Ryanair Chase 2015 Preview, Trends, Tips
It's now just 35 days - or five weeks in old money - until Cheltenham Festival 2015 kicks off, and it's time for another ante-post preview. With the World Hurdle, Gold Cup, and Arkle already in the can; the Champion Hurdle looking bereft of value; and the Champion Chase still impossible to call, I'm taking a swipe at the Ryanair Chase...
Ryanair Chase Trends
Last year was the tenth running of the race in its current guise, having previously been run as the Cathcart Challenge Trophy, a Grade 2 for first or second season chasers only. So we have ten years' worth of data to go on...
106 horses contested those ten Ryanair Chases, and we'll be looking at the runners to winners ratio in the below.
Age: Although six and seven year olds have only won two of the ten Ryanairs, they've done it from just sixteen runners. That's 20% of the winners from 15% of the runners. Not a huge sample size, granted, but ballast is applied with the fact that eight of the thirty win and placed horses (27%) were this age, from the same 15% of runners.
Eight to ten year olds were responsible for the remaining eight winners, from 79 runners - 80% wins from 75% runs, so not massively material.
The eleven horses aged eleven or above failed to win and secured a single placed effort between them.
Last time out:
Finishing Position: Six (60%) of the 45 horses (42%) to finish first or second last time won. Given that a further 14 were placed (67% win/place), these may be reliable propositions upon which to focus.
Grade: Seven (70%) of the 47 horses (44%) to have run in a Grade 1 last time took Ryanair gold. The other three ran in Grade 2 (two) and Grade 3 (one) company the last day.
Distance: Quite interesting is this one. With just one (10%) of the 39 horses (37%) to have run at two and a half miles or less last time winning the Ryanair, a prep over a reflective trip looks a banker.
Days since a run: All ten winners had run last between 26 and 90 days ago. The 24% of runners who historically hadn't run in that time, and couldn't get it done in the Ryanair, may be a portent to the long absent and the quick returning this time around, too.
Odds: Given the fairly 'obvious' nature of most winners - i.e. youngish horses who won or nearly won last time out - it is little surprise that this has been a 'chalky' (i.e. top of the market) race. Indeed, nine of the ten winners were priced between 3/1 and 6/1, from just 21 to fall in that price range.
90% winners from 20% runners is clearly an attractive stat, but using market price as a means to qualify a bet is precarious at best. Nevertheless, it is testament to a general lack of depth in the Ryanair. With that said, this year may yet prove an exception in that regard.
Official Rating: Although the first three winners of the Ryanair were rated in the 150's, it is a race which has attracted better horses as the years have worn on. Last year, Dynaste was the highest rated winner yet, on 169; and the average of the last four winners has been 167.
Other: Seven of the ten winners (70%) had previously won at beyond the 2m5f Ryanair trip, from 47% of the runners, again doffing a statistical cap to the advantage of proven stamina.
Ryanair Chase Form Preview
There are 39 still entered at time of writing, and a number of them may yet go shorter (Champion Chase) or longer (Gold Cup). With only one bookmaker offering the 'non-runner money back' concession at this stage - well done Boylesports - we need to tread carefully or wager with that safety net firm.
The top of the market is a two way go between last year's winner, Dynaste, and Irish up-and-comer, Don Cossack.
STOP PRESS: 4th February: A day after publishing this post, Dynaste has been ruled out for the season.
Let's start with the champ. As he did last year, Dynaste looks set to enter the Festival arena without a win this season. However, that is to take little away from his credentials. Indeed, it can be argued that in defeat he has achieved more than any other in the field, so close has he got to the Gold Cup favourite, Silviniaco Conti, in both the Betfair Chase and the King George. If it was felt that those two races - run at around three miles - stretched his stamina, that looked to be confirmed last month when Dynaste was outstayed up the Cheltenham hill by Many Clouds and Smad Place, two horses about which there are no such range reservations. The drop back to the Ryanair trip looks a no-brainer and, while connections have yet to finally commit, it would surely be an act of lunacy to go long, and into the Gold Cup itself. Another consideration with Dynaste is that in those beaten runs in the past two seasons, four of the five were on soft ground. Without saying David Pipe's son of Martaline doesn't act on soft, it is probably fair to say he's a slightly better horse on slightly better ground. It's likely to be slightly better ground in mid-March and, with trip and grade proven by last year's win, Dynaste is a solid favourite.
Interestingly, then, in some books he's not the jolly, that privilege being afforded to the Don, Cossack. Or Don Cossack to give him his proper un-punctuated name.
Gordon Elliott's eight year old has improved a stone or so on ratings this season in a four race unbeaten streak which included the Grade 1 John Durkan in early December, and the Grade 2 Kinloch Brae Chase in mid-January. Whilst difficult to crab a horse with figures of four out of four, it is still possible to pick holes in the form of his runs.
The two key efforts are those alluded to above, in the first of which he benefited from his main market rival - Boston Bob - suffering material interference; and in the second of which his main market rival - Champagne Fever - fell at the last.
In the Don's defence, he would probably have won both races anyway, albeit by relatively fine margins. But it must be beyond question that in that pair of two-and-a-half-milers he took on horses unsuited by the distance: Champagne Fever looks a certainty for the Champion Chase over two miles, and Boston Bob will go the full Gold Cup trip (which I suspect might test his stamina too far - he looks a three miler these days, dead on).
The Cossack will go on any ground, and the Ryanair looks his ideal range. There remains an unanswered question about the specific - and significant - demands of Cheltenham, with his fall in the RSA Chase last year the only attempt. So, while he comes into the race on an upward curve, I'm not personally convinced he can improve from his Irish rating of 166 to the approximate 170 I suspect will be required to win this year's Ryanair. Not at Cheltenham anyway.
Cue Card, the 2013 winner, is third choice in all books at an almost uniform 8/1. Promoted from 165 to 170 after that fine effort almost two years ago, Cue Card went as high as 174 after claiming the 2013 Betfair Chase fifteen months back.
Since then, it has largely been a tale of regression, his fine second in the 2013 King George aside. Indeed, having started favourite in his first two starts this season, Colin Tizzard's stable star finished fourth both times, with double digit distances 'twixt himself and the race winners. His thirteen length fifth in the 2014 King George was disappointing enough to warrant an eight pound easing in his official rating, and he does have a lot to prove on this year's form.
It is worth reminding readers that Cue Card was off for the best part of a year after suffering a stress fracture of the pelvis so, while it is dangerous to write off a yard as talented and targeted as Tizzard's, it might be that we've seen the best of this former Cheltenham Champion Bumper winner.
Champagne Fever, himself a former Cheltenham Champion Bumper winner, remains in many lists at around 10/1, but the only bookmaker to play this horse with is Boyle and their non-runner money back insurance. He is very likely to go the shorter route and, in any case, the evidence is that he doesn't stay this far.
That brings us to one of the most interesting runners in the field, Jonjo O'Neill's Johns Spirit. It has been mentioned elsewhere on this site what a brilliant Cheltenham Festival target trainer Jonjo is, so an absence since Boxing Day is of little concern.
Johns Spirit has improved right through the handicap ranks, winning a Class 2 chase and then the Paddy Power in late 2013, and then running a fair fourth in the Byrne Group Plate at last year's Festival. That was off a mark of 148, and he kicked this season off with a 2m4f win in a Class 2 handicap chase, again at Cheltenham.
Next stop was a title defence in the Paddy Power in November, where he was just collared on the line. That day he lugged top weight, and was ceding two stone less a pound to his vanquisher, Caid Du Berlais. It should be added that the Paddy Power form has worked out pretty poorly so far, with none of the 26 subsequent runs of horses that competed there yielding a win, and only four making the frame.
Away from his beloved Cheltenham, Johns Spirit was upped to championship class in the King George and ran respectably. His 16 length sixth reads better than Cue Card's slightly narrower defeat on the basis that both track and trip were probably against him.
I'm not sure Johns Spirit is good enough to win the Ryanair, but there is some juice in his 12/1 quote to find out.
There follow a pair of 14/1 chances, headed by Balder Succes. Alan King's seven year old has won three times at around this distance, all on pan flat tracks (twice at Kempton, once at Warwick), and his Cheltenham record is comprised of letters rather than numbers: FUF.
If that's not enough to put you off, then it is worth noting that he would probably have won - albeit over two miles - when falling two out in the latter 'F', and he has completed in all ten starts since. But I'd be fairly confident that the combination of distance and stiff finish will find him out, even if the fences don't.
Al Ferof is the other 14/1 shot, and he's an interesting player in whichever Festival race he's pitched at. I've had - and recommended - a small tickle on him (NRNB) for the Gold Cup here. And I'm happy to take a small slice of 12's when 14/1 is generally available to avail of the same non-runner no bet insurance as I have in the Gold Cup.
Third in the King George, that gives him the jump on a few in this field if a strict lateral interpretation is made. Depending on how you viewed that race, he was either outpaced and plodded on, or he was outstayed. The balance of his form suggests he was probably outstayed, but that's by no means unequivocal.
For a start, he's been in the first three in all of his trio of three mile runs, two of which were in the King George. But at around two and a half miles, he has form of 3131151. He is a Grade 1 winner and a quadruple Grade 2 winner, and he won the Paddy Power in 2012 over this distance but on the Old Course at Cheltenham (the Ryanair is run on the New Course).
Detractors will point to his fifth place in last year's Ryanair, where he was beaten less than eight lengths. But here's what I believe the key to be with Al Ferof: he goes best fresh. To wit, his record after a break of 60 days or more is 1F1111, a sequence which takes in all four of his Grade 2's, as well as his Paddy Power win, where he hauled close to top weight.
In short, I think a rested Al Ferof is a threat in his connections' chosen Festival engagement, and I suspect the Ryanair is the perfect spot for him.
A gaggle of possibles lurk in the 16/1 to 20/1 range, including Ballycasey, Taquin De Seuil, Hidden Cyclone, Ma Filleuile and Uxizandre.
Ballycasey seemingly had few excuses when lapped at Leopardstown at Christmas, and a rating of 153 gives him a stone and more to find.
Taquin De Seuil is more interesting. He won the JLT Novices' Chase over two and a half at the Festival last year, touching off the gallant front runner, Uxizandre, that day. He's not been seen since pulling up in the Betfair Chase in November and, even with Jonjo's healing hands, it's a leap of faith to see the horse coming back not just right but ten pounds better than ever.
Uxizandre on the other hand had looked an improver this season, before a desperate showing in desperate ground in the same race as Ballycasey at Leopardstown over Christmas. That performance might have been down to the ground, but it might not have, and in any case there's a fair chance he'll run in the Champion Chase rather than the Ryanair.
One thing to note: he's currently 14/1 to win any race at the Festival with Hills, and that looks better than either 20/1 for the Ryanair or 16/1 for the Queen Mother. I made that bet before the Christmas copybook blot and my 10/1 looks less than shrewd now...
Hidden Cyclone must be a player. After all, he comes to Cheltenham on the back of a good win in the Tied Cottage Chase, and he was second in the Ryanair last year. He'll probably be moved up to 164 or so by the Irish handicapper for his win on Sunday, but he was punch drunk on the run in last year.
The suspicion is that he won't quite get home, and that's backed up by connections likely opting for the shorter Champion Chase option.
Ma Filleule has taken good support this week for this race, and it's unclear to me why. It's been suggested that Mark Howard nominated her as a player, but I wouldn't have thought his sphere of influence was sufficient to move the market (25's into 16's, one remaining spot of 20's) thus. It was also mentioned that a write up in The Times had said she was in great form, but plans were still undecided between this race and the Gold Cup.
Anyway, be all that as it may, the issue is that she is no better than 20/1, and her form gives her seven pounds to find. Although she's won over three miles - in a Kempton handicap chase - this looks her optimal trip and her two most recent efforts can be forgiven for over-stretching her range elastic.
With two second places from four Cheltenham starts, one of them in the Festival Handicap Chase behind Holywell last term, she will have no issue with the race parameters and it's 'merely' a question of whether she's good enough. I could envisage her making the frame, but she'd have to take a big step forward and a fair number fail to go as well as they can for her to win.
The highest rated of all the UK runners, and still a 25/1 shot in one book, is Menorah. Ten year olds have won this - Fondmort, Our Vic and Albertas Run - so age is not an issue. His rating has elevated from 161 in April 2014 to its current 169, and he's been rated in the 160's since 2012. That's a figure that, being frank, a number of the better fancied horses in the market will never achieve; and this is Menorah's only Festival entry.
So why the big price? I imagine it is mainly down to the regression in his course form. Since winning the 2010 Supreme Novices' Hurdle, he added a couple more Graded hurdles at the track before being weighed down by my financial support in the 2011 Champion Hurdle, finishing a fair fifth behind the unparalleled Hurricane Fly.
Defeat to Grandouet in the following season's International Hurdle saw a career change to fences, the first season of which culminated in a respectable third to Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle. It should be noted he was beaten nearly thirty lengths that day, however, and since then has run lamentably in both Festival starts.
They were both in the Ryanair, and read Po. Another such performance would render a Ryanair form string of PoP or Poo, either of which illustrates why Laddies are happy to take a 'pony' chance with him. At the price, I'll admit, I'm tempted for small money.
Ryanair Chase 2015 Tips
In what looks at first glance to be an open race, a combination of preferred engagements and official ratings soon pares things down to a more manageable number.
Dynaste has an obvious form chance and looks to be in the same sort of fettle as he was last year. He's 5/1 in places and that's fair enough without being exciting. My issue is I can't back him at 4/1 NRNB, and I can't back him at 5/1 without the concession. So, at this stage, I can't back him!
In order to derive value from any market, we have to be prepared to allow something near the head of the field to beat us. For me, it is Don Cossack. His unbeaten run this term has been more due to the poor placement and/or jumping of others than his own efforts, and if he's good enough to win, so be it, and fair play.
Cue Card has a Ryanair on his palmarès already, but on current form - even factoring in my huge respect for the stable - he's hard to back at a single figure price.
Johns Spirit is interesting, and a possible on both trainer and track form; but not as interesting to me as Al Ferof. I really like this fellow and think he's been under-rated for a lot of his career. That's why he's the price he is - as well as his multiple engagements muddying the waters - and if he goes straight to the Festival now, that will be perfect. 12/1 non-runner no bet looks good.
Uxizandre to win any race at 14's with Hills isn't the worst bet in the world either, especially back on better ground. But I couldn't recommend him solely for this race because he's still a possible for the Champion Chase.
That leaves Menorah and that 25/1. He's as likely to run a 'P' or an '0' as he is to run a 123 - more likely in the eyes of one firm's traders - but that's factored into the price. Between those two howlers, Menorah did run second in a Grade 2 handicap, giving lumps of weight away, at Cheltenham. And this season, he's finished second in the Betfair Chase as well as winning the Grade 2 Charlie Hall on good ground. The price makes the bet - always - and 25/1 is too big, for a sliver.
1pt win Al Ferof 12/1 Boylesports NRNB (14/1 general, all in run or not)
1/2 pt win Johns Spirit 11/1 Boylesports NRNB (12/1 general, all in run or not)
1/2 pt win Menorah 25/1 Ladbrokes all in run or not