I had a look back at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival right after the meeting last March but eleven and a half months on we know a lot more so let’s see what has changed and if there is anything that might be of use in two weeks’ time.
Year on year, the best guide to Cheltenham winners is regarded as the previous year’s Festival. The test provided by the meeting is unique and horses that respectively thrive and wilt there can be expected to do the same again. Yet while last season’s Festival form generally worked out for the rest of 2017/18 campaign, it hasn’t carried through quite so well into 2018/19.
Of the 28 horses that won at Cheltenham 2018, eleven have won a race of some sort in the current season which seems on the low side. More than that, few have won a race of consequence with only three winning at Grade 1 level: Buveur D’Air, Altior and Delta Work. Two of the 28, Benie Des Dieux and Penhill, have not run at all.
Their under-performance as a group is likely ground-related. The winter and spring of 2017/18 was an aberration for its extreme wet weather, this past winter has been an aberration for its mild and dry weather. It seems reasonable to question how well the soft and heavy ground form will translate to watered good-soft next month given it hasn’t done so for much of the campaign,
Exception One: The RSA
In isolation though, the form of racing’s bay pimpernel, Presenting Percy, in the RSA might be working out best of all. Last year’s staying novice chasers are a strong crop and from the first four in this race alone we have had Monalee finish second in a Grade 1 at Christmas before winning the Red Mills Chase, Elegant Escape land the Welsh National, and Ballyoptic come second in a Scottish National.
Al Boum Photo fell when likely to come third, and won a Grade 1 subsequently at Fairyhouse and should have had another at Punchestown before looking better than ever at Tramore on New Year’s Day. Even those Irish novices indirectly related to Presenting Percy’s form like Snow Falcon, Dounikos, Invitation Only and Rathvinden have won valuable races in 2018/19.
Presenting Percy looked much the best of that crop last season so this is exactly what you’re looking for if you’re backing him, allowing that there are other concerns with him, particularly his lack of chase experience.
Exception Two: Delta Work
While allowing that a batch of form may not be working out on the whole, one still needs to judge each horse on its individual merits. The Pertemps Final has not proven a strong race on balance but the winner might be the most successful of all last year’s Festival winners relative to expectations (though we’ll get to Altior anon).
Since his Festival win, Delta Work has been narrowly beaten in a Grade 1 novice hurdle before winning thrice over fences, two of them Grade 1s, the form looking strong as he beat Le Richebourg. All told, he seems to have a leading chance in the RSA where he will have a slight experience edge over Santini.
There is one niggling concern and that is the lack of a recent run. Historically a horse being without a run in the calendar year was a negative in the RSA but this is likely more to do with the individual than profiling the typical race winner. Delta Work has come off a break three times since joining Gordon Elliott and the improvement has been clear: Timeform have him improving 12lbs, 1lb and 18lbs for those runs while Racing Post Ratings have those figures at 4lbs, 14lbs and 28lbs.
None of those breaks came mid-season which may negate the concern a little while one can also argue that he was all ready to run in the Flogas at the Dublin Racing Festival so should have been kept plenty fit at home. As a backer though, it remains a worry.
Exception Three: Altior
Altior is Altior and he just wins as he has again done through three starts this season. On those rare occasions he does look vulnerable, it seems down to pace and specifically not getting the strong gallop he wants, as in the 2017 Arkle when he traded at 8/11 in-running having been sent off 1/4.
Looking back at last year’s Champion Chase, the most striking thing is that there is now a Special Tiara-sized hole in the race, that stalwart setting the gallop in the last five runnings of the race and invariably at a generous pace. There is no such horse among the 18 entries for this year’s race with Un De Sceaux likely to go the Ryanair route.
That would leave a horse like Saint Calvados potentially making the running and, realistically, he can’t go the pace Altior ideally wants on decent ground. There is also the possibility of Altior making his own running as he did at Ascot last time but that may bring its own problems as he jumped left there, so a race that hitherto looked a foregone conclusion may actually be tactically fascinating.
The Gold Cup
Despite only two horses really getting into the race, last year’s Gold Cup was an epic with Native River becoming the first horse this century to win the race having been beaten in it on his first attempt previously (Kauto Star won, then was beaten, then won again); 66 others had tried, thank you Matt Tombs and your excellent Cheltenham Guide for that stat. With the race run on heavy ground and at a strong gallop, it actually suited the experience and toughness that the winner had in spades as the race developed into an old-school Gold Cup slog with the best stayer coming out on top.
That has not been the way in most recent Gold Cups however as younger horses typically come to the fore, often second-season chasers and it is worth remembering that the three that chased Native River home last year fit that category. With the race very likely to be run on better ground this year, it might be more prudent to expect more of a new-style Gold Cup with the winner being a Sizing John rather than Synchronized type.
All of this may make life tough on Native River who is in danger of being outpaced on better ground as he has been in his runs at Haydock and Kempton this season; the stiffer track will help but will it be enough to compensate for the going? This might be a race where the younger horses like Presenting Percy, Clan Des Obeaux and Kemboy to come to the fore.
The Samcro Problem
In his weekly Irish Field column on time analysis, Simon Rowlands rated Samcro’s Ballymore win as the best hurdling performance at last year’s Festival and the form stacks up too, with the placed horses going on to win Grade 1 novice events at Aintree and Punchestown. It was visually impressive too with Jack Kennedy’s mount travelling best all the way and the horse finding himself in front sooner than ideal.
That was his best performance to date, better than anything he has done dropped to two miles in four starts since, and it was also the race in which his stamina was most drawn out over 21 furlongs on soft ground. Originally pegged as a future Gold Cup horse, the two-mile experiment has palpably failed but Gordon Elliott seems to have been leaning toward the stamina route for a while now, entering him in the Long Walk back in December when all the chat about him was Champion Hurdle.
In general, the comment that a horse wouldn’t run in a race unless it is flying at home is trite but it might just apply here; he remains one of Gigginstown’s great hopes and is off a troubled season so they are unlikely to run unless he can deliver a big performance. With that in mind, we could get Ballymore Samcro in a few weeks and that would put him right in the Stayers’ Hurdle mix.
Mullins and the Gold Cup
Willie Mullins has never won the Gold Cup in 22 attempts (again, stat courtesy of Matt Tombs), six of his finishing second, and it seems likely he will go four-handed at the race this year with Bellshill, Kemboy, Invitation Only and Al Boum Photo. All have it to prove on the track however judged on last year’s evidence and that of previous Festivals.
That applies to Bellshill more than most having been beaten a combined 58 lengths on his three course starts. The first two of those came in the Champion Bumper and the Supreme so it could be argued that the trip was too sharp for him in both cases but he did quickly bounce back at Aintree afterwards which is concerning. His run behind Might Bite in the RSA was better though again the downhill part of the track may not be for him but he did at least give the lie to his preferring a right-handed track by winning a Grade 1 at Leopardstown last time.
The evidence for the other three not operating at the track is more flimsy but none were at their best here last year. Neither Kemboy nor Invitation Only jumped well enough in the JLT, though the argument can be made they needed further, while Al Boum Photo fell when looking set for third in the RSA.
Mullins and Fallers
The jumping of the Mullins horses attracted plenty of comment last year with ten of his runners falling across all races; when looking at the last three Festivals, his total number of fallers at the meeting is 14 with Gordon Elliott a distant second on five, Colin Tizzard, Venetia Williams, Jonjo O’Neill and Paul Nicholls with four each.
Those numbers are raw and from a small sample size but there are all sorts of layers to this. Unseats, say, are not included and are mainly caused by jumping errors nor are pulled up efforts that may have been brought about by mistakes. Some trainers may have more runners over fences than hurdles which would produce more fallers and so on.
Yet faller rate is something the BHA seem to place plenty of stock in as their report on the 2018 Cheltenham Festival included the following recommendation:
individual trainers…who have an incidence of fallers significantly higher than the historical average will be required to engage constructively with the BHA to consider the drivers of, and actions to improve, high incidence rates.
Perhaps it’s just me but that does sound like the authority is telling trainers how to train their horses which is a particularly grey area but they are the regulator after all: their racing, their rules. One wonders if Willie Mullins has been ‘engaged with’ on this and what that ‘engagement’ would be.
It is easy to question what right have the BHA to tell the all-time leading trainer at the Festival how his horses need to jump but there are two other factors here. First, Mullins has said that neither Douvan nor Rathvinden had schooled much ahead of last year’s meeting while comments from some associated with the yard suggest nothing has changed this term; owner Colm O’Connell saying after Bachasson’s New Year’s Eve win that ‘he hadn’t seen a hurdle or fence since [he fell in] the Gold Cup.’
And second, Mullins does have the highest fall rate when compared to similar trainers. Looking at those trainers who had the most runners in all UK and Irish jumps races between the 2015/16 and 2017/18 seasons, Mullins comes out worst with a fall rate of 4.7%. Colin Tizzard is next with 4.1% followed by Evan Williams on 3.9% and Henry De Bromhead on 3.6%. The average for that entire group which takes in a sample of 31,917 runners is 3.1%.
I suspect that the jumping of his horses will be under close scrutiny in a fortnight’s time and this might be one of the most interesting aspects of the meeting especially given quite a few of his horses won’t have had the racecourse practice they might have had in a previous season with the weather as it is.
The Irish in Handicaps
I’m just going to leave these two tables out there for anyone who wonders about Irish horses being badly treated in the Festival handicaps. Also, there were a record number of Irish-trained horses entered in Cheltenham handicaps this season.
Festival Handicaps 2018
Festival Handicaps 2014-2017
Gordon Elliott in Handicaps
Of the 22 Irish-trained handicap winners since 2014, nine were trained by Gordon Elliott. That is some going. Elliott has won a wide variety of handicaps with different types of horses but one approach he used to great effect last year was running novices, an approach he uses with some success at home too, the likes of Duca De Thaix (twice), Dallas Des Pictons and Roaring Bull winning examples this season.
Since 2014, his open handicap runners that were novices at the time have a finishing string of 20975PU3111001. That doesn’t include runners in confined races like the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase and the Fred Winter Novices' Handicap Hurdle, the latter of which he has won twice and may well have had a third had Campeador not fallen at the last in 2016.
Three of his winners last season were novices running in open handicaps (Delta Work, The Storyteller and Blow By Blow) and he has a number of options that could do the same this year among them the aforementioned Duca De Thaix and Dallas Des Pictons.
- Tony Keenan