Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day Four Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day Four Preview, Tips

And so to day 4, Friday, Gold Cup Day, the last of the quartet. If you're in front, well done; if you're behind, there's still time. Either way, the last day is traditionally the trickiest so keep that in mind as you peruse the prose below.

1.30 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)

The four-year-old hurdle championship is often a confused competitive affair. But this time it might just be a tad lop-sided. That is certainly how the market perceives things, with Sir Erec heading the betting at even money. Plenty of horses arrive at this race off the flat and/or after earlier starts to their hurdling careers in France. This fellow has an extremely high class flat profile, evidenced most obviously by a third place finish behind Stradivarius in the Group 2 Long Distance Cup on British Champions' Day last autumn. He was sent off just 5/1 that day suggesting there was no fluke to that run. He jumps proficiently, stays well and has oodles of class.

If there is a reason to take him on, and I'm not convinced there is, it might be in a faintly interrupted prep where he was the victim of a stone bruise. But the vibes - #thevibes - seem to be that he is completely over that and he's unlikely to have missed any work as a consequence. I think he will win and win well. But I cannot bet him at even money.

So where to from here? Betting without the favourite is our friend: it offers fair odds without having to do half the stake on an unlikely win prospect. Away from Sir Erec, it's a fascinating betting race. Fascinating, but not easily deciphered.

Tiger Tap Tap was very close to Sir Erec on their respective Irish hurdling debuts, but further back when they re-engaged last time. He may step forward for a more truly run race and represents the Mullins/Walsh axis.

Best of the Brits is probably the, erm, French horse, Quel Destin, who has experience aplenty and comes here unbeaten in five small field races. Although it's hard to crab a horse that just keeps winning, it feels to me as though the Irish juveniles are a cut above their British counterparts; if that's correct then the likes of Tiger and Gardens Of Babylon are worth a second glance in the without market. Gardens Of Babylon won a big field maiden hurdle before getting chinned on the line next time; he then got closest to Sir Erec at Leopardstown on his most recent outing.

The je ne sais quoi factor is brought to the race by Pic d'Orhy, a high class French import yet to race here. He was second in an Auteuil Grade 1 last November before being snapped up by owner Johnny de la Hey. Whilst it is often difficult to project how such horses will fare on their UK debuts, and this is hardly a quiet jog round in which to get started, new trainer Paul Nicholls has 'previous' for getting this job done: he has effected it at least twice, with Diego du Charmil and Aux Ptits Soins, in the Fred Winter and Coral Cup respectively.

Adjali looked to have limitations exposed first by Quel Destin and then by Fakir d'Oudairies, the latter a form line suggesting Irish primacy in these ranks. Pentland Hills won his only hurdle start but is rated more than two stone inferior to Sir Erec on the level.

Willie Mullins also runs French Made, and she could be better than a 40/1 shot. She won her only start for Mullins in a big field maiden hurdle where the second and third have both won since.

Triumph Hurdle Pace Map

 

Triumph Hurdle Selection

I think, and indeed hope, Sir Erec wins, because he's as classy a recruit to the juvenile hurdling division as we've seen in a long time. He's capable of winning this, the Ascot Gold Cup in June and maybe even a Champion Hurdle one day.

But evens is not generally my thing. The without market is a place to play, and in that context both Tiger Tap Tap and Pic d'Orhy appeal more than Quel Destin. French Made may go better than a 40/1 shot, too.

Suggestion: Back either Tiger Tap Tap (Victor 11/2 1/5 123) and/or Pic d'Orhy (Victor 11/2 1/5 123) each way without the favourite. And perhaps have a tiny each way in the same market on French Made (Victor 18/1 1/5 123).

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2.10 County Hurdle (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m1f)

Too difficult for me, so token thoughts only. But then I did manage to back 40/1 William Henry on Wednesday and I've tipped a 50/1 winner in this before (Silver Jaro - oh, the scenes..!). Small stakes obviously. Runners aged seven-plus have won six of the last 21 so it's hardly the death knell but the percentage play is to side with younger, less exposed types. Five year olds have an incredible record, and those a year older have also gone well.

My shortlist, which comprises those youths with Graded form, is We Have A Dream, Mr Adjudicator, and Due Reward.

Mr Adjudicator is the shortest of the three, at around 16/1. He has finished 11222 in hurdle races, including a victory in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle last season, beating subsequent Triumph winner, Farclas. Last time out he was beaten eleven lengths by Espoir d'Allen, a performance which would have got him closer to the subsequent Champion Hurdle winner than the runner-up in that race, Melon, if taken literally. Whilst one should not take that literally it was nevertheless a very good effort.

We Have A Dream is also a Grade 1 winner, in last year's Finale Hurdle at Chepstow, and also makes his handicap debut. He stays further and has obvious class, but whether he's quite battle hardened enough for a scrap like this, I don't know.

The trio is rounded out by Due Reward, an experienced handicapper who was found out in a small field G1 two starts back. Given a rehearsal ride at Leopardstown last time, this is gala night and Henry de Bromhead will have him ready to roll.

Whiskey Sour is the favourite and for good reason. He ran a tidy race when third in this last year on his first handicap spin, and has plenty of Grade 1 form, including a win in novice company last term. He's commensurately short in the betting but his case is easy to make.

County Hurdle Pace Map

County Hurdle Selection

Obviously impossible, so the guesses are as presented above. Whiskey Sour will surprise nobody if winning, but bigger prices are available about equally talented - if less handicap proven - alternatives in We Have A Dream and Mr Adjudicator. Due Reward is also interesting.

Suggestion: Small interest each way on any or all of We Have A Dream (25/1 general), Mr Adjudicator (16/1 general) and Due Reward (25/1 general)

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2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

The potato race. A war for relatively inexperienced horses where the ability to stay stay and stay is aforethought. The last five winners were all sent off at double figure prices, two of them at 33/1, so this is not a race in which to be all in on the jolly.

The thing here is that this big field slog is a far greater test than the five- and six-runner bimbles horses encounter earlier in the season, and it demands a tougher - often less classy - animal to see it out. Experience is a crucial factor with twelve of the 14 winners having had four or more (and as many as ten!) races in the previous year.

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If we use that experience criterion we immediately remove three of the top five in the market and, while there's a fair chance we've lobbed the winner, I'm happier taking a flyer at a price in a race which has rewarded such ambition in recent years.

And I'm also focusing on those to have already won over at least three miles, as nine of the 14 winners had. That truncates the field from twenty to seven. Nice. Potentially.

The shortest of my remaining squad is the uneasy favourite, Lisnagar Oscar. Trained by Rebecca Curtis, whose At Fishers Cross won this in 2013, this son of - you know it, Oscar - was second over course and distance in December and has since won a big field novice hurdle at Chepstow and a three mile Grade 2 at Haydock. He deserves his position in the market and would certainly be shorter if trained by a more fashionable handler.

Derrinross is next on my list but his wins have come in a brace of six-runner fields and he's exactly the sort I want to be against. Doesn't mean he can't win - his soft ground score in a Grade 2 last time is obviously decent form - but this will be run at a very different clip, making 10/1 unattractive.

Gordon Elliott's Dinons ticks the experience box in spades - he's had ten runs, and five wins, in the last year - but he got whacked on his first step into Graded company last time and would prefer a sounder surface. That said, he did bolt up in a Class 2 novice hurdle over course and distance (on the other track) in October. Small field of six. He's not been seen for 110 days.

Nadaitak hacked up as outsider of four last time out in the Grade 2 River Don at Doncaster. That was on good ground as is most of his form, and it was in a small field - not what he'll encounter here. Ben Pauling is having a brilliant Festival (Le Breuil winning, Bright Forecast third in the Ballymore) so no worries on the stable form score, but I don't think he's quite shown enough mettle for this challenge.

And then we get to the interesting ones, from a price perspective at least. Noel Meade saddles Cap York, who got outpaced before staying on in Derrinross's Grade 2 two starts back. Last time out he raced in open handicap company in a bigger field over three miles, and won comfortably. That kind of race setup is far more akin to an average Albert Bartlett than the small field G2's which seem to abound, and I think this seven-year-old could go well. He does have slightly less experience than is ideal in terms of number of recent runs.

Colin Tizzard won this last year with Kilbricken Storm, and he has a similar profile type this term in Rockpoint. The six-year-old son of Shirocco has had a dozen hurdle starts, improving significantly in recent runs for the step up to three miles. He won the three mile Grade 2 over course and distance in which favourite Lisnagar Oscar was second, and yet he's 33/1 in places. True, he's since finished behind the same horse at Haydock, but that was on good ground and a flat track in a race run at a dawdle - this sort of attrition is much more his condition.

Plenty at the head of the market with proven class but unknown levels of fortitude, that latter attribute the primary requirement for the gig.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Selection

In a race where outsiders go well, I'm taking two against the field. Cap York could be the pick of the Irish, in terms of stamina and resolution at least; and Rockpoint, a Grade 2 winner over course and distance, looks a forgotten horse for last year's winning trainer. They'll do for me.

Suggestion: Back Rockpoint (33/1 Victor 1/5 1234) and/or Cap York (25/1 Victor 1/5 1234) each way

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3.30 Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2 1/2f)

The Blue Riband. I previewed the Cheltenham Gold Cup 2019 here, and nothing in my perspective has changed since.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Pace Map

 

Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection

I nominated Native River at 6/1 on 5th March in the above preview. He's now a top priced 9/2 which is still reasonable in my book, if not spectacular. Bellshill was my other suggestion: he was 14/1 and is still available to back at 12/1 in spite of Ruby Walsh riding. I'd imagine he'll shorten and is probably the bet if you're not on something already.

Suggestion: Think about Native River at 9/2 (888sport) and also Bellshill at 12/1 (Victor 1/5 1234)

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4.10 The Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2 1/2f)

We're into 'after the Lord Mayor's Show' territory now. If you're not in front, it will be pretty difficult to claw a result from here on out.

My handle on the point/hunter chase form is limited, but I was extremely taken by the performance of Hazel Hill when he routed a strong field at Warwick in late January. A prolific point winner, he is now three from three in hunter chases, nothing getting within ten lengths of him in that discipline. One firm went 25/1 about his chance here in the immediate aftermath; sadly, they only stood me £8.80, but still that was better than nothing and, in truth, will probably save me a quid or two when he runs a gallant second!

Two Irish horses head the market, Stand Up And Fight and Ucello Conti. They have very different profiles, the former being a lightly raced seven-year-old who placed in staying Graded novice hurdles two seasons ago; the latter a seasoned ex-handicap chaser who was second in the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at Leopardstown during their 2017 Christmas Festival. Ucello was running a bold race in last year's Grand National until unseating his rider four out and I'd be inclined to take that form over the class and youth of Enda Bolger's favourite. Young horses have won this race in the recent past - think Salsify and Cappa Bleu and Kingscliff - so don't let me put you off if you like the jolly.

Road To Rome is a winning machine. He's on a current streak of seven - three points and four hunter chases - but it has all been on flat tracks. He's an admirable horse, no doubt, though this looks a bridge too far.

And what of Pacha Du Polder? He's 20/1 having won this for the last two years. And if you think that price says he has no chance, keep in mind that those two wins in the race were returned at 16/1 and 25/1. His full record in the race is 511. No twelve-year-old-plus has won this since Earthmover in 2004, trained by... Pacha Du Polder's trainer, Paul Nicholls. Nicholls has won the Foxhunters a record-equalling four times and relies on Pacha in his bid for sole primacy.

Foxhunter Chase Pace Map

[Note that this pace map only features races run under Rules, i.e. no point to point pace figures are included]

 

Foxhunter Chase Selection

A fascinating race but, unless you're a bit of a judge of such things - I'm not - it's one to watch more than wager. Small interests on any of the top three in the market - Stand Up And Fight, Ucello Conti, Hazel Hill - should give you a run for your money. And if you want to cheer a big-priced story horse, Pacha du Polder is the one.

Suggestion: Back any of the top three and try a tiny each way on Pacha Du Polder (20/1 general)

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4.50 Grand Annual Chase (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m 1/2f)

The last two races are not really my thing. I'll be nicely inebriated by this point, in the Brown Bear on Leman Street as Gold Cup day tradition dictates. This was a very difficult watch last year with a number of equine fatalities as the riders went hell for leather from the outset. Moving it from the last to the penultimate race is unlikely to positively affect the early speed which will almost certainly be set by the rapid Gino Trail.

Kerry Lee's lightning bolt clung on valiantly for second in last year's Grand Annual and has the same mark this time around. It's a very big ask to go wire to wire in this, mind.

The horse to beat him in 2018 was Le Prezien, who again locks horns. He is a mere pound higher now and ought to again get on the premises granted safe passage. But Le Prezien's trainer, Paul Nicholls, has been making bullish noises about another of his runners, Magic Saint, throughout the preview circuit. This lad is only five, was formerly trained in France by Guillaume Macaire, and has progressive form here. He'll not have seen anything like this kind of set up previously, however, and is awfully short. Palarshan won as a five-year-old in 2003, and six of the dozen that age hit the frame.

Bun Doran could be suited to conditions though he's up a chunk in the weights for an easy win two back. Trainer Tom George has been quiet in the past fortnight, too.

This race is named in honour of Nicky Henderson's dad, so we can be sure that Whatswrongwithyou will be an emotional winner. He comes here on a hat-trick having beaten two rivals twice; this will be a somewhat different experience.

Gary Moore's progressive novice, Not Another Muddle, was impressive at Sandown last time and is likely not done improving yet. He has a nice light weight and appeals as the type to finish through a lot of tired horses. That sort of run style demands a ton of luck in the run, however, something which may not be fully factored in to a price of 8/1.

The Irish have out-performed their numerical representation in recent years, scoring three times and hitting the board with another five, from 28 runners. Only Mind's Eye lines up for the away team, Henry de Bromhead's seven-year-old bidding to replicate the feat of A Plus Tard in the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase on the opening day. The son of Stowaway has been running in Grade 1 novice chases so is clearly considered capable of a classy performance.

Grand Annual Pace Map

 

Grand Annual Selection

Magic Saint has been well touted by his trainer who saddled last year's winner, Le Prezien. I prefer the latter at the prices, and I also quite like Not Another Muddle if he can get an untroubled trip - a big ask of any horse in this field. But perhaps the pick of the prices is the sole Irish entry, Mind's Eye, a novice who has been jogging round in small field Grade 1's and who might just find this more rapid tempo right up his street.

Suggestion: Try Mind's Eye each way at 14/1 (Victor 1/5 12345)

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5.30 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 4 1/2f)

A very difficult looking finale for the 'lucky last'. That said, recent renewals have been notable for the class their winners have subsequently shown over fences. Don Poli, Killultagh Vic, Ibis Du Rheu, Champage Classic and Blow By Blow all showed themselves to be Graded performers, most of them at Grade 1 level.

Thus I'm only interested in an unexposed potentially very high class horse. To that end, Dallas Des Pictons - who is priced at just 7/2 - looks just the man for the job. Winner of a Class B handicap hurdle last time, he was second off level weights to Ballymore Novices' Hurdle winner, City Island, prior to back-to-back big field wins. He may be a short price but he already has Grade 1 form on that City Island line.

Defi Bleu, Getareason, and Early Doors all fit the ascendant Graded class runner mould, though less snugly than Dallas. That is reflected in their prices, all of which are 8/1+.

But my Festival will be over by this point, and I'll simply be looking to identify the right cap colour on the favourite (it's the purple one).

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

 

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Selection

Not a race in which to go mad. Keep your powder dry for the Midlands Nash on Saturday! I'll be having a bet on the obvious horse, Dallas Des Pictons, who looks the best animal in the race and can be supported at 7/2 to back up that contention. Unexciting, but we're in 'a winner is a winner' pub chat territory now...!

Suggestion: Back Dallas Des Pictons (7/2 general) and cheer it home with everybody else.

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day 3 Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day 3 Preview, Tips

And so to the second half, historically the trickier segment of the meeting. After two fiendishly trappy days on Tuesday and Wednesday, that does not bode well! Typically the weakest of the four days, though that of course is relative, Thursday brings us the Stayers' Hurdle, Ryanair and JLT Chases, as well as a trio of impossible handicaps and a mares' novice hurdle (all lower case) that has no place at the Festival in my opinion.

Finding winners should be faintly possible in the Grade 1's, and that is where the bulk of the words that follow will be focused.

1.30 JLT Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4f)

A curious little contest which revolves in large part around the form of the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase, a Grade 1 over this sort of trip run at Sandown in early February. That day, Defi Du Seuil beat Lostintranslation and Vinndication, the trio now comprising 60% of the top five in the betting and 100% of the top two.

Defi was a very good winner of the Triumph Hurdle, or so it seemed at the time, but he subsequently got stuck in the mire of Philip Hobbs' stable virus last season. This campaign has been better, highlighted by that Scilly Isles win and also featuring a defeat of Topofthegame (though that one had excuses). Moreover, the record of the winner of the Sandown race in this contest is 35F222, beaten the last thrice by an Irish runner.

Lostintranslation is closely pegged to Defi Du Seuil on his last two runs. He's a consistent horse with second placed efforts in two Grade 1's, but is a bit of a bridesmaid. Contrast him with Vinndication, who was expected to miss the Festival due to injury but has apparently been working the house down in recent days. Kim Bailey's Vinnie Roe gelding had won all six career starts prior to his close third in the Scilly Isles and he is entitled to improve a little more still.

The front three at Sandown were close together and I'm prepared to take a chance that the Irish will prevail again: they've already shown their two mile brigade is best, with a 1-2-3 in an eventful Arkle. They have a four-pronged attack with which to fork the home team, the highest rated of which is Real Steel. He's won his last two, in ungraded company, and wasn't good enough as a hurdler to make the frame in four attempts at G1 company.

Stablemate at the Willie Mullins yard, Voix Du Reve, interests me: he was third to Le Richebourg and Us And Them in the Racing Post Novice Chase, form advertised in the absence of the winner by the second who filled the same spot in the Arkle on Tuesday. He was in the process of running a bigger race than that, Us And Them and Mengli Khan behind, when tipping up at the last in the Irish Arkle: that form looks decent in this context. His jumping is a bit of a worry but he also has a Grade 2 verdict over beaten Arkle favourite, Hardline, to his name so is clearly near the head of the Irish chasing ranks. He's an appealing price.

Mengli Khan has been good enough to win a Grade 1 novice hurdle and to place in last year's Supreme on heavy ground; but he's not shown enough in three chase starts to suggest he can be the best of the Irish. As a son of Lope De Vega, he also has to demonstrate the requisite stamina having never raced beyond seventeen furlongs in twelve National Hunt starts. Pravalaguna, a third string to Willie's bow, rounds out Team Ireland (not that they're a team at all, obviously). She comes here on a hat-trick, her two chase wins achieved in Listed grade or lower, and looks to have a bit to find.

I'm struggling to see the appeal of classy handicapper Kildisart. He was getting weight from the second and (errant-running) third in a novices' handicap chase on Trials Day and that looks below what is required.

JLT Chase Pace Map

JLT Chase Selection

This boils down to whether you like the British or Irish form, and I like the Irish based on Tuesday's Arkle. On that basis, I'm siding with Voix Du Reve to add to Willie Mullins' tally (he's won four of the eight renewals to date). He has experience, he has classy chase form and, though he fell last time, he looks a very big price at 14/1 (or 20/1 if you can get on with Boyle).

Suggestion: Back Voix Du Reve each way at 14/1

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2.10 Pertemps Final (Grade 3 handicap, 3m)

Another impossible handicap which will probably be won by an Irish novice that has run in a Grade 1 or 2 earlier in the season. Using that lazy man's route in - well, I could do the work and find a loser, too? - brings me to a shortlist of ... none.

Do some work I must, as yoda might say. A slightly different tack is to look for the 'not off' horse from the Leopardstown qualifier. That angle screams the chance of the Gordon Elliott-trained Sire Du Berlais, who jogged around before picking off enough of the beaten horses to bag sixth place and thus qualification for this final.

The lightly raced seven-year-old was fourth in the Martin Pipe last season off a mark of 144 and races here off just a pound higher. 6/1 is a horrible price in a race like this but his case is easily made.

Ian Williams' First Assignment has been consistent and progressive this season, including when winning a three mile handicap hurdle at the track in November. He's since given Paisley Park a race and will not be fazed by soft ground. Arguably more exposed than some, his conditioner is a wonderful target trainer. Again, though, he's well found in the betting.

At a massive price is Coole Cody. Michael Blake is unfashionable, but his runner has a Cheltenham handicap win on soft ground in a big field to his name. Just three pounds higher here, and coming in off the back of a fine second in a big field soft ground Grade 3 handicap hurdle, 50/1 is bigbigbig for smallsmallsmall money. He may try to make all, a trick which has proved surprisingly effective in such races: I can immediately recall Buena Vista doing that here, and Fountains Windfall doing it at Aintree.

If you like something else, fair play. I'll be going 20 deep in the placepot.

Pertemps Final Pace Map

Pertemps Final Selection

The favourite, Sire du Berlais, has his chance on the form of his fourth place in a handicap at last year's Festival; and I'd love to see Ian Williams win with First Assignment. I'll have a tiny tickle on that one and also on Coole Cody, who is over-priced even if he is probably also over-faced.

Suggestion: Back First Assignment (10/1 general) and Coole Cody (50/1 general) each way for very small money.

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2.50 Ryanair Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4 1/2f)

Lots of old friends line up for what should be an enthralling renewal of the Ryanair Chase where they bet 4/1 the field. Clinging on to favouritism is last year's Arkle winner, Footpad. He was the beneficiary of some bonkers riding up top that day and shouldn't have been beaten by the capable old stick Simply Ned last time. Even given the form Willie is enjoying, I can't have him on my mind against a deep field although he's likely to be suited by softish turf.

Monalee is one of a group challenging for market primacy, and looks a more reliable place play at least. He beat stout stayer Anibale Fly last time and has form with the likes of Kemboy, Presenting Percy and Al Boum Photo that would put him close to the Gold Cup picture. I like him but I think he might just lack a gear.

Un De Sceaux is eleven now, and that's a big 'x' in my book. 11 year olds just don't win Festival races (Moscow Flyer in 2005 is the only horse older than ten to win a Grade 1 at the Cheltenham Festival, from 75 to try, since at least 1997), and this is very far from a penalty kick. The going, trip and track are all in his favour, but age is significantly against him. He'd be a tremendous winner but I can't see it in spite of some high class form as a ten-year-old last year.

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The gallant and superb Frodon also lines up. He produced one of the weight-carrying performances of recent times when lugging 11-12 off a mark of 164 in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup and even managed to win over a trip-too-far extended three miles last time. His Cheltenham record reads 3801150211. That said, he was well beaten in last year's Ryanair and also on his only other Festival appearance, in the 2016 Triumph Hurdle.

The one I like - actually, the one I love - is ROAD TO RESPECT. He travelled off a fast pace like the winner in the Gold Cup last year before failing to stay so this shorter trip looks spot on. Soft ground will suit him better than the quicker surfaces he's been racing on which, allied to a Grade 1 win at the trip, and a pace setup that looks tailor-made, and a price of 5/1, makes him just about nap material.

It's 20/1 bar this group, a price which brings in last year's winner, Balko Des Flos, and the Brown Advisory winner, The Storyteller. The latter gets his ground which might make him more competitive than he's been most of the season, but he's probably a touch shy of what's needed to lift this pot; the former has been AWOL all campaign but may again be at least partially revived by wetter turf. Neither are for me, mind.

Ryanair Chase Pace Map

Ryanair Chase Selection

I got a bit carried away when wagering this race and have convinced myself that Road To Respect is one of the bets of the meeting. It's a race which will define my Cheltenham, so here's hoping Noel Meade's eight-year-old brings his A game. If he does, he'll take all the beating in what is a competitive race for the places.

Suggestion: Back Road To Respect at 5/1 (bet365, Boyle)

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3.30 Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

I previewed this race here.

To that I'll add the pace map, which shows Faugheen may get some contention from Sam Spinner but perhaps not much else and might just be able to dictate the fractions:

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4.10 Festival Plate (Grade 3 handicap, 2m 4 1/2f)

The Plate. Any chance of gravy? Not really, no...

Although not saddling a winner in the last four years, Venetia Williams, David (and before him, Martin) Pipe, and Nicky Henderson have excellent records in this race. Between them they run five this time: Eamon An Cnoic (Pipe), Gardefort, Didero Vallis (both Venetia), Janika and River Wylde (both Henderson).

Eamon An Cnoic - Eamon hereafter - was ninth in last year's Ultima. That's typically a better race than this and it is run over a longer trip, one which he appeared to fail to see out. Back in distance, with a win last time out over two miles and a prior course spin this season he'll be on plenty of tickets.

The six-year-old Didero Vallis has snuck in at the very bottom of the weights and comes here looking for a third win of the campaign, having prevailed twice at this range on soft before coming unstuck over further and on quicker last time. Perfect preparation in many respects. This ex-Willie Mullins-trained chap has plenty of upside, no weight and comes from the right trainer.

La Williams also runs Gardefort, whose mark has been moving in the opposite direction thanks to a Scrabble rack of form figures this term. 0PU is hardly the sort of sequence to get the pulse racing, and it's not the sort with which Venetia has got it done previously either, but a rummage a little deeper into Gardefort's profile reveals that he was second in the 2017 Grand Annual (two miles) at the Festival. Very lightly raced since, he was 142 then and is 137 now. Back class is the angle if you want to make a case for him.

Then there's Nicky's pair. Janika is just about favourite, the six-year-old running second on both UK starts since notching a hat-trick at Pau and Auteuil. He looks a pretty classy sort though he'll need to be to lug top weight and at least six pounds more than the rest. Obviously he wouldn't be a surprise winner but 6/1 is tight enough.

Second in the weights is the other Hendo horse, River Wylde. He's been plying his trade in Grade 1 and 2 hurdle and chase company and makes his handicap debut here. Third in Labaik's Supreme (2017), he was leading when coming down at the last in a graduation chase over a little further than this at Haydock last time. Good to soft would be fine for him though I don't think he'd want it too wet; with the ground drying out currently he could be interesting at twice the price of his stablemate.

The Irish have won the last three renewals, from very few entries, after an extremely long drought previously. They bring just two ten-year-olds to the table this time: Valseur Lido and Polidam. The former gets a drop in Festival grade having run third in the 2015 JLT and second in the 2016 Ryanair, both at around this trip. A mark of 145 is 16lb lower than his career top, though it's more than two years since he won. He represents the A Plus Tard connections of de Bromhead and Blackmore.

Polidam is a Willie Mullins runner that has been rattling around his current mark for a couple of years. He doesn't obviously have anything in hand of the 'capper though he's been fairly consistently in defeat.

Festival Plate Pace Map

Festival Plate Selection

It's another deep handicap where I've probably failed to mention the winner. Janika will go close if able to carry his big weight, but at the prices I'm more drawn to the chances of Eamon An Cnoic and River Wylde, as well as perhaps Didero Vallis. All represent savvy connections.

Suggestion: Take your each way pick of Eamon An Cnoic (20/1 Hills), River Wylde (14/1 Hills), and/or Didero Vallis (25/1 general).

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4.50 Mares' Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2, 2m 1f)

A more competitive renewal this year, but not a race I believe should feature at the Festival. Personal prejudices aside, it is a decent wagering heat.

For the first time since its inception Willie Mullins doesn't have the favourite this year. That honour goes to Epatante, a French import trained by Nicky Henderson. She's bolted up on her two UK starts and won an AQPS Grade 1 bumper in France, though quite what that means in the context of this race is anybody's guess. It was a super-impressive victory, however, and she's not been troubled by anything to this point. She might just be a superstar.

Others have done more on the track and deserve a mention, most notably Posh Trish. She's had five runs this term, winning four of them, but this is a fair step up in grade; she was found out a little in Grade 2 bumper company last spring but had had a long season by then. Similar comments could apply this term.

Mullins may not saddle the favourite, but he is represented by SEVEN mares, the most prominent in the betting being My Sister Sarah. Winner of three of her four starts in ordinary company, she has a stone to find on ratings. But these are highly progressive youngsters and one has to respect the trainer. Pick of his septet at the prices might be Sancta Simona, who chased home Aramon in a Grade 1 against the boys last time. She was 5/2 there and is 16/1 here - that looks too big about a Grade 3 winner that handles any ground.

Second to Posh Trish at Newbury, having beaten her over the same course the time before, is Lust For Glory. She looks above average but may have a little to find against some of these. For fans of chat, her owners, Grech and Parkin, were talking her up as their best horse at the start of the season. She's not done much wrong.

In the same yard as Lust For Glory and Epatante is Elusive Belle. She has a tendency to find one too good but has posted some decent time figures. And Stuart Edmunds' Queenofhearts was a good winner of a Grade 2 at Sandown last time. She has been racing over further but, if they go quickly (and they probably will), she might not be out of it; she handles any ground.

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Selection

In spite of myself I am drawn to the favourite, Epatante, on potential more than track performance. It is the manner of her victories that takes the eye. Her French G1 score was achieved with panache, nonchalance and other words which have been adopted into the British idiom, and I suspect this lass is going to be one about whom we speak in revered terms in future. Her name translates as 'amazing', though in an old-fashioned context (there's a French journo sitting next to me!), so perhaps more like 'spiffing', and she is probably just that. I'll take a rare chance at the top of the market on her.

Suggestion: Back Epatante to show that she's the real deal at 2/1 general

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5.30 Kim Muir Challenge Cup Chase (Class 2 Handicap, 3m2f)

Amateur riders. Three and a quarter miles. Two dozen horses. Fences. Yikes.

The best jockeys tend to fare best, a cause and effect symbiosis where success breeds success. Jamie Codd has won this four times, and he rides Gordon Elliott's Measureofmydreams. Supported from 33/1 into about 5/1 now, the connections certainly wouldn't put you off; his three prior Festival jaunts have ended 830, the 3 recorded in the National Hunt Chase. A stout stayer who has had plenty of time off - just one run since spring 2017 - he is ten pounds below his peak rating and will get the ice cold Codd patient ride.

Only one of the last ten winners has been sent off bigger than 16/1 so it's not a race in which to get too gung ho. Others at the head of the market include the aptly named It's All Guesswork, Any Second Now, No Comment and Sky Pirate. Dealing with the Guesswork first, he's a second string to the Elliott bow who has been consistent all season but perhaps isn't as well handicapped as some as a consequence.

Any Second Now is quite interesting. He seemed to be outpaced in the Close Brothers last season and has been staying on in his three mile races this term. The extra range here and the booking of the excellent Derek O'Connor looks a beneficial combination.

No Comment has been very lightly raced though has run creditably at the last two Festivals, finishing seventh in the Martin Pipe in 2017 and sixth in the National Hunt Chase last year. Clearly seen as a stayer, this will be his first handicap chase spin.

Sky Pirate was travelling like the winner when coming down over a similarly extended three miles here at the November meeting. A warm up spin at Exeter last month will have put him spot on for this main challenge, and he's another that is interesting if not missed in the market.

At bigger prices, Se Mo Laoch would appeal if getting a run. The second reserve has been first or second in each of his last six races, and in the first three in each of his last nine. Incredibly, he's elevated from a mark of 82 (!) to 130 and seems to handle big fields and long distances with aplomb.

And there's just room for an honourable mention for Squouateur, perhaps the unluckiest horse in training, certainly in terms of his Festival performances. With a name made for Scrabble, his form figures of BPP0F also fit that bill. But he was (an unlucky in running) 3rd in this race last year off a 3lb lower mark, and was just getting into it when unseating three out in the Kim Muir of 2017. With a clear round, something that, granted, seems fairly unlikely, he might be a 'forgotten' horse. Faller insurance would be a smart concession to avail of if you otherwise like his chance.

Kim Muir Pace Map

 

Kim Muir Selection

As with all the handicaps, it's no more than a token pick in another deep deep heat. I'll plump for Any Second Now, for whom the trip might be ideal.

Suggestion: Back Any Second Now each way at 10/1 (1/5 12345 Hills, Victor, Unibet)

*

That's the shape of Day 3, Thursday. My fate for the day, and maybe the week, will be sealed by the Ryanair Chase; so please think of me regardless of the result of there!

Good luck

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day Two Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day Two Preview, Tips

On to Day 2, Wednesday, and another septet of teasers the highlight of which is the Queen Mother Champion Chase and that lad, Altior. That is but one of four Grade 1 shemozzles, those four tiptop treats supported by two impossible handicaps and the good old Cross Country Chase.

1.30 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m5f)

The intermediate novices' hurdle but one where speed is usually at more of a premium than stamina. Naturally, class remains a prerequisite.

The favourite and top rated horse is Champ, who brings a most progressive profile to the party. Winning at Perth in May last year hardly hinted at what was to follow, as Nicky Henderson's McManus-owned novice rattled off a four-timer most recently by strolling to victory in the Grade 1 Challow Novices' Hurdle. Prior to that he'd put a big field of high class handicappers to the sword off a mark of 139 and now has a perch of 152, the best in the field by fully five pounds.

He hurdles well, travels well and clearly has an abundance of class. With all his winning at around the two and a half mile range, however, there's a slight niggle as to whether he quite has the speed for this. Yes, I do know the distance of the Ballymore but it tends to go to a horse with a bit of two mile form. He's not run at the shorter trip so it's unfair to say he doesn't have the toe for it. He's a worthy favourite.

The pick of the Irish is presumed to be Battleoverdoyen, Gordon Elliott's unbeaten son of, you guessed it, Doyen. He was good in a Grade 1 novice hurdle over two and a half miles at Naas last time and, after just three starts, retains plenty of upside. He's rated 146, joint third best.

Interestingly, given how good a guide official ratings have been in this race, the second top-rated, on 147, is City Island. Martin Brassil may be a somewhat unfashionable trainer but he's a very good one, and his four time winner (including a disqualification for a banned substance, arsenic, apparently present in a seaweed-based supplement the horse was taking) has been achieved from two miles to this trip. He's yet to face Graded company but that's the sort of thing, allied to his 'no name' connections - though his trainer has saddled a Grand National winner - that makes for a price.

Brewin'upastorm rounds out the single figure odds horses. Olly Murphy's inmate looked set to perhaps get the better of a duel with Birchdale when taking a heavy tumble at the last here on Trials Day. The trainer is convinced Brewin' is not the sort to dwell on such a pearler, but he also has to reverse Challow form with Champ. There he was beaten four lengths, though again Murphy feels he gave the wrong instructions to his jockey on the day. That's a lot of what Lydia Hislop would call 'yak' (i.e. chat or conjecture) but Olly knows the horse better than anyone else and he will have the tactics spot on this time. He has speed and class and might just be his fledgling trainer's best chance of a Festival winner this season, assuming he hasn't already bagged the Supreme by the time you read this!

Elliott runs Galvin as well, a horse which has been running exclusively at two miles and is unbeaten in five bumpers and novices hurdles both sides of the Irish Sea. The form has worked out quite well despite the lesser courses at which it's been achieved; this son of Gold Well could improve for the extra distance and might have sailed under the radar a little hitherto.

The rest have a stone or so to find on ratings but there are a couple who could be better than their current marks. The first is Ben Pauling's Bright Forecast, who made a striking impression on his debut when running on through a field of twenty to win going away. That was a deep-looking Newbury heat which has worked out well and he followed up at Leicester before finding only Supreme-bound Mister Fisher too good in the Rossington Main at Haydock. The longer trip looks sure to be in his favour though I'd not want him to adopt his recent front-running tactics. A more conservative ride early could see him on the premises up the hill. I like him, regardless of the result here.

The other to catch the eye is Sams Profile for Mouse Morris. Winner of a two mile maiden hurdle early in the season, he's since been second in a Grade 3 over three miles and then in a Grade 1 over two and a half behind Battleoverdoyen. There was sufficiently little between the pair to make Sams Profile of interest at 12/1 if you like the winner that day at 3/1 this day.

Ballymore Pace Map

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Selection

It's a trappy betting heat where most of the field still have improvement to come, and where some of the marks allocated at this stage could be awry. Champ looks best of the British, and he's a worthy favourite who looks sure to give backers a run for their money if not getting too far back.

At a bigger price, both City Island and Bright Forecast look capable of getting involved. The former has plenty of speed and no little class, the latter looks a horse with a future.

Suggestion: Back City Island (10/1 Coral) each way. A small nibble on Bright Forecast (33/1 Betfred) could reward Hail Mary players.

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2.10 RSA Chase (Grade 1, 3m)

Almost always a terrific spectacle, the RSA Chase is the race for next season's Gold Cup aspirants. The top of the market had long looked sewn up between Delta Work, Santini and Topofthegame but all three are suddenly surprisingly easy to back.

Clear jolly remains Delta Work, the Gordon Elliott-trained son of Network that won the Pertemps Final at last year's Festival. He then stepped into Grade 1 company to run second at Punchestown. This season has been about fences and, after scoring in the obligatory beginners' chase, he's added back-to-back Grade 1 victories to his impressive CV.

The form of his Drinmore win (2m4f) looks very decent, more so than his three mile chase win last time, but he continues to offer cause for concern with some sticky leaps. He has little - nothing, in fact - to spare on ratings so, while he can win (of course), he's skinny enough and it is easy to see why bookies want to 'get' him.

The flip-flopping pick of the Brits is Topofthegame, Paul Nicholls' Kauto Star Novices' Chase runner up. A maiden over fences after a brace of silver medals, he was also second in the Coral Cup at the Festival last term. He doesn't seem to lack resolution in spite of that string of 2's, his jumping is accurate and he stays well. But he does always seem to bump into one...

My long range fancy for this was Santini. Third in the Albert Bartlett last season and a fine winner at Grade 1 level at Aintree subsequently, he won a Grade 2 chase on his fencing bow before getting predictably outpaced on the speed strip that is Kempton. He rallied best of all from the last there, suggesting the stronger test of the RSA was bang on for him.

Alas, since then it's all gone wrong. First he missed his intended prep in the Reynoldstown due to having to get a booster jab, and then he got a foot problem which wasn't immediately poulticed and took a day or two longer to repair. It probably leaves him under-cooked for this big gig, though his price has drifted from 5/2 to 4/1 and that may overstate his preparation problems. On the other hand, it may not!

Nicky Henderson saddles Santini and he also runs On The Blind Side, a dual Grade 2 scorer over hurdles but found out when upped to G1 company. He was last of four in the Dipper at this track, but has since beaten a 145 chaser three lengths in receipt of six pounds at Kempton. That doesn't add up to an RSA winner in my book.

If the top of the market is to be taken down, then perhaps Tom George's The Worlds End might surprise. He was making a potentially race-winning move in the 2017 Albert Bartlett before coming down at the second last, and that seemed to have left a mark on him in open staying hurdle company last term. But, now chasing, he's looked classy if inconsistent in winning twice and losing twice. First the good: he turned the tables on Ibis Du Rheu two runs back over this course and distance (but on the other, New, track) by some margin, making all and easing clear. Now the not so good: he made mistakes aplenty when taken off his feet in the Kauto Star at Kempton.

That race has famously not yet produced a winner to double up in Cheltenham's RSA. Equally well known is how many beaten horses at Sunbury have prevailed at Cheltenham, the slower tempo and stronger emphasis on stamina allowing horses to get into a better jumping rhythm and grind it out. Though he'd perhaps not want it too heavy, and though he's a Jekyll and Hyde performer, if the good The Worlds End shows up, he's going to look an enormous price at 25/1.

Drovers Lane has had a wind op since winning over 2m5f here and he's won three of his four chase starts. It would be fantastic for Rebecca Curtis, whose yard have had a few seasons in the doldrums since the At Fishers Cross days, if he ran well; he doesn't have a heap to find on official ratings.

RSA Chase Pace Map

RSA Chase Selection

Your first 30 days for just £1

It's a tricky race in which a clear round would probably see Delta Work go close; but that's only what the market is saying. I'd be worried about Topofthegame's propensity to bump into one for all that I don't think he's ungenuine; and Santini's interrupted prep is very far from ideal. No wonder the bookies are looking to get a result here!

I'm going to roll with that theory and take a pony (25/1) punt on The Worlds End who might be considered unlucky not to already be a Cheltenham Festival winner. He probably wouldn't want it too soft but if the worst of the rain misses the course he'll look overpriced come post time.

Suggestion: take a chance each way on The Worlds End (25/1 Unibet, Coral; 22/1 1/5 1234 Victor)

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2.50 Coral Cup (Handicap, Grade 3, 2m5f)

26 runners. In a handicap hurdle. Sponsored by a bookmaker. Seriously? You want to bet in this?

I'm not going to pretend I've ever backed the winner of this race or ever expect to. However, I'm told classier unexposed horses do best, so what about the long absent Diamond Cauchois? He had a little spin round Punchestown in a non-rules race in November and has otherwise been kept away from the track. But a G2 score at this trip last season says he's got the class for the gig if fit enough. Noel Fehily, with the best hands in the business, steps in to ride. The 20/1 will be gone before you read this, and I can't get it anyway (thanks, Fred), but perhaps 14s is still worth a small passing interest.

Brio Conti is another without too many miles on the clock and he will have come on for the run, and win, last time at Ascot. 12/1 is worth a dabble perhaps. And William Henry bids to improve on last season's fourth place off the same mark. He's had a wind op since last seen (Nicky Henderson 12 from 32, +12.92 with W1's according to Query Tool) and seems to love the hurly-burly of a big field. 40/1 looks massive.

But, honestly, I don't profess to have any 'in' to this race whatsoever.

Coral Cup Pace Map

Coral Cup Suggestion: leave well alone, or back your own judgement! Diamond Cauchois (16/1) and William Henry (40/1) are my guesses. And, let's be clear, that's all they are. Maybe we'll be lucky...

*

3.30 Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

And so to the Royal Procession that looks likely to be the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Altior, a perfect 17 from 17 over hurdles and fences, is solid odds on to make it 18. Until a couple of weeks ago, when he was usurped by an upstart called Cyrname, he was the highest rated chaser in training. There are many unhappy about Altior's deposing and it might be that impressive victory here returns the Nicky Henderson superstar to his golden plinth.

Be all that as it may, this is a horse race and we must consider the merit of the favourite in the context of his field as well as the race conditions. Dealing with the latter first, it will be two miles at Cheltenham on rain softened ground, exactly the medicine he drank so stoically at the Festival last year. There, after an interrupted preparation, he looked momentarily in trouble before rattling home in trademark fashion from the high class Min.

So, no dramas on the race conditions score; what about the field? The truth is, with the exception of the re-opposing Min and the unpredictable Politologue, he is miles clear of the others. In another year, a year when Altior didn't show up, Min would have been an eleven length winner last year. His margin over God's Own, Politologue a further five back lengths back in fourth - of five finishers - was decisive. He again looks set to do battle with the 2018 also rans for the honour of runner-up, a performance he is odds on to reprise.

Champion Chase Pace Map

Champion Chase Selection

In truth, it looks a shallow contest, notwithstanding the sumptuous cherry on top of the somewhat flimsy cake; and those looking for a bet might do worse than Saint Calvados each way without Altior. He was utterly compromised last year in the Arkle when taking on Petit Mouchoir for the lead, both of them collapsing to the rear of the field and allowing Footpad to saunter home in his own time.

But here he might get his favoured solo on the front. God's Own is eleven now, Politologue is deeply unreliable and Sceau Royal, the other in front of him in the market aside from Min, was behind him on soft ground in the Tingle Creek.

Suggestion: Try Saint Calvados at 16/1 without Altior each way (1/4 123 bet365)

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4.10 Glenfarclas Chase (Cross Country, Class 2, 3m6f)

The 'marmite' race. Some people love it, some hate it. Me? I'm a fan: it's something different, it often showcases some of the old warriors, and it's a damn fine prep for the Grand National to boot. It is a race dominated by the Irish - only Philip Hobbs' Balthazar King, twice, has wrested the prize from the Emerald Isle since its inception in 2005 - and they again have a strong hand this term, spearheaded by last year's winner, Tiger Roll.

The Tiger's palmarès is one of the most brilliantly eclectic in racing. A winner on his juvenile hurdle debut for Nigel Hawke in 2013, he was snapped up at the sale that December for £80,000 and sent to Gordon Elliott. With Elliott, Tiger Roll has since won a Triumph Hurdle, a Munster National, a National Hunt Chase, a Cross Country Chase, a Grand National, and a Boyne Hurdle. I mean, just, WOW!

He's still only nine and could have this in the palm of his hand if in the same form as he was when winning the race last year. That day he had two lengths to spare over the French cross country expert, Urgent De Gregaine, now eleven and returning for another crack. Emmanuel Clayeux's veteran has run three times over course and distance, adding a win and a third in handicaps to that silver medal last March. He's been very lightly raced in recent seasons making the 144 day layoff less of a concern; but I want to be against him I think, even though older horses had a decent record in the race in its formative years.

More likely are the Enda Bolger contingent of Auvergnat and Josies Orders. Auvergnat was fourth in this last year before winning the Le Touche Cup at Punchestown, and is a banks specialist. He's rated within a pound of Tiger Roll in this discipline, and comes here in great form off the back of a valuable big field handicap chase win at Leopardstown at Christmas.

Josies Orders is eleven now, but seems to have found a new lease of life this season, winning the cross country race here in November and the PP Hogan at Punchestown, a major trial for the Glenfarclas. He's a four time winner over course and distance, including the 2016 renewal of the Festival race and his full record over these banks reads 1113613, the bold figures representing Festival races. Granted, he was a little out of form last term when finishing only sixth, but he looks close to his best again now.

Jamie Snowden saddles Fact Of The Matter, winner of the December handicap and second in the November handicap both over course and distance. He's far worse off at level weights with a number of these but handicap ratings have been no sort of indicator down the years and, as a horse proven to relish this unique test, he looks a reasonable each way play. He's had a wind op since that December victory.

Hurricane Darwin, twice closest to Josies Orders in the past year, most recently in the PP Hogan, is worthy of mention, as perhaps is the other French entry, Amazing Comedy, fourth in the December handicap here and fifth in this race last year. 40/1 may marginally downplay his place prospects.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Pace Map

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Selection

A cracking renewal - deeper than normal - so, whilst I thoroughly respect Tiger Roll (what a horse!), I have to look elsewhere for a bet. Auvergnat and Josies Orders should both go well and maybe dutching the pair at around 3/1 is a way to go. Fact Of The Matter is tempting each way at 16/1.

Suggestion: Split your stake 60/40 between Auvergnat (6/1 general) and Josies Orders (9/1 Paddy) for an approximately 3/1 dutch.

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4.50 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 1/2f)

The Fred Winter as was. My crikey - this is not my jurisdiction! Last year, Gordon Elliott won with a 33/1 shot. He's won it before, too, but Paul Nicholls' three wins - and six further places - from 18 runners is exceptional: 50% placed horses in a ferocious handicap.

Nicholls saddles just one, the 25/1 shot Dogon, whose profile deserves closer inspection. Experienced in France, he actually won a two and a quarter mile 3yo chase at Fontainebleu in November, prior to pulling up in the Triumph Hurdle trial at this track in January. Since then he's run an eye-catching second at Wincanton, pulling hard and giving the impression that this stiffer test of stamina and faster pace will suit better. He's not an obvious contender, but then neither was Veneer Of Charm or Flying Tiger or Qualando or Flaxen Flare or Hawk High or Une Artiste, all of whom won this race at 25/1 or bigger in the last ten years.

Clearly, then, this is a race in which to take a small chance at a big price. Elliott runs three, two of which are single figure prices and they can beat me if they're able; but the other is Coko Beach, available at 20/1 in a place. He won a French hurdle race before running down the field in Grade 2 company at Leopardstown at Christmas and then receiving a tender enough ride in a novice hurdle last month. Ex-French runners have a great record in the race, a note in support of both Dogon and Coko Beach.

Obviously, a score more with chances, including three more ex-French that have yet to race in Britain, one of them - Fox Pro - trained by the Nick/Jane Williams axis, successful in 2017 with Flying Tiger and with 3rd and 5th places as well from just seven runners.

Boodles / Fred Winter Pace Map

[Gaps represent runners yet to race in UK or Ireland]

Boodles / Fred Winter Selection

I could analyse this contest in great detail but I'd likely be unable to add much to the above. It's a race which generally hasn't gone to the head of the market and in which I'll take a little punt on the three named above.

Suggestion: Back any or all of Dogon (25/1 bet365), Coko Beach (16/1 Hills 1/5 12345) and/or Fox Pro (25/1 general)

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5.30 Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Grade 1, NH Flat, 2m 1/2f)

Really tricky, and I don't have any idea what might win. Gordon Elliott talks about Envoi Allen as a future Gold Cup winner, the unbeaten five year old finding plenty for pressure in a Grade 2 last time. He's top rated on official figures, an angle which has been a good predictor of Champion Bumper winners, and he's also favourite.

The value against him might just be Abracadabras, who almost clipped heels with Envoi Allen inside the final furlong before running through the rail. That incident demonstrates how close to the favourite he'd got, and he looked to still have a bit more to give. With the wide open spaces of Cheltenham sure to preclude a repeat sob story, and perhaps a little less greenness as a result of that run, the Gigginstown-owned stablemate can turn the tables at three times the price.

Most of these are unexposed and can/will step forward markedly on what they've shown so far, most notably perhaps the four-year-olds Blue Sari and Cascova.

Champion Bumper selection

An interesting race to watch rather than wager, though Envoi Allen had little in hand of Meticulous, Abracadabras, and a couple of others last time. In the circumstances, my interest wager will be the unlucky one from Leopardstown and his rider Lisa O'Neill.

Suggestion: Try Abracadabras each way at 10/1 (1/5 1234 Victor)

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And that concludes a somewhat briefer (relatively, at least) spin through Wednesday's Day 2 action. Plenty of races in which it's hard to take a strong view, and where we may have to be both good and lucky to come out in front I feel.

Good luck!

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day One Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day One Preview, Tips

The waiting is over and it's showtime for the 2019 Cheltenham Festival: four days and 28 top class races split evenly from Tuesday to Friday. Day One, Tuesday, is set to be run on soft ground and features a cracking renewal of the Champion Hurdle as well as three further Grade 1's, a Grade 2 and - of course - two impossible handicaps. What a start!

1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

A race which has been won by some very good horses in recent years. But, as things stand, the 2019 renewal doesn't look the strongest as we head into the Supreme; of course, that is not to say that we won't be hailing an emergent powerhouse at around 1.35pm on Tuesday. Regardless, there will be a winner and it is the job of this post to try to find it.

There are a few common threads in recent Supreme winners, including last day triumph, not ex-flat, not unbeaten over hurdles, and bringing experience of at least four hurdles races to the party.

That narrows things down nicely to a shortlist of six: Elixir De Nutz, Felix Desjy, Grand Sancy, Klassical Dream, Thomas Darby, and Fakir d'Oudairies. Naturally, it won't preclude another winning but, in a year where the race looks absolutely wide open, one needs to take any route in one can...

Klassical Dream may be considered the 'now' horse: he's won his two starts for Willie Mullins and is the chosen mount of Ruby Walsh, who could have plumped for stablemate Aramon. There was a head between the pair in the Grade 1 Chanelle Pharma (formerly Deloitte) last time and that historically strong trial suggests both should be taken seriously. That race was run on good ground and none of Klassical Dream's winning form to date, including in France, has been on anything slower than good to soft (P324P on softer). It is perfectly possible that Mullins has improved the horse out of all recognition but that lack of soft ground winning form makes him too short for me.

The deserted Aramon has finished 312 in Grade 1's this season and won a handicap on the flat in Germany on soft. Whilst this hasn't been a race for ex-flat horses in recent seasons, he brings proven top tier hurdles form to the table and has shown he handles cut. Ruby rarely chooses incorrectly, but the discrepancy between the two horses' price - 9/2 vs 16/1 - is bonkers based on that last day form if nothing else.

Another Irish player on the shortlist is Fakir d'Oudairies, a four-year-old not required for the Triumph Hurdle due to his owner's and trainer's Sir Erec lining up in that Friday curtain-raiser. This fellow fair romped his Cheltenham prep over the distance on the other track (the New Course, Supreme run on the Old), though that form looks only OK, as does his maiden hurdle win previously. The eight pound weight-for-age allowance will help but I don't see him being good enough.

Felix Desjy rounds out the raiding party om the shortlist. A winning pointer, he also scored twice in bumpers before a decent sixth in the Champion Bumper at last year's Festival. He's shown mixed form over hurdles with his prominent run style leaving him out there to be shot at.

Of the British challenge, Elixir De Nutz and Thomas Darby have collateral form. They clashed in a maiden hurdle at the course in October with Olly Murphy's runner coming out on top. Since then, however, the Colin Tizzard-trained Elixir has rattled off a hat-trick culminating in a soft ground verdict in the Grade 1 Tolworth at Sandown, where he beat Grand Sancy half a length. Each of that hat-trick was achieved in five runner fields where he made all, and that pace-setting approach may be harder to replicate in a field of 18, especially given the presence of possible contention for that position from Brandon Castle and Felix Desjy.

Thomas Darby will be ridden more patiently and he, like the rest of the field, will be trying to pass the trailblazers up the hill. His form is on good ground and outside of Pattern company making it a stretch to envisage him being good enough. In a sub-par year, however, who knows?

Also from the Murphy stable is Itchy Feet, another to have raced exclusively on good ground. He had a verdict over Grand Sancy before running Elixir De Nutz closest in the November Supreme trial at the course. If he handles the ground, he might surprise and 28/1 (SEVEN places with Hills) is a price about which taking the chance is tempting.

Back to the trendy shortlist and the remaining name is Grand Sancy. As will already be evident, his form ties in with others towards the head of the market, with the Paul Nicholls inmate already having run a remarkable eleven times over hurdles. He'll not lack for experience, then, and has faced open handicap company as well as fellow novices. His fourth in a Grade 3 handicap hurdle represents solid form but it also potentially pegs the level at which he can be competitive: he was beaten six lengths off a mark of 136 that day. A win in a slowly run Kingwell ought not to be taken too literally, though he looks quite likely to be in the first seven for those availing of the generous place terms offered by Hills.

Meanwhile, away from the 'trends' list are others with prospects, notably a couple of 'A' teams, Al Dancer and Angels Breath. The first named has been progressive in winning two novice hurdles and two handicap hurdles, most recently the re-scheduled Betfair at Ascot. He has form on soft and looks as though he stays further than two miles, which is a good indicator to winning a Supreme. There are few chinks in his armour aside from the absence of Graded hurdle competition on his CV. He's clearly ready for the step up in grade but whether he's able remains to be seen.

Angels Breath is both lightly raced (i.e. inexperienced) and was beaten last time. Given the Seven Barrows connections it is easy to make excuses on both counts - too easy, perhaps. Even if only 90% he should still have beaten Southfield Stone, a horse without pretensions of being at this level, last time even allowing for spotting that one five pounds. And even though he was considered good enough to be lobbed into Grade 2 company on his hurdling bow, a race which he won readily, he'll find the depth and breadth of this field another game entirely.

Mister Fisher has been winning well enough on flat tracks and in small fields, form which doesn't entitle him to be a single figure price in places to my eye. His Boxing Day win at Kempton ties in with Thomas Darby but he's a good few pounds off the best of these on official ratings at least. Whoever wins will need to improve, but he has to find more improvement than many.

If there's to be a shock on the cards it could come from Gordon Elliott, and Vision d'Honneur. Elliott won this with 25/1 Labaik a couple of years ago and this lad, tongue tied for the first time, could be interesting. On the face of a six length defeat by Klassical Dream and Aramon, he's a bit to find - though not a huge bit - but the case is made due to the difference in underfoot conditions.

In Ireland, Vision d'Honneur has run three times, all on good (good/yielding once). Having finished around six lengths behind Klassical Dream in a maiden hurdle on Irish debut, he won a similar 21 runner event at Punchestown next time, before chasing home Klassical and Aramon in the ex-Deloitte.  But before that, in France, his sole run there was on soft ground in an 18 runner bumper. A fairly well run race by French standards, he came off the bridle relatively early but kept finding and looks to have plenty of stamina. He's tempting.

The rest are probably not good enough, though there could be a shock in the opener.

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Selection

A very open and trappy first act of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, and one where it makes sense to shop around for the pick of the bookie offers which prevail on the race. Hills' seven places is an obvious contender, as is Skybet's money back as cash if you lose in this race (first bet, up to £20, check terms!).

The Chanelle Pharma Grade 1 run last month could hold the key here so, while Ruby has sided with Klassical Dream, the 5/1 tops there looks tight for a horse that had nothing to spare over Aramon in second, and little to spare over Vision d'Honneur in an eased off third. The change in going could eke out a change in the finishing order making both the placed horses - each of whom has winning soft ground form - more tempting at longer odds than the winner there.

Suggestion: back Aramon 16/1 betfred (14/1 Hills 7 places) and/or Vision d'Honneur 16/1 bet365 (12/1 Hills 7 places) each way

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2.10 Arkle Challenge Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

The first chase of the meeting, a two mile novice Grade 1, and again it looks a touch below standard, with a number of runners missing the gig due to injury or illness. That lack of star quality has made for a greater quantity of runners than usual and thus for a competitive race where they may bet 5/1 the field on the morning of the race.

The last ten winners all finished in the first two on all completed chase starts; the last nine winners all won last time out; and the last eight were aged six or seven. But then, an odds on favourite has won six of the last seven Arkle's and there's nothing of that relative degree of certainty hereabouts.

The highest rated horse in the field, Hardline, was only third last time. But that was over the JLT trip of two miles five and on good ground; the drop in trip and softer turf are positives for Gordon Elliott's Gigginstown contender, as is his previous Grade 1 score over Getabird at Limerick. Rated only 140 over hurdles, he has a bit to find with some on that measure but he has achieved more over fences so far than most of his rivals.

The best of these over timber was Kalashnikov, second in last year's Supreme on heavy, and a horse crying out for softer ground than he's raced on most of this season. He may, however, also be crying out for a longer trip though my judgement is clouded on that point having backed him for the JLT as early as last November: dough done.

That said, the easier turf will help, and he wasn't as bad as he appeared at Sandown where I'm convinced he was unable to jump out of the very sticky ground there.

It is another example of why we need a 'holding' going description to separate proper wet ground (i.e. when it has been raining) from drying ground which is like trying to pull a welly out of squelchy gluepot turf. These two goings are markedly different and yet both are called soft, sometimes heavy. The only way to tell them apart is to be aware of the weather in the lead up to each race and to mark your own copy of the form accordingly. That's inadequate in my book, though achieving change on that one is likely to take years if indeed it ever happens. Rant over.

Getting back to the Kalash, it's possible he was outpaced at Kempton in the Grade 2 he contested at Christmas; whilst making excuses for horses in Grade 1 races is not a smart idea, there is a credible case to be made for this stiffer test on wetter ground suiting far better. He's gone out of fashion pretty quickly and 10/1 looks big.

The horse to beat him last time was Glen Forsa, a seriously progressive beast but likely flattered by that form line for reasons expounded upon above. Prior to that rinsing of a Grade 1 stick he'd hosed up in a brace of novice handicaps, an unconventional route to favouritism for an Arkle. That's mainly because he failed to break maiden in three novice hurdle starts and never faced Graded company until the last day in what was the re-scheduled Kingmaker. I really like the horse but I don't believe my eyes from that Sandown spin and can't have him at 7/2.

Lalor was a few pounds behind Kalashnikov on hurdling form, though still good enough to win a Grade 1 at Aintree. He's a story horse, and it's impossible not to root for Kayley Woollacott and her team but, absent since early December where he was beaten into third, he too looks plenty short enough.

Paloma Blue was rated a few pounds in front of Duc Des Genievres over hurdles, and he looks a little bit of a forgotten horse in here. In fact, he was around the same level as Lalor but comes here nearly three times the price. Fourth in the Supreme, close up behind Kalashnikov, he has had just two ungraded starts over fences, winning the most recent of them. While that was only a beginners' chase, it featured the JLT 3rd fav, Real Steel (a faller at the last when upsides) as well as a couple of rock solid 135-ish hurdlers beaten further back. It was a Grade 2 strength race and I reckon if it had been called that, Paloma Blue would be no more than 7/1. He's 11/1 in a couple of places.

Duc Des Genievres was rated 146 over hurdles and is felt to be a 151 horse over fences at this stage. That's on the basis of a 15 length win from a 'not off' Tower Bridge, who heads to the Close Brothers with a good chance, and a previous six length defeat by the sadly (because I backed him without NRNB) absent Cilaos Emery. He handles soft ground, he represents last year's winning stable of Willie Mullins, and he has a fair chance.

I couldn't bet Knocknanuss without a faller refund concession: he's a headcase, albeit an extremely talented one. The Irish 'also rans', Us And Them and Ornua, are not without a squeak. The former has run second in small fields on good ground the last thrice, beaten only by the absent former ante post favourite, Le Richebourg, the last twice. On that basis, 20/1 looks pretty big, particularly given his form on deep ground. A mauling in the Supreme last season tempers enthusiasm but even so he's likely over-priced relative to some in the field.

I had a beer with the owner of Ornua earlier in the week, and I confess to not having been aware of his horse's form credentials at the time. A chase debut at Killarney followed by wins at Wexford and Newton Abbot can be viewed as non-standard Arkle preps though Henry de Bromhead has taken a more conventional passage since, winning a Grade 3 and running second in two more, as well as splitting Dynamite Dollars and Lalor in the Grade 1 Henry VIII last time. That's a long absence (early December) to overcome, however, and others have more scope. All the same, he'd not be a shock winner and I wish his connections the very best of luck.

Arkle Chase Selection

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It's a wide open affair. I've backed Hardline at 9's but I think he's short enough at 6/1 now. Glen Forsa is likeable but surely limited, Lalor would be one of the stories of the week but has big challenges to overcome, and Duc Des Genievres looks susceptible to one of the better hurdlers showing a similar level of form over fences.

All of which leads me to Kalashnikov (10/1 general), Paloma Blue (11/1 Coral) and Us And Them (20/1 Hills). I think they're all over-priced in a wide open race, though picking between them is tricky.

Suggestion: back your choice of Kalashnikov (10/1 Victor 1/5 1234), Paloma Blue (11/1 Coral) and Us And Them (20/1 Hills) each way.

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2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3 handicap, 3m1f)

I may sometimes appear clueless when poring over the form of the conditions races at the Cheltenham Festival, but there are no such doubts when it comes to the handicaps. I am guessing, plain and simple. So please take anything scribbled in the handicap race sections with that note foremost in mind.

A bit of trendage relates that 8 of the last 10 were 7 to 9 years old; 8 of the last ten had won over three miles or more; previous Festival form is a plus as is a prep over hurdles. Notable trainer performances emerge from David Pipe, Jonjo O'Neill and Alan King.

Horses of interest thus include Minella Rocco (trained by Jonjo), Beware The Bear, Coo Star Sivola, Royal Vacation, and Vintage Clouds. I'll add to that list three whose hurdle marks suggest their chase marks are workable: Give Me A Copper, Flying Angel and Shantou Village.

There having not been a repeat winner of the race in living memory until Un Temps Pour Tout doubled up in 2016/17, Coo Star Sivola returns with credible claims of making it back-to-back back-to-back wins, if you see what I mean. Only three pounds higher than last term, it's safe to ignore all of his form since, though the absence since mid-December is probably sub-optimal.

The likes of Shantou Village and Royal Vacation are probably too exposed to be able to win a Festival handicap, where those who have hidden at least some of their light under a bushel tend to fare best, though the latter is tough and consistent and feels like one of the better 33/1 shots.

The third and fourth from last year, Vintage Clouds and Beware The Bear, re-oppose with Vintage on identical terms with the winner while the Bear is two pounds better off for nine lengths. At 25/1 and 20/1 respectively they ought to again offers runs for the pennies.

Higher up the market rank is Minella Rocco, whose Festival credentials are impeccable. He beat reigning Gold Cup champ, Native River, in the 2016 National Hunt Chase (the 'four miler') and then ran second in the Gold Cup of 2017. Lightly raced since, a perch of 152 is a full stone below his peak rating and this will surely have been the plan for a long time. Trip, track, and ground hold no fears and the under-rated Richie McLernon keeps the ride. I'm indebted to Matt Tombs - doubtless not for the last time this week - in relating that horses which prepped over hurdles are 4/19 in the last eight years, for a 21 point profit. Minella Rocco was last seen jogging round Exeter in a Pertemps Hurdle qualifier. He'll do for me.

Ultima Handicap Chase Selection

Suggestion: I'll be keeping stakes small in the handicaps but I've talked myself into backing Minella Rocco each way at 8/1 (1/5 six places Skybet).

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3.30 Champion Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

A belting renewal of the Champion Hurdle, and one where the dual Champion, Buveur d'Air, faces his strongest challenge yet from a brace of extremely talented mares in receipt of a seven pound weight allowance. Such is the prowess of the top two in the market - Buveur and Apple's Jade - let alone third in, Laurina, that it is extremely difficult to envisage anything else winning. At least, that's how the words which follow will present it.

Let's talk about the champ: Buveur d'Air has a record befitting of a dual Champion Hurdler, a second in a prep and third in the 2016 Supreme the sole blemishes in a 14 race timber-topping career. His Festival record is 311, and he handles any ground. True, he was unimpressive last season but he still managed to win when looking beaten - that's a sign of grit as well as class.

He's likely to be waited with, which will make for a fascinating clash with Apple's Jade whose run style is to go out front and try to stay out front. She's a versatile and top class mare, as ten Grade 1 wins between two and three miles attests. Her recent form has earned her a UK official rating of 166, six pounds below Buveur d'Air's. But... when you factor in the mares' allowance, she comes out a pound in front. Interesting.

There are a couple of potential flies on the Apple's Jade ointment. First, she's not the only one who likes to get on with things: Ben Pauling's Global Citizen is a confirmed front-runner, too, and Laurina can also race handily. In all probability Laurina will stalk Apple's but the Citizen might very well ask Jade to do a little more than she'd wish to in the first half of the race.

And then there's the JP McManus second string, Espoir d'Allen. Now I'm sure that Mr McManus is far too much of a sportsman to use his eight-from-nine lifetime beast as a 'spoiler' but, who knows?, maybe Mark Walsh takes it upon himself to lay up alongside Apple's Jade early doors. It probably won't happen, but it might. You know what I'm saying?

The other question mark about Apple's Jade is that she has been beaten in two of her three visits to Cheltenham and the Festival. First she was runner-up to Ivanovich Gorbatov in the 2016 Triumph Hurdle, a run which preceded her absolutely blitzing her field in the Aintree equivalent. In fact, she turned the tables on her Triumph vanquisher by the small matter of 41 lengths - and he was still good enough to be second in that rematch!

She then scrambled home from Vroum Vroum Mag in the 2017 Mares' Hurdle before being beaten not only by Benie Des Dieux, but also by Midnight Tour in the same race last year. The word was that she was in season at the time of the race last year, and that may be correct. But the balance of her Cheltenham form is simply not as good as elsewhere. I love her, like just about everyone else, but I couldn't back her at 2/1 to overcome the pace and track questions.

So what of Laurina? She's six from six since moving to Willie Mullins, a sequence which includes facile victory in last season's Mares' Novices' Hurdle. She 'could be anything' and hasn't been seriously tested yet; but therein lies the problem: she WILL be tested here and who knows what she will find? A beating of 145 and 130-odd rated horses last time was only what she ought to have done, and the race was set up for her by stablemate, Stormy Ireland; prior to that she won a match, and before that she won a ridiculously soft Grade 1 beating 120-something fillies. The second there has run five times since, and the third three times since, collectively without making the frame. I'm ready to be wowed but I'm not wagering that outcome at 7/2.

Is anything lurking in the long grass? Almost certainly not, but if you have a bookmaker paying four places or you want to bet without the top two then Sharjah has a progressive profile. His ultimately quite dominant win in a Galway handicap hurdle off 145 in a field of 20 is rock solid, and a literal interpretation of subsequent defeats of Faugheen and then Supasundae, both in Grade 1 races, puts him near the front pair. He'll be patiently ridden so any shenanigans on the front end should play in his favour and he's easily the pick of the each way prices to my eye, notwithstanding that this doesn't look a terrific each way race.

Champion Hurdle Selection

This has some fantastic racehorses lining up, but whether it works out a fantastic horse race I'm not convinced. If Apple's Jade brings her A game and is largely unpestered on the lead, she'll prove an elusive hare for the whippets, Buveur d'Air and Sharjah, to chase down. It obviously wouldn't be a surprise if Laurina featured, too, but she's the worst value in my book, so if she wins, I'll have to suck it up.

I think Buveur d'Air will probably win, and I hope he does because he's almost certainly not received the credit he deserves - and I say that as someone who has not historically given him enough credit! He's no price in a race where the bookies have it sewn up so, unless you can find an exotic route in - perhaps Sharjah place only - it's a race to watch and enjoy. Saying that, if his price touched 3/1 Buveur would have to be a bet.

Suggestion: Watch the market and back Buveur d'Air if any fools offer 3/1 about the dual Champ defending. Sharjah at 3/1 or better for a top 3 finish is also playable.

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4.10 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)

Little more than a slow puncture after the helium-filled Montgolfier flight of the previous race, the Mares' Hurdle has singularly failed to capture my imagination and has more typically been accused of stealing a leading lady from the Champion or Stayers' Hurdle than providing a highlight in its own right. Still, it is now here and it is here to be won.

The man who does the winning is wily winning Willie, Mr Mullins of Closutton. Indeed he has held an almost monopolistic grasp on the Mares' mantle since its inception in 2008. Donald McCain actually won the inaugural running, Willie unrepresented, and Gordon Elliott won the 2017 renewal with Apple's Jade. The other nine have all gone Willie's way: a preposterous SIX of them went to Quevega - so good she now has a bar named after her at the course - and there has been one each for Glens Melody, Vroum Vroum Mag and Benie Des Dieux.

The last named bids to double up having, in true Quevega style, not been seen since winning at the Punchestown Festival a month after Cheltenham 2018. Her fitness has to be taken on trust, but if we can trust one thing it is that Willie Mullins knows how to get this won off a layoff. Benie may be no Quevega - yet - but she ground it out well last term, having been campaigned over fences up to that point. She's a shade of odds on - 10/11 - virtually across the board, testament perhaps to how little the bookies know and how much safety there is in numbers.

What I find interesting in a race that I generally don't find interesting is that this year Willie saddles not one, not two or three, but five of the fifteen runners. He couldn't have won that first running of the Mares' Hurdle because he didn't have a runner; since then he's saddled the following number of runners: 1112122222 - and now FIVE.

There are any number of ways to interpret this, including perfectly plausible ones like the owners want to run (not that WPM has ever been a man to kowtow to his owners). The conspiracy theory I like is that Benie Des Dieux is not Quevega and, if that is the case, it's 9/1 bar one. Game on!

Adding ballast to that contention is her UK rating of 151, within three pounds of which are four other mares. They look the ones on which to focus our snide each way assault, especially given Mullins himself trains three of the four (Alan King rounds out the quartet).

Stormy Ireland was the hare for Laurina to catch last time, and she's been consistent in defeat in recent starts. She looks a legitimate 145 or so, something some of these may not lay claim to being. She is likely to be afforded a largely uncontested lead, not that it is easy to lead here, still less in a big field.

Against her from the same squad is Good Thyne Tara, most of whose winning form is on quick ground but whose best form is arguably on softer (five length third to Shattered Love, half length second to Samcro in a pair of bumpers). She's been aggressively campaigned by Willie and has won a nice few quid for her owners, but it's hard to peg her optimal conditions. It's possible two and a half on soft might stretch her.

Limini, who can hardly have been said to have lost her way given she won a £78k heritage handicap on the level last autumn, has nevertheless not been winning under National Hunt rules. But she's run well in defeat all three times, against solid opposition. First there was a third place behind Apple's Jade. Respectfully behind Apple's Jade. Then there was a closer third to Good Thyne Tara; and most recently she was two lengths fourth to Presenting Percy in the Galmoy Hurdle. I can't decide whether she's slightly lost her form or her fight in recent spins but, either way, it doesn't seem to be quite all there at the moment over hurdles.

Britain won that 2008 opening version of the Mares' Hurdle but has not been atop the podium since. Probably the best of the somewhat piecemeal home challenge this time is Mia's Storm. She's won eight of her last ten completed starts, two chasing tumbles last season bringing about a reversion to the smaller obstacles. Alan King's nine-year-old has won both races this term, the second of which was in late November. That's a heck of a spell on the sidelines, somewhat mitigated by her excellent record fresh. She is a high 140's mare but comes with risk attached off the layoff.

Looking further down the ratings, all the while trying to retain a credible leap of improvement, is difficult. Both Jester Jet and Lady Buttons have been mixing hurdles and fences to good effect this season, but it is hard to see either of these likeable nine-year-olds finding the step forward required.

The one that vaguely interests me is Roksana. Only rated 142, to Benie's 151, she ostensibly has a mountain to climb. But she was highly progressive last term, elevating from 120 to 142, and she was entitled to need the run on her seasonal bow last month. There she was eleven lengths behind Buveur d'Air over a trip short of her best (she was second to Santini in a Grade 1 novice at Aintree over three miles against the boys last April), and I can see her improving seven pounds to around 150. That would put her bang in the mix.

She's a strong-travelling uncomplicated mare and has less miles on the clock than most of her rivals as a second season hurdler.

Mares' Hurdle Selection

A race which revolves around the defending champion, Benie Des Dieux. But her trainer, who has never saddled more than two in the race, lines up five this time, which could imply he is not that strong on the champ. Of course she can win, and she may well do, but at 10/11 it's a pass from me. Instead, I'll take Roksana each way at a double figure price.

I've seen worse 33/1 pokes than Good Thyne Tara, too: she's danced a lot of dances and stayed up late in most of them. She might just do so again.

Suggestion: Back Roksana each way at 10/1 general.

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4.50 Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase (Listed, 2m 4f)

Not my thing, though I do have an ante post bet in the race this year and a half decent ticket at that. Go me! Tower Bridge was never put into the race behind Duc Des Genievres in a beginners' chase last time, staying on when it was all over to be second of 17 (a few decent sorts behind). Rated 142 over hurdles, he's a pound lower over fences at this stage and, while hardly a bargain, he looks to have a decent chance in a wide open race.

Others whose chase mark is below their hurdle perch are The Russian Doyen (-3) and Solomn Grundy (-4). Both are interesting.

Last time out winners have a pretty good record, which brings in Lough Derg Spirit (been winning on flat tracks), the fully exposed Militarian, the experienced Walt, that lad The Russian Doyen again, good ground specialist Roaring Bull, favourite and (well beaten) third in a Grade 1 Riders Onthe Storm, and the exposed Huntsmans Son and Quamino.

Looking at Graded form as a hurdler would draw one to the claims of Tower Bridge and Riders Onthe Storm.

The big name handlers have a poor record in here, so it might be that Tom Taaffe's Riders Onthe Storm or Joseph O'Brien's Tower Bridge could give their trainers a timely fillip: Taaffe has had three Fez winners including Gold Cup scorer Kicking King and Finger Onthe Pulse in this race but not since 2010, Joseph is still looking for the first (though he was apparently training Ivanovich Gorbatov in all but name).

Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase selection

The top of the market tends to fare well in this race, and it will be no surprise if Riders Onthe Storm prevails. Having backed Tower Bridge at 20's, I'm happy though I still think there's a squeak of juice in his 9/1 quote. But maybe The Russian Doyen will give those chase specialists Tizzard and Cobden a day one win. He looks to have been expertly campaigned for his mark, with two and a half miles on soft ground expected to be a potent combination. At 25/1 in a place, he's too big.

Suggestion: Back The Russian Doyen at 25/1 each way (1/5 12345 Hills). Or if you want something more probable side with either 7/1 Rider Onthe Storm or 9/1 Tower Bridge.

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5.30 National Hunt Chase (Grade 2, 3m 7 1/2f)

A long race and, these days, a classy one. A number of changes to the race conditions in the last twenty years have increased the quality and reduced the randomness such that it now often goes to the highest-rated runner in the field. Those with demonstrable experience, stamina and class are the ones upon which to focus. They tend to inhabit the top of the betting lists for obvious reasons.

The favourite, however, is one to field against in my view. OK Corral is a nine-year-old who has won his two chase starts. Two chase starts. That's inexperience right there. He looked a strong stayer over hurdles but he's only raced in four-runner fields over fences so the 18 who line up here will be a significantly different test. At 3/1, he's a nothankyou, even if he is the highest rated in the field.

Ballyward has also had just two chase starts and hails from a stable where, allegedly, schooling over fences is considered optional. Be that as it may, if it's not enough experience for the jolly it's not enough experience for the second in either.

Chef Des Obeaux is s-l-o-w, but this might be his kind of thing. He's high class slow and, though his jumping isn't brilliant, that has been when he's been out of his comfort zone at a mile shorter. With a faller concession he might be worth a small play.

The wise guy horse is Atlanta Ablaze. On ratings, she's exposed as not good enough; but she has the experience - ten chase starts, four wins. She drew me to her, but then I noticed all her best form is on a sound surface, which it is very unlikely to be. If I've got her ground predilection wrong she could go well but I don't think I have.

Discorama is another short one in the betting with whom I struggle. He's got class, but his stamina and experience are both open to question - or at least have yet to be shown. Jamie Codd has been snapped up to ride Le Breuil, a horse yet to race at three miles let alone four; but he does have plenty of experience, he has a touch of class and he will be ridden as cold as ice by the chef de lanterne rouge, Mr C. Even so he's not for me. Another wise guy play, I'd say. Good luck to the wise guys.

Impulsive Star has had six chase starts, including when not quite getting home in this race last year, eventually finishing 24 lengths fourth. He may again not quite have the stamina for the gig but equally should give the galloping dentist, Mr Samuel Waley-Cohen, a great spin round. Less interesting is Jerrysback, in spite of the money around for him. He's a son of Jeremy for crying out loud, who took four goes to get off the mark in point to points and who's never raced under rules beyond 2m5f. The sire's progeny are 0 from 33 beyond 2m6f.

Gordon Elliott saddles Gun Digger, a horse with at least a modicum of stamina, class and experience. Not much more than a modicum but in a race where I'm really struggling to find a contender that ticks those three boxes, this one comes closest.

But wait, what about Whisperinthebreeze? Six chase starts, a win and three further places, goes on most ground, seemed to stay well when second over 3m1f, and a mark of 146 puts him within hailing distance of the pick of these. Definitely one of the more appealing prospects.

National Hunt Chase Selection

There are reasons to swerve most of these one way or another, and it might be that one last trip to the bar is a better call than a final first day wager. That said, if we think the top of the market is there to be taken on, should we not tilt at a windmill or two? I feel we probably should.

Two at prices with fine riders are Gun Digger, ridden by Lisa O'Neill, and Whisperinthebreeze, steered by Fin Maguire. Both have hinted at the  trinity of requirements - class, stamina, experience - and in a race where most fall down (hopefully not literally) to some degree on one or more of the three, they're worth a go at decent double digits. Chef Des Obeaux wouldn't be the worst play at a price either.

Suggestion: Back Gun Digger (16/1 1/4 123 bet365, 14/1 1/5 1234 Skybet) and/or Whisperinthebreeze (20/1 1/4 123 bet365, 16/1 1/5 1234 Skybet)

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Nobody said this would be easy. Though the Tuesday usually has a more straightforward look to it than the rest of the week, this Day One card feels fraught with danger and, therefore, opportunity. Go well, and remember to save some powder for the following three days!

Champion Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips: Cheltenham Festival 2018

Champion Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips: Cheltenham Festival 2018

It's now just two months until the tapes rise on the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, so it's high time we had a look for some betting value in the antepost markets. The feature race on Day One, Tuesday, is the Unibet Champion Hurdle, a Grade 1 run over just beyond two miles. Lasy year's Champion Hurdler, Buveur D'Air, is a strong favourite to retain his crown, but is his odds-on quote justified? Let's take a look...

Champion Hurdle 2018 Trends

Age

Five-year-old Katchit in 2008 was the first of his age group to win this race since See You Then in 1985. None has won since, from 27 to try, though Celestial Halo and Binocular did round out the trifecta behind Punjabi the following year. Another year later, Zaynar ran third for the five-year-olds but, since 2010, just Countrywide Flame has hit the board.

Defi De Seuil, sixth in the betting, is the most high profile five-year-old in the antepost lists, though his participation is subject to an improved performance after flopping on his sole start this season (stable was in poor form at the time).

At the other end of the spectrum, those aged in double digits are 0 from 21 since 1997, though venerable veterans Hurricane Fly and My Tent Or Yours made the frame since 2015. The last double-digit aged winner was Sea Pigeon, whose second victory, aged eleven, came in 1981. That was 37 years ago, which is hardly a boon if you like either Faugheen, the second favourite, or My Tent Or Yours, fifth market choice.

A focus on six- to nine-year-olds would have found all bar one of the winners in the last thirty years, but is a statistic which eliminates three of the top six in the current betting.

 

Last Time Out

Champion Hurdlers tend to be winners. Obvious, right? Indeed, 16 of the last 20 winners also triumphed on their previous racecourse appearance, from 106 runners. There were 269 horses line up in those twenty renewals, meaning 39.4% of all runners won last time. And yet they accounted for 80% of the winners, and 60% of the placed horses.

If you want to go off road a little, look also to those who finished second last time. They accounted for two of the remaining four victories since 1997 (10% of the wins) from 20% of the runners. Not so hot, but the winning pair were 11/1 Rock On Ruby and 33/1 Hardy Eustace, which would have squirreled the bank out even at Betfair Starting Price.

Still, it's best to focus exclusively on last day winners. As things stand, of the remaining three in the top six of the betting, only Buveur D'Air won last time. This can, and probably will, change between now and March, so tread carefully.

 

Key Trials

The Ryanair Hurdle, run over Christmas at Leopardstown, has been a key trial in recent seasons, seven Champion Hurdle winners emerging from the race since 2000 to take Festival honours at Cheltenham. This season, with Faugheen pulling up, it was left to Mick Jazz to see off Cilaos Emery.

Kempton's Christmas Hurdle has been a solid pointer too, with this season's festive showpiece falling to Buveur D'air who saw off The New One.

The other kingmaker race is the Irish Champion Hurdle, which will be run at the beginning of next month. Most of that race's Champion Hurdle highlighting lustre comes from Brave Inca and especially Hurricane Fly in recent times.  Faugheen is slated for a bid to redeem his reputation in the race so it will make for interesting viewing and can be expected to have a bearing on the Champion Hurdle market.

 

Champion Hurdle 2018 Form Preview

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So much for the trends, which seem to put a line through all of Buveur D'air's main market rivals leaving him home free on paper. But, of course, the Champion Hurdle isn't run on paper, and thank the moon and the stars for that. Still, let's consider the compelling case for the jolly before engaging in the potential folly of trying to get him beaten.

Buveur D'Air is unbeaten in most of two years, since running third to Altior and Min in the 2016 Supreme Novices' Hurdle. He's won eight on the bounce now, including last year's Champion Hurdle, and he's not been seriously tested. His official mark of 169 is clear of all bar the historical perch of Faugheen, a figure that one hasn't run to for two years. The seven year old is in the prime of his life, has seemingly had an uninterrupted preparation and, while a mooted trip to Ireland for the Irish Champion Hurdle at the beginning of February may be wide of the mark, he could have another spin before the Festival.

Trying to find reasons to oppose Buveur D'Air is tricky, still more so if taking slightly shorter with the Non Runner No Bet (NRNB) concession. If he gets to the starting line without a hiccup, he is by far the most likely winner. If I was picking holes - or trying to, at least - you could argue his rider asked for a very bold leap at the last in the Christmas Hurdle, a risky tactic. The converse is that the horse responded gamely and cruised away from standing dish, The New One.

It is probably unfair to measure Nicky Henderson's hotpot by the horses in his immediate aftermath - you can only beat what shows up, after all. And B d'Air has mocked not just The New One but also My Tent Or Yours (twice) and Irving in four back-to-back Grade 1 wins. That trio are all card-carrying veterans and are surely susceptible to a younger, more upwardly mobile racer albeit that such a type would be mobilizing from a lower ability base.

I want to be against Faugheen. Another of the double-digit brigade, he's been seen on the track just twice in the last two years, most recently when pulling up for no obvious reason. True, prior to that he hinted at the retention of the terrific talent he formerly possessed; but that was in duffing up a couple of 155 horses, both of whose marks may be considered slightly dubious at that level.

He just has a heck of a lot to prove, and at a top price of 5/1 is no value to do so. It would be genuinely fantastic to see him back to his best but it is very hard to imagine that he's a tight single figure chance of winning the Champion Hurdle in two months time. 3/1 NRNB could be excusable, depending on what shows up for the Leopardstown race. If it's a decent field and Faugheen wins, he'll be shorter and deservedly so. If he gets beaten, that will very likely be that and money back. Although it's hardly romantic, I fear the latter outcome. Either way, he's too risky a proposition at the price at this stage.

A couple of Mullins subs are next in the market. Melon is a weird one. I can only imagine he works like an absolute tank at home, because his form simply does nothing to vindicate a quote of 8/1 best. The only race he's won since a maiden hurdle this time last year was a weak Grade 2 at Down Royal, where he was roughly the same distance in front of Coquin Mans as Jezki was the time before. And he was in receipt of three pounds!

In three defeats around that hollow triumph he's run behind Labaik, Cilaos Emery and My Tent Or Yours (and The New One). I genuinely honestly for the life of me cannot fathom how that is possibly the profile of a single figure chance in a Champion Hurdle, even as shallow a heat as this looks.

If he dots up, fair enough, but it would have to be a major step forward from a rating of 159, which looks generous already.

More interesting, much more interesting, is Yorkhill. 12/1 in the all in run or not books, he's as short as 4/1 NRNB. That differential is explained by the fact he's been chasing for the last season and a bit. As unconvincing over a fence as he can be, he's still managed to win the JLT Novices' Chase at last year's Cheltenham Festival and, before that, the Neptune at the previous year's Festival.

If Faugheen was withdrawn from consideration, Yorkhill is a rock solid deputy, assuming he can still make a hurdling shape. Actually, thinking about it, that's what he's done over plenty of the steeplechase fences he's traversed! Again here, NRNB is the only route in. 5/1 with that money back concession is as close to an each way bet to nothing as is conceivable. Unsexy in the extreme, and probably the sort of play that gets your account restricted, it is very difficult to see him out of the frame if he turns up. But do not be suckered into the 12/1 on offer. He's more likely than not to run in a different race: 12/1 on an un-refunded non-runner won't get the pulse racing!

My Tent Or Yours is 16/1, 12/1 NRNB, and to be honest that's fair enough. Now eleven, he can't possibly win the race, but it's such a weak field that he could sneak into the frame. His form is closely tied in with The New One, another whose overall profile is the same: cannot win, probably runs with merit in defeat. Nigel Twiston-Davies' unfairly maligned warrior - he is a millionaire, after all - may take a different path this term in any case.

A horse I took a punt on in the early part of the season, before he flunked badly, was Defi De Seuil. He was the lad whose form lines were not already demonstrably below those of Buveur D'Air, and who could have conceivably developed into a genuine contender. But then he ran as flat as a pancake on his first and only run so far this season. Very little has come to light since, except the poor form of the Philip Hobbs yard during that part of the season.

He'd probably need to win the Irish Champion Hurdle to book his Chelto ticket and, assuming Buveur D'Air no shows, he has his chance. I've not given up all hope yet. Just most of it!

Wicklow Brave was only seventh in last year's Champion and has been globetrotting on the flat largely since, though his final hurdle run was a defeat of My Tent Or Yours in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle last April. He won't be winning at Cheltenham first time up though, and hasn't got any entries at this stage.

Min is quite interesting. As big a Supreme hype horse as Melon a year before, he ran a better race than that one to split the peerless Altior and Buveur D'air. He's won three of his four chase starts since then, but it was a big shock when he got turned over by Simply Ned at Leopardstown at Christmas. In the same ownership as Faugheen, he's another Mullins horse that could be diverted to this race. As such, he's another where the 16/1 NRNB is disproportionately more attractive than the 25/1 all in quote. After all, he's one of only two horses to beat Buveur D'Air. Moreover, the reverting from fences to hurdles route has been taken by both Rock On Ruby and Buveur D'Air himself since 2012.

Apple's Jade would be interesting if she came this route, but is far more likely for the Mares' Hurdle; Mick Jazz was the main beneficiary of Faugheen's flop last time but his overall form isn't in the same parish; Ch'Tibello wasn't too far behind My Tent but gets a bit outpaced on quicker ground; and before you know it, it's 50/1 your choice.

 

Champion Hurdle 2018 Tips

There are still a number of trials to be run, time enough for horses to shine a light on their credentials. But, as things stand, it is very (very!) hard to see past BUVEUR D'AIR. I can also confirm that night should follow day later, and that it will be February after January... So far, so bleedin' obvious.

Where, then, is the leftfield play? Well, this looks a superb 'without the favourite' race, and I'll be paying close heed to that market when it's eventually priced up. For now, however, we can do no better than muck about with the the Non Runner No Bet concessions.

In that context, Yorkhill is bombproof each way. He is unlikely to show up here if either Faugheen or Min do, in which case it's cash back in time for some 'without the fav' action. In the same vein, Min looks over-priced NRNB. Again, the likelihood is that we'll merely get our quids back; but, should he get the go ahead, he'll surely be a single figure price on the day.

Most likely winner (by a country mile) -

Buveur D'Air 8/13 NRNB Skybet

Best NRNB each way alternatives -

Yorkhill 5/1, Min 16/1 both Skybet (1/5 1-2-3)

 

Reviewing the Festival: 5 Things

2017 was a weird Festival, writes Tony Keenan. It began with Gordon Elliott winning novice races with Labaik and Tiger Roll, the former one refusal away from a lengthy ban on his previous start, the latter landing a National Hunt Chase run over nearly twice as far as his previous major win in the Triumph Hurdle. It ended with Paul Nicholls seemingly ecstatic at breaking his duck for the week in the Foxhunter with Pacha Du Polder, a far cry from his previous multiple Grade 1-winning Festivals. In between we had Willie Mullins draw a blank on Tuesday and Wednesday, his yard apparently out of form and his gallops all wrong, only for him to storm back with six winners across the final two days.

There are always things to be learned from these major meetings and while it’s important not to overreact to the evidence of just four days, there were certainly a few takeaways.

 

  1. Relative Sanity in the Betting Markets

By the standards of recent Cheltenhams, the offer culture among the big bookmakers wasn’t as prevalent; there was nothing close to the each-way five places offered by William Hill back in the 2013 Supreme. There were extra places on offer in obvious races like the Coral Cup, Pertemps Final and County Hurdle but not so much in the shoulder races; judging on the Pricewise tables from the Racing Post, there were just two firms that offered extended place terms in the Foxhunter as opposed to six in 2016.

The extra place concession is fine as a once-off – Coral going six places in the Coral Cup, say – but in the main it’s a losing proposition for bookmakers, where they are putting the maths in favour of the punter and conceding that they are willing to lose money in the race, all things being equal.

There were also reduced terms in the graded races from a long way out: where once these races were all a quarter the odds a place, now the universal terms seem to be a fifth. That’s clearly a negative for punters looking to bet each-way and find a solid horse to hit the frame and while there were a number of races during the week that set up well as ‘bad each-way’ events like the Arkle, Champion Chase and JLT, they would have been all the more appealing if it were a quarter the odds a place. Furthermore, there didn’t seem to be the wild push to be a standout top price everything on the odds comparison sites that there had been previously. The likes of Native River and Cue Card may have drifted on the morning of the Gold Cup to their biggest price in a few weeks, but that was more due to support for Djakadam than their weakness, and nor did price pushes on the Supreme favourites Ballyandy and Melon come to pass.

It’s difficult to say what the reasons for this might be. Last year’s results when one favourite after another went in clearly played their part; the firms didn’t get away with overly-generous offers then and may have learned from it. On the whole, this is good for racing as it is hardly ideal that the sport’s banner meeting be used as a loss leader for other betting products; the firms would be unlikely to do the same for a major football tournament. Hopefully such a sensible approach will continue next year.

 

  1. Competitive Irish Scene leads to Green-wash?

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Michael O’Leary talked a whole lot of rubbish in the run-up to Cheltenham and it continued last week with his comments about the Irish/English rivalry and his dismissal of Martin Pipe winner Champagne Classic as ‘probably the worst horse I have.’ It seems he is just as successful at winding racing people up as he is with government ministers! Those at the top of Irish racing might want to drop him a little thank you card for his contribution to the record week for Irish trainers at the meeting however as his decision to move his horses from Willie Mullins (along with some rotten injury luck for that trainer) could well have played a part in Irish trainers doing so well.

It’s been the most competitive Irish national hunt season since the Mullins hegemony began but while the betting beforehand suggested Ireland would struggle at the meeting – Ireland were priced up at a general 7/2 for the BetBright Cup having been more like 7/4 last year – the opposite proved to be case. Gordon Elliott basically continued to do what he’s been doing at home all season while both Henry De Bromhead and Noel Meade backed up excellent home campaigns with Festival winners. Jessica Harrington had been quietly having a good run in Ireland all season but there was nothing quiet about her Festival where she had three winners. There was certainly a sense of what might have been with Willie Mullins however; to manage six winners off the back of the season he’s had was a deeply impressive effort.

 

  1. Slipping Standards in Championship Races, Handicaps more Competitive than ever

The rash of injuries among the top jumpers lowered the standard of the championship races and while these races were a spectacle – the Festival always is – it is doubtful that Buveur D’Air, Special Tiara, Nichols Canyon and Sizing John will echo down the halls of history in the same manner of Istabraq, Big Buck’s or Best Mate. I’m biased but Sizing John might prove about the best of those as he’s just a different horse this season, his sole defeat coming to Douvan when conceding fitness to that one on his first run of 2016/17, and I wonder if he might even give a healthy version of that horse something to think about over a strongly-run twenty furlongs now.

The handicaps were a different story entirely, proving ultra-competitive and over-subscribed in a season where races like the Betfair Hurdle and Imperial Cup struggled to attract decent fields. Unsurprisingly, they took plenty of winning with horses like Un Temps Pour Tout (Racing Post Rating of 164 in winning), Supasundae (RPR 155), Presenting Percy (RPR 155) and Arctic Fire (RPR 160) all looking like they could make an impact at Grade 1 level sooner rather than later.

 

  1. Riding their Luck

I wrote about luck, good and bad, in this space prior to the meeting and it’s worth briefly revisiting those figures for trainers over this year’s meeting.

 

Trainer Winners Seconds Places (2nd, 3rd and 4th) Places to Winners Ratio Sub-2.0 Trades
G. Elliott 6 3 7 1.16 0
W. Mullins 6 2 7 1.15 4
N. Henderson 3 6 13 4.33 2
J. Harrington 3 0 0 0.00 0
H. De Bromhead 1 2 4 4.00 0
P. Hobbs 1 1 2 2.00 1
N. Meade 1 0 2 2.00 0
J. O’Neill 0 2 2 0.00 0
H. Fry 0 1 3 0.00 2
A. King 0 0 4 0.00 0

 

Jessica Harrington looks to have benefitted from the perfect storm of things falling right though it would be hard to say that any of Supasundae, Sizing John and Rock The World were anything other than deserving winners and she did have Champion Bumper fancy Someday ruled out on the morning of the race. Her close friend Nicky Henderson was the unlucky one in terms of places to winners ratio, allowing that one of his seconds (Whisper) came in a race he won anyway. The in-running trades point to Harry Fry being a bit unlucky too.

 

  1. Excuse Obvious ‘Excuse Horses’

Plenty of us will have backed a horse that will have run terribly last week [I didn’t back many who didn’t run terribly – Ed.] and in the main Cheltenham is one of those unique tracks where you can probably forgive a bad run. There were a number of horses that stood out as obvious ‘excuse horses’ with bona fide reasons for not being able to run to form and if you liked them going into the meeting, it could be worth sticking with them for the rest of the spring.

That list includes but is not limited to: Ballyandy (troubled trip), Bacardys (badly hampered), Bon Papa (lost his action), Automated (found to be lame), Mister Miyagi (troubled trip), Douvan (injured) Linger (lame), Flying Angel (badly hampered), Potters Legend (jumped like his feet were tied together), Ex Patriot (got loose beforehand), and Constantine Bay (run stopped at a crucial time).

I’m not saying I like all these horses to win in the near-term – in fact I don’t – but they all had very legitimate reasons for not running to their best. I won’t do all the hard work for you however so get reviewing those replays and start trawling through the BHA post-race reports, painful though they may be!

- Tony Keenan

Cheltenham Festival 2017: Day 4 Preview, Tips

And so to the final day of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, Gold Cup day, and the last chance to emerge victorious from the bruising punting encounters. It's traditionally a tough day as evidenced by some stratospheric placepot dividends - remember the £91,774.50 just two years ago? - so caution is advised on the staking front, though one correct swipe can nullify a week of losses. We start as usual at 1.30 with the...

1.30 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 179yds)

Not the competitive race it was before the introduction of the Fred Winter in 2005, it tends to be won by a horse towards the top of the market. Indeed, the three winners pre-2005 were returned at 20/1 twice and 16/1, whereas since that inaugural year only 33/1 Countrywide Flame has returned greater than 10/1. Still, 16 are scheduled to go to post.

The JP McManus-owned pair, Defi Du Seuil and Charlie Parcs, had a stranglehold on the top of the market for most of the winter, but a fall at Kempton in the Adonis - a traditionally strong Triumph trial - has pushed Charlie out to a more backable price. Of course, that's as a result of his newly discovered fallibility and, in any case, initial concerns appear to have dissipated in a market where punters are keen to be with horses trained by Nicky Henderson. Having been 8/1 post-Adonis, he's now into a top offer of 4/1.

Charlie Parcs had won in France before a debut defeat of Master Blueyes in a Kempton novice that has worked out very well. Importantly, that race was on good ground, as was the Adonis, so he's proven his affinity for quicker surfaces. But in the latter race he was going no better than Master Blueyes, the eventual winner, and arguably not as well. The stronger test of stamina of Cheltenham's New course could suit but the track remains an unknown.

Master Blueyes is battle hardened - he had ten runs on the flat and has now had five over hurdles - and progressive at the Winter game. Having taken four runs to get off the hurdling mark, he's now unbeaten in his last two, including in that Grade 2 Adonis, winning by an aggregate 29 lengths. I'd be concerned that all his form is on flat tracks and don't want to back him at 6/1.

Meanwhile, Defi Du Seuil, whose preparations were completed at Cheltenham on Trials Day with an emphatic but largely meaningless victory, comes here as favourite off the back of an unbroken five race winning streak. That sequence includes three victories at this track as well as a Grade 1 score in the Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow. He has won on ground ranging from soft to good and will prove hard to beat.

The pick of the Irish challenge is expected to be Mega Fortune. Trained by Gordon Elliott and ridden by Davy Russell is a brace of positives before even considering the horse's form, and that also stands scrutiny. Five runs over timber have resulted in two wins, culminating in an assertive verdict over re-opposing Bapaume in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle.

That was on soft ground and, despite winning a weak novice on good at Down Royal, there is a reservation about how Mega Fortune will perform on a sounder surface in top company. Similar comments apply to the runner up. An Irish runner who will appreciate faster underfoot is Landofhopeandglory. A winner of a Grade 3 on good to yielding when completing an initial hat-trick over hurdles, he's been beaten twice since on softer, including when sunk in heavy ground last time. He has a not dissimilar profile to stablemate, Ivanovich Gorbatov, who won last year's Triumph having been whacked on heavy on his previous outing.

There are three fillies in the race, the pick of which looks to be Gordon Elliott's Dinaria Des Obeaux. A winner of three of her four starts to date, she was beaten ten lengths by Mega Fortune in the G1 Spring Juvenile, which gives her a bit to find on the face of it. But she's won again since, and the faster ground might just enable her to get closer to her stablemate.

At the prices, while Defi Du Seuil looks solid, I'm tempted to side each way with Joseph O'Brien's runner, who can flip flop form with Bapaume on the expected sounder lawn.

Solid enough win bet:
Defi Du Seuil 9/4 Paddy, Betfair Sports

Each way play:
Landofhopeandglory 16/1 Ladbrokes, Coral

Skybet

SKYBET are MONEY BACK AS A FREE BET IF YOU LOSE ON THIS RACE (£20 MAX)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

2.10 County Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 179yds)

A handicap for older horses over the same course and distance as the Triumph offers an immediate comparison of the merit of the former heat. It is, as are all Festival handicaps, a ferociously competitive affair where - as with most of the Festival handicaps - it may pay to side with the Irish raiders, who have won seven of the last ten County Hurdles.

The shortest priced Irish horse is Mick Jazz, trained by that man Elliott. He won a Listed novices' hurdle last time, having run very well in third in a big field Grade A handicap the time before. A mark of 143 might not stop him but it will make things difficult.

Five year olds have an incredible record in this race, winning ten times and hitting the board 25 times since 1997 from 120 runners. As such, last year's Triumph Hurdle winner, Ivanovich Gorbatov, demands even closer scrutiny. He's dropped four pounds from his peak rating of 154, and the drying ground on a course he has shown he loves propel him towards the top of my shortlist. He will find this easier than the Grade 1 company he's kept in his last four starts.

The 2016 Fred Winter winner, Diego Du Charmil, also lines up here, but he's only a pound inferior on current ratings and will struggle to beat Ivan G on very close to equal terms. More appealing is the very lightly raced over hurdles Mohaayed, trained by Dan Skelton. Rated around 100 on the flat when with Kevin Prendergast, this son of Intikhab was second on his debut behind Elgin. He followed that up with a fair fourth to Neon Wolf in the Rossington Main at Haydock, the winner advertising that form when all but winning again in the Neptune on Wednesday.

And he was off the mark at the third time of asking when waltzing away with a soft ground Taunton novices' hurdle five weeks ago. His best form on the flat was on good ground so, while he's inexperienced for a gig like this, 25/1 looks very big about his chance.

Karl Thornton's Wakea is another worth noting at a price. He was beaten behind Supreme winner, Labaik, last time but before that he'd won his prior three hurdle races, all on good ground. He was disqualified from the first of those, a 20 runner maiden hurdle, but showed he could handle the hustle and bustle of a big field in being first past the post that day. Trip, ground and likely fast pace are all in his favour making 33/1 appealing.

Favourite and stable mate of Mohaayed, North Hill Harvey, is well regarded, and it's easy to see why on his fourth to Champion Hurdle winner, Buveur D'Air, two starts back. He's since won his only race this season, the Greatwood over course and distance. That formline reads well enough, with second placed Modus winning the Lanzarote Hurdle since, and dual subsequent handicap winner, Brain Power, down the field. But the layoff is a bit of a niggle for me, as is the additional imposition of eight pounds in weight for that last day success.

The most fascinating runner in the field might be the other Gordy horse, Tell Us More. This lightly raced eight year old has been chasing in his last six starts but, prior to that, he was sixth in Douvan's Supreme Novices' Hurdle win on his final hurdles outing. He gets in here off a mark of 142 and could be well handicapped.

It's an obviously trappy race where I'm happy to hurl a couple of darts at big prices.

Three tiny tickles off the tee:
Tell Us More 16/1 Hills, Paddy
Mohaayed 28/1 Ladbrokes
Wakea 33/1 Victor (five places)

bet365, BetVictor, Ladbrokes, Coral all 1/4 1-2-3-4-5

Skybet, Paddy 1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Your first 30 days for just £1

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 7f 213yds)

Unlike the shorter Neptune Hurdle, which is often run at a relatively sedate pace - as evidenced by Willoughby Court's controlled front-running display on Wednesday, the 'potato race' is normally a war of attrition where horses that have been lobbing round in small fields before getting outpaced can suddenly blossom under the sterner examination they face here.

There is little doubt that Death Duty brings the best Irish form to the race, but it is form achieved in those bimbling heavy ground contests which typically contrast so dramatically with the Albert Bartlett. That's not to say Death Duty cannot win. Of course not. His form is rock solid, and so is that of his trainer, Gordon Elliott. But he'll probably be running on ground quicker and in a race run faster than he's previously encountered. At 2/1 or so, I'll probably let him beat me.

Wholestone looks good in many ways: he's won over the trip, at the track, and on good ground. His last day trial, though not the biggest field, was a true run race meaning he ticks plenty of boxes coming into this. That was a Grade 2 that is working out well and the only negative is the form of his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies. Nige has had just one winner from 57 runners in the last 30 days, and his seven Tuesday/Wednesday Cheltenham runners collectively failed to make the frame.

I'm preying for signs of a revival in stable form on Thursday because I really want to back this lad. But the cloud above Hollow Bottom appears large and pervasive just now.

The horse Elliott admitted to fearing at a recent preview night was Monalee, who finished a close second the Death Duty in a Grade 2 two starts ago. He's since won a Grade 3 on heavy and, by Milan, is expected to improve for better ground. He looks a strong staying type, and I've backed him ante-post at 10/1. Again demonstrating what a judge I am (ahem), the horse is still available at 8/1 generally. There are no such negative stable vibes with Henry de Bromhead's team and I'm hopeful of a big run from this one.

Tom George is due a change of luck after Singlefarmpayment added to his Cheltenham Festival near miss showreel on Tuesday, and he could just get it courtesy of The Worlds End. Unbeaten in three since a debut third over hurdles, he ran away with a Haydock Grade 2 on this sort of ground and over this sort of trip last time. He's been brought expertly to the boil and looks another player in what may be a more open race than the betting implies.

This might be too far for promising mare, Augusta Kate, though connections are naturally respected.

Most Likely Winner:
Death Duty 9/4 bet365

Two sporting alternatives:
Monalee 8/1 general
The Worlds End 10/1 general

Paddy 1/5 1-2-3-4

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

3.30 Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2f 70yds)

See separate Gold Cup preview here...

 

**

4.10 Foxhunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2f 70yds)

The "Amateurs' Gold Cup", so called because it is run over the same distance directly after the Blue Riband, it bears little other resemblance to that great event. Still, it's a decent betting race, pitting as it does the ex-Graded racers on the wane against the rising stars between the flags. The Foxhunters' has been dominated in the last couple of seasons by the brilliant On The Fringe, who has achieved back-to-back Cheltenham/Aintree/Punchestown Champion Hunter victories.

That is unmatched in the history of the sport and is testament to the talents of trainer Enda Bolger - mainly known for his banks exploits - as much as those of the horse. On The Fringe comes here off the back of a narrow defeat in the same Leopardstown hunter chase in which he was beaten the two years he went on to record those auspicious trebles and, now twelve, he shows little signs of regression. He is far and away the most likely winner.

Wonderful Charm, second in a Grade 2 two years ago, looks a typically over-rated ex-Rules runner from the Paul Nicholls stable. His course record is largely uninspiring and, though he wouldn't be a shock winner, he looks a rubbish price.

More interesting, especially if there's any juice in the ground, is Ask The Weatherman. He was making his Rules debut in a warm Wincanton hunter when barrelling away from established stick, Rebel Rebellion. That was on heavy ground, however, and his liking for faster is taken on trust.

Paint The Clouds is twelve now but he loves to hear his hooves rattle, as the cliche goes. Only a length behind On The Fringe in this last year, he went on to win the Stratford Champion Hunter on good ground. That was his last Rules run prior to a warm-up at Doncaster last month - again on good - where he saw the 3m2f trip out well. He looks as though time has yet to catch up and is playable each way.

Outside of the favourite, the most eye-catching Irish runner could be point-to-point machine, Anseanachai Cliste. Don't ask me to pronounce it but the buzz is that this lad is useful and could shake up the more established Rules players. To offer some objective balance to those subjective whispers, he will have had to have improved enormously on his hunter chasing form from last season to be involved at the sharp end against these hardened old pro's. Still only nine, maybe he has.

Sam Waley-Cohen, Paint The Clouds' regular pilot, defects to his father's Black Thunder. His mount, a son of Malinas, suffered a shock defeat at Kelso last time when sent off the 1/8 favourite. More worrying than that - it was a prep after all - is that all six of his career wins have come on soft or heavy. He'll need to get his toe in to be a player.

Dolatulo is ten now, and bids to be a second winner on the week for Ben Pauling. A twenty length win in a Class 4 Hunter Chase last time show he's in excellent fettle, though that was on soft ground. He has plenty of good form on quicker, mind, and the 25/1 in a place is probably too big.

Solid favourite:
On The Fringe 6/4 general

Small each way pair:
Paint The Clouds 12/1 bet365
Dolatulo 25/1 Betfair Sports

BetVictor, Padd 1/5 1-2-3-4

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**

4.50 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Class 2, 2m 4f 56yds)

If you're not in front by now, it's going to be difficult and, in truth, I have little to offer in the last two races, both of which are impossible looking handicaps. We start with the two and a half mile handicap hurdle for conditional jockeys.

Geegeez blogger, and champion conditional elect, Harry Cobden, rides Tim Vaughan's hat-trick-seeking Dadsintrouble. He was going well when falling in a course and distance handicap in the autumn and has moved 19 pounds up the handicap since then. How much progression he retains is the big question, with conditions likely to suit and one of the best - perhaps the best - jockey in the race.

I backed Willie Mullins' Battleford for the Albert Bartlett, figuring he needed a stiffer test. But they'll go fast here and that should suit. With the Mullins team back in the winners' enclosure on Thursday, he's a player.

Nick Williams had the Fred Winter winner with a handicap debutant earlier in the week and Coo Star Sivola - third in that race last year on his only prior handicap start - could make it a memorable week for the yard. They have a solid recent Cheltenham record too.

But, honestly, there's barely a horse in here you couldn't make a case for.

Partially sighted poke in the Pipe:
Coo Star Sivola 16/1 bet365 (five places)

bet365 1/4 1-2-3-4-5

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**

5.30 Grand Annual Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 2m 62 yds)

The 'lucky last'? You have to be kidding. Two things I know about this:

  1. They will go pretty fast and you need a strong travelling sort
  2. There will be a huge amount of bad luck in running

That's the way it is in the Grand Annual. So, hoping we're lucky as much as good, a few that catch the eye are:

Le Prezien is a novice with more to come. He's normally ridden off the main speed and if his jumping holds up he should be on the premises. Croco Bay was third in this two years ago off an eight pound higher mark (fell last year) so is well in this time. Fourth in the Arkle last year, The Game Changer is five pounds below that rating now. Rock The World was third in this last year and has just a pound more to carry this time.

Last year's winner, Solar Impulse, is actually three pounds lower this time. He has also changed stables, from Paul Nicholls to Chris Kellett, and shown very little in four starts for his new yard. Granted two of those were over further and on softer turf, and we know he'll be suited by the setup if the fire still burns. It's a big if but he's 40/1.

And Pairofbrowneyes ran well over course and distance in November, beaten a neck. He's a strong travelling sort who handles quick ground and goes well in big fields. 25/1 is not bad then.

Loads of chances, take your pick.

Three win only 'guesses':
Le Prezien 8/1 Hills, Victor
Croco Bay 33/1 general
Pairofbrowneyes 25/1 general

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**

Phew. So that will be that. 28 races of Cheltenham Festival 2017 will have been run by quarter-to-six on Friday, and I'll be in the pub for the afternoon. Don't try to call after four o'clock! 😉

I hope you've had a great week, best of luck with your Friday bets, and stay safe this St. Patrick's Day.

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2017: Day 3 Preview, Tips

A quick cup of tea, or metaphorical suck on an orange segment, as we change ends - or courses - for the second half of the Festival: it's out with the Old Course and in with the New for Thursday and Friday.

Thursday's highlight is the Stayers' Hurdle, supported by the Ryanair Chase, and it is a tough punting card. We commence proceedings with a novice chase, the...

1.30 JLT Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 2m 3f 198 yds)

This intermediate trip novices' chase has rather diluted the fields for the shorter Arkle and the longer RSA, but is beginning to establish itself as a quality race in its own right. Inaugurated as recently as 2011, the Irish have so far claimed five of the first six renewals and again have a strong hand.

Their main hope will be 2016 Neptune winner, Yorkhill, who bids to give Willie Mullins a third straight win and a fourth in all. Yorkhill was a very good hurdler, as shown not just by that G1 Neptune score but also by victory in the G1 Mersey Novices' Hurdle at the Aintree Festival. Over the top (that is, had too many hard races) when beaten at Punchestown he has returned this season with back-to-back novice chase wins, most recently in a Grade 3.

A record of eight from nine and an undefeated chase CV is impressive, but it doesn't quite tell the full story. You see, Yorkhill has a bit of a problem: he's not a very natural jumper. Clearly he's effective, as attested to by his record, but this will be a big step up into Grade 1 chasing territory. At odds around 6/4, I'm keen to take him on mindful that if he jumps proficiently he will probably win.

Top Notch is apparently not very big but he is well named as evidenced by a Grade 1 win on his most recent start in the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase at Sandown over this sort of trip. Fifth in last year's Champion Hurdle was the pinnacle of a very good hurdling career, and he's now unbeaten in his last four over fences. With a versatile run style and, to date, an efficient jumping style he looks very hard to keep out of the frame granted a clear run.

Paul Nicholls' Politologue has the same chase rating, 152, as Top Notch. But whereas the latter has yet to 'grow into' his hurdle peak of 158, the former has already surpassed his timber-topping figure. Preference is for Top Notch.

Ireland's second choice, according to the market at least, is Noel Meade's Disko. His Grade 1 Flogas Chase win is high class form and probably makes him the highest rated chaser in the field. I say 'probably' because he doesn't have a published Irish mark despite being rated 151 going into that contest. If he handles good ground as well as he does the soft turf on which he's been plying his trade, he has a very strong place chance at least.

Flying Angel swerved the Arkle in favour of this but the form of the Nigel Twiston-Davies yard - just one win from 57 runners in the past 30 days - is a real concern.

If N T-D is in poor form, Nicky Henderson is bouncing after an excellent start to his Cheltenham. In such context, Kilcrea Vale can be expected to run at least to form. Outpaced in a three horse race at Fontwell over two miles he stayed on well to see off the questionable resolution of As De Mee. But it is his December defeat of Zamdy Man, by 19 lengths, that catches the eye. That horse has gone on to score twice more since, having also won his prior start so, while Zamdy Man may have run out of stamina (all wins at two miles, defeat at half a mile further), it is still a solid piece of form.

In truth, it's a stone or so below that of the best of these so it is more the price that makes him of interest. He's currently around a 25/1 chance. But five of the six winners of this race have come from the top four in the betting and I'd expect that 'trend' to continue this year.

Selection against Yorkhill:
Disko e/w 5/1 general

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**

2.10 Pertemps Final (Listed Handicap, 2m 7f 213yds)

A huge field of handicappers, most of whom will step forward today for one reason or another. Yikes. I'll not pretend I know what's going to happen except to say that Gordon Elliott is in great form and has a strong team.

Jury Duty may be the pick of the Elliott runners. He contested the Chepstow qualifier, where he was well enough beaten to only rise two pounds in the handicap. He was second in a similar race at the Punchestown Festival last April and, though 25 pounds higher now, he's obviously progressive and more will be expected here than the last day.

Debra Hamer's wonderful Tobefair heads the market. He comes here on a remarkable EIGHT-timer, having stormed up the weights from 81 to 143. And if you saw the way he fought back when challenged last time you'd be reckless to dismiss him. It's a terrific story and the romantic in me hopes he wins again. The hard-nosed punter in me cannot get involved at 7/1.

Second in the Exeter qualifier, and in his last three starts - and five of his last seven - was Rocklander. That's consistent form if not a great win record, and his handicap mark has predictably suffered as a result. At the start of the septet of ones and twos, Tom George's runner was rated 113. He is now rated 140. He is clearly still improving and travelling strongly off a quick pace might allow him to finally get his neck in front again. 16/1 is interesting.

Golden Doyen was value for more than the head by which he beat For Good Measure in the Cheltenham qualifier, showing his ability to handle track, trip and ground in the process. Still only six, this former Cheltenham Grade 2 winner should go well again.

And last year's winning connections bid to repeat the feat with Presenting Percy. I backed this a while back at 10/1, which is barely more than the price he's currently available at. His win last time was highly impressive, sauntering clear on heavy ground. Before that he'd run fourth in the Punchestown qualifier, but he's been shoved up sixteen pounds by the handicapper since. That's a lot and might just do for him in spite of a probable preference for the faster conditions he'll encounter here and a progressive profile.

Loads more to consider, as always.

Hopeful pair at prices against the field:
Rocklander 16/1 e/w
Golden Doyen 16/1 e/w

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**

2.50 Ryanair Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4f 166yds)

The 'dead eight' for this intermediate Grade 1. Un De Sceaux has long been favoured, but while the expected fast ground will be less of a challenge to his stamina, the expected fast ground will not suit him as well as softer. In truth, though he may win, he is crying out to be taken on. (I know I've said that a lot but seriously, this is not the Williefest it normally is. Hmm, that sounds wrong, but you know what I mean..!)

I quite like Uxizandre as a horse with a versatile run style and a former winner, but I don't like a top offer of 4/1 with questions to answer about how much ability he retains after almost two years off the track. He ran well to pick up the pieces last time behind Un De Sceaux but whether he's flattered by that, or whether the form is as good as first glance, or whether he will 'bounce' are imponderables not sufficiently factored into his price.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Between the pair in the market is the highly likeable Empire Of Dirt. Winner of the Festival Plate last term, he's stepped up into Grade 1 company since when a staying on second in the Irish Gold Cup. That was over three miles but was very much a sprint finish after they lolloped around for two and three quarters miles. The stiffer test here, on a circuit he knows and loves, ought to be perfect and I'm not concerned about the drop back in trip even though I would have loved him to take his chance in the Gold Cup itself.

I think a lot of the grief Josses Hill gets for his jumping is a little harsh. It's true that in his novice season he generally deserved his 'snooker table' monicker, but he still managed to finish third in the Arkle. Disappointing in two of his three starts last season, he's looked back to his best this term winning twice at around this range. Even his fifth of five last time is a fair effort, given that his stamina in that race - the King George over three miles at Kempton - ran out, and he was only beaten seven lengths.

Whilst I don't want to back him, I also don't think he's the wrong price. He has a decent chance of making the frame.

Sub Lieutenant is a key collateral player in the Gold Cup picture. He's beaten Outlander, and finished close up to both Djakadam and Sizing John in his last three starts. Effective on good ground, he'll stay all right but his liking for the track is an unknown. This will be only the second time Henry de Bromhead's 8yo has left Ireland, having finished fourth in a Grade 1 at Aintree two years ago.

The other three have plenty to prove just now.

Selection:
Empire Of Dirt 10/3 general

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**

3.30 Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 7f 213yds)

I previewed this a week or so ago, and those thoughts - including trends, pace and tips - can be found here:

Stayers' Hurdle 2017 Preview, Trends, Tips

 

**

4.10 Festival Plate Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 2m 4f 166yds)

The Plate is the race that refuses to be pigeonholed. Winners have been aged from five to eleven in the last 20 years, and from the top of the weights to out of the handicap. Most notable, perhaps, is that ten winners this century were returned at 16/1 or bigger and only one since 1999 was returned in single figures. Don't be afraid to have a swipe at a price, and tread carefully if you want to get stuck into a shortie. After that, I'm afraid I have little further to offer.

The one they're expected to come for is Gordon Elliott's Diamond King. A winner at the Festival over hurdles last year, he's been novice chasing this campaign including in Grade 1 company. With 158-rated Village Vic in the line up, and anchoring the weights, Diamond King has a 'racing weight' of 11-04 and will relish the fast ground. But he'll need luck in running and to progress to his hurdle mark to prevail again. He's a short price but probably not the wrong price.

Venetia Williams is a trainer to keep an eye on in this. She's won it three times since Idole First notched a 12/1 success a decade again, with the other two scorers being extremely punter-friendly prices (33/1 and 50/1). Venetia is doubly represented this time around, with a pair of French imports, Tango De Juilley and Cold March.

The former added further lustre to La Williams' Plate palmarès when running a game second last year (at 33/1) behind Empire Of Dirt. The winner there heads for the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase, for which he is second favourite, but Tango has not been sighted since. Only a pound higher than a year ago, he has an obvious chance of making the frame given reservations about the long absence are mitigated by his eleven month hiatus before that silver last term.

Cold March loves fast ground, and comes here off the back of a win at this sort of range in a Class 2 Musselburgh handicap chase. That flat right-handed track is nothing like Cheltenham's undulating left-leaner and, on the face of it at least, there is little in Cold March's form to suggest he'll be better suited to this test. Indeed, three prior visits to the Cotswolds have produced a form string of P65.

As unpromising as that might appear, he's actually stayed on well the last twice over two miles. The extended range then is very much in his favour and he might be worth a small chance at a big price.

Last year's winner was the first for a very long time - more than 25 years - to be trained in Ireland, so it may pay to remain apprehensive when considering one from that side of the Sea, particularly at shorter prices. Empire Of Dirt at least had the safety net of a 16/1 quote, a similar price to Road To Respect, in the same ownership. Still only six, Noel Meade's son of Gamut seems to have been around for a long time, and has contested a couple of Grade 1 chases this season.

Fourth to Coney Island and third to Min, beaten less than ten lengths both times, reads well enough in the context of a handicap from a mark of 145 and at 20/1. This will be his first trip outside Ireland, which is a question mark, and I'm also not completely sure he wants fast ground, but the price justifies the penny play.

The Pipes, father Martin and son David, have a peerless record in this - Martin won it four times and David has already scored thrice - so obviously anything they run must be respected. What is surprising is that only two of their collective septet were strongly fancied: 7/4 Majadou and 9/2 Salut Flo supported by winners at 25/1, 20/1, 18/1, 14/1, and 12/1. To this year, and Pipe Jr. saddles Starchitect, a lightly raced novice having only his fourth spin over fences.

He won his last hurdle race, a handicap, off his Plate perch of 143, and he looks capable of stepping forward on that. Ground and trip will be fine for a fellow that finisher fifth and fourth in handicaps at the last two Festivals, and he seems sure to go well granted luck in running. The team already have a handicap chase on the board this week, courtesy of repeat Ultima hero, Un Temps Pour Tout.

Many, many more with chances...

One from the top:
Starchitect 8/1 general

Two from anywhere else:
Tango De Juilley 20/1 general
Road To Respect 20/1 general

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**

4.50 Mares' Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2, 2m 179yds)

The newest and, perhaps, least welcome race at the Festival, this for many will be an excuse to get a beer or a bun. It's not my thing, as you may have gathered, but I might change my mind if I can find the winner. That man Mullins won the inaugural running last year with Mares' Hurdle third, Limini, and he again has a strong hand. Pick of his three entries looks to be the very talented Let's Dance, as reflected by a market price of 6/4.

She has a perfectly progressive profile, with wins in maiden, Listed, Grade 3 and most recently Grade 2 company, and comes here the choice of Ruby Walsh. He very rarely makes the wrong call, which is as much a vote of confidence for this mare as it is a negative for stable mates, Airlie Beach and Asthuria.

Let's Dance gets the extended two mile trip well - stays further in fact - and has form on top of the ground. She's been impressive the last twice and it will take a good one to beat her.

Airlie Beach has run up her own sequence of seven straight wins in an unbeaten start to her career. That magnificent seven is headlined by her most recent victory, against the boys in the Grade 1 Royal Bond. She's proven on good ground and will probably try to make all, something that will require her shaking off the early attentions of a couple of other habitual trailblazers. That's a knock against her otherwise very sound place credentials.

The trio is completed by Asthuria, who might just have had the better of a protracted battle with Shattered Love (ran poorly in Wednesday's Neptune) when taking a nasty looking fall at the final flight last time. That was a second fall in a row and, talented though she unquestionably is, her propensity to impersonate Eden Hazard when getting any sort of pressure 'inside the box' - or at the business end of a race if you prefer - is sub-optimal in the cauldron of a Festival heat.

Forge Meadow was 13 lengths behind Shattered Love in the above race so, while her jumping is better, you'd have to question whether she has as much raw talent even if she did pick up an average-looking Grade 2 last time.

The best of the home team might be Warren Greatrex's La Bague Au Roi. She's won six of her seven races to date, and is proven on fast ground and going left-handed. It's simply whether she's good enough. Actually, there is a second question: she likes to get on with things which, as previously mentioned, is a trait seen in a number of her rivals. It could be pretty quick on the front end.

Gordy's Barra has some interesting form, including an eight length fifth of ten in the Grade 1 Deloitte Novices' Hurdle. Racing against the boys there, she showed plenty before weakening out of things from the back of the last. The quicker turf and furlong shorter trip are in her favour, and we know her trainer is in great form.

Probable winner:
Let's Dance 6/4 general

Each way at a price:
Barra 16/1 Hills, BetVictor

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**

5.30 Kim Muir Handicap Chase (Class 2, 3m 2f)

We close day three with an amateur riders' handicap chase over three and a quarter miles. The usual comments apply about siding with an experienced jockey: Jamie Codd has won four of the last eight Kim Muir's (!), as well as yesterday's Cross Country Chase against the pro's, and only two claiming jockeys have won since 2005.

Last year's Pertemps Final winner, Mall Dini, will find this much more to his liking than the two and a half mile heats he's contested, and his trainer looks to have set him up with every chance off a mark just four pounds higher than that big Festival handicap victory twelve months ago.

Another that was 'jobbed up' last year is Squouateur (almost as difficult to type as to pronounce). He was sent off at the preposterous odds of 9/4 in last year's Martin Pipe in a field of 24. Trouble in running means his final position of seventh can be marked up a bit, but shame on you if you backed him at that price.

He's been brought to the boil quietly again this term and gets the first time services of that man, the Codd-father. A patient ride looks assured with his current price affording some cushion against poor luck in running.

At (much) bigger prices, Ian Williams' Forgotten Gold ticks plenty of boxes. A lover of rattling conditions - he won on firm last time - he's been second on three of his four visits to the course, including twice over course and distance. Sure he has plenty of weight, and yes, he's not hidden himself from the handicapper. But he's 33/1 and ought to run his race again for a trainer, Tom George, in great nick.

This is another race in which the Pipes have looked to get a gamble landed, and they have hit their mark enough times to pay for the losers. In 2003, 2004, 2011, and 2015, a Pipe-trained horse prevailed, the first two at huge prices. This time they're triple-handed with La Vaticane, Father Edward and Doctor Harper. The good Doctor was sent off 4/1 favourite last year but showed little before decanting his pilot two out. He's returned a couple of times since, including when second on New Year's Day, and is five pounds higher now than then. Crack amateur, Lisa O'Neill, who was seen to impressive effect when guiding Tiger Roll home earlier in the week, gets the leg up.

Father Edward is a conundrum: a winner on his stable debut four starts ago he has shown zero since. Clearly capable in the right circumstances I can't even bring myself to back him at 40/1.

The lightly raced mare, La Vaticane, is the third string to the Pipe bow. She's also good on her day, and less bad than Father Edward when it's not her day, but she does have a lot of weight to carry.

The local plot in the race is surely Neil Mulholland's Southfield Royale. Fourth in last year's National Hunt Chase when already awarded a rating of 147, he gets in here off just 141. This has been the target all along so, while he has to prove his fitness after just one (poor) run since last April, he is likely to go close.

Loads of others doubtless lined up for this day...

One from the top:
Squouateur 7/1 Skybet, Coral

Two bigger prices:
Doctor Harper 16/1 Coral
Forgotten Gold 33/1 general

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**

Three down, and just one to go after this hopefully lucky seven races. It's Gold Cup day next!

Matt

p.s. what are your Day 3 fancies? Leave a comment below and share your wisdom

Cheltenham Festival 2017: Day 2 Preview, Tips

Day 2 of the greatest show on turf, the Cheltenham Festival, is expected to feature a Royal Procession as its centrepiece. Douvan, long odds-on in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, will take some stopping but there are six other races where win betting may offer more appealing - if less secure - propositions.

1.30 Neptune Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 5f 26yds)

An intermediate distance Grade 1 novices' hurdle features horses considered not to have the requisite speed for the Supreme or the necessary stamina for the Albert Bartlett. That is probably an unfair way to describe a race which has proven a pretty reliable barometer to the following season's Champion Hurdle.

This season's field is spearheaded by the exciting Neon Wolf, trained by Harry Fry. He's unbeaten in a point, a bumper and two hurdle races, the most recent of which was the Grade 2 Rossington Main Novices' Hurdle at Haydock. There he beat Elgin by nine lengths, pouring on the pressure from the top of the straight and eventually drawing clear.

That form looks fair, with runner up Elgin filling the same position behind River Wylde in another G2, and scheduled to run in Tuesday's opener, the Supreme.

Good ground, which it may be by post time, is an unknown for a horse that has raced exclusively on soft or good to soft, and if there is a chink in the Wolf's armour, it could be his ability to handle - and quicken - on faster turf. Still,  he's comfortably the most likely winner.

The leading man in the Irish challenge will be Bacardys, who stayed on well to run down stablemate Bunk Off Early in the Grade 1 Deloitte over two and a quarter miles last time. This extra three furlongs should suit and, as with Neon Wolf, the Supreme - Bunk Off Early's Festival target - will give us a line to the merit of the form.

Bacardys has previous Festival form, having been a two length third in the Champion Bumper last season and would likely be unbeaten over hurdles if not falling on his timber-topping debut.

Messire Des Obeaux is, like Bacardys, a Grade 1 winner, having scored in the Challow at Newbury on New Year's Eve. He's since found Keeper Hill a neck too good when collared close home in the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon. It's possible he was dossing in front that day, and/or that trainer Alan King had left a bit to work on, so MDO is a definite place player.

Keeper Hill, for his part, is progressing apace and was completing a hat-trick of novice hurdle wins in the aforementioned Sidney Banks, in receipt of eight pounds. He's quite stoutly bred so it wouldn't be any surprise if he continued his upward trajectory with a bold showing. 20/1 will be attractive to some.

Ben Pauling is a trainer quietly making a name for himself, and he has a couple of nice novices here this week. High Bridge runs in the Supreme on Tuesday before Willoughby Court, impressive winner of the Leamington Novices' Hurdle at Warwick last time, lines up here.

Fifth to Bacardys in the Aintree Bumper last April, he's two from three at this trip, the defeat coming on hurdles debut at Market Rasen. Even allowing for lack of fitness that day, he probably should have still got it done, and I have it in my mind that it may have been the quicker ground there which prevented him.

His form on soft reads 1151, while on quicker it is 321. That may just be coincidence but it's a niggle as is any horse being beaten at Market Rasen winning a Grade 1 novice race at the Cheltenham Festival.

The mare, Shattered Love, was only a half length behind win machine Airlie Beach in a good ground Grade 3 earlier in the season. More recently, had the well-regarded Forge Meadow some way behind over two and a quarter miles on soft, form that may flatter her given Asthuria would probably have beaten her but for tipping up at the last.

One general point, which I've touched on specifically a number of times above: look at the Supreme on Tuesday for a line on some of the horses who may have run just in front or behind them in the Festival opener; and consider runners in the Albert Bartlett in light of the performance of runners in this race. As Tony Keenan has written elsewhere on this site, these collateral form lines often work out very well.

Most Likely Winner:
Neon Wolf 2/1 Coral

Each way value play:
Keeper Hill 20/1 Hills

Skybet

SKYBET are MONEY BACK AS A FREE BET IF YOU LOSE ON THIS RACE (£20 MAX)

BetVictor

NEW customers: Bet £10, and get a free £2 bet on EVERY race at the Festival (21 of them remaining)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

2.10 RSA Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 3m 80yds)

A race which has been pilfered from somewhat by the rise to prominence of the 'four miler', the National Hunt Chase, the RSA has nevertheless historically proved a good pointer to Gold Cup aspirants of the future.

Clear favourite, though not at a short price in a confused market, is Might Bite. There is little doubt that this horse has demonstrated the best level of ability in the field, but that was when failing to complete in the Feltham at Kempton on Boxing Day. 'Failing to complete' demands a little additional clarity: a known nutcase, he was gunned into the final fence by Daryl Jacob and just belly flopped into it. Asked for a big one, he declined the request.

Jacob probably took more flak than was merited for the tumble: sure, he didn't need to roust Might Bite between the last two; but his conveyance almost tried to refuse such was the flimsiness of his attempted leap. He has 'previous' according to his trainer, and simply cannot be countenanced as a bet for all that he might run away with the race. If you want to be with him, look for a book offering faller insurance.

Second choice is last year's World Hurdle runner-up, Alpha Des Obeaux. He was clear second choice behind Thistlecrack that day but has had issues since. Those issues came to a head when a burst blood vessel led to him pulling up at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting. It was, so the rumour mill has it, a bad bleed and may have left an emotional scar. However, freshened up since, Mouse Morris has few peers when it comes to training a horse for a target, so that fact this lad boarded the ferry offers hope to his backers.

I don't like his patchy form or that last day incident so he won't be for me.

Likewise, Acapella Bourgeois is not for me. Even allowing for more talent than that with which he's been credited after Roger Loughran rode his rivals to sleep in a Grade 2 at Navan, he won't get a soft lead in this RSA. Any of Flintham, Marinero, Might Bite, As De Mee, and Delusionofgrandeur may take him on in what seems likely to be a stern test of stamina.

One who will appreciate the stamina test and who acts on good ground as well as softer, is Whisper. This is his second attempt at chasing after an abortive mission two seasons ago where he ultimately reverted to hurdles. Last term was a damp squib, his three winless efforts concluded with a drubbing in the World Hurdle.

He may have been rejuvenated by a second stint over the birch. His December win over 2m5f at this track has worked out well, with runner up, Baron Alco, winning a novice chase on his next start before claiming silver in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles, and other subsequent winners in behind. But I just wonder whether he's quite good enough these days, having had twenty career starts already. If he could match his hurdle rating of this time two seasons ago, in the low 160's, he'd be a penalty kick. But he's looked a stone below that form since.

Royal Vacation looked a plodder in the Feltham, but was the main beneficiary of Might Bite's purler. Elevated most of a stone to 143 after that fortuitous win, he proved it no fluke by winning a decent novices' handicap chase on Trials Day at Cheltenham. He's now on a mark of 152 with a progressive profile and grinder's attitude, just the sort to run well in this. He'd be the first Feltham winner to land the RSA, but then if Might Bite had stood up he'd have been beaten a dozen lengths in second there, and plenty of Feltham placed horses have won the RSA.

Of the rest, Bellshill could be interesting if lining up. Beaten out of sight in the Supreme last season, he's shown that a truer test of stamina suits better with a second placing in the Grade 1 Sefton at Aintree and a win in the Grade 1 staying novice hurdle at the Punchestown Festival, and over fences with a brace of two and a half mile victories. The latter was in Grade 2 company, but Bellshill was struggling when coming down behind Disko in the Grade 1 Flogas Novice Chase over 2m5f.

It might be that he needs more of a stamina test and, if that's right, he comes here fresh and proven as a spring horse, that Supreme disaster notwithstanding.

Two rags that I thought could outrun their odds in the four miler look like showing up here instead. Marinero was being backed for that National Hunt Chase before swerving that contest, and he'll love the combination of a trip and fast ground.

Aurillac has been doing all his best work late and with a bit more runway might have won three of his last four (ignoring a pulled up effort in the standing water at Hereford last time). In what looks set to be a searching examination of heart and lungs, he is no 80/1 poke, though he may still struggle to make the first four. I'd still expect plenty of others to cry enough before him.

It's an open race and I have no really strong opinions but there are a few worth consideration as value options.

Two against the field:
Royal Vacation 12/1 boylesports
Bellshill 9/1 general

Massive priced crackpot play:
Aurillac 66/1 Skybet [1/5 1-2-3-4]

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Your first 30 days for just £1

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

2.50 Coral Cup (Grade 3 handicap, 2m 5f 26yds)

This is not my idea of a betting race. Tombstone is very short but has obvious claims, being classy enough to finish fourth in last year's Supreme. A defeat of Jezki last time reads well enough regardless of which Jezki turned up that day, but you just can't be betting a 4/1 in 26 runner handicaps. Well I can't anyway.

I'd rather have a look at the next trio, all lurking around the 10/1 mark. Automated has been shoved up a lot for a last-to-first win in a Grade B handicap hurdle last time. Only a length in front of Scoir Mear, they pulled twenty clear of the third in what should have been a competitive handicap. Trained, like Tombstone, by Gordon Elliott, this strong-travelling closer should be fun to watch.

The novice Peregrine Run will relish this return to terra firmer after running very well in defeat in the Grade 2 Leamington Novices' Hurdle last time. It was soft bordering on heavy there, the Peregrine having flown home on his previous four starts on good ground. Trained by Pat Fahy, whose Morning Assembly - his first Festival handicap runner for a decade - ran fourth in the Ultima last year, Peregrine Run has a verdict over Albert Bartlett second favourite, Wholestone, in the Grade 2 Hyde Novices' Hurdle over course and distance.

And at bigger prices, Scoir Mear might go well. Automated looked set to swoop by this chap that last day but made heavy weather of it, and a return to faster conditions might be in Tony Mullins' horse's favour. He's two pounds better off with his vanquisher there, and two and a half times the price.

Not a race to get stuck into - not for me at any rate - but I'll take a small piece of...

One who could run well:
Peregrine Run 10/1 [check for extra place concessions, possibly first six]

Coral are paying 1/4 1-2-3-4-5-6

Skybet, Paddy are paying 1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6

bet365 are paying 1/4 1-2-3-4-5

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

3.30 Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1, 1m 7f 199yds)

I've previewed this race in depth, here.

 

**

4.10 Cross Country Chase (Class 2, 3m 6f 37yds)

A race in which I traditionally have a strong opinion and in which this season I did not. Until about six weeks ago... I wrote then that I thought Cause Of Causes was a very big price at 12/1 NRNB in this post. He's now 4/1 top so I was right about the price at least. Regarding his chance, it depends on how well he's responded to the reported 'extensive schooling' he has undertaken since a listless sortie over the quirky course in January.

That he finished fifth that day was remarkable because, for most of the near four mile race, he was unsighted. That said, fifth was 42 lengths behind first. His Festival record in the last three seasons is 211, beating 59 of the 60 rivals he's faced in the process, and he loves quick ground. There is a niggle about his hold up run style and 4/1 barely factors that in, but rumours of an extended sabbatical at trainer Enda Bolger's yard offer hope, especially for those of us already on at the bigger prices (soz!).

First that day was Urgent De Gregaine, extremely confidently ridden by Felix de Giles despite his 50/1 quote that day. He's a late scratch for the Festival version leaving second home, Cantlow, as a slightly stronger jolly than before the French raider's confirmed absence.

Cantlow is not the sort to be relying on. He has won over course and distance, in the December handicap version, but has been beaten twice on these pistes, narrowly as mentioned last time but more heavily in the Festival renewal last term. As a pupil at Bolgers' famous banks academy he has every chance of going well, and as he eases out towards the 3/1 mark, he becomes worth the risk. But he's not there yet. Watching brief.

Any Currency is probably a bit long in the tooth now meaning the each way value might now lie with Auvergnat. Almost certain to be in the frame when unseating Rachel Blackmore at the 26th obstacle on Trials Day, Enda Bolger's seven-year-old was third in the Risk Of Thunder Chase last November and won the PP Hogan last month, both over Punchestown's banks course.

The PP Hogan has historically been the best trial for the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, and 8/1 in a couple of places is perfectly fair.

Yet another from the Bolger battalion is Quantitiveeasing, a horse which makes Cantlow look like German engineering-reliable. Third in the race last year, he then won the La Touche Cup at the Punchestown Festival and wheeled back two days later to finish second, both over the banks fences. Not seen since trailing his field in a Galway handicap hurdle in late October, 12/1 doesn't offer enough meat on his pretty flaky bone.

A better play might be Usuel Smurfer. He didn't look the most genuine at Punchestown last time, lugging in and then resisting Katie Walsh's urgings to go by Auvergnat, but the way he closed on the home turn was eye-catching and he's a 16/1 poke. That was his first run for Alan Fleming and his first for a year and a half, so perhaps he just ran a bit green. Either way, if he brings a similar level of form he could get on the premises.

Sausalito Sunrise is the highest rated British horse in the race but has no form over the fences, while Bless The Wings has been highly consistent in racking up a course and distance string of 3422. The latter is twelve now and will do well to hit the board again.

In summary, I like the chances of Cantlow and Cause Of Causes but the former's price is currently too short (would be interested at 3/1) and the latter's has truncated too much to be played. Auvergnat looks very solid each way, and Usuel Smurfer is the most interesting of the bigger prices.

Most likely winner:
Cantlow or Cause Of Causes

Value play:
Auvergnat 15/2 e/w Coral

Bigger price hopeful:
Usuel Smurfer 18/1 Skybet

bet365, Ladbrokes, Coral 1/4 1-2-3 (most others are 1/5 1-2-3)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

4.50 Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 87yds)

You don't seriously want a tip from me in this, do you? A ream of ex-French and ex-flat four-year-olds, most of whose ability lights have been hidden under bushels, in a big field Cheltenham cauldron. Yuk.

Nobody can possibly know the exact, or even approximate, merit of a majority of the field so anyone finding the winner is more lucky than good. In my opinion. Still, it's the last leg of the placepot, and I did fluke the winner last year. Good old Diego du Charmil.

Divin Bere's form has been boosted by Master Blueyes and, curiously, his rating has not been reassessed in light of that one's Adonis victory. That is his first and only run in Britain to date, having previously raced in France where he was second in a couple of Auteuil three-year-old hurdles. Presumably off for two months since to protect his mark (139), he is an obvious candidate.

Dolos is another ex-Frenchie and though his UK form is a little more patchy, he was thought highly enough of to run in the Grade 1 Finale at Chepstow. A strong pace could be just what this Paul Nicholls-trained runner needs, his handler having won the race the last twice and three times since 2010.

Pick of the Irish is Tony Martin's Long Call, according to the betting at least. Whilst obviously deeply respecting money from such an uber-shrewd yard, I'm really struggling to see the case for this one.

There used to be an angle here in backing the highest rated flat horse. If that's to cop this year it will be Nicky Henderson's Percy Street, a general 25/1 shot. Rated 98 on the level, he's only 124 over hurdles which could allow for some upward expansion. Hendo won this with his second choice, Une Artiste, at 40/1 in 2010 so perhaps lightning can strike twice. Penny plays only if you fancy betting on it!

Impossible race.

One from the top:
Divin Bere 13/2 Betfair Sports

Two from anywhere else:
Dolos 12/1 general
Percy Street 28/1 Skybet

Betbright are 1/4 1-2-3-4-5 (if you can get more than 23p on with them)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

5.30 Champion Bumper (Grade 1, 2m 87yds)

Out of the frying pan and into the fire... If the Fred Winter field have generally declined the chance to show their hand to the 'capper, the Champion Bumper field have generally not progressed sufficiently in public to form a reliable hierarchy.

Historically this was an Irish benefit, the raiding party taking 14 of the first 17 renewals. But, since Cue Card's triumph in 2010, the score is 4-3 to the home team. This is most likely a product of the exorbitant fees British owners are prepared to pay for maiden point winners, but the fact is that things are a lot more equal these days. Thus, simply working through the Irish form, still less searching for Willie Mullins' best fancied runner, is no longer the shortcut it once was.

So let's start with the new vogue for the British players, principle among them perhaps being Western Ryder. Although beaten on his fourth and most recent start in National Hunt races, Warren Greatrex's five-year-old son of Westerner was giving the highly-touted runner up a stone and a half. There's a lot to like about this lad: he's game and he finds plenty off the bridle. Against that is that he's been beaten twice (soft ground both times, unbeaten on quicker) and he's not the kindest traveller. For what it's worth, only one of the 63 horses to finish second last time managed to win, 2/1 favourite, Liberman, way back in 2003. Since then, 42 last day runners-up have tried and failed to claim this prize.

That would count as a knock for Nicky Henderson's Claimantakinforgan too. Only sixth behind Western Ryder in a Listed Ascot bumper, he was then beaten by Black Op, giving that one seven pounds. And the same applies to Imperial Eloquence, in front of Claimantakinforgan when runner up to Western Ryder in that Ascot race.

A less fashionable runner but one boasting an unbeaten hat-trick is Peter Atkinson's Irish Roe. Owned by the trainer, this lass followed up easy wins at Perth and Sedgefield with a dead heat over course and distance in a Listed mares' bumper. That was a steadily run encounter and I expect she'll be better suited by the truer test of the Champion Bumper. Whether she's good enough is another question, but there was a lot to like about the way she forced herself into the photo that last day. She's been absent four months but, in receipt of seven pounds from the boys, she could give a run for your pennies at around 25/1.

So, after all that, the balance of probabilities is that the prize will be won by the Irish, but with which horse?

Carter McKay has long been favourite and is presumed to be the pick of the Willie Mullins pair. In winning his two bumpers to date, at Naas and Leopardstown, he has not impressed me particularly. He didn't seem to find a huge amount off the bridle having travelled much better than the re-opposing runner-up, Bakmaj.

That one has since franked the form, and bolstered his own credentials, with a comfortable five length win on good ground at Leopardstown. He won hands and heels that day, too, so was value for more than the official margin. 16/1, four times the price of Carter McKay, seems fair enough with more to come likely.

The likes of Someday and Fayonagh have won their bumpers impressively, though what the form is worth is hard to know. They both come here as unexposed and potentially top class.

Guesswork really but I'll take a small piece of some of the bigger priced unexposed ones.

Three unexposed at reasonable prices:
Someday 8/1 general
Fayonagh 12/1 Betway
Irish Roe 25/1 general

bet365, Coral, Ladbrokes are paying 1/4 1-2-3-4

Paddy, Skybet are paying 1/5 1-2-3-4

Ladbrokes

MULLINS Money Back: Money back as a free bet if Willie's Carter McKay or Next Destination wins (£25 max)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

And so ends the first half. The second half is usually tougher so hopefully we're a pound or two ahead of the game at this stage. If not, a good winner on Thursday or Friday will paper over plenty of cracks!

Matt

p.s. what are your day two picks?

 

Cheltenham Festival 2017: Day 1 Preview

It's Cheltenham Festival time again, and a seven race Day One card, including the Champion Hurdle, kicks things off. There are three supporting Grade 1's on the opening day and a couple of near impossible handicap puzzles to unravel. It all starts with the...

1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 87yds)

It has been argued that this year's renewal of the Festival opener is a little below normal standards. That may or may not be true, but it is certainly a competitive heat where finding the winner is likely to be financially rewarding. It is also a race in which most bookmakers will offer some sort of concession in a bid to acquire your custom for the week. Let's not disappoint them!

We have a range of angles converging: British and Irish, novice and handicap, not to mention point-to-point and bumper form. As with all of the novice events, and most of the handicaps, it is crucial to consider not just what a horse has achieved to date, but also how much scope it has to improve in the hurly-burly of a Festival race.

The last three winners have all come to the race with an official rating of 155, but that is a level of prior performance seven pounds and more greater than any of the previous nine renewals (assuming 40/1 bomb, Ebaziyan, who didn't have a published mark, wasn't presumed to be better than 148 at that stage).

So we have to acknowledge two things: first, we've been well and truly spoilt in the last three years to have consecutive victors of the class of Vautour, Douvan and Altior; and second, a mid-140's winner is a reversion to the norm rather than a sub-standard year. Interestingly, and controversially, on BHA performance ratings (unpublished figures for individual runs), Melon is 'assumed' to be five pounds clear at the top of their tree on 153. If that's correct, anything else in the race has to improve five pounds more than he does; and, given Melon has raced just once in public over timber, his progression is the most obvious to anticipate.

I don't really know how David Dickinson, two mile handicapper at BHA, got to such a lofty perch on the basis of a single maiden hurdle victory, and I don't agree with the number. But I do respect connections - this will be the first Mullins/Walsh partnership of the week, and only one horse, Altior, has denied them a clean sweep across the last four years.

I expect that bookmakers will try to 'get' Melon on the morning of the race, and it wouldn't surprise me if they went at least 5/1 the field, to small money and for about ten  minutes. My advice then is to keep your powder dry and take some of the best you can get over breakfast on Tuesday.

Neon Wolf, on 148 BHA, is a more trustworthy mark, but it's significantly lower, too. And Harry Fry's novice has long since been presumed a more likely Neptune candidate. His defeat of Elgin in a Grade 2 last time reads especially well even if it was achieved on soft ground, and even if he was receiving three pounds from the second. The Wolf looks smart and progressive, but he's headed for the Neptune.

Ballyandy and Movewiththetimes [now a non-runner] bring strong handicap form to the party, but it is worth noting that horses running here having placed in a handicap last time are 0 from 21, with just two places (My Tent Or Yours and Get Me Out Of Here, at 15/8 and 9/2 respectively). That would be an obvious concern even in a slightly weaker renewal than recent seasons - the winners in those two years were rated 148 and 147 respectively entering the Supreme.

David Pipe's very lightly raced eight-year-old, Moon Racer, has this as one of two Day One targets - the other being the Champion Hurdle. Whether that says more about how highly connections rate their horse, or how lowly they rate the Champion Hurdle field, or how desperate they are to aim at a big pot while their horse is fit, is unclear.

What we do know is that Moon Racer is a Festival Bumper winner, and a Grade 2 winner over hurdles at the track in November. He does go well fresh - he's had to given his injury layoffs - and he clearly has bags of talent. I remember seeing him travel through his UK debut bumper, also at Cheltenham, in breathtakingly easy style and simply bolt clear of a good field.

It's impossible to discount the possibility of him doing that in the Supreme, but the odds available - allied to a rating of just 141 for what he's actually mustered over hurdles - mean he's not for me. [STOP PRESS: Moon Racer goes to the Champion Hurdle, where he's also not for me!]

Willie Mullins has ten of the 26 left in at the six day stage, which includes Bunk Off Early as well as Melon. Much has been made of his breeding - he's by the sprinter, Zebedee, out of a dirt-bred mare - and of the fact that he probably didn't see out the two and a quarter miles of the Grade 1 Deloitte last time, finishing second.

But less has been made of the relative weakness of his maiden hurdle win, and nothing has yet come out of the Deloitte to offer a barometer of its merit. Moreover, I was struck by a comment from Gordon Elliott at the Betfair preview, where he said that he feels the Irish two mile novices could be a moderate lot this year. Unless Melon is as good as the hype, Elliott may be proved correct.

River Wylde fluffed his lines in a Cheltenham bumper at the October meeting, but since that seasonal debut he's three from three over timber, most recently in the Grade 2 Dovecote. There he beat Elgin by half as far as Neon Wolf beat the same rival at Haydock, though one ought not to get too literal about pounds and lengths, particularly in a division where one horlicksed hurdle can be worth four pounds. He's up to 144 for that Dovecote win, which puts him in the shake up.

Historically, the Mullins team have unerringly predicted the hierarchy of their Grade 1 runners. This is no doubt in part due to the adoption of a number of 'schooling hurdles' - private 'races' held amongst the yard's horses - during the season. With Melon and Bunk Off Early at the presumed top of the pecking order, it is difficult to make a robust case for any of the remaining octet. So I won't try.

But there are a couple of British runners still worthy of mention. High Bridge, one of the last remaining vestiges of the Bloomfields operation and now trained by Ben Pauling, was only four lengths behind Ballyandy in the Champion Bumper last season, and is unbeaten in three hurdle starts since. They have all been achieved outside of Graded company, which is a niggle, but of greater concern is his regular pilot, Alex Ferguson, will be unable to claim the seven pounds he has been. High Bridge is a progressive strong-travelling type but he'll have to make a bigger leap forward to overcome the lost concession.

And I want to come back to a horse I've dismissively mentioned twice already, Elgin. It is often felt that if a horse has been beaten then he can't possibly reverse form. Whilst the balance of probabilities support that contention, all other things being equal, all other things are seldom equal.

Elgin is a hard-puller who will be better suited by the first race frenzied gallop of the Supreme. He jumps very well in the main - straight and low - though he did bungle the last at Kempton, which accentuated the winning margin in favour of River Wylde. Importantly, I feel he found more off the bridle than the horse who beat him here and, at 28/1, this 143-rated horse could make the frame. He'd be especially interesting with any firms paying bonus places.

Most likely winner:
Melon (wait for the Tuesday morning concessions)

Big priced possible:
Elgin 28/1 general

Skybet

SKYBET are MONEY BACK AS A FREE BET IF YOU LOSE ON THIS RACE (£20 MAX)

BetVictor

NEW customers: Bet £10, and get a free £2 bet on EVERY race at the Festival (28 of them)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

2.10 Arkle Challenge Trophy (Grade 1, 1m 7f 199yds)

A second novice event, and one of the stars of the week on show. Altior is his name. Last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner has already racked up a fencing four-timer, including when brushing aside 166-rated Fox Norton in open company last time. It's unoriginal to say this but if he jumps round he will win. He is the most likely winner of the whole week, and with any luck it will be a gorgeous spectacle for those of us who love the sport as well as betting on the sport.

But we can bet, too. Each way is an option though I readily prefer the 'without the favourite' market.

The running style of all of Altior, Charbel and especially Some Plan and - if he shows up - Gino Trail is to get on with it: to go as hard and fast as they can from the start. That almost certainly means jumping will come under pressure, and I suspect it also means those trying to go with Altior are likely to pay a heavy price in the later stages.

So let's look for a closer who might just be suited by a test of stamina at the trip. My shortlist in that context is Le Prezien, Flying Angel and Forest Bihan.

Le Prezien has other options, notably the Grand Annual in which he'd carry a light weight and would be close to favouritism. But if he showed up here he might get closest to Altior. His third in the Scilly Isles reads well enough, and he probably didn't quite bring his best to the party there. He does finish his races off well, however, and that will be a key attribute in the 2017 Arkle. 10/1 each way without Altior non-runner no bet (phew) is appealing.

Flying Angel is another to consider after his Grade 2 Kingmaker success last time. That was on heavy but he's perfectly effective on top of the ground as he demonstrated with a fine second in the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle at last year's Festival. The Twiston-Davies yard's current 43 race barren run is a concern, but there's still time for that to turn - especially as they've hit the board with 12 of those 43 (28%).

He's 8/1 in the without market - same concessions as Le Prezien - and is worth the risk if he resists the urge to lay up too handily.

And Forest Bihan has the beating of a number of these on the evidence of his Lightning Novices' Chase victory at Doncaster in late January.  He finished well there so, despite concerns about the very different course consitutions, Brian Ellison's northern raider is not without place claims. The overall level of his hurdles form does cast a doubt over whether he's suddenly improved for fences or has merely mopped up a couple of soft heats. At the prices - Forest Bihan is 6/1 in the without market - he will probably be hard to kick out of the four.

If you want one at a massive price, Knockgraffon might be for you. Whacked by Flying Angel last time, he may have hated the heavy ground - plenty do - and is better judged on his overall level of form. That is probably his ten length trouncing of Sirabad and co in a Newbury novices' chase, a run which elevated his perch to 144. He probably wants a truly run race, which he will definitely get, but he may not be good enough. There will be worse 100/1 shots during the Festival though, and his 25/1 'without Altior' price gives a chance of a 5/1 payoff down to fourth, assuming the champ-elect stands up and gets round.

Most likely winner: Erm, ALTIOR

Suggested wager: Without the favourite -
Forest Bihan 6/1 e/w NRNB bet365

BetVictor

NEW customers: Bet £10, and get a free £2 bet on EVERY race at the Festival (28 of them)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 3m 1f)

Your first 30 days for just £1

The first of the week's handicaps is a high-class staying handicap chase pitching upwardly mobile novices against minor Graded class second season chasers. Throw in a few old favourites and you have a compelling betting challenge.

Over the years, however, I have learned my lesson: I'm just not great at finding winners in these races. So, caveat emptor, with my skeletal observations on the Ultima.

I've backed three: Mall Dini (non-runner, good start), Champers On Ice, and Noble Endeavour.

Champers On Ice was given an 'another day' ride when never nearer than at the finish in a handicap chase at the track on Trials Day. Beaten twenty lengths in sixth there, it was a similarly sympathetic conveyance to the one owner/trainer/jockey condoned on Un Temps Pour Tout a year before. That one was beaten 17 lengths before winning by seven in the Ultima, and Champers has a really good chance if he lines up in this race (has other entries).

I'm on at 25/1 NRNB, but a best price of 12/1 NRNB still seems just about acceptable. Sadly, he's not running here. Sigh.

Noble Endeavour will be the first of many heavily-punted Gordon Elliott horses through the week. He's eleven pounds higher than when winning the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, but Elliott doesn't seem unperturbed by that. I took a bit of 14's but I'd be reluctant to go in now at a top offer of 8/1.

There are loads of credible contenders and my personal punting aim was to have something to cheer without investing much financially in the process.

Others to consider include Holywell (14/1 NRNB bet365), who is five pounds lower than when second in this last year and only three higher than when winning it in 2014; and Singlefarmpayment, who was brought down last time and beat National Hunt Chase fancy, Arpege D'Alene the time before.

One against the field at the current prices:
Holywell 11/1 bet365

bet365, BetVictor, Ladbrokes and Coral all 1/4 odds FIVE places

**

3.30 Champion Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 87yds)

Tuesday's highlight looks a competitive if below par renewal, and in that context I've taken a progressive handicapper against what may be somewhat porous Graded form.

Full details are in my Champion Hurdle preview here.

BetVictor

NEW customers: Bet £10, and get a free £2 bet on EVERY race at the Festival (28 of them)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

Skybet

1/5 odds 1-2-3-4 if you fancy a bigger priced horse and want an extra place

**

4.15 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m3f 200yds)

A confused Mares' Hurdle market had been grappling with the futility of second-guessing Willie Mullins as he willie wont-he's his way up to race day. Mullins had both Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag left in the field and, while Limini had this as her sole engagement, VV Mag still had six entries. But we learned Sunday morning that Mag would race here, alongside Limini, so that's a degree more certainty as well as a change of owner/trainer policy to run their horses against each other at the Festival.

Let's first deal with Limini. She won the inaugural Mares' Novices' Hurdle last season, and comes here off the back of an impressive defeat of Apple's Jade. Taken at face value, that's probably the best piece of form in the race. But, afterwards, even Grandmaster Mullins seemed somewhat perplexed by what he had witnessed. Ruby Walsh has chosen her over Mag, and that seems material: his record of picking the right horse in G1 company is unsurpassed in the current riding ranks.

Apple's Jade is a consistent sort but her record off a layoff of 30 days or more is 222, compared with returning to the track within a month for a record of 1121. Moreover, in spite of a G2 score on heavy on her first Irish start (then for Willie Mullins), Apple's Jade may not have enjoyed the heavy ground last time. What I'm trying to say is that a literal interpretation of that form might be perilous.

Their Irish ratings are a pound apart, Limini shading it on 152, with the pick of the British runners currently pegged at 145. That's Rons Dream, a pound clear of Briery Queen and Lifeboat Mona. Of the trio, it is the last named who has the greatest capacity to step forward from her mark.

Paul Nicholls' second season hurdler has had just five starts over timber, winning the four in which she completed. Her sole defeat was when pulled up over two miles on heavy ground, and she's been a revelation since stepped up in trip, readily accounting for Midnight Sapphire in the Listed race over two and a half miles on her most recent outing.

With Vroum Vroum Mag swerving her five other engagements in favour of this, Mona is a slightly less tempting each way play in what remains a shallow race, away from the Irish trio of mares at least. But, even with Mag showing up here, her form has been a bit patchy: second to Apple's Jade in early December, she then won a weak G1 over three miles before scraping home at Doncaster over an inadequate two miles.

Her Irish rating of 154 over hurdles is the highest in the field, and on the best of her form she ought to be favourite. She's not. She's 5/2 NRNB and has been deserted by Ruby.

Apple's Jade has been weak in the market - now a general 4/1 chance - and she, too, can be called inconsistent. On her day, however, she is very good. Even if it was a perfect storm setup when she won the 4yo Hurdle at Aintree last April, she still won that G1 by 41 lengths! That's a freak effort and her propensity to find one too good is a worry. Still, she'll be very hard to kick out of the exacta and could be played as such.

This is Jer's Girl's trip, but I don't see her being good enough to trouble the Irish mares at the head of the market.

Of the British, aside from Lifeboat Mona, Briery Queen has proven her liking for track, trip and the likely fast ground. She looked readily outpointed by Lifeboat Mona last time, but if it was the steady tempo there which put paid to her chance, then this expected swifter gallop will help. There is a solid chance that she's simply not good enough, but I believe that prospect is over-stated by odds of 50/1.

Most likely winner:
Limini

Speculative Each Way Selection:
Briery Queen 50/1 e/w 1/4 1-2-3 BOG general

Ladbrokes

MONEY BACK AS A FREE BET IF LIMINI OR VROUM VROUM MAG WINS (max £25)

BetVictor

NEW customers: Bet £10, and get a free £2 bet on EVERY race at the Festival (28 of them)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

 

**

4.50 National Hunt Chase (Grade 2, 3m 7f 170yds)

This used to be a terrible betting race. It's now a very good one. It used to be terrible because it was for amateur riders, and they were riding assorted maiden yaks that had never won a race over either hurdles or fences. Can you imagine?! Almost as weak a race as the Mares' Novices' Hurdle. Ahem.

But now it's a very good one because, first, they opened it to previous winners and, second, they more recently removed the winners' weight penalties. So here they all are, off level weights, but anything but level abilities.

In Matt Tombs' excellent Weatherby's Cheltenham Festival Guide, he highlights how that final amendment has changed the shape of the race. It has made the 'four miler' more appealing to connections for whom their penalized horses would otherwise have had to head to the better class, shorter trip, RSA Chase.

The impact here? Between 1997 and 2009, there were winners at 40/1, 33/1 three times and 25/1, and the average win price was 18.625/1. In spite of the 2010 winner, Poker De Sivola, scoring at 14/1 in the first penalty-free running, the average winning SP since 2010 has been 7.18/1. Each of the last six winners has returned in single figures. You'd have to go back all the way to 1992 to find another six winners returned below 10/1.

The other key factor here is jockeyship. It's an amateur riders' race, and a handful of these guys (and girls) are pro wolves masquerading as corinthian sheep. A far bigger number are hapless lambs aspiring to be corinthian sheep. Moreover, there are no allowances for the less experienced.

Hardly surprising then that connections of the top fancies seek out the services of the top riders. Since 2010, Katie Walsh, the late JT McNamara, in whose honour this race is now run, Derek O'Connor (twice), Jamie Codd and Patrick Mullins have claimed the major spoils. Expect one of them to ride the winner again this year.

Put another way, since 2010, Codd has been in the frame on four occasions (from six rides), Katie Walsh has three places from five starts, and Nina Carberry is three from seven. Ignoring the absent Nina Carberry, this is a good place to start.

Jamie Codd has been confirmed to ride Edwulf. Joseph O'Brien's eight-year-old son of Kayf Tara is seven pounds clear on official ratings and top on Racing Post figures too. Those numbers attest to his level of ability but there are some serious questions still to answer. Chief amongst them may be, 'will he get round?', given Edwulf has fallen or unseated in four of his nine races over obstacles thus far.

The next question on my list would be 'how will he cope with quick ground?', this chap only having raced on going with the words 'soft' or 'heavy' in the description since his heavy debut defeat to Champers On Ice in a Punchestown Festival bumper two years ago. Indeed on going quicker than soft, his form reads 73U, compared to a string on deeper turf of F1F21F1.

And finally, there is a distance question still to answer. He's raced at or around three miles twice, winning and finishing second, but has largely lined up over shorter. Of course, he may improve for the additional mile - both sides of his pedigree offer hope to that end - but he has still to prove it on the track. At 6/1 those are some big questions to answer.

A Genie In Abottle is about the same price and he too has appeared to fare best on muddy terrain. His overall form of 31163212 decomposes to soft/heavy form of 3111 and quicker ground form of 6322. Hmm. He was thumped in the G1 three mile novice hurdle at the Punchestown Festival last season and he too has too much to prove at the price.

Champers On Ice has handicap entries too, but would be a big danger if lining up here. He seems to take some time to warm up but has plenty of talent once hitting stride, and the ground is no problem for a horse who was a close third in the Albert Bartlett last year on similar underfoot. Fellow British runner, Beware The Bear, also has claims though does have stamina to prove, having looked to be towards the end of his tether last time when repelling the late rally of the re-opposing Aurillac, giving that one eight pounds and a length beating. The 'bear has won four on the spin and been freshened up ahead of this quest.

Aurillac is interesting, especially as a 40/1 shot. He's been crying out for more of a trip, finishing well the last thrice at up to three miles. Stoutly bred and expected to go on fast ground, the disparity between his odds and Beware The Bear's is much too wide: if BTB is a 9/1 shot, Aurillac should be no bigger than 16's. He was outpaced from the turn in at Newbury and closed four of the five lengths between himself and the The Bear from the back of the last.

He was unlucky when beaten the same margin off levels against Belami Des Pictons, when having to switch on the run in, that one now rated 148 having won easily twice since. Aurillac was wisely pulled up in desperately heavy ground (standing water aplenty) heat at Hereford six weeks ago and comes here a fresh horse. I'm quite excited about his chance relative to his price.

Two Gigginstown horses with prospects are Tiger Roll and Marinero. The former won the Triumph Hurdle in 2014, a curious notch on the CV of an aspirant National Hunt Chase winner, but then Red Rum won a two year old sprint back in the day...

He's acquired something of a cult following over the years as a thinker (pronounced, with a t'ick Oirish accent, as t'inker). Having won the Munster National (three miles) in October off a feather weight, he ran a fair third a fortnight later at Cheltenham over the same trip. I just can't really see him getting home over the extra mile here even if he consents to show his appealing side.

Marinero on the other hand is interesting. The quicker the turf the better for this son of Presenting out of an Oscar mare. He was closest to Thistlecrack in a novice chase here at the Open meeting and is one of the most experienced in the field, with nine chase starts to his name. Off the track four months since is a bit of a worry, mitigated by his record after two months or more away of 231401. He looks a slice of value.

Plenty with something to prove, then, and while I respect the chances at the top of the market, especially those ridden by the top boys and girls, I'm going to take two big priced flyers against the field...

 

Tentative selection:
Champers On Ice 8/1 e/w 1/4 1-2-3-4 Coral, bet365, Ladbrokes

SHOP AROUND for place concessions! Coral are also money back as a free bet on fallers in this race (see below).

bet365, Ladbrokes, Coral and Racebets all 1/4 1-2-3-4

BetVictor

NEW customers: Bet £10, and get a free £2 bet on EVERY race at the Festival (28 of them)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

5.30 Novices' Handicap Chase (Listed, 2m 4f 78yds)

The last of seven races on day one, and a trappy heat to be getting out in. It's become a very tight handicap in terms of the weight spread, with just four pounds covering the twenty runners last year. 65 of the 79 horses to run in the last four years carried 11-05 or more, and they accounted for all bar one of the 16 available places and all of the winners. Indeed the lowest winning weight in the last five years was 11-07. That latter fact is of little utility, even if the weight spread is slightly greater than last year.

In spite of the duplicity and chicanery that seem to accompany achieving the requisite weight to stand a chance of winning the Novices' Handicap Chase, last day winners have a really good record. Specifically, half of the dozen winners to date also won their prior start, and another three were second last time. That's from 40% and 54% respectively of the runners.

Nine-year-old Ballyalton won the race last year, having been 2nd in the Neptune two seasons prior, but all bar one of the previous eleven winners were aged seven or younger (8yo Copper Bleu the other exception). Whilst on the face of it that looks a strong stat, a glance at the place data suggests a note of caution should be struck.

Horses aged five to seven accounted for two-thirds of the runners and five-sixths of the winners... but only 65% (just less than two-thirds) of the placed horses. In other words, the young guns may be unsustainably over-performing in win terms, certainly against numerical representation.

I've probably already written too much about a race in which I only have one even remotely robust opinion, which is this: Its'afreebee looks the beneficiary of a piece of lenient handicapping.

Third in the Neptune last year, behind JLT favourite, Yorkhill, and Champion Hurdle favourite, Yanworth, he's been campaigned with this in mind since. Twice a winner over fences already, including when beating former World Hurdle winner, Cole Harden, his mark elevated to 144, thus eliminating him from this 0-140 handicap.

But a 'disappointing' last time out effort, just ten days after running in a Grade 2 behind two smart novices, resulted in a depreciation of his rating by four pounds, and a subsequent further pound downgrade for the form not working out. So here we are: Dan Skelton's fella skulks into consideration off a perch of 139, two pounds lower than he was rated when lining up for the Neptune.

He should get the trip - has won over it, but not in a big field on fast ground - and has the class. I backed him at 20/1 and had a bit more at 16/1. He's still available at 12/1 in a place, and is a general 10/1 chance. If you can get the 12's it's worth it. Otherwise I'd be sniffing around for an extra place concession and take my chance with the price.

It should be said that Its'afreebee is not even his trainer's first market choice in the race, that honour currently lying with Value At Risk. That one, an eight-year-old, fell on his first two starts in an abortive novice campaign last season, but managed to break his maiden over fences last time out. He was rated 144 when well beaten in fifth in the 2015 Albert Bartlett and has something to prove - not least his jumping - over the bigger obstacles.

On the plus side, he was a Grade 2 winner over hurdles this time last year. One the minus side, only two winners of ANY Cheltenham Festival handicap since 2004 have been off for as long as Value At Risk's 140 days, from over 100 to have tried.

Foxtail Hill appeals as a favourite to oppose, his win on Trials Day probably exposing him more than some of his rivals here. While his progressive profile may mitigate for that somewhat, the stables' one winner from 47 runners in the last month is a worry (30% place strike rate less so).

Hammersly Lake is another (of many) to consider in a typically open race, the return to a big field expected to suit. His form ties in well with the likes of Top Notch (rated 152, beaten a length by the JLT second favourite getting seven pounds) and Le Prezien (beaten four lengths off levels on soft ground).

Hopeful suggestion:
Its'afreebee 9/1 general (Coral money back on fallers in this race, see below)

Racebets

The only firm I can see going 1/4 1-2-3-4-FIVE places are Racebets

BetVictor

NEW customers: Bet £10, and get a free £2 bet on EVERY race at the Festival (28 of them)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

And that's day one of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival. Regardless of your bottom line by quarter-to-six Tuesday evening, don't get too up or down. 75% of the action remains, ample time to retrieve a poor first day or destroy a good one!

Matt

p.s. what are your best bets of day one? Leave a comment and let us all know...

Queen Mother Champion Chase 2017 Preview: Trends, Form, Pace, Tips

Day Two's Cheltenham Festival highlight is the Champion Chase, the ultimate test of jumping with speed and accuracy. It is always one of the most thrilling spectacles of the whole week and, this year, we have the mighty Douvan to look forward to.

From a betting perspective, we need ask whether he Douvan can be beaten and, if not, how else we might go about snaffling some value (assuming you don't believe 1/3 is value or, more likely, have don't enough gold bullion bars to cash in at those odds)?

Champion Chase 2017 Trends

We begin with some history-pokery and a sniff around any profile angles that might be lurking, using the past 19 renewals, covering 20 years (abandoned in 2001).

Age

This is one of those stats around which one needs to be very careful. You may read that horses aged eight and up have had the best of it but, whilst in the simplest sense that may be true, the young bucks have actually held sway.

So, yes, 13 of the 19 (68%) Champion Chase winners since 1997 were aged eight or older. But they accounted for 81% of the runners, and only 75% of the places. In other words, they were doing a bit less than might numerically have been expected.

Compare that with the five- to seven-year-olds. This age group won six Champion Chases (32%) in the last two decades, from just 19% of the runners. And they took out a quarter of the places, too, from that less-than-a-fifth of those going to post.

With no five- or six-year-olds in the entries this season, the seven-year-olds still engaged (though possibly not by tomorrow, Thursday 9th March) are Douvan, Altior, Traffic Fluide, Fox Norton, L'Ami Serge and Alisier d'Irlande.

 

Breeding

One interesting element of those younger winners is that four of the five winners aged seven or less were French-bred. In fact, eight of the last 19 winners - 42% - originated in France from just 31% of the runners. Irish-bred horses also have a solid record: eight wins - still 42% - from 45% of the runners.

Aside from a slight tendency towards the French-bred horses, there is not much else to note.

 

Last Time Out

Last day winners have a statistical dominance that is obvious. For the record, all bar five Champion Chase winners in the last twenty years won their prior start. That's 74% of the winners (and 51% of the placers) from 36% of the runners.

Those finishing second, third or fourth have made the frame in direct proportion to their runner numbers, but what is of mild interest is that of the eight horses to line up having fallen or unseated last time, two won and another two made the frame. Indeed, while three of them fell again, the full form string for last day tumblers is 1F3F14F2, a sequence that includes 5/1 and 9/1 winners; placed efforts at 16/1 and 14/1; and a fourth placed 33/1 shot.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Horses that are most effective in two mile chases almost necessarily take risks at their fences. So perhaps we should be more forgiving, especially when the market seems to have a blind spot in relation to such runners. The sample size is small and, in any case, the chances of beating Douvan are slim, but perhaps we might have a second glance at 2014 winner, Sire De Grugy, in spite of his advancing years.

 

Layoff

Then again, perhaps not. Horses returning after a break of between one and two months have easily the best record. They've claimed 84% of the wins, and 75% of the places, from 59% of the runners.

Those returning within a month have made the frame less than half as often as might have been numerically expected; while those absent for two months or more have marginally under-performed.

It's hardly a knockout blow for any horse's chance but the right combination of fresh and fit looks advantageous, and counts against Sire De Grugy, God's Own and Alisier d'Irlande.

 

Champion Chase 2017 Form Preview

What to 'dou' with Douvan? He has a commanding edge over this field in the presumed absence of Altior and Un De Sceaux, and is unbeaten in his last fourteen starts since a debut second back three years ago.

He's nine from nine over fences, including six Grade 1's, and he seems unfussed by the state of the turf. Douvan's dominance is somewhat accentuated by what looks a pretty shallow division this term, with Fox Norton a tenuous 'best of the rest'.

Formerly with Nick Williams and Neil Mulholland, Colin Tizzard's second season chaser has seemed a trifle overblown to my eye: victories over the likes of Dormello Mo and 140-rated sorts in a handicap chase are not the stuff of Champion Chase second favouritism. And I can't help but feel his official rating is inflated, a comprehensive doing by Altior (received five pounds, could have given a stone) last time doing nothing to dispel the notion.

I simply don't believe that Fox Norton is worth a rating of 166.

God's Own is famously a 'spring horse', winning at the Punchestown Festival in the past two seasons, and doubling up last term with a victory at Aintree (at odds of 10/1 and 9/1, no less). He was eight lengths behind the resurgent Sprinter Sacre in the 2016 Champion Chase, a distance which was only good enough for fourth. Tom George's nine-year-old ought to again get close to the frame if taking in this rather than the Ryanair, and I prefer his 'been there, done it' CV - in spite of a preference for two and a half miles - to Fox Norton's flattered (in my view) formbook page.

Could Vroum Vroum Mag show up here? She might, but her form at two miles in the mares' division is not good enough to entertain seriously in a Champion Chase.

Uxizandre is considered more likely for the Ryanair, a race he won two seasons ago before injury kept him off the track until last month. There he picked up the pieces behind Un De Sceaux, form that looks good enough to make the Champion Chase frame in a very weak year. He loves Cheltenham and is 11/2 non-runner no bet, without Douvan.

And what of Special Tiara? He's run terrific races to be third in the last two Champion Chases, both times of layoffs since Christmas, whereas this time he ran a shocker in late January here in the re-routed Clarence House Chase. He's 6/1 in the 'without Douvan' market which makes more appeal than plenty of his rivals, without compelling this scribe to reach for his wallet.

The 2014 Champion Chaser, Sire De Grugy, has had a quietly pleasing season in many respects. Ignoring an early fall on his most recent outing, he'd previously won a valuable handicap off a mark of 160 carrying top weight before running a length second to Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek. It seems, however, that connections will rough him off for the season now, missing all of the spring festivals.

Down, down the lists we go, in search of a faintly interesting alternative to Douvan. The truth is there are none, but I want to play the 'without' market so the quest continues.

Garde La Victoire has ability but can't jump and is probably seven pounds south of what is needed to hit the board, while The Game Changer has lost all of his last ten races. L'Ami Serge has been hurdling so must be doubtful here and, in any case, he was nearly lapped by Camping Ground last time. His best chasing form is not up to the job.

Help. Where have all the credible contenders gone? Alisier d'Irlande beat a weak Grade 3 field last time on heavy ground, having failed to pass a rival in his two previous races; and Simply Ned hasn't won since October 2015 when taking a Class 2 handicap at Kelso.

Tom George has a second potential string to his bow in Sir Valentino. Beaten far enough in a handicap hurdle on his only Cheltenham visit, he has progressed markedly in the last fifteen months, from a rating of 132 to 157. Barring one shocker, when stretching out to 2m6f at Market Rasen in the summer, the eight-year-old has been consistent and - unlike many in the list - has actually won a couple of races.

Beaten five lengths in the Tingle Creek, he was the finisher that day and, over a slightly longer trip on a stiffer track, he might again finish off his race better than most.

I loved Traffic Fluide last season, and thought he was a real player for Champion Chase honours on the back of a big run in the 2016 Clarence House. But he got injured before Cheltenham, and was not seen again until two last placed finishes a week apart in mid-February. He's impossible to fancy off the back of that preparation.

Phew, what a motley crew.

 

Champion Chase 2017 Pace Map

...will be added after the five day declaration stage.

 

Champion Chase 2017 Tips

This is 'bar a fall' territory for DOUVAN. He's a winning machine pitted against serial losers. It's hardly fair and, in truth, it won't be a matter of watching a superstar imperiously stroll to victory but, rather, a Grade 1 star trampling all over a field of handicappers.

I'm not in the habit of tipping, or backing, 1/3 shots but I love the 'without' markets. With non-runner no bet on my side, I definitely want a bit of Uxizandre each way at 11/2.

And, much more speculatively, I think Sir Valentino is another who could get rolling late in the play to grab some place money. 8/1 with the same NRNB concession seems fair enough. All the more so if Uxi goes to the Ryanair.

0.5 pts e/w Uxizandre w/o Douvan 11/2 bet365 NRNB

0.5 pts e/w Sir Valentino w/o Douvan 8/1 bet365 NRNB

 

Stayers’ Hurdle 2017 Preview: Trends, Pace, Form, Tips

One of Thursday's Cheltenham Festival highlights, the Stayers' Hurdle, has a lop-sided look to it, at first glance at least. Reverting to its traditional nomenclature after a spell in the World Hurdle wilderness, the Stayers' is the rightful championship test of the three mile hurdling division. Multiple winners abound with the likes of Baracouda, Inglis Drever, and the peerless Big Buck's accruing nine trophies between them since 2002.

Last year was Thistlecrack's but his graduation to the chasing ranks, and unfortunate subsequent injury, means it will be left to 2015 champ, Cole Harden, to bid to uphold the trend for repeat victories.

Stayers' Hurdle 2017 Trends

Aside from the repeat factor, what other reliable trends are there to assist in whittling what could be a fair field numerically?

Age

Although five-year-olds are 0 from 18 since 1997 (20 years, 19 renewals - abandoned in 2001), they have taken out six podium finishes in that time. Should either of Footpad or Apple's Jade land here, it won't be age that gets them beaten.

At the opposite end of the maturity scale, horses aged in double digits are 0 from 28, with just four places to their collective names. That's not the best news if you like Clondaw Warrior or Zarkandar.

And nine-year-olds bear closer scrutiny, too. Although, on the face of it, three winners from 32 runners is respectable, it may be noteworthy that the trio included Inglis Drever and Big Buck's, winning for the third and fourth time respectively. The sole, or should I say sol, other nine-year-old winner was Solwhit in 2013.

Seven- and eight-year-olds win largely in line with numerical representation, but six-year-olds have done well. Of the 55 to rock up here since 1997, six have won and twenty placed. That's 32% of the winners and 35% of the placed horses, from just 22% of the runners. That ought to cheer fans of Lil Rockerfeller, Whiteout and Agrapart should any of them confirm their attendance.

 

Last Time Out

You simply have to have run well last time out, according to the evidence of the past two decades. Of the 67 horses (28%) to have finished outside the top four on their prior start, none won and just two (3.5%) placed.

Winners the last day accounted for 58% of the champions and the exact same percentage of Stayers' Hurdle placed finishes, from just 31.5% of the runners. And those who finished second last time out slightly outperformed the representation (26% winners, 28% places, from 23% runners), yielding a small profit at SP (+7.25).

The key thing here is that those to have run poorly last time have very little chance of turning it around on the big day. Although this is neither's first choice engagement, Nichols Canyon and More Of That both failed to complete last time.

 

Layoff

90% of Stayers' Hurdle runners last raced between 16 and 90 days ago. That includes all 19 winners since 1997, and 56 of the 57 placed horses. Only Wicklow Brave falls outside the range this term.

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It may be worth noting that those to have been rested less than a month have won just four from 93 starts, 14 places. That's 21% wins, 23% places, from 34% of the runners. Compare that with those rested between one and three months: 15 wins (79%), 43 places (75%), from just 56% of the runners.

An optimally rested - one to three months - runner looks a positive.

 

Summary

From a historical perspective, then, one might look for a horse aged six to nine, which ran first or second last time and has been rested between one and three months. That brings in most of the top of the market and, thus, is of little utility. And it's an hour of my life I won't get back!

 

Stayers' Hurdle 2017 Form Preview

Poor Helen Nelmes. She's not had a winner since 24th June 2014, and now this. The Dorset handler, who was responsible for taking Unowhatimeanharry up to a mark of 127 through his first 13 starts has had to watch, with a curious mixture of pride and embarrassment no doubt, as Harry Fry has won eight races on the trot with her former inmate. It's enough to make you give the game up.

Fry acquired 'harry as a seven-year-old so it's difficult even to suggest the horse was too immature to step forward under his previous trainer's tutelage. In any case, let's not be overly harsh and, instead, judge the 5/4 favourite on his merits for the race.

Eight straight wins is a good start. During that time, he's risen through the ranks of racing club handicapper to JP McManus-owned Grade 1 beast. (It is to be hoped that Mrs Nelmes agreed a sell-on clause). That progressive sequence includes four wins at Cheltenham, one of them in the Festival, in last year's Albert Bartlett.

But here's a thing: the five Albert Bartlett winners to contest the Stayers' Hurdle have all been beaten. Of course, it is unfair to visit the iniquity of the potato race fathers onto its sons, to butcher the Good Book, and we should judge 'harry on the totality of his recent form. That suggests he's moved forward considerably since his spuds triumph, wrapping an arm around the Long Distance, Long Walk and Cleeve Hurdles since.

It is very hard to see any horse that Unowhatimeanharry has beaten this season reversing form. Ballyoptic got to within six lengths on soft ground, but has fallen and been beaten ten lengths by him since. Moreover, he looks a clumsy jumper and may prefer soft ground. Certainly not for me, thank you.

Cole Harden ran well in defeat in the Cleeve, where he'd have hated the ground, and he may have had his nth wind op since (more unsporting conjecture in a preview littered with such uncharacteristic bitch swipes). But he was no closer than 31 lengths to the Thistlecracker in last year's renewal, and an abandoned chasing campaign leaves this fellow in no man's land. He may be capable of making the frame if the ground dries out and if he can control the early fractions, but he's not especially appealing at 9/1, nor even in the 'without' market at 5/1.

The likes of Un Temps Pour Tout, Zarkandar and, to a lesser extent, Lil Rockerfeller (if he can overcome a recent setback), have been put firmly in their places, so it may be that the opposition route into the race is via Ireland.

The first thing to say is that the Irish have a moderate record in the Stayers' Hurdle. Solwhit in 2013 was the first Irish winner since the much-loved Dorans Pride in 1995, though they average only around three runners per season. With that in mind, then, we need to be looking for a genuinely smart horse from across the Irish Sea if we're to entertain the notion of the raiding party adding to their sparse pickings in recent times.

Shaneshill is a consistent type, but he's been consistently beaten - just three wins in a twelve race hurdling career - and may never break through the 160 barrier ratings-wise. Vroum Vroum Mag's cloak of invincibility has been somewhat trodden upon this season, first by a short head defeat to Apple's Jade - that one subsequently outpointed by Limini - and most recently with a labour-intensive narrow verdict over a 140 horse.

It might be fair to say that she's not been herself, but if that's the case it becomes a leap of faith that she has returned to herself in time for this. Even if she has, she's pegged around 155, though the mares' seven pound allowance would move her to the low 160's. That would certainly make her competitive but she's no better than 7/1 with those wellbeing reservations still to quash.

I don't expect either of Yanworth or Nichols Canyon to run in this, but if the former did show, he'd be very interesting. In the same ownership as Unowhatimeanharry, however, probably requires that one to bypass the race in order for Yanworth to secure his ticket.

A third horse in the same ownership, and a likely runner, is Jezki. Jessica Harrington's nine-year-old has had injury problems in recent seasons, but he's a class animal on his day. Indeed, he has eight Grade 1 victories to his name. That's no hollow palmarès either: he was the Champion Hurdler in 2014, and went on to beat a near-peak Hurricane Fly again at Punchestown next time; he won the 2m4f Aintree Hurdle in 2015, by 13 lengths from Rock On Ruby; and he won the 2015 Punchestown World Series Hurdle over three miles.

Not seen for almost two years after that, Jezki reappeared in January to comfortably account for 149-rated Renneti, albeit in receipt of six pounds. On his only subsequent outing, he was second to Tombstone in the Red Mills Hurdle, over two miles on heavy ground. Those conditions are very different to three miles on top of the ground at Cheltenham, and there's no doubt Mrs Harrington will have left a bit to work on in the intervening four weeks.

The reality is that it is a bit of a leap of faith with Jezki. Is he as good as he was? He was a legitimate card-carrying member of the 169 club over two miles. With a record on good to soft or quicker of 18111141 and at two and a half miles and beyond of 111, he's surely the wrong price at 10/1 in a place.

Now, true, he could have regressed since his injury, and true, his form in two runs this year is no better than 150ish. But there are reasons to believe he can, and will, step forward from those prep races. The Irish handicapper reacted to Jezki's defeat at the hooves of Tombstone by dropping him seven pounds to 160. That would still give him solid claims.

Two more Irish contenders are Clondaw Warrior and Snow Falcon. Of the pair, I marginally prefer the latter, but he's found it hard enough to win over hurdles. Meanwhile, back 'home', Camping Ground produced an extraordinary performance in running away with the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell in a fast time. Gary Moore's inheritance from the (presumed) unfortunate Robert Walford looks absolutely tailor-made for the Aintree Hurdle over 2m4f and was getting to the end of his rope at Fonters.

 

Stayers' Hurdle 2017 Pace Map

 

Stayers' Hurdle 2017 Tips

You don't need to be Einstein, or even Pittsburgh Phil, to know that Unowhatimeanharry is a cast-iron favourite. But there remains a niggling doubt that he's lorded it over a shallow domestic division this season. If that is correct, there may be merit in taking a chance on an unrelated formline: that of JEZKI.

Jessica Harrington's nine-year-old has more class than any runner in the field, and on 2015 form would, I think, be favourite. The fact that he's as big as 10/1 tells plenty about the size of the leap we're making but, on a sound surface, I can see him running a blinder. He's proven on the track, has the mix of speed and stamina required for this challenge and, I suspect, will be roughly half his current odds on the day.

But I do fear 'harry. So, rather than back Jezki each way, let's also take him in the 'without the favourite' market. He's a top priced 4/1 there, because the 10/1 'all in' book (Hills) doesn't have a 'without' book; so you could take the risk and wait for more firms to price up 'without'. I'll take what's there now, and see how we go next Thursday.

1pt win Jezki 10/1 Hills (NR Insurance concession)

1pt win Jezki without Unowhatimeanharry 4/1 Betfair Sports NRNB

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017 Preview: Trends, Pace, Form, Tips

The headline race of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival is Friday's Gold Cup, a Grade 1 steeplechase run over just shy of three miles and three furlongs. Like other flagship events this term, the line up will be missing some key names; and, like other flagship events this term, that only serves to make it a more compelling wagering proposition.

The absence of the last two winners, Don Cossack and Coneygree, as well as the heir apparent novice, Thistlecrack, has weakened the quality, but the upshot is that we are likely to see a bigger field and a more competitive contest.

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017 Trends

Twenty years of evidence means 19 renewals, excluding 2001 when the race was cancelled due to the foot and mouth outbreak.

Age

While youth doesn't seem to be any barrier to success - six and seven year olds have won five (26%) and placed 15 (26%) times from just 16.5% of the runners - veteran status has been an impediment. Indeed, the old guard - those aged ten and above - are 1 from 81 (10 places), which equates to 5% of the winners, 17.5% of the places, from 30% of the runners.

Moreover, those aged 11+ are 0 from 33, 4 places (7% of the places from 12.5% of the runners).

Horses aged eight and nine have performed a touch better than numerical representation, though not quite as well as the youngest group.

The key takeaway is probably that those aged eleven and up really do have a mountain to climb, which is a very bad start if you're a Cue Card fan.

An interesting snippet is that three of the four old boys to make the frame in the last two decades were trained by Paul Nicholls (Denman, Kauto Star and See More Business - all of them previous Gold Cup winners). Interesting, maybe, but of no use whatsoever in the context of this year's race!

At the precocious end of the spectrum, Bristol De Mai is the sole six-year-old in the line up, and may be joined by seven-year-olds, Native River, Sizing John and Minella Rocco.

 

Layoff

Interesting. Although those rested between one and two months have won seven of the last 19 renewals, that is significantly below numerical representation. Specifically, those off 31-60 days have won 37% of the Gold Cups from 49% of the runners.

Those absent between two and three months have fared better: ten wins (53%) from just 16.5% of the runners; and more than a quarter of the places to boot.

This could be a positive for the likes of Djakadam, Outlander, and Zabana (all absent since the Lexus Chase, 79 days prior to Gold Cup Friday).

 

Last Time Out

Last day winners have the usual excellent record in Cheltenham Festival races. In this case, they have claimed 63% of the wins and 51% of the places from 33% of the runners. Sadly, but predictably, blindly following them would have produced heavy losses.

Those running second last time appear to have been over-estimated by the market, their two winners in the past two decades (10.5% of the wins) and eight places (14%) coming from 20% of the runners.

The non-completions group have placed 9% of the time from 10% of the runners (one winner, Cool Dawn in 1998, who pulled up on his previous outing), so should not be totally discounted. That's a ray of hope if you're a fan of either of the McManus pair, More Of That and Minella Rocco.

Horses coming out of Grade 1 competition have won 56% of the Gold Cups in the last twenty years, from 33% of the runners; while those exiting Grade 2 contests claimed 39% of the victories from 34% of the runners. Those who competed at a lower level last time represented 33% of all Gold Cup runners, but claimed just one of the 19 available Cups (seven places, 12.5%).

In summary, then, nothing surprising to report: look to last time out winners and those exiting Grade 1 or Grade 2 company.

 

Trends Summary

Sticking with the bleedin' obvious has been a good Gold Cup wagering strategy down the years.

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Last time out winners aged nine or younger exiting Grade 1 or 2 company have bagged 11 Gold Cups from 46 runners for a tiny profit of 1.86 points. That's 61% of the wins from 17.5% of the runners.

Focusing only on those priced 8/1 or shorter would reduce the number of bets to 31 and thus the profit to 16.86, retaining all of the winners.

Horses matching those somewhat 'boring' criteria are Native River (definitely), and Outlander and Sizing John (possibly, depending on their odds on the day).

 

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017 Form Preview

No Thistlecrack. No Don Cossack. No Coneygree. But a really fascinating, and still potentially high class, contest nevertheless.

Three vie for favouritism - the Colin Tizzard-trained pair of Cue Card and Native River, and Djakadam - but surely the first-named is going to drift on the day as cold-blooded acumen takes hold over sentimentalism with regards to the eleven-year-old Cheltenham perennial.

Let's begin with Cue Card. Winner of the Champion Bumper as a four-year-old, he has been back to the Festival four times since, running second in Sprinter Sacre's 2012 Arkle and winning the 2013 Ryanair Chase.

Last year, he was the principle danger to Don Cossack when taking a tumble three from the finish. It's very hard to say whether he'd have won, or even gone close, that day because it is only after his point of departure that the deepest demands are made on stamina reserves.

Although Cue Card has won over three miles on heavy ground - including in impressive fashion on his seasonal debut in the Betfair Chase at Haydock - there remains, for me, a slight stamina question mark. It is also arguable that his very best form has come on flatter tracks than Cheltenham's Möbius Strip configuration.

I realise it's uncharitable to suggest it, but I think Cue Card is lay material. He would do fantastically well to make the frame and, if he could win, it would be the most tremendous story for the sport. But it would cost this scribe's wallet a penny or two.

From the same stable hails the impressive Native River. Resembling Denman in some respects, this is a barreling elephant of a horse - a mobile fortress - that has such an incredibly attritional meter to his gallop he simply wears his rivals down. He did it in the Hennessy, he did it in the Welsh National (under top weight) and he did it in the Denman Chase last month, albeit with more finesse on the latter occasion.

Stamina is largely assured but there may be a small niggle about his affection for the course: he was a well beaten ninth in the 2015 Albert Bartlett and, while he stuck on commendably in last year's National Hunt Chase over four miles, he was error-strewn and under pressure from an early stage.

Native River does seem to have two ways of running. The National Hunt Chase huff and puff Mr Hyde-style is unlikely to give him a chance to win, but the strong-travelling Doctor Jekyll version will prove hard to beat.

The trio at the head of the market are concluded by Willie Mullins' Djakadam. Runner up the last twice, he is still only eight years old and has, according to his trainer, had a much smoother preparation for this year's race. Although beaten four lengths by Don Cossack last year, there was ten and more back to the rest, and that form may already be good enough to win this season's Gold Cup.

So far this winter, Djakadam has had two runs, beating Outlander over two and a half miles in the John Durkan before running third to the same rival in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown in late December. He will doubtless be primed for the big day next week.

It is hard to argue that there should be much between Outlander and Djakadam on those two most recent outings. Former stablemates at Mullins' Closutton yard before Gigginstown boss, Michael O'Leary, removed all of his horses from that stable, Outlander appears to have improved more than a stone for the change of scenery and, of course, for his greater maturity.

Outlander's Lexus Chase win was only his third run at three miles or more, and he looks quite progressive at staying trips. A close second to Martello Tower in a tactical three-horse novice hurdle was franked when his vanquisher there won the Albert Bartlett two runs later, and on his only other staying attempt, Outlander was a close second in the Punchestown Champion Novices' Chase.

One reservation, aside from whether he's quite good enough yet, is that his best form does seem to be with some juice in the turf. With a wettish week forecast, he has a chance of getting his conditions, but lacks Djakadam's ground agnosticism.

In another lifetime, we'd surely be lauding Sizing John as a superstar of the game. But for a certain Douvan, he'd have won eleven of his last fourteen races, six of them in Grade 1 company. The reality is somewhat different, with six wins, two of them Grade 1's, in that fourteen race sequence.

That's still a respectable tally and he seems to have matured into a high 160's chaser in his second season hedgehopping. But the big question mark here is his stamina. A winner over three miles on his most recent run, that was a tactical affair that developed into a sprint up to and after the last. As a two-miler stretching out, Sizing John was best placed to take advantage of how things unfolded.

If he has stamina to prove, he has yet to demonstrate that he definitely doesn't stay. His only other effort beyond an extended two miles was at the Aintree Festival (2m4f) where he patently under-performed in the manner of a horse over the top. That possibility was lent credence when he was again whacked at Punchestown a few weeks later.

More conservatively campaigned this season, he wasn't stopping in the Irish Gold Cup, but his price has halved from immediate post-race quotes of 20/1, and now fails to adequately accommodate the staying power issue.

Behind him that day were a clutch of Gold Cup aspirants, including Don Poli, More Of That, Minella Rocco and Road To Riches. More Of That might be the most promising of that bunch, the former World Hurdle winner showing more zest than since last year's RSA Chase, where he was an eight length third.

The RSA can ruin a good horse and, while it is to be hoped that is not the case with More Of That, the evidence thus far suggests, sadly, that it may be. He may have been flattered by his proximity before decanting Mark Walsh at the last and, again, 20/1 has very little leeway.

Minella Rocco also came down in the Irish Gold Cup, his exit much earlier, and he's failed to get round in his last two starts. That makes for unattractive wagering territory at around 25/1 unless you can get a faller refund concession. If you can, and if they went at it hard from an early stage, his victory in last year's National Hunt Chase showed he stays very well and can handle these undulations (notwithstanding that it was on the 'other' course here).

Cult hero, Don Poli, is slower than treacle and hasn't won since the heavy ground Lexus of 2015. If the monsoons arrived, he'd have a chance. That remains unlikely making 'Done Slowly' a pass for me.

And what to make of Road To Riches? He was a close third in the 2015 Gold Cup, just behind Djakadam; and filled the same placing in last year's Ryanair Chase. Since then he's clunked and flunked a half dozen times, failing to win and getting heavily beaten the last twice. Obviously that is unexciting form going into a race like this - assuming he does go - but his Festival performances have been very good. On his best form he could sneak into the frame, but it looks as though he's seriously regressive now.

Dodging the Irish Gold Cup and instead bagging the Thyestes Chase under a big weight was Champagne West. Quietly fancied for Festival success last year when trained by Philip Hobbs, he seemed too speculative a conveyance, falling and pulling up twice each, the last of which was a 'P' in the 2016 Ryanair Chase.

Since being rehomed with Henry de Bromhead, himself a participant in the ownership merry-go-round of last autumn, Champagne West has proved a far more assured leaper, winning his last two. The Thyestes in particular was impressive: it's a tough race to win and one which was the springboard for Djakadam's close second to Coneygree in the 2015 Gold Cup.

But this lad may appreciate soft ground, and he may not be quite good enough, and he may revert to his former errant-fencing ways. Too many questions to be overly excited by 16/1. Though, like Minella Rocco, if there's a money back faller concession, and the rain came, that would account for two of the three reservations.

Zabana was a disappointment when failing to jump off last year - through little fault of his own, in fairness - but he was readily outpointed in the Lexus with no obvious reason for that. He could be better in smaller fields.

That leaves two more worthy of mention, Bristol De Mai and Empire Of Dirt. Let's stay in Ireland and focus on the latter.

A winner at the Festival last year, when easily beating 21 rivals in the Plate, he then easily won the Troytown Handicap Chase, beating 24 rivals, off near top weight. He was a closing second to Sizing John when elevated in class in the Irish Gold Cup last time, and the extra emphasis on stamina that the Gold Cup brings will surely be right up his street.

If he were to line up in the Gold Cup, he'd have to be a player. Progressive and, as I discovered first hand at a preview last week, the first choice of a trainer - Gordon Elliott - who also has the 10/1 fourth favourite in the race.

But he's very far from a certain runner. There's no doubt that the trainer wants to go for the Gold Cup. There's equally no doubt that the owner, Mr O'Leary, wants to win his own race, the Ryanair Chase, with him. Impasse.

Happily for us, we have non-runner no bet to fall back on. 20/1 NRNB and a quarter the odds 1-2-3 is a fantastic play. The balance of probabilities is that we get our cash back. But, if he runs, he's going to be 8/1 not 20/1.

Meanwhile, Bristol De Mai brings dualist form to the table. The whippersnapper of the party at just six years of age, Nigel Twiston-Davies' charge is a strong stayer who oozed class in Haydock's Peter Marsh Chase two back. Since then, he ran below par behind Native River but was reported to have been wrong there.

He was second in the JLT Novices' Chase at last year's Festival, staying on over what may have been an inadequate trip. He has yet to be outside the first three in a dozen starts over hurdles and fences in France and Britain, although that last day third of three takes some of the sheen off what is an otherwise highly consistent CV. He is another, however, whose best form is with the mud flying. He wouldn't be a shock winner, still less a shock podium finisher, but nor is he especially for me... unless it rains.

I had hoped his stable companion, Blaklion, would warm up for the Grand National in this, as I felt he had place prospects at 50/1, but connections appear to have all but ruled that out.

 

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017 Pace Map

 

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017 Tips

It looks a wide open Gold Cup, a fascinating punting puzzle. The most solid option is probably 4/1 DJAKADAM, but his price now reflects that. Native River is extremely likeable and looks highly progressive this season but, again, the market has him pegged. I feel that Cue Card will drift on the day, his age a major issue in spite of a fine season-opening performance.

A horse I want to be with, non-runner no bet, is 20/1 Empire Of Dirt. There's a good chance he misses the race, but he's about twice the price he ought to be if showing up. And that's a risk-free proposition for us with NRNB in play.

If it rains, and if you can get a faller refund concession on the day, Champagne West could be interesting, as could Bristol De Mai, about whom there are less jumping questions.

1pt win Djakadam 4/1 bet365 NRNB, BOG
0.5 pt e/w Empire Of Dirt 20/1 1/4 1-2-3 Stan James NRNB

2016 Queen Mother Champion Chase: Preview, Trends, Tips

The Cheltenham Festival Day 2 highlight is the Queen Mother Champion Chase, a ferocious test of speed, stamina and jumping ability where only the classiest prevail.

Shortcut to 2016 Champion Chase Trends
Shortcut to 2016 Champion Chase Form Preview
Shortcut to 2016 Champion Chase Tips

In this post, we'll review the main trends (attempting to ensure there is at least a scintilla of statistical significance), look at the key form lines, and arrive at a selection that is a bigger price than its chance implies. At least, I hope we will...

Champion Chase 2016 Trends

Sifting through the trends, gratitude is due to horseracebase.com from where I source a lot of the raw data which is then cooked and crunched into the tables and inferences hereafter.

Champion Chase Age Trends

As can be seen from the chart below, younger horses have consistently out-performed their numbers. In the 18 renewals since 1997 (foot and mouth wiped out 2001's Festival - whatever did we do that year?), the sole five-year-old runner - the brilliant Master Minded, who was simply electric that year - won.

The 13 six-year-old entries have claimed two victories - Master Minded again and Voy Por Ustedes - as well as four further places. And those a year older than that won thrice from 21 starts and nabbed four more places.

Each individual age group took both more wins and more places than their pro rata representation; and collectively they won six Champion Chases from just 35 entries. 33% winners, and 27% placers, from 21% runners.

What is particularly noteworthy is that five of the six winners, from 23 of the 35 runners, aged seven or younger were bred in France. 83% winners from 66% runners.

Age Trends for the Champion Chase

Age Trends for the Champion Chase

 

Champion Chase Trends: Horse Origin

And that leads me nicely on to horse origin/breeding. While seven of the 18 Champion Chase winners since 1997 were French bred, from 53 runners (39% winners, 31% runners), there were actually more Irish bred Champion Chasers during this period.

Eight winners (44%) were conceived in Ireland, from 78 runners (45%). Dead on what might have been expected based on weight of numbers. And, let's face it, there have already been a lot of numbers in these opening salvos: stick with it, the words are worth the wait (perhaps - I'll let you be the judge of that).

The other three winners (17%) were GB-bred, from 28 runners (16%). Again, that's about par for their representation.

Germany (0 wins, 3 places, from 7 runs), USA ("ofer" 5 as they say, or zero wins and places from five runs as we say), and New Zealand (one runner, no show) make up the dataset.

Champion Chase Last Time Out Trends

Last day form figures can be a little misleading, but not always. For most big heats, be it a heritage handicap or a Championship Graded race, a solid recent run is a must. The Queen Mother Champion Chase is no exception, as the table below illustrates.

36% of QMCC runners won their previous start, and they accounted for 72% of the winners - twice as many as might have been expected on numerical representation. They also claimed exactly half of the podium positions on offer. Perhaps most remarkably, they were good for a level stakes profit at Starting Price.

With 10/1 Big Zeb and 16/1 Newmill in the midst of the more fancied last time out victors, don't be too hasty to write one off at a price if it beat all the last day.

Whilst none of the 28 horses to finish outside the first four or pulled up last time even made the frame, horses that fell or unseated on their most recent start accounted for two wins and two further places from just eight runners. Plenty of the best 'speed chasers' get very low at their fences - it's part of what makes them so fast, Moscow Flyer perhaps being the best example - so while it might be a heart in mouth ride, backing a last day faller could still pay off, if your ticker can handle it!

Champion Chase Last Time Out Position trends

Champion Chase Last Time Out Position trends

Champion Chase: Seasonal Runs

How many races prior to Cheltenham is optimal? According to the evidence of the last 18 renewals, more than none and less than five, with all winners bar the five-time seasonal starter, Sire De Grugy, fitting that bill.

Of course, it is important to note that most runners will sit in that camp: 75% in the period under scrutiny.

Those to have had three or four runs in the season to date claimed eleven wins (61%) and 32 places (62%) from 86 runners (50%), and that could be a fertile middle ground between match fitness and over-exposure.

Champion Chase Seasonal Runs Trends

Champion Chase Seasonal Runs Trends

 

Champion Chase: Other Trendy Notes

Whilst not exactly a trend, it is worth being aware that 11 of the last 15 Champion Chase winners ran in Sandown's December showpiece, the Tingle Creek. Dodging Bullets was the latest, winning there and following up in the Clarence House before proving too good for Somersby (recommended each way at 40/1 in this preview last year) and the rest in the big one.

Dodging Bullets hasn't been seen since, having had a splint injury (whatever that is), but is being targeted at Newbury's Game Spirit Chase on 13th February.

This year's Tingle Creek saw Sire de Grugy steal Special Tiara's racing line at the last and claim a narrow victory over him, with Vibrato Valtat, Somersby and Mr Mole well beaten off.

*

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In the last 35 years, only Newmill (16/1) has started bigger than 11/1 and prevailed in the Champion Chase.

****

Queen Mother Champion Chase 2016 Form Preview

The roll of honour for the Champion Chase is as long and distinguished as you might expect, and includes National Hunt greats such as Fortria, Flyingbolt, Hilly Way, Badsworth Boy, Viking Flagship, Moscow Flyer, Azertyuiop, Master Minded and, most recently, Sprinter Sacre.

Those are big hoof prints in which to follow and, while Dodging Bullets was the best of his peer group last year, the feeling persisted that this was a division in transition, a sense lent ballast by Un De Sceaux's romp in the novice equivalent, the Arkle Trophy.

That said, both Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy - winners in 2013 and 2014 respectively - were present, and indeed headed the market at 9/4 and 5/2 respectively. Neither could make the frame, Sire de Grugy's ten length fourth the better of the pair. Both have returned for another crack this season.

Sprinter Sacre put the disappointment of pulling up in that Champion Chase behind him with a defiant second to Special Tiara in the season-ending Celebration Chase at Sandown, and he's two from two this season.

First up was an easy victory over Somersby in the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham, before a narrower verdict over Sire de Grugy at Kempton. Both of those wins were in Grade 2 company, and that looks shrewd campaigning by connections for a horse probably on his lap of honour.

Whilst the visual impression was joyful as he bounded clear of the noble but aging Somersby up the Cheltenham hill, it was a shallow contest in behind with Mr Mole looking at odds with the game and Savello and Simply Ned 17 lengths and more not good enough last year in the main event.

Sprinter Sacre is the second favourite at a top price of 5/1 and, for me, he's easy to strike a line through, even though there are ramifications of so doing. It will be as pleasing to the eye as it will be painful to the wallet if I'm wrong, so at least sport will win if I/we don't.

Those ramifications are to be found in the incestuous form lines surrounding Hendo's Sprinter. The two mile chasing fraternity is small at the pinnacle, which means meetings between its number are frequent. So far this season, Sprinter Sacre has beaten Sire de Grugy by a fine margin; Sire de Grugy has beaten Special Tiara by a fine margin; and everyone has beaten Vibrato Valtat, Savello, Mr Mole, and Simply Ned.

The point here is that if you like Sprinter Sacre at 5/1, you really ought to be betting Sire de Grugy or, more likely, Special Tiara at three times the price, each way.

Gary Moore was pretty honest about having Sire de Grugy 'off for his life' (my words, not his) in the Clarence House last weekend. In the event, he was good enough to run Un De Sceaux to five lengths and nab second. Just good enough. More of that anon.

That tempers enthusiasm considerably, and having watched him miss the frame last year, I am happy to watch him miss the frame again this. That said, he's another where pain in the wallet would be significantly eased by warmth in the heart were he to roll back the (two) years since he claimed the Champion Chase crown.

From those three hoofed musketeers, that leaves Special Tiara. Hovering around the same 14/1 mark as SdG, this one is easier to like, for me at least. His best form seems to be on top of the ground, and there has to be a better than even money chance of good to soft or quicker come middle March.

His recent runs offer hope of a medal, too. A three length third in the Champion Chase last year, when leading for much of the race, he was six lengths too good for Sprinter Sacre in the Celebration Chase six weeks later. This season he has yet to fire, though knowing Henry de Bromhead as I unquestionably don't, I'd imagine he's targeting his lad for one day only.

The Tiara was too bad to be true when whacked in the Fortria Chase, a race he was also whacked in - albeit slightly less resoundingly - last season, on his seasonal bow. He was a different proposition in the Tingle Creek and might have won but for the aforementioned mid-air barging march, from which he came off far worse.

Beaten three-quarters of a length there, it was still a fine performance, and he could have another run before the Festival, ground depending. The weather looks to have scuppered plans to compete in the Tied Cottage this weekend, however, so he may be a beat shy of concert pitch at the Fez.

In any case, I do have another reservation with Special Tiara, and that is his hunger for the lead. As we'll see, he won't get the unpestered pace-making position he did last year. So, while he has battled back to the front in the past, that's a concern.

It's probably about time we discussed the elephant in the room. Actually, Un De Sceaux is anything but pachydermous on the evidence of a couple of high speed collisions with the birch on his autumnal début in each of the last two seasons.

That buzzy early frailty - call it premature ejaculation if you will - has only fleetingly rendered flaccid the beast of a lover that is UdS. Indeed, though rather messing up my clumsy (and crude) metaphor, those two tumbles are the only times in a twelve race career he hasn't come first. Guffaw.

Most recently, he was a casual five lengths too good for Gary Moore's pair, Sire de Grugy, and Traffic Fluide, who finished second and third respectively. Having watched the finish several times, I didn't feel Un de Sceaux had bundles more to offer, though he may be 'tighter' physically for Cheltenham.

Moreover, he made no headway from the last on the third, though it's right to say that neither did he lose ground, and for him the job was done.

The other point to note with regard to Un De Sceaux is that he loves to lead. So does Special Tiara. They can't both lead. It is more likely that UdS will get the lead, but how readily Special Tiara cedes it, and how much energy the favourite exerts in his quest for pole position, is a key consideration.

If there remains a niggle that he can be beaten, either by the fences or an upwardly mobile rival, there is grudging acceptance that even money and a shade of odds on across the market is entirely reasonable. UdS is a most obvious candidate for Champion Chase primacy.

Vautour is a dangerous floater and, for the purposes of this preview, I am assuming he will take up an engagement elsewhere. He seems to be entered for everything from this to the Gold Cup to the Wimbledon Ladies' Singles. If he does line up here, his chance is very good - certainly better (in my opinion) than the 3/1 non-runner money back that tops the insurance markets.

Moving back to the likely runners, and specifically that former French fencer, Fluide, Traffic Fluide. I remember thinking he cost a lot of money when I saw him win a novices' handicap chase at Plumpton this time last year. €90,000 (about sixty-eight grand) doesn't look too bad now.

After Plumpton, he took in Esher (easy Sandown win) and Aintree (solid third in Grade 1). And then he went to Ascot for that Grade 1 against UdS and SdG (excuse the acronyms, I'm in the early throes of RSI - there I go again - and can't rein in this verbosity).

He was a stride away from bagging second at Ascot, and that when he was expected to need the run according to his trainer before - and after - the race. In his last three contests, he's improved from 135 to 166 in leaps of +13, +6, +12. As a lightly raced six year old, there has to be every chance of at least another five pounds of improvement, taking him to around 170+.

That would give him the beating of almost all of this field. And here's another thing; two actually. First, he probably wants it a bit quicker than the soft at Ascot on Saturday. And second, his versatile off the pace run style looks ideally suited to a race where there will be at least two hellbent on getting on with it.

The 2016 Champion Chase sets up for a closer, and this lad is that. He is also young (we've seen how well youth, especially les jeunes Francaises, have performed), progressive and comes from a trainer with some serious two mile chase talent in his barn - as well as this fellow and Sire de Grugy he has the exciting novice, Ar Mad.

The 25/1 has gone, the 20/1 has gone, the 16/1 is going. And, on the basis of the above, it's no surprise. In a race with plenty on the down escalator, this is a highly credible ascender.

But what of the champ? Dodging Bullets proved himself the best of his bunch three times in succession last season: in the Tingle Creek, the Clarence House and the Champion Chase. If he comes through his prep race at Newbury well, he'll likely shorten in the market, and he looks to hold robust if unexciting place claims.

This year is deeper than last year, where he beat the fantastic octogenarian Somersby and Special Tiara, who had done plenty earlier and was screaming for an oxygen mask up the hill. Somersby sadly looks to have conceded defeat to Old Father Time (not entered this year), meaning even the most optimistic of fans (that would be me) has to reluctantly let him pass.

[But, should the moment present itself, I will holler with the raucous abandon of an 'all in' heads up WSoP winner if the doddery old bugger can clamber up that incline in front].

Who's left? God's Own? Here is another I tipped last year, for the Arkle then, and at 33/1. He ran second to the current even money (and shorter) Champion Chase jolly that day, and he is a capable fellow. Very lightly raced this season on account of the ground, he's not been sighted since the Haldon Gold Cup where he ran a fair third on softer than ideal turf.

He needs it quick, which he will probably get; but his form looks to have plateaued at around the 160 mark (official rating). That's not good enough to win a Champion Chase even in a moderate year - which I don't think this is - and I doubt it's good enough to make the frame, even allowing for the fact that he's relatively unexposed and his trainer has his team in rude health.

Simonsig? He's a joker in the pack on his best form, for sure. But his best form was three years ago now, and the only sighting on a race track since was when beaten by fellow lengthy Hendo absentee, Bobs Worth, in a hurdle heat at Aintree back in November. The clock is ticking for this lad in more ways than one, and his top price of 16/1 (10/1 in a place, really, Corwwle?!) offers little wriggle room for the rigours of three years off injured. I can't honestly say I'll cheer if this one does me up, but I'm sure someone somewhere will. Good luck to 'em.

Josses Hill? Can't jump, won't jump. Didn't jump in the Tingle Creek where he ejected at the fourth. Not seen since. No tah. Felix Yonger? He's not getting any Yonger (groan) at ten and, though he won the Grade 1 Champion Chase at the Punchestown Festival last season, he beat an abject field for such a valuable and prestigious race.

The balance of his form gives him plenty of a stone to find, and he's hardly progressive after 22 career starts. Fine servant, as they say, but ain't winning a Champion Chase.

****

Queen Mother Champion Chase 2016 Tips

Un De Sceaux has an outstanding chance of following up his Arkle win last year with a Champion Chase title this time around. And, if you're in the business of backing probable winners that will eventually send you skint - but will provide for many tales of punting derring-do in between times - that chap is for you. He's classy and we might not have seen the best of him yet.

But if you want a bit more jam on your bread, albeit at the risk of winding up sans pain, then Traffic Fluide is the garçon. He is on a rapid upward curve, his trainer knows how to make this gig happen, and his run style looks perfectly suited to the race make up. Anything between soft and good should be dandy so, despite the fanciest prices having already gone, 16/1 is still tasty enough, each way and non-runner no bet. I'd guess he'll be close to a single figure price on the day.

If you want to take more of a chance, or potentially less of a chance, Skybet, Paddy and Betfair are betting without Un De Sceaux. It's more of a chance because this is not a non-runner no bet market, so if he fails to show, you've done your dough. It's less of a chance because he's 9/1 and 8/1 for the win and 2/1 or 9/5 for the place. [Stop Press: Skybet are NRNB on this market too]

Un De Sceaux could, deities forbid, come down. If he does, who would you wager to finish second. If he doesn't, with this option you've still got down to fourth place for an each way play. I prefer to back him to win only in the without market and each way in the 'with'.

Bonne chance, mes amis!

Champion Chase 2016 Selection

1 pt e/w Traffic Fluide 16/1 NRNB Skybet, Boyle, Betfair Sports, Racebets

0.5 pt win Traffic Fluide without Un De Sceaux 9/1 NRNB Skybet

[Further Stop Press: Traffic Fluide has suffered an injury and will not run at Cheltenham. We get our money back but we lose out on what promised to be a super spectacle.]

**

Other Cheltenham Festival 2016 Ante-Post Previews

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Cheltenham Festival 2016 Race Guide

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