Andy Newton has seven more 'hot trainers' to look out for this week.....
Andy Newton has seven more 'hot trainers' to look out for this week.....
Andy Newton has seven more 'hot trainers' to look out for this week.....
And so the final week of the National Hunt season is behind us. And what a rain-soaked seven days it was too. The highlights of the week, if not the weather, were the Punchestown Festival and Sandown's mixed card which so literally moves us from jumps to flat in the space of thirty-five minutes.
In today's mish mash, I'll have thoughts on both of those events, plus a look ahead to the first Classics of the season this weekend (!); news of a new competition; and a word on some freebie winners from the weekend just passed.
But let's start at a precipitated upon Punchestown (try saying that after a few pints of the good black stuff). I was invited to - and decided to attend - the Punchestown Festival for the first time. My timing, naturally, was impeccable. It seemed I'd chosen the week when a rowing regatta would have been a more appropriate use for the just-outside-Naas-but-in-truth-a-million-miles-from-anywhere venue than a race meeting.
Punchestown's April (and sometimes May) Festival is the jewel in the crown of Irish jump racing, and little wonder that they would move heaven (which, it appeared, had already moved in order to open all over this verdant part of Ireland) and earth to ensure the meeting could be run.
The course was submerged in places, especially on the chase course, which succumbed to more postponements and cancellations than a leafy morning in a London mainline train station.
Indeed, the second day of the meeting - and the one I'd travelled over for - was under further threat from ferocious winds which were gusting off the Atlantic, and pretty much everywhere else too. It was the temporary structures which were the problem, we were told. Not that anyone was planning on hanging out in a marquee, or having a choc ice (whatever happened to those?) under a pub bench parasol.
Anyways... late word (1.30pm, first race scheduled for 3.40pm) confirmed that racing would go ahead, and off I jolly well trudged.
I arrived at the track, via a train from Dublin's Heuston Station to Sallins (for Naas), and then a cab ride from there. Aside from the town of Naas, through which we passed, there didn't appear to be very much at all happening in this forgotten enclave some way between here and there.
No matter. For racing was on. A delayed, truncated card stripped of its feature, the Punchestown Gold Cup, and my best bet of the week - Raptor in the Guinness Handicap Chase (fourth in the re-run on Saturday, as it happened) - released its tapes at 4.55 to a great roar from the soaked and, by now, quite sozzled crowd of hardy aficionados... and foolhardy day-trippers!
It was a race of many runners, in impossible conditions, and yet still a horse was robustly supported into 3/1 favouritism in a melee of 25. Ten Bob was the thoroughly vanquished beast, who gave best to Shamiran, itself the subject of a mini-gamble, and about twenty other more amphibious equines.
I managed to back the third horse in a token each way tickle, at 33/1 no less (returned 25's, so shrewd...). Go for the horses with the webbed hooves was my mantra, or at least those with heavy ground form in the book.
The afternoon's hoof splashing and whip lashing continued. Loch Ard fair bolted up - as much as any horse could in such an environment - under a waiting ride from Ruby. It was Willie Mullins' second winner of the week after Sir Des Champs had survived a bid to walk through the last fence the night before. Mullins, W. would get another eight pots in his possession before the week was out, continuing with...
...the 1-2-3 in the following, and perfectly named, War of Attrition Novices Hurdle, a Grade 1 for eternal stayers. And all for the same owner as well, probably the first time such a feat has been carried off in top company.
The flattering deceiver Sous Les Cieux was the shortest priced of them, the 7/2 jolly in fact, but he was only third best at the marmite-splattered jam stick (if you see what I did there). In front were Marasonnien, an equine to have on your side in a scrap, and Vesper Bell, who scooted and tooted his way into the silver medal podium slot (if you saw what I did there).
Marasonnien, a name not hugely removed from Monsoonian, which would have been a reasonable description of the inclemency of the situation, were it in fact a word, looks likely to take high order in deep ground novice chases next season, and is in the notebook accordingly.
Sous Les Cieux? Well, he'll cost you more money if you keep believing he'll find an engine to go with his cruising speed. All class, but a heart of glass, he's a swerve, as I've mentioned before.
Onwards and downwards we plunged - unless you were Willie Mullins, or Rich Ricci, or a follower of either - as the Champion Bumper went the way of the same owner and trainer as the Novices Hurdle. Champagne Fever, with his bothersome head carriage, has both class and guts, and won in taking style.
The second, Melodic Rendezvous, from Jeremy Scott's ascendant yard, ran a blinder, with Mullins second string, Mozoltov, a close enough third. The rest were nearer to Dublin than Punchestown as the front three passed the post.
Champagne Fever may go straight over fences next season, and wherever he heads, this attractive grey might prove tough to pass, as he's a veritable scrapper despite his quirky cocked jaw.
They finished at 7.15pm, with another bumper of lesser stature, and I'd already run for the car park and a cab back to the railway station. As (relative) fortune would have it, a late train arrived just in time to chuff and choo me back to Dub and into a hot tub.
I'd love to go back to Punchy, because I'm certain I've seen the worst of it, and I'm equally sure there's plenty more that the place has to offer. Maybe next year, if the forecast favours...
[My thanks to Joe, who sorted everything for me, except the weather! I'll catch you again soon, and I hope you survived the booze bus home ok...]
At about 3.15 on Saturday afternoon, and within five minutes of each other (preposterously), the two feature races of the day set off. Over in Ireland, the rescheduled Punchestown Gold Cup was won by the 20/1 old knocker, China Rock.
At Sandown, for the bet365 Gold Cup, it was another old knocker who bagged the spoils. Whilst China Rock's win was hard fought, that of Tidal Bay was ultra-impressive.
Tidal Bay has been called plenty of things in his time, good and bad in equal measure. Here he was sensational. In an attritional affair, over three and three quarter muddy miles of Sandown's stamina-stealing sod, the bay Bay bolted up. Under top weight!
This chap - now eleven years young - was completing a notable handicap hat-trick for the double digit brigade, following on from the wins of fellow eleven-year-olds, Neptune Collonges and Merigo, on previous Saturdays in Grand Nationals north and south of Hadrian's Wall.
It appears instructive to note that, whilst he hadn't previously won since January 2010, this was the first time he'd encountered proper soft ground since. Indeed, this factoid is given further credence by the fact that he's never been out of the first three on ground described as predominantly soft or heavy.
Clearly, he's not getting any younger, but he'd surely be a threat in any distance chase, in any grade, on soft ground. I'd be buying him a season ticket for Irish Ferries next term...
Thereafter, the remainder of the card was flat fare, in more ways than one.
The flat season proper may have started a month ago, but for most, it's yet to leave the stalls. In truth, the miserable weather hardly hints of balmy summer evenings. And the hock-deep consequences of so many downpours is playing havoc with early season punters, including myself.
And yet... And yet, this weekend will see the first of the British Classics run at HQ. In the curiously anachronistic early season 'narrative' which dictates that 80% of our Classics will be run before the second week of June, the two one-mile events - 1000 and 2000 Guineas, of course - will have been run by this time next week.
I'll have a fuller preview (natch!) nearer the time, but for now I must confess to a touch of Francophilia with regards to the chaps' race. Franco-whowhat? I've backed both Abtaal and French Fifteen to win the 2000 Guineas, on the basis that they ran in a very good trial at Maisons-Laffitte recently.
Whether this was wise will be revealed in stages: first, by my fuller and more considered race preview later in the week, and secondly - and far more conclusively - by the race itself next weekend.
Let's hope the rain stops, and the winners start by then... or else it's going to be a long old summer of punting indeed.
Now then, on the subject of flat racing, and looking forward to something better than we've seen thus far, how about a competition? A spot of fantasy league racing, perhaps? Right you are then.
QIPCO are looking to bring more fun and laughter to the man in the street, and - quite rightly - more attention to their brand. As such, they're sponsoring a sort of fantasy football for racing.
I could explain it badly and using lots of words (don't I always?!), but you'll be pleased to hear that Ian has written a much more succinct piece with everything you need to know.
Basically, you sign up, choose your team, and then you join the Geegeez League. Consequently, you'll not only be eligible for the big prizes put up by the extensive QIPCO budget, but also the slightly less valuable - in monetary terms at least - Geegeez prizes. (Obviously, you can't put a price on the kudos such local success will bring... 😉 )
All the details are here, and I'd love for you to join me - and everyone else - in the Geegeez league.
Prizes will be racing books, as follows:
Two books each for the top two-monthly point scorers (May/June, July/August, September/October).
Six book for the winner overall of the Geegeez Super League.
It's free to enter, and ought to be good fun, with some big prizes and some little prizes as well. So join in! And tell your mates to join in too!!
Oh yes, here's the link: http://www.geegeez.co.uk/british-champions-series-fantasy-league-competition/
And finally, you may have seen my email at the weekend telling you about totesport's completely no strings free bet offer. In a nutshell, if you're not already a totesport customer, and you register with them, they'll give you five quid to bet with even if you don't deposit any readies!
Over 250 of you took advantage of totesport's generosity on Saturday, and I've heard from a few of you who managed to back a winner.
A few of the comments:
well in matt, i did memory cloth with my free bet took 5s drifted to 13/2 but you don't get BOG had 2.5 e/w better than nothing.
Thanks Matt, didn't go for thousands just a fiver win on Mumbles Head 11/4. I'm happy. Martyn
Registered backed tidal bay woo hoo!
Did you back a winner? If so, leave a comment and let us know who...
If you don't have a totesport account, and you haven't yet opened one, WHY THE HELL NOT????!!! OK, sorry, got carried away there. But, seriously, it's free money if you find a winner. And no loss if you don't. There aren't many good things in life, but that's pretty decent, I'd say. And on a Monday as well!
Oops - making a habit of this now - here's the link: FREE FIVE QUID BET, NO STRINGS, HERE.
OK, that's enough of my waffle for today. We've got loads more for you this week, starting with Mal's Well I Declare feature tomorrow, where he'll be looking at this week's notable declarations, including for Newmarket and the Guineas.
Then Tony will be proffering his Punting Confessional on Wednesday. What's that sinner been up to this week?!
Thursday sees Andy Newton's update on the trainers in form just now. And on Friday I'll have that promised Guineas meeting preview for you.
Plus, Ian's here all week with his - generally lateral - take on the racing news. And Chris and I will be trying to unearth a winner or six via Stat of the Day.
So stay tuned for all, or at least some (as you like), of that. As you know, we don't email every day, so if you want to see what's happening, you need to stop by. You'll be very welcome. 🙂
p.s. did you back a winner at the weekend? Leave a comment. Hard luck story? Tell us about it. Fed up with the rain? Have a moan. Garden looking great? Share your green-fingered secrets... 😉
Did you know the last outright favourite to win Saturday’s Bet365 Gold Cup was in 1990? Read more
It was a weekend where the headline writers and Cheltenham executive got their prayers answered. Hurricane Fly and Big Buck's proved themselves every bit as good as when last seen, and both ready to defend their hurdling championships come middlemarch.
Elsewhere, dreams were shattered for many (Baby Mix, Broadbackbob, Unaccompanied), reinstated for a few (The Giant Bolster, Midnight Chase), and rudely awoken by harsh reality for those who probably already knew their fate (Tidal Bay, Diamond Harry, Poquelin).
So what are the pointers to take from a bumper weekend of top class action on both sides of the Irish Sea, as we look inexorably towards Cheltenham and March's Festival?
Let's take it from the top...
The opening juvenile hurdle promised to inform us on the Triumph Hurdle hierarchy but, in the end, served only to confuse and bewilder. Grumeti was the winner, albeit via the stewards' room, from a Nicholls' 'fourth string', Pearl Dawn under Ruby Walsh.
Pearl Dawn was brought into the race with a finely timed run, and bested his more famous rival by a short head at the line. However, in so doing, he'd cut across the second and, in the eyes of the stewards, caused enough interference for them to reverse the placings.
Personally, I always struggle with these situations, as when Jacqueline Quest was denied victory in the 1000 Guineas. But I defer to those who know, and am assured that justice was done.
In any event, the fallout for me is this:
1. A horse that has only actually come home first in one of three hurdle events shouldn't really be favourite for the Triumph. Yes, he was unlucky when he fell; yes, he was 'cruelly' denied victory on Saturday. But... winners win. No excuses. Not for me.
2. Paul Nicholls now knows exactly where he stands with his juvies, and the one he unleashes in the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton will be the one to be on.
3. Baby Mix ran no sort of race. Pulled too hard, jumped terribly, and gives serious instability to the form here.
I'd be very surprised if the Triumph Hurdle winner ran on Saturday, and even more so if it was at Cheltenham.
Bless The Wings was an exuberant winner of the novices' handicap chase, and if he jumps as well in the Centenary Handicap Chase (or whatever it will be called this time around), he'll have chances.
But he cannot expect so many of his rivals to throw their chances away with careless errors, and this effort will cost him his attractive handicap mark for sure. He'll likely run, and run well, in the Centenary, but something - probably trained by either Venetia Williams or Ferdy Murphy - will have hidden their light under a bushel better.
The next race saw one of the most taking performances of weekend where taking performances were a theme. The Giant Bolster has been called many things, mainly in relation to his 'can't jump, won't jump' attitude. However, a pre-race interview with his owner revealed that much schooling work had been done, and the name Yogi Breisner was uttered. The jumping guru has clearly worked his oracle once more, as The Giant Bolster was almost foot perfect, despite the intimations of commentator Richard Hoiles that he bungled half of them.
I thought Hoiles was extremely unfair to TGB, who did make one error in an electric round of front-running fluent leaping. At the line, he's put seventeen lengths between himself and the rock solid 2,5f Cheltenham chase yardstick, Poquelin, who ran his usual 'honest as the day is long' race.
Poquelin was spotting TGB a stone or thereabouts, but it would be hard to argue that the verdict would have been any different off level weights. Indeed, level weights is how they'd match up were the Ryanair to enter the Cheltenham conundrum. There is, though, one small issue with that: The Giant Bolster isn't entered in the race!
I'm not sufficiently up on whether a horse can be entered later at a premium but, if that is the case, then surely this is the route for him, rather than the Festival Plate. That latter race is a handicap, in which he'd highly likely lug top weight, plus he be in amongst twenty-five rivals and would struggle much more I feel to get the lead he so relished here.
Under similar circumstances, TGB is a horse to follow. He's likely to clout a few fences in any quest for glory, but this effort - in a very fast time - marks him out as an extremely talented beast.
Poquelin for his part can be expected to make a bid in the Ryanair, but he's gone there in far better form in seasons past and been seen off comprehensively. He's one of a number for whom the writing looks to be on the wall.
And then came the feature of the day. Captain Chris, Tidal Bay, Diamond Harry, Midnight Chase and the rest. Gold Cup trip. Proper trial. Sort of (no Irish, no Kauto Star, no Long Run, etc).
Captain Chris has inexplicably been favourite all day, despite being the most obvious non-stayer since I contemplated running a marathon. In the event, it wasn't stamina that scuppered him but bizarre jumping. To my untutored eye, he jiggered his back and was rightly pulled up.
None of this was of any consequence to Midnight Chase, a beast who adores Cheltenham like I adore Guinness. He got out in front, and stayed out in front. Leaping from fence to fence, allowing Little Josh to get close but not too close, and then kicking on from the turn in.
Tidal Bay was his closest challenger but never threatened to usurp the Prince of Cheltenham Chases (but not the King, alas for connections). Today was a day when connections of Captain Chris, Tidal Bay and Diamond Harry must all have called time on their Gold Cup aspirations, as they were found wanting to a rival who only finished fifth in the Gold Cup last year.
Midnight Chase himself will try to make all in the showpiece in six weeks time, and he'll give punters a bloody good run for their money, without I fear ultimately troubling the judge. Great performance, all the more so for carrying not just my cash but also the combined weight of the Stat of the Day followers fortunes!!
But still there was much to follow on a card that had more players than an amateur dramatics convention. It was the turn of the staying novices next, and Broadbackbob - from the Henderson yard - was a very warm order. Unbeaten in two lesser events prior to lining up here, he jumped a little stickily in places, and was never going to be Batonnier, a horse who has been faced by stiffer competition than his shorter priced rival.
Batonnier traveled very well off a strongish pace, and looks a contender for either the Neptune or Albert Bartlett, whichever trainer Alan King fires him at. Of course, in those contests he may have to face either or both of Fingal Bay and Boston Bob, and those will offer a more robust challenge that Broadbackbob.
Hurdling retained centre stage as one of National Hunt racing's greatest stars, Big Buck's, strutted his stuff once more. Taking his unbeaten sequence to fifteen, he provided a few heard in mouth moments for punters who traded their fours for some ones (his odds of 1-4), especially the William Hill player who reputedly cashed a £256,000 wager.
Fair play, but you'll never get the stains out of those trousers!
In the finish, it was plain sailing, but there was at least a half furlong after they'd turned in when it looked as though BB might not quite get to Dynasyte, who ran a stonker.
Dynaste looks a strong contender for the World Hurdle podium, but with Big Buck's and Oscar Whisky in opposition, it's a tough ask for him. And it's impossible for any sane individual to suggest that there is a horse in training who can beat Big Buck's in the World Hurdle if he runs his race.
And it was hurdling to conclude the card as well, with a competitive looking handicap hurdle. There were also at least two dubious rides in here, but let's deal with the winner first.
Tom George's Module ran on very well and landed a few nice bets in the process, on his first UK start. I think he's come over from George's satellite yard in France, and he knows what he's got when it comes to comparative form between France and UK. (I wish I did!)
But it's the horses in behind that I want to talk about. Firstly, Hinterland - a short enough favourite - was never put into the race by Ruby Walsh. He still had eight horses in front of him at the final hurdle and did well to finish third.
I'm convinced he's being aimed at the Fred Winter, and this was a most definite handicap-protecting performance. It will be instructive to see if the handicapper takes the same view as me, and mullers the horse's mark as it deserves to be after this non-trier effort. If he doesn't, I'll be supporting him in the Fred Winter, for sure.
The other dodgepot was the winner's stable mate, Sivola de Sivola, who was given an 'eye-catching' ride to finish fourth. Again, there are Festival hurdle events (the County, most likely) for which he may well be attractively perched. He's one to keep on side, as he is clearly capable of significantly more than he showed here. Connections will have been delighted!
Elsewhere on Saturday, Menorah actually endeared himself to me more by falling than by winning up at Doncaster. As perverse as that may sound, this chap has a characteristic that the very best two mile chasers have: he hurdles his fences.
I recognise that might sound a bit ridiculous, but if you look at the record of the likes of Moscow Flyer and Big Zeb, you'll see that the big IF heading into Cheltenham for them was actually their form figures of 1F1F.
Am I saying Menorah can win the Arkle? Well, yes and no. In my opinion, like those two fine beasts (only one of which won the Arkle, Big Zeb having been kept at home a while longer), Menorah conserves energy in the style of an Arkle winner, and he has plenty of top drawer track form over hurdles (Supreme Novices' winner, Greatwood Hurdle winner, etc).
The fact that he's now a longer price means I'm taking a saver on my Al Ferof / Peddlers Cross investment, and the only horse that can beat me - I believe - is Sprinter Sacre. For reasons I've outlined elsewhere, I'm prepared to let that happen.
In Ireland, the Mullins bandwagon rolled on as Sir Des Champs continued his winning ways over fences. True, it was a relatively weak race. But he won 'like an odds on favourite should' as Thommo would unfortunately say, despite not being an odds on favourite for this contest (he was even money).
This was the son of excellent sire Robin Des Champs' sixth win on the bounce. That sextet includes the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Hurdle at Cheltenham as a novice, and two Grade 2's over fences. Clearly, he's a player over this sort of trip and deserves to be close to favouritism for the Jewson Novices over the same distance - though different obstacles - as the Martin Pipe.
He's a horse that is impossible to crab from a Cheltenham perspective, with Festival winning form, and a progressive profile both before and since (he was heavily backed that day at Cheltenham). 8/1 is about the best you can get and, if he's being fired at this race, that's a price to be interested in. I say 'if' because he probably has RSA and handicap options as well.
Surely, though, this is the optimum trip for him at this stage of his career. He's a horse that, should he continue to progress, might present himself as a Gold Cup candidate next season. Very exciting prospect.
The Boylesports Hurdle on the same card was a belting race, and was won by a good horse in Citizenship... But for Cheltenham punters, the 'juice' was in behind. I'm not entirely sure where in behind, but true form students will be looking for those beasts who raced out back, and stayed on to a midfield finishing position... especially if trained by a wily fox.
Here's a couple who could be of interest from a County Hurdle perspective: Peak Raider (never nearer than ninth and from a plotting stable in Thomas Carberry), Plan A (fourth in last year's Fred Winter, ran a nice trial here).
Sunday at Leopardstown was the most eagerly awaited affair of a very bright weekend of jump racing. Despite a horribly soggy afternoon, the return of 'The Fly' was well enough subscribed. The precipitated upon punters were not to be disappointed, but there was sport both before and after that, as I'll now relate.
First up, it was the turn of the novice speed fencers in the Irish Arkle. Flemenstar fair dotted up in the style of a good horse. His problem is the irritating feeling that he beat a lot of beasts which ran in the style of bad horses.
The Irish Arkle hasn't thrown the winner of the British Arkle for many a moon - Moscow Flyer was the last - and I'm afraid two good miles in a ppeat bog does not translate well to the undulating road of Cheltenham's unofficial good to firm on Cheltenham Tuesday... Flemenstar is clearly talented, but I'd not even consider him beating the others I've mentioned higher up this post... even if he runs (which he probably won't, for the self same reason mentioned - state of the ground).
As if the weather couldn't have got any worse, at just about Chinese dentist appointment o'clock (tooth hurt-y, oh dear), a Hurricane blew into and out of Leopardstown.
This was the big day and, after eight months, there were plenty of negative vibes about 'needing the run'. 4/7 opening show soon became 4/5. Like the horse knew! He absolutely murdered them in the most disdainful of ways, and is going to be plenty hard enough to beat in the Champion Hurdle.
In truth, the form is questionable, with clear chief danger, Unaccompanied, putting in a rare stinker. Regular readers will know the affection I hold for this mare, and yesterday was not her running. Not even close.
Oscar Wells was next best, despite his connections suggesting conditions would not suit. That lends itself to the prospect that this wasn't as good a performance as it looked.
Here's what I think from a punting stance: whilst I'd struggle to oppose the Fly, I couldn't possibly countenance wagering him at between 4/6 and evens. The Robin van Persie of racing (brilliant when fit) still has to get to the West country and, if/when he does, he's unlikely to be much of a shorter price.
If you can get non runner no bet, treat yourself if you like. Otherwise, wait for the day.
Let me repeat: he won this running backwards, and it is very hard to crab the effort. But he is a fragile horse and this form is open to question, due to the state of the ground and the limp effort from the clear second market choice. Caution advised.
Finally, on a weekend of saliva-spraying sport, Boston Bob's game win in the Grade 2 was almost unheralded after his stable mate sent all the journo's scurrying for the 'hold the back page' hotlines to the headlines.
But this was an attritional display from another Cheltenham contender. He was asked to scrap, and he was happy so to do. I do find it difficult to quantify this performance in the context of either of the Cheltenham novices, and I'd love to see him race so well on a sounder surface. If he can, and he faces off against Fingal (Bay), then that will be a tumultuous tussle, to be sure.
I am now approaching spontaneous combustion when it comes to the Cheltenham banquets of middle March. And if the last few weekends have been mostly uninformative, then this one has fair spurted Festival fancies forth. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrringiton!!! 😀
p.s. I'm away for the next fortnight (training in Newmarket this week - not as a jockey! - and skiing in Bulgaria next, so please be patient if you try to contact me. Neither place is blessed with abundant wifi... 🙁 )
Horse racing is a sport enjoyed across the length and breadth of the globe, dear reader, and it manifests itself in a multitude of different guises. From the bottomless slog of a four mile chase at Towcester, via two furlong 'quarter horse' dirt races at greyhound tracks masquerading as horse racing tracks in the US, to the slick monied - slightly surreal - racing of Meydan's tapeta track in Dubai, there really is something for everyone in racing.
Last weekend saw countless clues for both the Carnival and the Festival: Dubai's culminating World Cup meeting on March 26th, and Cheltenham four day National Hunt season highlight running from March 15th to 18th.
First, roving reporter Ross relates the latest Godolphin / de Kock domination in the Emirates, then I'll expound on my views of the virtues (or otherwise) of this weekend's Festival trials from Britain and Ireland. Over to Ross, and a somewhat unpatriotic rallying cry (unless you happen to be Gallic)...
Vive la France! Forgive me, as patriotic as this website is (it is geegeez.co.UK after all), I have never been so pleased to see the French show up just at the right time (makes a change).
After last weekâ€™s dominance of the Dubai Carnivalâ€™s second meeting by Godolphin and Mike de Kock - 5 winners, 3 seconds and 7 thirds between them - it looked like things were going to go the same way this Thursday after the boys in blue claimed the first race with City Style and then had a 1-2-3 in races three and four.
Although a great achievement for Sheikh Mohammed and his team, this kind of dominance does become tedious to watch. Itâ€™s not as though we can profit from their success either as their apparent third string runner is often as likely to win as the horse Frankie Dettori chooses.
We did get a slight respite from the navy blue marauders as the French-trained Win For Sure lived up to his name and sailed home to land the concluding handicap under Gregory Benoist. The trainer's name is fairly unpronounceable, but is spelt like this: Nakkachdji. Very nice too.
Earlier in the evening, Bronze Cannon scored a cosy victory in what looked a competitive conditions race. I can boast a small connection to this bay colt. As you may know, Brighton handler Gary Moore does occasionally train some runners for Bronze Cannonâ€™s owner, Ramzan Kadyrov, to get them ready before they are transferred to Herman Brownâ€™s Dubai yard and so it happened that Bronze Cannon followed this same path in 2010 whilst I was working for Gary.
The horse had won at Royal Ascot for John Gosden before being bought for a reported Â£1.3m by his current owner. I was lucky enough to ride him most days on the Downs in Brighton and I struggled to believe that this was the Bronze Cannon that I'd been sitting on. After all, he was absolutely tiny, no bigger than a pony.
To add to this, he moved like a cripple and cantered as though he needed three miles and a good load of fences in front of him! Admittedly he wasn't doing any serious work when I was with him but it just goes to show you that some horses come alive at the races and you shouldnâ€™t believe everything you see on the gallops at home.
Regular readers will remember that I gave a good word for Luca Cumaniâ€™s Drunken Sailor last time and I almost got it right for once as he ran a blinder to finish 4th behind Whispering Gallery in the 1m6f handicap. He has obviously acclimatised well and is worth backing next time. I also mentioned the yardâ€™s puzzlement surrounding Man of Ironâ€™s poor runs and it seems it all came to a head this Thursday as he was pulled-up entering the straight but reports suggest that there was no serious injury to him. Heâ€™s one to steer well clear of though.
Cumani did receive some consolation when the enigmatic Presvis romped home in the Group 2 Al Rashidiya Stakes. Iâ€™m sure we all know this horse from losing plenty of money on him in the past but on his day, like this time, he is a talented animal. It remains to be seen whether he can put two good efforts together next time.
On another note, what attracts many owners, trainers and jockeys to Meydan is the apparently generous prize money. Itâ€™s all well and good promising people decent purses but reports have reached me that payments are very slow in coming and last season (which ended in March) some jockeys didnâ€™t receive their riding fees and percentages until August. Letâ€™s hope this wasnâ€™t the same for the owners - if you upset them, they likely wonâ€™t be coming back in a hurry!
To the weekend past, and altogethrer soggier, muddier and more robust racing types. And that's just the racegoers. Friday's Doncaster card had little in the ways of future clues except, perhaps, that the track was unlikely to survive for Saturday's feature meeting.
In winning the juvenile novice hurdle, Empire Levant put the final nail in the coffin of the Franklino ante-post punt, seeing that one off by a wide margin. The bookies were singularly unimpressed with the 2.5 lengths winning verdict over Palawi, from John Quinn's yard, and still have him as a 33/1 shot.
For me, Sam Winner looks the best value in that race. Despite being beaten in a real slog at Chepstow last time, the overall balance of his form is as good as anything in here at the moment, and the remaining 12's in a few places might be worth small money.
Over at Gowran Park on Friday were some strong clues. Whilst Grands Crus may have bagged Saturday's headlines to take clear second place in the World Hurdle market (more on that in a moment), Mourad made a less well-publicised claim for the same race with an equally impressive victory over a field that included dual World Hurdle third, Powerstation.
Mourad is only a six year old, and he seems to be improving with age and racing. Third in last season's Punchestown World Hurdle, the 10/1 about this one is pretty fair. And the 5/1 without Big Buck's offered by Stan James and bet365 (1/4 1-2-3) looks an each way steal.
To Saturday's racing and most interest by far was at Cheltenham's Trials Day meeting. First up were the juvenile novices and my Third Intention aspirations were left pretty much as they were before the race.
Third Intention had been a 25/1 shot prior to proceedings and, in running two length second to Local Hero - the favourite here, he remains a 25/1 shot for the Triumph. The winner has truncated slightly, to 16's and 20's generally, but it's clear that the bookies a) are happy to take bets on any horse you want to back in this race, because b) they - and we - haven't a clue!
Moving on from the insoluble conundrum that is the current Triumph Hurdle picture, and The Giant Bolster put himself firmly in the picture for the RSA Chase - or maybe the Jewson - with an extremely game, if slightly error strewn, performance here. And herein lies the problem with ante-post betting in many of the races now.
With the Cheltenham Festival having moved to four days from three, there are now six more races. These races tend to be at intermediate distances (like the Ryanair Chase over 2m5f and the Jewson Novices' Chase over 2m4f), which means whether you fancy one in the speed races (i.e. Queen Mother Champion Chase or Arkle) or in the stayers' races (Gold Cup or RSA Chase), there's always a danger that your horse will be redirected to the intermediate (and often softer) race, thus doing the ante-post dough.
This is a problem that never used to exist, and as a number of my horses are near the top of the markets for these mid-distance races, I'm not happy. Of course, once I've recovered from my hissy fit, I'll acknowledge that it's my own fault and will make it a rule only to back horses ante-post where the race they're likely to run in is all but certain... (Trouble is, I'm far too indisciplined, and like the look of a big priced horse far too much, to ever do this!!!)
Moving on, Wishfull Thinking was a smooth and ultimately clear winner of the 2m5f novice chase, and his trainer, Philip Hobbs, seems to have improved the horse's jumping markedly. That being the case, he looks a strong contender for the Jewson Novices Chase. Or maybe the Centenary Novices Chase. Or perhaps the RSA Chase. Or... the Arkle? He's quoted in all four. How the hell are we supposed to take a view on these bloody nags?!
Assuming the ground is good to soft or better, I'd imagine he'll go for the Jewson, for which he's the 10/1 favourite. Those odds reflect more the uncertainty around which horses - including Wishfull Thinking - will run in the race. Indeed, it may very well be wishful thinking taking a price on this one for any of the novice events. Wait until plans are firmer - or you can get non-runner no bet - and take a shorter price on an insured wager.
My worst bet of the day - and for a very long time - came in the next race on Punchestowns. I figured that Nicky Henderson would have left a fair bit to work with, and he might get beaten here. But I decided he couldn't be out of the first two, bar a fall, and backed him for a place accordingly. I am an idiot, sometimes.
Neptune Collonges was allowed an easy lead in front, and relished it, jumping impeccably from fence to fence. He was never in any danger until Tidal Bay made his usual late challenge. Alas, it was too late and the 'Bay took silver medal honours. Punchestowns was beaten 30 lengths by the pair of them so I have no complaints.
40/1 about Tidal Bay is a decent each way bet for the Gold Cup, if you're ok with a) the fact that he might sulk and not perform and b) he might run in something else and c) he might not be good enough!
In fairness, those three imponderables can be leveled at pretty much all horseflesh two months before the races, so he'd be a more credible outsider than many.
As for Punchestowns, well I'm certain he's far better than that and, given the trainer's statements after that he'll not just have needed it but he wants to get another race into him between now and the Festival, all may not yet be lost. He's also 40's, but a stylish win in a race like the Aon Chase would see those odds halved. My suspicion is that Punchestowns may end up racing in some obscure Kelso affair (remember Zaynar's defeat there at odds of 1/14 (!!!!) last mid-February prior to a third place finish in the Champion Hurdle?).
Arguably the most competitive race of the day was the staying novice hurdle, so it was strange that Backspin was wagered to the virtual exclusion of all others. He ran probably his best race to date, but that was only good enough for fourth. The winner was another Henderson inmate, Bobs Worth, and - mindful of how many of Henderson's ran with something still to work on between now and Cup Final day - the manner of this one's victory was taking.
He is likely to take in the Neptune Novices over 2m5f at the Festival, so it's no surprise to see him installed the 5/1 favourite there. Not much value meat on those odds bones, but probably fair enough in the context of what's he's achieved and the relative certainty about which race he'll contest.
Rock On Ruby ran on resolutely to be the only danger at the last, and is 10's for the Neptune, but 14's for the Supreme. I didn't think he was stopping here, so would be surprised if he dropped back in trip to the mininum for the Supreme. But then, I'm often surprised at the actions of horses, jockeys and trainers! 😉
The 3.35 - Cleeve Hurdle - was easily the most eye-catching race, as Grands Crus continued his rapid ascent of the staying hurdler's ranks with a facile cantering win by ten lengths. Enough of the right horses finished in the right order behind him to believe this was a serious performance, and the race has been THE World Hurdle trial in recent seasons with Big Buck's and Inglis Drever using it as their springboard historically.
It has long been a contention of Nick Mordin, one of the best judges of race times / performances I know, that Big Buck's dominates a weak division. If that's the case, then the emergence of both Grands Crus and to a lesser extent Mourad, as well as potential improvers like Oscar Whisky, present serious threats to Big Buck's.
So much so, in fact, that there is a slight temptation to lay the favourite at odds on... actually, I'm not that brave, and I think there are better ways to play the race. I can certainly see Big Buck's being sent off around evens on the day though, which does offer a trading opportunity if you agree with that view.
Although I can't say why (you'll know if you are a Festival Trends member), Gavin from Nag Nag Nag will have been delighted with the result of the concluding handicap hurdle, as it sets his ante-post plunge up very nicely for the big target race at the Festival. Nice one, Gavin!
Yesterday's Punchestown card lost some of its lustre when the opening PP Hogan Memorial Cross Country Chase was abandoned. Historically the number one prep race for the Cross Country race at the Festival, this leaves a few key contenders - notably Sizing Australia and Garde Champetre - seeking a tune up event in the next few weeks. Expect to see them line up in modest staying hurdle affairs!
In the Grade 2 Tied Cottage Chase over two miles, there was a real turn up as Big Zeb was turned over by Golden Silver for the first time in five attempts. Again, the nature of the race is that I'd expect Big Zeb to easily confirm previous form if both went to Cheltenham and, in fact, the 7/2 about Zeb may be one of the best prices on any horse in any race at the Festival.
My abominable record in the race precludes me from piling in, but I will be taking a keen interest in the Zeb-edee in the Spring (geddit?!)
Hugely disappointing for me was Sizing Europe's moderate third here. It's unlikely he will run in the Champion Chase at the Festival, but the fact that he raced here implies connections are loathe to go as far as the Gold Cup either. So, the Ryanair may well be where this one lands, leaving my ante-post Gold Cup punt grounded.
Finally, in the Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Novices Hurdle, the horse I was most interested to see - Byerley Bear - ran below par in fifth behind a Willie Mullins 1-2 of Gagewell Flyer and Earlson Grey. The front two pulled ten lengths clear of the rest, and added further ballast to the formidable Mullins team ahead of the Festival.
In fact, Willie had five of the six winners on the day! He may have his best ever Cheltenham Festival with established winning horses like Quevega supported by a cast of many in the novice events. Especially ask yourself Where's Willie in the handicap hurdles. Thousand Stars last year was a prime example, popping up at 20/1.
So, the picture clears ever so slightly. Or did it getting a tad cloudier? Who can say for sure before the middle of March? Whichever way your views lie on the evidence of the last few days, the Carnivals and Festivals are barely beginning! 😀
Matt / Ross