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Festival Reflections 2019

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

Champion Hurdler?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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National Hunt Chase 'Disgrace'

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

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

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

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

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

Quite frankly, that is bullshit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Joyful Thursday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Triumph and Disaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gold Cup win no silver lining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The obvious next question is, "Why?".

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

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

When you school them you take your chance...

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Give Back Friday

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

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

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

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

Matt

 

Social Discourse – 28th January 2019

Another crazy seven days has given us two new Festival favourites, the world’s richest turf race as well as the second richest dirt race, and the extraordinary achievements of five brilliant women... and that is where we start this week.

As always, seek me out on @KeejayOV2 or write something in the box below for all your comments, good and bad.

 

  1. Who Ride The World? Girls.

As one of the few sports in which men and women compete on equal terms, some would argue it has taken too long for top female talent to break onto the big stage of racing. That is no longer the case.

  • There are now top jockeys plying their trade in top races on both sides of the Irish sea: in Britain Bryony Frost and Lizzie Kelly have been responsible for a host of Saturday winners in front of the TV cameras.
  • In Ireland, Rachael Blackmore has ten Graded wins, 73 total wins, and €1,135,265 in prize money for the season, at the time of writing.
  • In France, Mickaelle Michel was atop the French Jockey’s Championship for 83 days until a certain Christophe Soumillon overtook her. 
  • Don’t forget Emma Lavelle, who has brought tremendous improvement out of Paisley Park this season, and Kayley Woollacott, who has the Arkle contender Lalor under her wing. And they’re just two of the numerous women flying high in training.

 Kelly and Frost showed themselves at their very best with wins on Siruh Du Lac and Frodon on Saturday's Cheltenham Trials Day. The former produced a powerful drive to get the better of Daryl Jacob and favourite, Janika; whilst Frost reprised her beautiful bond with Frodon to take yet another Saturday Cheltenham feature as the son of Nickname, only just turned seven, valiantly held the late charge of Elegant Escape in the Cotswold Chase.

TV and Social Media quite rightly absolutely loves these new stars, with fans responding with joy to their winners.

 

Meanwhile in Ireland, Blackmore has struck up a very promising link with the exciting novice Honeysuckle, who won impressively at Fairyhouse on Saturday.

Don’t forget the flat too, with Josephine Gordon a leading light who is getting a better class of horse to sit on with each passing season, whilst in France the weight allowance gives a small platform, even if that allowance was cut after a 165 per cent increase in the number of winners ridden by women there. Seems they didn't really need it!

 

  1. Ladies and Gentlemen, May I Present Percy

It had been a long time between drinks for fans of Presenting Percy. The wide margin 2018 RSA Chase winner had been off the track for 316 days until his return in the Galmoy Hurdle last Thursday, in which time he’d found his Gold Cup price shortening and his reputation growing in the interim.

So it was no surprise to see a huge crowd turn up to Gowran Park to watch him retain his Galmoy title, travelling well before finding plenty when Davy Russell asked him to get the better of the Willie Mullins-trained trio of Bapaume, Killultagh Vic and Limini with his ears pricked.

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Market reaction was instantaneous and positive: he was cut into a top-priced 100-30 (from 9-2) to record a third consecutive Festival victory, in the biggest race of them all, the Gold Cup.

However, there was a twist in the tale, as connections suggested that they might head to the Stayers’ Hurdle rather than the Friday showpiece. Here’s owner Philip Reynolds speaking to the Racing Post: “Stayers'? He jumps a hurdle every bit as slick as he jumps a fence. We've been talking all year about 'what ifs' because of the ground. Is it my preference? Of course it's not. I'd like to get him back here in three weeks' time for the Red Mills Chase.”

Jockey Davy Russell was also floating the alternative in a post-race interview: "He has the Stayers' Hurdle as an option now as well. If the Gold Cup turned out to be very competitive or if he didn't get a run over fences beforehand, he has that option anyway.”

 

  1. Trials and Tribulations

Cheltenham’s Trials Day is always an important event on the racing calendar, and this year’s edition was no different, with a number of Festival clues as well as some compelling stories.

We saw huge performances change the landscape for two of the Festival’s feature races:

  • Fakir D'oudaries tore the Triumph Trial apart with a superb performance under JJ Slevin, beating his stablemate Fine Brunello by 13 lengths, the 5/4 favourite Adjali well beaten in third, to give Joseph O’Brien his first Cheltenham winner and the now Triumph favourite, as he was cut to as short as 4/1.
  • Paisley Park confirmed himself as the leading British stayer with a wide margin win in the Cleeve Hurdle, doing all his best work up the straight before he pummelled West Approach by a staggering 12 lengths up the hill. He’s now 7/2 generally for the Stayers,from a quote of 12/1 before the day's events.

Those weren’t the only things of note on the card either...

  • Birchdale was handed the Ballymore trial as Brewin'Upastorm crashed out at the last flight when narrowly in front, with both horses surely having more to give. The exchanges had Brewin'Upastorm winning at the time, as he was 1-4 in running, but the real winner from the race is probably the form of Champ, who beat Brewin'Upastorm by four lengths in the Challow Hurdle.
  • Siruh Du Lac just edged out Janika in a pulsating finish to the Trophy Handicap, with Lizzie Kelly earning deserved plaudits for a brilliant drive to hold off Daryl Jacob on the runner up.
  • Jacob didn’t go home empty handed however, as he gave Kildisart a fine ride to take the Timeform Novices' Handicap Chase, travelling quietly into the race and getting the better of the strong travelling Highway One O One. He’s now a best price of 16/1 for the Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase.
  • Fergal O’Brien and Paddy Brennan also took something from the day, as Benny’s bridge was a remarkable winner of the Steel Plate and Sections Handicap Hurdle, in a victory that truly has to be seen to be believed.

 

  1. Away From Prestbury Park…
  • Dynamite Dollars made it three Graded wins with a with an all-the-way success in Doncaster's Lightning Novices' Chase, giving 8lbs and a workmanlike beating to Ballywood, who had previously won two handicap chases over Christmas.
  • Lady Buttons overcame a late scare as she beat Indefatigable by a neck in the olbg.com Yorkshire Rose Mares' Hurdle, also at Doncaster.
  • Nadaitak sprang a 12-1 surprise with a convincing 22 length win in the Albert Bartlett River Don Novices' Hurdle, atoning for a blip at the course last time. However, at this stage he is not certain to go to the Festival.
  • Real Steel, who danced every dance in last season’s novice hurdles, broke his duck over fences in really impressive style at Fairyhouse, winning by 10 lengths and atoning for his late fall on debut at Leopardstown.
  • Honeysuckle was a deeply impressive winner of the Solerina Mares' Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse, setting herself up for a tilt at the Cheltenham Festival equivalent.
  • At Naas yesterday, Ballyward was left in front in the Naas Racecourse Business Club Novice Chase after a fall from Discorama at the last, setting himself up for a potential charge at the NH Chase. A winner at the 2017 Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals but not seen since, Champagne Classic travelled like the best horse in the race after that monster lay-off, and looks to retain at least most of his old level of ability.
  • On the same card, Espoir D'Allen took the Limestone Lad Hurdle, where he gave 7lb and a two and a half-length beating to Wicklow Brave despite some sloppy jumping. He’s now as short as 14/1 for the Champion Hurdle.

 

  1. Go Green

Last week I wrote a small bit about Debbie Matthews, the Altior superfan who overcame severe anxiety to see her star win the Clarence House Chase. Here she gets a lot more space, as she deserves.

Matthews has been at it again, this time handing out green ribbons  – think the pink ribbons for cancer, but different – in the crowd at Cheltenham’s Trials Day to raise awareness of mental health and to share a message that shows the best of this great sport.

Here she is, in her own words, speaking to the Racing Post’s Bruce Jackson: "Green is the colour of the mental health ribbon and if anyone is there on their own it's a sign that I'm one of those people who they can come and say hello to. Even others going in a group who wanted to wear one, saying people could join in with them, could."

As you can see, the results are inspiring. A special shoutout to friend of geegeez.co.uk (and many others), Rory Delargy, who wrote a brilliantly candid article on the subject in the Irish Field:

 

All credit due to Fergal O’Brien, who reached out as early as last April to Matthews when her blog had just started, and Nicky Henderson, who let her see Altior in the flesh after the Clarence House Chase. 

 

  1. Pegasus The Wonderhorse(s)

Big Money was on offer in America, where the third running of The Pegasus World Championships took place on a filthy evening and a sloppy track at Florida's Gulfstream Park.

The weather, and its effect on the track, definitely hindered some of the contenders, but so impressive was City Of Light in the Pegasus World Cup that it may well not have mattered. The five-year-old son of Quality Road, trained by Michael W.McCarthy and ridden by Javier Castellano, was always moving well and put away Accelerate in a matter of strides at the top of the stretch before he powered away to a five-length win. Seeking The Soul gave his connections a huge payday by pipping the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner for second, benefiting from a strong pace and doing best of those held up.

Accelerate ran with credit to be third, and Bravazo was a fine fourth ahead of Audible, though there was no joy for Frankie Dettori on Mexican Triple Crown winner, Kukulkan.

 

Michael W.McCarthy, trainer of City Of Light, spoke afterwards to the Daily Racing Form: “To have a horse like this come into your life, honestly, I can’t describe the emotion that goes along with something like this,” he said, hesitating to recover his poise, while his 8-year-old daughter, Stella, touched him on the shoulder in support.

“Winning the Breeders’ Cup was incredibly special. To follow it up with something like this, I don’t know if it’ll ever happen again, and if it doesn’t happen, I’ll be okay with it.”

Accelerate’s trainer, John Sadler, told NBC: "I will always remember his honesty, he would always run a good race. We enjoyed him for a good three years and he is just a really good, solid racehorse. He ran well in tough conditions and we are going to walk out of here with our heads high." 

What’s Next: Both City of Light and Accelerate will be heading to Lane’s End Stud to take up stallion duties, initially standing at $35,000 and $20,000 respectively.

 

Earlier on the card, Chad Brown’s skill and patience was rewarded once again with Bricks and Mortar romping in the inaugural Pegasus World Cup Turf, the Aidan O'Brien-trained Magic Wand finishing well to claim a very good second from the Frankie Dettori-ridden Delta Prince in third. Catapult, who made a big move down the backstretch, hung on for fourth.

 

It was a fine display of training from Brown, who had brought the winner back from over a year off; and Aidan O’Brien will be very happy with Magic Wand’s second given the rain that hit the track. We can expect plenty of good things from her if she builds on that and maintains her form.

Side Note: O’Brien’s night was a satisfactory one that could have been better had the rain stayed away, with Hunting Horn finishing fast for third but not having the tactical speed of the former Dermot Weld-trained Zulu Alpha who won the Grade 3 W L McKnight Stakes. Still, he’ll be sending plenty more horses across the Atlantic in 2019.

A disappointing night was had by William Mott, whose Pegasus World Cup favourite, Yoshida, failed to get into the race from a rear position early, whilst Channel Maker could only finish fifth. Japanese runner Aerolithe bombed.

Chad Brown, trainer of Bricks and Mortar, related to NBC: "I'm so proud of this horse. We managed to get him back after a couple of issues which required a lot of time and patience". Expect to see his campaign geared towards the Breeders' Cup in Santa Anita in early November, though whether he's aimed at the Mile or the Turf is still in question, this victory being achieved at a range of nine and a half furlongs.

- William Kedjanyi

Harry Cobden “Conditionally Speaking” 15th Nov 2016

After winning on Viconte de Noyer at Cheltenham Saturday

After winning on Viconte du Noyer at Cheltenham Saturday

It was a quieter week for me last week, though quality more than made up for quantity.

I rode a nice mare for Mark Tompkins at Huntingdon on Tuesday, called Sweeping Beauty and, though she was sent off at 50/1, she made a really eye-catching debut. She's quite a buzzy filly so we decided to drop her in. During the race, she travelled great and quickened up well when I asked her to finish second, only beaten two lengths by the winner. She might run at Warwick in a mares' bumper next and hopefully I'll have the ride on her because I think she will go very close.

Then it was all roads lead to Cheltenham for the really competitive Open meeting, where I had four rides on the Saturday, including Frodon in the big race, the BetVictor Gold Cup.

First up was the staying handicap chase, where I got the leg up on Viconte Du Noyer for Colin Tizzard. Looking at the race beforehand I thought it was a really bold decision by Mr Tizzard to run this horse at Cheltenham, stepping up in trip almost a mile and a half, because he ran a brilliant race at Aintree last season over two miles in the Red Rum Handicap Chase: getting hampered up the run in and only being beaten two lengths it was an excellent performance.

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In the race itself, Viconte Du Noyer travelled and jumped great the whole way, and I was able to deliver him at the second last with his challenge. He went on to win by a length and a half after I'd tried to keep a bit up my sleeve to make sure we would get up that everlasting Cheltenham hill!

I'm very grateful to Mr and Mrs Potts for giving me the opportunity to ride for them in such a big race, and really pleased I was able to win for them.

In the big race of the meeting, I rode Frodon, a Grade 2 winner the previous Saturday. Still only four, he was travelling beautifully until he banked the fence at the top of the hill, four out, which finished his chances of winning this day. After that, I just coaxed him home to finish down the field. He remains a horse with plenty of upside for the season.

Millanisi Boy is a nice chasing type but he was a big price for the handicap hurdle over two and a half miles. I wanted to keep wide throughout because the inside was beginning to get very patchy, and turning in I thought I was going to win. But we just lacked a bit of toe up the hill, running a great race to finish third, eventually beaten four lengths. That was off a mark of 122, and his trainer, Richard Woollacott, is now thinking about going over fences with him, though he may have one more run in a handicap hurdle first. He should make up into a very decent chaser when the time comes.

In the closing Listed mares' bumper, I was on board Pearl Royale, a really big imposing filly by Robin Des Champs. She was a no hoper according to the betting but, though very keen throughout, she was only beaten seven lengths by the winner, finishing a very eye-catching 5th. I think she will be a mare that we could be seeing a fair amount of in Listed mares' races in the not too distant future.

On Sunday, I had just the one ride, but it was on a very talented lad in the Greatwood Hurdle. I won the race twelve months earlier on Old Guard, my first big race success, and this year I rode Modus who is owned by Mr McManus. He was second at the Cheltenham Festival in the Champion Bumper of 2014 and it's always a positive when they've run well around Cheltenham.

In truth, he didn't really travel like a contender throughout most of the race but turning down the hill I had a lovely run up the inner which got me into a nice position before turning into the home straight. From there, I jumped the last upsides and probably nosed in front halfway up the run in, but unfortunately we got out-battled by North Hill Harvey. Still, it was a really nice performance by Modus, and I think he will be a serious two mile chaser in time.

It looks like being a fairly quiet week for me, though I'll probably be heading to Haydock on Saturday to renew my partnership with Old Guard in the Betfair Price Rush Hurdle. He's still only five, and this will be his first spin over hurdles since he ran behind Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle last December.

I may also get the call for Mr Mix in the Grade 3 Betfair Exchange "Fixed Brush" Handicap Hurdle. He ran a cracking race in the Silver Trophy last time, and would have nearly won but for stepping at the third last. Even so, he was only beaten two lengths, with Taquin De Seuil [BetVictor Gold Cup winner] a length behind, and that is very good form. He has a live chance in an open looking race.

Have a great week.

- Harry

Harry Cobden “Conditionally Speaking” 8th Nov 2016

It’s been another good week for me with four winners from eleven rides, and a personal milestone as well.

Last Thursday, Unify won her third novice chase, dropping back in trip from her last two runs. She travelled and jumped well to win by a length and quarter. She has her issues, so huge credit goes to Antony Honeyball who has done a brilliant job placing her in the right races.

Saturday was my eighteenth birthday, and I had a fantastic book of rides at Wincanton. Capitaine and Boa Island were very short priced favourites, both really nice progressive horses who travelled and jumped brilliantly to win very nicely.

Capitaine is still learning and was maybe a little bit keen here. But he’s classy and his owner and trainer will put their heads together about maybe stepping him up in grade next time.

The day got better with Frodon bolting up in a small but select field in the Grade 2 Rising Stars Novices’ Chase. He’s still only four and is very smart. Best of all, he gets a lovely weight chasing because of his age. He's an easy horse to ride because he jumps and travels so well throughout his races, and he gave me my highest level win, my first in Grade 2 company.

Southfield Theatre was very unfortunate not to win the Badger Ales Trophy Chase. Turning in to the straight I wanted to make ground on the leaders, and as we jumped the second last upsides I felt like I had it won. Coming down to the last with a half a length advantage, my lad just clipped the top of the fence and, very disappointingly, came down.

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Annoyingly, I also came off Zubayr at the last. While he was probably held at the time, we were rallying and it might have been close. The main thing is that both are fine so they should be back in action soon enough. Mrs Yeoman, Southfield Theatre’s owner, was especially good about it considering there was a very trophy – and pot – up for grabs. I’m very thankful for her kindness, but disappointed he didn’t quite get high enough.

Although it was my eighteenth birthday, I just had a quiet night with no big celebration, because on Sunday, I was at Ffos Las for another nice couple of rides. City Supreme will definitely come on from his run, and with any luck the handicapper will drop him a couple of pounds for finishing 7th. He looks sure to be bang there next time.

Unify was unable to build on her third win in six weeks when only third in a handicap chase. She might find life a bit tougher now.

I’m now up to 28 winners for the season, putting me nicely clear in the conditionals’ race at the moment. But I know I have to keep my head down, ride well, and continue to develop. I’ve been fortunate to have the support of Mr Nicholls and Anthony Honeyball, as well as a number of other very supportive trainers.

Looking forward to this week, I ride John Biscuit at Huntingdon today. He has to have a chance only going up three pounds for his win at Plumpton, and I’d be optimistic that he could be progressive now he's got his head in front. Off a mark of 82 he still looks well treated.

All going well I might get another chance to ride Frodon in the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham on Saturday. He was very impressive around Wincanton the weekend just gone, and I'm really grateful that Mr Nicholls and the owners, Mr Vogt and Mr Fogg, are thinking of keeping me on him. He's got a lovely weight and the track and trip should suit just right.

It was a busy Monday morning yesterday schooling some of the weekend runners. All the horses seem in great shape and it was very good to see Sam Twiston-Davies making an appearance this morning after his nasty fall at Chepstow’s opening meeting, Sam should hopefully be back race riding this weekend.

Sam’s fall and, much worse, Freddy Tylicki’s at Kempton are a stark reminder that all jockeys are only one fall away from serious injury. It is obviously a risky sport for all involved. The mood in the weighing room this week has been sombre, with plenty of the lads going to see Freddy.

One small silver lining is the attention the Injured Jockeys’ Fund has received, and the number of people who have contributed either directly to Freddy or to the IJF shows racing in a positive light at a very dark time.

Have a great week.

- Harry

Cheltenham Trials Day: Five Quiet Runs to Note

Saturday at Cheltenham was life-affirming stuff for a National Hunt aficionado. Trials Day provided for top class racing, a "pattern interrupt" in the narrative, and some excellent rehearsals for the next meeting at the track, March's four day Festival jamboree.

The headlines were rightly grabbed by Alan King, whose 122.75/1 treble courtesy of Smad Place, Annacotty and Yanworth confined Willie Mullins to a rare afternoon in the glorious midwinter shade. But if the likes of the first and last of King's Cheltenham treble, and Colin Tizzard's super staying hurdler, Thistlecrack, screamed their Festival credentials, others whispered their intent in altogether more subtle tones.

The Trials Day 'Quiet Run' Blueprint

First, the blueprint. A horse with at least a touch of class being targeted at a Cheltenham Festival handicap, whose final prep was on Trials Day. I have used an odds ceiling of 20/1 in both the Trials Day and Festival handicap races as a barometer of "a touch of class", so caveat emptor as regards whether you believe that sounds reasonable.

Anyway, if you think that's fair, then consider that in the last three years, twenty horses went to post at 20/1 or shorter for a Festival handicap having been 20/1 or shorter on their prior run on Trials Day: a score at a score and a score.

Their finishing record in the Festival handicaps was P52177P54P7P71173160.

Although that may not look fantastic on first sighting, it is worth noting the following:

  1. The four winners (20% strike rate) were worth a profit of 30 points at starting price, having been achieved at odds of 16/1, 11/1 twice and 8/1.
  2. The additional three placed horses (35% place strike rate) meant a profit of 34.12 points betting each way.
  3. No fewer than 15 of the 20 horses (75%) finished in the top seven in races where the average field size was 23.1

The winning quartet were Irish Cavalier, The Druids Nephew, Lac Fontana and Rajdhani Express; and it may be especially worth noting that the first and last of those ran in the novices' handicap chases both on Trials Day and on the opening day of the Festival.

The Noteworthy's

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Listing those horses who were 20/1 or shorter on Saturday is not really the route to insight. However, if we consider the fact that, for a fair few contenders, they will have been brought closer to concert pitch by their weekend 'gargle', that offers the chance to flex my bulging opinion muscle!

Un Temps Pour Tout

This lad was sent off 3/1 favourite for the novices' handicap chase, and he ran an, erm, eye-catching race when a never nearer 17 length fourth. He's rated 152 so that discounts the 0-140 novices' handicap chase that closes the Tuesday Festival card; but a couple of pounds lower would set him up very nicely for a tilt at the Festival Handicap Chase (3m1f).

He was a Grade 1 winner over hurdles in France as recently as last summer and is rated 163 in that sphere. A perch close to a stone lower over fences looks mightily attractive come Festival time, should connections opt for the handicap route. Even if they went for the RSA, he only has a few pounds to find on hurdle ratings, which might make the current 33/1 tempting (though, personally, I'd wait for NRNB if you like the look of that).

Rezorbi

In the same race, Jonjo O'Neill was giving this former French racer his first sight of UK fences, let alone Cheltenham's stiff obstacles. Given a very quiet waiting ride, Rezorbi was creeping into contention when unshipping at the second last.

It looked a nasty fall but, if none the worse for it, this young fellow - only just turned five - looks a credible contender for the Novices' Handicap Chase off anything close to his Saturday mark of 138. It is hard to foresee the handicapper nudging him up, or indeed down, after a run where promise readily outpointed performance on the day.

Johns Spirit

Another Jonjo jobber, Johns Spirit was second in the 2014 Paddy Power Gold Cup (having won it the year before), sixth in the King George of the same year, and fifth in last year's Ryanair Chase. Those last two runs were off a mark of 160, and the nine year old was lining up off just 148 on Saturday.

With a known dislike of heavy ground, it is perhaps odd that his last two runs have been on the seriously sodden stuff. Perhaps odd, but probably not, because he's likely to get dropped at least three for this never nearer plugging on fourth. A rating of 145 would render him eligible for the Kim Muir, though that three and a quarter mile trip is probably on the long side.

More likely is a tilt at the Brown Advisory Plate, in which he'd race off close to eleven stone. He's quoted for the Plate and the Ryanair, but you surely don't spend all year managing your mark to run in a level weights Grade 1. As such, the 25/1 available for the Plate looks a gift, albeit one without a refund policy should he fail to line up.

The Young Master

The Cleeve Hurdle is a strange place for a good handicap chaser to show up, on the face of it at least. And yet it is the exact same hole that The Druids Nephew assumed prior to his decisive day one win in last year's Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase.

TDN ran a well beaten fifth of six in the 2015 Cleeve, having already secured a chase mark with which connections were happy. TYM ran a well beaten sixth, and at 25/1 too. So, while he doesn't quite fit the blueprint, he probably has some potential from a handicap chase mark of around 148.

He ran in the RSA Chase last year, and was found out, but back to handicap company - probably in the same race The Druids Nephew won - and on slightly better ground, The Young Master could show a good bit more interest. A general quote of 20/1 for the race reflects that view.

Frodon

There was a lot to like about both the winner and second's - Solstice Star and Cheltenian - performances here, but both revealed themselves still further to the 'capper with their ready ease on the eye.

Back in third was the one to take from the race, as Paul Nicholls' former French inmate made a taking UK debut off a rating of 138. Frodon travelled like the winner through the race before blowing up as though in need of this and, as a four year old, he'll have the Fred Winter -  for which he's currently 25/1, the same price as the same trainer's similarly ex-French Fred Winter winner last year - as his target.

As well as Qualando, the aforementioned Fred Winter winner, Nicholls also bagged the Coral Cup with another ex-French recruit, Aux Ptit Soins, in 2015. Therein lies an emerging blueprint within a blueprint, and 25/1 may again be worth the chance, despite an alternative entry in the Triumph Hurdle and the lack of the non-runner no bet safety net.

Matt