Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase 2014 Preview, Trends, Tips
One of my favourite races, and certainly the only handicap in which I'd contemplate betting ante-post is the Cross Country Handicap Chase. For some, it's a meaningless charade in the middle of the main arena. I certainly wouldn't agree with that: not from a sporting sense, and unequivocally not from a betting sense. For me, this is one of the best betting events of the week.
Why? Because it's the only handicap run all week where most of the entries cannot win. They're either too slow, or they don't stay, or they can't handle the course configuration, or they can't handle the fences. Lovely stuff. Get the red pen out and let's start striking lines through entries until we're left with a wager...
Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase 2014 Trends
Although this will only be the tenth renewal of the race, some key trends are manifesting themselves already.
Age: The Cross Country Chase has seen runners from age six to fifteen, but all nine winners have been between eight and twelve. However, horses aged eight to fourteen have placed. The youngsters have yet to make the frame, and are generally not strong enough to see out this marathon three-and-seven-eighths of a mile stamina test.
Last time out: Seven of the nine winners finished in the top four last time out. Of the other two, Balthazar King ran out over the same course when virtually certain to finish in the top four; and Sizing Australia finished eighth in a hurdle race over two miles (i.e. half this trip!) on his prior start.
Cross country course experience: Ever since the magnificent Spot Thedifference claimed the inaugural Cross Country Chase, winners have had previous experience of cross country races. Spot Thedifference had won the equivalent race at the November meeting on his previous run. The following year, Native Jack won the PP Hogan, Ireland's number one cross country race. Heads Onthe Ground and Garde Champetre also took the PP Hogan before the latter doubled up having this time claimed the November cross country race at Cheltenham. Spotting a theme yet? 😉
In 2010, A New Story, placed in the La Touche Cup - a similar 'banks' race over four and a quarter miles - won at 25/1. He wasn't a winner last time out of a key prep, but he had run seventh in the previous year's race. Sizing Australia landed the spoils in 2011 after placing in the November version; and in 2012, Balthazar King looked likely to go very close to winning before taking the wrong course along with a number of other horses. Last year, Big Shu was second in the PP Hogan before winning this event. He finished second again in the PP Hogan this year...
So... do NOT excuse a horse without cross country form. It has everything to prove.
Weight: Weight is generally a factor in all Cheltenham handicaps, with low weights favoured in most non-novice and/or non-amateur rider handicaps. Here, two top weights have won carrying a burdensome 11-12. The other seven lugged less than eleven stone.
Position in market: Seven of the nine winners were in the top three in the betting. And sixteen of the 27 horses in the top three in the betting have at least placed in this race.
It looks then like we're searching for a horse with top notch cross country form; aged eight to twelve; from the top of the market; and either a classy sort carrying top weight or a lightly weighted 'springer'.
The top three in the betting currently are Big Shu (Official Rating likely to be around 145), Balthazar King (Official Rating 150), and Love Rory (Official Rating 117, but subject to upward revision).
Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase 2014 Preview
When considering the form profiles for this race, it makes sense to focus on cross country experience. It is a feature, to a lesser or greater degree, in many of the runners' profiles, so we ought to commence at the head of the market.
Big Shu ran second on heavy ground in last year's PP Hogan Memorial Chase before going on to hose up in this. He won by four lengths, with fully ten back to the third horse, Outlaw Pete. To put that into perspective, fourteen lengths - the gap back to the third - covered the first six home in 2012, and in 2011 (OK, it was 15L then); and the first seven in 2010.
Only the lovable Garde Champetre, winner in 2008 and 2009, showed such dominance, and it may be no coincidence that Big Shu is going for a double this year.
After his win at Cheltenham, Big Shu went back to Punchestown and won their Festival banks race, the La Touche Cup. This time, despite being clear turning in, he clambered over the last a tired horse, and stopped to a walk on the run in, just holding on. That was under 12-03 and over four and a quarter miles on heavy ground, a more extreme test of weight, distance and going than he's going to face at Cheltenham.
He earned himself a good break after that, and only re-emerged on 2nd February for this year's PP Hogan. Fat as a pig, he drifted as though victory was out of the question, but - aided by a pedestrian gallop - was able to claim a noble second place, the exact position he took last year in the same race, to Love Rory. It was an extremely satisfactory prep for the defence of his Glenfarclas Cross Country crown and, while he's certain to have more weight this time, he has an absolutely bombproof profile and I like him. A lot.
With that potential spoiler for the rest of the form plot out in the open, allow me to demonstrate why I believe Big Shu has more robust claims than the rest, starting with Balthazar King.
I am a huge fan of Balthazar King, and his record at Cheltenham reads 22F42511PR11211. That string includes a win in the 2012 version of the Glenfarclas, and a second place in the November equivalent in the same year. He missed the race last year due to the ground not being fast enough, and I'm pretty sure the trainer will take the same decision this term if necessary. So, whilst he's a definite player on good to soft or quicker, he's a likely non-runner on soft or slower.
Funnily enough, the official going last year - after BK was pulled - was... good to soft! If he runs, he's a horse I will be saving on. If he doesn't, there's every chance Big Shu will be around the 5/2 - 3/1 mark. He's currently 9/2 at time of writing.
Love Rory is trained by Enda Bolger, a man with unparalleled skill at readying one for this race. Indeed, he's won it four times from 24 starters, with another five horses placed. This lad - Love Rory, not Enda - is the future, but there's a feeling this comes a year too soon despite his PP Hogan triumph the last day.
Still just a six year old, he has had four runs in cross country races already, with form figures of 0711. But he's yet to race beyond three miles, and this is the best part of another mile on top. Moreover, his two length margin over (very) Big Shu last time will surely be reversed with the latter stripping seven to ten pounds fitter this time.
In his defence, Love Rory has yet to prove he doesn't stay nigh on four miles, and he's clearly improving rapidly in this sphere. He looks Bolger's best chance in the race for a couple of years at least, since the tragic death in the race of Garde Champetre, something which still angers me now as it was avoidable (the course was like a road that year, and favourite Scotsirish also broke down and was killed). But I'm taking him on due my contention that Big Shu's greater fitness this time, and Love Rory's unproven stamina will reverse placings.
Sire Collonges was Paul Nicholls' first winner in a cross country race (I think), when winning the December race over course and distance. That was a race missing Big Shu and Balthazar King, and he'd been royally seen off by BK in his previous two starts, including over course and distance. That December contest looked shallow, and I'd be quite shocked if Sire Collonges was able to beat that proven pair. The one possible fly in the ointment is that soft ground might actually improve his level of form.
On the rare occasions he's run on sodden turf, he's performed with credit - second to Our Father in a novice event; third in a fair big field handicap hurdle; and an easy win on debut in France.
Any Currency comes next, and his form with Sire Collonges means he can't win either. More to the point, his form with Balthazar King means he can't win. He had no excuses when thumped 26 lengths by Big Shu last year either. Might plug on into the frame but highly unlikely to win.
Quantitiveeasing has changed stables and is now trained by Enda Bolger. On his first run for his new handler he ran a massive second in the Galway Plate behind RSA Chase-bound Carlingford Lough. Since then, he's had a very low key prep for this - unsighted in a big field Listowel handicap chase, then third of seven in a point-to-point. The fact that Bolger has the banks fences at his training facility mitigates a lack of cross country experience, and he's certainly one of the more intriguing runners. 12/1 might reward each way support.
Uncle Junior is too old and too slow, and it looks highly probable that he's a bleeder these days: confirmed burst blood vessel in one of three P's in his last six runs, alongside a fall, an unplaced effort, and a good second to BK after a six month layoff. Bleeders often perform best after a layoff. This fellow ran at the start of February and I'd imagine he's cast iron place lay material if he even lines up. I hope he doesn't: at thirteen, he owes connections nothing.
Star Neuville hasn't run since last April and has never run well first time after a break.
Sizing Australia is interesting. Winner of this race in 2011, he's also won the Irish Field Chase, a Punchestown cross country race. Now twelve, he actually won a two mile handicap hurdle last October, and was a good second to Love Rory in the Risk Of Thunder Chase (another Punchy cross country event). He's finished 11th, 1st, 4th, and 5th in this race in the last four years, and had a nice spin over hurdles the other day. 16/1 each way is all right.
Of the French contingent, Pasquini Rouge is filed under 'extremely interesting'. Third in the December race won by Sire Collonges, he was a sitting duck in front from a long way out and will surely be ridden with more restraint this time. There's also an argument to say that he'll be fitter in March, as that last time out effort looked to be a 'sighter' for the Festival. If I'm right about either of those two points, he could make the frame. If I'm right about both, he might even win. 16/1 is the best each way value in the race for me. He's a young horse - just six years old - but as a Frenchie, he's likely more mature than the Irish-bred's like Love Rory.
Wrong Turn is next in the betting, but this Tony Martin nag has never seen a cross country course, has raced mainly over 2m5f, and is entered in four other races at the Festival. Surely even the magician Martin can't conjure a debut cross country win from this fellow.
Quiscover Fontaine is another that won't stay and can't win.
Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase 2014 Tips
This is a race in which few can realistically win, and I expect it to rest between Big Shu and Balthazar King. If the latter doesn't run due to the ground, Big Shu will take an awful lot of beating. I've backed him accordingly.
Of the bigger priced horses, I think Pasquini Rouge is easily the most interesting runner. Third in the December race when in front a long way from home, he rallied gamely when others came to him and he will be wiser - and quite possibly fitter - in middle March. 16/1 is verging on generous, especially as BetVictor will give you a free bet to the same stake if he fails to get on the ferry.
Sizing Australia and, to a lesser degree, Quantitiveeasing make moderate each way appeal.
Glenfarclas Cross Country Selection: Big Shu 9/2 bet365
Glenfarclas Cross Country Best Each Way: Pasquini Rouge 16/1 BetVictor (non-runner free bet)
Glenfarclas Cross Country Minor Interest: Sizing Australia 16/1 Betfred / Quantitiveeasing 12/1 bet365