham Festival 2012, virtually all runners (outside of the handicaps) have had their final prep races.
And this weekend just passed was chock full of such runs... but did it offer us any clues? And, if it did, what were they? Let's run through and try to sort the wheat from the chaff, starting with Newbury's Super Saturday... er, Fab Friday... card.
I was lucky enough to attend what turned out to be an afternoon of top class sport, which kicked off with unbeaten novice chaser - and Arkle ante-post favourite - Sprinter Sacre taking on more experienced, though less able, rivals in the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase.
The Sprinter fair sauntered away with this affair, again not coming off the bridle to record a facile win from stable mate and seasonal debutant, French Opera. What did this tell us about Sprinter Sacre's Arkle chances?
Well, firstly, he jumped impeccably. And he could hardly have won more convincingly. But what did he actually beat? French Opera was six lengths down at the line - though a truer reflection might have been twelve to fifteen of the winner's superiority. But French Opera, as well as returning from 300 or so days off the track, was spotting SS five pounds.
It's very hard to argue it would have changed the result if French Opera was fit and they'd raced off levels. But it's not hard to suggest that this performance was more visually impressive than a shake up to the form book.
French Opera was rated 162 beforehand, and Sprinter Sacre 161. It is unlikely that FO ran a new personal best, especially with 150-rated I'm So Lucky only two and a bit lengths further back.
More likely is that I'm So Lucky ran to his mark (he's been plus or minus seven pounds of 150 for his last seven runs and looks a reliable yardstick), which means that French Opera probably achieved a rating of about 158 (when taking the weight concession of ten pounds to ISL into account).
Where does all this pseudo-science leave us? With the distinct impression that the only things we learned being that SS jumps well when not under pressure; oozes class on the bridle; and, still has a leg in each corner.
It is a trait of Nicky Henderson's to 'under-face' his horses prior to championship novice events and, I feel, this doesn't especially help their chances. (In fairness, in this case, Henderson did run SS against Peddlers Cross, and did for that rival compelling enough).
It is entirely possible that Sprinter Sacre will win the Arkle. However, it's my belief that this big, strong-galloping type will need to do it pretty much on the bridle... or he won't do it. Three times in his career, SS has come off the bridle. On his debut, he cruised all over the second, before finally prevailing by a nose in a desperate finish.
The other two occasions saw SS' only two defeats. In other words, barring that debut effort, if he doesn't win on the bridle, he doesn't win. He's a best priced 11/8, so well done to you if you have a ticket with 4/1 or bigger. And my advice is to lay it off, either now, or in running, because this chap has one gear: granted, it's a gear big enough to beat all but the best. But on Tuesday 13th March, he'll have to beat all of the best in what looks a strong year for the two mile novice chasers, to my eye at least.
500 words to cover the first of many races last weekend, and I promise to be more succinct subsequently, but there were plenty of points I wanted to make to counteract the visual impression of the Game Spirit Chase... and that was without even mentioning the insipid displays from second and third favourites, Hold Fast and Zaynar, giving the form an extremely shallow look.
Next, and rarely will there have been two better races to start a card. The Denman Chase followed, and Long Run was all the rage to open his seasonal account and prove that he's still 'the daddy' when it comes to the Gold Cup picture.
What he actually proved was that he is capable of beating Burton Port and What A Friend, but not by much. In truth, it was a muddling race, with The Giant Bolster messing about with the fractions - again, to my eye at least (I haven't seen the evidence of the clock to support or refute that notion) - and probably bouncing after running a monster race last time.
Moreover, Long Run was gasping for air at the end, as the long absent Burton Port clawed back all bar half a length of the deficit at the jam stick, with What A Friend emptying after travelling well to be beaten just over four lengths.
It's very hard to know what to make of this race. On the one hand, credit to Long Run for winning a stop-start (I think) affair, and for giving ten pounds to the second.
On the other hand, Burton Port must have been expected to come on a bundle for the run (drifted from 6/1 to 15/2 pre-race), and surely will do so. And it was BP who would have been in front over the Gold Cup trip, even if you fail to account for the greater stamina demands of Cheltenham's undulating big dipper of a track.
Long Run has been inconclusive all season, and punters piling in at prices shorter than 3/1 since the King George do not appear to understand the concept of value, at the very least.
Again, I'm not saying Long Run can't win. I'm simply saying he couldn't beat grandpa Kauto (twice); his jockey is clearly, erm, an 'enthusiastic amateur'; and he was all out to beat a seasonal debutant and hitherto 33/1 shot for the Gold Cup.
If that's enticing to you, then good luck. I'll be amazed if Long Run starts shorter than 3/1 on Cheltenham Friday, as his form this season just doesn't merit it.
And, at the risk of sounding (even more) preposterous, I actually think he might be a non-stayer and may not like Cheltenham. Yes, yes, obviously I know he won the Gold Cup last year. But he beat two eleven-year-olds - one of which has since beaten him twice, and the other, after whom this race was named, has since retired presumably to avoid further embarrassment to the reigning champ.
But Long Run has only won one of three Cheltenham spins. And he 'outstayed' a regressive Denman and a gallant Kauto Star.
The remainder of last season's Gold Cup field were has been's and (mostly) never were's.
I'd have to bet on him outstaying Kauto Star again this time, but surely something will barrel past both of them, no? My problem is that this season also looks sub-standard. I mean, Grand National types Burton Port and Synchronised are now fourth and fifth favourites. And the third favourite is a three race novice who may well go for the RSA Chase!
I have no clue where that leaves us, except with probably a high class handicap as the Gold Cup, and scratching around the outsiders to see who might challenge from left field. Or maybe Synchronised or, especially, Burton Port can step up. Maybe...
I'd have to say that I think the Ryanair looks a much smarter contest this term than the Gold Cup. But I've no clue who will win either!
Still reading? Have you nothing better to do?! OK, let's persist as I'm sure I'll find something under which to light an ante-post fire before this (inordinately verbose) post is out...
The Betfair Hurdle followed, and it was a veeeeerrrrrryyyyyy sssssllllllloooooowwwwwllllllllyyyyyyy run event. In the circumstances, I give huge kudos to Zarkandar for winning, for two reasons:
1. He wasn't as fit as many/most/all? of these, and got caught flat-footed before rallying stoutly
2. He is Paul Nicholls' only winning horse in February! From 31 runners in a weather depleted month.
On the 20th day of the month to be writing that is incredible, despite the fact that Team Nicholls was almost certainly held back a step a) by the weather, and b) by a training plan that leads to mid-March targets and not mid-February targets.
In any other race, I'd say Zarkandar had a chance of beating whoever was favourite. But that 'Fly is some beast and, if he turns up, I'll be cheering my ante-post opposition with a hope that a Hurricane blows by them. He's a champion and one to savour, and I really, really hope he proves that despite my money being laid out elsewhere. (I can still pick up a winning return off the place part of the 16/1 about Binocular advised here way back when... and so can you if you followed me in! More on the Bin in due course).
There are two other horses (probably more actually, but two that I'll call out) who ran extremely well in this race. Firstly, Darlan was travelling like the winner when bulleting McCoy into the turf at the second last. What he would have found is the subject of conjecture, but he enhanced his reputation in defeat here and reminded me of Get Me Out Of Here who won this race in 2010 before finishing second in the Supreme a month later.
Perhaps Darlan can pick himself up off the turf and go one better in the Supreme. Certainly, there are worse wagers.
Incidentally, Get Me Out Of Here ran another stonker to be - you guessed it - second here. His consistency is matched only by his misfortune as, but for one beast each time, he'd be a dual winner of this race, a Supreme Novices Hurdle winner, a County Hurdle winner, and probably in line for a tilt at the Champion Hurdle this term.
Such is the manner in which the biscuit breaks... or something like that.
The other horse to take from this race is ultra-consistent Raya Star. Winner of the Ladbroke at Ascot, and a close up third here at Newbury (albeit getting a fine weight concession), it's to be seen whether Cheltenham's helter skelters float his boat. But he deserves a chance in something like the County, and he wasn't stopping here.
The novice hurdle that followed also promised us Cheltenham clues. And it too failed to reveal all that it could have, as the cruising favourite, Colour Squadron, unshipped Dickie Johnson at the same second last flight which did for Darlan half an hour or so previously.
Both tumblers may have enhanced their Supreme prospects in diving defeat. Colour Squadron has some of the best form for the Supreme, his second in the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle behind Captain Conan. He probably should have won that day, and he does appear to be something of a quirky young thing.
But quirk is as talent does (what?!), and this fellow has plenty of the latter to go with his some of the former. He might well have won here, and would certainly have been the closest pursuer of ultimately impressive winner, Montbazon.
Montbazon himself has a most progressive hurdling profile, having kicked off in high class bumpers last term. Since his debut second (here, behind Colour Squadron) over timber, he's won well at Plumpton (at odds of 1/10) and here on Friday.
He had a decent horse still to beat after the exit of CS in Vulcanite, and he did it well enough. Alas, that looks like the end of the 40/1 fantasy I was indulging about Vulcanite winning the Supreme by way of a Betfair voucher struck back in early January.
All The Aces actually ran a blinder in third. He was badly outpaced and stayed on well. Again, it's hard to entirely write him off from the Supreme picture, though he's older than most in that contest.
I have a sneaking suspicion that at least one of Colour Squadron and Montbazon will trouble the Supreme judge, and their stats fit the race profile too. (More on that later in the week, when I start race by race previews - oh joy!)
At odds of 12/1 Montbazon and 16/1 Colour Squadron, I reckon there's a dribble of each way value there.
The Scilly Isles Novices' Chase, incredibly the only Grade 1 on the card, was the next affair of interest. And it was I who was made to look Scilly, as For Non Stop pooh-poohed my allegations of ungenuineness (sic) with a fine round of jumping and a clear cut verdict.
He's a horse with top class form and now comes right into Jewson Novices' Chase contention. To remind you, that's the new novice race over the intermediate trip, that isn't the handicap which used to be called the Jewson and is also for novice chasers... Ah, how ante-post punting has become a nightmare since the expansion of the meeting...
8/1 is the best price on him for that race which I'll be leaving well alone until final declaration stage.
Walkon was well beaten and will more likely now head for the novices handicap chase over the same trip as the Jewson (the one which used to be called the Jewson!), while Mossley must have gone wrong, and was pulled up.
And still we weren't done! The finale was a Listed bumper, and some promising beasties lined up. As it was, Lazarus aka Tony McCoy picked himself out of the self-made pothole this side of the second last to ride a brilliant race and get Shutthefrontdoor home by a short head from Village Vic.
Both will surely head for the Champion Bumper, and I'm not the sort of bloke who will recommend anyone backing anything in that race with a straight face.
I will say this though: the third horse will win a bumper before long, probably at woefully prohibitive odds. Horatio Hornblower is the name. Add it to the notebook. Winner.
Meanwhile, over at Sandown, there were further Festival clues. Kapga de Cerisy was 'expected' this day and won in a hard fought duel with Firefighter. The former is trained by Venetia Williams and the latter by Alan King. I'd not be at all surprised to see them both run well in the Fred Winter. Alas, I'd also expect some impossible to fancy Irish plot to beat them both.
Keep them onside, but save the powder for nearer the time. For info only, Kapga is 16's and Firefighter 20's for that race.
For those who like to bet in all Cheltenham Festival races - like me, for instance - Gwanako won the concluding hunter chase at Sandown and, in so doing, put himself in the frame for the Foxhunters. Or at least he would have if he'd been entered/qualified for that. As far as I can tell (i.e. by the absence of any bookie prices), he's not entered or qualified, so again, caution is advised at this time.
One who is entered in that race did the bizzo in style at, erm, Fakenham in a three runner hunter chase. Say hello to The Queen's Barber Shop, former Hennessey fourth. If you're tempted by the best odds of 20/1 on the back of that effort, then I'll offer you 22/1!!
And so to Saturday, and more instructive racing at Ascot, Wincanton, Haydock and Gowran Park.
To Ascot first, and the Reynoldstown Novices Chase, a Grade 2 over three miles won by some very smart sorts in the last five years (Burton Port, Carruthers, Albertas Run).
Invictus topped the podium this time, and in doing so earned a quote of 12/1 from Betvictor (as low as 6's with Boylesports). But I'd be more than happy to take runner up here, Bobs Worth, to beat him in the Cheltenham race. In fact, I ploughed into the 7's on Betfair straight afterwards.
Bobs is now a best priced 6/1, and this was a race brim full of promise if you like this chap. It was always going to happen a bit quick for him on the pan flat Ascot plains, but his proven predilection for Cheltenham's rather more interesting terrain (three from three there, including the Albert Bartlett at the Festival last year) means things will play to his strengths.
And his strengths are stamina, stamina and stamina. He wouldn't have the class of a Grands Crus probably, or perhaps even an Invictus, but he has more guts than both put together I'll wager (indeed, I have wagered), and I think this is a robust enough ticket for the RSA Chase.
Silviniaco Conti was yet another Paul Nicholls-trained horse to disappoint and, even allowing for the fact that they'll be aiming a month away, this was a shocker. It must be touch and go whether he gets to the Festival after this.
The 2.25, a Listed handicap chase, will likely make little to no indentation on the Cheltenham Festival. But I mention it here, as I put up the winner, Massini's Maguire on Stat of the Day. Available at 16/1 in the morning (with a small rule 4 subsequently being applied), he returned 9/1 but paid a fat juicy lovely delicious 15.5 on Betfair, where I may have topped up my original best odds guaranteed wager... 😀
Stat of the Day is well in front since inception, and has made nice profits most months. It's free, I rarely trumpet it, but you should check it out! You can find by hovering over the 'horse racing blog' button in the top menu, and clicking on 'Stat of the Day'.
Much more materially in the context of this post, the Ascot Chase which followed saw the much anticipated return to action of Riverside Theatre. And spectators were not to be disappointed, as the Theatre produced a polished seasonal debut to see off Medermit and Gauvain.
Riverside Theatre will likely head for the Ryanair, for which he was truncated to as short as 4/1 favouritism in a place. It's interesting to note that Ladbrokes, who usually know something, go stand out longest at 7/1.
Given that this race has the likes of Rubi Light, Noble Prince, Somersby, potentially Albertas Run, and others, I'm not surprised that 'the Magic Sign' are being bold. It's surely a race to savour rather than wager, and promises to be brilliantly competitive.
Medermit also has an entry here, but I'm not sure where they can go with him, as he seems to be not quite good enough to win another Grade 1 and too highly weighted to be competitive in the handicap division. Perhaps they should try the Gold Cup!
Meanwhile, Haydock Park was also getting in on the act of Cheltenham preps. In the Rendlesham Hurdle, a Grade 2 over three miles, Restless Harry relished the absence of long-time nemesis Big Buck's and recorded a hard fought and well deserved return to the relatively big time.
He's not going to beat Big Buck's, and nor - clearly - is anything that finished behind him this day. But he's a nice horse and one to put faith in just below top class.
Giles Cross won the National Trial in seemingly facile fashion. I say 'seemingly' because at the line the verdict was a neck. Also, I'm far from certain what he finds for pressure. But it's hard to argue with the following:
1. He won this on the bridle!
2. He won it from the front, perfect running style for the Grand National
3. He jumped brilliantly
4. He has 10-01 for the National, meaning he is in the handicap proper and has a sporting chance of getting a run (number 63 in the list, 40 will run)
There are certainly worse 25/1 shots for the big race, and I'm talking myself into a bet!
Wincanton staged the Kingwell Hurdle and, in typically misleading fashion, Nicky Henderson replaced the supposedly running Grandouet with the supposedly not running Binocular at the declaration stage.
Apparently, Grandouet has a problem and is taking medication. Given Henderson's track record, I'd make Grandouet about half his current 9/1 odds to even make it to Cheltenham. We've been here before with Henderson: last year with Binocular in point of fact.
I have my suspicions about the stable and their use of 'medication', but obviously this is all unsubstantiated substance discussion (if you see what I mean), so I'll leave it at that. Suffice it to say, I respect the presence of his runners but I try to bet elsewhere when it makes sense to.
Which leads me nicely on to Binocular. Sent off a very generous 5/6 (with hindsight at least), McCoy was a passenger here as his mount was impeccable over his hurdles, and laughed at some reasonable opposition in Celestial Halo (rated just a pound lower than Bin) and Starluck (rated 155).
Ladbrokes were most impressed, cutting Binocular to 9/2 clear second best for the Champion Hurdle. Whilst that might be defined as a swingeing cut, my own view is that he is the most likely horse to take advantage of an absent or off colour Hurricane Fly.
If you share that view and you're not already involved, you can still get 8/1 with both William Hill and Coral, which surprised me as I do think that's a pretty decent each way bet to nothing.
Across the Irish Sea, there were further preps for the raiders at Gowran Park. First, the Grade 2 Red Mills Chase over 2m4f was dominated by Rubi Light, and his sixteen length margin over Chicago Grey (himself a Festival winner in the National Hunt Chase... over four miles!) underlined his superiority.
Rubi Light does like to lead and it's unclear whether that will be a courtesy extended to him in the Ryanair, a race which - as I've already stated - is too hard for me at this stage of proceedings.
The Grade 2 Red Mills Trial Hurdle over two miles was won in equally simple style by Zaidpour. Willie Mullins said afterwards that he hasn't figured out whether they'll aim at the Champion or World Hurdle yet. Fair enough, as they do have a lot of horses to potentially run in both.
Looking at the way other form lines have panned out suggests he surely ought to go at the World Hurdle, in which Zaidpour would have robust place claims at the very least. Were he assured a run, the 20/1 with sportingbet would be tempting.
But again, it's 'bide your time' time until more info is available. Mullins currently has Mourad, Thousand Stars, So Young and Quevega at shorter prices in the World Hurdle betting!
The 4.25 had a brilliant result, as the winner and second - both 12/1 shots - were trained by two of my Irish Lucky 13. If that means nothing to you, it will do by tomorrow! You'll be able to get hold of a copy of this trainer report FREE, GRATIS and at NO CHARGE as part of an event I'm unveiling this week.
So do stay tuned for that! 🙂
And so to yesterday. Nothing of note in the UK, but over at Navan, the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle perhaps helped our Willie sort his hierarchy of hurdling hopefuls ahead of the Festival, as Mourad brushed Mikael d'Haguenet aside with aplomb.
Given that the winner was second favourite, and the second was odds on jolly, this will have been a head scratcher for connections at first glance. But the balance of Mikael's form this season is not in the same league as that of Mourad's (third to Big Buck's last time), and Mourad also had the higher official rating, albeit only by two pounds.
It's unlikely that either of these are the best of the Mullins millions, and the one I like is the aforementioned Zaidpour, who had previously beaten Voler La Vedette, who herself has twice recently beaten Mourad.
Whilst I'm not a huge fan of collateral form - on its own at least - it does seem to point firmly enough to Zaidpour having decent claims in the World Hurdle if that is the chosen route.
The other Grade 2, the Flyingbolt Novices' Chase over 2m4f, looked sub-standard and was won by Donnas Palm, who was all out to catch Foildubh on the line.
This was not Festival form to my eye, and the fact that Donnas Palm was barely in the same furlong as the likes of Last Instalment (now absent due to injury) and Sir Des Champs means he won't be on any of my tickets.
The last word on a dazzling weekend of Cheltenham Festival preparation must go to Cue Card's trainer Colin Tizzard. No, this has nothing to do with the Festival, nor even to do with Cue Card.
Rather, after eight horses running moderately for him on Saturday afternoon - the last of which was called Coup Royale - Tizzard proceeded to record five straight winners! An across the card quintuple, in which he also had the second placed horse TWICE with his two other runners.
Whether this was an orchestrated 'coup royale' or just happy circumstance is not known - at least not by this scribe - but blimey, that's some fancy placing there!
And finally finally, two reminders from above.
1. Check out the Stat of the Day feature. I don't advertise it with a daily email, but it's there every day. If you follow me on Twitter, you'll get a 'tweet' notification when the post is there. If not, just check the site. Old Skool! 😉
2. Look out for my email tomorrow, for details of how to get hold of the Irish Lucky 13 which is a very interesting report that has been performing splendidly well in recent days.
Finally finally finally, it's your turn! What was your best performance of the weekend, and what - if anything - have you backed for Cheltenham as a result of the weekend's racing?