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Cheltenham Festival: Avoiding the Bad Bets

This article was originally written ahead of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, and has been updated prior to the 2019 Cheltenham Festival.

The Cheltenham Festival is almost upon us and soon we'll be faced with the unenviable - though highly enjoyable - task of trying to find winners in 28 deeply competitive races. Many sensible players will focus on a subset of the full four-day card but, regardless of your plan of attack, there are some rules of thumb worth keeping in mind.

I've broken the races down into four categories: open Grade 1's, novice Grade 1's (excluding the Bumper and Triumph Hurdle), handicap hurdles (excluding the Fred Winter), and handicap chases. The following races, in addition to the trio mentioned above, are also excluded: NH Chase, Mares' Novice Hurdle, Cross Country Chase, and the Foxhunters' Chase.

That leaves 21 races spread across four groups upon which to focus. For each I was looking for negative angles: in so doing, I'm happy to forego a small percentage of winners if it means there is a far more workable residue of runners who comprise most victors and, crucially, a value edge.

The sample covers the last eleven Festivals, going back to 2008, with commentary on the updated figures and performance at the 2018 Festival appended.

Cheltenham Festival Open Grade 1's

The open Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival are the Champion Hurdle, Mares' Hurdle, Champion Chase, Ryanair Chase, Stayers' Hurdle, and the Gold Cup: six in total. Across the ten years to 2017, that equated to 53 winners (Mares' Hurdle upgraded during the sample window) and 158 placed horses, from 635 runners. To that we add six winners and 17 placed horses from 2018.

Headgear

Those wearing no headgear won 50 of the 53 open Grade 1's in the last decade, from 521 runners. That's 94% of the winners from 82% of the fields.

Just one of the 94 runners sporting blinkers or cheekpieces won - Our Vic in the 2008 Ryanair - and such horses' place strikerate is poor, too.

Be wary of horses wearing headgear, especially blinkers or cheekpieces, in Open Grade 1's at the Festival.

2018 Festival Update: Native River won the Gold Cup wearing cheek pieces, with just one of the other twelve headgear-accoutred runners making the frame. So that's 55 of 59 open Grade 1's now: 93% of the winners from 82% of the runners.

Those wearing headgear can win (QED) but are 4/127 (3.15% SR) with an A/E of just 0.46.

Age

Horses aged five to nine won 49 of the 53 open Cheltenham Festival Grade 1's in the last decade. The other four were aged ten. From 45 runners, 11+ year-olds have failed to win. These include such sentimental veterans as Cue Card, Big Buck's and Kauto Star, all of whom were sent off at 9/2 or shorter since 2012.

Avoid backing horses aged in double digits in Festival Open Grade 1's.

2018 Festival Update: Two more 11+ year-olds ran in last year's Festival, including the wonderful Cue Card. Wonderful he may be but, sent off at 9/2 and pulled up, he was another mug punt for many. Worse than that, though, was the ten-year-old Un De Sceaux, who was turned over at 8/11. He was one of six ten-year-olds beaten last year.

Horses aged ten-plus are now 4/112 since 2008 (3.57% SR), A/E 0.45.

[As an aside, the four winning ten-year-olds did so in the Champion Chase (two) and Ryanair Chase (two).]

Starting Price

None of the 238 horses sent off at 25/1 or bigger managed to win an open Grade 1 at the last ten CheltFests. Moreover, only three priced bigger than 14/1 scored, from 335 to face the starter, with this group losing 274 points at SP. Meanwhile, those priced at 14/1 or shorter won 50 races from 300 starters, and lost just two points at SP. That converted to a BSP profit of 51.75 points.

Ignore horses priced at 16/1 or bigger in Cheltenham Festival Open Grade 1's.

2018 Festival Update: Another blank for 16/1+ horses, who went 0/31 in the Grade 1 open races. Of the four who placed, only one was second - Midnight Tour in a lop-sided Mares' Hurdle - with the other three good enough for no better than third.

Overall, then, this group is now 3/366 (0.82% SR) with a loss at SP of 305 points (-83.33% !) and an A/E of just 0.28

Trainers

Paul Nicholls is still the winning-most Open Grade 1 trainer in the past decade, with ten such victories to his name. Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins each have nine, and the next best of Jonjo O'Neill, with four.

But... the denizen of Ditcheat has led just one beast - Dodging Bullets in 2015 - into the winner's enclosure since 2012, with none of his eight such runners at the last two Festivals reaching the first four. Notwithstanding that all bar one of that octet was sent off a double-figure price, he's a trainer about which to be apprehensive in this context.

Philip Hobbs is 0 from 17 in this type of race in the review period, and has only had one horse placed. That was Fair Along, third in the 2008 Champion Chase, and Hobbs tends to fare better at Aintree, though he's had a wretched season blighted - one suspects - by a touch of the virus.

Noel Meade has an infamous record at the Festival and, while he's 0 from 13 in this section of races, his Road To Riches was third in both the 2015 Gold Cup and the 2016 Ryanair Chase.

Nevertheless, Messrs. Hobbs and Meade are 0 from 30, three places, which is hard to overlook. Nicholls' 1 from 30 record since 2013 is equally difficult to excuse.

Tread carefully around Cheltenham open Grade 1 runners trained by Paul Nicholls, Philip Hobbs and Noel Meade.

2018 Festival Update: Both Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson have usurped Nicholls at the top of the pile, each having now secured 11 such wins since 2008. Last year, Messrs. Nicholls, Hobbs and Meade went 0/4 (three Nicholls, one Meade) though two of them ran fairly well in fourth. Caution remains the watch word.

Cheltenham Festival Open Grade 1 Micro System

Pulling all of these negative stats together makes for a nice little micro system. Specifically:

- No horses wearing blinkers or cheekpieces
- No horses trained by Paul Nicholls, Philip Hobbs or Noel Meade
- No horses priced at 16/1+
- No horses aged 10+

That would have netted 36 winners from 180 runners (20% strike rate, 69% race win strike rate) and a level stakes profit of 46.48 points at Starting Price. That bloats to +69.95 at BSP. Moreover, the approach was profitable in eight of the ten years, exceptions being 2016 and 2009.

2018 Festival Update: The above 'dodge the negatives' angle would have netted you five of the six open G1 winners (excluding the cheek pieced Native River) from just 25 bets. It would have been enough to make you a profit of 6.17 points at SP or a very tidy 13.82 points at BSP.

2019 Festival Update: The mini system had a fine week with wins for Al Boum Photo, Paisley Park and Altior in the big four races, as well as Roksana in the Mares' Hurdle. That was worth a profit of 5.74 points at SP and 6.95 at BSPEspoir d'Allen was 16/1 and therefore just outside the range.

**

Cheltenham Festival Novice Grade 1's (excl. Bumper & Triumph Hurdle)

The novice Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival are the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Arkle Chase, Ballymore Properties Novices' Hurdle, RSA Chase, JLT Novices' Chase, and Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle: six in all. Across the ten years, that equates to 54 winners (JLT upgraded during the sample window) and 159 placed horses, from 723 runners. To that we add six winners and 17 placed horses, from 76 runners, in 2018.

The Bumper is excluded because it has no obstacles, and the Triumph Hurdle because it is for four-year-olds only.

Here are the negatives...

Headgear

Those wearing no headgear still account for the vast majority of wins - 57 of 60 from 2008 to 2018 - but perform little better than expected, 95% of the wins coming from 93% of the runners.

Age

Again, little of note here except that those novices aged nine or more running in Grade 1 novice races at the Festival have done poorly. They are 0 from 22, though then nine-year-old Whisper nearly benefited from Might Bite's errant course up the hill last year in the RSA Chase. It is worth noting that nine of those 22 were priced at 7/1 or shorter.

Avoid novices aged nine and up in the novice Grade 1's.

2018 Festival Update: No 9yo novices ran at the Festival last year.

Starting Price

There is the occasional shock result in Cheltenham Festival novice Grade 1's. But four, out of 54, is not a percentage on which to hang one's wagering hat. Interestingly, perhaps - or maybe just coincidence - two of the four winners at bigger than 16/1 in the last decade came in the Albert Bartlett. It does seem a race where all of the preceding trials have been run on different ground and/or under very different pace scenarios.

Even allowing a little latitude in the 'potato race', the four rags came from a total population of 336 horses sent off greater than 16/1. They were 'good' for a loss of 208 points at SP.

Naturally, then, the other 50 winners came from horses priced at 16/1 or shorter, the 381 such runners losing just 31 points at SP, and breaking even at BSP.

Be wary of horses sent off a bigger price than 16/1 in novice Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival. (With the exception of the Albert Bartlett)

2018 Festival Update: I think I got some sums wrong in the original above. The 16/1+ brigade were 6/379 (1.58% SR, -217, A/E 0.53) going into last year's Fez. Those priced at 16/1 or bigger were 1/42 at last year's Cheltenham Festival, and it was again the Albert Bartlett that provided the shock, with 33/1 Kilbricken Storm prevailing.

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And that's now four of seven winning G1 novice rags since 2008 scoring in the spud race, so I'd be even more apprehensive around that event. Indeed, I might even be tempted to actively target outsiders therein. (Those priced 16/1 to 33/1 in the Albert Bartlett are 4/65, 12 places, +54 SP and +104 at BSP since 2008!)

The overall figures now stand at 7/421 (1.66% SR, A/E 0.56) since 2008. Ignoring the Albert Bartlett, horses priced 16/1+ in novice Grade 1's are now 3/293 (1.02% SR, -216 at SP) since 2008.

Official Rating

Despite being novices, most horses running in the Festival novice races have an official rating. The 39 in the last decade which didn't were all unplaced bar one. Indeed, horses rated 140 or below, including those without a rating, are a combined seven from 308 for a loss at SP of 185 points.

Those rated higher than 140 won 47 races and lost a relatively small 54 points at SP and 2.75 points at BSP.

Avoid horses rated 140 or below.

2018 Festival Update: Those unrated added another three duck eggs to their collective card, though all of the trio were 20/1+. Meanwhile, those unrated or rated 140 or less went 24 spins without so much as a place at last year's Festival. Overall since 2008, then, they're now 7/332 (2.11% SR, A/E 0.58). There have only been three such winners since 2010, and none since 2016.

Trainers

Willie Mullins is the dominant player in this sphere over the last decade, his fifteen winners almost double that of the next man (Nicky Henderson has eight). No other trainer has more than two novice G1 wins in the past decade, excluding as we are the Bumper and Triumph Hurdle.

Paul Nicholls is again a man to treat with caution: his one winner, Al Ferof, from 43 starters came in 2011. In PFN's defence, he only had one runner last year, and just two in 2016.

Other handlers to be given a wide berth may include Colin Tizzard (0 from 15, 2 places), Warren Greatrex and Charlie Longsdon (both 0 from 9, no places), and Venetia Williams (0 from 8, no places).

Keep in mind that Paul Nicholls does not have the firepower he once did in this category (and indeed many others).

2018 Festival Update: Nicholls ran two novices in this context last year, Modus (8th of 9 at 12/1) and Black Corton (5th of 10, 5/1).

 

Cheltenham Festival Novice Grade 1 Micro System

Again, we can fashion something of a micro system by dodging these negative angles, thus:

- No horses aged nine-plus
- No horses rated 140 or lower, or unrated
- No horses sent off greater than 16/1
- No horses trained by Paul Nicholls

44 of the 54 winners in the sample came from avoiding these negatives, from just 38.5% of the runners. They were collectively worth a profit of 7.57 points at SP, and a slightly more worthwhile 31.15 points at BSP.

2018 Festival Update: If you'd followed this angle last year, you'd have found five of the six winners, 14 places (exception, Kilbricken Storm - see above) from 46 bets. That would have yielded a profit of +9 at SP and +17.41 at BSP.

2019 Festival Update: Not such good news here, as loads of runners and some short odds winners meant the angle lost 16 points at SP and 7.28 points at BSP.

**

Cheltenham Festival Handicap Hurdles (excluding Fred Winter)

Let us now take a look at the handicap races, beginning with the handicap hurdles but excluding the four-year-olds-only Fred Winter (which will be won this year by geegeez.co.uk syndicate horse, Oxford Blu... we wish!!)

Fred Winter aside, there are four handicap hurdles at the Festival: the Coral Cup, Pertemps Final, County and Martin Pipe. The last named was introduced in 2009, meaning we have a sample size of 39 races with which to work. Those races were contested by 964 runners.

Gender

The fairer sex have recorded just one placed effort from 27 starters in the ten year review period. That 3.7% place strike rate (and 0% win rate) compares with a 16.4% place rate for the boys.

It may be safe to exclude fillies and mares in all age Cheltenham Festival handicap hurdles. (Incidentally, fillies have an excellent record in the Fred Winter).

2018 Festival Update: Fillies and mares were 0/9 (1 place) last year. Overall since 2008, that now reads 0/36, 2 places.

Headgear

Cheekpieces are again a negative. This time, 84 horses have worn them without a win, and just six places. Conversely, 11 of the 84 blinkered horses (one also wearing a hood) made the frame, and four won. Two of the 45 hood wearers also won, another eight placing; while the visor went 0 from 21, no places.

Cheekpieces or visors appear to have no positive impact on Cheltenham Festival handicap hurdlers. (This is in line with overall Cheltenham Festival statistics, where visor use has a 2.86% win rate in the last decade, compared with cheekpieces 3.15%, hood 4.92%, blinkers 5.57% and no headgear 5.96%)

2018 Festival Update: Nine more cheek pieced losers last year, and two more visored losers. Blinkered runners were 1/7 last year.

Age

Handicap hurdling at the Festival is a young man's game. Of the 964 runners in such races in the past ten years, 842 (87%) were aged five to eight (ignoring the Fred Winter). They won all bar two of the races (95%), and claimed 92% of the places.

But it is worth further squinting at the data, because it relates that those aged five or six notched 27 of the 39 wins (69%) from just 49% of the runners. Those victories were worth 94 points profit at BSP.

Chuck out horses aged nine and above, and be unforgiving with those aged seven and eight.

2018 Festival Update: All four handicap hurdle winners in this context last year were aged five to seven, with twelve 8yo's beaten, and eleven 9yo+ horses also seen off.

Starting Price

506 of the 964 starters in all-age Cheltenham Festival handicap hurdles since 2008 have been sent off at greater than 20/1. Five have won, at a collective loss of 343 points.

It follows then that the other 34 victors were priced at 20/1 or shorter, of which there were 458 runners. Remarkably, backing all such runners returned an SP profit of 35 points. That mushroomed to 127.5 points at BSP.

Only five of the 102 horses sent off shorter than 9/1 prevailed, for a 66 point loss at SP (60 points at BSP).

Make 20/1 your cutoff in all-age handicap hurdles, and beware the shortie.

2018 Festival Update: There was a 33/1 winner last year (Mohaayed in the County Hurdle), but the other three were 20/1 or shorter. Even allowing for the County winner, those priced at bigger than 20/1 were loss-making at SP (though an enormous BSP of 70 ensured a profit for intrepid exchange punters). Overall, the 22/1+ brigade are now 6/554 since 2008 in handicap hurdles at the Fez (Fred W aside).

Trainers

Willie Mullins has a fantastic record in open handicap hurdles at the Fez, scoring seven times from just 60 starters in the past decade. He's also added another ten placed horses for a brilliant 28% place strike rate. Gordon Elliott has performed even better in place terms, hitting the frame with twelve of his 34 such runners (35%). He also has a win and two places in the Fred Winter, from 11 starters.

Paul Nicholls has a very good record in handicap hurdles, too, in contrast to his Grade 1 performance in recent seasons. But the likes of Evan Williams and Charlie Longsdon (0 from 31, 0 places, between them), Noel Meade and Dr Richard Newland (0 from 27, 3 places, collectively) are probably best passed up.

Approach Messrs. Evan Williams, Longsdon, Meade and Newland with caution.

2018 Festival Update: Only the 40/1 shot Prime Venture represented this angle last year; he ran well enough in 8th of 23 in the Pertemps Final.

 

Cheltenham Festival Handicap Hurdle Micro System

Throwing all of the negatives into a mixer gives the following:

- No female horses
- No horses wearing cheekpieces or a visor
- No horses aged nine or above
- No horses sent off at greater than 20/1
- No horses trained by Evan Williams, Charlie Longsdon, Noel Meade or Dr Richard Newland

Applying those negative filters would have left 375 qualifiers. They collectively won 32 of the 39 qualifying races, for a profit of 80 points at SP, and a tasty 165 points at BSP.

2018 Festival Update: Even missing out on the County Hurdle last year, meaning there were only three winners to get, this angle made a profit at SP. In fact, it nailed three winners from 36 runners for +4 at SP and +18.07 at BSP.

2019 Festival Update: More losses on this angle with well backed winners spoiling the party. Still, figures of -13 at SP and -5.61 at BSP were not terminal.

**

Cheltenham Festival Handicap Chases

That leaves us with the handicap chases: Festival Handicap Chase, Novices' Handicap Chase, the Festival Plate, the Kim Muir, and the Grand Annual. With all five races having been run throughout the review period, that gives us fifty races to go at. (I've excluded the Cross Country, which has been run as a handicap but is currently framed as a conditions race).

A whopping 1,086 runners have contested these handicap chases.

Gender

As with the handicap hurdles, it's been hard work for the girls. Only 19 have shown up but, while they have failed to win, they have recorded an impressive five placed efforts (26.32% place rate vs 18.18% for the boys).

Nothing especially of note.

2018 Festival Update: Just one unplaced female last year.

Headgear

Bizarrely given what we've seen hitherto, the fitting of any kind of headgear has outperformed the large 'no headgear' group in terms of win percentage. Cheekpieces, up until now shunned as a universal negative, have been worn by no fewer than seven of the fifty winners, at a rate of 5.26%. Blinkers have been worn by nine handicap chase winners, a 7.5% clip; and the visor and the hood were responsible for a win apiece from 22 and 23 runners respectively. Crikey!

Those unaccessorized won 32 handicap chases from 786 runners (4.07%, the lowest in the sample).

I'll stop short of saying that no headgear is a negative (!), but suffice it to say that the sporting of any kind of 'go faster' kit has not been a portent of failure.

2018 Festival Update: A blinkered runner, Missed Approach, again scored last year and, while cheek pieces went 0/14, four of them made the frame. Allied to Native River's Gold Cup win, I'm warming to the idea of cheekies on a chaser.

Age

Although most winners were clustered in the six to nine years bracket, neither youth nor experience has been a killer blow in handicap chases. Winners have emerged from across the spectrum, with the winning-most ages from a number of victories perspective being the losing-most from a betting perspective.

2018 Festival Update: Last year was non-standard in that all five handicap chase winners were aged six to eight. You'd have still lost money even focusing on that age bracket.

Starting Price

Again we see winners up and down the odds boards, with the sweet (but highly unpredictable and potentially coincidental) spot being north of 25/1 and south of 80/1. Those unconsidered athletes have bagged nine of the 50 races for a profit of 23 points at SP and 331 points at BSP (thanks almost entirely to one enormous return).

Just too unpredictable to work with.

2018 Festival Update: Incredibly, all five handicap chase winners last year were priced at single figure SP's. That's probably never happened before and will probably never happen again!

Trainers

David Pipe has a terrific 8 from 75 record in the last decade in Festival handicap chases, for a small SP profit. On the flip side, Nicky Henderson's two winners have come from 83 runners (-45 at SP); Paul Nicholls, Nigel Twiston-Davies and Philip Hobbs are an aggregate of five from 153 (-68 at SP); and poor Charlie Longsdon is 0 from 23 (two places, -23 at SP) to make the cold list once more.

Steer clear of the volume boys: Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Philip Hobbs and Charlie Longsdon.

2018 Festival Update: A good strategy this, as between them they saddled 30 runners in handicap chases, with just 15/2 Le Prezien in the final race of last year's Festival doing the business. Six of the 30 hit the frame.

 

Cheltenham Festival Handicap Chase Micro System

Very little to go at here. We have some negative trainers, and we could try ignoring those:

- No horses trained by Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Philip Hobbs and Charlie Longsdon

That gives a fat 827 qualifying runners for a loss of 104 points at SP. A bumper profit at BSP was secured courtesy of Mister McGoldrick's 66/1 victory which returned 310 on the exchange!

Perhaps, just for kicks, we could add a long-odds SP range:

- No horses trained by Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Philip Hobbs and Charlie Longsdon
- No horses shorter than 28/1

We now only have eight winners, from 291 runners, but an SP profit of 40 points. At BSP, for the reason highlighted above, it becomes a juicy 341 points.

But we all know that there's nothing really of use in this section. The handicap chases are a crap shoot and, in negative elimination factor terms, should be avoided at all costs.

2018 Festival Update: The comment directly above was spot on. Just for the record the long-odds angle suggestion went 0/18 at last year's Cheltenham Festival.

2019 Festival Update: Surely nobody in their right mind would have followed this approach. But, if there was a contrarian nuts enough to have at it, he or she would have comfortably recouped last year's losses thanks to 66/1 winner, Croco Bay. He paid 180 at Betfair SP. That meant a profit of 32 points at starting price, and a monstrous one hit wonder return of 146 points at Betfair SP.

**

Summary

Ignoring the highly unpredictable handicap chase segment, there are some consistent negative factors worth keeping in mind throughout Cheltenham Festival week.

Firstly, don't get too gung ho by ploughing into the longshots. Unless you fancy one to shorten to 20/1 or less, there is a strong likelihood you've done your money.

Secondly, favour unexposed youth over established age/experience.

Thirdly, cheekpieces have been more about futility than utility outside of handicap chases.

Fourthly, beware Paul Nicholls outside of handicap hurdles, and Charlie Longsdon and Noel Meade universally.

The micro-systems above will provide plenty of action for those who like a mechanical approach. Better yet, they may assist in whittling fields to more manageable numbers with a view to poring over the form on the remaining runners.

However you choose to use this information - indeed, whether you choose to use it or not - enjoy the Fez. There's nothing quite like it!

2018 Festival Update: Nothing to add to the above, which pretty much nailed it at last year's show and may again provide valuable guidance this time around...

Good luck!

Matt

Cheltenham 2018 Reprise: 10 Points of Note

I am probably the last person to listen to about Cheltenham 2018 having got just about everything wrong at the meeting, writes Tony Keenan. But, in the belief that most people are better at hindsight than foresight, I will attempt to sum up what happened last week from a racing and betting perspective.

  1. Genius Overkill

In the week that Stephen Hawking died, it was jarring to hear so many of the Festival participants described as geniuses. Jack Kennedy is a genius, Gordon Elliott is a genius, Davy Russell is a genius, Pat Kelly is a total genius, not least because he doesn’t really talk to anyone in the media. Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson, not so much, but when you’ve trained 61 and 60 Cheltenham winners respectively, it’s come to be expected.

There is more to genius than the purely academic, that is for sure, but racing will never suffer from lack of self-importance and one was reminded of Philip Hobbs’ comment that galloping them up and down a hill twice a day isn’t really that complicated; no jokes please about how his week went, though. Let’s just cool the overreaction theatre for the time when it is really needed.

 

  1. SHOCKER: MULLINS DOESN’T SCHOOL DOUVAN!

Douvan hadn’t schooled over fences ahead of his run in the Champion Chase and nor had Rathvinden before the Four-Miler despite coming off two non-completions. The former jumped brilliantly until he didn’t and the latter overcome a few slow leaps to win. Apparently, this lack of schooling isn’t news to those associated with the yard and Mullins seems to balance the risk of injury in the practice run against the reward of keeping them sound for the race itself.

The form figures of his chasers at the Festival read 115PFFFF2P42F5FPP and even that is being kind about their jumping: Pylonthepressure completed in the National Hunt Chase but in Timeform’s words ‘put in as bad a round of jumping as has been seen by a horse completing at Cheltenham for many a year’ while the pulled up efforts of Demi Sang and Invitation Only were arguably caused by jumping errors. Furthermore, four of his hurdlers fell! When I looked at the fall/unseat rate of Irish trainers back in 2015 he was in the lower half of the table though not markedly so; but perhaps things have changed since.

In any case, the trainer can point to the facts: 61 winners and the all-time leader in that regard, a notable achievement even in the modern, diluted Festival era. Maybe he has figured out, counter-intuitively, that jumping isn’t really that important in jump racing, or at least is an overvalued aspect. Now that might actually be genius.

 

  1. Fake News 1: Bookies versus punters

The bookies against the punters is one the great false dichotomies of the game. You won’t meet too many punters who care about what the man/woman beside them has backed and they’d be right to take that approach; in the main, betting is an inherently selfish pursuit. The assumption that all punters are lemmings who bet on short-priced favourites, the sort that won over the first two days, is a lazy narrative and peddled by far too many lazy narrators.

 

  1. Fake News 2: Ireland dominates the Festival

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Much has been made of the relative health of the Irish and UK jumping scenes after the meeting with the general perception that Ireland thrived while British runners waned; again this is overly simplistic. Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott will be delighted with their week as will Pat Kelly; Henry de Bromhead will be happy enough, but I wonder how do the 98% of other trainers, with or without runners at the meeting, feel?

There has been lots of discussion over here that the major handlers and owners are too dominant and the middle class of Irish trainer has been decimated in the last decade or so. Incidentally, Ireland had fewer winners than 2017, 17 against 19, while UK trainers won the three big races at this year’s Festival.

 

  1. Favourites static in the market (with one notable exception)

The ten Festival bankers – Getabird, Footpad, Buveur D’Air, Apple’s Jade, Samcro, Presenting Percy, Altior, Un De Sceaux, Apple’s Shakira and Might Bite – were largely static in the markets from ante-post to day-of-the-race; that is hardly news as their prices should be mature with betting on these races available for months. Footpad may have drifted after rumours of ill-health before the meeting but there was lots of late buy-back on him while Altior didn’t go off an awful lot bigger than he had been despite a late ‘puss-in-boots’ scare and the addition of Douvan to the field.

Un De Sceaux shortened up though that might have had more to do with sheer percentages as only six ran in the Ryanair; but the one big mover was Apple’s Shakira, sent off 6/5 having been available at 11/4 in the days beforehand. Her defeat was a good result for the layers if you buy into that type of story!

 

  1. Ground schmound 1: Good ground horses offer value

Looking back at results, it is hard to pick out a genuine soft-ground boat that won a race. Kilbricken Storm perhaps or maybe Native River though that would be harsh in the extreme about the Gold Cup winner whose best previous effort had come on good ground in the same race last year. Backing Cheltenham winners was the same as it was before: find the best horse.

In fact, the boats may actually have been overbet in some cases and there were opportunities to back horses that weren’t totally proven on the ground but with prices big enough where you could take a chance. Balko Des Flos and Mohaayed, two horses well-fancied by connections ahead of the meeting, were massive drifters on the day of their races. The point is not that all these horses won but rather that as a group they offered some betting value.

 

  1. Ground schmound 2: Play up, not down

There were murmurings ahead of the meeting that there was little point in betting before the ground was known and that this unusual Festival ground, the softest in 23 years, was going to produce some weird results. We know the second part of that didn’t come true – ask those poor bookies about results over the first two days – and the vast majority of the trials were run on soft anyway.

Furthermore, cutting back stakes in these circumstances might all be a little faux-shrewd. When there is chaos in the betting markets as there was last week, there is also opportunity. Maybe these are just the conditions where you need to try and land a touch rather than sit back and be cautious.

 

  1. Ante-Post Betting may not be totally dead

I did very little ante-post betting before the middle of February this year with laziness being the main reason but one thing I noticed in the fortnight before the meeting was the amount of value around. At this point some firms are non-runner, no-bet while others are still ante-post and this is just the period when targets begin to clarify and you can take a chance playing the different opportunities against each other.

Certainly there is the chance to beat starting price and by some distance. Rathvinden was a general 16/1 shot for the National Hunt Chase when Willie Mullins said at his stable tour that he was a likely runner (not a cast-iron guarantee, I’ll grant you) before returning 9/2. Terrefort was an uncertain runner at the meeting but was 8/1 NRNB for the JLT with that doubt and was sent off 3/1. That point again is that not all these horses win but if you are beating the final price you are much more likely to win over time.

 

  1. Extra Places Everywhere

One of the main developments in the betting landscape this year was the increased number of races where the big firms offered extra places. Per the Pricewise tables in the Racing Post from last year, there were seven races where at least four bookmakers offered at least one extra place on each-way bets, this year that number was up to 13, allowing that some (but not all) of those were smaller firms.

Those extra places were welcome, especially if like me you backed horses such as Lagostovegas, Road To Respect and Diese Des Bieffes on the final day, all of whom finished in the extra place slots. However, plenty of good judges maintain it is not worth losing the quarter odds on four places to gain the fifth position concession at the fifth odds. Beware bookmakers bearing gifts.

 

  1. Drug Testing

By far the most interesting story to emerge after the Festival was that the BHA had conducted unannounced testing of Irish-trained horses ahead of the meeting. Many on this side of the Irish Sea have viewed this news as sour grapes and the timing was certainly off; this should have been put into the public domain ahead of last Tuesday. That there is more out-of-competition testing being carried out however is excellent news; more testing, regardless of where it takes places or who undertakes it, is never bad.

Ireland does have questions to answer on drug testing – there remains no effective anti-doping operation in our bloodstock industry and recent weeks have seen a false positive case emerge from a meeting at Roscommon last September – and to say there are no performance-enhancing drugs or medicalisation in racing would be to ignore recent history lessons from numerous other sports. Regardless of your parish, you want to be able to trust what you are watching and testing is one way of ensuring this.

Monday Musings: Teddie and the Fez Jocks

Did you enjoy Cheltenham? Even assuming you did, writes Tony Stafford, you would be hard pushed to have had as wonderful a time over the four days as four-year-old Teddie Charlesworth. An ever-present in the fourth-floor box of his grandfather Danny Charlesworth, boss of distribution company Citipost, Teddie was thrilled to watch his hero Davy Russell ride his way to the Leading Jockey title at the Festival.

That award looked highly unlikely on Wednesday when Russell returned to the weighing room, visibly limping and with face screwed up in pain after a fall in the Glenfarclas Cross-Country race from Bless the Wings.

Before racing on the third day, I was sceptical whether Russell would be fit to ride. He’d won the RSA Chase two hours before his fall on Presenting Percy in the race that ended Ruby Walsh’s competitive involvement in the meeting after his fall from Al Boum Photo. In a Sunday TV interview, Walsh seemed surprised that there was anything odd in his attending the last two days despite aggravating the leg fracture from which he’d only recently returned to action.

They make them tough these jumping boys. But even in the Citipost box there was uncertainty around Davy’s participation, so much so that young Teddie, clearly tired after the first two days’ excitements, slept blissfully through the opener in his younger sister’s pram as his idol played a minor role on an unplaced 66-1 stable outsider behind Samcro.

He was barely coming round even by the second race, but could hardly fail to notice the tumult around the lunch table among Charlesworth family and friends at the exciting conclusion. Russell dug deep to drive home Delta Work in an all-Gordon Elliott finish to the three-mile Pertemps Hurdle Final, having the strength and determination to hold off Barry Geraghty on the J P McManus-owned favourite Glenloe.

Russell, along with Noel Fehilly, winner on the opening day on Summerville Boy, is sponsored by Citipost. Each time he returned in triumph after the four winners – three on Thursday – he paused, looked up to the box and raised his arm in triumph as Teddie, held standing on the balcony rail by his father Greg, roared “Davy!”

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Before every race, if you asked him what he fancied, it would either be the name of Russell’s or Fehily’s mount, and you would not have gone far wrong following his advice blind. At one point I asked his mum if Teddie wanted to be a jockey or even a racing writer when he grew up, and she replied: “No, a golfer. A professional coach is coming along to see him soon.” Fair enough: Tiger started at that sort of age.

That Thursday was an epic afternoon for Ireland with the first six of the seven winners, the flood only halted by Warren Greatrex’s Missed Approach in the concluding Kim Muir. Russell’s hat-trick on the day was completed by Balko des Flos and The Storyteller, the latter after another full-on battle to the line with a revived Splash of Ginge.

Danny Charlesworth was quietly satisfied with the commercial success of it all. After every Russell (four) and Fehily (one) win, as they came back along the front of the grandstand, the camera lingered on horse and jockey, and the sponsor’s name emblazoned along the left leg. I reckon after Friday Teddie would have had a long sleep before getting back to the more serious business of golf practice. And school, of course, he’s a bright lad.

The only slight regret for Charlesworth and good friend Eamon Evans was that Gordon Elliott had assumed some way before Cheltenham, that the ground was unlikely to be heavy enough for their horse Diamond Cauchois. He’d won two of his four races in the mud in Ireland since being snapped up out of Sue Bramall’s stable, and in between was third to Presenting Percy at Gowran Park in a three-mile hurdle. As the mudlarks continued to thrive, Evans said: “Gordon thinks he missed a trick and that Diamond would have run well if he’d come for the Albert Bartlett.”

Many great performances, in some cases with horses making light of unfavourable conditions, sprinkled the four days. At the top end Altior, Buveur D’Air and Native River – oddly all British-trained amid the Irish landslide (bit like the rugby) – were deserved winners of the week’s three most highly-prized championship affairs. The first two confirmed (as if it were necessary) Nicky Henderson’s role as almost sole defender of British training pride in the face of Elliott’s, Gigginstown House Stud’s and Willie Mullins’ domination.

Before racing on Tuesday, Colin Tizzard stood on one winner from 67 runs at the last five Festivals, but struck a last-day double, Native River’s fans being encouraged by Kilbricken Storm’s 33-1 success in the Albert Bartlett. Now Native River has a Hennessy – the last – a Welsh National and a Gold Cup among eight wins, a second and four third places in 13 chases, and at the tender age of eight years old. The first winner of the re-styled Ladbroke Chase (late Hennessy) was Mullins’ Total Recall. He had moved into a closing sixth place by four out and may have been just as dangerous a foe as gallant runner-up Might Bite had he not fallen at the next fence. I expect we’ll see him at Aintree on April 14 in which case he’ll carry my cash, what’s left of it, having refrained from staying with Native River on the day.

Richard Johnson was thus adding a belated second Gold Cup to that of Looks Like Trouble for future father-in-law Noel Chance back in 2000. He is sponsored (as Siobhan Doolan, who works for them, reminded me) by M S Amlin, but another Johnson ride that I did want to win, had no luck at all.

In the first part of the Fred Winter, to be known next year as the full-on Boodles (no Fred), great idea as long as they keep sponsoring it – probably three years – I don’t think, Oxford Blu was going along happily on the rail about halfway back. Then Knight Destroyer fell right in his path, causing him to swerve violently to avoid being brought down and drop to the rear, a setback from which he could never recover. There will be other days.

With close on 150 wins for the season it was appropriate that Dan Skelton was able to pick up a second career Festival win with stable-neglected Mohaayed, ridden by future sister-in-law Bridget Andrews in the County Hurdle with brother Harry only sixth on first string Spiritofthegames, but close enough for a pulling-up snog.

Cheltenham is always ready – as Ruby Walsh and many others know only too well – to take immediate retribution, and just as it looked that the well-fancied North Hill Harvey would give the Skelton team a double in the finale, he fell three out and was fatally injured. Harry Skelton was briefly (only seconds) knocked out, but after a hospital visit was declared “fine” by the trainer. He is unlikely to ride much before the weekend.

That means he will be unavailable for Starcrossed’s run should Ray Tooth’s unexpected Huntingdon winner turn out at Ludlow on Thursday – the trainer thinks Haydock the day before looks tough. Bridget looks the obvious replacement. Even Starcrossed’s owner noticed the style of her success in one of the hottest handicaps of the week!

Cheltenham Festival 2018: Day Four Preview, Tips

And so to Gold Cup day, the final day of four at the Cheltenham Festival. Always a very difficult card, if you come up dry in the Triumph Hurdle and/or the big race itself, you'll be lucky to get out in front. We start with one of the more reliable (relatively) wagering conveyances of the day, the...

1.30 JCB Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 179yds)

Triumph Hurdle Preview

A race fairly high on quality if a little short on numbers with just nine going to post. They're headed by the unbeaten-in-four Apple's Shakira. All three of her wins since importing from France have come at Cheltenham, and all three of them have come on soft ground, most recently in the Grade 2 Triumph Hurdle Trial in January. She's obviously well suited to conditions, gets the seven pounds mares' allowance, should be suited by the run of the race and will be tough to beat.

But Apple's is not the highest rated in the field. That honour was claimed by Redicean, who improved his own unbeaten hurdles record to three when demolishing a shallow-looking line up in the Grade 2 Adonis Hurdle at Kempton last time. His three wins have all come at Kempton and, while that won't stop him adding Triumph glory, he is unproven on this very different circuit. He's rated inferior to Apple's Shakira after accounting for the sex allowance, and is a horse I'm happy to take on.

I respect the Irish one-two from the Spring Hurdle, Mr Adjudicator and Farclas. The former received a more patient ride to wear down the latter there, that looking the best piece of form in Ireland. There should again be little between them, though there is a joker in the Irish pack in the shape of Stormy Ireland.

A mare, she too will receive seven pounds from the boys. That obviously won't harm her cause but it is quite difficult to assess the merit of her win at Fairyhouse. There she pulled 58 (fifty-eight!) lengths clear of a moderate field and, so the clock lads tell me, in a very good time. She's not expected to get an easy time of it on the front, however, and that may compromise her ability to replicate the Fairyhouse effort. I can't back her at the price but nor can I discount the possibility that she's top class.

Saldier is another once-raced-in-Ireland Willie Mullins runner and, as the saying goes, if you've got four for the race you probably haven't got one. I'm not sure that's true, but this fellow is impossible to quantify and will likely be sussed out by the class elevation. I don't hold out much hope for the rest either.

Triumph Hurdle Pace Map

Triumph Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

Triumph Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

Triumph Hurdle Tips

This looks a good race for Apple's Shakira. She's tough and genuine and handles conditions well. I don't personally think she got the credit she deserved for her last day win: she was caught out of her ground and had a fair bit to do to get on terms with Look My Way; that she managed to pull eight lengths clear by the line spoke well of her. I think she'll come on for that run as well, and she's a good chance at a shortish price.

I'm not with Redicean or Stormy Ireland but fear the first two home from the Spring Hurdle, Mr Adjudicator and Farclas.

Best win bet: Apple's Shakira (short enough at 2/1 but playable if any firms go 5/2 in the morning)

Best each way bet: your choice of Mr Adjudicator and Farclas

**

2.10 Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 179yds)

County Hurdle Preview

Impossible race. Simply impossible. Using the avoiding bad bets approach, I'm looking for a five- or six-year-old towards the top of the market (20/1 or shorter). That actually doesn't help an awful lot, unfortunately. The pace map tells us that a hold up horse might be the best approach, which brings in last year's Fred Winter winner, Flying Tiger. He's been very well backed and I'm really annoyed with myself for not getting on at the better prices having spotted his County chance back in December. He's just about favourite now, and the booking of Noel Fehily looks inspired for a horse that will need to thread a passage from far back to grab this pot.

The other I'll guess with is Whiskey Sour. Willie Mullins' five-year-old actually won a Grade 1 two starts back and, while not necessarily taking that win entirely at face value (Mengli Khan, strong favourite that day, ran out), it remains good form. He's since been a twelve length fourth to Samcro in another Grade 1 and a mark of 141 is not insurmountable.

Two dozen more for you to choose from, including the interesting chase switcher, Brelade.

County Hurdle Pace Map

County Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

County Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

County Hurdle Tips

Ten deep to get through the placepot for me. Flying Tiger is short enough in the context of the race but certainly playable each way if you can get six places.

Best each way bet: Flying Tiger 14/1 (try to get extra places)

**

2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 7f 213yds)

Albert Bartlett Preview

After the County, this Grade 1 may look like a safe haven to the uninitiated; but recently it's been a minefield for punters with the last four winners returning 16/1, 11/1, 14/1 and, gulp, 33/1. Tread carefully is the suggestion.

Nicky Henderson has a strong hand with the first two in the market. Santini is the main man, unbeaten in a point and a couple of novice hurdles. He was impressive last time in wearing down Black Op - that one running Samcro close on Wednesday - and is the horse most likely to make up into a Gold Cup type. But he's inexperienced for a race of this nature and is no more than 'saver' material in my mind. In spite of that, I'd quite like to see him win well to support that 'possible future superstar' hunch.

The other Hendo at the head of the market is Chef Des Obeaux, staying on but no match for Santini when they met in December but subsequently thrice victorious. He will handle the ground, will stay, and has more match practice than his stablemate. The extra distance here, and the likely strong gallop, could get him closer to Santini this time around.

One I'm looking forward to seeing over this longer trip is OK Corral. Another from the Seven Barrows barn - he has four in the race, Mr Whipped completing the set - this green-and-golder was impressive when upped to two and a half at Kempton last time. He has a bit to find on the book but, as an eight year old against younger, is expected to relish the stamina test; he's a backable price.

The Irish challenge is headed by 64 length last day winner, Chris's Dream. As always with wide margin heavy ground successes it is very hard to gauge the level of that run. He'd previously won by less than five lengths in a race working out only okay, and he looks plenty short enough.

And at bigger prices, Dortmund Park is the type to go well in a heat like this. He's won a few and lost a few, and generally been best when the test has been severe. Davy Russell is a top man for the piloting role and he'll surely outrun 25/1 odds.

Albert Bartlett Pace Map

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

Albert Bartlett Tips

A hard race to weigh up. Santini is the right favourite and could be very good. But he's short enough for one so inexperienced. I think his stablemates Chef Des Obeaux and, especially at the prices, OK Corral might give him a race; and Dortmund Park looks over-priced.

Best value each way bet: OK Corral (12/1 Hills, Paddy)

Possible big priced each way poke: Dortmund Park (25/1 Betfair, Paddy, Betstars)

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**

3.30 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2f 70yds)

Gold Cup Preview

The Blue Riband event of the week, the Gold Cup is an extreme test of class and stamina, the latter perhaps the key attribute required on the rain-softened turf this time around.

Whether that will suit long-term antepost favourite, Might Bite, remains to be seen. He had the speed to demolish his Grade 1 Feltham field last season before demolishing the final fence; and he had the ability to win the RSA Chase a few months later despite wandering across to sign autographs after the last. But this is more than a quarter mile further and it will be a lot softer than it was on either of those occasions.

He did win the King George on soft ground when last seen, but that was an unimpressive one length verdict over Double Shuffle. Further, he was beaten on heavy (career debut, 6/5 fav) in his only other race with dig in the ground. And still there are more concerns: Might Bite likes to lead, but so does Native River. Getting involved in a tussle on the front with suspect stamina and on turf softer than ideal will mean he is an absolute superstar if he wins. Oh yes, he'll also have to not do his 'nutcase' job in the latter part of the race. Not for me, though I do love him.

Native River is now vying for favouritism. There are no doubts about this one's stamina or soft turf aptitude - he won a Welsh National on soft under top weight - and the race looks tailor made for him. But he too has questions to answer: will he 'bounce' after quite a hard race at Newbury on his comeback from a year off? And will he do too much too soon by taking on Might Bite for the lead? He is a reasonable win bet, but the questions I've posed in this para make him no each way good thing.

Jessica Harrington sends over the main Irish hope, Our Duke, and he has his conditions, too. A mudlark who bolted up in the Irish Grand National last term, he took a while to come to hand this season. A brace of poor runs in Grade 1 chases - unplaced favourite on both occasions - were laid to rest when he beat off Presenting Percy on heavy ground last time out. That one was a good winner of the RSA Chase on Wednesday giving the form a rock solid feel. He has his chance, a fact fully reflected in a quote of 6/1.

Killultagh Vic would have won or nearly won the Irish Gold Cup if not taking a heavy fall at the last in Leopardstown last month, and therein lies the major issue with him: he is a very sketchy leaper. That problem has meant each of his last four races have been in different calendar years, the recent spill coming after a win over hurdles in December, which was in turn his first run since January 2016. He has bags of ability, and he might be a bet with Coral's faller insurance, but I can't consider him as the selection with that major frailty sure to come under examination.

Definitly Red is a bit of a forgotten horse. Nominated as the each way bet of the meeting by the official handicapper, Phil Smith, at the recent London Racing Club Cheltenham preview, Brian Ellison's charge was a clear-cut winner of the Cotswold Chase over three miles and a furlong here in January. It was heavy that day, so nothing to fret about re ground or trip. Whether he's quite good enough I'm not sure, but he's a touch over-priced.

The one I really liked this year was Road To Respect. I say 'was' because I think it's got too muddy for his tastes: he's won on soft before, but his best form is on terra firmer (sic). If it does dry out a little, I still think he has a decent chance based on a couple of Grade 1 scores and a Festival win last year.

The winner of the Irish Gold Cup was Edwulf, and this story horse is another which has been somewhat forgotten in the run up to the race this year. Down and almost out after going wrong on the run-in in the National Hunt Chase at the Festival last year, he was more likely to lose his life than not, let alone return to racing at the top level. To then win a Grade 1, as he did that last day, is remarkable. The ground has come right for him again, and he is a touch of value at 16/1 albeit that he'd need to improve a few pounds; as a second season chaser he retains the scope to do just that.

American is three from three on soft ground but was no match for Definitly Red in receipt of four pounds last time. He was staying on at that shorter trip so it not impossible that he could make the first four or five. As a lightly raced runner, he too has a bit more scope than many in the field.

An outsider with a squeak is Anibale Fly, trained by Tony Martin. He wasn't really in the picture in that Irish Gold Cup before taking a heavy fall two out. I was hoping Mark Walsh would ride him but Barry Geraghty has chosen this fellow over Minella Rocco (he didn't have an option on Edwulf). The Fly loves a big field - he's won in herds of 16, 25 and 28 (twice) - and has shown abundant stamina up to the three mile range. He has to show he can see out the extra quarter mile and a bit and will be played fairly late, but he's an interesting 'rag'.

Interesting rag status is also conferred upon Djakadam, in his fourth Gold Cup attempt. 2nd-2nd-4th is his string thus far, so could he do a The Fellow? That French homme was second in both 1991 and 1992, and fourth in 1993 before finally claiming that elusive victory in 1994. While stranger things have happened, just one win from his last eleven starts does not offer too much hope.

The rest probably won't figure.

Gold Cup Pace Map

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2018: Pace Map

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2018: Pace Map

Gold Cup Tips

A wide open Gold Cup, and I'm sure it will be 5/1 the field in the morning. I respect Might Bite but fear the race setup for him; Native River is one I'm happy to let beat me; and I'm not sure about the Irish pair of Our Duke and Killultagh Vic. Of course, any of those could win, but they're not for me. At the prices, I'm happier taking a bit of a chance on Definitly Red, Anibale Fly and perhaps American.

Best value each way bet: Definitly Red 12/1 888sport (1/4 1-2-3)

Bigger priced smaller stakes each possibles: American 25/1 general, Anibale Fly 33/1 Hills

**

4.10 St James's Place Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2f 70yds)

Foxhunter Chase Preview

It now gets very very difficult. This race, run over the same course and distance as the Gold Cup, is for amateurs only, both horses and jockeys. Seven of the last nine winners returned 13/2 or shorter, the other pair being 16/1 and 33/1, and it is in the short grass that I will start and end my search for the winner.

The favourite is Burning Ambition, trained, like six of the last seven winners, in Ireland. He's had just two starts under Rules, winning on debut before running second to Gilgamboa in his prep for this. Just a seven-year-old, he has plenty of scope; indeed, those aged six or seven are five from 40 (12.5% win rate). That's better than twice as good as any other age group. Jamie Codd, the best rider in this peloton, takes the mount and if he gets the luck in transit he'll probably win.

Wonderful Charm is a ten-year-old representing last year's winning trainer, Paul Nicholls. He won at this marathon distance at Musselburgh last time, and was a close second in the race last year. Sam Waley-Cohen takes over from Katie Walsh, who steered that day, the dentist having ridden Wonderful Charm on his last two starts: W-C for WC. He ought again to run his race, and he's far from a bad each way bet with trip, track and ground all fine.

The pretender at the top of the market looks to be Foxrock. He has been whacked on both Festival starts, and seems either not to like travelling or not to like Cheltenham. The effect is the same: no bet.

And just like that we're into the double digit quotes. A couple which may be worth a second glance are Caid Du Berlais and Cousin Pete. The former is a nine-year-old good enough to race in a handicap at last year's Festival off a mark in the 140's. He's won his three points and, though there's a slight reservation about stamina in the ground, he'd be classier than most of these and is 14/1.

At a guesser's price, 40/1, Cousin Pete could go well for a fair way. He's a well bred - Kayf Tara out of an Alderbrook mare - latecomer who was a winner over three miles and a furlong at the April Hunter Chase meeting here. Since then he's run second on soft (three miles) at Market Rasen in a hunter chase which has worked out well (winner and third both won since). The jockey is a bit of an unknown, but if you're prepared to take that chance, you might get a decent run for a pennies play.

Foxhunter Chase Pace Map

Foxhunters' Chase 2018: Pace Map

Foxhunters' Chase 2018: Pace Map

Foxhunter Chase Tips

This appears to be a KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) race, and I like the jolly even if I'm not enormously fond of his price. 7/2 is still all right, mind. It ought to be hard to keep Wonderful Charm out of the frame, so 13/2 there is decent too.

In the prayer mat camp is Cousin Pete, a big priced value loser perhaps.

Best win bet: Burning Ambition 7/2 general

Best each way bet: Wonderful Charm 13/2 general

Hail Mary penny play: Cousin Pete 40/1 Betfair, Paddy, betstars, Victor

**

4.50 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Class 2, 2m 4f 56 yds)

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Preview

Oh my. The route in here simply has to be Gordon Elliott, former jockey to Martin Pipe, and the hottest trainer at the meeting after three winners on Wednesday and three more on Thursday. Elliott saddles four, and there may not be much between at least three of them.

Flawless Escape is a joint favourite, and the mount of Jonathon Moore. He has been consistent this season, winning twice and being placed on his other two starts, most recently in a Grade B Handicap at Leopardstown over three miles. A five year old with few miles on the clock, he should again run his race.

Sire Du Berlais, for whom Donal McInerney will sport the green and gold silks, is also towards the head of the market. He caught the eye when flying late at Fairyhouse last time, and is the sort of improving young horse that wins this race. Meanwhile, Blow By Blow won a Grade 3 novice hurdle with ease last time and is also seriously on the upgrade. This will be his first start in a handicap, Donagh Meyler taking the ride.

The thoroughly exposed Flaxen Flare rounds out Elliott's quartet. Exposed but with an excellent course record: he won the 2013 Fred Winter, was 4th in the Greatwood Hurdle later that year, and ran fifth in the County Hurdle in 2014. He's not been seen much since and, after an abortive chasing career, reverts to hurdles for the first time since an eleven length third to Apple's Jade four starts back. He'll probably outrun 66/1 quotes.

One that cattches my eye is Harry Fry's Melrose Boy. Third in a soft ground Grade 3 handicap hurdle last time - form franked by Topofthegame on Tuesday - this drop back in trip will suit and he too has few miles on the clock. 25/1 with as many extra places as you can get is attractive.

And how much would David Pipe love to win the race named in his father's honour? He's 0 from 18, one place, so far, which tempers enthusiasm for the unbeaten Mr Big Shot, a 16/1 chance making his handicap debut after a year off the track. Unexposed as he is, I'd want to see a good bit of money for him before having the confidence to follow them in. And, even then, I'd choke on the notion of having to miss the pick of the prices.

Obviously, bundles more with chances.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Tips

I genuinely have no idea and will not be betting. It is however the last leg of the hardest placepot of the week. From that perspective, Melrose Boy and the top three Elliott horses will all make my ticket. Melrose Boy is almost worth a stab at the prices.

Best hopeless guess in a tricky race: Melrose Boy 25/1 Coral

**

5.30 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 2m 62yds)

Grand Annual Preview

And so to the final race of 28 this week. The Home Time Handicap - also known as the Grand Annual - is a ferociously competitive two mile speed test when the job of leaping at full pelt in a big field finds most aspirants out.

The two for me are both green-and-gold'ers. First, representing last year's winning stable, is Don't Touch It. Trained by Jessica Harrington and ridden by the excellent Mark Walsh, whose record on the horse reads 2231214, this chap has clearly been laid out for the race. That doesn't set him apart from many others, except that a) his trainer knows how to win it (and is very close friends with Nicky Henderson, whose father Johnny the race commemorates), b) he has an almost perfect profile against the race conditions, and c) his hold up run style looks ideally suited to the expected fierce tempo.

My other swipe is Paul Nicholls' Le Prezien. Ol' Pumpkin also knows how to win a Grand Annual, having achieved the feat three times since 2004, most recently in 2016 with Solar Impulse. Le Prezien is a hold up horse - tick; will relish conditions - tick; has back class tying him in with Grade 1 chasers - tick; and gets assistance from Barry Geraghty... well, you can't have everything, can you?

On a more serious note, BJG has been a little out of luck/form this week, Buveur d'Air aside, and I'll be betting that he has a better Friday as you've seen above.

Loads of others with chances of course, though I'm against North Hill Harvey, whose trainer, Dan Skelton, is 1 from 27 in the last fortnight, and who may be compromised by being too close to a speed meltdown. If the speed was to hold up - unlikely - Gino Trail could be over-priced at 25/1.

Grand Annual Pace Map

Grand Annual Handicap Chase 2018: Pace Map

Grand Annual Handicap Chase 2018: Pace Map

Grand Annual Tips

Lord help you if you need to get out of jail on this race. Though, if there is a benevolent deity, he's probably backed Le Prezien and Don't Touch It - that's the white hat and the red hat for those watching in colour. Hope vastly trumps expectation.

Two each way against the rest: Don't Touch It 10/1 general, Le Prezien 16/1 bet365 (1/4 1-2-3-4-5)

**

And that's your lot. However things go on Gold Cup day, I hope you've had a brilliant week enjoying top class sport. The first three days have been utterly dominated by the Irish, and I'm hoping that changes on Friday. Maybe that's not a smart way to bet? Only time will tell.

Thanks a lot for your company this week, and good luck!

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2018: Day Three Preview, Tips

And so to the second half. The bad news for those who find themselves behind at this stage is that it gets tougher hereafter. Yikes. We start with an intermediate distance novices' chase where they bet 3/1 the field...

1.30 JLT Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 2m 3f 198yds)

JLT Novices' Chase Preview

A tricky race likely to be run at a good clip.  The market has an Irish horse at its head whereas the official ratings show a couple of Brits leading the pack.

Commencing with the ratings, top rated currently is Modus. Paul Nicholls' 8yo has beaten a total of seven rivals in winning three races this year; if that's unimpressive, the manner with which he's despatched them has been more appealing. Still, none would cut much ice here and the lack of top class winning form is a worry. It's one of those where it would be a tad disappointing were he good enough to win, unless of course he steps forward on what he's shown: after 21 career starts he probably doesn't have the progression of some of his rivals.

Next in is Finian's Oscar. Undoubtedly talented, he's been somewhat unpredictable - like many from his yard - and fair choked it last time on heavy. That may be a more literal statement than it first appears as he's since had a wind op and comes here for his first post-surgery run. He has little to find on the book but, aside from his Jekyll and Hyde profile, the other reservation is the going. There is not a large body of evidence from which to work but that was a lamentable showing in the mud last time, his only race on heavy turf. Perhaps it was an aberration and I certainly wouldn't be adamant he can't act on such deep underfoot, but nor would I want to bet at 6/1 that he can.

Invitation Only is favoured. Willie Mullins' horse has, in my view (but not that of the official handicapper), the best form in the race. That is his close third in the Flogas Chase, the value of which we'll understand better after the first, second and fourth from there re-oppose in the RSA. If he didn't have too hard a race there, he'll go close, though a niggle remains that he's been beaten each of three times he's stepped into Grade 2 or better company.

Nicky Henderson runs the unbeaten in Britain Terrefort. Two wins, at Huntingdon and then in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles at Sandown, were recorded on soft ground but he won twice on heavy in his native France prior to importation. He looks a very smart recruit with doubtless more to come; if ridden a little patiently, behind the likes of Shattered Love and perhaps Bigmartre, he should see it out well.

Although I'm open to being wrong - certainly not dogmatic about it - I don't feel that Benatar's form is quite as strong. It ties in with Finian's Oscar's more recent endeavours, but those don't excite too much in this context either. Gary Moore's charge comes here on the four-timer so he's given his owners a lot of fun already but a doubt about the ground allied to slightly below top form make him a 'no' from me.

A horse of interest at a bigger price is Shattered Love. She is 11211 this season, including a Grade 1 score over three miles at Christmas. That was on soft ground and prior to that she won over two miles on heavy in a Grade 3. That's solid form, and she has a winning mentality generally which makes 17/2 appealing, at least from an each way perspective.

The rest don't look up to this.

JLT Novices' Chase Pace Map

JLT Novices' Chase 2018: Pace Map

JLT Novices' Chase 2018: Pace Map

JLT Novices' Chase Tips

A few horses a few pounds shy of top class and this doesn't look a vintage renewal. I reckon Shattered Love might give a bold display from the front, but Terrefort looks the sort to keep improving for a while yet and he's already just about the best in the race. 4/1 is worth a play.

Best value win bet: Terrefort 4/1 general

Best value each way bet: Shattered Love 17/2 bet365 1/4 1-2-3

**

2.10 Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 7f 213yds)

Pertemps Final Preview

You've got to be kidding me! This is harem scarem stuff. Using the 'avoid bad bets' methodology, I'll try Who Dares Wins and A Great View against the masses.

Who Dares Wins rarely runs a bad race, including when third in the Coral Cup behind Stayers' Hurdle favourite, Supersundae, last year. This is a first try at the three mile range and he's got heavy ground to contend with also, but he has been pretty reliable in big field handicaps over the years and will race within striking distance of the leaders if good enough. He has few secrets from the handicapper, however.

One with a less obvious profile is A Great View, a green and gold runner from the little heralded yard of Denis Cullen. Four pounds higher than his Irish mark, he needed those extras to sneak into the race, and his very close second of 29 in the Leopardstown qualifier (soft) over Christmas is strong form. That was followed by a quiet ride when fifth of 16 behind Total Recall in a Grade B handicap hurdle at the Dublin Festival, an outing that should have brought him to concert pitch for this. I'd imagine he'll shorten a fair bit given connections, and the 16/1 NRNB BOG is good value.

Trip and ground are ideal for Theo's Charm, and he's a third horse worth a look if you can get a few extra places to play each way. Oodles more with prospects.

Pertemps Final Pace Map

Pertemps Final 2018: Pace Map

Pertemps Final 2018: Pace Map

Pertemps Final Preview Tips

I'll keep this brief as it's not a race I think I have a handle on. But A Great View could be a well handicapped horse in spite of a couple of bonus points form the British 'capper. 16/1 is the each way bet for me.

Best value each way bet: A Great View 16/1 (BetVictor 1/4 1-2-3-4-5)

**

2.50 Ryanair Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4f 166yds)

Ryanair Chase Preview

Just seven in this and, if Douvan sticks to the Champion Chase as expected, it will be six. Nevertheless, it's an interesting little heat. Un De Sceaux is the defending champion and he has a fair bit going for him in the repeat bid. He is two from two this season, beating first Top Gamble and then Speredek into second. I'm not entirely convinced of the strength of that form and, as can be seen below, there may be fair bit of pace in the race to prevent a front-running performance.

UDS sets the standard in spite of those reservations, but at ten years old and at even money, I'm looking for an alternative. Sub Lieutenant is no back number himself, though his primary objective here is surely pace-making/spoiling for his more able connection-mate, Balko Des Flos.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Balko is the young pretender: at seven, only Frodon in this field is younger (six). He ran an excellent second to Road To Respect at Leopardstown over Christmas (three miles, yielding) and comes here a fresh horse. There may be a slight niggle about the ground for him, and he does seem to find one too good a little too often for my tastes; but he's talented and moving forwards and could be a big danger under the excellent Davy Russell. Still, 5/2 is unexciting.

Cue Card showed there's life in the old dog yet when a close second to the excellent Waiting Patiently last time at Ascot (this trip and similar ground), and he is by no means out of this. As an eleven-year-old, he has a heck of a lot of history against him - and, actually, given his Festival record, a heck of a lot of history for him too! 13/2 is playable, though there may be a Douvan rule 4 on that, meaning 9/2 is more like it. He'd bring the house down were he to win.

But I'll roll the dice with young Frodon. Tough and consistent, he may not be quite as classy as some of these but would only have to step forward a handful of pounds to be in the shake up. The ground will be fine for him, he should get the run of the race with plenty of dash in this short field. As ever, it's the price that makes the bet, 11/1 being too big.

Ryanair Chase Pace Map

Ryanair Chase 2018: Pace Map

Ryanair Chase 2018: Pace Map

 

Ryanair Chase Tips

Un De Sceaux will make a bold bid to double up, even money perhaps overstating how bold. Balko Des Flos will be far from a shock but is too short also. Cue Card will probably get bet because he's the people's horse, so take 9/2 BOG if you want it. But I'm taking a flyer on Frodon. I like this young man, who has danced many dances here in his short life to date. 11/1 looks over the top.

Best value bet (win or each way): Frodon 11/1 general

**

3.30 Sunbets Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 7f 213yds)

Stayers' Hurdle Preview

A Stayers' Hurdle perhaps short on quality but consequently long on competitiveness  makes for a fascinating punting puzzle. Underlining that point, there are no fewer than six horses separated by just three pounds on official ratings between 161 and 164 - whereas recent renewals have been won by horses rated close to or above 170.

Sam Spinner, from the unfashionable Jedd O'Keefe yard, is the favourite, and that looks right given his ascendant profile and very good form on deep ground. He was impressive in the Long Walk Hurdle - a key trial - last time, beating the high class yardstick but hard-to-win-with L'Ami Serge snugly in the end. Prior to that he'd turned a competitive looking handicap hurdle into a procession at Haydock. His rating has gone 136-139-155-164 this term so who is to say he's done improving yet?

The one reservation is whether The New One will allow him the lead he probably craves. TNO's team may wish they'd gone for the Champion Hurdle this year such was the state of the Tuesday turf, but that is history now and their gig is this one. With stamina to prove and very little reason to expect him to step forward he's tough to recommend.

Of the two JP McManus runners, I'm surprised that Unowhatimeanharry is available at longer odds than Yanworth. 'harry was third in this last year when sent off at odds-0n, and he's run acceptably in defeat this term. A ten length third to Sam Spinner at Ascot, he'll relish the deeper conditions this time. He has apparently been working very well and I think he's a good each way play in spite of not necessarily expecting him to reverse form with Sam.

Yanworth was chasing but couldn't jump a fence. He struggles with a hurdle too. He is undoubtedly in possession of a touch of class, is two from two on heavy and has the beating of Supasundae on Aintree form last term. I just don't happen to rate the form line. If I'm wrong about that, I'll be on the wrong horses here. Them's the breaks.

The likes of Lil Rockefeller, Old Guard and Penhill - still less Bacardys - have too much to find on the book.

Stayers' Hurdle Pace Map

Stayers' Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

Stayers' Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

Stayers' Hurdle Tips

There are not many horses with the scope to progress markedly in this field, the main exception being Sam Spinner. If he can get the lead without too much duress, he'll be a very hard horse to pass, and I think his 'working man' connections make him a bigger price than he should be.

Best value win bet: Sam Spinner 4/1 general

**

4.10 Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 2m 4f 166yds)

Brown Advisory Plate Handicap Chase Preview

Unfathomable stuff as far as I can tell. Using the 'avoid bad bets' approach mentioned elsewhere, I'll remove horses trained by the 'volume trainers'. After that I'll take one from the top and one from the bottom.

At the top my dart is Tully East. Winner of the Novices' Handicap Chase at this meeting last year, he's ten pounds higher this time around. But, with a strong preference for two and a half miles and good form on heavy, it may not be enough to stop him running another gallant race. Denis O'Regan is a decent jockey for playing the cards late, and the expected strong pace here is in his favour too.

Much more speculatively, Ballyalton could go well. He was the winner of the same Festival race as Tully East a year earlier, off a mark of 140. Lightly raced since, he comes here off a two pounds lower mark. He did pull up last time but was a good fourth in a big field handicap on soft ground at the November meeting, that off a five pounds higher rating. I'm not certain he'll cope with the ground - he's never raced on heavy - but the price accommodates that concern, for small money.

The rest also have chances!

Brown Advisory Plate Handicap Chase Pace Map

Brown Advisory Plate 2018: Pace Map

Brown Advisory Plate 2018: Pace Map

Brown Advisory Plate Handicap Chase Tips

Two against the field are the last two winners of the Novices' Handicap Chase run on the opening day of the Festival.

Two against the field: Tully East 9/1 Coral, Ballyalton 20/1 Hills

**

4.50 Trull House Stud Mares' Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2, 2m 179yds)

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Preview

Possibly the weakest race at the Festival - Fred Winter aside - the mares' novices' hurdle looks like it will be a good race for the favourite. Won in the inaugural two years by Willie Mullins' good things, Limini and Let's Dance, it will probably be won again this year by Willie Mullins' good thing, Laurina.

She is only the second highest rated in the field, according to BHA ratings, but her two Irish wins were both on heavy and she remains 'could be anything' material.

Top rated is Stuart Edmunds' tough mare, Marias Benefit. She comes here on a six-timer, having started in handicaps off a lowly 117. She was progressively elevated to 152 before her last run where, despite winning, she dropped back to a peg of 147. The problem for her looks to be her love of the lead and the presence of a potential spoiler. Cut The Mustard is in the same ownership as Laurina and races prominently. If taking Marias Benefit on to be the point of the peloton, she could compromise that one's chances and set things up for the favourite. I suspect that may happen.

The rest are not good enough on what they've done, and would have to leap forward by a stone and more to overcome those at the head of the market. Cap Soleil is one who could sneak into the frame for local trainer, Fergal O'Brien. She won a heavy ground Listed hurdle last time and her held up run style will keep her out of a firing line expected to claim a casualty or two. It would be no surprise to see her pick up the pieces for second or third.

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Mares' Novices' Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

Mares' Novices' Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Tips

This is about Willie again. But Cap Soleil might be worth a small each way 'without the favourite' interest.

Best route in if you don't like 4/6 Laurina: Cap Soleil each way without the favourite (no prices currently, but 7/2 or better acceptable)

**

5.30 Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Amateur Riders' Handicap Chase (Class 2, 3m 2f)

Kim Muir Preview

Amateur riders, three and a quarter miles, fences, handicap chase, heavy ground. Crikey.

I'll be taking an old established stayer with an old established rider for my two against the field in this. Step forward Pendra and Band Of Blood.

Pendra is green and gold, and has the excellent Derek O'Connor riding. He also has top weight, which doesn't make things easy, but he's got form on heavy (2nd-1st), loves Cheltenham (1st-3rd-5th-2nd at the last four Festivals), and handles big fields. What's not to like?

Dr Richard Newland's Band Of Blood is a fellow ten-year-old, like Pendra, and he comes here on a hat-trick. He actually has few recent miles on the clock having missed the previous two seasons before returning last month. This will be a fairly quick third outing in five weeks, which is a bit of a concern, but he has back class and good recent form in the book. Heavy is no problem for him and nor is the trip. James King, one of the better UK riders, takes to the plate.

In a race where it's often better to be lucky than good, I'll chance that pair against the rest.

Kim Muir Pace Map

Kim Muir Handicap Chase 2018: Pace Map

Kim Muir Handicap Chase 2018: Pace Map

Kim Muir Tips

Two each way against the field:  Pendra 11/1 general, Band Of Blood 14/1 Hills

**

It's my least favourite day of the four - tricky punting and lower quality - so the above deliberations should be consumed in that context. Still, if a bad day at the races is better than a good day at the office, then a bad day at Cheltenham is better than many good days at the races!

How are you going so far? And what do you like for Day 3?

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2018: Day Two Preview, Tips

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

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

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle 2018: Pace Map

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Tips

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

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

**

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

RSA Chase Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RSA Chase Pace Map

RSA Chase 2018: Pace Map

RSA Chase 2018: Pace Map

RSA Chase Tips

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

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

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

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

**

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

Coral Cup Preview

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

Your first 30 days for just £1

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

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

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

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

Coral Cup Pace Map

Coral Cup 2018: Pace Map

Coral Cup 2018: Pace Map

Coral Cup Tips

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

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

**

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

Champion Chase Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

Champion Chase Pace Map

Champion Chase 2018: Pace Map

Champion Chase 2018: Pace Map

Champion Chase Tips

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

Best value win bet: Min 4/1 sportingbet

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

**

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

Cross Country Chase Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross Country Chase Pace Map*

*Overseas runners have incomplete data

Cross Country Chase 2018: pace map

Cross Country Chase 2018: pace map

Cross Country Chase Tips

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

Best win bet: Cause Of Causes 11/4 general

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

**

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

Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle: Pace Map

Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle: Pace Map

Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle Tips

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

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

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

Blind loyalty bet: OXFORD BLU 20/1 🙂

**

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

Champion Bumper Preview

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

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

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

Champion Bumper Pace Map

Champion Bumper 2018: Pace Map

Champion Bumper 2018: Pace Map

Champion Bumper Tips

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

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

**

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

Matt

My Cheltenham Ante Post Portfolio 2018

As has become customary over the past few years (when I remember), I'm going to share my ante post portfolio for the 2018 Cheltenham Festival. For reasons of just being too bloody busy to watch as much racing as I'd like, it's a little smaller than normal, but that does afford the opportunity to talk to each line on the spreadie...

For info, and for whatever it's worth, here are previous versions (2014 and 2017 missing for some reason):

2013 - 2014 - 2015 - 2016 - 2017

To this year, and here are the bets:

 

 

You'll note that I have no bets on Thursday at this stage. It's unquestionably the poor relation of the week and, to be honest, with Friday being very tricky indeed, my mission is to try to be in front at half time and then try not to lose it in the second half!

The first bet I struck is the last line in the spreadie - a gorgeous mug double on the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup. Might Bite has shortened significantly since mid-November, but Defi Du Seuil, impressive winner of the Triumph Hurdle last season, has failed to make the line up after two poor runs for a stable wrestling with a lurgy this term. (It should also be said that there's a very good chance he was simply not good enough, as most five year olds exiting the Triumph aren't. But, the logic was solid - I made it a very shallow Champion Hurdle and wanted something against Buveur d'Air).

To Tuesday...

In many people's opinion, the first day is the best. That may also be true of Aintree and indeed Royal Ascot, certainly in terms of consistent quality. The opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle is a race which can throw up a nice priced, but not impossible, winner and I've wanted to be against Getabird in spite of that one's obvious class.

I was impressed with Kalashnikov in the Betfair, a race which seems a reasonable trial for this contest and, while conditions are likely to be less testing next Tuesday, I don't think this lad is short of speed. He'll certainly finish off well enough and looks a decent place chance at least at the taken 10/1.

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In the Arkle, I'm against Footpad. While he's done nothing wrong, he wasn't a better hurdler than Petit Mouchoir (4/1 taken) - in fact he was a few pounds inferior - and I'm not sure we've seen the best of the latter. Lob in the possible monster that is Saint Calvados (9/2) and you have a superb race in prospect, where 6/4 is just too short about the jolly. Of course, I'm not saying he can't or won't win; just that it looks a lot more competitive than that. As with Kalashnikov, I've managed to beat the market and, with Sceau Royal coming out, have so far dodged the late non-runner bullets (to continue the semi-automatic weapon analogy). Still time for that to change...

Very few guesses in the handicaps, but Gold Present in the Ultima is one I think will end up around the 5/1 or 6/1 mark, assuming he shows up. 10/1 was fair enough, and 8/1 probably still beats SP, though whether you want to bet at single figure odds in a race like this is moot. He's a progressive sort whose form has worked out very well. Probably wouldn't want it too soft, though.

The Champion Hurdle next and this is Buveur D'Air's race. When I previewed it a while back, I felt it might be worth taking a couple of NRNB stabs safe in the knowledge that we'd get the dough back if they didn't show. My pin fell on Min and Yorkhill. The former looks likely to stay chasing, and the latter has a lot to prove. But reverting to hurdles could be the perfect tonic. Sadly the 5/1 I accepted has now expanded to 10/1 NRNB and it is not that hard to envisage a rejuvenated Yorkhill proving the main danger to the champ.

In the National Hunt Chase, I've had something between a sentimental bet and a value guess on Anthony Honeyball's (actually, Martyn Chapman's) Ms Parfois. This gorgeous mare, who may win Nationals in the next couple of seasons, stays very well, jumps very well, and handles wet ground. Whether she quite has the class of some of these, I'm not sure. But 20/1 was too big. She's a general 16/1 chance and that may also be mildly on the generous side.

Wednesday...

If I'm behind after Tuesday, there's a good chance my Festival will be a losing one; but Wednesday offers more hope than the two days which follow, so...

I had a guess on Next Destination in the Neptune/Ballymore back in early January, since when Samcro has shown himself to be a beast of a man. Still, Death Duty came to the Albert Bartlett with a similarly lofty reputation last term and was well beaten when decanting his rider at the last. 8/1 about a 5/1 shot is OK, especially each way, but this is a nice race. Quite apart from Samcro, there is also On The Blind Side, a smart Hendo novice, and probably one of the Brookhouse pair, Summerville Boy and Black Op.

In the RSA Chase, I took an early punt on Finian's Oscar. Even if he lines up here, he's had a wretched season and I honestly don't think the Tizzard team know quite where they are with him. Clearly talented,  this looks another early season wish gone west. Backed at 16's, he's now 20's everywhere and I don't even have the luxury of NRNB. Given he's more likely for the JLT and could even go to the Stayers' Hurdle, it'll be a minor miracle to even get a run.

Charbel was a good ol' fashioned flyer in the Champion Chase for small money at a big price (nearly 50's on Betfair) back in mid-October. I have to say that, at this stage, I don't know if he will line up but, if he does and if he could come back to the form of his run in the Arkle last term, he'd have a definite squeak in a race where most of the top order have questions to answer. I hope he does show because it'll save me from losing money on something else!

Then comes the Fred Winter where, deities willing, a geegeez syndicate will have a runner! Oxford Blu is our lad's name, and he's been a fantastic stick for us already, with the promise of more to come. He wants further than the two miles he's been racing over (he's a flat winner over 2m2f as a 3yo already), needs a true run race, and handles any ground. Having the champion jockey riding won't be a bad thing if it comes to pass either. I had a dip at 33/1 each way, but in truth I'd have enough to cheer if he turns into the straight with any sort of chance...

More pragmatically, I took a tenner at 50's on Nick Williams' Esprit de Somoza. His win in the Chatteris Fen was not a fluke: rather it was the product of them going very fast early, which is a likely scenario in the Fred Winter. 50/1 is a distant memory now, even though the bet was struck in late February, and he's a top priced 16/1 - generally 14/1 - with Oxford Blu still 25/1 in a few places.

Thursday...

has nothing for me just yet, but I will be backing Waiting Patiently if he's declared for the Ryanair. That lad is some tool. Some serious tool. Soft ground and pace-pressing Un De Sceaux will be optimal for him and he's probably the horse I'm most looking forward to seeing, Oxford Blu aside.

Friday...

And so to Friday. We have two realistic chances to save a losing week here, the Triumph and Gold Cup. But both look seriously competitive this year. In the Triumph, I backed Apple's Shakira in January, at 7/2. Since then a number of Irish horses have staked a claim, and so too has Redicean with a fine effort in the Adonis. But I like the Henderson filly and I don't think we've seen the best of her yet. I felt her Trials Day success was under-rated: she was out of her ground on testing terrain, against a decent enough stick, and finished well on top by the line. Not flashy but highly effective. She's still 10/3 in a place and has a favourite's chance (whatever the hell that means).

And I've had a swipe at the first two in the Spring Hurdle from Ireland. Not sure which of the pair will come out on top next time, but suspect it might be Gordon Elliott's Farclas. Having backed them at 9's and 12's, they're 8/1 each of two now. Willie has a number still engaged in the race, including Eoline Jolie, a mare at whom I blindly hurled a tenner at 33's in December. She's not run since moving to Mullins, and it was a surprise to see the entry kept alive. I doubt she'll run, still less be good enough after such a long layoff, but it remains to be seen which of his quintet take up the engagement.

I'm against Redicean in spite of his tidy victory at Kempton. That's not to say he won't win (natch), just that I'd question the strength of the form.

In the County Hurdle, a miracle punting race if ever there was one, I missed the boat on Flying Tiger having flagged the race as a likely target as early as December on the tweet machine. His chance is respected, along with about a thousand others, but I felt there might be a case for taking an absolute flyer with the horse who ran second to the Tiger in the Fred Winter, Divin Bere. I backed him at 50's and he's weighted to reverse form with Flying Tiger. But the ground could be pretty soft by Friday and that's not at all in his favour, sadly. Might have been a smart call had the precipitation stayed away.

And so to the Gold Cup, a wide open looking heat where they'll likely go 5/1 the field next Friday morning. I love Might Bite. I mean, sure, he's a mentalist, but what ability he has to roll across to the stands and sign a few autographs before breaking Whisper's heart in an RSA. The fact is that, errant courses and last fence horlickses aside, no horse has laid a glove on Might Bite since November 2016. Yes, you have to accept that some weird sh!t could happen when you really don't want it to if you back him. But he's rock solid to give a big run for your money. I haven't backed him, but I will do when the 5's pops up Friday week.

What I have backed is Road To Respect at 12's and 10's (currently 10/1). He's been highly progressive for over a year now and, if it wasn't going to be wet come Gold Cup day, I'd give him an excellent each way chance. He's a strong stayer, upwardly mobile as I've said, and comes here a fresh horse having dodged that hard race at the Dublin Festival. But he's probably a stone less of a man on soft...

My other tickle was/is Anibale Fly, who did run in that Dublin Festival race. Not only that but he took a heavy fall when fired into the second last by a high profile jockey whose biggest fan I am not. If the Fly does show up at Chelto, he hopefully be won't be ridden by that pilot, but irrespective of that he too wouldn't want it deep.

It could be Might Bite to save the week. There's a slightly terrifying prospect!

Matt

Trending Towards Cheltenham 2018

Traditional trend analysis for Cheltenham can be quite binary, particularly in the negative sense with comments like ‘horse X cannot win because it is the wrong age OR ran in the wrong prep race OR hasn’t had a recent outing’ not uncommon. Horse races – particularly some of the big fields at the Festival – tend to be more complex than that and while some of those trends have their place (says the fella that’s after writing about 8,000 words for the Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide!) it might be more pertinent to consider what has been going on in the current season. I’ve had a look at two patterns from the 2017/18 national hunt seasons, one from the UK and one from Ireland, to see how they might impact Cheltenham 2018. I suspect both will prove more useful for post-meeting analysis rather than be of predictive value ahead of it but are worth considering when that time comes.

 

Where has all the good ground gone?

National hunt racing is by definition a winter game but in most seasons there are halcyon days where good ground prevails and those meetings are often useful for finding winners at the Festival; conditions for these cards have most in common with the decent ground we get for Cheltenham in the typical year. For seemingly every major jumps meeting in the UK this season however the defining post-race image has been a mud-spattered jockey coming in and saying ‘it’s pretty testing out there today.’

If we take the 26 feature meetings since the start of the jumps season proper in November up to Kempton on Saturday February 25th (typically the last day for meaningful Cheltenham trials) we find that only six of them have been run with ‘good’ in the going descriptions. By ‘feature meetings’ I mean the main Saturday card each week and in some cases there was more than one while I also included the King George card on December 26th and Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.

Kempton last Saturday was held on good ground and of the other five three were at Ascot (November 11th, November 25th, December 23rd) and one each at Newbury for the Hennessy and Sandown for the Tingle Creek. For reference purposes, the first Ascot meeting saw big handicap wins for Elgin and Go Conquer with Top Notch and Lil Rockerfeller winning Graded races on the second card and Sam Spinner and Hunters Call being the principal Festival fancies from the last one. Total Recall might be the key horse from the Hennessy (now Ladbrokes) meeting with Elegant Escape in there too, while Sceau Royal is the main runner from the Sandown meeting.

What is interesting is that there has been no Cheltenham meeting run on good ground since the start of November so perhaps the key form from that track will prove to be last year’s Festival; it is not unreasonable to think there will be wholesale form reversals from those cards. Furthermore, there have basically been very few good ground trials at any UK racetrack since the turn of the year.

There is a possibility – a good possibility in light of recent weather events – that we get a soft ground Festival and on one level you might expect the form from these meetings to work out. However, those winners and placers may now be starting to go over-the-top after a series of hard races on deep ground, so perhaps we need to look for fresher horses. But those runners coming off a break may struggle for conditioning on the ground! It’s not simple.

When reading through statistics on the Festival you can come across some interesting things about the record of horses coming off the last run on testing ground. Denis Beary (interviewed here last month) recently pointed out horses running in Grade 1 chases that had their last outing on heavy ground in the previous month are 0/43 with 6 places. In the Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide, Matt Tombs makes the point that in Gold Cups since 1996, the 79 horses that ran on heavy going that season were all beaten.

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That may be the case in the top-level chases and it does make sense that horses would find it difficult to overcome a hard race beforehand.  Overall, however, a final prep run on heavy ground has not been a negative. Below is a table of the record of UK-trained horses at the Festival since 2010 by the going description of their final prep run. I have focused on the UK-based runners as all the Irish races run are different degrees of heavy ground anyway!

 

Going Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place  Strikerate P+L Actual/

Expected

Heavy 29 506 5.7% 88 17.4% -112.09 0.90
Soft 36 965 3.7% 162 16.8% -505.42 0.60
Gd-Sft 38 837 4.5% 127 15.2% -381.57 0.67
Good 13 388 3.4% 53 13.7% -184.50 0.64
Gd-Fm 1 17 5.9% 4 23.5% -10.50 1.45
AW 0 67 0.0% 2 3.0% -67.00 0.00

 

While horses having the final pre-Cheltenham run on soft or good-soft have produced the most winners, it is the heavy going preppers that have the best win strike-rate, place strike-rate, the lowest loss to level stake and the highest actual over expected of those with a decent sample size. It seems a run on heavy ground, or at least a recent one, may not be ideal for top-level chases but it seems not to be a negative for other races.

One interesting side point is the poor record of horses that had their final run on the all-weather. Some will have run on the flat but many took part in ‘jumpers’ bumpers’ and with the weather disruption it seems likely that there will be a few such runners this year; two of those cards are scheduled at the moment. My Tent Or Yours, second in the 2014 Champion Hurdle having won an all-weather bumper at Kempton, is one of only two such horses to place at the Festival from 67 runners.

 

Dublin Racing Festival – Too good for its own good?

The biggest change in the Irish jumps calendar in 2017/18 was the introduction of the Dublin Racing Festival and this led to some movement, time-wise, of the races at the meeting. While the races on the old Irish Gold Cup/Hennessy were basically where they had been, the Irish Champion Hurdle and Arkle were a week later while the Coral Hurdle and Leopardstown Chase were three weeks later. By and large, the races that made up the weekend were more competitive than they had been in their previous spots as Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott went at it for the Trainers’ Championship.

Perhaps the altered positioning of these races means nothing but how the contests were run could be important and over the two days, overall times suggest that three races in particular were run at championship pace relative to expectations which might be worth monitoring. Those races were the Dublin Chase, the Irish Arkle and the Spring Juvenile Hurdle and the likes of Min, Footpad, Petit Mouchoir, Mr Adjudicator and Farclas all feature towards the top of their respective ante-post markets for Cheltenham.

Leopardstown remains by far the preeminent Irish trialling ground for Cheltenham which is sensible if a little self-fulfilling; the track is left-handed, galloping with a somewhat uphill finish and often produces better ground than other Irish courses through the winter but most importantly it hosts the best races. Below is a table of the courses that the Irish-trained Festival runners since 2010 had their final pre-Cheltenham run at.

 

Track Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Level-Stakes Actual/

Expected

Leopardstown 43 349 12.3% 120 34.4% +50.69 1.19
Punchestown 13 131 9.9% 33 25.2% -56.64 0.83
Fairyhouse 9 90 10.0% 23 25.6% +16.23 1.27
Navan 8 84 11.9% 19 22.6% +11.88 1.42
Naas 5 72 6.9% 17 23.6% +29.00 0.78
Cheltenham 4 30 13.3% 11 36.7% +0.75 1.44
Thurles 3 42 7.1% 9 21.4% +0.25 1.13
Limerick 2 13 15.4% 13 23.1% +6.50 1.92
Clonmel 1 27 3.7% 8 29.6% -14.00 0.61
Gowran 1 78 1.3% 14 18.0% -69.00 0.20

 

Those that ran at Leopardstown dominate with Punchestown next in; I do wonder if we will see a drop off with horses trialling at Punchestown as their programme was weakened by the establishment of the Dublin Racing Festival. The one that stands out as a negative is Gowran Park. There are some decent meetings at the track, notably the Thyestes and the Red Mills day, but it tends to produce its own brand of testing ground – I think the clerk of the course recently described it as ‘heavy to off’ – which might be a negative for Our Duke and Presenting Percy this year amongst others.

Going back to the Dublin Racing Festival, an unusual aspect of the meeting was Willie Mullins running so many horses over the weekend, 42 in total; the trainer actually had fewer runners in some calendar months this season, with May, June and October seeing 40, 28 and 35 Mullins runners respectively. He is generally much more selective, at least at this time of the year, and he may almost have been going against his usual training methods to keep pace with Gordon Elliott who is much more of a volume trainer and used to running his horses more frequently.

None of this may matter at Cheltenham, in fact in probably won’t. It could be a significant factor at Punchestown though. There is a difference between going through the turn of the year from prep run to Cheltenham to Punchestown to going Leopardstown to Cheltenham to Punchestown with an extra hard race in there. I have always thought that horses running at the three spring Festivals of Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown (with Fairyhouse mixed in for some) was a tough ask and now we have an extra Festival beforehand. Some of the Mullins stars like Yorkhill and Vautour struggled at Punchestown 2016 having taken in Aintree after Cheltenham and that might be the case again in 2018.

- Tony Keenan

How to Bet the Cheltenham Festival

Denis Beary is a punter of many Festivals past at this point and someone who thinks deeply about form and betting. With Cheltenham less than four weeks away now, I caught up with him to see what he is expecting from this year’s meeting, and to discuss the Festival betting landscape in general, writes Tony Keenan.

 

Are you looking forward to Cheltenham this year, be it from a betting or racing perspective? There’s a sense that this has been the season when people have tired a little of the 12-month build-up to the meeting, the incessant ante-post quotes, the endless preview nights. What do you reckon?

Although I agree that Festival hype is completely overdone these days, the year I don’t look forward to Cheltenham I’ll know it’s time to pack it in and take up growing vegetables or something. I’ve blogged that this is the first year I won’t be there in quite a long time but that doesn’t mean I won’t be clearing the decks to allow full immersion for the four days. Of course I still enjoy the spectacle; it’s still the highlight of the National Hunt season even if they have diluted the quality considerably by adding the extra races and a fourth day.

In terms of punting it’s a chance to have a “Super Saturday” for 4 straight days – by that I mean a high turnover day with the firms betting to very competitive percentages and laying plenty of horses so they really don’t mind taking your business. A bet that would typically require a phone call, probably followed by a stake limitation on a normal weekday, barely gets glanced at – that’s a big plus.

 

Is ante-post betting on the meeting dead or dying? Perhaps it’s the romantic in me but I seem to remember times past when you would try to find something at 33/1 for a race like the Gold Cup, watch it shorten all winter nursing your docket tenderly and it with pitch up on the day at 6/1 and regardless of the result you got some value. I have barely even tried to find a bet like that this season. Furthermore, the biggest betting firm in Ireland, Paddy Power, went non-runner, no-bet for all races at a ridiculously early stage (January 9th) and basically said we don’t want ante-post money. What are your thoughts on the early NRNB? 

I largely agree. The Paddy NRNB prices are laughably awful and I’ve hardly bothered to go through them. I preferred when the firms used to go NRNB more or less together usually at the end of February or early March. I used to find that a few firms didn’t fully understand the difference that NRNB makes, especially in the handicaps. That hasn’t been as evident in the past few years. From a time where I’d be flat out going through every race at this stage 10 years ago, I’m far more relaxed about it now and I don’t expect to have nearly as many bets ante post as I did back then. The fact that there are multiple targets for every horse now complicates the picture considerably and in a lot of cases you’re better waiting until the smoke clears. I’d only bet one ante post now if a) its target is in no doubt and b) I’m getting double what I’d expect the SP to be. That’s not easy to find these days.

Ante-post wise these days I tend to concentrate on the three big championship races mostly on Betfair trying to make a book over the season backing and laying. My entry point is often a returning hero that I want to be against – for example this season I was heavily against Faugheen, Douvan and Thistlecrack before the season started. I’m generally looking to take on older horses (ten-year-olds plus) and those returning from injury. They are usually bad bets for the championship races in March. If you get one in the book at a nice price you can back a few against them and end up with a few cheap greens. That’s the theory anyway.

 

What are you expecting betting-wise at the meeting? Last year was the first Festival in a while when the big firms didn’t go crazy in terms of overrounds, perhaps due to some poor results at previous meetings.  There was value but it wasn’t the dead giveaway that might have been expected. I think lots of us – myself included – are waiting for a beano on the day of the race that may not materialise. 

I don’t think it’ll be much different. They’ll still bet very well in the morning and it’ll be the usual choice between taking the best morning price and waiting for Betfair near the off. I assume there will be some crazy Powers offer on the Supreme as usual but they usually limit stakes which makes it not worth that much unless you’re prepared to spend the whole day touring shops; there are better uses of time that week.

 

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One of the problems punters face in the run-up to Cheltenham is information overload. I often think people would be better focussing on three or four key criteria when trying to find a bet rather than trying to throw 20 variables into the mix as this just becomes confusing. There’s lots of stuff we will read or hear over the next month or so that may be of dubious value; what’s the best way to sift through it?

It is a problem. Between podcasts, blogs, Twitter, preview nights, the trade paper and the racing websites you could spend twelve hours a day reading opinion on the Festival every day between now and then. I like to read factual information regarding targets and state of fitness and very little else. I don’t do podcasts or previews. It’s better to form your own opinion and stand or fall by that.

I have a routine that hasn’t changed much in the past few years: I make a point of watching last year’s Festival at least twice in the weeks beforehand. It’s amazing how you forget what ran well there and I think course form is still underbet. I tend to look at one or two of the conditions races per day in the run up and start to form opinions on the main chances. I leave the handicaps a bit later as the entries at this stage would frighten you. During the Festival itself I try and stay a day ahead; I’ll have gone through the Wednesday card before watching Tuesday. That’s one thing I’m looking forward to this year, being at home and being able to do that properly every day – some of my best scores have been spotting an early rick for Wednesday while everyone’s eyes are on Tuesday!

 

Are there any in-season angles you are looking to exploit at the Festival? For instance, do you think the Irish novice hurdlers are particularly strong or weak? Is there a trainer that has been going particularly well or badly that could be worth following or opposing next month?

It’s fairly likely that the Irish novice hurdlers are ahead, but that looks factored into the prices at the moment. Something you’ve alluded to before is worth bearing in mind – if results during the Festival start to hint that a certain form line or group of horses might be better than previously thought then it can be worth jumping on that train before the market catches up. Even the result of something like the Supreme could tell you how well or badly in the Irish novices might be in the likes of the County for instance. I’d like to see more signs of life from Philip Hobbs in the next few weeks as he’s been unusually quiet – he could be worth watching in the handicaps if his form picks up.

 

How do you expect the Dublin Racing Festival form to work out? I know it’s basically an amalgam of races that were already there but a large proportion of them seem to have been run at a proper gallop which may be a less than ideal prep. The racing was good but was it too good? Willie Mullins did something that he hasn’t really done before pre-Punchestown in running 42 horses across the two days. That was largely to get back into the trainers’ race but one wonders if there might be a price to pay down the line, if not at Cheltenham then perhaps at the later spring festivals. 

I would be betting that plenty of Cheltenham winners will come out of that weekend, but perhaps not all of them will be ones that won. A last-time-out prep at Leopardstown has previously been a big plus so I don’t see why that shouldn’t hold true again just because it’s now a “festival.”  There’s enough time for a horse to recover from a biggish run there.

 

What do you think is the most underrated thing at the Festival? And the most overrated thing? For me, current season form, bizarrely, might be the most underrated thing while past Festival form (and by that I mean the form that isn’t working out) seems to be overvalued. Obviously the strong Festival form is some of the best on offer but I wonder if people are too forgiving of past form from the meeting that really amounts to little. 

As I’ve said already I still think previous festival form is underbet. That doesn’t mean high profile winning form but I love realising that the horse I like in the Coral Cup ran a nice seventh in the bumper two years ago. It means the horse has been through the whole festival hoopla before and managed to cope and run a race. The opposite also applies; I couldn’t entertain Foxrock for a Foxhunters for instance as he’s been over twice and flopped badly, reported as having not eaten or drunk well on his travels.

The other thing I think is underrated is the preparation.  I like horses whose season has gone to plan; they don’t need to have won all their races but they’ve appeared when they were supposed to and run their races. I’ll be against horses like Altior who had a big hiatus and surgery mid-season and Sizing John who ran a shocker and then hasn’t had a prep race since. In terms of overrated factors, old form comes to mind; Faugheen romping home in the 2015 Champion Hurdle is still fresh in people’s minds but it is three years ago and he’s ten now and has had almost two years off the track in the interim.

 

I know from chatting to you over the years that you often tend to pick out some mad horses that the market and most other punters hate. Is this a by-product of an increasing reliance on Betfair SP markets (those horses tending to drift to massive prices at the off) and how do you think this approach will play out at Cheltenham? 

The way I see it you have two goes at the markets: in the morning, with the pick of the earlies, then the Betfair market near the off. The skill is in knowing which way to jump and it’s not easy. You tend to know which ones will be easy to back based on their profiles and connections. When you wait for the live market you also have the advantage of knowing the earlier results and the way the ground is riding. I’ll do less Betfair than normal days but it’ll still be a significant percentage.

 

Models and stat-based betting are hot topics at the moment. I don’t know whether you use a model as such but I know stats and systems are something you are interested in. Are there any systems that you think could be useful at the Festival? 

The stats-based approach to the Festival used to be punting gold in the early years of the Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide, to which I know you contribute. Like all systems though, its growing popularity has lessened its usefulness. I still keep profiles on every festival race from a stats perspective which I update every year – pretty similar to the methodology in the “Guide”, I still find it valuable though you need to be flexible. I wouldn’t back a five-year-old in a Champion Hurdle, for instance, though I remember Paul Jones getting panned when Katchit won!

 

Pool betting opportunities can be infrequent on day-to-day racing but with all the money being bet at Cheltenham there can be some value on offer. How do you approach the Tote and have you a favourite bet? Are there days when you prefer to bet and others to stay away from? In recent history, Tuesday has tended to be quite predictable in terms of outcomes with cards like Friday tending to throw up more wild results. 

I used to use the Tote for outsiders 12 or 15 years ago but it’s no good now; I don’t even look at the win pools. Fred has also ruined the Jackpot by putting races from away meetings into it. If there is a carryover and it’s restricted to Cheltenham, I’ll look at the Jackpot especially on the Tuesday. I think they’ve ruined the UK Tote but I’m hopeful that might change with the new consortium coming in this year.

 

Finally, you strike me as a good judge of judges who reads anything that is worth reading. Is there anyone out there that punters should be reading or following on Twitter?

Polzeath Ratings (@PolzeathRatings) does really good time analysis as interprets it sensibly. The Helpful Punter (@HelpfulPunter) is worth a follow; he has some interesting ideas.

Tony Keenan (@racingtrends on twitter) was speaking to Denis Beary (@carvillshill on twitter)

Champion Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips: Cheltenham Festival 2018

Champion Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips: Cheltenham Festival 2018

It's now just two months until the tapes rise on the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, so it's high time we had a look for some betting value in the antepost markets. The feature race on Day One, Tuesday, is the Unibet Champion Hurdle, a Grade 1 run over just beyond two miles. Lasy year's Champion Hurdler, Buveur D'Air, is a strong favourite to retain his crown, but is his odds-on quote justified? Let's take a look...

Champion Hurdle 2018 Trends

Age

Five-year-old Katchit in 2008 was the first of his age group to win this race since See You Then in 1985. None has won since, from 27 to try, though Celestial Halo and Binocular did round out the trifecta behind Punjabi the following year. Another year later, Zaynar ran third for the five-year-olds but, since 2010, just Countrywide Flame has hit the board.

Defi De Seuil, sixth in the betting, is the most high profile five-year-old in the antepost lists, though his participation is subject to an improved performance after flopping on his sole start this season (stable was in poor form at the time).

At the other end of the spectrum, those aged in double digits are 0 from 21 since 1997, though venerable veterans Hurricane Fly and My Tent Or Yours made the frame since 2015. The last double-digit aged winner was Sea Pigeon, whose second victory, aged eleven, came in 1981. That was 37 years ago, which is hardly a boon if you like either Faugheen, the second favourite, or My Tent Or Yours, fifth market choice.

A focus on six- to nine-year-olds would have found all bar one of the winners in the last thirty years, but is a statistic which eliminates three of the top six in the current betting.

 

Last Time Out

Champion Hurdlers tend to be winners. Obvious, right? Indeed, 16 of the last 20 winners also triumphed on their previous racecourse appearance, from 106 runners. There were 269 horses line up in those twenty renewals, meaning 39.4% of all runners won last time. And yet they accounted for 80% of the winners, and 60% of the placed horses.

If you want to go off road a little, look also to those who finished second last time. They accounted for two of the remaining four victories since 1997 (10% of the wins) from 20% of the runners. Not so hot, but the winning pair were 11/1 Rock On Ruby and 33/1 Hardy Eustace, which would have squirreled the bank out even at Betfair Starting Price.

Still, it's best to focus exclusively on last day winners. As things stand, of the remaining three in the top six of the betting, only Buveur D'Air won last time. This can, and probably will, change between now and March, so tread carefully.

 

Key Trials

The Ryanair Hurdle, run over Christmas at Leopardstown, has been a key trial in recent seasons, seven Champion Hurdle winners emerging from the race since 2000 to take Festival honours at Cheltenham. This season, with Faugheen pulling up, it was left to Mick Jazz to see off Cilaos Emery.

Kempton's Christmas Hurdle has been a solid pointer too, with this season's festive showpiece falling to Buveur D'air who saw off The New One.

The other kingmaker race is the Irish Champion Hurdle, which will be run at the beginning of next month. Most of that race's Champion Hurdle highlighting lustre comes from Brave Inca and especially Hurricane Fly in recent times.  Faugheen is slated for a bid to redeem his reputation in the race so it will make for interesting viewing and can be expected to have a bearing on the Champion Hurdle market.

 

Champion Hurdle 2018 Form Preview

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So much for the trends, which seem to put a line through all of Buveur D'air's main market rivals leaving him home free on paper. But, of course, the Champion Hurdle isn't run on paper, and thank the moon and the stars for that. Still, let's consider the compelling case for the jolly before engaging in the potential folly of trying to get him beaten.

Buveur D'Air is unbeaten in most of two years, since running third to Altior and Min in the 2016 Supreme Novices' Hurdle. He's won eight on the bounce now, including last year's Champion Hurdle, and he's not been seriously tested. His official mark of 169 is clear of all bar the historical perch of Faugheen, a figure that one hasn't run to for two years. The seven year old is in the prime of his life, has seemingly had an uninterrupted preparation and, while a mooted trip to Ireland for the Irish Champion Hurdle at the beginning of February may be wide of the mark, he could have another spin before the Festival.

Trying to find reasons to oppose Buveur D'Air is tricky, still more so if taking slightly shorter with the Non Runner No Bet (NRNB) concession. If he gets to the starting line without a hiccup, he is by far the most likely winner. If I was picking holes - or trying to, at least - you could argue his rider asked for a very bold leap at the last in the Christmas Hurdle, a risky tactic. The converse is that the horse responded gamely and cruised away from standing dish, The New One.

It is probably unfair to measure Nicky Henderson's hotpot by the horses in his immediate aftermath - you can only beat what shows up, after all. And B d'Air has mocked not just The New One but also My Tent Or Yours (twice) and Irving in four back-to-back Grade 1 wins. That trio are all card-carrying veterans and are surely susceptible to a younger, more upwardly mobile racer albeit that such a type would be mobilizing from a lower ability base.

I want to be against Faugheen. Another of the double-digit brigade, he's been seen on the track just twice in the last two years, most recently when pulling up for no obvious reason. True, prior to that he hinted at the retention of the terrific talent he formerly possessed; but that was in duffing up a couple of 155 horses, both of whose marks may be considered slightly dubious at that level.

He just has a heck of a lot to prove, and at a top price of 5/1 is no value to do so. It would be genuinely fantastic to see him back to his best but it is very hard to imagine that he's a tight single figure chance of winning the Champion Hurdle in two months time. 3/1 NRNB could be excusable, depending on what shows up for the Leopardstown race. If it's a decent field and Faugheen wins, he'll be shorter and deservedly so. If he gets beaten, that will very likely be that and money back. Although it's hardly romantic, I fear the latter outcome. Either way, he's too risky a proposition at the price at this stage.

A couple of Mullins subs are next in the market. Melon is a weird one. I can only imagine he works like an absolute tank at home, because his form simply does nothing to vindicate a quote of 8/1 best. The only race he's won since a maiden hurdle this time last year was a weak Grade 2 at Down Royal, where he was roughly the same distance in front of Coquin Mans as Jezki was the time before. And he was in receipt of three pounds!

In three defeats around that hollow triumph he's run behind Labaik, Cilaos Emery and My Tent Or Yours (and The New One). I genuinely honestly for the life of me cannot fathom how that is possibly the profile of a single figure chance in a Champion Hurdle, even as shallow a heat as this looks.

If he dots up, fair enough, but it would have to be a major step forward from a rating of 159, which looks generous already.

More interesting, much more interesting, is Yorkhill. 12/1 in the all in run or not books, he's as short as 4/1 NRNB. That differential is explained by the fact he's been chasing for the last season and a bit. As unconvincing over a fence as he can be, he's still managed to win the JLT Novices' Chase at last year's Cheltenham Festival and, before that, the Neptune at the previous year's Festival.

If Faugheen was withdrawn from consideration, Yorkhill is a rock solid deputy, assuming he can still make a hurdling shape. Actually, thinking about it, that's what he's done over plenty of the steeplechase fences he's traversed! Again here, NRNB is the only route in. 5/1 with that money back concession is as close to an each way bet to nothing as is conceivable. Unsexy in the extreme, and probably the sort of play that gets your account restricted, it is very difficult to see him out of the frame if he turns up. But do not be suckered into the 12/1 on offer. He's more likely than not to run in a different race: 12/1 on an un-refunded non-runner won't get the pulse racing!

My Tent Or Yours is 16/1, 12/1 NRNB, and to be honest that's fair enough. Now eleven, he can't possibly win the race, but it's such a weak field that he could sneak into the frame. His form is closely tied in with The New One, another whose overall profile is the same: cannot win, probably runs with merit in defeat. Nigel Twiston-Davies' unfairly maligned warrior - he is a millionaire, after all - may take a different path this term in any case.

A horse I took a punt on in the early part of the season, before he flunked badly, was Defi De Seuil. He was the lad whose form lines were not already demonstrably below those of Buveur D'Air, and who could have conceivably developed into a genuine contender. But then he ran as flat as a pancake on his first and only run so far this season. Very little has come to light since, except the poor form of the Philip Hobbs yard during that part of the season.

He'd probably need to win the Irish Champion Hurdle to book his Chelto ticket and, assuming Buveur D'Air no shows, he has his chance. I've not given up all hope yet. Just most of it!

Wicklow Brave was only seventh in last year's Champion and has been globetrotting on the flat largely since, though his final hurdle run was a defeat of My Tent Or Yours in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle last April. He won't be winning at Cheltenham first time up though, and hasn't got any entries at this stage.

Min is quite interesting. As big a Supreme hype horse as Melon a year before, he ran a better race than that one to split the peerless Altior and Buveur D'air. He's won three of his four chase starts since then, but it was a big shock when he got turned over by Simply Ned at Leopardstown at Christmas. In the same ownership as Faugheen, he's another Mullins horse that could be diverted to this race. As such, he's another where the 16/1 NRNB is disproportionately more attractive than the 25/1 all in quote. After all, he's one of only two horses to beat Buveur D'Air. Moreover, the reverting from fences to hurdles route has been taken by both Rock On Ruby and Buveur D'Air himself since 2012.

Apple's Jade would be interesting if she came this route, but is far more likely for the Mares' Hurdle; Mick Jazz was the main beneficiary of Faugheen's flop last time but his overall form isn't in the same parish; Ch'Tibello wasn't too far behind My Tent but gets a bit outpaced on quicker ground; and before you know it, it's 50/1 your choice.

 

Champion Hurdle 2018 Tips

There are still a number of trials to be run, time enough for horses to shine a light on their credentials. But, as things stand, it is very (very!) hard to see past BUVEUR D'AIR. I can also confirm that night should follow day later, and that it will be February after January... So far, so bleedin' obvious.

Where, then, is the leftfield play? Well, this looks a superb 'without the favourite' race, and I'll be paying close heed to that market when it's eventually priced up. For now, however, we can do no better than muck about with the the Non Runner No Bet concessions.

In that context, Yorkhill is bombproof each way. He is unlikely to show up here if either Faugheen or Min do, in which case it's cash back in time for some 'without the fav' action. In the same vein, Min looks over-priced NRNB. Again, the likelihood is that we'll merely get our quids back; but, should he get the go ahead, he'll surely be a single figure price on the day.

Most likely winner (by a country mile) -

Buveur D'Air 8/13 NRNB Skybet

Best NRNB each way alternatives -

Yorkhill 5/1, Min 16/1 both Skybet (1/5 1-2-3)