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Monday Musings: Title Settlement

 

Bank Holiday Mondays allow me a little flexibility in terms of deadline, writes Tony Stafford. I know this because the Editor takes longer than usual to acknowledge receipt of these jottings. Saying that, he will probably have been awake early as the sun peeped across the horizon well before 6 a.m. the time today when I finally realised what the topic would be.

By a circuitous route, having started out with the Henderson-Nicholls and Mullins-Elliott season-long scraps finally decided and the likeliest subject, I landed on June 11 2006 at the picturesque Perth racecourse.

That day an unknown young Irish trainer travelled over his recent acquisition, a horse called Arresting, to Scotland and, ridden by Richard Johnson, Arresting was an emphatic winner, backed in to 7-2 favourite. He had won at the track on his previous appearance, on his sole run for Gavin Cromwell, but joined Gordon Elliott, according to official records, six days before the June 11 landmark.

Elliott, a graduate of the Martin Pipe stable, had yet to win a race in his home land, but Arresting gave him two more victories in the UK that summer, stopping off in between without success at the Galway Festival.

Thirteen horses took part in that first race and the lists of trainers and riders illustrate how quickly the pendulum swings in racing, like life really. Stuart Coltherd, Jim Goldie, Geoff Harker, Diane Sayer and Grand National winner Lucinda Russell remain active, while the remainder, including recently retired Keith Reveley have either handed in their licences or, in the case of doubly-represented Peter Monteith, died.

Of the 13 jockeys, only the relentless Johnson; James Reveley, then a 7lb claimer, now France’s jumps champion; and Paddy Aspell, still ride over jumps, although he has gradually switched more to the Flat. Graham Lee finished runner-up here two years after his Grand National triumph on Amberleigh House, who died last week aged 25. Now he rides exclusively on the level.

Michael McAlister, then a 5lb claimer, had his last rides, winning one of six in the season ending last April, while Richie McGrath, Jimmy McCarthy, Phil Kinsella, David da Silva and Peter Buchanan have all retired after varying degrees of success.

Tony Dobbin, 45 years old today and another Grand National hero, almost a decade earlier on Lord Gyllene, the only Monday winner, is now assistant trainer to his wife Rose, while Kenny Johnson has taken over his father Bob’s small yard in Northumberland.

There is another name from the race which has forced itself into the racing consciousness, particularly over the latest season. Neil Mulholland, unplaced in that Perth race, won 54 races over a ten-year span in the UK, again with a Martin Pipe connection, before starting out as a West Country trainer in the 2008-9 season.

He was an immediate success with 16 victories in his initial campaign, before collecting between that figure and 21 in the next four years. More recently, Mulholland has found acceleration and expansion, almost Gordon Elliott-like, with 31, 51 and 60 wins before the latest awesome tally of 108 wins from 129 horses. His list of owners makes impressive reading, dozens and dozens of names, with Bob Brookhouse, one who is always ready to pay plenty at the sales, a notable major operator for the yard. Big-race wins, usually in staying chases have come via The Druids Nephew, The Young Master and Pilgrims Way, while he’s also proved a dab hand at winning Flat-race handicaps with some of his lesser jumpers.

Gordon Elliott’s narrow failure to dethrone Mullins after their final day denouement at Punchestown cannot alter the fact that he has become the big name going forward. He did something nobody – to my limited knowledge anyway – has matched, to win a Grand National before winning a Rules race in his native country. Silver Birch, a Paul Nicholls cast-off, won ten months after the first of the three Arresting victories and it was not until later that year that the Irish explosion began.

After two blank seasons, Elliott had six wins in his third, then 14, 26, 62, 40, 54, 56, 92, 123 and a mammoth 193 from an astonishing 285 horses, 101 more than Mullins up to Saturday. As the still-champion Willie lost 60 of the Gigginstown horses – not all of which ended with his protagonist – it was indeed a doughty effort to stay ahead but a team of 184 active horses is hardly negligible.

The next three home in Ireland were Henry de Bromhead, Jessica Harrington and Noel Meade, all with big teams, Harrington benefiting from the Ann and Alan Potts defection from de Bromhead with the other pair similarly indebted to the Mullins split with Gigginstown.

Of the trio, only Mrs Harrington is seriously involved in the Flat with 47 three-year-olds and juveniles listed in the latest Horses in Training book. She was at it again last week, winning five races at Punchestown while yesterday, she had a winner each at Limerick and Gowran on the Flat, beating horses trained by Aidan and Joseph O’Brien respectively.

Gordon Elliott sent out a remarkable 1,234 domestic runners last season, even more than Richard Johnson rode in his second-busiest season; 188 wins from 1,026 compared with easily his best, 235 from 1,044 the previous winter when he collected his first title after 20 years’ wait for A P McCoy to retire. Since 1996-7 Johnson has posted a century of winners every season, with between 102 and 186 until the last two. The McCoy retirement has brought an average of 200 extra rides, a good few of them horses McCoy would have partnered.

Johnson shows no sign of slowing down, bar injury or illness, so there is little chance he will fail to complete the hat-trick as he intends to mirror McCoy’s annual tactic of a fast start during late spring and summer.

Nicky Henderson’s stable stars contributed greatly to his fourth trainers’ title, but it also helped that he had more individual horses (173) to run than anyone other than Dan Skelton (202). Henderson and Nicholls had an almost identical win average, around 25%, a figure which only Harry Fry, among the leaders, with 23%, could get anywhere near. Fry’s Punchestown double last week confirmed his status as a future potential champion trainer.

Team Tooth had a first Flat runner (two getting-handicapped Winter AW runs apart) at Yarmouth, and Stanhope as usual suffered an element of bad luck as he finished a close fourth.

It seems he’s a horse that finds trouble, but when he doesn’t it finds him, as when at Sandown, a golf ball from the inside-the-track course flew up from a rival’s hoof and hit jockey Charlie Bennett a resounding bang on the helmet.

Here, Pat Cosgrave had just moved him into a gap to challenge, when it closed. In a desperate attempt to get home in front, Jamie Spencer launched his whip right handed, twice hitting Stanhope on the head. First you can see him flinch right, then more dramatically back and left, so it was brave of the horse to nick fourth under hands and heels after recovering. Pat says he’s stronger this year. He’ll need to be!

 

Jumps Over and Feeling Flat

Nicky Henderson captured the Trainers’ Championship for the second time in five years, with a dominant display at Sandown on Saturday.

Paul Nicholls had hoped for a successful final day of the campaign, but it was Henderson who landed a treble on the day, and came close to making it four, when Vyta Du Roc was denied by a head in the Bet365 Gold Cup.

Altior proved the star-turn with a stunning display in the Grade 1 Celebration Chase. He swept past the Champion Chase winner Special Tiara, as they headed for the last fence, and though he got in close, he quickly regained momentum, sprinting to an eight-length victory. His jumping was arguably as good as we’ve seen from him throughout the winter, and he travelled effortlessly throughout. It was a truly devastating display, and many Jumps fans will already be licking their lips at the prospect of Altior versus Douvan in the autumn.

Juvenile hurdler Call Me Lord had been a comfortable winner for Seven Barrows in the first, and L’Ami Serge finally put in a performance worthy of his talent, in winning the Grade 2 Select Hurdle. That double for owners Munir and Soude arguably should have been a treble on the day, when Vyta Du Roc appeared to be given plenty to do, before charging through traffic late-on to fail by just a head in the Bet365 Gold Cup. Peter Bowen’s Henllan Harri was given a peach of a ride by son Sean, and managed to hold-off Henderson’s horse. Though not the biggest, the runner-up will surely be aimed at nationals next season.

Of his success in the title race, Henderson said: “We’ve got some Grade One horses and to be fair to Paul, he has done incredibly well and won a huge amount of prize money whereas we’ve got horses like Altior, Buveur d’Air and Might Bite.” Of Altior he added: “He's top class. I think we've always known that. He’s got a bit of everything - he's got class, he's got the gears. I think we've always known that he is very special ever since a young horse as a hurdler. You know that Special Tiara is going to set serious fractions but this fellow can always have it covered as he has the pace to do it.”

A special Sandown mention goes to the wonderful Menorah, who won the Oaksey Chase for a fourth time, before being retired by connections. The 12-year-old has been campaigned at the highest level throughout his career, and has brought great success to owners Diana and Grahame Whateley. It was terrific to see him go-out with such a stunning display.

So, whilst Henderson successfully kept Nicholls at arms-length, the same could not be said in Ireland, with Gordon Elliott finally overwhelmed by a tsunami of Willie Mullins winners. A lead of around €400,000 going into the Punchestown Festival put Elliott in pole position, but despite several unlucky defeats during the week, the Master of Closutton still managed to retain his crown by a staggering €199,455.

Great Field was mightily impressive in winning the Ryanair Novice Chase earlier in the week, and on Friday, Wicklow Brave in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle and Bacardys in the Champion Novice Hurdle put Mullins in front. A double on the final day of the meeting, which included a victory in the juvenile hurdle for Bapaume, proved to be the title clincher.

Of the dramatic turnaround, Mullins said: “I didn't think it was possible for us to win, particularly when a few of the early photo-finishes went against us this week. It's fantastic to win and a big thank you to all the team at home and all my owners. It's been a funny season. It hasn't been that enjoyable and I'm glad it's over. Gordon is a great competitor. He's fantastic and has been a gentleman the whole way through.”

Elliott had led from the off, and was understandably gutted to come off second best: “It's a bit heart-breaking. We've led from day one of the season, but to be in the same sentence as Willie Mullins is brilliant. Hopefully we'll do it one year. I'm still only 39 and hopefully I'll be around for another few years. We've equalled Willie's record of 193 winners in a season. I said coming here that if I could equal that, it would be something. I'll keep my head up and enjoy it.”

Saturday’s action brought the curtain down on a dramatic National Hunt season. Mullins’ ‘against all odds’ title victory will have left him needing a summer break more than ever before. The loss of Vautour was a huge blow, and then Mr O’Leary took his horses elsewhere. Faugheen, Annie Power and Min were all struck-down by injury, yet the Master of Closutton found a way to grab victory from the jaws of defeat.

A tough winter also for Paul Nicholls. His title challenge masks an underlying decline in the quality of horses at his disposal. He desperately needs to uncover a star or two if he is to challenge a resurgent Nicky Henderson. Sprinter Sacre was retired, but Altior has moved seamlessly into the role of Seven Barrows Superstar. He also has a new hurdling hero in Buveur D’Air.

And both will be looking over their shoulders, as Colin Tizzard continues to build on a stunning campaign. Fox Norton, Thistlecrack and Native River have all captured major prizes, and promise much of the same for some time to come.

Now, if we can just get this Flat season out of the way.

Hard-Hitting Henderson Can Roc At Sandown

It truly is a week for the big-hitters, going at it toe-to-toe, in a battle for supremacy.

It may be a rather less bloody affair than Klitschko versus Joshua, but over in Ireland, Willie Mullins is throwing everything at Gordon Elliott as he tries to retain his trainers’title. Several agonizing near-misses, including Nichols Canyon and Djakadam, have served to thwart the Closutton King, and his crown has all-but fallen.

Whilst over in the UK on Saturday, another heavyweight battle takes place at Sandown, as they host the final meeting of the National Hunt season, with Nicky Henderson on the verge of landing the knockout-blow to be crowned the new champ.

There’s enough money in the Sandown pot for Paul Nicholls to turn things around, though Team Ditcheat look to have a mountain to climb. Whilst Nicholls has jabbed away intelligently throughout the campaign, maintaining a high-tempo, landing telling blows again and again, it is Henderson that has possessed the firepower, with the likes of Buveur D’Air and Altior bludgeoning the opposition to win major prizes. The latter may well end the fight by winning the Grade 1 Celebration Chase tomorrow.

Nicholls rests his hopes on the much-improved San Benedeto, though this looks a step too far for the gutsy Aintree winner. Special Tiara is likely to prove a greater threat to Henderson’s new star, though the Seven Barrows chief is taking no chances, and will hope to land the old ‘one-two’ with Vaniteux thrown into the mix. I’m a huge fan of the horse, and he’s more than capable of chasing home his celebrated stable companion.

With the referee likely to have stepped-in to end the fight, both Henderson and Nicholls should feel a little more relaxed as they prepare their challengers for the most valuable event on the card, the Bet365 Gold Cup. And both have the opportunity of ending the season with a bang, though Neil Mulholland holds a powerful hand going into the prestigious staying chase.

The Wiltshire handler saddles his usual suspects, The Druids Nephew and The Young Master, the latter the winner of this 12 months ago. The former was behind in fifth, but his handicap mark is now 10lbs lower, and both look to have a great chance. Their tough to split, and the bookies have them tied at 7/1. Yet Mulholland has arguably a stronger contender, in race favourite, and much improved, Doing Fine.

A victory and three runners-up finishes, from his four outings since arriving at the yard, the nine-year-old by Presenting is in tip-top shape, and will love both the ground and the trip. He ran a belter when second to Rocky Creek at the track in December, and this race looks tailor-made. He’s a solid jumper, a thorough stayer, and runs without penalty having won easily at Cheltenham just over a week ago. He looks sure to go close.

The champion-elect has a pair of runners, and it’s Vyta Du Roc that I fancy will go best for the Master of Seven Barrows. The eight-year-old’s winter had mirrored, in levels of disappointment, that of Vicente, until that horse stormed back to form in winning the Scottish National last week. They were very similar types as novice chasers, rated around the mid-140s. But both had struggled to make an impact during this campaign, and their handicap marks fell accordingly. Vyta Du Roc is now off 137, and though his form is hardly inspiring, I find myself drawn to him like a moth to a flame. He was sixth in the Hennessy at the start of the season, and defeated Minella Rocco at Ascot, little more than 12 months ago.

Like Mulholland, Paul Nicholls sends a trio into battle, with two of his hopes having gone close in last year’s renewal. Just A Par won the race in 2015, and came within a short-head of repeating the feat last year. He remains on a competitive handicap mark, and looks sure to run well.

Southfield Theatre is burdened with top-weight, though Nicholls has stated that the horse is better prepared this time around. The enormity of the task is best illustrated by saying that Tidal Bay, Desert Orchid, Diamond Edge, Mill House and Arkle, are some of just a handful to overcome such a burden in the past.

Philip Hobbs took this race in 2006 and 2008, and has a serious contender in Rock The Kasbah. The seven-year-old has performed admirably in novice events throughout the winter, though has perhaps not hit the heights connections would have hoped for. I’m convinced that better ground suits him, though this trip is something of an unknown. He’s by Shirocco, the same sire as Gold Cup runner-up Minella Rocco. Hobbs will be hoping that this step-up in trip proves key to an improved performance. I fancy he could go very close.

It looks a terrific renewal, with cases to be made for plenty. I’m taking Vyta Du Roc to land the spoils for Henderson, and though both Mulholland and Nicholls arrive mob-handed, I’ll take Hobbs’ Rock The Kasbah to make a place for each-way punters. Best of luck to those having a punt.

Codd can chip-in with Fayonagh win

Jamie Codd, Derek O’Connor and Barry O’Neill are three of the best amateur jockeys in the sport.

The trio are currently battling for the Irish Point to Point jockeys title, with O’Neill leading the way. He’s attempting to win the title for the first time, having come close in recent campaigns. Derek O’Connor has been top of the tree for more than a decade, having notched his first winner back in 2000. A point to point legend, he broke through the 1,000-winner barrier in 2015.

But it’s Jamie Codd that I wish to focus on for today’s piece. So often the bridesmaid to O’Connor, he’s stepped out of the shadows in the past few years, and has a pair of titles to his name. He’s also become one of the most familiar and successful amateur jockeys when riding under rules.

His record in the current campaign is quite staggering. Successful in the opener at the Punchestown Festival yesterday, Codd now has a strike-rate of 31%, with a stunning 33 wins from 102 rides in bumpers, and 5 victories from just 15 over fences. He’s also becoming the ‘go-to’ amateur for the big spring festivals, having had another fabulous Cheltenham in March. He rode a famous double on day two at Prestbury Park, when guiding Cause Of Causes to success in the Cross Country, and then winning the Champion Bumper aboard Gordon Elliott’s flying filly Fayonagh.

Codd’s association with Cause Of Causes has brought three Cheltenham Festival victories, and in April almost delivered the greatest success of his career, when coming close to landing the Grand National at Aintree. Codd gave the horse a perfect ride, moving into the front half dozen deep into the race, and delivering the McManus owned nine-year-old with his challenge at the last. Unfortunately for all concerned, One For Arthur had one extra gear from the last fence to the elbow, and maintained the advantage to the line.

The Wexford pilot had arrived at Punchestown with high hopes of further festival success. And he didn’t have to wait long, when guiding the favourite, Enniskillen to victory in the opening hunter chase. Further exciting rides lie ahead, starting today, when he is reunited with Elliott’s Champion Bumper winner Fayonagh. Codd can play his part in bringing valuable prize-money the way of the leading trainer. The mare is currently favourite to take the Grade 1 Champion Flat Race, though faces a talented bunch including the Gigginstown owned Poli Roi.

He then rides Minutestomidnight, who is well fancied to take the Mares Flat Race. A daughter of Vinnie Roe out of an Accordion mare, she was mightily impressive at Wexford earlier in the month. Codd was onboard on that occasion and must be relishing the opportunity of another ride on the exciting six-year-old.

It’s also been a busy winter for the leading amateur off the track. As the National Hunt season began in earnest, news arrived that Codd had landed a permanent role with Tattersalls Ireland. As the horses-in-training representative, he would have been in the thick of it during the winter sales at Ascot and Cheltenham.

At the time of his appointment, Tattersalls Ireland managing director Roger Casey said of Codd: “We are delighted to welcome Jamie to the team at Tattersalls Ireland on a permanent basis. He has a wealth of knowledge on the pointing and racing fields and an expansive network of contacts which we firmly believe will help the on-going development of our horses-in-training sales.”

On and off the racecourse, Jamie Codd is making his mark on the sport. Expect the man from Wexford to create a few more headlines before this Punchestown Festival is over.

Mullins and Elliott clash at Fairyhouse

To Fairyhouse we go for today’s preview, as I put Monday's Irish Grand National under focus.

I was tempted to look at the All-Weather Championships from Lingfield. But there’s a huge story developing in Ireland, and unless Willie Mullins has a fabulous Fairyhouse, followed by a pulsating Punchestown, we will have ourselves a new King of Irish Jump racing.

A victory in Monday’s showpiece for Gordon Elliott could prove the killer-blow, with the race now the richest in the Irish Jump racing calendar. There is €500,000 in the prize fund, with €270,000 going to the winner. A maximum field of 30 may well contain half a dozen of Elliott’s squad, which must be a concern for the master of Closutton, who could have just two or three making the cut.

Elliott’s Bless The Wings came within a short-head of winning the race 12 months ago, when just failing to catch the Gigginstown owned Rogue Angel. The same silks were carried to victory a year earlier, when Thunder And Roses took the race for Sandra Hughes. Elliott has a glut of Gigginstown contenders this time round, as Michael O’Leary looks for the hat-trick.

The trends point to a lightly raced winner. Seven and eight-year-olds have the dominant record in the 3m5f marathon, with seven of the last 10 renewals going to the age group. However, the roll of honour is peppered with nine, 10 and 11-year-old victors, and they should not be dismissed out-of-hand.

As with Aintree, weight carrying is a major factor in success or failure. Even more pronounced than at Liverpool, a horse needs to be carrying less than 11 stone to win this race. Commanche Court was the last horse to carry more to victory, when winning in 2000, and he went on to finish runner-up to Best Mate in the Gold Cup a couple of years later. Those rated in the low to mid-130s have been particularly successful in recent times, though that type of mark may miss the cut this year.

Gordon Elliott’s Lord Scoundrel is set to land top-weight of 11-10 when final declarations are announced this morning. He’s a talented young chaser who will appreciate the sounder surface. He took the Galway Plate back in July, but has been off the track since November, and that’s hardly the ideal prep for this.

Noble Endeavour and Clarcam follow-on for Elliott, with the former capable of going well off a huge weight. He’ll also enjoy the ground, and arrives off the back of a cracking effort at Cheltenham, when third to Un Temps Pour Tout.

The favourite for the race is Jess Harrington’s novice, Our Duke. He’s a class act, and I’m a little surprised that he is heading here. He dodged Cheltenham, with connections saying that they wanted to ‘look after him’ with his future in mind. He’s only run three times over fences, and though the race tends do favour a novice, he is exceptionally inexperienced for this. He’s a horse I like a lot, but at this stage of his career I’d be stunned if he wins. Robbie Power can do no wrong, and he’ll take the ride, with the betting suggesting punters are confident of a huge run.

Thunder And Roses only got as far as the ninth fence at Aintree, and may remain fresh enough to do himself justice. He likes Fairyhouse, though did underperform in this race last year. Now with Mouse Morris, he’s just about on a handicap mark that would give him an each-way squeak.

Tiger Roll is another of the Gigginstown battalion that has an each-way chance. He was sensational at Cheltenham when winning the four-miler, and decent ground is crucial to his chances. He sauntered to victory in the Munster National back in October, and is arguably Elliott’s best shot at success.

All the above lie a little higher in the handicap than ideal, and there’s several from the bottom-end that appeal.
Though Willie Mullins may only have a few making the start, Haymount is one that looks to have a huge chance. Another that needs decent ground, he ran well in the four-miler at Cheltenham despite being keen throughout. He doesn’t lack gears, having beat Coney Island and Mall Dini earlier in the season at 2m4f. He’s a consistent sort, and I fancy he’ll go close.

Mall Dini is another with a shout, and has the right kind of profile. He was perhaps a little unfortunate at Cheltenham last time, when hampered late-on in the Fulke Walwyn Chase. He’s as short as 8/1 for this, though I’m not sure he warrants being half the price of Tiger Roll and Haymount. Nevertheless, he’s likely to go well despite still being a maiden over fences.

Abolitionist is another from the lower end of the handicap that has been attracting attention. Trained in County Kilkenny by Ellmarie Holden, this would be something of a fairy-tale success. Leading novice Rachael Blackmore takes the ride, and the horse tuned-up for this with a gutsy win in the Leinster National at Naas. The nine-year-old looks a thorough stayer, and is ideally weighted.

I’m a huge fan of Our Duke, and if he runs well I’ll be thrilled, but I can’t have him for this at 5/1. Mullins versus Elliott will remain the theme for the remainder of the season, and there’s every chance that they’ll be battling it out for this valuable prize. I’m keen on Haymount and Tiger Roll, and will be backing both. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Fairyhouse – An Easter Extravaganza

Fairyhouse is the next stop-off for the National Hunt Express, with its Easter extravaganza featuring the Irish Grand National.

The three-day meeting is one of the highlights of the Irish Jump racing calendar, and regularly attracts classy sorts for the valuable and prestigious cards. Easter often falls closer to the Cheltenham Festival, but the gap of a month this year will undoubtedly help in raising the level of talent on display. Yorkhill is one of Ireland’s leading lights, and is expected to compete in the opening day feature; the Ryanair Gold Cup Novice Chase.

The Willie Mullins trained JLT winner is likely to face Gigginstown’s Road To Respect, who also won impressively at the Cheltenham Festival. It could prove a testing race for Yorkhill, especially with his tendency to leap to his left. Though a comfortable winner at the track in December, those jumping quirks were glaringly obvious. There’s no pilot better than Ruby Walsh, but he’s sure to be sweating over this one.

One of the highlights on Sunday will be the Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final, with British interest thanks to Fergal O’Brien and his talented mare Colin’s Sister. The drying ground may be a slight concern for this gorgeous looking six-year-old, who is yet to taste defeat over hurdles. I can’t wait to see her jump a fence, but in the meantime, she faces a battalion of talent from the Mullins yard, including Cheltenham winner Let’s Dance. Sporting the silks of Rich and Susannah Ricci, the five-year-old is undefeated in four starts this winter, and will prove hard to beat.

The Irish Grand National is the feature on Easter Monday, with leading novice Our Duke currently heading the markets. I’m a huge fan, though Jess Harrington’s youngster is likely to have plenty of weight on his back. Rogue Angel took the race last year for Gigginstown, and the team are likely to be mob-handed once again, with Cheltenham winner Tiger Roll sure to prove popular with punters. Jonjo O’Neill has a great record in the race, and looks likely to send Another Hero into battle. The eight-year-old is without doubt suitably named for the task.

The Grade 2 Stawberry Hurdle could well prove one of the highlights of the meeting, with Jezki and Shaneshill, set to take on Gordon Elliott’s new sensation, Sutton Place. The state of the ground is sure to play a part in the leading contenders participation, but this has the looks of a cracking renewal. Jezki looked a non-stayer at Prestbury Park, and this 2m4f trip should prove more to his liking.

Flemenstar stole the show on the final day of the meeting 12 months ago. The wonderful old chaser, landed the Grade 2 Normans Grove Chase. We can also expect classy sorts to contend the EBF Novice Hurdle Final, which last year attracted the talented pair of Coney Island and Road To Respect, both now strutting their stuff to great effect over fences.

The ongoing battle for the trainers’ crown, adds an extra dimension to the Fairyhouse meeting. Though both Mullins and Elliott will look to hold back numerous stars for Punchestown, there’s sure to be plenty of bullets fired at valuable targets over the coming days, with the Closutton outfit still almost €400,000 adrift. Expect valuable handicaps to be crammed with Mullins and Elliott contenders, as both go all-out for the title.

Henderson Holds the Aces as Mullins Draws A Blank

The opening day of the Cheltenham Festival 2017 went to Gordon Elliott and Nicky Henderson.

Altior landed the Arkle Chase for Seven Barrows, forging clear from the last fence for a six-length success. He jumped beautifully throughout, and was pressing Charbel for the lead, when Kim Bailey’s chaser came down at the second-last. The fall left Cloudy Dream and Ordinary World in hot pursuit, though neither could match the favourite up the famous hill. The victory was workmanlike rather than flashy, though there’s no doubting Altior’s class.

Just over an hour later, the form of his Supreme Novices’ win in 2016 was handsomely franked, when Buveur D’Air ran away with the Champion Hurdle. Henderson trained the first pair home, with My Tent Or Yours running a cracker to finish runner-up. But the winner proved to be in a class of his own. Petit Mouchoir had set the pace, and heading downhill had several of the field struggling, including the disappointing favourite Yanworth. The Henderson duo launched their challenge turning for home, with Buveur D’Air showing a clean pair of heels to lead at the last. He stretched four lengths clear at the finish.

Nicky Henderson was winning his sixth Champion Hurdle, and said after the race: “He won his two novice chases, but I just knew there was more there over hurdles. It was a very open race, but I knew he was a very talented horse. I wondered if I'd got it wrong (switching back to hurdles) but it's proved the right thing to do and it's worked on the day.”

Willie Mullins could only manage fourth with Footpad, and his luck was no better throughout the opening day, with Gordon Elliott proving to be a thorn in his side. The pair are in the midst of a tense battle for the trainers’ crown in Ireland, and Elliott was once again on top, this time in an arena where Mullins has become virtually invincible.

Melon was all the rage for the Supreme Novices’ and ran a cracking race, looking the likely winner turning for home. But it was Labaik, so often the bad boy on the track, that having decided to join in, showed he had the talent to go with the attitude. Elliott’s fella had refused to take part in four of his last six, but when it mattered most he tagged on to the back of the pack, gradually working his way through the field, and launching his challenge turning for home. He cruised to the front before the last under an ultra-cool ride from talented young jockey Jack Kennedy, and though Melon battled on gamely he was a couple of lengths adrift at the finish.

Elliott joked after the victory: “He hasn't jumped off the last three times and I was wanting to go to Naas on Sunday to spare the embarrassment of him not jumping off at Cheltenham. The owners, who are friends, wanted to go. He has an engine, this horse, and there isn't another that can work with him in the yard. I don't know where he'll go next.”

A thrilled Jack Kennedy said: “Words can’t describe it - I’ve dreamed about this day for as long as I can remember. Everyone wants more, but I'll be going home a very happy lad at the end of the week now, however things go.”

Mullins would have been confident of landing the Mares’ Hurdle, but again it was Elliott that put a spanner in the works. Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag were strongly fancied, but Apple’s Jade proved a gutsy winner, out-battling the Ricci owned pair in a thrilling finish. VVM looked to be getting on top at the last, but the winner found more for Bryan Cooper, pulling more than a length clear. The winning trainer looked chuffed to bits when saying: “This was her Gold Cup. I put the tongue-strap on her and I thought it would work out. I knew she'd have to improve a good bit from her last run but she did. She'll stay three miles next year and will go to Punchestown now.”

Elliott made it three for the day when Tiger Roll stormed to victory in the four-miler. Despite the marathon trip, the seven-year-old was cantering turning for home under Lisa O’Neill, and won comfortably. Edwulf proved the only challenger, but appeared to suffer a seizure after the last. He was quickly pulled-up, and at the time of writing is back in the stable, hopefully on the road to recovery. The victory was the second of the day for owner Michael O’Leary, who said: “Tiger Roll loved it. He has his own way of doing things. I don’t know what to do now for the rest of the week. Normally I start to get nervous by Thursday when we can’t find a winner any way. Two-in on the first day, I think I should fly home, as it’s not going to get any better than this.”

It could get better for Elliott, with several outstanding horses still to launch their Festival challenge. Mullins will be praying that a blank opening day is not a sign of things to come. He has Douvan going to post tomorrow.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup – Trust in Tizzard’s Rampant River

Battered and bruised as stars of past and present fell by the wayside, nevertheless, the Gold Cup remains the most prestigious event of the Cheltenham Festival, and there’s every chance we could still be treated to an absolute thriller.

Willie Mullins continues his quest for a first victory, and surely has a great chance with twice runner-up Djakadam. And Colin Tizzard, despite the loss of budding superstar Thistlecrack, has a ready-made replacement in Native River, along with one of the most popular horses in training searching for redemption in Cue Card.

The trio are vying for top spot in the betting, and if recent trends are anything to go by, they’ll be battling out the finish. Fancied runners have won nine of the last 10, with only Lord Windermere bucking the trend when winning at 20s in 2014. Five favourites have been successful in that time, including last year’s winner Don Cossack, who was chased home by a pair of 9/2 shots in Djakadam and Don Poli. Cue Card had been sent-off the 5/2 second favourite, and would surely have been in the mix, but for his third-last blunder.

Don number one, took a tumble in the King George prior to Cheltenham glory, and Kempton’s Christmas Cracker has proved to be a decent pointer for the ‘big one’ in March. Many of the best staying chasers take in this valuable and prestigious event, and it’s therefore no surprise that Gold Cup winners have lined-up here. However, the two courses provide very different tests for a racehorse, and Cue Card fans should not be too despondent that he was swept aside so easily by stable companion Thistlecrack in December’s renewal.

The Hennessy Gold Cup and Denman Chase have also been stop-off points for future Gold Cup winners in recent years. Native River captured both, along with the Welsh National for good measure. The win at Chepstow proved his versatility with regards to track. Tizzard himself had hinted that the horse was better suited to a flat course, but the win in Wales was arguably his most impressive performance to date.

Ireland’s Lexus Chase has been slightly less influential as a Gold Cup guide, though Denman and Synchronised both won en route to Cheltenham glory. Lord Windermere had finished down the field prior to his shock win at Prestbury Park. Djakadam was somewhat disappointing in finishing third behind Outlander and Don Poli in the Leopardstown showpiece this time, but Mullins appears happy with the progress his chaser has made since that run.

Of the leading three contenders, you’d have to say that Native River has been the most impressive throughout the winter. He looks be improving at a rate of knots, though it’s somewhat surprising to see that Kauto Star was the last seven-year-old to win the Gold Cup, back in 2007. Long Run was only six when winning in 2011, but in recent times eight and nine-year-olds have proved dominant. A plus maybe for eight-year-old Djakadam.

What A Myth was the last horse over the age of 10 to capture Cheltenham’s showpiece, which is bad news for Cue Card fans.

Away from the leading trio, the markets have Sizing John next best. He stepped from the shadows of Douvan to win the Kinloch Brae Chase, and improved again when winning the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. He’s an impressive looking beast, who looks sure to jump and travel beautifully for much of the race at Cheltenham. The question is whether he will last out the trip, in what is likely to be a strongly run affair. He wasn’t stopping at Leopardstown last time, though the field hardly hot-footed it around the track.

If Sizing John has stamina doubts, then the same can probably be said of Lexus winner Outlander. Visually at least, he looked to be powering away from his rivals at the finish over Christmas, though trainer Gordon Elliott has recently sounded less confident that the 3m2f trip will prove ideal. Now a nine-year-old, the horse looks to be Elliott’s best hope of landing back-to-back victories. His course form fails to fill you with confidence, though the same could have been said of Don Cossack prior to last year’s romp.

Henry De Bromhead’s Champagne West comes next in the betting. He appears to have improved immensely since his move to Ireland, though I’d be stunned if he’s good enough to win this. His jumping can be patchy at best, and he’s likely to be pressured into errors from the onset. Soft ground will help his cause, though not enough.

Bristol De Mai is another that will need heavy ground to have any chance. He seems to cruise through the mud whilst others flounder, but he’s another that probably comes-up just short at this level. He could run into a place, if conditions become severely testing.

Of the remainder, only Minella Rocco appears to hold any hope of an upset. He has that vital Festival form, having won the four-miler last year, beating Native River into second place. That however, has been his only success over fences, and he’s spent most of this campaign on the floor. There’s no doubting he’s a talented one, and at 25/1 he’s probably worth a small each-way flutter.

I’ve watched that four-miler on numerous occasions over recent months, and it has continually put doubts in my mind as to whether Native River can win the Gold Cup. He was horribly outpaced coming down the hill 12 months ago, before then storming up the famous final climb. I worry that the same may happen again, especially with several pacey types in opposition. Many say he has the look of Denman about him, but for me it’s Synchronised that he best resembles.

Nevertheless, Native River has done no wrong this winter, and because of that, he has my vote. I’ll also have a few quid on Outlander, as the more I watch his Lexus victory, the more I’m impressed. Let’s hope it’s a cracker, and the best of luck to all those having a punt.

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – Festival Form-Keep The Faith

Previous Festival form should never be ignored when assessing the contenders for those four famous days at Prestbury Park.

Year after year, horses return to the ‘Greatest Show On Turf’, and display their true ability, often rewarding those that ‘keep the faith’. A return to Cheltenham’s unique undulations may be the spark, or possibly the chance of running on decent spring ground rather than trudging through deep winter mud. Whatever, the reason, Festival perennials need spotting, and following.

Some of course are higher profile than others. Hurdling hero Hardy Eustace landed the Neptune as a novice in 2003, before returning to become a dual-winner of the Champion Hurdle in 2004 and 2005. He continued to enjoy his Cotswold excursions in 2006 and 2007, when third and fourth in the hurdling showpiece.

Denman was another Cheltenham legend that flourished at the track. Runner-up in the Neptune of 2006, he returned in stunning fashion to take the RSA of 2007, before his famous Gold Cup romp of 2008. He was then runner-up on three occasions in steeplechasing’s premier race; behind Kauto Star, Imperial Commander and Long Run. That final effort came in 2011 as an 11-year-old.

More recently, Vautour became a ‘Festival Banker’ for the all-conquering Willie Mullins. It’s tragic when we lose such a star, but his Cheltenham heroics will live long in the memory. He followed his Supreme Novices’ Hurdle demolition of 2014, with one of the Festival’s greatest performances, when putting in an astounding round of jumping to win the JLT Novices’ Chase of 2015. He landed the Ryanair last March with the minimum of fuss, and who knows what he would have achieved this time around.

These of course, were National Hunt elite, and always likely to achieve repeated Festival success
if staying fit and well. Though we weren’t to know for sure when they arrived on the scene, indeed Hardy Eustace won his first Champion Hurdle as a 33/1 shot.

So, the trick is now to find the latest Festival regulars, who are likely to put their best hoof forward, achieving further success on the greatest stage, and leaving punters celebrating in the process. Some are clearly more predictable than others, and as such, hold little value from a punting prospective.

Douvan looks sure to add to his Festival haul in the Champion Chase. Already a two-time Cheltenham Festival winner, the latest ‘Mullins Machine’ appears peerless, and it would come as a mighty shock if he were not to add to his Supreme and Arkle victories.

Similarly, Nicky Henderson’s Altior appears to be starting down the road to Festival immortality. Attempting to mirror the achievements of Douvan, he has looked sensational over fences this winter, and it’s hard to imagine anything landing a blow when the flag drops in the Arkle on the opening day.

Less flashy, yet still likely to make it two from two, is the Stayers’ favourite Unowhatimeanharry. He was something of a surprise winner of the Albert Bartlett 12 months ago, but it would come as no surprise were he to win the staying hurdle crown this time round. Winner of his last eight, he sets the standard, having won all the usual trials en route.

But there’s also those that consistently hit the frame in March, and yet still give plenty of value to those brave enough to take a punt.

Sizing John is one such beast, having finished behind Douvan on his last two visits to Prestbury Park in March. Third in the Supreme Novices’ in 2015 at a stonking 25/1, he then came runner-up to the Mullins hotshot in the Arkle, when again a generous 9/1. Those performances undoubtedly came at trips that were too short for Jess Harrington’s sizeable gelding. His success in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, proved that he could see-out an extended trip, and it’s likely that he will now take his chance in an open looking Gold Cup. There’s every chance that he is once again being underestimated by many, with numerous bookies offering 10s for this perennial Festival achiever.

Jonjo O’Neill makes a habit of landing Festival prizes with horses that peak at exactly the right time. He has a host of contenders that look capable of out-running their current form figures, and would leave punters crying ‘how did I miss that one?’. Minella Rocco took the four-miler last year, defeating Gold Cup favourite Native River, and is currently available at 25s for the ‘Blue Riband’. With two-falls-and- a-submission to his name so far this winter, it would take a brave punter to chuck a fistful of dollars his way, yet many apparently have. He has ‘Festival-previous’, and that counts for plenty.

Another Jonjo regular, who always punches above his weight, is the diminutive 10-year-old Holywell. His Cheltenham Festival record is a cracker, and yet he would be easy to overlook. A Pertemps Final victory in 2013 was followed by a win in the Ultima Handicap Chase (then the Baylis & Harding) a year later. In 2015 he took on the ‘big-boys’ and managed a stunning fourth place finish behind Coneygree, despite the ground being against him. Then last year he returned to the Ultima, with a cracking runner-up finish despite lumping top-weight around the 3m1f. His handicap mark is currently 148, having been 153 this time last year. Bookies are offering 16/1 against him taking the opening day handicap!

Willie Mullins has had his share of upset during the winter, but remains the trainer to follow when the Festival arrives. He’ll have plenty of contenders for major honours, with one hoping to end a run of near misses at Cheltenham’s prestigious meeting. Bumper runner-up; second in the Supreme Novices’ and chinned by Blaklion for last year’s RSA, Shaneshill looks set to contest the Stayers’ Hurdle this time. By leading Festival Sire King's Theatre, he’s 10/1 in places to get the better of Unowhatimeanharry, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t go very close.

Mullins sends a strong team across the Irish Sea, and is joined by Gordon Elliott, who looks sure to have Festival winners among his team. Somewhere in the region of 30 horses are likely to make the journey, with Death Duty and Mega Fortune particularly strong fancies.

Cause Of Causes loves Cheltenham, especially with ground conditions to suit. A sound surface is ideal, and but for a mistake at the last fence in the Kim Muir of 2014, he would have a trio of Festival victories to his name. Elliott is aiming the nine-year-old at the Grand National, but will take in the Cross Country at Cheltenham as a prep. He had a ‘warm-up’ in January on Trials Day, when some distance back in fifth. Expect him to be much closer this time, as he looks to add to his impressive Festival CV.

Cheltenham form and especially previous Festival form is often a key pointer when searching for those elusive winners. There’s sure to be plenty of returning heroes that again land a major Festival success for trainers, connections, and hopefully for us punters, brave enough to keep the faith.

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – Let Leopardstown Shine A Light

It should come as no surprise to see that Cheltenham Festival winners tend to take-in high profile meetings at elite tracks en-route to glory in March.

The better racecourses usually hold the more prestigious events, attracting better prize money and thereby tempting leading trainers to send their yards most talented inmates. The Hennessy meeting at Newbury; Betfair Chase Day at Haydock; Christmas at both Kempton and Leopardstown, and Cheltenham’s Trials Day, are just some of those significant events that attract the best that jump racing has to offer.

I had a quick look at where last year’s Festival winners ‘warmed-up’ for the big event, and the usual suspects sat proudly at the top of the pile. Leopardstown led the way, providing four winners, followed by Cheltenham, Kempton, Punchestown and Ascot with three apiece. Smaller tracks cannot be ignored, but more often than not, future Festival heroes will complete their preparation at the likes of Punchestown rather than Plumpton.

And it’s an Irish racecourse that I wish to focus on for today’s Cheltenham Festival piece. Leopardstown host several top-class meetings throughout the winter, with leading trainers such as Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins battling over prestigious and extremely valuable prizes. Their Christmas Festival often shines a light on those with a bright future.

Races include the Lexus Chase, won in previous years by Best Mate, Denman, Synchronised and Bobs Worth. The Ryanair Hurdle (often known as the December Festival Hurdle) is another Christmas highlight, which is targeted by those with outstanding two-mile hurdlers. It has a roll of honour that includes, Istabraq, Brave Inca and Hurricane Fly. And there’s the Racing Post Novices’ Chase which has produced wonderful two-mile chasers, including, Native Upmanship, Moscow Flyer, Sizing Europe, and in 2015 Douvan.

The length of time from Leopardstown at Christmas until the Cheltenham Festival in March clearly makes the meeting an unlikely event for final preparation’s, though it has been known. Timing plays a major part in all sport, and having a horse ‘cherry-ripe’ for the Festival is a crucial factor in having any hope of success. That’s sure to be in the minds of connections as they send their best hopes to Leopardstown in early February.

It’s this particular meeting that has provided so many pointers to Cheltenham success in recent years. With several prestigious races on the card, the timing of the event (usually five weeks prior to The Festival) fits in perfectly with those trainers targeting Jump racing’s Olympics.

The Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle usually attracts the best four-year-old’s in Ireland, with an eye on the Triumph Hurdle in March. The race doesn’t always go to plan for the ‘leading lights’, but a Festival winner is likely to be lurking among the contenders. Four of the last five Triumph winners have prepped in this, though only one of those won the Leopardstown race.

Our Conor was that exceptional juvenile, and he romped to victory in Ireland before destroying the best youngsters at Cheltenham in March 2013. His 15-length success was extraordinary, and he looked set to become a star of the sport. Tragedy struck the following March, when a fall in the Champion Hurdle cost him his life.

Last year Ivanovich Gorbatov flopped in unsuitable heavy ground at Leopardstown, but proved a different beast when arriving at Prestbury Park. He defeated Apple’s Jade, Footpad and Let’s Dance in lifting the Triumph Hurdle, under a classy ride from Barry Geraghty.

Tiger Roll finished second to Guitar Pete in the Leopardstown event of 2014, but improved plenty to reverse the form at Cheltenham a month later. And in 2012 it was Countrywide Flame that could only manage third at Leopardstown, before once again reversing Irish form in capturing the main event at Cheltenham. Unaccompanied only just failed in her bid to win the Triumph, when second to Zarkandar in 2011, a month after winning the juvenile hurdle at Leopardstown.

Mega Fortune and Bapaume came first and second in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle a couple of weeks back, and will head to Cheltenham as leading contenders for the Triumph Hurdle. Soft ground possibly suited Gordon Elliott’s runner, though the stiff finish in March will also be in his favour. Bapaume got the better of their encounter at Christmas on a sounder surface, and they look closely matched.

Along with strong recent Triumph clues, Leopardstown in February is host to the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, so often another strong Festival pointer, especially for the Supreme and Neptune. In its time the race has been won by Istabraq, Like-A-Butterfly, Brave Inca, Champagne Fever and Vautour.

The 2016 renewal failed to produce a Cheltenham Festival winner, though Tombstone and Petit Mouchoir ran well in the Supreme, and are now contenders in a wide-open renewal of the Champion Hurdle. In 2015, Nichols Canyon defeated Windsor Park in the Deloitte, but when the two met at Cheltenham it was the latter that gained revenge when winning the Neptune Novices’ with Nichols Canyon back in third.

Vautour and Champagne Fever won the prestigious Leopardstown event in 2014 and 2013, before going on to Supreme Novices’ glory. Willie Mullins was responsible for the first and second home this time around. Bacardys finished powerfully to get the better of the classy looking Bunk Off Early. The former has the potential to go close in the Neptune, whilst the latter is likely to head for the Supreme Novices’.

The Flogas Novice Chase is another that has provided plenty of Festival clues over the years, though has been less fruitful in the last couple of years. In 2013, Lord Windermere came third before going on to take the RSA. Bostons Angel won both in 2011, and Weapon’s Amnesty finished runner-up at Leopardstown before winning the RSA of 2010. In 2009, the winner and runner-up went on to Cheltenham Festival glory, when Cooldine, having won in Ireland went to the Cotswolds to capture the RSA, with Forpadydeplasterer taking the Arkle.

This year’s Flogas looked a classy affair, and though Our Duke will not be heading over to Cheltenham, there’s every chance that Disko will prove a tough nut to crack in either the JLT or the RSA.

Finally, a mention for the Foxhunters at Cheltenham, with the Leopardstown Hunter Chase providing the winner on so many occasions. Indeed, the last five renewals have delivered the last five Festival winners. On The Fringe is a dual winner at Prestbury Park, and the way he ran a couple of weeks back behind Foxrock gives hope of a hat-trick. Prior to him, Tammys Hill and Salsify (twice) completed the double.

Studying the results from Leopardstown’s February meeting has proved fruitful in recent years, and I’ll be hoping that 2017 follows a similar pattern.

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – Flash Gordon’s a Handicap Cert

Involved in an epic duel for the Irish Trainers Championship, Gordon Elliott is having a season to remember.

With a stable full of talent, he’s been capturing prestigious prizes throughout the winter, and now has his sights set on the spring festivals. Victories have certainly not been confined to handicaps, but it is a sphere that he excels, and when looking forward to Cheltenham in March, a decent Elliott handicap haul seems likely.

Diamond King did the business at Prestbury Park last March, when winning the Coral Cup at odds of 12/1. Given a cool ride by Davy Russell, he swept to the front at the last to win comfortably. Elliott also struck with Festival regular, Cause Of Causes. Winning for the second time at Cheltenham’s showpiece, he’s a horse to follow at the ‘Home Of Jump Racing’. On this occasion, it was victory in the Fulke Walwyn Handicap Chase. He didn’t just win it, he romped to a 12-length success at an attractive price of 9/2. He could turn up in the Cross Country this time, and had a spin round on Trials Day at the end of January.

Taglietelle, Bless The Wings and Noble Endeavor all went close to adding valuable handicap prizes at the Festival in 2015, and in 2014 Bayan and especially Cause Of Causes, were unlucky not to hit the bullseye for Elliott and his team.

There’s little doubt that Ireland’s current leading trainer will be sending a battalion across the Irish Sea for an assault on graded races as well as handicaps. Outlander is fancied to go well in the Gold Cup, and over the weekend Mega Fortune looked every inch a realistic contender for the Triumph Hurdle.

Arguably the yard’s leading Cheltenham hope is Death Duty, who looks likely to head for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. We’ve not seen him since early January, but he’s looked one of Ireland’s best novice hurdlers over the winter. Apple’s Jade is another with a leading chance to scoop a major pot in the Cotswolds. She’s top class, and is likely to contest the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, where she’ll probably clash with Vroum Vroum Mag.

But back to the handicaps, and a host of potential challengers for honours. It was interesting to see A Toi Phil back among the ‘big boys’ at Leopardstown. There’s no doubting that this fella is a touch below top-class, but he remains reasonably handicapped going forward. Better ground at Cheltenham will not be ideal, but he coped well enough when winning a valuable handicap at Leopardstown last month. The stiff finish at Prestbury Park may well make a trip around two and a half miles ideal.

Another novice chaser that looks to be on a fair mark is Ball D’Arc. He won at Fairyhouse in January, and has now had eight runs over fences since September 2016. The Grand Annual looks a realistic proposition, and he is currently best-priced 16s for the festival finale.

Mick Jazz lowered the colours of highly touted Cilaos Emery last time at Punchestown, and rather than a shot at the Supreme, Elliott hinted at the County Hurdle for this progressive son of Blue Bresil. The stallion is responsible for Le Prezien and Ibis Du Rheu, the latter a winner at The Festival last year. He looked particularly tough and gutsy last time out, and should Elliott let him take his chance in the County, he would surely have a great chance.

Another pair of novice hurdlers that I’ll be keeping a close eye on are The Storyteller and Runfordave. I fancy both are just short of Grade 1 standard, but should they line-up in something such as the Coral Cup, they’d be just the type to go close. Neither is short of speed, and both have been pitched against the best over the winter. They both hold entries in the Albert Bartlett, but may be just short of the class needed to capture that one.

It will come as no surprise to see Gordon Elliott having his most successful Cheltenham Festival to date, but as ever it’s finding the winners that is the difficult part. He has a powerful team at all levels, and though there’s no Don Cossack this time round, that shouldn’t stop the Co. Meath trainer from having a fabulous four days.

Festival Markets In Motion

There’s likely to be a fair amount of movement in the Gold Cup and Ryanair markets over the weekend, with top-class action on either side of the Irish Sea.

At Newbury on Saturday we have the Grade 2 Denman Chase. Run at a shade under three miles, the race was established in 2000 and won by the Paul Nicholls trained See More Business. He was then a 10-year-old and had already captured the Gold Cup and the King George (twice). Nicholls has a fabulous record in the event, having won half of the 16 contested.

His winners in 2006 and 2007 are modern day greats of the sport, in Denman and Kauto Star. Both went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup a month after victory here. Kauto was of course famed for his incredible record in the King George, whilst Denman became a Newbury hero, winning the Hennessy Gold Cup in 2007 and 2009.

A theme of Gold Cup and King George winners capturing this event has carried on in recent years, with Long Run, Silviniaco Conti and Coneygree adding their names to a stunning roll of honour.

A small field is likely to assemble for Saturday’s renewal, with a clash of rising stars eagerly anticipated. Native River certainly enjoyed his last visit to the track, when winning the Hennessy in November. He also won a novice chase over course and distance in 2016, and is currently second-favourite for the Gold Cup in March.

Richard Johnson has partnered the seven-year-old during this successful period, and his aggressive riding style has proved ideal on a horse that finds plenty for pressure. Earlier in the week, the champion jockey said: “What he’s done this year in the Hennessy and Welsh National has been fantastic - he’s been a really dour stayer but a class act at same time. Hopefully, it’s a stepping stone to the Gold Cup.”

The main threat on Saturday appears to be the recent Peter Marsh winner Bristol De Mai. That devastating success at Haydock prompted Twiston-Davies to target the Gold Cup, and he will hope to build on that stunning display at Newbury. Testing ground brings out the best in the six-year-old, and he is likely to have his optimum conditions this weekend.

Daryl Jacob believes that Saturday’s race will show whether the talented grey is truly Gold Cup calibre. Speaking to Racing UK, the jockey said of his mount: “We’ve been quietly excited by this horse for a long time now and I think Saturday will tell us exactly where we are with him. He was a very, very good at Haydock. I went into the race quite confident he could put up that performance. He beat some really good handicappers and you’ve seen what Otago Trail has since done at Sandown.”

Speaking of the main challenger, Jacob said: “It’s a tough order against Native River; what he’s done so far this year has been exceptional. I thought his performance in the Welsh National was top drawer - going out there with top weight and basically grinding them into submission. For him to go out there and do it the way he did makes him one of the main dangers in the Gold Cup. If we are going to be a live contender we’ve got to be getting close to him.”

Paul Nicholls will hope that he can add to his incredible haul, with the French-bred seven-year-old Le Mercurey. He’s always looked a horse capable of a huge performance, though so far over fences has fallen just short of the best in the division. He chased home Many Clouds at Aintree back in December, and cannot be discounted, though the market leaders certainly appear a cut-above.

There’s four Grade 1s at Leopardstown on Sunday, with the Irish Gold Cup Chase the feature. A prestigious event in its own right, the race is often used by those testing Gold Cup credentials. Jodami and Imperial Call won this before heading to victory at Prestbury Park. Florida Pearl and Beef Or Salmon were prolific winners of the Leopardstown feature, but both failed in attempts to capture the main prize at Cheltenham. The latter came fourth to Best Mate in 2004, whilst Florida Pearl came closer when runner-up to Looks Like Trouble in 2000.

Carlingford Lough has won the last two renewals, but has proved disappointing at Cheltenham. He’s back to defend his crown, though is likely to face stiff opposition from several less exposed types. Don Poli looked rejuvenated when second in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, and Gordon Elliott will be hoping for more of the same. Third in last year’s Gold Cup at Cheltenham, the target appears to be the Grand National, though a strong run here would likely see him head to the Cotswolds in March.

Minella Rocco and Sizing John are two progressive types, and could yet become serious Cheltenham Festival contenders. This race has been the target for Minella Rocco for some time, and it is hoped that it will prove a springboard towards a tilt at the Gold Cup in March. Last week, Frank Berry, the racing manager to owner JP McManus, said of Jonjo’s chaser: “The Gold Cup is wide open but it's still a hard race. He's going to Leopardstown and we'll learn a lot more from that. That'll be a big day for him. If he puts up a good performance, it'll make it easier to decide if he goes for the Gold Cup or the National.”

Sizing John looked likely to head for the Ryanair at Cheltenham, but plans are fluid, and Jess Harrington is taking a leap into the unknown with her young chaser. He certainly wasn’t stopping when winning the Kinloch Brae last time at two and a half miles. A race Don Cossack won before his successful trip to Prestbury Park 12 months ago. Clearly tired of chasing Douvan around the circuit, the step-up in trip was inevitable. “He's been good, I'm very happy with him. As for Cheltenham, we'll just have to see. The logical race would be the Ryanair, but we'll just see what happens on Sunday, and leave our options open for the rest of the season.”

Mullins vs Elliott: More Numbers!

Gordon is threatening Willie's hitherto monopoly

Gordon is threatening Willie's hitherto monopoly

Gordon Elliott was interviewed on AtTheRaces recently and in the midst of his conversation with Gary O’Brien the topic of the possibility of his winning the Irish Trainers Championship came up, writes Tony Keenan. ‘Absolutely no chance’ was his answer, a political response no doubt, and one that plenty of our politicians with their limited understanding of probability would be proud of.

The betting markets say otherwise with Elliott an 11/10 shot and Willie Mullins at 4/6, and the pretender surely knows them - or at least has people around him who can tell him. Taking out the over-round, those odds express the view that Mullins has a 56% chance of retaining his title while Elliott has a 44% of winning a first one.

Let’s consider where the respective trainers are in the current season. As of Tuesday, January 24th, Elliott has €2,857,825 in prize-money while Mullins has €2,543,063. Henry De Bromhead is also having a big season and will shatter his previous highs in prize money and winners but for the moment we are concerned with the big two. It’s worth considering what has been needed to win the title in the last few years and how both Mullins and Elliott have done in those campaigns.

 

Mullins Prize money Season Elliott Prize money
€4,489, 105 2015/16 €2,568,750
€4,225,253 2014/15 €1,546,070
€3,908,059 2013/14 €1,134,160
€2,997,713 2012/13 €1,042,995

 

Elliott has been runner-up in each to the last four seasons though his challenge never got closer than the €1,920,355 he was behind last time; it was hardly a meaningful competition with the result a foregone conclusion. But already he has surpassed his 2015/16 figure which has in turn taken some available prize-money away from Mullins; the lofty €4 million figures Mullins won the in the past two seasons may not now be necessary to claim the prize.

Both trainers have their respective strengths and weaknesses, races they do well in and races they struggle in, though struggle is a relative term when you are talking about this level of domination.

 

Elliott and Mullins by Race Type, 2016/17 Season

Mullins Race Type Elliott
10/60 Handicaps 27/280
26/76 Graded/Listed Races 16/76
50/118 Maidens 50/304
17/44 Bumpers 28/97
22/54 Other 20/98
125/352 Total 141/855

 

The sheer scope of the Elliott operation is what stands out; he has had more than double the number of runners that Mullins has had. What is perhaps more amazing is the number of individual horses he has run, 235 and counting as I write. Even in the midst of the Mullins hegemony in the past five years, he never had more than 195 individual runners in a season (that came in 2013/14) while there is a distinct possibility that Elliott goes over 300 for the campaign, a previously unthinkable figure.

One area where Mullins has been notably quiet this season has been handicaps and while he won two feature races at Galway with Clondaw Warrior and Westerner Lady in the summer, his last handicap winner came on the 17th of October at Roscommon with Dreambaby. It’s not so much a case that Mullins has been doing badly in handicaps – his strikerate of 16.7% is well ahead of Elliott’s 9.6% - but rather that he hasn’t been trying particularly hard.

For instance, he took potentially well-treated novices like Haymount and Bellow Mome out of Sunday’s Leopardstown Chase at the five-day stage, a race which Elliott won with a similar type in A Toi Phil. His method of training – his horses are aimed at winning maidens and going on from there – is hardly conducive to landing handicaps and while he will likely run such horses in handicap company as the season goes on, particularly at Punchestown, there is a chance that the bird will have flown. Elliott, of course, is having an A-plus season in valuable handicap chases, winning the Galway Plate, the Kerry and Munster Nationals, the Troytown, Paddy Power, and Dan Moore along with the Leopardstown Chase.

How Mullins responds to the Elliott challenge will be interesting. Will he adapt, or stick to proven methods? Adapting is not as easy as it seems with many trainers over the years trying and failing to change what they are good at, but then Mullins is not your typical trainer. It’s actually less interesting to consider what Elliott will do as the answer seems simple: he will run his horses out, again and again, as he has done throughout his career.

Certainly when it comes to races at the end of the season, he seems the one that is more likely to engage in pot-hunting, giving a horse an extra run that it otherwise may not have had, though Mullins did do some of that last year when trying to win the UK trainers' championship.

Another area where Mullins has pulled back markedly is with his runners this season in the UK. In fact, Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek was his sole runner. That’s a big shift from the last two seasons as you can see below.

I’ve included both the Mullins and Elliott runners in each campaign from the start of the season through to the end of January. Elliott’s numbers have continued to rise whereas Mullins’s have fallen off a cliff – apparently the owner wanted Vroum Vroum Mag to run at Kempton on December 26th but was overruled – though the former’s may need a little context as he is inclined to have runners at the UK gaff tracks that would struggle to win in Ireland. That said, the likes of Apple’s Jade, Balthazar D’Allier and Ucello Conti ran in the UK before the turn of the year.

 

Mullins and Elliott – UK Raiders by Season (to end of January)

Mullins Season Elliott
1/1 2016/17 23/128
9/36 2015/16 24/102
3/20 2014/15 29/83

 

This places Cheltenham in a really unusual spot in 2017. It could be a case that a big Cheltenham for one of the pair proves detrimental to their chances of winning at home and it’s rather like the football fan that has to choose between winning a Premier League and a European Cup. Sensible arguments can be made for both though Elliott having won a Gold Cup but not a trainers' championship might be worth considering.

We’ve been told that Mullins has filled all the boxes that were left empty by the Gigginstown departures but he won’t have replaced like with like; the new inmates will have been younger horses that generally don’t compete in the really valuable races as they take time to mature out of bumpers and novice races. The loss of a horse like Vautour would be tough on any yard but where Mullins had reinforcements previously there is not quite the depth among the experienced horses now.

Elliott on the other hand got a number of ‘ready-made’ horses from Mullins (amongst other trainers) and he has done well with Apple’s Jade, Outlander and Don Poli. Also, Elliott was quite shrewd in some of his purchases in the horses-in-training sales. He acquired Mick Jazz (£27,000), Ned Stark (£70,000), Turn Over Sivola (£15,000) and Rightdownthemiddle (£35,000) before the season proper and they’re horses with the sort of lofty marks that get them into the valuable races; they won’t all turn out well but it would hardly be shocking if one landed a big prize this season and that could be the winning and losing of the championship.

Those big prizes will be the key to deciding the prize. As of Tuesday January 24th there is a little over €10 million of prizemoney remaining in the season and the breakdown by race type follows. It’s best to consider the ‘big 25’ as there are 25 such races left that are worth at least €100,000.

They comprise the Irish Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup at Leopardstown, the two Grade 1s at Fairyhouse, all the Grade 1s at Punchestown and seven handicaps, two over hurdles and five over fences. All but one of those handicap chases are over trips of three miles plus with the Irish National the jewel in a crown with a massive prize fund of €500,000. It has been Elliott who has dominated these races all season - though neither has won an Irish National as yet - Bless The Wings going close for Elliott last year.

 

Remaining Prizemoney

Race Type Races Left Prizemoney Percentage
Maiden Hurdles 64 €819,500 8.02%
Conditions Hurdles 20 €358,500 3.51%
Graded Hurdles 29 €2,000,500 19.62%
Handicap Hurdles 71 €1,538,500 15.05%
Beginners Chases 22 €311,000 3.04%
Novice Chases 6 €105,000 1.03%
Graded Novice Chases 12 €773,500 7.57%
Conditions Chases 10 €199,500 1.95%
Graded Chases 12 €975,000 9.54%
Handicap Chases 50 €1,997,000 19.54%
Hunter Chases 14 €189,000 1.85%
Bumpers 53 €948,500 9.28%

 

As this stage, I find making a prediction on the outcome of this race impossible. I’ve vacillated on it all season; when the Gigginstown horses initially left Mullins I thought it was great for Elliott but would hardly signal the end of the Mullins domination. Then there was Elliott’s six-timer on Troytown day which swung things in his favour before Mullins went on the rampage over Christmas.

In January however, he has cooled off again as Elliott has won big handicap chases on back-to-back weekends. Compared with the uncompetitive seasons we’ve had recently, it’s been fascinating viewing and one that could well go down to the last day of Punchestown.

Sit back and enjoy!

- Tony Keenan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don Gone! – Elliott Calls Time on Cossack Career

Kempton may have captured most of the headlines for obvious reasons, but for me, the major news from yesterday was that of the retirement of Gold Cup winner Don Cossack.

Gordon Elliott’s top-class staying chaser had been off the track since his devastating performance at Cheltenham last March. Hopes were high of a return, and only in December Elliott said of his Gold Cup hero: “He’s been coming along nicely over the past few months. In addition to cantering away, he swims twice a day and it's so far so good with him. It's still a case of taking one day at a time, but if things continue to go well the plan will be to give him one run before the Gold Cup.”

Sadly, yesterday the County Meath trainer revealed that the horse had met with a further setback, and the decision was made to call it a day. On his Betfair blog Elliott announced: “It's a real sickener for Gigginstown, myself, Bryan Cooper and the whole yard. We knew it was never certain we would get him back to the racecourse and even after that, to get him back to his best, but we were hopeful and he was on track for a run at Gowran Park next month.”

Elliott went on: “He's a horse of a lifetime and he owes us nothing. I said all season that if he had any sort of setback at all we would not abuse him and retire him straight away. He's won Grade Ones at Cheltenham, Aintree, Punchestown, Fairyhouse and Down Royal. He was the top-rated horse in Britain and Ireland for the last two seasons running, and we'd have loved to see him take on Thistlecrack in the Gold Cup. It was one of the highlights of my career when Don Cossack won the Gold Cup for us last year and he retires a champion.”

It’s been a tough week for lovers of the Gold Cup, with the news that Coneygree will also miss the race in March. On Monday, Sara Bradstock appeared to admit that time had run out for the Gold Cup winner of 2015, when saying: “We're not going to enter him. If everything changed and suddenly everything looked perfect, his x-rays and him, we could supplement him, but I'm not going to enter him because I'm 90 per cent certain he will not run.”

She added: “It's all too quick. It's only two months from now and he's still only walking and we're not going to be there in top form. He'll definitely have some spring target and could go to Aintree or Punchestown unless something else goes wrong. We just need to do this right.”

For Jump racing fans, all of this is of course hugely disappointing. The best races need the best horses in opposition, and unfortunately this year’s Gold Cup now looks a little threadbare. Colin Tizzard’s grip on the ‘Blue Riband’ now looks tighter than ever, with Thistlecrack a shade of odds-on across the board. His stablemate, Native River, is generally a 5/1 shot, and another from the Tizzard yard, Alary, continues to be supported, despite never yet stepping hoof on a British track.

The French recruit was a top-class performer in France. A huge chestnut gelding, with an eye-catching white flash down his face, he was last seen going down by half-a-length in a Grade 1 at Auteuil. He’s only a six-year-old, and that appeared to be his best run to date. Tizzard has made no secret of how much he thinks of the youngster, and he remains an intriguing ‘dark horse’ for the main event in March.

Magnificent Martaline – A Leading French Stallion

The career of talented chaser Dynaste came to an end at the weekend, following a slightly disappointing run in the Veterans’ Handicap Chase at Sandown.

The popular 11-year-old grey had been one of David Pipe’s stable stars for almost half a dozen years. The racecourse highlight came when winning the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival back in 2014. He followed that performance with a second-place finish in the Betfred Bowl at Aintree, and later that year was runner-up to Silviniaco Conti in the King George at Kempton.

Though an attractive looking grey, Dynaste could not compete in the looks department with his talented father Martaline. The truly gorgeous French stallion is virtually white from nose to tail. A strikingly powerful colt, he stands at Haras De Montaigu, a beautifully picturesque stud in North-West France.

A classy horse on the flat, Martaline was at his best as a four-year-old in 2003, when runner-up in the Group 2 Grand Prix De Chantilly before winning the Prix Maurice De Nieuil at Longchamp. That victory came at 1m6f, when he defeated an outstanding stayer in Westerner. He was victorious or placed in 12 of his 22 career starts. It’s also interesting to note, that his most disappointing performances came on heavy ground.

As a leading French National Hunt stallion in recent years, he has produced numerous talented jumpers for trainers on both sides of the English Channel.

Agrapart was a high-profile success for the French sire recently, when taking the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. Trained by Nick Williams, the six-year-old clearly thrived in testing conditions, when getting up late to beat L’Ami Serge, with Cole Harden seven lengths back in third. He’s likely to head for the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, though he looks a chaser in the making, and certainly has the action over hurdles to suggest that he’ll suit a fence.

Another with a Cheltenham success to his name this season, is the Colin Tizzard trained Viconte Du Noyer. Owned by the Potts’, he’d previously been trained in Ireland by Henry De Bromhead, and was winning the Grade 3 Betvictor Handicap Chase on his first run for the new yard. He failed to take to the Grand National fences next time at Aintree and then ran below par in testing ground at the Welsh National. His win at Cheltenham suggested there’s plenty more to come, so I wouldn’t be losing faith in this fella. Better ground may well be essential, and he’s worth a second luck with conditions to suit.

One from the bloodline that does enjoy Aintree’s National fences, is the Gordon Elliott trained Ucello Conti. He was fourth in the Becher Chase in December, having been sixth in the Grand National last April. It’s tough to say whether he truly stayed the trip that day on soft ground, but he’s likely to be back for another crack this year, and on a more attractive looking handicap mark.

Noel Meade also looks to have a talented chaser on his hands with the six-year-old grey gelding Disko. He seemed to appreciate better ground when running a cracker at Leopardstown over Christmas. His third-place finish in the Grade 1 three-mile novice chase was a personal best, and he’d be a live contender at Cheltenham in March, for either the JLT or the RSA. He’s not short of speed. Meade’s last Cheltenham Festival winner was another son of Martaline, with Very Wood landing the Albert Bartlett of 2014 at huge odds.

Another from the Martaline production line, who is rapidly going the right way, is Tim Vaughan’s hurdler, Theligny. Despite four victories and three second place finishes from his eight outings over hurdles, the six-year-old remains on a fair handicap mark. He was impressive at Newbury last time, when showing a terrific attitude in holding off the Rebecca Curtis trained Geordie Des Champs. That came at two and a half miles, and the target may well be the Martin Pipe Conditional at The Festival, with classy claimer Alan Johns likely to be on-board.

As an 18-year-old, Martaline continues to prove an extremely popular stallion. A strike-rate of 31% this season for his offspring, shows just how potent he is. It would be no surprise to see many more of his progeny travelling across the Channel in the coming years.