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Social Discourse: 18th March 2019

It was a week that had everything, writes William Kedjanyi. The issue is that everything, as in other sport and indeed life, wasn’t always ‘good’; and for all the amazing memories that our champions gave us on the field, some will see only the negatives.

Here’s to reflecting on a Festival that had more highs and lows than Cheltenham’s racecourse itself, viewed below through the prism of twitter.

 

  1. The Week's Leading Lights....

Everyone will have their takeaways from the last week, but the group that made arguably the biggest lasting impact on the Festival? Women. 

This was a week which saw women riders claim four wins on the track; perhaps more importantly, there were three different winners, and two of the successes came at Grade 1 level, one in a Championship race.

Whilst many will focus upon Bryony Frost’s all the way win on Frodon, Rachael Blackmore – who has arguably had an even better season - was just as strong on Minella Indo, and Lizzie Kelly managed to time her fractions to perfection in the Festival Plate.

 

That wasn’t the only success, however, with Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park capping a season of domination at the top level with a fantastic Stayers' Hurdle victory too.

 

These victories are all wonderful, but what is even more encouraging is the variety they display: Blackmore kept things simple on the hugely well in A Plus Tard on Tuesday before then judging the right moment to strike again on Minella Indo; Frost managed to get Frodon to give everything from the front, and Kelly also had the same judgement skills in the Plate, as seen in a brilliant driving finish here.

 

Those three jockeys have now risen to the top of the game, and are here to stay; Henry De Bromhead and Paul Nicholls, and their owners, have been rewarded for giving quality horses to Blackmore and Frost whilst Kelly too remains very useful for the Williams' going forward.

There are plenty of female trainers at the highest level too, led by Jessica Harrington and Venetia Williams, even if they did not have Festival winners this week, and the future looks bright for those aforementioned. 

This is a boon for racing’s PR image at a time when it is much needed. Frost has broken through to some national media, and is universally adored, but there’s time still for Blackmore to reach said heights, and the quality of her riding continues to impress. She comes across wonderfully in TG4’s Jump Girls, an excellent watch.

 

The reaction on social media was also heartwarming to see:

https://twitter.com/SamanthaQuek/status/1106229616535052289

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https://twitter.com/CheltenhamRaces/status/1107357684808990721

 

What next? Rachael Blackmore is already second in the Irish Jockeys’ Championship with 84 winners – Fairyhouse and Punchestown can bring lots of success for her, and perhaps Aintree too. At 29, she’s in her prime and has plenty to offer.

Frost has a number of excellent wins to her name aside from Frodon and perhaps, more importantly, the backing of Paul Nicholls. She has 49 winners this year at a 16% strike rate, impressive considering her serious injuries in the summer.

Be smart: You’d be in profit to the tune of £58 if you followed Bryony Frost blind, and +£13 for Lizzie Kelly.

 

  1. Good Things Come To Those Who Wait

Racing is a sport which frequently frustrates the greats: remember how long it took for Frankie Dettori to win his Derby? Or AP McCoy to ride a Grand National winner? 

Willie Mullins is one of the great trainers of all time, but for a man who has dominated major festivals, the Gold Cup was one of the few gaps on his palmares. Before Friday, Mullins had won 64 Festival races without the Blue Riband, and he saddled four horses in this bid to change things.

 

There were good reasons to fancy any of Kemboy, Invitation Only, Bellshill or Al Boum Photo, but things did not start well with Kemboy unseating at the first, Bellshill smashing himself into the fifth and ending his chances, and when Invitation Only did the same at the tenth, that left Mullins with just one horse, Al Boum Photo, still in the race.

Come the home turn, however, he was cantering into contention and, despite grabbing the second last and stumbling over the last, he was too strong for the rest of the field, running out quite a convincing winner.

This ends a long wait for the winning most trainer at the Festival in its biggest event; he had tried and come so close with Florida Pearl in 2000 and then the legendary Hedgehunter, before four successive runners up in a row (Sir Des Champs, On His Own and Djakadam twice).

 

Anibale Fly was a fine second once again, making the best of his way home, and Bristol De Mai ran an excellent race in third; but this moment was all about Mullins and Paul Townsend, who had the greatest redemption after the farcical ending to the Growise Champion Novice Chase at the end of last season.

 

The Big Three: Didn’t make the first three, although there are good reasons for their runs; Native River couldn’t lie up with the early pace according to connections and wasn’t quite at his best in finishing fourth, whilst Paul Nicholls said that Clan des Obeaux got outstayed, and that seems to check out given the extra distance here compared to Kempton for his King George win. Presenting Percy, who never got properly into the race, was found to be lame and is definitely better than he showed here.

 

  1. Going Too Far

Apart from the Grand National, racing’s welfare standards are never under the spotlight more than during Festival week, and it’s in that context that the National Hunt Chase finds itself under the most extreme scrutiny.

This year’s edition, run in deep ground once again, was particularly tough; only four horses finished and there were 47 lengths between runner up Discorama and third-placed Jerrysback.

There was the grim sight of screens at both the last two fences and one right in front of the Best Mate enclosure, where we sadly lost Ballyward. Many runners were pulled up due to exhaustion, or worse, falling for the same reason.

It was an ugly spectacle and not one that you would show to a first-time watcher of the sport, but what is to be done?

 

Many have suggested cancelling the race, which might be an understandable, if visceral reaction, but doing so would surely call into question the existence of every long distance race: the Midlands National took place on ground that was just as testing on Saturday. Moreover, in many years we have seen single figures in terms of finishers for the Grand National – and certainly for the Irish equivalent.

Some have suggested a change in conditions, but the amateur riders navigate the Kim Muir and Foxhunters at the end of the week with less controversy than this, and the majority of the horses entered had staying credentials of some kind.

Pulling the race distance back is also not an option without consequence, as there are three other targets at staying distances for novices during the Festival.

Something has to change, however; So what about reducing the weight carried? In a graded race there’s no need for a welter burden and it is possible for amateurs to do less than 11-6; Jamie Codd’s lowest weight in the last 12 months is 11-0 dead, and if that were to be the universal rule then that would make a difference here – assuming that the jockeys can all make it.

Any other suggestions?

 

  1. Stars Of The Festival

There have been many stars this week, and not all of them can have the spotlight they so deserve. Here are a personal few, some obvious, some not so much...

  • Mark Walsh, who so cruelly suffered a fracture when presented with a fine book of rides here two seasons ago but bounced back with wins in the Champion Hurdle (Espoir D’Allen) And Ballymore Hurdle (City Island)
  • Lydia Hislop,tireless from the start to the finish of an incredible week, and who interviewed Willie Mullins and Paul Townend with such class in the midst of the Gold Cup
  • Andrew Gemmell, the owner of Paisley Park, who, blind from birth, experienced one of the most heart-warming successes all week
  • Henry De Bromhead, who supplied Rachael Blackmore with two fine winners and a selection of excellent rides this week
  • The entire team at ITV Racing, who had a marked lift on ratings compared to last year and who have tried very hard to appeal to casual fans
  • Pacha du Polder, the two-time winner of the Foxhunters’ Chase who was retired after this fourth run in the race

 

  1. Eye-catchers

And last but never least, some eye-catchers. Everyone loves an eye-catcher!

  • Aramon, who travelled beautifully into the Supreme, but then faded on ground much softer than preferred late on
  • Big River,who never jumped a fence in the Ultima but took fourth near the finish
  • Brio Conti looked like the best horse in the Coral Cup before just flattening out up the hill
  • Ciel De Neige ran a fine race on debut for Willie Mullins in the Fred Winter
  • Abracadabras was done for speed in the Champion Bumper but will be happier up in trip and has the look of a promising staying chaser
  • Cuneo didn’t quite see out his huge move in the Pertemps but absolutely has a race of this sort in him
  • No Comment made some eye-catching late progress in the Kim Muir
  • Éclair de Beaufeu went miles too soon in the County before unseating and will surely be better suited by Punchestown
  • Cartwright didn’t get any sort of run in the Martin Pipe late on

- William Kedjanyi

Monday Musings: A Paisley Tinted Festival

It is three months since I first met Andrew Gemmell at Tattersalls December Sales in Newmarket’s Park Paddocks, writes Tony Stafford. From the outset I was astonished by the acuity of his hearing which clearly compensates to a degree of his denial from birth of what most of us will agree is the most vital sense – sight.

On mutually introducing each other, he recalled listening to my broadcasts on BBC Radio London in the early 1980s. Since then I have been doing some new work where it is necessary to record and play back short interviews. Hearing my own slow, boring tones is something of a shock. No wonder Adrian Lee – I think that was the name of the man who decided who should be on the shows when At The Races returned from the ashes of the old Racing Channel, where I did get the odd gig -told me “You are too dull”. Why not say what you really mean, Adrian?

There’s nothing like building your confidence. After an early go on the channel I once bumped into Richard Hannon senior who opined, “You always look a bit uneasy on the telly”. If he meant I was constantly looking over my shoulder, for reasons any regular reader would understand, he wasn’t far wrong.

Would that I could be as comfortable in front of the camera as Richard junior, enjoying Cheltenham last week, obviously is. I asked him when he might have a runner in the Champion Hurdle as the old man often did with excellent, close to winning, results a generation ago, and his reply suggested he might like to.

The weeks go so quickly. In that initial article about meeting Andrew Gemmell, I related his remark that I constantly referred in those broadcasts to a horse called Honegger that I’d suggested to Michael Dickinson might make a hurdler. I kept talking about him, probably because the Dickinson’s did buy him and he kept winning – to the tune of 20-odd races.

Well I see from a quick perusal of the intervening dozen articles since, that Paisley Park gets a few mentions, starting with the suggestion that 14-1 for the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle “might be over-priced”. After his victory in such devastating style at 11-8, despite a shuddering mistake at the last hurdle, that was a fair observation.

A month after the first meeting, I mentioned I’d started looking at the daily race cards again after years’ meandering along with not much more than Ray Tooth’s horses and their possible targets on my mind. Diminishing numbers have lessened that part of my day, and I’ve needed (and fortunately secured) some additional employment where it helps to keep abreast of events.

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It doesn’t quite keep the head above water, but as I said in that issue two months ago, “I’m looking” and when I find something “I’ll pass it on”. Last Monday, forgiving Howard Wright for his part in the Racing Post birthday non-appearance fiasco the previous week, I made what he suggested was a 20th consecutive foray up the A1(M) to Langford FC and the Cheltenham Preview Night, “the last but the best” as Howard, who in his 70s is as silly as me, always calls it.

We did find some winners, quite a few nice ones I fact, but with the wi-fi at the hotel anything but reliable, by the time I finally managed to get to the track every day I’d completely forgotten what I’d said and allowed Le Breuil, City Island, Band of Outlaws, Ch’tibello, Hazel Hill and the Altior-Politologue forecast, as well as the obvious Paisley Park to go unbacked. I did manage on the last day to have a few pennies on Ray’s home-bred Nelson River in the Triumph Hurdle and he confirmed his jumping potential by finishing fourth for Tony Carroll.

Thus he did what all good each-way bets do, finished just outside the money. At the time of my single-figure wager on the Tote, seconds before the off, Nelson River was paying 77 for a win and 16 for a place. I’d managed to blag my way onto the fourth floor of the old main stand where the hospitality boxes are and felt obliged to make a vociferous – if slow and boring – protest at the absence of any live pictures at the Tote betting points, quite a number of which there are at that level. Most of the boxes are over-filled, often with racegoers who are reluctant to curtail conversations even during the races, so hearing the commentary can be almost impossible. It would have been nice to step outside and get a noise-free view. Next year please, Mr Renton?

All those years at the Daily Telegraph entitled all of us without question full media credentials. The main Press facility on the second floor of the same stand is of limited capacity but was ours by right. Many more of the mushrooming media crowd are housed nowadays just near the North entrance, below the paddock in a vast building. I crept in there a couple of times, without being challenged <someone wasn’t doing his job although they were with great enthusiasm everywhere else> and as Gina Harding wistfully suggested: “This isn’t the main one”. Know how she feels.

I can’t complain. The wonderful Sophia Dale sent me for the first time Club badges for every day rather than a rectangular Media badge to sling around the neck, which actually does little more than get one through the door with the hoi-polloi, God forbid! If you persist or look as though you are entitled to be there, as in the fourth floor box level, you might just be all right.

At the Trials day, back in January when Paisley Park won the Cleeve Hurdle in such devastating fashion, I stood next to Andrew in the paddock as he listened to and we watched the definitive rehearsal to Thursday’s great triumph. This time, from the back of the new Princess Royal stand, I watched on the giant screen as my ticket did not get me into the paddock, any more than I was able to see Punjabi parading before the opening race in both 2017 and last year.

There were still more than enough people to congratulate the owner and trainer Emma Lavelle, who has done such a wonderful job on the gelding, bought as a young horse by the trainer for €60k. As ever, Emma gave plenty of credit to her husband, Barry Fenton, who rides the champion stayer every day at home. I hope he doesn’t run again this time.

While not exhibiting any of the eccentricities of the great Baracouda, twice winner and twice runner-up in the same race, his owner and trainer believe he hits a “flat spot” in his races, but as Andrew says: “It didn’t hurt Big Buck’s, did it?”

Coming back to Baracouda, he was also a seven-year-old at the time of his first Stayers’. While Paisley Park was winning the race on his tenth lifetime start, Baracouda did not get there until his 22nd career appearance. The first seven on the Flat were for his original owner/trainer, Mme Jacqueline Mathis, who also gave him an initial Auteuil spin before he was transferred to Francois Doumen.

By the time of that first Stayers’ success, Baracouda had already been a frequent cross-Channel traveller with wins at Ascot (Long Walk), Fontwell, Sandown, then the next season Ascot twice (another Long Walk) and Kempton before Cheltenham.

Once that significant barrier was passed, Doumen and owner J P McManus were happy to fire down his targets. In 2002/3, only two runs at Ascot (winning the Ascot Hurdle but only runner-up to Deano’s Beano in the Long Walk) preceded a Cheltenham repeat. He had three outings before Cheltenham the following season, wins at Newbury, Ascot (a third Long Walk) and Sandown but was surprisingly beaten by Iris’s Gift at the Festival.

Another short campaign followed in 2004/5, comprised of victories at Newbury and Wetherby before his usurping by the next stand-out champion, Inglis Drever, at the Festival. The end was now approaching, the 11-year-old following a Newbury second to Inglis Drever with a final fifth at Cheltenham behind My Way de Solzen, who was benefiting from Inglis Drever’s absence through injury.

Brilliantly handled so far by Emma Lavelle, Paisley Park is sensibly staying over hurdles, where he can become a multiple champion in the manner of Baracouda, Inglis Drever and Big Buck’s. There is no need to do anything else and certainly granted freedom from injury and the manifold potential problems racehorses can acquire, he should dominate the staying hurdles division for a long time.

Meanwhile, it’s the Lincoln next week, believe it or not. I’ve had an update from Hughie Morrison about Sod’s Law who will definitely not make the main race, but if the required 14 above him do come out, he’ll get in the Spring Mile. He’s on target according to the trainer, despite hanging onto his winter coat longer than most in the stable, but we’ve been waiting for this race and the straight mile should be right up his street. Count that as a tip, not that you can have a bet until the final entries are known on Thursday week.

- Tony Stafford

Festival Reflections 2019

The stands have once again fallen silent after four breathless days of racing on Cleeve Hill, and the Cheltenham Festival 2019 is now confined to the memory banks and the history books. It was a captivating, challenging, emotional roller coaster of a week; these are my Festival reflections.

Champion Hurdler?

In the build up to the opening day, pundits and punters alike were relishing a duel between Apple's Jade and Buveur d'Air - or in some cases a three-way-go including Laurina - but what came to pass was one of those everyday 'you couldn't script it' scenarios for which racing's glorious uncertainty is known.

First, Apple's Jade was taken on at a helter-skelter lick by Melon, her chance seemingly compromised by this manoeuvre as she faded tamely into sixth. Meanwhile, reigning two-time champ, Buveur d'Air - with his trademark slick low jumping - took a liberty, and a consequential tumble, at the third flight. In so doing, he brought down Sharjah.

With the top two out of the race, as well as one of the key form line horses, surely it was Laurina's Champion Hurdle to lose? Lose it she did, the talk of her ascendancy proving some way wide of the mark. She was the only one of the supposed main three that had the chance to run her race, and she failed big time on this step up in grade. No obvious excuses there.

For Apple's Jade, it was a fourth visit to Cheltenham and a third defeat at a track where she seems to be beset by misfortune whether it's being in season, getting compromised on the lead or something else. It is not unreasonable to assume, given the full body of her work, that she is unsuited by the track.

And what of the winner and the placed horses? Espoir d'Allen, a progressive five-year-old bringing an eight-from-nine career record to the party, enhanced that to nine out of ten on this second attempt at Grade 1 company. He was soundly enough beaten in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle, his sole previous G1 effort, in February last year but may have been unsuited to the steady pace there.

This was fiercely run. Mark Walsh sat in midfield, away from the crazy tempo up top and, avoiding the fallers, came through almost in his own time to saunter fifteen lengths clear of a gallant but spent Melon, with 80/1 poke Silver Streak back in third.

Handicapping the race is difficult, especially for those intent on literal interpretations. Fortunately, some clever bods - notably Simon Rowlands in this piece on the ATR website - have confirmed what the peepers were suggesting: that they went way too fast early and slowed up dramatically late.

To contextualise that, Rowlands notes that the Champion Hurdle was run four seconds - about twenty lengths - faster to the third flight, and yet the differential at the line was a mere two-and-a-half lengths. Pace collapse territory. That enabled Mark Walsh and Espoir d'Allen to record even fractions throughout in a sort of tortoise and hare setup - if it's not beyond rude to refer to a Champion Hurdler as a tortoise!

The fact that Melon, spoiler-in-chief for the favourite, was able to cling valiantly to second in spite of running remarkably inefficiently anchors the form in my book. Five-year-olds have a notoriously weak record in the Champion Hurdle and, while that alone is far from sufficient to crab the victor, the nature of the run of the race with - as Rowlands again notes - the first six home in the Supreme bettering the Champion Hurdle runner-up's time leads me to downgrade the race in form terms.

Projecting to this time next year, Espoir can certainly win another Champion Hurdle: he'll be a year older and stronger, and he has that crucial track experience to boot. But he's a lousy price at 7/2 in a place (6/1 tops still not enticing). Buveur d'Air will be nine next year, an age that didn't stop Hurricane Fly or Rooster Booster this century, and won't stop him if his appetite is undiminished after this spill. Apple's Jade will surely not contest this again; ditto Laurina. Melon at 25/1 could be interesting each way though he's shown himself to be beatable, albeit in very different setups and where he's run above himself both times.

But the one which might be most appealing for long-range forecasters is City Island. The Ballymore winner has a much better record than the Supreme winner in the Champion Hurdle, and Martin Brassil's six-year-old was comfortably the best with all the right horses close enough behind to suggest there was no fluke to the performance. Enthusiasm for the 33/1 is tempered markedly by connections referencing the Stayers' Hurdle (for which he is 20/1) as his target in post-race debriefs; with that in mind, splitting stakes may be more sensible (if taking a price 359 days before an event is ever sensible).

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National Hunt Chase 'Disgrace'

The National Hunt Chase is the second oldest race at the Festival, after the Grand Annual, but it has been run the most times due to the latter named being dropped for a chunk of the late 1800's - so wikipedia tells me, anyway. I also learn there that the race was considered the second most important, after the Grand National, in the calendar until the 1930's.

It is a four mile race for novice chasers ridden by amateur riders. For as long as I've been blogging and previewing Cheltenham - which is eleven years now, gulp - I've made mildly condescending noises about it. That's because I'm not a traditionalist, you see; I view most races through the prism of the sport as I see it and, naturally, as a wagering conduit.

This year, with welfare and good intentions aforethought, a number of jockeys in the race - notably Declan Lavery, who rode third placed Jerrysback - got into hot water with the stewards for persisting when their horses were considered by the arbiters to be too tired. These decisions have been roundly lambasted by horsemen of all vintages.

I am neither a traditionalist, as mentioned, nor a horseman, and additionally I have sympathy with the less militant parts of the welfare lobby, which leads me to an often conflicted head space on jump racing, a pursuit I love more deeply than flat racing. In that confused context, here's where I've got to: there WAS a problem in the National Hunt Chase - there simply has to be when, despite changes to attract a better class of horse and despite amateur jockeys being closer to their professional counterparts in ability terms than at any other time in history, eighteen horses set out and only four finished.

Of the fourteen non-completions, eight fell, one of which sustained fatal injuries.

Quite frankly, that is bullshit.

I happened to watch the race with a fairly senior member of the BHA, and we both audibly winced when the wonderful mare Atlanta Ablaze came down two out. It was a bridge too far for a pair of hardened NH spectators.

Here's the thing: this race is hideously anachronistic. It is probably twenty years past its sell by date, hence the ongoing tinkering with its conditions.

I know that the trads will lobby for its retention and I understand the reasons why. But it cannot be countenanced for another year in its current format. Blaming the jockeys for trying their best in a race which makes extraordinary demands of both humans and equines, each group inexperienced in the context of the meeting as a whole, is big-time deflection.

The issue here is the race, or rather its conditions. Here is a suggestion, not intended as a 'we should do this' blueprint, but as a strawman starting point to be discussed, pulled apart, iterated and refined.

The National Hunt Chase should be run over three and a half miles. It would still be the longest main track race at the Festival but it would be one-eighth less attritional. It should be contested only by horses with a defined level of experience and also, potentially, with an approved level of jumping ability. It should have a ratings ceiling to prevent the dilution of the RSA Chase, and a floor to prevent horses being outclassed and put at risk. Horses should be six or older (almost all are), and carry eleven stone rather than 11-06 (and jockeys will have to be able to do the weight without wasting/fasting). Jockeys should have a defined level of ability/experience to ride.

All of the above would make the race less testing; none of the above would make the race less compelling. Let's sort this crap out and stop blaming jockeys for the errors of history and the programme book.

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Joyful Thursday

If racing has a propensity to shoot itself in the foot, it also continues to produce human (and equine) interest stories of almost universal appeal. Last Thursday's racing looks set to be as enduring as it was endearing - it truly was one of the great days of racing.

Victory for the resurgent former Triumph Hurdler, Defi Du Seuil, was a terrific start. JP McManus is one of the more likeable of racing's mega-rich, for all that he is domiciled in Switzerland for tax efficiency purposes (he does distribute funds across a number of sports in Britain and Ireland which, I guess, is a more expedient direct contribution to racing), and his colours were worn to victory three times on this day.

Defi is a bit of a forgotten horse in a way. Considering he's won eleven of his sixteen races, and five of seven races at Cheltenham, he has been spoken of in somewhat disrespectful tones in the lead up to the JLT Chase. But he showed his usual class and some of his more occasional mettle to repel a regular rival, Lostintranslation, and confirm the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase form. This was the first winner of the Scilly Isles to double up in the JLT, breaking a sequence of second places.

That was but an amuse bouche for a couple of scintillating main courses. Before those, there was the Geraghty master class on Sire du Berlais, a horse that was sent off 4/1 favourite but traded as high as 240 in running. He looked cooked but BJG conjured a magic ride to get by one challenger and repel another in a tight finish.

Then came those delicious appetisers, starting with the Ryanair. This is a race which has been - rightly, in my view - called out in the past as a hiding place for second tier Champion Chase or Gold Cup prospects; but the 2019 renewal was a proper horse race, one packed with legitimate two-and-a-half-milers and legitimate Grade 1 horses.

From the veteran Un De Sceaux to Gold Cup non-staying fourth, Road To Respect, to Arkle victor, Footpad, to Cheltenham specialist, Frodon, all were worthy players for whom, with the possible exception of Footpad, this was undoubtedly the right race. Chuck in last year's winner Balko des Flos and another winner from Festival 2018, The Storyteller, as well as high class second season chaser, Monalee, and it was truly a deep and classy field.

Sometimes such setups disappoint, runners failing to show their true ability left and right. Not this time. It was a super race from start to finish, with a fairy tale outcome.

Frodon, incredibly, has only recently celebrated his seventh birthday and yet seems to have been around forever. Since joining Paul Nicholls he's made Cheltenham home, winning five of nine chase starts at the track. That palmarès was rounded off prior to Joyful Thursday by a huge performance off 164 (and top weight) in handicap company, and a battling victory in the Grade 2 Cotswold Chase over a trip beyond his comfort zone. Here he added a first Grade 1 success in typical front-running heart-on-sleeve style.

In the aftermath it was left to Frodon's rider, Bryony Frost, to speak for her horse. Her affection for their partnership, her joy at what they'd just achieved together, and her youth and exuberance are the sorts of PR racing can't buy. Her post-race anthropomorphism of Frodon to any microphone that was turned on was beautifully sincere, faintly bonkers and, frankly, absolutely bloody marvellous. That Bryony adorned many of the newspaper front pages as well as their other covers on Friday morning was a much-needed shot in the arm for a sport sometimes struggling for relevancy in a world that increasingly fails to 'get it'.

And, if that wasn't enough, Cheltenham Thursday - so often the poor relation of the four day meeting - was able to sustain the Festival feel-good factor through the day's other championship event, the Stayers' Hurdle. This time it was Andrew Gemmell, a racing nut who has been blind since birth, who was the centre of attention.

His Festival had already been noteworthy when Discorama, a horse he part owns, ran a brave second in the National Hunt Chase. But this lad, owned outright and a strong favourite for the long distance hurdle crown, was the one that carried his hopes and dreams. Trained by Emma Lavelle and ridden by Aidan Coleman, both seeking their first Festival Grade 1's, those who could watch the race were left in no doubt from some way out about who would win; at least not until a horlicks at the last which would have floored a more fatigued horse.

Gemmell, reliant on the on-course commentary, would also have heard a cacophony of gasps to attest to the late drama which unfolded at the final flight. But Paisley Park, and Coleman and Lavelle, and Andrew Gemmell were not to be denied this joyful moment on Joyful Thursday.

What a day of racing that was. Alas, racing is never all 'up'.

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Triumph and Disaster

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same

Kipling's these days almost trite verse about the journey to manhood will rarely have been more apposite than in the case of the boy-man Joseph O'Brien and the emerging brilliance of his four-year-old, Sir Erec. O'Brien is more than a chip off the old block, he is a carbon copy of the determination, diligence and intelligence of his father, Aidan.

Not 26 until May and rider of the winners of two Derby's, a 2000 Guineas and a St Leger, he already has a Classic victory and a Melbourne Cup win as a trainer. Although not named on the license at the time of Ivanovich Gorbatov's Triumph Hurdle win of 2016, he was widely rumoured to have been the trainer then; this was his chance to get a first Grade 1 win at the Festival.

But disaster tragically did strike. On the landing side of the fourth flight, Sir Erec broke a leg - I'm not sure how, I haven't been able to bring myself to watch the recording yet - leading to his inevitable euthanizing.

As I've already said, I'm an animal lover and a fan of the sport. In these days of heightened sensitivity in all walks of life - it sometimes feels like we're returning to a 17th century puritanical era - harmonising those two attributes, animal lover/NH fan, is increasingly difficult to explain to those who don't follow the game.

How can you love a sport where horses of the quality, beauty and, yes, purity of Sir Erec are allowed to be sacrificed? It's a deep and nuanced question, and it has different answers depending on who is asking. It's a huge issue, maybe for another day, but suffice it to say that I was reminded of Our Conor and that difficult day, and the nausea in the pit of the stomach remained through the rest of Friday afternoon.

But there is more to life. Indeed, JPOB probably couched it better than anyone when he was quoted as follows:

Horse racing in the moment is everything, but when we pull our heads from the trough and see the stuff going on outside...

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Gold Cup win no silver lining

We need to talk about Willie. Again. Some won't hear of such as what is to follow, but the evidence is growing and only faintly masked by the excellent performance of Al Boum Photo in winning the Gold Cup. At a time when, as mentioned already, racing is fighting a battle against a rising tide of animal welfare sympathisers, faller - and especially fatality - rates are something which are going to be closely scrutinised.

Any horse can fall of course, and misfortune is as accepted as it is unwelcome in the winter game. But some incur greater levels of misfortune than others. To paraphrase the peerless Oscar Wilde (without intention to belittle the subject),

To lose one horse may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness

The Mullins stable saddled two of the three horses fatally injured at last week's Festival.

Obviously that's a tiny number and could easily be noise. Indeed it is very likely noise in and of itself. But, when looking at larger datasets, we see a similar pattern. Here, for instance, are the fall/unseat rates at this year's Festival:

Total Fall/Unseat - 32/498 (6.4%)
WPM Fall/Unseat - 5/59 (8.5%)

That's still a tiny sample, so let's expand to 2009+ at the Festival, eleven years and all of the data in geegeez.co.uk's Query Tool:

Total Fall/Unseat -  368/5315 (6.9%)
Total Fall/Unseat excl WPM - 327/4852 (6.8%)
WPM Fall/Unseat - 41/463 (8.9%)

Regardless of how many more competitive runners the trainer has, this is a significant outlier at the top of an unwelcome chart. Comparing with his most immediate Cheltenham Festival peers - Messrs. Elliott (14/181, 7.7%), Henderson (19/401, 4.7%) and Nicholls (23/321, 7.2%) - fails to improve the picture by relativity.

And yet still some may contend that the samples are too small. So, as one final set of data, here are the fall/unseat figures (chase races only) for all starters in UK and Irish races since 1st January 2015 for a select group of top trainers:

 

 

The obvious next question is, "Why?".

It is not for me to answer that: I don't have any 'in' on the yard nor do I think value is added by speculating on the basis of nothing. However, I will reference this quote from the trainer regarding Cilaos Emery, a horse who missed the Festival, that might just offer a window on this world:

He pulled a muscle schooling in Navan the other day. That's why you didn't see him this morning. We'll have to wait and see how he's going to come out of it. If he doesn't come out of it in the next seven days, then I think we might have to draw stumps for Cheltenham. That's a disappointment, but when you school them you take your chance.

When you school them you take your chance...

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Give Back Friday

On a wagering note, the week went well for me personally, and also for keen followers of the previews I penned on here. 40/1 advised William Henry was an obvious highlight from an odds perspective, though I was far more invested in shorter-priced runners, including my biggest bets of the week on Road To Respect - who blew his chance by bungling all of the last three fences - and Native River, who ran a creditable race which was only good enough for fourth. I'd had an overstaked each way bet on Anibale Fly at 33/1 which took some of the heat out of the Gold Cup situation but that, and small nibbles at big prices on Hazel Hill, could not quite cover the Friday losers elsewhere.

The County Hurdle (We Have A Dream 2nd at 25/1), Grand Annual (failed to have a small bet on the 66/1 winner, first time I've not backed him in four spins in this race) and Martin Pipe (over-staked bet on Dallas Des Pictons 2nd at 7/2) are races where you're not supposed to pick up. In fact the first and last of that trio were perfectly gettable - just not by me.

Adding into that a personal and perennial inability to identify the winners of either the Gold Cup or Triumph Hurdle, and the crap shoot that is the Albert Bartlett and oftentimes the Foxhunters as well, you'll see why I consider it 'Give Back Friday'; though of course that assumes that you've borrowed some off those lovely bookie types from Tuesday to Thursday.

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How was it for you? Feel free to leave a comment below - I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Matt

 

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day Four Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day Four Preview, Tips

And so to day 4, Friday, Gold Cup Day, the last of the quartet. If you're in front, well done; if you're behind, there's still time. Either way, the last day is traditionally the trickiest so keep that in mind as you peruse the prose below.

1.30 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)

The four-year-old hurdle championship is often a confused competitive affair. But this time it might just be a tad lop-sided. That is certainly how the market perceives things, with Sir Erec heading the betting at even money. Plenty of horses arrive at this race off the flat and/or after earlier starts to their hurdling careers in France. This fellow has an extremely high class flat profile, evidenced most obviously by a third place finish behind Stradivarius in the Group 2 Long Distance Cup on British Champions' Day last autumn. He was sent off just 5/1 that day suggesting there was no fluke to that run. He jumps proficiently, stays well and has oodles of class.

If there is a reason to take him on, and I'm not convinced there is, it might be in a faintly interrupted prep where he was the victim of a stone bruise. But the vibes - #thevibes - seem to be that he is completely over that and he's unlikely to have missed any work as a consequence. I think he will win and win well. But I cannot bet him at even money.

So where to from here? Betting without the favourite is our friend: it offers fair odds without having to do half the stake on an unlikely win prospect. Away from Sir Erec, it's a fascinating betting race. Fascinating, but not easily deciphered.

Tiger Tap Tap was very close to Sir Erec on their respective Irish hurdling debuts, but further back when they re-engaged last time. He may step forward for a more truly run race and represents the Mullins/Walsh axis.

Best of the Brits is probably the, erm, French horse, Quel Destin, who has experience aplenty and comes here unbeaten in five small field races. Although it's hard to crab a horse that just keeps winning, it feels to me as though the Irish juveniles are a cut above their British counterparts; if that's correct then the likes of Tiger and Gardens Of Babylon are worth a second glance in the without market. Gardens Of Babylon won a big field maiden hurdle before getting chinned on the line next time; he then got closest to Sir Erec at Leopardstown on his most recent outing.

The je ne sais quoi factor is brought to the race by Pic d'Orhy, a high class French import yet to race here. He was second in an Auteuil Grade 1 last November before being snapped up by owner Johnny de la Hey. Whilst it is often difficult to project how such horses will fare on their UK debuts, and this is hardly a quiet jog round in which to get started, new trainer Paul Nicholls has 'previous' for getting this job done: he has effected it at least twice, with Diego du Charmil and Aux Ptits Soins, in the Fred Winter and Coral Cup respectively.

Adjali looked to have limitations exposed first by Quel Destin and then by Fakir d'Oudairies, the latter a form line suggesting Irish primacy in these ranks. Pentland Hills won his only hurdle start but is rated more than two stone inferior to Sir Erec on the level.

Willie Mullins also runs French Made, and she could be better than a 40/1 shot. She won her only start for Mullins in a big field maiden hurdle where the second and third have both won since.

Triumph Hurdle Pace Map

 

Triumph Hurdle Selection

I think, and indeed hope, Sir Erec wins, because he's as classy a recruit to the juvenile hurdling division as we've seen in a long time. He's capable of winning this, the Ascot Gold Cup in June and maybe even a Champion Hurdle one day.

But evens is not generally my thing. The without market is a place to play, and in that context both Tiger Tap Tap and Pic d'Orhy appeal more than Quel Destin. French Made may go better than a 40/1 shot, too.

Suggestion: Back either Tiger Tap Tap (Victor 11/2 1/5 123) and/or Pic d'Orhy (Victor 11/2 1/5 123) each way without the favourite. And perhaps have a tiny each way in the same market on French Made (Victor 18/1 1/5 123).

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2.10 County Hurdle (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m1f)

Too difficult for me, so token thoughts only. But then I did manage to back 40/1 William Henry on Wednesday and I've tipped a 50/1 winner in this before (Silver Jaro - oh, the scenes..!). Small stakes obviously. Runners aged seven-plus have won six of the last 21 so it's hardly the death knell but the percentage play is to side with younger, less exposed types. Five year olds have an incredible record, and those a year older have also gone well.

My shortlist, which comprises those youths with Graded form, is We Have A Dream, Mr Adjudicator, and Due Reward.

Mr Adjudicator is the shortest of the three, at around 16/1. He has finished 11222 in hurdle races, including a victory in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle last season, beating subsequent Triumph winner, Farclas. Last time out he was beaten eleven lengths by Espoir d'Allen, a performance which would have got him closer to the subsequent Champion Hurdle winner than the runner-up in that race, Melon, if taken literally. Whilst one should not take that literally it was nevertheless a very good effort.

We Have A Dream is also a Grade 1 winner, in last year's Finale Hurdle at Chepstow, and also makes his handicap debut. He stays further and has obvious class, but whether he's quite battle hardened enough for a scrap like this, I don't know.

The trio is rounded out by Due Reward, an experienced handicapper who was found out in a small field G1 two starts back. Given a rehearsal ride at Leopardstown last time, this is gala night and Henry de Bromhead will have him ready to roll.

Whiskey Sour is the favourite and for good reason. He ran a tidy race when third in this last year on his first handicap spin, and has plenty of Grade 1 form, including a win in novice company last term. He's commensurately short in the betting but his case is easy to make.

County Hurdle Pace Map

County Hurdle Selection

Obviously impossible, so the guesses are as presented above. Whiskey Sour will surprise nobody if winning, but bigger prices are available about equally talented - if less handicap proven - alternatives in We Have A Dream and Mr Adjudicator. Due Reward is also interesting.

Suggestion: Small interest each way on any or all of We Have A Dream (25/1 general), Mr Adjudicator (16/1 general) and Due Reward (25/1 general)

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2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

The potato race. A war for relatively inexperienced horses where the ability to stay stay and stay is aforethought. The last five winners were all sent off at double figure prices, two of them at 33/1, so this is not a race in which to be all in on the jolly.

The thing here is that this big field slog is a far greater test than the five- and six-runner bimbles horses encounter earlier in the season, and it demands a tougher - often less classy - animal to see it out. Experience is a crucial factor with twelve of the 14 winners having had four or more (and as many as ten!) races in the previous year.

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If we use that experience criterion we immediately remove three of the top five in the market and, while there's a fair chance we've lobbed the winner, I'm happier taking a flyer at a price in a race which has rewarded such ambition in recent years.

And I'm also focusing on those to have already won over at least three miles, as nine of the 14 winners had. That truncates the field from twenty to seven. Nice. Potentially.

The shortest of my remaining squad is the uneasy favourite, Lisnagar Oscar. Trained by Rebecca Curtis, whose At Fishers Cross won this in 2013, this son of - you know it, Oscar - was second over course and distance in December and has since won a big field novice hurdle at Chepstow and a three mile Grade 2 at Haydock. He deserves his position in the market and would certainly be shorter if trained by a more fashionable handler.

Derrinross is next on my list but his wins have come in a brace of six-runner fields and he's exactly the sort I want to be against. Doesn't mean he can't win - his soft ground score in a Grade 2 last time is obviously decent form - but this will be run at a very different clip, making 10/1 unattractive.

Gordon Elliott's Dinons ticks the experience box in spades - he's had ten runs, and five wins, in the last year - but he got whacked on his first step into Graded company last time and would prefer a sounder surface. That said, he did bolt up in a Class 2 novice hurdle over course and distance (on the other track) in October. Small field of six. He's not been seen for 110 days.

Nadaitak hacked up as outsider of four last time out in the Grade 2 River Don at Doncaster. That was on good ground as is most of his form, and it was in a small field - not what he'll encounter here. Ben Pauling is having a brilliant Festival (Le Breuil winning, Bright Forecast third in the Ballymore) so no worries on the stable form score, but I don't think he's quite shown enough mettle for this challenge.

And then we get to the interesting ones, from a price perspective at least. Noel Meade saddles Cap York, who got outpaced before staying on in Derrinross's Grade 2 two starts back. Last time out he raced in open handicap company in a bigger field over three miles, and won comfortably. That kind of race setup is far more akin to an average Albert Bartlett than the small field G2's which seem to abound, and I think this seven-year-old could go well. He does have slightly less experience than is ideal in terms of number of recent runs.

Colin Tizzard won this last year with Kilbricken Storm, and he has a similar profile type this term in Rockpoint. The six-year-old son of Shirocco has had a dozen hurdle starts, improving significantly in recent runs for the step up to three miles. He won the three mile Grade 2 over course and distance in which favourite Lisnagar Oscar was second, and yet he's 33/1 in places. True, he's since finished behind the same horse at Haydock, but that was on good ground and a flat track in a race run at a dawdle - this sort of attrition is much more his condition.

Plenty at the head of the market with proven class but unknown levels of fortitude, that latter attribute the primary requirement for the gig.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Selection

In a race where outsiders go well, I'm taking two against the field. Cap York could be the pick of the Irish, in terms of stamina and resolution at least; and Rockpoint, a Grade 2 winner over course and distance, looks a forgotten horse for last year's winning trainer. They'll do for me.

Suggestion: Back Rockpoint (33/1 Victor 1/5 1234) and/or Cap York (25/1 Victor 1/5 1234) each way

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3.30 Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2 1/2f)

The Blue Riband. I previewed the Cheltenham Gold Cup 2019 here, and nothing in my perspective has changed since.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Pace Map

 

Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection

I nominated Native River at 6/1 on 5th March in the above preview. He's now a top priced 9/2 which is still reasonable in my book, if not spectacular. Bellshill was my other suggestion: he was 14/1 and is still available to back at 12/1 in spite of Ruby Walsh riding. I'd imagine he'll shorten and is probably the bet if you're not on something already.

Suggestion: Think about Native River at 9/2 (888sport) and also Bellshill at 12/1 (Victor 1/5 1234)

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4.10 The Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2 1/2f)

We're into 'after the Lord Mayor's Show' territory now. If you're not in front, it will be pretty difficult to claw a result from here on out.

My handle on the point/hunter chase form is limited, but I was extremely taken by the performance of Hazel Hill when he routed a strong field at Warwick in late January. A prolific point winner, he is now three from three in hunter chases, nothing getting within ten lengths of him in that discipline. One firm went 25/1 about his chance here in the immediate aftermath; sadly, they only stood me £8.80, but still that was better than nothing and, in truth, will probably save me a quid or two when he runs a gallant second!

Two Irish horses head the market, Stand Up And Fight and Ucello Conti. They have very different profiles, the former being a lightly raced seven-year-old who placed in staying Graded novice hurdles two seasons ago; the latter a seasoned ex-handicap chaser who was second in the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at Leopardstown during their 2017 Christmas Festival. Ucello was running a bold race in last year's Grand National until unseating his rider four out and I'd be inclined to take that form over the class and youth of Enda Bolger's favourite. Young horses have won this race in the recent past - think Salsify and Cappa Bleu and Kingscliff - so don't let me put you off if you like the jolly.

Road To Rome is a winning machine. He's on a current streak of seven - three points and four hunter chases - but it has all been on flat tracks. He's an admirable horse, no doubt, though this looks a bridge too far.

And what of Pacha Du Polder? He's 20/1 having won this for the last two years. And if you think that price says he has no chance, keep in mind that those two wins in the race were returned at 16/1 and 25/1. His full record in the race is 511. No twelve-year-old-plus has won this since Earthmover in 2004, trained by... Pacha Du Polder's trainer, Paul Nicholls. Nicholls has won the Foxhunters a record-equalling four times and relies on Pacha in his bid for sole primacy.

Foxhunter Chase Pace Map

[Note that this pace map only features races run under Rules, i.e. no point to point pace figures are included]

 

Foxhunter Chase Selection

A fascinating race but, unless you're a bit of a judge of such things - I'm not - it's one to watch more than wager. Small interests on any of the top three in the market - Stand Up And Fight, Ucello Conti, Hazel Hill - should give you a run for your money. And if you want to cheer a big-priced story horse, Pacha du Polder is the one.

Suggestion: Back any of the top three and try a tiny each way on Pacha Du Polder (20/1 general)

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4.50 Grand Annual Chase (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m 1/2f)

The last two races are not really my thing. I'll be nicely inebriated by this point, in the Brown Bear on Leman Street as Gold Cup day tradition dictates. This was a very difficult watch last year with a number of equine fatalities as the riders went hell for leather from the outset. Moving it from the last to the penultimate race is unlikely to positively affect the early speed which will almost certainly be set by the rapid Gino Trail.

Kerry Lee's lightning bolt clung on valiantly for second in last year's Grand Annual and has the same mark this time around. It's a very big ask to go wire to wire in this, mind.

The horse to beat him in 2018 was Le Prezien, who again locks horns. He is a mere pound higher now and ought to again get on the premises granted safe passage. But Le Prezien's trainer, Paul Nicholls, has been making bullish noises about another of his runners, Magic Saint, throughout the preview circuit. This lad is only five, was formerly trained in France by Guillaume Macaire, and has progressive form here. He'll not have seen anything like this kind of set up previously, however, and is awfully short. Palarshan won as a five-year-old in 2003, and six of the dozen that age hit the frame.

Bun Doran could be suited to conditions though he's up a chunk in the weights for an easy win two back. Trainer Tom George has been quiet in the past fortnight, too.

This race is named in honour of Nicky Henderson's dad, so we can be sure that Whatswrongwithyou will be an emotional winner. He comes here on a hat-trick having beaten two rivals twice; this will be a somewhat different experience.

Gary Moore's progressive novice, Not Another Muddle, was impressive at Sandown last time and is likely not done improving yet. He has a nice light weight and appeals as the type to finish through a lot of tired horses. That sort of run style demands a ton of luck in the run, however, something which may not be fully factored in to a price of 8/1.

The Irish have out-performed their numerical representation in recent years, scoring three times and hitting the board with another five, from 28 runners. Only Mind's Eye lines up for the away team, Henry de Bromhead's seven-year-old bidding to replicate the feat of A Plus Tard in the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase on the opening day. The son of Stowaway has been running in Grade 1 novice chases so is clearly considered capable of a classy performance.

Grand Annual Pace Map

 

Grand Annual Selection

Magic Saint has been well touted by his trainer who saddled last year's winner, Le Prezien. I prefer the latter at the prices, and I also quite like Not Another Muddle if he can get an untroubled trip - a big ask of any horse in this field. But perhaps the pick of the prices is the sole Irish entry, Mind's Eye, a novice who has been jogging round in small field Grade 1's and who might just find this more rapid tempo right up his street.

Suggestion: Try Mind's Eye each way at 14/1 (Victor 1/5 12345)

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5.30 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 4 1/2f)

A very difficult looking finale for the 'lucky last'. That said, recent renewals have been notable for the class their winners have subsequently shown over fences. Don Poli, Killultagh Vic, Ibis Du Rheu, Champage Classic and Blow By Blow all showed themselves to be Graded performers, most of them at Grade 1 level.

Thus I'm only interested in an unexposed potentially very high class horse. To that end, Dallas Des Pictons - who is priced at just 7/2 - looks just the man for the job. Winner of a Class B handicap hurdle last time, he was second off level weights to Ballymore Novices' Hurdle winner, City Island, prior to back-to-back big field wins. He may be a short price but he already has Grade 1 form on that City Island line.

Defi Bleu, Getareason, and Early Doors all fit the ascendant Graded class runner mould, though less snugly than Dallas. That is reflected in their prices, all of which are 8/1+.

But my Festival will be over by this point, and I'll simply be looking to identify the right cap colour on the favourite (it's the purple one).

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

 

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Selection

Not a race in which to go mad. Keep your powder dry for the Midlands Nash on Saturday! I'll be having a bet on the obvious horse, Dallas Des Pictons, who looks the best animal in the race and can be supported at 7/2 to back up that contention. Unexciting, but we're in 'a winner is a winner' pub chat territory now...!

Suggestion: Back Dallas Des Pictons (7/2 general) and cheer it home with everybody else.

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day 3 Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day 3 Preview, Tips

And so to the second half, historically the trickier segment of the meeting. After two fiendishly trappy days on Tuesday and Wednesday, that does not bode well! Typically the weakest of the four days, though that of course is relative, Thursday brings us the Stayers' Hurdle, Ryanair and JLT Chases, as well as a trio of impossible handicaps and a mares' novice hurdle (all lower case) that has no place at the Festival in my opinion.

Finding winners should be faintly possible in the Grade 1's, and that is where the bulk of the words that follow will be focused.

1.30 JLT Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4f)

A curious little contest which revolves in large part around the form of the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase, a Grade 1 over this sort of trip run at Sandown in early February. That day, Defi Du Seuil beat Lostintranslation and Vinndication, the trio now comprising 60% of the top five in the betting and 100% of the top two.

Defi was a very good winner of the Triumph Hurdle, or so it seemed at the time, but he subsequently got stuck in the mire of Philip Hobbs' stable virus last season. This campaign has been better, highlighted by that Scilly Isles win and also featuring a defeat of Topofthegame (though that one had excuses). Moreover, the record of the winner of the Sandown race in this contest is 35F222, beaten the last thrice by an Irish runner.

Lostintranslation is closely pegged to Defi Du Seuil on his last two runs. He's a consistent horse with second placed efforts in two Grade 1's, but is a bit of a bridesmaid. Contrast him with Vinndication, who was expected to miss the Festival due to injury but has apparently been working the house down in recent days. Kim Bailey's Vinnie Roe gelding had won all six career starts prior to his close third in the Scilly Isles and he is entitled to improve a little more still.

The front three at Sandown were close together and I'm prepared to take a chance that the Irish will prevail again: they've already shown their two mile brigade is best, with a 1-2-3 in an eventful Arkle. They have a four-pronged attack with which to fork the home team, the highest rated of which is Real Steel. He's won his last two, in ungraded company, and wasn't good enough as a hurdler to make the frame in four attempts at G1 company.

Stablemate at the Willie Mullins yard, Voix Du Reve, interests me: he was third to Le Richebourg and Us And Them in the Racing Post Novice Chase, form advertised in the absence of the winner by the second who filled the same spot in the Arkle on Tuesday. He was in the process of running a bigger race than that, Us And Them and Mengli Khan behind, when tipping up at the last in the Irish Arkle: that form looks decent in this context. His jumping is a bit of a worry but he also has a Grade 2 verdict over beaten Arkle favourite, Hardline, to his name so is clearly near the head of the Irish chasing ranks. He's an appealing price.

Mengli Khan has been good enough to win a Grade 1 novice hurdle and to place in last year's Supreme on heavy ground; but he's not shown enough in three chase starts to suggest he can be the best of the Irish. As a son of Lope De Vega, he also has to demonstrate the requisite stamina having never raced beyond seventeen furlongs in twelve National Hunt starts. Pravalaguna, a third string to Willie's bow, rounds out Team Ireland (not that they're a team at all, obviously). She comes here on a hat-trick, her two chase wins achieved in Listed grade or lower, and looks to have a bit to find.

I'm struggling to see the appeal of classy handicapper Kildisart. He was getting weight from the second and (errant-running) third in a novices' handicap chase on Trials Day and that looks below what is required.

JLT Chase Pace Map

JLT Chase Selection

This boils down to whether you like the British or Irish form, and I like the Irish based on Tuesday's Arkle. On that basis, I'm siding with Voix Du Reve to add to Willie Mullins' tally (he's won four of the eight renewals to date). He has experience, he has classy chase form and, though he fell last time, he looks a very big price at 14/1 (or 20/1 if you can get on with Boyle).

Suggestion: Back Voix Du Reve each way at 14/1

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2.10 Pertemps Final (Grade 3 handicap, 3m)

Another impossible handicap which will probably be won by an Irish novice that has run in a Grade 1 or 2 earlier in the season. Using that lazy man's route in - well, I could do the work and find a loser, too? - brings me to a shortlist of ... none.

Do some work I must, as yoda might say. A slightly different tack is to look for the 'not off' horse from the Leopardstown qualifier. That angle screams the chance of the Gordon Elliott-trained Sire Du Berlais, who jogged around before picking off enough of the beaten horses to bag sixth place and thus qualification for this final.

The lightly raced seven-year-old was fourth in the Martin Pipe last season off a mark of 144 and races here off just a pound higher. 6/1 is a horrible price in a race like this but his case is easily made.

Ian Williams' First Assignment has been consistent and progressive this season, including when winning a three mile handicap hurdle at the track in November. He's since given Paisley Park a race and will not be fazed by soft ground. Arguably more exposed than some, his conditioner is a wonderful target trainer. Again, though, he's well found in the betting.

At a massive price is Coole Cody. Michael Blake is unfashionable, but his runner has a Cheltenham handicap win on soft ground in a big field to his name. Just three pounds higher here, and coming in off the back of a fine second in a big field soft ground Grade 3 handicap hurdle, 50/1 is bigbigbig for smallsmallsmall money. He may try to make all, a trick which has proved surprisingly effective in such races: I can immediately recall Buena Vista doing that here, and Fountains Windfall doing it at Aintree.

If you like something else, fair play. I'll be going 20 deep in the placepot.

Pertemps Final Pace Map

Pertemps Final Selection

The favourite, Sire du Berlais, has his chance on the form of his fourth place in a handicap at last year's Festival; and I'd love to see Ian Williams win with First Assignment. I'll have a tiny tickle on that one and also on Coole Cody, who is over-priced even if he is probably also over-faced.

Suggestion: Back First Assignment (10/1 general) and Coole Cody (50/1 general) each way for very small money.

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

Lots of old friends line up for what should be an enthralling renewal of the Ryanair Chase where they bet 4/1 the field. Clinging on to favouritism is last year's Arkle winner, Footpad. He was the beneficiary of some bonkers riding up top that day and shouldn't have been beaten by the capable old stick Simply Ned last time. Even given the form Willie is enjoying, I can't have him on my mind against a deep field although he's likely to be suited by softish turf.

Monalee is one of a group challenging for market primacy, and looks a more reliable place play at least. He beat stout stayer Anibale Fly last time and has form with the likes of Kemboy, Presenting Percy and Al Boum Photo that would put him close to the Gold Cup picture. I like him but I think he might just lack a gear.

Un De Sceaux is eleven now, and that's a big 'x' in my book. 11 year olds just don't win Festival races (Moscow Flyer in 2005 is the only horse older than ten to win a Grade 1 at the Cheltenham Festival, from 75 to try, since at least 1997), and this is very far from a penalty kick. The going, trip and track are all in his favour, but age is significantly against him. He'd be a tremendous winner but I can't see it in spite of some high class form as a ten-year-old last year.

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The gallant and superb Frodon also lines up. He produced one of the weight-carrying performances of recent times when lugging 11-12 off a mark of 164 in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup and even managed to win over a trip-too-far extended three miles last time. His Cheltenham record reads 3801150211. That said, he was well beaten in last year's Ryanair and also on his only other Festival appearance, in the 2016 Triumph Hurdle.

The one I like - actually, the one I love - is ROAD TO RESPECT. He travelled off a fast pace like the winner in the Gold Cup last year before failing to stay so this shorter trip looks spot on. Soft ground will suit him better than the quicker surfaces he's been racing on which, allied to a Grade 1 win at the trip, and a pace setup that looks tailor-made, and a price of 5/1, makes him just about nap material.

It's 20/1 bar this group, a price which brings in last year's winner, Balko Des Flos, and the Brown Advisory winner, The Storyteller. The latter gets his ground which might make him more competitive than he's been most of the season, but he's probably a touch shy of what's needed to lift this pot; the former has been AWOL all campaign but may again be at least partially revived by wetter turf. Neither are for me, mind.

Ryanair Chase Pace Map

Ryanair Chase Selection

I got a bit carried away when wagering this race and have convinced myself that Road To Respect is one of the bets of the meeting. It's a race which will define my Cheltenham, so here's hoping Noel Meade's eight-year-old brings his A game. If he does, he'll take all the beating in what is a competitive race for the places.

Suggestion: Back Road To Respect at 5/1 (bet365, Boyle)

*

3.30 Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

I previewed this race here.

To that I'll add the pace map, which shows Faugheen may get some contention from Sam Spinner but perhaps not much else and might just be able to dictate the fractions:

*

4.10 Festival Plate (Grade 3 handicap, 2m 4 1/2f)

The Plate. Any chance of gravy? Not really, no...

Although not saddling a winner in the last four years, Venetia Williams, David (and before him, Martin) Pipe, and Nicky Henderson have excellent records in this race. Between them they run five this time: Eamon An Cnoic (Pipe), Gardefort, Didero Vallis (both Venetia), Janika and River Wylde (both Henderson).

Eamon An Cnoic - Eamon hereafter - was ninth in last year's Ultima. That's typically a better race than this and it is run over a longer trip, one which he appeared to fail to see out. Back in distance, with a win last time out over two miles and a prior course spin this season he'll be on plenty of tickets.

The six-year-old Didero Vallis has snuck in at the very bottom of the weights and comes here looking for a third win of the campaign, having prevailed twice at this range on soft before coming unstuck over further and on quicker last time. Perfect preparation in many respects. This ex-Willie Mullins-trained chap has plenty of upside, no weight and comes from the right trainer.

La Williams also runs Gardefort, whose mark has been moving in the opposite direction thanks to a Scrabble rack of form figures this term. 0PU is hardly the sort of sequence to get the pulse racing, and it's not the sort with which Venetia has got it done previously either, but a rummage a little deeper into Gardefort's profile reveals that he was second in the 2017 Grand Annual (two miles) at the Festival. Very lightly raced since, he was 142 then and is 137 now. Back class is the angle if you want to make a case for him.

Then there's Nicky's pair. Janika is just about favourite, the six-year-old running second on both UK starts since notching a hat-trick at Pau and Auteuil. He looks a pretty classy sort though he'll need to be to lug top weight and at least six pounds more than the rest. Obviously he wouldn't be a surprise winner but 6/1 is tight enough.

Second in the weights is the other Hendo horse, River Wylde. He's been plying his trade in Grade 1 and 2 hurdle and chase company and makes his handicap debut here. Third in Labaik's Supreme (2017), he was leading when coming down at the last in a graduation chase over a little further than this at Haydock last time. Good to soft would be fine for him though I don't think he'd want it too wet; with the ground drying out currently he could be interesting at twice the price of his stablemate.

The Irish have won the last three renewals, from very few entries, after an extremely long drought previously. They bring just two ten-year-olds to the table this time: Valseur Lido and Polidam. The former gets a drop in Festival grade having run third in the 2015 JLT and second in the 2016 Ryanair, both at around this trip. A mark of 145 is 16lb lower than his career top, though it's more than two years since he won. He represents the A Plus Tard connections of de Bromhead and Blackmore.

Polidam is a Willie Mullins runner that has been rattling around his current mark for a couple of years. He doesn't obviously have anything in hand of the 'capper though he's been fairly consistently in defeat.

Festival Plate Pace Map

Festival Plate Selection

It's another deep handicap where I've probably failed to mention the winner. Janika will go close if able to carry his big weight, but at the prices I'm more drawn to the chances of Eamon An Cnoic and River Wylde, as well as perhaps Didero Vallis. All represent savvy connections.

Suggestion: Take your each way pick of Eamon An Cnoic (20/1 Hills), River Wylde (14/1 Hills), and/or Didero Vallis (25/1 general).

*

4.50 Mares' Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2, 2m 1f)

A more competitive renewal this year, but not a race I believe should feature at the Festival. Personal prejudices aside, it is a decent wagering heat.

For the first time since its inception Willie Mullins doesn't have the favourite this year. That honour goes to Epatante, a French import trained by Nicky Henderson. She's bolted up on her two UK starts and won an AQPS Grade 1 bumper in France, though quite what that means in the context of this race is anybody's guess. It was a super-impressive victory, however, and she's not been troubled by anything to this point. She might just be a superstar.

Others have done more on the track and deserve a mention, most notably Posh Trish. She's had five runs this term, winning four of them, but this is a fair step up in grade; she was found out a little in Grade 2 bumper company last spring but had had a long season by then. Similar comments could apply this term.

Mullins may not saddle the favourite, but he is represented by SEVEN mares, the most prominent in the betting being My Sister Sarah. Winner of three of her four starts in ordinary company, she has a stone to find on ratings. But these are highly progressive youngsters and one has to respect the trainer. Pick of his septet at the prices might be Sancta Simona, who chased home Aramon in a Grade 1 against the boys last time. She was 5/2 there and is 16/1 here - that looks too big about a Grade 3 winner that handles any ground.

Second to Posh Trish at Newbury, having beaten her over the same course the time before, is Lust For Glory. She looks above average but may have a little to find against some of these. For fans of chat, her owners, Grech and Parkin, were talking her up as their best horse at the start of the season. She's not done much wrong.

In the same yard as Lust For Glory and Epatante is Elusive Belle. She has a tendency to find one too good but has posted some decent time figures. And Stuart Edmunds' Queenofhearts was a good winner of a Grade 2 at Sandown last time. She has been racing over further but, if they go quickly (and they probably will), she might not be out of it; she handles any ground.

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Selection

In spite of myself I am drawn to the favourite, Epatante, on potential more than track performance. It is the manner of her victories that takes the eye. Her French G1 score was achieved with panache, nonchalance and other words which have been adopted into the British idiom, and I suspect this lass is going to be one about whom we speak in revered terms in future. Her name translates as 'amazing', though in an old-fashioned context (there's a French journo sitting next to me!), so perhaps more like 'spiffing', and she is probably just that. I'll take a rare chance at the top of the market on her.

Suggestion: Back Epatante to show that she's the real deal at 2/1 general

*

5.30 Kim Muir Challenge Cup Chase (Class 2 Handicap, 3m2f)

Amateur riders. Three and a quarter miles. Two dozen horses. Fences. Yikes.

The best jockeys tend to fare best, a cause and effect symbiosis where success breeds success. Jamie Codd has won this four times, and he rides Gordon Elliott's Measureofmydreams. Supported from 33/1 into about 5/1 now, the connections certainly wouldn't put you off; his three prior Festival jaunts have ended 830, the 3 recorded in the National Hunt Chase. A stout stayer who has had plenty of time off - just one run since spring 2017 - he is ten pounds below his peak rating and will get the ice cold Codd patient ride.

Only one of the last ten winners has been sent off bigger than 16/1 so it's not a race in which to get too gung ho. Others at the head of the market include the aptly named It's All Guesswork, Any Second Now, No Comment and Sky Pirate. Dealing with the Guesswork first, he's a second string to the Elliott bow who has been consistent all season but perhaps isn't as well handicapped as some as a consequence.

Any Second Now is quite interesting. He seemed to be outpaced in the Close Brothers last season and has been staying on in his three mile races this term. The extra range here and the booking of the excellent Derek O'Connor looks a beneficial combination.

No Comment has been very lightly raced though has run creditably at the last two Festivals, finishing seventh in the Martin Pipe in 2017 and sixth in the National Hunt Chase last year. Clearly seen as a stayer, this will be his first handicap chase spin.

Sky Pirate was travelling like the winner when coming down over a similarly extended three miles here at the November meeting. A warm up spin at Exeter last month will have put him spot on for this main challenge, and he's another that is interesting if not missed in the market.

At bigger prices, Se Mo Laoch would appeal if getting a run. The second reserve has been first or second in each of his last six races, and in the first three in each of his last nine. Incredibly, he's elevated from a mark of 82 (!) to 130 and seems to handle big fields and long distances with aplomb.

And there's just room for an honourable mention for Squouateur, perhaps the unluckiest horse in training, certainly in terms of his Festival performances. With a name made for Scrabble, his form figures of BPP0F also fit that bill. But he was (an unlucky in running) 3rd in this race last year off a 3lb lower mark, and was just getting into it when unseating three out in the Kim Muir of 2017. With a clear round, something that, granted, seems fairly unlikely, he might be a 'forgotten' horse. Faller insurance would be a smart concession to avail of if you otherwise like his chance.

Kim Muir Pace Map

 

Kim Muir Selection

As with all the handicaps, it's no more than a token pick in another deep deep heat. I'll plump for Any Second Now, for whom the trip might be ideal.

Suggestion: Back Any Second Now each way at 10/1 (1/5 12345 Hills, Victor, Unibet)

*

That's the shape of Day 3, Thursday. My fate for the day, and maybe the week, will be sealed by the Ryanair Chase; so please think of me regardless of the result of there!

Good luck

Matt

London Racing Club Cheltenham Preview Notes

The below notes have been provided by excellent Cheltenham judge and good friend, "Hammer".

Another very enjoyable evening hosted by Lee Mottershead bringing a wealth of knowledge to the table in the form of ex Senior Handicapper Phil Smith, whose betting pot now represents his life force. ("Once it's gone, you're gone" according to Mrs Smith), Maddie Playle from Racing Post podcast, author and pundit Matt Tombs and Martin Chapman representing Star Sports and providing the market movers and shakers.

 

Tuesday

Supreme

PS All need to improve on current ratings to get near the level of a poor winner. One of them surely will do so but hard to be confident whom. Al Dancer has the added confidence of handicap form giving substance to his rating. Interested in Angel's Breath who will stay further.

MP given Elixir De Nutz profile, Thomas Darby's form earlier in season provides hope that he may be some value.

MT Fakir De D'oudaries has it all to do if he turns up here as 4yo old form is a gulf short of all age form. Front runner Elixir De Nutz nominated as a very solid each way play.

Summary: Elixir De Nutz each way

 

Arkle

PS Hardline highest rated and good price for progressive profile. Preferred to Duc Des Genevres.

MP Glen Forsa uncomplicated and stays further. Strong handicap form.

MT Lalor may like freshness angle but big ask for K Woollacott. Preferred Hardline through smashing up of Us And Them when race wouldn't have suited Hardline.

Summary: Hardline each way

 

Champion Hurdle

PS Buveur D'air 2/1 "wow".

MP Buveur D'air will get good tow from Apple's Jade.

MT Closutton confidence in Laurina. "The Vibes” are strong with this one! However came down strong on Apple's Jade whose Leopardstown form was "so good". In Istabraq/Faugheen class if weight allowance factored in.

Summary: No obvious standout. Star Sports did offer 5/2 price push about the reigning dual champion. There will be worse bets.

Other Tuesday snippets:

PS Dounikos would have been of interest in Ultima given his handicap mark in UK untypically more favourable than his Irish mark. He doesn't run unfortunately (may be worth a sneak in the Grand National though..). However General Principle who finished close behind him does run and his mark is on a par with his Irish mark which is effectively a bonus.

MP keen on Mister Whittaker in Ultima for step up in trip with festival form. Also name checked Impulsive Star for NH chase. Fourth last year and form of Rathvinden and Sizing Tennessee working out well.

MT liked Red Indian in Close Brothers.

PS Tower Bridge could have lenient mark in Close Brothers on line through Duc Des Genevres who he would rate higher than 153.

 

Wednesday

Ballymore

PS Champ just looks like a winner. Others were less convinced worried about him settling in a race they typically go steady.

MT worried slow pace may also make Battleoverdoyen susceptible to a speedster stepping up from the 2m ranks. He nominated Klassical Dream (if runs) over Brewinupastorm who needs to overcome bad fall last time out.

MP liked City Island and Beakstown.

Summary: Take on the top of the market. Klassical Dream favoured if runs.

 

RSA

MP Delta Work solid

PS Delta work "bombproof". Topofthegame preferred over Santini also.

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Summary: Delta Work worthy favourite.

 

Champion Chase

PS Altior wins. Not seen bottom of him yet.

MT Un De Sceaux value NRNB at 12/1 if soft (won't run otherwise). Also available NRNB at 4/1 without Altior

Summary: Altior wins. UDS in alternative markets NRNB.

 

Other Wednesday snippets

MT Whiskey Sour lobbed in for Coral Cup

PS No horses get lobbed in!

PS Back an Irish horse in the Boodles that has had only 3 runs

MT liked Get In The Queue and Sempo for Bumper

PS preferred to dutch the McManus pair over Tiger Roll in the Cross Country

MT concurred re Auvergnat who has massively improved. He also noted that Chic Name travelled favourably last year and could be worth a small each way.

 

Thursday

JLT

MP liked Lostintranslation. A horse she is coming to fall in love with. Stays further.

MT liked Voix Du Reve of the likely runners. (Travelled well for long way in Coral Cup last year). Could get own way in front too and find rhythm. But do watch out for a switcheroo from big yards. With NRNB Topofthegame or Hardline are likely non runners but will massively shorten if their current plans changed.

PS liked Reel Steel. Rated 152 that should be good enough for a JLT.

None of the panel were warm on Defi.

Summary: Split opinions

 

Ryanair

PS Frodon top rated

MP Frodon probably won't be good enough but likes the combo with Bryony

MT Watch out for concerted Footpad support. If not Monalee soundest option.

Note Road To Respect now going Ryanair

Summary: Nothing conclusive. Wait for "the vibes" with Footpad?

 

Stayers

Nobody over bullish on Paisley Park but it might be a case of is there anything to beat him?

PS Originally said Faugheen would beat him on 3 legs but he didn't have the updated PP rating since the Cleeve.

MT hoped Ifthecapfits might get supplemented as this test would suit.

Summary: Paisley Park or Faugheen will provide a story either way

 

Other Thursday snippets:

MP Queenofhearts in Mares Novice

MT/MP Eamon An Cnoic travelled really well at festival last year. 25/1 poke for Plate

MT also liked River Wylde in Plate. Could be the proverbial group horse in a handicap

PS shared some trends. Irish Novices in Pertemps. Plate Mullins/Elliott graded form. Even if 4th of 4. Some will be on good marks especially Gordon's.

 

Friday

Triumph

Not a race to look for big prices. 10/14 winners from Top 3 in market.

Summary No obvious value. Sir Erec could go off odds on. Should have plenty of time to recover from the stone bruise

 

Albert Bartlett

MT Split stakes on Derrinross (better soft) and Defi Bleu

Summary: Defi Bleu won't be 33/1 if Gordon's had a good few days (which I expect he will!)

 

Gold Cup

PS Native River was good Gold Cup winner and is the one to beat. Best bet of week.

MP Shattered Love might be best outsider

The panel merited Clan Des Obeaux's improvement but lingering doubts about jumping right and whether may be too classy to tough it out.

MT if good ground it is a speed test. This will suit Kemboy who has not got enough credit for Savills run as he pulled hard and ran inefficiently. Presenting Percy the reluctant selection if soft.

PS/MT showed visible disliking to Pat Kelly's contemptible treatment of the racing public as the sport has moved on since the 90's. Percy certainly not likely to be the most popular winner in these quarters at least.

Summary: Pat Kelly is not nice. Native River if soft, Kemboy if good.

 

Other Friday snippets

MT Foxhunter Hazel Hill a proper pointer who has been smashing up opposition for years. Caid Du Berlais (good)

PS Foxhunter Stand Up And Fight/Ucello Conti

MP loves Finawn Bawn wherever runs.

 

Enjoy next week folks. Will be craic'ing week as ever!

- Hammer

Stayers’ Hurdle 2019: Preview, Trends, Tips

Stayers' Hurdle 2019: Preview, Trends, Tips

Thursday's flagship race at the Cheltenham Festival is the Stayers' Hurdle, a Grade 1 run over three miles. It is a strong test of class and stamina, as well as speed quite often, and has an impressive roll of honour which includes the likes of Big Buck's, Inglis Drever and Baracouda - all multiple winners this century. With Penhill unable to defend his crown we'll have a new name on the list of winners; working out which one is the challenge faced in the words that follow.

 

Stayers' Hurdle 2019 Trends

There's plenty of dead wood in your average Stayers' Hurdle line up. A brace of barometers to that end are recent form figures and starting price. In the last ten years, Stayers' Hurdle winners collectively recorded 21 victories in their previous three starts and added another five second places; put another way, they were placed 1-2 in 26 of 30 preceding runs. Whilst that sequence includes Big Buck's' memorable four-timer, there have been six further individual winners in the past decade.

When Anzum won the Stayers' at 40/1 in 1999, he was rounding out a trio of consecutive big priced winners; thereafter, the next 14 victors were returned at 8/1 or shorter. However, most recently, three of the last four winners were between 10/1 and 14/1. But even that recent trio arrived at the race as follows:

- Penhill was unraced that season but had run 112 on his previous three starts (including winning the Albert Bartlett at the Festival the year before)
- Nichols Canyon ran 12F, all at two miles
- Cole Harden might be considered the sole shock, having arrived with form of 234 in the established British trials. He was some way down the official rating pecking order and benefited from a wind op and being able to control steady fractions from the front. He can be seen as a rare outlier to the profile.

Those at sensible prices whose recent form puts them into this pattern profile include favourite, Paisley Park, Supasundae, and Faugheen.

A further interesting, and perhaps emerging, trend is the record of the Irish. After Dorans Pride's popular success in 1995 there was a wait of 18 years before Charles Byrnes saddled Solwhit for his triumph in 2013. Since then, however, Willie Mullins has won the last two Stayers' Hurdles.

Since 1997, Ireland has run 71 horses in the race, out of a total of 278 - so just about bang on a quarter - and has claimed only three of 21 (14%) Stayers' titles in that time.

Since the race was reinstated in 1972, only Crimson Embers (1986) has won at an age outside of the range of six- to nine-year-olds. This is a significant knock against the classy Faugheen, with the likes of Big Buck's, Baracouda (twice) and Limestone Lad failing in recent times when aged ten or more.

Although not a trend as such, it is worth saying that horses which have demonstrated high class form at lesser distances have a fair record in this race. Nichols Canyon, More Of That, and Solwhit are all examples of such horses in the post-Big Buck's era.

 

Stayers' Hurdle 2019 Form Preview

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One horse towers above the field - the expected runners for the field at any rate - in this year's renewal of the Stayers' Hurdle. Paisley Park has looked a different horse since his nondescript effort in last year's Albert Bartlett. That race, famously attritional, saw him eased off in deep ground; since then he's never looked back, recording a four-timer and showing himself to be much the best of the British staying hurdle contingent.

Wins in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot and the Cleeve Hurdle on Trials Day at Cheltenham have seen him stride forwards in performance terms from 147 in his seasonal debut to 168 last time, according to the British handicapper. Given that only Thistlecrack (168) had a rating that could match Paisley Park's since Big Buck's' final victory, and that none of the other five winners in that time came in with a rating greater than 161, this may simply be an open and shut case.

However, the pick of the Irish handicap figures puts Faugheen on 169 - gasp! I don't know when that master figure was recorded but it remains four pounds higher than Apple's Jade and that looks tenuous at best. In his pomp in Britain, when winning the 2015 Champion Hurdle, Faugheen recorded a performance figure of 171, just three pounds higher than Paisley Park notched last time. That was over two miles and four years ago.

But wait, there's more. The Irish 'capper also has Supasundae on 163, a mark which would have won five of the last six Stayers' Hurdles. Not seen over three miles since running up to Penhill in last year's renewal, he's had a quiet prep finishing second three times over shorter distances in Grade 1 company.

Getting back to Paisley Park, my feeling is that talk of his 'flat spot' is somewhat overplayed. Sure, he got niggled at one point during the Cleeve, but it was for no more than ten or twelve strides; later on, Coleman got busy again but that might be put down to the rider being apprehensive about what he had under him. He gave him one smack and Paisley was back on the bridle before travelling to, and running by, the leaders with ease.

There is no reason to believe Paisley Park has finished improving, with his most recent run his best - over three miles at Cheltenham - and I think he'll take a world of beating.

The fly in the ointment, which would likely play to the superior speed of the above named Irish pair, is if there is little or no pace in the race. Paisley's impressive wins this season have come when front-runners have blazed a trail: in the Cleeve, Sam Spinner and Lil Rockefeller locked horns from the outset; the early speed was less marked in the Long Walk Hurdle, and so was the winning distance and the performance rating. Andrew Gemmell, the blind owner of Paisley Park, whose story has been recounted by Tony Stafford on these virtual pages, will be hoping Sam and Lil Rock re-oppose next week.

If they don't, Faugheen and Supasundae become more interesting. The former has been a very classy animal, good enough to win a Neptune and a Champion Hurdle amidst a haul of nine Grade 1 scores in Britain and Ireland; but at age eleven, and with just two defeats on his card since an impressive victory at Punchestown last April, I have to let him beat me at a top price of 9/2.

Jessica Harrington's Supasundae has more appeal. He's more consistent, albeit that he's never been the star that Faugheen ("the machine") has been, and he looks like he's been trained all season for this. His Festival record is solid, too: 6th of 23 in the Champion Bumper, 7th of 14 in the Supreme, 1st of 25 in the Coral Cup, and 2nd of 15 in last year's Stayers' Hurdle. He's been predictably outpaced over two miles this season, as he was in those early Festival skirmishes, but upped in trip he looks sure to be competitive again and is a far more reliable each way proposition than 'the machine'.

This preview presumes Apple's Jade goes to the Champion (or the Mares') Hurdle rather than here, though she'd obviously be a massive player with her seven pound allowance if she did re-route in this direction (9/2 NRNB is a very snide wager if you're that way inclined - most likely money back but you'll have at least two points on the market if she did run).

Of those likely to line up, Black Op was a good second to Samcro in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle in the mud last year; but he was no match for Paisley Park last time and his jumping continues to be a cause for concern. Top Notch is a brilliant little horse but far more likely to go Ryanair, and another already put in his place by the Park.

If it came up wet and turned into a war, Kilbricken Storm is the sort which could pick up pieces. That is what happened in his Albert Bartlett last year and, though the abortive chase campaign is not ideal, 'potato race' winners have a good record in the Stayers' - see for example Penhill last year.

After that, we're in wise guy territory for a race which has not historically played to wise guys. Bacardys has more F's to his name than a Scrabble bag but he wasn't out of last year's race when coming down at the last and a more truly run affair than that one could see a prominent showing, though he may be bigger than the current 16/1 on the day.

It really would be a shock if anything else was good enough.

Stayers' Hurdle 2019 Tips

It may be unoriginal, but in a race full of if's and but's, the case for PAISLEY PARK is overwhelming. He's unbeaten this season, he's won the major trials, he's proven at the track and over the trip, he's beaten many of his likely rivals by wide margins, and he may very well still be progressive. I'd certainly be happy that, barring mishap, there is nothing in Britain that will beat him. He's a short price at 7/4 and that lacks sex appeal, but he's a very likely winner.

Of the Irish, despite his former class it is hard to overlook Faugheen's age, a barrier which proved beyond horses of similar 'back class' at a similar vintage. A strong gallop would also count against him.

Supasundae by contrast relished the stronger pace in the Coral Cup and, while this is clearly a different level of opposition, he was able to operate off the steady fractions in last year's race. With ground versatility and an uninterrupted preparation further positives, he looks the each way bet in the race.

For those who like more exotic - which is to say longer priced and less likely - wagers, Bacardys offers more appeal than many. He has class and Festival form: 3rd in the 2016 Champion Bumper, hampered in the 2017 Neptune, staying on from an impossible position when falling at the last in the 2018 Stayers'. He also has obvious jumping issues which must be factored into your wager. Maybe a bookie will be offering a money back concession on those that tumble; that would be well worth taking a couple of points shorter about in my view. And, in any case, I think he's a day of race play as he's likely to be a little longer than 16/1 unless the wise guys hitch their smartypants cart to his chance.

 

2019 Stayers' Hurdle Selection: Paisley Park at 7/4 NRNB Betfair Sports

Best each way: Supasundae 8/1 Hills (all in, run or not) or 7/1 Betfair Sports, PP, blacktype, Boyles NRNB

Bigger priced alternative: Bacardys e/w at 16/1 NRNB BOG 1/4 1-2-3 bet365 (though he may be available at bigger on the morning of the race)

My Cheltenham Ante Post Portfolio 2019

We're now less than three weeks away from the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, and it is time to start ramping up the Fez-related content here on geegeez.co.uk.

To kick things off, allow me to share my ante post portfolio as it stands right now. It's a little sparser than has been the case in recent years, and perhaps I'm a little less confident about the plays than in recent history, too: truth is, life (family, geegeez, HBF, syndicate horses) keeps getting in the way. And, on balance, I like that, so no dramas or complaints from my side.

I've included staking as well as selections so, as always, take that in the context that some will bet more, some will bet less, and that bet size is not really the point: we all operate in our zone and this just happens to be mine. Make sense? Good, let's crack on.

Tuesday

Arkle

Cilaos Emery £20 e/w 13.08/1 William Hill

A 'boosted' price from Hills, up from 12/1, hence the quirky number. This Willie Mullins inmate was hugely impressive in brushing aside subsequent facile scorer Duc Des Genievres amongst others on his first start for more than a year. The third and fourth have won since, and the second replicated that effort on his next start, giving the form a solid look. Fifth in the 2017 Supreme was followed by a win in the G1 Punchestown Champion Novice Hurdle, and a hurdle rating in the 150's puts him right in the mix for the Arkle.

Alas, he picked up a knock schooling at Navan the other day, and is now an injury doubt for Cheltenham. In any case, a single race over fences is probably sub-optimal. Current top price 'all in run or not' - 10/1

Novices' Handicap Chase

Tower Bridge £25 e/w 20/1 NRNB bet365

I've no idea really why I have an ante post bet in a handicap, still less the novices' handicap chase, but I have. And it looks over-staked to boot. At least the non-runner no bet concession offers me the consolation of a run or a refund.

In fairness, this lad, who was a Grade 1 scorer at the Dublin Festival this time last year before running a close fifth in the Albert Bartlett, ran a cracking trial when never really put into the race behind Duc Des Genievres last time. It looks as though he'll contest a handicap rather than a Graded chase at Cheltenham, though perhaps the Kim Muir's extended trip will be the slot he lands in. If that's the case, it's money back and no harm done; he should get competitive in whichever handicap he contests. Current top price NRNB - 20/1

Wednesday

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle

Acey Milan £20 e/w 50/1 Unibet

A bit of a daft loyalty bet, I suppose. He has the class to contest this on his form from last year, where he was the best British bumper horse of the season. But injuries and illness this year mean he's not had a chance to show his true ability. A welcome win last time over two miles at Plumpton was not in the style of a horse harbouring Festival aspirations, but he rallied well from the turn in there and will be very hard to beat off an opening mark of just 127 when upped in trip. But that won't be at the Festival, sadly. No NRNB here so these quids look spent. Current top price - not quoted

RSA Chase

Santini £200 win 9/2 bet365

That's more like it. Or it was until equine flu and vaccinations got in the way of his intended prep in the Reynoldstown at Ascot. Prior to that little episode, I was feeling very smug with the inflated price taken about a horse whose chance was, to my eye at least, significantly enhanced by an outpaced-but-staying-on-best-of-all three length third in the Feltham on Boxing Day. The winner of that race has notoriously never won the RSA, though a number of beaten horses - including former Seven Barrows resident and Gold Cup winner, Bobs Worth - have turned defeat there into RSA victory.

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The much stiffer test at Cheltenham will be right up Santini's street and I think he has a very good chance. Well, I did until he missed his prep. He'll presumably have a spin round Kempton at the weekend, but it's not the same thing, is it? Current top price - 3/1

 

Thursday

JLT Novices' Chase

Kalashnikov £25 win 16/1 Skybet

A top novice hurdler on wet ground last year, I took a bit of a punt on this fellow for the intermediate novice chase at the Fez this time around. He's not looked a natural so far, but that could conceivably be down to being out of his comfort zone at the speed the best horses race over two miles. Moreover, I'd certainly forgive his Sandown effort where the ground was filthy tacky and he didn't look to jump out of it at all.

That's a lot of excuses for a horse who probably wants a wet March and who probably won't get it; and who will probably go the short route even though he's demonstrated he likely doesn't have the pace for it. In my view, this is the right race for him but, even then, whether he's good enough is another matter entirely. Current top price - 18/1

Winter Escape £50 e/w 12/1 NRNB Skybet / £10 win 20/1 NRNB Paddy Power

I really liked this fellow when he won a deep Grade 3 at Punchestown last month, but he was sub-par at Leopardstown earlier this month. It turned out he broke a blood vessel there, which probably means he's not going to the Festival. I'd bet him NRNB on the basis that a good run at Leopardstown would book his ticket while a poor one would probably rule him out, and that looks a rare moment of prudence in a fairly trigger-happy portfolio overall.

 

Friday

Triumph Hurdle

Carlo Biraghi £25 e/w 16/1 NRNB bet365

I wanted to back Fakir after his Chelto romp, but didn't. Good job as talk is that he's Supreme-bound. I was tempted by Sir Erec but not by the top price of 6/4. And so I landed on this wildly impressive 22-runner maiden hurdle winner with more than a touch of class as an each way alternative. In truth, I didn't think he could beat a concert pitch Sir Erec, so I'm kind of happy (with apologies to connections of course) that he has been held up in his preparations and may now be saved for the flat. Money back, no damage done. Thank the Lord for run or refund! Current top price - not quoted.

Gold Cup

Native River £200 e/w 9/2 NRNB bet365

I placed this bet on the morning of the Galmoy Hurdle, where I thought Presenting Percy might be undercooked or unimpressive. In fact, he was probably both, but that didn't stop Pat Kelly's not-jumped-a-fence-in-public-this-campaign second season chaser from shortening up for the Blue Riband. Meanwhile, Colin Tizzard's reigning champ has eased out to 6/1 in a place (all in, run or not).

He had a hard race in the Gold Cup last year, there's little doubt about that. But he's the wrong price here in a race that lacks the depth the market currently suggests, in my view at least. I'll expound upon that in a full preview next week but, for now, know that Kempton ain't Native's track - he's been outpaced on both visits there - and know that running Bristol De Mai to four lengths around Haydock probably constitutes a rating of about 210 in the microcosm of that inexplicably idiosyncratic track.

Native River has had a quiet campaign geared towards this race, and I think he's a very solid each way play indeed, as evidenced by comfortably my biggest ante post stab of the meeting. I just wish I had a bigger price about him! Current top price - 11/2 NRNB

Anibale Fly £50 e/w 33/1 Black Type

Another over-staked wager, this should have been £25 e/w. But I really like this horse. I thought he was a tad conservatively ridden last year when third in the Gold Cup, though it's possible - probable, perhaps - that he was outpaced and ran on. He ran a taking prep behind Monalee over a mile-too-short two and a half mile trip in the Red Mills Chase and has only eight lengths to find with Native River on last year's Gold Cup form.

The worry is that the GC is a prep for the GN - Grand National - but that's bonkers if you have a horse potentially good enough to win the former. There's something of Synchronised, JP McManus's 2012 Gold Cup winner, about Anibale Fly: obviously the green and gold livery but also the doughty staying nature of their run styles. Synchronised was somewhat Jim Furyk in his jumping style whereas Anibale Fly is a tad more 'trad' with his athleticism, and in a race full of if's and but's he comes to the party dressed as himself and ready to roll. He's still a fair price, I think. Current top price - 25/1 NRNB

Foxhunters' Chase

Hazel Hill £8 win 25/1 Paddy Power / 80p win 25/1 Betfair / £9.70 e/w 12/1 bet365

A weird race fittingly couched in my portfolio with some weirdly staked bets. 25/1 was a rick, plain and simple, after Hazel Hill demolished a good class field of hunters at Warwick last month, and I got all I could, which wasn't very much at all as you can see. He'd previously won his two other hunter chases by a similarly wide margin and, while he may not have the class of some of the ex-Rules horses, he is a beast at the top of his game.

If I'm in desperate need of a draw by this point on Friday - I'll be fairly well oiled by then - perhaps this chap will get back 350-odd notes. But, in truth, it's a pig in a poke of a pot where you need to be lucky as much as good. Current top price - 7/1 NRNB

*

That's the story so far. For those who prefer spreadsheets, feast your eyes on the tale of the tape / tale of woe* (*delete on 16th March as applicable) below. There will be many more wagers to strike, and we'll start the big race previews next week: they're overdue! [Click on the image to view a bigger version]

Matt