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Reviewing the Festival: 5 Things

2017 was a weird Festival, writes Tony Keenan. It began with Gordon Elliott winning novice races with Labaik and Tiger Roll, the former one refusal away from a lengthy ban on his previous start, the latter landing a National Hunt Chase run over nearly twice as far as his previous major win in the Triumph Hurdle. It ended with Paul Nicholls seemingly ecstatic at breaking his duck for the week in the Foxhunter with Pacha Du Polder, a far cry from his previous multiple Grade 1-winning Festivals. In between we had Willie Mullins draw a blank on Tuesday and Wednesday, his yard apparently out of form and his gallops all wrong, only for him to storm back with six winners across the final two days.

There are always things to be learned from these major meetings and while it’s important not to overreact to the evidence of just four days, there were certainly a few takeaways.

 

  1. Relative Sanity in the Betting Markets

By the standards of recent Cheltenhams, the offer culture among the big bookmakers wasn’t as prevalent; there was nothing close to the each-way five places offered by William Hill back in the 2013 Supreme. There were extra places on offer in obvious races like the Coral Cup, Pertemps Final and County Hurdle but not so much in the shoulder races; judging on the Pricewise tables from the Racing Post, there were just two firms that offered extended place terms in the Foxhunter as opposed to six in 2016.

The extra place concession is fine as a once-off – Coral going six places in the Coral Cup, say – but in the main it’s a losing proposition for bookmakers, where they are putting the maths in favour of the punter and conceding that they are willing to lose money in the race, all things being equal.

There were also reduced terms in the graded races from a long way out: where once these races were all a quarter the odds a place, now the universal terms seem to be a fifth. That’s clearly a negative for punters looking to bet each-way and find a solid horse to hit the frame and while there were a number of races during the week that set up well as ‘bad each-way’ events like the Arkle, Champion Chase and JLT, they would have been all the more appealing if it were a quarter the odds a place. Furthermore, there didn’t seem to be the wild push to be a standout top price everything on the odds comparison sites that there had been previously. The likes of Native River and Cue Card may have drifted on the morning of the Gold Cup to their biggest price in a few weeks, but that was more due to support for Djakadam than their weakness, and nor did price pushes on the Supreme favourites Ballyandy and Melon come to pass.

It’s difficult to say what the reasons for this might be. Last year’s results when one favourite after another went in clearly played their part; the firms didn’t get away with overly-generous offers then and may have learned from it. On the whole, this is good for racing as it is hardly ideal that the sport’s banner meeting be used as a loss leader for other betting products; the firms would be unlikely to do the same for a major football tournament. Hopefully such a sensible approach will continue next year.

 

  1. Competitive Irish Scene leads to Green-wash?

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Michael O’Leary talked a whole lot of rubbish in the run-up to Cheltenham and it continued last week with his comments about the Irish/English rivalry and his dismissal of Martin Pipe winner Champagne Classic as ‘probably the worst horse I have.’ It seems he is just as successful at winding racing people up as he is with government ministers! Those at the top of Irish racing might want to drop him a little thank you card for his contribution to the record week for Irish trainers at the meeting however as his decision to move his horses from Willie Mullins (along with some rotten injury luck for that trainer) could well have played a part in Irish trainers doing so well.

It’s been the most competitive Irish national hunt season since the Mullins hegemony began but while the betting beforehand suggested Ireland would struggle at the meeting – Ireland were priced up at a general 7/2 for the BetBright Cup having been more like 7/4 last year – the opposite proved to be case. Gordon Elliott basically continued to do what he’s been doing at home all season while both Henry De Bromhead and Noel Meade backed up excellent home campaigns with Festival winners. Jessica Harrington had been quietly having a good run in Ireland all season but there was nothing quiet about her Festival where she had three winners. There was certainly a sense of what might have been with Willie Mullins however; to manage six winners off the back of the season he’s had was a deeply impressive effort.

 

  1. Slipping Standards in Championship Races, Handicaps more Competitive than ever

The rash of injuries among the top jumpers lowered the standard of the championship races and while these races were a spectacle – the Festival always is – it is doubtful that Buveur D’Air, Special Tiara, Nichols Canyon and Sizing John will echo down the halls of history in the same manner of Istabraq, Big Buck’s or Best Mate. I’m biased but Sizing John might prove about the best of those as he’s just a different horse this season, his sole defeat coming to Douvan when conceding fitness to that one on his first run of 2016/17, and I wonder if he might even give a healthy version of that horse something to think about over a strongly-run twenty furlongs now.

The handicaps were a different story entirely, proving ultra-competitive and over-subscribed in a season where races like the Betfair Hurdle and Imperial Cup struggled to attract decent fields. Unsurprisingly, they took plenty of winning with horses like Un Temps Pour Tout (Racing Post Rating of 164 in winning), Supasundae (RPR 155), Presenting Percy (RPR 155) and Arctic Fire (RPR 160) all looking like they could make an impact at Grade 1 level sooner rather than later.

 

  1. Riding their Luck

I wrote about luck, good and bad, in this space prior to the meeting and it’s worth briefly revisiting those figures for trainers over this year’s meeting.

 

Trainer Winners Seconds Places (2nd, 3rd and 4th) Places to Winners Ratio Sub-2.0 Trades
G. Elliott 6 3 7 1.16 0
W. Mullins 6 2 7 1.15 4
N. Henderson 3 6 13 4.33 2
J. Harrington 3 0 0 0.00 0
H. De Bromhead 1 2 4 4.00 0
P. Hobbs 1 1 2 2.00 1
N. Meade 1 0 2 2.00 0
J. O’Neill 0 2 2 0.00 0
H. Fry 0 1 3 0.00 2
A. King 0 0 4 0.00 0

 

Jessica Harrington looks to have benefitted from the perfect storm of things falling right though it would be hard to say that any of Supasundae, Sizing John and Rock The World were anything other than deserving winners and she did have Champion Bumper fancy Someday ruled out on the morning of the race. Her close friend Nicky Henderson was the unlucky one in terms of places to winners ratio, allowing that one of his seconds (Whisper) came in a race he won anyway. The in-running trades point to Harry Fry being a bit unlucky too.

 

  1. Excuse Obvious ‘Excuse Horses’

Plenty of us will have backed a horse that will have run terribly last week [I didn’t back many who didn’t run terribly – Ed.] and in the main Cheltenham is one of those unique tracks where you can probably forgive a bad run. There were a number of horses that stood out as obvious ‘excuse horses’ with bona fide reasons for not being able to run to form and if you liked them going into the meeting, it could be worth sticking with them for the rest of the spring.

That list includes but is not limited to: Ballyandy (troubled trip), Bacardys (badly hampered), Bon Papa (lost his action), Automated (found to be lame), Mister Miyagi (troubled trip), Douvan (injured) Linger (lame), Flying Angel (badly hampered), Potters Legend (jumped like his feet were tied together), Ex Patriot (got loose beforehand), and Constantine Bay (run stopped at a crucial time).

I’m not saying I like all these horses to win in the near-term – in fact I don’t – but they all had very legitimate reasons for not running to their best. I won’t do all the hard work for you however so get reviewing those replays and start trawling through the BHA post-race reports, painful though they may be!

- Tony Keenan

Eight Cheltenham Festival Takeaways: Notebook Horses

Notebook Horses From Cheltenham

As the Cheltenham Festival gradually begins to fade from the memory, racing writer and broadcaster Rory Delargy (@helynsar on twitter) offers an octet to keep in mind for the coming month, and early part of next season. Trackers and/or notepads at the ready...

Tuesday:

The Young Master (6th - Ultima Handicap Chase):
The early-season vibes weren't terribly positive about the prolific son of Echo of Light, and he was relatively weak in the market when falling in the Becher Chase on his belated return (beaten at the time). He predictably made no impact in the Cleeve Hurdle on his next start, but looked a picture in the Cheltenham paddock, and shaped as if back in good order in finishing sixth behind Un Temps Pour Tout. He raced in the mid-division along the inside, jumping accurately on the whole, and while he struggled a little with the pace, was able to dispute third at the top of the hill before being passed by half a dozen rivals on the downhill run to the third last fence. He looked sure to drop away from that point, but rallied to re-pass a few from the final turn, and he now looks like he needs a stamina test to be fully effective. It's easy to conclude that he doesn't handle the Grand National fences, but it's a lot more likely that he's been trained to peak again in the spring, and either the National or the Bet365 Gold Cup would be viable targets. As far as the latter is concerned, it should be noted that the handicapper has dropped him 2lb to a mark of 148, the same as when winning last April.

Powersbomb (4th - Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase)
Brian McMahon's chaser has caught the eye on a couple of occasions this year, rallying in some style after propping badly at the second-last fence at Leopardstown on his penultimate outing, and again looking a bit better than the bare result last week. In contrast to Leopardstown, he was held up by Jamie Codd (deputising for regular rider Mikey Fogarty), and made mistakes at the second and fourth fences. That made his chance look remote, and he was again untidy when making ground at the third last. Shaken up thereafter, he snapped back onto the bridle, and made sharp progress to get close at the turn, but had to race wide as a result, and while he got to the front between the last two, he was looking vulnerable when getting into  the bottom of the last. That he kept on for fourth was commendable as he looked to find the trip stretching him, but I spoke to Jamie straight afterwards, and he was unhappy with his ride and admitted that he'd hit the front too soon. In saying that, he is clearly effective at shorter, and would be of interest in the Red Rum at Aintree, which is usually run at a frenetic pace. He's been raised 4lb to 134 in Ireland, incidentally, but ran off 138 at Cheltenham, and there ought to be a race for him closer to home if that's what McMahon, who trains near Ennis in Co. Clare, would prefer.

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Wednesday:

Scoir Mear (5th - Coral Cup)
Scoir Mear was my only ante-post bet at the Festival, so it was galling to see him finish fifth when most firms paid five places on the day (yet another reason to throw into the pot marked "why ante-post betting is dead"). But that doesn't begin to tell the story, as Tom Mullins' grey might easily have won with better luck/judgement in running. Jumped off at the rear, he was never more than a length ahead of the back marker for the first half of the contest, and despite travelling sweetly, still sat sixteenth as the field jumped the penultimate flight. In a strongly run affair this can potentially be an advantage (who can forget What's Up Boys and Big Strand coming from the clouds to win this race?), but the pace of the Coral Cup steadied down before halfway and the leaders weren't falling in a hole by any means. Switched to the inside on the final turn by David Mullins, he found a pocket of weakening horses, and had to take back and around to get a clear passage. Jumping the last in a dispute of thirteenth place, he again had to take evasive action to avoid Kalondra on landing, before flashing home for fifth. The negatives are that he wasn't always fluent at his hurdles, and did show a tendency to lug to his left, which explains the second piece of interference he met, but the positives far outweigh those niggles, and while Supasundae deserves full credit for winning, Scoir Mear looked second best on the day, and his form all season keeps getting franked. The Irish handicapper has raised him by a solitary pound for his effort at Cheltenham, and there must be a valuable prize in him before the season is through. On an incidental note, I was told on the eve of the race that the 5-y-o had not travelled over well, and didn't eat up on arrival. That wasn't the line given on the day by his trainer, but it came from a reliable source, and would make the performance even more meritorious if true.

Diable de Sivola (5th – Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle)
The Fred Winter shaped like a very strong race for all the winner, Flying Tiger, was quite a big price. Runner-up Divin Bere is clearly a big talent, and Nietzche brought a solid profile and very useful flat form to the table. That trio should pay their way, but the one to take out of the race is the winner's stablemate, Diable de Sivola, who finished best of all in fifth, having been no closer than thirteenth jumping the last. It's dangerous to constantly mark up horses who finish fast from a poor position, and in doing so, it's important to establish why they found themselves in that position in the first place. In the case of Lizzie Kelly's mount, it's not entirely clear how, but he suddenly lost a good position on the run from the second and third flights, and was massively compromised by that scenario. Television pictures of that part of the race are very poor (wide angle shot with the low sun making detail hard to pick out), but it's likely that he got squeezed out and lost momentum, or simply failed to handle the downhill run at that point. Either way, he turned into the back straight in a good position, and somehow lost that spot completely by the time the field reached the fourth. Getting back into contention in a congested field was always going to be difficult, and Kelly had to wait until the final turn before cutting back to the inside and passing rivals. It's to his credit that he almost made the frame from an impossible position. He was reported by Nick Williams to have needed his prep run at Doncaster, and an earlier second to Defi du Seuil here looks better in retrospect, all of which suggests his unchanged mark of 132 is there to be exploited.

Thursday:

Top Notch (2nd - JLT Novices' Chase)
Pretty much all the talk after the JLT was about the brilliance of Yorkhill, or indeed the brilliance of his jockey, who somehow managed to make this headcase look a straightforward conveyance in winning, and he's as short as 8/1 for next year's Gold Cup, and the same price for the Ryanair. On the other hand, Top Notch goes through an impressive first season over fences with barely a ripple; already a Grade 1 winner over the bigger obstacles, he could arguably be called an unlucky loser here, as he lost considerably more ground with a rare mistake at the second last than he was beaten, and his jumping was an absolute joy to behold in the main, as it was when he won at Sandown. That mistake rather took the gloss off the finish, as it threatened to be a classic with both he and the winner travelling strongly at the time. The game is, as we're often reminded, all about jumping, so marking horses up for late errors is a dangerous precedent, but this looked a case of the rider needing to ask for a big jump at a crucial point and opting to sit still instead. Top Notch isn't one to stand outside the wings, but he has more scope than he's given credit for, as he showed when gaining ground with a brave leap at the final fence, and in my opinion he would have made Yorkhill pull out all the stops if he'd been asked to produce a similar leap at the previous fence. As such, his price of 16/1 for next year's Ryanair seems rather insulting, as that race looks by far his most likely long-term target. In the short term, the Manifesto at Aintree should be right up his street, with or without Yorkhill.

Ballymalin (7th - Pertemps Final)
One of the features of the week was how steadily run many of the handicaps were, although the Pertemps Final was an exception, and a couple of those who raced towards the front throughout can be marked up for their efforts. The bold-jumping Sutton Place looks a horse for the future, with fences beckoning next season, but if I had to pick just one to choose for the immediate future it would be Ballymalin, whose stable sent seventeen runners to the meeting but came home empty-handed. I'm not one to read too much into such figures given how hard it is to win any race at Cheltenham, and it was tactics rather than the form of his yard which saw Ballymalin out of the frame. All three of the Twiston-Davies runners took turns in the lead and the son of Presenting fared much better in the end than either Splash of Ginge or Arctic Gold, and five of those who beat him came from significantly further back in the field. This was just his second start in handicaps having finished third behind race favourite Impulsive Star in his qualifier at Exeter, and while he's clearly got the ability to run well off his mark (unchanged since Exeter), I envisage him being stepped up to Grade 1 company at Aintree, where he'd not look out of place in the Sefton Novices' Hurdle, a race won by the same connections with Ballyoptic last year. Nigel Twiston-Davies also trained King's Road (1999) and Pettifour (2008) to land the Sefton, both of whom arrived under the radar to some degree.

Friday:

Renneti (8th - County Hurdle)
Some horses find their way into your notebook with a mental asterisk next to their names to remind you not to be too easily fooled, and the temptation is to categorize the quirky Renneti like that.  He certainly hasn't looked in love with the game in the past year, but when on song he is very close to top class, and he had nothing go his way in a bizarre renewal of the County Hurdle, with Wakea allowed to set up a massive lead despite not exactly scorching off. As a result, the race only took shape on the long run to the final flight, and the form cannot be taken literally. Renneti would have preferred a bit more ease in the ground, for all the track was watered liberally overnight, and he stays beyond two miles, needing the emphasis on stamina at this sort of trip. Like Labaik on Tuesday, he set off quite sweetly at the back of the field, but his position soon became an issue, and his chance of winning evaporated when the field allowed the leader to do his own thing.  That said, he made up considerable ground from the penultimate obstacle, and finished about as fast as it was possible given the majority in front of him were also trying to quicken from the same juncture. He's never one about which to take short odds, and ideally needs a strongly-run race on soft ground to bring out his best, so opportunities to back him may be limited by conditions, but he's more than capable of making a mockery of his current mark, and could even get into the mix in something like the Aintree Hurdle.

Constantine Bay (4th - Albert Bartlett)
The Albert Bartlett was another race run at a much more pedestrian tempo than is the norm, and that certainly suited the winner, who has the turn of foot of a high-class flat performer, something he is likely to prove again in the summer. Those who got close to Penhill therefore deserve great credit, and while Constantine Bay was beaten over fifteen lengths in fourth, he was the biggest eyecatcher of the beaten horses having been stopped in his tracks when The World's End fell in front of him at the second last (Penhill also hampered in the incident, while the faller is also interesting for the future having moved up to dispute the lead at the point he capsized). He was knocked back to a poor ninth at that point, and did really well to stay on for fourth from that point. He is clearly a game and thorough stayer as he showed when winning at Doncaster on his previous outing, and it should be pointed out that he was at full stretch coming down the hill, so clearly wouldn't want a tactical race at this trip. But there are lots of options both this spring and into next season for one who has shown his blend of gameness and stamina, and he's another who appeals as a decent staying chaser in the making.

The REAL Reason The Irish Dominated Cheltenham

Last week, British-trained horses received a 'doing' the like of which had never before been witnessed. The Irish minority rode, almost literally, roughshod over the vast numerical superiority of the domestic defences in a manner that suggested this was more than a mere perfect storm.

One leading Irish trainer has mooted that the root cause lies in British racing's infatuation with high value handicaps, but that feels wide of the mark. Others argue that the Irish are better at 'plotting one up': even if that's true, the extent to which they outmanoeuvred both the BHA handicapping team and the British training ranks also feels somewhat of a convenient pigeonhole.

No, as always, the answer is likely to be far more nuanced than 'this' or 'that'; more likely a combination of elements which have been brewing for some time. To understand what went wrong this time, a spot of historical context is required. Let's start with the most basic of barometers, the UK vs Ireland tally for the last five Cheltenham Festivals.

 

Trainer location of winning horses, Cheltenham Festival 2012-17

Year Races UK Ire
2012 27 22 5
2013 27 13 14
2014 27 15 12
2015 27 14 13
2016 28 13 15
2017 28 9 19

 

This chart tells the story rather more succinctly:

 

Ireland's dominance is no overnight shock

Ireland's dominance is no overnight shock

 

In terms of pure winners, Ireland has been improving its tally significantly since 2013, and actually only enhanced their win score by four this term. That, of course, equates to an eight race swing and the smallest number of prizes for the home team ever.

But win samples are typically small, however, and this one is restricted to just 28 (27 prior to the introduction of the mares' novices' hurdle last year) races. So what of the place data?

 

Trainer location of placed horses, Cheltenham Festival 2012-17

Year Places UK Ire
2012 91 58 33
2013 90 53 35
2014 92 56 36
2015 92 48 44
2016 93 48 45
2017 94 53 41

 

Here's the chart for the place data:

 

The place data is a little more equivocal

The place data is a little more equivocal

 

Notice how there is convergence in the place data but not the overlap of the win graph? This is significant because it suggests that the emerald dominance of 2017, while hardly a surprise, has been magnified somewhat by the microcosm of the winners dataset.

[Incidentally, I prefer places to percentage of runners beaten because, aside from the challenges of quantifying non-completions, many horses are eased off significantly when their chance has gone, thus further muddying what is already at best translucent water]

Before moving on, let us also consider the number of placed horses as a percentage of the number of runners from UK and Ireland. This obviously requires us to know the number of runners from each 'country' taking part, which gets interesting. Check this out:

 

Placed horses as a percentage of runners (right hand columns)

Year Runners UK Ire Places UK Ire UK% Ire%
2012 483 356 126 91 58 33 16.29% 26.19%
2013 464 355 106 90 53 35 14.93% 33.02%
2014 487 363 121 92 56 36 15.43% 29.75%
2015 468 321 146 92 48 44 14.95% 30.14%
2016 492 346 143 93 48 45 13.87% 31.47%
2017 488 325 160 94 53 41 16.31% 25.63%

*there have been a few non-UK/Irish runners as well, hence the small disparity between total runners and the UK/Ire aggregate

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In case you missed it, let me help you out:

  1. The home team had a higher percentage of their horses placed last week than in any other Festival in the sample.
  2. Ireland registered its lowest percentage of placed horses to runners in the six year sample period last week.

 

Why? Simple. Ireland had their biggest raiding party since 2012 (at least), and Britain had very close to its smallest defensive battalion, 2017's 325 only surpassed by 2015's 321 (spread across one fewer race).

The graph of places as a percentage of runners looks like this:

 

Cheltenham Festival places as a percentage of runners: UK vs Ireland

Cheltenham Festival places as a percentage of runners: UK vs Ireland

 

In terms of the numerical strength of the Irish team, between 2012 and 2014 their runners amounted to circa 25%, against a British squad of 75%. From 2015 to 2017, that quarter to three-quarters was more like a third to two-thirds. Last week, Irish runners accounted for 32.8% of the entries, their highest figure as a percentage of runners in the sample, and fully ten per cent more in absolute terms than any other year (160 versus their next largest team of 146, in 2015).

So it may actually be the quantity as much as the quality of the Irish runners that is responsible for their huge margin of victory in everyone's favourite pointless contest, the Betbright Cup.

Why?

We now join the ranks of the hand-wringers to ask why the Irish are winning more Cheltenham Festival races. As noted above, the question doesn't relate solely to the most recent renewal, but to each one since 2013. What has changed during that time to bring about such an upturn in Irish fortunes? Let's consider three possible contributory factors:

- Prize money

- Handicap ratings

- Purchase price / source of acquisition

Prize Money

Willie Mullins posited over the weekend that perhaps owners want to have horses trained in Ireland due to the greater prize money, and because of the lesser programme book reliance on higher value handicaps. A quick review of last week's winners lends some credence to Willie's mullings: of the 19 Irish-trained winners, eight of them by my reckoning - Special Tiara, Supasundae, Sizing John, Yorkhill, Nichols Canyon, Let's Dance, Penhill and Rock The World - are owned by 'Brits'.

But with the exceptions of exiled Americans, Susannah Ricci and Mrs Rowley-Williams (now moved back to US), owner of Special Tiara, the others all have horses trained in Britain as well. True, the Wylies seem to be phasing out their Paul Nicholls team, but this looks more in the Gigginstown vein of performance-based decision-making rather than as a result of prize money, though a case can certainly be made for the latter...

The below table shows the five year prize money accrued by four of the top owners to have split their teams across UK and Ireland (figures derived from ownership data at RacingPost.com).

 

Owner Ire Prize Ire Runs Ire £/Run UK Prize UK Runs UK £/Run Differential
Ricci £4,262,102 545 £7,820 £2,462,702 116 £21,230 2.71
Potts £1,644,110 456 £3,606 £769,725 50 £15,395 4.27
Wylie £1,910,689 174 £10,981 £1,701,885 209 £8,143 0.74
McManus £8,960,364 4238 £2,114 £7,994,949 2669 £2,995 1.42

 

Although there is unquestionably some 'cause and effect' as a result of these owners having won at Cheltenham, that's precisely why they're included in the table. The 'Differential' column shows that, while the Wylies won only 74% as much from their UK endeavours compared with their Irish portfolios, Teams Ricci and Potts did much, much better with their British teams.

But probably the best barometer of this line of argument is JP McManus. Ol' Green n'Gold supports racing to a huge degree on both sides of the pond, and it can clearly be seen on which side his bread is best buttered. McManus' UK contingent net him 42% more per run than his Irish legion.

The fact is that Willie Mullins has performed incredibly well - peerlessly, in fact - at the Cheltenham Festival for a number of years. That success brings 'overseas investment', regardless of whether there are valuable Graded pots or handicaps in the run of things. Indeed, owners like Ricci are on record as saying that they are not interested in winning outside of Cheltenham in March, a week which is the alpha and omega of their involvement in the ownership game.

So whilst there is some smoke to Mullins' contention, it seems unlikely there is much in the way of fire generating those plumes.

Handicap Ratings

More interesting, perhaps, and going beyond the handicap races, is the allocation of handicap ratings. Much has been made - before, during and since the Festival - of the re-assessment of Irish horses for British races. The consensus beforehand from the Irish camp was that this was unjust. With the raiders claiming seven of the ten handicap prizes, there is less crabbing now than before, but the question remains: why were the Irish horses largely elevated from their domestic perches?

The answer may lie not in the errancy of the Irish handicapper's work, but perhaps in a general overstatement in the British figures. Put another way, it may be that the British horses are rated too highly by the BHA 'cappers rather than the Irish too low by theirs.

To be brutally honest, I struggled to think of an effective (and time-efficient) method to test this hypothesis, and so will leave it as a question that others of appropriate informational means may crunch and confirm/refute the suggestion.

I definitely have a 'feeling' that some horses, especially in the two mile divisions, both hurdle and chase, have been significantly over-rated. Such conjecture should have no place in a pseudo-empirical article, so I'll leave it at that.

UPDATE: I've been made aware of two articles from last year covering the inflation in UK ratings. This one is from Simon Rowlands, and this one from Kevin Blake, are both excellent corroboration of the perception which, it seems, is more than that.

Purchase Price / Source

One thing that fascinates me, as a jealous owner peering through the windows into the Tattersalls Cheltenham sale and the like, is how purchase price and source impact on Festival prospects. As more largely untested stock changes hands for north of £300,000 a head, is there any evidence of a correlation between purchase price and performance in the Cotswolds in March? Or are the winners arriving in the hands of their owners by other means than public auction?

To evaluate this, I looked at the winners of the last six renewals of each of the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, Stayers' Hurdle and Gold Cup. That's the same time frame used above for the UK / Ireland comparisons and gives us 24 horses - minus multiple winners - to look at. Remarkably, the only multiple winner in the period was Sprinter Sacre, whose story is an interesting one to which we'll briefly return shortly.

Of the 23 individual winners of the four main Championship races since 2012, 15 were acquired privately. The remaining eight including two home-bred's - Synchronised and Coneygree, both Gold Cup winners - and six purchased for or by their current owners at public auction.

The highest price paid at public auction for a winner of the Champion Hurdle (one), Stayers' Hurdle (two), or Gold Cup (three) was the £75,000 Jim Culloty (on behalf of Dr Ronan Lambe) gave for Lord Windermere.

This year's Gold Cup winner, Sizing John, was bought as a yearling for just €16,000, Thistlecrack cost €43,000, and Bob's Worth (RSA and Gold Cup winner) was a mere £20,000. Using 90p to €1 as a conversion metric, the six Championship winners sold at public auction averaged at £32,717. The median was £24,100.

We also know something of some of those acquired privately. For example, we know that Champion Chaser, Sire De Grugy, was bought for €50,000. And it is reputed that Sprinter Sacre, who won two Champion Chases, was part of a 'job lot' of 22 horses purchased from France for €300,000. While it may be unwise to apportion that price tag equally across the whole draft, we do arrive at a figure of €13,636, or £12,272 using the 90p/€1 conversion principle. For us small-time syndicateers there is something comforting in such mathematical folly.

Perhaps Cole Harden is worth a mention, too. He was led out not sold at £30,000 after winning his debut bumper. Acquired privately soon after, it is highly possible that the purchaser paid in the region of £35,000 given that the auctioneer will usually 'phantom bid' up to just below the reserve price.

It seems that only fools rush in via the sales ring and, although the auction houses probably don't want to admit it, they appear to be doing considerably better than purchasers from these multi-hundred thousand pound/euro deals over jumps: most of the best horses are either bought privately or snapped up for relative pennies.

In Summary...

There are a number of key takeaways from the data posted in this article. Probably the hardest to swallow is that Ireland actually under-performed against their numerical representation this year, in spite of 'winning' 19-9 in terms of race victors.

The natural selectivity of Irish runners - it's a long, expensive journey for a horse with no chance - is also a factor, though this year was one where expense was waived in favour of 'having a runner' more than ever before. This was supported by those higher Irish handicap ratings, meaning more of their horses actually got a run than would have been the case of their domestic pegs.

Tully East (Ire 133, UK 138), winner of the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase, was the most notable beneficiary as his Irish mark was insufficient to make the cut for the race.

There is unlikely to be anything material in the Mullins line about British fascination with a handicap-driven programme, certainly if the major owners are anything to go by. But I'm fascinated by the evidence published by Messrs Rowlands and Blake around potential inflation in UK handicap ratings: it looks like there may well be something in that.

And if you love the idea of owning a Cheltenham Festival champion, it would appear that your best chance is to either a) acquire privately, either from France or from a small stable out of an Irish bumper; or b) buy a relatively cheap ticket at the sales and hope that your luck is in!

So here's to next year, when I expect Ireland to have less winners, perhaps significantly less on the evidence of their overall performance rather than merely the microcosm of the winners' enclosure.

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2017: Day 2 Preview, Tips

Day 2 of the greatest show on turf, the Cheltenham Festival, is expected to feature a Royal Procession as its centrepiece. Douvan, long odds-on in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, will take some stopping but there are six other races where win betting may offer more appealing - if less secure - propositions.

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

An intermediate distance Grade 1 novices' hurdle features horses considered not to have the requisite speed for the Supreme or the necessary stamina for the Albert Bartlett. That is probably an unfair way to describe a race which has proven a pretty reliable barometer to the following season's Champion Hurdle.

This season's field is spearheaded by the exciting Neon Wolf, trained by Harry Fry. He's unbeaten in a point, a bumper and two hurdle races, the most recent of which was the Grade 2 Rossington Main Novices' Hurdle at Haydock. There he beat Elgin by nine lengths, pouring on the pressure from the top of the straight and eventually drawing clear.

That form looks fair, with runner up Elgin filling the same position behind River Wylde in another G2, and scheduled to run in Tuesday's opener, the Supreme.

Good ground, which it may be by post time, is an unknown for a horse that has raced exclusively on soft or good to soft, and if there is a chink in the Wolf's armour, it could be his ability to handle - and quicken - on faster turf. Still,  he's comfortably the most likely winner.

The leading man in the Irish challenge will be Bacardys, who stayed on well to run down stablemate Bunk Off Early in the Grade 1 Deloitte over two and a quarter miles last time. This extra three furlongs should suit and, as with Neon Wolf, the Supreme - Bunk Off Early's Festival target - will give us a line to the merit of the form.

Bacardys has previous Festival form, having been a two length third in the Champion Bumper last season and would likely be unbeaten over hurdles if not falling on his timber-topping debut.

Messire Des Obeaux is, like Bacardys, a Grade 1 winner, having scored in the Challow at Newbury on New Year's Eve. He's since found Keeper Hill a neck too good when collared close home in the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon. It's possible he was dossing in front that day, and/or that trainer Alan King had left a bit to work on, so MDO is a definite place player.

Keeper Hill, for his part, is progressing apace and was completing a hat-trick of novice hurdle wins in the aforementioned Sidney Banks, in receipt of eight pounds. He's quite stoutly bred so it wouldn't be any surprise if he continued his upward trajectory with a bold showing. 20/1 will be attractive to some.

Ben Pauling is a trainer quietly making a name for himself, and he has a couple of nice novices here this week. High Bridge runs in the Supreme on Tuesday before Willoughby Court, impressive winner of the Leamington Novices' Hurdle at Warwick last time, lines up here.

Fifth to Bacardys in the Aintree Bumper last April, he's two from three at this trip, the defeat coming on hurdles debut at Market Rasen. Even allowing for lack of fitness that day, he probably should have still got it done, and I have it in my mind that it may have been the quicker ground there which prevented him.

His form on soft reads 1151, while on quicker it is 321. That may just be coincidence but it's a niggle as is any horse being beaten at Market Rasen winning a Grade 1 novice race at the Cheltenham Festival.

The mare, Shattered Love, was only a half length behind win machine Airlie Beach in a good ground Grade 3 earlier in the season. More recently, had the well-regarded Forge Meadow some way behind over two and a quarter miles on soft, form that may flatter her given Asthuria would probably have beaten her but for tipping up at the last.

One general point, which I've touched on specifically a number of times above: look at the Supreme on Tuesday for a line on some of the horses who may have run just in front or behind them in the Festival opener; and consider runners in the Albert Bartlett in light of the performance of runners in this race. As Tony Keenan has written elsewhere on this site, these collateral form lines often work out very well.

Most Likely Winner:
Neon Wolf 2/1 Coral

Each way value play:
Keeper Hill 20/1 Hills

Skybet

SKYBET are MONEY BACK AS A FREE BET IF YOU LOSE ON THIS RACE (£20 MAX)

BetVictor

NEW customers: Bet £10, and get a free £2 bet on EVERY race at the Festival (21 of them remaining)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

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

A race which has been pilfered from somewhat by the rise to prominence of the 'four miler', the National Hunt Chase, the RSA has nevertheless historically proved a good pointer to Gold Cup aspirants of the future.

Clear favourite, though not at a short price in a confused market, is Might Bite. There is little doubt that this horse has demonstrated the best level of ability in the field, but that was when failing to complete in the Feltham at Kempton on Boxing Day. 'Failing to complete' demands a little additional clarity: a known nutcase, he was gunned into the final fence by Daryl Jacob and just belly flopped into it. Asked for a big one, he declined the request.

Jacob probably took more flak than was merited for the tumble: sure, he didn't need to roust Might Bite between the last two; but his conveyance almost tried to refuse such was the flimsiness of his attempted leap. He has 'previous' according to his trainer, and simply cannot be countenanced as a bet for all that he might run away with the race. If you want to be with him, look for a book offering faller insurance.

Second choice is last year's World Hurdle runner-up, Alpha Des Obeaux. He was clear second choice behind Thistlecrack that day but has had issues since. Those issues came to a head when a burst blood vessel led to him pulling up at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting. It was, so the rumour mill has it, a bad bleed and may have left an emotional scar. However, freshened up since, Mouse Morris has few peers when it comes to training a horse for a target, so that fact this lad boarded the ferry offers hope to his backers.

I don't like his patchy form or that last day incident so he won't be for me.

Likewise, Acapella Bourgeois is not for me. Even allowing for more talent than that with which he's been credited after Roger Loughran rode his rivals to sleep in a Grade 2 at Navan, he won't get a soft lead in this RSA. Any of Flintham, Marinero, Might Bite, As De Mee, and Delusionofgrandeur may take him on in what seems likely to be a stern test of stamina.

One who will appreciate the stamina test and who acts on good ground as well as softer, is Whisper. This is his second attempt at chasing after an abortive mission two seasons ago where he ultimately reverted to hurdles. Last term was a damp squib, his three winless efforts concluded with a drubbing in the World Hurdle.

He may have been rejuvenated by a second stint over the birch. His December win over 2m5f at this track has worked out well, with runner up, Baron Alco, winning a novice chase on his next start before claiming silver in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles, and other subsequent winners in behind. But I just wonder whether he's quite good enough these days, having had twenty career starts already. If he could match his hurdle rating of this time two seasons ago, in the low 160's, he'd be a penalty kick. But he's looked a stone below that form since.

Royal Vacation looked a plodder in the Feltham, but was the main beneficiary of Might Bite's purler. Elevated most of a stone to 143 after that fortuitous win, he proved it no fluke by winning a decent novices' handicap chase on Trials Day at Cheltenham. He's now on a mark of 152 with a progressive profile and grinder's attitude, just the sort to run well in this. He'd be the first Feltham winner to land the RSA, but then if Might Bite had stood up he'd have been beaten a dozen lengths in second there, and plenty of Feltham placed horses have won the RSA.

Of the rest, Bellshill could be interesting if lining up. Beaten out of sight in the Supreme last season, he's shown that a truer test of stamina suits better with a second placing in the Grade 1 Sefton at Aintree and a win in the Grade 1 staying novice hurdle at the Punchestown Festival, and over fences with a brace of two and a half mile victories. The latter was in Grade 2 company, but Bellshill was struggling when coming down behind Disko in the Grade 1 Flogas Novice Chase over 2m5f.

It might be that he needs more of a stamina test and, if that's right, he comes here fresh and proven as a spring horse, that Supreme disaster notwithstanding.

Two rags that I thought could outrun their odds in the four miler look like showing up here instead. Marinero was being backed for that National Hunt Chase before swerving that contest, and he'll love the combination of a trip and fast ground.

Aurillac has been doing all his best work late and with a bit more runway might have won three of his last four (ignoring a pulled up effort in the standing water at Hereford last time). In what looks set to be a searching examination of heart and lungs, he is no 80/1 poke, though he may still struggle to make the first four. I'd still expect plenty of others to cry enough before him.

It's an open race and I have no really strong opinions but there are a few worth consideration as value options.

Two against the field:
Royal Vacation 12/1 boylesports
Bellshill 9/1 general

Massive priced crackpot play:
Aurillac 66/1 Skybet [1/5 1-2-3-4]

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Your first 30 days for just £1

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

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

This is not my idea of a betting race. Tombstone is very short but has obvious claims, being classy enough to finish fourth in last year's Supreme. A defeat of Jezki last time reads well enough regardless of which Jezki turned up that day, but you just can't be betting a 4/1 in 26 runner handicaps. Well I can't anyway.

I'd rather have a look at the next trio, all lurking around the 10/1 mark. Automated has been shoved up a lot for a last-to-first win in a Grade B handicap hurdle last time. Only a length in front of Scoir Mear, they pulled twenty clear of the third in what should have been a competitive handicap. Trained, like Tombstone, by Gordon Elliott, this strong-travelling closer should be fun to watch.

The novice Peregrine Run will relish this return to terra firmer after running very well in defeat in the Grade 2 Leamington Novices' Hurdle last time. It was soft bordering on heavy there, the Peregrine having flown home on his previous four starts on good ground. Trained by Pat Fahy, whose Morning Assembly - his first Festival handicap runner for a decade - ran fourth in the Ultima last year, Peregrine Run has a verdict over Albert Bartlett second favourite, Wholestone, in the Grade 2 Hyde Novices' Hurdle over course and distance.

And at bigger prices, Scoir Mear might go well. Automated looked set to swoop by this chap that last day but made heavy weather of it, and a return to faster conditions might be in Tony Mullins' horse's favour. He's two pounds better off with his vanquisher there, and two and a half times the price.

Not a race to get stuck into - not for me at any rate - but I'll take a small piece of...

One who could run well:
Peregrine Run 10/1 [check for extra place concessions, possibly first six]

Coral are paying 1/4 1-2-3-4-5-6

Skybet, Paddy are paying 1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6

bet365 are paying 1/4 1-2-3-4-5

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

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

I've previewed this race in depth, here.

 

**

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

A race in which I traditionally have a strong opinion and in which this season I did not. Until about six weeks ago... I wrote then that I thought Cause Of Causes was a very big price at 12/1 NRNB in this post. He's now 4/1 top so I was right about the price at least. Regarding his chance, it depends on how well he's responded to the reported 'extensive schooling' he has undertaken since a listless sortie over the quirky course in January.

That he finished fifth that day was remarkable because, for most of the near four mile race, he was unsighted. That said, fifth was 42 lengths behind first. His Festival record in the last three seasons is 211, beating 59 of the 60 rivals he's faced in the process, and he loves quick ground. There is a niggle about his hold up run style and 4/1 barely factors that in, but rumours of an extended sabbatical at trainer Enda Bolger's yard offer hope, especially for those of us already on at the bigger prices (soz!).

First that day was Urgent De Gregaine, extremely confidently ridden by Felix de Giles despite his 50/1 quote that day. He's a late scratch for the Festival version leaving second home, Cantlow, as a slightly stronger jolly than before the French raider's confirmed absence.

Cantlow is not the sort to be relying on. He has won over course and distance, in the December handicap version, but has been beaten twice on these pistes, narrowly as mentioned last time but more heavily in the Festival renewal last term. As a pupil at Bolgers' famous banks academy he has every chance of going well, and as he eases out towards the 3/1 mark, he becomes worth the risk. But he's not there yet. Watching brief.

Any Currency is probably a bit long in the tooth now meaning the each way value might now lie with Auvergnat. Almost certain to be in the frame when unseating Rachel Blackmore at the 26th obstacle on Trials Day, Enda Bolger's seven-year-old was third in the Risk Of Thunder Chase last November and won the PP Hogan last month, both over Punchestown's banks course.

The PP Hogan has historically been the best trial for the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, and 8/1 in a couple of places is perfectly fair.

Yet another from the Bolger battalion is Quantitiveeasing, a horse which makes Cantlow look like German engineering-reliable. Third in the race last year, he then won the La Touche Cup at the Punchestown Festival and wheeled back two days later to finish second, both over the banks fences. Not seen since trailing his field in a Galway handicap hurdle in late October, 12/1 doesn't offer enough meat on his pretty flaky bone.

A better play might be Usuel Smurfer. He didn't look the most genuine at Punchestown last time, lugging in and then resisting Katie Walsh's urgings to go by Auvergnat, but the way he closed on the home turn was eye-catching and he's a 16/1 poke. That was his first run for Alan Fleming and his first for a year and a half, so perhaps he just ran a bit green. Either way, if he brings a similar level of form he could get on the premises.

Sausalito Sunrise is the highest rated British horse in the race but has no form over the fences, while Bless The Wings has been highly consistent in racking up a course and distance string of 3422. The latter is twelve now and will do well to hit the board again.

In summary, I like the chances of Cantlow and Cause Of Causes but the former's price is currently too short (would be interested at 3/1) and the latter's has truncated too much to be played. Auvergnat looks very solid each way, and Usuel Smurfer is the most interesting of the bigger prices.

Most likely winner:
Cantlow or Cause Of Causes

Value play:
Auvergnat 15/2 e/w Coral

Bigger price hopeful:
Usuel Smurfer 18/1 Skybet

bet365, Ladbrokes, Coral 1/4 1-2-3 (most others are 1/5 1-2-3)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

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

You don't seriously want a tip from me in this, do you? A ream of ex-French and ex-flat four-year-olds, most of whose ability lights have been hidden under bushels, in a big field Cheltenham cauldron. Yuk.

Nobody can possibly know the exact, or even approximate, merit of a majority of the field so anyone finding the winner is more lucky than good. In my opinion. Still, it's the last leg of the placepot, and I did fluke the winner last year. Good old Diego du Charmil.

Divin Bere's form has been boosted by Master Blueyes and, curiously, his rating has not been reassessed in light of that one's Adonis victory. That is his first and only run in Britain to date, having previously raced in France where he was second in a couple of Auteuil three-year-old hurdles. Presumably off for two months since to protect his mark (139), he is an obvious candidate.

Dolos is another ex-Frenchie and though his UK form is a little more patchy, he was thought highly enough of to run in the Grade 1 Finale at Chepstow. A strong pace could be just what this Paul Nicholls-trained runner needs, his handler having won the race the last twice and three times since 2010.

Pick of the Irish is Tony Martin's Long Call, according to the betting at least. Whilst obviously deeply respecting money from such an uber-shrewd yard, I'm really struggling to see the case for this one.

There used to be an angle here in backing the highest rated flat horse. If that's to cop this year it will be Nicky Henderson's Percy Street, a general 25/1 shot. Rated 98 on the level, he's only 124 over hurdles which could allow for some upward expansion. Hendo won this with his second choice, Une Artiste, at 40/1 in 2010 so perhaps lightning can strike twice. Penny plays only if you fancy betting on it!

Impossible race.

One from the top:
Divin Bere 13/2 Betfair Sports

Two from anywhere else:
Dolos 12/1 general
Percy Street 28/1 Skybet

Betbright are 1/4 1-2-3-4-5 (if you can get more than 23p on with them)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

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

Out of the frying pan and into the fire... If the Fred Winter field have generally declined the chance to show their hand to the 'capper, the Champion Bumper field have generally not progressed sufficiently in public to form a reliable hierarchy.

Historically this was an Irish benefit, the raiding party taking 14 of the first 17 renewals. But, since Cue Card's triumph in 2010, the score is 4-3 to the home team. This is most likely a product of the exorbitant fees British owners are prepared to pay for maiden point winners, but the fact is that things are a lot more equal these days. Thus, simply working through the Irish form, still less searching for Willie Mullins' best fancied runner, is no longer the shortcut it once was.

So let's start with the new vogue for the British players, principle among them perhaps being Western Ryder. Although beaten on his fourth and most recent start in National Hunt races, Warren Greatrex's five-year-old son of Westerner was giving the highly-touted runner up a stone and a half. There's a lot to like about this lad: he's game and he finds plenty off the bridle. Against that is that he's been beaten twice (soft ground both times, unbeaten on quicker) and he's not the kindest traveller. For what it's worth, only one of the 63 horses to finish second last time managed to win, 2/1 favourite, Liberman, way back in 2003. Since then, 42 last day runners-up have tried and failed to claim this prize.

That would count as a knock for Nicky Henderson's Claimantakinforgan too. Only sixth behind Western Ryder in a Listed Ascot bumper, he was then beaten by Black Op, giving that one seven pounds. And the same applies to Imperial Eloquence, in front of Claimantakinforgan when runner up to Western Ryder in that Ascot race.

A less fashionable runner but one boasting an unbeaten hat-trick is Peter Atkinson's Irish Roe. Owned by the trainer, this lass followed up easy wins at Perth and Sedgefield with a dead heat over course and distance in a Listed mares' bumper. That was a steadily run encounter and I expect she'll be better suited by the truer test of the Champion Bumper. Whether she's good enough is another question, but there was a lot to like about the way she forced herself into the photo that last day. She's been absent four months but, in receipt of seven pounds from the boys, she could give a run for your pennies at around 25/1.

So, after all that, the balance of probabilities is that the prize will be won by the Irish, but with which horse?

Carter McKay has long been favourite and is presumed to be the pick of the Willie Mullins pair. In winning his two bumpers to date, at Naas and Leopardstown, he has not impressed me particularly. He didn't seem to find a huge amount off the bridle having travelled much better than the re-opposing runner-up, Bakmaj.

That one has since franked the form, and bolstered his own credentials, with a comfortable five length win on good ground at Leopardstown. He won hands and heels that day, too, so was value for more than the official margin. 16/1, four times the price of Carter McKay, seems fair enough with more to come likely.

The likes of Someday and Fayonagh have won their bumpers impressively, though what the form is worth is hard to know. They both come here as unexposed and potentially top class.

Guesswork really but I'll take a small piece of some of the bigger priced unexposed ones.

Three unexposed at reasonable prices:
Someday 8/1 general
Fayonagh 12/1 Betway
Irish Roe 25/1 general

bet365, Coral, Ladbrokes are paying 1/4 1-2-3-4

Paddy, Skybet are paying 1/5 1-2-3-4

Ladbrokes

MULLINS Money Back: Money back as a free bet if Willie's Carter McKay or Next Destination wins (£25 max)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

And so ends the first half. The second half is usually tougher so hopefully we're a pound or two ahead of the game at this stage. If not, a good winner on Thursday or Friday will paper over plenty of cracks!

Matt

p.s. what are your day two picks?

 

Cheltenham Festival 2017: Day 1 Preview

It's Cheltenham Festival time again, and a seven race Day One card, including the Champion Hurdle, kicks things off. There are three supporting Grade 1's on the opening day and a couple of near impossible handicap puzzles to unravel. It all starts with the...

1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 87yds)

It has been argued that this year's renewal of the Festival opener is a little below normal standards. That may or may not be true, but it is certainly a competitive heat where finding the winner is likely to be financially rewarding. It is also a race in which most bookmakers will offer some sort of concession in a bid to acquire your custom for the week. Let's not disappoint them!

We have a range of angles converging: British and Irish, novice and handicap, not to mention point-to-point and bumper form. As with all of the novice events, and most of the handicaps, it is crucial to consider not just what a horse has achieved to date, but also how much scope it has to improve in the hurly-burly of a Festival race.

The last three winners have all come to the race with an official rating of 155, but that is a level of prior performance seven pounds and more greater than any of the previous nine renewals (assuming 40/1 bomb, Ebaziyan, who didn't have a published mark, wasn't presumed to be better than 148 at that stage).

So we have to acknowledge two things: first, we've been well and truly spoilt in the last three years to have consecutive victors of the class of Vautour, Douvan and Altior; and second, a mid-140's winner is a reversion to the norm rather than a sub-standard year. Interestingly, and controversially, on BHA performance ratings (unpublished figures for individual runs), Melon is 'assumed' to be five pounds clear at the top of their tree on 153. If that's correct, anything else in the race has to improve five pounds more than he does; and, given Melon has raced just once in public over timber, his progression is the most obvious to anticipate.

I don't really know how David Dickinson, two mile handicapper at BHA, got to such a lofty perch on the basis of a single maiden hurdle victory, and I don't agree with the number. But I do respect connections - this will be the first Mullins/Walsh partnership of the week, and only one horse, Altior, has denied them a clean sweep across the last four years.

I expect that bookmakers will try to 'get' Melon on the morning of the race, and it wouldn't surprise me if they went at least 5/1 the field, to small money and for about ten  minutes. My advice then is to keep your powder dry and take some of the best you can get over breakfast on Tuesday.

Neon Wolf, on 148 BHA, is a more trustworthy mark, but it's significantly lower, too. And Harry Fry's novice has long since been presumed a more likely Neptune candidate. His defeat of Elgin in a Grade 2 last time reads especially well even if it was achieved on soft ground, and even if he was receiving three pounds from the second. The Wolf looks smart and progressive, but he's headed for the Neptune.

Ballyandy and Movewiththetimes [now a non-runner] bring strong handicap form to the party, but it is worth noting that horses running here having placed in a handicap last time are 0 from 21, with just two places (My Tent Or Yours and Get Me Out Of Here, at 15/8 and 9/2 respectively). That would be an obvious concern even in a slightly weaker renewal than recent seasons - the winners in those two years were rated 148 and 147 respectively entering the Supreme.

David Pipe's very lightly raced eight-year-old, Moon Racer, has this as one of two Day One targets - the other being the Champion Hurdle. Whether that says more about how highly connections rate their horse, or how lowly they rate the Champion Hurdle field, or how desperate they are to aim at a big pot while their horse is fit, is unclear.

What we do know is that Moon Racer is a Festival Bumper winner, and a Grade 2 winner over hurdles at the track in November. He does go well fresh - he's had to given his injury layoffs - and he clearly has bags of talent. I remember seeing him travel through his UK debut bumper, also at Cheltenham, in breathtakingly easy style and simply bolt clear of a good field.

It's impossible to discount the possibility of him doing that in the Supreme, but the odds available - allied to a rating of just 141 for what he's actually mustered over hurdles - mean he's not for me. [STOP PRESS: Moon Racer goes to the Champion Hurdle, where he's also not for me!]

Willie Mullins has ten of the 26 left in at the six day stage, which includes Bunk Off Early as well as Melon. Much has been made of his breeding - he's by the sprinter, Zebedee, out of a dirt-bred mare - and of the fact that he probably didn't see out the two and a quarter miles of the Grade 1 Deloitte last time, finishing second.

But less has been made of the relative weakness of his maiden hurdle win, and nothing has yet come out of the Deloitte to offer a barometer of its merit. Moreover, I was struck by a comment from Gordon Elliott at the Betfair preview, where he said that he feels the Irish two mile novices could be a moderate lot this year. Unless Melon is as good as the hype, Elliott may be proved correct.

River Wylde fluffed his lines in a Cheltenham bumper at the October meeting, but since that seasonal debut he's three from three over timber, most recently in the Grade 2 Dovecote. There he beat Elgin by half as far as Neon Wolf beat the same rival at Haydock, though one ought not to get too literal about pounds and lengths, particularly in a division where one horlicksed hurdle can be worth four pounds. He's up to 144 for that Dovecote win, which puts him in the shake up.

Historically, the Mullins team have unerringly predicted the hierarchy of their Grade 1 runners. This is no doubt in part due to the adoption of a number of 'schooling hurdles' - private 'races' held amongst the yard's horses - during the season. With Melon and Bunk Off Early at the presumed top of the pecking order, it is difficult to make a robust case for any of the remaining octet. So I won't try.

But there are a couple of British runners still worthy of mention. High Bridge, one of the last remaining vestiges of the Bloomfields operation and now trained by Ben Pauling, was only four lengths behind Ballyandy in the Champion Bumper last season, and is unbeaten in three hurdle starts since. They have all been achieved outside of Graded company, which is a niggle, but of greater concern is his regular pilot, Alex Ferguson, will be unable to claim the seven pounds he has been. High Bridge is a progressive strong-travelling type but he'll have to make a bigger leap forward to overcome the lost concession.

And I want to come back to a horse I've dismissively mentioned twice already, Elgin. It is often felt that if a horse has been beaten then he can't possibly reverse form. Whilst the balance of probabilities support that contention, all other things being equal, all other things are seldom equal.

Elgin is a hard-puller who will be better suited by the first race frenzied gallop of the Supreme. He jumps very well in the main - straight and low - though he did bungle the last at Kempton, which accentuated the winning margin in favour of River Wylde. Importantly, I feel he found more off the bridle than the horse who beat him here and, at 28/1, this 143-rated horse could make the frame. He'd be especially interesting with any firms paying bonus places.

Most likely winner:
Melon (wait for the Tuesday morning concessions)

Big priced possible:
Elgin 28/1 general

Skybet

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BetVictor

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Betfair Sports

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bet365

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Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

2.10 Arkle Challenge Trophy (Grade 1, 1m 7f 199yds)

A second novice event, and one of the stars of the week on show. Altior is his name. Last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner has already racked up a fencing four-timer, including when brushing aside 166-rated Fox Norton in open company last time. It's unoriginal to say this but if he jumps round he will win. He is the most likely winner of the whole week, and with any luck it will be a gorgeous spectacle for those of us who love the sport as well as betting on the sport.

But we can bet, too. Each way is an option though I readily prefer the 'without the favourite' market.

The running style of all of Altior, Charbel and especially Some Plan and - if he shows up - Gino Trail is to get on with it: to go as hard and fast as they can from the start. That almost certainly means jumping will come under pressure, and I suspect it also means those trying to go with Altior are likely to pay a heavy price in the later stages.

So let's look for a closer who might just be suited by a test of stamina at the trip. My shortlist in that context is Le Prezien, Flying Angel and Forest Bihan.

Le Prezien has other options, notably the Grand Annual in which he'd carry a light weight and would be close to favouritism. But if he showed up here he might get closest to Altior. His third in the Scilly Isles reads well enough, and he probably didn't quite bring his best to the party there. He does finish his races off well, however, and that will be a key attribute in the 2017 Arkle. 10/1 each way without Altior non-runner no bet (phew) is appealing.

Flying Angel is another to consider after his Grade 2 Kingmaker success last time. That was on heavy but he's perfectly effective on top of the ground as he demonstrated with a fine second in the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle at last year's Festival. The Twiston-Davies yard's current 43 race barren run is a concern, but there's still time for that to turn - especially as they've hit the board with 12 of those 43 (28%).

He's 8/1 in the without market - same concessions as Le Prezien - and is worth the risk if he resists the urge to lay up too handily.

And Forest Bihan has the beating of a number of these on the evidence of his Lightning Novices' Chase victory at Doncaster in late January.  He finished well there so, despite concerns about the very different course consitutions, Brian Ellison's northern raider is not without place claims. The overall level of his hurdles form does cast a doubt over whether he's suddenly improved for fences or has merely mopped up a couple of soft heats. At the prices - Forest Bihan is 6/1 in the without market - he will probably be hard to kick out of the four.

If you want one at a massive price, Knockgraffon might be for you. Whacked by Flying Angel last time, he may have hated the heavy ground - plenty do - and is better judged on his overall level of form. That is probably his ten length trouncing of Sirabad and co in a Newbury novices' chase, a run which elevated his perch to 144. He probably wants a truly run race, which he will definitely get, but he may not be good enough. There will be worse 100/1 shots during the Festival though, and his 25/1 'without Altior' price gives a chance of a 5/1 payoff down to fourth, assuming the champ-elect stands up and gets round.

Most likely winner: Erm, ALTIOR

Suggested wager: Without the favourite -
Forest Bihan 6/1 e/w NRNB bet365

BetVictor

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Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 3m 1f)

Your first 30 days for just £1

The first of the week's handicaps is a high-class staying handicap chase pitching upwardly mobile novices against minor Graded class second season chasers. Throw in a few old favourites and you have a compelling betting challenge.

Over the years, however, I have learned my lesson: I'm just not great at finding winners in these races. So, caveat emptor, with my skeletal observations on the Ultima.

I've backed three: Mall Dini (non-runner, good start), Champers On Ice, and Noble Endeavour.

Champers On Ice was given an 'another day' ride when never nearer than at the finish in a handicap chase at the track on Trials Day. Beaten twenty lengths in sixth there, it was a similarly sympathetic conveyance to the one owner/trainer/jockey condoned on Un Temps Pour Tout a year before. That one was beaten 17 lengths before winning by seven in the Ultima, and Champers has a really good chance if he lines up in this race (has other entries).

I'm on at 25/1 NRNB, but a best price of 12/1 NRNB still seems just about acceptable. Sadly, he's not running here. Sigh.

Noble Endeavour will be the first of many heavily-punted Gordon Elliott horses through the week. He's eleven pounds higher than when winning the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, but Elliott doesn't seem unperturbed by that. I took a bit of 14's but I'd be reluctant to go in now at a top offer of 8/1.

There are loads of credible contenders and my personal punting aim was to have something to cheer without investing much financially in the process.

Others to consider include Holywell (14/1 NRNB bet365), who is five pounds lower than when second in this last year and only three higher than when winning it in 2014; and Singlefarmpayment, who was brought down last time and beat National Hunt Chase fancy, Arpege D'Alene the time before.

One against the field at the current prices:
Holywell 11/1 bet365

bet365, BetVictor, Ladbrokes and Coral all 1/4 odds FIVE places

**

3.30 Champion Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 87yds)

Tuesday's highlight looks a competitive if below par renewal, and in that context I've taken a progressive handicapper against what may be somewhat porous Graded form.

Full details are in my Champion Hurdle preview here.

BetVictor

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Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

Skybet

1/5 odds 1-2-3-4 if you fancy a bigger priced horse and want an extra place

**

4.15 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m3f 200yds)

A confused Mares' Hurdle market had been grappling with the futility of second-guessing Willie Mullins as he willie wont-he's his way up to race day. Mullins had both Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag left in the field and, while Limini had this as her sole engagement, VV Mag still had six entries. But we learned Sunday morning that Mag would race here, alongside Limini, so that's a degree more certainty as well as a change of owner/trainer policy to run their horses against each other at the Festival.

Let's first deal with Limini. She won the inaugural Mares' Novices' Hurdle last season, and comes here off the back of an impressive defeat of Apple's Jade. Taken at face value, that's probably the best piece of form in the race. But, afterwards, even Grandmaster Mullins seemed somewhat perplexed by what he had witnessed. Ruby Walsh has chosen her over Mag, and that seems material: his record of picking the right horse in G1 company is unsurpassed in the current riding ranks.

Apple's Jade is a consistent sort but her record off a layoff of 30 days or more is 222, compared with returning to the track within a month for a record of 1121. Moreover, in spite of a G2 score on heavy on her first Irish start (then for Willie Mullins), Apple's Jade may not have enjoyed the heavy ground last time. What I'm trying to say is that a literal interpretation of that form might be perilous.

Their Irish ratings are a pound apart, Limini shading it on 152, with the pick of the British runners currently pegged at 145. That's Rons Dream, a pound clear of Briery Queen and Lifeboat Mona. Of the trio, it is the last named who has the greatest capacity to step forward from her mark.

Paul Nicholls' second season hurdler has had just five starts over timber, winning the four in which she completed. Her sole defeat was when pulled up over two miles on heavy ground, and she's been a revelation since stepped up in trip, readily accounting for Midnight Sapphire in the Listed race over two and a half miles on her most recent outing.

With Vroum Vroum Mag swerving her five other engagements in favour of this, Mona is a slightly less tempting each way play in what remains a shallow race, away from the Irish trio of mares at least. But, even with Mag showing up here, her form has been a bit patchy: second to Apple's Jade in early December, she then won a weak G1 over three miles before scraping home at Doncaster over an inadequate two miles.

Her Irish rating of 154 over hurdles is the highest in the field, and on the best of her form she ought to be favourite. She's not. She's 5/2 NRNB and has been deserted by Ruby.

Apple's Jade has been weak in the market - now a general 4/1 chance - and she, too, can be called inconsistent. On her day, however, she is very good. Even if it was a perfect storm setup when she won the 4yo Hurdle at Aintree last April, she still won that G1 by 41 lengths! That's a freak effort and her propensity to find one too good is a worry. Still, she'll be very hard to kick out of the exacta and could be played as such.

This is Jer's Girl's trip, but I don't see her being good enough to trouble the Irish mares at the head of the market.

Of the British, aside from Lifeboat Mona, Briery Queen has proven her liking for track, trip and the likely fast ground. She looked readily outpointed by Lifeboat Mona last time, but if it was the steady tempo there which put paid to her chance, then this expected swifter gallop will help. There is a solid chance that she's simply not good enough, but I believe that prospect is over-stated by odds of 50/1.

Most likely winner:
Limini

Speculative Each Way Selection:
Briery Queen 50/1 e/w 1/4 1-2-3 BOG general

Ladbrokes

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BetVictor

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Betfair Sports

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Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

 

**

4.50 National Hunt Chase (Grade 2, 3m 7f 170yds)

This used to be a terrible betting race. It's now a very good one. It used to be terrible because it was for amateur riders, and they were riding assorted maiden yaks that had never won a race over either hurdles or fences. Can you imagine?! Almost as weak a race as the Mares' Novices' Hurdle. Ahem.

But now it's a very good one because, first, they opened it to previous winners and, second, they more recently removed the winners' weight penalties. So here they all are, off level weights, but anything but level abilities.

In Matt Tombs' excellent Weatherby's Cheltenham Festival Guide, he highlights how that final amendment has changed the shape of the race. It has made the 'four miler' more appealing to connections for whom their penalized horses would otherwise have had to head to the better class, shorter trip, RSA Chase.

The impact here? Between 1997 and 2009, there were winners at 40/1, 33/1 three times and 25/1, and the average win price was 18.625/1. In spite of the 2010 winner, Poker De Sivola, scoring at 14/1 in the first penalty-free running, the average winning SP since 2010 has been 7.18/1. Each of the last six winners has returned in single figures. You'd have to go back all the way to 1992 to find another six winners returned below 10/1.

The other key factor here is jockeyship. It's an amateur riders' race, and a handful of these guys (and girls) are pro wolves masquerading as corinthian sheep. A far bigger number are hapless lambs aspiring to be corinthian sheep. Moreover, there are no allowances for the less experienced.

Hardly surprising then that connections of the top fancies seek out the services of the top riders. Since 2010, Katie Walsh, the late JT McNamara, in whose honour this race is now run, Derek O'Connor (twice), Jamie Codd and Patrick Mullins have claimed the major spoils. Expect one of them to ride the winner again this year.

Put another way, since 2010, Codd has been in the frame on four occasions (from six rides), Katie Walsh has three places from five starts, and Nina Carberry is three from seven. Ignoring the absent Nina Carberry, this is a good place to start.

Jamie Codd has been confirmed to ride Edwulf. Joseph O'Brien's eight-year-old son of Kayf Tara is seven pounds clear on official ratings and top on Racing Post figures too. Those numbers attest to his level of ability but there are some serious questions still to answer. Chief amongst them may be, 'will he get round?', given Edwulf has fallen or unseated in four of his nine races over obstacles thus far.

The next question on my list would be 'how will he cope with quick ground?', this chap only having raced on going with the words 'soft' or 'heavy' in the description since his heavy debut defeat to Champers On Ice in a Punchestown Festival bumper two years ago. Indeed on going quicker than soft, his form reads 73U, compared to a string on deeper turf of F1F21F1.

And finally, there is a distance question still to answer. He's raced at or around three miles twice, winning and finishing second, but has largely lined up over shorter. Of course, he may improve for the additional mile - both sides of his pedigree offer hope to that end - but he has still to prove it on the track. At 6/1 those are some big questions to answer.

A Genie In Abottle is about the same price and he too has appeared to fare best on muddy terrain. His overall form of 31163212 decomposes to soft/heavy form of 3111 and quicker ground form of 6322. Hmm. He was thumped in the G1 three mile novice hurdle at the Punchestown Festival last season and he too has too much to prove at the price.

Champers On Ice has handicap entries too, but would be a big danger if lining up here. He seems to take some time to warm up but has plenty of talent once hitting stride, and the ground is no problem for a horse who was a close third in the Albert Bartlett last year on similar underfoot. Fellow British runner, Beware The Bear, also has claims though does have stamina to prove, having looked to be towards the end of his tether last time when repelling the late rally of the re-opposing Aurillac, giving that one eight pounds and a length beating. The 'bear has won four on the spin and been freshened up ahead of this quest.

Aurillac is interesting, especially as a 40/1 shot. He's been crying out for more of a trip, finishing well the last thrice at up to three miles. Stoutly bred and expected to go on fast ground, the disparity between his odds and Beware The Bear's is much too wide: if BTB is a 9/1 shot, Aurillac should be no bigger than 16's. He was outpaced from the turn in at Newbury and closed four of the five lengths between himself and the The Bear from the back of the last.

He was unlucky when beaten the same margin off levels against Belami Des Pictons, when having to switch on the run in, that one now rated 148 having won easily twice since. Aurillac was wisely pulled up in desperately heavy ground (standing water aplenty) heat at Hereford six weeks ago and comes here a fresh horse. I'm quite excited about his chance relative to his price.

Two Gigginstown horses with prospects are Tiger Roll and Marinero. The former won the Triumph Hurdle in 2014, a curious notch on the CV of an aspirant National Hunt Chase winner, but then Red Rum won a two year old sprint back in the day...

He's acquired something of a cult following over the years as a thinker (pronounced, with a t'ick Oirish accent, as t'inker). Having won the Munster National (three miles) in October off a feather weight, he ran a fair third a fortnight later at Cheltenham over the same trip. I just can't really see him getting home over the extra mile here even if he consents to show his appealing side.

Marinero on the other hand is interesting. The quicker the turf the better for this son of Presenting out of an Oscar mare. He was closest to Thistlecrack in a novice chase here at the Open meeting and is one of the most experienced in the field, with nine chase starts to his name. Off the track four months since is a bit of a worry, mitigated by his record after two months or more away of 231401. He looks a slice of value.

Plenty with something to prove, then, and while I respect the chances at the top of the market, especially those ridden by the top boys and girls, I'm going to take two big priced flyers against the field...

 

Tentative selection:
Champers On Ice 8/1 e/w 1/4 1-2-3-4 Coral, bet365, Ladbrokes

SHOP AROUND for place concessions! Coral are also money back as a free bet on fallers in this race (see below).

bet365, Ladbrokes, Coral and Racebets all 1/4 1-2-3-4

BetVictor

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Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

5.30 Novices' Handicap Chase (Listed, 2m 4f 78yds)

The last of seven races on day one, and a trappy heat to be getting out in. It's become a very tight handicap in terms of the weight spread, with just four pounds covering the twenty runners last year. 65 of the 79 horses to run in the last four years carried 11-05 or more, and they accounted for all bar one of the 16 available places and all of the winners. Indeed the lowest winning weight in the last five years was 11-07. That latter fact is of little utility, even if the weight spread is slightly greater than last year.

In spite of the duplicity and chicanery that seem to accompany achieving the requisite weight to stand a chance of winning the Novices' Handicap Chase, last day winners have a really good record. Specifically, half of the dozen winners to date also won their prior start, and another three were second last time. That's from 40% and 54% respectively of the runners.

Nine-year-old Ballyalton won the race last year, having been 2nd in the Neptune two seasons prior, but all bar one of the previous eleven winners were aged seven or younger (8yo Copper Bleu the other exception). Whilst on the face of it that looks a strong stat, a glance at the place data suggests a note of caution should be struck.

Horses aged five to seven accounted for two-thirds of the runners and five-sixths of the winners... but only 65% (just less than two-thirds) of the placed horses. In other words, the young guns may be unsustainably over-performing in win terms, certainly against numerical representation.

I've probably already written too much about a race in which I only have one even remotely robust opinion, which is this: Its'afreebee looks the beneficiary of a piece of lenient handicapping.

Third in the Neptune last year, behind JLT favourite, Yorkhill, and Champion Hurdle favourite, Yanworth, he's been campaigned with this in mind since. Twice a winner over fences already, including when beating former World Hurdle winner, Cole Harden, his mark elevated to 144, thus eliminating him from this 0-140 handicap.

But a 'disappointing' last time out effort, just ten days after running in a Grade 2 behind two smart novices, resulted in a depreciation of his rating by four pounds, and a subsequent further pound downgrade for the form not working out. So here we are: Dan Skelton's fella skulks into consideration off a perch of 139, two pounds lower than he was rated when lining up for the Neptune.

He should get the trip - has won over it, but not in a big field on fast ground - and has the class. I backed him at 20/1 and had a bit more at 16/1. He's still available at 12/1 in a place, and is a general 10/1 chance. If you can get the 12's it's worth it. Otherwise I'd be sniffing around for an extra place concession and take my chance with the price.

It should be said that Its'afreebee is not even his trainer's first market choice in the race, that honour currently lying with Value At Risk. That one, an eight-year-old, fell on his first two starts in an abortive novice campaign last season, but managed to break his maiden over fences last time out. He was rated 144 when well beaten in fifth in the 2015 Albert Bartlett and has something to prove - not least his jumping - over the bigger obstacles.

On the plus side, he was a Grade 2 winner over hurdles this time last year. One the minus side, only two winners of ANY Cheltenham Festival handicap since 2004 have been off for as long as Value At Risk's 140 days, from over 100 to have tried.

Foxtail Hill appeals as a favourite to oppose, his win on Trials Day probably exposing him more than some of his rivals here. While his progressive profile may mitigate for that somewhat, the stables' one winner from 47 runners in the last month is a worry (30% place strike rate less so).

Hammersly Lake is another (of many) to consider in a typically open race, the return to a big field expected to suit. His form ties in well with the likes of Top Notch (rated 152, beaten a length by the JLT second favourite getting seven pounds) and Le Prezien (beaten four lengths off levels on soft ground).

Hopeful suggestion:
Its'afreebee 9/1 general (Coral money back on fallers in this race, see below)

Racebets

The only firm I can see going 1/4 1-2-3-4-FIVE places are Racebets

BetVictor

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Coral

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**

And that's day one of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival. Regardless of your bottom line by quarter-to-six Tuesday evening, don't get too up or down. 75% of the action remains, ample time to retrieve a poor first day or destroy a good one!

Matt

p.s. what are your best bets of day one? Leave a comment and let us all know...

Cheltenham Festival: The Role of Luck

When the Festival concludes next Friday, praise will be variously doled to the talent involved, writes Tony Keenan. Horses, trainers, jockeys, maybe even stable staff, will get credit for their efforts in victory. Much of it will be deserved but the one thing unlikely to be mentioned is luck.

Part of this is simply our thinking biases; humans operate under the illusion of control, overestimating the role we play in outcomes. Another aspect is that luck is hard to quantify in racing; we can all recall specific examples of luck in action, when a horse fell when seemingly going best or failed to get a clear run when travelling strongly or simply a narrow defeat, but gauging trainers who are the victims of variance over time is more difficult. Surely not all of them are equally lucky, especially at the Cheltenham Festival where there are only 28 races, a very small sample size.

Data analysts or sabremetricians have sought to quantify this in other sports, specifically those based in the US. Pythagorean expectation, the formula that estimates how many games a team should have won based on their scoring, have proven a better predictor of future success than past win-loss records in sports in baseball, basketball and American football. These theories have crossed into European soccer too with numbers on shots, shot quality and expected goals now playing a part in some sensible conversations on the sport.

Translating this into racing isn’t easy but it seemed worth a try going back as far as the 2010 Festival.

Rather than taking just one criterion, I decided to use three to see if the same trainers were unlucky across the different metrics. Firstly, the old favourite expected winners -the number of winners a trainer should have had judged on market prices - to see who was lucky and unlucky, overachieving and underachieving. From there, I took the number of seconds and placed runs relative to winners to uncover who was getting close without winning.

Finally, I looked at the in-running markets from Betfair for all the races since 2010 to see how many odds-on in-running trades trainers had, as sometimes the place results may not tell the whole truth, for instance when a horse that looked set to be involved in the finish fell close home. I used 2.0 as my cut-off point as an odds-on trade reflects a view held by someone (rightly or wrongly) that a horse was more likely than not to win a race at a given point.

 

Cheltenham Festival: Trainer Performance Based on Market Expectation

Trainer Actual Wins Expected Wins Difference Actual/Expected
W. Mullins 33 29.5 +3.5 1.12
N. Henderson 21 21.8 -0.8 0.96
P. Nicholls 15 18.0 -3.0 0.83
D. Pipe 11 9.9 +1.1 1.11
JJ. O’Neill 10 6.2 +3.8 1.61
G. Elliott 8 5.3 +2.7 1.51
N. Twiston-Davies 7 5.2 +1.8 1.35
P. Hobbs 7 6.6 +0.4 1.06
C. Tizzard 5 3.3 +1.7 1.51
R. Curtis 4 1.6 +2.4 2.50
T. Martin 4 1.7 +2.3 2.35
D. McCain 4 3.5 +0.5 1.14
A. King 4 6.5 -2.5 0.61
J. Culloty 3 0.3 +2.7 10.00
E. Bolger 3 3.1 -0.1 0.97
H. De Bromhead 3 2.4 +0.6 1.25

 

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It seems scarcely credible but these figures suggest the Festival markets still hasn’t totally caught up with Willie Mullins; he is outperforming expectations despite breaking records at the meeting.

Perhaps this year, when the yard has had so much bad luck ahead of the meeting, will finally see his runners overbet. Paul Nicholls could be Mullins of five years in the future; after a period of being top trainer at the meeting (he won it five times between 2004 and 2009), he now has one of the poorer records among the top trainers, with only Alan King having a lower actual/expected figure.

This is the top group of trainers in terms of winners sent out at the meeting, however, and unsurprisingly most are doing better and/or are luckier than the betting suggests. That could well simply reflect their skill and the quality of their horses but one obvious conclusion is that there must be an awful lot of smaller yards really struggling for a winner who have negative figures.

Gordon Elliott and Jonjo O’Neill are two that stand out in terms of luck though with Elliott it seems likely the market will take full cognisance of the level he is currently operating at; whereas in past seasons, he was slightly under-the-radar, now he is a presumptive Champion Trainer with the favourite or second favourite in seemingly every handicap at the meeting. O’Neill is a different case and his results might be down to how his stable performs through the winter; it seems that every March, his runners come into the Festival under a cloud and the markets have to have them at bigger prices as a result.

Alan King is one of the unluckiest big trainers – a point we’ll return to later – while Jim Culloty is the luckiest and it’s not even close. His actual over expected ratio is off the charts but this looks a case of pure randomness rather than skill; everything else we have seen in his training career thus far says he is not this good and, realistically, no trainer could maintain such figures. Trusting those figures and betting his horses at the Festival would be to fall prey to an extreme form of survivorship bias.

 

Cheltenham Festival: Seconds and Places

Trainer Wins Seconds Difference Places (2nd, 3rd and 4th) Winners to Places Ratio
W. Mullins 33 22 +11 69 2.09
N. Henderson 21 21 0 57 2.71
P. Nicholls 15 19 -4 43 2.87
D. Pipe 11 9 +2 24 2.18
JJ. O’Neill 10 8 +2 15 1.50
G. Elliott 8 7 +1 22 2.75
N. Twiston-Davies 7 6 +1 14 2.00
P. Hobbs 7 2 +5 18 2.58
C. Tizzard 5 2 +3 8 1.60
R. Curtis 4 0 +4 3 0.75
T. Martin 4 1 +3 5 1.25
D. McCain 4 5 -1 8 2.00
A. King 4 6 -2 25 6.25
J. Culloty 3 0 +3 0 0.00
E. Bolger 3 2 +1 5 1.67
H. De Bromhead 3 4 -1 10 3.33
D. Weld 2 3 -1 4 2.oo
M. Morris 1 5 -4 7 7.00
N. Meade 1 2 -1 9 9.00
E. Lavelle 1 3 -2 5 5.00
M. Keighley 0 3 -3 5 0.00
T. George 0 3 -3 8 0.00
N. Williams 0 1 -1 11 0.00

 

In terms of simple winners to seconds difference, Mullins comes off best again. Philip Hobbs is next in with five more winners than runners-up while Rebecca Curtis could well be called "the milk-woman" in that she always delivers with not a single runner-up and only three places to go against her four winners. The unlucky trainers in this regard are Paul Nicholls, Mouse Morris, Martin Keighley and Tom George.

Winners to place ratio is simply places divided by winners; the places here don’t include winners. By my reckoning, a ratio of above 3.00 suggests bad luck while below suggests good luck; there are 3 places available in each race with only one win. Alan King’s misfortune is the one that jumps out here with an amazing 25 places to four winners for a ratio of 6.25 which is more than double what would typically be expected. Both Mouse Morris and Noel Meade have higher ratios but King’s comes from a bigger sample size. Nick Williams, too, has had a lot of horses run well without winning and is still waiting for a first Festival winner.

 

Cheltenham Festival: In-running Trades

Trainer Sub-2.0 Trades Winners Difference
W. Mullins 20 33 +13
N. Henderson 19 21 +2
P. Nicholls 17 15 -2
D. Pipe 11 11 0
G. Elliott 10 8 -2
JJ. O’Neill 6 10 +3
A. King 6 4 -1
N. Twiston-Davies 4 7 +3
E. Bolger 4 3 -1
T. George 4 0 -4
M. Keighley 4 0 -4
N. Williams 3 0 -3
D. McCain 3 4 +1
M. Morris 3 1 -2

 

These in-running histories would surely make for grim reading for many a punter though perhaps not as much as they do for Paul Nicholls; in back-to-back renewals of the Gold Cup in 2010 and 2011 he watched both Kauto Star and Denman trade odds-on in-running before getting beaten. That’s rough.

Nicky Henderson – 2011 Supreme with both Spirit Son and Sprinter Sacre – was only other trainer that happened to in the period covered. These Betfair numbers basically back up a lot of what we’ve seen already: Willie Mullins, Jonjo O’Neill and Nigel Twiston-Davies have been lucky; Tom George, Martin Keighley and Nick Williams have not.

So who should we be looking at for some regression, positive or negative, next week?

Overall, Willie Mullins, Rebecca Curtis and Jonjo O’Neill might see their winners drop while Tom George, Martin Keighley, Noel Meade and Alan King could be heading the other way. That of course depends on whether you think they were lucky or good and as they always say, it’s better to be the former than the latter!

- Tony Keenan

Queen Mother Champion Chase 2017 Preview: Trends, Form, Pace, Tips

Day Two's Cheltenham Festival highlight is the Champion Chase, the ultimate test of jumping with speed and accuracy. It is always one of the most thrilling spectacles of the whole week and, this year, we have the mighty Douvan to look forward to.

From a betting perspective, we need ask whether he Douvan can be beaten and, if not, how else we might go about snaffling some value (assuming you don't believe 1/3 is value or, more likely, have don't enough gold bullion bars to cash in at those odds)?

Champion Chase 2017 Trends

We begin with some history-pokery and a sniff around any profile angles that might be lurking, using the past 19 renewals, covering 20 years (abandoned in 2001).

Age

This is one of those stats around which one needs to be very careful. You may read that horses aged eight and up have had the best of it but, whilst in the simplest sense that may be true, the young bucks have actually held sway.

So, yes, 13 of the 19 (68%) Champion Chase winners since 1997 were aged eight or older. But they accounted for 81% of the runners, and only 75% of the places. In other words, they were doing a bit less than might numerically have been expected.

Compare that with the five- to seven-year-olds. This age group won six Champion Chases (32%) in the last two decades, from just 19% of the runners. And they took out a quarter of the places, too, from that less-than-a-fifth of those going to post.

With no five- or six-year-olds in the entries this season, the seven-year-olds still engaged (though possibly not by tomorrow, Thursday 9th March) are Douvan, Altior, Traffic Fluide, Fox Norton, L'Ami Serge and Alisier d'Irlande.

 

Breeding

One interesting element of those younger winners is that four of the five winners aged seven or less were French-bred. In fact, eight of the last 19 winners - 42% - originated in France from just 31% of the runners. Irish-bred horses also have a solid record: eight wins - still 42% - from 45% of the runners.

Aside from a slight tendency towards the French-bred horses, there is not much else to note.

 

Last Time Out

Last day winners have a statistical dominance that is obvious. For the record, all bar five Champion Chase winners in the last twenty years won their prior start. That's 74% of the winners (and 51% of the placers) from 36% of the runners.

Those finishing second, third or fourth have made the frame in direct proportion to their runner numbers, but what is of mild interest is that of the eight horses to line up having fallen or unseated last time, two won and another two made the frame. Indeed, while three of them fell again, the full form string for last day tumblers is 1F3F14F2, a sequence that includes 5/1 and 9/1 winners; placed efforts at 16/1 and 14/1; and a fourth placed 33/1 shot.

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Horses that are most effective in two mile chases almost necessarily take risks at their fences. So perhaps we should be more forgiving, especially when the market seems to have a blind spot in relation to such runners. The sample size is small and, in any case, the chances of beating Douvan are slim, but perhaps we might have a second glance at 2014 winner, Sire De Grugy, in spite of his advancing years.

 

Layoff

Then again, perhaps not. Horses returning after a break of between one and two months have easily the best record. They've claimed 84% of the wins, and 75% of the places, from 59% of the runners.

Those returning within a month have made the frame less than half as often as might have been numerically expected; while those absent for two months or more have marginally under-performed.

It's hardly a knockout blow for any horse's chance but the right combination of fresh and fit looks advantageous, and counts against Sire De Grugy, God's Own and Alisier d'Irlande.

 

Champion Chase 2017 Form Preview

What to 'dou' with Douvan? He has a commanding edge over this field in the presumed absence of Altior and Un De Sceaux, and is unbeaten in his last fourteen starts since a debut second back three years ago.

He's nine from nine over fences, including six Grade 1's, and he seems unfussed by the state of the turf. Douvan's dominance is somewhat accentuated by what looks a pretty shallow division this term, with Fox Norton a tenuous 'best of the rest'.

Formerly with Nick Williams and Neil Mulholland, Colin Tizzard's second season chaser has seemed a trifle overblown to my eye: victories over the likes of Dormello Mo and 140-rated sorts in a handicap chase are not the stuff of Champion Chase second favouritism. And I can't help but feel his official rating is inflated, a comprehensive doing by Altior (received five pounds, could have given a stone) last time doing nothing to dispel the notion.

I simply don't believe that Fox Norton is worth a rating of 166.

God's Own is famously a 'spring horse', winning at the Punchestown Festival in the past two seasons, and doubling up last term with a victory at Aintree (at odds of 10/1 and 9/1, no less). He was eight lengths behind the resurgent Sprinter Sacre in the 2016 Champion Chase, a distance which was only good enough for fourth. Tom George's nine-year-old ought to again get close to the frame if taking in this rather than the Ryanair, and I prefer his 'been there, done it' CV - in spite of a preference for two and a half miles - to Fox Norton's flattered (in my view) formbook page.

Could Vroum Vroum Mag show up here? She might, but her form at two miles in the mares' division is not good enough to entertain seriously in a Champion Chase.

Uxizandre is considered more likely for the Ryanair, a race he won two seasons ago before injury kept him off the track until last month. There he picked up the pieces behind Un De Sceaux, form that looks good enough to make the Champion Chase frame in a very weak year. He loves Cheltenham and is 11/2 non-runner no bet, without Douvan.

And what of Special Tiara? He's run terrific races to be third in the last two Champion Chases, both times of layoffs since Christmas, whereas this time he ran a shocker in late January here in the re-routed Clarence House Chase. He's 6/1 in the 'without Douvan' market which makes more appeal than plenty of his rivals, without compelling this scribe to reach for his wallet.

The 2014 Champion Chaser, Sire De Grugy, has had a quietly pleasing season in many respects. Ignoring an early fall on his most recent outing, he'd previously won a valuable handicap off a mark of 160 carrying top weight before running a length second to Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek. It seems, however, that connections will rough him off for the season now, missing all of the spring festivals.

Down, down the lists we go, in search of a faintly interesting alternative to Douvan. The truth is there are none, but I want to play the 'without' market so the quest continues.

Garde La Victoire has ability but can't jump and is probably seven pounds south of what is needed to hit the board, while The Game Changer has lost all of his last ten races. L'Ami Serge has been hurdling so must be doubtful here and, in any case, he was nearly lapped by Camping Ground last time. His best chasing form is not up to the job.

Help. Where have all the credible contenders gone? Alisier d'Irlande beat a weak Grade 3 field last time on heavy ground, having failed to pass a rival in his two previous races; and Simply Ned hasn't won since October 2015 when taking a Class 2 handicap at Kelso.

Tom George has a second potential string to his bow in Sir Valentino. Beaten far enough in a handicap hurdle on his only Cheltenham visit, he has progressed markedly in the last fifteen months, from a rating of 132 to 157. Barring one shocker, when stretching out to 2m6f at Market Rasen in the summer, the eight-year-old has been consistent and - unlike many in the list - has actually won a couple of races.

Beaten five lengths in the Tingle Creek, he was the finisher that day and, over a slightly longer trip on a stiffer track, he might again finish off his race better than most.

I loved Traffic Fluide last season, and thought he was a real player for Champion Chase honours on the back of a big run in the 2016 Clarence House. But he got injured before Cheltenham, and was not seen again until two last placed finishes a week apart in mid-February. He's impossible to fancy off the back of that preparation.

Phew, what a motley crew.

 

Champion Chase 2017 Pace Map

...will be added after the five day declaration stage.

 

Champion Chase 2017 Tips

This is 'bar a fall' territory for DOUVAN. He's a winning machine pitted against serial losers. It's hardly fair and, in truth, it won't be a matter of watching a superstar imperiously stroll to victory but, rather, a Grade 1 star trampling all over a field of handicappers.

I'm not in the habit of tipping, or backing, 1/3 shots but I love the 'without' markets. With non-runner no bet on my side, I definitely want a bit of Uxizandre each way at 11/2.

And, much more speculatively, I think Sir Valentino is another who could get rolling late in the play to grab some place money. 8/1 with the same NRNB concession seems fair enough. All the more so if Uxi goes to the Ryanair.

0.5 pts e/w Uxizandre w/o Douvan 11/2 bet365 NRNB

0.5 pts e/w Sir Valentino w/o Douvan 8/1 bet365 NRNB

 

Stayers’ Hurdle 2017 Preview: Trends, Pace, Form, Tips

One of Thursday's Cheltenham Festival highlights, the Stayers' Hurdle, has a lop-sided look to it, at first glance at least. Reverting to its traditional nomenclature after a spell in the World Hurdle wilderness, the Stayers' is the rightful championship test of the three mile hurdling division. Multiple winners abound with the likes of Baracouda, Inglis Drever, and the peerless Big Buck's accruing nine trophies between them since 2002.

Last year was Thistlecrack's but his graduation to the chasing ranks, and unfortunate subsequent injury, means it will be left to 2015 champ, Cole Harden, to bid to uphold the trend for repeat victories.

Stayers' Hurdle 2017 Trends

Aside from the repeat factor, what other reliable trends are there to assist in whittling what could be a fair field numerically?

Age

Although five-year-olds are 0 from 18 since 1997 (20 years, 19 renewals - abandoned in 2001), they have taken out six podium finishes in that time. Should either of Footpad or Apple's Jade land here, it won't be age that gets them beaten.

At the opposite end of the maturity scale, horses aged in double digits are 0 from 28, with just four places to their collective names. That's not the best news if you like Clondaw Warrior or Zarkandar.

And nine-year-olds bear closer scrutiny, too. Although, on the face of it, three winners from 32 runners is respectable, it may be noteworthy that the trio included Inglis Drever and Big Buck's, winning for the third and fourth time respectively. The sole, or should I say sol, other nine-year-old winner was Solwhit in 2013.

Seven- and eight-year-olds win largely in line with numerical representation, but six-year-olds have done well. Of the 55 to rock up here since 1997, six have won and twenty placed. That's 32% of the winners and 35% of the placed horses, from just 22% of the runners. That ought to cheer fans of Lil Rockerfeller, Whiteout and Agrapart should any of them confirm their attendance.

 

Last Time Out

You simply have to have run well last time out, according to the evidence of the past two decades. Of the 67 horses (28%) to have finished outside the top four on their prior start, none won and just two (3.5%) placed.

Winners the last day accounted for 58% of the champions and the exact same percentage of Stayers' Hurdle placed finishes, from just 31.5% of the runners. And those who finished second last time out slightly outperformed the representation (26% winners, 28% places, from 23% runners), yielding a small profit at SP (+7.25).

The key thing here is that those to have run poorly last time have very little chance of turning it around on the big day. Although this is neither's first choice engagement, Nichols Canyon and More Of That both failed to complete last time.

 

Layoff

90% of Stayers' Hurdle runners last raced between 16 and 90 days ago. That includes all 19 winners since 1997, and 56 of the 57 placed horses. Only Wicklow Brave falls outside the range this term.

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It may be worth noting that those to have been rested less than a month have won just four from 93 starts, 14 places. That's 21% wins, 23% places, from 34% of the runners. Compare that with those rested between one and three months: 15 wins (79%), 43 places (75%), from just 56% of the runners.

An optimally rested - one to three months - runner looks a positive.

 

Summary

From a historical perspective, then, one might look for a horse aged six to nine, which ran first or second last time and has been rested between one and three months. That brings in most of the top of the market and, thus, is of little utility. And it's an hour of my life I won't get back!

 

Stayers' Hurdle 2017 Form Preview

Poor Helen Nelmes. She's not had a winner since 24th June 2014, and now this. The Dorset handler, who was responsible for taking Unowhatimeanharry up to a mark of 127 through his first 13 starts has had to watch, with a curious mixture of pride and embarrassment no doubt, as Harry Fry has won eight races on the trot with her former inmate. It's enough to make you give the game up.

Fry acquired 'harry as a seven-year-old so it's difficult even to suggest the horse was too immature to step forward under his previous trainer's tutelage. In any case, let's not be overly harsh and, instead, judge the 5/4 favourite on his merits for the race.

Eight straight wins is a good start. During that time, he's risen through the ranks of racing club handicapper to JP McManus-owned Grade 1 beast. (It is to be hoped that Mrs Nelmes agreed a sell-on clause). That progressive sequence includes four wins at Cheltenham, one of them in the Festival, in last year's Albert Bartlett.

But here's a thing: the five Albert Bartlett winners to contest the Stayers' Hurdle have all been beaten. Of course, it is unfair to visit the iniquity of the potato race fathers onto its sons, to butcher the Good Book, and we should judge 'harry on the totality of his recent form. That suggests he's moved forward considerably since his spuds triumph, wrapping an arm around the Long Distance, Long Walk and Cleeve Hurdles since.

It is very hard to see any horse that Unowhatimeanharry has beaten this season reversing form. Ballyoptic got to within six lengths on soft ground, but has fallen and been beaten ten lengths by him since. Moreover, he looks a clumsy jumper and may prefer soft ground. Certainly not for me, thank you.

Cole Harden ran well in defeat in the Cleeve, where he'd have hated the ground, and he may have had his nth wind op since (more unsporting conjecture in a preview littered with such uncharacteristic bitch swipes). But he was no closer than 31 lengths to the Thistlecracker in last year's renewal, and an abandoned chasing campaign leaves this fellow in no man's land. He may be capable of making the frame if the ground dries out and if he can control the early fractions, but he's not especially appealing at 9/1, nor even in the 'without' market at 5/1.

The likes of Un Temps Pour Tout, Zarkandar and, to a lesser extent, Lil Rockerfeller (if he can overcome a recent setback), have been put firmly in their places, so it may be that the opposition route into the race is via Ireland.

The first thing to say is that the Irish have a moderate record in the Stayers' Hurdle. Solwhit in 2013 was the first Irish winner since the much-loved Dorans Pride in 1995, though they average only around three runners per season. With that in mind, then, we need to be looking for a genuinely smart horse from across the Irish Sea if we're to entertain the notion of the raiding party adding to their sparse pickings in recent times.

Shaneshill is a consistent type, but he's been consistently beaten - just three wins in a twelve race hurdling career - and may never break through the 160 barrier ratings-wise. Vroum Vroum Mag's cloak of invincibility has been somewhat trodden upon this season, first by a short head defeat to Apple's Jade - that one subsequently outpointed by Limini - and most recently with a labour-intensive narrow verdict over a 140 horse.

It might be fair to say that she's not been herself, but if that's the case it becomes a leap of faith that she has returned to herself in time for this. Even if she has, she's pegged around 155, though the mares' seven pound allowance would move her to the low 160's. That would certainly make her competitive but she's no better than 7/1 with those wellbeing reservations still to quash.

I don't expect either of Yanworth or Nichols Canyon to run in this, but if the former did show, he'd be very interesting. In the same ownership as Unowhatimeanharry, however, probably requires that one to bypass the race in order for Yanworth to secure his ticket.

A third horse in the same ownership, and a likely runner, is Jezki. Jessica Harrington's nine-year-old has had injury problems in recent seasons, but he's a class animal on his day. Indeed, he has eight Grade 1 victories to his name. That's no hollow palmarès either: he was the Champion Hurdler in 2014, and went on to beat a near-peak Hurricane Fly again at Punchestown next time; he won the 2m4f Aintree Hurdle in 2015, by 13 lengths from Rock On Ruby; and he won the 2015 Punchestown World Series Hurdle over three miles.

Not seen for almost two years after that, Jezki reappeared in January to comfortably account for 149-rated Renneti, albeit in receipt of six pounds. On his only subsequent outing, he was second to Tombstone in the Red Mills Hurdle, over two miles on heavy ground. Those conditions are very different to three miles on top of the ground at Cheltenham, and there's no doubt Mrs Harrington will have left a bit to work on in the intervening four weeks.

The reality is that it is a bit of a leap of faith with Jezki. Is he as good as he was? He was a legitimate card-carrying member of the 169 club over two miles. With a record on good to soft or quicker of 18111141 and at two and a half miles and beyond of 111, he's surely the wrong price at 10/1 in a place.

Now, true, he could have regressed since his injury, and true, his form in two runs this year is no better than 150ish. But there are reasons to believe he can, and will, step forward from those prep races. The Irish handicapper reacted to Jezki's defeat at the hooves of Tombstone by dropping him seven pounds to 160. That would still give him solid claims.

Two more Irish contenders are Clondaw Warrior and Snow Falcon. Of the pair, I marginally prefer the latter, but he's found it hard enough to win over hurdles. Meanwhile, back 'home', Camping Ground produced an extraordinary performance in running away with the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell in a fast time. Gary Moore's inheritance from the (presumed) unfortunate Robert Walford looks absolutely tailor-made for the Aintree Hurdle over 2m4f and was getting to the end of his rope at Fonters.

 

Stayers' Hurdle 2017 Pace Map

 

Stayers' Hurdle 2017 Tips

You don't need to be Einstein, or even Pittsburgh Phil, to know that Unowhatimeanharry is a cast-iron favourite. But there remains a niggling doubt that he's lorded it over a shallow domestic division this season. If that is correct, there may be merit in taking a chance on an unrelated formline: that of JEZKI.

Jessica Harrington's nine-year-old has more class than any runner in the field, and on 2015 form would, I think, be favourite. The fact that he's as big as 10/1 tells plenty about the size of the leap we're making but, on a sound surface, I can see him running a blinder. He's proven on the track, has the mix of speed and stamina required for this challenge and, I suspect, will be roughly half his current odds on the day.

But I do fear 'harry. So, rather than back Jezki each way, let's also take him in the 'without the favourite' market. He's a top priced 4/1 there, because the 10/1 'all in' book (Hills) doesn't have a 'without' book; so you could take the risk and wait for more firms to price up 'without'. I'll take what's there now, and see how we go next Thursday.

1pt win Jezki 10/1 Hills (NR Insurance concession)

1pt win Jezki without Unowhatimeanharry 4/1 Betfair Sports NRNB

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017 Preview: Trends, Pace, Form, Tips

The headline race of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival is Friday's Gold Cup, a Grade 1 steeplechase run over just shy of three miles and three furlongs. Like other flagship events this term, the line up will be missing some key names; and, like other flagship events this term, that only serves to make it a more compelling wagering proposition.

The absence of the last two winners, Don Cossack and Coneygree, as well as the heir apparent novice, Thistlecrack, has weakened the quality, but the upshot is that we are likely to see a bigger field and a more competitive contest.

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017 Trends

Twenty years of evidence means 19 renewals, excluding 2001 when the race was cancelled due to the foot and mouth outbreak.

Age

While youth doesn't seem to be any barrier to success - six and seven year olds have won five (26%) and placed 15 (26%) times from just 16.5% of the runners - veteran status has been an impediment. Indeed, the old guard - those aged ten and above - are 1 from 81 (10 places), which equates to 5% of the winners, 17.5% of the places, from 30% of the runners.

Moreover, those aged 11+ are 0 from 33, 4 places (7% of the places from 12.5% of the runners).

Horses aged eight and nine have performed a touch better than numerical representation, though not quite as well as the youngest group.

The key takeaway is probably that those aged eleven and up really do have a mountain to climb, which is a very bad start if you're a Cue Card fan.

An interesting snippet is that three of the four old boys to make the frame in the last two decades were trained by Paul Nicholls (Denman, Kauto Star and See More Business - all of them previous Gold Cup winners). Interesting, maybe, but of no use whatsoever in the context of this year's race!

At the precocious end of the spectrum, Bristol De Mai is the sole six-year-old in the line up, and may be joined by seven-year-olds, Native River, Sizing John and Minella Rocco.

 

Layoff

Interesting. Although those rested between one and two months have won seven of the last 19 renewals, that is significantly below numerical representation. Specifically, those off 31-60 days have won 37% of the Gold Cups from 49% of the runners.

Those absent between two and three months have fared better: ten wins (53%) from just 16.5% of the runners; and more than a quarter of the places to boot.

This could be a positive for the likes of Djakadam, Outlander, and Zabana (all absent since the Lexus Chase, 79 days prior to Gold Cup Friday).

 

Last Time Out

Last day winners have the usual excellent record in Cheltenham Festival races. In this case, they have claimed 63% of the wins and 51% of the places from 33% of the runners. Sadly, but predictably, blindly following them would have produced heavy losses.

Those running second last time appear to have been over-estimated by the market, their two winners in the past two decades (10.5% of the wins) and eight places (14%) coming from 20% of the runners.

The non-completions group have placed 9% of the time from 10% of the runners (one winner, Cool Dawn in 1998, who pulled up on his previous outing), so should not be totally discounted. That's a ray of hope if you're a fan of either of the McManus pair, More Of That and Minella Rocco.

Horses coming out of Grade 1 competition have won 56% of the Gold Cups in the last twenty years, from 33% of the runners; while those exiting Grade 2 contests claimed 39% of the victories from 34% of the runners. Those who competed at a lower level last time represented 33% of all Gold Cup runners, but claimed just one of the 19 available Cups (seven places, 12.5%).

In summary, then, nothing surprising to report: look to last time out winners and those exiting Grade 1 or Grade 2 company.

 

Trends Summary

Sticking with the bleedin' obvious has been a good Gold Cup wagering strategy down the years.

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Last time out winners aged nine or younger exiting Grade 1 or 2 company have bagged 11 Gold Cups from 46 runners for a tiny profit of 1.86 points. That's 61% of the wins from 17.5% of the runners.

Focusing only on those priced 8/1 or shorter would reduce the number of bets to 31 and thus the profit to 16.86, retaining all of the winners.

Horses matching those somewhat 'boring' criteria are Native River (definitely), and Outlander and Sizing John (possibly, depending on their odds on the day).

 

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017 Form Preview

No Thistlecrack. No Don Cossack. No Coneygree. But a really fascinating, and still potentially high class, contest nevertheless.

Three vie for favouritism - the Colin Tizzard-trained pair of Cue Card and Native River, and Djakadam - but surely the first-named is going to drift on the day as cold-blooded acumen takes hold over sentimentalism with regards to the eleven-year-old Cheltenham perennial.

Let's begin with Cue Card. Winner of the Champion Bumper as a four-year-old, he has been back to the Festival four times since, running second in Sprinter Sacre's 2012 Arkle and winning the 2013 Ryanair Chase.

Last year, he was the principle danger to Don Cossack when taking a tumble three from the finish. It's very hard to say whether he'd have won, or even gone close, that day because it is only after his point of departure that the deepest demands are made on stamina reserves.

Although Cue Card has won over three miles on heavy ground - including in impressive fashion on his seasonal debut in the Betfair Chase at Haydock - there remains, for me, a slight stamina question mark. It is also arguable that his very best form has come on flatter tracks than Cheltenham's Möbius Strip configuration.

I realise it's uncharitable to suggest it, but I think Cue Card is lay material. He would do fantastically well to make the frame and, if he could win, it would be the most tremendous story for the sport. But it would cost this scribe's wallet a penny or two.

From the same stable hails the impressive Native River. Resembling Denman in some respects, this is a barreling elephant of a horse - a mobile fortress - that has such an incredibly attritional meter to his gallop he simply wears his rivals down. He did it in the Hennessy, he did it in the Welsh National (under top weight) and he did it in the Denman Chase last month, albeit with more finesse on the latter occasion.

Stamina is largely assured but there may be a small niggle about his affection for the course: he was a well beaten ninth in the 2015 Albert Bartlett and, while he stuck on commendably in last year's National Hunt Chase over four miles, he was error-strewn and under pressure from an early stage.

Native River does seem to have two ways of running. The National Hunt Chase huff and puff Mr Hyde-style is unlikely to give him a chance to win, but the strong-travelling Doctor Jekyll version will prove hard to beat.

The trio at the head of the market are concluded by Willie Mullins' Djakadam. Runner up the last twice, he is still only eight years old and has, according to his trainer, had a much smoother preparation for this year's race. Although beaten four lengths by Don Cossack last year, there was ten and more back to the rest, and that form may already be good enough to win this season's Gold Cup.

So far this winter, Djakadam has had two runs, beating Outlander over two and a half miles in the John Durkan before running third to the same rival in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown in late December. He will doubtless be primed for the big day next week.

It is hard to argue that there should be much between Outlander and Djakadam on those two most recent outings. Former stablemates at Mullins' Closutton yard before Gigginstown boss, Michael O'Leary, removed all of his horses from that stable, Outlander appears to have improved more than a stone for the change of scenery and, of course, for his greater maturity.

Outlander's Lexus Chase win was only his third run at three miles or more, and he looks quite progressive at staying trips. A close second to Martello Tower in a tactical three-horse novice hurdle was franked when his vanquisher there won the Albert Bartlett two runs later, and on his only other staying attempt, Outlander was a close second in the Punchestown Champion Novices' Chase.

One reservation, aside from whether he's quite good enough yet, is that his best form does seem to be with some juice in the turf. With a wettish week forecast, he has a chance of getting his conditions, but lacks Djakadam's ground agnosticism.

In another lifetime, we'd surely be lauding Sizing John as a superstar of the game. But for a certain Douvan, he'd have won eleven of his last fourteen races, six of them in Grade 1 company. The reality is somewhat different, with six wins, two of them Grade 1's, in that fourteen race sequence.

That's still a respectable tally and he seems to have matured into a high 160's chaser in his second season hedgehopping. But the big question mark here is his stamina. A winner over three miles on his most recent run, that was a tactical affair that developed into a sprint up to and after the last. As a two-miler stretching out, Sizing John was best placed to take advantage of how things unfolded.

If he has stamina to prove, he has yet to demonstrate that he definitely doesn't stay. His only other effort beyond an extended two miles was at the Aintree Festival (2m4f) where he patently under-performed in the manner of a horse over the top. That possibility was lent credence when he was again whacked at Punchestown a few weeks later.

More conservatively campaigned this season, he wasn't stopping in the Irish Gold Cup, but his price has halved from immediate post-race quotes of 20/1, and now fails to adequately accommodate the staying power issue.

Behind him that day were a clutch of Gold Cup aspirants, including Don Poli, More Of That, Minella Rocco and Road To Riches. More Of That might be the most promising of that bunch, the former World Hurdle winner showing more zest than since last year's RSA Chase, where he was an eight length third.

The RSA can ruin a good horse and, while it is to be hoped that is not the case with More Of That, the evidence thus far suggests, sadly, that it may be. He may have been flattered by his proximity before decanting Mark Walsh at the last and, again, 20/1 has very little leeway.

Minella Rocco also came down in the Irish Gold Cup, his exit much earlier, and he's failed to get round in his last two starts. That makes for unattractive wagering territory at around 25/1 unless you can get a faller refund concession. If you can, and if they went at it hard from an early stage, his victory in last year's National Hunt Chase showed he stays very well and can handle these undulations (notwithstanding that it was on the 'other' course here).

Cult hero, Don Poli, is slower than treacle and hasn't won since the heavy ground Lexus of 2015. If the monsoons arrived, he'd have a chance. That remains unlikely making 'Done Slowly' a pass for me.

And what to make of Road To Riches? He was a close third in the 2015 Gold Cup, just behind Djakadam; and filled the same placing in last year's Ryanair Chase. Since then he's clunked and flunked a half dozen times, failing to win and getting heavily beaten the last twice. Obviously that is unexciting form going into a race like this - assuming he does go - but his Festival performances have been very good. On his best form he could sneak into the frame, but it looks as though he's seriously regressive now.

Dodging the Irish Gold Cup and instead bagging the Thyestes Chase under a big weight was Champagne West. Quietly fancied for Festival success last year when trained by Philip Hobbs, he seemed too speculative a conveyance, falling and pulling up twice each, the last of which was a 'P' in the 2016 Ryanair Chase.

Since being rehomed with Henry de Bromhead, himself a participant in the ownership merry-go-round of last autumn, Champagne West has proved a far more assured leaper, winning his last two. The Thyestes in particular was impressive: it's a tough race to win and one which was the springboard for Djakadam's close second to Coneygree in the 2015 Gold Cup.

But this lad may appreciate soft ground, and he may not be quite good enough, and he may revert to his former errant-fencing ways. Too many questions to be overly excited by 16/1. Though, like Minella Rocco, if there's a money back faller concession, and the rain came, that would account for two of the three reservations.

Zabana was a disappointment when failing to jump off last year - through little fault of his own, in fairness - but he was readily outpointed in the Lexus with no obvious reason for that. He could be better in smaller fields.

That leaves two more worthy of mention, Bristol De Mai and Empire Of Dirt. Let's stay in Ireland and focus on the latter.

A winner at the Festival last year, when easily beating 21 rivals in the Plate, he then easily won the Troytown Handicap Chase, beating 24 rivals, off near top weight. He was a closing second to Sizing John when elevated in class in the Irish Gold Cup last time, and the extra emphasis on stamina that the Gold Cup brings will surely be right up his street.

If he were to line up in the Gold Cup, he'd have to be a player. Progressive and, as I discovered first hand at a preview last week, the first choice of a trainer - Gordon Elliott - who also has the 10/1 fourth favourite in the race.

But he's very far from a certain runner. There's no doubt that the trainer wants to go for the Gold Cup. There's equally no doubt that the owner, Mr O'Leary, wants to win his own race, the Ryanair Chase, with him. Impasse.

Happily for us, we have non-runner no bet to fall back on. 20/1 NRNB and a quarter the odds 1-2-3 is a fantastic play. The balance of probabilities is that we get our cash back. But, if he runs, he's going to be 8/1 not 20/1.

Meanwhile, Bristol De Mai brings dualist form to the table. The whippersnapper of the party at just six years of age, Nigel Twiston-Davies' charge is a strong stayer who oozed class in Haydock's Peter Marsh Chase two back. Since then, he ran below par behind Native River but was reported to have been wrong there.

He was second in the JLT Novices' Chase at last year's Festival, staying on over what may have been an inadequate trip. He has yet to be outside the first three in a dozen starts over hurdles and fences in France and Britain, although that last day third of three takes some of the sheen off what is an otherwise highly consistent CV. He is another, however, whose best form is with the mud flying. He wouldn't be a shock winner, still less a shock podium finisher, but nor is he especially for me... unless it rains.

I had hoped his stable companion, Blaklion, would warm up for the Grand National in this, as I felt he had place prospects at 50/1, but connections appear to have all but ruled that out.

 

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017 Pace Map

 

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2017 Tips

It looks a wide open Gold Cup, a fascinating punting puzzle. The most solid option is probably 4/1 DJAKADAM, but his price now reflects that. Native River is extremely likeable and looks highly progressive this season but, again, the market has him pegged. I feel that Cue Card will drift on the day, his age a major issue in spite of a fine season-opening performance.

A horse I want to be with, non-runner no bet, is 20/1 Empire Of Dirt. There's a good chance he misses the race, but he's about twice the price he ought to be if showing up. And that's a risk-free proposition for us with NRNB in play.

If it rains, and if you can get a faller refund concession on the day, Champagne West could be interesting, as could Bristol De Mai, about whom there are less jumping questions.

1pt win Djakadam 4/1 bet365 NRNB, BOG
0.5 pt e/w Empire Of Dirt 20/1 1/4 1-2-3 Stan James NRNB

Trending Towards Cheltenham

Trends can be a dirty word at this time of year. Cheltenham is peak ten-year-patterns season and believers will be trotting out lines about five-year-olds and the Champion Hurdle as the sample size boys argue back with doubts about the statistical significance of such numbers, writes Tony Keenan. I’d tend towards the latter group more than the former, allowing that these amateur ‘statisticians’ do stumble upon the odd interesting angle.

The patterns I’m interested in here however are more general ones about the Irish national hunt season and given we’ve had 1,154 races run in the 2016/17 campaign (as of Monday February 2oth) that seems a fair sample size. There has been some strange stuff going on this season, at least when compared with the ones that went before, and it is worth considering how these might impact events at Cheltenham in three weeks.

 

Willie Mullins – The Nightmare Season

"Nightmare" might be a little strong when comparing the Mullins campaign to most other yards in the country but that’s not really the point; for years now, the only real comparison for Mullins has been himself. Using those standards, 2016/17 has been disappointing even allowing that the reasons for the disimprovement are mainly obvious: the loss of the Gigginstown horses and a run of injury misfortune that the yard had previously avoided.

No yard can sustain those sorts of losses and hope to compete at or near the same level as previously. This though is not fully reflected in the ante-post markets for the Festival where Mullins is a top price of 8/13 to be the leading trainer at the meeting as well as having the first or second favourite in 13 of the 28 races at present. Cards on the table time: I think this is crazy and punters adopting the Mullins strategy to the meeting – where you find the short-priced Closutton horse and back it – seem destined to lose this year.

Let’s consider the type of horse Mullins tends to win with at the meeting by price, going back as far as the 2010 Festival:

Starting Price Wins Runs Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Actual/Expected
3/1 or shorter 21 34 61.2% 30 88.2% 1.41
10/3 or longer 12 242 5.0% 56 23.1% 0.62

 

That Mullins wins with short-priced horses is up there with "dog bites man" in terms of newsworthiness but the ruthless efficiency with which his bankers run well is striking; only 4 of the 34 horses priced 3/1 or shorter in this period failed to hit the frame. Basically, Mullins wins with the horses the formbook flags up and – in the main – a lot of his bigger priced runners are overbet due to his reputation.

It’s been a broadly similar story on the home front this season too. Of the 147 winners he’s had in 2016/17, only two were returned at 11/2 or bigger. His ability as a target trainer was in full evidence this Christmas when he had 22 winners across the two Irish meetings at Leopardstown and Limerick but again their SP returns were striking; the biggest price was 9/2, the next two were 3/1 and 7/4 with 13 of them sent off at odds-on.

The problem for Mullins going into Cheltenham is he simply doesn’t have that many of this type of horse. There is no Faugheen, Annie Power, Vautour or Min, all of whom would likely have been short prices for their respective targets and his number of sub-3/1 runners is likely to be well down on the eight there have been in each of the past two Festivals. As things stands, Mullins looks to have four such types this year – Douvan, Vroum Vroum Mag (if she runs in the Mares), Yorkhill (again, if he runs in the JLT) and Airlie Beach – with the slight possibility that Melon, Un De Sceaux and Carter McKay could shorter further.

The shortage of bankers also has negative knock-on effects for the overall Mullins challenge. There was a time when Mullins could redirect some of his second-tier types into handicaps instead of running them in graded races as he already had a strong fancy for the latter race – an example would be Arctic Fire running in the 2014 County Hurdle when the trainer won the same year’s Supreme with Vautour – but that may not be the case in 2017. Something like Royal Caviar might have gone to the Grand Annual if Min had been fit for the Arkle but he will now likely go to the novice race; the replacement level talent simply isn’t there now.

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Perhaps Mullins will surprise us all with another big Festival but the evidence of this season and comparison points with seasons past suggest otherwise. The trainer’s winners line for the meeting is set at 5.5 currently (it was 7.5 in 2016) and while the under is a chalky 4/6, it should win. The 8/13 about him being top trainer is tight too – the top trainer at this year’s meeting could easily win with just four or five winners – while a knock-on effect is Ruby Walsh’s price of 8/11 for top jockey being under the odds, too, as he is unlikely to ride for anyone else at the meeting.

 

The Henry and Noel Show

Gordon Elliott has understandably garnered the bulk of the attention in this season’s narrative but one shouldn’t forget the rise of Henry de Bromhead and the resurgence of Noel Meade. Both yards have made life difficult for Mullins though their strong campaigns have come in different ways. De Bromhead is having a career season when compared with his 5-year numbers:

 

Henry de Bromhead Last Five Seasons

Season Wins Runners Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
2016/17 62 355 17.5% -38.41 0.96
2015/16 48 296 16.2% -49.25 0.92
2014/15 49 325 15.1% -68.75 0.88
2013/14 48 315 15.2% -98.77 0.89
2012/13 32 220 14.6% -87.02 0.75

 

The basic winners/runners figures stand out here; with his numbers having levelled off in the three previous seasons, they have sky-rocketed in 2016/17 to such a point that before the end of February he has already left his previous best behind. An improved strikerate shouldn’t be forgotten though and it would have been hard to foresee this at the end of the summer when Alan Potts removed the remainder of his horses from the yard. It is the increased support of Gigginstown that has brought this improvement about: where de Bromhead was a minor part of that operation prior to the current season, he has essentially become their second trainer after Gordon Elliott with a long distance back to the third.

As I write, Gigginstown have supplied 19 winners and 82 runners for de Bromhead but the trainer has certainly played his part too, improving a number of horses that came from other yards. Sub Lieutenant has risen 18lbs in the ratings, Petit Mouchoir 15lbs and Valseur Lido 6lbs while he has also drawn improvement from Roger Brookhouse horses like Champagne West (12lbs), Stellar Notion (12lbs) and Some Plan (hard to judge as has switched from chasing but has won thrice including the Irish Arkle).

It should be pointed out that similar has happened with some of the Potts horses leaving de Bromhead, Viconte Du Noyer looking a different horse for Colin Tizzard and Sizing John developing into a Gold Cup contender for Jessica Harrington. Potts has been a whipping boy for his perceived disloyalty to de Bromhead but it’s hard to argue that the split hasn’t worked out for both of them and looking at these results perhaps the whole trainer loyalty angle is overdone.

Where de Bromhead has thrived with horses he has acquired from other yards, Meade has worked well with what he already had in his stable; he did get some Gigginstown switchers but by and large they have been disappointing.

 

Noel Meade Last Five Seasons

Season Wins Runners Strikerate Level Stakes A/E
2016/17 48 288 16.7% -59.07 0.92
2015/16 30 220 13.6% -81.54 0.91
2014/15 50 344 14.5% -112.98 0.83
2013/14 45 367 12.3% -143.71 0.73
2012/13 47 344 13.7% -135.68 0.71

 

Meade seems certain to have his best season in the last five and it will likely be his best since 2008/9 when he had 62 winners from 486 runners. Like de Bromhead, he has had a much improved strikerate this season and his big successes – Coral Hurdle winner Ice Cold Soul and Flogas Novice Chase victor Disko – were with Gigginstown horses that were already in the yard. His other class horse has been Snow Falcon and like the aforementioned pair he’s a horse that had suffered injury problems in the past; Meade has been excellent this year in keeping his stock sound which has been an issue in seasons past.

Both trainers will be very hopeful of Festival winners and they could hardly be going into the meeting in better order. Petit Mouchoir is the obvious de Bromhead fancy for the Champion Hurdle having won the two key Irish trials (albeit from the same horses in underwhelming renewals) while Champagne West is an outsider with a chance in the Gold Cup after putting up a big figure in the Thyestes. Meade’s Cheltenham woes have been well-covered at this stage but he has two live chances in the novice chases with Disko and the strong-staying A Genie In Abottle.

 

Handicap Kings

Gordon Elliott has been the story of the Irish handicap scene this winter, his series of wins in valuable chases unparalleled in my memory, and not surprisingly comes in at the top of the table of handicap winners in 2016/17:

 

Trainer Wins Runners Strikerate Level Stakes Places Place SR% A/E
G. Elliott 28 305 9.2% -48.75 86 28.2% 0.75
T. Mullins 14 62 22.6% +27.38 34 54.8% 1.46
J. Hanlon 12 101 11.9% +31.50 32 31.7% 1.21
W. Mullins 11 66 16.7% -17.61 23 34.9% 1.16
C. Byrnes 10 52 19.2% -13.12 18 34.6% 1.09
J. Ryan 9 87 10.3% -30.34 21 42.5% 0.89
E. McNamara 9 41 22.0% +49.50 14 34.2% 2.15

 

It’s difficult to know if this is a positive or negative for Elliott’s chances of having handicap winners at Cheltenham: on one hand his horses are going into the meeting in good form but on the other they could find themselves too high in the weights. Chief BHA handicapper, Phil Smith, has tended not to treat the Elliott runners as well as some of those from other Irish yards but the trainer has still managed four Festival handicap winners since 2011 including two last year. One thing we can be sure of is that he will be mob-handed in these races; already this season in Ireland, he has had 305 handicap runners, with Denis Hogan next in with 117 followed by John Hanlon's 101.

Hanlon, aka, "The Shark", has had a quietly strong season in 2016/17 (which is about the only thing that is quiet about him) but his horses simply don’t have high enough marks to get into the Festival races. Tom Mullins’s runners do, however, and he’s been having a brilliant time across the board in terms of winners, strikerate, places and place strikerate. It’s not as if he doesn’t have some pedigree at Cheltenham either, with two handicap winners from eight runners: Alderwood in both cases as he took the County Hurdle and Grand Annual in successive years.

Mullins’s chief patron is of course one John P McManus, not averse to having a Cheltenham winner, and he looks to have three possible runners in Scoir Mear, Oscar Knight and That’s A Wrap. The last two are particularly interesting, Oscar Knight one that looks well-treated if getting his jumping together while That’s A Wrap is a horse that could thrive in a strongly-run race.

- Tony Keenan

10 ‘No Downside’ Cheltenham Ante Post Bets

National Hunt racing begins its very own period of Lent today as there are now just 40 days until tapes rise on the opening races of the Cheltenham Festival. In recognition of the Festival's proximity, the laymen (that is, bookmakers) are beginning to lower their guard on their ante-post books. Far from abstinence, though, now is a time to begin to build the punting portfolio with some heartening safety nets in situ.

While many firms are non-runner no bet (NRNB) on the four Championship races - Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, Stayers' Hurdle, Gold Cup - we are starting to see wider NRNB provisions. As of yesterday, bet365 are NRNB on all Festival races; and they're also offering Best Odds Guaranteed (BOG), meaning if the starting price is greater than the price you take, you'll get paid at the greater odds. Nice.

William Hill also have a broad Festival concession. They will refund stakes on horses that miss the Festival entirely, but will refund as a free bet if the horse lines up in another race, on bets up to £25. Although the 'other race' concession offers less liberty to recycle the misplaced wager funds, say for example on something not related to betting, it is still a far sight better than losing your cash.

At time of writing, Thursday 2nd February, those are the only two firms offering 'every race' concessions, but if you're reading this at a later date do check for more bookies coming on board.

Why is NRNB important for Cheltenham Festival ante post betting?

Since the move to a four day Festival, owners and trainers have often found themselves with multiple big race options where previously there would have been only one. The intermediate distance races, such as the JLT Novices' Chase and the Ryanair Chase, and the Fred Winter, a four year old handicap hurdle, are three such noteworthy imponderables.

From a punting perspective, it was a familiar refrain of punters - who were either loose of trigger finger or simply unlucky - when a seemingly well made wager came unstuck at the changing whim of a big name handler. Worse still in this day of trainer blogs and 24/7 soundbites, not to mention the all-seeing eye of the exchange markets, one or two of those most heavily represented at the Festival skirt dangerously close to actually putting punters away such is the flippancy with which they jettison their verbal debris.

The message is clear: the messages will be unclear. Do not believe the messages. Clear? 😉

Put another way, bet365 and William Hill have presented the required insurance against which to take a contrarian view. Naturally they have taken their own measures, in terms of truncated prices, about such ambiguous propositions, but be in no doubt that this situation favours the backer more than the layer.

When to avail of NRNB in Cheltenham Festival ante post markets?

The simple answer is "always". But there are some situations - especially closer to race day - when the price differential between a NRNB firm and one offering 'all in run or not' (i.e. you do your dough if the nag doesn't show) will make it worth the risk.

But what about if a horse is more likely for another race? Or simply has more than one possible target? Or maybe has been the subject of an injury scare or unsatisfactory work reports?

In any of these scenarios, NRNB is a must, even if it means taking less than the top price offered by an 'all in' bookmaker.

Of course, regardless of bookie concession, we still have to feel there is value in the available odds!

So here follow ten 'no downside' Cheltenham Festival ante post bets...

Tuesday

Supreme Novices' Hurdle

Although Skybet - who sponsor the race - have joined 365 and Hills in going NRNB on the Supreme, there is little point betting ante post on the Festival's opening race. That is because, for recreational punters (up to £25 stakes) at least, there will be so much 'get cash in betting accounts' action going on in the 24 hours preceding 1.30pm on 14th March that you'll probably be out of pocket going in earlier. So let's save that for another day.

Arkle Challenge Trophy

The second race, the Arkle, looks sown up by ante-post favourite Altior who is borderline "bar a fall" material. With that in mind, you might be tempted by 4/6 NRNB and BOG with bet365, or by 8/11 NRNB with Hills. I'm not especially, as I don't have enough sixes to want some more fours!

Champion Hurdle

If ever a race was a prime candidate for NRNB it is this season's Champion Hurdle where no fewer than four of the first five in the market are subject to injury scares or possible alternative targets.

Faugheen has not been seen for more than a year and missed his intended comeback at Leopardstown last weekend with a suspected pulled muscle. Given that Annie Power has yet to be seen this season, seven-time Grade 1 winner Nichols Canyon ran terribly recently as did Vroum Vroum Mag (albeit scraping home in front), and Min missed his late January Grade 1 target it is possible that something is slightly askew at Closutton. NRNB would be the only way I'd entertain a Mullins runner right now.

Yanworth also misses his scheduled engagement this weekend, and has been replaced by the re-routed Buveur d'Air, previously thought on target for the Arkle. And finally Yorkhill is not even entered for the Champion Hurdle and was last seen failing to convince (this eye at least) with his jumping in a moderate Grade 3 over fences.

That leaves Petit Mouchoir, winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle in Faugheen's absence, as the only 'definite' runner from the top quintet in the betting. Alas, he ran no better than mid-division in the Supreme, and may be better suited by a flat track. He's not for me at 5/1 tops.

We have two ways to go here: we either take a punt at a price, mindful that at least some of those making the market will not show up; or we take a chance on one of the possible no shows.

Faugheen is 6/4 NRNB, which is mildly appealing. Willie Mullins has shown many times he can get one ready off a layoff, and it's a shallow-looking edition of the race. He surely won't run if not spot on, and he'll be closer to even money if he does appear.

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If Faugheen misses the party and Yanworth accepts his invitation, the latter would be around 5/2. His current NRNB quote of 5/1 with racebets looks very fair. Fourth in the Champion Bumper of 2015, and second in the Neptune last year having received an 'interesting' ride, his beating of The New One in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton looks rock solid in the context of this year's two mile division.

Given that Yorkhill has been training over fences this season, it's a little late to be thinking about reverting to the top table of hurdling. In any case, such notions are hardly a vote of confidence in Faugheen's wellbeing, even from the notoriously inscrutable Mullins camp.

I've perhaps never given Buveur d'Air the credit he deserves. After all, he was a good third in the Supreme last year before winning the Grade 1 Top Novices' Hurdle at Aintree. But he too has been chasing this season to date, and reverts to timber-topping at Sandown on Saturday with a fair bit to prove. Even if he beats Brain Power - a general 8/1 chance for the Champion Hurdle - he ought not to shorten much, so there's little upside to him.

16/1 The New One is not as daft a suggestion as it first sounds in what could be a really hollow field, but Yanworth looks a bet with the concession at 5/1.

Not much else to appeal on Tuesday.

Wednesday

Neptune Novices' Hurdle

This looks tricky but Neon Wolf - who has been winning over two miles despite an assertion from his jockey, Noel Fehily, that he wants three - is playable NRNB. A top priced 7/1, he's 6/1 with Hills who will give you a free bet if Harry Fry's rising star diverts to the Supreme.

Finian's Oscar heads the market but he may also head to the Supreme, and anyway I'm unsure of the merit of beating Capitaine versus beating Elgin. Wholestone would also be a player if lining up here rather than the Albert Bartlett, and 12/1 is tempting with the safety net.

RSA Chase

I'm loathe to back anything trained by Willie ante-post for reasons I've already alluded to. Apart from an unease about the stable health, I also feel they're generally under-priced because of recent Festival history. Let's be clear: Mullins is not heading into Cheltenham in anything like the form he has done in the last two seasons, and there are question marks about most of his top horses currently. There are still six weeks for that to change, so I don't want to be unequivocal, but at the same time this is a post about future wagers, and most of his charges represent no value in that context.

I'm against Might Bite, the only other horse in this market with a single figure quote, too. Sure, he would have been mightily impressive if standing up at the last in the Feltham at Kempton; but we all know what a different test that is from the RSA. And we mostly know that no Feltham winner has ever won the RSA.

"But he didn't win the Feltham", I hear you say. True dat, as the Hackney kids might retort - those with a form book and an eye for trends at least - but the balance of his form marks him down as flat track bully material. So do two defeats at Cheltenham, in spite of a win in a weak novices hurdle at the track when odds on (second horse has failed to even make the frame in seven subsequent starts, all at Class 3 or lower).

Royal Vacation was the beneficiary when Might Bite came down at Kempton, having not been able to go with that one in the run for home. On the stiffer test of Cheltenham's slopes he lugged 11-09 to victory in a novices' handicap chase last weekend. That race has proven a good portent to Festival handicap winners in recent times, but the last winner to carry near top weight was The Giant Bolster, who went on to challenge in Gold Cups.

Colin Tizzard has some pretty smart staying chasers (understatement klaxon) with which to gauge the merit of this fellow, and his progressive ratings - 121, 128, 131, 136, 144, 149, 155 his last seven on the RPR scale - mean he has more in his favour than many. 20/1 is the best price, but 16/1 can be had with Hills and buys 'other race/no race' insurance.

Cross Country Chase

I love this race and normally have a pretty strong view. But not this year. It reverted to a level weights race last year, and that means Cantlow will be a stone better off with Urgent de Gregaine for a three length beating at the weekend. But 7/4 NRNB is hardly pant-wetting in the anticipation stakes.

One of mild interest given his run style, stamina, appreciation of fast ground and target - I'm told deeply unreliably he's headed for the Grand National - might be Cause Of Causes. He'll have a bunch of other targets at the Festival, by which time his National mark will have been allotted, and he'll be given a "better judged" ride by regular big race pilot, Jamie Codd, next time.

Quoted in three other races, Cause Of Causes makes fair appeal at 12/1 NRNB, given his official Irish mark of 148 suggests he has an 18lb advantage over Cantlow's 130 on these level weights terms, and given that only one horse - from 59 rivals - has beaten him at the last three Cheltenham Festivals!

Thursday

JLT Novices' Chase

An intermediate distance race, the JLT will accrue runners from both the Arkle and RSA challenges, and many currently quoted will defect to one of that pair of more established heats. As such it is a perfect NRNB punting proposition. Even more so, given that the 2/1 ante-post favourite, Yorkhill, jumps a fence so badly he may be redirected to the Champion Hurdle. Of course, such a detour hints strongly at his level of ability, but he simply pleads to be taken on.

The speculative dart here lands on the five year old Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon. He fell when appearing not to stay in the Feltham at Christmas, but before that took out a competitive Grade 3 handicap chase against far more experienced rivals at Cheltenham. And before that he was still cruising when making a howitzer of a blunder four from home at the same Festival track.

This looks his trip and he acts at the course making 20/1 NRNB BOG with bet365 well worth a penny or two.

Ryanair Chase

Another middle distance race, the Ryanair dilutes the Queen Mother and Gold Cup - according to its detractors at least - and makes life difficult for 'all in run or not' punters.

Un De Sceaux heads the market after his rescheduled Clarence House win at Cheltenham last weekend. There he beat a fast-closing Uxizandre, who was returning to the track after close to two years off, over the minimum distance. This extra half mile-plus is likely in Uxizandre's favour, but I do have a doubt about the dreaded 'bounce' (when a horse underperforms second time off a long layoff having run very well first time back).

Six weeks between runs is probably enough for Uxi to recover and, if he brings his A game, 7/1 with Hills is big. A Cheltenham record of 2112, including a second in the JLT of 2014 and a win in this race a year later, adds further lustre to his claims.

It's really not a great race, though one who is definitely worth the 'money back as a free bet' chance is 14/1 Djakadam. Far more likely to head to the Gold Cup, for which he's a general 6/1 chance and in which he's been second the last two years, there was talk from the Mullins team of a tilt at the Ryanair. If he were to run here, he'd be more like a 5/1 chance, and if - as is likely - he doesn't, we'll get a free bet opportunity on something else.

Stayers' Hurdle

Unowhatimeanharry is a legitimate favourite and a strong contender for staying honours, but that is borne out in a top quote of 7/4. He's unbeaten in eight since Harry Fry acquired him from Helen Nelmes, and his rating has soared from 125 to 167.

While Fry may have left something to work on at Cheltenham last weekend, he only had a length and a quarter to spare over 2015 World Hurdle winner, Cole Harden. What is most noteworthy about the former champ's performance is that he was expected to hate the soft ground and was sent off a massive 20/1, having been much shorter in the morning.

Warren Greatrex's runner is a bit of a hostage to fortune in that he likes to lead in his races, and there will be challenges for that honour in March, but so too were there here and yet he ran highly creditably. The form looks very solid with West Approach and Ballyoptic filling the next two places at respectful distances, and the old guard - including the still quite young Old Guard (!) - were well beaten off.

Hills are joint top price at 14/1, and that looks a perfectly palatable win/place play.

Friday

The Triumph Hurdle becomes increasingly impenetrable for those of us without a handle on the French form book, and I will defer in favour of more approachable puzzles, like the...

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle

Let's go long here if we can. Like the race itself, where horses are usually asked to do something they've never done before, I'm looking for a horse that has thus far been taken out of its comfort zone in Graded company: horses at the head of the market, like West Approach and Wholestone, may just have too much class and not enough stamina for the spudsfest.

Invitation Only is a little shorter than I'd like, at 12/1, but he fits the bill having been badly outpaced in a Navan Grade 2 over two and a half miles last time when sent off at even money. That effort, allied to his barreling win in a three mile point suggests he'll love this longer trip, and he's likely to prove more courage than class in the fullness of time. Just the sort that wins your average Albert Bartlett.

Gold Cup

The Blue Riband has looked a buggers' muddle all season, and I struck my first - and only meaningful - ante post wager on Djakadam at 14/1 back in November. The logic was clear: plenty had participation doubts, not least Coneygree and Don Cossack.

We now know neither will show, and Thistlecrack's hitherto aura of invincibility has just dissipated sufficiently to envisage another usurping his presumed procession to top honours.

But race looks sewn up from an ante post perspective, the bookies having a half nelson on the form.

But there might just be one at a huge price that could play a hand. Last year's RSA Chase winner, Blaklion, was less than eight lengths behind Native River in the Hennessy off level weights (less a pound).

He's had one disappointing run since, at Wetherby on Boxing Day, and on ratings he's probably ten pounds below making the frame in a normal Gold Cup; but I'm not convinced this is the deepest renewal.

Nigel Twiston-Davies' eight-year-old stays well, handles the track and goes in any ground. There's a good chance he lacks the requisite class but at 50/1 he's worth a tiny dabble BOG NRNB with bet365.

**

From here, all roads lead to the Cheltenham Festival and, with bookmakers finally lowering their guard by offering non-runner no bet across all races, it may be time for some preliminary skirmishes. Most, if not all, of the ten horses flagged above will either start shorter or not run - triggering cash back or a free bet in lieu - and a single winner would at least go close to covering the losers.

Good luck!

Matt

p.s. those are my plays in the NRNB markets. What truffles have you snouted out from your own ante post foraging? Leave a comment and share the hope!