Posts

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Favourites – Bankers or Blowouts?

Pretty much the last spectator-attended action of last year was the Cheltenham Festival and, regardless of the 20/20 hindsight about whether or not it should have had the green light for crowds, this year's event will be contested behind closed doors. That it will be contested at all, and that the entirety of the preceding seasonal narrative has played out - weather notwithstanding - is a cause for celebration during these times where not a great deal has been worthy of such emotional uplift.

With just 21 days until tapes rise for the opening skirmishes of the 2021 renewal of #CheltFest (I can hear the grinding of traditionalists' teeth as I pen that incendiary soshul shorthand!), time is nigh to fix mental bayonets and consider, in the round, what may transpire three weeks hence.

In this piece, we'll look at the shorties: those favourites whose current top quote is 5/4 or tighter. Using the age old hackney of 'banker or blowout', and mindful that for geegeez readers (and value players everywhere) the very notion of a banker is anathema, I'll offer a view as to which side of the back/lay divide I'd currently like to pitch my punting tent.

A recent history of short priced favourites at the Cheltenham Festival

First up, a short history lesson. The main lesson of history is "don't believe the hype", a message that resonates far beyond Festival jollies but which was poignantly reprised twelve months ago when, of the six favourites sent off at 5/4 or shorter, five were beaten. Ouch.

If that was a storm in the 2020 teacup, how does a more extensive tract of past performance influence our appetite for piling in at the sharp end?

As can be seen from the table and summary row above, there have been good times and bad times since 2009, with the management summary being that this is one of the less bludgeoning methods of wagering self-harm. But, of course, not all shorties are made equal; so is there anything to be gleaned from dividing what is already a very small dataset still further?

Despite the answer to that question almost certainly being 'no', for the record here are a couple of logical splits:

A lot of data manipulation and a very short read later we can now say the answer is certainly 'no'; which is unsurprising given the maturity of, and liquidity in, these markets. Nevertheless, when the media cries "certainty" and the market posits 4/6, punters are well served to beware.

The full list of qualifying runners is below, and may bring back painful memories for some, yours true included!

2021 Cheltenham Festival Shorties: Banker or Blowout

There is a quintet of ante-post shorties for this year's renewal of the Fez (yet more trads reaching for 'off' switch!) and they shape up price wise like this:

Time to consider each horse's respective merits...

Arkle Challenge Trophy: Shishkin

Form this season

Unbeaten in three facile wins in novice chases, most recently in a brace of Grade 2's, with no horse yet landing a glove on him. In spite of the small fields - he beat a trio of rivals in each - the form is solid and the times have been good. His fencing style is economical and comfortable: he has barely put a foot wrong thus far.

Shishkin is now unbeaten in seven completed starts, having fallen on his hurdling debut.

Cheltenham / Festival Form

Sent off 6/1 joint-third favourite for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last year, he was hampered by a faller as the race was hotting up, but overcame that impediment to hold the late charge of Champion Hurdle fancy, Abacadabras. That was his only race at Cheltenham.

Obvious dangers

For a while this looked a matter of 'how far' assuming good health and a clear round, but the emergence of Energumene - an energumence? - as comfortably the best of the Irish has livened up the pre-race debate immeasurably.

Your first 30 days for just £1

On form, Willie Mullins' charge is a serious threat. But he does have a lot more questions to answer: how will he handle Cheltenham? Does he need to lead and, if so, how will he handle Allmankind? If he doesn't need to lead, he has yet to prove his effectiveness from further back. And how will he handle drier ground if indeed it pans out that way?

None of these are of concern to Shishkin, who looks sure to get his favoured lead - either from Allmankind, or that one and Energumene - and who will have every chance having dealt with all underfoot terrain, longer trips, and the Cheltenham contours already.

If Energumene and Allmankind lock horns on the speed, they may both pay for those exertions in the manner that Saint Calvados and Petit Mouchoir did in the 2018 renewal of this race, setting things up for a 14-length rout for Footpad. Shishkin is undeniably more of a horse than Footpad, and a tear up on the front end could see him record the largest winning distance of the meeting.

But if Energumene is ridden more conservatively, there are two possible dangers. The more obvious is that, in a fair fight, the Irish raider is simply better than the domestic challenger; the less obvious is that, by marking each other, the top two grant Allmankind - a very good horse in his own right - an easy and unassailable lead.

The other fly in the Shishkin ointment is the form of the Nicky Henderson yard, on the face of it at least: a single winner since 10th February, from 28 runners, is not the sort of record a Champion Trainer needs going into the biggest gig of the year. But, of course, we're not yet at the eve of Cheltenham and, in any case, that headline figure masks what have been largely acceptable (if not altogether pleasing) efforts from his Seven Barrows squad.

A place strike rate of 36% is more compelling, and a majority of runners have performed at least close to market expectation. Notably, the big guns - Chantry House, Champ - have run very well. Still, better will have been expected overall and better will be needed if Shishkin's price is not to flirt with odds-against between now and mid-March.

Verdict

Shishkin looks a superb athlete and a very fast horse. His trainer is having a wobble just now but knows better than anyone - even Willie M - how to campaign a precocious two-mile chaser. Having ticked the race conditions boxes, and with a pace setup almost certain to play to his A game, he looks a 'banker' (relatively speaking).

*

Mares' Hurdle: Concertista

Form this season

Lightly raced, as is often the modus operandi with Willie Mullins' better mares, Concertista has run just twice this term. She beat the same mare, Minella Melody, by nearly two lengths in a Grade 2 in November and then by more than six lengths in a Grade 3 at the turn of the year.

The hallmark of those runs, and indeed her run style generally, is being held together off the pace before cruising through to prevail comfortably. In so doing it is hard to peg the level of her form exactly, always leaving the impression there is more in the tank.

Cheltenham / Festival Form

Presented off a layoff of eighteen months prior to the 2019 Mares' Novices Hurdle, Concertista saw off all bar Eglantine Du Seuil as a 66/1 chance that day. She had twenty rivals behind her and only a short head to the one in front. That singular race in the 2018/19 season meant she retained her novice status the following campaign and, lining up in the same race last March, she outclassed a similar 22-strong field by an emphatic dozen lengths.

This will be her third visit to the Festival and she offers very solid credentials on that score.

Obvious dangers

It very much depends who lines up on the day. If the ground dries out, it might be that connections of Honeysuckle decide to run over this two-and-a-half mile trip rather than the extended two of the Champion Hurdle. That would change the complexion markedly.

Likewise, though to a lesser degree, if Roksana stepped this way rather than to the Stayers' Hurdle, she would present a fierce challenge.

But there is very little depth to this field beyond the aforementioned three: they bet 9/1 Dame De Compagnie (who has been chasing, has four entries, and is far from a certain runner in this), 14/1 Verdana Blue (more likely for the County Hurdle, I think), and 20/1 bar (including Elimay, who more likely goes to the Mares' Chase).

Verdict

If Honeysuckle goes to the Champion Hurdle and if Roksana goes to the Stayers' Hurdle, Concertista could be the shortest priced favourite at the meeting. If Honeysuckle comes here, she may be 4/7 or so.

This is a ground dependant conundrum: drying ground would increase the chance of Honeysuckle running here, but decrease the chance of Roksana doing likewise. Concertista is expected to run here regardless (though she is still entered in both the Champion Hurdle and the Mares' Chase).

The way to play this, if you're so inclined, is to back Concertista at 6/5 and Honeysuckle at 5/4, both non-runner no bet. Most likely, you'll have 6/5 about an odds-on shot and money back on the other; second most likely is that you'll have 5/4 about a 4/7 shot and a poor value back up ticket. That may not sound exciting right now but it is odds on to look value on the day.

*

Brown Advisory (ex RSA): Monkfish

Form this season

Another Willie Mullins inmate, Monkfish has been imperious this season in brushing aside talented opposition with relish. Monkfish with relish: tasty!

Lousy puns aside, he won his beginners' chase in a canter before being merely pushed out to record a pair of Grade 1 successes in recognised trials, by three lengths and then eleven lengths from the talented Latest Exhibition. He is by some margin the pick of the Irish challengers.

Cheltenham / Festival Form

Not only is Monkfish unbeaten in three chase starts this term, he is also the reigning Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle champ, earning a hard-fought verdict over... you guessed it, Latest Exhibition. That was his only visit to Cheltenham so he is unbeaten in one both at the track and at the Festival.

Obvious dangers

It is quite hard to find 'obvious' dangers to Monkfish. He has blitzed the best of the Irish this season, and he did the same to the best of the British and Irish here last season over hurdles.

Of course, he's a novice and the fences have to be jumped, so that's a possible issue.

In terms of potential rivals, Royale Pagaille has looked a mud machine this winter, but that one has numerous other possible engagements, principally the Gold Cup itself. Moreover, the two horses are in the same Ricci ownership and will surely attempt to divide and conquer.

The only other possible issue is ground: good to something would present a challenge met only once previously, when Monkfish was beaten into second on debut in a 2m2f bumper at the Punchestown Festival in May 2019.

Verdict

It's double digits bar Fishcake - as Nicky Henderson once flippantly (and very amusingly, imho) labelled the jolly - and Royale Pagaille; and, with options over longer and shorter for shying rivals, this could cut up dramatically. Monkfish looks very strong in this division.

*

Champion Chase: Chacun Pour Soi

Form this season

Three runs, three wins, in Grade 2 and Grade 1 (twice) company, beating the right horses with nonchalance. He travels like a dream, jumps very well and, if he faces the starter at Cheltenham, will have managed more runs this season than in the previous two combined.

His form this campaign is well clear of any other two mile chaser on either side of the Irish Sea.

Cheltenham / Festival Form

It was all going so well, but then... Chacun Pour Soi was pulled out at the eleventh hour last year and, as such, has yet to race outside of Ireland. That leaves question marks not just over the track but also about travelling generally: he did come over on the boat last year but was withdrawn with a foot abscess.

Whilst it may very much be a case of abscess making the heart grow fonder (sigh), it also nods to this fella's hitherto fragility. Against that we do have a trio of scores, and an absence of scares, so far this term. But we have still to conjecture about his ability to handle the idiosyncrasies of Cleeve Hill.

Obvious dangers

He himself is the obvious danger. Will he stay in one piece? Will he handle the travel? Will he handle the track?

Of the other horses in the race, each has eroded his or her case at some point: Arkle winner Put The Kettle On was bashed by Chacun, albeit after what was a very hard race at Cheltenham first up this season, and she may bounce back training up to the race; Altior is patently not the horse he was; Politologue has a rock solid Champion Chase profile but not against the calibre of CPS; and Defi Du Seuil is a binary chap, more zeros than ones in recent times.

The leftfield option is First Flow, who was exhilarating at Ascot last time. He'd need supplementing, very likely, but he'd also need to improve another eight pounds on current ratings - less likely.

Verdict

Chacun Pour Soi has to contend with himself. His form is in another postcode to his rivals in a market still trying to get him beaten with the wonderful but past his best Altior and a sizeable group of second division chasers. A horse like Fakir D'Oudairies, who is 20/1 NRNB in a place because he's more likely to fly Ryanair, might be a feasible hail mary in a race loaded with if's and but's.

Those imponderables extend to the favourite which makes him unplayable outright at the prices for all that he is the outstanding logical choice. [I did flag him in a derivative market at more appealing odds, as I don't really seeing him finishing second or third. He will win, or something will have happened between now and the finish line, is my wagering opinion.]

*

Marsh: Envoi Allen

Form this season

Three runs, three wins this campaign have meant Envoi Allen is now eleven from eleven lifetime under Rules (plus one point to point), all of them as favourite and only once at odds-against (the 2019 Cheltenham Champion Bumper). The middle leg of his 2020/21 hat-trick was a comfortable verdict in the Grade 1 Drinmore, and it was little more than a schooling round against Grade 3 rivals last time. I wasn't as impressed as some with that most recent effort for all that he still bolted up.

Cheltenham / Festival Form

Two tries at the track, both at the Festival, have yielded two victories; the Bumper score was by a narrow margin, his Ballymore victory more unequivocal. He beat 13 rivals the first day and eleven the second and, well, he just keeps winning.

Obvious dangers

This looks another case of getting to the start line. Unlike CPS, EA has been slated to start twice and has started - and finished first - twice. He's had an incident-free prep thus far and has jumped really well in his three chase races to date.

Still, those fences need to be jumped, and he has to arrive pristine at Prestbury. It is hard to nominate dangers thereafter.

Verdict

The Brown Advisory would have meant a likely clash with Monkfish, the Arkle a ding dong with Shiskin, Energumene and Allmankind. The Marsh feels a bit like the coward's route for a horse boasting his CV. More generously, it is the best opportunity to extend the winning sequence.

You can bet double figures any other horse likely to run in this race - single digit quotes about Energumene and Monkfish don't even appeal NRNB especially - and there has to be some each way value, though I've yet to go through the fine detail to find it.

What is clear is that, on form, Envoi Allen is different kit.

**

Summary

Last year, five of the six horses sent off at 5/4 or shorter were beaten. This year, we look set to have at least five runners priced in that same bracket. Mishaps aside, it is hard (for me, at least) to make credible cases to oppose any of the quintet.

But mishaps do happen: in 2020, Paisley Park had a palpitation, Patrick Mullins was carelessly ejected from Carefully Selected (very harsh on the jockey, apols, poetic license for a play on words), Tiger was Roll'ed over by a heretofore unconsidered French assailant, Defi did the Defi thing, and 'mon dieu' Benie was beaten by Honey.

Any horse could come down or have a heart murmur in the heat of combat; Shishkin could get beaten by Energumene; a previously unsighted dark horse could emerge in one of the novice chases (though that feels unlikely).

In short, stuff could - and at some point probably will - happen. But I'd be hard pushed to bet against any of this quintet in the win slot if they trotted round at the start. That's my view, uncontroversial as it is. What about you? Which horse(s) would you hang your hat on? And where are you looking to get a hotpot beaten? Leave a comment and let us know.

Matt

 

 

Concertista takes centre stage

Concertista confirmed her superiority over Minella Melody with another smooth win in the Advent Insurance Irish EBF Mares Hurdle at Leopardstown.

A winner at Cheltenham in March, she was a smooth scorer on her return to action and after her latest win looks sure to take plenty of beating is she travels back to the Cotswolds in the spring.

Dropped in off the pace by Paul Townend as Rachael Blackmore set a stiff tempo on Minella Melody, the 4-5 favourite made ground easily before coming away to win by six and a half lengths and continue Willie Mullins’ domination of the meeting.

Betfair cut her to 3-1 for the Mares’ Hurdle in March.

“She was very good,” said Mullins.

“It was a searching pace. We thought Mary Frances would go on, but Rachael went ahead. That suited our other mare My Sister Sarah.

“Paul elected to drop in, and I thought he might be a little too far out of it turning into the back straight. The pace up front got her back into the race. She was very brave and very good to do what she did there today.

Your first 30 days for just £1

“I’d imagine the Mares’ Hurdle is the target. She’d look nicely positioned for that race.

“We’ll come back here first for the Dublin Racing Festival. She’s improving all the time.”

Stattler jumps the last in front
Stattler jumps the last in front (PA Wire)

Stattler was another winner for Mullins and Townend when fending off stablemate Glens Of Antrim in the Pigsback.com Maiden Hurdle.

Successful on his racecourse debut last season, he had failed to win in three outings since – but the form of his maiden hurdle effort was boosted by the winner, who subsequently went close in graded company.

Townend appeared to have everything under control before Mark Walsh arrived with his challenge on Glens Of Antrim – but the 13-8 favourite had enough left to win by three lengths.

“He’s a galloper and a chaser in the making,” said Townend.

“He handled that trip in a maiden, and I’d say he can always step up in trip. He improved from his first run.”

Midnight Maestro’s win in the Adare Manor Opportunity Handicap Chase may not register with an especially wide audience, but it is a race jockey Tom Kelly will never forget.

Not only was it his first winner under Rules, but he had never even ridden one in a point-to-point either.

Winning trainer Enda Bolger said: “That was nice. I was a small bit worried when they took out the last fence, because he’s a great jumper.

“That’s Tom’s first winner, and I’m delighted for him. He’s been working for us for the last year. He’s well able to do the light weights, so he’ll get his chances.

“This horse will probably end up going down the cross-country route as well.”

None of Gordon Elliott’s big guns fired over the four days, but he did win the closing bumper with Hollow Games (1-2 favourite).

Winning jockey Jamie Codd said: “This is a very good horse. He’s a lovely staying prospect, and it was nice to get that done today.

“He’s still a big green horse, he’s 16-3, and he’s going to improve again.

“He’s a really nice addition for (owners) Noel and Valerie (Moran) and he’s going to be good.

“He’s a staying horse for the future. When you’re able to do that, win two bumpers, you’re more than likely going to end up being a good horse.”

Concertista claims cosy verdict on Fairyhouse return

Concertista boosted her claims for a third successive appearance at the Cheltenham Festival with a cheeky victory in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Mares Hurdle at Fairyhouse.

Narrowly beaten in the Grade Two Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle in 2019, the Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old went one better last season.

She did her prospects for the Grade One Mares’ Hurdle in March no harm with an eye-catching performance on her seasonal debut.

Carrigeen Lotus set the pace in this Grade Two contest, with Minella Melody in second place and Concertista a close fourth of the six runners.

There was little change in the order until the penultimate flight where Minella Melody went on, but Paul Townend was aware of the move and brought Concertista to challenge at the last.

The 6-4 favourite toyed with her market rival on the run-in before being allowed to go on in the closing stages and score by a length and three-quarters to complete a double for Mullins and Townend after Monkfish’s win in the beginners’ chase.

The first two pulled 14 lengths clear of Queens Book in third.

Mullins said: “That trip wasn’t any problem to her. We’ll probably look for something at Christmas and whether it’s a mares’ race or she takes on the boys, I’m not sure.”

Concertista was cut from 10-1 for the Mares’ Hurdle to 6-1 with Paddy Power and 13-2 with Betfair.