One down, three to go, and still another twenty battles to be lost and won before the curtain falls on Friday's action. We kick off Wednesday with the Neptune...
1.30 Neptune Novices Hurdle
The Neptune, a novice hurdle over two miles and five furlongs, may have a case for the most under-rated race at the Festival. Often considered a second string event to the opening Supreme Novices' Hurdle, it actually has an excellent alumni that includes The New One, Simonsig and First Lieutenant in the past three years; and the likes of Barton, Monsignor and the mighty Istabraq going back to 1997.
It has been a decent race for punters, too, with six favourites obliging since Istabraq's Festival coronation. During that period, every winner bar 20/1 Massini's Maguire came from the top five in the betting.
2014 Neptune Novices Hurdle Trends
Aside from the strong market guidance, what other statistical pointers are there to aid us in trapping a Neptune-winning wager?
Age: All winners bar French Holly in the period under study were aged five or six. French Holly was seven. Four-year-olds are 0/13 and yet to record a placing better than fifth. Eight-year-olds-plus are 0/10, with a single placing in that group.
Days since a run: As with so many Festival non-handicap races, an absence of two weeks to two months seems optimal, with fifteen of the sixteen winners fitting that pattern. It does cover 76% of all runners, but accounts for 93.75% of the winners.
Last time out: Twelve of the last sixteen winners (75%) also won last time out, from 51.7% of the runners. Three of the other four winners were second (18.75%) from roughly the same proportion of runners (18.25%). Collectively, 93.75% of Neptune winners since 1997 finished first or second last time out, from 70% of the runners.
Class: All bar one of the last ten winners had finished at least second in a Grade 2 event. The exception, Fiveforthree, was fifth in the previous Champion Bumper.
2014 Neptune Novices Hurdle Preview
We're looking for a classy animal here, with proven stamina, and a reasonable rest period coming into the race. He will most likely be five or six years old.
Faugheen is favoured and, should he take up this engagement, he looks to have a big chance. No horse has yet got closer to him than four and a quarter lengths, though it should be said that he's not raced above Grade 3 level to date, and has been off since late December (74 days). Those knocks don't mean he can't win, but they might imply he's poor value at 3/1 against some smart sorts.
And a further niggle with Faugheen is that his preparation was interrupted when the horse was "a little disappointing", according to his trainer, Willie Mullins, at the turn of the year.
Red Sherlock has a similar unbeaten profile - his extending to six runs - and won the course, and distance (but not course and distance), Grade 2 in January which has been a springboard for both Massini's Maguire and The New One to win the Neptune.
Indeed, five of the eight horses placed in that race came on to place in this one. Red Sherlock led home Rathvinden (subject of strong support recently) with Aubusson a long way back in third. There were just a couple of lengths between the pair that day, and Rathvinden gave the impression he might have had a bit more to work on, despite being slightly favoured in the betting on that occasion.
Both come to the Neptune with strong chances, and at 5/1 and 8/1 respectively, they both look solid each way options.
Splitting the pair in the betting is the seven-year-old Royal Boy, vanquisher of Josses Hill last time out. If the last named runs a big race in the Supreme, that would clearly advertise the claims of Royal Boy. But there are two striking concerns for me with this fellow. Firstly, he's older than all bar two of all Neptune winners going back to its inception in 1971.
And secondly, his best form looks to be on a squishy surface. Indeed, his sole encounter with good ground under rules was a whacking defeat and by far his lowest performance 'figures'. He did win a point-to-point on advertised good ground, but it's very hard to know what that means in the context of a race like this. Certainly, it would have to be a question mark at least against Royal Boy's name.
This is one of those races where a fair few fancied horses have multiple engagements, occasionally coupled with the Supreme but more often with the longer Albert Bartlett, run over three miles. Briar Hill is a key example this term, and he probably has a more obvious chance in the longer race. That said, he'd certainly have a strong chance here too, as he showed the track holds no fears when cantering past Regal Encore to win the Champion Bumper last year. His trainer has implied they're leaning towards the potato race.
Captain Cutter, a stable companion to Royal Boy, has been nicely progressive this season, and won a Grade 1 over this trip at Newbury last time, in comfortable manner. He is another that may go long and to the Bertie Bartlett, but I can recommend him in this with the non-runner no bet concession. It's a bet to nothing and, on the evidence of that last effort, and the likelihood that McCoy will ride if Captain Cutter shows up here, 14/1 with Ladbrokes has tempted me.
Another likable sort with multiple entries is Deputy Dan. He won the same Warwick Grade 2 in which The New One scored last year before taking Neptune honours, and No Refuge also doubled up in 2005. Deputy Dan was perhaps a default winner there, as favourite Rathvinden fell when looking a threat. That said, it was Rathvinden's third error in succession and, though he was much better in defeat to Red Sherlock a fortnight later, the worry would be how he'd jump in a bigger, classier field (did outclass a large field of maiden hurdlers on soft ground).
Deputy Dan will take in this race if the ground is testing but if, as seems more likely, the course dries out, he'll go to the Albert Bartlett. Still, it's non runner no bet and he's another tempter at 16's with BetVictor.
The rest ought not to be good enough in a race typically won by a horse close to the head of considerations.
2014 Neptune Novices Hurdle Tips
With if's and but's about the participation of a number of Neptune Novices' entries, and a reservation or two about the favourite, Faugheen, it's worth taking a win bet and two each way shouts, all on the non-runner no bet premise.
To my eye, the likeliest winner is Red Sherlock. Although a touch quirky - he has a pronounced tail swishing kink - he jumps very well and is unbeaten in six, including twice here at Cheltenham. He looks as though he'll go on any ground, though a bit of juice would be ideal, and he's a solid bet at 5/1 with Paddy Power.
I'll add ballast to my book for the race with two each way shouts, neither of which may turn up. We'll get our cash back if they don't so no harm done in backing Captain Cutter and Deputy Dan, a pair of sons of the stallion Westerner, at 14/1 (Ladbrokes) and 16/1 (BetVictor) respectively.
Neptune Novices Hurdle Selection:
Red Sherlock 5/1 Paddy Power (Non-runner money back)
Neptune Each Way Alternatives: (both non-runners, money back, since first published)
Captain Cutter e/w 14/1 Ladbrokes (Non-runner money back)
Deputy Dan e/w 16/1 BetVictor (Non-runner money back)
2.05 RSA Chase
The RSA Chase has been a very good dress rehearsal for the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself in recent times, with both Bobs Worth and Denman going on to win the big one since 2007.
Run over three miles and half a furlong, this novice chase is often a war of attrition and, as well as being a stepping stone to greater things for some winners, it has also been the last hurrah for others.
Indeed, since Denman landed the spoils in 2007, only Alberta's Run and Bobs Worth have gone on to win further races. Cooldine, Weapon's Amnesty, Bostons Angel and, so far, Lord Windermere have all failed to record a subsequent success at any level.
So who are the likely movers and shakers for the 2014 RSA Chase? As usual, I'll highlight what I consider to be some of the more material trends before ploughing into the form book, then finally I'll offer my idea of the best value in the RSA Chase market.
We start with the RSA Chase trends...
2014 RSA Chase Trends
Age: Seven-year-olds have a phenomenal record in the RSA. Since 1999, they've won twelve of the fourteen renewals, from just 80 runners for a profit of £43.95 to a £1 stake. Just two of the 62 runners aged eight-plus have won.
Form: All of the last 24 RSA Chase winners finished in the first three on their prior start, with 22 of them running first or second the last day. Only Denman and Florida Pearl have won the RSA Chase having been unbeaten over fences since Miinnehoma in 1992. 31 have tried since 1997.
Experience: Only the brilliant Florida Pearl (two) has won the RSA with less than three chase starts to his name since 1997. Apart from the very experienced Rule Supreme (eight), the other fourteen winners since 1997 had between three and five prior chase runs.
Layoff: All of the last sixteen RSA Chase winners had between 16 and 60 days off the track since their last run.
Breeding: Irish bred horses have taken fifteen of the last seventeen RSA Chases, with French-bred nags claiming the other two. The last British-bred winner was Brief Gale in 1995, and they've managed just five places since.
The trends shortlist includes Black Thunder, Many Clouds, O'Faolains Boy, and Smad Place.
2014 RSA Chase Preview
And so to the form book. Before we look at individual horses, the following races have been key pointers to the likely RSA Chase winner in recent times.
In Ireland, the Dr P J Moriarty Chase has showcased RSA Chase winners Cooldine (won both, 2009), Weapon's Amnesty (2nd 2010), Bostons Angel (won both 2011), and Lord Windermere (3rd, 2013). This year, Ballycasey beat Don Cossack, with Carlingford Lough an unlucky faller at the last.
In Britain, the two key prep races are the Feltham Novices' Chase and the Reynoldstown. The Feltham is noteworthy for the fact that no winner has gone on to win the RSA Chase in its history. This year, Annacotty bids to lay the Feltham hoodoo to rest. Beaten horses have prevailed in the RSA however, most recently Bobs Worth in 2012. The placed horses in this season's Feltham were Green Flag and Third Intention, though both were beaten far enough.
The Reynoldstown, run at Ascot, also saw Bobs Worth beaten in 2012 and, whilst it is a stiffer test than Kempton's Feltham, it is less of a challenge than the RSA Chase itself. Albertas Run won this en route to Cheltenham glory in 2008. This year, O'Faolains Boy beat Many Clouds.
So, since 2008, all six RSA Chase winners have exited one of those three races. I will focus primarily on them.
The RSA Chase requires a combination of stamina, guts and a scintilla of class. Usually, however, an abundance of the first two will suffice. When looking for a bet in this race I want to be on a horse that was finishing to some effect in one of the key trials the last day.
The beaten horses in their preps which went on to win the RSA all showed a finishing effort: according to the Racing Post, Lord Windermere "kept on well under pressure" when a half length third in the Moriarty; Bobs Worth "stayed on to take 2nd [at the] last" in the Reynoldstown; Bostons Angel " stayed on well under pressure from last, led close home"; and, Weapon's Amnesty "went 2nd after last, kept on run-in".
None of them were backing out of their race at the end, and this is crucial. We want a horse that can stay. And stay. And stay.
In the Reynoldstown, O'Faolains Boy and Many Clouds finished in that order, separated by two and a half lengths. The winner outpaced the second, and looked as though he might run away in the closing stages. But Many Clouds plugged on well or, as the Racing Post put it, "outpaced by winner soon after 2 out, kept on again near finish".
I doubt there will be much between them at Cheltenham, and they both jumped the last in attractive fashion, suggesting there was at least a bit more in the tank if needed. O'Faolains Boy has raced exclusively on soft or heavy under rules so far, and there would be a slight niggle if it came up quicker than that on the day, but his profile - which includes a very good fourth to At Fisher's Cross in last year's Albert Bartlett - has plenty of appeal.
Despite that, I am drawn to Many Clouds as the probable preferred plodder of the pair. A useful hurdler, he was second in a Grade 3 novice handicap at Sandown under top weight before getting tapped for speed at Aintree. Since going chasing, Many Clouds has won two and finished second twice. In both the silver medal races, he's "kept on" having been outpaced. This slightly longer trip and considerably stiffer test looks tailor made, and I like him at 16/1.
Ballycasey, the favourite for the race, is harder to assess. He's only had two chase starts - winning both - and that is less than all bar Florida Pearl in recent times. Is he capable of being a Florida Pearl? Time will tell, but the more pertinent question is whether he'll have the stamina to see this out.
In his first chase run, he won a beginners' chase beating Mount Colah, a 135 animal, by eight easy lengths over a two mile trip. On his only subsequent start, he saw off Don Cossack over two miles five in the Grade 1 Dr P J Moriarty Chase. Don Cossack was well enough held, and I'd have reservations about his getting the three miles-plus of the RSA.
Ballycasey on the other hand might improve for better ground and hasn't proved he can't stay. Nor yet has he proved that he can and, allied to his inexperience, 5/1 is extremely unattractive for all the promise he might have. He's also had a couple of training niggles this season, which is less than ideal.
Carlingford Lough is a horse I've backed. I admit that I'd not really gone through the form at that time, but he was a standout 14/1 when everyone else was offering 10/1. At time of writing now, there is a range from 8/1 to 12/1, and that's based on his form.
Bizarrely for a novice, Carlingford Lough has had thirteen chase starts! That sequence includes a Galway Plate win last summer, a second in the Drinmore (Grade 1, two and a half miles, beaten by Don Cossack), and a win in the Grade 1 Topaz Novices Chase over three miles. He beat Morning Assembly there, staying on at the finish, and that again is key to his chance. He sees the trip out well and has bags of experience allied to a touch of class. He might not be quite good enough, but with McCoy doing the steering we should get a run for our money.
The Feltham was won by Annacotty in clear cut fashion, and it's tough to see anything coming from out of the pack in that contest to be good enough for an RSA Chase win. Annacotty's own claims are rather let down by his staying form away from Kempton, where he's two from two at the three mile trip. He's been beaten multiple times in handicaps - as has Carlingford Lough for that matter (though some will argue that was by design rather than accident!) - and didn't look to have too much more to give over two miles five at Cheltenham last time out. He could surprise - I know one keen form student who likes this fellow - but he's not for me.
The others at the top of the betting are attempting to win this having swerved the major trials, something which has not happened since Denman, second in a Grade 1 hurdle at the previous Festival, won in 2007.
Smad Place has Festival credentials having been third in two World Hurdles. He has won his two completed novice chases in good style, but has yet to be tested in Graded company. The last horse to win the RSA Chase having dodged Graded chasers previously was Lord Noelie in 2000. It does happen, but 7/1 has no fat in it for a hungry scribe such as me. I'd expect Smad Place to run an honest race, maybe even win, but I don't think he's value given he unseated on chase debut and hasn't really put his jumping under much pressure so far.
Morning Assembly emptied out quickly last time when beaten by Carlingford Lough, and he looks to have more of a chance at Punchestown than Cheltenham to my eye.
And Donald McCain's Corrin Wood was rated just 130 over hurdles, and yet is allotted 156 after three non-Graded chase wins beating a cumulative eight rivals. Granted, he has stayed well in those races, and he's shown an ability to handle different going conditions. But the overall performance of unbeaten horses that swerve top company is poor. Indeed, the last winner to take the RSA as an unbeaten and untested in Graded chases horse was Miinnehoma in 1992. Not for me, thanks.
If there's any value lurking in the lower end of the lists, it might be with Paul Nicholls' Black Thunder. He was two and a half lengths behind Corrin Wood turning in at Warwick last time, and the same margin away at the finish. He'd won a Grade 2 in three previous chase wins, and 25/1 offers a bit of value, given his vanquisher last time is no better than 10/1.
2014 RSA Chase Tips
The RSA Chase is a compelling race, as ever, and my tips are made in a quest for value. Ballycasey can win - of course - but he's inexperienced and I'm not convinced by his stamina yet. Smad Place looks like he'll be thereabouts if his jumping holds up, but he's no price for a race like that.
Many Clouds looks exactly the sort for an RSA Chase, and 16/1 is a perfectly fair, borderline generous, price in my opinion. Carlingford Lough has been around the blough (see what I did there?) and he's a strong stayer with a bit of class. He'd have been within a couple of lengths of Ballycasey but for unseated at the last in his previous race, and so he ought not to be around three times the price.
And for a real outsider, maybe nibble Black Thunder, though I much prefer the chance of the two above at the prices.
RSA Chase Selections:
1 pt win Many Clouds 16/1 bet365 (Non-Runner No Bet, Best Odds Guaranteed)
1 pt win Carlingford Lough 12/1 BetVictor (Non-Runner Free Bet)
2.40 Coral Cup
A two mile five furlong handicap hurdle, the Coral Cup is the first such race of the week. Despite the big prices most winners are returned (Medinas was a 33/1 chance last year), there are some fair trends to assist.
Coral Cup Trends
11 of the last 20 Coral Cup winners also won last time, from around a fifth of the runners.
Horses aged five to eight have won fifteen of the last sixteen renewals (94%), and collected 59 of the 64 places (92%), albeit from 85% of the runners.
Only two horses rated above 144, and two weighted above 11-03, have won since 1997.
14 of the last 16 winners were rested for between one and four months. Those returning within a month are 2 from 187 (1%). Absences of longer than a month are also material for the places.
None of the 75 runners to have won over this trip previously were able to score in the Coral Cup since 1997.
11 of the last 13 winners had won no more than one handicap previously.
Coral Cup Preview
This is a not a race I have any sort of record of success in, so take the following brief notes in that spirit.
I'm going to focus my attentions on last time out winners which, despite all the chat of plots and the like, have an impeccable record in the Coral Cup. That, allied to other patterns which I reckon might be material, lead me to home in on the chances of Waaheb, and Calculated Risk. I'll add in an old warhorse with a new twist, Get Me Out Of Here. Let's start with the old boy.
Get Me Out Of Here (GMOOH) has run his best races at the Festival and been desperately unlucky in defeat twice. First, in the 2010 Supreme Novices' Hurdle, earning a subsequent rating of 150. The following March, he looked a certain winner before being nutted on the line by Final Approach in the County Hurdle. The margin of defeat was a nose.
2012 continued the hard luck theme, as he collected a third silver medal. This time, though, there was no head bob, and Son Of Flicka had three and a half lengths to spare in this race. Stepped up to the Grade 1 World Hurdle last year, he was never comfortable with either the trip or the grade and was pulled up.
He's down to the same mark - 148 - as when so cruelly denied in the County of 2011, and has something different this time. As well as his customary tongue tie, he has cheek pieces added for the first time. So what?, you might be thinking. Well, trainer Jonjo O'Neill has a rather interesting record with first time headgear on his Cheltenham Festival runners. Specifically, since 2003, twenty horses have sported first time headgear for him, and four have won. At odds of 25/1, 14/1, 20/1, and 50/1. So yes, GMOOH is worth one more try, despite having more weight than maybe ideal.
Of the trends types, Waaheb looks to have been 'readied' with this in mind. A very good bumper horse, he's never quite broken through in hurdles as expected: he seemed to regress after a fine second in the Grade 1 Future Champions Novice Hurdle.
However, he was still good enough to run World Hurdle-bound Rule The World to five lengths two starts back, and then to win a conditions hurdle beating the fair Turban. He's been off for two months since then and may have tightened up - read, been got properly fit - since then, and the market speaks in his favour at this early juncture.
Calculated Risk is just that: he's unexposed over hurdles, having won four of his nine starts; and he fits all the key trends. He also has a lovely low weight, sneaking into the race with just a pound to spare. Five year olds have won two of the last four, and three of the last eight, renewals of the Coral Cup, and he looks nicely progressive.
The step up in trip last time at Sedgefield seemed to eke out more, and his cruising speed will be an asset in a harum scarum gallop such as this. Trainer John Quinn can ready a hurdler for the Festival, as he showed with Countrywide Flame's Triumph Hurdle win in 2012. 40/1 with five places is too tempting to turn down.
Obviously there are lots and lots of other horses with chances, including Dell'Arca, Ifandbutwhynot, Vendor, Bayan, and 2012 winner, Son Of Flicka.
Coral Cup Tips
Hyper-competitive and not a race I'll be getting stuck in to. That said, I have backed Get Me Out Of Here, and also Calculated Risk for small money. Waaheb has a chance too. I am hoping for a good run rather than expecting to collect!
Coral Cup Pick:
Get Me Out Of Here 20/1 racebets
Coral Cup Attractive Each Way:
Calculated Risk 40/1 Coral (BOG, faller refund, FIVE places)
3.20 Queen Mother Champion Chase
[Preview written on 19th February]
The Queen Mother Champion Chase is the highlight of the second day of the Cheltenham Festival, and one of the showpieces of the entire week. This year's race looks intriguing, with defending champion Sprinter Sacre bidding to overcome that uncharacteristic blip on his last start, and clear second choice Sire de Grugy with course questions to answer.
It's double figures any other horse you like, so this could be a belting wagering opportunity. In this post, I'll look at the Champion Chase trends, preview the form, and offer a tip or two for the race. Let's start with the trends...
2014 Queen Mother Champion Chase Trends
Horses of all ages, from five through to eleven, have won this race in recent years. However, the percentage play, in terms of strike rate is to ignore horses with double digit ages.
Since 1997, of the fourteen horses to complete on their previous start, eleven won, another was second, and the other two were third. Two of the seven horses to fall or unseat last time went on to win the Champion Chase. None of the six that pulled up last time has finished better than fifth - a sextet which included Florida Pearl and Flagship Uberalles. A certain Sprinter Sacre pulled up last time...
Since 2000, of the ten winners to have an official rating, all were rated at least 160. Tilting at this prize may be wishful thinking then for Module, Astracad, Hinterland and, erm, Wishfull Thinking.
All of the last ten winners had their final prep race in the previous 30-60 days. Favourite Sprinter Sacre has not been seen for 75 days, when he pulled up after a mile...
2014 Queen Mother Champion Chase Form Preview
Those are the trends then and, aside from a couple of strikes for favourite, Sprinter Sacre, there's little of utility in whittling the field. However, that is quite a significant 'apart from', so let's inspect the case for the reigning champion.
Sprinter Sacre began the 2013/2014 season as the biggest certainty of the Cheltenham Festival. He was in possession of a ten race unbeaten record over fences, and had scored stratospheric Timeform, Racing Post and Official figures. He was just 2/9 to extend that sequence to eleven at the principle expense of his main Champion Chase ante-post rival, Sire de Grugy, in the Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas.
But it didn't go to plan. Oh boy, did it not go to plan. Sprinter Sacre was pulled up after running little more than a mile and jumping little more than half of the dozen fences. In Sprinter's absence, Sire de Grugy galloped to a workmanlike four length victory over Oiseau de Nuit.
It was subsequently discovered that Sprinter Sacre had suffered a heart irregularity, which appears to have righted itself. Now, I don't know about you, but that's not the sort of thing I want to hear when I'm mulling pulling on the punting boots at even money or shorter.
The facts with Sprinter Sacre are that he has easily the best form in the race, but in the past eleven months he has completed only about a mile of a single contest. Medical fitness, as well as match fitness, have to be taken on trust. Of course, if he is medically sound and he is pitch perfect for Cheltenham Wednesday, he'll be very hard to beat. And I will be prepared to cheer with the rest if we have our champion back on the big day.
But that's sentiment. When it comes to betting, I wouldn't touch Sprinter Sacre with a very long bargepole.
The obvious one against him is Sire de Grugy, a horse that has won eight of his eleven chases and been second twice more. I have to declare an interest here: I backed him - and recommended readers back him - when he was 16/1. Here's what I wrote on December 9th 2013:
I was taken with the way Sire De Grugy won at Sandown, having not been a huge fan of his in the past, and I backed him each way for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, a race which is seriously lop-sided.
Here’s my rationale: Sire de Grugy is likely to go for the Queen Mum. Sprinter Sacre is too, assuming he can be got fit, and his current issue is resolved. We all hope that will be the case. If it is, Simonsig will surely run in the Ryanair, having won the Neptune over the longer trip a good bit more impressively than he did the Arkle over the shorter trip.
Cue Card may tilt at the Gold Cup itself if running close in the King George and, at any rate, would surely go at the Ryanair if not quite getting home around Kempton on Boxing Day.
Flemenstar could go for the Queen Mum, but is more likely to race over two-five in the Ryanair. Certainly his racing history suggests that’s the place for him. Kid Cassidy may be aimed at the Grand Annual again, though he’d have a stone-plus more to carry than when second last year.
Arvika Ligeonniere got found out in the Arkle last term, and will probably go Ryanair. And that leaves the third of the Henderson horses, Captain Conan. It was far from a disastrous run in third behind Sire De Grugy and, while expected to be fit enough to go close, he’s sure to come on for the run. But he does have ten pounds to find with SdG on official ratings, which are unlikely to change much as a result of the Tingle Creek outcome.
So, basically, if Sprinter Sacre runs in the Champion Chase, I contend that a fair number of others will dodge him and go for what could be one of the races of the Festival, the Ryanair. Sire De Grugy will not. He will stand his ground, and 16/1 (quarter the odds the first three) in what could be a small field of few realistic chances, seemed fair enough to me.
If Sprinter Sacre doesn’t run for whatever reason, Simonsig and a good few of the others might line up in the Champion Chase instead. In that case, it will likely be a much more competitive race, improving Sire de Grugy’s win chance whilst arguably diminishing his place prospects.
Still with me? OK, well that was the rationale.
If we could back Sire de Grugy now at 16/1, we obviously would. But we can't. He's now a top price of 11/4 and, given his course record, that's no better than a bit tight. Specifically, SdG has run twice at Cheltenham and finished second twice.
Both were chases, both were at two miles, and both saw him upsides at the last and then outpaced up the hill.
16/1 each way is still a great bet, not least because I (and others) have 4/1 about the place 1,2,3 - and there may not even be enough runners for three places!
But 11/4 about the win is hard to recommend, even without an ante-post voucher.
So, the good news is that if we're against both Sprinter Sacre and Sire de Grugy, it's 10/1 bar that pair. The bad news is that picking and choosing between the remaining fifteen engaged at time of writing is not that easy.
First of all, I am happy to put a line through any horse with an established level of form and a rating below 160. That means arrivederci to Wishfull Thinking and Astracad.
Module is difficult to dismiss completely, as is Hinterland. Both are progressive and both have scope to run to 160+. Module won the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase last time, beating Dodging Bullets a neck. Dodging Bullets is a fine novice and was giving the winner three pounds, but that's hardly Champion Chase-winning form.
The other thing with Module is that he seems to want deep ground. His three chase wins have all been in heavy ground and, though he did bag a handicap at the course on good to soft, it's likely he simply outclassed his rivals that day on his first British start. If the ground is heavy on the day, he is better than a 20/1 shot, his current price. Otherwise, he's not. He also has an entry in the Ryanair.
Hinterland is still a novice and, as such, is more likely to go the Arkle route than take on the big boys here. If he did line up, he'd still need another leap forward after a leap forward the last day, when he won the Grade 1 Henry VIII Chase at Sandown. He's ground agnostic at least, so no worries on that score, but he's unlikely to be good enough even if he runs.
Benefficient is the third choice in the betting for the Champion Chase, and he's another for whom the Ryanair is a compelling alternative engagement - he won the novice equivalent at last year's Festival. But he's not short of pace, as two Grade 1 wins at Leopardstown demonstrate. Whether he's got the sort of gears needed to prevail in this is another question and, even with the non-runner no bet concession, I'd not be drawn to his chance especially.
Captain Conan is a general 12/1 chance, and also has a Ryanair entry. He's rated 161 and has a verdict over Sire de Grugy at Cheltenham to his name, over this trip. That was in the November Novices' Chase of 2012, and both horses have improved markedly since. Captain Conan was found a bit wanting in the Jewson (now JLT) last year, but was a good third to Sire de Grugy at Sandown on his seasonal bow this term.
The problem is that he hasn't run since that race, on 7th December, meaning he has an absence of 95 days to overcome. History screams that very few horses win at the Festival in any race after such an absence and it's the scratch treatment for him on the back of that alone.
And then comes the enigmatic Arvika Ligeonniere. I love this horse. On his day, he's a proper sort. The Irish handicapper has him at 166 and he's a four-time Grade 1-winning nine-year-old. He has the toe for two but has plenty of form at two and a half too (did you like all those toes and two's?!). So it won't surprise you that he's also entered in the Ryanair Chase, over 2m5f.
True, he was awful when pulling up (carrying my money) in the Arkle last year, but he was a 15/2 chance that day and, if that was a blip, then 12/1 non-runner no bet (or 14/1 all in run or not) is a fair win only wager.
Al Ferof is still quoted in the Champion Chase, despite his trainer previously saying they were aiming him at the Gold Cup. That was before he looked to fail to stay the three miles of the Denman Chase last time, and he's probably more likely to go for the Ryanair now. He's a very strong traveling horse and, again with the non-runner no bet concession in our corner, he's worth a small interest at 16/1.
Winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle of 2011, having been second in the Champion Bumper the year before, he disappointed in the 2012 Arkle (fourth) before missing last year's Festival. The balance of his form suggests 2m5f might be optimal but he's got the speed for this, if re-routed.
We're still in the realms of the 16/1 pokes, and Kid Cassidy is next on the casting couch for the Champion Chase. So that's KC on the cc for the CC. He's a very in and out horse. When he's good, he's very good, as when trumping Sire de Grugy at Cheltenham in November; or when finishing second in last year's Grand Annual. Whether that's enough to claim this coveted prize is another question and, on balance, I imagine it's probably not.
Somersby has been called plenty of names over the years, and has often looked like a horse without a trip. But he has just the one entry - in this - at the Festival, and he's performed with merit going all the way back to the Supreme of 2009 (3rd of 20 behind Go Native that day). He was then second in the 2010 Arkle, 5th in the 2011 Champion Chase, 7th in the 2012 Ryanair, and unseated in the 2013 Champion Chase.
Somersby also unseated last time out, behind Sire de Grugy, but between those jockey exits, he won the Grade 2 Haldon Gold Cup and was second in the Grade 1 Tingle Creek. He retains a good bit of speed and class and, if he can iron that recent tendency to decant Dominic Elsworth from his back, he's not a forlorn place hope in a potentially open year.
Sizing Europe deserves a mention. Now twelve, he's won an Arkle (2010) and a Champion Chase (2011), and eighteen other races in a stellar career. He's more likely to head to the Ryanair (where have you heard that before?) but a Cheltenham Festival Arkle/Champion Chase record of 1122 is impressive even given his advancing years. After all, he was eleven when finishing second last year.
It would be truly amazing if he was win the Champion Chase at his veteran age, but stranger things have happened and 25/1 non-runner no bet is another tempting snippet, perhaps even each way this time.
2014 Queen Mother Champion Chase Tips
It's a real head-scratcher is the Queen Mother Champion Chase of 2014. With doubts about the pair which dominate the market, it's worth firing a few bullets further down the lists, especially with the non-runner no bet concession in play. I'd spread four points as follows:
1 point win Arvika Ligeonniere (12/1 non-runner no bet, general - check your bookie offers NRNB!)
1 point win Al Ferof (16/1 non-runner no bet, BetVictor)
1/2 point each way Somersby (20/1 Best Odds Guaranteed, non-runner no bet, SkyBet)
1/2 point each way Sizing Europe (25/1 non-runner no bet, BetVictor)
4.00 Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase
[Preview written 20th February]
One of my favourite races, and certainly the only handicap in which I'd contemplate betting ante-post is the Cross Country Handicap Chase. For some, it's a meaningless charade in the middle of the main arena. I certainly wouldn't agree with that: not from a sporting sense, and unequivocally not from a betting sense. For me, this is one of the best betting events of the week.
Why? Because it's the only handicap run all week where most of the entries cannot win. They're either too slow, or they don't stay, or they can't handle the course configuration, or they can't handle the fences. Lovely stuff. Get the red pen out and let's start striking lines through entries until we're left with a wager...
Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase 2014 Trends
Although this will only be the tenth renewal of the race, some key trends are manifesting themselves already.
Age: The Cross Country Chase has seen runners from age six to fifteen, but all nine winners have been between eight and twelve. However, horses aged eight to fourteen have placed. The youngsters have yet to make the frame, and are generally not strong enough to see out this marathon three-and-seven-eighths of a mile stamina test.
Last time out: Seven of the nine winners finished in the top four last time out. Of the other two, Balthazar King ran out over the same course when virtually certain to finish in the top four; and Sizing Australia finished eighth in a hurdle race over two miles (i.e. half this trip!) on his prior start.
Cross country course experience: Ever since the magnificent Spot Thedifference claimed the inaugural Cross Country Chase, winners have had previous experience of cross country races. Spot Thedifference had won the equivalent race at the November meeting on his previous run. The following year, Native Jack won the PP Hogan, Ireland's number one cross country race. Heads Onthe Ground and Garde Champetre also took the PP Hogan before the latter doubled up having this time claimed the November cross country race at Cheltenham. Spotting a theme yet? 😉
In 2010, A New Story, placed in the La Touche Cup - a similar 'banks' race over four and a quarter miles - won at 25/1. He wasn't a winner last time out of a key prep, but he had run seventh in the previous year's race. Sizing Australia landed the spoils in 2011 after placing in the November version; and in 2012, Balthazar King looked likely to go very close to winning before taking the wrong course along with a number of other horses. Last year, Big Shu was second in the PP Hogan before winning this event. He finished second again in the PP Hogan this year...
So... do NOT excuse a horse without cross country form. It has everything to prove.
Weight: Weight is generally a factor in all Cheltenham handicaps, with low weights favoured in most non-novice and/or non-amateur rider handicaps. Here, two top weights have won carrying a burdensome 11-12. The other seven lugged less than eleven stone.
Position in market: Seven of the nine winners were in the top three in the betting. And sixteen of the 27 horses in the top three in the betting have at least placed in this race.
It looks then like we're searching for a horse with top notch cross country form; aged eight to twelve; from the top of the market; and either a classy sort carrying top weight or a lightly weighted 'springer'.
The top three in the betting currently are Big Shu (Official Rating likely to be around 145), Balthazar King (Official Rating 150), and Love Rory (Official Rating 117, but subject to upward revision).
Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase 2014 Preview
When considering the form profiles for this race, it makes sense to focus on cross country experience. It is a feature, to a lesser or greater degree, in many of the runners' profiles, so we ought to commence at the head of the market.
Big Shu ran second on heavy ground in last year's PP Hogan Memorial Chase before going on to hose up in this. He won by four lengths, with fully ten back to the third horse, Outlaw Pete. To put that into perspective, fourteen lengths - the gap back to the third - covered the first six home in 2012, and in 2011 (OK, it was 15L then); and the first seven in 2010.
Only the lovable Garde Champetre, winner in 2008 and 2009, showed such dominance, and it may be no coincidence that Big Shu is going for a double this year.
After his win at Cheltenham, Big Shu went back to Punchestown and won their Festival banks race, the La Touche Cup. This time, despite being clear turning in, he clambered over the last a tired horse, and stopped to a walk on the run in, just holding on. That was under 12-03 and over four and a quarter miles on heavy ground, a more extreme test of weight, distance and going than he's going to face at Cheltenham.
He earned himself a good break after that, and only re-emerged on 2nd February for this year's PP Hogan. Fat as a pig, he drifted as though victory was out of the question, but - aided by a pedestrian gallop - was able to claim a noble second place, the exact position he took last year in the same race, to Love Rory. It was an extremely satisfactory prep for the defence of his Glenfarclas Cross Country crown and, while he's certain to have more weight this time, he has an absolutely bombproof profile and I like him. A lot.
With that potential spoiler for the rest of the form plot out in the open, allow me to demonstrate why I believe Big Shu has more robust claims than the rest, starting with Balthazar King.
I am a huge fan of Balthazar King, and his record at Cheltenham reads 22F42511PR11211. That string includes a win in the 2012 version of the Glenfarclas, and a second place in the November equivalent in the same year. He missed the race last year due to the ground not being fast enough, and I'm pretty sure the trainer will take the same decision this term if necessary. So, whilst he's a definite player on good to soft or quicker, he's a likely non-runner on soft or slower.
Funnily enough, the official going last year - after BK was pulled - was... good to soft! If he runs, he's a horse I will be saving on. If he doesn't, there's every chance Big Shu will be around the 5/2 - 3/1 mark. He's currently 9/2 at time of writing.
Love Rory is trained by Enda Bolger, a man with unparalleled skill at readying one for this race. Indeed, he's won it four times from 24 starters, with another five horses placed. This lad - Love Rory, not Enda - is the future, but there's a feeling this comes a year too soon despite his PP Hogan triumph the last day.
Still just a six year old, he has had four runs in cross country races already, with form figures of 0711. But he's yet to race beyond three miles, and this is the best part of another mile on top. Moreover, his two length margin over (very) Big Shu last time will surely be reversed with the latter stripping seven to ten pounds fitter this time.
In his defence, Love Rory has yet to prove he doesn't stay nigh on four miles, and he's clearly improving rapidly in this sphere. He looks Bolger's best chance in the race for a couple of years at least, since the tragic death in the race of Garde Champetre, something which still angers me now as it was avoidable (the course was like a road that year, and favourite Scotsirish also broke down and was killed). But I'm taking him on due my contention that Big Shu's greater fitness this time, and Love Rory's unproven stamina will reverse placings.
Sire Collonges was Paul Nicholls' first winner in a cross country race (I think), when winning the December race over course and distance. That was a race missing Big Shu and Balthazar King, and he'd been royally seen off by BK in his previous two starts, including over course and distance. That December contest looked shallow, and I'd be quite shocked if Sire Collonges was able to beat that proven pair. The one possible fly in the ointment is that soft ground might actually improve his level of form.
On the rare occasions he's run on sodden turf, he's performed with credit - second to Our Father in a novice event; third in a fair big field handicap hurdle; and an easy win on debut in France.
Any Currency comes next, and his form with Sire Collonges means he can't win either. More to the point, his form with Balthazar King means he can't win. He had no excuses when thumped 26 lengths by Big Shu last year either. Might plug on into the frame but highly unlikely to win.
Quantitiveeasing has changed stables and is now trained by Enda Bolger. On his first run for his new handler he ran a massive second in the Galway Plate behind RSA Chase-bound Carlingford Lough. Since then, he's had a very low key prep for this - unsighted in a big field Listowel handicap chase, then third of seven in a point-to-point. The fact that Bolger has the banks fences at his training facility mitigates a lack of cross country experience, and he's certainly one of the more intriguing runners. 12/1 might reward each way support.
Uncle Junior is too old and too slow, and it looks highly probable that he's a bleeder these days: confirmed burst blood vessel in one of three P's in his last six runs, alongside a fall, an unplaced effort, and a good second to BK after a six month layoff. Bleeders often perform best after a layoff. This fellow ran at the start of February and I'd imagine he's cast iron place lay material if he even lines up. I hope he doesn't: at thirteen, he owes connections nothing.
Star Neuville hasn't run since last April and has never run well first time after a break.
Sizing Australia is interesting. Winner of this race in 2011, he's also won the Irish Field Chase, a Punchestown cross country race. Now twelve, he actually won a two mile handicap hurdle last October, and was a good second to Love Rory in the Risk Of Thunder Chase (another Punchy cross country event). He's finished 11th, 1st, 4th, and 5th in this race in the last four years, and had a nice spin over hurdles the other day. 16/1 each way is all right.
Of the French contingent, Pasquini Rouge is filed under 'extremely interesting'. Third in the December race won by Sire Collonges, he was a sitting duck in front from a long way out and will surely be ridden with more restraint this time. There's also an argument to say that he'll be fitter in March, as that last time out effort looked to be a 'sighter' for the Festival. If I'm right about either of those two points, he could make the frame. If I'm right about both, he might even win. 16/1 is the best each way value in the race for me. He's a young horse - just six years old - but as a Frenchie, he's likely more mature than the Irish-bred's like Love Rory.
Wrong Turn is next in the betting, but this Tony Martin nag has never seen a cross country course, has raced mainly over 2m5f, and is entered in four other races at the Festival. Surely even the magician Martin can't conjure a debut cross country win from this fellow.
Quiscover Fontaine is another that won't stay and can't win.
Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase 2014 Tips
This is a race in which few can realistically win, and I expect it to rest between Big Shu and Balthazar King. If the latter doesn't run due to the ground, Big Shu will take an awful lot of beating. I've backed him accordingly.
Of the bigger priced horses, I think Pasquini Rouge is easily the most interesting runner. Third in the December race when in front a long way from home, he rallied gamely when others came to him and he will be wiser - and quite possibly fitter - in middle March. 16/1 is verging on generous, especially as BetVictor will give you a free bet to the same stake if he fails to get on the ferry.
Sizing Australia and, to a lesser degree, Quantitiveeasing make moderate each way appeal.
Glenfarclas Cross Country Selection: Big Shu 9/2 bet365
Glenfarclas Cross Country Best Each Way: Star Neuville 7/1 general
4.40 Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle
The Triumph Hurdle consolation race is a handicap, introduced in 2005. It's been a hiding place for plotters and burglars since inception, and this year looks like being no exception.
Fred Winter Trends
Just nine years to go on, but some fair trends emerging.
Last time out winners have taken five of the nine renewals (56%), and were profitable to back blindly. They've also claimed 16 of the 36 places (44%) from 57 runners (27%).
Seven of the nine winners have run within the last month (78%) from 57% of the runners.
Seven of the nine winners had just the three qualifying runs over hurdles (78%) from 47% of the runners.
Fred Winter Preview
Less runners but this is just as fiendish as the Coral Cup earlier in the afternoon. Weight has been a factor in recent times in this race, with lower weighted animals faring best, but this year just twelve pounds separate top from bottom in a compressed handicap.
Trainer angles might be interesting here. David Pipe has a win in the Fred Winter, Gaspara grabbing the spoils in 2007. More appealing though is his 50% place record from just ten runners in the race, and he saddles Azza this time. A Listed winner over hurdles in France, her best form is probably on softer. And she ran a nice 'handicapping' race when third, beaten 19 lengths, last time. That was here back in November, and she's been dropped six pounds for it.
If she's fit, Azza could run a big race. David Pipe can get them fit. Azza could run a big race.
Gordon Elliot has run three horses in the race, with two of them placing, one of which was last year's winner, Flaxen Flare. Obviously, he knows what is needed here. This time, he's responsible for Arzembuoy Premier, who was nicely tonked in a Grade 2 at Leopardstown before running well on soft at Gowran in January. He blew up there, as though fitness was an issue. That won't be the case here and, though he has a fair amount of weight, so do the rest in this squashed tightly rated heat.
Elliott also runs Clarcam, but he looks relatively exposed.
Ivan Grozny was probably the best of these on the flat. He didn't get a rating in France but was good enough to run third in a Group 3 at Longchamp before changing hands and disciplines. The higher rated flat horses have a decent record in the Fred Winter. He'll need to jump better than he has on this quicker ground, and he'll need to finish his race off better, so the fact his best flat form seemed to be on top of the ground is a plus. He was only beaten seven lengths in a Grade 1 last time.
Goodwood Mirage was rated 96 on the flat, ran in the best pre-Cheltenham juvenile hurdle (Adonis) last time, is trained by Jonjo O'Neill and ridden by Tony McCoy. He cost 380,000 Guineas at the sales (!), and may repay a small sliver of that here. Certainly, he can be expected to record a career best in this.
Fred Winter Tips
It's so hard reading between the various formlines in this race, and I'm far from convinced I've interpreted things correctly. That said, I do believe that the Pipe and Elliott horses especially are going to run pretty well and so they're my token selections, along with Ivan Grozny who is the class in the race and might improve enough on this quicker ground.
Fred Winter Selection:
Ivan Grozny 8/1 bet365 (BOG, 1/4 odds FIVE places)
Fred Winter Each Way Alternatives:
Azza 20/1 bet365 (BOG, 1/4 odds FIVE places)
Arzembuoy Premier 20/1 bet365 (BOG, 1/4 odds FIVE places)
5.15 Champion Bumper
One of the hardest races of the Festival to unravel is the only one without any obstacles to clear: the Champion Bumper. The last race on day two, this is a contest between twenty-plus thoroughly unexposed talents, where potential ability is considerably more important than what the rookies have achieved on the track to date. Despite this seemingly unfathomable proposition, there are some fair trends to assist the whittling process.
2014 Champion Bumper Trends
16 of the 21 Champion Bumpers have been won by Irish-trained horses. Willie Mullins is singlehandedly responsible for half of those winners, including at odds of 12/1, 16/1 and 25/1 in his last three successes.
Fourteen of the last sixteen winners also won their previous start. The other two winners finished second and fourth last time out.
Cue Card was precocious enough to win this as a four-year-old, as were Rhythm Section (1993) and Dato Star (1995). There have also been four six-year-old winners. The other fourteen winners were aged five. In the past sixteen years, 5yo's have been responsible for 31 of the 48 placed horses (65%) from 58% of the runners.
Six of the last sixteen winners came here off a single previous run; three had two runs; five had three runs; and two had had four previous races.
All of the last sixteen winners and all bar two of the placed horses were sent off at 8/1 or shorter on their final start before contesting the Champion Bumper.
2014 Champion Bumper Preview
It takes a certain amount of progression to win the Champion Bumper, as you might expect. But how much? Again, as you might expect, this is one of those 'how long is a piece of string' type questions, but there is at least a pointer in the historical performances of Cheltenham Champion Bumper winners.
I looked at those winners with three or four previous starts; those with two previous starts; and those with a single prior race. The full data is below, based on Racing Post Ratings. Each line shows: horse name - form figures - RPR/RPR/RPR - Champion Bumper winning RPR.
3 or 4 previous runs
Dunguib - 211 - 102/132/146- 151
Cork All Star - 111 - 109/119/136- 138
Hairy Molly - 2131 - 113/103/127/131- 133
Missed That - 011 - 85/103/134- 136
Total Enjoyment - 311 - 108/116/122- 135
Liberman - 2112 - 97/111/93/127- 142
Monsignor - 134 - 113/121/116- 138
Average improvement from best to Champion Bumper winning RPR: +8
2 previous runs
Champagne Fever - 21 - 126/138- 142
Cheltenian - 21 - 115/118- 138
Pizarro - 11 - 126/127- 152
Average improvement from best to Champion Bumper winning RPR: +16
1 previous run
Briar Hill - 1 - 115-141
Cue Card - 1 - 110-138
Cousin Vinny - 1 - 126-138
Joe Cullen - 1 - 118-149
Alexander Banquet - 1 - 115-142
Florida Pearl - 1 - 134-136
Average improvement from best to Champion Bumper winning RPR: +21
This is interesting, as it implies we can expect a twice-raced horse to improve twice as much as a more experienced entry if it is to win here, and we can expect a sole starter to mature by around a stone and a half on Racing Post figures.
These are benchmarks only, but they can help when looking at so many 'could be anything' types. In a race which has returned winners at 50/1, 40/1, 33/1, 25/1, 16/1 and 14/1 three times, I will begin the form preview at the 'raggy' end of the market...
...and the first horse to take my eye is David Pipe's Seven Nation Army, a 33/1 shot (86 on Betfair). This son of Rock Of Gibraltar flopped on heavy ground last time, having previously looked progressive on his first race of the season. Horses have overcome a last time out defeat to win the Bumper, and it's a race that owner Roger Brookhouse is fond of, having won it with Cheltenian in 2011.
I'm not suggesting that Seven Nation Army is the most likely winner, but he could run well at a huge price, given expected improvement for better ground, and his established level of form when winning a decent Listed bumper at Newbury on soft.
Another expected to enjoy the quicker turf is Stack The Deck. A son of Beneficial, he was outstayed by Black Hercules on soft the last day, but should travel better for longer on sounder footing.
Our Kaempfer took a big step forward when 3rd last time out on this course, and on good ground. It is not out of the question for him to improve the required amount based on his ratings, though there would be more likely candidates.
Definitly Red is unbeaten in two heavy ground runs, the second of which was a Listed contest, and his sire Definite Article gets plenty of good ground horses. With the prospect that decent ground could see him take another step forward, Definitly Red is interesting at 25/1.
Silver Concorde has obviously been hard to train, his three runs being spread over three seasons. Still a six year old, however, Dermot Weld's Dansili gelding traveled easily before extending away from Volvalien and the rest. That form looks fair and, though he hasn't run since late December, the Champion Bumper is a race where horses can win off a longer than normal absence.
Winner of his only start, El Namoose will be bidding to give trainer John Ferguson his first Cheltenham winner, and though the form of his Musselburgh win isn't working out amazingly, he could hardly have been more impressive there, strolling away for a four length verdict. He was moving away from his field at the finish, and is bred for this sort of job.
Golantilla was actually 3rd in this last year, though he was below that form when thumped by Killultagh Vic last time out. He will surely improve for that seasonal bow, but has less scope than many and looks susceptible to at least one of many potential huge progressives.
Value At Risk represents controversial trainer Philip Fenton, who is being investigated for possession of steroids. The BHA conducted their own tests on his Cheltenham-bound horses (a trio completed by former Champion Bumper winner, Dunguib, and Last Instalment) and found no traces of steroids, thus clearing the Fenton team to make the trip.
Ignoring the sideshow, Value At Risk boasts some strong form. He was second on his first and only start last season, in a race which has worked out very well. Behind that day were Western Boy (twice a winner since and less than a length behind Supreme second favourite, Vautour, in a Grade 2 last time), Wicklow Brave (a subsequent five time winner and third favourite for the Supreme), and Gambling Girl (winner of three since, including a mares' Grade 3).
Since that fine debut, he's won his other two races in workmanlike fashion, first when making all and holding on from Windsor Park (winner since), the pair clear; and last time when traveling well before quickening clear of Draco. His amateur pilot is a slight concern, but that didn't stop stable mate Dunguib claiming this prize in 2009.
Vigil could be a second entry from the Dermot Weld yard, and this two-time starter looks to have a lot more to come. A three length runner up on his debut (third has won since, winner not raced again), he followed up in good style in a Leopardstown bumper a month ago. He was extremely impressive there, traveling beautifully before extending away without coming under pressure, and on a line through solid yardstick Valvolien he must have a chance, especially granted average progression.
And that leaves a Willie Mullins trio, Shaneshill, Killultagh Vic and Black Hercules. The last named is currently favourite for the race, but that looks like it might change, as he wants more give in the ground. He took plenty of time to get going the last day and, though he eventually pulled eight lengths clear of the Montys Meadow and Stack The Deck, he looks an out and out stayer.
Shaneshill on the other hand should improve for better ground and could well go off favourite late on Wednesday afternoon. He looks a nice big sort and he finished his race off really well when beating The Herds Garden et al last time. That race has worked out poorly so far, with none of the dozen subsequent starters winning, but the victor could not have done any more. Shaneshill has been absent from the track since the end of November, most likely awaiting better ground.
Mullins was quoted on these two thus, "Black Hercules is a good horse and that was a good performance. He´ll be entered for the Cheltenham bumper but whether he´d be as effective on good ground remains to be seen. He might have another run before we decide. The same owners have Shaneshill and he might be a more suitable horse for the Cheltenham race"
Killultagh Vic might just be better than both. He bolted up by sixteen lengths from Golantilla in a performance that was visually stunning and earned a Racing Post Rating in accordance with what the eye saw. I do have a nagging doubt that the winner was flattered by the second 'blowing up' (lack of fitness telling, rather than exploding, mercifully), and it's enough for me to look elsewhere.
Finally, one well worth noting for the future is Royal Vacation, from the Cue Card connections of Mrs Jean Bishop and Colin Tizzard. Like Cue Card when he won the Champion Bumper, Royal Vacation is a four year old. Unlike Cue Card, he didn't win on his debut, but he did run an extremely eye-catching race. It would not be exaggerating to say he was tailed off turning in at Ascot, and yet, by the finish he was a closing four length fourth.
He earned an RPR of 104 for that and hinted at the sort of improvement Cue Card found with the manner of the performance. Cue Card earned a 110 for his Fontwell debut win before going on to notch a 138 in taking the Champion Bumper. A similar scale of improvement would put Royal Vacation in the shake up and it is interesting that connections are willing to pitch him into the race. A shilling each way at 50/1 could see a place return.
2014 Champion Bumper Tips
As you'll have gathered from the above, it's a wide open race. The nature of results historically attests to the borderline pointless ambition of trying to nominate a winner and, with that in mind, I'll take a couple of big prices and a shortie against the field.
I really like the look of what Vigil has done so far, and his run style - effortlessly cruising through his races - will be well suited to a test like this. Dermot Weld wouldn't have the best record at Cheltenham - 0 from 27 since 2003 - but he has seen one of his five Champion Bumper runners make the frame (Rite Of Passage), and Vigil could at least match that achievement. 10/1 is worth taking.
Of the Mullins triumvirate, I prefer Shaneshill, despite the 102 day absence and the ostensibly poor form of his last win. I think he traveled really well, a huge asset in this as I've alluded to already, and he could bounce off the expected goodish ground. He's 8/1 with Hills (all in run or not) and I can see him going off favourite on the day.
As a throwaway bet, Royal Vacation could offer an exhilarating thrill. He'll not be asked to do anything in a hurry, but if he can hang on to the shirttails of the main pack until they turn in, it's possible to envisage a swashbuckling dash up the Cheltenham hill. Of course, he may also fail to replicate that last day finish and/or show it to be moderate form in the context of this race. But 50/1 overstates that probability, in my opinion.
Most likely winner (tenuous):
Shaneshill 8/1 Hills
Each way alternative:
Vigil 10/1 bet365
Huge priced rag with a tiny squeak:
Royal Vacation 50/1 bet365