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 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 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?!
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 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 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 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 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 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.