Another busy Saturday with LIVE C4 action from Haydock, Wincanton and Ascot - Andy Newton's on hand with all the trends and stats that matter...... Read more
The publication of the Anglo-Irish National Hunt end of season rating on Tuesday saw Kauto Star rated 180, and regain his place as champion staying chaser. His mark was 2lb ahead of Long Run, and 12lbs higher than Gold Cup winner Synchronised and Grand National winner Neptune Collonges. Read more
Amidst all the kerfuffle about animal fatalities and the safety of the Grand National course it was easy to overlook the call from the RSPCA for Daryl Jacob and Neptune Collonges to be stripped of their success. Read more
A black cat must have crossed Paul Nicholls’ path recently. He's already been putting in an extra shift in an effort to get Kauto Star fit and ready for next week's Cheltenham Gold Cup. Last weekend, it was the turn of Niche Market, his fancied horse for the John Smith's Grand National to have a run out in preparation. Read more
Can Paul Nicholls add to his excellent Tolworth Hurdle record with Prospect Wells? Andy Newton gives you all the trends that matter.... Read more
Horse racing is a sport enjoyed across the length and breadth of the globe, dear reader, and it manifests itself in a multitude of different guises. From the bottomless slog of a four mile chase at Towcester, via two furlong 'quarter horse' dirt races at greyhound tracks masquerading as horse racing tracks in the US, to the slick monied - slightly surreal - racing of Meydan's tapeta track in Dubai, there really is something for everyone in racing.
Last weekend saw countless clues for both the Carnival and the Festival: Dubai's culminating World Cup meeting on March 26th, and Cheltenham four day National Hunt season highlight running from March 15th to 18th.
First, roving reporter Ross relates the latest Godolphin / de Kock domination in the Emirates, then I'll expound on my views of the virtues (or otherwise) of this weekend's Festival trials from Britain and Ireland. Over to Ross, and a somewhat unpatriotic rallying cry (unless you happen to be Gallic)...
Vive la France! Forgive me, as patriotic as this website is (it is geegeez.co.UK after all), I have never been so pleased to see the French show up just at the right time (makes a change).
After last weekâ€™s dominance of the Dubai Carnivalâ€™s second meeting by Godolphin and Mike de Kock - 5 winners, 3 seconds and 7 thirds between them - it looked like things were going to go the same way this Thursday after the boys in blue claimed the first race with City Style and then had a 1-2-3 in races three and four.
Although a great achievement for Sheikh Mohammed and his team, this kind of dominance does become tedious to watch. Itâ€™s not as though we can profit from their success either as their apparent third string runner is often as likely to win as the horse Frankie Dettori chooses.
We did get a slight respite from the navy blue marauders as the French-trained Win For Sure lived up to his name and sailed home to land the concluding handicap under Gregory Benoist. The trainer's name is fairly unpronounceable, but is spelt like this: Nakkachdji. Very nice too.
Earlier in the evening, Bronze Cannon scored a cosy victory in what looked a competitive conditions race. I can boast a small connection to this bay colt. As you may know, Brighton handler Gary Moore does occasionally train some runners for Bronze Cannonâ€™s owner, Ramzan Kadyrov, to get them ready before they are transferred to Herman Brownâ€™s Dubai yard and so it happened that Bronze Cannon followed this same path in 2010 whilst I was working for Gary.
The horse had won at Royal Ascot for John Gosden before being bought for a reported Â£1.3m by his current owner. I was lucky enough to ride him most days on the Downs in Brighton and I struggled to believe that this was the Bronze Cannon that I'd been sitting on. After all, he was absolutely tiny, no bigger than a pony.
To add to this, he moved like a cripple and cantered as though he needed three miles and a good load of fences in front of him! Admittedly he wasn't doing any serious work when I was with him but it just goes to show you that some horses come alive at the races and you shouldnâ€™t believe everything you see on the gallops at home.
Regular readers will remember that I gave a good word for Luca Cumaniâ€™s Drunken Sailor last time and I almost got it right for once as he ran a blinder to finish 4th behind Whispering Gallery in the 1m6f handicap. He has obviously acclimatised well and is worth backing next time. I also mentioned the yardâ€™s puzzlement surrounding Man of Ironâ€™s poor runs and it seems it all came to a head this Thursday as he was pulled-up entering the straight but reports suggest that there was no serious injury to him. Heâ€™s one to steer well clear of though.
Cumani did receive some consolation when the enigmatic Presvis romped home in the Group 2 Al Rashidiya Stakes. Iâ€™m sure we all know this horse from losing plenty of money on him in the past but on his day, like this time, he is a talented animal. It remains to be seen whether he can put two good efforts together next time.
On another note, what attracts many owners, trainers and jockeys to Meydan is the apparently generous prize money. Itâ€™s all well and good promising people decent purses but reports have reached me that payments are very slow in coming and last season (which ended in March) some jockeys didnâ€™t receive their riding fees and percentages until August. Letâ€™s hope this wasnâ€™t the same for the owners - if you upset them, they likely wonâ€™t be coming back in a hurry!
To the weekend past, and altogethrer soggier, muddier and more robust racing types. And that's just the racegoers. Friday's Doncaster card had little in the ways of future clues except, perhaps, that the track was unlikely to survive for Saturday's feature meeting.
In winning the juvenile novice hurdle, Empire Levant put the final nail in the coffin of the Franklino ante-post punt, seeing that one off by a wide margin. The bookies were singularly unimpressed with the 2.5 lengths winning verdict over Palawi, from John Quinn's yard, and still have him as a 33/1 shot.
For me, Sam Winner looks the best value in that race. Despite being beaten in a real slog at Chepstow last time, the overall balance of his form is as good as anything in here at the moment, and the remaining 12's in a few places might be worth small money.
Over at Gowran Park on Friday were some strong clues. Whilst Grands Crus may have bagged Saturday's headlines to take clear second place in the World Hurdle market (more on that in a moment), Mourad made a less well-publicised claim for the same race with an equally impressive victory over a field that included dual World Hurdle third, Powerstation.
Mourad is only a six year old, and he seems to be improving with age and racing. Third in last season's Punchestown World Hurdle, the 10/1 about this one is pretty fair. And the 5/1 without Big Buck's offered by Stan James and bet365 (1/4 1-2-3) looks an each way steal.
To Saturday's racing and most interest by far was at Cheltenham's Trials Day meeting. First up were the juvenile novices and my Third Intention aspirations were left pretty much as they were before the race.
Third Intention had been a 25/1 shot prior to proceedings and, in running two length second to Local Hero - the favourite here, he remains a 25/1 shot for the Triumph. The winner has truncated slightly, to 16's and 20's generally, but it's clear that the bookies a) are happy to take bets on any horse you want to back in this race, because b) they - and we - haven't a clue!
Moving on from the insoluble conundrum that is the current Triumph Hurdle picture, and The Giant Bolster put himself firmly in the picture for the RSA Chase - or maybe the Jewson - with an extremely game, if slightly error strewn, performance here. And herein lies the problem with ante-post betting in many of the races now.
With the Cheltenham Festival having moved to four days from three, there are now six more races. These races tend to be at intermediate distances (like the Ryanair Chase over 2m5f and the Jewson Novices' Chase over 2m4f), which means whether you fancy one in the speed races (i.e. Queen Mother Champion Chase or Arkle) or in the stayers' races (Gold Cup or RSA Chase), there's always a danger that your horse will be redirected to the intermediate (and often softer) race, thus doing the ante-post dough.
This is a problem that never used to exist, and as a number of my horses are near the top of the markets for these mid-distance races, I'm not happy. Of course, once I've recovered from my hissy fit, I'll acknowledge that it's my own fault and will make it a rule only to back horses ante-post where the race they're likely to run in is all but certain... (Trouble is, I'm far too indisciplined, and like the look of a big priced horse far too much, to ever do this!!!)
Moving on, Wishfull Thinking was a smooth and ultimately clear winner of the 2m5f novice chase, and his trainer, Philip Hobbs, seems to have improved the horse's jumping markedly. That being the case, he looks a strong contender for the Jewson Novices Chase. Or maybe the Centenary Novices Chase. Or perhaps the RSA Chase. Or... the Arkle? He's quoted in all four. How the hell are we supposed to take a view on these bloody nags?!
Assuming the ground is good to soft or better, I'd imagine he'll go for the Jewson, for which he's the 10/1 favourite. Those odds reflect more the uncertainty around which horses - including Wishfull Thinking - will run in the race. Indeed, it may very well be wishful thinking taking a price on this one for any of the novice events. Wait until plans are firmer - or you can get non-runner no bet - and take a shorter price on an insured wager.
My worst bet of the day - and for a very long time - came in the next race on Punchestowns. I figured that Nicky Henderson would have left a fair bit to work with, and he might get beaten here. But I decided he couldn't be out of the first two, bar a fall, and backed him for a place accordingly. I am an idiot, sometimes.
Neptune Collonges was allowed an easy lead in front, and relished it, jumping impeccably from fence to fence. He was never in any danger until Tidal Bay made his usual late challenge. Alas, it was too late and the 'Bay took silver medal honours. Punchestowns was beaten 30 lengths by the pair of them so I have no complaints.
40/1 about Tidal Bay is a decent each way bet for the Gold Cup, if you're ok with a) the fact that he might sulk and not perform and b) he might run in something else and c) he might not be good enough!
In fairness, those three imponderables can be leveled at pretty much all horseflesh two months before the races, so he'd be a more credible outsider than many.
As for Punchestowns, well I'm certain he's far better than that and, given the trainer's statements after that he'll not just have needed it but he wants to get another race into him between now and the Festival, all may not yet be lost. He's also 40's, but a stylish win in a race like the Aon Chase would see those odds halved. My suspicion is that Punchestowns may end up racing in some obscure Kelso affair (remember Zaynar's defeat there at odds of 1/14 (!!!!) last mid-February prior to a third place finish in the Champion Hurdle?).
Arguably the most competitive race of the day was the staying novice hurdle, so it was strange that Backspin was wagered to the virtual exclusion of all others. He ran probably his best race to date, but that was only good enough for fourth. The winner was another Henderson inmate, Bobs Worth, and - mindful of how many of Henderson's ran with something still to work on between now and Cup Final day - the manner of this one's victory was taking.
He is likely to take in the Neptune Novices over 2m5f at the Festival, so it's no surprise to see him installed the 5/1 favourite there. Not much value meat on those odds bones, but probably fair enough in the context of what's he's achieved and the relative certainty about which race he'll contest.
Rock On Ruby ran on resolutely to be the only danger at the last, and is 10's for the Neptune, but 14's for the Supreme. I didn't think he was stopping here, so would be surprised if he dropped back in trip to the mininum for the Supreme. But then, I'm often surprised at the actions of horses, jockeys and trainers! 😉
The 3.35 - Cleeve Hurdle - was easily the most eye-catching race, as Grands Crus continued his rapid ascent of the staying hurdler's ranks with a facile cantering win by ten lengths. Enough of the right horses finished in the right order behind him to believe this was a serious performance, and the race has been THE World Hurdle trial in recent seasons with Big Buck's and Inglis Drever using it as their springboard historically.
It has long been a contention of Nick Mordin, one of the best judges of race times / performances I know, that Big Buck's dominates a weak division. If that's the case, then the emergence of both Grands Crus and to a lesser extent Mourad, as well as potential improvers like Oscar Whisky, present serious threats to Big Buck's.
So much so, in fact, that there is a slight temptation to lay the favourite at odds on... actually, I'm not that brave, and I think there are better ways to play the race. I can certainly see Big Buck's being sent off around evens on the day though, which does offer a trading opportunity if you agree with that view.
Although I can't say why (you'll know if you are a Festival Trends member), Gavin from Nag Nag Nag will have been delighted with the result of the concluding handicap hurdle, as it sets his ante-post plunge up very nicely for the big target race at the Festival. Nice one, Gavin!
Yesterday's Punchestown card lost some of its lustre when the opening PP Hogan Memorial Cross Country Chase was abandoned. Historically the number one prep race for the Cross Country race at the Festival, this leaves a few key contenders - notably Sizing Australia and Garde Champetre - seeking a tune up event in the next few weeks. Expect to see them line up in modest staying hurdle affairs!
In the Grade 2 Tied Cottage Chase over two miles, there was a real turn up as Big Zeb was turned over by Golden Silver for the first time in five attempts. Again, the nature of the race is that I'd expect Big Zeb to easily confirm previous form if both went to Cheltenham and, in fact, the 7/2 about Zeb may be one of the best prices on any horse in any race at the Festival.
My abominable record in the race precludes me from piling in, but I will be taking a keen interest in the Zeb-edee in the Spring (geddit?!)
Hugely disappointing for me was Sizing Europe's moderate third here. It's unlikely he will run in the Champion Chase at the Festival, but the fact that he raced here implies connections are loathe to go as far as the Gold Cup either. So, the Ryanair may well be where this one lands, leaving my ante-post Gold Cup punt grounded.
Finally, in the Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Novices Hurdle, the horse I was most interested to see - Byerley Bear - ran below par in fifth behind a Willie Mullins 1-2 of Gagewell Flyer and Earlson Grey. The front two pulled ten lengths clear of the rest, and added further ballast to the formidable Mullins team ahead of the Festival.
In fact, Willie had five of the six winners on the day! He may have his best ever Cheltenham Festival with established winning horses like Quevega supported by a cast of many in the novice events. Especially ask yourself Where's Willie in the handicap hurdles. Thousand Stars last year was a prime example, popping up at 20/1.
So, the picture clears ever so slightly. Or did it getting a tad cloudier? Who can say for sure before the middle of March? Whichever way your views lie on the evidence of the last few days, the Carnivals and Festivals are barely beginning! 😀
Matt / Ross
Finally, we have some jump racing, dear reader, and not just any old jump racing either. Cheltenham stage their December 'International' meeting over two days, today and tomorrow. And a stellar card has had a further jewel added to it in the form of the Tingle Creek, which has been re-routed from Sandown's recent abandonment.
Whilst the majority of the big races are tomorrow, today's Listed Majordomo Hospitality Handicap Chase (2.25 Cheltenham) has a top class alumni, which includes Mon Mome, Royal Auclair, Kingscliff and Marlborough in the last decade. A field of the class that befits such a race has assembled, and the trends seem strong if not bulletproof. So let's try to whittle down the seventeen starters to a shortlist of plausible contenders.
First up, with the exception of 2006 winner, D'Argent, all of the other nine winners were aged six to eight years old. D'Argent at nine was the outlier. Older horses have failed to score and are struck from the field. So it's pip pip! to From Dusk To Dawn, That's Rhythm, Knowhere and Irish Raptor.
Now then, after that early 'weeding of the weak', let's look at the race parameters today. It's nigh on three and a quarter miles at top speed over Cheltenham's testing circuit. No wonder that nine of the last ten winners had won over 3m1f or more. And, moreover, that eight of the ten had previously been first or second over at least three miles here at Chelters.
Neptune Collonges hasn't, nor has Rare Bob. Nor Exmoor Ranger, Forest Pennant, Palypso De Creek, Presenting Forever or Appleaday.
Eleven down on those scores, six left standing. The remaining stats players are: Midnight Chase, Knockara Beau, Beat The Boys, Horner Woods, Faasel and Any Currency. I'd fancy the winner to be lurking in that sextet. But where exactly?
Well, eight of the last ten winners were officially rated between 132 and 150. Furthermore, eight of ten had just one seasonal run (six) or came here for their seasonal debut (two), and the other two had two and three previous seasonal runs. These two elements in conjunction suggest that Midnight Chase, impeccable flag bearer for the rising Neil Mulholland yard, has it all to do here.
Down at the other end of the weights, Any Currency has had two previous seasonal outings, and flirts with the lower reaches of the official ratings band. Neither element is sufficient to deal a killer blow, but I will look elsewhere for a more robust 'fit'.Especially considering that, aside from the years when ten and eleven runners contested this race, the other eight had all won in fields of at least thirteen. Any Currency did win a point to point in a against thirteen rivals, but under rules the most he has vanquished at a single turn is eleven.
Of course, he was second in a field of seventeen behind Midnight Chase here last time, so I'm not sure whether those raw data actually help or hinder my point here! Ultimately, I can't get shot of this chap whichever angle I take, and he remains a blot on my trends chart...
Knockara Beau was pulled up last time, something none of the previous ten winners did on their prior start, and there has to be a question mark against his wellbeing for a battle royale such as this. Aside from that, he has plenty going for him in the context of this race. For instance, like nine of the winners in the last decade, he has won or placed in 50% or more of his chase runs.
So too has Midnight Chase. And Beat The Boys. And Faasel. And Any Currency. Horner Woods hasn't, and it's quite possible that his one piece of standout form - when second in the RSA Chase here back in 2008 - was a freak of circumstance that day, never to be repeated. (There's also an outside chance that he'll win and make the above sentence look quite preposterous, and it's author commensurately ridiculous!)
At this point, I'm going to reluctantly draw a line through the nine year old, Beat The Boys. His age group has a poor overall record, and his own recent form doesn't really stand up to close scrutiny (pulled up or fell in seven of his last ten starts, though did win two of the others). The final nail in his race consideration coffin is this: all seven of the non-French-bred winners of this race had had twelve or less chasing starts. Beat The Boys, an Irish bred, will be having his nineteenth chase run and it is unlikely that he has anything hidden from the handicapper by now.
The other shortlisted nine year old is Faasel, and his life support machine, in the context of this race, is kept a-beeping by the fact that he is trained by David Pipe. The Pipe's have won four of the last ten renewals of this affair, and whilst that normally means dad won them all, in this case it's two apiece.
Faasel has won in fields of thirteen twice and did win a two year old race at Galway (tricky track though a million miles from Cheltenham, constitutionally if not geographically!) in a field of eighteen. He was a stout and staying on second in the Kim Muir over the same course and distance last March, and goes on good ground or softer. Seemingly nicely weighted, his stable will doubtless have him fit enough for today's seasonal debut.
As far as I can see, Faasel has a very similar profile to 2006 winner, D'Argent, being a nine year old seasonal debutante, with an overall consistent profile despite an uncharacteristic non-completion last time (in the Scottish National, where 23 of the 30 runners failed to complete!)
If you can forgive a horse one bad run, then Faasel looks the most likely fit here. Any Currency may well make the most of the weight concessions he receives almost universally here to follow the Pipe old boy home.
Next Best: Any Currency
[STOP PRESS: Any Currency is a non-runner...]
Whatever happens this afternoon, there is no doubt who the biggest winners are. And they are us, for today we get to cheer and holler chasers and hurdlers up the Cheltenham hill once more! 🙂
It may seem a bit early to be previewing the Blue Riband event at next year's Cheltenham Festival meeting, dear reader, but I have a good reason for attacking the Gold Cup so early...
You see, I'm convinced that at least three of the top four in the betting cannot possibly win the race, which means that it becomes a wide open 20/1 the field contest. Are you a little more interested now? 😉
My conviction is predicated on the fact that we are (over)due a 'changing of the guard' at the top of the staying chaser category. Two of the big three, Denman and Kauto Star, are going to be eleven on January 1st (when all horses gain a year in age). Without question, they are two of the finest National Hunt horses for a generation... but they're not getting any younger.
The other, Imperial Commander, last year's Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, will be ten years old on the first day of 2011. No spring chicken himself, despite relatively few miles on the clock.
And the fourth horse in the betting in some lists is Big Buck's. Actually it's only William Hill's greedy list, where he's a 12/1 shot. If I tell you that he's 143 currently on Betfair that tells you all you need to know. He won't run in the Gold Cup, because he's won the World Hurdle for the last two years and he'll be going for a hat-trick there. Moreover, even if he did go the chase route, he's a lousy jumper and a good stone below top class. Factor in his sulky 'on and off the bridle' running style, and 143 is much closer to his true chances!
So, where does that leave us? Well, unless you're a rabid pin-sticker, it leaves us with 20/1 the field in a lottery. But that's where the stats come in. I've done my usual number bashing, and discovered some pretty interesting nuggets. The sum total of my nuggets is that one horse has a fine Gold Cup profile at this stage... though that could certainly change before the end of the year.
Let's get down to it. I looked at nationality, odds, age, last time out performance, best seasonal performance, top official rating, TopSpeed figure, and Racing Post Rating prior to winning; and also at past Cheltenham Festival form.
And I can tell you this... most winners conform to a fairly tight profile.
I've used the last ten winners which means the last eleven years, as there was no Festival in 2001 due to foot and mouth. (What the hell did we do in March that year?!)
- All ten winners went off 15/2 or shorter in the betting. However, in the three years prior to that, the winners' odds were 16/1, 25/1 and 20/1 respectively.
- All ten winners were aged between seven and nine years old. (If you like Imperial Commander, the last 10yo to win was Cool Dawn in 1998. If you like Long Run, the last 6yo to win was Mill House in 1963! If you like either Kauto Star or Denman, the last 11yo to win was Mandarin in 1962, although What A Myth did prevail as a 12yo in 1969! 😉
- Nine out of the ten finished first or second in a Grade 1 or 2 race last time out. And seven out of ten had their final pre-Gold Cup start in December, either in the King George or the Lexus Chase. (Two of the three who had a run after December ran in and won the Aon Chase at Newbury in February).
- The last nine winners had already recorded a first or second place finish in a Grade 1 contest that season prior to winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
- Nine of the ten winners had had between six and twelve chase starts, and all ten had won at least four times over the big obstacles.
- All ten were officially rated 159 or higher before winning their Gold Cup. 7/10 were rated 169 or more.
- Nine out of ten had run a Topspeed figure of at least 157. This doesn't help a lot as most top class chasers should have recorded this figure or better.
- All ten winners had registered a Racing Post Rating of 167 or more.
- Perhaps most interestingly of all, nine out of the last ten Cheltenham Gold Cup winners had already finished first or second in a previous Cheltenham Festival race. The one exception was Kauto Star before his first Gold Cup win, and he'd fallen when a short priced favourite for the Arkle previously.
You can view this data in a line by line format by clicking on the image below:
Now that's all well and good, but what if it actually does nothing to reduce the field for this year's race? Well, thankfully, it does plenty to help us pare things to a more manageable conundrum.
Firstly, unless you're prepared to roll back more than fifty years of Gold Cups, you'll be following me in striking a line through the venerable veterans, Denman and Kauto Star. Obviously, it would be a staggering and truly tear-jerking feat if either of the old boys could grab Gold Cup glory once more. But to bet on it would be to ignore the evidence of half a century. Not for me, with my head, despite my stated weakness where my heart is concerned.
Long Run is a 25/1 shot at best, and 16's in places. He's only five right now and, despite turning six on New Year's Day, he's still got to overcome that age stat. Oh, and improve around a stone on what he's achieved so far. Not impossible, but not really a betting proposition either.
And finally, in the orange'y autumnal amber section, I've placed last year's impressive Gold Cup winner, Imperial Commander (and very talented long-term absentee, Neptune Collonges). Both of these chaps will be ten next year. Cool Dawn in 1998, Cool Ground in 1992, and Charter Party and Desert Orchid in 1988 and 1989 respectively testify that it can be done.
But no double digit winner has prevailed since 1998, and whilst I can't quite put my finger on why this is (I suspect it may be somehow tied to the emergence of more precocious French-bred's, despite their poor overall performance in the Gold Cup, Kauto Star aside), I'm loathe to pile into a ten year old attempting to win the Gold Cup.
That said, I can find very few chinks in the champ's chainmail (easy for me to say) and, granted he gets there fresh and well, he's sure to take some beating. With those caveats to the fore, I'd be perfectly happy to risk taking a slightly short price as a day of race saver... especially if my ante-post interests have shortened in the betting in the interim!
So age does for four of the top eight in the betting (I can hear the form book purists tutting and harrumphing at my dismissive comments from here!)
At this rate, we'll soon cut the field down to size, with or without form book passengers. 😉
Moving on, and the next few trends that I consider key are those surrounding Festival and seasonal form - welcome back, form book munchers! I wouldn't discard you as easily as that!
To remind ourselves of the recent evidence of some paragraphs ago, first or second in a previous Festival race seems to be very important (only the fallen favourite, Kauto Star, failed on this score prior to his first GC win). And it also seems to be key to have demonstrable Grade 1 form that sesason in the form of a win or runner up position in a Grade 1 contest.
At this stage, we'll place more emphasis on the Cheltenham Festival credential as, clearly, there is ample time for Gold Cup contenders to illustrate their top class merits in the Grade 1 races to come.
So, focusing on past Festival glories (or very near misses) leads us to closer review Punchestowns (2nd in the 2009 World Hurdle); Cooldine (won 2009 RSA Chase); Burton Port (2nd RSA Chase 2010); Somersby (2nd Arkle 2010 and also 3rd Supreme Novices 2009); Sizing Europe (won 2010 Arkle; favourite when disappointing in the 2008 Champion Hurdle); and, Mikael d'Haguenet (won 2009 Ballymore Hurdle).
Although not strictly qualifying on this point, honourable mentions in despatches go to Weird Al, who has two Cheltenham novice chase wins to his name, neither at the Festival; Planet of Sound, who was 3rd in the 2009 Arkle; and the unlucky Carruthers, who has a fourth place in both the Gold Cup this year, and the RSA Chase in 2009.
Put another, considerably more succinct, way, I'm drawing a line through What A Friend (6th in 2009 RSA Chase, pulled up in 2008 Albert Bartlett Hurdle); Joncol, who has never donned his trunks for a swim across the Irish Sea; and Pandorama for the same reason. That said, Pando is in the Hennessy, so could at least show he travels with a good performance there. (On the other hand, he's only had three races over fences so looks too inexperienced for such a tall order at the Gold Cup!)
Looking for a first or second place finish in a Grade 1 at this stage of this season is extremely premature. However, there are some that have already qualified, and all the others have to earn their ticket by running a tip top race in a tip top race. Those that have already gone 1-2 in a top class affair are: Imperial Commander, Kauto Star, and Sizing Europe (second, beaten four lengths by Kauto Star).
And, at this stage, there is only one horse I'm interested in. And that's Sizing Europe. There are question marks about his stamina, even though he plugged on gamely in that three mile Grade 1 at Down Royal last time on soft ground. He wouldn't have enjoyed the conditions especially, and he's certain to plummet in the betting should he win or run close in the King George (for which he's a best priced 16/1 and a general 12 and 14/1 chance).
So far, Sizing Europe has had eight chase runs, and never been out of the first three, winning five of them (including this year's Arkle, and a Grade 1 novice last Christmas).He's a nine year old next year, has run the requisite figures (with the exception of a Racing Post Rating one pound shy of the qualification mark), has already demonstrated his liking for the Festival and his ability this season, and a placed finish in the King George would surely see him cut to around a third of his current 33/1 best price quote (Victor Chandler only).
He's as short as 16's with Paddy Power, and is a general 20 and 25/1 shot.
26/11 at midday - STOP PRESS: Geegeez readers have swooped and snapped up all the 33's with VC, so general 25/1 is the best available price now. 🙂 🙁
He's still got improvement in him, which is good as he'll need to find fifteen pounds or thereabouts to beat Commander, Kauto or Denman.
Now I actually believe that those three may all prove to be regressive this season, as age catches up with them, so it may be that improvement of around ten pounds is enough. That's conjecture and has little place here, aside from attempting to add ballast to my already struck ante-post punt on Sizing Europe.
Long suffering readers will recall that I piled into this horse for the Champion Hurdle in 2008. Some of the same readers may also recall I went nowhere near him in the Arkle last year, when of course he won. Can it be third time lucky for Bisogno and Sizing Europe? 33/1 says it's worth a try...
One final point on Sizing Europe. He's likely to have entries in the Champion Chase (two miles) and the Ryanair Chase (2m5f) as well as the Gold Cup, so win only is the way forward for this - and indeed most - ante-post tickle(s).
As I say, there are others who may come into it as time passes between now and March, but there are really only three races to take special heed of: the King George on Boxing Day, the Lexus Chase on 28th December (I think), and the Aon Chase in early February. The first two are more important than the last named.
Finally, the Hennessy is shaping up to be a fantastic race this weekend, but in reality it is likely to shake up the Cheltenham Gold Cup betting far more than it actually deserves to. Apart from confirmed Newbury fanatic, Denman, the last horse to win - or even run in - the Hennessy en route to winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the same season was Jodami back in 1992. (He finished second that day, and the horse one place behind him, The Fellow, went on to win the following year's Gold Cup).
As the prices slash on any number of close up Hennessy runners, remember that a) it's a Grade 3 contest, and b) they're all getting a stone and a half off Denman.
If you want to see my workings out, and maybe put your own spin on the data, click the image below.
p.s. what's your take on the Gold Cup? Kauto? The Commander? Durable Denman? Or a new kid on the Hill? Leave a comment, and let us know where your money's going to be.
p.p.s. Here's the Excel file if you want to play around with things:
CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP 2011 TRENDS EXCEL
p.p.p.s. This is my current ante-post portfolio in case you're interested...