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Cotswold outing set to determine Calvados Festival aim

Harry Whittington expects to have a clearer idea of which Cheltenham Festival race to target with Saint Calvados after he runs in the Paddy Power Cotswold Chase.

The Sparsholt handler will use the extended three-mile-one-furlong contest to determine which route to take with the eight-year-old, who has been entered in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Ryanair Chase, which he finished second in last season.

After suffering a bout of blood poisoning ahead of a tilt at the Betfair Chase at Haydock, the Kate and Andrew Brooks-owned gelding finished an encouraging fourth on his return in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Whittington said: “Plan A at the moment is to go for the Cotswold Chase to see if he stays the trip. It was Andrew’s idea to give this a go and it makes plenty of sense.

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“This will give us a good gauge as to whether he stays, as we are under no illusion that he has plenty of speed.

“If he runs a cracker and comes through this trial then we could go look at the Gold Cup, but if he doesn’t we can come back down for the Ryanair.”

Harry Whittington was surprised how well Saint Calvados performed on his return at Kempton (David Davies/PA)
Harry Whittington was surprised how well Saint Calvados performed on his return at Kempton (David Davies/PA)

Given how keen Saint Calvados was during the early part of the King George on his return, Whittington was surprised to see him finish out the race so well.

He said: “He travelled the best in the King George, but he hadn’t run since March and he was doing too much in the race compared to Waiting Patiently, who was also having his first run and ran his race towards the end.

“Turning in, I was surprised he was still going as well as he was.

“He just went a bit left at two out, but he was staying on at the death and nearly got back up for third on the line.”

With Saint Calvados returning to a left-handed track and having a run under his belt, Whittington believes he has plenty in his favour on his first try over the trip.

He added: “He was as fit as I could get him first time out, but you can’t beat having a race to get them spot on.

“He loves Cheltenham and got better and better in four starts there last year, ending up finishing second in the Ryanair.

“The Cotswold Chase will be tough as there are some good horses going there, but we will learn plenty and it will do him no harm. He is raring to go.”

Rouge Vif could find Celebration made to measure

Harry Whittington believes the Celebration Chase at Sandown is the ideal long-term target for Rouge Vif following his impressive performance in defeat over course and distance in the Betfair Tingle Creek Chase.

The six-year-old filled the same spot on his previous two starts at the top level, in the Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival in March and the Top Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree in 2018, when chasing home the Paul Nicholls-trained pair of Politologue and Greaneteen in the prestigious two-mile contest on Saturday.

While a return to the Festival for an outing in the Queen Mother Champion Chase remains an option, the Sparsholt handler feels Rouge Vif’s best opportunity to gain a first Grade One success could come back at the Esher track on the final day of the jumps season in April.

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He said: “Rouge Vif ran a belter and he showed he can be competitive in the top tier when he gets quicker conditions. I’d like to think he would be winning a race of this kind in the future as he is a better horse on better ground.

“We will probably now wait with him until he gets his conditions. I’d imagine Andrew (Brooks, owner) would like to go for the Champion Chase if the ground was right, but if not we have Aintree or the Celebration Chase at Sandown.

“The Celebration Chase looks an obvious long-term target for him as he is going to be a better horse on that better ground while we know he handles the track and that he jumps the fences well around there. As ever Andrew will make the final decisions.”

Having decided against running Rouge Vif in the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham, Whittington was happy enough with conditions at Sandown to let him take his chance in the Tingle Creek.

He added: “I walked the course and I felt the conditions were fine for him to run. In the Shloer Chase it was going to be very testing and as it turned out it was a war of attrition.

“I’m not going to use the ground as an excuse at Sandown. Had it have been softer than it was he probably wouldn’t have run, but we got away with it and he didn’t come back tired.”

Saint Calvados could make his return to action in the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton (David Davies/PA)
Saint Calvados could make his return to action in the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton (David Davies/PA)

Whittington will make a decision at the weekend regarding the participation of last season’s Ryanair runner-up Saint Calvados, who is also owned by Brooks, in the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

The seven-year-old, who is a general 33-1 chance for the Grade One prize, has recently returned to training after spending four days at the Donnington Grove Equine Vets following a bout of sepsis.

Whittington said: “Saint Calvados is good and is ticking over. He is in the King George and he will do a piece of work at the weekend and I will then take a view with Andrew whether to run him in the King George.

“He had four days in the equine hospital and has had an easy week to 10 days, but he is back cantering and seems in good form.”

Rouge Vif needs sound surface at Sandown

Harry Whittington is keeping an eye on the Sandown weather as he prepares Rouge Vif to take on Altior in the Betfair Tingle Creek Chase.

The Nicky Henderson-trained Altior has been the dominant force in the two-mile division for the last few seasons, save last term when an attempt to step up in trip left its mark on the 10-year-old as he was limited to just two starts.

In contrast, Rouge Vif was twice a winner in the 2019/20 campaign and finished third in the Arkle, boosting his mark to 156 – a perch from which he triumphed with ease on his return at Cheltenham in October.

A subsequent run in last month’s Shloer Chase back at Prestbury Park was scuppered by testing ground, and Whittington believes a sound surface at the Esher venue is crucial to Rouge Vif’s chances.

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He said: “Rouge Vif is in great form and firmly on course for the Tingle Creek Chase on Saturday.

“We would obviously rather have our conditions, given we are taking on the likes of Altior, so better ground will be important to him. I think if the ground remains as it is, we would be hopeful of a good run.

“If Sandown got plenty of rain then that would put his participation in doubt, but at the moment he is a definite runner if the weather holds – and it is something we are really looking forward to.

“These are the races you dream about running in. To have a horse capable of running in a big Grade One like the Tingle Creek against a horse of Altior’s calibre is hugely exciting. Hopefully, we don’t get too much rain, and it should be a very exciting race.”

Simply The Betts has the option of running at Huntingdon for Whittington
Simply The Betts has the option of running at Huntingdon for Whittington (Tim Goode/PA)

On what could be a big weekend for Whittington and owners Kate and Andrew Brooks, Simply The Betts is also entered in Sunday’s Fitzdares Club Loves The Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon.

The seven-year-old, who was a Festival winner back in March, finished sixth on his return in the Paddy Power Gold Cup back at Cheltenham last month – and he could yet return to that venue in preference to Sunday’s Grade Two contest.

Whittington added: “He’s in great form and has come out of his last race fine. He’s also in the Caspian Caviar at Cheltenham on December 12, and no decision about where he runs will be made until later in the week. Wherever he runs, I think he’ll run very well.”

Saint Calvados forced to miss weekend return

Saint Calvados faces a spell on the sidelines due to a bout of blood poisoning following an infection.

The Andrew and Kate Brooks-owned seven-year-old has been sent to the Donnington Grove Equine Vets, near Newbury,  after trainer Harry Whittington discovered the setback on Saturday.

Last season’s Ryanair Chase runner-up was being readied to make his return to action next Saturday in either the Betfair Chase at Haydock or the Chanelle Pharma 1965 Chase at Ascot on the same day.

Whittington said: “Saint Calvados has a bit of septicaemia from an infection. We found he had the infection and a high temperature last night during evening stables.

“We are not sure where the infection came from. There is a small overreach but we are not sure it is that as it could be a pin prick somewhere.

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“As a precaution we have sent him to the Donnington Grove Equine Vets. He will spend a few days there as it is the best place for him.

“They can get on top of the infection and if there is anything else untowards they have the resources to find it.

“It means he will not be running next weekend, which is frustrating as he did a lovely piece of work. ”

The Sparsholt handler has not ruled out running Saint Calvados over three miles for the first time in the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

He added: “We want to make sure he is okay first before running. Hopefully he will be back in a few days but he will probably need a couple of easy weeks before we can get on with him.

“He is in the King George and whether that rules him out of that I’m not sure, but that will be Andrew’s decision. Hopefully all being well, we should have him for the second half of the season.”

An outing in the Grade Two Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton could be on the agenda for Rouge Vif after he was taken out of Sunday’s Shloer Chase at Cheltenham due to the soft ground.

Rouge Vif could be heading to Kempton over Christmas
Rouge Vif could be heading to Kempton over Christmas (David Davies/PA)

Whittington added: “It doesn’t really make sense running him on that ground at Cheltenham as it will be proper hard work in those conditions so we will wait for better ground.

“What we go for next I’m not sure, Andrew will have the final say. He is in the Tingle Creek but it is likely to be soft ground there.

“The Desert Orchid at Kempton is more likely as he always runs well at that meeting as he has been runner-up there two years in a row.”

Plans remain fluid for Simply The Betts, who suffered only his second defeat over fences when finishing sixth in the Paddy Power Gold Cup.

He added: “He made an error at the water and he just lost his confidence a little bit after that. Gavin (Sheehan) said he galloped home really strongly.

“He has come out of it fine but we will just let the dust settle before we decide what to do next. We will discuss things over the next few days as there is no rush to make a decision.”

Simply The Betts sticking to familiar routine before Paddy Power Gold Cup

After a breakthrough Cheltenham Festival in March, Harry Whittington is set to return to Prestbury Park at the weekend with two of the horses that provided him with the most memorable week of his career.

Simply The Betts secured Whittington his first winner at the showpiece meeting when holding off Kerry Lee’s Happy Diva to claim the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase.

The seven-year-old has not been seen since and is due to make his seasonal reappearance in the Paddy Power Gold Cup on Saturday.

Whittington expects the historic handicap to be an acid test of whether his gelding is cut out for even bigger things, with only Venetia Williams’ Aso required to carry more weight.

Gavin Sheehan celebrates with Simply The Betts at Cheltenham in March
Gavin Sheehan celebrates with Simply The Betts at Cheltenham in March (Tim Goode/PA)

“It’s going to be tough for him, 157 is a big mark to be winning off in a handicap,” Whittington said.

“We’ll find out whether he’s a Grade One horse. I think he’s going to have to perform like a Grade One horse to win on Saturday, but he’s confident around the track, he’s a dual handicap winner around there, a course and distance winner.”

The seven-year-old will make his usual detour to the yard of three-day eventer Laura Collett, who schools him over showjumps before he is loaded back onto the horsebox to set sail for Cheltenham.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s the winning formula,” Whittington said, speaking on a press call hosted by Great British Racing.

“I had the idea because when he ran at Kempton he just didn’t jump well enough, it was as simple as that.

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“The showjumping at Laura’s taught him where to put his feet when he was coming in to a jump, he went there once a week from Kempton to Trials Day and he got better and better. It used to freshen him up, he’d come back from Laura’s squealing and bucking.

“We recognised that he really enjoys that day out at Laura’s so I said to my assistant ‘is it the maddest idea in the world to stop in there and just give him a pop to get his blood up and get him revved for the day?’. He said he thought it was a great idea, so we did it and obviously he won.

“Going into the Festival I said ‘we can’t take him this time, this is the Cheltenham Festival. How can we take him to do some showjumping a few hours before his actual race?’. My assistant said ‘you cannot change the plan, it’s an edge, it worked last time!’. So we stuck to our guns.”

Whittington will also use the race to gauge where to target the horse next, with the trainer still to discover what his optimum trip is.

“Gavin (Sheehan, jockey) has always said he’s got the speed for two miles, he’s very good over two and a half but he’ll stay three,” he said.

“I suppose if he wins we’ll keep him over two and a half, but if he gets beaten we might be thinking it’s the speed or it’s because he wants further.

“I think with him we’ll probably learn about the trip, at the moment we’re thinking he’s extremely versatile, we’re thinking that he could actually drop back to two miles.

“I don’t think we’ll step him up to three, but he’s in the King George. Andrew (Brooks, owner) wants to have the entry in the King George just to keep all bases covered. We’re keeping an open mind, but I think we’ll learn a lot about the trip.”

Sheehan, who was given the all-clear to return to action on Monday after an absence caused by a broken wrist, is also the regular pilot of Whittington’s second weekend runner, Rouge Vif.

Another to run in the silks of Kate and Andrew Brooks, Rouge Vif finished third at the Festival in the Arkle Trophy.

He returned to action at the same track in October, winning a handicap by a facile seven and a half lengths under stand-in jockey Daryl Jacob.

The French-bred bay will contest the Shloer Chase on Sunday, a Grade Two race, among a high-quality field that includes his Arkle conqueror Put The Kettle On and seven-time Grade One winner Defi Du Seuil.

Whittington highlighted how impressive the six-year-old’s jumping is, with any doubts about his ability to performance on Cheltenham’s rolling turf dispelled by his earlier victory at the track.

“This is a horse that ever since we’ve jumped a fence with him, he has just been electric,” he said.

“When he lands he just has this ability to accelerate away from a fence and I think that’s what makes him so lethal, especially on good ground. His ability to get away from a fence is very impressive so we’re really looking forward to the Shloer with him.

“There have been so many question marks about the undulations of Cheltenham, but he put that to bed in his run three weeks ago.

“We had the Haldon Gold Cup as our Plan A, but we thought we’d put the Cheltenham entry in, just to look at it. We then thought we’d be mad not to run because of the good ground and because we wanted to learn about the track anyway.

“Thank goodness we did, because he’s gone there and he’s obliterated them and he’s given himself a lot of confidence to go back there on Sunday.”

Betts set for Paddy Power Gold Cup reappearance

Festival winner Simply The Betts is on course to return to Cheltenham for the Paddy Power Gold Cup on November 14.

Trained by Harry Whittington, he provided the handler with a first win at the Festival in March and could again meet Happy Diva, who finished second in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase and won the Paddy Power 12 months ago.

“Simply The Betts is on course for the Paddy Power Gold Cup and one would assume that is where we will go,” said Whittington.

“I will talk to Andrew Brooks again, but we have made the entry and that looks to be where we are heading.

“He is a course-and-distance winner and an exciting prospect for this season.

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“I have been delighted with how Simply The Betts has summered – I am thrilled with him to be honest with you.

“We have just done things slightly differently to sweeten him up and he has been working really well at home.

“We are looking forward to this season with him.”

Paul Nicholls has seven entries with Saint Sonnet the current 6-1 market leader with the sponsors.

Southfield Stone won at Cheltenham last weekend
Southfield Stone won at Cheltenham last weekend (David Davies/PA)

Greaneteen and Southfield Stone, a winner at the track last Saturday, are among his team.

Mister Fisher is one of four possibles for Nicky Henderson, with Al Dancer and Good Boy Bobby entered by Nigel Twiston-Davies.

Imperial Aura, another Festival winner in March, Cepage and Siruh Du Lac are also among the 37 contenders.

Last year’s winner Harambe is one of 36 in the Unibet Greatwood Handicap Hurdle on November 15 – as is Henderson’s exciting mare Marie’s Rock.

Tom Symonds is also considering the race for Kingwell Hurdle winner Song For Someone.

“Song For Someone is in great form and the Unibet Greatwood Hurdle is a possibility,” said Symonds.

“He is entered at Ascot on Saturday and could head there, but the Greatwood is also in our minds.

“He is in really good form, and I am delighted with how he looks and how he has done over the summer.

“It is very exciting to have a horse like him in the yard, as he was a real flag bearer for us last season.

“His victory at Kempton was a real highlight and with his rating of 153, we will have to pitch him into some big races. Hopefully, he can have another good season.”

Rouge Vif puts down marker for two-mile championship honours

Rouge Vif staked an early claim for some of this season’s top-two mile chases with a stunning performance on his return to Cheltenham.

Winner of the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick in February, the six-year-old was last seen finishing third in the Arkle Trophy at the Festival in March.

He appears to have improved significantly since, judged on an impressive weight-carrying performance in the Bentley Flying Spur Handicap Chase – travelling with enthusiasm and jumping with aplomb under Daryl Jacob on his way to a seven-and-a-half-length success.

Whittington was claiming the two-mile contest for the second year in succession, having saddled another stable star in Saint Calvados to secure victory 12 months ago.

“He was awesome,” said the Wantage handler.

“He has got a god ground action and is just so slick to jump out of it – on better ground you see him at his best.

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“He was in his comfort zone there and has loved it today. I hoped he had improved for a summer break as I ride him myself most days and he feels a more powerful animal.

“He has obviously strengthened up a lot, but to win a handicap off a mark of 156 like that is impressive – he has slightly surprised me.”

Bookmakers were quick to slash Rouge Vif’s odds for both the Tingle Creek at Sandown and the Queen Mother Champion Chase back at Cheltenham.

Whittington is keen to let the dust settle before considering future plans, adding: “Today he looked like a proper two-miler. Daryl says he will stay two-and-a-half, but I don’t think we will be going up in trip yet.

“Coming back here for the Shloer Chase in three weeks’ time is a potential option, but we will have to get home and discuss and talk to Andrew (Brooks, owner), as it will be his decision and we will go from there.”

Trainer Dr Richard Newland and conditional jockey Cillin Leonard teamed up to land the squareintheair.com Handicap Hurdle for the second year in succession, this time with Captain Tom Cat.

The same combination claimed victory with Duke Street in 2019, and this year’s candidate appeared to hold excellent claims following back-to-back wins at Uttoxeter during the summer.

Always on the pace, the 15-2 chance kicked clear from the home turn and had enough in the tank to hold Debestyman at bay by two lengths.

Captain Tom Cat leads over the final flight at Cheltenham
Captain Tom Cat leads over the final flight at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA)

Newland said: “He won those two novice hurdles in the summer, I thought he was impressive in the second one and thought he might be reasonably well handicapped.

“We were actually going to run in the conditional jockeys’ race later in the day, but I just decided in the last week or two he would better suited to this as they’d go more of a gallop and the step up in trip has obviously worked for him.

“He’s got a lovely, big stride and a lovely way of doing things – he just gallops and jumps and will make a great chaser.

“It was a very good ride and a super performance from the horse today. There are plenty more races in him, but it is probably more likely over fences where it will get really interesting.”

Whittington relies on Rouge Vif for Cheltenham double

Rouge Vif will bid to provide Harry Whittington with back-to-back victories in the Bentley Flying Spur Handicap Chase at Cheltenham.

The Wantage trainer saddled stable star Saint Calvados to land the feature event on day one of the season at Prestbury Park 12 months ago, and Rouge Vif lines up with similarly strong claims on Friday.

The six-year-old kept good company as a novice over fences last season, enjoying big-race success in the Kingmaker at Warwick in February before finishing third in the Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival on his most recent outing.

Whittington said: “Rouge Vif has done very well during the summer. He’s only a six-year-old, so he was entitled to improve physically, and I think he has – he’s in really fantastic shape.

“I think he’s going into the race in great form. He’s rated 156 – so he has plenty of weight, and there are one or two unexposed horses in there, so it will take a very good performance to win.

“But I don’t think I could have him in better form, and we’re very much looking forward to running him.”

Rouge Vif is one of 13 runners declared for the £48,000 contest, with the weights headed by the Paul Nicholls-trained Dolos.

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On The Slopes rounded off last season with successive wins at Kempton – and trainer Chris Gordon is looking forward to seeing him return to action in the Cotswolds, ground permitting.

He said: “I’m going to walk the track on Friday morning and just make sure the ground is on the easy side of good. If the ground isn’t suitable, we’ll wait for the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter.

“He seems very well at home. What I would say is he’s a horse who looks like a three-mile chaser at home, but on the track we’ve had to keep going back in trip – and I can’t really believe he’s ended up running over two miles.

“He’s a very different horse on the racetrack to what he is at home – it’s like he gets to the racecourse, spins round in a phone box and puts his ‘superhorse’ outfit on!

“Fingers crossed he runs a good race.”

Other contenders include Neil Mulholland’s Scardura, Dan Skelton’s pair of Hatcher and Azzuri and the Gary Moore-trained Beat The Judge.

Proceedings get under way with the Ballymore Novices Hurdle, for which Ask For Glory is likely to be the hot favourite – representing the formidable combination of Nicholls and Harry Cobden.

Solider Of Love bids for a fifth successive win for the same team in the Matchbook Better Way To Bet Novices’ Chase, but he is unlikely to have things all his own way, with two Irish raiders in the Charles Byrnes-trained Doctor Duffy and Gordon Elliott’s Galvin in opposition.

Mossy Fen, who was last seen finishing fifth behind Envoi Allen in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival, makes his chasing debut in the same race for Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies.

Part owner Carl Hinchy said: “Mossy Fen is in fine form. He’s a point-to-point winner and he has schooled very well.

“We are excited about getting his season under way.”

Fergal O’Brien’s Ask Dillon and Ruth Jefferson’s mare Clondaw Caitlin complete a six-strong field.

Nicky Henderson’s pair of Fix Sun and Hijack and Dr Richard Newland’s Captain Tom Cat are among those worth considering in a fiercely competitive squareintheair.com Handicap Hurdle.

The Catesby Estates Maiden Hurdle is another intriguing affair, with Henderson’s Pipesmoker – who showed high-class form over obstacles last season – taken on by Olly Murphy’s bumper graduate Champagnesuperover.

“He was a smart bumper horse last season, and any more rain they get will definitely be in his favour,” said Murphy.

“He’s going to be a nice horse in time, and we’re hoping he’ll take high rank in the novice-hurdling division this year.

“This looks a nice starting point for him.”

The Two Farmers Crisps Novices’ Chase sees Henderson’s Fusil Raffles lock horns with Nicholls’ Getaway Trump, while the card comes to a close with the Back And Lay At Matchbook Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.

Hard act to follow as Whittington plots routes for his stars

Matching last season’s achievements will be a hard act to follow for trainer Harry Whittington, but the chances of another campaign to savour look distinctly possible.

The coronavirus pandemic may have cut the last National Hunt term short, but it failed to stop the Sparsholt handler from enjoying his best season numerically, and financially, along with saddling his first ever Cheltenham Festival winner.

Having provided Whittington with his breakthrough Festival victory in March, Simply The Betts will now bid to cement his status as the rising star of the stable by continuing his progression over fences this term.

Simply The Betts will bid to maintain his progress over fences (Tim Goode/PA)
Simply The Betts will bid to maintain his progress over fences (Tim Goode/PA)

Whittington said: “We sent him to Laura Collett midway through last season and she worked wonders with him. The more he went there, the more confident he got with his jumping.

“After jumping two fences on Festival Trials day, I said to my wife ‘we are going to run a massive race here’. He went on to do the same thing in the Brown Advisory with a round of neat and tidy jumping before showing his class.

“It is going to be tougher now, but he has all the right credentials and is a confident horse from what he did last season, so hopefully he can go up another level.

“He has done very well at two and a half miles and we will keep him to that for now. Because of his mark he is quite limited to what he can run in so the obvious ones are the Old Roan (Aintree) and the Paddy Power Gold Cup, but as ever Andrew (Brooks, owner) will have the final call. He could be a Ryanair horse later on.”

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Had Saint Calvados met the last on a better stride then Whittington could have celebrated a second Festival winner instead of having to make do with the runner-up spot in the Ryanair Chase. But it was a display that suggested the best is still to come from the seven-year-old.

He said: “What is so pleasing with Saint Calvados is that he can be ridden patiently now and it works.

“From a blistering front-runner in his early days, changing tactics has worked fantastic as there are many horses that would sulk and not want to be ridden that way.

“There was always a question mark about stamina, but I think he showed he is a horse that can stay and you could argue that is what was kicking in at the end of the Ryanair.

“Potentially we will go three miles and it will be Andrew’s decision, but we are talking about it a lot. I’d imagine we will see him out towards the end of November in perhaps the Christy 1965 Chase (Ascot) and/or maybe the Betfair Chase (Haydock).”

The switch to fences last season saw Rouge Vif take another step forward after claiming Grade Two glory in the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick before finishing third in the Arkle, and Whittington feels his progress is not yet complete.

He said: “Rouge Vif is a lot more relaxed mentally as when he was younger he was half-mad and it was like trying to tame a lion.

“His performance in the Arkle was as good as the Kingmaker. The ground was against him, but his jumping was something to behold in the Arkle and that is what kept him in it.

“There is the race at the Showcase meeting at Cheltenham that Saint Calvados won last year, or there is the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter for him to start with.”

Having done well with his novice chase team last season Whittington appears to have in Stick With Bill and Young Bull two ideal candidates to give him further success in the same division this campaign.

He said: “Stick With Bill is still on the weak side as he is a big horse, but he has done well for a break. He will start off in a novice handicap chase, I’d imagine, over two and a half miles on soft, but I’d imagine we will go over three miles pretty quickly with him. He could be a future Welsh National type.

“Young Bull has a similar profile to Stick With Bill and he was three from five last season and he probably surprised us a little bit.

“He might start over two and a half miles this side of Christmas around a big, galloping track like Wetherby or Chepstow in a novice handicap chase. He will make up into a three-miler by the end of season.”

Like every yard, the father-of-one has welcomed in an influx of new talent, of which there are two he has high hopes of seeing appear in the winner’s enclosure over the winter months.

He said: “I got Docpickedme at the Cheltenham Festival Sale. I spoke to Derek O’Connor, who rode him in his point-to-point, during lockdown and he felt he had enough speed and class to go in a nice bumper somewhere.

“Qualismart is a very well-bred horse from France that has a lot of speed. He was going to run in France, but Andrew decided to give him a bit more time which was a wise move.

“He won’t run in a bumper as he has done a lot of work in France. He jumps well and will go straight over hurdles.”

NH Season Fast Starters

As I’ve alluded to in previous articles I would consider myself more of a flat game specialist, writes Jon Shenton.  However, with the onset of winter and the monumental battle of wills around when to put the heating on, perhaps you could argue that my timing is less than impeccable in terms of becoming a contributor to Geegeez.

Data are data, though – and in some ways the fact that I’m not invested so much in the history, the characters and the equine stars of the show arguably means I can be more objective about what I’m looking at.  In other words, the data can speak for themselves.  Every day is a school day and I’m hopeful that I can build some profitable and interesting angles to keep things ticking over during the cold, dark months when I’m wrapped in a blanket because I’m too tight to fire up the boiler!

In this article, I will try to unearth a bit of early season value with regard to the winter game.  That said, and as a starter concession, I still can’t work out officially when the National Hunt season starts.

As ever a reminder that analysing past performance is no guarantee of future spoils; but, as a minimum, it should help in generating ideas and approaches for evolve our knowledge and therefore our betting skill.

Let’s start with a broad-brush approach evaluating National Hunt runners by trainer during the months of October and November.  This time all the data have been crunched using the Query Tool on this very site, any runners on or after 7th October 2018 are not included.

All National Hunt runners with an SP of 20/1 or shorter by trainer in October and November from 2012 onwards

The table above displays trainers ordered by the best return on investment (ROI) at starting price (SP).  Encouragingly, there are nine of them returning over 10% without diving any deeper.

Top of the tree and first cab off the rank is Henry Oliver, the Worcestershire-based trainer who is returning a very substantial 61% over the period in question: it’s stating the completely obvious but that’s worth more than a quick glance.   First stop is to check the context of this apparent seasonal bounty, it may be that Mr Oliver is an all year-round cash cow.

All Henry Oliver National Hunt runners with an SP of 20/1 or less from 2012 onwards

If you backed every Oliver NH runner from January 2012 you would have a neat 5% return to SP with 90 winners from 534 bets.  Not quite ‘cash cow’ status but there are certainly worse ways to put your money on the line.  The below graph shows how the 26.7 points of profit is split by month.

Monthly P&L to a £1 level stake for all National Hunt runners at 20/1 or shorter from the Henry Oliver stable from 2012 onwards

 

First thing to note is that, like a number of NH trainers, the summer months are fallow for Oliver’s charges.  December aside, Oliver is operating at a profitable level over the winter months and I wouldn’t put you off tracking all stable runners over the core NH season so certainly a trainer to follow.

However, we started searching for early season value and clearly November sticks out like Brian Blessed playing hide and seek, returning 94% profit to ROI.  The 20% October ROI is worth noting, too.

Trying to dive deeper into those autumnal runners, evaluating variables such as obstacle type, race class, horse age or date of recent run doesn’t generate anything of real material value.   If you’re nit-picking, Oliver’s horses are 0/11 for runs greater in distance than 2m 6f in those months and 5/58 overall, something to keep an eye on.

The last metaphoric hurdle is to understand the consistency aspect of the performance.

The table below shows Oliver’s October/November runs by year.  Maybe a little streaky but scintillating performance in 2013, 2015, and in particular 2017, with a bit of a washout in 2016.  Only one losing year though (excluding 2018 thus far for hopefully obvious reasons) means that this is solid enough to go on the list!

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All Henry Oliver National Hunt Oct/Nov runners with an SP of 20/1 or shorter from 2012 onwards

Suggestion: Back all Henry Oliver runners in October/November at 20/1 or less

 

The second luminary of the list is Fergal O’Brien, who quite simply has the best (in my opinion) and most entertaining twitter profile of all of the trainers, well worth a follow (@FOBracing) if you’re active on that medium. The stable contains relative household names such as Chase The Spud, Cap Soleil, and their first Grade 1 winner Poetic Rhythm to name but three of them.

There is no doubt the yard has impressive credentials and performance has been very strong over recent years.  If you backed every single stable runner at SP from January 2012 you’d walk away with 3.7% more cash than you invested.

I think there are angles aplenty when it comes to O’Brien, most of which are for another day but with specific reference to the early season view there are a couple of options to home in on for profit. The first is National Hunt race code

All Fergal O’Brien Oct/Nov National Hunt runners with an SP of 20/1 or shorter from 2012 onwards by race type

All profitable, which is nice. The pertinent angle for me though is his performance in bumpers, where O’Brien has nearly double the volume of winners than expected with a 186% return to boot.  Yes, the sample size is small, but within the data there are ten winners from horses making their debut (from 22), indicating that the yard gears up to get quality horses (or horses ready to win) out on the track in the months of October and November. Generally speaking, the later in October, the better as the record is 1/11 from the 1st-16th.

Profit in relation to hurdles and fences is quite small over those two months; however, if we zoom in a little closer there is a quite telling split in monthly performance, again it looks like the stable is peaking in November.

All Fergal O’Brien Oct/Nov Hurdle & Chase runners with an SP of 20/1 or shorter from 2012 onwards by race type

It’s not an absolute rule, and certainly doesn’t mean that a horse on the track on the 1st November is in different shape to one on 31st October, but it does indicate generally that as we start heading towards the big November Cheltenham meeting, the O’Brien yard picks up pace and is a definite one to follow closely.

Suggestion 1: Back all O’Brien NHF runners in late October/November at less than 20/1 SP

Suggestion 2: Back all O’Brien Chase and Hurdle runners in November at less than 20/1 SP

 

Moving to the trainer in the bronze medal position in the opening table, Harry Whittington: the Lambourn-based outfit is growing rapidly, currently housing nearly 50 horses with an increasing number of runners per year. I like these yards that are growing, it often means they’re on an upwards trajectory and are worth closer review.

First port of call is checking the race type in the table below, a small number of runners but the bumper aspect doesn’t look entirely compelling so I’m happy enough to exclude and keep a watching brief.

All Harry Whittington Oct/Nov National Hunt runners with an SP of 20/1 or shorter from 2012 onwards by race type

Again, evaluating the profile of Whittington’s hurdle and chase runners across the whole year gives an interesting picture in terms of P&L.  The graph below shows that very same P&L by month to a £1 level stake, it’s fair to say that Q4 looks quite compelling – another yard that’s fast out of the blocks for the new season.

Monthly P&L to a £1 level stake for all National Hunt runners at 20/1 or less from the Harry Whittington stable from 2012 onwards

 

If we analyse the October to December runs in terms of race class as a differentiator there is a further shard of light to assist profitable punting.

All Harry Whittington Oct-Dec Hurdle and Chase runners with an SP of 20/1 or shorter from 2012 onwards by race class

 

The basement C5 races are easy enough to ignore in punting terms, most of them crossing over with the NHF group we already discounted; the Class 1 & 2 are less straightforward, particularly if the yard’s expansion means they may be knocking on the door of the higher echelons of the racing ladder. Here and now I’d be inclined to back the C3 & C4 horses and track the C1/2 runners for signs of improvement or add to a shortlist to back on their relative merits.

Suggestion: Back all Harry Whittington’s October, November and December Chase/Hurdle runners at less than 20/1 in Class 3 or 4 races.

 

The final trainer I’m going to run through from the initial table is Venetia Williams, largely due to her volume of runners: to deliver a 17% ROI across 440 runners in the months of October/November from 2012 onwards is impressive and merits closer scrutiny.  That’s not to say all of the other trainers are not worthy of further investigation and I’d definitely be inclined to sharpen the focus on Messrs Pauling and Keighley in particular.  Have a play on QT yourself and maybe post anything of interest (or otherwise) in the comments below.

Returning to Venetia Williams, the Grand National-winning trainer has a profitable record during the months in question, but the below table tells a stark tale.  Clearly, Williams has a knack for getting her cavalry of chasers ready early in the season

All Venetia Williams Oct/Nov National Hunt runners with an SP of 20/1 or shorter from 2012 onwards by race type

 

Again, if we look specifically at the month, the record in November is much stronger than that of October.

Perusing the “Venetia” page at her website www.venetiawilliams.com the following sentence caught my eye:

“Since then Venetia's career has flourished. Never one to expose her horses to the high risk of summer ground, each year Venetia can be seen with the big Saturday winners during the core NH season”

There is a common belief that Williams’ runners love soft turf, and the statement above also seems to indicate a preference to avoiding the risks associated with summer ground.  On Geegeez we like facts to back up a theory, so the table below shows Venetia’s chase runners in November by official going.

All Venetia Williams Chase runners in November with an SP of 20/1 or shorter from 2012 onwards by official going

 

While there is confirmation that Williams’ runners prefer a softer surface, it is worth noting that the stereotyped ‘hock deep’ runner from this yard fares less well than those encountering merely ‘winter ground’, i.e. good to soft or soft.

There is one mild concern with the overall angle though, namely 2017 performance, showing a loss of 28%, this is also on the back of a moderate 2016.  It could be this angle has run its natural course, albeit I will be adding it to my own armoury this November.  Williams had a very quiet spell last winter, alluding to a potential problem in the yard so I’m just about happy enough to strike a line through 2017.  This is one for keen observation though.

All Venetia Williams Chase runners with an SP of 20/1 or shorter from 2012 onwards on good to soft, soft or heavy ground by year

Oh, and incidentally the Saturday assertion in the quoted sentence does have a degree of credence too.

Suggestion: Back all Venetia Williams November Chasers on Good to soft or softer ground with a 20/1 or less SP (with caution)

- Jon Shenton