Posts

The Kings are dead – long live the Kings. Nicky Henderson and Nigel Twiston-Davies might disagree but in just 60 minutes on Saturday between the hours of 2.07 (the off time of the Christy Ascot 1965 Chase) and 3.07 p.m. (conclusion of the Betfair Chase at Haydock) two champions were dethroned, possibly terminally such is the merit of their respective conquerors, writes Tony Stafford.

First it was Altior, unbeaten and unblemished in 19 races over hurdles and chases, but almost psyched (well Nicky Henderson and owner Patricia Pugh were) by the official handicappers to risk his record over the longest distance he’d ever tried. There has been general disbelief in many quarters (not least this one) that the weights and measures men from Wellingborough could translate two wide-margin wins around Ascot by Cyrname as worthy of a 176 rating, 1lb more than Altior earned in 14 impeccable runs and 28 miles of effort over three seasons’ hard labour.

More remarkable perhaps was that when Cyrname had finished a remote seventh of 13 at Ascot last year on the corresponding day’s racing in a 2m1f handicap chase, Altior had already been adorned with his 175 mark ever since beating Min easily in the Arkle at Cheltenham back in March of that year. In none of his previous triumphal marches to victory was it deemed necessary to mark him even the single pound higher than would have staved off Cyrname’s two-race surge early this year.

Cyrname exploded with a 21-length demolition of Doitforthevillage, Happy Diva, Mister Whitaker, Flying Angel and Mr Medic, smart chasers and big-race winners all, in the bet365 Chase over Saturday’s course and distance in late January, necessitating a surge to 165 from 150.

Four weeks later, back on the same track, this time for the level weights Grade 1 Betfair Ascot Chase he made all, in another clinical humiliation of a top-class field, running home 17 lengths clear of the 170-rated Waiting Patiently with Fox Norton (166) and Politologue (168) clustered up close behind. It would have been possible to give Cyrname less than the 176 he got, easy on a literal application to go even higher. The result on Saturday with Altior just over two lengths behind, suggests the officials got it right – at the longer trip – but that Altior is still pre-eminent over two miles.

Then again Nicky Henderson might be looking over his shoulder towards Ireland where Laurina’s first try over fences resulted in an eight-length margin over the more than useful Minella Indo, all produced with an effortless stroll up the run-in after the pair were close coming to the last fence at Gowran Park. Maybe that’s why Nicky didn’t rule out a rematch even in the King George where Paul Nicholls is intent on next revealing the new champ to his soon-to-be-adoring public, never mind Saturday’s restrained reaction to the upset.

Your first 30 days for just £1

For make no mistake, upset it was. The betting public had, it seems, as much respect for the present official ratings as the rest of us, making Altior a heavily-backed 1-3 shot after mathematically bigger  odds-on prices had been available earlier in the day. Cyrname was never bigger than his 5-2 starting price. One thing I didn’t expect to witness happened as the horses came up to the line. Harry Cobden is still a relatively inexperienced jockey, albeit one whose boss thought enough of his potential to cast aside the excellent Sam Twiston-Davies not too long ago as first jockey. I was waiting for the Dettori-esque whip brandishing, extravagant waving to the crowd or the triumphal shake of the fist and a loving grab of his mount’s neck, but there was none of that from Cobden, just a professional message to his horse to slow down, the job’s done.

Having seen that happening 55 minutes earlier – got this timing thing down to a tee! – I was a little surprised when after a masterful waiting-at-the-back ride from Robbie Power on Lostintraslation in the Betfair Chase at Haydock, he did the full victory celebration as his horse crossed the line a comfortable length and a half ahead of dual previous winner Bristol de Mai.

His victory was anticipated by approximately half the betting public as he was shortened in to 5-4 equal favouritism with the title-holder, despite there being a 9lb deficit in their ratings, 161 against 170, the stylishly-ridden and economically-minded Lostintranslation living up to all Colin Tizzard’s pronouncements.

Since being beaten by Defi Du Seuil at the Cheltenham Festival last March, Lostintranslation won at Aintree the following month and easily landed the odds at Cheltenham on his return three weeks ago. It is hard to see how Bristol De Mai would turn the form around in next year’s Gold Cup, despite last March’s third place, and at this stage the Tizzard improver has to be one of the main contenders.

It was a case of the Kings are all dead (if you include De Sousa, Dettori and Moore) and Long Live the King in Tokyo on Sunday morning as overwhelming 2019 UK champion Oisin Murphy guided home Suave Richard to an opportunistic first place in the Grade 1 Japan Cup, squeezing through up the rail inside the last furlong and a half and holding the renewed effort of Curren Bouquetd’or by threequarters of a length.

Suave Richard was third favourite at just over 4-1 and earned the £2.16 million first prize. None of the other international riders got into the money, which goes down to fifth place. William Buick partnered the 16-5 favourite Rey De Oro in the 15-runner, all-Japanese line-up but could do no better than 11th. Christophe Lemaire, a regular in Japan, did best of the others in eighth on a 14-1 shot; Christophe Soumillon was ninth (19-1), Frankie Dettori 10th (14-1) while Ryan Moore beat only two home in 13th on a 33-1 outsider. The changing face of international jockeyship appears to be echoing what is happening in the UK steeplechasing ranks.

This weekend’s big attraction is another race that habitually throws up potential Gold Cup winners to show their early-season paces. In the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase’s more recognisable guise as the Hennessy, I hit on what was almost a guaranteed formula for finding the winner – a seven-year-old second-season chaser – not that it always worked.

When I had one of my biggest bets of all time on Jodami, who fulfilled my conditions in the 1992 Hennessy, he carried 10st2lb, a full 25lb less than previous Gold Cup winner The Fellow. He did beat The Fellow, who finished third six lengths back in a wonderful renewal of the race, but was still threequarters of a length behind another seven-year-old, Geoff Hubbard’s Sibton Abbey, trained by the late Ferdy Muphy. He was a 40-1 shot ridden by the brilliant Adrian Maguire and ran from 21lb out of the handicap. Three unbeaten runs later Jodami lined up at Cheltenham and won the Gold Cup.

It’s was sad news to learn of Ferdy’s death two months ago. He’d relocated to France in his later years but it’s good to see Mr Hubbard’s great friend Pat Betts still looking in fine fettle at Sandown recently watching his horse Le Reve finishing third for Lucy Wadham. Pat didn’t take any reminding of Sibton Abbey and was also quick to mention the great French Holly.

That brilliant, versatile horse won ten of his 20 career starts and would have been even more vividly remembered had he not been around at the same time as Istabraq. In three consecutive Grade 1 races he was beaten one length by the brilliant Aidan O’Brien-trained star at Leopardstown; was a six-length third to him in the 1999 Champion Hurdle and then after leading the great horse over the final jump of the Aintree Hurdle the following month, again gave best by a length.

He raced only once over fences, three miles at Wetherby and still had 18 lengths to spare of the field despite being eased, presumably when rider Andrew Thornton “felt something”. That was his final appearance. Ferdy was a great man, prone to sudden bursts of energy, suddenly calling you up to discuss the latest “vital” topic or other, and just as quickly moving onto another, and as a horseman he had few peers.

Sibton Abbey was the first big winner under his own name but as head lad to Bill Durkan in Ireland - in all but name he was the trainer - Ferdy guided the great mare Anaglog’s Daughter through her brilliant career in the 1980’s.

Back to next Saturday and, whereas the Henderson stable’s nine-year-old Ok Corral is ante-post favourite, I’m hoping that fellow Seven Barrows inmate On The Blind Side, who does fulfil age and experience requirements, and who was noted here after his fourth to Vinndication at Ascot three weeks ago, can win the race for Alan Spence.

So here we go again, as the dust settles on the 2018/19 UK jump season, writes William Kedjanyi. Seems a bit odd that we have Punchestown this week, but such is the shadowing-but-not-total-overlap of the British and Irish seasons...

  1. The Season That Was 

358 days, 515,520 minutes, and 8592 hours later, we are done. The 2018/19 British jumps season has had its fair share of engrossing stories both on and off the racecourse, and it is little surprise that, fresh after the jumping finale at Sandown Park, on a day when the deserving champions of the season where crowned, people had plenty of highlights.

 

 

The Roll of honour reads:  

Champion Trainer

Paul Nicholls (135 winners, £3,307,171.58)

 

Champion Jockey

Richard Johnson (200 wins, £2,258,652)

 

https://twitter.com/itvracing/status/1122056769142968323

 

Champion Conditional

Bryony Frost (49 wins, £957,516)

https://twitter.com/WomenInRacing1/status/1122506520107859971

Champion Owner

JP McManus (94 wins, £2,147,993.55)

Racing Post jumps horse of the year

Tiger Roll (Boyne Hurdle, Cross Country, Grand National)

https://twitter.com/SportingLife/status/1114566537124438017

 

We had plenty of exceptional moments, not least Tiger Roll’s Grand National win, but also the super Thursday at the Festival (as said above) with Frodon and Paisley Park. Let’s not forget some of the early season highlights too, like Buveur D’Air’s brilliant Fighting Fifth win (when it looked as if the whole hurdling world would be his oyster), a sensational set of staying novice chases, and the two ridiculously powerful performances of Cyrname at Ascot to name a few. And who knows what could be on the way next season? 

 

  1. Altior - A New Frontier

Had it not been for the extraordinary Tiger Roll, it would have been hard not to deny Altior as the horse of the season. The now dual Champion Chaser took his third Celebration Chase, having once again had to come through a tough battle up the short but steep Sandown hill.

He was facing Sceau Royal once again, the two having clashed at Cheltenham for a previous dramatic late battle, and this time it looked as if a shock was on the cards. Things would have been even tighter if Sceau Royal hadn’t basically walked into the second last. As it was, they were still level after the last – much like at Cheltenham in the Champion Chase – but the customary powerful finish of Altior's took him three and a half lengths clear by the line. Do enjoy this mega leap, captured by Luke Elder, though;

https://twitter.com/Lukeelder13/status/1122140702652104704

 

1,252 days ago, Chepstow saw the debut of a future Champion as Nicky Henderson’s charge won by 34 lengths. That was to be the first of a 19 race winning streak, all over 2 1/4 miles or less, but this season’s performances – and the fact that he’s conquered all there is to conquer over the minimum distance – has finally seen connections opt for a step up in trip.

 

Your first 30 days for just £1

https://twitter.com/matt_h4/status/1122140940154691587

https://twitter.com/Banger40/status/1122140896496181253

 

The King George is set to be his main aim for the first half of next season, something which trainer, jockey and owners all agree on.

https://twitter.com/RacingTV/status/1122148369940586499

“He’s very good at telling you things. He told you one thing today: ‘Go further!’ – Nicky Henderson, speaking to The Guardian’s Chris Cook in the aftermath of Altior’s success 

 

Three miles? No problem! - “He’ll switch off,” Henderson said. “That’s going to be the beauty of it. He’s no tearaway. Nico [de Boinville] said he was having to boot him the whole way today.”  Henderson once again, speaking to Chris Cook.

 

The View From The Saddle:

  

Where next?

The Racing Post’s Maddy Playle has been looking at the potential next steps….

 

  1. The Grand Finale

The Irish Jumping season ends with a five-day spectacular at Punchestown, with 39 races from tomorrow to Saturday in the beautiful setting of County Kildare. 12 of them are Grade 1’s, and we will be reflecting on a great deal of them here next week, but we have confirmed fields for the first three, which take place on Tuesday.

 

  • Klassical Dream, the extremely impressive Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, will go for a double, facing four of his stablemates including Quick Grabim (Paul Townend), Aramon (David Mullins) and Mister Blue Sky (Danny Mullins), along with Gordon Elliott' Felix Desjy, and Nicky Henderson's British challenger, Champagne Platinum.

 

  • Delta Work aims to take yet another Grade 1 over fences in the Dooley Insurance Group Champion Novice Chase, facing the widily impressive Cheltenham winner A Plus Tard, and Getabird, who was narrowly beaten in the Matchbook Betting Exchange Novice Chase at Christmas

 

  • Devastatingly impressive Ryanair Chase winner Min bids to end his season on a high note in the BoyleSports Champion Chase, facing last year’s winner and stablemate Un De Secaux, as well as Great Field, Castlegrace Paddy, Hell’s Kitchen and Ordinary World

https://twitter.com/TheRacingJosh/status/1114180459708260353

 

  1. Meanwhile, On The Level

The European flat season is already well underway. In Britain, we had a fine card at Sandown on Friday, and today we had the first French Group 1 of the season, the returning Oaks favourite in Ireland, and four Group 1 races in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong gets it’s own spot later on but let’s try and cover the best highlights from Europe to start with.

  • The first Group 1 of the French season, the Prix Ganay, went to Waldgeist, with last year’s Arc fourth cannily ridden to show a fine turn of foot that would see him cosily beat the 2018 Prix Du-Jockey Club winner, Study of Man, and the odds-on favourite Ghaiyyath, an extremely impressive winner of the Prix d'Harcourt previously.

 

  • Ghaiyyath, the 1/2 favourite, had been sent to the lead, presumably in an attempt to try and repeat the same front running win as last time, but Study Of Man and Waldgeist were always travelling better in behind; and when Christophe Soumillon asked him, the last named had plenty in reserve and eventually won quite easily.
  • Much of Twitter was not impressed with what they saw as a below-par performance, as you can see, but Charlie Appleby reckons a step up in trip should do the trick for him

In Ireland, it was a tale of two races for Aidan O’Brien. He will be very happy to have another string to his Classic bow in the shape of Pink Dogwood, who is now a stronger favourite for the Oaks following her win in the Salsabil Stakes, whilst Capri was a well beaten fifth in the Vintage Crop Stakes, where Southern France was also beaten into third. 

  • Pink Dogwood travelled well into the Salsabi, before being made to work very hard by Noel Meade’s recent Clonmel scorer Encapsulation, with the two pulling away. She got the better of the argument by half a length, with Ryan Moore driving away but not using his whip. She’s now as short as 5/1 for the Oaks, and that has split opinion

https://twitter.com/TimeformLive/status/1122512861132152838

https://twitter.com/Steeley99/status/1122512394343858177

  • When Aidan doesn’t win, Joseph now so often does, and whilst the result of the Vintage Crop Stakes was in doubt until the very end, Master Of Reality produced a fine front-running display to cause a major upset for Joseph. He’d looked set for second before rallying to beat Mustajeer by a head

https://twitter.com/TimeformLive/status/1122521602254680066

 

  • Capri faded badly into fifth, having never looked quite as comfortable, and Southern France sweated up beforehand but ran with some promise in third; Aidan O’Brien did say that both were big and that plenty of improvement was expected

Back in time, to a place called Sandown...

  • Crystal Ocean took his second, and Sir Michael Stoute’s tenth, victory in the Gordon Richards Stakes on Friday, with the manner of his victory suggesting he can land at least one Group 1 this year. He had too much for the pleasing runner up Knight To Behold, but Trais Fluors and Thundering Blue were both disappointing in behind.

 

  • Beat The Bank took yet another race at Group level with a gutsy win in the Bet365 Mile, responding brilliantly to Silvestre de Sousa’s power-packed drive late on and showing enough to just repel Sharja Bridge

 

  • Silvestre de Sousa and King Power had yet another success as Bangkok showed a smart turn of foot to take the bet365 Classic Trial at Sandown, beating the Martyn Meade-trained Technician, who probably didn’t get the gap to challenge when needed

https://twitter.com/Sandownpark/status/1121777780688064512

 

  • Masaru defied top weight and looked smart in doing so when bet365 Esher Cup Handicap as Migration was a big eye-catcher in second place

 

  1. The Beauty Of Our Generation

There were three Group 1’s in Hong Kong on Sunday but the star of the show was undoubtedly Beauty Generation, who put on a brilliant performance in the FWD Champions Mile

  • The six-year-old was barely asked to come out of an exercise canter to beat Singapore Sling by a length and a half, and so impressive was his previous eight-race winning run that he went off 1/20 in a display that has to be seen to be believed (so I’ve put it for you below).

  • For those asking the inevitable – where will we see his talents next? – Japan’s Yasuda Kinen has been all but confirmed, as one can see from rider Zac Purton’s tweet:

 

In the Chairman’s Sprint Prize…

  • Beat The Clock took his second Group 1 and eighth win when leading home a a one-two-three for Hong Kong-trained horses, with hot Australian favourite, Santa Ana Lane, a slightly disappointing fourth.

 

In the QEII Cup….

  • Win Bright took a first Group 1 success, at 47/1 ! He held off the late runs of Exultant and and Lys Gracieux in a course record time of 1min 58.81secs.

https://twitter.com/Racing/status/1122422909144748033

 

That's all for this week. I'll be back next week - same time, same place - with a round up of the Punchestown Festival and the Guineas. Stay tuned!

- William Kedjanyi

I had a look back at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival right after the meeting last March but eleven and a half months on we know a lot more so let’s see what has changed and if there is anything that might be of use in two weeks’ time.

 

  1. Festival Form

Year on year, the best guide to Cheltenham winners is regarded as the previous year’s Festival. The test provided by the meeting is unique and horses that respectively thrive and wilt there can be expected to do the same again. Yet while last season’s Festival form generally worked out for the rest of 2017/18 campaign, it hasn’t carried through quite so well into 2018/19.

Of the 28 horses that won at Cheltenham 2018, eleven have won a race of some sort in the current season which seems on the low side. More than that, few have won a race of consequence with only three winning at Grade 1 level: Buveur D’Air, Altior and Delta Work. Two of the 28, Benie Des Dieux and Penhill, have not run at all.

Their under-performance as a group is likely ground-related. The winter and spring of 2017/18 was an aberration for its extreme wet weather, this past winter has been an aberration for its mild and dry weather. It seems reasonable to question how well the soft and heavy ground form will translate to watered good-soft next month given it hasn’t done so for much of the campaign,

 

  1. Exception One: The RSA

In isolation though, the form of racing’s bay pimpernel, Presenting Percy, in the RSA might be working out best of all. Last year’s staying novice chasers are a strong crop and from the first four in this race alone we have had Monalee finish second in a Grade 1 at Christmas before winning the Red Mills Chase, Elegant Escape land the Welsh National, and Ballyoptic come second in a Scottish National.

Al Boum Photo fell when likely to come third, and won a Grade 1 subsequently at Fairyhouse and should have had another at Punchestown before looking better than ever at Tramore on New Year’s Day. Even those Irish novices indirectly related to Presenting Percy’s form like Snow Falcon, Dounikos, Invitation Only and Rathvinden have won valuable races in 2018/19.

Presenting Percy looked much the best of that crop last season so this is exactly what you’re looking for if you’re backing him, allowing that there are other concerns with him, particularly his lack of chase experience.

 

  1. Exception Two: Delta Work

While allowing that a batch of form may not be working out on the whole, one still needs to judge each horse on its individual merits. The Pertemps Final has not proven a strong race on balance but the winner might be the most successful of all last year’s Festival winners relative to expectations (though we’ll get to Altior anon).

Since his Festival win, Delta Work has been narrowly beaten in a Grade 1 novice hurdle before winning thrice over fences, two of them Grade 1s, the form looking strong as he beat Le Richebourg. All told, he seems to have a leading chance in the RSA where he will have a slight experience edge over Santini.

There is one niggling concern and that is the lack of a recent run. Historically a horse being without a run in the calendar year was a negative in the RSA but this is likely more to do with the individual than profiling the typical race winner. Delta Work has come off a break three times since joining Gordon Elliott and the improvement has been clear: Timeform have him improving 12lbs, 1lb and 18lbs for those runs while Racing Post Ratings have those figures at 4lbs, 14lbs and 28lbs.

None of those breaks came mid-season which may negate the concern a little while one can also argue that he was all ready to run in the Flogas at the Dublin Racing Festival so should have been kept plenty fit at home. As a backer though, it remains a worry.

 

  1. Exception Three: Altior

Altior is Altior and he just wins as he has again done through three starts this season. On those rare occasions he does look vulnerable, it seems down to pace and specifically not getting the strong gallop he wants, as in the 2017 Arkle when he traded at 8/11 in-running having been sent off 1/4.

Looking back at last year’s Champion Chase, the most striking thing is that there is now a Special Tiara-sized hole in the race, that stalwart setting the gallop in the last five runnings of the race and invariably at a generous pace. There is no such horse among the 18 entries for this year’s race with Un De Sceaux likely to go the Ryanair route.

Your first 30 days for just £1

That would leave a horse like Saint Calvados potentially making the running and, realistically, he can’t go the pace Altior ideally wants on decent ground. There is also the possibility of Altior making his own running as he did at Ascot last time but that may bring its own problems as he jumped left there, so a race that hitherto looked a foregone conclusion may actually be tactically fascinating.

 

  1. The Gold Cup

Despite only two horses really getting into the race, last year’s Gold Cup was an epic with Native River becoming the first horse this century to win the race having been beaten in it on his first attempt previously (Kauto Star won, then was beaten, then won again); 66 others had tried, thank you Matt Tombs and your excellent Cheltenham Guide for that stat. With the race run on heavy ground and at a strong gallop, it actually suited the experience and toughness that the winner had in spades as the race developed into an old-school Gold Cup slog with the best stayer coming out on top.

That has not been the way in most recent Gold Cups however as younger horses typically come to the fore, often second-season chasers and it is worth remembering that the three that chased Native River home last year fit that category. With the race very likely to be run on better ground this year, it might be more prudent to expect more of a new-style Gold Cup with the winner being a Sizing John rather than Synchronized type.

All of this may make life tough on Native River who is in danger of being outpaced on better ground as he has been in his runs at Haydock and Kempton this season; the stiffer track will help but will it be enough to compensate for the going? This might be a race where the younger horses like Presenting Percy, Clan Des Obeaux and Kemboy to come to the fore.

 

  1. The Samcro Problem

In his weekly Irish Field column on time analysis, Simon Rowlands rated Samcro’s Ballymore win as the best hurdling performance at last year’s Festival and the form stacks up too, with the placed horses going on to win Grade 1 novice events at Aintree and Punchestown. It was visually impressive too with Jack Kennedy’s mount travelling best all the way and the horse finding himself in front sooner than ideal.

That was his best performance to date, better than anything he has done dropped to two miles in four starts since, and it was also the race in which his stamina was most drawn out over 21 furlongs on soft ground. Originally pegged as a future Gold Cup horse, the two-mile experiment has palpably failed but Gordon Elliott seems to have been leaning toward the stamina route for a while now, entering him in the Long Walk back in December when all the chat about him was Champion Hurdle.

In general, the comment that a horse wouldn’t run in a race unless it is flying at home is trite but it might just apply here; he remains one of Gigginstown’s great hopes and is off a troubled season so they are unlikely to run unless he can deliver a big performance. With that in mind, we could get Ballymore Samcro in a few weeks and that would put him right in the Stayers’ Hurdle mix.

 

  1. Mullins and the Gold Cup

Willie Mullins has never won the Gold Cup in 22 attempts (again, stat courtesy of Matt Tombs), six of his finishing second, and it seems likely he will go four-handed at the race this year with Bellshill, Kemboy, Invitation Only and Al Boum Photo. All have it to prove on the track however judged on last year’s evidence and that of previous Festivals.

That applies to Bellshill more than most having been beaten a combined 58 lengths on his three course starts. The first two of those came in the Champion Bumper and the Supreme so it could be argued that the trip was too sharp for him in both cases but he did quickly bounce back at Aintree afterwards which is concerning. His run behind Might Bite in the RSA was better though again the downhill part of the track may not be for him but he did at least give the lie to his preferring a right-handed track by winning a Grade 1 at Leopardstown last time.

The evidence for the other three not operating at the track is more flimsy but none were at their best here last year. Neither Kemboy nor Invitation Only jumped well enough in the JLT, though the argument can be made they needed further, while Al Boum Photo fell when looking set for third in the RSA.

 

  1. Mullins and Fallers

The jumping of the Mullins horses attracted plenty of comment last year with ten of his runners falling across all races; when looking at the last three Festivals, his total number of fallers at the meeting is 14 with Gordon Elliott a distant second on five, Colin Tizzard, Venetia Williams, Jonjo O’Neill and Paul Nicholls with four each.

Those numbers are raw and from a small sample size but there are all sorts of layers to this. Unseats, say, are not included and are mainly caused by jumping errors nor are pulled up efforts that may have been brought about by mistakes. Some trainers may have more runners over fences than hurdles which would produce more fallers and so on.

Yet faller rate is something the BHA seem to place plenty of stock in as their report on the 2018 Cheltenham Festival included the following recommendation:

individual trainers…who have an incidence of fallers significantly higher than the historical average will be required to engage constructively with the BHA to consider the drivers of, and actions to improve, high incidence rates.

Perhaps it’s just me but that does sound like the authority is telling trainers how to train their horses which is a particularly grey area but they are the regulator after all: their racing, their rules. One wonders if Willie Mullins has been ‘engaged with’ on this and what that ‘engagement’ would be.

It is easy to question what right have the BHA to tell the all-time leading trainer at the Festival how his horses need to jump but there are two other factors here. First, Mullins has said that neither Douvan nor Rathvinden had schooled much ahead of last year’s meeting while comments from some associated with the yard suggest nothing has changed this term; owner Colm O’Connell saying after Bachasson’s New Year’s Eve win that ‘he hadn’t seen a hurdle or fence since [he fell in] the Gold Cup.’

And second, Mullins does have the highest fall rate when compared to similar trainers. Looking at those trainers who had the most runners in all UK and Irish jumps races between the 2015/16 and 2017/18 seasons, Mullins comes out worst with a fall rate of 4.7%. Colin Tizzard is next with 4.1% followed by Evan Williams on 3.9% and Henry De Bromhead on 3.6%. The average for that entire group which takes in a sample of 31,917 runners is 3.1%.

I suspect that the jumping of his horses will be under close scrutiny in a fortnight’s time and this might be one of the most interesting aspects of the meeting especially given quite a few of his horses won’t have had the racecourse practice they might have had in a previous season with the weather as it is.

 

  1. The Irish in Handicaps

I’m just going to leave these two tables out there for anyone who wonders about Irish horses being badly treated in the Festival handicaps. Also, there were a record number of Irish-trained horses entered in Cheltenham handicaps this season.

 

Festival Handicaps 2018

Trained in… Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

Ireland 5 53 9.4% 13 24.5% +27.00 1.21
Elsewhere 5 166 3.0% 27 16.3% -101.00 0.56

 

Festival Handicaps 2014-2017

Trained in… Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Level Stakes Actual/

Expected

Ireland 17 222 7.7% 57 25.7% +20.50 1.11
Elsewhere 25 741 3.4% 111 15.0% -338.00 0.62

 

 

  1. Gordon Elliott in Handicaps

Of the 22 Irish-trained handicap winners since 2014, nine were trained by Gordon Elliott. That is some going. Elliott has won a wide variety of handicaps with different types of horses but one approach he used to great effect last year was running novices, an approach he uses with some success at home too, the likes of Duca De Thaix (twice), Dallas Des Pictons and Roaring Bull winning examples this season.

Since 2014, his open handicap runners that were novices at the time have a finishing string of 20975PU3111001. That doesn’t include runners in confined races like the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase and the Fred Winter Novices' Handicap Hurdle, the latter of which he has won twice and may well have had a third had Campeador not fallen at the last in 2016.

Three of his winners last season were novices running in open handicaps (Delta Work, The Storyteller and Blow By Blow) and he has a number of options that could do the same this year among them the aforementioned Duca De Thaix and Dallas Des Pictons.

- Tony Keenan

By a quirk of fate, Altior is destined not to be celebrated as the best hurdler since triple Champion Hurdler Istabraq, writes Tony Stafford. I remember joining the throng attending Nicky Henderson’s stable opening as part of the 2016 Lambourn Open Day on Good Friday (March 25)  when Altior shared attention with the great Sprinter Sacre, who was about to run his spectacular finale at Sandown the following month.

I was there to catch up with Henderson’s long-time assistant and confidant Corky Brown as we’d made the initial steps into writing a book about the great man – Corky, that is, although Nicky’s pretty great too!

Sprinter Sacre was unfailingly helpful for hours in several sessions as the devotees took their turn to be photographed with him, some even picking hairs out of his tail. The unlikely return to championship form after his survival from the well-documented heart condition that interrupted his career coincided with an admirable temperament. “You couldn’t do that with any other horse.” as Henderson said at the time.

The Corky book never went any further with no blame other than to Sprinter Sacre, whose phoenix-like rise from the ashes of his ailment was quickly and opportunistically celebrated in a book which definitively had to have plenty of references to Mr Brown. I didn’t read it – no sour grapes intended – but these days the trade review copies no longer darken my door.

Altior gained almost as much attention that enjoyable day when Sir Rupert Mackeson’s Marlborough Bookshop did a much-needed roaring trade, rather better than when I stood in as a trainee replacement at Ascot’s two-day November meeting.

The sensational son of High Chaparral had just thrashed his Supreme Novice Hurdle opposition in a manner that suggested to me he would be the one to challenge the then overwhelming superiority of the Willie Mullins stable in 2017. Faugheen, the 2015 winner, missed the next running but Annie Power’s able substitution kept the home team fearful that Irish domination might continue.

That 2016 Supreme was won with the now characteristic burst from the last obstacle that Altior exhibits in his chases, sometimes even when, as with his recent Sandown defeat of Un De Sceaux, defeat has briefly loomed as a possibility.

Min was his nearest Supreme challenger, with Buveur D’Air only third and Tombstone, Charbel, Mister Miyagi following and the multiple Grade 1 winners Supersundae and Petit Mouchoir in seventh and eighth in that select field of 14.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Both Altior and Buveur D’Air switched to chasing the following season, the latter winning twice before serendipitously reverting to hurdles, with the probably unexpected outcome of two consecutive Champion Hurdle wins.

Meanwhile the boy who would be king kept to fences. Starting with a 63-length bloodless romp over sole rival Black Corton at Kempton, he has never faltered. Black Corton had already won two novice chases by then and by wide margins, but he still had the final fence to jump when Altior coasted past the winning post. That was the same Black Corton who has now won 13 times and last season gave emphatic notice of regular partner Briony Frost’s talent when they won seven of eight races together between July 2017 and last February.

Since then for Altior it’s been six lengths from Charbel, 18 lengths, 13 from Fox Norton, six again from Cloudy Dream in the Arkle followed by an eight-length defeat of Special Tiara in his season’s finale at Sandown.

Last campaign’s return was delayed by wind surgery in November and that ruled out his customary Christmas stroll around Kempton – in 2015 he won his novice hurdle there by 13 lengths before beating Min for the first time; Christmas 2016 brought an 18-length novice chase romp and of course normal service was resumed last week.

Henderson was restricted with only Newbury’s Game Spirit Chase as preparation for the Queen Mother Champion Chase and, in Politologue, Altior faced a fully fit and worthy opponent. He comfortably landed the odds by almost four lengths. He again saw off old rival Min in the big one and by the identical seven-length margin. Those who backed the great horse – still unbeaten over jumps – will have marvelled at his even-money starting price. He followed up with another nice win from San Benedeto at Sandown in April.

Back on an even keel this season, he powered home from Un De Sceaux at Sandown in the Tingle Creek before sauntering to that 19-length margin last week at Kempton. A few minutes after the race, Nico de Boinville was walking past the Bookselling Baronet’s stall near the weighing room and I called out: “Best ever, Nico?” He grinned and said simply: “Yes”. In case you were wondering, I do not loiter there the whole afternoon.

I wish Altior had stayed hurdling even though he has never been anywhere near being beaten in his steeplechases. If Nicky Henderson can keep him sound, I believe he will become one of the all-time greats, if he’s not there already.

Meanwhile on a Christmas of shocks for some of the stars of the sport, Buveur D’Air was caught late by his stable-companion Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle, to end a winning run stretching as far as his third to Altior as a novice hurdler.  In Ireland Getabird and Samcro were among a host of beaten favourites in the major races.

One well-fancied Irish jumper that did win was the Joseph O’Brien newcomer Sir Erec, who has transferred into the ownership of J P McManus since his good third behind Stradivarius for the Coolmore team and Aidan O’Brien in Ascot’s Champion Stayers race in October. While watching that narrow success in the William Hill betting shop I pointed out to Peter Ashmore what looked like a generous offer.

For the three English jumps meetings, Kempton, Wetherby and Chepstow, Hill’s offered 11-4 (from 7-4) against a cumulative winning margin of above 30 lengths at all three tracks. We took the bait and now it was all down to the horses – or rather in the case of Kempton, the Judge.

The second race at Wetherby was a three-mile novice chase and with the Skelton-trained and -ridden favourite flopping, Top Ville Ben won by 46 lengths to close out that part of the deal.

With the Welsh Grand National and a series of stamina tests in the Chepstow mud, we were confident of succeeding there, and with Altior and (so we thought) Kalashnikov for a couple of exhibition rounds to come at Kempton what was there to worry about?

Chepstow’s first two races were each won by seven lengths and with five more stamina tests including the Grand National, it looked comfortable, but the next three races including the  big one totalled only two lengths. It took a wide-margin bumper success for the favourite in the last to reach the target.

Meanwhile at Kempton, the opening juvenile hurdle, won by a Gary Moore 25-1 shot, produced 1.5 lengths; Kalashnikov was never going as well as Dynamite Dollars, but Jack Quinlan kept persevering  so only another 1.25 lengths was added. Disappointingly the three mile mares’ handicap hurdle was also won by fewer than two lengths. Altior’s margin of 19 lengths – let’s face it Nico, it could have been 99! - meant we needed just over seven lengths to collect.

We stayed to watch the penultimate race and when Adrien Du Pont drew away after the last, we thought maybe five lengths. The Judge said three and a half. So we still needed three and a bit for the last. We listened to the commentary in the car and heard Eddiemaurice going clear. Out of our hearing Unison, apparently beaten at the last, rallied to within – you guessed it – three lengths. That made it exactly 30 lengths. Looking back at the film when I got home, I reckon the Judge could easily have stretched the required tiny notch we needed in any one of them. It’s hard enough to win without the Judge conspiring against you, too!

The second quarter of Cheltenham's four day March bonanza looks set to be contested on wet turf but under dry skies, with the feature race - the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase - subject to more confusion and suspense than Henry James' The Turn Of The Screw. That race, currently with Douvan but possibly without Altior, is the cornerstone of a septet of high class shemozzles, beginning with a headline horse in the...

1.30 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 5f 26yds)

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Preview

One of the most exciting horses to run this week - for many people, the most exciting - is the Gordon Elliott-trained Samcro, favourite for the opening middle distance novices' hurdle. Unbeaten in seven career starts - a point, three bumpers and three novice hurdles - he's looked more impressive with each run this term and has that priceless combination of class, speed and stamina. Add to that some progressively slick and athletic leaping and he's a horse that is impossible to crab. Unfortunately, the world and his wife have bestowed upon Samcro 'second coming' status as a consequence of which he's a prohibitively short price. Not necessarily the wrong price, but not your archetypal working woman's wager either.

With form on heavy ground and at trips up to three miles (in a point, where he beat RSA-bound Elegant Escape), there are few questions left to answer. But there are not none. Samcro will have to prove he is as effective off the boat - this will be his first trip away from Ireland; he will have to show he can handle a deep and classy field; and he will need to deal with the Festival crowd with all of its noise and colour. I imagine he will probably cope just fine with all three, and I'd certainly not be trying to get him beaten by an Irish horse which has already run against him.

Next Destination is one yet to cross swords with Samcro. Trained by Willie Mullins, he too is unbeaten in three novice hurdles and he too won a Grade 1 last time out. The son of Dubai Destination, out of a Flemensfirth mare, scored at Naas that day over two and a half miles. There he beat Cracking Smart, trained by Elliott, a length having enjoyed a more comfortable five and a half length margin over the same horse the time before. It could be argued that the second looked the stronger stayer that last day; regardless of that, his trainer will be confident he has a much better card to play this time.

Mullins actually runs four, the next best of which - according to the market, and to established form - is Duc Des Genievres. This fellow was no match for Samcro in the Deloitte two back, nor could he go with Next Destination last time, and it is quite hard to see him reversing form with either.

Of mildly more interest are the unexposed but hitherto significantly inferior in form terms pair of Scarpeta and Brahma Bull. Scarpeta, a son of Soldier Of Fortune, was middling on the flat for Mark Johnston; but, as so many progeny of that stallion do, he's stepped forward for longer trips and eight-plus flights of hurdles.

With just two hurdle starts to his name, most recently a twenty length demolition in a field of twenty (two miles, heavy ground), he has the capacity to improve markedly on what he's done thus far. Clearly, he'll need to.

Brahma Bull has a taking string of 1's next to his name, earned in three bumpers and a maiden hurdle. He's unbeaten and has won on heavy and at trips ranging from two to three miles, the most impressive of which was when stepped up in range last time. This is obviously a chasmic leap in class but perhaps 40/1 overstates that wagering risk.

Is there a British horse to beat Samcro? If there is it is most likely to be Black Op, whose form in narrow defeat to Santini is solid. [Boring stat alert] He's by Sandmason, one of only five of whose progeny have raced in Britain or Ireland in the last six months, and another of whose progeny is Summerville Boy, in the same ownership and bidding for glory in the opening race of the Festival.

That Santini run was in a heavy ground Grade 2 on Trials Day here, solid enough form but form where he looked to be running out of rope close home. In fairness, there were 30 lengths back to the third, but the depth of the race has to be taken on trust at this stage. It is either the case that a number of rivals failed to run their races, or the winner and second are very smart. Certainly a big run from Black Op here would be a strong pointer to the chance of Santini in the Albert Bartlett on Friday.

Of more interest, in a brown or bust sort of way, is Vision Des Flos. Colin Tizzard's inmate won the prestigious Goffs Land Rover Bumper on rules debut before disappointing thrice in novice hurdles subsequently. He had a wind op prior to coming back to that level of form in a Listed race at Exeter last time, a race run on heavy ground. He's not a reliable proposition - actually, he's a bit of a guess really - but he does have two very good races in the book and he's 16/1.

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Tips

Ultimately, it's very hard to get away from Samcro. He can be backed at 4/6 and he may make that price look generous by 1.40pm. But with other possible routes into the race - each way and without the favourite - he has to be taken on somehow. I don't really want to be against him so I'm interested in the 'without' market, where Vision Des Flos could be interesting. No prices at time of writing.

Best bet 'without the favourite': Vision Des Flos each way at [no prices yet, but 7/1+ would be playable]

**

2.10 RSA Insurance Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 3m 80yds)

RSA Chase Preview

A smallish field, just ten go to post, for what will likely be a searching test of stamina in the conditions. A chance of a contested pace - see below - amplifies the stamina pre-requisite for the task.

Presenting Percy is a strong stayer and is the favourite. He's four from five on heavy ground, the only blot on that copybook being a close second to a leading Gold Cup fancy off level weights last time out. That's arguably the best piece of form in the race, albeit that it was over half a mile shorter than this. It was probably not quite as tough a race as some have suggested, though Percy has been engaged in heated battle a few times this term.

His trainer, Pat Kelly, has an incredible record at the Festival with his small team. Indeed, from just three starts, he's won with this lad and with Mall Dini, the latter only beaten three lengths in the Kim Muir when bidding to follow up. Presenting Percy will be kept away from any pace burn up and looks to have a lot in his favour.

It's a moot point as to who his biggest rivals may be, the trio of Monalee, Al Boum Photo and Dounikos within a length and a half of each other in a Grade 1 last time. Monalee was the winner that day - fairly tenacious he was, too - fending off persistent and multiple challenges approaching and after the last. With that pace-pressing style he looks vulnerable and may struggle to confirm placings with the pair behind him.

Of the two, I marginally prefer Dounikos. His best form is on heavy and he looked to be crying out for this longer trip in recent starts. He could be hard to keep out of the frame. Certainly there ought not to be much between him and Al Boum Photo, that one threatening Dounikos when coming down at the last in a Limerick Grade 2 on Boxing Day. The betting has Monalee at 7/2, Al Boum Photo at 6/1 and Dounikos at 8/1. That looks wrong with no more than a couple of points between the three in my book.

Best of the British may be the wonderful story horse, Black Corton.  He's made Bryony Frost a household name - in racing households at least - and has given her the chance to show what a very good rider she is. Paul Nicholls' charge has actually made the frame in 16 of 18 starts, which is pretty impressive, but has never raced on heavy. I'd have major reservations about the combination of ground and calibre of opposition, but there's little doubt it would be one of the headlines of the week if this chap could win.

Although the fancy prices have evaporated now, Elegant Escape - that solitary length behind Samcro in a point to point - has a verdict over Black Corton and looks more likely to enjoy very testing conditions. I'd be happy to take Colin Tizzard's lad in a match bet with Paul Nicholls' at any rate, without necessarily thinking he has enough about him to get the lot.

Nigel Twiston-Davies has plotted a familiar route with Ballyoptic, winning the Towton at Wetherby last time and having run at the November meeting earlier in the season, reminiscent of Blaklion two years ago. If he could get deliver a clear round, there should be little between him and Black Corton, and he's the sort who might produce a shock if the Irish form turns out not to be what I think it is.

RSA Chase Pace Map

RSA Chase 2018: Pace Map

RSA Chase 2018: Pace Map

RSA Chase Tips

Presenting Percy is going to be pretty hard to beat. He'll stay out of trouble on the first circuit and gradually make his mark on the second. If he didn't leave his race behind at Gowran last time - and I don't think he did - he should win.

Each way players rejoice for this is a heat where you'll feel you have a chance whichever one you like (unless you like Full Irish). For me, the marginal differences in collateral form make Dounikos better value than either Monalee or Al Boum Photo, and Ballyoptic - if his jumping holds - better value than Black Corton. Either is playable win and place.

Best value win bet: Presenting Percy (but only at 5/2 or better)

Value each way alternatives: Dounikos (8/1) and Ballyoptic (16/1)

**

2.50 Coral Cup (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m 5f 26yds)

Coral Cup Preview

You don't seriously want a tip in this race, do you? Really?!

Your first 30 days for just £1

My route in is a shortlist from the principles outlined in this post, and then go for those with good form on heavy ground and in big fields. Two to catch the eye like that are Ben Pauling's Red Indian, and Joseph O'Brien's reserve, Mischievious Max.

Red Indian has very little to find on Lanzarote Hurdle running with favourite, William Henry, and he's a consistent type who will enjoy the way this race is run. Although he's gone up eight pounds for being beaten four times, he has progressed with each run. Some bookies will be paying extra places in this big field bun fight and I'll be suckered in on that score.

Mischievious Max needs one to come out to get a run and, if he does, he has similar claims. He is weighted to reverse placings with Red Indian on their November form here and, though higher than his Irish mark, looks fairly treated if he sneaks in.

Two dozen others who wouldn't totally surprise if they went in. Pay your money, take your pick.

Coral Cup Pace Map

Coral Cup 2018: Pace Map

Coral Cup 2018: Pace Map

Coral Cup Tips

Two guesses, one of which could be a money back non-runner. Red Indian is a tough consistent sort crying out for a stiffer stamina test, and Mischievious Max (spelling, eh?) has a similar profile from the very bottom of the weights if granted entry.

Wanton each way guess: Red Indian 33/1 (Ladbrokes only paying four places, so it might be worth splitting stake with a bookie paying more places albeit at a shorter win and/or on tighter place terms)

**

3.30 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1, 1m 7f 199yds)

Champion Chase Preview

It's hard to know where to start with this race. If you were looking at the racecard in a history book, you'd say, "Wow, the day Douvan and Altior clashed in a championship race". But, with doubts over Altior's participation after a foot problem - said on Tuesday morning to be okay to run - and with Douvan returning from a year off since his 2/9 flop in the race last year, it is hard to weigh up exactly what might happen.

On their best form, Douvan has run to 174 while Altior is on 170. That gives Douvan the historical edge. The very fact he's lining up here tips the wink to his wellbeing though, like Faugheen, whether he's the same horse of a year (or two) ago remains to be seen. The fact he's two from two on heavy ground, and that he was a possible for the longer Ryanair Chase - and therefore is expected to stay - bodes well for his chance if he's the horse of up to a year ago.

Meanwhile, Altior has had his own interrupted preparation. Off most of a year after his end of season win at Sandown in April last year, he had a wind op prior to comfortably accounting for Politologue in the Game Spirit a month ago. There had been suggestions about the bounce factor second run off a layoff but I'd be surprised if that beat him. Of more concern is that foot problem and the fact he's never raced on heavy ground before. That doesn't mean he won't act on it, but it does mean he may not act on it. At a top priced 5/4, you won't get especially well rewarded for buying a ticket to find out.

So what if they both clunk? Is there another who could pick up the pieces? Min is the obvious one: he comes here without any injury or 'gone at the game' scares so, while his top rating of 167 leaves him a bit to find, he is more likely to run his 'A' race. Apart from finishing behind a sensational Altior in the Supreme of 2016, Min has been first past the post in his other seven races (demoted to second two starts back). He remains progressive, is two from two on heavy, and is a pretty tempting bet at around 7/2.

Of the rest, Politologue is not as good as these three; Special Tiara surely has no chance on the ground, likewise God's Own, though Ar Mad cannot be totally discounted of running some sort of race, his chance likely to be compromised if getting involved in the likely speed burn on the front end. Ordinary World is another the ground has probably betrayed.

But if you want to have a mad bet in case one or both of the top two fail to fire for whatever reason, perhaps Charbel could be the one. He was in the process of running Altior close when falling two out in the Arkle last season, has form on heavy, and will be sitting behind the speed when many are blazing their jets up top.

Champion Chase Pace Map

Champion Chase 2018: Pace Map

Champion Chase 2018: Pace Map

Champion Chase Tips

A very hard race to bet in. Altior, with doubts about his foot, the ground and perhaps the bounce is opposable at 5/4. Douvan has to be bypassed, though is clearly respected on his best form. Min is the solid one, and perhaps a tiny bit of value at 4/1 in a place. For dreamers and fantasists - aren't we all? - Charbel is the Hail Mary play .

Best value win bet: Min 4/1 sportingbet

Best value tiny stakes Hail Mary each way bet: Charbel 40/1 (bet365 1/4 1-2-3)

**

4.10 Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase (Class 2, 3m 6f 37yds)

Cross Country Chase Preview

Hmm... Not everyone's cup of tea but a race I like. Heavy ground is a new imponderable and it's probably discounted my main bet in the race - Tiger Roll - before they start. Let's talk about the Tiger...

A Triumph Hurdle winner in his early days, he added the four mile National Hunt Chase to his CV last term, both races run on quick ground. Apart from a maiden hurdle on soft at Market Rasen, he's only ever won on top of the turf and this ain't that. Which is a pity, because he's been given a cracking 'job' preparation, having a bimble around the course in December, eventually finishing fifth having never been sighted.

It was a ride akin to that which prepared Cause Of Causes for his victory in the race last year, and his recent school over the fences was very good too. But. But... the ground has gone against him.

Last year's winner, meanwhile, probably doesn't want it desperate either. He's bidding for a remarkable fourth Festival win and, if he gets through the ground, he has a chance - one which is evidently factored into his price.

The Last Samuri was presumed heading straight to Aintree and I'm not sure connections would want to scupper his Grand National chance by bottoming him out here. That said, he is the highest rated horse in the race, handles heavy ground and stays well. I'm not sure he has quite the finishing kick required for this game which makes 6/1 too short for me.

Of more interest are Bless The Wings and, to a lesser degree, Cantlow. Yes, I know they're both very slow. But Bless The Wings could appreciate the ground, and has cross country course form of 342221. He is probably susceptible to a better finishing kick but 10/1 is more like it.

Cantlow won on heavy last time, and has cross country course form of 012342, including when third as the 9/4 favourite in this last year. 20/1 is a bit of value and he might be the pick of the Enda Bolger group entry.

Josies Orders and Auvergnat fought out a tight finish in the PP Hogan Chase on heavy last time. They're two more strings to Enda's bow.

And the French have also to be respected. The nature of this race - crawl then sprint finish - suits their general style of racing, and some of the raiding party this term have prior course experience. Urgent De Gregaine is the best known of the Gallics, having won here and run third in his two visits. But he doesn't seem to want deep ground.

Urumqi, by contrast, has lots of placed form on heavy. I don't know anything about him - not even how to pronounce his name (Your room key?) - but he ought to be suited by the run of things, has cross country form, and will handle the ground. 40/1 might be worth a stab if you're happy to accept that he might not stay and might not be good enough.

And Vicomte De Seuil was second here on his first attempt. But the fact he couldn't get past Kingswell Theatre tempers enthusiasm.

Cross Country Chase Pace Map*

*Overseas runners have incomplete data

Cross Country Chase 2018: pace map

Cross Country Chase 2018: pace map

Cross Country Chase Tips

A really trappy race where Cause Of Causes has an obvious chance but perhaps no better than his odds suggest. Cantlow is quite interesting at a price, though this looks as open a renewal as there has been for a while. Bless The Wings should again be on the premises.

Best win bet: Cause Of Causes 11/4 general

Best value each way bet: Cantlow 20/1 Skybet 1/5 1-2-3-4

**

4.50 Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 87yds)

Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle Preview

This is a race I'll be watching with great interest rather than wagering on. It's a tough race historically with many a big priced winner. And hopefully this year the big priced winner will be geegeez.co.uk syndicate horse, Oxford Blu.

First the bad news: he's not as classy as most of these and could well be simply not good enough. But, on the bright side, he may be the strongest stayer in the race, ought to handle the ground, hurdles well, travels well and has Richard Johnson riding him. Myself and most of the syndicate are going to have one of the thrills of a lifetime up to and during this race, and let's hope he gets home safe and runs a big one. Go on Oxford!

This being a handicap I'm not going to go long on the form book. Rather I'll say that Look My Way and, at bigger prices, Grand Sancy may be interesting.

Look My Way has collateral form with Triumph Hurdle favourite, Apple's Shakira, on this track on Trials Day. His form also ties in with Act Of Valour, and he'll handle the ground.

So too will Grand Sancy, for master Fred Winter trainer, Paul Nicholls. This lad has been given a quiet time of it since running second to the very smart bumper horse Acey Milan in a junior NH Flat race at Wincanton in December. He sneaks in here off near bottom weight, handles heavy, and gets the services of Sam Twiston-Davies. He looks temptingly priced at 25/1.

Nick Williams is the other 'go to' trainer in this race, and he runs both Mercenaire and Esprit De Somoza. Both have had classic Williams preps and one or both are expected to run good races in a wide open affair. Preference is for the latter.

Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle: Pace Map

Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle: Pace Map

Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle Tips

Fiendish stuff, and I'm obviously blinded by the Blu! Of the rest, Grand Sancy and the Williams pair of Esprit de Somoza and Mercenaire look most interesting.

Best value each way bet: Grand Sancy 25/1 general

Others to consider: Mercenaire, Esprit de Somoza, Look My Way, the rest!

Blind loyalty bet: OXFORD BLU 20/1 🙂

**

5.30 Weatherby's Champion Bumper (Grade 1, 2m 87yds)

Champion Bumper Preview

Hard going is this, and the ratings offer a little help for the clueless (i.e. me). Top of the pile are Blackbow and Acey Milan. The former is unbeaten in a point and two bumpers and is the first choice of Willie Mullins, winner of eight renewals of this race. There ought not to be much between him and the close up second from their last day Grade 2 meeting, Rhinestone, the latter being twice the price.

But I'm letting heart rule head again, and plumping for the three-time bumper winner, Acey Milan. This four-year-old, trained by the geegeez-sponsored yard of Anthony Honeyball, will relish conditions, gets a seven pounds age allowance, and is obviously talented as evidenced by his second-top rating. It's a race the Honeyball yard almost won in 2013 when Regal Encore beat all bar Briar Hill (remember him? 25/1, trained by Willie, ridden by Ruby) and they again have a fine chance.

The Willie/Ruby axis is represented by Carefully Selected this time, the combination having had three further placed runners in this from eight starters. The form of this lad's debut Leopardstown win at Christmas has been well franked, so 12/1 might appeal to each way players.

Champion Bumper Pace Map

Champion Bumper 2018: Pace Map

Champion Bumper 2018: Pace Map

Champion Bumper Tips

Very difficult, obviously, and my route in is the heart not the head. This is acceptable as the head has no clue, and wagering will be kept to commensurate levels of 'interest only'. In that caveated context, Acey Milan is my cheer.

Best win play: Acey Milan 8/1 general (look for extra places if betting each way)

**

That's who I like on Day 2. What about you? And how did you get on with the opening day? Leave a comment and let us know.

Matt

How much bad luck can a man have? In the case of Ruby Walsh, at 38, surely at a stage when yet another serious injury, this time a broken leg, might potentially be career threatening, apparently any amount, writes Tony Stafford. Reassuringly, his surgeon seems to think that Ruby will be fit in time for the Cheltenham Festival.

Having waited almost two years for the return from injury of the 2015 Champion Hurdle winner, Faugheen, Walsh suffered his broken leg the day before that one’s planned reappearance at Punchestown. Faugheen had been absent since his 15-length January 2016 romp over Willie Mullins stablemates Arctic Fire and Nicholls Canyon in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

Faugheen returned in the Morgiana Hurdle, the same race in which he suffered his sole defeat, narrowly, by Nicholls Canyon. It might only have been a four-runner affair yesterday, but Paul Townend on his first ride on the brilliant jumper, set him off in front and he beat Jezki, his 2014 predecessor as Champion Hurdle victor, by 16 lengths. Swamp Fox, assuredly a handicapper, but one good enough to win the Naas November handicap on the Flat this month, was 37 lengths back in third.

Walsh has had more than his share both of injuries and spills. His injury at Leopardstown came on the last of four rides after an 11-day absence due to a hand injury. He rode one short-priced winner for his boss, but had three falls, the last and most costly on Let’s Dance in a Listed mares’ hurdle for which she started odds-on.

Now, as in all good long-range dilemmas, the attention will switch to another Champion Hurdler, the reigning champ Buveur d’Air, who, like Faugheen, has a single jumping defeat on his curriculum vitae. He is set to return in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on Saturday week.

The Nicky Henderson-trained six-year-old also suffered his only loss to a stable-mate and in a championship race, the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham when only third to Altior. After two novice chase wins, Henderson, with one of the intuitive decisions that mark him out as an outstanding handler, decided to send him back to hurdling.

That decision was presumably prompted by the fact that he had already moved Altior to chasing when, for many, he had been the more obvious Champion Hurdle contender for the stable. Then again, Altior would not have to worry about the likes of Faugheen – at the time still on target to regain his crown – if he went over fences.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Both decisions proved far-sighted and until Arkle winner Altior recently suffered one of the all-too-frequent wind problems that seem to assail top jumpers, few would have looked past him for the Queen Mother Champion Chase next March.

I can understand the trainer’s irritation that when he finally released the news last week, having taken a couple of veterinary opinions and consulted owner Patricia Pugh, unnamed (but only just, according to the trainer) members of the media criticised what they saw as his handling of the issue.

Nicky Henderson grew up and learned his trade under Fred Winter in the age of the great stables where journalists cowered and gratefully sought out trifles while lauding their achievements.

Social media has ended that climate, not just in racing, but in all walks of life and where once there was deference from the media, now there’s intrusion, with the general belief it is justified. The BHA and its attitude to trainers and what is perceived as their duty to keep the betting public informed has played its part in that process.

One BHA decision that has caused general derision was when Raul da Silva was given a ban for throwing a handful of Chelmsford’s Polytrack surface sand onto the hind quarters of his mount, Sandkissed, to encourage her into the stalls before a race last week.

Considering all the horses running round each of the all-weather surfaces are expected to cope with copious amounts of said surfaces being thrown up into their eyes every time they run, such pernickety officialdom seems out of proportion. For me, it is merely another instance of present-day political correctness.

Anyone who has seen horses going to a sale showing their displeasure at coming off a lorry down a ramp will realise stable staff can have an unenviably dangerous job. The same goes for stalls handlers and when a jockey shows a little invention to ease what could become a bigger problem on the day, such an extreme reaction is embarrassing.

The sad death last week of Alan Potts, the surviving half of the Ann and Alan Potts ownership team who battled with the big battalions with such success over the past few seasons, will not apparently stop the success of the green, yellow and red colours.

There were two wins at Cheltenham over the weekend, via the impressive pair Finian’s Oscar and Fox Norton and I hope the story I heard about Alan Potts is true. It seems shortly before he died, so the story goes, he made provision for all the training fees in the future careers of his family’s horses to be secured. No doubt Colin Tizzard, who trains both winners and, among others, Jessica Harrington, trainer of Gold Cup hero Sizing John, will know whether that is true or just a racing urban myth.

I’m not sure if the Potts’s had any horses with Dan Skelton, but Mrs Richard Kelvin Hughes certainly does and her North Hill Harvey, owned in partnership with Mrs Widdowson, impressively won the Arkle Trial at Cheltenham yesterday, to put the trainer onto 99 for the season.

Skelton may still be trailing the likes of Henderson, Mullins and Gordon Elliott with potential big-race contenders, but the efficiency with which he churns out the winners is a reminder of the halcyon days of Martin Pipe. Only Joseph O’Brien, Melbourne Cup and umpteen victories over jumps just in the past month, among youthful trainers, is keeping pace with Skelton’s rapid rate of progress.

I managed to sneak into the owners’ room at Cheltenham on Friday courtesy of Alan Spence whose On the Blind Side was an impressive winner of his second hurdle race when stepping into Grade 2 novice class. I had a brief chat there with Anthony Honeyball, his wife Rachael and their 18-month-old son who I can report enjoys eating cream, some of it not going onto his face.

Two days later the trainer had a treble at Fontwell in which the most significant for the future was the victory of Jukebox Jive, a 97-rated Flat-racer, in the juvenile hurdle, beating the Kelvin-Hughes home-bred Lisp. Success was hardly a surprise first-time-out for Ron Huggins’ also home-bred son of Jukebox Jury, whose former owner Alan Spence will tell you is a much-underrated stallion – evidence his Dominating, winner of six races for Mark Johnston this year.

It was also Johnston who handled Huggins’ best-known and much-loved stayer Double Trigger and it would hardly be a shock were Jukebox Jive to take high rank as a staying hurdler who could double as a potential Cesarewitch winner next year. I’d love him to do that.

- Tony Stafford

Last Good Friday I made my first visit to the Lambourn Open Day, not in the usual way of the racehorse and horseracing enthusiast, but specifically to catch up with the estimable Corky Brown at Nicky Henderson’s Seven Barrows stables, writes Tony Stafford.

From the centre of the village the cars formed an orderly crocodile, mostly set on the same venue, with recently revitalised Queen Mother Champion Chase hero Sprinter Sacre the object of everyone’s adulation.

I remember writing that weekend how amazed I was that the old, maybe not so old, horse had spent most of that morning standing dutifully still as repeated waves of admirers took selfies with the four-legged superstar, probably filching the odd hair from his mane.

Nicky said, as he and Corky looked on a shade anxiously, that you couldn’t do that with any other horse. I cannot recall whether the question of retirement had yet been addressed, but soon after, his exclusive role as paddock adornment for major races – as at Newbury on Saturday – was established.

A mutual friend, Sir Rupert Mackeson, proprietor of Marlborough Bookshop among more colourful achievements in a long sometimes military life, had arranged the connection with Corky, who had at least informally agreed to become the subject of a book, written by yours truly.

That it did not come about was almost entirely due to the, as Sir Rupert called it, “Pot Boiler” published by the Racing Post on Sprinter Sacre’s career. The heroic champion chaser was a big part of the latter years of Corky’s long career with Fred Winter and then Henderson, and I thought it would have made a competing one about Corky Brown difficult in the limited specialist marketplace.

That said, on Good Friday the auguries were good: Hendo seemingly approving the concept and also understandably not dissenting from my opinion that Altior must be the one to beat in the following year’s Champion Hurdle. In the old days I would have steamed in with a proper ante-post bet, but those days for me are long gone.

Your first 30 days for just £1

So in a way it was something of a relief when a chasing career was decided for Altior, who, although seven lengths too good at the Festival for the otherwise flawless Min in his time with Willie Mullins, the trainer presumably still had in the back of his mind, the frustration of his inability to match the Irishman in recent seasons.

Since Binocular (2010) followed Punjabi as successive Champion Hurdle winners, Henderson has watched Mullins win four times with Hurricane Fly (2011 and 2013), and Faugheen and Annie Power, a late sub for her predecessor, in the last two runnings.

With both seemingly still at the top of their powers, Henderson must have been aware that Mullins would probably compile a team of top horses purely to stop Altior, but that worry would not have been so obvious if the gelding were to be switched to fences.

Three initial chase wins confirmed that the acceleration that took him unbeaten through his initial hurdling campaign was intact over fences. On Saturday in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury he annihilated admittedly a small field, but three classy and more experienced opponents with a display that suggested he might have similar ability as Sprinter Sacre at his peak.

The Arkle must be at his mercy and, with stablemate Buveur D’Air now switched from his supremely-promising novice chase programme to the suddenly talent-denuded Champion Hurdle, all must be serene in the Seven Barrows firmament.

Buveur D’Air and Altior have already met twice despite being in the same stable. Two years ago, on the Betfair Hurdle undercard, they filled second and third places behind Barters Hill, trained by former Henderson assistant Ben Pauling, in the Listed bumper. Barters Hill, winning for the third time in the midst of a seven-race romp only halted behind Unowhatimeanharry in last season’s Albert Bartlett, made all that day. Altior, hot favourite stayed on for third without matching the first two.

Altior gained his revenge in the Supreme Novice Hurdle, with Buveur D’Air third behind Min in a race full of talent, much of it from the Mullins stable and several of them running unexpectedly poorly.

Min’s defection from the Arkle at the same time as Faugheen’s reported injury early last week, soon after Annie Power’s own problems were reported, would have made Altior a short-priced favourite had he gone the hurdling route. Instead he’s 1-3 for the Arkle, while Buveur D’Air after a classy display against sub-standard Sandown opposition switched back to hurdling, may well collect the big one for the JP McManus ownership powerhouse.

Chances abound for Seven Barrows in many of the other feature races and if you want to see them detailed fully, Peter Thomas had a marathon write up in yesterday’s supplement of the paper of his recent trip to the gallops and stable last week, complete with news of a deer attack on one of the horses.

The Barters Hill bumper of two years ago was prophetically described immediately afterwards by Pauling as probably a top-class affair and while lacking in the same depth, last year’s renewal was won by nine lengths by subsequent Cheltenham bumper hero and Saturday’s Betfair Hurdle winner Ballyandy.

Saturday’s bumper there could well be in the ballpark of its 2015 version as this time it was Henderson to the fore with French import Daphne Du Clos, taking advantage of the hefty combined filly (5lb) and four-year-old allowance (10lb) from her elders, along with a 4lb extra penalty for previous Listed winner, Western Ryder.

It is rare, even in relatively uncompetitive bumper events in this country, for a horse to come to the front under a double handful as Daphne Du Clos did at the two-furlong pole. Sean Bowen, having his first (and almost certainly not his last) ride for the stable in his fourth season as a jockey, waited until Western Ryder came alongside and then pushed his mount, a daughter of Spanish Moon, clear in the last furlong. She will probably go either to Sandown or Aintree rather than the Festival bumper, and the style of her win was totally in keeping with the feeling of goodwill emanating from her handler these days.

It seems the Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci disappointments are beginning almost to match the excessive good fortune and success of recent seasons, and a quick snapshot of recent racing in Ireland confirms the downswing. Mullins has sent out 33 runners in the past two weeks, 14 starting favourite, and has won with eight of them. Admittedly, with six in the Grade 1 novice hurdle at Leopardstown yesterday, the average had to drop, but it was one of the outsiders Bacardys that won with hot favourite Saturnas tailed off last.

Bacardys was third in last year’s Champion Bumper at Cheltenham behind Ballyandy and no doubt will be pointed at one of the staying novice hurdles next month by which time his trainer will hope for the fortunes to have turned.