In the second and final instalment of my review of what I consider to be twelve key races from the festive period, we'll look at racing between 28th December and 1st January with a view to the Cheltenham Festival, which is but ten weeks away now!
Fort Leney Novices’ Chase, Leopardstown, 28th December
As with yesterday's opening part, we begin today with a Grade 1 novice chase, this time featuring some of the pick of the likely Irish contenders for RSA Chase glory.
First Lieutenant, a Festival winner last March when bagging the Neptune Novices' Hurdle over three miles, was favoured here in a bid to polish up his tarnished reputation over the bigger impediments. He ran probably his best race over fences, but that was still only good enough for second spot behind an impressive and improving horse in Last Instalment.
The winner, trained by Dunguib's trainer, Philip Fenton, and ridden by Dunguib's maligned rider, Barry O'Connell, was close to the pace throughout and quickened and stayed on well.
There was no fluke about this performance, and he's shown progression from race to race over fences. Moreover, he has now demonstrated his ability to act on good ground as well as soft and heavy, which had been the conditions of his previous wins.
Whether this is good enough form to win an RSA is the big question, and in truth I don't know the answer. What I would say is this: Last Instalment must be the best Irish chance on form over fences. But... First Lieutenant was closing a little at the end, will appreciate conditions at Cheltenham, and is proven on the track.
Last Instalment is a general 8/1 chance, which is about right, but offers no value. I'd be much more interested in First Lieutenant at 20's, given the scope for him to be better in March. Course form is a massive advantage at Cheltenham, and Festival winning form should never be taken lightly. If First Lieutenant gets to Cheltenham, I can't see him being bigger than 12's, and that's even if Grands Crus lines up against him.
If GC does go for the GC, then he'll surely be a single figure price on the day. As such, 20/1 has been taken and added to the portfolio, albeit for small stakes. At this stage, I'd still favour Bobs Worth over First Lieutenant (both Festival winners last term), but I prefer the odds on the latter!
Christmas Hurdle, Leopardstown, 28th December
Leopardstown's own Christmas Hurdle, and a race that made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Betfair's security was breached and a customer was able to offer £600m worth of liability to disbelieving punters.
Now let me lay my cards on the table here. I despise significant elements of the 'something for nothing' culture we live in, and the behaviour of some punters when told they weren't getting paid out on what is the most palpable of palpable errors, is pathetic.
To my mind, it's like someone seeing the owner of a corner shop pop next door for something and, while he's there, snaffling all the cigarettes, only to be spotted and asked to hand them back. Can you imagine the shoplifter legitimately taking umbridge at the request?
For sure, Betfair have to deal with this problem. But the kow-towing to a small group of spectacular opportunists was too much for my normally robust constitution.
Can we all be sensible this year, and try to win what is there to be won, and accept that occasionally people make genuine mistakes, from which we have no right to benefit? (Am I the only person who thinks like that?!)
OK, to the race, which is a fair trial for the World Hurdle (Stayers Hurdle, as was), the previous two winners running third in the Cheltenham contest.
Voler La Vedette was a very easy winner (rendering the wagering all the more preposterous), coming away by the best part of five lengths eased down in the end.
Mourad chased her home and he's a reliable stick in Irish distance hurdles, and he in turn was well clear of the third.
VLV has a number of options for the Festival, but in truth she's unlikely to win any of them, despite being a cracking mare. She'd likely give best to three or four in the Champion Hurdle, at least one in the World Hurdle (Big Buck's), and at least one in the Mares Hurdle (Quevega).
If she were mine, I might be tempted to use the Mares' Hurdle (decent money for the places) as a stepping stone to a Grade 1 at Punchestown, ideally over a trip of ground and where neither Quevega nor Big Buck's has shown up.
The one I would take from the race, and don't laugh please, is Powerstation. Yes, he's twelve years old. Yes, he was beaten fourteen lengths here. But if he were to run in the Pertemps Final over three miles, he'd be quite interesting.
Currently rated 141, he looks likely to drop to around 136 or 138 after this. Buena Vista, another old boy, won last year's Pertemps off a mark of 138 and, whilst it is a lot to ask to see Powerstation winning, he might run into a place at a monster price. His course form is very good, as two second place and two third place Festival Hurdle finishes suggest (Neptune, Coral Cup, World Hurdle x 2, respectively).
Obviously, he's long in the tooth, but he's a game old boy who would so deserve one last hoorah. (A bit like me!) He's not yet quoted for the race but I'll be keeping an eye out for it...
Lexus Chase, Leopardstown, 28th December
The disaster race of the Christmas holiday for me personally. I'd rowed in with Rubi Light and especially Quito de la Roque for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. So to see them both comprehensively outpointed by Synchronised, hitherto a high class plodder, was very disappointing.
Saying that, the handicapper has taken a literal view of the form (hard not to given that there seemed no fluke about this), and awarded Synchronised a revised figure of 168. That puts him bang there for the places in the Gold Cup.
Let's put that in perspective. The 'capper has Long Run on 182, and has advanced Kauto Star to a high of 183 (his previous high mark was 193!)
Grands Crus remains on 159, though I'm not sure why.
Curiously, the Irish handicapper has taken the view that whilst Synchronised definitely improved, his two pursuers regressed. He awarded the winner a perch of 163, with Rubi Light getting 164 (down two) and Quito de la Roque 163 (down SIX!).
I actually think this is probably more realistic and it does imply that the Irish chasers have something to find in the Gold Cup division, much to my chagrin.
The question is, can you envisage Synchronised winning a Gold Cup? Answer: no. Could he run into the places? Answer: yes. He's an out and out stayer, with a smattering of class about him. Has he buggered up his Grand National handicap mark? Answer: probably, but we'll await the glorious discretion of Phil Smith, who gets to tinker with ratings for the big race.
I backed Synchronised for the National at 25/1 - now best priced 20/1, Ladbrokes go 10/1! - and of course I'm hoping he gets a reasonable weight. But a literal reading of his Lexus run means he ought to lug topweight, alas.
What of the rest? Rubi Light didn't stay, to my eye, meaning a tilt at the Ryanair is most likely. Odds of 8/1 for that are sensible but not exciting. Pass.
Quito de la Roque was out and out disappointing. I had really high hopes for him and, whilst one swallow doesn't make a summer, it does portend of the changing of the season. Leaving out the Cantona-esque cryptics, that run implies Quito has a glass class ceiling.
I'll look forward to the Hennessy in February more in hope than expectation, because this does look like an ante post wager which went west.
Festival Hurdle, Leopardstown, 29th December
This was Hurricane Fly's intended festive target. But the Fly - whose absenteeism record is abysmal - once again had a sick note from dad (Willie Mullins) and skipped class.
He's clearly a phenomenal hurdler when he's on the track, but he cannot be countenanced as an ante-post investment, as he must only be about 4/6 to actually turn up. Make no mistake, if he's not ready to win, Mullins will hold him back for Punchestown.
In the Fly's absence, Thousand Stars was sent off the even money favourite. But it was 10/3 second choice, and my favourite race mare of the generation, Unaccompanied, who prevailed.
This girl is just brilliant. She won the Listed geegeez.co.uk Alleged Stakes at the Curragh in April last year, beating off St Nicholas Abbey amongst others (and capping a great day for me personally as sponsor!); and she then went on to bolt up in a Listed hurdle before seeing off Grade 1 company here.
Thousand Stars would have wanted more of a test, and it could be argued that his pilot, Ruby Walsh, should have kicked on sooner to make it so. But this day belonged to Unaccompanied. I would love it (a la Kevin Keegan) if she were good enough to win the Champion Hurdle. But I can't see it, in truth.
Thousand Stars is a horse without a trip. She can't win a Champion Hurdle (not quick enough) or a World Hurdle (not classy enough). She might give Oscar Whisky most to do over 2m4f at Aintree again, and she might win a wealthy pot in France again. But another Cheltenham Festival race win is unlikely to my eye, despite her County Hurdle success in 2010 and a game fourth last year in the Champion.
Oscars Well has been well touted as a possible Champion Hurdle contender, but nothing in his defeats to The Real Article, Thousand Stars and now Unaccompanied lends itself to being even in the top three Irish horses. And that's before you consider a voluminous British challenge as well. No, no, no, I'm afraid.
The rest will be running in handicaps if they head to the Festival at all.
Novices Chase, Newbury, 31st December 2011
How do you solve a problem like Cue Card?, to bastardise a fine line from a fine film (tell me you don't love The Sound of Music!), is the issue here. Who can forget his sweeping run in the Champion Bumper at the Festival back in 2010. He was 40/1 that day!
His record since is actually top class, despite the apparent chinks to it. He has been first or second in nine of eleven career starts, and won six of them. But. But... his only Grade 1 success was in that bumper (flat race for those who don't know what a bumper is), and he's not won in a field bigger than eight over obstacles.
Neither of those points hint at a tilt at the Arkle Chase especially (currently 12/1). I just wonder if the Jewson (2m4f novice chase) at the Festival might be the answer. He's an 8/1 shot for that which is reasonable, though I'd definitely want to find a bookie offering the 'non runner no bet' concession as he might go for a different target.
This day, in a short field of four, he was too good for For Non Stop and Walkon. The faller, Minella Class, might have given him a fright, but I don't really like 'might have's' in novice chases. There is a suspicion that maybe he idles in front, as when beaten here by Bobs Worth earlier in the season. But there must remain a suspicion that he's not quite good enough to trouble the best of the best.
The Jewson is interesting, with a run, but the Arkle is not. For me, at least.
Challow Hurdle, Newbury, 31st December 2011
The elephantine Fingal Bay bagged this Grade 1 pot, but only by a length in the end, on ground described as soft. His record is now five wins from five runs, and that's hard to crab when it includes three Grade 2's and a Grade 1.
Philip Hobbs, his trainer and a man who thinks the world of this horse, remarked that he never wins by much. That is true enough, and I do like Fingal Bay. He's another in my ten to follow, and I've also backed him for the Neptune at the Festival.
That's the shorter of the two options open to him, and it was concerning to hear Hobbs suggest he'd go for the longer race (the Albert Bartlett) were it to be good ground at the Festival. It usually is, and it looks like I'll have to do a rain dance to get Fingal in the right race!
This was a muddling affair, and it's quite likely the winner would be better in a truer run contest. As such, it's difficult to be too excited about any of the performances emanating from it.
The second horse, Ballyrock, has only had two hurdle starts, having won on debut at 25/1 before running up here. He's liked by his trainer, Tim Vaughan, and this wasn't that big a surprise to connections. He might win at Aintree (Vaughan won the staying novice there with Saint Are last year), but I can't see him being good enough at Chelters.
The rest were well beaten off.
Non-handicap Hurdle, Cheltenham, 1st January 2012
My old mate Oscar Whisky was in here, against a very well touted Nicholls horse in Poungach. The quartet was completed by Cockney Trucker and Drill Sergeant, neither of whom are top class.
This was processional for the winner, Oscar Whisky, and he could do no more than win in such a manner. But these were optimal conditions, two and a half miles on a decent surface, and he was expected to win head in chest.
It told us little more than that he has a leg in each corner and a beating heart, and bookies cutting his odds are not too cute in my opinion.
Alas for me, he's now more likely to go for the World Hurdle when I've backed him cheekily and to small stakes for the Champion Hurdle. He was third in the Champion last year, and if the Fly didn't turn up, and Peddlers Cross (runner up last year) in the chasing ranks, I'm very surprised they're not having another tilt at the shorter race.
A lightning fast two miles might be almost as good as two and a half under normal conditions for him. But of course Henderson also has Grandouet, Binocular, and Spirit Son for the race, none of whom could be aimed at the World Hurdle with any confidence. Pity for me, though hope springs eternal.
Put it this way: I personally believe that Oscar Whisky has a better chance in the Champion Hurdle than the World Hurdle. His odds relate connections' leaning in my view, and that's a shame. Obviously, I'm talking through my pocket. 😉
Poungach disappointed connections here, but was still clear second best. He will be better when he learns to jump better.
And that concludes my twelve races of Christmas. Eagle eyed readers will note there were actually thirteen, but who ever heard of the thirteen anythings of Christmas?
So, what about you? Did you find anything to bet for Cheltenham from the Christmas and New Year racing? If so, put us onto it by leaving a comment below.
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