As late March heralds longer days and flat racing fiestas in the coming weeks and months, those of us with a Cheltenham Festival-sized gap in our hearts and minds (and, perhaps, wallets) are already projecting wistfully forward to fifty weeks hence and the 2023 Cleeve Hill jamboree. If that sounds about 85% of the way along the tragic-desperate continuum, it is mitigated by the fact that such far-reaching forward-looking is not mutually exclusive with more impending matters on the level.
The focus of what follows, then, is a last lingering look back - and forward - with the aim of trying to isolate an ante post ticket (or two) whose value might subsequently be enhanced. No sooner had the Festival winners been hosed down than odds for possible return targets were chalked up; most such offers will look pretty thin when the time comes but some will not. Emboldened as I am always by the prospect of a punt at a price, I've looked back at the last decade to see if there were any clues from the previous year's spring festivals that we ought to have heeded. If that doesn't yet make sense, it will do soon enough.
Where next for the Champion Bumper winner?
I'll start with a 'what happened next' for those Cheltenham Festival winners that typically didn't have a previous spring campaign under their belt, the ones emerging from the Champion Bumper.
The first thing to say is that five of the prior nine Champion Bumper winners did not even get to the following year's Cheltenham Festival. The second, an aside, is to apologise for references to the Albert Bartlett as 'Spuds': it's a lazy shorthand so forgive me, please.
Facile Vega, the very good winner of this year's Champion Bumper, is no bigger than 3/1 for next year's Supreme; that looks ungenerous given only one of the previous nine winners even contested that race, Ballyandy finishing fourth in 2016 - as a 3/1 chance. That ten year time span is more unhelpful than disingenuous in that, a year earlier than the snapshot, in 2012, Champagne Fever completed part two of the Bumper-Supreme double.
More interesting, if indeed anything is interesting when fishing for patterns (which may or may not be mirages) in shallow pools, is that two of the previous three Champion Bumper winners - Envoi Allen and Sir Gerhard - went on to win the Ballymore as odds on shots. Facile Vega is a top-priced 6/1 for that longer novice hurdle and, if there's a bet here, that must be it. After all, his mum, Quevega, couldn't win in Graded company at two miles (from two tries, 3rd and 9th) but was almost unbeatable at two-and-a-half and three; and sire Walk In The Park's best strike rate is comfortably at around two and a half miles.
In the slightly longer grass, a few of the placed horses from the Festival flat race have won the opener twelve months later, so perhaps a second glance at American Mike, 14/1 in a place, is merited. (I believe James's Gate, as he's owned by the owners of Ballymore Properties, will go to that race so he, too, might figure in considerations if only because we know what his target will be, all other things being equal).
Champion Bumper to Supreme is generally not a path trodden by winners of the former, but to the Ballymore has been a recent 'thing'. 6/1 about Facile Vega for the Ballymore might look too big if he can actually get to next year's meeting.
Placed horses in the Champion Bumper have a fair record in winning the Supreme. American Mike's 14/1 quote in a place likely won't last but there is general 12's available.
Supreme Novices' Hurdle
For all races that follow there is typically at least one season's previous form with which to work; as such, the format laid out for the Supreme will be replicated for all of the remaining Festival Grade 1's. Here's how it looks:
We can now see Champagne Fever in the bottom row of the table - see, I told you I wasn't being 'convenient'! We can also see that Appreciate It (and we cannot see that in 2011 Al Ferof) won the Supreme having been second in the Champion Bumper. But what is most striking if you're desperate to bet this race now is that almost none of the Supreme winners in the past decade were on the mainstream radar a year earlier.
This table is, at least partially, the inverse of the Champion Bumper bit above and, as such, not much else needs saying, except tread very carefully: we may not have even heard of next year's Supreme winner yet!
We quite possibly do not even know of the existence of next year's Supreme winner right now. American Mike is possibly the one for pin-stickers with a chance to replicate two recent Champion Bumper runners up who scored in the Supreme.
Ballymore Novices' Hurdle
The intermediate distance Grade 1 novice hurdle and usually a classy affair, at the front end at least.
On top of the already made point about the pair of Champion Bumper winners who rocked up here as shorties a year later and got it done, the key takeaway is to keep a close eye on winning Irish bumper favourites away from the Festival spotlight. The thinking - and I do appreciate how tenuous some of this stuff is - is that they're favoured because of a level of ability already demonstrated, either at home or on the track; and they've been brought along relatively steadily out of the glare of wider perception. Related, perhaps, is that four of the five to fit this blueprint had also already won a point to point.
Both Yorkhill and Bob Olinger emerged from the same Gowran Park bumper won this year by Kalanisi Star. He won easily but recorded a lesser rating and is trained by the unfashionable (though eminently capable) Oliver McKiernan. Similarly, City Island (a winner for the race sponsors) and Faugheen both progressed from Punchestown's late May meeting, so that's a fixture to keep onside.
Aside from maybe betting Facile Vega for the 2023 Ballymore, keep an eye on well-touted winners of spring bumpers in Ireland outside of the Punchestown Festival, especially if they already have a point to point verdict on their scorecard.
Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle
The potato race, as it is affectionately - and effectively, because who knew Albert Bartlett was a producer of starchy tubers beforehand? - known, is the staying division for novice hurdlers. Here's what recent AB victors were doing a year or so prior.
It may be more correct to say, here's what recent AB victors were not doing a year or so prior. They were not running in the Champion Bumper (though Briar Hill fell as 2/1 favourite for this in 2013) and they were not running in the Aintree bumpers. They might, however, have been on the podium in one of the non-Grade 1 National Hunt Flat races at the Punchestown Festival; and all the more interesting if they'd recently changed hands having won a point to point.
That ostensibly (and quite possibly actually) contrived route to potato riches was trodden by all of 33/1 Very Wood, 50/1 Minella Indo, and 5/1 Monkfish since 2014. A fourth winner in the sample, 33/1 Kilbricken Storm, also emerged as a point winner the previous spring. That's hardly surprising considering that, firstly, the vast majority of point to points are run at three miles, the same range as the Albert Bartlett; and, secondly, maiden races between the flags usually place a premium on jumping ability in young horses.
Have a look at those emerging from points to make the frame in non-Grade 1 Punchestown Festival bumpers. They'll be a price, though history suggests they might be a bigger price on the day next March!
After some middling attempts to find order in perfect randomness around the novice hurdle cohort, we move to the relative structure of the two mile Championship hurdle race, aptly known as the Champion Hurdle.
The column upon which to focus attention here is 'Prev Cheltenham' - it will not be a surprise that nine of the last ten Champion Hurdle winners were present a year earlier, nor particularly that they ran - generally placed - in a mixture of the novice hurdles, Mares' Hurdle and Champion Hurdle itself.
When contemplating such folly as an ante post bet a year out it is important to think about the shape of the race, in terms of how much is known already and how much is still to emerge. In the novice events, next to nothing is known at this stage while in the Champion Hurdle we probably have the vast majority of intel available, barring the maintenance of form and fitness.
What I am trying to say is that asking for both Honeysuckle and Constitution Hill to either regress materially or produce sick notes is a big request. Of the other potentials suggested by previous spring form, none appeal as capable of getting even much beyond the level of an Epatante or a Zanahiyr, let alone the champ and the champ elect. Of course, stuff happens, but we're already going out on more limbs than a millipede has in its possession and this, friends, is a bridge too far.
Marie's Rock has next to no chance in the Champion Hurdle, likewise the aforementioned Champion placed horses and, from the novice ranks, only Sir Gerhard looks a credible threat. He's 8/1 and he ain't sufficiently credible to legitimise that as an exciting punt. State Man and Vauban are unexposed sorts but we're back to Katchit in 2008 for the previous Triumph Hurdle winner to double up, and no horse has emerged from a handicap to win the big one a year later; Katchit, it should be added, had nothing of the immensity of Honeysuckle or Constitution Hill in his way.
Not one to be getting too far ahead of ourselves about. Two seriously talented, career unbeaten, including in multiple Grade 1, horses - a race to hope they both show up for, and savour when they do. They're probably fair enough prices and there are more interesting (it's all relative) wagering options elsewhere.
The Stayers' Hurdle, a Championship (nominally, at least) three-miler, is one of the more inscrutable - or less scrutable - open races at Le Fez. Its roll of honour reads more 'who?' than who's who, and there is very little in the previous spring Festival form from which to piece together even the most circumstantial of cases. And yes, I do appreciate that hasn't stopped me above and below this segment!
Podium finishers in the staying novice races at Aintree - the Sefton - and Punchestown - Irish Mirror - have provided four winners since 2015, and that's the best I have.
This is akin to trying to sculpt water.
Arkle Challenge Trophy
And so to the Grade 1 steeplechases, the first of which is the Arkle, a two mile test of speed and jumpcraft (not a word, should be). In the last ten years, Willie's won four and Nicky has won three. That's as good a starting point as any.
Three of that Hendo/Mullins septet won the Supreme while the third Seven Barrows scorer won the Ballymore. The only beaten horse from a Festival novice hurdle to win the Arkle twelve months on in the last ten years was Duc Des Genievres and I'm still unable to explain how that happened.
We also know stuff like five-year-olds have struggled since their allowance was removed; the last of that vintage was Voy Por Ustedes, in receipt of five pounds weight for age, in 2006. So we can ignore those at this stage.
The obvious one is Sir Gerhard, comfortable winner of the Ballymore and already a point winner. Talk of his jumping frailty looks overplayed to my, granted somewhat untutored, eye and he is likely to take high rank in the novice chase division next term. I do worry that, as his flag form - and the Ballymore - implies, he could go towards the Golden Miller (Marsh/JLT/Turners) rather than the shorter race; and any early fencing blemishes will be amplified in the media which might make connections twitchy. That's enough to swerve him at the price, 5/1 tops, for now.
At double those odds is Appreciate It, nine lengths back in the Champion Hurdle after a year off the track. He ran a fair bit better than his finishing position suggests and I think we'll see a much improved performance, and subsequent contraction in his Arkle odds, after Punchestown. Even if he beats Honeysuckle there, which I don't really expect, he's likely to dodge Con Hill and go fencing next term. Footpad's was a not dissimilar profile for the same trainer, Willie Mullins, in 2018.
Zanahiyr might be another worth a thought, though he's not generally priced up: there's a good chance I don't know something I should do about the chances of his Arkle participation.
The key is to work out who will be avoiding the perceived strength in next year's Champion Hurdle field while still being good enough to contest an Arkle. Appreciate It is a double figure price and may shorten for all sorts of targets if getting close to Honeysuckle at Punchestown.
Golden Miller Novices' Chase
Formally known as the Golden Miller, we'll stick with that for a race that in its short life has had as many sponsors/names (Jewson, Centenary, JLT, Marsh, Turners) as the Festival wants days. It's an intermediate distance novice chase, which means that even more guesswork is required in terms of horses being suited to its conditions rather than simply avoiding the level of competition in either the Arkle or RSA/Brown Advisory/Broadway. Quirkily, this year's Golden Miller had two of the very hottest novices around, Bob Olinger and Galopin Des Champs, and scared away another, L'Homme Presse, who was originally mooted to take this middle path.
That kind of double bluff is commonplace in a race whose ante post waters are further muddied by the vast array of talent in certain yards, many of which trainer and/or jockey and/or owner are eager to see in separate divisions in March.
Perhaps the previous spring will shed some much needed luminescence on these murky cogitations. [Why use one syllable when many more are available?!]
The Ballymore is the one, isn't it? Three Golden Miller winners were doubling up on a Ballymore score a year before; three more ran down the track in the same race. The winner, we know, was Sir Gerhard and I increasingly feel this is where he'll wind up - and with an obvious chance, of course.
But perhaps it's worth looking down the field for another arrow at a price that accommodates at least some of the additional risk. In that spirit, I offer up Three Stripe Life, beaten by Sir Gerhard thrice in six career starts. But stay with me a minute, because he actually got closest - within four lengths of Sir G in the Ballymore - when everything else, bar the last flight tumbler Journey With Me, was waiting for a bus home - and connections would surely have been emboldened by his finishing effort on a first try beyond two miles. He might be playable at 14/1 for an interest.
Journey With Me, too, is not impossible. He might take a different tack, as might the others mentioned, but that is surely factored into a quote of 25/1 with one joint. He was unbeaten in a point, a bumper and two novice hurdles prior to being booked for third in the Ballymore; and he represents the same owner, trainer and, presumably, jockey as this year's Golden Miller winner, Bob Olinger (for all that we know how lucky he was).
Look to the Ballymore form. Sir Gerhard is obvious but this has been a race for apparent rather than obvious winners as the abundance of those returned 3/1 and 4/1 attests; so perhaps TSL or JWM offer a sliver of value.
Broadway Novices' Chase
Familiarly known as the RSA Chase, but now sponsored by Brown Advisory, who used to sponsor one of the handicaps - this sponsorship lark is important but it really is getting very confusing - this is the three mile novice chase championship. Below are the last ten winners and what they were up to a year or so prior.
Most of the Broadway winners ran at Cheltenham the previous year and ran well there. What is interesting, to me at least, is that three of the seven to dance at the Chelto party a year prior did so in a handicap rather than a Grade 1. Don Poli won the Martin Pipe, Presenting Percy won the Pertemps Final, and Topofthegame was second in the Coral Cup. The last named was actually the highest rated of the trio, on 150 at the time and a second season hurdler - the other pair novices - and 143 was the lowest rating of them.
No horse from the top two in the handicaps this year fits the Broadway profile, but third placed Hollow Games ran on well over the two and a half miles of the Martin Pipe to be third, carrying 11-09, second top weight. Rated 143, it's far from impossible the £255,000 sales buy could emerge as an RSA contender.
The lazy route into the Broadway is the Albert Bartlett winner but, as can be seen, only the exceptional (I think, would like to see more of him) Monkfish doubled up in the last ten years. Two beaten horses from that race, O'Faolains Boy and Blaklion, prevailed in the fencing equivalent but trying to work out which, and why, from this year's potato crop (see what I did there?) is beyond me. That said, there are reasons to believe that Hillcrest is a lot better than he showed in the Al Barty and will improve for a fence, and he's priced attractively.
A final word of caution - one can never have too many words of caution in a post like this - is that three of the most recent ten Broadway winners were unsighted at any of the Spring Festivals. Might Bite and L'Homme Presse were particularly progressive during their chase campaigns: there's always time, and space in the ledger, to back another one or three 'twixt now and then!
Three winners that were unheralded a year earlier mean this is a race to play small at big prices, or (probably) not at all. The pick of the handicap form, ideally from a novice with a decent rating and carrying a commensurately lumpy weight, isn't the worst way to tilt at it, so have a look at 20/1 Hollow Games. And perhaps Hillcrest at a similar quote.
Queen Mother Champion Chase
The last three races under consideration are the Championship chases, starting with the two mile division.
Two races from the year before dominate, and they're predictable enough, too. The novice version of the Champion Chase, the Arkle, and the Champion Chase itself are kingmakers (or queenmaker in the case of Put The Kettle On) having hosted eight next year Champion Chasers between them; no other race has featured even a single QMCC winner. Those Champion Chase winners have all been 11/1 or shorter, which surprised me when I recall how many of them I "couldn't have"!
Thinking about the logical contenders, this has been a race notable for absenteeism, either pre-race or during: in Politologue's victory year, both Altior and Chacun Pour Soi withdrew on the day; last year, CPS threw in a clunker; and this year, Shishkin did that while CPS tucked and rolled. I mention this by way of context as I'm about to overlook Energumene and Shishkin in the ante post market.
Energumene was undeniably electric in beating what stood up and got round, but the pick of those was the 165-rated 11-year-old Politologue. But he didn't run to 165; his performance rating from the BHA was just 148. That form is hollow for all that Energ waltzed by the residue of his field. Actually, that's not the concern. Rather, it's whether or not we can trust him to turn up twelve months down the line. If we can, and he does, he will be a major player, but a top price of 7/2 is not for me.
Shishkin is brilliant. Was brilliant. He now has a question to answer: did Ascot vaporise his verve for the game? Was Cheltenham really all about the ground? I so want to believe he'll be back, and I'll cheer him as though I'm all in if/when he does come back, but I definitely do not want to wager a year out at 5/1.
Bob Olinger and Galopin Des Champs will find ways to avoid each other without taking in the Champion Chase, I expect; and Ferny Hollow could be a runner for all that his form was not far clear of Riviere d'Etel's - and that one was no match, no match at all, for Edwardstone in the Arkle. True, it was a weak enough renewal, Eddie's pre-race 159 pick of the field ascending to 161 post-race; but he did it well and with more to give. He'll go into open company next season as second in after Shishkin of the domestics, assuming Shishkin returns to his former glories. And he's 12/1 to join the three previous Arkle winners to double up in the QMCC a year later, the most recent of which was the similarly underappreciated Put The Kettle On.
The two mile Grade 1 chases from the previous year dominate the QMCC winners board. This is a race where the obvious often comes to pass but it can still be played at a square price, perhaps through the conduit of Edwardstone, a far better chaser than hurdler who retains upside in a division of fragile commodities.
The much-maligned Ryanair is a race I love, and it's produced more than its share of good winners, including the current two-timer Allaho. It also has a trio of predictable components, namely Golden Miller, Willie Mullins, and Aintree form.
In fact, the Golden Miller angle, while not quite a chuck out, has gone a bit cold. Not since Balko Des Flos won the Ryanair in 2018 a year after falling in the Golden Miller as a 16/1 chance has a runner from that race won the Open version. There is a very good chance, however, that one of Bob Olinger and/or Galopin Des Champs will run in next year's Ryanair, and either would hold strong claims for all that Allaho is a worthy champ.
Galopin Des Champs, a stablemate of Allaho, is still more likely to go Ryanair as things stand: he jumps well (in spite of his last fence misfortune in the Golden Miller) and has a fantastic cruising speed. 6/1 is at the unexciting end of the acceptable spectrum, I feel, because there looks to be a huge amount of dead wood in the betting lists right now - this could end up being next year's version of the Turners match up: never mind the width, feel the quality. Galopin and Allaho both tick the Willie Mullins box - the Closutton guru has won five of the last seven Ryanair's and has a half nelson around the 2023 renewal at time of writing.
Aintree form is an interesting sneak into the ante post markets, for all that we don't yet know how that plays out. Winners of the two G1 novices chases, the Mildmay and Manifesto, prevailed in the following Ryanair in 2014/15, and Min won the Melling Chase, an Open Grade 1, en route to 2020 Ryanair glory.
Trained by Willie Mullins, and/or exiting either of the Golden Miller/Turners or an Aintree G1 (as a winner) all embellish the prospects of a Ryanair contender. At this stage, Galopin Des Champs is a fair enough play at 6/1 in what might end up a shallow race - Allaho notwithstanding - next term. But keep a beady on events in Liverpool the week after next, too. There might be a play at a price emerging from the action there.
Cheltenham Gold Cup
And finally, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Blue Riband. A proper test over three and a quarter miles, plus a few more yards, it's a legitimate proving ground for our sport's champions.
Placed Gold Cup horses can and do win the following year, as demonstrated most recently by Native River (2018), Al Boum Photo doubling up in 2020, and A Plus Tard this year. And, like the Arkle/QMCC and Golden Miller/Ryanair couplings, the Broadway is a natural springboard for the Gold Cup. Witness Bobs Worth, Lord Windermere, Al Boum Photo (first time around), and Minella Indo. Those two angles account for seven of the last ten Gold Cup winners.
A shortlist, then, might be A Plus Tard, Minella Indo, Protektorat, L'Homme Presse and Ahoy Senor.
Some have Stattler making a claim but the National Hunt Chase has made zero inroads into the Gold Cup picture, even since cutting back in distance, Galvin the latest to possess the stamina but not the class for the main gig. Others proffer the talented Monkfish but he has not been seen on the course since April last year and has plenty to prove as a result. He might enter the frame after we've swooned over his comeback but he's no kind of long-term conveyance at this point.
There is no sign of a Golden Miller runner winning the Gold Cup a year after in recent history and, besides, Galopin Des Champs is only 5/1 and has other - some say, better - options. Nor am I personally convinced of the Cheltenham credentials of Bravemansgame, for all that he may shorten if winning at Aintree.
Of the quintet on the shortlist, Minella Indo will be ten next year - too old - and Protektorat looked some way shy of what's required for all that he can certainly improve from his current mark: he'll only be eight next year. A Plus Tard was imperious this time and is unquestionably the one to beat; but he's scheduled to face two rising stars off Broadway, as it were, next year. That's just as well because it's hard to see anything behind him a couple of weeks ago reversing places.
L'Homme Presse had stamina questions to answer going into the Broadway; not only did he respond with a win, he did it going away from a strong stayer at the finish. It was a performance that quietly but confidently, erm, pressed his Gold Cup claims, though 8/1 reflects that pretty much fully. So what of his vanquished rival, Ahoy Senor? His jumping was a little sketchy, more than that at one point, and if brushing up as he's entitled to for a second season over fences, he could maybe bridge the gap; but it's a stretch to imagine a reversal of form even with a clear round.
If Royale Pagaille ever gets a swamp on Gold Cup day, he'd have a great chance, and is still young enough to be a player in twelve months' time; but that is a big 'if' as evidenced by the 'going' column in the above table. Still, 50/1 is a tad rude, I'd say.
Look to the podium spots in the previous Gold Cup, and the 1-2 from the Broadway. The problem is that the market has looked there already meaning value appears pretty thin on the ground.
So that's that, a route into most of next year's Cheltenham Festival Grade 1's based on activity this spring. If you're ambitious enough to try a few of these so far out - we all have to survive another fifty weeks through uncertain times for a start (mind you, if we don't, I guess it won't really matter whether we've made good bets or bad) - then it could be worth some uber-optimistic permed doubles. Catch one and it will apologise for a lot of misfires from the scattergun!
One other thing to keep in mind is price volatility over time. The ante post markets overreact in both directions, so horses that fit the bill above but are skinny enough in the betting right now will still fit the historical profile if/when they ease out a point or three. The brave investor buys when others are selling, as long as her fundamentals are close enough to their mark.
Good luck. With a favourable spin of the wheel, we'll have a few tasty tickets on the back burner while those flat race bunnies are haring about the place.