Cheltenham Festival 2022: Day One Preview, Tips
We're back! After the weirdness of a behind closed doors Cheltenham Festival last year - did that really happen? - and the hand-wringing and recrimination that followed the 'super spreader' 2020 variant, we are finally back live on Cleeve Hill for the 2022 renewal of the greatest meeting in the calendar. Whoop, whoop, and woohoo!
The opening day always majors on speed, quality, and drama from the get-go, with a double-barrelled Grade 1 two-mile novice volley to kick us off. It's the hurdlers first, in the...
1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)
The traditional pipe opener restored to its 1.30 tapes up slot and, after much hokey cokeying amongst the mega stable entries we have our list of runners and riders fixed. It's a yes for Dysart Dynamo, Constitution Hill and Jonbon but a 'see you tomorrow' for Sir Gerhard.
A smallish field of nine sets the tone for a week where the non-handicaps are expected to be shallow affairs runners wise in the main, with the dominance of those aforementioned superyard chickens perhaps coming home to roost a little. Anyway, macro questions like that don't belong before an obstacle has been cleared so let's get back to business.
In spite of the small field the Supreme remains a competitive race with five horses at single figure prices. They are headed by inmates of the unofficial Prestbury Cup team captains Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins and, more pertinently, their A and B players, Constitution Hill and Jonbon (NJH) and Dysart Dynamo and Kilcruit (WPM). Mullins also lobs a third dart in Bring On The Night.
Let's start on home shores and Constitution Hill has looked all class in a pair of facile Sandown scores to date, trouncing a field of maidens before treating his Grade 1 Tolworth rivals with similar disdain. The merit of that heavy ground G1 form is unclear with the second and third getting thumped next time, but the winner could have done no more. He is clearly a very classy recruit whose maiden win offers hope that the quicker Cheltenham turf won't be a problem. We have to yet to see what he'll find off the bridle, though, and it is hard to imagine any horse taking this 'on the snaff'.
Vying for favouritism is the first of the Closutton triumvirate, Dysart Dynamo, a buzzy front-running type who is quick, very quick. Winner of all four starts to date - two bumpers, a maiden hurdle and a Grade 2 hurdle - it is worth noting that while never seeing a rival in the two hurdle starts he took a lead in both of his bumpers before strolling home unchallenged. It may be further worth noting that the first of those was a soft ground near two-and-a-half miler, so stamina is assured. It's hard to know exactly what he beat in the G2 but second-placed Gringo d'Aubrelle had previously been a ten length third to Stage Star in the G1 Challow over further.
For all of the obvious upside of those 'opening batsmen', their second picks have arguably more substance in the book. Jonbon, representing Seven Barrows, is also unbeaten in four, a bumper and three hurdle races, most recently a couple of Grade 2 contests. The first of those was a steadily run small field heat, but the second, the Rossington Main at Haydock, was well contested and Jonbon came home in a good time. He's not been nearly as flashy as those shorter in the market but he's highly effective and has been well on top each time in spite of narrower margins of victory. Jonbon cost £570,000 after winning his point to point, a price based as much on being a full brother to Douvan as to the manner of his win between the flags. Nothing looks value at that sort of a price, but owner J P McManus has met his objective of getting to the Festival with a chance.
Second pick for Willie is Kilcruit, beaten by the race tactics in last year's Champion Bumper and subsequently reversing form with his conqueror, Sir Gerhard, in the Punchestown equivalent. Hurdling has not been a straightforward discipline for Kilcruit heretofore however: it took him three attempts to get off the mark, something he only achieved in middling maiden company last time out. If that's the not great news, the positives are that he won that twenty-runner race by 21 lengths, and that he did it in a manner which impressed the time and sectional watchers. He has looked a little ungainly on occasion, even appearing to lose his action, but that may just be his way of going.
The Mullins third string is an unbeaten-in-one 'could be anything' type called Bring On The Night. A progressive three-year-old when trained in France by Andre Fabre, it was nigh on two years thereafter that he made his timber debut at Naas. Impressive he was, too, coming right away from a large field of maidens in spite of bungling the final flight. It should be remembered that a maiden in late February will be easier to win than one in late November, most of the runners already multiple non-winners by then. Willie was quite bullish about his ability in recent stable tour chat but I thought he might have gone Ballymore rather than here.
And no Festival party is complete - 2021 excepted - without a Gordon Elliott-trained invitee. His sole Supreme entry is Mighty Potter, whose Grade 1 form stands up against what his rivals have achieved thus far. Outpaced in a tactical Royal Bond in late November, he showed his true self a month later in the Future Champions Novice (G1). A more truly run race such as this looks right up his street and he is a definite place player at least in a tough betting puzzle.
That leaves a trio of British-trained hopes, the word 'hope' used loosely. Shallwehaveonemore was beaten 26 lengths by Constitution Hill in the Tolworth but has improved a fair bit since. His best form is on decent ground so that's a plus, and he may have been a little outpaced at Kempton last time when second in Grade 2 company. He could run quite well without challenging the podium places.
Jpr One was just about last in the Betfair Hurdle last time and that doesn't bode well for his prospects here; while Silent Revolution is inexperienced but beat a well regarded horse last time at Newbury.
Supreme Novices' Pace Projection
Likely to be at least truly run, and potentially a little fast early; the winner will need to travel and jump at top speed as well as possess sufficient stamina to see it out after the last.
Supreme Novices' Hurdle Selection
This is tricky. We've got to balance the style and potential of Dysart Dynamo and Constitution Hill against the substance of Jonbon, Kilcruit and Mighty Potter. Given the prices, where style is in the realms of win only wagering, and substance comes with each way potential, I'll let the pin up boys beat me if they can. The more I look at the Supreme, the more I feel like Mighty Potter should get a lovely lead into the business end and will get the end-to-end gallop that suits him best. He's the biggest price of the fancied quintet and that seems a little unfair.
Suggestion: Back Mighty Potter each way at 8/1 or better, ideally with a bookie offering extra places or money back if beaten.
2.10 Arkle Challenge Chase (Grade 1, 2m)
The first chase of the week is the Arkle Challenge Trophy, a two mile event for novices. If it perhaps lacks a little star quality this year - there can't be a Shishkin/Altior/Douvan every time - it remains competitive from a betting perspective.
Edwardstone tops the pile on just about every ratings compiler's list, and he heads the betting, too. Brought down on fencing debut, that inauspicious introduction has long been forgotten as he has subsequently strung four straight chase wins together, three of them in Graded company, one a Grade 1. He jumped very well at Warwick in the Grade 2 Kingmaker last time but, prior to that, had put in the odd clumsy one. With a versatile run style and the best form in the book, he has a very obvious chance to add to trainer Alan King's two previous Arkle scores.
The best fancied of the Irish party is the Willie Mullins-trained Blue Lord, whose hitherto unbeaten trio over fences culminated with Grade 1 success in the Irish Arkle at the Dublin Racing Festival. His hurdles form was better than respectable - he'd have been comfortably closest to Appreciate It in last year's Supreme but for tumbling at the last - and he's looked assured in his leaping thus far. He was being closed down by Riviere d'Etel, who had led to the last fence before blundering, but was conceding nine pounds to that five-year-old mare. Saint Sam, who had led until the second last, was a further four lengths back while the quietly fancied Haut En Couleurs was an early faller.
Trying to unpick that form line with a view to the Arkle is difficult: Blue Lord can probably be expected to come on for the run and has proven himself at Cheltenham albeit when unshipping - he is also the top-rated hurdler (148) from the Irish Arkle cohort; Riviere d'Etel was only a 134-rated hurdler but is 150 over fences already and has looked good this season, but her age and weight pull with Blue Lord will be reduced from nine pounds to seven; Saint Sam is likewise a far better fencer than hurdler (152 versus 143), while Haut En Couleurs was the best of the five-year-olds over timber and has most scope to progress chasing after just two starts and one completion.
In his sole chase effort before the last day fall, Haut En Couleurs had easily accounted for Gentleman De Mee and Mt Leinster, the former hacking up twice since, most recently in Grade 3 company at odds of 1/5. It is worth noting that five-year-olds have failed to win since their allowance was removed, though some of the fancied ones (Allmankind, Saint Calvados) have been given, erm, interesting rides from the front. Nevertheless, that's a reservation for now, even though the pre-eminence of the same age group in the Champion Hurdle market says a fair bit about the older generations in the two-mile division currently.
The lightly-raced mare Magic Daze has been fairly well supported but I'm struggling to see her case. She was second in the Mares' Novices' Hurdle last season before finishing only fourth in a Listed mares' event at Punchestown. Over fences, she's one from three so far and she lacks obvious upside to my eye. Perhaps more interesting of the longer-priced Irish runners is Coeur Sublime, who ran in open Grade 1 hurdles last year and was rated 152 in that sphere. True, Coeur was beaten a number of lengths by Riviere d'Etel when that one was a length and a half behind Ferny Hollow in the G1 two mile novice chase at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival, and he's done no more since than ease home in a nothing beginners' chase at Gowran Park; but he brings 'back class' and fencing upside to the Arkle party.
War Lord is also worth a mention. Trained by Colin Tizzard, his sole defeat in four progressive chase starts was when well seen off, but still best of the rest, behind Edwardstone in the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown in December. It's fair to say that the Tizzard stable was in poor form at that moment and is firing much better now; if that was a factor in War Lord's defeat, he might be over-priced.
Gavin Cromwell runs Gabynako, whose last race was a shocker. That was on heavy and he quite possibly didn't handle it. On his previous start, in the Grade 1 Drinmore, he was narrowly beaten having made a mistake at the last; and prior to that he beat Fury Road in a beginners' chase. All that form is over further so, if his jumping can hold up in what looks set to be a fast early tempo, he'll stay well and could sneak into the frame.
Brave Seasca, who has progressed through soft ground handicaps but was no match for Edwardstone last time, is probably a little out of his depth.
Arkle Pace Projection
Saint Sam and Magic Daze are the most likely leaders, but Blue Lord and Riviere d'Etel have led or pressed the pace in at least two of their most recent four starts as well. Should be an honest, perhaps, fast gallop.
Arkle Chase Selection
The furlong shorter trip compared with the Irish Arkle might be a benefit to Blue Lord, whose credentials look most apparent of the Irish runners even though the eye was naturally drawn to Riviere d'Etel's unlucky runner up effort there. Haut En Couleurs has plenty of untapped potential and could usurp the finishers from that race if standing up.
Of the home team, Edwardstone's case dwarfs his compatriots, though it is possible that War Lord may significantly reduce the margin by which he was beaten in December. Coeur Sublime is another dark horse at a price, and Gabynako a third, in a trappy and open-looking Arkle.
Suggestion: Back Haut En Couleurs to win at 8/1, ideally with a bookie offering faller insurance. 20/1 Gabynako may outrun his price and could be a little each way value with four places.
2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3 handicap, 3m1f)
The first handicap of the week and one that normally goes to a runner close to the head of the market. A few trends may help the route to a shortlist.
Josh Wright from racingtoprofit.co.uk tells us that
14/14 had 1+ run at track previously (had not: 0/44,7p)
14/14 had been ridden by today’s jockey at least once (had not: 0/42, 3p)
14/14 0-4 chase runs at the track (5+ : 0/53, 6p)
14/14 top 6 on last start (7th>: 0/99, 14p)
13/14 had 10 or fewer runs in handicaps (11+ : 1/120, 12p)
13/14 were 5th or lower in the weights (Top 4: 1/67, 13p)
13/14 had run at Grade 1 or 2 level in career (had not: 1/79, 9p)
13/14 had 14 or fewer chase runs (15+ : 1/83, 9p)
13/14 ran left handed last start (RH: 1/107, 14p)
12/14 had 1 or 2 runs this calendar year (did not: 2/105, 17p)
12/14 had 0-1 handicap chase wins (2+ : 2/116, 13p)
That leaves eight - Does He Know, Floueur, Tea Clipper, Fantastikas, Grumpy Charley, Kiltealy Briggs, Full Back and Oscar Elite.
And Matt Tombs in his excellent matchbook content added that five of the 14 runners to start with a chase rating 7lb+ lower than their hurdle mark managed to win in the last 13 renewals. Interesting, almost like they found improvement for the atmosphere of the Festival...
Putting all of that together gives me a single horse, Oscar Elite. I'd backed him prior to the kingmaker race for the Festival handicap chases, the Timeform Novices' Handicap Chase at Cheltenham's Trials Day, and am consequently on very good terms with myself. The case is thus: he was second to Vanillier in last year's Grade 1 Albert Bartlett and then third behind Ahoy Senor in the staying Grade 1 novice hurdle at Aintree. A switch to fences has failed to produce a win in four starts but there was the promise of more in three of them, all at Cheltenham. This will have been the plan from the outset.
Of the others on the shortlist, Does He Know's trainer, Kim Bailey, has had a winner (in 1999) and two places from four Ultima starters, including last year's second, Happygolucky. And Tea Clipper is interesting with first time cheekpieces and first run after a wind operation. He was no match for Bravemansgame in the Grade 1 Kauto Star (Feltham as was) but this will be more his cup of, well, you know. Full Back won at the New Year's Day fixture and was probably looked after a little at Taunton in his only race since.
The last Irish winner of the Ultima was Dun Doire in 2006 but they've had very few runners since. In fact, their runner form string from 2007 is 02222121233422. This year, there will be as many as seven Irish-trained runners, so they have a commensurately greater chance of winning!
Ultima Pace Projection
It will be quick and there will be some trouble in transit for a few. Hopefully Frodon gets them spaced out behind and all have their chance.
Ultima Handicap Chase Selection
I backed Oscar Elite at 28/1 in January and I think he's still value at 20/1 now, especially with loads of extra places. Of the rest, Does He Know and Tea Clipper are possibles.
Suggestion: Back Oscar Elite each way at around 20/1 with as many extra places as you can find.
3.30 Champion Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)
The main event on Day One is the Champion Hurdle, a two mile Grade 1 where the reigning champion, Honeysuckle, will bid to defend her crown. Not only is Kenny Alexander's mare the reigning champ but she is also unbeaten in 14 career starts under Rules and, before that, a single point to point.
I previewed the Champion Hurdle in mid-January and nothing has materially changed since then. Honeysuckle won the Irish Champion Hurdle easily enough; Appreciate It has still not been sighted; and the five-year-olds are still loitering on the periphery with intent.
Of that last named cohort, maybe Teahupoo has advanced his claims since the turn of the year. He's still yet to race in Grade 1 company, but has been dominant in winning a brace of Grade 3's either side of a Grade 2 score. He's looked like there is plenty more to come but his potential is more than factored into quotes of 8/1 especially when noting his lack of form on a sound surface (for which, granted, he could improve, though I don't expect him to).
I also didn't mention Tommy's Oscar in that earlier preview, Mrs Ann Hamilton's flag bearer well worthy of the name check having waltzed away with the Haydock Champion Hurdle trial shortly after publication. He's been aggressively ascendant, rising from a rating of 139 at season start to his current 156; but that still leaves him with a stone and more to find when Honeysuckle's mares' allowance is incorporated.
Champion Hurdle Pace Projection
It looks like this year's Champion Hurdle may be run at an even to quick tempo, with both Appreciate It and Teahupoo generally going forward. However, both took a lead on their most recent starts so perhaps we'll be erring towards just an even gallop, in which case all should be able to run their races.
Champion Hurdle Selection
In that earlier preview, I found it impossible to oppose Honeysuckle. I still do, though after an electric gear change to settle the race last time she didn't really stretch away as it appeared she might. As a consequence, I went fishing for a wager in a different pond, the 'without the favourite' market. There I plumped for Epatante each way at 11/2. She's now as big as 7/1 in that market, and in all honesty I've cooled on her prospects of running second to Honeysuckle (and therefore winning that bet) a little, though she still has grand claims of being in the first four.
I'm not keen on backing Appreciate It at around 6/4 in the 'without' market either, nor the untested in Grade 1 or on fast ground Teahupoo, or any of his five-year-old contemporaries. No, if I was having a swipe right now, it might be Not So Sleepy without Honeysuckle at 33/1+ each way. He was 5th last year at 125/1 outright, and has dead heated with Epatante in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth this season.
But, on balance, I'll stick with what I have and cheer the champ to repeat and remain unbeaten.
Suggestion: Consider Not So Sleepy each way without Honeysuckle at anything above 25/1. Not really a betting race now.
4.10 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)
The Mares' Hurdle had been dominated by Willie Mullins almost since its inception in 2008. Mullins was actually unrepresented in that inaugural running, but then went on to win nine of the next ten editions, six of them with the fantastic though only occasionally seen Quevega. However, more recently, the omnipotent Closutton barn has enjoyed success in the Mares' Hurdle only once in the last five years, and not at all in the last three.
Related, and perhaps more remarkable, is that the last five favourites in the race - all of them short - were turned over. Limini was 3rd at 6/4 in 2017, the same position occupied by 1/2 Apple's Jade in 2018; Benie Des Dieux fell in 2019 when sent off 10/11 and she was beaten by Honeysuckle a year later at odds of 4/6, before most recently 10/11 Concertista was run out of it by Black Tears in the shadow of the post.
There's no shortie in the betting this time, current prices being 3/1 and upwards your pick. Tenuously top of that pile is Telmesomethinggirl, trained by Henry de Bromhead and running in the Kenny Alexander colours of Honeysuckle, meaning it could be quite a 45 minutes or so for connections. This mare won the Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle at last year's Festival over two miles, but has been beaten in all three starts since. If that's the unpromising news, her most recent effort - when a staying on third to Royal Kahala at Leopardstown - was definitely her season best and she comes here perhaps sitting on a big one, as they say.
In front of Telmesomethinggirl but largely whacked before and since this term was Heaven Help Us, winner of the Coral Cup a year ago. Like the favourite, she brings Festival-winning form to the party and her form string at this intermediate distance is 12. She seems better going left-handed and with just a little ease in the ground, conditions she'll get here. This has presumably been the target for Paul Hennessy's charge; he also owns and bred her.
Queen's Brook will be Gordon Elliott's hope for the race, the mare having run third in the 2020 Champion Bumper behind Ferny Hollow before skipping last year's Festival. Her recent form is consistent and ties in with the likes of Burning Victory but she's won only once from five starts over hurdles since her maiden score.
Burning Victory was the beneficiary of Goshen's black swan event at the last in the Triumph Hurdle of 2020 and she's travelled all over the place since. Specifically, she's taken in the Galway Hurdle (7th), a Deauville handicap (1st), the Cesarewitch (2nd), a Navan handicap hurdle (tailed off), the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle (3rd) and that defeat of Queen's Brook last time. There are plenty of top class efforts in that sequence, a positive which has to be balanced against the busy campaign; that said, she's had only the one run in 2022.
It's hard to know what to make of Stormy Ireland, who has won a lot for Willie Mullins either side of a curiously disappointing sojourn at Paul Nicholls' yard. She was fortunate to win the Relkeel Hurdle here on New Year's Day but that showed the track holds few fears, and she was a Grade 1 winner at this trip and on this sort of ground at Punchestown last May. Still, she's not getting any younger - this will be her third run in the race having finished second in 2019 and fifth in 2020.
Mrs Milner, like Heaven Help Us, was a handicap hurdle winner at last year's Festival, her score coming in the three mile Pertemps Final. This is a different test, more about speed than stamina, though she had the gears to win a couple of lower grade two mile hurdles earlier in her career.
Nicky Henderson saddles Marie's Rock, who ran a nice race without troubling the judge in the Greatwood Hurdle in November. Subsequently stepped up to this range, she won either side of a non-completion when badly hampered by a faller. On ratings she has a few pounds to find with some of these but her trainer is making optimistic noises (for whatever that is worth).
Yet another former Festival winner is Indefatigable whose 2020 Martin Pipe win was a red letter day for trainer Paul Webber but also for geegeez-sponsored then conditional rider, Rex Dingle. Rex came with the proverbial wet sail there, weaving through tiring rivals up the run in to present the mare on the line, a style which has proven more difficult to pull off in smaller field, more steadily run contests since. There is a good bit of pace projected for this one, however, perhaps allowing her to finish a little better, and almost all of her best form has come at Cheltenham including when fourth in this last year and fifth in the Mares' Novices' Hurdle in 2019, either side of that Martin Pipe score.
Echoes In Rain enjoyed a purple patch last spring where a hat-trick of wins was capped by Grade 1 honours in a Punchestown Festival novice hurdle. At the top table this term, she's found life tougher, twice getting a distant view of Sharjah's tail before finishing closer to Honeysuckle albeit in a steadily run contest. This is shallower than those meetings with Champion Hurdle aspirants, actual and absent, and it wouldn't be a total shock if she were to bounce back. She will also have to prove her stamina on this first attempt beyond two miles, her pedigree not guaranteeing she'll stay.
And an honourable mention for the admirable Martello Sky, whose habit of winning must be delightful for connections. To wit, she has eight first places from just twelve career starts, among them a brace of Listed Hurdles. This will be tougher though the extra distance should mean she'll be able to get into a better rhythm than was the case when midfield in last year's Mares' Novices' Hurdle. Both Western Victory and Nada To Prada look to be pitching above their level.
Mares' Hurdle Pace Projection
This could be pretty quick but possibly not overly strongly run, with Stormy Ireland and Western Victory going forward and Heaven Help Us close up. Telmesomethinggirl and Echoes In Rain will be amongst those looking to affect the outcome with a late rally.
Mares' Hurdle Selection
This is a really tricky race with if's and but's about most of them. In the absence of a reliable option, I'll take a chance on Heaven Help Us being trained for the day in what seem to be her favoured conditions. Indefatigable looks like getting her optimal conditions for the first time in a while and may be over-priced for hail mary each way players.
Suggestion: Try Heaven Help Us at 12/1. Give Indefatigable a second glance at 28/1 or bigger.
4.50 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Fred Winter, Grade 3, 2m 1/2f)
A feature of the handicap hurdles this year is the almost total dominance of the top end of the handicap by Irish runners. This is as a direct result of the recalibration of ratings in the British hurdling division and, depending on your perspective, it either shows how much better the Irish horses are or it gives Team GB (ugh) a better chance. My opinion is that those two perspectives are not mutually exclusive and both hold water.
Looking down the weights, the first British-trained runner is actually the top weight, ex-French Petit Tonnerre, who perhaps shouldn't have won on British debut! Next in is the Paul Nicholls entry, Bell Ex One. Closer scrutiny reveals he's not raced since qualifying for this for his previous trainer, in Ireland! The next UK-trained entry is Saint Segal, number 14 in the weights (!), trained by Jane Williams. Jane is married to Nick Williams, who won the Fred Boodles (Winter as was) in 2017 with Flying Tiger having trained third-placed Coo Star Sivola a year earlier. Five further swings at this prize since have come up dry, but Saint Segal looks a legit contender: he was second in the Grade 1 Finale Hurdle having pulled too hard early and is unbeaten in a pair of spins sandwiching that G1. The likely quicker pace ought to suit well.
Meanwhile, further up the weights, Gordon Elliott seems to be the main man for the occasion. Uninvited last year, he saddled five in 2020 and, of the 22 who set off, his quintet finished 1-3-4-8-9. In 2019, one of his trio of entries ran second; and in 2018 he scored at 33/1 from just two runners. A pair of runners in each of the 2014-2017 renewals yielded no more than a single fourth-placed finish, but Flaxen Flare was a 25/1 winner in 2013.
This year, Elliott has five entered up. His main chance appears to be The Tide Turns, whose three qualifying races were a comfortable victory in a 20-runner maiden hurdle (2nd, 4th and 5th both won their only starts since), fourth to Triumph Hurdle favourite Vauban in a Grade 1 at the Dublin Racing Festival, and another fourth against elders in the Red Mills Trial won by Teahupoo. That third dance was hastily arranged to facilitate qualification for the Boodles though I'm not sure 137 is a gimme of a mark considering he was only a mildly progressive mid-70's handicapper on the level for Sir Mark Prescott.
As mentioned, Elliott has twice won this with a lesser fancied runner, 33/1 Veneer Of Charm in 2018 and 25/1 Flaxen Flare in 2013, so his others deserve consideration. That pair both won their hurdle debuts before finishing second and then nowhere in two subsequent pre-Boodles runs. This year, Britzka and Ebasari both won before failing to follow up twice, as did the aforementioned The Tide Turns. The market is currently a little more circumspect - both Britzka and Ebasari are around 16/1 - though the play book is there for all to see.
The favourite, and very short at that, is trained by Willie Mullins and owned by Mrs S Ricci, and he is called Gaelic Warrior. Still a maiden after three hurdle starts in France he has a mark of just 129 which compares very favourably with his French peg of 63kg (multiply by 2.2 to get 138.6 pounds, making GW ten pounds 'well in'). In his most recent start, Gaelic Warrior was outpaced on heavy ground before finishing strongly to take third of 14. The second horse, Golden Son, has since won a Grade 2 before claiming runner up honours in a G1; while the winner, Sans Bruit, has won a Grade 3 and been third in a Grade 2.
He's undeniably well treated, then, but hitting a serious flat spot on heavy ground doesn't translate brilliantly to the rough and tumble of a fast ground 22-runner charge across Cleeve Hill. Luck in running is needed by all; most have a little more meat on their price than this lad. Willie is 0/14 in this race but went very close last year when Saint Sam was second (Ciel De Neige 3rd in 2019, too).
Joseph O'Brien won this in 2019 with Band Of Outlaws, and saddles Champion Green this time. A relative slow starter he broke his maiden at the fourth time of asking, over nine furlongs at Punchestown. The second won next time and was rated 89 when taking on handicappers for the first time, the third - also trained by Joseph - has won a couple of minor hurdle races, and the fourth won a Leopardstown maiden next time. That's a verbose way of saying he probably achieved a 90-odd level of form on the flat before sights were switched to timber.
In three completed starts over hurdles, he was a close up fourth in a big field on debut, 2nd of 15 having drifted from 8/11 to 5/4 the next day and, after a slipped saddle led to pulling up two back, he made all and bolted up at 4/6 in a Naas maiden hurdle. That maiden score, like his flat maiden win, was on good ground and, with the drying forecast, conditions look to be in his corner.
In the last twelve years, every winner of this race was either a single figure price (five winners) or 25/1+ (seven). Last year's 80/1 bomb was only a minor outlier on a recent history that includes a 40/1, three 33/1's and two 25/1's - so maybe this is the race to turn the form book upside down. If that's your thing, let's mess about with the concept for a minute.
Of those seven bombs, all ran in a non-handicap last time out (four of them in G1 or G2 company), all had four or fewer UK/Irish hurdle starts (though three had raced in France before), and five of seven were beaten 15 lengths or more last time. I think that's the one that puts punters off the scent. The only one really fitting the bill from a price perspective is Tanganyika who is second reserve. He is quite interesting on his run behind subsequent Grade 1 1-2 Kyrov and Golden Son in France. Now with Venetia Williams, Tanganyika was beaten eight and a half lengths in that Auteuil race. Kyrov is currently rated 75kg (165), Golden Son 71 (156) and Tanganyika's mark in France is 61.5 (135). Here, he has just 121, a full stone below his French rating. If he gets a run, he might be better than a 66/1 poke.
Gordon's Britzka and Ebasari both measure up on this 'interesting rag' angle but are shorter than ideal to take the chance. I might be tempted if either slid out to 25/1 or bigger.
Boodles Handicap Hurdle Pace Projection
Fast, frantic, furious, frenetic, ferocious and other adjectives beginning with 'f'. Doubtful stayers need not apply. Note that neither Gaelic Warrior nor Milldam have raced in UK or Ireland to this point. Their French form suggests both will be waited with to varying degrees.
Boodles Handicap Hurdle selection
It's a really tough heat with even fewer clues than your average Festival handicap. The British handicapper seems not to be on the same page with his European counterparts, ranking Irish form more highly and French form lower. On that basis, it's easy enough to bypass Gaelic Warrior at such cramped odds and I don't really want to be with The Tide Turns at not much bigger, though naturally I respect the chance of both.
Rather, I'll take a small swing at Champion Green and Saint Segal, both of which ought to be suited by this setup and both of which come from yards that know how to win the Fred Boodles. Jockeys are important at this meeting, however, and the experience of Rachael Blackmore versus the exuberance of Chester Williams tilts the pendulum in favour of Champion Green if having to choose between them.
Suggestion: Try Champion Green at 12/1 or perhaps 16/1 Saint Segal, and watch the betting on Ebasari and Britzka. Get lots of extra places. Prepare to sigh if/when either Gaelic Warrior or The Tide Turns prevail.
5.30 National Hunt Chase (Grade 2, 3m 6f)
The nearly-four-miler as it has become known is in many ways the bellwether for the meeting and indeed the sport. Once (a long time ago) the most important race at the Festival, rank amateurs have given best to crack amateurs (there was a cheaper pun comparator which I'm proud to have resisted!), the distance has been truncated, and the quality and experience thresholds have been elevated.
In other words, this is a completely different race from the one which carried the same name 15 years ago. Back then, journeyman Corinthians on massive-priced pigs in a poke in huge fields played a version of 'last man or woman standing'. Now, field sizes are smaller, the quality of bipeds and quadrupeds alike is higher, and it is consequently a far more predictable affair. Note, not predictable, only more predictable.
On field sizes, in 2016 there were 20 runners; over the next three years there were 18, 16 and 18 runners; but, since the distance was reduced to 3m6f and it has become more about class than out and out stamina, field sizes have reduced to 14 and then 12 last year... and now just seven horses are slated to go to post. That is not a good look. To the septet...
Experience has counted for a lot in recent times, with nine of the past ten winners having four-plus seasonal runs and four-plus chase starts. That's a potential knock for the strong Willie Mullins-trained fancy, Stattler, who is unbeaten in two fencing contests. In 2013, Mullins won with the unbeaten-in-three Back In Focus, but more recently both 9/4 Ballyward (fell) and 10/11 Carefully Selected (unseated) have succumbed to their inexperience at the obstacles. Still, Stattler's form credentials are robust and his stamina is assured if his leaping holds up at the expected quicker tempo on quicker turf.
Fitting the historical profile more snugly is the Gordon Elliott inmate, Run Wild Fred, who represents Gigginstown and is ridden by Jamie Codd. Codd has piloted the winner in three of the last six renewals where amateur jockeys contested (professionals last year due to Covid), two of the three coming for Elliott.
Run Wild Fred has almost as much experience as his rider, being a veteran of ten chases, the same number as Cause Of Causes (Codd/Elliott), Tiger Roll (Elliott), and Rathvinden; and second place finishes in the Irish Grand National and a Grade 1 novice chase attest both to stamina and class. He does finish second unnervingly frequently - he's allowed one to pass in five of his last six chases - but otherwise is a strong box-ticker for all that he's no Prestbury Park previous.
Next in is another Irish-trained horse, last year's Albert Bartlett winner, Vanillier. Apparently a spring horse, he improved on a February drubbing last year to win at the Festival and trainer Gavin Cromwell will hope that sizable deficits behind Fury Road, Run Wild Fred and Stattler in his two runs in 2022 can be overcome. It's taking plenty on faith at his price.
Ontheropes is a slight rarity in that he's a Cheveley Park Stud entry, and trained by Willie Mullins, that is not favourite. He has had plenty of experience, however, which is definitely the way to go in the National Hunt Chase, and breeding suggests this trip is within range. The form of his fourth in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in the autumn is strong and if quicker ground ekes out a pound or two, he could cause a minor surprise.
Gordon also has Braeside, whose two career wins have come on heavy ground, as Profiler handily highlights. He's slow enough for the old four-miler but probably not quick enough for this classier, shorter iteration of the race.
The best of the two trained by Rebecca Curtis - the only two British entries to stand their ground - should be Pats Fancy, who has risen through the handicap ranks this season but was comprehensively hammered at both Cheltenham and Aintree in Grade 1 novice hurdles a year ago. On his latest outing, Pats Fancy was a three length second to Bravemansgame in receipt of 16 pounds. That form is not good enough here. His stable mate, Beatthebullet, is more than two stone 'wrong' with the top rated of these and appears to be the much maligned 'social runner'.
National Hunt Chase Pace Projection
No sign of an out and out burn up, and just a couple that might want to lead. Most are fairly versatile regarding run style so this looks like being run at a fairly even gallop, at least in the early part of the race.
National Hunt Chase Selection
I'm not totally sold on Stattler for all that he can obviously win. Run Wild Fred looks the one, especially with the striking booking of Jamie Codd. And last year's Albert Bartlett winner, Vanillier, must also be a contender on that evidence though not on much evidence since.
Suggestion: Back Run Wild Fred to win at around 9/4.
It's a first day light on runners but brimming with class, and it may be sobering to remember that the opening stanza is often the best chance for us punters to get a few quid up on those bookie types. Regardless, there will be 21 more opportunities hereafter so keep some powder dry!