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Thistlecrack Set For World Domination

Thistlecrack Dominant at Ascot

Thistlecrack Dominant at Ascot

His seasonal debut at Newbury was impressive, but at Ascot on Saturday Thistlecrack positively purred his way to victory in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle. The magnificent seven-year-old now sits proudly at the head of the World Hurdle market, after yet another dominant display.

Ridden prominently by Tom Scudamore, he had three time Long Walk winner Reve De Sivola in his sights throughout. As they approached the second last flight he swept to the front, and with the minimum of fuss stretched clear to win eased down by eight lengths.

“He felt as impressive as he looked,” said Scudamore after the win. “To be in a Grade 1 like that and not have a moment's worry was a great thrill. It was a mighty performance.”

Speaking yesterday, trainer Colin Tizzard set out the route to the Cheltenham Festival, saying: “He is a big, strong, powerful horse and I was expecting that sort of performance and nothing less. The Cleeve Hurdle comes at about the right time. It is five to six weeks away and he will go there, then on to the Cheltenham Festival.” In typically frank fashion, Tizzard added: “He was a long way off peak fitness at Newbury. The last 10 days he's been really good on our gallop. Reve De Sivola ran a brilliant race, beat everything else a long way, and we clobbered him.”

Proven on a sound surface having won the Grade 1 Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree in April, he has only raced at Cheltenham once before, when disappointing back in January at two and a half miles in testing ground. He ran no sort of race that day, and may well have been feeling the effects of a win at Wincanton just nine days earlier. However, the Cleeve Hurdle looks the perfect opportunity to gain valuable course experience prior to The Festival.

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Defending World Hurdle winner Cole Harden is set to run in the Relkeel at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. Behind Thistlecrack at Newbury on his seasonal bow, his trainer Warren Greatrex appears pleased with his progress. Late last week the Lambourn trainer said: “The plan at the moment will be to run on New Year's Day and then go straight for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. We want the tank full for March.”

Saphir Du Rheu ran a stinker at Ascot and is set to have a wind operation. The switch back to hurdles surprised many, me included. And what started as a season full of promise is very quickly unravelling. However, these breathing ops are becoming the fast track to success, and there’s every chance that Nicholls’ charge will return with renewed vigour. He certainly can’t be discounted from a bold run at Cheltenham in March, and current odds of 20/1 for the World Hurdle may seem extremely generous come the day.

Plenty can change between now and March, and others are sure to enhance their claim as live contenders. The Charlie Longsdon trained Kilcooley is being primed for a clash with Cole Harden on New Year’s Day, before a return to Cheltenham to take on Thistlecrack in the Cleeve. He was mightily impressive at Wetherby in October when winning the West Yorkshire Hurdle. Still only six, he has a rapidly progressive profile.

Time will of course tell if Tizzard holds the Ace in the pack. For now, World domination looks a distinct possibility.

Williams Welcomes A Brighter Spell

Williams Chasing Winners

Williams Chasing Winners

Victories for Tea For Two and Aubusson have sparked life into a hitherto lacklustre campaign for Nick Williams.

The Devon handler has now crept to six winners from 51 starts at a strike rate of 10%. Last season gleaned just 13 wins from 113 runs compared to the previous five winters which saw the Williams yard hit virtually twice that figure on each occasion. In the 2009/10 campaign total prize money touched half a million, whilst last year it dropped below £300,000 and so far this winter sits at less than £80,000.

Added to this, during the summer the stable lost one of its exciting youngsters, when Fox Norton moved to Neil Mulholland’s yard. To rub salt into the wounds, the five-year-old has taken to fences, like a duck to water and is already two from three over the larger obstacles.

It sounds like an almighty tale of woe, but to be fair to Williams and his team, fortunes can quickly turn in his favour. The yard only has around 25 horses in training, a manageable quantity for Culverhill Farm. It therefore follows that should the trainer nurture a star or two, the slightly disappointing stats can very quickly look a whole lot healthier.

Reve De Sivola has certainly been one such star over the past half dozen years. He may be fast approaching ‘senior citizen’ status, but on the evidence of his run at Auteuil last month, he looks to retain plenty of ability. In just over a week’s time he makes his regular pilgrimage to Ascot to contest the Long Walk Hurdle. It’s a race that he has dominated in recent years, with three consecutive victories. There’s every chance that he can make it four on the bounce, especially if the ground rides testing.

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Last Friday at Exeter Tea For Two made his much anticipated switch to fences. A classy hurdler, he always looked to have the stature that suggested chasing would be more his game. Nevertheless, few could have anticipated such a stunning debut. He travelled through the race with ease and was wonderfully slick over his obstacles. He recorded a thumping 10 length success despite being eased right down in the latter stages. Paul Nicholls’ Calipto was back in third and the Philip Hobbs trained Golden Doyen out of sight in fourth. It was a truly cracking performance.

Though Aubusson’s win at Uttoxeter yesterday was somewhat less impressive, it was still a dominant performance. He’s another huge beast who appears to need testing conditions to be at his best. In time you could certainly see him becoming a Welsh National type. However, I’d be surprised if he progresses as quickly as Tea For Two, and he looks more of a long term project.

On Saturday the yard also celebrated a stunning win for the four-year-old novice hurdler Agrapart. The son of Martaline is yet another who coped best with testing ground conditions. He trounced the opposition by 20 lengths with Lizzie Kelly on board barely moving a muscle. Heavy ground form can be misleading at times, but he undoubtedly looks a tasty prospect.

It’s fair to say that Williams and his team are stirring from their recent slumber. The outlook for the Devon handler suddenly looks a whole lot brighter.

Jacob’s Christmas Cracker

Daryl Jacob

Daryl Jacob all smiles

Being replaced as number one jockey for the leading trainer in Jump racing looked to be a major blow for Daryl Jacob, when in April Paul Nicholls turned Read more

Double Dutch, 25th January 2014

Double Dutch

Double Dutch

Double Dutch, 25th January 2014

Chris is taking a well earned weekend off, and so it's me (Matt) in the chair for a couple of days. No joy on Friday, so let's look with fresh eyes towards Saturday's excellent fare.

Yesterday's results were as follows:

Atlantic Roller : 3rd at 13/8
Tornado Bob: 4th at 3/1 
---------------------------------
Electric Qatar : 2nd at 11/4
Shawkantango : 3rd at 3/1

Results to date:
127 winning selections from 448 = 28.35%
41 winning doubles in 120 days = 34.17%

Stakes: 238.00pts
Returns: 248.04pts

P/L : +10.04pts (+4.22% ROI)

Here's Saturday's suggested play:

12.55 Doncaster:

A cracking novice chase featuring 2012 Champion Hurdler, Rock On Ruby, and four unexposed exciting sorts in opposition. Rock On Ruby has been a stable star for Harry Fry, a man who has a 31% strike rate since taking out a license in late 2012. Compare that with Nicky Henderson's 24% and Paul Nicholls' 22% and you can see what a staggering achievement that is.

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The horse, for his part, was foot perfect bar one minor incident in a nothing race at Plumpton on his fencing bow. The thing I loved about that was how clever he was when getting in close, and that - allied to his obvious speed as a former Champion Hurdler - will stand him in good stead here. 6/4 could look a smidge generous by ten-past-one.

Of the rest, though I fear a few, the one I like is Valdez, who looks a much better chaser than hurdler already. Rated 135 at his peak over timber, he's perched on 152 over fences after just two impressive spins. He likes the good to soft ground, and deserves to test his mettle in this better grade now. 4/1 looks about right.

*

3.35 Cheltenham:

The Cleeve Hurdle, and the return of Big Buck's. I'm actually sorely tempted to oppose the champ, on two counts. Firstly, he's having his first run back after 420 days off, and this is a hot race. And secondly, he's now eleven years old - was nine officially when last seen - and this is a hot race. Also, he's evens and this is a hot race.

But... he's eighteen from eighteen since 2009, and that's a monumental effort unparalleled by any horse, let alone any horse in this field. At the prices, I'm going to oppose him. You might not want to, and that's your choice, but I think he's too short in deep ground after a long layoff aged eleven.

Against him, I get two bullets, which helps, and I'm siding with Reve de Sivola and Boston Bob, though I fear a back-to-form At Fishers Cross too. Reve de Sivola loves jumping up and down in muddy puddles (as Peppa Pig's narrator might say), and he'll have his hooves caked in quag this day for sure. He's normally needed the run on seasonal debut so it was a fair enough effort when third to Celestial Halo two starts back. Last time, he showed the benefit of that run by putting ten lengths between himself and the decent Salubrious in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle.

His record on heavy is 211121 and there's a good chance of it being officially heavy by the time the tapes rise for the Cleeve, as it's tipping down on Friday night (as I write).

Boston Bob loves the mud too, and he looked very good when reverting to hurdles after a couple of bungled leaps over the bigger obstacles last Spring. The first probably cost him victory in the RSA Chase, and he has a second in the staying novice hurdle at the 2012 Festival too. That was on good ground, and on heavy (or soft to heavy) his record is 311111. He needs to improve on the bare form of his hurdling runs to date, but is capable of that, and 7/2 is reasonable.

4 x 0.5pt BOG doubles as follows:
Rock On Ruby / Reve de Sivola @ 11.5/1 (SeanieMac)
Rock On Ruby / Boston Bob @ 10.34/1 (Paddy
)
Valdez / Reve de Sivola @ 19.25/1 (Bet365)
Valdez / Boston Bob @ 
19.25/1 (BetVictor)

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.

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...

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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

Cheltenham Festival 2010: Day Two Preview

One down, three to go, dear reader, in the marathon 26 races of Cheltenham's glorious National Hunt Festival.

After today's triumph/break even/disaster* (*delete as applicable), it's back to the grindstone for the second quarter, or Day Two as its somewhat unaffectionately known.

Taking us through to the halfway point are seven races, and my thoughts are below:

National Hunt Chase

Good grief! A novice chase over four miles with amateur pilots: can you think of a less appealing betting proposition?!

Given how competitive this race is, and how much jumping ability a novice requires to negotiate 24 fences and 26 other apprentice nags steered by apprentice 'little people' (actually some of them aren't even that little!), it is a strong testament to Jonjo O'Neill's schooling team that he's won this race an incredible four times in the last decade.

More pertinently from a punting perspective, he's had a 25/1 and a 33/1 winner in that quartet. Last year, his Can't Buy Time was fourth, from just two entries.

This year, he has three entries: Synchronised, Theatrical Moment, and Cruchain. Knowing as we do that he doesn't always bag it with the favoured runner, I've had a closer inspection of Cruchain, currently 40/1 with the bookies and 130-odd on Betfair! Unfortunately, he looks to have it all to do, weakening over shorter trips and not being the most fluid leaper in this field full of 'not fluid leapers'.

Synchronised might do well, but I have a feeling that Theatrical Moment could run a big race and prove the pick of the three.

The Ascot staying race in which he finished fourth behind Any Currency looks to be the best form in this race, and he has clearly improved since - as evidenced by his two facile victories at Leicester.

The trip looks spot on for this multiple bumper winner and, granted normal luck in passage, he ought to be knock-knock-knocking on victory's door.

The aforementioned Any Currency, who ostensibly seems to have regressed since the Ascot win over Theatrical and co, actually has a fine chance. He appears to need a going description containing the word 'good' somewhere in it, and he can be expected to run much better than his last two outings on the sounder surface here.

A really interesting stat if you're looking at a big priced horse is that five winners in recent years had yet to win a chase. Not surprising that horses would improve for the (vast) step up in trip, so it might pay to speculate on a couple of maiden chasers who have suggested they'll do a Forrest Gump (and keep on running), and may be bred for that particular persistence.

Cast Cada looks interesting over this longer trip (as a 3m2f hurdle winner at Southwell), as does Pennek (staying on third in the Pertemps Final last year, and from same stable as 2008 winner, Old Benny).

I have to admit to being surprised to see that 33/1 is available about the last named, and I've helped myself accordingly. He's got loads of very good Cheltenham form and is another who will undoubtedly improve for better ground. Importantly, the jockey has at least won races, and knows how to ride, so this one will make a nice big priced tickle.

Side note: it's a novice chase, so you'll only get paid on the first three on each way bets, unless you find a generous bookie. That said, at least most bookies are paying a quarter the odds as opposed to the traditional fifth the odds in such races for a place.

NIM Novices' Hurdle

A pretty decent Champion Hurdle nursery in recent years, I wonder if anything will advertise its claims for bigger prizes next year, this year (if you see what I mean).

The jolly is Rite Of Passage, who has a stack of top class flat form, both in bumpers and at the Summer game (as an eight length win in the Irish November Handicap from Champion Hurdle aspirant, Donnas Palm, testifies).

His hurdling career has been uninformative to date, with my tongue in cheek report after his last race summing it up. I ran the headline 'Rite Of Passage Still Has Leg In Each Corner', to illustrate the fact that this unquestionably talented horse had proved no more on his last outing than the fact he's still a quadruped.

More importantly, his trainer Dermot Weld was equally stoic about the performance, saying, "He wasn’t spectacular, or overly impressive, but he did it nicely."

Fair enough.

But I'm not going to take 7/2 about that one. Weld also said that his horse took time to get used to the undulations. If he takes too long about the Cotswolds ups and downs, they'll have gone without him. The Old Course, where the first two days racing are run, is more of a speed test than the grind of the New Course, where Thursday and Friday's racing take place.

In truth, Rite Of Passage has any amount of scope, and he might very well win in the style of a potential future Champion Hurdle horse. But, as I say, I'll not be wading into 7/2.

Next in is Quel Esprit, another Irishman with sound if not spectacular credentials. Beaten just two lengths by Rite Of Passage (and considerably further by Dunguib) in last year's bumper, QE lost his hurdles invincibility last time against Coole River in what was a shock result.

Sound if not spectacular doesn't get my vote, especially give question marks about the faster ground. That said, his trainer, Willie Mullins, has won the last two renewals, and will be keen on the hat-trick.

The one I like is Reve De Sivola.

Trained by the excellent Nick Williams (winner of over quarter of a million in prize money this season, with just 27 horses, all bar five of which have earned win or place cash), this horse will bid to go one better than stablemate Maljimar's silver medal in the William Hill Trophy last season.

His form is very good, only beaten by Tell Massini (favourite for the Albert Bartlett on Friday). He's a scrapper too, which will come in handy as they turn for home. Whether he's quite classy enough remains to be seen, but he's good value I think at around 12/1.

RSA Chase

I previewed the RSA Chase the other day, so I'll not repeat it here. Suffice it to say, I'm looking for a street fighter, and I've gone with a couple of big priced horses in Knockara Beau and Citizen Vic (if he runs).

Queen Mother Champion Chase

The 'Queen Mum' is the two mile chase of the season, and its alumni reads like a proverbial 'who's who' of speed chasing. This is Wednesday's feature race and, for me, the third best race of the meeting (after the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup).

In my preview way back in December, I flagged Forpadydeplasterer as an each way steal. And then he went and got injured. Or did he?! The conspiracy theorists will have had some fun with this 'will he, won't he' horse, as trainer Thomas Cooper announced he would not run due to a foot problem, and then later on decided he probably would run.

By all accounts, he's fine and missed no work. So the place hope is back on!

I also put up Master Minded, then a 7/4 chance, as the most likely winner.

And I rowed in with Petit Robin as each way value at 33/1 (now as short as 14's, but also entered in the Ryanair Chase).

Master Minded looks like banker material as I've mentioned elsewhere and, of the horses I've not mentioned above, Kalahari King was mightily impressive in winning at Donny under a big weight and after a long time off. Whether he can replicate that is a matter of some debate but, if he can, he must be thereabouts.

Coral Cup

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A madly competitive handicap hurdle over 2m 5f may seem like a strange race in which to have a strong fancy, but both Gavin and I agreed on this one, and I'd had a decent bet at a decent price on one horse in the field.

Unfortunately for me, the trainer had different ideas and is running him in the Pertemps Final instead. The horse? Smoking Aces, and another fat-priced ante-post punt goes west.

So, in his stead, I'm going to side with Philip Hobbs, who has won this race twice and had two more placed in the last decade. He runs Wishfull Thinking here and, whilst this is a sizable step up in class, he's been laughing at the opposition in lower grade races.

Don't expect a horse to emerge from nowhere to win this. All of the last ten winners had won one of their last four races, and six of the last seven actually won last time out. So there might well be a case for not over-complicating things too much!

Fred Winter Juvenile Novices' Handicap Hurdle

After waiting eleven races for a handicap hurdle, we then get two of them, back to back. Following the Coral Cup is the Fred Winter, a new race for those who didn't get in (or want to get in) to the Triumph Hurdle on the Friday.

Five years of info to go on might seem insufficient (and might prove likewise!), but some reasonable trends appear to be emerging.

All five failed to win prior to their third start, and this late development looks significant (as it also protects the handicap mark somewhat).

And they all had their first run during or later than December.

Applying a spot of form (!!) to the above shortlisting strategy brings me to David Pipe's Notus De La Tour. He's got a lot of weight, with 11-09, but it's interesting to note that three of the five winners carried 11-03 or more to victory, so it might pay to look towards the top of the handicap in this particular race.

Fin Vin De Leu and Sanctuaire are respected, but I really like the look of the progressive Pipe horse (stable won this in 2007 with a similar type in Gaspara).

Champion Bumper

A dozen races down, and the bakers' dozen and half way point is reached with the only flat race at the Festival, the Champion Bumper. This has been an Irish benefit since its inception in 1992. Indeed, since then, just three of the seventeen runnings have gone to Brit-trained horses.

Bizarre then, that in that context, I should nail my colours to the mast of one of the home team? Maybe, but scratch the surface and you'll note that Al Ferof had the first two of his three races under rules in Ireland. You'll also note that he won a very competitive bumper at Newbury last time, in a most taking fashion.

He's a scrapper rather than a bridle horse, and I'd imagine he might get tapped for toe turning in. But it's a very long way home from there, and he'll not be stopping any time before the jamstick.

The Irish are predictably mob-handed, and triple Naas winner, Drumbaloo, and Eddie O'Grady's Shot From The Hip lead the market. Further down the betting lists we see the first of the Mullins multiple entry (he's won this race SIX times!), Bishopsfurze.

Once raced and impressive in that triumph, Bishopsfurze is expected to be much better on the faster ground at Cheltenham, and has been awarded the Timform 'large P' (rarely awarded, and implying much more improvement to come).

He'll be my each way play.

And that concludes the merriment for the first part of the week. Thirteen races done, another thirteen to go. At this point, if you're up, allow yourself to buy a round but don't be celebrating prematurely; if you're down, know that there's plenty of time to recover the situation; and if - like the Grand Old Duke of York - you're neither up nor down, consider yourself pretty lucky to have got that far without digging a hole!

Matt

p.s. Ross' latest article, which I should have published on Monday, is particularly pertinent given what happened in the Champion Hurdle... Conspiracy theorist? Young Ross?!

We all know JP McManus loves a bet at Cheltenham during the third week of March. His rivalry with the late bookie Freddie ‘Fearless’ Williams has gone down in Festival folk law and Barry Dennis recently recalled how he was facing an £800,000 paid out to the Irishman had Barracuda got past Inglis Drever up the Prestbury Park hill in the 2005 Stayers’ Hurdle.

Last year, we saw a heavily gambled on Wichita Lineman scrape home in front in McManus’ green and gold silks to land the William Hill Trophy and some hefty bets to boot.

Most of the Irishman’s festival punts are a strongly held secret - only a few insiders know when the money’s down. Even his trainer, Jonjo O’Neill, isn’t really sure himself when JP’s ‘having it big’.

But could this year’s gamble have been his most exposed one yet? Is the news that this horse is going to be carrying more than his jockey right under our nose?

I’m talking about Binocular.

So marginally denied in last year’s Champion Hurdle, it was made no secret that Nicky Henderson’s steed would be a stronger, much tougher animal in 12 months time.

Since then, we have seen quite the opposite: comfortably beaten twice by Go Native before landing the odds in a poor three-runner affair at Sandown, the progress we were promised from Binocular has failed to materialise.

Despite these disappointments, dreams of going two places better in the Champion Hurdle were kept alive and the son of Enrique was available at odds of 6-1 for the championship event.

Now, this is where my thinking kicks in. Was JP McManus sitting in his mansion back in Ireland thinking: ‘Sixes! That’s far too short for a good ol’ gamble!’?

So what does he do?

BINOCULAR OUT OF CHAMPION WITH MUSCULAR PROBLEM read the next day’s headlines.

Boom. There’s no better way to get larger odds on a horse than to put their participation in doubt. Some bookies even took him out of their markets.

His chances had been written off.

A ‘muscular problem’ is a very good excuse. Unlike, say, a bone fracture or tendon injury, the period of recuperation varies upon the extent. With this, they can keep the horse out of the Champion Hurdle picture for as long or as little as they want.

So, surprise, surprise, last week we hear that Binocular is back on track for Cheltenham and he is immediately re-instigated in the betting markets. At 8-1.

Now, McManus takes a sip of his 25-year old malt, reclines in his armchair and thinks: ‘Eights! Pile in lads!’.