Tag Archive for: Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle

Stellar Story denies The Jukebox Man in Bartlett thriller

Sam Ewing and Stellar Story pounced in the very last stride to inflict Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle agony on The Jukebox Man at the Cheltenham Festival.

The Ben Pauling-trained 18-1 outsider, who is owned by Harry Redknapp, had led the field along from flag fall in the hands of Kielan Woods, with Gordon Elliott’s shock 33-1 winner amongst those to track the pace setter.

The sedate early gallop saw plenty in with chances as the runners descended towards two out, but one by one they dropped away as Woods upped the tempo aboard The Jukebox Man and made his bid for home.

Pauling’s charge held the advantage running down to the last, but the six-year-old got in tight and gave Ewing and Stellar Story a glimmer of hope and they took full advantage, rallying to reel in the brave runner-up in the shadow of the post.

It was Elliott’s second success of the week following on from Teahupoo’s Stayers’ Hurdle triumph on Thursday, but for the young rider Ewing, it was not only a first Cheltenham Festival success, but also a maiden strike at Grade One level.

Sam Ewing salutes the Cheltenham crowd
Sam Ewing salutes the Cheltenham crowd (Mike Egerton/PA)

Ewing said: “Absolutely brilliant. He’s a horse that jumps very well, he loved that ground today and he battled very hard for me. He was brilliant at the last as well, when we needed it, so I can’t believe it.”

Elliott admitted he thought Stellar Story’s odds were generous, saying: “To be honest we thought he was overpriced, we knew he’d love the ground and he’s as tough as old nails.

“He stayed very well and Sam was good and positive. We were probably a little bit fortunate that the second horse missed the last as we’ve collared him on the line, but it was brilliant. I knew he was getting there, I just didn’t think he was getting there in time.

“To tell you the honest truth, I wasn’t going to run him. I was going to run Croke Park in the race and he was lame on Wednesday morning, so I brought this horse over late. I was going to send him to Aintree for a three-mile hurdle, so it shows what I know.

Stellar Story (left) chased down The Jukebox Man
Stellar Story (left) chased down The Jukebox Man (Mike Egerton/PA)

“He was bought to be a big chaser, that’s what he is. He’s a lovely horse.

“Sam is a big part of the team and I’m delighted for him.”

Owner Michael O’Leary added: “It’s a relief as I was getting a bit desperate. I had a bad day yesterday as my wife was presenting the Ryanair trophy to an ex Manchester United manager (Sir Alex Ferguson) and I’m a lifelong Man City supporter.

“I’m happy that’s the only trophy Man United are going to win this year, but I’m a bit disappointed it was the Ryanair trophy.

“It’s a complete fluke as we had Croke Park for this race and Gordon only put this horse on the box on Wednesday night. Sam gave him a peach of a ride.

“It was just a slog fest, but I’m very happy to win it. That relieves an awful lot of pressure.

“Winners here are so hard to get, if you don’t appreciate being in here you should give this game up. I tried to give it up about five years ago!

“To get in here is just fantastic.”



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Cheltenham Festival 2024: Day Four Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2024: Day Four Preview, Tips

It's been a weird, and occasionally unsatisfying, week with the abandonment of the Cross Country Chase and the lamentable early showings - and subsequent withdrawals - of Nicky Henderson's star players. But here we are, three down one to go and buoyed for a crack at the Foxhunters Gold Cup. If you're behind at this point, the good news is there is still time; the bad news is this is 'Give Back Friday'...

1.30 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)

Previewed by Matt Bisogno. Although Nicky has had to pull most of his star players, he does - at time of writing, Wednesday morning - still plan to run Sir Gino, strong Triumph Hurdle favourite heretofore but now drifting like The Drifters aboard the Kon-Tiki. Let's consider his form credentials before getting bogged down in the health of the yard. Unbeaten in three, Sir Gino was considered smart enough to debut in a Listed contest at Auteuil. Sent off at bigger than 20/1 on the Paris nanny, he scored by a bit less than two lengths.

Subsequently transferred to Seven Barrows, the first thing they did was give him a wind op (well, it probably wasn't the first thing, but you know what I mean). His breathing facilitated, he scooted up by half the track in a decent Kempton Introductory Hurdle; and he then buried the Burdett Road dream by bashing that one ten lengths in a Grade 2 on the Old course here. His form is miles clear of the rest of the home team, but that bug in the Henderson yard makes it very difficult to accept a shortish price.

That's all the more true when you see what Willie's bringing to the party. Perhaps Majborough will be the pick of his, perhaps he won't; but in time he very well might be, according to 'the vibes'. In any case, his close soft ground third to stablemate Kargese in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle on first start for over a year - he'd run as a three-year-old at Auteuil on 2nd April 2023 - was expected to blow away the cobwebs and it surely did.

Willie ran five in that race, Majborough only third choice in the betting, and the two ahead of him in the market filled the first two slots home. They were led by second favourite that day, Kargese, who looks a smart filly. Always prominent, she wasn't always fluent, but ran on well in a first time hood. She'll keep that pacifier on here and will again take on Majborough and the second from the Spring, Storm Heart. This ex-French flat horse won a maiden by 22 lengths before his G1 second, and he too retains plenty of upside. It is noteworthy that he's the choice of Paul Townend.

Willie ran five in the Spring Juvenile, and he saddles - wait, let me count them - sEvEn here! Seven. Out of the 14. I mean, what? As with the bumper, there's a chance he doesn't know the pecking order; but unlike the bumper, he's won this with his first string three times in the last four years. That points to Majborough in spite of having to turn the tables with both Kargese and Storm Heart. He's clearly held in high regard.

A quick whizz through the other four Willies - Bunting was fourth in the Spring Juvenile, only a bit more than two lengths behind the winner, and is another who on form could come out in front this time; Ethical Diamond was sixth there, and has five lengths to find - still not impossible; and High Wind was eighth at Leopardstown and ostensibly has plenty on to get past any of the aforementioned Mullins mob.

Meanwhile, Salvator Mundi hasn't run for eleven months since claiming argent at Auteuil in another Listed race. But here's the thing: he was second to none other than Sir Gino! The pair of them pulled ten clear of the third placed horse and, while Sir Gino, was value for a little more than 1 3/4 length margin, that obviously still makes Salvator Mundi 'live' in here if he's fit after that long layoff.

Nurburgring is quite battle hardened but I'm not sure his form with Kala Conti is quite as strong as some of the Closutton collective, or that he has the upside of them.

Back in Blighty, Salver has been winning and winning. He served up (geddit?!) in the G2 Finale at Chepstow having already won his two prior hurdles in lower class; then he won the Victor Ludorum at Haydock. A feature of his most recent brace of scores was very wet underfoot, so conditions ought not to be a concern - whether he's as good as the Irish and/or Sir Gino remains a concern!

I'm struggling to make cases for the rest, though Peking Opera was a very good flat horse and Ithaca's Arrow ploughed through the Newbury mud last time (he also ploughed through quite a few of the hurdles). Fratas has been off for a long time. And I backed Mighty Bandit a long time ago at a shorter price than he is now. He's moved from Elliott to Greatrex and has a clunk last time on his scorecard, though he was clearly wrong that day. He's a lot harder to fancy for that water under the bridge since my guessy ante post voucher, but he did look very good on his first hurdling start.

Triumph Hurdle Pace Map

Bound to be pacey early, with something from the Willie phalanx locking horns most probably with Salver and perhaps Fratas.

Triumph Hurdle Selection

Very tricky in light of the issues surrounding the jolly. He can't possibly be a bet as things stand, which makes punting a guess up. Paul Townend has ridden the three recent Mullins winners, but Mark Walsh is retained by JP McManus for Majborough. Townend rides Storm Heart and that one could be a bit of each way value in a race where there's not a lot between many of them. I'd love to see Salver win.

Suggestion: Try Storm Heart each way at 11/1 or so.

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2.10 County Hurdle (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m1f)

Previewed by Rory Delargy.

I was a bit miffed when Dan Skelton (handicap genius or barefaced cheat – you decide) said he was going to miss the County Hurdle with 2023 winner Faivoir as I’d availed myself of some 28/1 ante-post on the basis of his eye-catching run in the Betfair Hurdle when fifth behind Iberico Lord. Stablemate L’Eau du Sud was runner-up that day and Skelton seemed adamant that the latter would carry his hopes in the County.

I was even more miffed when, hoping to cash in, I napped Faivoir in the Imperial Cup only to see him beaten a nose by Go Dante. He’s clearly well handicapped, and Skelton has decided to let him run again. I thought initially that this sounded like a bad-beat declaration, but my friend Mr Massey mentioned the stable’s record when turning runners out quickly in handicaps. Naturally, I headed over to geegeez.co.uk (pint please, Matt) to double check.

True enough, Skelton’s record with quick turnarounds is excellent with two wins and a second in the last two years from just seven runners, including Heltenham’s 17/2 score at Newbury recently. Looking back further his figures are even better for hurdlers alone with five winners from 12 runners turned out less than a week from a previous start. That’s enough to make Faivoir interesting again even if he did have a hard race at Sandown and presumably he won’t run if there are signs he’s not fully recovered.

L’Eau du Sud ran a stormer in the Betfair and while the form was let down by the winner in the Champion Hurdle, I think we all know that the Henderson lurgy was responsible for that, and ditto Betfair fourth Doddiethegreat’s late capitulation in the Coral Cup. The form of that race is clearly strong, as it always is, and the only negative about L’Eau du Sud is the price, with every man and his dog having hitched on to the Skelton bandwagon.

The other good trial for this race is the 2m Listed handicap hurdle at the DRF which this year was won by Lord Erskine from Magical Zoe and Zenta with a number of horses taken out of the race in what we affectionately refer to as a “shemozzle” at the penultimate flight. One of those brought down was Bialystock, who was travelling well and improving on the inner at the time. I think that trio are all of interest, and while a 7lb rise for the first two seems a little harsh at first glance, Bialystock is only 1lb higher and that also makes him of interest here.

Both Zenta and Magical Zoe were relatively handily placed off the turn, and out of trouble wide on the track, but it’s possible that both went slightly too early as 50/1 winner Lord Erskine was produced very late to swamp them from the final hurdle. One can knock the form because of the odds of the winner, but I think it’s very solid and Lord Erskine came in for a really well judged ride, finding the best of the ground wide on the track and delaying his challenge until late.

In short, there is nothing between Magical Zoe and Zenta on Leopardstown form and the pair can be expected to play a big part in the finish if held on to for slightly longer, while Bialystock is weighted to beat them if you take the view that he would have finished off as strongly as he travelled there. On that point, Ruby Walsh feels that Bialystock needs a fairly sharp 2m to show his best given he’s very speedy and was concerned about the stiff 2m1f here when I mentioned Bialystock as a County possibility. That’s a warning worth heeding but he still merits his place on the list.

Of the others King of Kingsfield and Absurde were third and fourth behind Ballyburn and Slade Steel and are of obvious interest dropping into a handicap from that Grade 1 contest which has thrown up two impressive winners in the big novice hurdles this week. Both are worthy of consideration, but both are also well found already in the market.

County Hurdle Pace Map

Another almost guaranteed quick pace though it's not clear from where the early dash will emerge. Aucunrisque looks a likely but Westport Cove is the only other to have led in its most recent three spins. A handful of others led four back. I still reckon it'll be quick but could be wrong as I don't know who goes on!

County Hurdle Selection

In terms of the final call, price will be crucial, and the favourite is a tad short now for all he could ease on the day. Faivoir is 16/1 in a couple of places which is very fair given the stats quoted above and his attractive mark, while even Ruby’s words don’t completely put me off Bialystock after his eye-catching run at Leopardstown.

Suggestion: Try Faivoir at 16/1 and/or Bialystock at 11/1 each way with as many extra places as you can find.

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2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

Previewed by Gavin Priestley, FestivalTrends.co.uk.

All of the last 14 winners had their last run over 2m3f-3m 1/2f.

All of the last 14 winners had their last run in the previous 26-90 day period.

12 of the last 13 winners had finished top 3 last time out.

All of the last 12 winners with an official rating were rated 136+.

9 of the last 10 winners returned 11/1 or bigger.

12 of the last 13 winners had raced 7 or fewer times over hurdles.

12 of the last 14 winners were aged 6 or 7yo.

11 of the last 14 winners had won at 2m4 1/2f+.

11 of the last 14 winners had their last start in Graded company (8 in a Grade 2).

10 of the last 14 winners were Irish Bred.

9 of the last 14 winners finished Top 3 in a Graded hurdle last time out.

8 of the last 14 winners had won a Graded hurdle previously.

4 of the last 14 winners returned 33/1 or bigger.

3 of the last 14 winners had raced 15 or more times in their career.

Willie Mullins had 22 straight losers between 2010-2016 but has now won 3 of the last 7.

8 of the last 12 winners had won an Irish PTP.

4 of the last 9 winners wore a tongue tie.

All 6 female runners have finished unplaced.

Only 1 of the last 13 winners had their last race in a handicap (27 such runners).

The sire Oscar has 2 wins and 3 places from 16 runners since the races inception.

The Grade 2 Lyons Of Limerick Jaguar Land Rover Novice Hurdle is a decent Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle trial given that the 2015, 2017 and 2021 Albert Bartlett winners had all taken part in the race prior to winning at Cheltenham, while Fury Road (third by a neck in the 2020 Albert Bartlett) had won that trial back in 2019. This Season's winner, Loughlynn, had looked a progressive horse prior to this win but has been pulled up since in a Grade 1 and gives the race a miss. The runner up at Limerick is here though and Gordon Elliott's 7yo STELLAR STORY looks just the type to go well in this.

A winning Irish pointer who is also a two time NH Flat winner, from three starts, he beat Ile Atlantique and Caldwell Potter on his third bumper start which is cracking form, that pair subsequently doing very well in Grade 1 company over hurdles and the former running third in Gallagher Novices' Hurdle on Wednesday. Stellar Story won first time up over hurdles this season and was then done for pace against a couple of speedier types in a Grade 2 at Navan over 2m4f at the start of December. He was then second in that Limerick Grade 2 Hurdle before staying on late in 4th in the big 2m6f Grade 1 Novice at the Leopardstown Festival a couple of weeks ago. I think he's crying out for this step up to 3 miles and the form of that NH flat race at Naas last February has worked out really well. He ticks all the boxes for Cheltenham, has form on soft ground and given the history of outsiders running well in this race I'm certainly not put off by his price. I like his chances a lot.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Quick, and attritional, as it usually is in 'the potato race'. Giggy may get jiggy on the lead, with some help from Wiggie Willie.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Selection

Suggestion: Back STELLAR STORY 1pt EW at 25/1.

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3.30 Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2 1/2f)

Previewed by Matt Bisogno. A Gold Cup shorn of one of its stars as Shishkin has succumbed to the mystery ailment afflicting Seven Barrows in recent days, but of course the show must go on. We still have the champ, Galopin Des Champs, back to defend a crown he acquired with a seven length beating of Bravemansgame twelve months ago.

Galopin was subsequently beaten not once but twice - either side of his seasonal break - by perrenial rival Fastorslow, before exacting revenge last time in the Irish Gold Cup at the Dublin Racing Festival. It is widely assumed that that finishing order will be maintained, but the market has arguably over-stated that. Regardless, GdC looks on top of his game and his top form is the best in the race. He's a logical and worthy favourite.

Fastorslow has a few less notches on his bedpost, and had something of a bridesmaid look having run up to Corach Rambler in the Ultima last term and also been second in the Coral Cup the year before. He's since, erm, 'got married' (note to self, don't start analogies that will go nowhere) twice in Grade 1 company before that reverse at the hands of Galopin. [*trying desperately to crowbar in the old joke: "I've got two wives, do you think that's bigamy?" "I think that's very big of you!" - there, I did it, apols also for that]

Getting back on track, Bravemansgame was just that one spot away from winning the Blue Riband a year ago, and he's having another crack now. Why wouldn't he? Since then, he's had more seconds than a minute, running up to Gentlemansgame, Royale Pagaille, and Hewick respectively. The most recent was in the King George and that, again, is top form, albeit in defeat. Soft ground would hold no fears though he's unproven on heavy bar a Listed bumper flop at Ascot way back in 2019; that shouldn't be over-factored.

Staying with Team GB, L'Homme Presse will surely be a different dude this time from the shadow of himself that showed up in the Grade 1 Ascot Chase: never put in the race that day (pocket talk, sigh) he finished well enough over a clearly inadequate trip. Lest we forget, he was the 2022 Brown Advisory winner and though I didn't like it at the time, that was a belting prep for this.

Most of Gerri Colombe's best form has been on a sounder surface - Grade 1 Mildmay, Grade 1 Scilly Isles - but he's also got G1 verdicts on soft and soft to heavy. He was duffed up by Galopin Des Champs at Christmas, beaten 23 lengths there, and we've not seen him since. That'd be a worry for me although he's obviously a very talented chap at his best.

And then there's the fairytale ownership story that is Hewick. Bought for £12.50 (or thereabouts), he's won a bet365 Gold Cup, a Galway Plate, an American Grand National, an Oaksey Chase, and a King George. And the Durham National! Wowzers. And he actually cost €850. Just incredible - good luck to those very, very, very lucky owners and the astonishing journey this horse has taken them on. But can he win a Gold Cup?

Well, the answer to can he win a Durham Nash was probably 'no', as it was to 'can he win xyz other big race?', so let's break with that errant tradition and say, yes, he can win a Gold Cup. Whether he will or not is another question entirely. He jumps well and he stays very well so those are great credentials, as is his obvious will to battle and win, but there is a rather large fly in the ointment. ALL of his best form is on quick ground. It will not be that here, "and so I'm out" (said in my most earnest Deborah Meaden voice).

Ground would be a small niggle for Corach Rambler, too. Yes, he won a four runner novice hurdle on heavy back yon, but he will have outclassed his rivals there; and yes, he won the Ultima on soft last season. I actually really like him as a 'running on' play - maybe a place lay to back, or some such - and if I can get four places I'm bound to back him for a little bit. Because he's actually very good. Two wins here in the Ultima and a Grand National triumph tell us that; and he's surely had his mark managed as far as possible hitherto this campaign with a view to a repeat National bid. Those shackles now off he'll bring his A game here.

I can't have any of the rest. Fishcake Monkfish has been fragile and largely absent since his brilliant novice chase season, failing to win in three starts since; it's tough to envisage that streak being broken on his fourth go, in the Gold Cup. Nassalam does love the mud - he blitzed them in the Welsh National on heavy - so if it was a really, really wet day he'd enter minor calculations. Former Brown Advisory winner The Real Whacker has been missing since and isn't for me; and while I respect everything Henry de B runs at the Festival, even I'm having a hard time magicking a case for Jungle Boogie.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Pace Map

Quite a tough one to call pace wise, with a feature of most of the runners being their run style versatility. Galopin Des Champs has led in small fields the last twice but might take a lead here, while the Games - Bravemans and Gentlemans - could also get an early call. Should be a good even gallop and may the best horse win.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection

It might be that Galopin Des Champs just wins or that, if he doesn't, Fastorslow does. I'll probably do that 'no brainer' exacta which will pay 5/1 or so. But I kind of like L'Homme Presse as a sleeper in the field and he'll be my each way play. Lower down, Corach Rambler will be running on and can hit the extended frame; and if it's very wet - it might be! - Nassalam could surprise a few.

Suggestion: Try a little on L'Homme Presse each way, and perhaps Corach Rambler (not too wet) or Nassalam (biblical rainfall) with as many places as you can get. But, obviously, no surprise whatsoever if the top of the market outclasses them.

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4.10 Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2 1/2f)

Previewed by John Burke, VictorValue.co.uk.

As ever I will begin with a look at a few general race trends:

Ten year-old’s have won six of the last ten renewals of the race – six winners from 47 runners +130.63, 12 placed with the A/E=1.86.

Nine of the last ten winners have been aged 10 or 11.

Favourites are three winners from ten runners -0.24, six placed. But five winners were returned between 16/1 & 66/1.

Eight of the last ten winners had won between 2m7f and 3m2½f.

There have been a number of repeat winners of this race, with Salsify, On The Fringe and Pacha Du Polder enjoying back-to-back successes since 2012.

To the form and the first thing you notice is the number of declared runners. This year’s renewal has attracted just a dozen hunters. 23 ran last year and the race average since 2008 is 22.75. Hopefully it’s a case of quality rather than quantity but I suppose it may also say a lot about the direction of travel of the hunter chase game.

I'll admit that if Matt hadn't asked me to preview the race, I probably wouldn't have given it much attention. However, I'm glad I did because despite the small field, I believe it could be an interesting contest.

Ferns Lock, Its On The Line, Premier Magic, and Samcro all share the top spot on official ratings.

Ferns Lock, although making his first appearance at Cheltenham, is a proficient jumper and a strong traveller. If he manages to stay the extended 3m2f distance, he's the most likely winner, although that's not certain given his racing style.

Its On The Line, recently acquired by JP McManus and trained by Emmet Mullins, boasts a solid record with three consecutive wins in hunter chases. He battled to victory over one of today's rivals, Billaway, in his last outing at Naas and is a strong stayer who could challenge Ferns Lock on the run-in.

Premier Magic secured victory in last year's race and followed up with another win at Cheltenham in May. Although he held off Its On The Line by 1¾ lengths last year, the latter has gained experience since then, and Premier Magic might find it tougher to repeat his success.

Samcro has shown revitalised form in point-to-point races, winning four times between October and November. While he might struggle against the likes of Ferns Lock and Its On The Line, he can't be completely discounted.

Billaway, winner of this race in 2022, fell twelve months ago but showed promise in his recent runner-up finish at Naas. Although his jumping isn't as polished as some of his rivals, his staying power keeps him in the mix.

Quintin’s Man found 2m6f an inadequate stamina test when 3rd of eight at Haydock last month. He won a course and distance hunter chase here last May so the return to today’s trip appears more suitable. He’s going the right way but would need to improve plenty to trouble the principles.

Sine Nomine delivered an improved performance to win a heavy ground hunter chase at Wetherby last month. The mare is now three from five under Rules and, whilst she needs to improve again to even get into the places, she might be capable of doing so.

Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase  Pace Map

The map only shows Rules form, so ignores point to points. As such, it's not to be trusted for all that it implies a fair gallop set by one or both of Billaway and Ferns Lock with possibly 14yo Shantou Flyer wanting a piece, too, if he can keep up!

Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase Selection

The battle seems to be between Ferns Lock and Its On The Line. If Ferns Lock conserves his energy early on, he’s the most likely winner, but Its On The Line is a strong finisher. Premier Magic, last year's winner, can't be dismissed, and for those seeking a value bet, Sine Nomine will hopefully be available at decent each-way odds.

That's a wrap for me. I've thoroughly enjoyed sharing my race previews with you, and I hope you've found them enjoyable and informative. Until next time, happy racing!

Suggestion: Try Ferns Lock to win at 11/4 and/or Sine Nomine each way at 16/1 or bigger.

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4.50 Mares' Chase (Grade 2, 2m 4 1/2f)

Previewed by Matt Bisogno. Ah, the Mares' Chase. An 'after the Lord Mayor's Show' of a race if ever there was. Or maybe 'After the Lord Mares' Show'. Perhaps not. Let's get on with it, shall we?

It's 20/1 bar four and that's mainly because Dinoblue, even money, is in the field. Her form in front of Gentleman De Mee and closest to El Fabiolo the last twice is the best by a margin; but she's only run once at this twenty furlong range, a ten length fourth in a Fairyhouse G1 novice hurdle. She kept on that day, and doubts about stablemate Lossiemouth's stamina for a similar step up were unambiguously dispelled on Tuesday. She'll probably win - she's a really smart mare.

But what if she doesn't stay? In such a scenario, Gavin Cromwell may hold the key. He runs two, Limerick Lace and Brides Hill. Limerick Lace handles soft and heavy ground, stays very well (keeping on second in the three mile Thyestes Chase) and bolted up in a Listed mares' race at this trip in Doncaster last time. I'm not convinced she's quick enough but I'm certain she'll handle conditions.

Brides Hill is on a four-timer, and she looks a trip specialist. She, too, has soft ground form, though not heavy ground form, and she's had a lot of races. She'd not be near the top of my list.

Another with conditions in her corner is Allegorie De Vassy, twice a winner on heavy in her last three starts, both in Listed company. She finished second in this last year and may again have to settle for minor honours, though she probably will go close.

Making a case for anything else is probably folly, but at a massive price Marsh Wren is better suited to conditions than most. Still a novice, she's a winner of eight of 13 starts, three of four in chases, and went to Ireland to beat some of their Listed class mares last time. She has a chunk to find on the book but goes from the front and will, as they say, "give a bold sight".

Mares' Chase Pace Map

This should be a proper test at the trip which may or may not find out the best mare in the field. Kestrel Valley and Marsh Wren, along with Dinoblue's stablemate, Instit (pronounced Ansty, apparently), will be the trailblazers.

Mares' Chase Selection

Dinoblue has to show she stays, and she might. If we knew she did, she wouldn't be evens, I guess, but I still don't like that price given the unanswered question. Limerick Lace is probably quite solid for all that she's probably quite slow (might be what's needed if it's wet) and Allegorie De Vassy is another the market (and I) expect(s) to be on the premises. If you want to go mad - we might need to by this point - Marsh Wren without the favourite, could sneak a minor placing.

Suggestion: I'm going to try to get Dinoblue beaten, which will be a waste of time if she stays. In that context, back Limerick Lace to win at 9/2.

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5.30 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 4 1/2f)

Previewed by David MasseyThis year’s Martin Pipe is a slightly strange affair, with a less compressed look to the handicap than is normally the case. It tends to be a 0-145 handicap where the bottom in is usually around the low 130’s but this time around you’ve a few below that mark and bottom weight Russian Ruler, for the not-in-form Nicky Henderson (it has to turn, doesn’t it?), is rated just 122. 

The lowest rating for anything winning this in the last decade is 135, and most of the unexposed ones that tend to do well in the race are 130+, and I think we’ll find the winner there. 

Ocastle Des Mottes is one of the Willie Mullins plots for this and he has a touch of the Galopins about him. The future Gold Cup winner had been sixth in a Grade 1 on his previous start before winning this in 2021 and Ocastle Des Mottes, whilst not competing at that level last time, still went off favourite for the Betfair Hurdle last month. Perhaps all the pre-race shenanigans when he had to be re-shod didn’t help his cause, but he was a little disappointing all the same in finishing eighth. I feel that, given the level of support he had that day, he must be capable of better, and I’d not be writing him off on the back of one run. 

Willie’s Quai De Bourbon is the one that’s come in for all the support ever since the market opened, but he looks underpriced on what he’s achieved so far. His defeat of stablemate Westport Cove looks solid enough, with the runner-up going on to be beaten 12 lengths by Tullyhill at the Dublin Racing Festival, and a mark of 140 looks fair enough. He has one of the most experienced jockeys on board in Michael O’Sullivan and he has plenty of upside to him. The market has him well found, all the same. 

Gordon Elliott has twice won this in recent years and of his battalion Better Days Ahead is the one that makes the most appeal. He didn’t shine in the Champion Bumper last year but has shown steady progression in four hurdles starts, coming up against Slade Steel at Navan two starts ago (not knocked about as the stable’s second string that day, but still not beaten far) and then second to Asian Master over a trip too short at Navan last time. Those two pieces of form look all the stronger after the Supreme and, with the useful Danny Gilligan in the plate, he just about heads up my shortlist. 

It isn’t a totally one-sided affair, as the British have won the Martin Pipe twice in the last four years, with Iroko last year and the game Indefatigable four years ago (seems like yesterday, that) but the home team is not a strong one. You’d like to think at some point David Pipe might win the race named after his father but he’s 0-23 despite chucking some decent ammunition at it over the years. Thanksforthehelp was probably trying to get himself qualified for the Pertemps at Chepstow last time; that failed, and this looks more in hope than any great plan. 

The one I could throw a few quid at each-way from our side is Gary Moore’s Teddy Blue. I’m not entirely convinced he’s in the right race today - the County would have been my preference -  but regardless, he’s developed his own ideas about the game and isn’t one to fully trust. That’s fine if he’s a 40-1 shot, as you don’t have to pay a lot to find out what side of bed he’s got out of, but his recent form is decent enough. He travelled up well to throw down a challenge in the Lanzarote before fading late and, at Ascot last time, was only beaten five lengths in a competitive affair. He will hang left under pressure, and the hope is a fast-run affair will keep him on the bridle long enough before he realises he’s in a race and by then, he’s hopefully got the place part of the bet wrapped up.  

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

Again, not obviously stacked with pace but hard to see that it won't be truly run. Gordon runs seven so one will likely go on, most likely either or both of Better Days Ahead or Mel Monroe.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Selection

Suggestion: Two bets for me - each-way 10/1 Better Days Ahead and a little win and place at 50/1 Teddy Blue.

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And that, as they say, will be that. I hope that you're having a great week, be it only in sport or with some wagering success too, and wishing you all the best with your Friday plays. Thanks a million for following geegeez this week, and special thanks to the great writing assistance I've received from David, Rory, Gavin and John - top men, all. Do check out their links in the above if you've appreciated their work as much as I have.

Be lucky.

Matt



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Punchestown a possibility for Affordale Fury

Affordale Fury’s 150-1 runner-up effort in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle may have surprised some, but not trainer Noel Meade.

Despite winning a bumper and a maiden hurdle at Galway last year, Affordale Fury went under the radar at the Festival, largely because of his two subsequent runs, when falling in the Monksfield Novice Hurdle at Navan in November and then finishing sixth to Champ Kiely in a Naas Grade One.

At Cheltenham, he belied his lofty odds when stepped up to three miles for the first time under Sam Ewing, finding only Stay Away Fay a length too good.

Meade said: “He ran well. He is a very good horse. He was unfortunate at Navan that he got a fall and he wasn’t over the fall when we ran him again, possibly feeling something, at Naas.

“We had to give him time after that, but he is a very good horse.

“He won nicely at Galway before that fall, but I suppose his run at Naas put everyone off.”

Meade expects the five-year-old to develop once he fills into his frame, and has not ruled out one more run this term.

He added: “He stays well. He should be a better horse next year as he is a big, leggy horse.

“He might go to Punchestown, but he certainly won’t go to Aintree. Then he’ll have a bit of time off.”



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Nolan rules Aintree out for Sandor Clegane

Paul Nolan has ruled Sandor Clegane out of an immediate Aintree rematch with his Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle conqueror Stay Away Fay.

There were few stronger finishers at Cheltenham than the strapping six-year-old, who flew home from an impossible position to finish a length and a quarter behind the Paul Nicholls-trained winner.

A smart bumper performer, finishing second to Facile Vega at last year’s Dublin Racing Festival, he relished the step up in trip at Punchestown in November when sauntering to a 12-length maiden hurdle win.

Given a couple of months off, he returned in the Grade One Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown, where he finished third to Good Land.

Sandor Clegane appeared to improve again at Cheltenham, despite suffering little luck in running before powering up the hill under Sean O’Keeffe.

Nolan is in no rush to map out immediate plans, however.

He said: “He ran a stormer. We expected him to. I knew he was better than he was at Leopardstown.

“I know we can’t keep going on about it, but I thought he was a little bit unlucky. He didn’t get much luck in running.

“He got shuffled back to last nearly twice and he just wasn’t lucky, yet was only beaten a length.

“He flew up the hill and made more ground up than anything in the race.”

A tall, scopey individual, Sandor Clegane would appear to have a bright future, but Nolan is prepared to bide his time with the Kay Browne and Anne Coffey-owned gelding.

He added: “We will see the way he goes. He is on a wee break now. We won’t make any rash decisions on whether he will run again this season.

“He is only six, but at the end of the day he is born to run.

“We haven’t rushed him this season. We haven’t over-faced him. We had a plan and stuck to it.

“Unfortunately, it so nearly went our way at Cheltenham, but it just didn’t work out.”

Horse Racing – Hennessy Gold Cup – Leopardstown Racecourse
Paul Nolan (right) hoping there will be big days to come from Sandor Clegane (Niall Carson/PA)

Any thoughts of taking on Stay Away Fay or his River Don Hurdle conqueror Maximilian in the Cavani Menswear Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree were scotched by Enniscorthy handler.

“He definitely won’t go to Aintree,” said Nolan. “Punchestown would be the one place he’ll go if that happens, but I won’t make a call on that yet.

“He’s huge – he’s 17 hands and is bigger than you think. That’s why we hope he’ll get stronger. I was happy enough he’d improved going into Cheltenham, but for 10 horses to pull up in a Grade One, it shows you what a rough race that was.

“I think there is more to come, but you can’t keep saying this that and the other, and I’m not going to come out with the cliché that he’ll be better over a fence and all that. You live in the present, but we’re hopeful he will improve.”



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Stay Away Fay powers to Albert Bartlett victory

Paul Nicholls earned his second Grade One victory of the week at the Cheltenham Festival when Stay Away Fay was given a masterful ride by Harry Cobden to take the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.

The 18-1 chance travelled well throughout and was always up with the pace in the three-mile test, which provided its usual searching test of stamina.

It was not without incident, either, as favourite Corbetts Cross ran out at the final flight, sending jockey Mark Walsh crashing to the turf.

Though challenging at the time, the winner seemed to have his measure having led at the second-last where plenty were still in with a chance.

Cobden put the six-year-old’s stamina to good use and gradually wore down his rivals to give the champion trainer his first success in the race.

Noel Meade’s Affordale Fury (150-1) relished the step up in trip and got within a length of the winner, just holding second from the Paul Nolan-trained Sandor Clegane.

Nicholls said: “I thought he’d run well as he should have won the last day and he’s taken a step forward since then and he looked fantastic.

“We were very positive on him today, he jumped really well and it’s only the third run of his life, there’s loads of improvement to come.

“We’ll probably go to Aintree with him if he’s all right, otherwise it will be chasing next year.

“He’s been quite backward, that’s the best he’s jumped today, he’s just a young, improving horse.”

He added: “At home he does all his work with Hermes Allen as they are both a bit one-paced and he has taken a big step forward.

“He probably should have won at Doncaster, he’s improved since and it’s just fantastic.

“I think Hermes Allen will probably have a wind op but he’ll go chasing too, they are two really nice horses to go chasing with.”

A jubilant Harry Cobden
A jubilant Harry Cobden (Tim Goode/PA)

Cobden added: “I thought they’d have gone faster but we only went an even gallop. He travelled very well, jumped great and when we turned in, I thought he had a nice bit left because I knew he’d stay right to the line, he’s obviously very good.

“I could feel them all stacking up behind me and from a jockey’s point of view, it is a long way to be in front turning in before the last, especially on an inexperienced horse. He was pulling up a little in front so he did well to keep going.

“I really fancied him, I thought he had a massive chance because I’ve won it before on Kilbricken Storm and I knew he was better than him.

“First time out he was green, Lorcan (Williams) was a bit unlucky on him at Doncaster but he has been trained for one day.”

Noel Meade trains the runner up
Noel Meade trains the runner up (Donall Farmer/PA)

Meade said of the runner-up: “He was only 150-1 because he virtually pulled up the last day and there were reasons for that.

“He got a fall when they went too quick in the Monksfield Novice Hurdle at Navan in November – they went a mad gallop and he ended up on the floor.

“He probably would have won that day had he stood up and then we ran him back within four weeks in the Grade One at Naas and it was too soon – he just bombed out.

“We freshened him up and he is a very, very good horse. I think he’ll be a right good chaser as he’s a good jumper and a good stayer and he got the most brilliant ride today from a young fella (Sam Ewing).”

Nolan was slightly left wondering what might have been with Sandor Clegane.

He said: “It was a big run. We knew he was better than his run in Leopardstown and he had to go to the line better than he did that day.

“He probably didn’t get the run of the race today. He got hampered at the very first and then he was shuffled back to last and pushed out wide. I’d like to look at the race again, but I think maybe he might have been the unlucky one.

“You’re always happy when you get a cheer at some stage. He ran well and he stays well and he remains an exciting prospect.

“I just thought the way he closed to the line after the distance he had to make up and being wide, we were unlucky, but it is what it is.”



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‘All systems go’ – Three Card Brag an ace to play for Elliott in Albert Bartlett

Gordon Elliott’s Three Card Brag is expected to relish a step up in trip in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle on Friday.

The six-year-old has had a productive season so far, winning on debut at Galway and then coming home third in a Grade Three novice hurdle at Navan in November – beaten just a length and a quarter.

Up in trip at Naas he then missed out by a neck in the Grade Two Navan Novice Hurdle, a race won by subsequent Supreme Novices’ Hurdle fourth Inthepocket.

Three Card Brag then headed to Fairyhouse to score a 12-length success in a January novice event, running like a horse that will thrive when asked to take on a longer distance.

“We’ve very happy with him, we’ve always thought the step up in trip would suit him,” said Iain Turner, racing manager to co-owners the McNeill family.

“We’ve not wanted to go there over three miles too early but we’ve always thought he’ll stay, his pedigree suggests he’ll stay and how he hits the line in his races suggests he’ll stay.

“It’s been the plan for a long time, he’s a chaser for next season but we think he’ll go very well – it’s all systems go.

“Early in the season at Navan, the ground was quicker than ideal and the trip was certainly shorter than ideal, but he still had the ability to finish third in a Graded race and he stepped up to finish second at Naas behind Inthepocket.

“While not winning, I still think Inthepocket performed with credit in the Supreme.

“We’re happy with how he’s gone, Gordon’s horses are looking and running well. He’s looked like our best chance of the week and he remains that way.”

Corbetts Cross holds a live chance for Grand National-winning trainer Emmet Mullins.

The six-year-old has run once for Mullins, winning the Johnstown Novice Hurdle by a head after changing hands having previously been successfully campaigned by Eugene O’Sullivan.

That race was a Grade Two event over nearly two miles at Naas and he will now step up to both Grade One level and a distance of three miles at Prestbury Park.

Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus, said: “Emmet seems very happy with him and we’re hoping for a bit of luck with him. It will be nice to see him and seeing how he gets on.

“We don’t know an awful lot and haven’t owned him that long, but Emmet seems to be really happy and he said he came out of the Naas race well and we’ve left it all up to Emmet.

“We’re looking forward to him and hope he runs well.”

Joseph O’Brien’s Dawn Rising runs in the same McManus silks, a six-year-old seen twice this season in two-and-a-half-mile novice hurdles.

The gelding was a winner in the Monksfield Novice Hurdle, a Grade Three at Navan, and then came home third in the Grade One Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle in early January.

Berry said: “It looks like he is going to love the trip and the ground and has done very little wrong.

“Joseph is very happy with him and we hope for a good run.”

Willie Mullins’ Embassy Gardens was most recently seen routing the field in a Thurles Novice in January, claiming a 35-length victory after prior placed runs in shorter-distances races.

Jockey Paul Townend said on his Ladbrokes blog: “He is an improving horse as he’s moved up in trip.

“The form of his win at Thurles isn’t the best form in the race but he was so impressive winning by 35 lengths that day.

“He seems to be going the right way and three miles around Cheltenham should be right up his street.

“I think he will give a good account of himself.”

Of stablemate Shanbally Kid, the rider added: “Shanbally Kid is one I tipped up as an each-way shot in the preview night.

“He has been getting his act together and the trip will suit him as will the New course.”



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Cheltenham Festival 2023: Day Four Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2023: Day Four Preview, Tips

We're onto Give Back Friday, which is bad news if you're already in negative equity. Traditionally the hardest of the four days, this year Day Four looks as fiendish as ever. Still, where there's light there's hope...

1.30 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)

Time was when the Triumph Hurdle, for four-year-old novices only, could throw up a shock or three. And, in 2019, the winner was returned 20/1 in spite of being unbeaten in one over hurdles and trained by Nicky Henderson; a year later, in 2020, the winner was 12/1 even though she was unbeaten in one over hurdles and trained by Willie Mullins. Go figure.

With the advent of the Fred Winter (Boodles) handicap for the same age group, Triumph fields tend to be a little thinner these days: the average field was 26 between 1997 and 2004, compared with 16 since 2005, the first year of Fred Boodles. In the past five years, the average field size has been just eleven runners. Yet this time, we have 15, in a few cases as a result of the Boodles over-subscribing and, therefore, the dreaded 'social runners'.

In recent seasons, only Henderson (twice) and Philip Hobbs have managed to repel the Irish raiders, and this season looks virtually certain to result in another 'away win'. That man Willie - Triumph winner in 2020 and 2022 - and before he was a 'thing' in 2002, with Scolardy, ridden by Charlie Swan - has the market in a half nelson this time, courtesy of his t'riffic triumvirate of Lossiemouth, Blood Destiny and Gala Marceau, along with four others!

Lossiemouth was considered the pick of the Closutton squad, even though she finished behind Gala Marceau in the key prep, the Spring Juvenile Hurdle. There, she endured a difficult transit and Gala scampered clear. There's no doubt Lossie was unlucky in second, and there's little doubt that the margin would have been narrower with a clear passage for her; but the market has them further apart than perhaps they ought to be. Gala Marceau was having her first run away from France when a seven length second to Lossiemouth the time before, and she would have narrowed that margin the last day regardless of clear or troubled trips in behind. She has more experience and could improve again.

Blood Destiny is harder to fathom, having not yet faced Graded company. He was second to Bo Zenith, whose limitations have since been exposed, in France before Willie sent him unbeaten in two. He won his maiden by five lengths in a field of 20 from Sir Allen (two from two since), and then sauntered 18 lengths clear of 131-rated Common Practice and subsequent Adonis Hurdle winner, Nusret.

Still Willie has more. Zenta won a Listed hurdle at Auteuil, jumping flawlessly, and was again brilliant - apart from annihilating the flights in the straight! - at Fairyhouse (Grade 3) last time. I wonder if the sun was in their eyes that day because those blemishes were out of character with everything else she'd done. Mullins suggested it might have been because she was in front, in which case she'll be ridden patiently in the Triumph. She has a similar profile to Burning Victory and is a big price in that context.

Milton Harris has enjoyed an incredible renaissance in the past two seasons, plenty of which is down to his inspired campaigning of juvenile hurdlers. The flag-bearer in that discipline this term is Scriptwriter, bought off the flat from Aidan O'Brien and a winner of his first two hurdle races. That double included the Grade 2 Prestbury Juvenile Hurdle here; but he's since run a close second to Comfort Zone - again at Cheltenham - and, more concerningly, was thumped in the Adonis. Perhaps that more speed-favouring hurdle track did for him, or maybe he was feeling the effects of some hard races; either way, he's now a precarious proposition in this company.

The rest don't look good enough, though Je Garde is a total unknown after a debut third at Auteuil. The winner has won her two starts since, and the runner up won next time, too, all in and around Paris, so the form - in French terms at least - stacks up.

Triumph Hurdle Pace Map

Not one to take too literally with the limited amount of form on the table; but it would be wrong-headed to think that (at least) one of the Willie's won't go to the front. It might be Blood Destiny, but not necessarily.

Triumph Hurdle Selection

This is a Willie cartel. It's not a question of whether he wins but with which of his many options he does so. Lossiemouth and Gala Marceau should be in close proximity to each other, while Zenta and especially Blood Destiny are unknowns at this level and could be better or, more probably, worse than the G1 proven pair. Lossiemouth is the most solid and probably ought to be favourite on track performances; but obviously the yard has a line on the perceived hierarchy.

Suggestion: Tricasts or trifectas with Lossiemouth/Gala Marceau, and Blood Destiny/Zenta, might be a way to get almost everything right about the race and still lose money!

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2.10 County Hurdle (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m1f)

For such an open handicap, this race has been dominated by a handful of trainers in recent times. Paul Nicholls bagged four of them between 2004 and 2014, Dan Skelton - Nicholls' protégé - claimed three of his own between 2016 and 2019, and, of course, Willie Mullins has his fingerprints all over this trophy as well: six wins since 2010. That's 13 of the last 19 County Hurdles shared among them.

If we, sensibly, extend the sequence to 20 races to render it slightly less arbitrary, we will note that six of the remaining seven renewals were won by another Irish trainer. So, in the past two decades, the score reads W Mullins 6, rest of Ireland 6, P Nicholls 4, D Skelton 3, rest of UK 1. This is a handicap that has been contested by 24+ horses in all but one of those 20 years. Wow.

My shortlist is Sharjah, Hunters Yarn, Path d'Oroux and Pembroke.

Sharjah is top weight, and that's because he has been there, seen it, done it. He's in the Arctic Fire mould of Willie County winners, as a dual Grade 1 winner just 15 months ago. Though he might be a touch below that level now, he's still run close to State Man twice this season before a lovely trial for this at Gowran last time. He's going to cruise all over these through the race and then it's a question of whether either of age and/or weight tell in the closing stages. They might not.

Willie also saddles Hunters Yarn, a high class novice and winner of his last two hurdling starts, most recently a Listed novice at Navan. He bolted up there, in a small field, and was 13 lengths too good for two dozen rivals on his previous run; but this is a significant step up in class. The fact he's handled a big field is a plus and I have already backed him; I'd be less attracted by his current odds from a value perspective, however.

Lower down the field is the potentially very kindly weighted Path d'Oroux. This fellow won a bumper and a maiden hurdle, both in huge fields, before his sights were raised to Grade 1 novice company. He pulled up behind Supreme winner Marine Nationale on his first attempt, and was then fourth to Supreme runner up Facile Vega on his second G1 try, beaten far enough. An easy score in lesser grade since will have boosted confidence and he might be a 'lurker' for his shrewd trainer, Gavin Cromwell.

The best of the British could very well be the Dan Skelton-trained Pembroke, whose profile screams County Hurdle. A lightly raced novice having won his bumper this time last year, he was seventh to Grade 1-winning Tahmuras on seasonal bow. He then easily won a pair of novice hurdles, one in a big field, before running second in the Grade 2 novice on Trials day over two and a half miles. That will have been a perfect prep for this and, if anyone can from this side of the water, Dan can, with easily the best race record in the past decade.

Many more can win, natch, including Filey Bay, an Emmet Mullins-trained runner who has done everything he can to show the UK handicapper he's not as good as he actually is, while still winning twice and running second in the Betfair Hurdle last time. He also has a lovely racing weight but a commensurately skinny quote.

County Hurdle Pace Map

The Chris Gordon pair may be to the fore, as might something from the Mullins quartet; and so might a number of others. This is unlikely to be a pedestrian gallop.

County Hurdle Selection

The more I look at this, the more I think old boy Sharjah (8/1) still retains more than enough talent to overcome his weight allocation. He has no secrets from the handicapper, but sometimes the good ones just win, don't they? And I think 9/1 Pembroke is sure to run well, even allowing for the hard time UK novices have had against their Irish counterparts. He's with the right man, and has a featherweight to carry. I'll probably have a small bit of 16/1 Path d'Oroux as well. Keep the extra place concessions in mind again here.

Suggestion: Back a few each way with extra places, perhaps including some/all of the above trio.

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2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

The Spuds Race. Ten years ago, At Fishers Cross won at a starting price of 11/8. Since then, eight winners have returned a double figure SP, including 50/1 and 33/1 twice. Willie Mullins has had winners at 16/1 and, last year, 18/1 since 2017. It's that sort of a race.

There are lots of credible horses at the top of the market, notably another Emmet green and golder, Corbetts Cross (who did remarkably well to win over two miles last time), Hiddenvalley Lake and Favori de Champdou. Literally nobody will be shocked if one of those, or Three Card Brag or Embassy Gardens, wins. But that's not the way to play this race, is it?

We need to ask, and answer, the question, "why do so many big prices win the Spuds?"

My contention - and a lot of other peoples', also - is that it is to do with the juxtaposition of pace between the trial races and the Albert Bartlett itself. In plain English, five runner 2m6f Grade 2's do not translate well to 16-runner three mile Grade 1's. In the latter, they go faster and demand less class but more stamina and steel.

A quick look at some of those big priced winners reveals an identikit of sorts:

The Nice Guy was stepping up more than half a mile in trip after winning a huge field maiden
Vanillier was another big field maiden scorer before getting outpaced in an 8 runner race. Was wrong in G1 before Cheltenham
Minella Indo was 3rd in small field maiden and 2nd in a small field Grade 3 (3m) before relishing this stiffer test
Kilbricken Storm won at Cheltenham (3m) before getting outpaced/not handling heavy in G1 (2m5f)
Penhill had actually won a small field 3m G2 on his prior start and was just a big price on the day
Very Wood was stepping up to 3m for the first time having finished 3rd of 3 over 2m4f

Small field preps, up in trip seem to be the main clues. Let's see if that can be applied to anything at a bumper price this year...

Sandor Clegane fits the bill but is too short a price having run third in a G1 last time. I'm unashamedly swinging at the big odds here and obviously that probably means a losing bet; but the risk/reward ratio is in our favour based on the nature of the beast.

Gigginstown-owned and Gordon Elliott-trained is Search For Glory, keeping on in third behind subsequent G1 winner and Ballymore fourth Good Land over 2m4f; and then keeping on for a much closer third over 3m in a five-runner Grade 3 last time. He's very interesting for this assignment.

Affordale Fury is trained by Noel Meade, who saddled 33/1 Very Wood in 2014. A winner from the front in a 14-runner maiden (2m6f, soft), he then fell at the last when contesting in a 2m4f G3. Most recently he was outpaced all the way in the G1 Lawlor's of Naas (2m4f, soft) but made some minor headway. I'm not sure that's good enough even when looking through the big-priced prism.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Expect many fewer than the number which start to finish. There is plenty of pace on, and it will be the tough and hardy blokes over the classy but flimsy snowflakes - if you'll pardon the phrase - that prevail.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Selection

The horses I'm interested in are all far less credible winners on the evidence of the form book, so if you're following me you need to know they might bomb out completely. In that scenario, win only is the way to go (and we can cry together later when rounding out the minor podium positions!!) - and I'm going with Search For Glory and Sandor Clegane against the top of the market. This is a race where it feels like we'll have a bit of a chance with our windmill-tilting; at least, it often is that way.

Suggestion: Back something that has been getting outpaced in smaller fields and/or over shorter trips. 25/1 Search For Glory and 14/1 Sandor Clegane are my guesses against the field. Lots of more obvious horses, so this is a bet where I'm happy to wave goodbye to the tenner.

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3.30 Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2 1/2f)

This is the big one, the Blue Riband. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the pinnacle of the sport and is always a fantastic spectacle, though winner-finding can be tricky.

This season, one horse towers above the rest in terms of his chance; that horse is Galopin Des Champs. Trained by, you guessed it, Willie Mullins, Galopin Des Champs won the 2021 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle and would have cruised home in the Turners Novices' Chase a year ago but for falling at the last. Since then, he's won three straight Grade 1's, a novice at Fairyhouse's Easter fixture and two opens this campaign, the John Durkan and the Irish Gold Cup.

The margin of victory in that trio of G1 was scores was 18L, 13L and 8L, and he appeared to answer the stamina question with his three mile win last time - partially, at least. The Gold Cup is, of course, three miles two and a half furlongs, and that's another quarter mile and more than he's gone to date. So will he stay? That's simply not an easy question to answer. His sire, Timos, has had no other runners in Britain or Ireland; himself a German-bred (by Sholokhov out of a Surumu mare), he raced in lower Group class on the level at ten to twelve furlongs. His dam, Manon Des Champs, was by a US-bred stallion, Marchand De Sable, who won a heavy ground ten furlong Group 1 as a two-year-old. Helpful? Not really, I know. Where I get to is that there must be at least some chance he won't stay in a truly-run Gold Cup, especially if the going is on the softer side. But if stamina holds, he is the clear form pick.

There are pro's and con's with all his main market rivals. Let's consider a few, starting with A Plus Tard. The pro's are that he won last year's Gold Cup and was second in the race a year prior; thus, we know he stays, we know he handles the track and we know he has the class to win the race. But the con is a big one: he has only been seen once since this day last year, when bombing out completely in the Betfair Chase, a race in which he'd pulverised his opposition twelve months earlier. Add to that the fact that he was due to run at Christmas - his trainer related to attheraces.com, "he got a bang that ruled him out of Christmas, so we said back in January that we’d go straight to the Gold Cup". You've got to take a lot on trust to side with A Plus Tard at this stage against something of a changing of the guard - some high class second and third season chasers.

One such second season chaser is Bravemansgame, winner of the King George in dominating fashion at Christmas. A look at the Paul Nicholls-trained star's form profile renders most of the names he's been called grossly unfair: as well as that G1 King George, he's won the G1 Challow Hurdle, the G1 Feltham/Kauto Star, and the G2 Charlie Hall. His sole Cheltenham run was at the 2021 Festival when he was third to Bob Olinger in the Ballymore. He tried to make all that day in a bigger field than he's typically faced, and was spent in the run to the line. This season, he's raced more patiently under Harry Cobden, and followed a gutsy win at Wetherby with a classy one at Kempton.

But is he a "flat track bully"? Yuk, it's such a horrible phrase - I apologise for using it; and I only do it to counter the barb. As you can see from the image below, in the 'Profile' section, he's only run on flat tracks over fences - that means he can't handle undulating tracks no more than a horse encountering different underfoot for the first time.

 

What it does mean is we don't know whether he'll handle it or not; but what we do know is that he has excellent form this season, stays pretty well, jumps well, has class and can be ridden wherever. Given his odds, that's a lot of positives on which to take a chance that he might not handle the track.

This time last year, Noble Yeats was finishing slightly better than midfield in the Ultima Handicap Chase, which is not a well known springboard to the Gold Cup! Of course, he followed that effort up with a dazzling 50/1 triumph in the Grand National. It didn't pan out first time this season at Auteuil but he then doubled up at Wexford (Listed) and Aintree (Grade 2) before running a fair third in the G2 Cotswold Chase in late January. That looked every inch a prep - think last season's Ultima - for his spring targets, which are this race and a defence of his National title. Noble Yeats obviously stays well and he handles any ground, too. It could reasonable be argued that his best form is on flat tracks, too, though.

Stattler was a staying-on second to Galopin Des Champs in the Irish Gold Cup and won the NH Chase at last year's Festival; so he is another second season chaser and has stamina in abundance. He has also demonstrated his aptitude for the track, albeit Old and New courses here are different tests; and he seems to handle most terrain. This season he was just pipped in a sprint (relative, it was heavy ground) finish over 2m6f before beating all bar GdC last time: his is a nicely progressive profile.

Running here rather than the Ryanair, where Conflated fell a year ago when likely booked for second, is a nod to the regard in which his trainer, Gordon Elliott, holds the horse. A look at his form implies this is the right race: a pair of three-mile Grade 1 wins at Leopardstown have been supported by a silver medal in the 3m1f G1 Aintree Bowl, and it's not impossible this longer trip will eke out a couple of pounds further improvement. If it does, he's another who figures on the premises.

Lucinda Russell trains the hugely popular second season chaser Ahoy Senor, second in last year's Brown Advisory Novices' Chase and winner of the G1 Mildmay Novices' Chase at Aintree. This campaign started on the back foot with a hard race in the Charlie Hall, the mark from which was probably left when he ran flat enough at Aintree and Kempton subsequently; but he got right back on track last time when beating Noble Yeats and Sounds Russian in the Cotswold Chase. The problem is that Sounds Russian, though progressive, is some way short of the ability required here; and, further, that Noble Yeats is expected to be a different proposition fitness-wise this time. All that said, Ahoy Senor does have a chance to control the pace and, if doing that easily, may be difficult to shake off in the finish.

One of the great under-rated horses of recent Cheltenham Festivals is Minella Indo. Winner of the 2019 Albert Bartlett (at 50/1!), he showed that was no fluke when running up to Champ in a memorable (for all the wrong reasons if you, like me, punted him) 2020 RSA Chase. Then, at the top table, he won the Gold Cup in 2021 from A Plus Tard, and got closest to that one last year - granted, that was no closer than 15 lengths. He's only had one run this season, a win, in the previously referenced New Year's Day Chase at Tramore. Trainer Henry de Bromhead is calling his quiet lead up "the best preparation he's ever had for Cheltenham" and, even aged 10, his Fez form of 1212 commands plenty of respect: he's been here and got the T-shirt, so to speak.

Two and a half lengths behind Minella Indo last year, and nearly twenty back from A Plus Tard, was Protektorat. On the face of it, he has a mountain to climb; but he was only seven then and one year more mature now - a good age for a Gold Cup challenger. He barrelled clear of the Betfair Chase field in November, scoring by eleven lengths, but was behind Ahoy Senor, Sounds Russian and Noble Yeats in the Cotswold Chase on his sole run since. He was sent off 5/4 favourite there, so presumably was fit enough; nevertheless, he's sure to come on for the run and is another on a very long list of place possibles and, on the Haydock run, not out of it for the win.

There are others with good form that doesn't quite match up to a Gold Cup. Royale Pagaille will again have his followers - all of them rain dancers - and he may again lollop into fourth or fifth; but he's unlikely to get the pace setup, though he may get the deep ground, he needs to outstay smarter oppo.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Pace Map

It might be that Ahoy Senor gets a free hit on the lead, which would be optimal for his legion supporters. There is a group of others who like to race handily and it's no more than evens that something from that cohort contests with the Senor.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection

A very tough race to weigh up. If you think Galopin Des Champs will definitely stay, there's your bet as he's looked a Rolls Royce for a couple of seasons. If you don't, or you want to bet something each way, it's trappier. You're asked to take a lot on trust with A Plus Tard, you have to assume Bravemansgame will handle Cheltenham's undulations, or you have to believe that the likes of Minella Indo and Royale Pagaille still retain sufficient verve to mix it with the kids.

Or you can just back Noble Yeats each way and see how close he gets.

Suggestion: Back 9/1 Noble Yeats each way with four or, preferably, five places.

*

4.10 Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2 1/2f)

The hunter chase gold cup (small 'g', small 'c') and always a good - if sometimes faintly bonkers - watch. As with the Gold Cup itself, the previous renewal is often the best form guide. Twelve months ago, it was heartbreak for David Christie and Winged Leader as his notable lead was whittled to nothing a stride from the line and Billaway pipped him. Billaway himself was certainly not winning out of turn, having been second in 2020 and 2021. Although he's eleven now, that's more a positive in a race where the last eight winners were all aged ten or eleven and where there have been three back-to-back winners since 2012.

After Cheltenham last year, Billaway won a thriller against another rising star from the Christie yard, Vaucelet, but, on debut this season, he was thrashed by yet another Christie inmate, Ferns Lock. Since then, Willie Mullins' star hunter has somewhat unconvincingly despatched a lesser field. Though he always brings his 'A game' to Cheltenham, he arrived in slightly better nick the previous twice, I feel. He tends to race on the lead and there might be a little more contention for that this season, which could add a further challenge to his defence.

Vaucelet is the chosen one of Christie's three and, aged eight, would be the youngest winner since Salsify in 2013 (who had also won aged seven a year earlier). Based on his form, youth won't stop him and, as a winner over three and half miles in the Stratford Champion Hunter Chase late last spring, he ought not to fail for stamina either. He's progressive where Billaway might be slightly on the downgrade, the fine margin between them at Punchestown a year ago perhaps not enough in the champ's favour now.

The British challenge - historically strong, as shown by four of the past six winners - is headed up by Chris Barber's Famous Clermont. Another eight-year-old, he's sent the likes of Shantou Flyer and Envious Editor packing this season, including when romping to victory in the Walrus Hunter Chase, a high class contest in the sector run in February. Famous Clermont made a few errors in the Intermediate Final at Cheltenham's April hunter chase meeting last year and was eventually pulled up (as the 6/5 favourite), and his continued propensity for a mistake is a niggle.

Paul Nicholls has won this four times since 2004, with Earthmover, Sleeping Night, and Pacha du Polder twice. Since PdP's last win, in 2018, Nicholls is 0/4, though Bob And Co failed to jump round as his sole representative in the past two seasons - at short prices both times. This year, the Ditcheat yard have Secret Investor as their main hope. Now eleven, all of his best form - both as a hunter and previously under Rules - was on decent ground, so the wet week in the run up may be a concern. Cat Tiger, for the same yard, handles softer terrain and, while seemingly a little out of form this term, he's been racing in Class 2 and 3 handicap chases under Rules. His 2nd of 23 in last year's Aintree Hunter Chase (2m6f) gives him a squeak if he stays this far.

Bob And Co is now with Harry Derham, Nicholls' former assistant and, if he can jump round, he'd be a place player even at the age of 12. But I don't like backing horses who fail to complete.

Meanwhile, former Gold Cup runner Chris's Dream has won two point to points recently and comes here in form. He has obvious back class but he didn't get home in the Gold Cup and has never won over this far. His last win of any description under Rules was more than three years ago.

One of the first questions in this race is often, "What's Jamie Codd riding?" Answer: The Storyteller. A former Festival winner on soft ground, his stamina for this longer shift is presumed rather than established; but we do know he handles the other conditions and represents the most robust of connections: Gordon Elliott still trains him.

Rocky's Howya is a bit of a 'wise guy' horse getting some love on the preview circuit. He's young - seven - and been bashing up his rivals in point to points to a fair level of form. But I feel he should be a bigger price: he's one for the guessers - which, in fairness, most of us are in this race, if not the other 27 at the Festival!

A couple to mention in the long grass are Dorking Cock, Mighty Stowaway and I K Brunel. Dorking Cock has form with Vaucelet that gives that one only a small edge over this bigger priced runner. It's possible - perhaps likely - that Vaucelet was under-cooked that day; and DC had previously been thumped by Billaway. Still, he stays and handles all ground. Mighty Stowaway was third last year and represents the top UK point yard of Alan Hill; he might just be regressing aged twelve now but he'll surely run better than his early season form. From the same yard and still on the ascendant in this sphere is I K Brunel. He was a 130-rated chaser last season for Olly Murphy and comfortably beat Not That Fuisse in a hunter chase last time. He probably wants quick ground.

Maybe the ground has come right for Shantou Flyer, a horse that loves it soft and stays very well. He's 13 now, which is probably too old, and he's ridden by Paul Nicholls' daughter, Olive, who will obviously have grown up around horses and be very well schooled.

Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase  Pace Map

Pinch of salt pace map because we don't have point form so these are Rules races only.

Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase Selection

I hope Vaucelet wins, for connections of Winged Leader who was so cruelly denied on the line last year; but he's a short enough price. Billaway is an obvious horse to run close and is around 8/1 - he was the horse to pip the Leader last year, and has run 221 in this the past three years. In the longer grass, horses like The Storyteller and perhaps Shantou Flyer may still have enough gusto about them to hit the board.

Suggestion: Back 8/1 Billaway each way with extra places and you'll probably get close to the winner's enclosure and hopefully the payout window.

*

4.50 Mares' Chase (Grade 2, 2m 4 1/2f)

The Festival is pretty much over for me at this point, I have to concede. I have little interest in the Mares' Chase and know I'm not good enough to handicap the Martin Pipe. So let's keep it brief...

Allegorie de Vassy is a classy mare, winner of all four races - two hurdles and two chases - since moving from France to Willie in Ireland. Her two fencing scores were in Grade 2's, the same level as this, and she bolted up on both heavy and yielding so there are no grounds for concern, as it were. She has jumped right on occasion which, given this is a left-handed track, would mean she concedes a few lengths at her obstacles potentially: that, clearly, is undesirable for all that she may have a few lengths in hand of the rest.

The obvious danger is Impervious, herself a winner of three straight, including in G2 and G3 the last twice. She handles soft very well and had the beating of Grand Annual runner up (should have won) Dinoblue by three lengths two back. She's tough and seems to stay well.

Jeremys Flame is tough and consistent, graduating this season from handicaps to win a Listed race at Huntingdon last time. She's nine though, a veteran of 29 races, and her form is not as compelling as the other pair. She just about fits on the pick of her ratings, however.

Magic Daze has to prove she staze - sorry, stays; and the rest, most notably last year's winner Elimay, need to revert to the pick of their back class to feature. Zambella does look like getting her optimal soft turf and 2m4f trip

Mares' Chase Pace Map

A good bit of pace on, which will test jumping. Allegorie de Vassy, Magic Daze and Zambella are expected to be front rank.

Mares' Chase Selection

This looks between the top two in the betting but they're not that far clear on ratings. What they do have is more scope than most of their rivals, and I think Impervious looks slightly better suited to the task, particularly with no reservations about her jumping (please don't let me have jinxed her jumping).

Suggestion: Back 5/2 Impervious to win, or retire to the bar and watch.

*

5.30 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 4 1/2f)

To the lucky last. Erm. We're probably looking for a potential Grade 1 horse of the future. The alumni for this final race includes Sir Des Champs, Don Poli, Killultagh Vic, Galopin Des Champs and Banbridge. All those mentioned were Irish-trained, too. So that will be my starting point.

The top three in the betting are all defensively short at time of writing: around 5/1 each. They are Spanish Harlem, Imagine, and Cool Survivor.

Spanish Harlem cost €360,000 at the Arqana sale last summer, and he'll pocket... checks notes... £39,000 if he comes out on top here. More to the point, if he does win, he's probably smart enough to be contesting for bigger purses in the not too distant future. He's gone to Willie's and, though a hurdle winner in France already, has yet to add to that tally in three races since the stable switch. Of course that might very well be by design and, in any case, he's been running in small fields where his French victoire was against 16 rivals.

Gordon has the other two at the top, Imagine another to pepper the places without winning in recent efforts. He steps up from two miles to this two and a half, and was still entered in the three mile Albert Bartlett until 48 hour decs: clearly connections have few reservations about his stamina. He's been second in a Grade 3 and a Listed race since November and this will have been the plan.

Cool Survivor is also a Gordie runner and he, too, was in the Spuds before routing here. He finished fourth in a 2m6f G1 at the DRF last time and, prior to that, had won and been second (G3) over three miles. This step back in trip is a small niggle for a horse who, while doubtlessly having a splash of class, seems to stay very well.

At bigger prices, Firm Footings is in the same ownership and trainership (sic) as Imagine; he's had plenty of practice in defeat and steps up in grade for handicap debut with, like many others, the handibrake presumed off now. And Haxo is another Willie possible. Like all those previously mentioned, he's making his handicap bow after a couple of mark-securing efforts. His sixty length sixth in last year's Ballymore doesn't read as promisingly as some of the other form lines but he could still run well.

If there is to be a British winner, it's most likely to be from the barn of either Dan Skelton or Paul Nicholls. Skelton saddles two, Molly Olly's Wishes and West To The Bridge, but both are hooj prices and not remotely obvious winners even allowing for Dan being the UK Man in this setup. Dr Ditcheat has a credible contender in Irish Hill, a highly progressive handicapper that has won his last three, including most recently in a good Class 2 at Ascot. His problem is that we know pretty much what he is: he could improve three or four pounds but the winner here is probably going to find eight to ten pounds on its published rating.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

Plenty of pace on, as you'd expect for a big field handicap hurdle at Cheltenham; perhaps more so because it's a conditional jockeys' race.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Selection

I obviously don't know. The market has been a fair guide to the Martin Pipe winner, with seven of the last nine sent off 12/1 or shorter (and one other at 14/1). I'd rather have a small interest in the top of the market than set fire to money lower down the lists; and I'll be a bit left and right by this point anyway - Friday is Brown Bear hostelry day!

I'm not trying to be too clever here, and I've had a quid each on 9/2 Spanish Harlem and 5/1 Imagine, win only. I told you I wasn't trying to be clever.

Suggestion: Back Spanish Harlem and/or Imagine, win only. Or bet something else. It's your life, after all 😉

*

And so, the end of a testing but glorious four days is in sight. Win or lose, it's a pleasure to fritter so many hours in the form book, and to share my cogitations with you: it's normally the case that I get many more points for the 'working out' than for scribbling down the correct answer. But, for weirdos like me (and maybe like you, too), the joy is almost all in the working out; in the puzzle. All the same, it obviously helps when we land on a fat one or two.

Be lucky.

Matt



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Hosie ready to Rock at Cheltenham

Syd Hosie is counting down the days until the Cheltenham Festival, where he hopes to land a telling blow for the home team with Rock My Way.

The promising young starlet of Hosie’s Sandhills Farm base put himself in the Festival picture when building on an encouraging debut to scoop Grade Two honours on Trials Day.

That victory came over a touch more than two and a half miles, but the five-year-old will step up to three miles for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle when he returns to Prestbury Park in just over two weeks.

His price for that Grade One contest ranges from 14-1 to 25-1 and Hosie is relishing the prospect of pitting his talented son of Getaway against Ireland’s best staying novice hurdlers.

“He’s flying and is fresher by the day, so roll on March 17 and all roads lead to Cheltenham,” said Hosie.

“He had a good old look around when he hit the front at Cheltenham last time coming up the hill, but as soon as something comes up behind him, he pricks his ears and runs on again.

“A truer run race over three miles, I think we will see a hell of a horse.

“It’s really something to look forward to – getting him there and having a good crack at the Irish. It would be nice to get one on the board for the Brits.”

Hosie could also be represented at the Festival by his stable stalwart Lieutenant Rocco, who snapped a lengthy luckless run with a chase victory at Kempton at the weekend.

Lieutenant Rocco ridden by Thomas Bellamy clears a fence before winning the Coral Bet Bundles Handicap Chase at Kempton Park
Lieutenant Rocco ridden by Thomas Bellamy clears a fence before winning the Coral Bet Bundles Handicap Chase at Kempton Park (Nigel French/PA)

He holds an entry in the Pertemps Final over hurdles, but with a rating of 122 leaving his participation on the edge, the Sherborne-based handler has a back up plan of Kempton the day after the four-day Prestbury Pak extravaganza draws to a close.

He continued: “I’m not sure his hurdle mark will go up with his chase mark, so he might not get in. If he doesn’t, there’s a 0-150 at Kempton the Saturday after Cheltenham, so we might go there with him.

“It’s been a long time coming to get him to win and to do it in my name made it all the more sweeter really.

“He’s a lovely horse and we all know what he can do on the track.”



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Nolan anticipating Festival improvement from Sandor Clegane

Paul Nolan is quietly confident Sandor Clegane will improve for his run behind Good Land at Leopardstown and be a major player in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham next month.

The six-year-old had previously landed a Punchestown maiden hurdle by 12 lengths.

Following a two-month break, he ran Good Land to four and a half lengths in the two-and-three-quarter-mile Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors “50,000 Cheltenham Bonus For Stable Staff” Novice Hurdle.

Nolan feels the six-year-old will relish the additional quarter of a mile in the Albert Bartlett and should line up on March 17 as a live prospect.

“I hope he’d have a good chance,” said Nolan. “I thought he ran well and while I was very pleased with the run, I think there’s better to come.

“He jumped a little bit big and I’m just hoping that, even though jumping big you’re not making a mistake, it is still not an asset. You are still giving away a quarter of a length a couple of times.

“I’d be confident and hoping you’ll see a better horse in a month’s time.”

Bookmakers were suitably impressed by his third-placed effort behind Good Land – who is not entered in the Albert Bartlett – making Sandor Clegane a general 10-1 chance for the three-mile event.

“I think he needs to be a little bit slicker over his hurdles. Maybe the ground was a factor. I don’t want to blame too many things, as at the end of the day we were beaten by a better horse,” Nolan added.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m just hoping there’s more improvement to come in our fella.

“Whatever Gordon (Elliott), Willie (Mullins) and Paul Nicholls and all them lads decide which direction they take with their horses, I’m happy enough with my fella.

“Hopefully he will be a horse that will travel over OK. No matter what, travelling is another ordeal and is not an asset.”



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Cheltenham Festival 2022: Day Four Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2022: Day Four Preview, Tips

We're onto Friday, Day Four, and traditionally the least fathomable of a quartet of largely inscrutable afternoons punting. But if we can unearth a winner or two we'll likely be well rewarded so let's work in that optimistic spirit...

After an unforeseen monsoon on Wednesday (it was a miserable day at the track), the going changed to heavy and much of what follows was based on an expectation of very different ground conditions. Do check whether the horse you fancy (or I've suggested) handles conditions!

1.30 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)

A dozen horses searching for Triumph triumph, the first four in the betting hailing from Ireland. Favoured is Vauban, trained by Willie Mullins to win the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival. There he beat Gordon Elliott's - or, more correctly, Caldwell Construction's - Fil Dor by a relatively comfortable three lengths; but Vauban was previously second to another horse with the same connections as Fil Dor, Pied Piper. Vauban was rumoured not to be ready that day but the evidence of the form book is that Pied Piper beat him fair and square.

Pied Piper has run once since, in the Cheltenham Triumph Trial (G2) on trials day in late January, easily accounting for Moka De Vassy and six others, none of whom re-oppose. That fact implies a degree of hollowness to the win but it's hard to lay blame at the hooves of Pied Piper. He's unbeaten and on literal form reading should probably be favourite.

Fil Dor had notched a hat-trick before conceding only to Vauban last time, that trio being achieved in a novice, then a Grade 3 and then a Grade 2. Very much heading in the right direction until undone by Vauban, then, and another obvious contender.

Less obvious is the third from that Spring Juvenile, Il Etait Temps, who did all his best work at the finish and surged past the two in front of him at the jam stick. That was a first run for the Mullins yard having been acquired from France and he looks tailor made for a stern stamina test at the trip.

First of the British challenge is Porticello, whose excellent season in the care of Gary Moore has seen him win three of four, most notably the Grade 1 Finale Hurdle at Chepstow. He has plenty of experience and his best form is all on soft turf (has won on good to soft in Listed grade).

Porticello's sole defeat was to Knight Salute, himself unbeaten in five hurdle starts of which the last three were in Grade 2 fields. All of that quintet were on good to soft or good ground so no worries there, and one of them was at this track. The question is simply, is Knight Salute good enough, given he's unlikely to have the progression of some of his rivals after so much relative experience. He's a flagship horse for the resurgent yard of Milton Harris, and I very much hope he runs well. I feel he's entitled to be first home of the UK entries.

One of my ante post "probably gone west" vouchers is on Icare Allen, who was well beaten in the Spring Juvenile two back before getting on track, after a fashion, in a Grade 3 at Fairyhouse. He may have a little more to show yet though probably not as much more as at least one of the four atop the market.

Dan Skelton will saddle Doctor Parnassus, two from two over hurdles and a close second to the very good mare Indefatigable when last seen on the flat. This lad looks all about stamina: he's won over 2m3f already and was staying on in the soft before that. I just feel he'll not be fast enough even if he's good enough (and I doubt that, also).

The other four have limited claims on what they've achieved at this stage.

Triumph Hurdle Pace Map

Not masses of obvious early pace, with Lunar Power and perhaps Ages Of Man seeking a name check before the proverbial taps are turned on.

Triumph Hurdle Selection

The top of the market looks about right if you, like me, believe the Irish are stronger than the British. The one who has some juice still in his price potentially is Il Etait Temps, who looks an each way bet on that Spring Juvenile debut. Connections will know more this time and he'll not leave his challenge so late. Porticello has G1 form on wet ground and might hit the frame.

Suggestion: Try 11/1 Il Etait Temps each way.

*

2.10 County Hurdle (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m1f)

This is way above my punting pay grade though I did once tip and back the 50/1 winner, Silver Jaro when the County was the Friday night cap. What a day that was! Still, we can't live on former glories.

These days, it seems, you want an unexposed handily-weighted and classy animal. My shortlist, which should be treated with extreme caution, is State Man, First Street, I Like To Move It, Top Bandit, Cormier and Jesse Evans.

Few horses at this year's Festival have been as well touted and widely entered up as State Man, who lands here as the likely jolly. A five-year-old novice, he was second in France before falling on his Irish debut and then bolting up in a nothing maiden hurdle. All his form is on soft ground and that's a concern as is that jumping frailty/inexperience. I certainly believe that he's a very talented horse but at the price he's opposable.

First Street, in comparison, is relatively battle hardened after three wins from five hurdle starts, three novices and two handicaps. Most recently he was third to Glory And Fortune in the Betfair Hurdle (handicap) at Newbury, and that one ran a mighty race to be a nine length fifth in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday. Betwixt Glory And Fortune and First Street that day was I Like To Move It whose chance is also well advertised by the winner's subsequent effort. At Newbury, he just failed to close the remaining head deficit with the winner and has gone up four pounds as a result. This likely fast pace should bring the front of the race back to him sooner and he rates a definite danger.

Brian Ellison has played many a fine tune on Cormier, a veteran of 31 races, though only ten over hurdles, four of those wins. That record includes Class 2 handicap victories the last twice, one of them at Cheltenham, though his record in large fields is a concern for me.

Gordon runs Top Bandit, well named some might say, and this fellow has been progressing nicely over hurdles. After a debut third on soft at Limerick, he's rattled up a treble of novice hurdle scores. This will be his handicap debut and he's got the right combination of relative experience and a total lack of exposure to the assessor.

Meanwhile, trying to pretend he's not as good as he is has taken a different form for the Noel Meade-trained Jesse Evans. Meade saddles last year's Fred Winter bomb, Jeff Kidder, at 80/1 so he knows the way to do it. Jesse was sent off favourite for the Greatwood handicap hurdle in November (14 length ninth of 19), since which he's not been seen. His previous run over timber was when a two length fourth in the extremely valuable Galway Hurdle and before that he'd won an 18-runner handicap hurdle at Killarney. He looks a tempting price though wouldn't want it to get too wet.

Lorna Fowler trains Colonel Mustard and plenty thought he should have gone in one of the Grade 1's. He's been second to Jonbon and third to Sir Gerhard in his last two starts and that reads very well, as well as does the fact he handles all ground.

Many more can win, natch.

County Hurdle Pace Map

The charge looks set to be led by Felix Desjy and I Like To Move It principally, though there are bound to be others who want a piece of it. Likely to be rapid from the get go.

County Hurdle Pace Map

County Hurdle Pace Map

County Hurdle Selection

Devilishly difficult. Willie's certainty in the Fred Boodles was beaten on Tuesday and I don't want to be with State Man at the price, for all that he could be fantastically well handicapped. Top Bandit is not much bigger but has more concrete claims on the form book if not the rumour mill. But I'll swing with two at double figure odds in I Like To Move It and Colonel Mustard. They both have proven form, in top class handicaps and Graded conditions races respectively, and retain upside for this ultra-test.

Suggestion: Back 14/1 I Like To Move It and/or 12/1 Colonel Mustard each way with all the extra places.

*

2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

This goes one of two ways, in terms of the market: it's either won by a classy well-fancied runner, or by an unconsidered rag with a street fighter's attitude. The last two winners, Monkfish and Vanillier, fit more or less in the first category; before that, we had 50/1, 33/1 twice and 16/1 within six years. Probably the way to play, in Countdown terminology, is one from the top and two from anywhere else.

The top is made up of Ginto and Hillcrest, strong and classy stayers from either side of the Irish Sea. Ginto (pronounced 'Jinto', I think) is a Gordon runner that is unbeaten in three over hurdles, taking in a maiden, a Grade 2 and the Grade 1 Lawlor's of Naas. 4 1/4 lengths is the closest a rival has got to date, in that G1, and he will likely again be front rank from the start. Whether he can see it out in this bigger field I don't know but he deserves his primary perch in the punting pecking order.

So, too, does Hillcrest, top of the domestic pops after four wins over hurdles in as many completed starts. While they've been largely achieved on wet ground, his first two were good to soft and he ought to go fine on that. Representing the Henry Daly team he'd be something of a throwback to an age before the mega yards and, as a soppy old romantic, I'll be cheering him on for that alone.

Back in the real world, Willie has the next one in the lists, Minella Cocooner who, rather marvellously, got the better of Minella Crooner last time. That was a good race at the DRF but it was over a shorter trip and he'd not have beaten the other Minella at this distance that day. He's lightly raced and is another who races very prominently.

Bardenstown Lad has lots of top of the ground form, and a similar profile to last year's third, Streets Of Doyen, for the same connections. He won easily, and as expected, at Musselburgh last month and looks like he'll stay well. He, too, is a front rank racer.

Willie's The Nice Guy steps up in both trip and grade after three wins, including a romp in a 22-runner maiden hurdle. That is his sole spin over timber, though, so his inexperience has to be a reservation.

From a personal perspective, I'd love Stag Horn to win. Along with Ron Huggins and Pete Williams, I own a horse called World Of Dreams, who was second to Stag Horn on that one's hurdling debut, giving him seven pounds and coming out best at the weights. Our lad is unfortunately sidelined just now but we're cheerleading for the Stag, who has elevated his claims for the 'spuds race' with a second hurdle win, in Grade 2 at Warwick. His previous career as a flat horse earned him a triple-digit rating, which confirms the class and substance of his profile.

At the big-priced bomb end of considerations is a horse like Idas Boy. He's run to a good but not great level in three mile novices behind the likes of Gerri Colombe, and if they 'go a million' placing a later premium on extreme stamina, he's the type to plod on into the picture. Of course, he might not be even nearly good enough: such is life.

And a word for Dermot Weld and his entry, Falcon Eight. Like Stag Horn, he's a classy flat horse - he won the Chester Cup off top weight last May - but, unlike Stag Horn, his price is still quite fat. Never in it on hurdle debut over two and a half miles (yielding to soft), he was able to get to the front eventually in a 2m7f maiden at Thurles last month on yielding ground. His best form is on good to soft or yielding and he looks the type to keep running. Indeed, his profile is quite similar to Stag Horn's where his price is 2.5x that one's.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Stag Horn might take them along, though there are plenty of others who want to be close to the lead if not on it.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Selection

Like all of Friday's races, this is trappy. I do like Ginto but not his odds, likewise Hillcrest. I'm after a bit more latitude for making a mistake and so will tilt at a windmill in the form of Idas Boy, who might just appreciate an out and out slog, and Falcon Eight, whose classy flat form may have been a bit under-rated.

Suggestion: Try a couple of big-priced guesses in the form of 25/1 Falcon Eight and 50/1 Idas Boy each way, extra places obvs.

*

3.30 Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2 1/2f)

This year's Gold Cup is an interesting race though not a vintage one, on looks at least. I covered it in some detail in my Gold Cup preview here, and don't have much to add now the final preparations have been completed. Written on 11th January I felt Minella Indo was big enough to bet at 8/1 (now 5/1) and Chantry House was worthy of a small dabble at 16's (still 16's).

I'm not inclined to add anything much to those opinions, the reasons for which are to be found at the above link if you're minded. One horse who does need marking up, however, is Royale Pagaille, for whom the Wednesday rain moves him from unlikely to quite possible. He's been backed accordingly but remains a double figure price at time of writing.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Pace Map

Not clear where the pace will come from if not from Santini. And if from Santini, it may not be that fast early.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection

A competitive but not outstanding renewal of the Gold Cup, and one in which I respect Galvin's chance greatly but would rather bet Minella Indo at similar prices. Trying to guess on a longer priced horse led me to Chantry House, whose winning habit is more admirable than it often looks and whose clunk in the King George needs overlooking to rate his chance here. Trainer Nicky Henderson is having a very good week.

Suggestion: Back Minella Indo to win at 5/1 or maybe Chantry House each way at 16/1 if you're feeling fearless/reckless enough. Don't forget 16/1 Royale Pagaille loves it wet.

*

4.10 Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2 1/2f)

This is a race for people who know about point to point and hunter chase form, and I am not among their number. So there will be better places to go for an insight than what follows. Nevertheless, and caveats firmly in situ, here goes...

Second for the past two years, the chance of Billaway is obvious. Trained by Willie Mullins (really?), he's been in similar form this term and has a similar chance. Sent off at evens and 2/1 in that pair of silvers, he's a slightly bigger price this time but not enough to get me interested.

Dangers abound, perhaps most notably Winged Leader, who beat Billaway on his most recent start. With his best form on a good or yielding surface, as long as it's not too soft this eight-year-old probably holds strong claims.

David Maxwell rides Bob And Co, who unseated when still in with every chance last year. There he was ridden by Sean Bowen in the absence of amateur riders but, reunited with his regular rider, he's a chance of hitting the board, though recent second places when a short priced favourite temper enthusiasm for the win a touch.

I'm sure there's a reason he's this price and I'm a layman as I've said when it comes to this discipline, but Cousin Pascal looks big to me. He won the Aintree Hunters' Chase last year and beat Bob And Co last time - that one less than half his price - he also bolted up, granted in maiden hunter company, over further than three miles from a big field in very wet ground. This set up looks spot on and his sole defeat in recent times was on good ground which may not have suited.

I probably haven't mentioned the lively outsider that the hunt fans are all over, so apologies for that.

Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase  Pace Map

Pinch of salt pace map because we don't have point form so these are Rules races only.

Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase Selection

I obviously don't know, so feel free to skip this next bit. But I've had a bit of Cousin Pascal each way at 16/1, and the other half of my stake each way four places at 14/1. Winged Leader should go well as a win play.

Suggestion: Back 5/1 Winged Leader to win and/or 14/1 Cousin Pascal each way with four or more places.

*

4.50 Mares' Chase (Grade 2, 2m 4 1/2f)

The least interesting race of the meeting for me. I accept that, in the grand scheme of the breed and all, there may be a place for it; but I'm unexcited by the prospect. Anyway...

Top rated is Elimay, second in last year's inaugural running to stable mate Colreevy. She's since won at Fairyhouse and Naas but, in between times, has been beaten by both Zambella and Mount Ida who lock horns again this time. Elimay handles all types of underfoot and is commendably consistent, but she's very short against a series of credible rivals.

Chief among them may be Mount Ida, winner of the Kim Muir last season, and 1-1 versus Elimay since. She was apparently a little wrong physically when taking the Kim Muir, hence the erratic looking jumping at times and the tailed off early run style. That remains a niggle when considering this six-furlong shorter trip but she's a very good mare.

Zambella handles deep ground and two and a half miles is her range. She has a comprehensive score against Elimay in last season's Houghton Mares' Chase (2m4f, soft, exhibit A) and could be the value.

A mare who has had a few problems since winning the 2020 Dawn Run is Concertista. When she's good, she's very good, though, and her second to Black Tears in last year's Mares' Hurdle would be about enough to win here if she could reproduce it. She's a novice taking on seasoned chasers and that tempers enthusiasm.

Course specialist Vienna Court has been having a great season, winning a couple of handicaps here, the second of which was against the boys. Back in mares only company last time, she was picked off by Pink Legend on the flatter pastures of Huntingdon. It is likely Vienna needed a slightly greater stamina test, which she'll get, but I'm not convinced she's good enough. Pink Legend has since fallen in a race won by Zambella but was struggling at the time.

Scarlet And Dove has won on heavy and was not far behind Mount Ida two back before pulling up in the Thyestes Chase. Her overall profile is patchy though she does have some occasionally solid form in defeat.

Mares' Chase Pace Map

Zambella will be near the front, along probably with Elimay. Should be an even gallop, no more than that.

Mares' Chase Selection

Mount Ida and Elimay look very likely to be on the premises but the one that stands out at the current odds is Zambella. This race could have been framed for her and, though she hasn't quite the class of the first named pair, that optimal setup could see her competitive. She's a definitely each way bet with the firm paying four places.

Suggestion: Back Zambella each way with extra places if you can find them.

*

5.30 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 4 1/2f)

The getting out stakes is for masochists! Conditional riders and 26 of them aboard largely unexposed and/or jobbed up horses over two and a half miles.

Langer Dan is trained in Britain by a Dan, Skelton, and was second in the Martin Pipe last year to Galopin Des Champs. Only two pounds higher now, having been nudged up five for the Martin Pipe silver then straight back down three for a limp effort at Taunton on his only intervening run has been widely observed as generous handicapping. Be that as it may, the missed point may be that this race has the potential for a lurker of the quality of a Galopin Des Champs. Or a Killultagh Vic, or a Don Poli, or a Sir Des Champs (strong trend for winners to have the suffix 'Des Champs'!)

So, if Langer Dan is not a blot, then who are the likeliest lurkers? Each of those mentioned was sent of 12/1 or shorter so I'm not going deep into the bowels of the form book.

Hollow Games heads the chasing pack, market wise, and is trained by former Martin Pipe conditional, Gordon Elliott, as are five others in this field. He was third in a brace of Grade 1's in his most recent starts and has form on deep ground. Of his others, Chemical Energy has won a maiden and a novice hurdle either side of beating all bar My Mate Mozzie in a Grade 3; he's quietly progressive. Likewise, The Goffer has more to give after a Grade 3 score last time at Thurles (soft). In fact, similar comments apply to all of Gordon's and I'm not even sure they're confident of how the hierarchy shakes down.

Willie Mullins saddles only two, so he's either happy he'll have won the trainers' title before 5pm on Friday or he quietly fancies one or both. They are Adamantly Chosen, winner of a big field bumper and a big field maiden hurdle, and second twice in between, including to the decent Gringo d'Aubrelle; and Five O'Clock, not seen since being hampered before staying on into a four length seventh in this race two years ago. Now four pounds better in, we know Mullins can get one ready off a layoff and this fella is a fan of the mud.

I can't resist a mention for Freedom To Dream, who has been second in a G2 and fourth in a G1 in most recent racecourse visits. He seems to handle all ground conditions and his trainer Peter Fahey knows the job (Royal Kahala, Belfast Banter, Suprise Package at Sandown, etc).

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

Expect this to be fiercely contested from the outset, with what looks like one each of Willie's and Gordon's vying early. If it's not them it will be some others in a race that will take some getting.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Selection

There's a good chance something at a single figure price will win this, perhaps even Langer Dan. But I'll have very small guesses on Five O'Clock and Freedom To Dream with the extra places.

Suggestion: Have a punt each way on 16/1 Five O'Clock and 25/1 Freedom To Dream with extra places aforethought.

*

The rain changed everything on Wednesday and hopefully you were able to pivot your punting accordingly. Regardless of wins or losses accrued in the toughest betting week of the year, the sport generally comes out in front and, with a following wind, will do again after the Gold Cup.

Be lucky.

Matt



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Novice Hurdles: What’s the Form Worth? Part 2

In my last article I discussed the relative merits of graded novice hurdle races in the UK and Ireland based on how well the horses involved performed over the next calendar year, writes Jon Shenton. You can find that here: https://www.geegeez.co.uk/novice-hurdles-whats-the-form-worth/

It wasn’t planned to be a two-part double header, but sheer volume of interesting takeaways has merited it, thus a sequel was hastily commissioned and here it is.

Before commencing it’s worth noting that I won’t be going into details regarding methodology of race scores, rankings and the like. All of that can be found in the original article, linked to above.

First things first, then: let's catch up on the two races from Part 1 which were highlighted as the most accomplished based on my race rankings. Both events have been contested since publication. Of course, it will only become apparent if the usual abundance of talent was present in a few months', or perhaps years', time but we need to have a better idea before then!

2020 Chanelle Pharma Novices' Hurdle (Leopardstown)

This race was comfortably the strongest novice hurdle based on the historical average race rating of 96+. This year's renewal had a very impressive winner who appears to have a strong chance of living up to the general quality of the race. Asterion Forlonge made easy work of, well, Easywork to win by over nine lengths from the Gordon Elliott-trained 5/4 jolly, extending Willie Mullins’ stranglehold on the race by extracting his seventh victory from the last eight renewals. The full result is shown below.

Both Asterion Forlonge and Easywork disputed the lead from the get-go, giving each other little peace throughout. The eventual victor galloped relentlessly, breaking his field one by one and finishing powerfully. A credible case could be constructed to even upgrade the performance given the contested pace and the seemingly tiring nature of the track on Sunday.

The Chanelle Pharma is a proven stepping stone for Mullins charges prior to tackling Cheltenham and it will be of significant interest to see where the winner rolls up in a few short weeks. Ordinarily the Supreme would be top of the list (the route taken by Klassical Dream, Vautour and Champagne Fever). However, the Donnelly’s, owners of Asterion Forlonge, have a decision to make given that the head of the Supreme ante-post market is fronted by their own Shishkin. Add in another Donnelly novice hurdler, The Big Getaway, and possibilities abound. It would be no surprise to see the yellow and black checkerboard silks in the winner's enclosure on more than one occasion, with Al Boum Photo adding a significant further string to connections' Cheltenham bow.

2020 Classic Novices' Hurdle (Cheltenham)

The second race that was discussed in Part 1, as it was ranked 2nd overall (with an average rating of 78) was the Ballymore Classic Novices' Hurdle on Cheltenham Trials day run at the end of January. The result is below:

 

In truth, it’s hard to assess the strength of this renewal at this stage. Overall, it seems fair to assert that the Irish novices appear to have to an edge over the British crop as things stand. Harry Fry, trainer of the second placed King Roland essentially confirmed this view by questioning his charges participation at the Cheltenham Festival based on not conceivably being able to defeat Envoi Allen. Of course, trainer talk should be often taken with a good pinch of salt and whilst beating the Envoi may be a stretch based on evidence thus far, there is still a case for the King to reign in the future.

Watching the race again, the horse was virtually left standing at the start and gave the early leader, House Island, a 20-length head start. More importantly, the eventual winner, Harry Senior, had a few lengths in hand too. King Roland then breezed into contention on the home turn but didn’t see it through, finally succumbing by three lengths.

The winner barrelled up the Cheltenham hill despite coming under pressure earlier than virtually every other horse in the race. Trained by Colin Tizzard, Harry Senior gave a strong impression that the longer three-mile test of the Albert Bartlett would suit. Consequently, this 6-year-old is on the dauphinoise end of my scale for the potato race shortlist.

 ***

Next time out races to follow

There are other races from Part 1 that are worth delving into, notably the Navan Grade 2 run in December, the Nathaniel Lacy (2m 6f) run at Leopardstown as part of the Dublin Racing Festival (both won by Latest Exhibition), and any other novice hurdle ran at Cheltenham. However, this time I want to assess the same races but in a slightly different way. Rather than following the races for a calendar year (like in Part 1), I thought that it may be of interest to appraise by only considering the horses' next time out (NTO) performances.

An important distinction is that Part 1 contained five years' worth of data, whereas the table below relates to the entire history of the race contained in horseracebase.com’s database, going as far back as the late 1990’s in some cases. I’ve used the “follow” capability from the big trends page on HRB to then manually compile this output.

The table below presents the data for next time out performances.

The columns starting with the notation “Win” show the fate of only the horses who won the race in question on their next outing. The columns beginning with “All” represent the performance of every runner that competed in each race on their next visit to a track. The data is sorted by the AllNextPL which shows the £1 level stake return if you’d backed every horse from the race next time out. The data is complete for races run up to January 16th 2020.

National Hunt Novices' Handicap Hurdle Final (Grade 3, Sandown)

Reviewing the “All” data in the first instance, perhaps surprisingly, at the top of the tree is the Grade 3 March Novice Handicap Final from Sandown.  Contested over 2m 4f, this event usually attracts a large field. In terms of measuring the subsequent overall form of the race it is on the lower end of the scale with a race rating of 46.6 (see Part 1) and isn’t generally a race to follow.

However, by checking race ranking data there are clues as to why this race might be of interest for NTO runners but not overall form. Using the same table format as part 1 here are the Sandown G3 Novice Handicap individual yearly race ratings and ranks.

Immediately, it can be seen that the ratings are relatively low due primarily to poor performance in subsequent Graded races: in total, 27 runs had followed in Graded company (GPrun), producing a solitary Grade 2 victory in 2017.  However, it is clear from the OthrW column that there is a healthy abundance of future winners exiting this race. It may be a case of quantity over quality for this event from a Graded perspective, but it remains a solid barometer.

This all makes a degree of sense; after all it is the one and only handicap on our list and it is usually staged the weekend before Cheltenham. Ergo, it may be a fair assertion that “not quite top level” novices are targeted at this race as an opportunity to secure a sought-after Graded prize. It is also plausible that a greater number of horses than average are well handicapped improving types given the novice element of the contest. So, even if it is not their day at Sandown in early March, they may still be in a strong position to strike next time.

Evaluating next time out performance by the class of race competed in demonstrates that the vast majority of animals drop several rungs of the ladder to class 3 or 4 races, and by and large perform competently at this earthlier level.

The elite level G1 results notwithstanding, the rest are solid. It must be stated, however, that there is outlying SP of 50/1 (Time For Rupert who finished 10th in the Sandown race and then won a Listed race at Aintree the following month) which obviously gives a flattering edge to the overall P&L number.

I’m not sure that I’d advise backing all runners coming out of Sandown blindly but, with a strike rate of over 23% for next time outers, I will certainly be adding horses from this race into my geegeez tracker for further evaluation.

Rossington Main Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2, Haydock)

Another race worth quickly noting due its recent running and propensity to deliver next time out winners (again, despite its relatively uninspiring race ranking) is the Grade 2 Rossington Main staged at Haydock. Horses exiting this event are 26/109 with a profit of £24.79 to £1 level stakes on their next run; that’s a better than 20% rate of return. That needs caveating with the fact that pickings have been slim in the past five years with only a handful of short price next time out winners. However, in the 2020 renewal, run at the end of January, the trio of Stolen Silver, Thebannerkingrebel and Edwardstone fought out a tight finish with all three looking to be the type to keep on your side. The first two named are entered in the Betfair Hurdle this Saturday.

Cheltenham Festival Novice Hurdles

For this edition most of the focus on novice hurdlers has been on evaluating a Graded race with an eye to its future form. But, of course, at this time of year all roads lead to Cheltenham, so as a final set of analysis below is a brief appraisal of the three Championship Novice Hurdle races staged at the Festival.

By understanding the routes that the winners have taken through their novice campaigns there may be some clues as to where to start looking for this year's bounty.

Supreme Novices Hurdle – 2 miles ½ furlong

First up is the Supreme: in a few weeks' time the Festival will open with a spine-tingling roar as the Supreme protagonists take their first steps toward potential fame and glory. Given its opening berth I suspect that more time and effort is expended on predicting the winner of the curtain-raiser than any other race over the course of the week (or is that just me?!). Other (more qualified) people will commit their thoughts to paper with interesting and informative race form previews, but the below table may offer some historical pointers on where to start evaluating the contenders.

The table is fairly basic, illustrating the winners of the Supreme, their SP and a record of all graded race performances in the same season prior to the Cheltenham event.  This campaigns winner has been added to build a ready-made shortlist for further analysis!

It is not a shock to note that there isn’t a single case over the past nine years where the winner of the Supreme has not already tasted Graded success during the same season. This is of interest, particularly as the head of the ante-post market at time of writing is the Nicky Henderson-trained Shishkin.

Shishkin has yet to dip his hoof into anything above Class 4 novice waters and, with only one entry before Cheltenham (a Listed race at Huntingdon), it’s very unlikely he’s going to get that Graded experience prior to the Festival. Stats and trends of course are there to be broken, and it may be that we have a trend buster in the making here. That said, whilst taking on a Hendo hotpot is not for the meek, I think I’d much rather side at the prices with a horse with greater experience - and winning Graded form - especially after referencing the data in the table above.

The Chanelle Pharma features prominently, three times in total, with the Mullins trio of Champagne Fever, Vautour and Klassical Dream all taking the Leopardstown G1 route to subsequent Prestbury Park glory. The complexity regarding the same ownership of Shishkin and Asterion Forlonge will play out in due course, no doubt. However, if they both line up on the big day my money will be on the latter: the Chanelle Pharma / Supreme double is historically compelling.

 

Ballymore Novices Hurdle – 2 miles 5 furlongs

Graded experience is again important in the case of the Ballymore. Aside from City Island last year, all winners have finished at least in the top two in a Graded event, the lone exception having taken the scenic route via an £11k Naas novice event. City Island's trainer, Martin Brassil, had had up to that point only two previous runners at the Festival which may explain the slightly unconventional path to victory.

In terms of the remaining winners, the Chanelle Pharma is preeminent again and, along with the Leamington, two victors have prevailed from each to take the Ballymore in the past nine years.

The current 2020 ante-post favourite, Envoi Allen, is a slim 5/4 poke largely due to being a dual-Grade 1 winner already this season. The market historically looks to be there or thereabouts too. It’s not a tip but in terms of ticking the boxes the Envoi appears to be an identikit winner

 

Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle – 3 miles

Finally, the gruelling three-mile trip of the Albert Bartlett has borne witness to some Hollywood-priced winners recently. All bar two (Minella Indo and Very Wood) had already tasted Graded victory in the same season, and even both of the non-Graded winners ran second in such an event.

Two horses prominent in the Albert Bartlett betting are the Willie Mullins trained-Monkfish and Colin Tizzard-conditioned The Big Breakaway. Like Shishkin in the Supreme, both animals lack Graded miles on the clock, leading to a question on whether they can step up to the Festival plate. In fact, thus far, neither have competed in any race close to Graded level.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find commonality in the routes to Albert Bartlett glory, with seemingly the whole array of novice races listed above. As mentioned previously, the names in the 2019/20 column are essentially a shortlist of potentially where to start more detailed analysis; although it could easily be argued that checking the market gives a similar result. Nevertheless, given the propensity for unfancied horses to win, my starting point in the spud race will be to evaluate the chances of some of the unheralded names in the table above, Redford Road perhaps being a case in point.

*

That’s it for this novice hurdle deep dive. I’ve enjoyed putting it together and it’s been highly educational in terms of attaining a greater appreciation of the novice roadmap and its leading pathfinders. Hopefully, it will result in some punting improvements too!

- JS



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