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Domesday Delight – Edmunds Festival First

Based just a stones-throw from the M1 near Newport Pagnell, Stuart Edmunds has been training horses for more than 30 years, and was assistant to the late Renee Robeson. Last Thursday at the Cheltenham Festival he had his proudest moment as a handler, when Domesday Book caused a 40/1 upset to win the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Handicap Chase.

With less than 30 horses at his disposal, this was an extraordinary success for the yard. The seven-year-old was previously trained in Ireland by Henry De Bromhead, and was delivered with a storming late run by 25-year-old amateur Gina Andrews, to deny Pendra in a thrilling finish. The runner-up looked to have got the better of a prolonged duel as the pair turned for home. But Pendra’s stamina began to run-out from the last, and less than a length separated the pair at the line.

Edmunds could hardly believe his good fortune, and speaking after the win said: “It's unbelievable, it hasn't sunk in. I think it's as big a surprise to me as everyone else. He was recommended to me by a late friend. He ran okay at Leicester on his first run, and we thought the further the better, so we put him in this and told Gina to be forceful on him, and he just kept responding. I thought he was beat but she gave him a smack and he's always behind the bridle, the blinkers did their job. I came here thinking if he finished mid-division we'd be happy.”

For the young jockey, the result was a dream come true: “This has literally been my lifetime ambition, just to ride here never mind win. Stuart told me he'd never be on the bridle, but to be honest he was never off it until we turned in, so that was a pleasant surprise. He rallied well, but I thought I'd be second jumping the last, the loose horse helped - I'm delighted.”

Wolf Of Windlesham had been the star of the Fences Farm stable in recent times. A talented young hurdler, he’d won three of his four starts as a juvenile, including a Grade 2 at Cheltenham and a valuable handicap at Sandown last April. He was still going well, when coming down in the Greatwood Hurdle in November, though has not been sighted since finishing down the field at Ascot in December.

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Edmunds has his team in good order, and Apasionado has become another yard favourite, having won three of his six starts since arriving from Ireland. A novice hurdler now rated in the mid-130s, he was a fast finishing runner-up at Kempton a few days back, and looks more than capable of going-in again before the season ends.

The handler also has some decent mares in the yard, few better than the promising youngster Maria’s Benefit. A win and a second-place finish from her two bumper outings, she looked a nice prospect when winning cosily last time at Huntingdon. She has an attractive pedigree, being by Beneficial out of an Anshan mare. Her breeding gives hope that she’ll make into a smart staying hurdler in time.

Molly Childers is another with potential, though she’s struggling to get her head in front. Three seconds, and a hugely promising fifth in a listed event at Sandown last time, suggests she’ll be winning soon. She appeared to find the soft ground an issue in her latest run, but the daughter of Stowaway looks a nice sort.

Grey Warbler is another that looks sure to be in the winners’ enclosure soon enough. Runner-up in both her bumper starts, she possibly lacks gears, and is another that will probably need a trip when sent over hurdles. She also has a smart pedigree, being by Notnowcato, out of a Sir Harry Lewis mare.

A festival winner is sure to boost confidence throughout the yard, and Edmunds will be hopeful that the success will attract new owners, looking to put their trust in the small yet beautifully formed Buckinghamshire outfit.

Monday Musings: Confusion Reigns

All this Cheltenham stuff seems to be getting to a lot of people, writes Tony Stafford. Take Eddie O’Leary, brother to Michael and Racing Manager to his brother’s Gigginstown Stud. In yesterday’s Racing Post, Fast Eddie is quoted as insisting that a decision on whether their Empire of Dirt will run in either the Ryanair Chase or the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup will be delayed until next week.

In view of the litany of absentees from the meeting due to late injury, among them a handful of fellow Gordon Elliott inmates, such insistence – the word in one or other of its forms, got a couple of airings in Brian Sheerin’s page four piece – on pragmatism might be understandable, but next week, really?

It’s always tough to get weeks and years right. We talk about events in a jumps season as this year, when as with Moor Racer, now definite for the Champion Hurdle rather than a novice target, he might not have run since November 2016.

I’m finding it hard to distinguish this week from last, having set off at 4 a.m. on Saturday for Mark Johnston’s breeze morning where the most precocious batch of his juveniles set out on the road which might take one of them to the Brocklesby at Doncaster in three weeks’ time.

If that might seem too much time to allow for a 10 a.m. appointment you’re right, but Wetherby services offers an ideal opportunity for a Greggs breakfast special, bacon (three rashers) in a roll and a tea (my option) or coffee for £2.70. Anywhere else in that locale costs an arm or a leg. Thereafter, a wash and brush up, refuelling and an hour’s shut-eye were the perfect preparation for seeing third lot at Park Farm, Middleham.

Thirty or so of us were there to watch our particular interest, some intent on possible new acquisitions, others like me to appraise a possible early runner, as in Ray Tooth’s Tarnhelm. She has the distinction of being a regular partner for Deirdre Johnston and they were towards the back of a line of youngsters, some galloping, others like her doing a couple of canters – “maybe two weeks”, according to Mark, before joining them.

Anyway as they neared the onlookers, provided with a platform of rubber maps a fair distance away from the all-weather gallop, one distracted youngster veered left, hit the rail and ended on the other side. Luckily the rider took timely evasive action, and both she and her mount were unhurt.

Apparently, down at Richard Hannon’s last week, leading apprentice Hollie Doyle also came off, her mount spooking when several motor bikes sped past the string along a small road. She expects to be back race riding in a day or so.

Tarnhelm had to stop – she was the next one along – and if she can react with the same alacrity when asked to go faster, she could be all right. Time will tell, but Deirdre likes her.

Yesterday was the lull in the madness of Cheltenham week. Tonight I’ll have my usual pre-Festival night at the Bedfordshire Racing Club with Ian Wassell of Corals, BHA two mile hurdles handicapper, David Dickinson, and MC, Howard Wright – if he’s not in Bhutan or somewhere at the last minute – to run the final preview gathering of the year.

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We might not be the best, but we are the last. Then after getting home at say 1 a.m. it’s up at 5 a.m. in order to collect Harry Taylor at Chigwell at 6.30, praying that the M25 will be kind to us for the first third of the trip west.

Howard has been an absentee a couple of times recently, I seem to remember Qatar as one lucrative alternative to his nice bottle of Bedfordshire RC wine, and Bhutan was a purely contrived possible destination. I knew Lennie Dorji, a great friend of Edward St George, and the pair spent every summer in England, betting in partnership and sometimes making money.

One year Edward had a successful time with David Loder horses, when I was a sort of advisor to the then young trainer, and even got a trip to Grand Bahama, which Edward basically owned with Sir (Union) Jack Hayward, that winter as a reward. He was totally disciplined. On hearing that Pat Eddery would be unable to ride the object of one potential 10 grand bet, he asked the trainer: “Who rides?” Upon hearing, “Paul Eddery”, he snapped back: “No bet!” It lost.

According to a comment made in the movie “The Lunchbox”, filmed a couple of years ago in Mumbai, Bhutan is the best place in the world to live: “you get five rupees there for one rupee here” one of the main characters says at one point.

Dorji was from that mountain nation’s Royal family and took important political roles, including I believe Prime Minister in his earlier days. If you saw the film on BBC2 last night, I bet you are still thinking about it and maybe like me quite affected. Try to see it.

Sorry Mr Editor, no more distractions. I started out talking about confusion for the Racing Post writer yesterday and in the same issue four pages later, my experiences on Champion Hurdle day eight years ago, when I was not there to see Punjabi win the big race, are recalled.

As with Chinese Whispers, even collaboration with the best of writers can be open to the odd confusion. If it seemed to read, therefore, that I drove there and back to Moorfields, “battling the London traffic”, I hasten to reassure that the 35 bus was my only conveyance option while recovering from a detached retina operation.

We’re not missing it this year, though, staying at a place called Highworth, between Swindon and Cirencester, and if 2016 is anything to go by, a better way into Cheltenham than from either A40 or M5. Starting as early as we do, there should be bags of time to see Punjabi and Rachael Kempster in the parade, unless like last year I’m forcibly prevented from the paddock by the security men.

Around New Year, I had a frustrating few days, wrestling with the apparent disappearance of the RCA despatched envelope which contained my new press badge for this year. I keep the robust, ideally-sized envelopes to contain such as driving insurance and car park documents and the like in the kitchen drawer.

When it came to taking it out possibly to go to Cheltenham on New Year’s day, I found to my consternation it wasn’t there and after a couple of lengthy searches, came to the conclusion I had erroneously thrown it out with the Christmas rubbish.

After a short correspondence with the RCA, I had no option but to part with £150 (£120 plus VAT) for a replacement. On Saturday night, returning at 10 p.m. after a stop-off at Chelmsford after the A1, I was met by a less-than-amused wife who said: “Did you lose this?” It was not the badge, but another RCA envelope with motoring documents. “That fell down behind the drawer”, she announced. “But I looked there a couple of times”, I whined. “Maybe there’s the one I wanted two months ago?” Two minutes later she retrieved another envelope, this one containing the missing press badge.

Saturday March 11. Hackney Wick, London. Dear RCA, I enclose the original 2017 press badge, issued to me, with car park label and use of badge instructions. Please send me the £150 so I can have a bet on Gordon Eliiott’s horses at Cheltenham next week.

Hope you all back plenty of winners, and maybe I’ll find one or two for the nice people of Bedfordshire tonight.

 

Harry Cobden’s Blog: 10th March 2017

Wow. Has it really been four weeks since I last wrote? Time flies...

It's actually been a fairly quiet month, but I've still managed to put another five wins on the board. They were kicked off by The Geegeez Geegee for, as the name suggests, a syndicate created out of visitors to this website!

It was really great to ride a winner in the geegeez colours and with the geegeez logos on, too. Geegee jumped class that day and was always going to win. He just dossed a little on the run in, giving a hint to his moody side. That less cooperative part of his game was in full evidence when he didn't go a yard for me back at Fontwell a fortnight later.

I knew my fate pretty early, and no amount of pushing and shoving was going to change his mind. He's probably going to be best fresh so might be interesting again after a little break.

Zarkandar is one of the yard favourites at Paul's, and I was lucky enough to get the leg up in the Grade 2 Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock. He was actually rated 168 in his prime and, though now on a mark of just 147, he's still showing plenty of zest. The handicapper raised him four to 151 for that, and he's headed to the Stayers' Hurdle next. With Noel Fehily booked to ride Unowhatimeanharry, there's a chance I'll keep the ride in the Stayers', which would be a fantastic opportunity. He's going well at home and might surprise a few people with a big effort.

Things stepped up a notch for me last Saturday with a nice double at Newbury, the first leg of which was Just A Par. The old boy stuck it out well to win the veterans' handicap chase, and was well on top at the line. I think he's going to the sales now and will be offered with an entry to run in the Grand National. He's gone up six pounds for the win last week but, because the National weights were already published, he can still run at Aintree off 146, so might be nicely handicapped! All he does is jumps and stays.

Then, in the last race on the card, I managed to break my bumper hoodoo on Anthony Honeyball's Sam Brown. I say hoodoo because this was my first National Hunt Flat winner, at the 26th time of asking! Sam is quite highly rated now - I think his RPR would be 130 if he was in the Champion Bumper. They went a good gallop and it rode like a good bumper. He repelled three separate challenges through the race, and it was more probably a fair bit more impressive than it looked.

The Sam Brown form has been franked in the last couple of days by Lalor and Daylami Kirk, who ran 1-2 on Thursday at Wincanton. Lalor was second to Sam Brown when Sam won his debut, and Daylami Kirk was well back that day. I rode him both times. I'd say he's a nice novice hurdle prospect for next season, and that was a good step forward this week.

Coole Cody got his head in front at the fifth time of asking. He's a very nice horse that was only beaten three lengths by Neon Wolf on his second start. He needs to settle better and if he does, could be a smart novice chaser next season. He'll probably also improve for better ground. He's definitely one to keep on the right side.

Saturday

I've got four rides at Hereford this afternoon. My best chance might be Pearls Legend (4.00). He was fifth in the Grand Annual at Cheltenham last March, and has dropped eight pounds since then. He ran better last time on ground he'd have hated, finishing third, but still got dropped three pounds. Now on 130, I can either make it or take a lead, and if we go quick that will suit me fine.

Castarnie (1.40) is a little in and out. He needs to jump better than he has been and, if he does, he's got a squeak.

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Shinooki (2.15) looks high enough in the handicap just now but he'll like conditions, so if he brings his Fakenham form another win is not out of the question.

Similar comments apply to Muffins For Tea (4.35). He's not obviously well weighted, but has a bit of a chance having run well here in a novice hurdle two back.

 

Next week

I'm down to ride Allchilledout at Chepstow on Monday. He hated the ground the last day and the track would have been sharp enough, but he's got good form round Chepstow, and should run his race.

Then it's Cheltenham. I have a few possibles though I won't know final running plans until nearer the time. Some might not get in and some might be ridden by other people! But this is how it looks at the moment.

I have one ride on Tuesday, in the Ultima Handicap Chase. I'm on a horse called Viconte Du Noyer, who won over a quarter mile further here at the BetVictor (Open) meeting. Ignore his last run, where he put two feet in a ditch in the Welsh National. He's actually only three pounds higher than his November win here, so has some sort of chance.

I can also pass on a good word for Romain de Senam. He galloped well the other day, and goes to the Novices' Handicap Chase (closing race on day one) in great fettle.

On Thursday, I'm scheduled to ride Mr Mix in the Pertemps. In truth, he's probably going to struggle a bit in this rarefied company, but he's unexposed at the trip and we're hoping that brings about some improvement.

Later that afternoon, with luck I'll get another chance on Zarkandar. The Stayers' is obviously a very hot race but, as I said earlier, I quietly fancy him to run into the first four or five.

Brio Conti is entered for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' race on Friday. He has a hell of a chance if he scrapes him, but that looks unlikely at this stage, sadly. I'd be hopeful of picking up a ride though, fingers crossed..

 

SEASONAL SCORES

I'm up to 48 winners now for the season, closing in a maiden 50. That would be amazing but I'm certainly not counting my chickens. Dave Noonan is up to 30 now, and my closest rival, with Jamie Bargary on 29. It would be amazing if I could get a winner this weekend and then make 50 at Cheltenham next week, but that's probably a pretty wild dream! We'll keep kicking and hope to get those two I'm chasing before too long.

Until next time, I wish you the best of luck at Cheltenham next week, and let's hope all goes safely and well...

- Harry 

Monday Musing: Dream Season

As we get within a month or so of Cheltenham, the familiar forces are gathering, writes Tony Stafford. Over here the Nicholls and Henderson pulses quicken as expeditionary representatives travel far and wide to put down markers. In Ireland, the 1-14 shots that are Douvan and the rest toddle around to collect the odd €20k prize without breaking sweat on the way to Festival glory next month.

We’ve seen most of it before, so when something totally out of kilter with the norm confronts our vision, it is all the more enjoyable.

In Ireland, jumping especially is mostly about the Mullinses and the Walshes, leavened with increasing vigour by Gordon Elliott. All of the above were typically among the winners at Punchestown yesterday.

The scale of Willie Mullins’ and Elliott’s stable power must constantly frustrate would-be challengers for the major prizes, so when one of the lesser lights beats them at their own game, the satisfaction must be all the greater.

That sort of pleasure was clearly evident in the body language between rider Katy Walsh and trainer Ross O’Sullivan after Ruby’s sister made all with an enterprising and powerful ride aboard Baie Des Iles in the three and a half mile Grand National Trial. I would go so far as to say I reckon it was one of the best front-running rides I’ve ever seen in a long-distance chase, given depth of opposition and testing ground conditions.

The historical fact is that O’Sullivan, who happens to be Katy’s husband, was winning his third race of the season. His French-bred six-year-old mare is already building up a decent record, this being a second Irish victory following a Punchestown three-miler last season before a good second behind Bonny Kate in this event a year ago.

Ruby Walsh rode her that time, but yesterday was required for Sambremont, trained by Willie. That gelding stayed on late to pass Bonny Kate for second close home, but for almost the entire trip, Baie Des Iles, jumping boldly and accurately, led a nice few lengths clear of her old rival, with the remainder of the 15 runners, all geldings, miles behind.

Ross O’Sullivan’s best score to date has been four, two seasons ago. In seven campaigns over jumps (latest first) his scores are 3, 3, 4, 0, 3, 0 and 0. On the Flat it’s 2, 2, 0, 1, 0. Both last year’s Flat wins came with the veteran Doonard Prince, who collected consecutive autumn sprints at their local track, the Curragh, in fields of 27 and 23!

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This though was at the other end of the stamina spectrum and considering Baie Des Iles’ relative youth, the fact she stays so well explains the trainer’s relish for a challenge for Newcastle’s four-mile Eider Chase next month. She’s already been sixth to Rogue Trader in the Irish Grand National and fifth behind Gold Cup candidate Native River in the Welsh Grand National, in each case as the only five-year-old in either race.

Yesterday’s win will have earned the daughter of Barastraight – unfashionable in France where he stands - a hike towards the 150 mark, but seemingly the prospect of soft ground on the tough Newcastle track offers the potential of perfect components for Baie Des Iles and her determined ally in the saddle.

I often get a reminder of the Eider Chase and two or three other now otherwise fading memories of an old former Daily Telegraph colleague, especially when, as on Friday, I see Grand National-winning jockey Graham Thorner at the sales, where he has become a bit of an ace in picking up unexposed hitherto under-achievers from the big yards.

He regularly turns £2k ugly ducklings into nice jumping prospects, but there’s always time for a reminder, as on Friday, of the day at Kempton when he rode a winner for Noel Blunt’s father-in-law. My Mate won by 25 lengths and the next day, recounting the tale, Blunty added proudly that of course he had given the jockey, who’d become a bit of a pal to him and his wife, a present. “Yes,” said Noel, “I gave him two quid!” I don’t think Thorner ever declared it to the tax people.

Noel eventually went on to the Sporting Life as chief sub-editor and there enjoyed cult status with such headlines as “Scaling the Eider” and “The Hanging Baskets of Babylon” actually appearing in the paper. Even before he so helpfully engineered my recruitment to the DT when a racing desk member died suddenly, the funniest of all was the Kruggerand episode when John Oaksey mentioned the gold South African coins in his Sunday article. Scratching of heads all round, until Noel had a brainwave. “Ask Tony <I was doing minor sports results on the next desk>. “He knows Latin!” Still miss you mate.

This is the time of year that my week quickens with young horses getting going on the gallops and mares preparing to foal. Ray Tooth has one on the board already from Lawyers Choice who has a nice big colt by Garswood, whose foals made up to £75k despite his modest initial stud fee of around £6,000 (£4,000 this year).

Garswood, of course, is a Group 1 winning son of Dutch Art, who produced two nice winners from Lawyers Choice – Dutch Art Dealer and Dutch Law, the latter who did so well for us last year. Their brother, Highway Robber, is the likely favourite for a race at Newcastle tomorrow.

His trainer, Wilf Storey, won with Table Manners on the same track on Saturday night, so she became the third dual winner for her dam, Nine Red, who is about to produce to consistent Yorkshire-based sire, Monsieur Bond.

As Tattersalls’ newly expanded two-day sale showed, demand for British and Irish bloodstock remains high, and Ray’s policy of producing his own horses rather than pay what’s needed at auction with so much high-powered overseas investment has to be our way forward.

To that end, I got to see a nicely-made son of Equiano out of flying filly Catfish, who we still maintain might have carried the accolade “the world’s fastest racehorse” had her saddle not slipped at the start of her Vodafone Dash attempt at Epsom a few years back. She finished third behind the John Best-trained Stone of Folca in the fastest electronically timed five furlongs, so, mated with a fast stallion, could well produce a decent juvenile. Chris Wall likes what he’s seen of him so far.

In all there are eight juveniles (seven home-bred) going into training and no doubt I’ll be boring you with all the minor excitements as their training regimes proceed. After all, Flat racing on turf returns next month. What happened to the winter? We didn’t get one, just daily Festival updates from November onwards.

How Cheltenham Trials Day has pointed to the Festival

It's a stupendous nine-race card at Cheltenham tomorrow (Saturday), as the traditional Trials Day has inherited two races, most notably the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase from Ascot's abandoned fixture a fortnight ago.

Without wishing to belittle what is essentially a mini-Festival in its own right, this Trials Day card may offer pointers towards the chances of runners whose next engagement will be six weeks hence at the same venue. Here is how it has played out in recent seasons...

Finesse Juvenile Hurdle (Grade 2)

The Finesse Juvenile Hurdle kicked off a compelling afternoon last season, with 25/1 outsider Protek Des Flos outstaying his rivals on heavy ground. He led home a 123 for French-bred and -raced horses but did not take his chance at the Festival. However, the second and third, Clan Des Obeaux and Consul De Thaix both did run in the Triumph Hurdle, finishing sixth and tenth on much quicker ground.

A year earlier, Peace And Co had prevailed on soft ground on Trials Day and doubled up in a soft ground Triumph, albeit as the 2/1 favourite.

It came up heavy in 2013 and 2014 at this January meeting, so no real surprise that the Finesse winners, Rolling Star and Le Rocher respectively, failed to feature in the Triumph: Le Rocher didn't show while Rolling Star was beaten into sixth behind the brilliant but ill-fated Our Conor on good to soft ground.

In 2012, the ground was good to soft in January and good in March, and Trials Day victor, Grumeti, ran well in third on Festival Friday, again as favourite.

A year earlier, Steve Gollings' Local Hero claimed Finesse glory and, on similar ground, ran a reasonable ten-length eighth of 23 at 20/1.

Finesse Hurdle (Grade 2) Summary

Prior to Peace And Co, we have to go all the way back to 2007, and the loveable Katchit, for the previous Finesse/Triumph double winner. In the interim, Kempton's Adonis Hurdle and Leopardstown's Spring Juvenile Hurdle - both run in February - have emerged as the top trials for the Triumph Hurdle. However, when Trials Day has been run on decent ground, as it will be this year, the winner has tended to run very well on similar underfoot at the Festival.

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Novices' Handicap Chase

This competitive handicap chase, run over an extended two and a half miles, has offered numerous Festival pointers, though typically not from the race winner. Such is the game of cat and mouse between connections and the handicapper in the run-up to middle March!

Last year, Un Temps Pour Tout could muster only fourth, beaten sixteen-plus lengths. But, come Festival Tuesday, he romped seven lengths clear of Holywell, and nine and more clear of the other 21, to bolt up in the Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase on a quicker surface, at 11/1.

The year before, Generous Ransom won the January contest by small margins from Astigos and Irish Cavalier. Two months later, in the novices' handicap chase at the Festival, the Cavalier reversed placings, also at 11/1.

Nothing much of note in 2014, but in 2013 Vino Griego won the January contest before running a gallant second in the Byrne Group Plate on Festival Thursday (at, you guessed it, 11/1), and managed to sneak in an Ascot win in between. The third placed horse, Battle Group, skipped Cheltenham but actually won TWO races at the Aintree meeting of that year!

Further back, in seventh, was Rajdhani Express, who came back to win the novices' handicap chase at the Festival on soft ground, having been beaten 151 lengths on heavy. There, he beat Ackertac a neck. That horse was fifth at 40/1 on Trials Day before getting chinned at 66/1 in Raj Express's Festival win.

Novices' Handicap Chase Summary

The message here seems pretty clear. Plenty are having a prep run, with three horses placed second to seventh in the Trials Day novices' handicap chase winning at the Festival six weeks later. Two more ran second. Watch out for the also ran's using Trials Day for an, erm, trial.

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Grade 3 Handicap Chase

This has been won by some smart horses in recent times - Annacotty twice, Wishfull Thinking twice, and The Giant Bolster since 2011 - but how does it rank as a Festival prep?

Not very well is the short answer, and that makes sense when you think about it. Unlike the novices' race, where plenty are still able to mask their ability to some degree, here we are dealing with more established - and exposed - handicappers. The better ones have been aimed at the Ryanair, the poorer ones have not had enough in hand to get competitive against those campaigned more wilily (is that a word?!) in Festival handicaps.

Grade 3 Handicap Chase Summary

A betwixt and between sort of race in terms of a Festival trial, and one where the form may generally be downgraded in March.

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Cotswold Chase (Grade 2)

This may be unfairly described as a plodders' paradise, but its bearing on the Gold Cup tends to support that unkind monicker. Last year, Smad Place was a good winner - after Djakadam departed mid-race - and I got suckered into an each way bet for the GC. Smad Place could do no better than sixth in the big race in March, continuing a run of beaten Cotswold Chase winners in the Gold Cup stretching back to Looks Like Trouble in 2000.

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Djakadam however did run second in the Gold Cup, as he had done a year before, and a certain Thistlecrack - odds on favourite for the Gold Cup already - is scheduled to face the starter tomorrow.

Forgetting the future for a moment and focusing on this weekend's race, there look to be a couple who could take Thistlecrack on early - Smad Place and Silviniaco Conti - which could put the brilliant Colin Tizzard-trained horse under hitherto unasserted pressure. How he jumps in such circumstances will be fascinating.

This is also further than he's raced before, though he's never looked to have suspect stamina.

From a future form perspective, what may be more interesting is that two winners - Neptune Collonges and Many Clouds - have gone on to win the Grand National either the same, or the following, season.

Cotswold Chase (Grade 2) Summary

The balance of 21st century history suggests the Cotswold Chase is a poor trial for the Gold Cup. But rarely, if ever during that time, will it have been graced by a horse of such class and potential as Thistlecrack. He has to stand up this time to win, most likely, and perhaps the same again in March. It figures to be his sternest fencing examination to date given the battle-hardened stout-staying street fighters against which he'll line up. And I'm very much looking forward to it!

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Classic Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2)

The extended two and a half mile novices hurdle has only been in inception since 2005, and there was no race in 2006, meaning just eleven renewals to date. But during that time, it has established itself as a top class portender of Festival credentials.

Last year, Yanworth was highly impressive on Trials Day before running a quarter mile further than anything else under an 'artisanal' ride (think, botched improvisation on the big stage) in the Neptune at the Festival. He finished second, beaten less than two lengths, making it hard to avoid the suspicion that he ought to have won.

Back in second in that heavy ground Trials Day slog was Shantou Village, and he was sent off favourite for the Albert Bartlett (known affectionately as 'the potato race'). But the exertions of his prep run seemed to take their toll as Neil Mulholland's charge was pulled up on Festival Friday.

In 2015, Ordo Ab Chao was a surprise winner on soft ground. He could fare no better than seventh in the Neptune on quicker turf. Nothing else from the top six has done anything of note since. But, in seventh, was a certain Thistlecrack, who skipped Cheltenham's Festival to embark upon his new superstar career by romping away with the Grade 1 Sefton Novices' Hurdle at Aintree.

Another footnote from the race was Colin Tizzard's other entry, Native River, who fell two out when holding every chance. Like the winner, he too was a 16/1 shot that day, but is now no better than ten points shorter for the Gold Cup itself. Between then and now he ran midfield in the Albert Bartlett before his conversion to fences heralded that rapid elevation in rating.

The 2014 field was thin and weak, Red Sherlock seeing off Rathvinden, the pair mustering just three subsequent runs between them. In fairness, one of the trio was Rathvinden's third place finish in the Neptune six weeks later.

2013 was At Fisher's Cross's year. Rebecca Curtis's star beat a small but select field, with the next three places filled by, in order, The New One, Coneygree and Whisper. At Fisher's Cross doubled up in the potato race, and subsequently made the first four in the next two World Hurdles in spite of some terrible back problems.

The New One has run commendably in Grade 1 hurdles since, amassing most of a million quid in prize money; and Coneygree showed his superb talent when not injured by barrelling to an all-the-way pillar to post victory in the 2015 Gold Cup.

Neither of the first two in 2012 were seen at the Festival, and a big field offered testimony to the lack of a standout performer.

Classic Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2) Summary

A touch hit and miss, when this race - registered as the Classic Novices' Hurdle - has been good, it has been very good. Without the aid of the proverbial crystal ball, it is hard to say which way this renewal will go; but I have the suspicion that Wholestone might be pretty smart. And, if he wins, it's worth having a pound each way on Peregrine Run - the only horse to beat Wholestone in his last four starts - for the Neptune. Nigel Twiston-Davies' charge would be more feasible for the Albert Bartlett, I suspect.

*

Cleeve Hurdle (Grade 2)

A trial for the World Hurdle. Or the Stayers' Hurdle, nomenclature to which it will revert under sunbets' stewardship this season. Thistlecrack waltzed away with this last year before waltzing away with the stayers' crown less than two months later.

Cole Harden was only fourth in the 2015 renewal before a wind operation helped bring about the requisite improvement to claim World Hurdle glory.

The year before that was More Of That's stayers' crown, though that fellow completed his track preparation a month earlier in Cheltenham's Relkeel Hurdle. The Cleeve that season (2013/14) was a 'changing of the guard' as Big Buck's finally relented and George Charlton and Jan Faltajsek had a well deserved moment in the sun with the titanium tough Knockara Beau.

Big Buck's won the Cleeve in 2009 and 2012, the only two years prior to 2014 that he entered, normally wrapping up his winter business in the Relkeel in December.

In the pre-BB era, it was Inglis Drever who prevailed for a third time in the Stayers' Hurdle as he notched the Cleeve-Stayers' double in 2008, having run second in the previous Cleeve en route to his middle Stayers' crown.

Cleeve Hurdle (Grade 2) Summary

This is a very good trial for the Stayers' Hurdle. Most Stayers' winners to contest the Cleeve won it, but both Inglis Drever (second time around) and Cole Harden were beaten in the trial before reversing form in the main March event. So it is certainly worth considering those within hailing distance of the winner for a possible spot of Festival value.

**

Trials Day Conclusions

Naturally we'll all be wiser after Saturday's mega card. In this post I've tried to flag a few under the radar runners who will emerge from the non-winners, and who might be expected to progress between now and the Cheltenham Festival itself.

I will be especially interested in the five or six behind the winner (who will succumb to an inevitable penalty) in the novices' handicap chase, though beware the dangers of trying to second guess in which heat they'll actually take part.

Elsewhere and we don't need history to tell us that strong performances from the likes of Unowhatimeanharry and, most notably, Thistlecrack give them big chances in the Championship events.

The Classic Novices' Hurdle looks hard to predict, while the Grade 3 handicap chase has not been a strong pointer to the Festival. And when the Finesse Juvenile Hurdle has been run on decent ground it has usually thrown up a solid contender for the Triumph Hurdle, though rarely at a value price.

I have not covered the Clarence House or the Cross Country race, both borrowed from other fixtures, though there will be strong Festival contenders emerging from the pair, perhaps particularly the Cross Country handicap chase.

Matt

Monday Moan: The Cheltenham Tetchfest

Monday moans

By Tony Stafford

What is it about the Cheltenham Festival that makes people tetchy? After three days there – we came back on Friday morning again - I had seen plenty of tetchiness around the place, enough to last me until next year.

It starts as you try to get into the main car park on the road coming in from the east. On Tuesday we – Harry and me – were there by 11.15, no chance. On Wednesday we made it 30 minutes earlier, are you joking? Once again we were half an hour earlier on Thursday with the same result. I’m tempted to go back again tomorrow, just for the reminder of how good it is in there.

The options we had were either lamely to follow the instructions of the car park jobsworths to “go down to the right”, thus ending at the foot of a hill and face the post-racing queue of queues, or swing back into the easy-getaway £15 a time private park in someone’s rather grand garden.

With each day the tetchy gene developed nicely. My day one highlight was always going to be getting to see Punjabi in the parade of ten former stars – Denman, Sizing Europe and Comply or Die among them. I did, but only just as after a succession of similar knock-backs for having the wrong ticket (Press Grade 3, no access anywhere, just through the doors), I caught a glimpse as he was about to pass from the bit where the unplaced horses are collected into the paddock.

An hour before the first race they thronged the parade ring, but I saw my chance to give him a pat. Just as I was about to land the affectionate touch, an old guy – yes even older than me but possessing the right armband – physically pushed me back, to Rachael Kempster’s obvious amazement.

After the ruling out in the days coming up to the race of Faugheen, no other Champion Hurdle winner was at the place until Annie Power’s victory a couple of hours later. For officialdom to prevent anyone connected to the horses to get near, so far before the first actual race, suggests  over-the-top and unnecessary unhelpfulness.

But then, it’s all about the money. It’s hard to find accurate figures for days two to four, but it’s unlikely they will differ much from the opening day’s record of 67,770, making for a week-long figure well in excess of 250,000. [260,579 total for the four days. Ed.]

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At £85 for Club admission which now gets you into some of the very swish new facilities, including parts of the new stand, it’s not cheap and the £55 for Tattersalls, where you might wish to go down to the Guinness enclosure and be so packed in that you struggle to lift your arms from your sides to consume said beverage, looks a bit of a take-on.

One pal, who makes his money in part from the totally illegal and equally accepted by the authorities market in tickets, reported he had a sale on Thursday when running into a quartet of lady racegoers looking for an alternative to the Best Mate enclosure (as far as I recall £30) which they’d entered and seen enough of long before racing started.

The course’s need to keep matters under control is understandable, but Michel Buckley, long-standing owner of a good few Festival winners, was not too chuffed when he found that for his two runners, one each on Wednesday and Friday, he could only enter the paddock for those races.

“I always like to go into the paddock every year to see my friends, but this time I had to make do with the races I was involved in”, he said. Buckley jointly owns horses with, among others, John Magnier, Mrs Susannah Ricci and Lord Vestey, former Cheltenham Chairman, who in Buckley’s opinion, with Johnny Henderson, Nicky’s late father, were the chief factors in the course’s rise from earlier darker financial times.

The effects of a new harsher regime even filtered down to impinge on the activities of two of the most prominent journalist/broadcasters of the last 30 years. Both John McCririck and Aussie Jim McGrath, neither doing actual broadcasts after the former’s demotion from Channel Four racing and Jim’s jettisoning out the Daily Telegraph door a couple of years back, were demoted from the real press box to the Media Centre. Would have sensed some degree of “tetchy” there, but Big Mac probably managed, with the help of the resourceful Boobie, his wife, to get into some desirable gigs and possibly earn some money.

Jim, happily, was OK, with his pal Steve Taylor getting him owner’s passes courtesy of John Ferguson. One day Steve was in the owners’ facility with its seafood counter, hot roast area and unlimited grub with three different badges all the same colour, entitling him to three goes in the paddock. I didn’t tell Buckers, he might have got a bit tetchy.

There was more than a little unpleasantness when Rich Ricci, the darling of the Cheltenham preview circuit, added to the Faugheen disappointment, by sanctioning the altered plans for Vautour from the Gold Cup to the Ryanair Chase because “he hasn’t been working at all well”. Having assured his admiring adherents from the previews that it was “Gold Cup or nothing for Vautour”, he looked a bit silly when Vautour paralysed a decent field in the shorter race.

All of a sudden the mid-Atlantic tones, the lengthy discourses on the prospects of the horses and the silly suits almost got on my nerves, God forbid, and made me a little bit tetchy – call me Titch Tetchy!

The football’s going well. In the way of the mainline sports, as against racing, media, all was as the big man intended. Many of the top names turned up for the annual once a year swill in the Cheltenham trough with the top accreditation and pontificated about racing as though they invented it. Nothing unusual there, and it gave them a few days’ break from slagging off Manchester City, Man U, Arsenal and their managers.

Meanwhile the racing fraternity was split over the Victoria Pendleton affair, although after she’d skilfully pointed the amazingly-accurate and willing Pacha de Polder around the course and finished a closing fifth, there was still condescension in the ranks.

I like Racing UK – you need to as they keep putting their prices up – but this was one time when some of the team might have been a little more generous with their compliments. Before the race, their collective view was that even an experienced rider would find it difficult as Pacha de Polder’s stamina was in question.

Afterwards, Jonathan Neesom described it as a great effort, but the normally shrewd Stuart Machin thought she’d given him a lot too much to do; but surely Stuart, if he’s a doubtful stayer that’s the way to get home. Another furlong and I’m sure they’d have won. McCririck on Attheraces’ Sunday Forum repeated his unwavering view that she shouldn’t have been allowed to ride, even after showing a degree of skill, amazing considering she’s only ever ridden one winner. The biggest thing for me, after she got within less than three lengths of the winner without ever once hitting the horse, was that she wasn’t even puffing, as befits an Olympic Gold medal winner.

Bet most of the other more practised but less talented amateurs in the race were blowing the house down after three miles, while the winner, Nina Carberry, on the favourite got home with the help of a very un-amateur like use of force, enough to win but also to earn her a seven-day ban. Maybe she’s a little tetchy, too. Wonder if you or anyone else you know had a tetchy moment during that momentous week?

The Cheltenham Festival Experience

Many will have been to the Cheltenham Festival before, and have their own individual routines in place, prior to arriving at the racecourse on the Tuesday morning.

I’ve been revisiting the Cotswolds in March for many years, and my opening day habits have evolved over time, thanks to experiences both exceptional and ordinary.

Mrs K and I drive into Cheltenham and park in the town centre. Many will head straight for the course, but I love to sample the atmosphere of Cheltenham; the pubs, the streets, the bookies and that wonderful walk through Pittville Park towards the greatest racecourse on earth.

There are numerous side streets with free parking. I tend to head into town on the A40 and swing a right near the town centre. Look for signs pointing toward the Cheltenham Cricket Club and you can’t go far wrong. Once parked it’s a short walk to the High Street and the first stop at the Old Restoration. Comfy seats and a cracking bacon butty are just what is needed whilst scanning through Geegeez.co.uk for last minute tips.

After a swift pint we head for another wonderful watering hole; Tailors on Cambray Place. Just off the High Street, it’s an elegant pub full of racing folk from all walks of life. Chances are that many of the tables will be reserved, as their breakfasts are particularly desirable. But time there is not wasted. Just grab a half and soak in the atmosphere, as like-minded folk argue over the likely winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Has to be Altior, surely.

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For lovers of real ales, ‘Wild Beer’ at Jessops House is directly opposite, and is well worth a visit. The place only opened in late 2015 and caters for Beer Snobs. I love it, and would highly recommend it. You must head up to the top floor for a particularly relaxing pint on comfy sofas. ‘It’s all about the ambience’.

With a few crafty halves in the tank it’s time to put those life changing bets on. Head back toward the High Street, take a left and then a right into Winchcombe Street. Ladbrokes and William Hill are perfectly placed to catch racegoers as they head north towards the racecourse. Leaving the bookies, safe in the knowledge that you will never have to work again, continue up Winchcombe with Pittville Park in the distance.

There’s just time for one last stop; a little more studying will not go amiss, at the wonderfully named The Feathered Fish, before joining the masses on their pilgrimage to jump racing’s Shangri La.

For those heading to the Festival for the first time, I can only say how incredibly jealous I am. You must explore every part of the course. Stand at the top end of the track, beyond the winning post, looking over Prestbury Park to Cleeve Hill. Head to the parade ring, a truly stunning amphitheatre from which to behold equines great and good. And be sure to visit the Guinness Village. If ever there was a place to sample the true meaning of a Festival, this is surely it.

There’s nothing quite like The Festival. Get to Cheltenham early to ensure you ‘wring out’ every last drop of the incredible experience. Taste it, feel it, cheer it, live it and love it. No four days deliver more.

Sat TV Trends: 12th March 2016

The excitement is building for the week before the Cheltenham Festival, but before that, this Saturday the C4 cameras head to Sandown, with the Imperial Cup their feature race, plus they are also at Wolverhampton for two races that include the Lincoln Handicap Trial.

tvtrends-300x73

 

 

 

 

Sandown Horse Racing Trends (RUK/C4)

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2.00 – 30th European Breeders´ Fund "National Hunt" Novices´ Handicap Hurdle Final (Grade 3) Cl1 2m3f173y CH4

13/13 – Had won no more than twice over hurdles before
12/13 – Aged 6 or younger
12/13 – Carried 10-11 or more
11/13 – Placed in the top 3 last time out
10/13 – Returned 8/1 or less in the betting
10/13 – Rated 128 or less
10/13 – Came from outside the top 3 in the betting
10/13 – Raced within the last 6 weeks
9/13 – Irish bred
9/13 – Unplaced favourites
8/13 – Aged 6 years-old
7/13 – Had won over this trip before
5/13 – Won last time out
2/13 – Won by Nicky Henderson
2/13 – Won by Paul Nicholls
2/13 – Won by the Pipe yard
1/13 – Winning favourites
1/13 – Winners that went onto run at Cheltenham (3rd Martin Pipe)
The average winning SP in the last 10 runnings is 9/1

2.35 - Kings Mistral Handicap Chase Cl3 3m37y CH4

12/13 – Had won over at least 2m4f (fences) before
11/13 – Carried 11-1 or more
11/13 – Returned 8/1 or shorter in the betting
11/13 – Had won between 1-4 times over fences
10/13 -  Rated between 125-134
10/13 – Came from the top 3 in the betting
10/13 – Aged 8 or older
9/13 – Placed favourites
8/13 – Unplaced last time out
8/13 – Raced within the last 4 weeks
7/13 – Irish bred
7/13 – Returned 7/2 or shorter in the betting
4/13 – Trained by Paul Nicholls
3/13 – Ridden by Ruby Walsh
2/13 – Trained by Oliver Sherwood
2/13 – Winning favourites (1 joint)
2/13 – Won last time out
The average winning SP in the last 10 runnings is 5/1

3.10 – Imperial Cup Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3) Cl1 2m110y CH4

13/13 – Had won no more than twice over hurdles before
12/13 – Carried 10-13 or less
12/13 – Had won between 1-2 times over hurdles before
12/13 – Had raced within the last 6 weeks
10/13 – Aged 6 or younger
10/13 – Rated 124 or higher
9/13 – Carried 10-7 or less
9/13 – Winners that went onto run at the Cheltenham Festival (1 winner, Gaspara - Fred Winter)
9/13 – Had won over at least 2m1f (hurdles) before
8/13 – Finished in the top two last time out
8/13 – Winning distance – 3 ½ lengths or more
6/13 – Raced at either Cheltenham (2), Sandown (2) or Ascot (2) last time out
6/13 – Aged 4 or 5 years-old
6/13 – Won last time out
6/13 – Returned a double-figure price in the betting
5/13 – Winning favourites
5/13 – French bred
5/13 – Had raced at Sandown (hurdles) before – 2 had won there before
5/13 – Won by the Pipe stable (have won it 9 times in all)
1/13 – Won by an Irish-trained horse
The average winning SP in the last 13 years is 11/1

3.45 – EBF Stallions/TBA Mares´ Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race (Listed) Cl1 2m110y CH4

12/12 – Had won at least one NH Flat race before
11/12 – 1ST or 2ND last time out
9/12 – Had raced within the last 8 weeks
10/12 – Returned 17/2 or shorter in the betting
9/12 – Had won just once before (NH Flat race)
8/12– Won last time out
6/12 – Aged 5 years-old
1/12 – Winning favourites
Won 12 months ago by Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh

Wolverhampton Horse Racing Trends (ATR/C4)

2.15 – Ladbrokes Lincoln Trial Handicap Cl2 1m141y CH4

13/13 – Had raced within the last 6 weeks
12/13 – Won over a mile before
12/13 – Aged 6 or younger
11/13– Won at least three times before
10/13 – Priced 9/1 or shorter in the betting
9/13 – Ran at Lingfield last time out
8/13 – Placed favourites
7/13 – Came from outside the top 3 in the betting
7/13 – Came from stall 9 or higher
6/13 – Aged 5 years-old
5/13 – Had won at Wolverhampton before
4/13 – Won last time out
2/13 – Trained by Richard Hannon
2/13 – Ridden by Jamie Spencer
3/13 – Winning favourites
The average winning SP in the last 10 runnings is 7/1

2.50 – Ladbrokes Lady Wulfruna Stakes (AW Championship Fast-Track Qualifier) (Listed Race) Cl1 7f32y CH4

8/9 – Returned 9/1 or shorter in the betting
8/9 – Had won over 7f before
8/9 – Had won at least 4 times before
6/9 – Drawn in stall 7 or higher
6/9 – Rated 105 or higher
7/9 – Placed favourites
7/9 – Had raced within the last 3 weeks
6/9 – Aged 6 or 7 years-old
5/9 – Unplaced last time out
6/9 – Raced at Lingfield last time out
5/9 – Had won at Wolverhampton before
3/9 – Winning favourite
2/9 – Trained by Marco Botti
The average winning SP in the last 9 runnings is 6/1
Sovereign Debt won the race 12 months ago
Chookie Royale won the race in 2014

 

 

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Cheltenham Handicap Weights: Irish Winners and Losers

Last week saw the release of the weights for the ten Festival handicaps and there was the expected consternation among Irish connections about their UK marks and the increased marks they were given by the UK handicapper Phil Smith, writes Tony Keenan. So who were the real winners and losers from the announcement of the weights?

Loser: Gordon Elliott

If we learned nothing else from the release of the weights, it is that Phil Smith hates Gordon Elliott. The pair staged a cold war through the winter about the handicapping of the ex-Donald McCain-trained Diamond King and that set the tone for the Elliott entries being largely hard done by here. Take the relative handicapping of Elliott’s handicap hurdle entries compared to those of Willie Mullins; where the former’s runners received an average of 5.6 pounds on top of their home marks, the latter’s hurdlers were raised just 2.7 pounds. That discrepancy is a little too large to be coincidence and it might be that the UK handicappers are simply sick of Elliott plundering their races at summer gaffs like Perth and used this opportunity to punish the trainer. Elliott’s chasers don’t seem to be any better treated, particularly those that debuted early in the jumps season proper; Nickname Exit (9lbs higher), Lord Scoundrel (7lbs) and Unic De Bersy (5lbs) all seem to be paying a toll for winning their chases early. As to Diamond King, he might be one that Smith has got to grips with now. If his trainer didn’t think he was well-handicapped enough to win the Ladbroke at Ascot back in December, then why would he have so much in hand off a higher mark now?

 

Winner: Willie Mullins

Relative to Elliott, the Mullins handicappers seem to have got in relatively lightly. Not only did his hurdlers remain relatively untouched but both his entries (McKinley and Sambremont) for the novice handicap chase on Tuesday got into the race off a mark of 139 when the rating ceiling is 140. That was in contrast to last year when a number of his entries, notably Blood Cotil and Jarry D’Honneur, weren’t allowed into the race. The concern now for Mullins is whether his horses might be too well-treated. The likes of Townshend (133 in Ireland, 135 in UK) and Clondaw Warrior (132 in Ireland, 134 in UK) could face a struggle to get into a race, Townshend being number 64 on the ballot to get into the County and Clondaw Warrior 71 in the same race and 81 in the Martin Pipe.

 

Loser: Noble Endeavor

Noble Endeavor is nowhere near the worst handicapped horse at the meeting as he’s rated just a pound higher in the UK than Ireland, 141 as against 140. But that’s a small discrepancy that makes a big difference as it disqualifies him from getting in the novice handicap chase that has likely been his target all season. That was a race that made sense for him after such a good run off 140 in the Martin Pipe last year and instead punters are being asked to take a single-figure price about him for the National Hunt Chase, a test that seems wholly unsuitable for this strong traveller. He might be the chief sufferer of the fatal one pound rise but he’s not the only one. Spring Heeled is another example; he’s rated 146 and is thus disqualified from the Kim Muir he won in 2014.

 

Winner: Squouateur

There’s a long list of badly-handicapped Elliott runners at this meeting but one that might have slipped in light is Squouateur in the Martin Pipe, raised 4lbs from an Irish mark of 137 to a UK figure of 141 which guarantees him a run in the race. He won what looks the strongest handicap hurdle run over an intermediate trip in Ireland this season at Fairyhouse and wasn’t hard pressed to do so. The form of that race is already working out – the sixth won a similar race over the weekend at Naas – and he is bred to go on decent ground. With the top claimer Jack Kennedy likely to ride, he’s one whose price seems likely to collapse.

 

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Loser: Tony Martin

Of the Irish trainers, only Willie Mullins has trained more handicap winners at the Festival since 2003 than Tony Martin, the Meath trainer sending out five in total including the likes of Xenophon and Dun Doire. That’s a tally he’s unlikely to add to this this year as his team of entries seems woefully thin with Guess Again (top price 16/1 for the Kim Muir) the shortest price of his possible runners. It’s not so much that the Martin runners have been hammered in the weights but rather that they are a mainly exposed bunch and it is difficult to see horses like Living Next Door, Mydor and The Plan Man having any secrets from the handicapper. The bigger issue may well be one of stable form as Martin has had a down season; since the start of September, his runners over jumps in Ireland and the UK are 8/148, a strikerate of 5.4% with an actual over expected of 0.41. There’s something wrong there.

 

Winner: Sandra Hughes

At the other end of the trainer form spectrum is Sandra Hughes who has won two Grade 2’s and a valuable handicap in the past month after a quiet winter. Her six handicap entries next week seem to have snuck in quite lightly relative to their Irish marks; the biggest hike was 5lbs, two were risen 3lbs, another a pound while two were left alone. There is unlikely to be any real buzz behind her team – Mullins and Elliott understandably hoover up most of the attention afforded to Irish trainers ahead of the Festival – but the likes of Art Of Payroll (County Hurdle) and especially Guitar Pete (Grand Annual, if he gets in) could well outrun their odds.

 

Loser: Michael O’Leary

He may be winning at life but I wouldn’t like to be footing the bill for Michael O’Leary’s handicap entries at Cheltenham, the owner having 57 initial entries across the 10 handicaps which is a massive number considering he claims to be only interested in winning Grade 1s. The Martin Pipe (11 entries), Coral Cup (9) and Kim Muir (8) have particularly high Gigginstown representation at this early stage. Gordon Elliott has a lot to answer for as he holds a large percentage of those O’Leary entries and he might be getting a call from the famously penny-pinching owner post-Festival. (Mr Ryanair had a brilliant line in a Racing Post interview last Sunday about how an interior designer offered to do a Google-style job on the Ryanair offices for €2.5 million so O’Leary did it himself for €25,000!) In that same interview he went on to point out that his horses are distributed on performance-related criteria with the trainers that do best for him getting new stock. No one has sent out more winners for him than Elliott in the last five years though the entry fees may be eating into the prize money. However, O’Leary was declared a first time billionaire in a recent rich list so this is all ‘drop in the ocean’ stuff.

 

‘Winner’: Home Farm

If you compare Irish marks and UK marks, then Home Farm is officially the best-treated Irish runner at the Festival being rated 149 at home but 145 across the water. That’s something the market seems to have ignored – he’s 50/1 for the Ultima Handicap Chase on Tuesday – but the layers probably have him about right as he simply looks a badly-handicapped horse that is out of form too. That’s the thing about handicap marks next week: punters can get too hung up on them and if an Irish horse is badly-treated at home a pound or two here or there won’t make a major difference. Sometimes it can be much more sensible to find a horse that is on the up and thriving who will be suited by conditions and not worry about the fact that Phil Smith has loaded on a lumpy penalty. Blue Hell is one that fits this mould.

 

Loser: Space Cadet

As for the theoretically worst handicapped Irish horse among the Festival handicappers, that dubious honour falls to Space Cadet who is 12lbs higher in the UK on a mark of 133. It’s a meaningless figure in truth as he’s highly unlikely to get a run in any race though Gordon Elliott might be heartened to think that Phil Smith rates him so highly. Perhaps Smith believes he’s another Elliott plot and has thus proceeded with caution but anyone watching his recent Irish races will know the truth of it as he’s become increasingly ungenuine and connections will be glad to win a race, any race, with him, not to mention a Festival handicap.

 

Winner: Irish Entries in the Grand Annual

Irish horses have a poor record in the handicap chases at the Festival; we have won the novice handicap only once since its inception, have had one winner in the Festival Plate since 1951 and are poor in the Kim Muir albeit improving of late. The one exception to this rule is the Grand Annual where we are 4 wins from 44 runners since 2003 (actual over expected of 1.25) along with five runners-up. It’s surprising then that across all the handicap chases, it is the Grand Annual where the Irish horses appear best-treated; the average discrepancy between the Irish and UK marks is 2.3lbs which is marginally the lowest of five handicap chases when it should be the highest judged on past results. Of course there is no certainty that history will repeat itself but looking at entries from the respective countries, many of the UK runners looked quite exposed whereas the Irish entries appear on the up with the likes of Velvet Maker, Rock The World and Guitar Pete all interesting. It might even be worth doing some small perms with forecasts and tricasts on the day around the Irish horses.

Updated Cheltenham Ante Post Portfolio

Something to appeal to the voyeur in you today, and a video as well. Before you go running for cover at the thought of watching me in a voyeuristic video, it's not that sort of video!

No, it's a walkthrough of my Cheltenham Festival ante post portfolio spreadsheet. Feel free to switch channels now if that's not your thing. And/or, if you prefer, I've included the spreadsheet in full beneath the video. [Click the video button bottom right to view full screen.]

I've now previewed ten of the 28 races in my normal succinct (ahem) way, and you can click through to the ones of your choice from this link: Cheltenham Race Previews

 

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Click the image below to view full size...

Cheltenham Ante Post Portfolio 2016, as at 8th March

Cheltenham Ante Post Portfolio 2016, as at 8th March

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If you're after the best bookie offers, then keep your peepers peeled on this page:

Best Cheltenham Festival Bookmaker Offers

What fancy prices have you got in your portfolio? Any horse you're especially looking forward to next week? Leave a comment and share... 🙂

Matt

2016 Ryanair World Hurdle Preview

2016 Ryanair World Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips

The staying hurdle crown at Cheltenham has a new sponsor this year, Ryanair stepping into the space vacated by a bookmaker failing to sign up to ABP. That detail out of the way, it promises to be an enthralling race, as always, with a young second season hurdler carrying all before him thus far this term.

Thistlecrack, trained in the south west by Colin Tizzard, has followed a proven path to the World Hurdle as we'll discover. First, though, some trendage...

Ryanair World Hurdle Trends 2016

Eighteen years of history to go at, courtesy of horseracebase.com, encompassing all renewals since 1997 (2001 no race due to foot and mouth).

Last time out finishing position: Only one of the 64 horses to have finished out of the first four last time even managed to place here. Meanwhile, 10 winners also won last time from 72 runners (out of the 239 in total to contest since 1997). That's 56% of the winners from 30% of the runners... but a level stakes loss from backing the blindingly obvious of 21.42 units.

57% of the places were comprised of last day winners too, from the same 30% of runners, but again it would have made you poorer as a lone strategy.

Age: Horses aged six to nine have monopolized the win positions but the place story is a little more interesting. In fact, five- to seven-year-olds have won 11/18 (61%) and placed 36/54 (67%) from 56% of the runners. Eight- and nine-year-olds claimed the other seven wins and 15 of the remaining 18 places, from 80 runners (39% wins, 28% places, from 33% runners).

Days off: Whilst those to have run within two to four weeks of the World Hurdle have bagged four of the last 18, they've under-performed against numerical expectation (22% wins/26% places from 38% runners).

Those to have raced between one and two months ago took 56% of the available races (10/18) and 59% of the places (32/54) from 45% of the runners... but were still unprofitable to back.

All 18 winners since 1997, and all 54 placed horses in that time, had run within 90 days. The likes of Aux Ptits Soins, More Of That (if running here) and Kilcooley all have their work cut out, on the basis of history at least.

Distance: The World Hurdle is run over three miles, a fairly common race distance. It is somewhat surprising then to discover that eight of the last 18 winners had failed to win at that trip.

What makes this more surprising is the number of multiple winners during that time. Big Buck's won four times, Inglis Drever thrice, and Baracouda twice. Inglis Drever's initial win was his first at the trip; last year's winner, Cole Harden, had won at beyond three miles but never at that distance, and he was completing a hat-trick for first time three mile winners.

Put another way, ignoring the six times a previous World Hurdle winner (and therefore a distance winner) won again, first time three mile winners have won eight of the other twelve World Hurdles since 1997.

It's a quirky stat, but hardly a trend. Interesting, and probably of absolutely zero utility. If there is some value it is probably in not underestimating horses stepping up from around two and a half miles.

To that end, looking at horses whose previous race distance ceiling was between two and a half and two and three-quarter miles shows six winners (33%) and four further placed horses (19% placed) from just 15% of the runners in the review period. Moreover, that group was worth +31.5 units of profit, suggesting their chances are somewhat overlooked.

Irish: The lads from across the water will have plenty of winners - perhaps even one in this race - but their record since 1997 is a solitary victory (Solwhit, 2013) from 57 runners. That includes six beaten at 4/1 or shorter, and 13 overturned at 8/1 or shorter.

TRENDY SYSTEM ANGLE: Pulling a few of these together, backing a British-trained runner that finished top four last time, was aged six to nine, and ran between 31 and 60 days ago, produced nine winners from 44 runners (50% total wins from 18% total runners) and a profit at starting price of 38.21. Backing them each way when 5/1 or bigger saw 13/27 hit the frame for a profit of 40.2 units.

This year, excluding any possible supplementary entries, there are just two qualifiers: Thistlecrack and Un Temps Pour Tout. The former is favourite at around even money, while the latter has been chasing. If it came up soft and he reverted to hurdles, his price of 33/1 (non-runner no bet) would look fair value.

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Ryanair World Hurdle Preview 2016

So much for the trends, what of the form book? I suspect it may lead us unequivocally to the same Thistly Cracky place, but let's roll with the punches and see if there might be some value in the each way or 'without' markets.

We can only start in one place, that aforementioned prickly crevasse...

Colin Tizzard is a bloody good trainer, everyone knows that. His Cheltenham CV includes a Champion Bumper winner, Cue Card, who was a four-year-old at the time (rare feat, the only 4yo winner since Dato Star in 1995), and three other Cheltenham Festival wins from 64 runners.

So he knows what it takes to win at the Festival. But what of Thistlecrack? Brought on slowly by Tizzard, he'd managed just three wins in his first seven starts. However, as with many at this range, a step up in trip seemed to be his making.

Since moving up to three miles-plus, Thistlecrack has won four from five, and finished a close second in the other race. The wins in that sequence included Aintree's Grade 1 Sefton Novices' Hurdle and Ascot's Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle.

It could be argued he's been beating sub-Grade 1 horses this season - the likes of the late Deputy Dan, Ptit Zig and Reve De Sivola (on ground too quick for that one's tastes) - but it cannot be argued that he's been unimpressive.

No, he's duffed them all up out of sight, and has shown improved form each time. His official rating of 168 is ten pounds superior to that of the pre-race rating of last year's re-opposing winner, Cole Harden, and - Big Buck's aside - is higher than eight of the other ten winners since 1997 (and the same as one of the other pair).

In so doing - winning the Long Distance Hurdle, the Long Walk Hurdle and the Cleeve Hurdle - he has emulated the path trodden to victory by Big Buck's three times (or 2.67 times to be precise); and his impersonation of the great stayer may not yet be complete.

So the questions perhaps should be a) can Thistlecrack run to at least 168 again and, if he can/does, is there anything in the field that can surpass that mark? The answer to a) is yes, the answer to b) is probably no. Whilst not being in possession of enough tens to try to pilfer some elevens, it is very hard to bet against the Thistlecracker.

Happily, there is a 'without' betting market and, while Paddy are the only ones to have priced this up to date others are sure to follow, most likely after a decision on Annie Power's Festival destination is made.

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Annie Power is second choice in the 'non runner no bet' lists and, with her holding multiple alternative engagements, that would surely be the only way to consider her chance. She's an incredible mare, having won 13 of her 15 starts. But it is noteworthy and likely not coincidental that her two defeats were at the last two Cheltenham Festivals.

In 2014, she gave More Of That a good scrap before ceding. More Of That was rated 160 beforehand and was a wildly progressive unbeaten horse going into the race (as was Annie P). He earned a rating of 169 after that effort, just a pound above Thistlecrack's current figure. Although still quoted in the World Hurdle lists, More Of That is far more likely to take in one of the novice chases in March.

Getting back to Annie Power, and we've only seen her once since May last year. That was a week ago when she did little more than prove she retains a leg in each corner by putting less than seven lengths between herself and a mare rated 130. Granted, she was eased, but maybe not so much as some might have you believe.

That she was made ante-post favourite for the Champion Hurdle on the back of that effort is borderline laughable and, regardless of whether she runs in and wins that race, her price of circa 2/1 is an attempt by bookmakers at daylight robbery.

Whichever way you cut it, Annie Power could win this race (on the basis that any horse can win any race), but her odds far outweigh her chance making her rank poor value in my book, for both this and the Champion Hurdle. Let's move on.

Of the probable runners, Alpha Des Obeaux is 7/1 in a place. His price owes everything to the horses by which he's been beaten, in my view. A record of three wins from nine starts, two on heavy and a very shallow maiden hurdle, is backed up by SIX second placed efforts.

Those runner-up positions included defeats to Douvan (who was heavily eased), Nichols Canyon (who won "comfortably"), Arctic Fire (who "eased clear" and won comfortably), and Prince Of Scars ("ridden out, kept on well").

As well as those efforts - little of note running under favourable conditions in behind each time - he fell in Thistlecrack's Aintree Grade 1 when not definitely beaten; and he won last time out. There he beat At Fishers Cross, a good horse on his day - which is normally at Cheltenham, incidentally - but that hasn't won for three years, on heavy ground.

I'm not sure the ground will be right for Alpha, I'm not sure what he's beaten that has much substance, and I do not like his price one bit.

8/1 generally is last year's World Hurdle winner, Cole Harden. He was 14/1 that day and was awarded a rating of 166 when winning; he was also having his first start after a wind operation. He stays fine, jumps well and has reportedly undergone similar surgical intervention since his run in the Cleeve Hurdle on New Year's Day.

If the ground comes up on the quick side, he looks a likely podium finisher again, making 9/2 without Thistlecrack quite appetizing. His trainer, Warren Greatrex, remains in good form and the record of former winners offers further hope.

Vroum Vroum Mag is as short as 4/1 in the non runner no bet lists, and as long as 7/1 in the same (she is 12/1 all in run or not). With multiple entries elsewhere she can only be entertained with the money back safety net, but despite being unbeaten in eight UK/Irish starts, she's rated no better than 155 by the Irish 'capper. That's a stone below what's needed for this job and, though she's highly likely got more in the tank, her price is too short considering she needs to step forward so much.

Subject of plenty of money after an upbeat bulletin yesterday is Paul Nicholls' failed chaser, Saphir Du Rheu. That's a touch harsh on last year's World Hurdle second, and his trainer was in bullish mood at the annual pre-Cheltenham media morning, saying, "Saphir Du Rheu will be seen in a completely different light on better ground and is a big player. We haven't seen the best of him."

Given the horse has high class form on heavy, including when beating Whisper in the Welsh Champion Hurdle, I'm not sure I'm buying that appraisal. At the same time, his silver last season gives him a more credible chance than some at similar prices. It would be far from a shock if he makes the frame and he is one of the more legitimate middle 160 hurdlers in the field.

I'm not interested in the chance of Coral Cup winner, Aux Ptits Soins from the same stable. Given an initial UK mark of 139, he showed that was too lenient by stealing one of the most competitive handicaps of the season; but he's not been seen since and needs to show a stone and more improvement to get involved.

That's not impossible for one so unexposed - just four career starts - but I like a bit more evidence to work with and that year long absence is something very, very few horses are able to overcome to win at the Festival.

[Only Young Spartacus - 2003 - has managed to defy a layoff of 350+ days from 81 horses to try in that time. 13 of the 81 placed, however]

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Moving on down the lists, and we're into the realms of the 20/1 shots. The World Hurdle has been a race for the top of the market in recent times, but that doesn't mean we should ignore 'the field' completely. Kilcooley, for instance, has an interesting profile despite being off since the end of October.

The seven year old son of Stowaway might need some cut in the ground to show his best and, if it does come up muddy he has a chance of making it four from four in completed UK starts since bolting up in a decent Haydock handicap in December 2014. His last two UK runs - and wins - have been in Grade 2 company, the latter over three miles at Wetherby when cantering home 13 lengths clear of former Champion Hurdler, Rock On Ruby.

Even allowing for the fact that Ruby was a questionable stayer there, the form looks reasonably solid. The Wetherby win was his first start for seven months so we know he can go well fresh, and that race - the West Yorkshire Hurdle - was won last season by Cole Harden en route to World Hurdle glory.

Trainer Charlie Longsdon has reported a few niggly injuries earlier in the year, but Kilcooley seems to be over those now, his handler suggesting it's 50/50 that he will be ready in time. At 25/1 non runner no bet, this looks a bit of each way value about a horse already rated 164 - joint second highest in the field - and one that has improved from 137 in four starts.

With a lingering doubt over his participation, 10/1 in the 'without' market - which is all in run or not - makes zero appeal.

At a massive price, At Fishers Cross is not without hope. Highly impressive when winning the Albert Bartlett over course and distance at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival, he's had plenty of issues since. But he's still been nursed back to sufficient health to be beaten less than seven lengths in the last two World Hurdles, finishing third in 2014 and fourth last year. With Cheltenham form of 111234, it would be no shock to see him hit the board again and he looks over-priced at 50/1.

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2016 World Hurdle Tips

Thistlecrack has a perfect profile for this, and it is very hard to crab his form. He's 11/10 but if he was trained by Willie Mullins he'd be nearer to 1/2, I guess. We know Colin Tizzard has a winning knack at Cheltenham and I think he'll win. He's obviously the most likely winner.

But if you want a bit of jam on your bread - I do - then there are other ways to play the race.

First, although the 'without Thistlecrack' market is still maturing - just one firm priced up as I write - there looks a whiff of value about Cole Harden's 9/2 there.

Then, for windmill-tilters - I'm one - there are a couple of forgotten sorts who look the wrong prices. Kilcooley will be 12/1 or so if he lines up, I'd guess; and he'll only line up if he's spot on. Otherwise connections will wait for one of the later Festival meetings. As such, 25/1 about an unexposed upwardly mobile type who is proven when fresh is perfectly playable, non runner no bet.

At the other end of the exposure spectrum, At Fishers Cross has danced with merit in this dance the last two years, and 50/1 rather overlooks that fact at a meeting where course form is perennially advantageous. Again, each way NRNB is worth a shekel or a bob, just for fun.

Most likely winner: Thistlecrack (duh!)

World Hurdle Selections

1pt win Cole Harden 'without Thistlecrack' 9/2 Paddy Power

0.5 pt e/w Kilcooley 25/1 general (ensure you bet with non-runner no bet bookmaker)

0.25 pt e/w At Fishers Cross 50/1 Skybet (non-runner no bet)

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Other Cheltenham Festival 2016 Ante-Post Previews

All of our in-depth previews, trends and tips can be found here:

Cheltenham Festival 2016 Race Guide

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Ryanair Chase 2016 Preview

Cheltenham Festival 2016: Ryanair Chase Preview, Trends, Tips

The newest of the open Grade 1 chases at the Cheltenham Festival, the Ryanair Chase has its detractors. But, with eleven years' worth of form in the book - eight of them as a Grade 1 event, the roll of honour tells a different story.

Imperial Commander was the most noteworthy winner, scoring here a year prior to claiming victory in the Gold Cup itself; and, last year, the highest rated chaser in training, Don Cossack, finished third. Cue Card, former Cheltenham Bumper winner and second in the Arkle, also won this, in 2013. He, like Don Cossack, is vying for Gold Cup favouritism this time around.

But there's another reason to love this race: as an ante-post betting proposition it offers all sorts of opportunities. Falling as it does between the Champion Chase and Gold Cup, in terms of distance as well as chronology during Cheltenham week, many horses are quoted in the market that won't actually line up.

If that presents a risk to the futures bettor, then non-runner no bet is the safety net allowing us to take a chance on a horse that may or may not line up, happy in the knowledge that it's cash back for no dance. Nice.

The scene now set, here follow some commonalities between Ryanair winners. One might even call them trends...

Ryanair Chase Trends

Age: Horses aged from six to ten have won this, though it's worth noting that the six-year-old winner was in the pre-Grade 1 days of the race. That said, the form string for that age group is 41353, all of them French-bred's.

At the other end of the age spectrum, though ten-year-olds have a solid record, the handful of veterans beyond that have fared poorly, with a single placing from twelve who lined up (dual winner, Albertas Run, ran second in his bid for a hat-trick).

Ryanair Chase Age Trends

Ryanair Chase Age Trends

Days since a run: Not too much to note aside from the obvious: horses returning after short (less than a fortnight) or long (more than three months) breaks have a poor record.

Those to have last been seen in the King George have a very good record, however. Imperial Commander, Albertas Run (2011) and Dynaste all took that route to victory, from 13 such starters. The trio's Kempton efforts were 6P5, so keep an eye on any runner emerging here direct from Surrey track's Christmas feature.

Ryanair layoff trends

Ryanair layoff trends

Wins over further: One of the more interesting snippets is the record of horses who have never won beyond the 2m5f Ryanair trip. It makes sense that this would be an exacting test of both speed and stamina, given the stiff track and the general fast pace in the race. As such, the fact that just three horses who had failed to win over further than the race distance -  from 62 who matched that bill - have won is logical and a material negative trend: just 27% of the winners from 52% of the runners.

Or, if you prefer, 73% of the winners (and 58% of the places) came from the 48% of runners who had won over further than 2m5f. Though I'm certainly not saying he can't win, it should be pointed out that Vautour, as short as 4/6 in non-runner no bet markets, has not won beyond this distance.

Ryanair distance trends

Ryanair distance trends

Taking that a step further, we can see that those to have won at beyond three miles have an excellent record: 45% of the wins and 30% of the places from just a fifth of the runners.

Ryanair Chase max distance win trends

Ryanair Chase max distance win trends

English versus Irish: Despite having saddled more than a quarter of the runners, the Irish are still to win a Ryanair Chase, all the more ironic given the race sponsor hails from the Emerald Isle and has had two beaten favourites in recent years (5/2 Don Cossack and 2/1 First Lieutenant).

Again, it won't stop Vautour winning if he shows up, but it's something to be aware of, especially as Irish-trained horses reside in five of the top six ante-post betting spots currently.

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2016 Ryanair Chase Form Preview

So much for the patterns, what of the form book? Before diving into that it is worth reiterating that the final field for this race is very fluid at time of writing (with four weeks to go), and wagering without the non-runner no bet concession is discouraged.

Vautour is favourite in all books, though the spread ranges from 4/6 to 9/2 illustrating the fact that he's considered a more likely runner for the Gold Cup. I concede that he'd be a solid favourite for the Ryanair Chase, with the trip looking ideal, but I do have reservations.

Although he's not won at a longer trip - he was touched off in the King George on Boxing Day over three miles - he scored over the Ryanair range at Ascot in November, and won the JLT Novices' Chase over a furlong shorter at last year's Festival. His stamina is suspect for the Gold Cup test, as I've written here, and there are other points in that post which would be a concern.

Allow me to précis the key pair here. 1. The JLT form looks moderate. 2. His Ascot win, in a Grade 2, was narrow and against a below top class opponent (Ptit Zig).

To balance that, his head second in the King George is probably the best form line in the race, and this 2m5f will feel not dissimilar to that three miler given the undulations.

If Vautour runs, he is clearly the one to beat. But, given he may be more likely to go to the Gold Cup, it makes sense to look elsewhere for a bet.

Next in the 'non runner no bet' books is Road To Riches, last year's Gold Cup third. Beaten just three and a half lengths there, he didn't look short of stamina, and it may be that he would only run in the Ryanair if the going was soft or deeper. He's a super consistent sort, having finished on the podium in his last ten races, going back two years, but he's found at least one too good in three of his last four spins - mainly with conditions in his favour - and he's not a big enough price to wager each way.

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Dan Skelton has not declared Al Ferof for the Gold Cup leaving this race as his only Grade 1 target (he may yet be entered in a handicap). As such, he's a more likely runner than some at the head of the market and can be backed at 6/1 as I write.

This is a horse who is unquestionably best fresh - his form when racing after a break of 60+ days is 1F111151 - and he's finished third in the last three King George's. That level of performance gives him a good chance, but his Grade 1 chase form - 134335353 - tells a tale of tertiary tribulation. He may again play out for minor placings.

Another of the Irish runners with multiple Festival options is Valseur LidoThird in last season's JLT, 15 lengths behind Vautour, he's run five times since and largely without merit. However, the shining form line in that quintet was when winning the Grade 1 Champion Novice Chase at the Punchestown Festival last April.

His key may be the ground. That Punchy score was on good to yielding, similar conditions to his Chelto bronze. On that sort of sod, he's also run second to Faugheen in a Grade 1 novice hurdle and a very close second in a Grade 1 novice chase. It is probable that he's better than his recent muddy turf form, but at odds no better than 5/1 NRNB, he's unexciting as a voucher.

A fourth Irish lad at the top of the betting lists is SmashingHenry de Bromhead's seven year old is likeable and progressive, but it should be noted that five of his six wins, and all four of his chase victories, have come on heavy ground. That's very unlikely to be the state of the lawns for the Festival.

In any case, he's probably still shy of what's needed in spite of a rise of twelve pounds from the Irish handicapper for a duffing up of a couple of formerly useful horses at the weekend. Now rated 159, no winner of the Ryanair has been less than Uxizandre's 161 last year since the race attained Grade 1 status. I like this lad but I don't think the race sets up for him.

Rounding out the top six in the betting is another Willie 'Won't he' Mullins inmate, Vroum Vroum Mag. Pinning down this mare's ability level is trappy: she's unbeaten in eight runs over hurdles and fences since moving from France a year and a half ago. Her official rating in Ireland is 155, though she may be at least seven pounds better than that and remains open to improvement.

Although she has done all her Wullie winning on soft or heavy turf, she had won races in France on quicker so it should not be assumed that she needs give underfoot. Indeed it is not impossible that she may improve further for a sounder surface. If she did, she could take a hand in a Ryanair, especially considering the seven pound sex allowance she'd receive.

However, Wullie's Cheltenham Cabinet reshuffle following the sad news that Faugheen will miss the Festival may mean that Annie Power goes to the Champion Hurdle (or the World Hurdle) rather than the Mares' Hurdle; and that could mean that VV Mag goes to the Mares' Hurdle.

If that's a confusing picture, here's the bottom line: she's 6/1 in a place non-runner no bet, and that looks a smidge of value, safe in the knowledge that if she takes up an alternative engagement, it's cash back no harm done.

We move into double digit odds offerings now, and Vibrato Valtat - by the same stallion as VVM (Voix Du Nord) - takes high order, in that part of the market at least. He's a talented horse, albeit one with a propensity for placing (4241334 in recent runs), and his rating of 161 looks on the generous side to me. In any case, he has to prove stamina for this gig, having not won beyond 2m1f (second only try at two and a half miles).

I never thought I'd be writing this, but Josses Hill is interesting, in the win only context at least. A very high class hurdler - second to Vautour in the 2014 Supreme - he was initially a shocking jumper of chase fences, likened by many to various large items of furniture.

He is still capable of horlicksing one, as he showed when bailing spectacularly in the Tingle Creek in December, but he is also still capable, as he showed when cantering home in a graduation chase last weekend, and when third in the Arkle last year.

That most recent effort should be put into a little context: the second, God's Own, has a known preference for faster than the soft ground they raced on there, and was also expected to need the run. Still, Josses Hill's form does look pretty solid and, though he too has other options (Champion Chase most notably), 14/1 NRNB is not without appeal, win only.

Dynaste is interesting too. He has no other Festival entries and his profile suggests he's best fresh, with form off a 60+ day layoff of 6112213. He has reportedly had a wind operation since trailing in last of eight behind Thistlecrack in December and, if that has helped in any way, the 2014 Ryanair winner - now ten - would have repeat prospects.

The fly in the ointment is an entry in the Ascot Chase this weekend, for which he is an intended runner. With just 26 days between that race and the Ryanair, I'd rather he headed straight to the big day. Still, a small win bet at 16/1 NRNB can't do much damage.

Along with Vroum Vroum Mag, Ma Filleule is the other mare entered and, therefore, the other in the field to avail of a seven pound allowance. Nicky Henderson's lass was second in the race last year but has run mostly moderately since, a Listed mares' chase win over Christmas being the exception. She too is entered in the Ascot Chase this weekend, but she's dropped almost a stone from her peak mark of 162, including a two pound reduction for that last day win. She probably has a bit to find on the balance of her recent efforts.

We're into the land of the 20/1+ chances now in a race that has never been won by a horse bigger than 16/1 and where nine of the eleven winners were 6/1 or shorter. Indeed, only two of the 33 placed horses were bigger than 20/1. Of course, with the expected raft of defections, the starting price market will look quite different from today's book, so it remains worth the time looking for a possible shortener lurking in the deep.

I don't like Gilgamboa (wants it soft, doubtful stayer, not good enough), but three of at least mild interest are Village Vic, Champagne West and God's Own.

Village Vic has been one of the most progressive chasers of the season, elevating from a perch of 120 this time last year to one of 157 now. He's won his last four, all in handicap company and two over course and distance. His aggressive front-running style will come under close scrutiny, but that approach didn't stop Uxizandre from winning last year, and who is to say this fellow is done improving yet?

Realistically he'll need to step forward another five pounds to claim the spoils and it is just possible that the handicapper over-reacted to his last day heavy ground effort by raising him a pound shy of a stone. He'd make a bold bid if swerving the handicaps for this race, though he's probably destined for gallant failure.

Stablemate Champagne West, on the other hand, could be leniently rated off 154. Ignoring a pulled up effort in heavy ground at the track last month (made an almighty blunder when 7/4 favourite), he looked to be staying on nicely when second to Village Vic the time before. His four length beating by VV was treated nine pounds more kindly by the handicapper and, in a true run race on better ground, he'd have a chance.

The worry with him is his jumping. A blunder in the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase last year led to a fall which led to absenting from Festival season; and he again made a serious error when second to Vic two runs back. He'd been less than convincing with his leaping before the howler that ended his prospects last time, and that's a lot of errors to overlook.

If I'm going to take a chance on a dodgy jumper at a price, I think it will be Josses Hill.

God's Own is not a dodgy jumper but he is 25/1 NRNB. That's the wrong price despite an entry in the Champion Chase as well. Although he has a slight stamina question to answer, there's little doubt that he needs top of the ground and that he's a high class animal when he gets it.

He won a Grade 1 novice chase at Punchestown's Festival in 2014, and ran closest to Un De Sceaux in last year's Arkle at the Festival. A rating of 159 gives him a bit to find but not much, and if he goes this route he ought to be the same price as Josses Hill in my book.

One completely free go in the race is Don Cossack, who is 6/1 non runner no bet. He's very likely to go for the Gold Cup, but not a certainty, and his owner, Mr Ryanair, has pulled switcheroo stunts before. If he was to line up here, and Vautour did not, Don Cossack would be 6/4 or thereabouts.

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2016 Ryanair Chase Tips

It's a real conundrum of a race, and my first piece of advice, generally speaking, is do not get sucked into taking a bigger price without 'non runner no bet' (NRNB) insurance. Plenty of these will show up in other races, or not at all, and all you'll have to show for your fancy price is a bit of (virtual) paper.

With that in mind, I'm happy to fire a few bullets with most of them likely to be money back blanks.

At the prices, I want Vroum Vroum Mag, and (I think) I want Josses Hill, and I want God's Own. I'll even take Dynaste despite the reservation about two runs inside four weeks. The prices on these will all look generous if they line up in the Ryanair (with the possible exception of Dynaste if he flunks at the weekend and still runs in this).

And then there's Don Cossack: at 6/1, cash back if he doesn't run, he's way too big. Buy the insurance at least.

Realistically, as few as one of the five could line up (Dynaste), but there is no harm in playing the others if you can afford to set aside the pennies for a month. Remember, ONLY back these with a bookmaker offering the 'non runner no bet' concession.

2pts win Don Cossack 6/1 NRNB bet365
1 pt win Vroum Vroum Mag 6/1
NRNB bet365
0.5 pt win Josses Hill 14/1 NRNB bet365
0.5 pt win Dynaste 16/1 NRNB bet365
0.5 pt win God's Own 25/1 NRNB bet365, Coral

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Other Cheltenham Festival 2016 Ante-Post Previews

All of our in-depth previews, trends and tips can be found here:

Cheltenham Festival 2016 Race Guide

Attrition Rate in Irish National Hunt

Killultagh Vic a High Profile Casualty

Killultagh Vic a High Profile Casualty

Killultagh Vic was the first high-profile Irish horse to miss Cheltenham with injury but you can be sure he won’t be the last, writes Tony Keenan. We are in that horrible space between the conclusion of most of the trials and the start of the Festival where owners, trainers and, yes, punters live in terror of hearing that their horse will miss the meeting with a late setback.

It makes sense that injuries should occur at this time. No more than a human athlete getting ready for a career-defining event, the revs are being cranked up to the max in preparation and it is inevitable that a gasket or two will blow in the process. Some trainers has succeeded more than others in avoiding – or preventing – the last-minute injury; Willie Mullins stands out in terms of getting his Cheltenham horses to end point and punters can rightly have faith in backing one of his runners ante-post at a short price in the relatively safe assumption that they will get to post. But other handlers have not been so fortunate (though perhaps fortunate is the wrong word as it is surely a skill to keep horses sound).

Predicting which trainers’ runners will make or miss Cheltenham by looking at data is difficult if not impossible and it makes more sense to look at a more global sense of how successful they are in keeping their horses sound from season to season. In the table below, I’ve focussed on the top 15 Irish trainers in terms of winners sent out in the six seasons from 2009/10 to 2014/15, leaving out those who are no longer training, i.e. Dessie Hughes and Charlie Swan.

I found every horse they had in that period that acquired an Irish official rating of 130 or more and went through their racing career in totality regardless of whether it began before 2009 or continued beyond 2015. I was looking for how many ‘full seasons’ they had in their careers and I took a very loose definition of what a full season was: a season in which a horse ran twice or more in the Irish National Hunt campaign which takes the Punchestown Festival as its start and end point.

To my mind, this is quite a lenient definition of a full season – many owners would want their horses to run far more regularly – but I was giving trainers the benefit of the doubt and I didn’t penalise for a horse only running once in their first season as trainers often want to start them off slowly. With the number of full seasons and missed seasons I worked out a figure called ‘attrition rate’ which expresses as a percentage how often a trainer’s horses miss a season in relation to their career as a whole.

Take Tony Martin as an example. In the period covered, he has 131 full seasons from his 130-plus rated horses and six missed seasons; I add the two together to get a total season figure which is 137 and then divide the missed season number into it to leave an attrition rate of 4.4%. As a back-up figure, I also added in how many runs a trainer’s horses averaged per season over that period.

This methodology is far from perfect. Firstly, it looks only at horses rated 130 or more, but the data was so overwhelming that were I to look at them all I’d struggle to have it finished for Cheltenham 2017! It also supposes that every National Hunt horse threads the same campaign trail, starting its season in the autumn and running through to the late spring/early summer. This is not the case with summer jumpers and many horses will have a winter break to avoid the worst of ground.

Using my method, horses could miss two calendar years but only one racing season. Monksland, say, missed 730 days between December 2012 and December 2014 but raced three times in the 2012/13 season and the same in 2014/15 campaign so is only penalised for being absent in 2013/14.

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Furthermore, trainers are not penalised for horses having a short career of a season or two but they are hit for getting a horse back off an absence of a season or two for just one run, despite the fact that this could be a major achievement if that horse has had serious problems. Despite all this, I think there is enough in the data to make it interesting to look at, if not necessarily of vast predictive value.

Trainer Horses Rated 130 Plus Attrition Rate Average Season Runs
C. Byrnes 19 15.9% 5.4
C. Murphy 13 10.3% 4.5
N. Meade 53 8.8% 5.0
W. Mullins 171 7.0% 4.2
R. Tyner 6 6.7% 4.7
M. Hourigan 16 6.5% 7.3
M. Morris 17 5.6% 6.0
T. Martin 39 4.4% 5.4
G. Elliott 58 4.3% 6.1
H. De Bromhead 36 4.1% 4.7
P. Nolan 22 3.2% 5.2
E. Doyle 7 2.6% 6.3
J. Hanlon 8 2.4% 5.6
E. O’Grady 27 1.6% 5.4
J. Harrington 31 1.6% 6.1

 

We’ll start with Willie Mullins as we generally do. He has a highish attrition rate and the lowest average season runs so comes out quite badly on these numbers though I doubt Rich Ricci, Graham Wylie et al will be moving their horses in light of them! In fairness, he has improved recently with most of his absentees coming in the early part of the period covered though it must be said that he has quite a few horses that are in danger of missing this campaign, the likes of Abyssial, Jarry D’Honneur, Champagne Fever and Analifet all on the easy list at the moment.

Charles Byrnes has a very high attrition rate, 5.6% higher than the next highest, so perhaps landing gambles takes its toll! His achievement in bringing the nine-year-old Solwhit back to win at Cheltenham and Aintree in 2013 was a notable one but it seems significant that so many of his best horses have missed chunks of time, the likes of Mounthenry, Pittoni, Trifolium, Weapons Amnesty and Our Vinnie all having stop-start careers.

Colm Murphy is another that comes out poorly on the numbers, having not only a high attrition rate but also a low average runs per season, though the reason behind this could be one discussed in a previous article of mine on fall/unseat rate where he came out as one of the highest in the country. Falls and unseats will clearly cause plenty of injuries.

One trainer who does quite well is Gordon Elliott, his horses generally sound and running often, and it needs to be pointed out that he gets quite a few stable switchers. That can be viewed positively or negatively; either someone else has done all the hard work or you have to rectify another trainer’s mistakes.

Noel Meade is having a torrid season in terms of injuries, with Road To Riches having a curtailed campaign and Apache Stronghold out for the year. His attrition rate, third overall, would suggest this is not uncommon. One thing to admire with Meade is that no one else comes close in terms of openness around his horses’ health and he must be praised for that.

In terms of positives, Jessica Harrington stands out as having a low attrition rate and a high average number of runs. I would put this down to two things: she tends to mix flat and jumps campaigns, the former clearly less attritional than the latter; and she will often give her horses mid-winter breaks to avoid the worst of ground, something she frequently references in stable tours.

Edward O’Grady has the name of being hard on his horses but the numbers suggest otherwise, coming in the equal of Harrington in attrition rate. Henry De Bromhead has relatively a low attrition rate too, albeit with not many average season runs, and tends to do well in keeping older horses sweet. Sizing Europe is the daddy of them all but the likes of Sizing Australia and Darwins Fox are further feathers in de Bromhead’s cap.

Finally, mention must go to Michael Hourigan. His attrition rate percentage is only average but he is brilliant in terms of getting runs into his horses, his average of 7.3 a full run per season better than anyone else. I won’t say his horses are always in form but at least they’re out there competing and it is notable that eight of his 16 horses rated 130 plus raced at least 30 times. There are some real heroes in there like Dancing Tornado and Church Island and of course A New Story who ran an amazing 110 times, often over staying trips, and was still racing at fifteen.

- Tony Keenan

 

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2016: Preview, Trends, Tips

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2016: Preview, Trends, Tips

The showcase race of the showcase meeting of the National Hunt season is the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, a Grade 1 chase run over an exacting and extended three and a quarter miles. At time of writing it is a wide open heat, with bookmakers offering 5/1 the field.

And, with just two more major trials - the Irish Gold Cup on Saturday, where Road To Riches could advertise his claims - and next Saturday's Denman Chase from Newbury, most of the form is now in the book. Barring an exhilarating performance the market is likely to be largely unchanged, so if you like something right at the top of the betting lists you may as well sit tight until Cheltenham week when I'd be surprised if one maniacal layer or more don't offer at least 6/1 and possibly 7/1 your pick, such is the feel of the race this year.

Shortcut to 2016 Gold Cup Trends
Shortcut to 2016 Gold Cup Form Preview
Shortcut to 2016 Gold Cup Tips

As is traditional by now, let's begin with some trendage.

2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup Trends

Using horseracebase.com as a starting point, the below covers the last eighteen renewals of the Gold Cup, going back as far as 1997 (no race in 2001 due to foot and mouth).

Gold Cup Age Trends

We can see from the below chart that horses aged nine and younger have all outperformed their numerical representation, both in terms of wins and places.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Age Trends

Cheltenham Gold Cup Age Trends

The 179 horses with a single figure age (70% of the total Gold Cup runners) took 17 of the 18 Gold Cups (94%) since 1997 and 44 of the 54 places (81%).

We have to go back to the 1990's for the last double digit aged winners, a pair of Cool's, Cool Dawn (1998) and Cool Ground (1992). The last horse older than ten to win was the twelve year old What A Myth 47 years ago.

Although this won't discount a huge amount of runners, the likes of The Giant Bolster, First Lieutenant and Boston Bob (all eleven), and perhaps more notably Cue Card, a ten year old, have plenty of history to defy.

Former winners Kauto Star and Imperial Commander were both 4/1 or shorter when pulling up as veterans, and even the mighty Denman (and Kauto Star again) could fare no better than second in the autumns of their stellar careers.

Gold Cup Last Time Out Trends

This is always a bit of a slippery fish, so take care how much store you put in these data. In what is the prime test of a horse's ability, it will come as no surprise that a majority of recent Gold Cup winners also won their previous race.

Cheltenham Gold Cup form trends

Cheltenham Gold Cup form trends

However, despite eleven horses doubling up on their last day win (61%) from just a third of the runners, there has been no route to profit as a consequence of this most obvious angle.

Minor podium finishers last time have a woeful record, netting just thrice from 89 runs (17% wins from 34% runs). Their place record is little better.

Interestingly, perhaps, especially if you're a Djakadam fan, those to have fallen or pulled up last time claimed a brace of Gold Cups in the survey period, courtesy of Mr Mulligan and the aforementioned Gold-en oldie, Cool Dawn. Still, it's nearly twenty years since and we're still waiting for another to add to the roster of last time out non-completion winners.

Gold Cup Market Trends

Again, I wouldn't get especially juiced up about the portentous nature of this dataset, but there are a couple of interesting titbits therein.

Gold Cup Odds Trends

Gold Cup Odds Trends

Ignoring the performance of those who were sent off very short (9/4 or shorter), as there is unlikely to be a runner with as tight a return on successful investment this time around, there has been joy for those speculating a touch further down the lists.

As things stand, I'd expect one horse - probably the Mullins pick of Ruby Walsh - to head the market at around 4/1 or 7/2. It could be 6/1 bar one, and there may be three or four or even five more horses at 10/1 or lower.

Given that this group will take out much of the rest of the market - it's currently 33/1 bar seven - I'd say the winner is very likely to be housed in this section again. Who that winner will be remains as much of a mystery as it was 700 words ago!

Gold Cup Seasonal Runs Trends

This one could have more to offer serious pattern punters, as a challenge like the Gold Cup is not one to embrace off a less than optimal preparation.

Gold Cup Fitness Trends

Gold Cup Fitness Trends

There is a linearity to both the win and place percentages in terms of number of runners, ramping from zero for a septet of Gold Cup seasonal debutants, through 5% wins-to-runs for a single prior run, 7% wins-to-runs for two or three previous races that season, 8% for four prior outings, and peaking at 14% for those having had five races already in their Gold Cup-winning season.

It is a similar story on the place side of things, with four and five prior starts looking to be a positive. This might count against the likes of Road To Riches (three, if he runs in the Irish Gold Cup), Don Poli and Djakadam (if they now route straight to Cheltenham) and, perhaps most notably, the twice raced this season, Vautour.

Of course, horses have 'got it done' off lighter preps, so it's very far from a death knell, but a bit more match practice looks ideal.

Other Gold Cup Trends

Coneygree, a novice, was a bit of a stats buster last year, barreling his way faultlessly over the stiff fences to an all the way win. In so doing he weakened one previously strong-looking 'qualification', thus:

- 14 of the previous 15 (now 16) winners had taken in either the King George or Lexus Chases. (Coneygree ran in the Feltham on King George day over the same course and distance)

Thanks to the Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide for this negative trend:

- Only one winner since 1983 - that's 33 years - was placed in the previous year's Gold Cup (possible bad news if you like either Djakadam or Road To Riches)

****

2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup Form Preview

So much for the numbers, what about the form book? As I write there are still a couple more acts to be played out ahead of the big day but, for most, their track rehearsals are complete.

Favourite right now, at 9/2 and almost be default, is Vautour, last season's super-impressive JLT Novices' Chase winner. Since his 15 length verdict there, he's seen off Ptit Zig by less than two lengths and been beaten by Cue Card in the King George. Hardly Gold Cup-winning form, on the face of it at least.

In his favour is that JLT win at Cheltenham. But the list of knocks, or potential knocks, is long. First, the form of the JLT is moderate at best. Runner up, Apache Stronghold, has run F3 since; and third placed Valseur Lido has been whacked twice this season since winning a G1 at the Punchestown Festival post-Cheltenham.

The next three home have won two little races between them from seven runs, and the last pair are one from nine collectively, that win coming in a beginners' chase.

Secondly, Vautour has had just two runs so far this season and that is less than is suggested in the historical blueprint. As I've written, it can be done, but it may not be ideal.

Third, and much more of a concern - to this scribe at least - is Vautour's unproven stamina. Although others have argued to the contrary, he looked for all the world to have run out of petrol when chinned by Cue Card in the King George last time. That was on pan flat Kempton's oval, so it is at best a leap of faith to see him staying the Gold Cup trip of more than a quarter mile further over the peaks and troughs of Cheltenham's bowl. Still more so if one assumes that Smad Place will set the tempo somewhere between allegro and presto.

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Fourth, and this would be the least compelling of the arguments, Willie Mullins is 0 from 14 in the Gold Cup, though he has saddled six placed horses including the last three runners up. And one of those, On His Own, should have probably been awarded the race!

If Vautour was 9/1, he might be fairly attractive as an each way proposition, but with the above reservations - the first and third of them at any rate - he's a filthy awful terrible price to my eye, regardless of who rides him.

5/1 brings in Don Cossack, a far more credible contender, though one whose armour also hints at chinks. The first of the Don's - Poli being t'other - he's been a win machine for Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown owner, Michael 'Ryanair' O'Leary. Indeed, he's now won 15 of his 26 races, including 11 of 18 chase starts, and all bar two of his last 11 races.

Two of his defeats - and one in the recent sequence - have come at Cheltenham on the only two times he's visited the track. In fairness, it was a tumble when still going well enough in the RSA Chase the first time, and he was impeded before running on into third on the second occasion in last year's Ryanair Chase.

The fact he ran in the Ryanair offers a clue to one of Don Cossack's challenges: stamina. Although he's won over as far as three miles and a furlong around Punchestown, it would be hard to definitively vouch for his ability to get home in a licketty-split Gold Cup.

Still, he's got more proven stamina than Vautour, and he has plenty more in the book than that animal too (whilst not retaining the upside potential, granted). There likely wouldn't have been much between the pair at Kempton in the King George if Don C hadn't fallen at the second last and, if he can stay upright, I'd want Elliott's Don in a match bet with Vautour come Gold Cup day.

We then arrive at Djakadam, whose market star has waned from leadership to third choice, as a direct consequence of a nasty looking disagreement with the tenth obstacle in the Betbright Trial Cotswold Chase. Despite that second tumble in three Cheltenham outings, he remains 11/2, largely by dint of his proven ability for the Gold Cup, courtesy of a brave and close up second in last year's blue riband.

That gallant effort from a then six year old strongly suggested he was a future Gold Cup winner, though he does have to overcome the stat about placed horses from the previous year. In truth, it's hard to logically justify it as anything more than a factoid - something for trivia more than form buffs - and Djakadam is better judged on the balance of his past performances.

Those tumbles are a bona fide worry but, again, can be put into a context of a horse that is generally an accurate leaper, and who still has further refinement to come after just nine chase starts. One slight niggle is the ground, which is normally on the good side for the Gold Cup, though was soft last year.

Djakadam's six wins have been achieved on heavy (four), soft (one) and yielding to soft (one). That yielding effort came in a beginners' chase where he was hard pushed to beat Si C'Etait Vrai, an exposed 132-rated chaser.

Another question mark is around how good a traveller he is. Sure he was second in the Gold Cup last year, but in three other trips across the Irish Sea he's run F8F, and as favourite in the latter pair of races. The second string to Wullie's bow is a very talented horse, but I'm not sure I'd want to back him at his current odds, even if he will shorten should Ruby choose to ride.

And so to Don Two, or Don Poli, to introduce him correctly. A third arm of the Mullins armoury, Don P is another for whom rider arrangements are no foregone conclusion. His usual partner is Bryan Cooper, Gigginstown's retained pilot. But with Don Cossack in the same ownership, it will be a tough call between the pair. Sitting on the wrong horse as the other wins the Gold Cup must be one of racing's most deflating experiences, so here's hoping Coops and/or Rubers opt correctly!

Don Poli is a far more interesting horse than many in this field for a number of reasons. Firstly, he's five from six over fences, including last year's RSA Chase. Secondly, he also won the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle at the previous year's Festival, giving him an unbeaten two from two record at the track and at the Festival.

Third, he's not flashy: his five chase wins - including three Grade 1's - have been by an aggregate of sixteen lengths. Compare that with Vautour, whose JLT victory almost covered that spread in a single swipe, and it may be easy to see why this son of Poliglote has been somewhat overlooked to my eye.

He doesn't seem to have stamina reservations, he doesn't seem to have ground grumbles, and he doesn't have any course concerns. The only question with him is, "is he good enough?" To which the answer ought to be, "who knows?"

At 6/1, he might just be my pick of the top order, mainly because I think he'll keep finding when others have reached the bottom of their barrels. And because I think he has class underneath those rugged features and that misleading workmanlike impression.

Cue Card concludes the leading quintet at a top price of 7/1. It is strange to think that he won the Champion Bumper at the Festival as far back as 2010, when four years old. The more electric mathematicians will have already worked out that he's now ten, and those of you who are really switched on get a bonus point if you've recalled the Gold Cup record of runners of Cue Card's vintage: no winner this old since Cool Dawn in 1998.

In CC's defence, he is relatively lightly raced for his age and, though he won at the Festival all those six years ago, he has not been sighted in this part of the world since 2013. His Festival record, though somewhat outdated, is excellent: as well as the Bumper win, he was fourth in Al Ferof's Supreme, second in Sprinter Sacre's Arkle, and then won the Ryanair.

Since then, he's been a touch in and out, prior to this season, in which he has been better than ever - according to the ratings agencies, at least. A hat-trick of Graded wins, the last pair in G1 company, culminated in a last gasp resurgent verdict over Vautour in the Christmas feaure, the King George VI Chase.

He's now officially rated 176, two ahead of Vautour and one ahead of Don Cossack. Like many, I'm a big fan of this horse, and especially his trainer, Colin Tizzard. But, like many, I take the view that he's probably too old, and that he possibly won't quite see out the final two and a half furlongs up that punishing incline.

As with a few other horses during Cheltenham week, it will be heart-warming but wallet-lightening stuff if he prevails.

The top five in the market can currently be dutched at 3/10 or so, a fact that attests to greater depth in the expected field. Next there is a pair of 12/1 shots, Smad Place and Road To Riches, whose profiles are quite different.

Road To Riches was third in the race last year before finishing in the same placing behind Don Cossack in the Punchestown equivalent. He's been seen just once this term, an easy win in a Grade 2 chase in November. He looked to beat some unfit rivals that day - certainly Felix Yonger and First Lieutenant came on markedly for their laboured efforts there - and his appearance this weekend in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown will help gauge wellbeing.

It's a disappointing shallow looking renewal of the Leopardstown feature, however, and nothing less than a convincing win will merit any upgrade of his quote. In his favour, Road To Riches is probably still improving despite 13 chases to his name, his last three runs being very close to his best. He was only beaten three and a half lengths last year, but had reached the end of his rope up the hill, getting passed by Djakadam at that point.

He's not for me, though I could see him again running into the frame.

The other 12/1 shot, who was as low as 10/1 after his Hennessy win, and as high as 33/1 after his King George fourth, is Smad Place. Historically he's looked as though he'd be no more than a jobbing actor on the Grade 1 stage, but a wind operation last summer - and a more confident front-running style since - has shown his ability in a new light.

He was expected to beat Fingal Bay on his seasonal bow, the market sending him away at 6/4, but he wasn't expected to swat that one aside with such nonchalance. Then came a blitzkrieg of an effort in the Hennessy where his rivals were browbeaten by a barrage of bold jumping and a relentless gallop from Alan King's white star.

A month later, at Kempton on Boxing Day, Smad Place looked a different horse, on a different track. Unable to get to the front in a race where Silviniaco Conti - attempting to secure a back-to-back(-to-back!) King George treble - paid for his pace pressing by pulling up, SP could not go on with the front three. As Don Cossack fell, so Smad Place was overtaken by Al Ferof for third.

But Kempton is not Cheltenham, nor is it even Newbury in terms of its stamina test. Although plenty of horses have made both the King George and the Gold Cup their own, that has generally been because they were the dominant player in the staying chase division. This year, the division is wide open as the betting illustrates.

Thus, perhaps the emphasis on speed over stamina undid Smad Place. And perhaps not, of course: maybe he was simply not good enough. The subsequent quotes of 33/1 seemed to suggest bookmakers veered towards the latter possibility.

They were still erring toward that view after last Saturday, when the nine year old demolished a field of Grade 1 animals and some good stayers to boot, in heavy ground around Cheltenham's stiff pistes. But such was the unequivocal nature of his twelve length win from Grand National winner (and the winner of this Cotswold Chase last year), Many Clouds, punters forced early offers of 20/1 into the now stable 12/1 across the board.

He's a tough horse to peg is Smad Place. A rating of mid-150's last year has given way to one nudging the 170's now. That puts him about seven pounds behind the leading players, but with proven affection for the course (third in two World Hurdles, second in an RSA Chase) and a new lease of life afforded by the liberation of his airways, allied to more proven stamina than many rated higher, he must surely be in the mix.

Thereafter is the realm of the 33/1 hopes, hope being both the operative word and used in a very loose sense in many cases. Let's clear out some of the dead wood in the market quotes:

Valseur Lido won't stay, a contention lent credence by the strong likelihood of him running in the shorter Ryanair Chase; Saphir Du Rheu is far more likely to run in the World Hurdle, and anyway his jumping isn't good enough and nor is his rating; Holywell jumps like a chest of drawers and could possibly go for a handicap chase, so far has his mark plummeted; Triolo d'Alene is a stone shy of what's required and will be prepping for the Grand National; and so it goes on.

There are two which I feel have at least a sniff of the frame, however. The first is Many Clouds. He was some sort of superstar last season, winning three on the bounce including the 'Smad Place double' of Hennessy and Cotswold Chase before running a middling sixth in the Gold Cup.

If it seemed like his season had fizzled out, not a bit of it: the brave blighter won the Grand National despite an impost of eleven stone nine pounds on his next start. He'll have the full 11-10 in his repeat bid and, if Smad Place (or any other front runner) is a tad less pacey on the Gold Cup sharp end, he may not be so readily outpaced in his final prep, assuming he runs in the race. [Connections have suggested they may not go for the Gold Cup, instead taking in Kelso in the Scottish borders, so NRNB is your friend if you like Many Clouds].

Staying is clearly his game, but he's tough and not without class too. If you share my view that a number towards the head of the market have stamina questions to answer, then a shekel win and place Many Clouds won't be the worse bet you strike in 2016.

(Far) more speculatively, may I draw your attention briefly to the green and gold silks of Carlingford Lough? No bigger than 14/1 in the Gold Cup last year, having won the Hennessy Gold Cup (now Irish Gold Cup) on his prior start, he is another for whom stamina is a given but who may just lack the toe - and the talent - to claim major honours.

That's only the half of it, mind. This season has seen three lamentable efforts, two over fences and one over hurdles, leading to a suspicion he may not be the horse he was. At ten, that's a distinct possibility, but if you're into straw clutching, a bet before Saturday at 66/1 non-runner no bet isn't as mental as it might sound.

Remember, he won the race last year. That's the first thing. More importantly from a bank preservation perspective is that if he runs poorly for a fourth time in a row he'll surely not run in the Gold Cup meaning stakes are returned. If he runs a lot better, he shortens in the market.

****

2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup Tips

This year's Cheltenham Gold Cup is a fascinating renewal, and a very challenging puzzle. Although a couple of pieces are still missing as I write, it is hard to envisage a significant shake up in the betting from either the Irish Gold Cup or the Denman Chase.

The biggest market move is likely to be when Ruby Walsh nails his colours to the mast of either Vautour or Djakadam. If I were him, I'd probably side with Djakadam whose stamina is proven; but Vautour probably feels like a Porsche to Djakadam's Range Rover on the gallops at home.

In any case, of the top order, the value - such as it is at this stage - might just be with Don Poli. He's done little wrong and his run style may have allowed him to be under-rated somewhat. Ground, trip, and track pose no problem so, as I wrote in the main body of the piece, the question is purely one of ability. I don't mind taking a small chip at 6/1 to find out.

Very similar comments apply to Smad Place, who has been reborn this term and may not have bottomed out his own improvement yet. The shadow cast by his earlier career form may be holding his price down and, if that's right, there's a whiff of a bargain even at his now 12/1 price. Of course, if you bagged 20's or 16's since the weekend, good show.

It might be worth having a tiny each way tickle on either Many Clouds (could run into the frame if running into the race en route to Aintree, cash back if no show) or Carlingford Lough (feels like a bet to nothing with NRNB), but I couldn't 'officially' - whatever the hell that means - nominate them here.

The 2016 Gold Cup is a very hard race to call and, if you want to bet one of the top of the market, you may be best off waiting for the day, when bookies will surely go 6/1 or 7/1 bar Ruby's mount. If it comes up soft, I can see Smad Place shortening into single figures.

Having backed Smad Place at 16/1 (small money) after his Saturday win, I think there's still a dribble of upside at 12's, and Don Poli is my pick of the quintet heading the betting.

Two very timid picks in the Timico Gold Cup.

Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection

0.5 pt win Don Poli 6/1 bet365, 888sport, Hills, 32 Red (all NRNB)

0.25 pts e/w Smad Place 12/1 general (look for NRNB)

****

Other Cheltenham Festival 2016 Ante-Post Previews

All of our in-depth previews, trends and tips can be found here:

Cheltenham Festival 2016 Race Guide

[Image credit: Michael Harris, @mjyharris]

Team Geegeez on Final Furlong Pod…

Something a little different today, as I share with you a two hour podcast (audio show), courtesy of Emmet Kennedy's Final Furlong Podcast.

Apart from being a very entertaining and insightful listen, it also features two of your geegeez.co.uk writers, Rory Delargy and Tony Keenan. They offer their views on all sorts of issues, so grab a drink and have a listen.

Matt