Posts

When Classy Hurdlers Go Chasing…

There is understandable excitement when a high-class hurdler proven in open company goes chasing, writes Tony Keenan. The horse may have been Champion or Stayers Hurdle level with a mark in the high-150s or even 160s and the expectation is that they will translate that form to fences. However, I’m generally sceptical of this kind of prospective chaser, working off the truism that it is difficult to teach older horses new tricks.

Just as in the human world where a young child can pick up a new language with relative ease, older people tend to struggle with learning a foreign tongue. It makes sense that this would apply with horses too. The typical national hunt horse might start its career in bumpers at the backend end of its fourth or fifth year, run two or three times before being put away for novice hurdles the following season where it might have four or five runs. As a then six- or seven-year-old, it would then go chasing rather than stay over hurdles. Those horses that do stay over hurdles seem at a disadvantage as a larger proportion of their short careers are spent doing something other than chasing and this lack of practice can prove detrimental to their prospects over fences.

That’s the theory at least but with all theories it’s best to test them against a body of evidence. Ideally, I wanted to look at the record of horses going chasing that had varying numbers of hurdles runs but unfortunately the excellent HorseRaceBase didn’t have the facility to run that system which must be the only thing missing from their database; if any readers have access to other databases they might like to look at the figures for themselves. So instead I took a different tack and decided to look at the records of the best chasers in Ireland along with the best hurdlers (non-novices) that went chasing in the same jurisdiction.

I began with the 50 top-rated chasers in Ireland currently, a listed that is topped by Don Cossack on 177 and completed by Mozoltov on 149. Of those top 50, only five were better over hurdles than over fences and in many cases the differences were minimal; they were Champagne Fever (chase 156, hurdle 157), Rule The World (153, 156), Shaneshill (153, 156), Zabana (153, 155) and Identity Thief (150, 159). Of the 27 chasers rated highest, only one (Un De Sceaux) had more than one season over hurdles and the average seasons spent hurdling across the top 50 was 1.2, the average hurdle runs being 6.6. The vast majority of our top chasers have gone over fences directly after their novice hurdle season with their average hurdles mark being 141.9 and their average chase figure 156.6, an improvement of just over a stone, and a number we’ll return to later. This improvement is readily explainable as there is only so high most novice hurdlers can rate given the races in which they run.

Next, I looked at the record of the best Irish horses who spent at least two seasons over hurdles that later went chasing. Starting with the 2006/7 season to present, there were 31 such horses and they are listed below with their peak hurdle and chase marks (for those that didn’t get official marks I made an estimate based on what they achieved):

Your first 30 days for just £1

 

Horse Hurdle Mark Chase Mark Difference Chase Runs Chase Wins
Taglietelle 154 125 29 5 0
Monksland 157 149 8 7 2
Identity Thief 159 150 9 3 2
Alpha Des Obeaux 158 147 11 5 2
Diamond King 157 148 9 3 1
Lieutenant Colonel 156 149 7 4 1
Gwencily Berbas 151 130 21 3 0
Briar Hill 155 142 13 4 1
Kitten Rock 160 148 12 4 4
Tiger Roll 150 146 4 10 3
Rebel Fitz 155 155 0 9 6
Un De Sceaux 156 172 -16 10 6
Oscars Well 162 152 10 12 2
Rule The World 158 150 8 15 1
Tarla 150 144 6 6 2
So Young 158 115 43 2 0
Whatuthink 152 143 9 21 1
Donnas Palm 161 140 21 17 2
Blackstairmountain 152 147 5 6 2
Oscar Dan Dan 151 128 23 4 1
Shinrock Paddy 150 136 14 10 0
Powerstation 157 130 27 9 2
Muirhead 158 143 15 21 3
Catch Me 164 141 23 10 1
Aitmatov 160 131 29 8 0
Sizing Europe 167 177 -10 31 17
Jered 158 142 16 8 1
Harchibald 166 143 23 1 0
Sonnyanjoe 150 116 34 5 0
Adamant Approach 151 142 9 16 4
Rosaker 154 120 34 1 1

 

The most obvious point to make about classy hurdlers going chasing is that they regress for the switch to the tune of about a stone. There are exceptions, notably Sizing Europe, but also Un De Sceaux and Rebel Fitz; but as a general rule this is probably a negative move which brings up the question of why connections might want to do this. If the motivation is that the horse will improve for fences, the evidence suggests this is unlikely but if it is simply that they want to pick up some soft races back against novice chasers then it is probably a fair move; the horse may have reached its ceiling in open company over hurdles and be disqualified from races it can win whereas the switch to fences opens up other avenues.

Jumping would be a concern with these switchers but it is not necessarily backed up by the statistics; this group of classy hurdlers had a fall/unseat rate of 8.1%, which is below average. I covered this in an article last year and the national average in the period covered is around 10%. That said, I do wonder if these horses are more careful at their fences than those who went chasing earlier in their careers.

Of the 32 horses listed above, Noel Meade had seven of them (Monksland, Donnas Palm, Muirhead, Aitmatov, Jered, Harchibald and Rosaker) and it’s hard to make a case that any of them were much of a success over fences: Muirhead may have won a Munster National but that feels fluky along the lines of Tiger Roll’s win the in the same race and Rule The World’s Grand National victory this past year. If any punter found that pair, I admire your perseverance and hope your bank was still intact!

Willie Mullins had six such horses and Un De Sceaux has been a triumph, especially given his early jumping woes, but Henry De Bromhead is the one that stands out. From a single classy hurdler going chasing, he produced Sizing Europe which gives hope for the long-term prospects of currently injured Identity Thief who fits a similar mould.

It has been understandably difficult for these classy hurdlers, many of whom will have competed and even won at Grade 1 level over hurdles, to compete at the top level though there is an interesting contrast to how such horses do over different trips. Both Sizing Europe and Un De Sceaux won a number of Grade 1 chases around two miles as did Blackstairmountain, Barker and Mansony. The record of such horses over staying trips however is dismal with only Zabana at the most recent Punchestown Festival winning a Grade 1 chase over three miles or further.

Interestingly, this is backed up by the hurdles record of the winners of the feature chases at the Cheltenham Festival. Recent winners of the Champion Chase like Sire De Grugy, Dodging Bullets, Sizing Europe and Moscow Flyer all spent an extra season over hurdles but we have to go back to Imperial Call in 1996 to find the last Gold Cup winner who didn’t go straight over fences after its novice hurdle season.

All of which brings us nicely on to the current season where Thistlecrack is making a mockery of any such concerns in the staying chase division. But great horses will always make general rules seem silly and I’d be more interested in how the more typical classy hurdler going chasing will do. In the current season, we have seven such horses and the early returns have been ordinary. The group comprises Taglietelle, Identity Thief, Alpha Des Obeaux, Diamond King, Lieutenant Colonel, Gwencily Berbas and Briar Hill. While Identity Thief might yet make the grade over fences – he has both trip preference and trainer in his favour – most of the others are likely to compete over further and history points to them falling well short of their hurdles high in this sphere.

- Tony Keenan

Clonmel Oil Chase Preview

Sizing Europe bids for a second Clonmel Oil Chase win

Sizing Europe bids for a second Clonmel Oil Chase win

The jumps season ratchets up several notches as we head into the weekend. From tomorrow, it's three days of Cheltenham action for their Open meeting; and as an introduction to that, we've an excellent races at Clonmel this afternoon, the Clonmel Oil Chase.

2.25 Clonmel Oil Chase (Grade 2) 2m4f

Seven face the starter for this Grade 2 event, with the market headed by National Hunt superstar, Sizing Europe, and National Hunt superstar, Champagne Fever! Both have won twice at the Cheltenham Festival and, though there is a five year age gap, both arrive here with similar looking chances.

Sizing Europe won the race two years ago, then aged ten, and, now rising thirteen, he's still the one to beat with stamina assured. We keep waiting for the inevitable decline in form, but he keeps defying us. Sure, he's not the beast he was: the figures tell us he's now rated 165 having been 177 in his pomp.

But 165 gets the job done in plenty of Grade 2 races, and he'll have no fears on the score of track, trip, ground (which is very heavy, he's five from five on heavy), or class. A Grade 1 win at the Punchestown Festival two starts back and a Grade 2 over this trip at Gowran last time attest to his wellbeing.

Your first 30 days for just £1

But he's not the favourite. No, Sizing Europe is a 15/8 chance generally, with Champagne Fever 5/6 in most books. Champagne Fever has a bit to prove today: just one of his four chase runs thus far have culminated in victory, though the three defeats were in Grade 1 company, and one of them was an honourable effort (head second in the Arkle at Cheltenham).

There's also the question mark about the heavy ground for a horse whose fitness on his first run for 196 days is likely to be a peg short of some of these. Still, reservations aside, he receives a chunky eleven pound allowance from Sizing Europe and I suspect that will be material.

In truth, if they finish 1-2, we'll probably have watched a fine race, but I'm not tempted to back the favourite at the price, and I'm keen to find something to beat both he and Sizing. A pity then that there are only seven runners, and therefore two places for each way betting purposes.

The remaining quintet are rated - and weighted - on inferior terms to Champagne Fever, but there might be circumstantial evidence to justify a bet amongst them.

Let's start by discounting a couple if we can. Firstly, there's been no money for Alderwood, and he's yet to do anything noteworthy beyond two miles over fences. The combination of trip and deep ground might find him out.

Nor are the vibes at all strong about Rathlin, fourth in this race in 2012. He's been running his better races on quicker ground since then, and looks sure to improve for his first spin since early April. That leaves Rubi Light, Roi Du Mee and Realt Mor, all of whom are mildly interesting in a race with more R's than a pirate's elocution class.

There's a chance that Champagne Fever may not try to lead here, in which case Roi Du Mee could set the tempo. It's pretty hard to quicken out of heavy ground so if Gordon Elliott's charge goes get an easy time of it, this five time heavy ground winner could be hard to reel in, despite being a stone 'wrong' at the weights.

Stablemate Realt Mor has been nibbled at, and can also mix it on the front. He's more versatile pace wise, however, and I'd expect to see him let others dictate today. His heavy ground form - two heavy defeats, pun intended - is a niggle, but he does have Grade 1 winning form at the distance on soft. Two heavy ground runs cannot really be considered definitive, but I'd prefer an animal proven in the quag.

Rubi Light looked highly promising in the early part of his career, but he hasn't really gone on in the last two years. He does have three wins at the trip, two of them on heavy ground, though, so is well suited by conditions; and he shouldn't want for fitness having run in a couple of schooling races since last seen 'officially' in February.

It's a cracking little race, more one to watch than to bet on, and I think Sizing Europe is the most likely winner despite conceding plenty of weight to Champagne Fever (he's only two pounds 'wrong'). For those who like to tilt at windmills, Roi Du Mee could give you a run for small money at about 25/1.

2014 Queen Mother Champion Chase Preview, Trends, Tips

Is Sprinter Sacre a cert for the Champion Chase?

Is Sprinter Sacre a cert for the Champion Chase?

2014 Queen Mother Champion Chase Preview, Trends, Tips

The Queen Mother Champion Chase is the highlight of the second day of the Cheltenham Festival, and one of the showpieces of the entire week. This year's race looks intriguing, with defending champion Sprinter Sacre bidding to overcome that uncharacteristic blip on his last start, and clear second choice Sire de Grugy with course questions to answer.

It's double figures any other horse you like, so this could be a belting wagering opportunity. In this post, I'll look at the Champion Chase trends, preview the form, and offer a tip or two for the race. Let's start with the trends...

2014 Queen Mother Champion Chase Trends

Horses of all ages, from five through to eleven, have won this race in recent years. However, the percentage play, in terms of strike rate is to ignore horses with double digit ages.

Since 1997, of the fourteen horses to complete on their previous start, eleven won, another was second, and the other two were third. Two of the seven horses to fall or unseat last time went on to win the Champion Chase. None of the six that pulled up last time has finished better than fifth  - a sextet which included Florida Pearl and Flagship Uberalles. A certain Sprinter Sacre pulled up last time...

Since 2000, of the ten winners to have an official rating, all were rated at least 160. Tilting at this prize may be wishful thinking then for Module, Astracad, Hinterland and, erm, Wishfull Thinking.

All of the last ten winners had their final prep race in the previous 30-60 days. Favourite Sprinter Sacre has not been seen for 75 days, when he pulled up after a mile...

2014 Queen Mother Champion Chase Form Preview

Those are the trends then and, aside from a couple of strikes for favourite, Sprinter Sacre, there's little of utility in whittling the field. However, that is quite a significant 'apart from', so let's inspect the case for the reigning champion.

Sprinter Sacre began the 2013/2014 season as the biggest certainty of the Cheltenham Festival. He was in possession of a ten race unbeaten record over fences, and had scored stratospheric Timeform, Racing Post and Official figures. He was just 2/9 to extend that sequence to eleven at the principle expense of his main Champion Chase ante-post rival, Sire de Grugy, in the Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas.

But it didn't go to plan. Oh boy, did it not go to plan. Sprinter Sacre was pulled up after running little more than a mile and jumping little more than half of the dozen fences. In Sprinter's absence, Sire de Grugy galloped to a workmanlike four length victory over Oiseau de Nuit.

It was subsequently discovered that Sprinter Sacre had suffered a heart irregularity, which appears to have righted itself. Now, I don't know about you, but that's not the sort of thing I want to hear when I'm mulling pulling on the punting boots at even money or shorter.

The facts with Sprinter Sacre are that he has easily the best form in the race, but in the past eleven months he has completed only about a mile of a single contest. Medical fitness, as well as match fitness, have to be taken on trust. Of course, if he is medically sound and he is pitch perfect for Cheltenham Wednesday, he'll be very hard to beat. And I will be prepared to cheer with the rest if we have our champion back on the big day.

But that's sentiment. When it comes to betting, I wouldn't touch Sprinter Sacre with a very long bargepole.

The obvious one against him is Sire de Grugy, a horse that has won eight of his eleven chases and been second twice more. I have to declare an interest here: I backed him - and recommended readers back him - when he was 16/1. Here's what I wrote on December 9th 2013:

I was taken with the way Sire De Grugy won at Sandown, having not been a huge fan of his in the past, and I backed him each way for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, a race which is seriously lop-sided.

Here’s my rationale: Sire de Grugy is likely to go for the Queen Mum. Sprinter Sacre is too, assuming he can be got fit, and his current issue is resolved. We all hope that will be the case. If it is, Simonsig will surely run in the Ryanair, having won the Neptune over the longer trip a good bit more impressively than he did the Arkle over the shorter trip.

Cue Card may tilt at the Gold Cup itself if running close in the King George and, at any rate, would surely go at the Ryanair if not quite getting home around Kempton on Boxing Day.

Flemenstar could go for the Queen Mum, but is more likely to race over two-five in the Ryanair. Certainly his racing history suggests that’s the place for him. Kid Cassidy may be aimed at the Grand Annual again, though he’d have a stone-plus more to carry than when second last year.

Arvika Ligeonniere got found out in the Arkle last term, and will probably go Ryanair. And that leaves the third of the Henderson horses, Captain Conan. It was far from a disastrous run in third behind Sire De Grugy and, while expected to be fit enough to go close, he’s sure to come on for the run. But he does have ten pounds to find with SdG on official ratings, which are unlikely to change much as a result of the Tingle Creek outcome.

So, basically, if Sprinter Sacre runs in the Champion Chase, I contend that a fair number of others will dodge him and go for what could be one of the races of the Festival, the Ryanair. Sire De Grugy will not. He will stand his ground, and 16/1 (quarter the odds the first three) in what could be a small field of few realistic chances, seemed fair enough to me.

If Sprinter Sacre doesn’t run for whatever reason, Simonsig and a good few of the others might line up in the Champion Chase instead. In that case, it will likely be a much more competitive race, improving Sire de Grugy’s win chance whilst arguably diminishing his place prospects.

Still with me? OK, well that was the rationale.

A nice looking voucher, but will Sire de Grugy win?
Your first 30 days for just £1

A nice looking voucher, but will he win?

If we could back Sire de Grugy now at 16/1, we obviously would. But we can't. He's now a top price of 11/4 and, given his course record, that's no better than a bit tight. Specifically, SdG has run twice at Cheltenham and finished second twice.

Both were chases, both were at two miles, and both saw him upsides at the last and then outpaced up the hill.

16/1 each way is still a great bet, not least because I (and others) have 4/1 about the place 1,2,3 - and there may not even be enough runners for three places!

But 11/4 about the win is hard to recommend, even without an ante-post voucher.

So, the good news is that if we're against both Sprinter Sacre and Sire de Grugy, it's 10/1 bar that pair. The bad news is that picking and choosing between the remaining fifteen engaged at time of writing is not that easy.

First of all, I am happy to put a line through any horse with an established level of form and a rating below 160. That means arrivederci to Wishfull Thinking and Astracad.

Module is difficult to dismiss completely, as is Hinterland. Both are progressive and both have scope to run to 160+. Module won the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase last time, beating Dodging Bullets a neck. Dodging Bullets is a fine novice and was giving the winner three pounds, but that's hardly Champion Chase-winning form.

The other thing with Module is that he seems to want deep ground. His three chase wins have all been in heavy ground and, though he did bag a handicap at the course on good to soft, it's likely he simply outclassed his rivals that day on his first British start. If the ground is heavy on the day, he is better than a 20/1 shot, his current price. Otherwise, he's not. He also has an entry in the Ryanair.

Hinterland is still a novice and, as such, is more likely to go the Arkle route than take on the big boys here. If he did line up, he'd still need another leap forward after a leap forward the last day, when he won the Grade 1 Henry VIII Chase at Sandown. He's ground agnostic at least, so no worries on that score, but he's unlikely to be good enough even if he runs.

Benefficient is the third choice in the betting for the Champion Chase, and he's another for whom the Ryanair is a compelling alternative engagement - he won the novice equivalent at last year's Festival. But he's not short of pace, as two Grade 1 wins at Leopardstown demonstrate. Whether he's got the sort of gears needed to prevail in this is another question and, even with the non-runner no bet concession, I'd not be drawn to his chance especially.

Captain Conan is a general 12/1 chance, and also has a Ryanair entry. He's rated 161 and has a verdict over Sire de Grugy at Cheltenham to his name, over this trip. That was in the November Novices' Chase of 2012, and both horses have improved markedly since. Captain Conan was found a bit wanting in the Jewson (now JLT) last year, but was a good third to Sire de Grugy at Sandown on his seasonal bow this term.

The problem is that he hasn't run since that race, on 7th December, meaning he has an absence of 95 days to overcome. History screams that very few horses win at the Festival in any race after such an absence and it's the scratch treatment for him on the back of that alone.

And then comes the enigmatic Arvika Ligeonniere. I love this horse. On his day, he's a proper sort. The Irish handicapper has him at 166 and he's a four-time Grade 1-winning nine-year-old. He has the toe for two but has plenty of form at two and a half too (did you like all those toes and two's?!). So it won't surprise you that he's also entered in the Ryanair Chase, over 2m5f.

True, he was awful when pulling up (carrying my money) in the Arkle last year, but he was a 15/2 chance that day and, if that was a blip, then 12/1 non-runner no bet (or 14/1 all in run or not) is a fair win only wager.

Al Ferof is still quoted in the Champion Chase, despite his trainer previously saying they were aiming him at the Gold Cup. That was before he looked to fail to stay the three miles of the Denman Chase last time, and he's probably more likely to go for the Ryanair now. He's a very strong traveling horse and, again with the non-runner no bet concession in our corner, he's worth a small interest at 16/1.

Winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle of 2011, having been second in the Champion Bumper the year before, he disappointed in the 2012 Arkle (fourth) before missing last year's Festival. The balance of his form suggests 2m5f might be optimal but he's got the speed for this, if re-routed.

We're still in the realms of the 16/1 pokes, and Kid Cassidy is next on the casting couch for the Champion Chase. So that's KC on the cc for the CC. He's a very in and out horse. When he's good, he's very good, as when trumping Sire de Grugy at Cheltenham in November; or when finishing second in last year's Grand Annual. Whether that's enough to claim this coveted prize is another question and, on balance, I imagine it's probably not.

Somersby has been called plenty of names over the years, and has often looked like a horse without a trip. But he has just the one entry - in this - at the Festival, and he's performed with merit going all the way back to the Supreme of 2009 (3rd of 20 behind Go Native that day). He was then second in the 2010 Arkle, 5th in the 2011 Champion Chase, 7th in the 2012 Ryanair, and unseated in the 2013 Champion Chase.

Somersby also unseated last time out, behind Sire de Grugy, but between those jockey exits, he won the Grade 2 Haldon Gold Cup and was second in the Grade 1 Tingle Creek. He retains a good bit of speed and class and, if he can iron that recent tendency to decant Dominic Elsworth from his back, he's not a forlorn place hope in a potentially open year.

Sizing Europe deserves a mention. Now twelve, he's won an Arkle (2010) and a Champion Chase (2011), and eighteen other races in a stellar career. He's more likely to head to the Ryanair (where have you heard that before?) but a Cheltenham Festival Arkle/Champion Chase record of 1122 is impressive even given his advancing years. After all, he was eleven when finishing second last year.

It would be truly amazing if he was win the Champion Chase at his veteran age, but stranger things have happened and 25/1 non-runner no bet is another tempting snippet, perhaps even each way this time.

2014 Queen Mother Champion Chase Tips

It's a real head-scratcher is the Queen Mother Champion Chase of 2014. With doubts about the pair which dominate the market, it's worth firing a few bullets further down the lists, especially with the non-runner no bet concession in play. I'd spread four points as follows:

1 point win Arvika Ligeonniere (12/1 non-runner no bet, general - check your bookie offers NRNB!)
1 point win Al Ferof (16/1 non-runner no bet, BetVictor)
1/2 point each way Somersby (20/1 Best Odds Guaranteed, non-runner no bet, SkyBet)
1/2 point each way Sizing Europe (25/1 non-runner no bet, BetVictor)

Betvictor.com

-

Carnivals and Festivals: Weekend Review

Quarter Horses are fast!

Quarter Horses are fast!

Horse racing is a sport enjoyed across the length and breadth of the globe, dear reader, and it manifests itself in a multitude of different guises. From the bottomless slog of a four mile chase at Towcester, via two furlong 'quarter horse' dirt races at greyhound tracks masquerading as horse racing tracks in the US, to the slick monied - slightly surreal - racing of Meydan's tapeta track in Dubai, there really is something for everyone in racing.

Last weekend saw countless clues for both the Carnival and the Festival: Dubai's culminating World Cup meeting on March 26th, and Cheltenham four day National Hunt season highlight running from March 15th to 18th.

First, roving reporter Ross relates the latest Godolphin / de Kock domination in the Emirates, then I'll expound on my views of the virtues (or otherwise) of this weekend's Festival trials from Britain and Ireland. Over to Ross, and a somewhat unpatriotic rallying cry (unless you happen to be Gallic)...

********

Vive la France! Forgive me, as patriotic as this website is (it is geegeez.co.UK after all), I have never been so pleased to see the French show up just at the right time (makes a change).

After last week’s dominance of the Dubai Carnival’s second meeting by Godolphin and Mike de Kock - 5 winners, 3 seconds and 7 thirds between them - it looked like things were going to go the same way this Thursday after the boys in blue claimed the first race with City Style and then had a 1-2-3 in races three and four.

Although a great achievement for Sheikh Mohammed and his team, this kind of dominance does become tedious to watch. It’s not as though we can profit from their success either as their apparent third string runner is often as likely to win as the horse Frankie Dettori chooses.

We did get a slight respite from the navy blue marauders as the French-trained Win For Sure lived up to his name and sailed home to land the concluding handicap under Gregory Benoist. The trainer's name is fairly unpronounceable, but is spelt like this: Nakkachdji. Very nice too.

Bronze Cannon wins in Meydan

Bronze Cannon wins in Meydan

Earlier in the evening, Bronze Cannon scored a cosy victory in what looked a competitive conditions race. I can boast a small connection to this bay colt. As you may know, Brighton handler Gary Moore does occasionally train some runners for Bronze Cannon’s owner, Ramzan Kadyrov, to get them ready before they are transferred to Herman Brown’s Dubai yard and so it happened that Bronze Cannon followed this same path in 2010 whilst I was working for Gary.

The horse had won at Royal Ascot for John Gosden before being bought for a reported £1.3m by his current owner. I was lucky enough to ride him most days on the Downs in Brighton and I struggled to believe that this was the Bronze Cannon that I'd been sitting on. After all, he was absolutely tiny, no bigger than a pony.

To add to this, he moved like a cripple and cantered as though he needed three miles and a good load of fences in front of him! Admittedly he wasn't doing any serious work when I was with him but it just goes to show you that some horses come alive at the races and you shouldn’t believe everything you see on the gallops at home.

Regular readers will remember that I gave a good word for Luca Cumani’s Drunken Sailor last time and I almost got it right for once as he ran a blinder to finish 4th behind Whispering Gallery in the 1m6f handicap. He has obviously acclimatised well and is worth backing next time. I also mentioned the yard’s puzzlement surrounding Man of Iron’s poor runs and it seems it all came to a head this Thursday as he was pulled-up entering the straight but reports suggest that there was no serious injury to him. He’s one to steer well clear of though.

Cumani did receive some consolation when the enigmatic Presvis romped home in the Group 2 Al Rashidiya Stakes. I’m sure we all know this horse from losing plenty of money on him in the past but on his day, like this time, he is a talented animal. It remains to be seen whether he can put two good efforts together next time.

On another note, what attracts many owners, trainers and jockeys to Meydan is the apparently generous prize money. It’s all well and good promising people decent purses but reports have reached me that payments are very slow in coming and last season (which ended in March) some jockeys didn’t receive their riding fees and percentages until August. Let’s hope this wasn’t the same for the owners - if you upset them, they likely won’t be coming back in a hurry!

********

To the weekend past, and altogethrer soggier, muddier and more robust racing types. And that's just the racegoers. Friday's Doncaster card had little in the ways of future clues except, perhaps, that the track was unlikely to survive for Saturday's feature meeting.

Your first 30 days for just £1

In winning the juvenile novice hurdle, Empire Levant put the final nail in the coffin of the Franklino ante-post punt, seeing that one off by a wide margin. The bookies were singularly unimpressed with the 2.5 lengths winning verdict over Palawi, from John Quinn's yard, and still have him as a 33/1 shot.

For me, Sam Winner looks the best value in that race. Despite being beaten in a real slog at Chepstow last time, the overall balance of his form is as good as anything in here at the moment, and the remaining 12's in a few places might be worth small money.

Over at Gowran Park on Friday were some strong clues. Whilst Grands Crus may have bagged Saturday's headlines to take clear second place in the World Hurdle market (more on that in a moment), Mourad made a less well-publicised claim for the same race with an equally impressive victory over a field that included dual World Hurdle third, Powerstation.

Mourad is only a six year old, and he seems to be improving with age and racing. Third in last season's Punchestown World Hurdle, the 10/1 about this one is pretty fair. And the 5/1 without Big Buck's offered by Stan James and bet365 (1/4 1-2-3) looks an each way steal.

To Saturday's racing and most interest by far was at Cheltenham's Trials Day meeting. First up were the juvenile novices and my Third Intention aspirations were left pretty much as they were before the race.

Third Intention had been a 25/1 shot prior to proceedings and, in running two length second to Local Hero - the favourite here, he remains a 25/1 shot for the Triumph. The winner has truncated slightly, to 16's and 20's generally, but it's clear that the bookies a) are happy to take bets on any horse you want to back in this race, because b) they - and we - haven't a clue!

Moving on from the insoluble conundrum that is the current Triumph Hurdle picture, and The Giant Bolster put himself firmly in the picture for the RSA Chase - or maybe the Jewson - with an extremely game, if slightly error strewn, performance here. And herein lies the problem with ante-post betting in many of the races now.

With the Cheltenham Festival having moved to four days from three, there are now six more races. These races tend to be at intermediate distances (like the Ryanair Chase over 2m5f and the Jewson Novices' Chase over 2m4f), which means whether you fancy one in the speed races (i.e. Queen Mother Champion Chase or Arkle) or in the stayers' races (Gold Cup or RSA Chase), there's always a danger that your horse will be redirected to the intermediate (and often softer) race, thus doing the ante-post dough.

This is a problem that never used to exist, and as a number of my horses are near the top of the markets for these mid-distance races, I'm not happy. Of course, once I've recovered from my hissy fit, I'll acknowledge that it's my own fault and will make it a rule only to back horses ante-post where the race they're likely to run in is all but certain... (Trouble is, I'm far too indisciplined, and like the look of a big priced horse far too much, to ever do this!!!)

Moving on, Wishfull Thinking was a smooth and ultimately clear winner of the 2m5f novice chase, and his trainer, Philip Hobbs, seems to have improved the horse's jumping markedly. That being the case, he looks a strong contender for the Jewson Novices Chase. Or maybe the Centenary Novices Chase. Or perhaps the RSA Chase. Or... the Arkle? He's quoted in all four. How the hell are we supposed to take a view on these bloody nags?!

Assuming the ground is good to soft or better, I'd imagine he'll go for the Jewson, for which he's the 10/1 favourite. Those odds reflect more the uncertainty around which horses - including Wishfull Thinking - will run in the race. Indeed, it may very well be wishful thinking taking a price on this one for any of the novice events. Wait until plans are firmer - or you can get non-runner no bet - and take a shorter price on an insured wager.

My worst bet of the day - and for a very long time - came in the next race on Punchestowns. I figured that Nicky Henderson would have left a fair bit to work with, and he might get beaten here. But I decided he couldn't be out of the first two, bar a fall, and backed him for a place accordingly. I am an idiot, sometimes.

Tidal Bay looks a Tidy outsider for Gold Cup glory

Tidal Bay looks a Tidy outsider for Gold Cup glory

Neptune Collonges was allowed an easy lead in front, and relished it, jumping impeccably from fence to fence. He was never in any danger until Tidal Bay made his usual late challenge. Alas, it was too late and the 'Bay took silver medal honours. Punchestowns was beaten 30 lengths by the pair of them so I have no complaints.

40/1 about Tidal Bay is a decent each way bet for the Gold Cup, if you're ok with a) the fact that he might sulk and not perform and b) he might run in something else and c) he might not be good enough!

In fairness, those three imponderables can be leveled at pretty much all horseflesh two months before the races, so he'd be a more credible outsider than many.

As for Punchestowns, well I'm certain he's far better than that and, given the trainer's statements after that he'll not just have needed it but he wants to get another race into him between now and the Festival, all may not yet be lost. He's also 40's, but a stylish win in a race like the Aon Chase would see those odds halved. My suspicion is that Punchestowns may end up racing in some obscure Kelso affair (remember Zaynar's defeat there at odds of 1/14 (!!!!) last mid-February prior to a third place finish in the Champion Hurdle?).

Arguably the most competitive race of the day was the staying novice hurdle, so it was strange that Backspin was wagered to the virtual exclusion of all others. He ran probably his best race to date, but that was only good enough for fourth. The winner was another Henderson inmate, Bobs Worth, and - mindful of how many of Henderson's ran with something still to work on between now and Cup Final day - the manner of this one's victory was taking.

He is likely to take in the Neptune Novices over 2m5f at the Festival, so it's no surprise to see him installed the 5/1 favourite there. Not much value meat on those odds bones, but probably fair enough in the context of what's he's achieved and the relative certainty about which race he'll contest.

Rock On Ruby ran on resolutely to be the only danger at the last, and is 10's for the Neptune, but 14's for the Supreme. I didn't think he was stopping here, so would be surprised if he dropped back in trip to the mininum for the Supreme. But then, I'm often surprised at the actions of horses, jockeys and trainers! 😉

The 3.35 - Cleeve Hurdle - was easily the most eye-catching race, as Grands Crus continued his rapid ascent of the staying hurdler's ranks with a facile cantering win by ten lengths. Enough of the right horses finished in the right order behind him to believe this was a serious performance, and the race has been THE World Hurdle trial in recent seasons with Big Buck's and Inglis Drever using it as their springboard historically.

It has long been a contention of Nick Mordin, one of the best judges of race times / performances I know, that Big Buck's dominates a weak division. If that's the case, then the emergence of both Grands Crus and to a lesser extent Mourad, as well as potential improvers like Oscar Whisky, present serious threats to Big Buck's.

So much so, in fact, that there is a slight temptation to lay the favourite at odds on... actually, I'm not that brave, and I think there are better ways to play the race. I can certainly see Big Buck's being sent off around evens on the day though, which does offer a trading opportunity if you agree with that view.

Although I can't say why (you'll know if you are a Festival Trends member), Gavin from Nag Nag Nag will have been delighted with the result of the concluding handicap hurdle, as it sets his ante-post plunge up very nicely for the big target race at the Festival. Nice one, Gavin!

********

Yesterday's Punchestown card lost some of its lustre when the opening PP Hogan Memorial Cross Country Chase was abandoned. Historically the number one prep race for the Cross Country race at the Festival, this leaves a few key contenders - notably Sizing Australia and Garde Champetre - seeking a tune up event in the next few weeks. Expect to see them line up in modest staying hurdle affairs!

In the Grade 2 Tied Cottage Chase over two miles, there was a real turn up as Big Zeb was turned over by Golden Silver for the first time in five attempts. Again, the nature of the race is that I'd expect Big Zeb to easily confirm previous form if both went to Cheltenham and, in fact, the 7/2 about Zeb may be one of the best prices on any horse in any race at the Festival.

My abominable record in the race precludes me from piling in, but I will be taking a keen interest in the Zeb-edee in the Spring (geddit?!)

Hugely disappointing for me was Sizing Europe's moderate third here. It's unlikely he will run in the Champion Chase at the Festival, but the fact that he raced here implies connections are loathe to go as far as the Gold Cup either. So, the Ryanair may well be where this one lands, leaving my ante-post Gold Cup punt grounded.

Finally, in the Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Novices Hurdle, the horse I was most interested to see - Byerley Bear - ran below par in fifth behind a Willie Mullins 1-2 of Gagewell Flyer and Earlson Grey. The front two pulled ten lengths clear of the rest, and added further ballast to the formidable Mullins team ahead of the Festival.

In fact, Willie had five of the six winners on the day! He may have his best ever Cheltenham Festival with established winning horses like Quevega supported by a cast of many in the novice events. Especially ask yourself Where's Willie in the handicap hurdles. Thousand Stars last year was a prime example, popping up at 20/1.

********

So, the picture clears ever so slightly. Or did it getting a tad cloudier? Who can say for sure before the middle of March? Whichever way your views lie on the evidence of the last few days, the Carnivals and Festivals are barely beginning! 😀

Matt / Ross