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Cheltenham Festival Halftime ‘Pep Talk’ required

We’ve reached the halfway point in this year’s Cheltenham Festival, and from a personal point of view, I’m in need of a much-improved second half performance.

I’ve taken on far too many favourites for my own good, and whilst many punters will be dancing with joy, I’m left wishing I’d played the obvious, rather than over-complicating matters.

The usual suspects have proved dominant, with Mullins, Elliott and Henderson capturing nine of the 14 races thus far. Mullins landed an opening day hat-trick, though Getabird proved disappointing in the opener. The team made amends, when Footpad cruised to victory in the Arkle Chase. Ruby rode an intelligent race, sitting some way off the crazy pace set by Davy Russell on Petit Mouchoir. Aidan Coleman kept him company aboard Saint Calvados, and the pair were cooked some way from the finish. Footpad is without doubt a classy chaser, though his task in winning this was made that much easier by the inept tactics of others.

It was inevitable that Ruby would side with Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle, hopeful of one last hurrah from the great champion. Sadly, time waits for no man, or horse, and the ex-champ faded turning for home. Stable companion Melon was left to tackle the new champion Buveur D’Air, and the pair locked horns in a thrilling duel from the second-last to the line. Henderson’s returning hero was headed just after the last but rallied bravely to wrestle the prize away from the young pretender. The Gordon Elliott-trained Mick Jazz filled the frame, though he was three-lengths adrift of the main protagonists.

Gordon Elliott’s classy mare, Apple’s Jade, was surprisingly beaten into third in the Mares’ Hurdle, with the Mullins-trained Benie Des Dieux staying on powerfully for the win. But there was no such shock in the opener on day two, when Elliott’s latest stable-star, Samcro, lived up to the hype in landing the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Travelling powerfully throughout, the six-year-old cruised to the front on the turn for home, quickly putting distance between himself and the field. Only the Tom George-trained Black Op put up any kind of resistance, finishing just shy of three-lengths off the favourite.

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Samcro is likely to be sent chasing next term yet appears to have the tactical speed to become an elite hurdler. Numerous Ballymore winners have dropped back in trip to become Champion Hurdle contenders. Several have been successful. From the same sire as Faugheen, Samcro cruised through this race, as he had when winning at two miles in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle a month earlier. He’s owned by Gigginstown, who tend to target the Gold Cup with their most talented horses. Nevertheless, a conversation will be had in the close-season and it will be interesting to see what path is taken in the short term.

There’s no doubting the future target for the impressive RSA winner, Presenting Percy. Not unlike Samcro, this fella cruised through the race, before being unleashed by Davy Russell approaching the penultimate fence. The race was quickly put to bed and by the time he hit the line he’d stretched seven lengths clear of Monalee. Prior to this victory he’d found Our Duke a little too hot to handle at Gowran Park, suggesting Jess Harrington’s chaser will play a huge part in the Gold Cup on Friday. Nevertheless, this fella looks a powerful stayer and is sure to be aimed at the 2019 ‘Blue Riband’. Sadly, Ruby Walsh was again injured in a fall from Al Boum Photo, and may well have ridden for the last time this season.

Later in the afternoon, Nicky Henderson made it two from two in the Championship races, when Altior followed Buveur D’Air into the winners’ enclosure. Douvan was returning from a year off the track, and looked exceptionally well, jumping beautifully at the head of affairs. Much to everyone’s disappointment, he came down in the back straight, seemingly leaving Min and Altior to play out the finish. Henderson’s charge needed to be urged along at various times during the race and turning for home Min looked a huge danger. But rarely have I seen a horse more impressive from the last at Cheltenham. This fella simply devours the infamous hill, and he powered clear of his Irish rival to win by seven lengths. Altior is peerless at the minimum trip and I got to wondering how he would do if targeted at next year’s Gold Cup. He’ll possibly take in the Melling Chase at Aintree next (at 2m4f), a race won by Sprinter Sacre in 2013. Should Might Bite fail in his bid to capture the Gold Cup this week, Mr Henderson may be tempted to move this awesome racehorse up in distance.

Gordon Elliott took two of the last three, making it a treble on the day. Tiger Roll was an impressive winner of the Cross Country, further enhancing his Festival reputation. Cause Of Causes had been sent off favourite but floundered in testing conditions. It was no surprise to see Willie Mullins capture the Bumper, taking the Closutton team to five winners for the Festival thus far.

Mullins and Elliott have the favourite in five of today’s races as they look to press home the Irish dominance.

Jump Jockeys: How Are The Mighty Fallen?

How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!

- Samuel, 1:25

Perhaps more so than the terrific performances at Cheltenham this past weekend, or the death of National Hunt benefactor Alan Potts, jump racing's headlines have been hogged in recent days not by horses or owners, nor even trainers; but, rather, by the riders.

First Paddy Brennan was sensationally 'jocked off' Cue Card, sweetheart of so many fans of the winter game, after a tumble too many; then Sam Twiston-Davies broke his elbow in a fall at Sandown before, this past Saturday, Ruby Walsh broke his leg in what was, remarkably, his third fall of the afternoon.

It is of course the very essence of the National Hunt jockeys' existence to face down danger between ten and twenty - and as many as 32 - times per race. In that context, falls are a natural by-product of race outcomes. But what is a reasonable rate for a rider to become separated from his or her equine partner?

Let the data speak.

 

Fall/Unseat Rates: The Five Year Macro Data

Below are the faller rates for the last five years in UK/Irish chases by a number of the top jockeys, one notably since retired. To be clear, this is for steeplechase falls and unseats (FU's) only, and the table is sorted by number of rides.

 

Jockey Rides FU's FU %
R Johnson 1552 88 5.67%
S Twiston-Davies 1484 93 6.27%
N Fehily 1003 59 5.88%
P Brennan 999 56 5.61%
D Russell 800 57 7.13%
B Geraghty 740 40 5.41%
AP McCoy 724 41 5.66%
R Walsh 651 53 8.14%
J Kennedy 258 24 9.30%

 

To add more global context to this subset of superstars, the average fall/unseat rate in the last 10,000 starters in UK and Irish chases has been 6.59%. Solely in Irish chases, the last 10,000 starters there fell or unseated at a rate of 7.84%, presumably because of the heavier turf on which they predominantly race (a subject for another, wetter, day). It may then be fair to say that anything lower than that is outperforming the average, and anything higher than that is under-performing against the average.

But not all chase rides are 'average'. The likes of Ruby Walsh and Jack Kennedy are more frequently engaged in the kind of skirmishes for victory which may demand firing a horse at the last, or an earlier fence, in a more aggressive fashion than, say, a rider popping round for fourth place.

If that is to mitigate, the disparities in the table cannot be so simply swept from view.

We can see i the table that, on a large number of rides, many of them with winning chances, Richard Johnson, Sam Twiston-Davies and Noel Fehily have all kept their fall/unseat rate below 6.5%. So too have Paddy Brennan, Barry Geraghty, and the now retired Tony McCoy.

But across the Irish Sea, look at Davy Russell, who leads the Irish jumps championship this term, and his hitherto closest pursuer, Ruby Walsh. Note also Jack Kennedy, number one jockey at Gordon Elliott's powerfully ascendant yard.

Russell's tumble rate of 7.13% is on the high side compared with Britain, but not wildly out of kilter with the pan-national average and in the green zone against his domestic peer group. The same cannot be said of Jack and Ruby. Although the former is young and arguably still learning his trade - arguably because he's had many more rides than plenty of jockeys five years his senior - the latter especially looks a surprisingly precarious pilot. Now, before the hate mail starts, obviously I recognise that Ruby Walsh is one of the great jockeys of our time and that this is but one barometer of a jockey's ability.

But, all the same, if I want to bet at a short price - and his rides are almost exclusively offered at prohibitive odds - I need to know that I have to factor a higher than average likelihood of my selection not passing the post in a chase with the rider on its back. With Jack Kennedy, he's almost 20% more likely to be dumped on the turf than the Irish average.

Let me be clear again: this is not about Ruby or Jack or anyone else. I'm far too selfish for that. No, this is about me as a punter knowing what I'm up against. About being forewarned and, therefore, forearmed.

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Fall/Unseat Rates: The One Year Snapshot

Five years is a long time and it makes for some statistically significant (in the context of racing's generally small samples at least) inferences. But how do we compare jockeys with themselves? One way is to look at a snapshot - a subset - of the overall dataset. For punting purposes, the most current subset seems the most sensible. Below then are the last twelve months for the same jockey grouping, again sorted by number of rides.

 

Jockey Rides FU's FU %
R Johnson 301 20 6.64%
S Twiston-Davies 300 16 5.33%
D Russell 210 9 4.29%
N Fehily 206 12 5.83%
P Brennan 182 7 3.85%
R Walsh 124 13 10.48%
J Kennedy 123 12 9.76%
B Geraghty 105 9 8.57%
AP McCoy NA NA NA

 

Whilst even more care needs to be taken not to make bold claims on the basis of flimsy sample sizes, there remain elephants in the room.

First, let's look at Paddy Brennan, recently relieved of his supporting role atop the gorgeous Cue Card. His 3.85% fall/unseat rate in the past year is comfortably the lowest in the group and almost 1.5 times better than his five year average. Was he thus unlucky to lose such a coveted ride? That depends entirely on whether you're a macro sort of guy or you have the nuanced eye to make decisions based on the specifics of a handful of rides. I certainly don't consider myself qualified in the latter context and can see arguments for and against the rider switch.

The British Champion Jockey, Richard Johnson, has seen his tumble rate increase in the past twelve months, though possibly not materially. It has crept above the 10,000 runner average of 6.59% by a tiny margin: Johnson's renewed appetite to forage for every ride will have introduced a greater element of quantity over quality to his diet and the variance may perhaps be explained in such a way.

Noel Fehily has been remarkably consistent while Sam Twiston-Davies, who amazingly (to me at least, he seems to have been around for a long time) has only just turned 25, has retained his partnerships on a notably more frequent basis according to the most recent evidence. Tough luck then to break his elbow earlier this month; he actually rode in a subsequent race, attesting to the no-safety-net trapeze swing between heroism and stupidity that many in the weighing room unquestioningly fling themselves.

Meanwhile, Ireland's champion jockey-elect, Davy Russell, is 27 winners clear of his nearest challenger if one excludes the sidelined Walsh from calculations. Russell is approaching veteran status, though still in his late thirties, and has courted controversy this year in the manner with which he attempted to correct a recalcitrant mount. That episode deserves no more than a footnote in a piece the focus of which is elsewhere, and it will indeed be a shame if a man shunned by his major employer less than four years ago does not receive the praise he deserves if/when winning the jockeys' championship. Fair play to him.

To the elephant or, more precisely, the trio of elephants, in the room. Barry Geraghty first. He is one of the best jockeys I've seen and, in his time at Nicky Henderson's, was a man never to be dismissed. But, since taking the green and gold coin of Team JP, misfortune has followed him like a very bad smell. Since last July, he has broken both arms, in separate incidents; cracked a rib and collapsed a lung on another occasion; and recently (late August) fractured a shoulder blade. You have to be tough to be a jump jockey - far tougher than to look at numbers and write words about the subject - but my admiration starts to wane when riders persist in the face of mounting fragility.

It's no more my place to suggest to a rider about when to retire as it is for a rider to enquire on the number of winners I've ridden. So I won't. All I'll say is that I imagine the partners and families of jump jockeys rejoice the news of their loved one's cessation of getting legged up in a similar vein to that of the partners and families of professional boxers on hearing of gloves being hung for the final time. And I sincerely hope BJG has a long, uninterrupted and fruitful spell between now and whenever he pursues alternative employment.

Yet still we've to address the figureheads of Closutton and Cullentra, Ruby and Jack. In the last twelve months, Kennedy has come unstuck a dozen times from 123 chase starts. That's as near to ten per cent, and as near to 25% above the Irish average, as doesn't matter. Walsh has fallen or unseated once more than Kennedy, from one more ride, in the same period, a ratio above 10% and almost 33% greater than the norm.

It seems churlish to kick a man when he's down - Ruby faces a race against time to be back for the Cheltenham Festival and, like all fans of the sport, I hope he makes it - so I'll let those data speak for themselves. All I will add is that, to my eye - and keep in mind I've never ridden a winner - Ruby takes too many chances with fatigued animals late in races. Mounting (or, cynically, dismounting) evidence seems to support that.

The pressure in the Elliott and Mullins camps must be enormous, not just from the trainers, but from owners, other jockeys in the yard and, increasingly, the omnipresence of (social) media. Much of the latter is unworthy of attention, but when you're accustomed to being told how good you are, the sharper brickbats probably leave a weal.

 

Final Thoughts

There is an inherent selection bias in the tables above. Each of the jockeys therein has earned his place by being at the top of his peer group; such elevation comes only from taking chances when they're presented, and occasionally fashioning them when they may not absolutely be there.

As sports gigs go, riding 600kg animals over five foot fences (apologies for mixed metric-phors) around fifteen times per race on average is down there with the worst of 'em. It would never be for a wuss like me. Although not big on machismo either, I have a robust respect for these turf-eating gladiators as a collective.

But when the wallet comes out, they are individuals. And I want to know which individuals will support my bottom line, in the same way that these jocks want to know which horses will provide the winners to propel them up the championship table. It's every man (and woman) for themselves. Nobody is more or less selfish than the next, either in the punting or riding ranks; and nor should they be.

To that end, the frailties of otherwise tremendous jockeys with enormous (and, in the main, well deserved and hard earned) reputations are power to the contrarian punters' elbow.

Ruby has won aboard 30% of the chasers he's ridden in the last five years. That's open water clear of the next best (McCoy 22%, Daryl Jacob and Noel Fehily 20%, Sam T-D and Paddy B 19%, Richard Johnson 18%). But, from a punting perspective, his negative ROI of 18.86% at SP during that time is surpassed by absolutely nobody in his Premier League peer group. Some of that, of course, relates to his stable's form with chasers, most of it to the over-exposure of the Mullins/Walsh/Ricci PR machine; that's neither here nor there in terms of wagering.

Meanwhile, on the flip side, the unfashionable Paddy Brennan not only wins at a 19% clip, he's also secured a profit of almost 60 points at SP in the same time frame, regardless of the Cue Card fallout.

Backing horses is not a beauty contest, nor is it about fashion. On the contrary, the value lies wherever the spotlight doesn't. And, even in the halogen glare of the media beam, punting pearls are left for those with peripheral vision. Always be asking questions, take nothing on trust. The data is here. Use it. It rarely lies.

I genuinely hope Ruby gets back in time for the Festival, and I further hope he has a fantastic time of it. But I'll not be touching his chase mounts there, or pretty much anywhere else. That's unlikely to trouble him, of course. Devil take the hindmost!

Matt

Mullins Back On Track

Team Mullins roared back to life with a stunning four-timer on day three of the Cheltenham Festival.

Yorkhill set the ball rolling with victory in the JLT Novices’ Chase. Many had expected Disko to set the fractions after his dominant display in the Flogas Chase last time in Ireland. But for reasons best known to himself, Bryan Cooper thought it wise to sit patiently on Noel Meade’s talented six-year-old, and try to out-sprint last year’s Neptune winner (Yorkhill) and Top Notch, fifth in the 2016 Champion Hurdle.

Needless to say, the tactics proved wide of the mark, as both swept past him from the second last, with Yorkhill having the class and the gears to hold-off Nicky Henderson’s gutsy challenger by a length, with Cooper and Disko three lengths further back in third. It certainly wasn’t the Gigginstown jock’s finest hour. Nevertheless, Ruby Walsh wasn’t complaining, as his mount made it two Festival wins on the bounce.

A relieved Willie Mullins said: “To get on the board is huge. To get on the board in a Grade One is better. It's good for Ruby and the whole team. We've had a hard few days, but that's the way it is and we take what we can get.” Walsh was bullish after the win, saying: “He's got 'Gold Cup horse' written all over him and always had. People crab him because of his jumping, but he has a huge kink in him - people never realised the job Paul Nicholls did with Denman, because he was the same. Both are chestnuts by Presenting, the best ones all have a kink, he has a massive engine. He's brilliant. He's fantastic.”

There’s no doubting that Yorkhill is a classy racehorse; winning twice at the Cheltenham Festival is testament to that. But I’d be surprised if a one length victory over Top Notch in a JLT makes him a potential Gold Cup winner.
Things improved further for Mullins and Walsh, when Un De Sceaux put in a dominant display to win the Ryanair Chase. Briefly held up, the horse as much as the jockey decided to make the running from the fifth fence, and at no point in proceedings looked like being caught. It was a stunning performance from the winner, who has now won 18 of his 23 career starts.

Walsh said of the win: “I was a passenger. I got him back at the first fence down the back, but he attacked and jumped and he stayed. The jump at the last was special. He's a cracking little horse and he's so consistent, he must be a joy to own, he's a little tiger. He wants soft ground at two miles which is why we went two and a half miles on better ground.”

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Just half an hour later, Team Mullins were at it again, this time in the Stayers’ Hurdle. Like Yorkhill, Nichols Canyon is owned by Graham and Andrea Wylie, and though somewhat different in stature, has proved no less talented. Third to Annie Power last year in the Champion Hurdle, the step up to three miles looked risky, but the decision proved to be spot-on. He travelled beautifully throughout, and when asked for his effort quickened and stayed for a decisive victory. Lil Rockerfeller battled on bravely for second, with race favourite Unowhatimeanharry, just done for toe back in third.

It was a cracking renewal, with Cole Harden doing his best to repeat his success of 2015 from the front. Neil King’s Lil Rockerfeller took over as they turned for home, but it was the superior speed of Nichols Canyon that proved the telling factor. Jezki looked threatening approaching the home turn, but failed to see-out the trip. Shaneshill proved disappointing, as did novice West Approach, with both being pulled-up late-on.

For owner Graham Wylie, the victory brought back memories of a previous hurdling hero, Inglis Drever. Speaking after the success he said: “When I told Willie to buy a horse for me, he rang me up and said 'I think I've found you the next Inglis Drever'. He looks like him as he's only a pony, but he flew up the hill. Ruby told me he'd ride him like that to make sure he got the trip. It wasn't until approaching the last I thought he might get placed, never mind win.”

Mullins said: “It was some performance. I didn't particularly think the three miles would suit. He is tough, I just thought he would be too keen over that trip. With age, a lot of these horses learn to settle.”

Walsh was also impressed, saying: “He's a little warrior. He switched off, he jumped and we just crept away. Lil Rockerfeller was battling back at me but he kept going all the way to the line. He just started to come back to himself the last 10 days, Katie (Walsh) rode him at the Curragh the other day and said he worked very well. I'm delighted for Graham and Andrea (Wylie), this race means a lot to them.”

The four-timer was landed when Let’s Dance romped to victory in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. Ruby was again exceptional in the saddle, judging the pace of the race to perfection. He had his mount way-out the back, until making his move between the last two flights. The five-year-old dived a little at the last, but that didn’t prevent her from storming up the hill for an impressive win.

The victory also signalled a welcome change of fortune for owner Rich Ricci. He’s had to endure an incredible run of misfortune, with Douvan’s disappointing run in the Champion Chase the latest blow. The well-known saying ‘Form is temporary – Class is permanent’, was never more apt than at Cheltenham yesterday. Mullins, Walsh and Ricci team up with Djakadam today in the Gold Cup.

2017 Cheltenham Festival Top Jockey Betting Guide

The ‘Top Jockey’ betting at the Cheltenham Festival is always a fascinating market and provides punters with another sub-plot to keep them interested over the four-days of top-notch National Hunt action.

No Barry Geraghty this year after the JP McManus-retained pilot has been ruled out through injury, but with top jockeys like Ruby Walsh, Richard Johnson, Noel Fehily, Aidan Coleman, Bryan Cooper, Nico de Boinville, Sam Twiston-Davies and Mark Walsh then racegoers will be hunting through the entries trying to plot which of the leading jockeys have the best rides.

In recent year’s Ruby Walsh has dominated this market – ridding the most winners over the four days 8 times in the last 9 seasons, including in 2016, and 10 times in all. His association with the powerful Willie Mullins team, that fired in another seven Festival winners in 2016, makes him the clear favourite again in the 2017 Cheltenham Festival Top Jockey betting market and with that in mind it’s easy to see why the ‘silver fox’ pilot, who has ridden a total of 52 Cheltenham Festival winners, is already odds-on to take his Cheltenham Top Jockey Title haul to 11.

Walsh will have the pick of all the main Mullins horses over the Festival – like Douvan, Vroum Mag, Limini, Un de Scueax and Yorkhill, while he’s sure to also get the leg-up on plenty of spares if Mullins doesn’t have a runner in the race.

So, Ruby is a worthy favourite?

With no Barry Geragthy – who looked to have a cracking array of horses for his boss, JP McManus, to pick from – this will certainly help Ruby’s cause as most of Geragthy’s rides will now be spread out to a handful of other top jockeys. JP’s second retained rider – Mark Walsh – has naturally come in for support in the betting after it was confirmed that he’ll be riding leading Champion Hurdle hope – Yanworth – plus former Ryanair winner, Uxizandre.

However, those looking for other options away from Ruby Walsh, might sway towards Noel Fehily. This likeable jockey looks likely to pick up some more of Geraghty’s spares in the form of Unowhatimeanharry (Stayers Hurdle) and Buveur D’Air (Champion Hurdle), while he’s also on the well-touted Neon Wolf, who heads the Neptune Investment Hurdle betting.

Of the rest, top Irish jockey Bryan Cooper, who will ride the main Giggintown Stud horses, is interesting with such a large number of decent horses to pick from. His best chances look like coming from Petit Mouchoir, Apples Jade, Empire Of Dirt and Death Duty.

With the festival over four days then it really is numbers game, and without stating the obvious a mixture of 2 or 3 bankers in your locker, plus rides in almost all the available races (don’t forget there are a few amateur or conditional races) is the perfect cocktail to being the top jock at Cheltenham.

Did you know? Back in the 1990’s former champion jockeys Richard Dunwoody and Peter Scudamore landed the top jockey title with only 2 wins! But, don’t forget the festival was held over 3 days back then! 

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Another name to mention is Sam Twiston-Davies, who will ride the best of the Paul Nicholls runners, but although it will be a shock if Nicholls isn’t picking up a few races, he doesn’t seem to have any real banker material this year so it’s hard to see Twiston-Davies challenging for the top jockey title.

Aidan Coleman might be a better outsider – he’s likely to ride a lot of the Jonjo O’Neill and Venetia Williams horses, plus he’s already been confirmed for My Tent Or Yours (Champion Hurdle) and Minella Rocco (Gold Cup).

Nico de Boinville is worth a mention too – he looks sure to go in with Altior in the Arkle Chase so that should get him off the mark on Day One, and with the powerful Nicky Henderson team behind him too then he’s another that might be worth a small cover bet against Ruby.

The champion jockey – Richard Johnson – is another that is sure to get on the score sheet, but a bit like Twiston-Davies he’s bound to have plenty of rides, but with no real bankers then he might be scrapping around a bit, and even at a double-figure price it’s hard to get too excited.

So – yes – there are a few cases to be made for taking on Ruby Walsh, with Noel Fehily, Bryan Cooper and Nico de Boinville looking the best alternatives, but really it’s hard to get away from the ‘Silver Fox’. Okay, no Annie Power, Faugheen or Vautour this year, but he’s still got more so-called ‘bankers than any of the other top jocks and that’s good enough for us.

Finally, the last thing to note when it comes to this market is don’t forget that seconds, thirds and even fourth-placed finishes can help land a jockey this prize. In the event of a tie (winners) then the amount of seconds, and then thirds will be taken into account!

Best Bet: RUBY WALSH
Danger: Noel Fehily

 

Recent Cheltenham Festival ‘Top Jockey’ Hall Of Fame

2016: Ruby Walsh (5)
2015: Ruby Walsh (4)
2014: Ruby Walsh (3)
2013: Ruby Walsh (4)
2012: Barry Geraghty (5)
2011: Ruby Walsh (5)
2010: Ruby Walsh (3)
2009: Ruby Walsh (7)
2008: Ruby Walsh (3)
2007: Robert Thornton (4)
2006: Ruby Walsh (3)
2005: Graham Lee (3)
2004: Ruby Walsh (3)
2003: Barry Geraghty (5)
2002: Richard Johnson (2)
2001: Meeting Abandoned
2000: Mick Fitzgerald (4)
1999: Mick Fitzgerald (4)
1998: Tony McCoy (5)
1997: Tony McCoy (3)

 

Leading Current Jockeys At The Festival

Ruby Walsh (52)
Barry Geraghty (34)
Richard Johnson (20)
Davy Russell (17)
Tom Scudamore (9)
Ms Nina Carberry (7)
Sam Twiston-Davies (7)
Paddy Brennan (6)
Bryan Cooper (6)
Mr Jamie Codd (5)
Nico de Boinville (4)
Andrew Lynch (4)
Paul Townend (4)
Sam Waley-Cohen (4)

Mullins Moving Through The Gears

Gordon Elliott continues to set the pace at the head of the Irish Trainer’s Championship, with 119 wins and prize-money of just over €2m. Willie Mullins remains hot on his trail, with 82 winners and slightly more than €1.5m in prize money. Henry de Bromhead is the best of the rest, though trailing well behind the leading pair.

Last Sunday at Fairyhouse, it was Mullins that struck first, with victory in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, claiming the €50,000 pot. Airlie Beach is a rapidly improving mare, and yet to be defeated in seven starts under rules. She’s by the St Leger winner Shantou, which suggests a step-up in trip would bring about further improvement.

Gordon Elliott wasted no time in hitting back, when winning the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace Hurdle. Apple’s Jade fought off the Mullins trained, and previously undefeated Vroum Vroum Mag, in a thrilling finish. The runner-up had been given plenty to do by Ruby Walsh, but appeared to be arriving with a winning effort at the last, only to be denied by a short-head. The result not only emphasised the thrilling nature of this season’s Irish trainers title, but also served to prove the strength of the current crop of mares competing over hurdles.

The victory for Apple’s Jade was only Elliott’s second success of the two-day Fairyhouse meeting, compared to three wins and three seconds for Mullins. Indeed, there’s signs that the Mullins machine is just starting to go through the gears. A double at Limerick last Friday, followed on from a double at Thurles the previous day. So far in December, the master of Closutton is operating at almost a 50% strike rate.

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Navan takes place on Saturday, with more decent prize money to be had. Mullins holds a strong hand in the valuable novice chase, with Briar Hill set to return. Elliott then has a whole battalion set to launch an assault on the Foxrock Handicap Chase.

But it’s on Sunday when things really get exciting. Both have solid claims in the stayers’ novice hurdle at Cork, prior to Douvan’s anticipated return in the Hilly Way Chase. The Arkle winner and short-priced favourite for the Champion Chase in March, is one of the most exciting horses around. Mullins then has yet another classy pair entered in the valuable mares’ novice chase.

At Punchestown, the Grade 1 John Durkan Chase is the most valuable event of the weekend, and Mullins will be hoping that Gold Cup runner-up Djakadam can repeat last year’s stunning success. On that occasion, he hammered Valseur Lido and Gilgamboa. On Sunday, he’s likely to face a fast improving Sub Lieutenant from Henry de Bromhead’s yard, and the classy, though rarely foot perfect Outlander, trained by Gordon Elliott. The winner will be 50,000 euros the richer.

The continuing rivalry between Mullins and Elliott is sure to be one of the major talking points during this winter’s National Hunt campaign. Add to the mix, Ricci versus Gigginstown and Walsh versus Cooper, and we have ourselves a thrilling narrative that is sure to produce one enthralling chapter after another.

Gordon Elliott was quick out of the blocks, but Mullins knows there’s plenty of twists in the road between now and the end of the season. Signs are, that the race has now truly begun.

Mullins Tingle King – But Also Holds The Ace

Un De Sceaux did his best to throw it away, yet still had enough in the locker to battle back to a thrilling success in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown.

This was a case of the quicker horse winning, rather than the most fluent jumper succeeding. Mullins’ chaser is a classy sort, but he’s not one for standing off a fence and launching himself in an extravagant manner. He got in close at the last two fences, and each time appeared to hand the initiative to Sire De Grugy. But Walsh’s mount is quick over the ground, and had enough time from the last to the line to get his head back in front.

Walsh was clearly thrilled with the victory, and said: “It's a great race to be part of and I've ridden some wonderful horses in it, I've been very lucky. Being the champion that he is, Sire De Grugy served it up to us, I got back on top going to the last and when I got hold of him he started to rally all the way to the line, and he's won over further. This horse wears his heart on his sleeve, he just has that natural will to win. It's brilliant. He's a pleasure to ride.”

Colm O'Connell owns Un De Sceaux with father Edward, and said: “It's very emotional for us, he's a family horse. This win is dedicated to my parents, who are at home and didn't travel today. This is the biggest day of our racing lives and our thanks go to Willie Mullins, Ruby Walsh and all the team. They train him, and we pay the bills - that's our only involvement.”

Watching in Ireland, Mullins said of the victory: “I left it up to Ruby to ride the race as he found it as he knows the other horses so well. He settled him well and he is probably settling better with a bit of age. It was a real battle. He'd two untidy jumps at the last two and had to dig deep. I felt he was better equipped to run in a race like that on his first run of the season.”

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The race developed as many had anticipated, with Ar Mad setting a strong gallop from the front. All looked well for the returning youngster, until a serious error at the first of the railway fences almost brought him to his knees. The loss of momentum took him from first to third, and he suddenly looked a little sluggish. As the front two went head to head from the last, it was notable just how well Ar Mad finished off the race. Ring-rust put paid to his chances this time, but he remains a potential star.

Having come so close to winning another Tingle Creek, Gary Moore was far from disappointed when speaking to Channel 4: “I thought once he'd (SDG) got upsides him he'd just about stay on, but I think he probably outstayed us. I felt I might just have taken the edge off him running him two weeks ago, he's getting a bit older and to have two tough races in two weeks at the age of 10 takes a bit of doing, so fair play to the horse.”

Of Ar Mad he added: “He showed what a good horse he is, to make a mistake like he did and not be beaten too far after nearly 300 days off shows what a good horse he is. He's the one to take out of the race for me, I'd take them all on again any day of the week. I'm not worried about stepping up in trip, I think he'd go further now.”

Speaking yesterday, Moore reiterated the possibility of an assault on the King George, when saying: “Both horses are fine this morning, which is the main thing. I think Ar Mad proved he is a very talented horse. We could run him over three miles or two and a half and I don't think he'd have a problem. I'll speak to his owner (Ashley Head), but we could supplement him for the King George. I suppose it might depend on what else runs, like Thistlecrack. His next run will either be the Desert Orchid at Kempton or the King George, I think.”

The future looks bright for Ar Mad, though possibly at trips beyond the minimum trip. Un De Sceaux once again proved himself a solid performer, though is undoubtedly vulnerable to a bolder jumping two-miler. The Tingle Creek probably confirmed that the division is at the mercy of Mullins’ latest star chaser, Douvan.

Punters On – But is Douvan in

Will he, won’t he, appeared to be the topic of conversation yesterday, as the inclusion of Douvan in Saturday’s Tingle Creek remained uncertain.

Priced up at 5s earlier in the week by some bookies, prior to a stampede and subsequent shortening to 4/7, Mullins’ outstanding young chaser can now be backed at 6/4 in places.

His regular pilot, Ruby Walsh, had little sympathy for the betting industry when saying in his Paddy Power blog: “Willie Mullins will make a decision on Douvan running in the Tingle Creek Chase at declaration time, but pricing him up at 4/1 or 5/1 was crazy. He’s the odds-on favourite for the Champion Chase, is unbeaten since he joined us in Closutton, and we've never made any secret of how highly we rate him. And the reigning champ Sprinter Sacre was retired a few weeks ago.”

Walsh went on: “Gary Moore's Ar Mad put in a hell of a performance here last year, but hasn't run since February after getting injured, while his stable-mate Sire De Grugy is rising 11 in a month's time. Most of the others are also more exposed. If the bookmakers decided for some reason to price Douvan like he wasn't going to run, that's their problem, not ours. I expect him to run a big race if he takes part, but I also expect Un De Sceaux to do the same if he runs. Don't forget Willie entered both at the initial entry stage and hadn't said anything to contradict that before the bookies' alarm bells started ringing yesterday.”

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There’ll be a huge sigh of relief from numerous bookies, should Douvan be pulled, though not from the public, who would love to see the Arkle winner scooting around Sandown. A clash with Moore’s exciting front runner Ar Mad is a mouth-watering prospect. Last year’s impressive Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase winner was two from two at the track, and appeared a better horse going right-handed, before being struck down by injury.

Moore reports him to be ‘as ready as I can get him at home’, adding: “He's a busy horse, so you would think he would get fitter quicker than some of the others.” The Sussex trainer also has last year’s winner Sire De Grugy, primed for another crack on the track he loves. He’ll be looking to win the Tingle Creek for a record equalling third time, and has four wins from his five outings over fences at the Esher racecourse.

Tom George may also be double-handed, with God’s Own and Sir Valentino set to take their chance. The former needs better ground and a right-handed track to be at his best, though his jumping will need to stand up to the Tingle Creek test. The race can quickly get away from you at Sandown, if a round is not error free.

Sir Valentino won the Grade 2 Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter last time, beating Garde La Victoire in a titanic struggle. Though Tom George’s yard remain in outstanding form, it’ll be some training achievement to make this fella competitive in this Grade 1. He was slick at Exeter last time, and goes well on a sounder surface, but is sure to be taken out of his comfort zone at this elite level.

With the declarations for the race confirmed today, we’ll find out just how select the field is, and hopefully the Sandown crowd can look forward to a real treat, in seeing the outstanding talent Douvan, a horse described by Ruby Walsh as having ‘unbelievable natural ability’.

Young Irish Jocks Are Quick Out The Blocks

Ireland has produced a plethora of top-class jockeys over the years, with many displaying their expertise on this side of the Irish Sea.

The greatest of them all, Sir AP McCoy, arrived in England back in 1994, making an instant impact as a conditional jockey for Toby Balding. His domination of jump racing began when joining forces with leading trainer Martin Pipe. McCoy retired with 20 consecutive jockey titles to his name, and more than 4,000 career wins on the board.

Richard Dunwoody was also stable jockey for Martin Pipe, and Champion Jockey from 1992 until 1995. Born in Belfast, he won the King George on four occasions, riding a pair of outstanding greys, One Man and Desert Orchid. He was successful in the Gold Cup and twice victorious in the Grand National.

Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh spent a decade together, winning every prestigious prize on offer. The man from County Kildare is recognised as one of the modern greats of the saddle, and until 2013, split his time between his home in Ireland and Nicholls’ Ditcheat yard in Somerset. Though no longer plying his trade in England, he remains at the pinnacle of the sport as number one jockey for the Mullins empire.

Add to these goliaths, the likes of Mick Fitzgerald, Barry Geraghty and Aidan Maguire, and you start to appreciate the immense role Irish talent has played in the history of jump racing on these shores.

And this latest season is notable for an influx of fresh talent, with exciting additions to several yards in England, Scotland and Wales.

Adrian Heskin has proved a revelation since arriving as stable jockey to Tom George at his Down Farm stables in Gloucestershire. Formerly the retained rider for owner Barry Connell in Ireland, he has found his feet quickly in new surroundings. A strike rate of 22% is testament to that, and his victory on Sir Valentino in the Haldon Gold Cup a couple of weeks back, will have given the 24-year-old a huge boost.

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The young man had already proven himself a talented jockey in Ireland, and had a Cheltenham Festival victory to his name, when winning the Albert Bartlett aboard Martello Tower in 2015. He’s both stylish and strong in the saddle, as he proved when getting the better of Richard Johnson on Sir Valentino at Exeter. Heskin can also look forward to high-profile races on-board God’s Own throughout the winter, having looked an unfortunate loser on the horse at Aintree last time in the Grade 2 Old Roan Chase.

Another young Irish raider to make an instant impact is Jonathan Moore; now stable jockey for the resurgent Rebecca Curtis. The partnership struck at Wetherby, in the prestigious Charlie Hall Chase, with the fast improving Irish Cavalier. Moore’s delight was clear for all to see, and he summed up the reason for the move to Wales, when saying: “It's days like this that you dream about, and it was the chance to be able to ride horses like him that I came over to ride."

Moore’s strike rate of 24% for the campaign shows that he is a young jockey worth following. And despite still being a conditional jockey with a 3lb claim, he can still look forward to rides such as the Betfair Chase this coming weekend aboard Irish Cavalier. The opportunity to get on-board such talented horses was a major draw for the 22-year-old.

If Heskin and Moore have arrived with ‘all guns blazing’, then Shane Shortall’s opening period in new surroundings has proved rather more low key. Nevertheless, the 24-year-old from County Offaly in Ireland, is another young jockey with a bright future. He recently made the move to Scotland, joining Iain Jardine’s yard, and looks to be a key component in a developing enterprise. The dual-purpose trainer continues to add more horses to the team, and last week had Yogi Breisner visit the yard for a spot of staff coaching.

Shortall is a talented horseman, and given the right opportunities will surely make a name for himself on the northern circuit. You get the feeling that he’ll need to be patient as his new employer adds quality to his stock.

If Shortall needs to build a reputation, then one young Irishman who has already gathered a following in the north is the conditional jockey Finian O’Toole. From County Galway, O’Toole worked for Charlie Swan in Ireland before arriving in England to work for Malcolm Jefferson a couple of years back. He rode 17 winners in his first full season, and got the ‘leg-up’ for 24 different trainers. He’s now with Micky Hammond at Middleham in North Yorkshire, and the trainer has praised the young jockey’s natural ability and terrific work ethic.

Hammond has a pretty large set-up at Oakwood Stables, and O’Toole is having plenty of opportunities to learn his trade on the racetrack. He has a decent return of seven winners from his 67 rides during this latest campaign, and that valuable 5lb claim is unlikely to last much longer.

Ireland has for some time now, been a thriving breeding ground for racing talent, both equine and human. Greats of the sport have showcased their ability on this side of the Irish Sea over the years, and this winter is proving no exception. Heskin, Moore and numerous others, look sure to make their mark during the months ahead.

Sad Day For ‘Class Act’ Carberry

At the age of 42, Paul Carberry has been forced to quit the saddle, bringing to an end an outstanding career.

One of the most gifted of horsemen, Carberry had not ridden competitively since last September, when fracturing his left femur in a nasty fall at Listowel. On Tuesday he met with orthopaedic surgeon Dr Paddy Kenny in Blanchardstown, and was advised against a return to action.

“It didn't go great,” said Carberry after the meeting. “Dr Kenny said that the leg is still too weak and that I'd be better off not coming back - he couldn't pass me fit to ride. I suppose I knew the last month that the leg wasn't getting stronger, but it is still a blow. I was half hoping that I might get back. It's a day that had to come at some stage, but it's difficult to take. I am gutted.”

From one of Ireland’s most famous racing dynasties, Paul is the son of former jockey Tommy Carberry, and he is the nephew of trainer Arthur Moore. Siblings Philip and Nina are also talented jockeys, with his sister arguably the finest female rider of all-time.

He started out as an apprentice with Jim Bolger, winning his first race in 1990. He found success at the Cheltenham Festival in 1993 when aboard Rhythm Section in the Champion Bumper. Carberry was a 14-time winner at The Festival, and became Irish Champion Jockey twice.

One of many highlights during a sparkling career has to be the 1999 Grand National success aboard his father Tommy's Bobbyjo. Reflecting on his most memorable rides he said: “The National is the highlight. It was a dream come true. To win the National was always my dream, but then to win it for my father was unreal altogether. He had been the last to ride an Irish winner of it before me (on L'Escargot in 1975), so it was a big family day.”

Trainer Noel Meade was very much Carberry’s partner in crime over the years, with the association going back to the early 1990’s. Sausalito Bay brought the pairing their first Cheltenham Festival success in 2000, when he took the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, defeating none-other than Best Mate in the process.

Carberry spoke of his relationship with the Co Meath handler, saying: “I had a great time and rode a lot of good winners in big races, especially for Noel. Harchibald was the best horse I rode for him and winning the title a couple of times was special as well. Noel was easy enough to work for and a great friend.”

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Meade responded to the news by saying: “He was a unique talent, there is no doubt about that. Paul sometimes would ride one of those waiting races and get there to win and people would be in awe of him, but he wouldn't see anything that special about it. It was second nature to him. He was one in a million. Not only was he a very good jockey, but he was a very good friend. I'll miss him for sure.”

That exaggerated waiting style was Carberry’s calling card. His judgement of pace was probably only matched in recent times by Ruby Walsh. His rides on Harchibald tested that riding style to the limit. The enigmatic gelding was a class act, but barely did a stroke off the bridle.

The victory in the 2004 Christmas Hurdle was thanks to a riding masterclass from Carberry. Dickie Johnson had Rooster Booster miles clear turning for home, whilst Carberry niggled away at Harchibald, refusing to panic. At the last there was still five lengths between the pair, but the Irish star swept past with time to spare, winning without once feeling the rider’s whip. The pair went on to win five Grade 1’s, yet the defeat to Hardy Eustace in the Champion Hurdle of 2005 proved to be arguably his most memorable race.

Ridden as he had to be, Harchibald cruised alongside Hardy Eustace after the last flight at Cheltenham, with Carberry statuesque on top. But, when asked for maximum effort, the horse failed to find another gear, and came off second best. The jockey was blamed by many, yet those who truly understand the sport knew that if Carberry couldn’t win on him, no-one could.

It was the jockey’s outstanding rides that very much became the norm. Cool on Nicanor, as he came late to defeat the mighty Denman in the Royal & SunAlliance at Cheltenham in 2006. He was brave on Go Native, when sneaking through on the inner to steal the Supreme Novices’ in 2009.

He partnered a mighty chaser in Pandorama, and had him in the perfect spot throughout, hitting the front at the last fence to win the Grade 1 Lexus Chase in 2010.

Major wins were not confined to Noel Meade, as a jockey of the stature of Carberry is always in demand. He got the leg-up on Monbeg Dude for the Welsh National in 2013 for trainer Michael Scudamore, and gave the horse an astounding ride. Coaxed along throughout the marathon contest, the gelding went through more fences than he jumped, but was allowed to work his way into contention. Picking them off one-by-one, Carberry was ‘taking a pull’ two fences from home, before hitting the front after the last. It was an incredible performance from man and beast.

Carberry was no less impressive on Solwhit in the World Hurdle for trainer Charles Byrnes two months later, and back with Meade partnered Very Wood to a stunning success 12 months later in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, when virtually no-one gave the horse a prayer.

It was that knack of getting the best from a horse, that sets Carberry aside from most other jockeys. The rider was at one with a horse, cajoling, kidding them along, until somehow they found themselves in front when it mattered most.

Noel Meade probably put it best when saying: “We've had a great innings together and Paul has had a great innings. I often thought that he could teach a horse to do more in one schooling session than someone else would in five. I remember when he got beat in the Christmas Hurdle on Harchibald and I said to him, “why didn't you hit him?” And he said to me, “why would I do that? He was doing his best.” He loved the horse, so there was nearly a tear in his eye.”

The sport will certainly miss Paul Carberry, with that familiar derriere weaving its way through the pack. He was a pure natural talent, a master of his trade.

Willie Mullings: 5 Festival Reflections

The ratio of post-Festival reviews to preview nights is likely in line with the ratio of sense to nonsense spoken at said preview evenings though I do include myself in that having attended three such events this year, writes Tony Keenan. Reflecting on the meeting, it is hard to get away from Team Mullins who generated most of the big stories on and off the track but that is the nature of the national hunt scene now so I apologise in advance for such a Closutton-centric piece.

 

  1. Making the right decision?

When Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh reflect on their Festival and more specifically on how they placed their horses in their respective races, I am sure they will believe played their cards at the correct time. They kept some of their main talents apart and went mob-handed in other races which maximised their chances of having winners; for them this was the right decision.

But there is more than one right decision and it depends on your perspective; owners have a different point-of-view and may want their horses kept apart or perhaps would prefer to go all-in and have multiple runners in the championship races rather than the less prestigious ones. There is the right decision for racing too and this will always be to have the best horses competing against each other, something that palpably hasn’t happened in the Mullins era with the likes of Quevega kept to her own sex and Ruby pointed out quickly after the Champion Hurdle that Annie Power and Faugheen would never race against each other.

This is not to crab Mullins; rather he is working within the parameters racing has set him where an inflated graded race programme and a four-day Festival have allowed him to keep his best horses apart; and, if anything, this will be exacerbated in the future with a five-day Festival as inevitable as it is regrettable. With avoidance of competition, there is a cost however and that is Mullins’ continued failure to win an open Grade 1 chase at the Festival. One could argue the Ryanair has that status but it’s in name only and most racing people rightly look down on the Thursday race with even the sponsor only grudgingly running his best horses in it. Mullins may have been looking on regretfully as Gordon Elliott got the Gold Cup parade through Summerhill last Saturday while Bagnalstown was notably quiet.

 

  1. Is Ruby Walsh the smartest man in racing?

When you look at the placing of the Mullins horses at Cheltenham, not just this year but previous years too, it is hard not to see Ruby Walsh’s hand behind them; he is the one who seems to get what he wants regardless of ownership concerns and perhaps even those of the trainer – it’s worth pointing out that, unlike Willie Mullins, Ruby has multiple Gold Cup and Champion Chase wins on his CV. That’s not good for the competitive side of the sport as Ruby has commented often about his desire to win as many of these big races as possible but there is something admirable in it.

In contrast to almost every jockey through history, Ruby has got player power; in a way he reminds me of basketball’s LeBron James who not only pulls the strings on the court for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA but does the same with the team’s management too. And though sporting and racing heritage may say this is wrong, it isn’t if Ruby’s is the biggest brain in the room and there’s every chance it might be. Unlike Willie Mullins, who claims not even to watch replays of his horses race, Ruby has an intimate knowledge of both his own mounts and, importantly, the opposition.

He and Willie have a tremendous record with horses switching races; Yorkhill, Black Hercules and Vautour all won last week while Shaneshill ran very well and in the past the likes of Fiveforthree and Champagne Fever have done similar. These are high-risk decisions that will draw flak if they fail but they have the confidence to carry them out. Every owner wants Ruby on their horses and is willing to compromise their own interests to have this but it is not only for his obvious physical gifts at race time but also his highly intelligent, perhaps even genius, input into where they should run.

 

  1. Vautour-gate

The handling of the decision to switch Vautour to the Ryanair was horrendous and left a sour taste. Clearly every owner has the right to run their horses where they wish – though even that is questionable for owners in the Mullins yard – but there is a responsibility to inform the people about a public horse like Vautour, an animal I believe to be the most talented in training. This is not some 70-rated handicapper switching from a Kempton handicap on Wednesday to a similar race at Wolverhampton on Friday but rather the Gold Cup favourite or second favourite changing target at the last possible moment.

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Punters’ money is not the issue here either as the majority of bets struck on Vautour would have been with the non-runner no-bet proviso, though bettors who played in the Ryanair Chase market in the belief that he wouldn’t run would argue otherwise. This is an information issue and punters lost out in terms of how they were treated – with contempt in case you were wondering – rather than financially.

Rich Ricci has taken most of the heat for this decision and the reason is obvious; no one is going to take the side of multi-millionaire fat cat banker with a hand in the financial crisis against two of racing’s heroes. But the truth is likely that Willie and Ruby made the Vautour call and decided to tell nobody about it: their ability to face down a wealthy owner like Ricci shows the power they have within their own fiefdom.

Of course, both Ruby and Willie could argue that they ride and train for owners and not punters. If I need to explain to you that they ride for both you’re probably reading the wrong website – punters fund racing and so on – and Ruby would do well to remember that the vast majority of those people who he’s waving his whip at as he crosses the line at Cheltenham are punters, as would Willie and other trainers recognise that their owners were or are gamblers on some level. You can’t have the adulation with at least a little of the scorn.

 

  1. What’s the point in betting Mullins horses ante-post?

I’m as bad a judge as there is of where Mullins horses might run at the Festival; this past meeting I managed to back Long Dog, Shaneshill, Bellshill and Black Hercules (twice) for the wrong races. Betting these horses ante-post is as difficult as it is pointless and the risk/reward ratio seems well out of sync with what it might be with other yards; even when you find yourself on at a big price early that horse may switch late on as so many of them did this year.

Prior to the Festival, I wrote an article about how well the short-priced Mullins horses do at the meeting and that continued in 2016; of the seven Closutton horses sent off 3/1 or shorter, five won which is incredible. The sensible thing here is simply to back them on the morning of the race when the firms are pushing them out to attract business or if you must play early then wait for the non-runner, no-bet concession and play the few that have multiple targets in more than one race.

Another point worth making is that whoever is punting the Mullins horses ‘knows’ how good they are. In other circumstances, I am very sceptical of ‘them’ backing a horse but with this firm the record is there and it also makes sense that they would know where their horses stand relative to one another; not only do they have many of the best horses but they also make extensive use of schooling races. Take Yorkhill in the Neptune as an example. He had good form coming into the race but not so much that he should have been as short as he was relative to talented stablemates like A Toi Phil and Thomas Hobson but not only did he justify the support he did it in some style.

 

  1. A changing betting landscape?

I lost money betting on Cheltenham which, contrary to what some of the layers might tell you, was not impossible! Punters looking for something at a double figure price and hoping that one or two of those horses would win had a rough meeting as a lot of the shorties won and I was probably guilty of overthinking my betting over the four days.

Rather than years past when the bankers were overbet, the opposite was true in 2016 and there are a few reasons for this. The brilliance of Willie and Ruby plays a big part as does the relative weakness of some of the big English trainers, notably Paul Nicholls. The four-day Festival is a contributing factor too as it has weakened some of the races.

But more than that, there has been a cultural shift in betting where it is dominated by the idea of value. We’ve become conditioned to oppose the front of the market and this message is reinforced no matter where you turn in the racing media. Seemingly every racing page and broadcast mentions the jolly being too short while favourite backers are derided by those who know better. That clearly does a disservice to the true idea of value, the sense that a 1/10 shot can be overpriced if it ‘should’ be 1/25, but for most of us raised on the Pricewise concept it means double-figure odds.

Perhaps the pendulum has swung a little too far the other way and this is only being reinforced by how the bookmakers operate during Cheltenham week. Not only are they betting to nigh-on unprofitable over-rounds but they also offer over-broke place books and a host of money back offers as well as fancied horses being pushed out. It seems they were almost intent in losing last week – a Cheltenham sprat to a long-term mug mackerel, perhaps – and hitting the front end of the market might be the best way to exploit this next year.

- Tony Keenan

p.s. if you enjoyed this post, here are five more takeaways from Cheltenham worth noting.

Mullins Dominates During Dramatic Weekend

The overall picture remains a little puzzling after a dramatic weekend in the novice chase division.

One thing is pretty clear; and that is the continuing dominance of Willie Mullins. Just which of his classy young chasers are top of the pile is hard to tell. But victories at Warwick, Naas and then yesterday at Leopardstown confirmed, as if confirmation was needed, that he has gathered the most powerful Jump racing team in the history of the sport.

Killultagh Vic is the latest to surge to the head of the Cheltenham Festival betting after his thrilling win in the Grade 2 novice chase at Leopardstown. Seemingly cruising to victory as he approached the final fence, he over-jumped and buckled on landing. Somehow Ruby Walsh managed to maintain the partnership and gathered the classy novice for a renewed effort. He hit the front in the shadow of the post for an unlikely success.

“Ruby said when he gave him a squeeze he took off and was going to the fence too fast,” said Mullins. “To do what he did, you wouldn't believe that could happen. I thought Ruby was going to go out the side-door. That performance was good enough to run in the Arkle but he's possibly more likely to go for the JLT. We know he stays but the way he jumps he can come back in trip and if I hadn't got Douvan I'd probably say Arkle straight away.”

A relieved Ruby Walsh said of the winner: “I think he's a little bit the forgotten horse, with the bookmakers anyway, and when you look at what he's done, he's beaten Thistlecrack and Shaneshill at Punchestown, and in the Martin Pipe he beat Roi Des Francs, the form is rock solid. He's a good horse. You'd have thought the JLT would be ideal but who knows - I just hope he stays away from Douvan anyway.”

He certainly wasn’t a forgotten horse after the win, with bookies making him favourite for the JLT Novices’ Chase in March ahead of another Mullins inmate, Shaneshill.

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Just a day earlier Ireland’s champion trainer had flexed his novice chase muscle both home and away, with Roi Des Francs winning at Naas and Black Hercules successful at Warwick.

At Naas a Mullins one-two saw Ruby coming off second best for a change. Gigginstown’s Roi Des Francs out-fought Pont Alexandre in a driving finish. After the race Mullins appeared happy with both horses though his summary of the race suggested he felt the runner-up was a little unfortunate. He spoke of the front two taking each other on, allowing Bryan Cooper on the winner the perfect tow into the race. He hinted that further improvement in Pont Alexandre would probably see him improve past the winner.

As for the winning jockey, Cooper appeared more than satisfied with Roi Des Francs, saying: “My lad never missed a beat. I could have sat on him a bit longer, but the last 50 yards he pulled out a little bit more and found that bit extra.”

For what it’s worth, my view is that the winner is the better horse and improving at a hell of a rate. As for Pont Alexandre, I remain to be convinced. He’s spent an awful long time off the track, and though Mullins is clearly still a huge fan there’s a chance he may never reach the heights many expected him too. He reminds me of Mikael D’Haguenet, who also looked a world beater before injury struck. He too returned to action, though only showed flashes of his former ability.

At Warwick the monster that is Black Hercules jumped and galloped the opposition into submission. He was given a positive ride from Danny Mullins, who after the win said: “His jumping was very slick and you wouldn't mind going back in trip, but he's galloped all the way to the line too and you wouldn't mind going up in trip either. He's got the frame of a chaser and that looks like where he's going to excel. We weren't going a great gallop but when he's jumping like that you can make ground at your fences and when I let him fly at a couple he made four lengths on them.”

Brian Ellison’s promising young chaser, Definitly Red, chased him all the way, but in fairness the winner always appeared to have things under control. He became yet another Festival favourite for Mullins and his team, and now heads the four mile National Hunt Chase market, ahead of Roi Des Francs. He does look a powerful stayer, and this race looks the most likely target. The same connections, Mr and Mrs Wylie, took the event in 2013 with Back In Focus.

Though intended targets remain uncertain, there’s no doubting that Mullins holds most of the Aces as the major festivals approach.

Cooper and Walsh go Head to Head

Mr Mullins looks to have the Irish Trainers Championship all sewn up, though Gordon Elliott is doing his utmost to make a competition of it.

The jockeys’ title however, looks set to be a much closer encounter. It goes without saying, (though I will) that Ruby appears to hold many of the aces, and a strike rate of 29% puts him on top of the table at Christmas. However, in the red corner; well more maroon than red, is Bryan Cooper, first choice jockey for the mighty Gigginstown House Stud.

The meeting at Leopardstown over the Christmas period showed just how close this title race could prove to be. Both missed day one due to rather important rides at Kempton. However, day two saw Walsh strike with the Ricci owned Long Dog with Cooper less than a length behind aboard Gigginstown’s Tombstone. Ruby ought to have made it a double on the card, but Un De Sceaux fluffed his lines in the Grade 1 Paddy Power Chase.

A day later Cooper had a number of tasty rides, though chose the wrong one in the Christmas Hurdle when runner up to the impressive Prince Of Scars, before getting on the right horse to win the Lexus with Don Poli. And on the final day of the meeting, Cooper booted home No More Heroes, whilst Ruby had to work hard to get Nichols Canyon home in front, with Cooper just behind on Identity Thief.

It’s no surprise to see the two dominating Irish racing. Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown outfit are renowned for assembling a powerful team of jumpers, especially the type likely to impress over fences. Whilst Ruby, as number one for Willie Mullins, has a wealth of talent at his disposal including some of the best in the business owned by Rich Ricci.

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Walsh took the title last year with Cooper some way back in fifth. But with just half a dozen or so winners between them at this stage of the season, we are set for an exciting tussle during the ensuing months. Cooper is settling in nicely to the role as Gigginstown number one. Still only a relative youngster at 23, many were shocked when he was thrust into the role, displacing the duel Champion jockey Davy Russell in the process.

The son of trainer Tom Cooper, Bryan started off riding for his father and spending school holidays working with Dessie Hughes and his team. His first win came at Clonmel in 2009 aboard Rossdara, trained by his father. He took the conditional championship in the 2010/11 season. He gained his first Grade 1 victory during the following campaign when Benefficient won the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown.

The breakthrough really came at the Cheltenham Festival in March 2013 when he rode three winners, including the exceptional juvenile Our Conor. Like many jockeys, injury has played a part in recent times, but an uninterrupted spell is making for his most successful winter to date.

Nothing could be more thrilling for many a racing fan than the sight of Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy going head to head during their terrific battle over Christmas. But watching Walsh and Cooper fight it out aboard Nichols Canyon and Identity Thief was no less exciting. These two are masters of their trade. Both stylish in the saddle, with a great sense of pace, and then capable of beautiful balance during a driving finish.

Today at Punchestown the feature Grade 2 Dorans Pride Novice Hurdle pits Nambour for Gigginstown and Cooper against Up For Review for the Wylies and Walsh. It’s a typically exciting encounter sure to be seen again and again throughout the winter.

These enthralling head to heads will play a huge part in deciding the jockeys’ title. Ruby is as good as they get, but Bryan is undoubtedly gaining fast.

Ruby Victorious on Autumn Stars

THOUSAND STARS LANDS THE GRAND PRIX D'AUTOMNE AT AUTEUIL (48 Heures de l'Obstacle Day 1 Review)

Auteuil staged its two-day autumn racing festival this weekend in a blaze of unseasonably hot weather. The meeting, aptly named 48 Heures d’Obstacle (48 hours of jumping racing) boasts four grade 1 events, an impressive 2.5 million euro in prize money and reunites the cream of French racing talent over the sticks.

Saturday’s showcase was the Grade 1 Grand Prix d'Automne. Run over three miles it drew an international field including previous winner REVE DE SIVOLA from Nick William’s stable and the Willie Mullins trained course specialist THOUSAND STARS, twice the winner of the Grande Course de Haies d'Auteuil (French champion hurdle) in 2011 and 2012. David Pipe sent over Broadway Buffalo with Katie Walsh in the saddle.

The French challenge was headed by the Robert Collet trained SAINT FERMIN who started favourite after a comfortable win in Prix Carmarthen (Grade 3) here back in October where he had six of the day’s rivals behind him including second favourite ROLL ON HAS, trained by Jean-Paul Gallorini.

A steady pace was set by front running REVE DE SIVOLA, closely followed by stable companion AUBUSSON with Lizzie Kelly in the irons. Ruby Walsh on THOUSAND STARS was content to sit off the pace with favourite, SAINT FERMIN, who had been a little difficult at the start, settled in rear and travelling smoothly.

The race began in earnest rounding the final turn where Kelly was the first to make her move on AUBUSSON, kicking two lengths clear of REVE DE SIVOLA whose jockey, James Reveley, was now hard at work to maintain his position. Approaching the last, AUBUSSON still held the advantage but the Jean-Paul Gallorini pair ROLL ON HAS and HIPPOMANE were running on strongly either side of the leader whilst SAINT FERMIN, under Kevin Nabet, loomed up on the outside and looked to be going best of all. In behind, THOUSAND STARS was travelling well but still had three lengths to make up on the leaders.

Over the last, it was four in a line but SAINT FERMIN misjudged his stride, landed on the hurdle and crashed out of the race. Meanwhile, AUBUSSON and HIPPOMANE had kicked on with ROLL ON HAS a length down. THOUSAND STARS now found his turbo and Ruby threw all he had at him. Fifty metres from the line he still had two lengths to find but was gaining ground hand over fist. Up front, Kelly was getting the better of her battle with David Cottin on HIPPOMANE but it was ultimately to no avail as THOUSAND STARS came between the two horses to put his nose in front right on the line.

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After the race, Walsh was full of praise for the old horse saying, “He ran a great race here in the Champion Hurdle back in June and we kept him in training all summer but there were no races for him over an adequate trip.  He’s been running over two miles to keep him fit and this was always the target. He travelled really well and he was just brilliant today.”

At the ripe old age of eleven, THOUSAND STARS became the thirteenth horse to win both major hurdling events at this famous track and joins the likes of Questarabad and Zaiyad who managed the double in 2007 and 2009 respectively.

Of the beaten horses, Lizzy Kelly was obviously disappointed not to have landed the spoils on AUBUSSON but was thrilled with his performance saying “Today has reinforced our confidence in him and I'm happy with the ride that I gave him.” He went off an unconsidered 45/1 on the Pari-mutuel and yet ran a blinder. SAINT FERMIN, sadly, did not get up from his heavy fall at the last.

Punch Nantais with Bertrand Lestrade aboard

Punch Nantais with Bertrand Lestrade aboard

Also on the card, two Graded events for the younger generation. The French send their horses over les obstacles at the tender age of three and the Prix Congress (Grade 2, Chase, 2m2f) represents the most prestigious prize in that discipline.

The Guillaume Macaire pair PUNCH NANTAIS ridden by Bertrand Lestrade and BUDDY BANKS with Arnaud Duchene in the saddle dominated the race with the former and least fancied of the two just getting the better of his stable companion in a great tussle up the long Auteuil run in. There was just a head in it on the line and although delighted, Macaire felt that the second, BUDDY BANKS, may be the better horse suggesting that had they got to the front sooner, the result would have been different.

TRIANA DU BERLAIS wins the Prix Bournosienne (Grade 3)

TRIANA DU BERLAIS wins the Prix Bournosienne (Grade 3)

The Grade 3 Prix Bournosienne (2m2f) is another three year old event but reserved for fillies over hurdles. Guillaume Macaire once again provided the favourite, this time in the form of CARESSE D’ESTRUVAL, unbeaten in her last three starts. She had already beaten second favourite TRIANA DU BERLAIS in the prep race for this event in October. However, she could do nothing against her main rival as TRIANA DU BERLAIS led from start to finish, landing the spoils in good style.

- Nigel Howard

5 Outrageously Bold Predictions for the Jumps

The nature of bold predictions is that they tend to be wrong, writes Tony Keenan. As Nate Silver points out in his excellent book ‘The Signal and the Noise’, the prognosticators who shout the loudest and make the wildest claims tend to miss the mark the furthest. With that in mind, I fully expect all five of these calls to be incorrect but selecting the most likely outcomes for the coming jumps campaign interests no one. Saying Faugheen will win the Champion Hurdle when he’s the shortest price of the Cheltenham favourites is simply boring for all that it may prove accurate.

 

  1. Bachasson won’t win a race before next summer

Bachasson is already as short as 10/1 for the Supreme after an unbeaten start over hurdles but expecting him to progress to Grade 1 level goes against the typical modus operandi of the Mullins yard; Willie simply doesn’t run his best horses during the summer. Looking at his 34 Cheltenham winners since 2003, only Wicklow Brave and Glens Melody could be described as having summer jumps backgrounds and that was in both their respective bumper seasons whereas their Festival wins came much later.

Furthermore, the best Mullins horses to run over the summer tend to be good rather than great. Looking back as far as 2010, the best horses I could find that ran over jumps for the trainer in the months of June, July and August were Diakali (officially rated 158), Blazing Tempo (155), Blackstairmountain (152) and Tarla (150). Bachasson has a rating of 147, likely inflated because he’s meeting inferior jumpers all summer, and that could be as good as he is.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there were ten novice hurdlers in Clossutton that finish the season rated higher than him. There are the obvious former bumper horses like Bellshill and Yorkhill, not to mention the ones that have been bought from France and off the flat. In fact, it’s possible that two other novices that ran for the yard at Galway could be better than him, Long Dog and Gangster. On a line through Three Stars, who the former treated with contempt at Ballybrit, Long Dog is well ahead of Bachasson already.

 

  1. Paul Townend will ride more winners than Ruby Walsh (Ireland and Britain)

Since he started riding, Townend has only once ridden more winners in Ireland than Ruby and that was in 2010/11 when Walsh was injured and Townend was champion jockey. Their totals were close last season though, Walsh on 79 and Townend on 71, and with Willie Mullins’s numbers trending upwards the whole time, there is more than enough to go around.

In the three seasons between 2009/10 and 2011/12, Mullins averaged 545 runners a season across both countries but that figure has risen to an average of 647 in the three seasons since and he had 91 UK runners last season, up from a previous high of 68. Townend will be one of the chief beneficiaries of this expanded approach as he is likely to pick up many of the rides on big jumps Saturdays in England with Ruby staying at home for the Irish meetings. Also, Townend could acquire the ‘hired gun’ status while on these raids; he has already managed to link up to great effect with Rebecca Curtis.

Mullins has spent most the last few seasons keeping his best horses apart and we may – and I hope we have – reach a tipping point where they simply have to run against each other as there are only so many races to go around. That means more choices for Ruby and in turn more errors and as we saw at the most recent Punchestown Festival there are times when the retained rider’s choice gets beaten; there were six Mullins second or third strings that won at that fixture, including three Grade 1s.

Ruby is not getting any younger either and while he’s never shy about getting on a big winner – see his Australian jaunt this past summer – he’s more about the big days than the grind now, and he’s arguably a bit injury prone too. If anything this is as much punting angle as prediction as I believe there is little between Townend and Ruby in pure riding ability; but the market certainly doesn’t believe that and I want to be with Townend-ridden second strings this season.

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  1. Don Cossack won’t win another race this season

Don Cossack joined some lofty company this past season, becoming just the tenth horse since 2004/5 to win three open Grade 1 chases and in so doing achieved a Timeform rating of 180 and was that company’s horse of the year. The other triple Grade 1 winners were Kauto Star (three times), Master Minded (twice), Kicking King, Moscow Flyer, Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy while Dodging Bullets and Silviniaco Conti also joined the club this year.

The only horse to really repeat the success of his banner year was Kauto Star while the rest went 4 wins from 17 starts (just one of those wins was a Grade 1) the following season: not a great strike rate for top horses. Don Cossack is rising nine now and only Kauto Star and Moscow Flyer achieved three Grade 1 wins at his age or older. It is fair to say that I think we know at this stage that he is neither Kauto Star nor Moscow Flyer; I suspect he has reached his ceiling and the only way is down.

Injury has tended to follow these chasing superstars in the season following their peak. Moscow Flyer was never the same again which was understandable given his age but Kicking King, Master Minded, Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy all suffered setbacks soon after; repeated peak efforts take their toll.  Nor is Don Cossack trained by Paul Nicholls which is pretty much a requisite to make this list; of the twelve three-time Grade 1 winners, he has trained seven of them. Gordon Elliott is an excellent trainer in many ways but Nicholls is just on another plane with these top chasers.

 

  1. Henry de Bromhead will improve an ordinary hurdler into a Grade 1 novice chaser

This call may be not be bold at all as de Bromhead has already achieved the feat three times since 2010. An Cathaoir Mor went from 97-rated handicapper to 2010 Irish Arkle winner, Special Tiara had won just a maiden over hurdles before winning the Maghull in 2013 while Sizing Granite won the same Aintree race this year having been rated 130 over sticks.

In terms of purely improving horses for the switch from hurdles to fences, de Bromhead has claims to being the best trainer of chasers in Ireland. Of the 54 horses ‘our Henry’ has won a chase with since 2010, the average improvement, measured by peak official ratings over hurdles and fences, was 9.4lbs. 21 horses improved a stone or more and there were some spectacular jumps along with the three Grade 1 winners mentioned above; Grand Jesture improved 31lbs, Sizing Australia and Lord Ben 30lbs, Days Hotel 20lbs.

Sizing John is this season’s obvious top prospect for novice chases; already a Grade 1-winning novice hurdler and third in the Supreme, there’s a chance he improves into the stratosphere, perhaps even to Sizing Europe level. But he’s already rated 151 over hurdles and there are other lurkers in the yard. Two that might make the leap are Domesday Book and Alisier d’Irelande, neither of whom won anything more than a maiden over hurdles. De Bromhead has certainly been positive about both in recent stable tours and he’s one of the few trainers that really opens up for such pieces.

 

  1. Willie Mullins will win none of the open Grade 1 chases at the Festival

Judging by the ante-post markets for the Champion Chase, Ryanair and Gold Cup, Willie Mullins is expected to have one and a half winners of those championship races. That’s considering top prices only and horses priced 25/1 or shorter and while there is some overlap – Vautour is priced in all three markets for instance –the layers have the expectation that he wins at least one of those races in 2015.

That’s something that has never happened before though he has gone close in the Gold Cup repeatedly with five runners-up. Mullins’ lack of success in the top chases at the Festival remains the one gap in his domination of National Hunt racing and it is something he will be keen to address; but the numbers suggest that for all the top novice chasers Mullins has had, his conversion rate in getting them to transfer their ability to open company is below average.

Michael Williamson of Timeform (can be followed on Twitter @RacingMDWilly) put together some excellent figures recently on how well the top trainers do in improving classy novices into open company, taking Timeform ratings of 150 (novices) and 170 (open) as the parameters. By Williamson’s numbers, Mullins managed to ‘convert’ just two of his 16 novices rated 150 or higher into 17o horses, a conversion rate of 12.5% that is below the likes of Nicholls (32%) and Henderson (22%) and markedly so. Mullins clearly has the raw material here but the return is disappointing for someone widely regarded as the best around.

Jumping issues may be part of this. Mullins horses are known for lots of things, chiefly the ability to tank through races and still finish strongly, but sound jumping isn’t one of them. Again, I defer to Williamson’s work here as Mullins has a fall/unseat rate of 12% over fences in the last five years while Nicholls’ is only 8.3%. Neither Vautour nor Un De Sceaux, the shortest priced Mullins horse for the Gold Cup and Champion Chase, have been flawless in this regard either.

- Tony Keenan can be followed on twitter at @RacingTrends

The Kerry National – Can Rule The World leave Morris Dancing?

Listowel set to beat the weather

Listowel set to beat the weather

The Listowel Festival is taking one heck of a pounding with the last two days lost to the weather.

The meeting known as the ‘Harvest Festival’ was extended to seven days back in 2002 and is the highlight of the season at the scenic County Kerry track. A mix of Flat and Jumps ensures the week appeals to all racing fans.

After an inspection yesterday afternoon, hopes were high that racing would take place today. It would come as a huge relief to the organisers as they are set to stage the racing highlight of the week, the Guinness Kerry National Handicap Steeplechase worth €175,000.

The race has gone to a host of quality horses over the years. Dorans Pride took the event back in 1997. Trained by Michael Hourigan, he became a classy hurdler before his successful chasing career. In 1995 he cruised to a stunning win in the Stayers’ Hurdle (now the World Hurdle) at the Cheltenham Festival.

Sent over fences his victories in the Drinmore Novice Chase, the Powers Gold Cup and the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup were notable. But he is probably most famous for his incredible run of success in the Morris Oil Chase, now the Clonmel Oil Chase. He took the event in four successive years from 1997 to 2000.

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There have been other notable winners of Listowel’s Kerry National. In 2002 Barry Geraghty rode Monty’s Pass to victory, and the following April had a dream ride on the horse to take Aintree’s showpiece in style.

Today’s renewal includes last year’s winner, the 12-year-old Your Busy. That win came on decent ground and off a 10lb lower handicap mark. It was a famous victory for jockey Katie Walsh, and she retains the ride. He did win at the track back in June, that time over hurdles on testing ground, but this looks a tough ask.

Champion trainer Willie Mullins is well represented with Ruby Walsh taking the ride on race favourite The Paparrazi Kid. He ran well to finish second in the Galway Plate back in July, his first run in nine months. He’s had his setbacks since looking a promising sort back in the winter of 2013, when as a novice chaser he was good enough to beat Felix Yonger. Presumably now fit and well, his run at Galway should see him spot on for this.

Mouse Morris also has his share of runners, with Rule The World probably the most notable. He looked to be mounting a huge challenge in the Galway Plate when slipping up between the last two fences. If running to that level today he looks certain to be involved in the finish. He’s undoubtedly a classy gelding and will be ridden by David Mullins who takes a valuable 3lbs off his back.

Bryan Cooper will be on-board another Morris trained-Gigginstown owned gelding, the progressive seven-year-old Ravished. There’s every chance that he remains on a favourable handicap mark, and it would be no surprise to see this son of Oscar running a huge race.

Another for the powerful connections who is hard to ignore despite his generous odds is Akorakor. His form ties in closely with Ravished, and though he lacks experience, he’s a lovely big horse with huge potential over fences.

In truth, the race is as competitive as ever, and it’s hard to rule out any of the 20 or so runners. For the crowds that flock to the track, most will simply be thrilled to be watching any racing at all. Following the loss of action on Monday and Tuesday, Horse Racing Ireland has sensibly announced a further day’s racing at the track on Sunday.

Let’s hope the weather plays its part and the Listowel masses can enjoy the remainder of their festival.