Posts

Cheltenham Festival day two – All eyes on Chacun and Monkfish

Day two of the Cheltenham Festival is headlined by the Queen Mother Champion Chase – the pinnacle of the season for the sport’s most highly-regarded two-mile chasers.

Sadly, Altior is absent for the second year running, meaning this year’s renewal of the Betway-sponsored feature really does centre around the seemingly unstoppable Chacun Pour Soi. It is not a one-horse race, though, and last year’s winner Politologue will have his say – as will Dan Skelton’s Nube Negra, one of the few horses to have beaten Altior when impressing at Kempton over Christmas.

Willie Mullins and Chacun Pour Soi’s owner Rich Ricci team up again with the mighty Monkfish, who has defeated all-comers since winning the Albert Bartlett last season and is all the rage for the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.

Wednesday is also the home of the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, where Tiger Roll will line up for what could be his final race and the French raider Easysland will bid for a second successive triumph over the unique course.

The afternoon’s action is rounded off by the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, a race that provides a glimpse into the future as the next generation of National Hunt performers compete on the level for Grade One honours.

Bob Olinger another for dream team?

Bob Olinger is a strong contender for Ballymore honours
Bob Olinger is a strong contender for Ballymore honours (PA)
Your first 30 days for just £1

Bob Olinger tops the line-up for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, with the six-year-old bringing Grade One form to the table after winning the Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle on his last appearance. Trained by Henry de Bromhead and ridden by Rachael Blackmore, he will have an army of supporters. His chief rival is the Mullins-trained Gaillard Du Mesnil, who was also a Grade One winner last time out when triumphing at Leopardstown. Bravemansgame flies the flag for Paul Nicholls and heads to Prestbury Park off the back of an impressive 10-length Challow Novices’ Hurdle victory.

Monkfish riding the crest of a wave

Monkfish has been imperious over fences so far
Monkfish has been imperious over fences so far (PA)

Monkish takes centre stage in the the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase after a hugely impressive performance when winning the Flogas Novice Chase at Leopardstown. The victory was the chestnut’s sixth consecutive win and his suitability for the Cheltenham track was proven when he triumphed in the Albert Bartlett last year. He has scared off most of the opposition and the race looks his to lose.

Champion Pour Soi?

Paul Townend and Chacun Pour Soi at Leopardstown

The Ricci silks will be worn by the favourite again when the runners face the starter in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. This time it will be Chacun Pour Soi who carries his owner’s hopes as he bids to follow up his success in the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown – his fourth Grade One win over fences. Politilogue is defending his crown, while First Flow – who beat him at Ascot – would be a hugely popular winner for trainer Kim Bailey and jockey David Bass.

Will the Tiger stop rolling?

Easysland on his way to an impressive victory in the Glenfarclas Chase last year
Easysland on his way to an impressive victory in the Glenfarclas Chase last year (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Easysland travels from David Cottin’s French stable to attempt to retain his cross-country crown, a trophy he took from two-time winner Tiger Roll when prevailing by 17 lengths last year. Tiger Roll is also back, and his performance is likely to determine whether this is his last race. Hopefully that will not be the case, as this titan of the jumping scene deserves to bow in front of packed grandstands, not empty ones.

Mullins’ mighty bumper duo

Kilcruit is favourite to give Willie Mullins another Champion Bumper victory
Kilcruit is favourite to give Willie Mullins another Champion Bumper victory (Niall Carson/PA)

Mullins is synonymous with the Champion Bumper and has two major chances in Kilcruit and Sir Gerhard, the latter being a new addition to the yard after leaving the stable of Gordon Elliott. He is unbeaten and represents Cheveley Park Stud, who have won the last two runnings, most recently with the Mullins-trained Ferny Hollow. For his part, Kilcruit was completely dominant when winning the Grade Two bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival by 12 lengths.

Tiger ready to Roll in hunt for Glenfarclas Chase hat-trick

Tiger Roll will bid to reclaim his crown and become the first three-time winner of the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham on Wednesday.

The 11-year-old claimed the prize in 2018 and 2019, but last season’s attempt at a third consecutive win was foiled by the French-trained Easysland.

Defeated by a conclusive 17 lengths, Tiger Roll has been beaten by similarly wide margins since and was pulled up when contesting the handicap chase run over the same cross-country course at Cheltenham’s November meeting.

Now campaigned by Denise Foster after the suspension of Gordon Elliott, the dual Grand National hero will cross paths with Easysland again at Cheltenham – where he is a four-time Festival winner – and is reported to be in fine fettle ahead of the contest.

Tiger Roll (right) schooling over Cheltenham's cross country fence ahead of his run the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase on Wednesday
Tiger Roll (right) schooling over Cheltenham’s cross country fence ahead of his run the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase on Wednesday (David Davies/PA)

“Keith (Donoghue, jockey) rang after schooling Tiger Roll this morning and tells me he’s in great form,” Foster said.

“He seemed in super form at home before he left.

Your first 30 days for just £1

“I watched him last week and he was very bullish in himself, which is hopefully a good sign.

“The truth is only Tiger really knows how he’s feeling, but he obviously likes Cheltenham and Keith seems very happy with him.”

On the same card is a notably competitive renewal of the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, with Willie Mullins seemingly well positioned to take an 11th victory in the Grade One race.

Kilcruit ridden by Patrick Mullins after the Goffs Future Stars (C & G) I.N.H. Flat Race during day one of the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown Racecourse
Kilcruit ridden by Patrick Mullins after the Goffs Future Stars (C & G) I.N.H. Flat Race during day one of the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown Racecourse (Niall Carson/PA)

Kilcruit heads the market after a commanding victory at Leopardstown last month, where he was completely unchallenged as he cruised to an easy 12-length success.

“Kilcruit put up a huge performance at the Dublin Racing Festival and I was very pleased,” Mullins said of the run.

“I was gobsmacked actually at how well he won on the day, and I’m hoping he can put a similar kind of performance in at Cheltenham.”

Mullins will also saddle the undefeated Sir Gerhard, who joined his yard earlier in the month from Elliott.

“Sir Gerhard is a fine horse,” he said of the Cheveley Park-owned gelding.

“His form looks very good and he looks like he could be anything, as he’s got all the qualities of a good horse.

“It’s going to be very tough changing stables so soon before the race, but we’ll see what we can do.”

Paul Nicholls will be hoping for a first success in the contest as he sends out Shearer, a five-year-old son of Flemensfirth.

The gelding was last seen triumphing by nine lengths in a bumper at Warwick, before which he was beaten by just a head on his racecourse debut.

“Shearer is a very nice horse,” Nicholls said.

“He was named after Alan Shearer and I know Alan has followed him.

“He just got beaten on his debut at Hereford and then won well at Warwick on ground that was far too testing for him.

“He’s had a nice break and has improved, he definitely deserves to take his chance.”

Monday Musings: Willie Mullings and A Plot Awry

The Dublin Racing Festival, two days of the best jump racing in Ireland and perfectly placed five weeks before Cheltenham to offer definitive clues about the likely destination of many of its major prizes, did its job this weekend, writes Tony Stafford.

It also made the more than considerable likelihood that Willie Mullins will see off Gordon Elliott as champion trainer once again in their homeland into a formality. Fifteen races, mostly Graded and bolstered by some very valuable and fiercely contested handicaps, were framed. Mullins won nine of them, four of seven on Saturday and five from eight yesterday.

Elliott won one, in his juvenile hurdle niche where he still has the stranglehold on Triumph Hurdle calculations after Mullins decided that he needed to give French Aseel a little more time to settle into the stable routine. Ruby Walsh, the most brilliant race reader (Flat and jumps to be fair) I’ve yet to encounter on television let us in on that secret when discussing the Elliott winner Quilixios, who has supplanted French Aseel as second favourite at 6-1 behind his unbeaten stable-companion Zanahiyr, a 5-2 chance.

But elsewhere at least three Mullins Cheltenham candidates cemented their claims on major prizes next month. Last year’s Albert Bartlett Hurdle winner, Monkfish, maintained his unblemished record over fences in the 2m 5.5f novice and is now an 11/10 shot for the Festival (RSA as was) Novices’ Chase over 3m1f. If you think he’ll go instead in the shorter Marsh Chase you can have 7/1. Don’t take it because he won’t!

Saturday’s bumper winner, Kilcruit, bred by Willie Mullins’ mother, is now the 6-4 favourite for the Festival Bumper after a 12-length romp under the breeder’s grandson Patrick in Saturday’s Grade 2 event. The only problem with taking that 6-4 is that there are sure to be other Mullins runners in the race; but they will need to be good to beat this one.

Incidentally, when he made his debut at Clonmel last season, Kilcruit was actually beaten, and at the time was trained by Willie’s brother and the rider’s uncle Tony, who had such a spectacular summer with the staying German-bred mare Princess Zoe, winner of the Group 1 Prix Du Cadran at Longchamp last autumn.

Kilcruit turned up in Willie’s string for his seasonal debut at Navan in December where he won by almost ten lengths and, up in grade, had even more real estate and a good deal of extra goodwill to spare over Saturday’s rivals.

Your first 30 days for just £1

A third certain Festival favourite will be yesterday’s easy novice hurdle winner, Appreciate It, now only 7/4 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. All three of these will have been heavily linked in multiple bets but the bookmakers are far less likely to be wrong-footed by these as they clearly were over the weekend by a very well-planned and almost as well-executed three-horse bet that could easily have repercussions for the far-sighted originators, or unscrupulous conspirators, according to where you stand.

Late on Saturday night, bookmakers, among whom Bet Victor have come forward to declare their hand, were assailed online by punters all wanting to back three horses, I would imagine in singles and linked multiples.

In Saturday night’s early betting they were all outsiders with only one – the middle leg, Blowing Dixie, at Southwell – having any realistic credentials according to yesterday’s Racing Post analyses.

Anyway, the three horses were firstly Fire Away, a 20/1 chance in the newspaper’s betting but double that the night before. In his last runs in Ireland he had been 7th of 15, beaten 38 lengths at 20/1; 14th of 25, beaten 25 lengths at 66/1; 8th of 11, beaten 26 lengths at 16/1; 6th of 8, beaten 39 lengths at 8/1; and PU of 16 at 8/1.

Those runs in Ireland took place between November 19th 2019 and March 2nd 2020. Transferred to Daragh Bourke’s Scottish stable he had three runs in late summer. They were 10th of 15, beaten 51 lengths at 50/1; 7th of 10, beaten 61 lengths at 20/1; and, last time out on September 16th, he started 50/1 and pulled up in a field of 11. Over the period his rating had fallen from an initial mark of 116 to 98.

Yesterday he was making his debut for a new stable, having joined Laura Morgan’s team near Melton Mowbray from Bourke only 11 days before the race. “He had two horses for sale and I originally had a different one in mind but chose him. I’m delighted I did,” she told Racing TV, understandably as he won the race unchallenged by 18 lengths at even money!

Leg two, Blowing Dixie, had won four races at Southwell, all of them over a mile and a half when trained by Jane Chapple-Hyam but, even so, for an 80-rated four-year-old Fibresand specialist to realise as much as £50k at last year’s July Sales at Newmarket might seem rather surprising.

Fetch it he did and, switched to the ultra-shrewd Iain Jardine, Blowing Dixie began a busy autumn schedule running six times between early September and late November. His card reads 7th of 7, beaten 25 lengths at 80/1; 8th of 9, beaten 22 lengths at 66/1; 7th of 8, beaten 28 lengths at 10/1; 10th of 13, beaten 21 lengths at 66/1; 5th of 6, beaten 16 lengths at 66/1; and finally 8th of 9, beaten 25 lengths at 17/2.

Starting for Jardine on a mark of 80, by yesterday he was down 15lb to 65. A 12/1 shot in the Racing Post, he started 4/6 and won by an easy two and a half lengths. His most obvious market rival, Drew Breeze, winner of two of his previous three races, started slowly and was never nearer than fifth of the eight runners, beaten 16 lengths at 13/8.

Daragh Bourke also figured in the third member of the overnight triumvirate. A former £260,000 buy from Tattersalls Cheltenham sale in 2017 after winning an Irish point and Galway bumper, Gallahers Cross didn’t win for Nicky Henderson and was sold on for £40k.

Between June 2019 and January last year he ran five times for Bourke beginning with an 8th of 9, beaten 48 lengths at 7/1, when the gloss of the decent placed Henderson form had not properly worn off. Next came an 8th of 10, beaten 62 lengths at 20/1; 11th of 12, beaten 54 lengths at 28/1; 7th of 7, beaten 39 lengths at 16/1; and, finally, last month, 7th of 8, beaten 50 lengths at 9/1. This time the official reaction to the string of poor performances was a reduction from 115 to 90.

So it is possible, even on the scantiest of scrutiny, to discern a pattern. Each of the three horses had a series of very poor runs from their respective (two, close together) bases in Scotland in the latter half of last year, and all three dropped just over a stone in the ratings and suddenly found form enough on the home gallops to persuade certain people to want to back them, and all on the same day.

The only thing that went wrong – possibly denying winning trebles into the thousands of odds against – was that Gallahers Cross, a 4-5 shot at the off, could finish only fourth of the seven runners, behind an all-the-way Paul Nicholls top-weight winner, Get The Appeal. Like Gallahers Cross, Get The Appeal is a son of Getaway.

As someone who set up a multiple bet many years ago which foundered at the final leg of four (when a future – two runs later! – Group 1 winner ridden by a multiple champion jockey finished unplaced), I can sympathise with those who thought their big pay day had come. On the other hand, any one of them whom I happen to know who didn’t bother to let me in on it – serves you right! But then, as with our try all those years ago that involved physically covering 300 betting shops, rather than pushing a few buttons on computers, two out of three isn’t bad.

Finally, it just remains to question how can any horse beat Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle after Saturday’s romp in the Irish Champion, a victory far more emphatic than last year’s? Tough, with plenty of stamina and unbeaten in one point-to-point and ten runs under Rules, surely the Henry De Bromhead mare can give Rachael Blackmore the distinction of being the first woman to win the Champion Hurdle. Sorry Epatante, unless Nico can contrive to make this a speed rather than a stamina test, her crown definitely looks to rest precariously on her head.

As Liverpool FC are finding, it’s one thing to win a championship, quite another successfully to defend it.