Tony Keenan: Left-field Horses from Cheltenham

Race-reading was the theme here last time, and I’m going to return to it now having gotten the chance to go through the replays from the most recent Cheltenham Festival in full, writes Tony Keenan. A period without live racing has meant ample time to burrow into those races that are often deep, with even those running down the field quite conceivably posting career-bests.

Rather than focus on the obvious ones – not that there is anything wrong with that – I have tried to find horses that probably shaped better than the result while at the same time finished out of the frame (with one exception), mixing in their previous form to suggest reasons they may be interesting in the future. I apologise in advance to UK-centric punters as there is a distinct Irish lean with these eight horses. I have my own reasons for that!

Heaven Help Us – 7th Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

Anything that could go wrong for Heaven Help Us in the Supreme, did. Having had a decent early position chasing the pace, she made slight errors at the first two hurdles and was soon back in midfield before getting squeezed out at the third as Shishkin made his error, forcing her into the rear of the field.

Switched wide after that, perhaps to get a clear sight of the her hurdles as she had not jumped well, she was going fine heading down the hill only to twice find herself as the last domino in the Asterion Forlonge demolition derby, hampered at both two and three out as that one jumped markedly right losing all chance.

Having been tenth at the second last, she ran on well to take seventh and likely would have posted a career-best but for everything that went against her, a fine effort for one of the rags of the field, sent off with a Betfair SP of 399.

Her Christmas form when second to Abacadabras, having looked false at the time, reads much better now and she made her effort earlier than ideal then too, so she must be interesting for minor graded hurdles for mares at least.

Mitchouka – 6th Novice Handicap Chase

The whatever-it’s-called-now novice handicap chase was run in a good time which usually means there are some good horses down the field aside from the winner and runner-up who pulled clear, and Mitchouka might be one of those.

Having settled in midfield early on, he made a mistake at the first down the back which forced him to the rear of the field after which his jumping was none too quick. Still at the back of the main pack three out, he ran on well to take sixth, passing a host of rivals in the straight.

This is a bit of a bet on the trainer who, despite running very few horses (basically a private handler for Chris Jones), has shown himself a capable operator this season. Mitchouka had lost his way with Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown with very few signs of life year before joining this yard.

There have been others too, Cedarwood Road brought along nicely to win a listed novice last time and now looks set up for a good time novice chasing next season; while recent Ulster National winner Space Cadet might have been best of all. He had been without a win under rules since October 2016 before that.

Birchdale – 8th Coral Cup

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Being in front – or even close to it – early on is typically the last place horses want to be in races like the Coral Cup where it usually pays to be delivered late; but this year’s race was unusual in that most of the main players were either up with the pace or not far off it as the gallop was surprisingly ordinary.

Cracking Smart did well to take fourth having raced in rear but his overall profile and often lazy run style mean he’s hardly one to follow while another of the hold-up horses, the sixth Bachasson, already managed to sneak a win in before lockdown commenced.

Most interesting of all might be the eighth, Birchdale, who did well to finish so close given where he started his run from. He had hardly had the ideal prep for this race either with this being his first start since running over fences the previous November.

A slowly-run two-and-a-half miles was hardly his optimum conditions either with connections viewing him as a three-miler last season (sent off 6/1 for the Albert Bartlett) and he retains lots of potential after just five career runs.

Gealach – 8th Fred Winter

It is hard to believe that it took until New Year’s Eve for Gordon Elliott to have a juvenile hurdle winner and he had been 0/30 with only two places to that point. Fast forward to the Fred Winter where he went one-three-four-eight-nine – it is almost as if there was a plan!

That initial winner was Gealach at Punchestown and he might be the one to take from the Fred Winter, allowing that there were reasons to be positive about the other Elliott runners too, not least Recent Revelations.

Coming into race off a 60-day break, he was awkward at the third and generally struggled with the pace throughout, inclined to be on and off the bridle. But he was moving into contention before a vital error three out put him in behind horses, sub-optimal for a horse that lacks gears.

From there he stayed on well to take eighth, beaten less than six lengths, and given his best flat form was over 12 furlongs-plus, there should be more to come from him up in trip.

Eskylane – 5th Champion Bumper

The standing start looked against Eskylane as Davy Russell wanted to be handy; but his mount was a bit slowly into stride and then got shuffled back early. The six-year-old fairly powered through the race thereafter (as is his wont) and looked a threat to all out wide early in the straight, hitting 2/1 in running.

The final effort wasn’t quite there but he travelled as well as anything before eventually finishing fifth (beaten a neck and a head for third) and it is possible his keen-going ways will be curbed a little when going hurdling; Felix Desjy and Abacadabras (both Grade 1 winners as novice hurdlers) raced freely in this race for the same yard in previous seasons.

This looked a strong running of the Champion Bumper and produced a good time while Eskylane’s previous form reads well too; he was only beaten by the now 141-rated hurdler Assemble on racecourse debut, with Appreciate It in third; while the fourth and fifth from the race have both won their maiden hurdles since.

Intriguingly, the race, run at Fairyhouse, was a memorial contest for Gordon Elliott’s uncle Willie Elliott, so it would have been one that the trainer was keen to win.

Tornado Flyer – 5th Marsh Novices’ Chase

It is rare that Willie Mullins runs his horses in the wrong races at Cheltenham but there is a suspicion he left a win or two on the table with his middle-distance and staying novice chasers this time around; in my eyes, Allaho and Easy Game should have been in the Marsh while Faugheen and Tornado Flyer would have been better off in the RSA.

The last of those doesn’t have the profile of some of the others but has only run two bad races in his life (bizarrely, at the same early-January meeting at Naas, a year apart) and has looked all about stamina since winning an attritionally-run Punchestown Champion Bumper in 2018.

He looked ill-suited by the moderate gallop of the Marsh, not helping himself by jumping badly, but even so did well to go from tenth turning in to a strong-finishing fifth at the line. Three miles looks his thing though we will have to wait until next season to find out if that is the case.

Embittered – 3rd County Hurdle

Strictly speaking, Moon Over Germany was the big eye-catcher in the County, Rachael Blackmore sending him to the front two out which looked a premature move; but he doesn’t entirely convince with his attitude (awkward head carriage here) and Embittered – who had been up there throughout and fought off that rival before the last – seems a more solid option.

Winning a Festival handicap hurdle from the front tends to be difficult but Embittered was good enough to hang on for third despite this. The performance also hinted at abundant stamina: there is a suspicion that despite spending his whole career to date at two miles, he is one that will be better over further.

I am no great judge of this but Timeform say he is a chasing type, which is likely where he is headed next year, while he also comes from the strongest novice hurdle form line of the season having finished fifth to Envoi Allen in the Royal Bond.

The Wolf – 7th Albert Bartlett

Though the complete rag of the Albert Bartlett field when sent off at a Betfair SP of 339, The Wolf didn’t shape that way at all and deserved to finish a bit closer.

Held up near last in a slowly-run race and trapped wide the entire way, he was starting to make a move two out where he made a mistake before rallying well in the straight and passing four rivals from the final flight.

This was his first run over three miles and it brought improvement, with a truer test at the trip likely to see him in a better light again. He’s gotten better for the move to Olly Murphy and there looks to be more to come.

- TK

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