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Nicholls Crowned King After Thrilling Finale

In the end it was a case of ‘so near and yet so far’ for Willie Mullins, as Paul Nicholls maintained his stranglehold on the UK Trainers’ Championship.

The writing was on the wall when Mullins hit the runners-up spot in the opening two races; Voix Du Reve unable to peg back Wolf Of Windlesham in the juvenile event and then Menorah rolling back the years with yet another success in the Oaksey Chase, beating off Valseur Lido in the process.

The win for Menorah gave Richard Johnson a thrilling success on a day when he was crowned Champion Jockey. How fitting that the victory should come on the Philip Hobbs trained star, owned by Diana and Graham Whateley. Many of Johnson’s greatest moments in the saddle have come when carrying those familiar silks. Menorah at the age of 11, continues to shine with conditions to suit. He was winning the Oaksey Chase for the third year on the spin. Valseur Lido probably found the ground a little lively, and getting in close at the last did him no favours.

When Un De Sceaux found Sprinter Sacre far too hot to handle in the Celebration Chase, Mullins’ title challenge was all but over. Henderson’s superstar was simply stunning, and though he’s not quite the Sprinter of old, he’s still head and shoulders above all other two mile chasers. His 15 length romp was aided by a horrible error at the third last from his main challenger, yet the result was looking a formality, even at that stage of the proceedings.

Nicholls will have been pleased with the improved performance of Dodging Bullets. He was badly outpaced for much of the race, but warmed to the task, and stayed on strongly to take third.

When The Young Master took the Bet365 Gold Cup Chase, with Nicholls’ pair second and fourth, the championship race was over, and Nicholls could celebrate his tenth title. He was almost crowned in style with Just A Par getting within a short-head of repeating his success of 2015.

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With the rare taste of defeat still fresh on the palate, Willie Mullins decided to take Vroum Vroum home, and caused something of a rumpus in the process. The mare will undoubtedly now appear at Punchestown, but for those hoping to see her mixing it with the boys, it was somewhat disappointing.

Nevertheless, the incident could in no way take the gloss off a terrific Jump racing finale. Nicholls was understandably thrilled with the outcome: “I'm hopeful it has been really good for racing. We have all got stuck in, worked hard and got some great results. I thought I had no chance after Aintree to be honest. Vicente (Scottish Grand National) was a big day last week and all the horses have been going really well, just when you think it is over.”

Of his relationship with Mullins the Champion trainer said: “Some in the media say there is animosity between us, but that is absolute tripe. This has been the hardest one to win, because we have only had a couple of Grade One winners. We haven't had those top horses, but we won nearly £2.5million in prize-money and you just have to keep maximising what you've got. I've been very lucky to have those horses in the past. But when you have to dig in deep and do different things, it is a lot harder, so it probably is a lot sweeter. It is a fantastic day.”

Mullins was magnanimous in defeat, saying: “Of course, this makes me more determined to win the title next year. I'm honoured to be in the position I am today. I thank all my owners and team for putting me in this position. They all to a man said ‘Willie, take whatever horse you need to Sandown', even though they would be missing good prize-money at Punchestown. I think that is fantastic. I didn't expect it and didn't ask them. That was the feeling of my owners and I have to thank them for their generosity.”

Of next year’s challenge Mullins added: “Paul has had a fantastic team this year without Grade One stars and if we can keep our Grade One stars and perform at Cheltenham like we have been the last few years, then it's on. But otherwise, unless you win the National or something, it is difficult. They all have to stay sound and get into next season. But I would dearly love to come back to Sandown next season with...hopefully a better chance.”

He added: “Our rivalry starts when the point-to-pointers are first into the winner's enclosure or who is first over to France to buy one. It starts well before we get to the racecourse. It was amazing that Ruby Walsh worked for both of us over the years and I think that shows the respect we both have for each other. We have never had a cross word.”

And that title race will no doubt start immediately, with bloodstock agents hot on the trail of potential stars. In roughly six months, we’ll gather again to witness which team were successful in finding those hidden treasures, thereby enabling the winter’s push toward the trainers’ title.

Ryanair Chase 2015 Preview, Trends, Tips

Ryanair Chase Preview and Tips: Can Dynaste win a second Ryanair?

Can Dynaste win a second Ryanair?

Ryanair Chase 2015 Preview, Trends, Tips

It's now just 35 days - or five weeks in old money - until Cheltenham Festival 2015 kicks off, and it's time for another ante-post preview. With the World Hurdle, Gold Cup, and Arkle already in the can; the Champion Hurdle looking bereft of value; and the Champion Chase still impossible to call, I'm taking a swipe at the Ryanair Chase...

Ryanair Chase Trends

Last year was the tenth running of the race in its current guise, having previously been run as the Cathcart Challenge Trophy, a Grade 2 for first or second season chasers only. So we have ten years' worth of data to go on...

106 horses contested those ten Ryanair Chases, and we'll be looking at the runners to winners ratio in the below.

Age: Although six and seven year olds have only won two of the ten Ryanairs, they've done it from just sixteen runners. That's 20% of the winners from 15% of the runners. Not a huge sample size, granted, but ballast is applied with the fact that eight of the thirty win and placed horses (27%) were this age, from the same 15% of runners.

Eight to ten year olds were responsible for the remaining eight winners, from 79 runners - 80% wins from 75% runs, so not massively material.

The eleven horses aged eleven or above failed to win and secured a single placed effort between them.

Last time out:

Finishing Position: Six (60%) of the 45 horses (42%) to finish first or second last time won. Given that a further 14 were placed (67% win/place), these may be reliable propositions upon which to focus.

Grade: Seven (70%) of the 47 horses (44%) to have run in a Grade 1 last time took Ryanair gold. The other three ran in Grade 2 (two) and Grade 3 (one) company the last day.

Distance: Quite interesting is this one. With just one (10%) of the 39 horses (37%) to have run at two and a half miles or less last time winning the Ryanair, a prep over a reflective trip looks a banker.

Days since a run: All ten winners had run last between 26 and 90 days ago. The 24% of runners who historically hadn't run in that time, and couldn't get it done in the Ryanair, may be a portent to the long absent and the quick returning this time around, too.

Odds: Given the fairly 'obvious' nature of most winners - i.e. youngish horses who won or nearly won last time out - it is little surprise that this has been a 'chalky' (i.e. top of the market) race. Indeed, nine of the ten winners were priced between 3/1 and 6/1, from just 21 to fall in that price range.

90% winners from 20% runners is clearly an attractive stat, but using market price as a means to qualify a bet is precarious at best. Nevertheless, it is testament to a general lack of depth in the Ryanair. With that said, this year may yet prove an exception in that regard.

Official Rating: Although the first three winners of the Ryanair were rated in the 150's, it is a race which has attracted better horses as the years have worn on. Last year, Dynaste was the highest rated winner yet, on 169; and the average of the last four winners has been 167.

Other: Seven of the ten winners (70%) had previously won at beyond the 2m5f Ryanair trip, from 47% of the runners, again doffing a statistical cap to the advantage of proven stamina.

Ryanair Chase Form Preview

There are 39 still entered at time of writing, and a number of them may yet go shorter (Champion Chase) or longer (Gold Cup). With only one bookmaker offering the 'non-runner money back' concession at this stage - well done Boylesports - we need to tread carefully or wager with that safety net firm.

The top of the market is a two way go between last year's winner, Dynaste, and Irish up-and-comer, Don Cossack.

STOP PRESS: 4th February: A day after publishing this post, Dynaste has been ruled out for the season.

Let's start with the champ.

As he did last year, Dynaste looks set to enter the Festival arena without a win this season. However, that is to take little away from his credentials. Indeed, it can be argued that in defeat he has achieved more than any other in the field, so close has he got to the Gold Cup favourite, Silviniaco Conti, in both the Betfair Chase and the King George.

If it was felt that those two races - run at around three miles - stretched his stamina, that looked to be confirmed last month when Dynaste was outstayed up the Cheltenham hill by Many Clouds and Smad Place, two horses about which there are no such range reservations.

The drop back to the Ryanair trip looks a no-brainer and, while connections have yet to finally commit, it would surely be an act of lunacy to go long, and into the Gold Cup itself.

Another consideration with Dynaste is that in those beaten runs in the past two seasons, four of the five were on soft ground. Without saying David Pipe's son of Martaline doesn't act on soft, it is probably fair to say he's a slightly better horse on slightly better ground.

It's likely to be slightly better ground in mid-March and, with trip and grade proven by last year's win, Dynaste is a solid favourite.

Interestingly, then, in some books he's not the jolly, that privilege being afforded to the Don, Cossack. Or Don Cossack to give him his proper un-punctuated name.

Gordon Elliott's eight year old has improved a stone or so on ratings this season in a four race unbeaten streak which included the Grade 1 John Durkan in early December, and the Grade 2 Kinloch Brae Chase in mid-January. Whilst difficult to crab a horse with figures of four out of four, it is still possible to pick holes in the form of his runs.

The two key efforts are those alluded to above, in the first of which he benefited from his main market rival - Boston Bob - suffering material interference; and in the second of which his main market rival - Champagne Fever - fell at the last.

In the Don's defence, he would probably have won both races anyway, albeit by relatively fine margins. But it must be beyond question that in that pair of two-and-a-half-milers he took on horses unsuited by the distance: Champagne Fever looks a certainty for the Champion Chase over two miles, and Boston Bob will go the full Gold Cup trip (which I suspect might test his stamina too far - he looks a three miler these days, dead on).

The Cossack will go on any ground, and the Ryanair looks his ideal range. There remains an unanswered question about the specific - and significant - demands of Cheltenham, with his fall in the RSA Chase last year the only attempt. So, while he comes into the race on an upward curve, I'm not personally convinced he can improve from his Irish rating of 166 to the approximate 170 I suspect will be required to win this year's Ryanair. Not at Cheltenham anyway.

Cue Card, the 2013 winner, is third choice in all books at an almost uniform 8/1. Promoted from 165 to 170 after that fine effort almost two years ago, Cue Card went as high as 174 after claiming the 2013 Betfair Chase fifteen months back.

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Since then, it has largely been a tale of regression, his fine second in the 2013 King George aside. Indeed, having started favourite in his first two starts this season, Colin Tizzard's stable star finished fourth both times, with double digit distances 'twixt himself and the race winners. His thirteen length fifth in the 2014 King George was disappointing enough to warrant  an eight pound easing in his official rating, and he does have a lot to prove on this year's form.

It is worth reminding readers that Cue Card was off for the best part of a year after suffering a stress fracture of the pelvis so, while it is dangerous to write off a yard as talented and targeted as Tizzard's, it might be that we've seen the best of this former Cheltenham Champion Bumper winner.

Champagne Fever, himself a former Cheltenham Champion Bumper winner, remains in many lists at around 10/1, but the only bookmaker to play this horse with is Boyle and their non-runner money back insurance. He is very likely to go the shorter route and, in any case, the evidence is that he doesn't stay this far.

That brings us to one of the most interesting runners in the field, Jonjo O'Neill's Johns Spirit. It has been mentioned elsewhere on this site what a brilliant Cheltenham Festival target trainer Jonjo is, so an absence since Boxing Day is of little concern.

Johns Spirit has improved right through the handicap ranks, winning a Class 2 chase and then the Paddy Power in late 2013, and then running a fair fourth in the Byrne Group Plate at last year's Festival. That was off a mark of 148, and he kicked this season off with a 2m4f win in a Class 2 handicap chase, again at Cheltenham.

Next stop was a title defence in the Paddy Power in November, where he was just collared on the line. That day he lugged top weight, and was ceding two stone less a pound to his vanquisher, Caid Du Berlais. It should be added that the Paddy Power form has worked out pretty poorly so far, with none of the 26 subsequent runs of horses that competed there yielding a win, and only four making the frame.

Away from his beloved Cheltenham, Johns Spirit was upped to championship class in the King George and ran respectably. His 16 length sixth reads better than Cue Card's slightly narrower defeat on the basis that both track and trip were probably against him.

I'm not sure Johns Spirit is good enough to win the Ryanair, but there is some juice in his 12/1 quote to find out.

There follow a pair of 14/1 chances, headed by Balder Succes. Alan King's seven year old has won three times at around this distance, all on pan flat tracks (twice at Kempton, once at Warwick), and his Cheltenham record is comprised of letters rather than numbers: FUF.

If that's not enough to put you off, then it is worth noting that he would probably have won - albeit over two miles - when falling two out in the latter 'F', and he has completed in all ten starts since. But I'd be fairly confident that the combination of distance and stiff finish will find him out, even if the fences don't.

Al Ferof is the other 14/1 shot, and he's an interesting player in whichever Festival race he's pitched at. I've had - and recommended - a small tickle on him (NRNB) for the Gold Cup here. And I'm happy to take a small slice of 12's when 14/1 is generally available to avail of the same non-runner no bet insurance as I have in the Gold Cup.

Third in the King George, that gives him the jump on a few in this field if a strict lateral interpretation is made. Depending on how you viewed that race, he was either outpaced and plodded on, or he was outstayed. The balance of his form suggests he was probably outstayed, but that's by no means unequivocal.

For a start, he's been in the first three in all of his trio of three mile runs, two of which were in the King George. But at around two and a half miles, he has form of 3131151. He is a Grade 1 winner and a quadruple Grade 2 winner, and he won the Paddy Power in 2012 over this distance but on the Old Course at Cheltenham (the Ryanair is run on the New Course).

Detractors will point to his fifth place in last year's Ryanair, where he was beaten less than eight lengths. But here's what I believe the key to be with Al Ferof: he goes best fresh. To wit, his record after a break of 60 days or more is 1F1111, a sequence which takes in all four of his Grade 2's, as well as his Paddy Power win, where he hauled close to top weight.

In short, I think a rested Al Ferof is a threat in his connections' chosen Festival engagement, and I suspect the Ryanair is the perfect spot for him.

A gaggle of possibles lurk in the 16/1 to 20/1 range, including Ballycasey, Taquin De Seuil, Hidden Cyclone, Ma Filleuile and Uxizandre.

Ballycasey seemingly had few excuses when lapped at Leopardstown at Christmas, and a rating of 153 gives him a stone and more to find.

Taquin De Seuil is more interesting. He won the JLT Novices' Chase over two and a half at the Festival last year, touching off the gallant front runner, Uxizandre, that day. He's not been seen since pulling up in the Betfair Chase in November and, even with Jonjo's healing hands, it's a leap of faith to see the horse coming back not just right but ten pounds better than ever.

Uxizandre on the other hand had looked an improver this season, before a desperate showing in desperate ground in the same race as Ballycasey at Leopardstown over Christmas. That performance might have been down to the ground, but it might not have, and in any case there's a fair chance he'll run in the Champion Chase rather than the Ryanair.

One thing to note: he's currently 14/1 to win any race at the Festival with Hills, and that looks better than either 20/1 for the Ryanair or 16/1 for the Queen Mother. I made that bet before the Christmas copybook blot and my 10/1 looks less than shrewd now...

Hidden Cyclone must be a player. After all, he comes to Cheltenham on the back of a good win in the Tied Cottage Chase, and he was second in the Ryanair last year. He'll probably be moved up to 164 or so by the Irish handicapper for his win on Sunday, but he was punch drunk on the run in last year.

The suspicion is that he won't quite get home, and that's backed up by connections likely opting for the shorter Champion Chase option.

Ma Filleule has taken good support this week for this race, and it's unclear to me why. It's been suggested that Mark Howard nominated her as a player, but I wouldn't have thought his sphere of influence was sufficient to move the market (25's into 16's, one remaining spot of 20's) thus. It was also mentioned that a write up in The Times had said she was in great form, but plans were still undecided between this race and the Gold Cup.

Anyway, be all that as it may, the issue is that she is no better than 20/1, and her form gives her seven pounds to find. Although she's won over three miles - in a Kempton handicap chase - this looks her optimal trip and her two most recent efforts can be forgiven for over-stretching her range elastic.

With two second places from four Cheltenham starts, one of them in the Festival Handicap Chase behind Holywell last term, she will have no issue with the race parameters and it's 'merely' a question of whether she's good enough. I could envisage her making the frame, but she'd have to take a big step forward and a fair number fail to go as well as they can for her to win.

The highest rated of all the UK runners, and still a 25/1 shot in one book, is Menorah. Ten year olds have won this - Fondmort, Our Vic and Albertas Run - so age is not an issue. His rating has elevated from 161 in April 2014 to its current 169, and he's been rated in the 160's since 2012. That's a figure that, being frank, a number of the better fancied horses in the market will never achieve; and this is Menorah's only Festival entry.

So why the big price? I imagine it is mainly down to the regression in his course form. Since winning the 2010 Supreme Novices' Hurdle, he added a couple more Graded hurdles at the track before being weighed down by my financial support in the 2011 Champion Hurdle, finishing a fair fifth behind the unparalleled Hurricane Fly.

Defeat to Grandouet in the following season's International Hurdle saw a career change to fences, the first season of which culminated in a respectable third to Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle. It should be noted he was beaten nearly thirty lengths that day, however, and since then has run lamentably in both Festival starts.

They were both in the Ryanair, and read Po. Another such performance would render a Ryanair form string of PoP or Poo, either of which illustrates why Laddies are happy to take a 'pony' chance with him. At the price, I'll admit, I'm tempted for small money.

Ryanair Chase 2015 Tips

In what looks at first glance to be an open race, a combination of preferred engagements and official ratings soon pares things down to a more manageable number.

Dynaste has an obvious form chance and looks to be in the same sort of fettle as he was last year. He's 5/1 in places and that's fair enough without being exciting. My issue is I can't back him at 4/1 NRNB, and I can't back him at 5/1 without the concession. So, at this stage, I can't back him!

In order to derive value from any market, we have to be prepared to allow something near the head of the field to beat us. For me, it is Don Cossack. His unbeaten run this term has been more due to the poor placement and/or jumping of others than his own efforts, and if he's good enough to win, so be it, and fair play.

Cue Card has a Ryanair on his palmarès already, but on current form - even factoring in my huge respect for the stable - he's hard to back at a single figure price.

Johns Spirit is interesting, and a possible on both trainer and track form; but not as interesting to me as Al Ferof. I really like this fellow and think he's been under-rated for a lot of his career. That's why he's the price he is - as well as his multiple engagements muddying the waters - and if he goes straight to the Festival now, that will be perfect. 12/1 non-runner no bet looks good.

Uxizandre to win any race at 14's with Hills isn't the worst bet in the world either, especially back on better ground. But I couldn't recommend him solely for this race because he's still a possible for the Champion Chase.

That leaves Menorah and that 25/1. He's as likely to run a 'P' or an '0' as he is to run a 123 - more likely in the eyes of one firm's traders - but that's factored into the price. Between those two howlers, Menorah did run second in a Grade 2 handicap, giving lumps of weight away, at Cheltenham. And this season, he's finished second in the Betfair Chase as well as winning the Grade 2 Charlie Hall on good ground. The price makes the bet - always - and 25/1 is too big, for a sliver.

1pt win Al Ferof 12/1 Boylesports NRNB (14/1 general, all in run or not)

1/2 pt win Johns Spirit 11/1 Boylesports NRNB (12/1 general, all in run or not)

1/2 pt win Menorah 25/1 Ladbrokes all in run or not

*

Also previewed for Cheltenham Festival 2015

Gold Cup Preview, Trends, Tips 2015

World Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips 2015

Arkle Chase Preview, Trends, Tips 2015

Ryanair Chase Preview, Trends, Tips 2015

Ryanair Chase 2014 Preview Trends Tips

Ryanair Chase Preview Tips

Ryanair Chase Preview Tips

Ryanair Chase 2014 Preview, Trends, and Tips

One of the newer races in the expanded four day Cheltenham Festival, the Ryanair Chase is rapidly making a name for itself as a coronation procession for middle distance chasing champions. Run over two miles and five furlongs, and with seventeen fences to jump it is a true test of speed, stamina and athleticism, and the tapes go up at 2.40 on Thursday 13th March.

At the time of writing, the race looks to be an excellent betting contest, mainly because the ante-post favourite and reigning Ryanair champion, Cue Card, has been declared by his trainer to be "85 per cent likely" to run in the Gold Cup and, therefore, miss this race.

Moreover, there is a good chance that third favourite, Al Ferof, will run in the Gold Cup rather than the Ryanair as well, although this will not be decided until after the Denman Chase, scheduled for 8th February.

That leaves only Benefficient, last year's Jewson Chase winner (for novices' over the same course, and distance), at single figures for the contest, and he too is also engaged in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. It's then 11/1 bar this trio of uncertain entries, which underscores my keenness to have a bash at the contest.

Let's first see if there is anything to be gleaned from the past runnings of the race...

Ryanair Chase Trends

First run in 2005, there are now nine years' worth of data to trawl, and the key points from it include the following.

Just three of 23 last time out winners followed up in the Ryanair, with another three (from 19) winning having been second on their previous start. 19 of the 42 horses to have finished 1-2 in their last race were placed in the Ryanair, at a rate of 45%. That was from 44% of the runners, making the 67% win rate noteworthy.

Eight- to ten-year-olds have claimed seven of the nine Ryanair's, and 19 of the 27 place positions (70%), though that is only in line with their numerical representation, having been responsible for 72% of the runners.

Only 14/1 Albertas Run has won at a bigger price than 6/1, so whichever horse we back at a bigger price, we should be looking for it to truncate in the betting before the big day. With the possibility of two or three of the main fancies swerving the race, there's every chance of finding a 'shortener'.

In such a classy race as the Ryanair, it is hardly surprising that ten of the 25 runners officially rated 165 or higher were placed, with four of them winning. That's 44% of the winners, and 37% of the placed horses from just 26% of the runners.

As with all Cheltenham races, it takes an exceptional horse to defy a significant layoff, and all nine Ryanair winners ran within 90 days of their Festival success. 25 of the 27  (93%) placed horses did too, from 84% of the runners. Aside from Quevega, it is good sense to exclude any horse without a run in the previous 90 days at the Cheltenham Festival.

The most interesting trend with regards to the Ryanair however may be that eight of the nine winners of the race so far had already won at Cheltenham beforehand, though not necessarily at the Festival. That's 89% of the winners from just 52% of the runners.

Placing even greater emphasis on track form is the fact that eight of the nine winners (89%), and 19 of the 27 (70%) placed horses, had been placed at least twice before around Cheltenham. And that from just 51 runners (54%).

Six of the nine Ryanair winners were previous Grade 1 winners, with another two having already notched in Grade 2 company.

Those which fit the profile closest include Dynaste, Menorah, and First Lieutenant.

Ryanair Chase 2014 Preview

Cue Card is the defending champion and ante post favourite for this year's Ryanair Chase. He obviously handles conditions fine, and has been in excellent form this year, including when winning the Grade 1 Betfair Chase over about three miles at Haydock in November. Since then he's run a game second in the King George VI Chase at Kempton, and comes to the Festival in top form.

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The problem for punters is that he's more likely - much more likely according to his trainer - to go for the Gold Cup than the Ryanair and, as such, the 3/1 BetVictor (non-runner free bet) is far more appealing than the 6/1 Paddy Power, where you'll lose your cash if Cue Card doesn't start in this race.

Benefficient is more likely to take in this event, though he too is engaged elsewhere, and he underlined his credentials firstly by winning the novices' equivalent of the Ryanair, the JLT (was Jewson), and secondly by fending off all-comers last time in the Grade 1 Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown.

The problem here is that Benefficient's Grade 1 score the last day was over two miles and on soft ground and, despite the persistent rain that continues to fall, it is expected to be quicker than that - and will certainly be further than that - in middle March. In any case, his form is probably half a stone or more behind that of Cue Card.

Al Ferof, a 7/1 chance, is another that may take the Gold Cup route. His King George third, eleven lengths behind Cue Card, left suspicions that he doesn't truly stay the three miles there - and therefore would struggle to get the almost 3m3f of the Gold Cup trip. There are some, however, that believe he was outpaced at Kempton, and was staying on at the finish.

My take is that he didn't stay, a perception which is at least partially supported by no previous rules effort beyond the 2m5f Ryanair trip. In fact, the only two runs at that distance culminated in a Grade 1 third in a novice hurdle at Newbury, and a win the Paddy Power Gold Cup over the course, and distance, of the Ryanair.

He's entered in the three mile Denman Chase on 8th February, and a call on which Festival target to tilt at will be made subsequently. If Al Ferof lines up here, he has a very good chance - form figures of 2F1141 at Cheltenham, and 214 at the Festival underline that. 6/1 non-runner no bet with bet365 is the logical play, especially with trainer Paul Nicholls hinting that the Gold Cup is slightly preferred at this stage.

First Lieutenant is yet another horse with multiple entries, and which might go the Gold Cup route. He ran second to a resurgent Bobs Worth at Leopardstown over Christmas, though the form of that race is hard to quantify. To wit, the winner had run a stinker in the Betfair previously; the third, Rubi Ball, was bidding to replicate smart French form but hasn't won for two years and eleven starts; the fourth, Sir Des Champs, was essentially having his first start of the season after a very early (and crashing) fall the time before. He ran a bit flat, and has been withdrawn for the remainder of the season.

Of the remainder, nothing was rated higher than 154, and only the veteran Prince de Beauchene was distanced from the field. In other words, it was a muddling race.

In First Left's defence, he has an extremely consistent profile - 14 places from 17 chase starts - but against him are just three wins from that number. Given that he was readily outpaced in the Ryanair last year; and that his five subsequent starts have all been at within a furlong of three miles; and that Sir Des Champs (same owner) is out of the Gold Cup... I'd say he's more likely to go the Gold Cup route. Betting of 11/1, but only 6/1 non runner no bet tells a tale, and he's not for me. Too many chances, too few wins.

Next in is Dynaste and, after a disappointing performance in the King George, he's receiving specialist treatment at home. The latest bulletin from trainer David Pipe was far from fulsome, with the trainer noting, “He is improving steadily (but is not yet 100 per cent) and is still receiving regular treatment from [physiotherapist] Mary Bromiley."

Dynaste plugged on quite well behind Benefficient in the Jewson/JLT last year, but he was expected to win that day, so the silver medal can still be marked a tad disappointing. Overall then, the price doesn't really offer too much for value punters.

The best backed horse of recent days is Willie Mullins' Marito, a faller when starting to make ground in Benefficient's Cheltenham win last year. He's had a low key prep since, with a close second to an under-par Hurricane Fly in the Morigana Hurdle followed by a straightforward conversion in a Listed chase at Tramore.

Marito did have the 162-rated Roi Du Mee three lengths back in that contest, but he doesn't look good enough even off a revised rating of 154. He may also want deeper turf than he's likely to encounter at Cheltenham in March.

Although there are still a number of contenders priced at 20/1 or shorter, most of them have serious questions to answer currently: the likes of Riverside Theatre (inconsistent, unseated last time), Module (lightly raced and a stone below what's needed), Captain Conan (stamina doubt on this stiff track and maybe more likely to contest Queen Mother Champion Chase), and Arvika Ligeonniere (may be better right handed and disappointed badly in the Champion Chase last year).

Of the oily rags, Menorah has plenty of course form and has been in the first three in nine of fourteen career chases, including three Grade 1's. The problem for his fan club is that he's also pulled up twice in his last four starts, including when running a clunker in last year's Ryanair.

If his mid-February prep goes all right, he is at least solely entered in the Ryanair at the Festival. He's 20/1 non-runner free bet with BetVictor and that's not the least tempting offer on the bookies' table.

Ryanair Chase 2014 Tips

Betting of 6/1 the field attests to the wide open nature of this year's Ryanair and, with lingering doubts about which race several of the leading candidates will contest, this is a minefield for punters. With some bookmakers offering either non runner no bet or non runner free bet, we can take a chance on a couple against the top of the market.

Cue Card does have BY FAR the most compelling profile for the race, and is a model of top class consistency. He definitely merits some sort of insured investment, as he could be a 7/4 chance on the day if lining up in this (and, of course, it's free bet time if he runs in the Gold Cup instead).

Al Ferof at 6/1 is also a price with a bit of scope assuming he lines up. I think he will and, therefore, I think the 6/1 non runner no bet is worth taking.

The rest are varying degrees of unpalatable, and the best outsider could be course veteran, Menorah. His Cheltenham form is 111543P2 and he does have talent on his going days.

Ryanair Chase win selection: Al Ferof 6/1 bet365 (non-runner no bet)

bet365

Ryanair Chase saver: Cue Card 3/1 BetVictor (non-runner free bet)

Betvictor.com

Best Ryanair Chase outsider: Menorah 20/1 BetVictor (non-runner free bet)

Hobbs calls on Breisner to sort out his errant jumpers

Captain Chris (left) jumps out to right

Philip Hobbs has become so concerned about the poor jumping of his stable stars Captain Chris and Menorah that he has enrolled them in school with Swedish ace Yogi Breisner before they head to Cheltenham. Read more

Cheltenham Festival 2012: Arkle Trophy Preview

Arkle Trophy 2012 Preview

Arkle Trophy 2012

Arkle Trophy 2012

The Arkle Trophy on the opening Tuesday of the Cheltenham Festival 2012 is one of the key championship novice events at the meeting. Arkle winners have a fantastic record in subsequent two mile champion chases, meaning this is not just a race to savour in its own right but also a leading trial for future events.

In this post, I'm going to preview the Arkle Trophy 2012, and I don't mind telling you, there's a horse I really like the look of, and at a nice enough price too.

Arkle Trophy 2012 Trends

There are some quite strong profile pointers when looking at the past winners of the Arkle. Here are the key elements I uncovered, when looking at the last eleven renewals, going back to 2000 (no race in 2001)  :

Age - All Arkle winners were aged between five and eight years old. The two five year old winners both started their careers in Europe, and were reasonably experienced with eleven (Well Chief) and fourteen (Voy Por Ustedes) prior runs under their belts.

Eight of the last eleven Arkle Trophy winners were aged seven or eight, including the last five.

The average age of the last eleven winners of the Arkle was 6.73

Odds - The Arkle is not a race where outsiders do especially well. In fact, Flagship Uberalles was the only horse to win at double figure odds since Waterloo Boy's 20/1 shock back in 1989. And even Flagship was only 11/1! So don't be looking for a rag here, as it likely won't serve you well.

Despite that, it's been a pretty miserable race for the jolly old favourite, with just a solitary market leader obliging since 1995... and that was the 5/4 poke, Azertyuiop. Not a lot of jam on the bread for uninspired punters here. In fact, not a lot of shirt left on back over the years!

The next three in the betting have had it pretty much between them, with ten of the last fourteen winners from this zone, and a very healthy thirty points profit to boot. So, history suggests we should look to the top of the market, but be wary of the jolly.

The average odds of the last eleven Arkle winners is 6.16/1

Well Chief Arkle Trophy

Well Chief: Arkle Trophy winner

Experience - Well Chief managed to win the Arkle off just one chasing run, and that a no name Taunton novice event. Tiutchev, in 2000, won off two chase starts, both fairly low grade affairs. Clearly, in profiling terms those are somewhat anomalous and, aside from the Chief and the 'chev, all the other nine recent winners had between three and five prior chase starts.

Interestingly, perhaps, the last seven winners had all run four times over fences prior to winning their Arkle.

Form - All of the last eleven Arkle Trophy champions had won a chase start. Duh! But there is, I believe, an undertone in the respective form lines of Arkle winners. And it is this: the last six, and nine of the last eleven, Arkle winners had all won or been second at 2m1f or further.

Quite simply, the Arkle rides like a 2m3f event. Out and out speedsters are undone by its punishing layout and murderously long run in. Consider Sprinter Sacre's wilt when apparently having the Supreme at his mercy last term, and ask yourself if you really want to take 5/2 about him being more resolute this time around.

Last year, Captain Chris had won around two and a half miles of Sandown's testing tracking; in 2010, Sizing Europe had won a 2m1f Leopardstown contest in a bog; 2009 saw Forpadydeplasterer beaten three lengths in a Grade 1 over 2m5f! And so it goes on.

All recent unbeaten chasers (of which there have been five), except Well Chief and his one chase start, have won at 2m1f or beyond.

Sprinter Sacre has won at Ascot, Ayr, Ffos Las, Doncaster, and Kempton. Their respective constitutions are as follows: flat, flat, flat, flat, flat. He's been beaten at Ascot the only time he went beyond two miles and a few yards (that was 2m4f) and Cheltenham. 5/2? Are you sure?

The last six winners had all finished 1st or 2nd on all completed chase starts. And, barring Contraband's 3rd place on very heavy ground, all of the last eleven winners had finished first or second on all completed starts. That's a strong stat, and I'd be striking a line through anything that finished 3rd or worse, unless they fell or unseated.

Course form around Cheltenham does seem important, but it's very hard to quantify. Two of the last eleven winners were having their first spin around the track (Moscow Flyer and Voy Por Ustedes), but all the others had form on the course, many of them in Festival hurdle races.

Other Factors - Ireland has supplied three of the last eleven winners; UK has the other eight. This is a race generally favoured to the home team, and the betting this time is very lop-sided towards British entries.

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Hurdle ratings don't really give much of a clue except to say that most Arkle winners were high class hurdlers, and some were very high class hurdlers.

The time since last run of Arkle winners varies a fair bit, from Sizing Europe in 2010 who didn't race after Boxing Day (or St Stephen's Day, as he raced in Ireland), to Captain Chris last year who raced just seventeen days before.

The Arkle Trophy 2012 Contenders

Sprinter Sacre is the favourite, at a best priced 5/2. He is a six year old French bred with a penchant for flat tracks. He's unbeaten in two chase starts and will likely have one more before the Festival, making him less experienced than the last seven winners, but not by much.

He was beaten when coming to win the race in last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and I can see him travelling beautifully again before being found out on the run in. He's been involved in three close finishes: when just nosing out subsequent good hurdler, King Of The Night, on debut; and then in his two defeats.

This chap might have the highest cruising speed of any horse in training, but he looks a massive in-running lay to me, as he finds nothing off the bridle, and is a doubtful stayer around Cheltenham in a championship race, to my eye.

Arkle Trophy 2012: Peddlers Cross

Arkle Trophy 2012: Peddlers Cross

Peddlers Cross is the horse for me. Yes, he was beaten by Sprinter Sacre in a three horse race at Kempton. He was beaten in a sprint up the straight in a slow run race on an unsuitably flat track over a trip short of his best, and apparently he was a sick horse afterwards.

Am I making excuses for him?

Yes!

In two previous runs over two and a quarter miles round the - granted - League Two standard Bangor circuit, he'd bombed home. The runner up in the second of those runs, Minella Class, was going just about best of all when unshipping next time in a race that Cue Card won at Newbury.

From a profile perspective, Peddlers is a seven year old, with course form, has won beyond 2m1f, is high class, is yet to be out of the first two over fences, is in the right odds range, and - if he gets another run before the Arkle itself - will have had the magic four chase starts beforehand.

On hurdle form, Peddlers Cross was the only horse able to serve it up to Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle last year, and I am always prepared to forgive a horse one bad run, such as the 'too bad to be true?' effort behind Sprinter Sacre the last day. The balance of Peddlers' form makes 5/1 pretty tasty to my punting palate, and I'm on.

Al Ferof is next in, at 7/1 third favourite. He's another seven year old, unbeaten in two chase starts, including a Grade 1 at Sandown last time. He also won the Supreme Novices' last year - Sprinter Sacre in third - having been outpaced turning in but then fair barrelling up the hill to brush them all aside in the manner of a horse who could have gone around again!

This chap is respected, but here's my problem with him. As I write, he's entered in the Victor Chandler Chase, a Grade 1 for seasoned fencers. It's a bold bid, but in my opinion it could be the undoing of ante-post ticklers. If he runs badly, he may drift in the Arkle betting or, worse, injure himself. If he runs well, he'll be surely be considered for the Champion Chase itself, a race which  - Sizing Europe and Big Zeb aside - looks desperately shallow this term.

So, assuming Al Ferof ran a respectable second or third at Sandown in the Victor Chandler Chase, and the trainer delivered reassuring post-race utterances regarding his Festival target, I'd be happy to take a shorter price on him for the Arkle. Having just watched his Supreme win again, he looked brilliant in the closing stages: everything that Sprinter Sacre didn't.

The rest, headed by Cue Card and Menorah, don't really count on what they've done so far. Cue Card is another who finds little off the bridle, and he's been unmasked in top company several times now. Not for me.

Menorah is a classy beast, for sure, but his jumping is laboured and unprofessional. Unless and until he can show me he's capable of jumping with fluency and alacrity, I'd be happy to take the hit if he's been saving it all up for the big day itself.

Of the Irish... well, there aren't many contenders for this from over the sea in truth. Blackstairmountain took full advantage of Notus de la Tour's pace-pressing and Bog Warrior's fence-mutilating when winning a fair Grade 1 at Leopardstown over Christmas.

He does have some reasonable form, including when staying on well until hitting the hill in the County Hurdle last year. On balance, that doesn't look good enough to win this, and place prospects may be the best he can hope for.

Arkle Trophy 2012 Final View

In what is generally a race which goes to form, and what is specifically this year a race which looks pretty shallow, I'd say it lies between the top three in the betting.

I have outlined my reasons for swerving Sprinter Sacre. This horse has a lot of class, and it's perfectly possible he can win an Arkle. But... he won't find much off the steel, and you'll be soiling your undergarments if you've gone 'all in' at 5/2 or less as they climb that hill.

The value lies further down the bookie lists, but not much further. Peddlers Cross is a very, very good horse, and has a Champion Hurdle silver medal already stowed in his trophy cabinet, as well as a Neptune Hurdle. Clearly, track and trip hold no perils. Fences seem to be of little consequence either, as he's jumped every one with panache... with the exception of the first at Kempton which may well have caused his dethroning that last day.

I like the Peddler a lot. And I think he has an outstanding chance in this race.

Al Ferof is another very taking sort. All National Hunt stock, he's by Dom Alco, the same daddy to Grands Crus, Silviniaco Conti, and Neptune Collonges. He bounded up the hill last term over hurdles, and he's another who has taken to his fences like I take to my burgers: with relish.

I am worried about his running in the VC Chase this weekend, as I always fret about inexperienced novices being pitched in against seasoned (how I like my fries) pro's.

If he comes out of that race unscathed, and Mr Nicholls intimates that the Arkle is the first item on the agenda, then I shall reload my wagering potato gun and take aim at those pesky bookies once more.

Arkle 2012 Tips

As you will have guessed, I believe the 5/1 about Peddlers Cross to be comfortably the best value in the race, and he is my selection.

I also feel that Al Ferof is a very lively runner, IF he doesn't come a cropper this weekend.

I've backed Peddlers Cross already at 5/1 (6.4 on Betfair), and I will have a bit more than a saving investment on Al Ferof after the weekend, all other things being equal.

Click here for the latest Arkle Betting Odds.

Click on the below to see my 'working out' spreadsheet...

Arkle 2012 Trends

Arkle 2012 Trends

Monday Mish Mash: More Festival Pointers

It's Monday again, and time to look back on the weekend racing with a view to the future.

Friday's Cheltenham card was nothing special for the most part, but it was noteworthy for one thing. And that, unfortunately, was the carnage that transpired in the Cross Country Chase.

In case you missed, it, seven jockeys - riding the leading seven horses turning in for home - took the wrong course! In point of fact, this did have an unexpected bonus for me, as this race is one of the two pre-eminent Festival Cross Country Chase trials (the other being run at Punchestown), and the merit of one horse's performance was masked by the farce.

That horse is Scotsirish, and I'm convinced that he's better than stablemate Uncle Junior and will carry the weight here no problem in March. He's 11/2 with Stan James, which is a bit annoying as I took the 5's with Bet365 before the other bookie chalked up prices. A hundred pounds win only.

Scotsirish for the Cross Country Chase 2012

Scotsirish for the Cross Country Chase 2012

Moving on to Saturday, and I was lucky enough to be at the track, which was a welcome respite from some difficult times on the personal front, with my mum quite ill in hospital at the moment.

I'd bid in an auction about a year and a half ago for four seats in a box at the West Country track, and myself, Mrs Matt, Gavin and Mrs Gavin, were guests of Weatherbys four storeys up and overlooking both the finish line below, and the entire course as a panorama.

We were very well looked after by our hosts, and enjoyed some good wholesome grub, some equally wholesome vin rouge, and some even more wholesome National Hunt fare.

Baby Mix was a good winner of the Triumph Hurdle trial, but what this probably told us more than anything is that we definitely haven't seen the winner of that race yet.

It is generally the case that the Triumph winner comes over from France these days, and usually has its first British run in late December or January. Baby Mix wouldn't have been the best of the Frenchies and, whilst there was much to like about the way he quickened off a fairly pedestrian pace here, there will surely be something better which reveals itself in the next few weeks.

In the second race, I was extremely taken with the jumping of the winner, Join Together. Running in the Denman colours, he showed all the exuberance and a hint of the engine of 'The Tank', when barrelling clear up the run-in to record a decisive twelve length verdict over Mossley.

It was surprising to hear that Paul Nicholls, the winner's trainer, was contemplating the four miler at the Festival for Join Together because, while I've no doubt he'll stay (the brilliance of his leap at the last implied he could have gone round again, no problem), he has class and that edge of street fighter that you need for an RSA Chase.

He's 14/1 in a lot of places, only 10's with Ladbrokes, and despite horses like Grands Crus heading the market, I like this chap. He's won twice round here now so there are no reservations about course, distance, or going. It is then simply a question of whether the horse is good enough. In a race which often becomes attritional, and finds out many a 'class horse', Join Together is made of the stuff that could trouble the judge.

I'm not invested yet, but I almost certainly will be before the week is out. If you've not yet seen this race, take a look at the round of jumping the winner puts in. Phenomenal.

In the two mile handicap chase, Rileyev is clearly the horse to take with an eye to the Grand Annual Chase at the Festival. He was badly hampered by the bizarre fall of Tanks For That (himself a player for Johnnie Henderson Grand Annual, the race named after his trainer's father), and had to work hard to get back into it.

He was then only mugged on the line. Venetia Williams has few peers when it comes to readying one for a Festival handicap chase, and I'd be surprised if we don't see Rileyev lining up there with a big chance.

The Albert Bartlett was won by Deireadh Re, but he would have had no chance with Sea Of Thunder, who was well clear when crashing out at the last. Not sure whether this was Festival form: if it was, the only horse to consider in that context was the falling Thunder, who was having his first trip beyond two miles this day.

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Then came the big race. It seemed everyone in our box was on the same horse, Medermit. He ran a blinder to wear down the game front running Roudoudouville, but unfortunately, Quantitiveeasing fair flew between runners to get up by three quarters of a length, and uphold the form of the Paddy Power Chase, in which he'd finished second.

Whether that was a Ryanair run, or one for the handicaps (Festival Plate, I think) remains to be seen, but it was a cracking contest and a thrilling finish. Unless, like me, you were one of those mugs who backed the second win only...

And then came the International Hurdle, featuring Grandouet, Overturn, Brampour, Menorah and the rest. A mini-Champion Hurdle in many ways, and there are no chinks in the form. This was true run, as must be the case with Overturn being taken on early.

He ran another robust race, and showed real mettle to outstay Brampour for second. Both of these are high class beasts, without likely being good enough to win the Champion itself. Grandouet on the other hand, despite being a five year old next season, seems to have the maturity to match his undoubted ability.

He cruised into this, and galloped resolutely to the line in the style of a very good animal. Second favouritism (behind Hurricane Fly) was inevitable for the winner of this race, and 7/1 with William Hill is the standout best price now. He'll surely be jolly if the Fly is grounded come March.

Menorah has a little to prove at this stage, and it wouldn't actually surprise me if he ended up in the 2m5f novice chase that Noble Prince won last year. Whether he's good enough to win it is another question entirely.

The final race, the Relkeel Hurdle, looked a penalty kick for Oscar Whisky and, while the winning margin was less than two lengths, the style of victory was emphatic enough. Giving eight pounds to the runner up, a renaissance performance from Get Me Out Of Here at a track he enjoys, Oscar was eased down at the death.

I'm not sure he has a trip for the Festival over hurdles though, as I imagine they're too quick for him at two miles (where his trainer has plenty of other options), and he may well not stay the three miles of the World Hurdle. If I was owner Dai Walters, I'd be tempted to take in the Welsh Champion Hurdle again at Ffos Las (also owned by Walters), and then head to the two and a half mile hurdle at Aintree.

Missing Cheltenham is always a difficult decision for owners, but it might be the right one. Incidentally, full disclosure, I've backed Oscar Whisky at 33's for the Champion Hurdle, for which he is as short as 14/1 now, so I hope he does run there. I'm just not at all sure he will.

******

And finally, the prize draw entries close at 1pm this afternoon, so you might still have enough time to enter. One entry who will be less concerned about whether he cops the £250 first prize is Andrew R. Andrew opened a new sportingbet account and, with his free tenner bet, did this:

Free bet wins two grand

Free bet wins two grand

-

Nigh on two grand for a tenner! Well done Andrew and, as always when geegeez community winners are kind enough to show their winning tickets, thanks a million for sharing. 😀

A quick reminder of the rules:

1. Choose a special offer with a bookie you don't currently have an account with here.

2. Register and enjoy your free bet.

3. Email prizedraw@geegeez.co.uk with your name and the account you opened.

I'll have checked all entries by this evening and will annouce the winner on the blog tomorrow.

As well as the £250 winner, there will be three runners up who bag a six month membership to my Winning Trainers, itself worth eighty quid.

There are now just about forty entries, so you've all got a roughly one in ten chance of winning as things stand.

Good luck, and I'll be back tomorrow with news of the winners.

Matt

p.s. what was your pick of the weekend performances? Maybe it wasn't at Cheltenham, but elsewhere. Leave a comment below.

p.p.s. If you've got facebook, please share this post by clicking the 'share' button to the left. Or re-tweet by clicking that button. Thank you.

Cheltenham Trends – Sat 10th Dec

Andy Newton gives you all the trends & stats that matter ahead of Saturday’s excellent Cheltenham card Read more

Geegeez Ten To Follow 2011/12

Who can beat the 'Fly this winter?

Who can beat the 'Fly this winter?

It's last knockings if you're getting your Ten To Follow (TTF) entries in, dear reader, so in the spirit of the season, I present you with my tip top ten tips for top honours this term... if you see what I mean.

Long Run - duh! Obviously not the most 'under the radar' selection ever, but this chap just cannot be excluded from TTF entries. He won't have too many starts, but was ultra-impressive in the King George on Boxing Day, and even more so in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March.

Hurricane Fly - double duh! And this is hardly a match-winning entrant either. However, not including the 'Fly could be a match loser. Basically, last term he ran five times and won them all, including the Champion Hurdle and the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival. If he stays fit - could be a big if - he's going to be tough to beat all year.

Fingal Bay - ah, that's a bit more like it. The first 'interesting' contender. This fellow murdered a bumper field at Exeter on his debut in February before demolishing the oppo in the Grade 2 Persian War Novices' Hurdle at Chepstow. He's beaten nothing of note yet, but given he's barely come off the bridle and is bound to improve with time, keep Fingal Bay in mind for staying novice hurdle events.

Menorah - Slightly disappointing when 'only' fifth in the Champion Hurdle, Menorah is being aimed at a fence or two this term. Indeed, he's already had a go at it but bungled the second last with the race in the satchel. Compensation awaits and he might run up a sequence of three or four en route to the Arkle, which has the promise of a fantastic race next March.

Big Buck's - OK, I know I'm hardly turning over any big rocks here, but this chap has been close to unopposable for a few years now over hurdles. He'll again target the World Hurdle unless owner or trainer have a brainstorm (he's not a very good chaser, so Gold Cup ambition is far wide of the mark). Having won all twelve UK hurdle starts, we can be pretty hopeful he'll take the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, the Long Walk Hurdle at the same track, and then the World Hurdle at Chelters and the Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree.

That's what he's done the last two years and, if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

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Noble Prince one to follow, but who knows where?!

Noble Prince one to follow, but who knows where?!

Noble Prince - left me frustrated last term when connections re-routed to the race I didn't have a juicy ante-post wager in at the Cheltenham Festival, and promptly won. I did back him on the day and he was an easy winner. Bypasses the Paddy Power this weekend in favour of a softer looking Grade 2 at Navan (though Big Zeb is entered!), and should win races on his way to the Ryanair? Champion Chase? Gold Cup? I won't be betting him ante-post, let's put it that way!

Golden Silver - Willie Mullins' classy two mile chaser has never been top of the tree and, as such, has perhaps not been afforded the respect he should have. He won four Grade 2's last term, and there's plenty of softish races that he can farm again this season. He'll be ten on January 1st, so isn't getting any quicker, but he does know his way home at many of the Irish tracks and should win more races.

Oscar Whisky - won three of his four runs last year, including the Aintree Hurdle, and his only defeat - when third in the Champion Hurdle - reads well too. It's unclear where he'll go this season, with both novice chasing and distance hurdling mooted. Whichever, he ought to be tough to beat and will probably win at his owner's Ffos Las before the National Hunt year is out.

Quito De La Roque - progressive and versatile are a couple of great adjectives to describe this lad. Winner of six of his seven starts, with the only defeat being to RSA Chase winner Boston's Angel, QdlR will be aimed at the very top and could become a live contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He's won on heavy and fast ground, so can run wherever, and there are plenty of three mile races for him.

He's already won a Grade 1 chase this season, when outstaying Sizing Europe and the rest in the jnwine.com Champion Chase, and I've backed him at 20's for the Gold Cup!

So Young - it was a toss up between this one and Bobs Worth for the final spot, and I've just favoured So Young. He was a bit of a hype horse last year, and he might be again this time. But Mullins has a fancy entry for him in the Morgiana (against stablemate, Hurricane Fly) and if he runs there it can be taken as a sign that big things are expected. It's a bit of a punt, but then you've got to have a punt if you want to win something like this.

Best of luck to all who are entering ten to follow competitions, and I hope you finish second behind me! 😉

Who are your key horses for this season? Let us know by leaving a comment, and we'll cheer them on for you!

Matt

Supreme Novices’ Hurdle 2011 Preview

Supreme Novices Hurdle winner, Menorah

Supreme Novices Hurdle winner, Menorah

The first race of the Cheltenham Festival 2011 is the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, run over two miles and a half furlong, for horses aged four or older. In recent seasons it has been dominated by the Irish, so it is interesting to see that this year's ante-post lists contain a proliferation of British-trained horses at the head of affairs, with just the occasional Emerald Isle interloper.

Perhaps this presents an opportunity to find some value, and to give us a flying start for the toughest, funnest, bestest, four days racing anywhere in the World. [Hyperbole? Actually, no, I don't think so...]

Last season's Supreme winner, Menorah, bucked a couple of pretty strong trends, with his victory coming off the back of a runner up finish the time before and also given that he was trained in the UK.

Let's take a look at the Supreme Novices' key profile angles, and see if we can't pare down the ante-post lists to a likely candidate at a fat, juicy price to give us a ticket on which to weave a dream of a winning start to the 2011 Cheltenham Festival.

First up, I mentioned a couple of points in relation to Menorah: the Irish have dominated in recent years, bagging seven of the last ten runnings of the Supreme Novices. And, eight of the last ten (and twelve of the last fourteen) Supreme winners won last time out.

If we extend the last time out performance to previous winners' entire hurdling careers at that stage, it's interesting to note that seven out of the ten had never been out of the first two. That stat includes Menorah. So we might very well say that we're mostly interested in a last time out winner, but we'll consider runners up if they've never been out of the first two.

Five and six year old's rule supreme in the Supreme. Although Captain Cee Bee won as a 7yo in 2008, and Like-A-Butterfly as an 8yo in 2002, only five horses older than six or younger than five have claimed the Supreme Novices' glory since 1974.

A really interesting point - at least, I think it's interesting - is that half of the last ten winners had never won better than a Class 2 novice hurdle and, whilst there's a hatful of last time out winners claiming the spoils in the Supreme, only one horse - Brave Inca in 2004 - actually won a Grade 1 event last time out. In other words, I suspect that the Supreme Novices Hurdle is typically won by a horse who has been brought along gradually; one undoubtedly with more potential than it has thus far demonstrated; and, consequently, one which usually pays a better odds multiple than the favourite (who is normally the horse with the best public form).

Eight of the last ten winners had between two and four runs over hurdles, with one of the exceptions - Go Native - having had five hurdle starts in 2009. Too bad for Toubab, then, who has already had six starts, and actually only managed to win one of them.

Perhaps lending some credence to my 'hiding their light under a bushel' notion is the fact that, perversely perhaps, nine of the last ten winners of the Supreme Novices have failed to run a previous Topspeed figure above 126. Whilst it is obviously harsh to penalise a horse for performing to a higher level, this does suggest that each year the winner runs a good bit faster than they previously have.

Moreover, horses who have shown only slow races prior to turning up at Cheltenham on a Tuesday in mid-March, do not win the Supreme. The Topspeed bracket for winners' previous best speed figure has seven of them in a range between 107 and 126. For the purposes of this study, I have elected for a range of 105 to 130.

On the other hand, Racing Post Ratings have more clearly pointed to the potential of Supreme Novices winners, by recording a rating of 137+ against the names of eight subsequent winners prior to their Cleeve Hill success. Indeed, seven of those eight had notched a 143 or better.

Stallions preclude no runners, with an even split of jumps and flat sires amongst the last ten winners. But Irish bred horses hold the upper hand, having grabbed seven to UK bred runners' three wins in the last decade.

An interesting sidebar on breeding is that Frenchies have a moderate (at best) record, with just the exceptional Hors La Loi III (subsequently Champion Hurdler) winning for the French-bred's from 42 starters in the last fourteen years. He was a 9/2 chance...

My penultimate pointer is that ten of the last eleven Supreme Novices Hurdle winners had their final prep race within 45 days of lining up at Cheltenham. Given that there are currently 48 days until tapes up in the Cotswolds, I'm expecting the winner to have another run between now and then.

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Finally, and as a neat enough segue into this year's contenders, let's remind ourselves of the abominable record of Cheltenham Champion Bumper runners in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. I researched this last year when pondering the case of early 2010's Pegasus, Dunguib (where are they now?!).

He won the previous Champion Bumper in a similar fashion to Cue Card's rout last March. At that time, I mentioned that only Montelado had won both the Bumper and the Supreme Novices, making him the only horse ever to have won back-to-back Cheltenham Festival races. Of course, the Bumper is no longer that last race on the card, so Montelado will hold that unique position in history forever.

Casting aside the anorak momentarily, the material point in all this is that Montelado, way back in 1993, remains the only Bumper winner to have won the Supreme. AND... only Back In Front has joined him from the full casts of the previous year's Cheltenham Champion Bumper. Of course, these stats are made to be broken, but I'd be very cautious about piling into Cue Card at best odds of 5/2 in light of the above.

So, to the rest of this year's contenders and how they shape up against the profile we've created. It should be clear that there are currently more question marks in this puzzle than your average university entrance exam, and the ethereal nature of this conundrum is akin to the proverbial attempts to nail jelly to a wall. That's why those generous bookie types are still offering 14/1 bar two in the race! 🙂

Cue Card is a standout form horse at this stage, but may not have as much improvement as others (may not need any improvement). But... he is up against the Bumper stat. And... he might still go for a different race. And... he's highly unlikely to be shorter on the day given his unfashionable connections and the strings of 1's adorning many contenders' form lines cometh the hour.

So, politely decline the Cue Card for now, with a view to possibly taking a 3/1 saver on the day, should he turn up. (Remember the clamour to 'give Dunguib away' last year? Many bookies would pay you back if Dunguib won - I'm sure there will be some doing likewise this year).

Next in, and the only other in single figures is Ireland's leading light - according to the odds board at least - Zaidpour. He's a Frenchie, which doesn't preclude him from winning, but does put me off, given their weak overall record. He's done little else wrong, being beaten a fag paper in a muddling race last time, and he's entered in the Deloitte Novices, a Grade 1, on February 6th.

He'll be around 5/1 for the Supreme if he wins that, and both Brave Inca (2004) and Like-A-Butterfly (2002) won that prior to Supreme Novices glory. Still, I'm looking for value with so many unanswered questions at this stage, so my quest continues, into the deeper double-digit depths of the oddsmakers.

The third choice with some books is Backspin, who ranges from 12's to 14's where offered. On Betfair, he is a 45 shot, which bears reference to the fact that he's probably going to run in the longer Neptune Investments' hurdle. Apart from that, all his wins have been in slow times, and his Grade 1 victory may actually count against him in the context of the Supreme. No thanks from this quarter.

The Neptune may also be the preferred destination for Rock On Ruby, and indeed Minella Class as well.

This leaves Hidden Universe as the only other contender in the top six in the betting more likely to run in the Supreme than the Neptune. On that score alone, Skybet's 14/1 may appeal. Factor in his trainer's 'softly, softly' approach so far and he's tempting. But... he ran in last season's Champion Bumper, and he's yet to reach the requisite speed and form figures, albeit off just the one hurdle run.

Hidden Universe has two entries later this week, which will tell us more about the horse. On the basis of what he's achieved, his current price seems to factor in quite a lot of what he might be projected to do going forward. So, reluctantly, no thank you.

From the chasing pack of potential protagonists emerges Spirit Son. With just two runs, one of which was in France, he 'could be anything' (couldn't they all?!). Nicky Henderson has a pretty poor record in this race in recent years, and hasn't won since Flown in 1992, despite saddling plenty of fancied runners (including Binocular, Khyber Kim and Oscar Whisky in the last three years).

And he's a Frenchie with their accompanying poor record, and he's got more to prove on the ratings - which he likely will do.

I could go through the top 22 in the betting with cases for and against (as I have done in the document at the bottom of this post), but you might be getting bored of all this dessert decoration (jelly-nailing, if you prefer), so let me cut somewhat belatedly to the chase and tell you who I like at the prices and with all foregoing caveats in situ.

Prince Of Pirates, a Henderson inmate, was traveling as well as the leader, Al Ferof, when that one fell at odds on last time, and won cosily up Cheltenham's hill on his only hurdle start so far. As a McManus-owned horse, you can expect money for this one on the day should he line up. A possible but 33/1 is only fair in my view (57 on the Betfair site).

Gibb River may be yet another Henderson hoss, but he's had a very covert preparation so far. Two wins in Class 4 big fields at short prices offer hope that he's got more in the tank, and I'm very keen to see where he turns out next. The 25's generally (44 Betfair) looks worth a speculative couple of quid, as he's likely to be half those odds if winning next time.

Extremely Tentative Selection: Gibb River

Below is the 'working out', and below that, my current ante-post portfolio.

Matt

Supreme Novices Hurdle 2011 [Open Office Document - download Open Office free here.]

Supreme Novices Hurdle 2011 [Excel file]

Ante-Post ups and downs...

Ante-Post ups and downs...

Cheltenham December Meeting Review: Festival Pointers

Racing at Cheltenham is rarely anything other than top class, dear reader, and the weekend just passed was like a 'mini Festival' with so many trainers keen to get a run into so many horses when they'd normally try to avoid meeting each other prior to the March meeting.

So what did the action tell us, aside from the fact - pointed out to me numerous times - that Faasel is not quite as reliable a stick as I'd envisaged. Trying to explain to people who simply want winners the concepts of value and the long term benefits of using trends can sometimes be pointless. So, to those who just want winners, sorry but you'll not find any guarantees of that here on any given day.

But for the vast majority of you who understand that if you generally take 14/1 about  horses that start at 11/1 (as Faasel did), you'll come out in front.

Onwards. What did we learn at the Cheltenham December meeting? We learnt the following:

1. Spirit River is a hurdler. He hates fences, and has now fallen on both attempts in novice chase company. Anyone who takes the 20/1 with Betfred (or even the 33/1 best price with William Hill) wants their head examining. As it stands, he must be half those odds to even line up in this race, given his high class form over the smaller obstacles. And running in a 2m5f race is a curious preparation for a two mile championship contest, in any event.

Reve De Sivola

Reve De Sivola - not one for the mortgage...

2. Reve De Sivola is not one to rely on for a Cheltenham win. Despite taking the novice chase that Spirit River fell in, this was his first victory in seven attempts at the Cheltenham HQ of jump racing. The horse to take from the race was probably Wishfull Thinking, who finished a length and a bit behind RdS,  having been badly hampered by fallers on the way round.

Wishfull Thinking would have appreciated a bit more pace as he travels very well, and he might make up into an interesting contender for a race like the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual which, these days, is the last race of the Festival I believe.

3. Midnight Chase not only has a touch of class, he also has some guts to back it up with. I had expected the weight and the slightly stiffer competition in the Majordomo Hospitality Handicap Chase to find Neil Mulholland's charge out on Friday. But he proved me wrong in fine style. Despite lugging more lead than all bar the increasingly apathetic Neptune Collonges (should be retired probably, or sent hunting at least), he had a great time of it out in front, gradually raising the tempo under a spot on Dougie Costello ride, to overhaul the only horse who dared to challenge his front-running rate, Presenting Forever.

The second horse was in receipt of seventeen pounds from the winner, and they were strung out like Christmas fairy lights behind. Whether this was a Gold Cup-challenging performance is a moot point, as the horse should be considered on his (and his connections') merits to date in my opinion. I will say this though: I feel quite strongly that this is a changeover year in the Gold Cup hierarchy, and as an eight year old there's likely more improvement in Midnight Chase than any of Imperial Commander, Kauto Star or Denman. There will need to be!

4. Al Ferof may take a while to get over his tumble. Second behind Cue Card in the Cheltenham Bumper in March, Al Ferof made his eagerly awaited hurdling bow in the last race on Friday. He received robust support in the betting exchanges, and cantered to the front before two out. He then proceeded to make a total horlicks of the obstacle, and took a nasty fall. Al Ferof obviously has lots of class, and a very high cruising speed.

Those two elements alone will win bumpers and other flat races, but you have to be able to jump if you want to get to the top of the National Hunt tree. I'd be wary of taking short odds about this chap until I've seen him put in a full round of jumping. Nevertheless, he remains a bright prospect with that caveat firmly in mind.

5. Woolcombe Folly may not be done winning yet. I took an interest in this one last year, when I hoped he'd run well in the Arkle. In fact, he ran a stinker at 25/1. Prior to that, he'd won his last five chases and hurdles races, and since then he's racked up another three victories, including two at Cheltenham - this being the second of those. He'll likely have an entry for the Champion Chase now. Having been available at 110 on Betfair last week for that race, I'm not too keen on taking the 10/1 now.

That said, if you can forgive his bad Festival run in March, there's a lot to like about this fella. While Master Minded, Big Zeb and co. may be a different kettle of kippers entirely, it's far from folly to suggest that Woolcombe will win again between now and the Festival.

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6. Sam Winner is by far the best juvenile novice seen so far. So far, being the operative phrase. Before you pile into the 9/2 best price, bear in mind that only one of the last seven winners of the Triumph Hurdle had run over hurdles in UK prior to December. Katchit was the exception, and five of the last seven winners were not seen on the track before this Wednesday's scheduled Newbury meeting.

Of the horses in there, it's Sam Winner's stable mate, Empire Levant, that looks the most interesting. He's unraced here, having won three and been nosed into second in a fourth contest in France, and has Sir Alex Ferguson as one of his owners... Of the other pre-entries, Rare Symphony was highly rated on the Flat and may be expected to perform well in the Newbury race and subsequently truncate in the betting for the Triumph. Although that's speculative in the extreme, it's probably a better option than 9/2 about the best novice seen so far...

Time For Rupert

Time For Rupert? It could well be...

7. Time For Rupert is the best staying novice seen out so far. Whilst juvenile hurdlers are generally brought late to the party prior to winning the Triumph, the same is not true of RSA Chase winners. Indeed, you have to go back to 1998 to find the last RSA Chase winner to debut over fences later than the end of November. That was Florida Pearl. In that context, Time For Rupert must have a favourite's chance as, with the exception of the long absent Mikael d'Haguenet, there's very few unexposed horses in the race.

Rupert's Cheltenham record is impeccable with three wins and two seconds from five starts. That the two second's were behind Tidal Bay and Big Buck's over hurdles, says a heck of a lot about the class of this chap and, despite the RSA being a race where outsiders have a good record, he's a worthy favourite and would be much shorter if trained by Messrs. Henderson or Nicholls.

8. Zaynar is a recalcitrant monkey. If you're still keeping the faith with former Triumph Hurdle winner Zaynar, you're either very patient or very stupid. Ahem. Either way, you're probably skint, as the horse is an absolute recalcitrant monkey. He's been beaten in his last five runs, four of them as favourite, including SP's of 13/8,11/8, and... wait for it... 1/14 (!!!!!) On that 1/14 day, there was a 'shrewdie' who got the 1/12, trying to win a hundred quid for an investment of twelve hundred. Pity for him, especially if he's been on a money-back mission ever since.

Quite simply, do not touch this horse. If he wins, fair play. But there's bound to be far more reliable propositions - at better prices - in his races.

Master Minded

Master Minded: Brilliant when he jumps 'em!

9. Master Minded is a machine. OK, so he was disappointing at the Festival in March, when only fourth to Big Zeb. But the balance of Master Minded's form is exceptional, including a facile win against a strong field in the re-routed Tingle Creek on Saturday. It was his first win at Cheltenham since the Queen Mother Champion Chase of 2009 (two losses since), and the way he gobbled up the ground between the pace setters and himself turning in was mightily impressive.

He's no price for the Champion - 2/1 best and as short as 6/4 in places - and I just wonder if there's any chance of him running in the Gold Cup. As preposterous as that may sound (and may also turn out to be!), he's 300+/1 on betfair for the longer race, and that's a route that the same connections' Kauto Star has taken in the past (Kauto fell when 2/1 favourite for the Champion Chase in 2006, before winning the 2007 Gold Cup). With both Denman and Kauto Star celebrating their eleventh birthday on January 1st, and Master Minded due to be eight on the same day, he's clearly the future. Whether he stays that far is obviously the subject of conjecture, but stranger things have happened. I've had a throwaway tenner at odds of 323.26!

Talking of the Gold Cup, perhaps the best performance with regards to that was the staying-on third from Somersby. Also a staying-on second behind Sizing Europe in the Arkle last season, this boy seems to be crying out for further. He's quoted in the Champion Chase (two miles), the Ryanair (2m5f), and the Gold Cup (3m2f), and ante-post punters have to second guess connections as to which race he'll choose. For that reason alone, I couldn't advise a bet at this stage. But the way he finished here, you'd hope they'd step him up to at least the Ryanair trip.

10. Menorah is a credible Champion Hurdle contender. The Grade 2 International Hurdle was a fascinating contest, in that it brought together three horses of immense potential in Menorah, Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti. The latter two were unbeaten novices and putting formidable home reputations on the line. Both were usurped in unambiguous fashion by Philip Hobbs' Menorah, and he is rightly being touted as a strong Champion Hurdle contender.

Whilst I wouldn't back him at 7/2, or even the best priced 9/2, I don't need to as I already backed him at 27.34 way back when I advised him on here in August. Here's that post again. And here's my own position now:

Date Name Event Odds Stake Returns Bookie Win/EW
12-Aug Menorah Ch Hdle 27.34 £60.00 £1,640.40 betfair W
12-Aug Summit Meeting Ch Hdle 353.84 £5.00 £1,769.20 betfair W
12-Aug Oscar Whisky Ch Hdle 200 £6.55 £1,310.00 betfair W
12-Nov Cue Card Ch Hdle 21 £73.00 £1,533.00 SJ W
23-Nov Peddlers Cross Ch Hdle 15 £100.00 £1,500.00 totesport W
23-Nov Solwhit Ch Hdle 25.34 £25.00 £633.50 betfair W

So, whilst I'm very pleased with the ante-post position I have on the race (and I hope some of you followed me in), I do think much / all of the value has now gone and, if anything, Menorah and Peddlers Cross may be bigger prices on the day than the 4/1 and 6/1 respectively they are now.

Binocular

Binocular: bizarrely, he's probably the best value in the race now

Solwhit remains interesting. He's 16/1 in a number of places and 10/1 in a number of places. That disparity is marked in a race such as the Champion Hurdle and indicates a real discord in terms of bookies' perceptions of the merits of his ability. He certainly has a level of form that is at least as good as what Menorah and Peddlers have achieved to date, and in that regard, he has a modicum of value in the 16/1 still available.

Ultimately, the best value in this race may now be with the reigning Champion, Binocular, who is surely too big at 5/1 with bet365. Sure, he got beaten in the Fighting Fifth, but he was beaten in that race last year. He was eased by McCoy once his challenge petered out that day, and he's sure to be MUCH more combative in March. The big question is will he win his next race and truncate in the market? Or will he go even longer? Either way, no horse this season has run to the level he did when winning last year's Champion Hurdle, so 5/1 must be at least fair odds on the repeat.

There are only three months to go now, and the storylines are blending in fascinating fashion for the next few chapters before the revelations of mid-March. It just never ceases to intrigue and excite! 🙂

Matt

p.s. Just a quick word on dear old Khajaaly, the Geegeez Racing Club horse, who won his second race in a row on Friday. He had to work a little harder than when dotting up at 25/1, and the odds were 'only' 3/1 this time (backed by many from 4/1), but he still did it cosily, and there may... may... be more in the locker. It's more than we dare hope for, but hope is most definitely what we have.

12-Aug Menorah Ch Hdle 27.34 £60.00 £1,640.40 betfair W
12-Aug Summit Meeting Ch Hdle 353.84 £5.00 £1,769.20 betfair W
12-Aug Oscar Whisky Ch Hdle 200 £6.55 £1,310.00 betfair W
12-Nov Cue Card Ch Hdle 21 £73.00 £1,533.00 SJ W
23-Nov Peddlers Cross Ch Hdle 15 £100.00 £1,500.00 totesport W
23-Nov Solwhit Ch Hdle 25.34 £25.00 £633.50 betfair W

Menorah Shows Determination

Finding extra in the tank when it mattered, Menorah showed a determined effort under a strong challenge from runner up Bothy to score a victory in the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Philip Hobbs

Philip Hobbs

Richard Johnson, aboard the top-weight made their challenge two out, gaining a slight lead but under great pressure from Bothy in the last 75 yards, to just deny the runner up by a neck, with race favourite, Manyriverstcross a further five lengths behind in third place.

"I'm very impressed. With top weight today on that ground I thought it would be hard for him," said the winning jockey Richard Johnson.

"To be fair to him, he stumbled at the back of the last. If he hadn't done that I think he would have won a bit easier.

"It's just fantastic to have a horse like this for the future.

"When I asked him after the last, he just knuckled down and kept finding more and more.

"He's very good, he was last year, and hopefully we have found the key to him now."

Hobbs commented, "It was a very good performance, especially as he had to go so wide as the ground was definitely better wider, and ideally he doesn't want it too soft.

"He knocked the third-last out of the ground. Normally his jumping is very good, but in spite of all that he still won so we're very pleased.

"He's only five and I hope there's room for a fair bit of improvement. Let's hope he's up there with my two previous winners of this race, Rooster Booster and Detroit City.

"After today you'd imagine we'd have to go the conditions hurdle route depending on what the handicapper does.

"I suppose the old Bula Hurdle back here might be next, but he'd have a large penalty in that. Otherwise he'd go for the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. It will be one or the other."

Hobbs Has Champion Hurdle Hopes for Menorah

After success at the Cheltenham Festival in the Supreme Novice's Hurdle, Philip Hobbs has plans for his charge Menorah, hoping that he can score a victory in the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle on Sunday and cement his claims as a competitor for the Champion Hurdle.

Philip Hobbs

Philip Hobbs

The Diana Whateley-owned five-year-old will carry top weight on Sunday and Hobbs thinks he will have to be competitive if he is to justify his claims as a contender for the Champion Hurdle, for which he is a 16-1 chance with new sponsor Stan James.

Speaking during an open day at his Somerset yard on Tuesday, Hobbs raised concerns about the form of Menorah's Supreme Novices' win and hinted a switch to chasing could be on the cards if the son of King's Theatre fails to fire on his seasonal reappearance.

During an open day at his stable on Tuesday, Hobbs commented on the Diana Whateley owned five year old saying, "We would love to see Menorah win the Greatwood on Sunday as then he would be on the way to the Champion Hurdle.

"He is only five and we hope he has improved from last season. If he cannot win a handicap off 151 then he is not going to win the Champion Hurdle. I would not want it very soft, although good to soft is fine."

He continued, "He's realistically priced. We hope he can perform very well and it will be very disappointing if he is not placed.

"He would definitely jump fences when we want to - he may be jumping them sooner rather than later if he gets beaten on Sunday."

Cheltenham 2011: Champion Hurdle 2011 Preview

It may be more than six months away, dear reader, meaning that last year's Champion Hurdle is closer to now than next year's... but that doesn't stop us betting on the Guineas ante-post, and they're in May! So let's get the ball rolling for the 2011 Cheltenham Festival with a first look at the Champion Hurdle.

So why would I think I can pick the winner of this ultra-competitive race before the National Hunt season has even begun?! Well, quite simply, most of the clues we need to steal a march on the market are already in situ, as the key clues were provided last season.

Let's look more deeply into the facts and figures to see how they can help us dig out a few decent bets for the 2011 Champion Hurdle.

The most significant factor in identifying the Champion Hurdle shortlist is course form. And not just course form, but Festival course form. In the last nine years, since the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001, the winners had all either won at the previous year's Cheltenham Festival (four Champion Hurdle winners); or, placed in the previous year's Champion Hurdle (four); or, finished in the top four in a Festival Grade 1 race the year before (one).

In fact, this run goes back to 1998 if we include Istabraq's mighty treble in the race (he won the Sun Alliance at the Festival in 1997, before his hat-trick in the Champion Hurdle).

The full run down is as follows:

Year     Winner         Best Run Season Prior
2010    Binocular    3rd Champion Hurdle (G1)
2009     Punjabi       3rd Champion Hurdle (G1)
2008     Katchit       WON Triumph Hurdle (G1)
2007     Sublimity     4th Supreme Novices Hdle (G1)
2006     Brave Inca     3rd Champion Hurdle (G1)
2005     Hardy Eustace     WON Champion Hurdle (G1)
2004     Hardy Eustace     WON RSA Hurdle (G1)
2003     Rooster Booster WON County Hurdle (G3 Hcap)
2002     Hors La Loi III   2nd Champion Hurdle 2000 (G1)
2001     No Race     Foot and mouth
2000    Istabraq      WON Champion Hurdle (G1)
1999    Istabraq      WON Champion Hurdle (G1)
1998    Istabraq      WON Sun Alliance Hurdle (G1)

There has only been one winner who didn't win a Graded hurdle or finish in the first three in the previous Champion Hurdle. So, we can narrow our shortlist down quite quickly into probables and possibles. Let's do that now:

Probables

Champion Hurdle 1-2-3
Binocular
Khyber Kim
Zaynar

Cheltenham 2010 Graded Winners
Menorah
Peddlers Cross
Soldatino
Thousand Stars
Berties Dream

Possibles (placed in a Grade 1 Hurdle at Cheltenham 2010)

Get Me Out Of Here, Dunguib, Oscar Whisky, Reve De Sivola, Rite Of Passage, Summit Meeting, Barizan, Alaivan, Carlito Brigante, Najaf, Kennel Hill, Arvika Ligeonniere

********

We have eight on the probable list, and let's focus our primary attention there. Trying to figure out whether any are likely to go chasing is the first port of call. We can usually be reasonably confident that the first three from the Champion Hurdle will all be re-opposing this season, although Zaynar's quote of 33/1 implies he might be going for the World Hurdle (for which he is currently quoted as 8/1 second favourite). We'll scratch Nicky Henderson's charge on that basis, for now at least.

Of the other Graded winners, connections are undecided on the route for Peddlers Cross, who may go chasing and may go for the World Hurdle, so we'll reluctantly eliminate him for now. Obviously, if he does take the Champion Hurdle route, he'd be a major player.

Thousand Stars, winner of the County Hurdle, looks an unlikely runner in the Blue Riband as he's been beaten twice since Cheltenham and is readily crossed out. Meanwhile, Berties Dream will be fencing this season meaning he's of no interest to us here.

That leaves a 'probables' shortlist of Binocular (3/1), Khyber Kim (12/1), Menorah (20/1) and Soldatino (25/1).

Binocular, Champion Hurdle 2010

Binocular, Champion Hurdle 2010

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Binocular is the leading hurdler from last season, and was following up a third place in the 2009 Champion Hurdle and a second place in the 2008 Supreme Novices' Hurdle when just a four year old. Although Binocular does seem to make it to Cheltenham and he is clearly a very good horse on his day, I am more than happy to take him on at the prices at this stage.

Remember that when he won the Champion Hurdle last year, he was sent off a 9/1 shot. That reflected his form coming into the race, which consisted of two defeats to Go Native and then a tinpot win in a very minor event. I expect him to lose at least one of his first two starts this season, meaning we'll likely be able to back him at twice his current odds.

Khyber Kim will be nine years young next season, but is still a fairly fresh horse. 9yo's have won the race - Rooster Booster in 2003 and Royal Gait in 1992 to name two - so his age is only a small concern. Khyber's course form is impeccable, with that silver medal in the Champion Hurdle joining two previous victories on Cleeve Hill. That said, he was also soundly beaten in Festival hurdle events prior to that.

His improvement last year was remarkable, and there is a question about whether he can sustain that level of form, let alone improve on it which he'd likely need to do, and that is my main reservation about a chap who did magnificently for the Twiston-Davies yard last season.

Menorah got very little credit for winning the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last season, largely because he wandered around and gave Get Me Out Of Here a problem or two. The facts are though that he beat that horse - and 'pegasus' Dunguib - fair and square, and he did it despite wandering around and jumping poorly, not because of it!

In other words, he can improve for that. He loves fast ground which it almost always is at Cheltenham in March (or at any other time when they're racing at Chelters), and he'll be aimed at the race. His narrow loss to General Miller can be considered irrelevant for all sorts of reasons: the track wouldn't have suited, it may have come too soon, he made mistakes, it wasn't his primary target, and so on.

Champion Hurdle 2011

Champion Hurdle 2011 early ante post

The 20/1 with Stan James is twice the price of Skybet's 10/1 and, if I was forming a book, I'd be more in line with the latter quote. This makes Menorah excellent value to my eye. If you're quick, there's a bit of 25's on Betfair too. I've already snaffled some myself!

Soldatino has to defy the five year old's in the Champion Hurdle stat, one which only Katchit has managed to overcome since See You Then won the first of his three in 1985. Ignoring history for just a moment, he looked a highly progressive horse last season and, with just five career runs under his belt, he has vast scope for improvement. That said, he will have to find a stone and a half in order to trouble the key players, and 25/1 looks no more than reasonable.

Of the probables then, I make Menorah the best value right now, with Stan James' 'stan-d out' price of 20/1 or the bigger Betfair price if you're quick.

********

Moving onto the more speculative list of possibles, the thirteen can reasonably be whittled down by running plans. Reve De Sivola is likely to go for the World Hurdle; Get Me Out Of Here is in the same ownership as Binocular (J P McManus) and may well go novice chasing; the Triumph Hurdle placed horses (Barizan, Alaivan, Carlito Brigante) don't look good enough; and Najaf, Kennel Hill and Arvika Ligeonniere are headed either chasing or for the World Hurdle.

This leaves a likely shortlist of Dunguib, Oscar Whisky, Rite Of Passage and Summit Meeting.

Much has been written about Dunguib and, amongst those myriad words are some facts:

- Dunguib's rider is not as good as AP McCoy (or Richard Johnson or Barry Geraghty or Ruby Walsh, etc) and this must cost him some advantage. I don't know how much.

- Dunguib has some improvement in him, especially if he can get his jumping up straight.

- Dunguib's best hurdling form is on soft ground which he'll never get at Cheltenham.

Dunguib is available at 20/1 for the Champion Hurdle and this might be a tradeable price, as he is likely to win a few uncompetitive races at home before running in something like the Irish Champion Hurdle. But I'd need to see a professional jockey on board before contemplating a bet on him.

Oscar Whisky was unbeaten in four starts before his fourth place behind Menorah, and he was just two lengths behind Dunguib despite bungling the last hurdle. His scope for improvement is considerable, as he got better with every run last term. 50/1 is a reasonable speculative poke, and it might be worth a couple of quid.

Rite Of Passage is clearly a high class horse, and his win in the Ascot Gold Cup marked him out as a strong contender for all Cup races on the flat. Given his current favoured position in the market for the Melbourne Cup, there must be a doubt about whether he can continue to race flat and jumps throughout the season.

In other words, his first priorities appear to be in flat races and, despite how talented a horse he clearly is, Rite of Passage is not for me on that basis (besides which, 16/1 is hardly generous anyway for a horse who was beaten fair and square by both Peddlers Cross and Reve De Sivola at Cheltenham last March).

Finally, let's consider Summit Meeting. Jessie Harrington's charge is a real dark horse. His fourth, beaten six lengths, behind Peddlers Cross (and just three quarters of a lengths behind the aforementioned Rite of Passage) was his first start on ground faster than soft, and also marked a career best performance. Funnily enough, his jockey Robert Power said back in November 2009 that he'd appreciate better ground. He looks to be right about that much.

There is a concern that this one might be pitched at staying races or fences, but personally I think that would be a shame as he has less than most to find with the leading protagonists in the Champion Hurdle and is a massive price on Betfair (not quoted with the bookies). As he's far from a likely runner, it's a tiny speculative at any price. Just in case...

Selection: Menorah 20/1 Stan James

Big Price Speculatives: Oscar Whisky 50/1 Stan James, Summit Meeting 150/1 Betfair

There'll be plenty more from Cheltenham nearer the time!