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Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day One Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day One Preview, Tips

It's been wet wet wet and, apart from the state of the turf, the ongoing coronavirus saga had rendered day one an on/off 'sweet little mystery' in its own right for a while but, at this stage at least, it looks as though we're a go on ground expected to be testing.

1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

Show time! The legendary roar is a real thing and unlike any other exhortation in the sport: it's a cocktail of excitement, anticipation and primal release from 361 (362 this year) days of waiting. And it's felt just as keenly - maybe more so - by the jockeys riding in the Supreme, some of whom can be guilty of going a shade too hard a shade too early.

The top of the market sees two horses split by the Irish Sea but united in ownership: both Shishkin and Asterion Forlonge belong to Joe Donnelly (as too does Gold Cup favourite, Al Boum Photo - lucky guy). What is perhaps strange is that the horse with much the better proven level of form has been the bigger priced of the pair throughout the ante post lead up.

Trained by Willie Mullins, winner of the Supreme five times since 2007 - four of them since 2013 - Asterion Forlonge was a clear-cut victor in the Grade 1 Chanelle Pharma Novices' Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival last month. There he was ten lengths too good for the 5/4 favourite, Easywork, a victory which took his record to three from three over hurdles. Add to that a maiden point win and the six-year-old son of Coastal Path is unbeaten in four.

As evidenced by Jon Shenton in this excellent piece, the Chanelle Pharma (formerly Deloitte) is the strongest novice hurdle run either side of the Irish Sea prior to the Festival, with Champagne Fever, Vautour and Klassical Dream all winning there en route to winning here, and all for Asterion's trainer. He should be favourite in my book and, by the time the tapes rise, he very well might be. His run style is from the front and he'll surely make a bold bid.

Currently favoured, however, is the Nicky Henderson-trained Shishkin, winner of the Listed Sidney Banks Hurdle at Huntingdon last time out. Shishkin's form has not worked out especially well, for all that he's been visually highly impressive. Specifically, in the Kempton bumper he won last March, his rivals have collectively run 22 times since without winning; from the Newbury novice in which he fell, his 19 rivals have run 29 times between them without winning; and in the Newbury novice that he won, his 13 rivals have failed to even make the frame from eight collective subsequent starts. Ouch.

In Shishkin's defence, he bolted up from some 140-ish rivals in the Sidney Banks; and Shakem Up'Arry, his closest rival at Newbury, was well fancied for the Imperial Cup before that race's abandonment.

The best British form is arguably brought to the table by the Colin Tizzard-trained Fiddlerontheroof. Bought from Ireland for £200,000, he took a little time to get going before running out a convincing winner of the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown last time. Notably, his form on soft or wetter reads 3111 and includes a defeat of the very well-regarded The Big Getaway while still trained in Ireland. Fiddlerontheroof is sure to relish a battle and stamina may be his strong suit; as such conditions set up perfectly, especially if he can control things from the front as he often likes to do.

If such a thing exists, the forgotten horse in the Supreme could be Abacadabras - easy for me to spell (see what I did there?!). A rock solid National Hunt Flat horse who was fourth in the Champion Bumper at last year's Cheltenham Festival, he was a close up second to Envoi Allen in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novices' Hurdle and followed up with a win in the Grade 1 Future Champions Novices' Hurdle. Both those runs were in December, however, and Gordon Elliott's Gigginstown inmate has not been sighted in a race since.

That 74 day layoff is a worry, though Altior was off 80 days before winning in 2016 and Summerville Boy had 66 days between runs in 2018. Back in 2008, the mega-trendsbuster, Captain Cee Bee, was off 115 days prior to his Supreme victory, so it's far from a terminal knock.

Though he also runs Elixir d'Ainay, JP McManus's opening race hopes look to lie with Chantry House, unbeaten in four since tipping up on his point debut. Since then he's won his maiden point, then scored for the first time under Rules in a bumper exactly a year ago, and has added two ungraded novice hurdles to his CV. Each of his wins under Rules has been recorded as an odds-on favourite, testament to the regard in which he is held. He retains plenty of upside but it would represent a significant step forward were he to stride past this field.

If you want a wise guy horse - and who doesn't want a wise guy horse? - look no further than Edwardstone. Only a close second in the Grade 2 Rossington Main on Haydock's uniquely soupy surface, he'd previously won a couple of novice hurdles by narrow margins. Ostensibly not much to write home about in the context of a race like the Supreme. But... closer inspection reveals that in the first of them he beat the subsequent Grade 1 winner, Fiddlerontheroof, and in the second he beat subsequent Grade 2 scorer, Harry Senior. That pair are both single figure odds for Cheltenham novice hurdles and yet this chap can be backed at 20/1. It's simply too big about a horse who also has bumper form putting him very close to Chantry House, and who has yet to finish outside the first two in six career starts.

Supreme Novices' Pace Projection

Fiddlerontheroof has been on the front in three of his last four starts, though not when winning the Tolworth. That gives him a touch of versatility and it might be that he takes a lead off Asterion Forlonge, who has won from on or near the pace the last twice. More likely Elixir d'Ainay, Chantry House's owner mate and Asterion Forlonge's stable mate, will be at the head of affairs. Expect Shishkin to also be prominent though behind the front rank and Chantry House to be mid-division in the early furlongs.

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Selection

This looks a seriously good renewal of the Cheltenham Festival curtain-raiser, and all of Asterion Forlonge, Fiddlerontheroof, Abacadabras and, to a slightly lesser extent, Shishkin and Chantry House are perfectly credible winners. As such it's probably not a betting race at the current prices.

But there will be bookmaker specials galore on this opening heat of the meeting, meaning shopping around will garner significant value.

I think Asterion Forlonge is the most likely winner; I suspect Fiddlerontheroof will be the main beneficiary if it becomes a slog; but the one who is still the wrong price - for all that he's probably only the sixth or seventh most likely winner - is Edwardstone. His form ties in closely with a couple priced at a quarter of his odds.

Suggestion: Shop around for the best deals. Consider a small each way bet on Edwardstone at 16/1 with William Hill (1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6-7).

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2.10 Arkle Challenge Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

A first sight of the chase fences as the two mile novices have at it in the Arkle. This looks like being quick, placing an emphasis on both stamina and accurate jumping at speed in the early part of the contest.

The uneasy favourite is Gigginstown's Notebook, trained by Henry de Bromhead. On form he looks to have an outstanding chance: his four chase runs have yielded four wins, the last pair in Grade 1 company. But... that probably leaves him with less scope to improve than some of his rivals for all that they still have to catch him up.

There are a number of causes for concern with this lad in spite of his G1 brace. First, his temperament: he bolted on the way to the start last time, antics which saw him prevail only by 3/4L from the re-opposing Cash Back. Whilst it could be argued he would have won by further if not for getting stressy, the counter-argument is that the cauldron of the Cheltenham parade ring is hardly likely to becalm a buzzy beast.

Secondly, there is the matter of his performance at the Festival last year. Granted, he was a 50/1 shot on the day, but a 51 length last of twelve finishers is hardly the sort of course form about which to get excited. He's clearly a different horse for fences, but those are two big negatives against a Festival favourite.

So what of Cash Back? He's eight years old, the same as that top class pair Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe were when winning their Arkles. He was a decent but not top class hurdler, a comment that applies similarly to Notebook, so, while he has definitely improved a bundle there just might be a classier horse in the field. That said, I do think he'll see out the trip better than many and had backed him for small money after his Naas demolition job in January.

Fakir D'Oudairies is a five year old, the same age as four winners between 1998 and 2006, but none since. It used to be the case during those years that the additional maturity of the ex-French horses was a big plus, especially when allied to a healthy weight for age allowance. But the allowance was removed in 2009, and just four five-year-olds have appeared in this race since. They included 11/4 shot Saint Calvados, who was beaten by desperate tactics as much as anything else in 2018, and Tatenen, who fell as favourite in 2009.

Fakir has been beaten a length and a half by Notebook, meaning there is little theoretically between them. However, when one considers that there is still a weight for age allowance in such races in Ireland, and that Fakir was in receipt of seven pounds that day but runs off level weights here, it is quite hard to countenance a form reversal, for all that Notebook may burn some of his fuel before the race starts.

Fourth in the Ballymore and second in an Aintree G1 hurdle, both last spring, was Brewin'upastorm. This season, Olly Murphy's seven-year-old has cosily claimed two small field provincial novice chases, form which has worked out quite well without matching the other single-figure priced horses in the field. Olly's ability to get one ready for the Festival was shown last year when this horse finished a place behind the same trainer's Itchy Feet.

21 lengths behind Brewin'upastorm at Carlisle was Global Citizen. His trainer, Ben Pauling, was in lamentable form at the time (just two winners and four places from 55 runners between the end of June and early December), as well as which that was the horse's first run over fences and first run for 226 days. Nevertheless, as the highest rated hurdler in the Arkle, it was a disappointing seasonal bow.

Fast forward two months to Kempton at Christmas, and the real Global Citizen rocked up in the Grade 2 Wayward Lad to turn away Rouge Vif et al and re-establish his credentials for this gig. He's got the ability, clearly, but there are two reservations: first is that he might prefer flatter tracks, his only race at Cheltenham being when last of seven finishers - 45 lengths behind the sixth horse - in last year's Champion Hurdle; and second, he seems to want to bowl along in front. Here, so too does Cash Back, and potentially any of Fakir D'Oudairies, Put The Kettle On and Maire Banrigh. It could be pretty warm on the front end!

A Grade 1 winner at Sandown last time out, Esprit Du Large deserves a mention. The problem is that he's not been seen since that Henry VIII win in early December, 94 days being a longer absence to overcome than any winner this century.

The lovely mare Maire Banrigh has won her last six races since having wind surgery in early 2018, the most recent of which was an uncompetitive Listed Mares' Chase in which she was sent off 1-4 favourite. Her form isn't a million miles behind the best of these and she is able to receive a valuable seven pounds allowance. That said, she'll only be the third mare to run in the race in recent times, following I'm Delilah (unplaced in 2010) and Kruguyrova (2nd in 2008).

There are bits and pieces of cases to be made for the likes of the Kingmaker winner, Rouge Vif, but the one which makes a modicum of appeal in the long grass is Al Dancer. Winner of the Betfair Hurdle just over a year ago, he won a course and distance novice chase on his first start this campaign. He was caught for toe next time in the Grade 2 Arkle Trial behind Put The Kettle On, who had had plenty of practice by that point.

He's since run a little flatter at Kempton and Doncaster but comes here with the benefit of a good amount of experience, winning track form, and the prospect of a more truly run race suiting better. He could easily bomb out but at 20/1 or so he's playable for small money in what looks a very open race.

Arkle Pace Projection

Plenty of speed on based on recent form. Any/all of Global Citizen, Cash Back, and perhaps Fakir D'Oudairies, Maire Banrigh and Put The Kettle On might vie for the early lead. It'll take some getting with jumping over the first few fences likely to be closely examined.

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Arkle Chase Selection

Notebook is in danger of becoming a backable price such is the concern over his pre-race temperament. Were he to handle preliminaries reasonably well he might be worth a saver, but this is a race in which I don't have a strong opinion. Perhaps Brewin'upastorm - presumed far back from the heat of early battle - can pass them all. He's got stamina and no little class. At bigger prices, Al Dancer may outrun 20/1 odds.

Suggestion: Have a look at Brewin'upastorm (6/1 Betfred) and maybe Al Dancer each way at 20's.

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2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3 handicap, 3m1f)

The first handicap of the week and we're into wild guess territory. A few general patterns might reduce the field a touch. It's usually a race for the British, with Ireland not scoring since Tony Martin's Dun Doire in 2006. They don't have a lot of runners in truth. Seven- to ten-years-old and a top six finish eliminate a few runners but we're still left with most of the field.

One of very mild interest at a fair price is the Dan Skelton-trained Cobra De Mai. He was given a 'never in it' ride in the Skybet Chase at Doncaster last time under a seven pound claimer. Harry Skelton gets back on for the first time this season, having won a course and distance handicap chase off this mark last April. There is a slight concern about the ground and about Cobra's jumping, but there are no such reservations that this has been the plan.

Towards the front of the market, a more obvious one is The Conditional. A non-stayer over 3m5f last time when dropping to fourth in the final quarter mile, the half mile less range will work better. His win over course and distance on soft ground in October has been well advertised since, and he's attractively weighted to go well here.

I'll not pretend I have a strong handle on the form here, so let's move on.

Ultima Pace Projection

Bags of pace on again here, most likely from Activial and Cogry; but any of Vinndication, Cepage, Elwood and Mulcahys Hill could help to force it.

Ultima Handicap Chase Selection

Suggestion: I'll have a wild guess at Cobra De Mai (20/1 Ladbrokes 1/5 5 places) and The Conditional (9/1 bet365, Hills).

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3.30 Champion Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

I previewed this race on 14th February here - Champion Hurdle preview. Nothing much has changed in the interim except that I think it's an even more imponderable puzzle than I did then!

There are not many who cannot win, but there are not many about whom you'd have no reservations: it's a race in which to take a swing at a price and it won't surprise me if the bookmakers offer 5/1 the field on Tuesday morning.

Champion Hurdle Pace Projection

A solid gallop looks a certainty here, with neither Cornerstone Lad nor Petit Mouchoir having a Plan B. Not So Sleepy is another whose metier is to push on from the get go, notwithstanding that he missed the kick last time. Ballyandy and Coeur Sublime are another pair who tend to be on or close to the front while, at the other end of the field, the likes of Supersundae and Silver Streak are expected to be played late.

Champion Hurdle Selection

A wide open Champion Hurdle and your guess is as good as - quite possibly better than - mine. I tipped and backed Supasundae in mid-February and am happy enough to let him run for me. Both Darver Star and Ballyandy should offer a run for small money, though the price has gone somewhat on Darver now.

Suggestion: Back what you like. I'm hoping Supasundae, who is both old and slow in the context of a Champion Hurdle - but perhaps not in the context of this Champion Hurdle - can make the frame at around 12/1.

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4.10 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)

This looks a match between Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle.

Benie Des Dieux was in the process of running away with the race when coming down at the last and handing it to Roksana a year ago. The Willie Mullins-trained mare is otherwise unbeaten in Britain and Ireland from seven completed starts since December 2016, to which she added the French Champion Hurdle last May. She's fairly lightly raced, then, perhaps attesting to a fragility; though Mullins famously minded Quevega in similar fashion and managed to conjure an astonishing six Mares' Hurdles from her. Her name now exists in perpetuity at Cheltenham with a bar named in her honour!

Benie is nine already so no such opportunity to rack up a sequence exists for her, though she would have been bidding for a hat-trick but for that last flight capsize a year ago. She's won her three starts since and comes here with rock solid credentials.

There is, however, a viable alternative in the form of Honeysuckle, herself unbeaten in seven Rules starts and a point to point. She looked a little workwomanlike when repelling Darver Star et al by just half a length at the Dublin Racing Festival, but that was over two miles. The shortest winning margins in her career have come at the minimum, while at two-and-a-half miles-plus no rival has got within 5 1/2 lengths of her.

Her ratings are closely aligned with Benie Des Dieux and, as a six-year-old, she has the greater scope to improve. Of course, Benie just keeps winning so we don't really know how good she is.

Stormy Ireland will probably force the pace, along with Honeysuckle's owner mate Elfile, meaning it will be a solid test. Stormy was good enough to claim silver behind Roksana last year and, if she gets an easy, she might cling on for a place, but it is hard to see her troubling the top pair if Elfile take her on as expected.

So what of Roksana? Dan Skelton's mare is a hard knocking type who has been a fantastic servant to connections, finishing in the first three in eleven of twelve hurdles starts. As well as winning last year's Mares' Hurdle, she has finished second to Santini in the 2018 G1 Sefton at Aintree, second in the Aintree Stayers' Hurdle, also a Grade 1, and, most recently, second in the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle over course and distance. If they were betting on third place in this, she'd be about even money in my book.

The rest are not good enough.

Mares' Hurdle Pace Projection

Elfile and Stormy Ireland are confirmed front-runners, the former looking a potential spoiler working for Honeysuckle. and it is unlikely either will give the other any peace. As such, it is probable that they'll set the race up for those in behind. Honeysuckle tends to race prominently and will get a lovely tow into proceedings, while Benie Des Dieux will not be far behind in this short field if adopting her usual mid-division tactics.

Mares' Hurdle Selection

There are two very good mares in here, one pretty good mare, and some other less good ones. The two very good ones - Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle - should finish first and second, though I wouldn't be bullish about the order; and Roksana should finish third.

Suggestion: Play 65/35 forecasts and tricasts: 65% BdD-Honey-Roksana, 35% Honey-BdD-Roksana.

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4.50 Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase (Listed, 2m 4f)

Not my strong suit, but the trends are starting to form after 15 renewals, even allowing for some minor tinkering with the conditions.

Twelve of the fifteen winners finished 1st or 2nd last time out; 8yo+ have a moderate record; the top five in the market have won all bar three; all 15 winners ran between two weeks and two months prior to this; all bar one of the last twelve winners had run three or four times over fences.

The two box-tickers are Imperial Aura and Hold The Note.

Imperial Aura has finished second at Cheltenham on his last two of three chase starts, the form of his most recent run working out well enough. That was in the novices' handicap chase on Trials Day in January, a race which has provided the winner of this three times to date.

Mick Channon, he of the windmill arm goal celebration in a distant former life, saddled the winner of this two years ago with Mister Whitaker, and he trains Hold The Note for the same owner, Tim Radford, he of Timico Gold Cup fame in a recent former life.

This fellow has had a different prep - Mister Whitaker actually winning the aforementioned Trials Day novices handicap chase en route to his triumph - but has solid form in spite of being a maiden over fences. Maiden status failed to stop Ballyalton, Irish Cavalier or Finger Onthe Pulse from scoring.

Hold The Note was just run out of it in a three mile Grade 2 last time meaning he has both the class and the stamina for this; whether he quite has the speed remains to be seen, but connections obviously know how to get the job done.

One I like, as much as you can like a horse in a field of twenty novice handicappers, is Fergal O'Brien's Paint The Dream. He finished last of five last time out, but that was over a completely inadequate two miles on a not nearly testing enough track, Ludlow. Prior to that he'd chased home Midnight Shadow in the Grade 2 Dipper Novices' Chase, finishing from some way back to get to within a long length of the winner. He looks sure to appreciate the increased emphasis on stamina IF his jumping holds up.

17 others with some sort of a chance!

Novices' Handicap Chase Pace Projection

Torpillo will be front rank, and so too most likely Precious Cargo, Champagne Court, De Plotting Shed and, if he's quick enough, Paint The Dream. The speed they go early is likely to place strong emphasis on the jumping of these inexperienced chasers.

Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase selection

I fully respect the chances of the two 'trendy' horses, Hold The Note and Imperial Aura, but I want to take a small chance at a big price. In that spirit, I'm swinging at the maiden chaser, Paint The Dream.

Suggestion: Have a small bit each way on Paint The Dream at 25/1 1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6 Skybet.

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5.30 National Hunt Chase (Grade 2, 3m 6f)

An amended race distance and qualifying criteria for this year's National Hunt Chase after the attrition of the 2019 renewal. Just 3m6f this time around then, though that is unlikely to make it much less of a gruelling stamina test. Add in the fact this race is contested by novice chasers ridden by amateur riders and you have a precarious punting proposition.

A little surprising, then, perhaps, is that the favourite, Carefully Selected, is as short as 6/4. If his price is surprising - to me at least - his position in the market is not. He was a high class bumper horse, finishing a neck second to Relegate in the 2018 Champion Bumper; and a high class novice hurdler, finishing third to Minella Indo in the Grade 1 Punchestown staying novice hurdle last spring.

This season Carefully Selected is three from three over fences, most recently in a pair of Grade 3's over two and a half, and then three, miles. He ought to stay though this is a three-quarter mile journey into the unknown for him.

A massed rank in opposition as ever in a race where the smallest field this century has been 15. Ravenhill is an interesting one in spite of a fall last time. He's the same age, ten, as Rathvinden, winner in 2018, and Rith Dubh (2002), his age group having an 11% win and 22% place strike rate. Compare that with seven- and eight-year-olds, who have won 15 NH Chases since 1997 but from a whopping 290 runners (5% win, 14% place).

His form lacks the Graded lustre of Carefully Selected's but it has the unarguable substance of valuable handicap performance, most notably when second in the €118,000 to the winner Kerry National two back. He was travelling kindly in midfield when falling halfway through the Troytown Chase when last seen 107 days ago and, while both the absence and the tumble are concerns, he's just the sort of warrior for this job.

Willie Mullins (Carefully Selected) and Gordon Elliott (Ravenhill) have won four of the last seven NH Chases.

Eight of the last nine winners were rated 143 or higher, and that eliminates most of this field. One who passes that test and might be the pick of the home defence is Lord Du Mesnil. Acquired from France where he had solid handicap chase form, in the summer of 2018, he's improved 38 pounds this season so far. That improvement has coincided with deeper ground as can be seen from his form below, sorted by Racing Post Rating. Note the going for his better performances - soft and heavy - and for his least good efforts - faster turf. He will obviously enjoy things if it comes up very wet.

Another worthy of mention is Kim Bailey's progressive Newtide. Newtide has raced exclusively on soft ground and has won his last three, most recently the Grade 2 Towton Novices' Chase at Wetherby. With just seven races on the clock there's sure to be more improvement to come and a light campaign should see him fresher than many in the field.

Possibly the most progressive in the field is the Tom George-trained Springfield Fox. Beaten in three early season novice hurdles, the Fox was given an opening handicap mark of 117, from which he proceeded to bolt up by 12 lengths in a heavy ground three mile Chepstow novices' handicap chase. Reassessed to a ten pounds higher mark for his next and most recent assignment, he laughed at the handicapper's futile attempt to check his new found winning ways as he sluiced home by 17 lengths in a three mile Exeter novices' handicap chase.

He's up another 15 to 142 now, but that's clearly just a guess on the part of the handicapper: it is far from impossible that he steps forward another ten pounds from that mark - and if he did so he'd just about win this. The niggle with him is that he's gone from the front and, again, that might not be ideal with a number of other pace protagonists in opposition.

National Hunt Chase Pace Projection

The likes of Springfield Fox, who took a liberty at the first fence last time, and Carefully Selected are confirmed front runners. Lord Du Mesnil and Lamanver Pippin race close up, too. They could be sorted out with still three miles to go!

National Hunt Chase Selection

It's an open looking race, though the favourite's credentials are solid. Sadly, his price is terrible for a contest of this nature and I have to let him beat me if he can. Against him, I respect Ravenhill and Lord Du Mesnil, but the one I want to be with is Springfield Fox. If he can get into a nice rhythm over the first few fences then he looks as though he'll just keep rolling. He's highly progressive and is a tempting price.

Suggestion: Back Springfield Fox at 8/1 e/w bet365, Skybet, 888sport

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Good luck with your first day wagers. Remember, very few people have their last bet of the week on Tuesday, so whether you're in front or behind by 6pm, there's still a lot of pushing and pulling to be done over the remaining three days.

Matt