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Cheltenham chief Renton keen to see Festival lift the nation’s mood

Cheltenham’s regional director Ian Renton admits preparations for this year’s Festival have been like no other – but he hopes attention can now switch to action on the track.

Twelve months ago, almost 70,000 were at Cheltenham to watch Al Boum Photo secure back-to-back Gold Cups.

Few could have imagined then the year which lay ahead, with large gatherings banned almost immediately after the Festival.

When racing returned in June following a near three-month hiatus it was without crowds – and barring a handful of occasions, it has remained that way – but of all courses, the one that will feel the absence of a crowd most is surely Cheltenham.

Paul Townend celebrates with Willie Mullins (left) after winning last year's Gold Cup
Paul Townend celebrates with Willie Mullins (left) after winning last year’s Gold Cup (Jacob King/PA)

“We’re looking forward to what will be a very different Festival,” said Renton.

“Obviously it is the first time it has been behind closed doors, so the build-up has been extremely different to usual.

“It’s been an interesting build-up, concentrating on the racing rather than on those who would normally be coming here, but we’ve also been looking at what we can do for them at home.

“This is one of the highlights of the sporting season, the four best days’ jumping you will ever see. Yes, there won’t be the same atmosphere on course but we can all look positively to what’s ahead of us.

“We’ve got some superlative racing to look forward to with Al Boum Photo looking to join the likes of Arkle, Cottage Rake and Best Mate. When you think two years ago Willie Mullins had never won the race to now be going for three in a row it’s quite incredible.

“It’s always great to see the champions return – and all five will this year – but to show how competitive it is only Al Boum Photo is favourite.

“We’re really delighted to be partnering with WellChild, too, a charity who look after seriously ill children and have their headquarters in Cheltenham.”

Of course, no crowds at the Festival and barely any income for a year has hit hard financially – and while there is an insurance policy which covers some of the damage, there is still a large shortfall.

“Thankfully we’ve had a three-year insurance policy which remains in place and which has been extremely beneficial to us and Jockey Club Racecourses,” said Renton.

Racegoers using hand sanitiser at last year's Cheltenham Festival
Racegoers using hand sanitiser at last year’s Cheltenham Festival (Simon Cooper/PA)

“The cover is limited to losses directly attributed to the Festival – but other areas, such as annual members and box holders, we suffer all those losses as well as all the other activities which haven’t taken place.

“The Jockey Club lost £90million in revenue in 2020, and this year we continue to count the cost of the pandemic with virtually all our revenue streams stopped completely or significantly reduced.”

Not only have Cheltenham officials had to cope with the financial strain, there have been many stories in the past 12 months related to the pandemic which have mentioned last year’s Festival and the crowds in attendance.

Coupled with the recent Gordon Elliott headlines, after a picture was shared on social media of him sitting on a dead horse, racing has some ground to make up in the public’s perception.

Over 50,000 spectators a day attended the Festival last year
Over 50,000 spectators a day attended the Festival last year (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The British Horseracing Authority’s chief medical adviser Dr Jerry Hill said: “I’ve spent a lot of time learning over the last 12 months – learning about our industry, relationships, resilience – and I’ve learned a hell of a lot about Covid as well, which was knowledge we didn’t have a year ago.

“The elephant in the room is last year’s Festival. Would we have done something different with a different set of knowledge? And of course history teaches us different things. The situation we are in now, we know so much more about the disease and how best to control it, how to continue functioning as a society.

“We have learned a great deal. A year ago we were at the beginning of the learning curve and seeking information, like everyone else. The information has gradually become available. At the time we sought information from experts and followed their advice.”

Renton hopes that, with the vaccine rollout and infection rates dropping, the Festival may be seen as a springboard to better times.

The meetings at Cheltenham this season have taken place in front of empty stands
The meetings at Cheltenham this season have taken place in front of empty stands (David Davies/PA)

“The mood, hopefully, within the nation is beginning to look forward to the country opening up again and all the positives that can bring,” he said.

“At the Festival, we tend to be the harbinger of spring and the beginning of things opening up for the summer, and I think we can be that again.

“All the negatives that have been referred to, I’d love to think we can park those, put them behind us and look forward to four fantastic days. Look at the 28 races – I don’t think anyone can fail to be excited by them.”

Racing Insights, 11th December 2020

Thursday's race didn't go exactly to plan, but a satisfactory outcome nontheless. I said I fancied the 2/1 Zambella and she won by the best part of four lengths at 9/4, which funded my two forecasts involving Midnightreferendum and Pink Legend. The latter finished fourth having faded on the run-in, conceding third place in the process, but Midnightreferendum ran a great race to finish second, completing a nice 10.3/1 exacta for all the exotics backers.

And so, after a much-needed profitable afternoon, I approach Friday with renewed vim and vigour and the feature of the day is the wonderful Horses for Courses (H4C) report, whilst our free racecards are for the following contests...

  • 1.15 Cheltenham
  • 1.35 Punchestown
  • 3.00 Cheltenham
  • 3.45 Bangor
  • 5.15 Southwell
  • 6.45 Southwell

And like many spectators, I'm always fascinated by the cross country events at HQ, so I'm going to cast my eye towards the 3.00 Cheltenham, the 11-runner, Class 2, Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase over 3m6f on Good to Soft ground for a top prize of £17,517.

First up, here's the racecard...

And like yesterday, I'm going to approach the race in a different way to usual and here's why. There's really no other races like these events at Cheltenham with the different types of fences and the routing etc. Yes, there are other long-distance chases, but this is a different kettle of fish altogether and I don't think your "normal" way of race reading would be enough here, we need something extra in addition to the tools I always use.

I want to start by saying that on first glance, my initial preference is for Step Back who seeks a hat trick but more on his shortly. The extra tool I want to use today is historical data, because in the past the horses that have won this race have tended to fit most if not all of the profile...

  • top 4 in the market
  • top 2 finish LTO
  • Sub-8/1
  • 14-35 days since last run
  • aged 7+
  • 4 to 7 runs in the last year
  • ran here at Cheltenham LTO

Applying those filters, we are left with the top four in the market who tick some if not all of those boxes and it's those four we'll now consider in more detail. All were first or second LTO 17-33 days ago and all are aged 8-11. Step Back has only run three times in the last year, but was a non-runner due to the going on another occasion, whilst the other three have been seen four times. Both Beau de Brizais and Kingswell Theatre ran here LTO four weeks ago.

That was in the November Cross Country event here when KT and BDB were the first two home, separated by five lengths and the runner-up is 5lbs better off here today.

Now back to the tools after my shortcut to a 4-runner shortlist...

As you'd expect for such a unique race, the pace tab isn't going to offer us much of an inssight, so we'll press on by looking at our four possibles...

Step Back has the ideal going for his action here and is 3 from 4 on Good to Soft ground. He also has a win and a place from three efforts over 3m5f and was deemed to have enough about him to take a crack at the 4m2f Grand National, so stamina shouldn't be an issue here. he's a former Grade 3 winner and goes well in cheekpieces, so he looks set fair for a big run.

Back to back wins in the last seven weeks seem to have sparked him into life and if this becomes attritional, it'll play right into this old boy's hands (hooves?)

Neverushacon has just the one run on Good To Soft when fifth in this race last year, but has raced in Ireland sixteen times on ground varying from Good to Yielding through to Yielding to Soft and has only won one of the, He has, however, won 5 of 19 on ground deemed Soft or worse. He was impressive when winning the Risk Of Thunder Chase at Punchestown over 3m on heavy ground by some 11 lengths 17 days ago and has completed both runs on this track, finishing fifth and eighth.

Of obvious interest from a stats/trends perspective, but has never won beyond 3m1f, so has something to prove here on ground a little quicker than he'd prefer.

Kingswell Theatre was a winner around this circuit just four weeks ago, just as he was in the November 2017 running. Clear by five lengths having made all, he was his usual bullish self. He stays all day (has won at 3m7f), jumps well (no fall in 30 races) and can win on any ground ranging from Good all the way through to Heavy.

He won off 145 last time out, but is rated 140 here so there are very few reasons why he won't go well again here, other than his age (getting no younger at 11) and the fact that second time out he isn't always as good as his seasonal reappearance.

Beau du Brizais was the runner-up in that C&D contest here four weeks ago, making him the only one of the four not to win LTO, but that doesn't mean he can't win this. He's now 5lbs better off than his rival, Kingwell Theatre, has won on good to soft and has completed over 4 miles in a Grade 3. He does tend to run well at this time of year (3 from 6 in December), but I'm concerned about the jockey booking. BdB has just a 10% strike rate (2 from 20) under Michael Nolan who is currently on a 50-race losing streak, whilst the horse is 3 from 16 (18.75%) wih other jockeys.

I was rather hoping Richard Johnson would be booked for this contest if I'm honest.

Summary

Any of the four could win, I expect one of the four to win and I expect that if all four get round, then three of them will be the first three home.

Do I have to stick my neck out? If so, I'm backing Step Back at 7/1. I think that aside from conceding weight all round that he's the one to beat if maintaining his recent form and 7/1 is a terrific price. Kingswell Theatre would be my next best, but his current odds of 4/1 offer no real value.

I don't have much between Neverushacon and Beau de Brizais to be honest. The former is possibly slightly better, but the latter receives plenty of weight and is a better pick from a value (13/2 vs 10/3) perspective.

 

Racing Insights, 13th November 2020

Westerner Point was run out of it in the closing stages at Clonmel, finishing third just over half a length behind a faster finisher, whilst Getaday laboured to be placed seventh of fourteen.

Friday is almost upon us and Horses for Courses is the free feature, whilst the free racecards are for the fallowing half dozen contests...

  • 12.18 Newcastle
  • 1.23 Newcastle
  • 1.50 Cheltenham
  • 4.05 Cheltenham
  • 5.00 Dundalk
  • 8.15 Wolverhampton

And I'm going to take a look at the first of the two at HQ, the 1.50 Cheltenham, a 9-runner, Class 2, Handicap Chase for 4yo+ over 2m on Good to Soft ground worth £22,522 to the winner, but who will that be? As ever, our opening clues come from the racecard...

...where Fanion D'Estruval tops the Geegeez ratings and his form figures catch the eye, although that's tempered by his 322 day absence from the track. Beat The Judge has been in decent nick and On The Slopes also ended last season on a high. Magic Saint hails from the red-hot Nicholls yard who have been firing in winners, so maybe he could defy top weight.

On the flip side, both Eamon An Cnoic and Full Glass are returning from lengthy breaks away from UK racecourses, whilst the former's form has been patchy at best and the same could be said for Azzuri. Perhaps they've not had optimal conditions of late and we'll see if Friday's conditions might suit them better by looking at the Instant Expert tab...

...after looking at those place records in chases, Beat The Judge and On The Slopes catch the eye with a full row of green, whilst at this point, I start to whittle down the field by getting rid of Born Survivor and Full Glass from my process. I then click the win button and I see...

...which is pretty self explanatory. For me, the field size is the least important of the six columns above (still important, but not massively so on a wide track like Cheltenham where there's plenty of room) and as they only score green on field size, it's now time to say goodbye to Ballywood and Azzuri ahead of our assessment on the pace make-up of the race...

...which suggests that On The Slopes and Magic Saint would be best suited by following their normal tactics, as 25 of the 33 races (75.8%) represented above have been won by those who have led or raced prominently with 59 of the 87 placers (67.8%) following that plan too.

Based on the cards, Instant Expert and now the pace, I'm going to discard both Eamon An Cnoic and Fanion D'Estruval from my considerations, as I just feel they might both need a run before hitting any kind of form. I'm very aware that Fanion was a machine in France and will probably have a great career here in the UK, but his jumping wasn't quite spot on in two outings on these shores last season and I think he'll need to blow the cobwebs away after a long break.

All of which leaves me with a trio of possibles, Beat The Judge, Magic Saint and On The Slopes, so let's take a quick look at each before (hopefully) coming to some form of conclusion.

Beat The Judge : was a decent if unspectacular hurdler, but has really come into his own as a chaser finishing 3113 to date, including landing a Class 2 handicap at Fontwell by nine lengths two starts ago before finishing third ahead of On The Slopes (fifth) and Ballywood (sixth) here over course and distance at the October Meeting. If he keeps up with the pace early on (did dawdle a little LTO), he could well be a player late on, as he does tend to finish well. I'd expect him to be around the 5/1 mark.

Magic Saint : all his best work has come at this shorter trip and he drops back half a mile again after a reasonably promising return at Aintree in the Grade 2 Old Roan last month. Considering he hadn't raced for 10 months and the trip was too long for him, he did pretty well to only be beaten by nine lengths having faded late on.

Down in class and trip here to more favoured situations, he should come on for the run (also won second time out last November) and Bryan Carver's 5lb jockey claim effectively puts him on the same mark as last November's win at this grade at Newbury. A major contender here for me and should probably be around the 11/4 mark.

On The Slopes : as mentioned above, a couple of places (and 1.25 lengths) behind Beat The Judge over course and distance three weeks but now re-opposes 1lb better off, which should make it a little closer. Prior to that run here last month, he had been off the track for 223 days, so he's another who can be forgiven for not quite being at this best last time out. He had ended last season on a high, winning back to back contests on Good to Soft at Kempton in February and March.

His form on Good to Soft is decent at 2311, whilst he has won 2 of 3 at trips of 2m2f and shorter. I wouldn't write this one off easily either and I'd expect him to be around the 7/2 to 4/1 mark.

Summary

Having gone through the card and arriving at a shortlist of three, I probably won't have a proper bet here after all. I was hoping that my research/analysis would lead me to a standout selection, but it hasn't. I should stress that this is perfectly fine.

I now look at the market, in case one of my possibles appears to offer enough value for a small action bet and I was a little surprised to see On The Slopes shorter in price than Magic Saint. don't get me wrong, both have a great chance, but I though the latter would (a) be the one to beat and (b) be the more popular.

Beat The Judge looks to be the value pick at 6/1 and drifting slightly. Who knows, it might even drift enough to be worth an E/W or 20/80 punt.

So, my conclusion is sadly inconclusive. You could back none, one, two or all three here with justification. Sometimes that's how it is and it's OK for it to be like that!

Racing Insights, 23rd October 2020

Sod's Law was very much in force at Wolverhampton this afternoon, as my four-runner shortlist filled three of the four places offered by SkyBet amongst others. Sadly, the one I omitted from my final advice went on to win at 11/2. I was, however, pleased with Leodis Dream finishing fourth at 9/1, only a length and a half off the winner and backed at an advised 16/1.

As for the winner, I did say..."I thought HSB might have been a bit longer than that and although I might regret it, I'll give him a miss at 14's" and thus the law of Sod kicked in.

So, neither happy nor sad about that outcome, we move on to Friday, where the daily free feature is the Horses for Courses report and the free racecards cover...

  • 2.25 Cheltenham
  • 3.00 Cheltenham
  • 3.43 Sligo
  • 5.03 Doncaster
  • 8.00 Newcastle
  • 8.15 Dundalk

So, let's take a look at the first of our free races, the 2.25 Cheltenham (you know it's the jumps season when Chelts appears on the cards) : a 6-runner, Class 2 Novices Chase for 5yo+ over 3m on good ground, with the winner receiving a more than useful £12.5k. My initial feeling was that I liked Soldier of Love for this race with Clondaw Caitlin being a possible E/W punt at double digit odds (hopefully)

But when you already like two runners in a field of six, it pays to look closer at the race, because you might have missed something, so here goes...

Plenty of good recent form for jockeys and trainers (14, 30) and whilst we've only got six runners, their formlines are littered with wins. In fact, between them they have won 28 times in 71 efforts, a strike rate of almost 40%, so some good runners on show here.

Instant Expert for this race tells us that...

...from a place perspective, all those who have raced on good ground have fared well enough, the top three especially so. Not much class/course achievement to discuss, whilst the four who have tackled this trip have managed to see it out successfully at least once with Doctor Duffy and Soldier of Love looking like proven stayers. I don't always set much too much stall out for field size, but a small number of runners hasn't proved a problem for these six in the past.

Sometimes, a Geegeez report will be inconclusive and I think the above doesn't really do much for us today, so let's consider the win element of the same report...

...where Soldier of Love's record at this trip is a standout piece of data here.

Now, many people think pace is mainly relevant to shorter trip Flat and A/W contests and surely wouldn't have much bearing on a 3m+ chase, but they'd actually be very wrong. The pace make-up of any race is important and in such contests here at HQ, you don't want to go off too quickly nor too slowly. You want to be "handy", shall we say? Anyway, as ever, a picture is worth a thousand words, so I''ll stop rambling...

Once again, Soldier of Love looks to have a positive pace make-up for this race, as does Clondaw Caitlin, but now let's take a closer look at the six runners individually...

Ask Dillon : Reasonable record over hurdles, including wins at 2m5.5f and 2m6f, whilst also making the frame in both starts at 2m7.5f. This is a bit further for him, but as all his hurdles form was on Good to Soft or softer, stamina shouldn't be an issue.

Fergal O'Brien's chasers sent at 14/1 and shorter are 7 from 29 (24.1% SR) here at Cheltenham since 2016, but this one has no win higher than Class 3 and has been off the track for over seven months, since being well beaten by 36 lengths here in March and carries joint top weight now.

Clondaw Caitlin : The only mare in the race, therefore receiving weight all round. A former bumper winner who was three from three over hurdles last season, including landing a Gr2 over 2m2f at Kelso back in February when taking the boys on for the first time.

Her breeding suggests she'll take to fences, but she has also been off the track for over seven months and steps up markedly in trip today, but trainer Ruth Jefferson has an 18% strike rate (18 from 100) with her runners stepping up in trip, of which LTO winners are 7 from 21.

Doctor Duffy : has already competed over fences seven times, winning twice and making the frame on three other occasions. Has finished 113F since adopting a visor and I'm happy to overlook that fall last time out, when he was bumped by a rival at the first fence. Prior to that (non)run, he had won a Gr2 at Ballinrobe followed by a third in a Gr1 at Listowel.

Galvin : Trainer Gordon Elliott has won this race twice (2010 & 2011) and will have high hopes about this one who was a runner-up at the festival here in March behind Imperial Aura.

A winner of three novice events in Ireland so far this season, including a Gr3 last time out early this month and will be expected to make bold bid of improving his yard's record of 7 wins from 34 (20.6%) in Class 2 chases here at Cheltenham since 2016.

Mossy Fen : First time over fences, but this son of super-sire Milan was 3 from 5 over hurdles, including landing a Gr2 at Warwick in January before finishing a creditable if fairly well beaten (23 lengths) firth behind Envoi Allen in the Ballymore at the festival here back in March.

He's inexperienced/unexposed depending on your viewpoint, he'll get the trip and had bundles of ability, but the lack of a chase run might undo him. Mind you, trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies has 17 from 71 (23.9%) record in October with first time chasers, including 13 from 51 (25.5%) in Novice contests.

Soldier of Love : trainer Paul Nicholls has won this contest four times in the past fourteen runnings and will have every chance of going five from fifteen with this seven year old gelding who has been a revelation since a wind op.

One win in seven pre-operation and a formline of F1111 since, with a fall at the last when leading at Kempton the only post-surgery blemish. The going/trip/field size will all suit him and he gets on great with jockey Harry Cobden and the only negative I have with him is that he has never raced at a higher level than Class 3.

Summary

I set about this race, because I had a gut feeling that I'd need to pick between an E/W bet on Clondaw Caitlin, a win bet on Soldier of Love or both, but now I'm really not so sure. You can actually make a good case for all six runners, whilst there are reasons for not backing any of the six.

This now looks like a really good contest and I'd expect it to be very competitive and as such, I'll not be placing a bet at all. This is perfectly fine with me and also with the ethos of Geegeez overall. If the analysis of a race doesn't make the decision any easier or any clearer, then I'm of the opinion, you leave it alone.

However, I might have highlighted something above that ticks an extra box for you and I certainly won't put you off having a bet, but I'll be sitting this one out with my feet up and a cold beer.