Sandown Racecourse Cheltenham Preview Panel – 10th March 2012
Another of my Cheltenham 'moles' was at Sandown on Saturday, and Tess Hetherington - former winner of the Martin Wills Writing Award - offers her take on an evening of bonhomie with the occasional moot point, below...
Immediately after the last race on Imperial Cup day, I find myself in Sandown’s Esher Hall.
A spartan, brightly-lit bunker, it looks like the sort of place in which they house the survivors of natural disasters. It could do with a pot plant.
The powers that be at Sandown are probably not too worried about pot plants, as they have assembled a stellar panel for this, their Cheltenham Festival preview event, and the seats are all full.
The stage boasts no less than champion trainer Paul Nicholls, champion jockey AP McCoy, festival top-trainer contender Nicky Henderson, leading owner Andy Stewart, and Mr Paddy Power himself, sponsor of the event and fresh from his latest advertising-related skirmish with the establishment.
This cast of stars are joined by broadcasting wunderkind Nick Luck in the chair, who kicks things off by reassuring everyone that the panel is sober and that this will not take very long. Good news for those with trains to catch, no doubt, but a more double-edged pronouncement for those hoping to get any real help with the more tricky conundrums of the festival card.
We kick off with the Supreme Novices Hurdle, for which the majority of the panel seem to favour Darlan. NH says he admires the horse ‘enormously’ and that his comeback from his Newbury fall has been nothing short of amazing. AP confirms that the horse was going well when he fell, but with characteristic measure notes that two out is a long way out at Newbury.
When pushed he agrees that he wouldn’t have swapped him for another in the race, but again tempers this with “from what I can remember”, and with the comment that Steps to Freedom is “a fair horse”. He also offers up Tetlami as one that could run well. NH agrees that Tetlami is very good, but thinks Darlan just might be “a touch better”. AS regards the race as wide open but his money would be on Darlan.
PN cites his own Prospect Wells as a “lively outsider”, noting that he has had a breathing operation since his last run. PP agrees, reasoning that Steps to Freedom only beat Prospect Wells by a neck at Cheltenham in November and there is no way the latter horse should be three times the odds of the former.
Like AP, however, PP respects Steps to Freedom – whilst the horse hasn’t run “for about ten years”, he reports that his trainer Jessica Harrington has been very strong about him of late, and notes that her Cheltenham record is in a “different gear” to many.
NL asks PN which horse he’d like to train in the race other than his own and PN offers Cinders and Ashes, “if there’s a bit of juice in the ground”.
Next up is the Arkle. A unison chorus of worship for Sprinter Sacre? Not on this panel. PN is bullish about Al Ferof, reporting that he worked well with Zarkandar earlier in the day, and “could not be better than he is at the moment”. He accepts that Sprinter Sacre is the one to beat, but notes that on the form there’s not a lot between them. NH, trainer of the favourite, agrees that his precocious star (“he’s a bit of a show-off”) hasn’t really beaten anything and implies that he wouldn’t be backing him at odds-on for this reason.
He notes, however, that he has been beating the clock, recording impressive times in his races. He wouldn’t mind a lead in the race for a bit as the horse does take his races on and Finian’s Rainbow did that last year and “got mugged”. But this year’s contender will get up the hill – “he’s a 2 mile horse through and through”.
AP and AS fancy Sprinter Sacre, AP noting that he is a “massive big horse” and was probably a bit weak last year, and that he has had a wind op since then. Both tip Menorah as good each-way value at 9s. AS thinks he has class and relays a report from the horse’s owner that he has been jumping well at home.
AP is asked about Kid Cassidy but states that he won’t run in this. The horse’s trainer, sitting but two seats away, is less dogmatic but says he’s looking at the Grand Annual. NL wants a match race over 2m at Aintree between Kid Cassidy and PN’s Sanctuaire (runaway winner of the novice chase at Sandown earlier in the day) and PN says “you’re on!”
PP is asked about his firm’s “money back if Sprinter Sacre wins” offer and explains that, whilst it made sense when Peddler’s Cross was still in the race, it is now looking like “commercial suicide” as “we’re up to our knickers in Al Ferof”. As things currently stand, Paddy Power will have to refund about £2m if Sprinter Sacre wins, but if Al Ferof wins they’ll be paying out around £4m. Oops.
As time only allows for discussion of the bigger races, we skip straight to the Champion Hurdle. NH says Binocular is back to where he was when he won the Champion Hurdle, but PP argues that even if he is, that may not be good enough to beat Hurricane Fly, and predicts that Day 1 will be “an absolute bloodbath for the bookies”. AP is similarly guarded about his mount’s prospects, commenting that he jumped well at Wincanton and gave a better feel than at Kempton, but has still a long way to go to beat the favourite.
Asked to evaluate the chances of his charges, PN thinks Rock On Ruby is the best bet at the current prices (10/1 with Paddy Power) and that Cheltenham will suit him better than Kempton, but Zarkandar has the most room for improvement. Brampour is in “great shape” and back to form. Celestial Halo didn’t cough after the Kingwell but had a “very quiet few days”. NH quips “if you’d been thumped like that you’d be entitled to a few days off!” but accepts that Celestial Halo was probably not at his peak in that race. AS concedes that Celestial Halo (his own horse) is not good enough to beat the top contenders, but queries where else they could go given his handicap mark.
For Wednesday’s RSA Chase, PN is asked about Join Together, talked up by his assistant trainer Dan Skelton this week, but he’s not jumping on that particular bandwagon. He’d prefer 3m2f and the new track for the horse, and in any event thinks Grand Crus will run in this. AP agrees that on the form David Pipe’s charge will be hard to beat.
His only worry is whether the horse settles well enough, the Feltham having been run perfectly for him as they went ‘crazy fast’ at the front. AS can’t see past Grand Crus but hopes that Bob’s Worth wins. NH is fairly circumspect about this prospect, explaining that he had a “difficult January” with the horse, who has had a wind op since the Feltham. (At this point I begin to wonder how long until we get to the stage where trainers switch to announcing that horses have not had a wind op....) Things have apparently gone better with Bob’s Worth of late, and NH thinks he’s definitely good enough to win, but he’s got to get into a rhythm and jump neatly.
PP reports that all the money has been for Sir Des Champs who, although lucky to have remained unbeaten this season (Knockfierna had every chance of beating him at Limerick on Boxing Day when running out at the second last), is PP’s pick of the Gigginstown crew.
Back to 2 miles now with the Queen Mother Champion Chase, and Sizing Europe gets the most solid support of the night. PP describes him as “almost bombproof”, noting that his jumping is more reliable than that of Moscow Flyer, and that he really has the measure of Finian’s Rainbow.
NH says Finian’s Rainbow is much more relaxed this year, having approached everything “like a bull in a china shop” last season, and so can be ridden differently, but concedes that the defending champion is “the real deal”, with the only potential chink in his armour being his response to the travel from Waterford to Prestbury Park.
AP agrees that Sizing Europe is the best horse, with Big Zeb, Somersby, Wishfull Thinking and Finian’s Rainbow “all much of a muchness”. He tips Kauto Stone as good value at 16/1, and PN agrees that he could run into a place, excusing his past two efforts on the basis of jumping too slowly (in the Tingle Creek) and then running too free (at Ascot).
AS is the only panel member who refuses to sign up to the Sizing Europe fan club, arguing that he is “no Moscow Flyer or Flagship Uberalles” and that his price is too short. Interestingly he gives Gauvain as a good each-way bet, and insists that this is not a one-horse race.
AS then kicks off the commentary on the Ryanair. He had very limited options for his horse, Poquelin, but notes that he loves the new course. PN agrees that he has a good chance. AS respects Somersby, and thinks Riverside Theatre is better right handed on a flat track.
NH baulks at this, reasoning that the horse has won going left. He realises that people will look at the Arkle effort two years ago, but explains that he was never a 2m horse. This is his trip and, although there wouldn’t be a lot of improvement in him from Ascot, “you’d hope there wouldn’t need to be”.
AP says Jonjo O’Neill seems happy with Alberta’s Run, who has been hard to get right this year, but Noble Prince has a bit more speed and the drying ground will help him out, giving him a very good chance. PP agrees, reasoning that he will have been trained specifically for this race and deserves to be favourite.
AP also rates Captain Chris and advises thinking about him in this, especially at 16/1 NRNB. PN thinks Medermit is also interesting if he runs. PP puts in a good word for Rubi Light, who has been impressive in Ireland and ran well in this race last year, though would prefer soft ground.
And on to the World Hurdle. NL asks PN if there is any reason why Big Buck’s won’t find winning this race as straightforward as he has done for the last 3 years, and is met with the riposte “Yeah – if Oscar Whisky is better than him!”
There is general consensus that Oscar Whisky is better than anything Big Buck’s has met so far. AS concedes that he “oozes class” and NH reports that he’s in really good shape. The trainer starts to say he wishes he’d put him in the Champion Hurdle, before checking himself – “he’s not a Champion Hurdle horse, but I wish there was a Ryanair Hurdle!”
Despite this there is, unsurprisingly, a huge amount of respect for Big Buck’s, and when asked how he would ride Oscar Whisky to beat Big Buck’s, AP quips that he’d make sure Oscar Whisky got a head start!
It is difficult to see past these two, but PP offers up Mourad and So Young to run into a place if the field goes fast enough.
The Triumph Hurdle looks a much more open contest, but the panel agree that Pearl Swan’s Cheltenham win is the most solid form. He is PP’s pick, and PN is amazed that he’s not favourite, given that he’s beaten Grumeti and Baby Mix and “I can get him a lot better than that”. PN thinks Grumeti is the best of the rest but gives a plug for his own Dodging Bullets as an outsider, as the horse ran impressively last time out behind Grumeti and “has improved enormously”. PN sounds a note of caution about Balder Succes as a NH rather than Flat-bred horse, explaining that the former often struggle in the Triumph.
AP would not write off Sadler’s Risk, who looked a good tough performer first time out, and PP thinks that if Baby Mix hadn’t had a “blip” behind Pearl Swan and Grumeti then he’d be clear favourite for this. NH agrees – Baby Mix got beaten on soft ground and bounced right back on good ground, and Cheltenham will be good ground by the end of the week. AS agrees that he’s worth a bet on fast ground, but he’s going for Dodging Bullets.
Of the rest, PP has heard good vibes about Darroun and Shadow Catcher, and notes that the latter’s trainer, Gordon Elliott, has been sweet on him for a while. Both have much to prove on the track, however.
Grand finale time, with the Gold Cup, and predictably all the chat is about the big two, Kauto Star and Long Run. Both trainers wax lyrical about the chances of their charges. PN reports that Kauto is “in the form of his life” and an “absolute certainty to run” unless there is a schooling upset on Monday, whilst NH states that Long Run is “seriously well”, but expresses the magnanimous hope that, for the good of racing, the pair are both in contention at the last.
NL tries to inject some edge into this love-fest by asking whether it could be argued that, whilst PN had Kauto absolutely on song for Haydock and Kempton, Long Run has been aimed at the Gold Cup all along? His question has the desired effect, as PN immediately rejects this as “a load of bollocks”, reasoning that you don’t run in the King George with the aim of looking after the horse for the Gold Cup. (He’s right, of course.)
NL then asks NH whether there is anything in the suggestion that Barry Geraghty “took one for the team” on Burton Port in the Betfair Chase, allowing Long Run a victorious prep race. NH does not say that this is “a load of bollocks”, only “a touch unfair”. Whilst this may well indicate no more than a difference in personal style between the two trainers, NH then becomes rather tongue-tied whilst trying to explain what exactly Barry did do, and ends up accepting that Burton Port didn’t want a very hard race pre Cheltenham, but reasoning that this wouldn’t have affected the result.
He is clear, however, that Burton Port “has to enter the equation”, and PP thinks Burton Port might be the bet, if Sam Waley-Cohen and Ruby Walsh get caught up trying to beat each other. AS thinks Kauto Star will win it.
For those looking for some value, AP thinks Synchronised has as good a chance as any of those with each-way odds, whilst PN thinks What A Friend is a big price and could easily run into a place. Nobody mentions Midnight Chase, and everyone seems to be working on the assumption that Grand Crus will go for the RSA.
Before they depart the panel are asked for their charity bets, funded by Paddy Power (who also offers some extremely generous bespoke odds for their picks). PN goes for Rock On Ruby to win the Champion Hurdle, AP picks Boston Bob in the Albert Bartlett, NH selects Simonsig in the Neptune, AS puts his on Celestial Halo for a place in the Champion Hurdle, and NL goes for Shadow Catcher in the Triumph.
And that was that. An enjoyable end to a fabulously sunny day’s racing, for sure, but as preview nights go, perhaps a little staid.
The panel members will be among the best connected individuals at next week’s meeting, but the problem with the connections of top horses is that they are...... connected. They are inevitably going to speak about their own horses in the big races, and they are inevitably going to say what they have said before, both about their charges and the key opponents, all of which is inevitably going to be tempered with a fairly hefty degree of PR-awareness – perhaps particularly given this event’s early kick-off, tight schedule, and the absence of a bar.
This is no criticism of the speakers, but as I left I couldn’t help thinking that this panel could have done with a dispassionate form nerd. And a pot plant.