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Reviewing the Festival: 5 Things

2017 was a weird Festival, writes Tony Keenan. It began with Gordon Elliott winning novice races with Labaik and Tiger Roll, the former one refusal away from a lengthy ban on his previous start, the latter landing a National Hunt Chase run over nearly twice as far as his previous major win in the Triumph Hurdle. It ended with Paul Nicholls seemingly ecstatic at breaking his duck for the week in the Foxhunter with Pacha Du Polder, a far cry from his previous multiple Grade 1-winning Festivals. In between we had Willie Mullins draw a blank on Tuesday and Wednesday, his yard apparently out of form and his gallops all wrong, only for him to storm back with six winners across the final two days.

There are always things to be learned from these major meetings and while it’s important not to overreact to the evidence of just four days, there were certainly a few takeaways.

 

  1. Relative Sanity in the Betting Markets

By the standards of recent Cheltenhams, the offer culture among the big bookmakers wasn’t as prevalent; there was nothing close to the each-way five places offered by William Hill back in the 2013 Supreme. There were extra places on offer in obvious races like the Coral Cup, Pertemps Final and County Hurdle but not so much in the shoulder races; judging on the Pricewise tables from the Racing Post, there were just two firms that offered extended place terms in the Foxhunter as opposed to six in 2016.

The extra place concession is fine as a once-off – Coral going six places in the Coral Cup, say – but in the main it’s a losing proposition for bookmakers, where they are putting the maths in favour of the punter and conceding that they are willing to lose money in the race, all things being equal.

There were also reduced terms in the graded races from a long way out: where once these races were all a quarter the odds a place, now the universal terms seem to be a fifth. That’s clearly a negative for punters looking to bet each-way and find a solid horse to hit the frame and while there were a number of races during the week that set up well as ‘bad each-way’ events like the Arkle, Champion Chase and JLT, they would have been all the more appealing if it were a quarter the odds a place. Furthermore, there didn’t seem to be the wild push to be a standout top price everything on the odds comparison sites that there had been previously. The likes of Native River and Cue Card may have drifted on the morning of the Gold Cup to their biggest price in a few weeks, but that was more due to support for Djakadam than their weakness, and nor did price pushes on the Supreme favourites Ballyandy and Melon come to pass.

It’s difficult to say what the reasons for this might be. Last year’s results when one favourite after another went in clearly played their part; the firms didn’t get away with overly-generous offers then and may have learned from it. On the whole, this is good for racing as it is hardly ideal that the sport’s banner meeting be used as a loss leader for other betting products; the firms would be unlikely to do the same for a major football tournament. Hopefully such a sensible approach will continue next year.

 

  1. Competitive Irish Scene leads to Green-wash?

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Michael O’Leary talked a whole lot of rubbish in the run-up to Cheltenham and it continued last week with his comments about the Irish/English rivalry and his dismissal of Martin Pipe winner Champagne Classic as ‘probably the worst horse I have.’ It seems he is just as successful at winding racing people up as he is with government ministers! Those at the top of Irish racing might want to drop him a little thank you card for his contribution to the record week for Irish trainers at the meeting however as his decision to move his horses from Willie Mullins (along with some rotten injury luck for that trainer) could well have played a part in Irish trainers doing so well.

It’s been the most competitive Irish national hunt season since the Mullins hegemony began but while the betting beforehand suggested Ireland would struggle at the meeting – Ireland were priced up at a general 7/2 for the BetBright Cup having been more like 7/4 last year – the opposite proved to be case. Gordon Elliott basically continued to do what he’s been doing at home all season while both Henry De Bromhead and Noel Meade backed up excellent home campaigns with Festival winners. Jessica Harrington had been quietly having a good run in Ireland all season but there was nothing quiet about her Festival where she had three winners. There was certainly a sense of what might have been with Willie Mullins however; to manage six winners off the back of the season he’s had was a deeply impressive effort.

 

  1. Slipping Standards in Championship Races, Handicaps more Competitive than ever

The rash of injuries among the top jumpers lowered the standard of the championship races and while these races were a spectacle – the Festival always is – it is doubtful that Buveur D’Air, Special Tiara, Nichols Canyon and Sizing John will echo down the halls of history in the same manner of Istabraq, Big Buck’s or Best Mate. I’m biased but Sizing John might prove about the best of those as he’s just a different horse this season, his sole defeat coming to Douvan when conceding fitness to that one on his first run of 2016/17, and I wonder if he might even give a healthy version of that horse something to think about over a strongly-run twenty furlongs now.

The handicaps were a different story entirely, proving ultra-competitive and over-subscribed in a season where races like the Betfair Hurdle and Imperial Cup struggled to attract decent fields. Unsurprisingly, they took plenty of winning with horses like Un Temps Pour Tout (Racing Post Rating of 164 in winning), Supasundae (RPR 155), Presenting Percy (RPR 155) and Arctic Fire (RPR 160) all looking like they could make an impact at Grade 1 level sooner rather than later.

 

  1. Riding their Luck

I wrote about luck, good and bad, in this space prior to the meeting and it’s worth briefly revisiting those figures for trainers over this year’s meeting.

 

Trainer Winners Seconds Places (2nd, 3rd and 4th) Places to Winners Ratio Sub-2.0 Trades
G. Elliott 6 3 7 1.16 0
W. Mullins 6 2 7 1.15 4
N. Henderson 3 6 13 4.33 2
J. Harrington 3 0 0 0.00 0
H. De Bromhead 1 2 4 4.00 0
P. Hobbs 1 1 2 2.00 1
N. Meade 1 0 2 2.00 0
J. O’Neill 0 2 2 0.00 0
H. Fry 0 1 3 0.00 2
A. King 0 0 4 0.00 0

 

Jessica Harrington looks to have benefitted from the perfect storm of things falling right though it would be hard to say that any of Supasundae, Sizing John and Rock The World were anything other than deserving winners and she did have Champion Bumper fancy Someday ruled out on the morning of the race. Her close friend Nicky Henderson was the unlucky one in terms of places to winners ratio, allowing that one of his seconds (Whisper) came in a race he won anyway. The in-running trades point to Harry Fry being a bit unlucky too.

 

  1. Excuse Obvious ‘Excuse Horses’

Plenty of us will have backed a horse that will have run terribly last week [I didn’t back many who didn’t run terribly – Ed.] and in the main Cheltenham is one of those unique tracks where you can probably forgive a bad run. There were a number of horses that stood out as obvious ‘excuse horses’ with bona fide reasons for not being able to run to form and if you liked them going into the meeting, it could be worth sticking with them for the rest of the spring.

That list includes but is not limited to: Ballyandy (troubled trip), Bacardys (badly hampered), Bon Papa (lost his action), Automated (found to be lame), Mister Miyagi (troubled trip), Douvan (injured) Linger (lame), Flying Angel (badly hampered), Potters Legend (jumped like his feet were tied together), Ex Patriot (got loose beforehand), and Constantine Bay (run stopped at a crucial time).

I’m not saying I like all these horses to win in the near-term – in fact I don’t – but they all had very legitimate reasons for not running to their best. I won’t do all the hard work for you however so get reviewing those replays and start trawling through the BHA post-race reports, painful though they may be!

- Tony Keenan

Eight Cheltenham Festival Takeaways: Notebook Horses

Notebook Horses From Cheltenham

As the Cheltenham Festival gradually begins to fade from the memory, racing writer and broadcaster Rory Delargy (@helynsar on twitter) offers an octet to keep in mind for the coming month, and early part of next season. Trackers and/or notepads at the ready...

Tuesday:

The Young Master (6th - Ultima Handicap Chase):
The early-season vibes weren't terribly positive about the prolific son of Echo of Light, and he was relatively weak in the market when falling in the Becher Chase on his belated return (beaten at the time). He predictably made no impact in the Cleeve Hurdle on his next start, but looked a picture in the Cheltenham paddock, and shaped as if back in good order in finishing sixth behind Un Temps Pour Tout. He raced in the mid-division along the inside, jumping accurately on the whole, and while he struggled a little with the pace, was able to dispute third at the top of the hill before being passed by half a dozen rivals on the downhill run to the third last fence. He looked sure to drop away from that point, but rallied to re-pass a few from the final turn, and he now looks like he needs a stamina test to be fully effective. It's easy to conclude that he doesn't handle the Grand National fences, but it's a lot more likely that he's been trained to peak again in the spring, and either the National or the Bet365 Gold Cup would be viable targets. As far as the latter is concerned, it should be noted that the handicapper has dropped him 2lb to a mark of 148, the same as when winning last April.

Powersbomb (4th - Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase)
Brian McMahon's chaser has caught the eye on a couple of occasions this year, rallying in some style after propping badly at the second-last fence at Leopardstown on his penultimate outing, and again looking a bit better than the bare result last week. In contrast to Leopardstown, he was held up by Jamie Codd (deputising for regular rider Mikey Fogarty), and made mistakes at the second and fourth fences. That made his chance look remote, and he was again untidy when making ground at the third last. Shaken up thereafter, he snapped back onto the bridle, and made sharp progress to get close at the turn, but had to race wide as a result, and while he got to the front between the last two, he was looking vulnerable when getting into  the bottom of the last. That he kept on for fourth was commendable as he looked to find the trip stretching him, but I spoke to Jamie straight afterwards, and he was unhappy with his ride and admitted that he'd hit the front too soon. In saying that, he is clearly effective at shorter, and would be of interest in the Red Rum at Aintree, which is usually run at a frenetic pace. He's been raised 4lb to 134 in Ireland, incidentally, but ran off 138 at Cheltenham, and there ought to be a race for him closer to home if that's what McMahon, who trains near Ennis in Co. Clare, would prefer.

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Wednesday:

Scoir Mear (5th - Coral Cup)
Scoir Mear was my only ante-post bet at the Festival, so it was galling to see him finish fifth when most firms paid five places on the day (yet another reason to throw into the pot marked "why ante-post betting is dead"). But that doesn't begin to tell the story, as Tom Mullins' grey might easily have won with better luck/judgement in running. Jumped off at the rear, he was never more than a length ahead of the back marker for the first half of the contest, and despite travelling sweetly, still sat sixteenth as the field jumped the penultimate flight. In a strongly run affair this can potentially be an advantage (who can forget What's Up Boys and Big Strand coming from the clouds to win this race?), but the pace of the Coral Cup steadied down before halfway and the leaders weren't falling in a hole by any means. Switched to the inside on the final turn by David Mullins, he found a pocket of weakening horses, and had to take back and around to get a clear passage. Jumping the last in a dispute of thirteenth place, he again had to take evasive action to avoid Kalondra on landing, before flashing home for fifth. The negatives are that he wasn't always fluent at his hurdles, and did show a tendency to lug to his left, which explains the second piece of interference he met, but the positives far outweigh those niggles, and while Supasundae deserves full credit for winning, Scoir Mear looked second best on the day, and his form all season keeps getting franked. The Irish handicapper has raised him by a solitary pound for his effort at Cheltenham, and there must be a valuable prize in him before the season is through. On an incidental note, I was told on the eve of the race that the 5-y-o had not travelled over well, and didn't eat up on arrival. That wasn't the line given on the day by his trainer, but it came from a reliable source, and would make the performance even more meritorious if true.

Diable de Sivola (5th – Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle)
The Fred Winter shaped like a very strong race for all the winner, Flying Tiger, was quite a big price. Runner-up Divin Bere is clearly a big talent, and Nietzche brought a solid profile and very useful flat form to the table. That trio should pay their way, but the one to take out of the race is the winner's stablemate, Diable de Sivola, who finished best of all in fifth, having been no closer than thirteenth jumping the last. It's dangerous to constantly mark up horses who finish fast from a poor position, and in doing so, it's important to establish why they found themselves in that position in the first place. In the case of Lizzie Kelly's mount, it's not entirely clear how, but he suddenly lost a good position on the run from the second and third flights, and was massively compromised by that scenario. Television pictures of that part of the race are very poor (wide angle shot with the low sun making detail hard to pick out), but it's likely that he got squeezed out and lost momentum, or simply failed to handle the downhill run at that point. Either way, he turned into the back straight in a good position, and somehow lost that spot completely by the time the field reached the fourth. Getting back into contention in a congested field was always going to be difficult, and Kelly had to wait until the final turn before cutting back to the inside and passing rivals. It's to his credit that he almost made the frame from an impossible position. He was reported by Nick Williams to have needed his prep run at Doncaster, and an earlier second to Defi du Seuil here looks better in retrospect, all of which suggests his unchanged mark of 132 is there to be exploited.

Thursday:

Top Notch (2nd - JLT Novices' Chase)
Pretty much all the talk after the JLT was about the brilliance of Yorkhill, or indeed the brilliance of his jockey, who somehow managed to make this headcase look a straightforward conveyance in winning, and he's as short as 8/1 for next year's Gold Cup, and the same price for the Ryanair. On the other hand, Top Notch goes through an impressive first season over fences with barely a ripple; already a Grade 1 winner over the bigger obstacles, he could arguably be called an unlucky loser here, as he lost considerably more ground with a rare mistake at the second last than he was beaten, and his jumping was an absolute joy to behold in the main, as it was when he won at Sandown. That mistake rather took the gloss off the finish, as it threatened to be a classic with both he and the winner travelling strongly at the time. The game is, as we're often reminded, all about jumping, so marking horses up for late errors is a dangerous precedent, but this looked a case of the rider needing to ask for a big jump at a crucial point and opting to sit still instead. Top Notch isn't one to stand outside the wings, but he has more scope than he's given credit for, as he showed when gaining ground with a brave leap at the final fence, and in my opinion he would have made Yorkhill pull out all the stops if he'd been asked to produce a similar leap at the previous fence. As such, his price of 16/1 for next year's Ryanair seems rather insulting, as that race looks by far his most likely long-term target. In the short term, the Manifesto at Aintree should be right up his street, with or without Yorkhill.

Ballymalin (7th - Pertemps Final)
One of the features of the week was how steadily run many of the handicaps were, although the Pertemps Final was an exception, and a couple of those who raced towards the front throughout can be marked up for their efforts. The bold-jumping Sutton Place looks a horse for the future, with fences beckoning next season, but if I had to pick just one to choose for the immediate future it would be Ballymalin, whose stable sent seventeen runners to the meeting but came home empty-handed. I'm not one to read too much into such figures given how hard it is to win any race at Cheltenham, and it was tactics rather than the form of his yard which saw Ballymalin out of the frame. All three of the Twiston-Davies runners took turns in the lead and the son of Presenting fared much better in the end than either Splash of Ginge or Arctic Gold, and five of those who beat him came from significantly further back in the field. This was just his second start in handicaps having finished third behind race favourite Impulsive Star in his qualifier at Exeter, and while he's clearly got the ability to run well off his mark (unchanged since Exeter), I envisage him being stepped up to Grade 1 company at Aintree, where he'd not look out of place in the Sefton Novices' Hurdle, a race won by the same connections with Ballyoptic last year. Nigel Twiston-Davies also trained King's Road (1999) and Pettifour (2008) to land the Sefton, both of whom arrived under the radar to some degree.

Friday:

Renneti (8th - County Hurdle)
Some horses find their way into your notebook with a mental asterisk next to their names to remind you not to be too easily fooled, and the temptation is to categorize the quirky Renneti like that.  He certainly hasn't looked in love with the game in the past year, but when on song he is very close to top class, and he had nothing go his way in a bizarre renewal of the County Hurdle, with Wakea allowed to set up a massive lead despite not exactly scorching off. As a result, the race only took shape on the long run to the final flight, and the form cannot be taken literally. Renneti would have preferred a bit more ease in the ground, for all the track was watered liberally overnight, and he stays beyond two miles, needing the emphasis on stamina at this sort of trip. Like Labaik on Tuesday, he set off quite sweetly at the back of the field, but his position soon became an issue, and his chance of winning evaporated when the field allowed the leader to do his own thing.  That said, he made up considerable ground from the penultimate obstacle, and finished about as fast as it was possible given the majority in front of him were also trying to quicken from the same juncture. He's never one about which to take short odds, and ideally needs a strongly-run race on soft ground to bring out his best, so opportunities to back him may be limited by conditions, but he's more than capable of making a mockery of his current mark, and could even get into the mix in something like the Aintree Hurdle.

Constantine Bay (4th - Albert Bartlett)
The Albert Bartlett was another race run at a much more pedestrian tempo than is the norm, and that certainly suited the winner, who has the turn of foot of a high-class flat performer, something he is likely to prove again in the summer. Those who got close to Penhill therefore deserve great credit, and while Constantine Bay was beaten over fifteen lengths in fourth, he was the biggest eyecatcher of the beaten horses having been stopped in his tracks when The World's End fell in front of him at the second last (Penhill also hampered in the incident, while the faller is also interesting for the future having moved up to dispute the lead at the point he capsized). He was knocked back to a poor ninth at that point, and did really well to stay on for fourth from that point. He is clearly a game and thorough stayer as he showed when winning at Doncaster on his previous outing, and it should be pointed out that he was at full stretch coming down the hill, so clearly wouldn't want a tactical race at this trip. But there are lots of options both this spring and into next season for one who has shown his blend of gameness and stamina, and he's another who appeals as a decent staying chaser in the making.

Brightwells Cheltenham Sale Notes

Pick of the Brightwell lots

Pick of the Brightwell lots

Update on sales from Brightwells (previous nominations), by Seattle Dancer

I think many of my predictions in terms of the recent Brightwells Sale were borne out and you needed a good recent performance on winter ground aided by a popular sire to hit paydirt.

Jack Steel: sold reasonably well for £33,000 considering no-one wanted the sire. Handler convinced he has sold Lucinda Russell a good horse. Lucinda’s best ever point acquisition was Brindisi Breeze.

Need To Know: Not sold at £75,000 and was probably on the boat home the following day. What does not sold mean specifically? A reserve too high? Greedy connections? An underbidder at £74,000 and he was sold privately in the bar afterwards? No interest in him at all and the bidding was entirely fictitious? Public auctions are notoriously unreliable and who on earth knows what transpires unless the horse changes hands? Why would you bid for an auction lot not knowing beforehand when the horse will be on the market. (Easier ways to “win the watch” in my opinion).

Fact Of The Matter: a win on good ground and a sire rejected by Grange Stud suggests getting £42,000 for this winner was, ultimately, a good result and a reasonable return on a €16,500 investment. The horse will join Jamie Snowden and in recent times he has bought three winning 4yo maidens and two, Lough Derg Way and Present View, have been quite successful for him.

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Black Jack Rover: this 88-rated son of Vinnie Roe was bought by Donald McCain for £40,000. McCain buys large numbers of pointers at public auction although there is a debate abroad at present that his horses are not running as well as they have in the past. Perhaps someone will have an opinion on this? 

Lovely Job: £30,000 (to Donald McCain) probably is a fair reflection of this fellow’s value given an unknown sire and a mid-October victory.

Kerisper: strangely, this potential one-hundred-grander was withdrawn from the sale and may have been sold privately, was under the weather at the time or may turn up in one of the December sales. One thing’s for sure, he’s unlikely to race in Wilson Dennison’s colours again.

Shantou Village: ticked a lot of boxes but perhaps a win on good ground kept the interest in check. Fetched £80,000 and this 90-rated winner will now be trained by Neil Mulholland who handled King Helissio (4yo autumn winner from 2012) in the past-won a maiden hurdle at 25/1 on his second start under rules.

Shanroe Santos: The agent Tom Malone bid £50,000 for this fellow but I’m uncertain of his new home. Jimmy Lambe will not be plotting handicap coups with this winner and I thought £50,000 was a decent price in the circumstances.

Mr Mountain: £60,000 to the final bid of Tom Malone who was busy on the night. No new home earmarked as yet.

Crosshue Boy (by Brian Boru): Not sold at £48,000 and looks overvalued at this sort of price. I’ll be surprised if he hasn’t changed hands privately since for a more realistic offer.

Battle Of Clontarf: another unsold Brian Boru gelding (at £22,000) and one can see that the market will reject certain sires after a period of time.

The Chuckmeister (5yo by Germany): another Tom Malone purchase, this time for £43,000 and another “fair” return for connections.

Stilletto: Roger Brookhouse is obviously not one for horse’s names with perfect spelling and he forked out £130,000 for this typo. No trainer has yet been chosen and the horse is being given a short break before commencing his track career.

For Instance: £85,000 was the reward for Codd at Brightwells recently and he is now with Jonjo O’Neill having been knocked down to agent Ross Doyle.

Amber Gambler’s win on winter ground was timely and propitious coming as close as it did to sale time. Gearoid Costello (partner of Rebecca Curtis) was impressed enough to give £125,000 for him and it was a sweet result for the vendor.