Thursday, 12 March 2020

Cheltenham Festival Day Four: Gold Cup Thriller Rounds Off Fantastic Festival

It’s been a wonderful week at Cheltenham, as it always is, but now it’s Gold Cup day and a chance perhaps to see another new Blue Riband winner.

1.30 (Triumph Hurdle – Grade 1) – GOSHEN

A cracking renewal of this four-year-old’s event in which Henry De Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore’s Aspire Tower is the overpriced one.

Looking every inch a Triumph Hurdle horse when winning his Grade 2 by 18 lengths at Leopardstown on Boxing Day, he was battling away and may not have won when falling last time out but that was on unsuitable ground and he will be much, much better today.

The unbeaten Allmankind has looked impressive in beating several other contenders en route to here, improving all the time, but he can be headstrong and that may not help him too much.

The solid one, and potentially an absolute monster, is another horse who’s unbeaten in three in the shape of Gary Moore’s Goshen.  The style, the form and the times of his wins on soft and heavy ground stand out so with more improvement obviously to come he looks a solid bet to land the opener under Jamie Moore.

2.10 (County Handicap Hurdle – Grade 3) – ADJALI

26 runners with just 17lbs separating them, this is a hugely competitive affair and not one any serious punter could be 100% confident about.

That said, Nicky Henderson’s Adjali is fresh from a break and a breathing operation having underperformed on his seasonal debut back in November and a lot more is expected of him now.

On past form and with progression expected he looks very well handicapped for this and is good value to score ahead of Stolen Silver and Ciel De Neige.

2.50 (Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle – Grade 1) – THYME HILL

Earlier in the season trainer Philip Hobbs was out to prove Thyme Hill was the best novice in the country and he is about to get the chance to prove his point.

There is top-class form on show from Latest Exhibition, Monkfish and Ramses De Teillee and any of those could enter the battle, but Richard Johnson’s mount just can’t be ignored.

As well as being three from three this season and crying out for this trip, he was an admirable third in the Champion Bumper last season over in inadequate distance.

There he was just 2½ lengths behind Envoi Allen, still unbeaten and Wednesday’s Ballymore Novices’ winner, and more than 3 lengths ahead of Abacadabras who was beaten just a head in Tuesday’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

3.30 (Cheltenham Gold Cup – Grade 1) – SANTINI

Much has been said of Gold Cup winners not being able to come back and land the race for a second time, but that is simply not true and so with a similar preparation and his form not in doubt many will be banking on a repeat for 2019 hero Al Boum Photo.

He certainly has an obvious chance, however the race broke up last year with fallers and he is not guaranteed to have things open up so easily for him this time, though strictly on form he is the no.1 contender still.

Arguments have raged on social media in recent weeks about the fact that Santini should not be among the favourites as he hasn’t won a Grade 1 chase, but that simply isn’t how form works.

Regardless of what he has or hasn’t beaten or for that matter how slow he apparently is, he is the improver in this pack who is peaking at the right time and who so far has not been asked to produce his very best, until today that is.

His Cotswold Chase win puts him within about 5lbs of what is required and so with more to come from him, much more potentially, he can prove his point for trainer Nicky Henderson and does still strike us as a potential Gold Cup winner.

If putting a disappointing run behind him then Colin Tizzard’s Lostintranslation could have a say in the finish here given that much like Santini we have not been allowed to see the best of him yet, while former favourite for this race Presenting Percy and many people’s fancy Delta Work may only prove good enough to fight for place money.

4.10 (Foxhunter Challenge Cup) – HAZEL HILL

As an improving eight-year-old trained by Willie Mullins it has been Billaway who has been the subject of most whispers in advance of this race, but it could be argued the form of this yard hasn’t been what people expected thus far and he does need to improve a fair chunk to win.

Ahead of him is Minella Rocco for Jonjo O’Neill who comes into this on a hat-trick, but his Cheltenham form hasn’t always been the best which could leave the door open for last year’s winner Hazel Hill.

Even taking into account the fact he may be 2-3lbs worse than twelve months ago, probably just due to age, he ranks as the best in this race which makes his price seem rather generous.

4.50 (Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Chase – Grade 3) – LISP

As expected plenty of these are within a few pounds of each other on adjusted ratings, common for such a big handicap, but the one who could creep out of the pack and prove to be better treated than the rest is Alan King’s Lisp.

Extremely consistent this season and having taken one win on soft ground, he has been crying out for a proper race and the pace of this contest will therefore bring out the very best in him.

Gordon Elliott’s Chosen Mate is interesting as are the Paul Nicholls pair Greaneteen and Capeland.

5.30 (Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle) – THE BOSSES OSCAR

The last race of the whole festival and one final chance to get one over on the bookies!  The mare Indefatigable is not out of this at a huge price while Pileon is clearly improving, but the standout contender for us is Gordon Elliott’s The Bosses Oscar and he is backed to round things off perfectly for another year.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Cheltenham Festival Day Three: Back the Machine in Day Three Opener

We’ve reached the third day already of what has been a wonderful Cheltenham Festival yet again.

Previous festival winners Faugheen, Frodon, Paisley Park, Duc De Genievres and more go for glory once again and it seems some still have the skills required to get the job done for us.

1.30 (Marsh Novices’ Chase – Grade 1) – FAUGHEEN

There’s no doubt that Itchy Feet has been ever so impressive this season in his two chases, particularly last time out in the Scilly Isles Novices’ but in such a race they can all but reach their peak leaving not as much improvement to come as many expect.

It’s unusual to see a 12-year-old former Champion Hurdle winner in this race, but in the shape of the unique Faugheen we may just have a very special and distinctive winner.

Willie Mullins ever-popular dual Cheltenham Festival scorer has been in great order since belatedly being switched to fences and his form really does stand up.

He’s beaten Samcro easily this season, who could then have beaten Arkle second Fakir D’oudairies but for a fall when giving away weight, before warming up nicely with a win over Easy Game last time and so today could once again be his day.

2.10 (Pertemps Network Final – Grade 3) – KILBRICKEN STORM

Although beaten by Welsh Saint and Skandiburg this season, the former Albert Bartlett winner was unsuited by the track against the first name and has a more than handy 8lb pull against the latter with his form stacking up very well.

He loves it here, can still improve if anything with only fourteen runs under his belt and is a fine price to give punters a huge run for their money.

The aforementioned Welsh Saint and Skandiburg can each make their presence felt, while the overpriced Royal Thief of Henry De Bromhead’s yard is capable of running into a place as well.

2.50 (Ryanair Chase – Grade 1) – FRODON

In a race described by those who know as one of the best ever at the Cheltenham Festival, Frodon got the better of Aso last year having been headed and many think this race is tougher twelve months on.

In truth, it isn’t necessarily so and given that Frodon’s standout career performance, other than winning this last season, was when he took a handicap chase on heavy ground around here two years ago and so he may well even appreciate these conditions more.

Along with that is the fact that, after a slower than ideal start, he has improved in lumps from Haydock to Kempton (won the Silviniaco Conti Chase) and he is expected to do so again, giving him a huge chance of defeating hotpot A Plus Tard.

Last year’s runaway novice handicap chase winner at the festival managed his biggest feat when well treated at the weights, with his performances since suggesting he’d be better on a quicker track and/or over a shorter trip.  Riders Onthe Storm is not discounted while Min is not getting any younger.

3.30 (Stayers’ Hurdle – Grade 1) – PAISLEY PARK

Given that Summerville Boy, who we rate very close to Rendlesham winner Emitom but who is proven here at Cheltenham, won’t be a big enough price at 1/5 odds to recommend each-way, the boring but solid selection is last year’s hero Paisley Park.

Unbeaten now in seven starts, he was more workmanlike than impressive in the Cleeve Hurdle last time but took care of Summerville Boy easily enough without ever looking like he was at his best, so should Emma Lavelle have added a bit of polish to him it seems more than likely he will become the latest dual winner of this grand contest.

4.10 (Stable Plate Handicap Chase – Grade 3) – SIMPLY THE BETTS

When assessing such competitive handicaps it’s always great when an outsider comes to the fore who may have a little in hand on the handicapper, but in this case so many horses seem to be weighted to cross the line virtually together that that hasn’t really been the case.

The strong favourite though, Simply The Betts, is rock solid with his recent form working out incredibly well.

His third win from four chase starts, the one narrow defeat being on a track that didn’t suit, was in a strong novices’ handicap chase in which he beat Tuesday’s Listed novice handicap chase winner Imperial Aura while the third horse that day was beaten easily and has also come out since and won.

All being well Harry Whittingdon’s horse should hold all the aces here, the likes of Deyrann De Carjac and Spiritofthegames perhaps fighting for place money.

4.50 (Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle – Grade 2) – MINELLA MELODY

While runner-up Colreevy may do better in these conditions, the same can be said for her Fairyhouse conqueror Minella Melody and so with only a 1lb pull from the last time they met she’s unlikely to pass the classy mare who is now three from three over hurdles.

With that being the best form on offer Henry De Bromhead’s runner seems like a solid choice and is a confident bet, with Willie Mullins’ surprise 66/1 runner-up in last year’s event Concertista maybe being the one to attempt to get involved with them at the business end.

5.30 (Kim Muir Challenge Cup Handicap Chase) – PLAN OF ATTACK

Not the most valuable race of course, but a cracking way to finish the day as a full field of 24 runners and their amateur jockeys go hell for leather over three miles and two furlongs in a handicap scenario.

All of that makes this race sound on the impossible side of difficult from a handicapping point of view, however in that man Henry De Bromhead’s Plan Of Attack there looks to be one horse who will appreciate these conditions and is improving more than the others.

He can supplement his wins at Wexford and Aintree by landing the finale, with Kilfilum Cross entering calculations too.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Cheltenham Festival Day Two: It’s Every Man for Himself in Champion Chase Dual

Another top-class day of jumps racing is ahead of us on the rain-softened Old Course and once more we have dug out some good value bets as we look to take the bookmakers on during day two of the iconic Cheltenham Festival.

1.30 (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle – Grade 1) – SPORTING JOHN

All sorts of targets were mooted for the unbeaten Envoi Allen and, when a horse has never lost, it’s impossible for bookmakers to offer any sort of price.

Indeed, they haven’t as Gordon Elliott’s 2019 Champion Bumper winner is a best-priced 5/4 at the time of writing for this race and having beaten the likes of Abacadabras and Darver Star he kind of deserves it, however his form doesn’t make him unbeatable by any means.

Enter Sporting John, another unbeaten horse of Philip Hobbs’ who some couldn’t understand being so well supported at Ascot last time.  He duly won easily though and has also taken care of the 144-rated Harry Senior in the past when still a very inexperienced horse, and we feel he has what’s needed to take the opener.

There isn’t much to choose for us between Longhouse Poet, Easywork and The Big Breakaway who may all challenge for place money.

2.10 (RSA Novices’ Chase – Grade 1) – ALLAHO

It seemed certain that Nicky Henderson’s Champ was heading for a win in the Dipper before crashing out, but even if he’d stayed on his feet his level of form while admittedly impressive, doesn’t automatically entitle him to win this race.

There are close form ties from their hurdling days between likely favourite Minella Indo and Allaho, with the latter seemingly having been the one to watch for the future over these trips when they met.

In fact, he has arguably shown a higher level of form in chases thus far and over 2m5f too, so now he’s up in trip we should see him reach a whole new level and that should be enough for him to take this race.

2.50 (Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle – Grade 3) – PROTEKTORAT

Nicky Henderson and JP McManus typically hold a strong hand here and they have two of the front three in the market in the shape of Birchdale and Dame De Compagnie, jockey Barry Geraghty favouring the latter.

Both of those horses have had their issues though and both have been held back a little while for this race, which isn’t always ideal, whereas the fitter Protektorat has rock solid form and a great profile for this race.

A winner here on New Year’s Day, he will have no issues with the track, is improving all the time and possesses the tactical speed needed to avoid the rather parlous situation many will find themselves in when the pace increases before the turn.

3.30 (Queen Mother Champion Chase – Grade 1) – CHACUN POUR SOI

This looks like a match-up at a glance, and to be honest even after a more careful look, between Clarence House Chase winner Defi Du Seuil and Dublin Chase scorer Chacun Pour Soi but we reckon the market has started to get it right with the latter who looks the better horse.

Defi has won twice at the festival already and is a fan favourite, but he’s far from infallible at the top level especially over this distance, while we have to remember that his main rival today has already beaten him and fairly comfortably so.

While that was on a flatter track, Willie Mullins’ runner could actually improve for this test and he looks the rightful market leader overnight and is backed to score.

Of the three outsiders with any sort of chance on the books, Dynamite Dollars looks the one to give the big two most to do.

4.10 (Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase) – EASYLAND

This race revolves around Tiger Roll of course, the four-time Cheltenham Festival and dual Grand National winner as well as defending champion, though he doesn’t have the luxury of coming into this year’s contest having had an uninterrupted preparation following injury.

Add to that the fact that he’s now 10 and it’s hard to see him getting back to last year’s level really so, while it remains possible, he doesn’t look an odds-on shot in all truth.

It would be utterly terrific to see him land this race again, after all he really is the people’s horse now, but it could just be that French raider and Cheltenham cross country winner Easyland is to be a party pooper.

Unbeaten now in six, David Cottin’s six-year-old can get up to the required level now and even came close to it when winning over the cross country course in December.

If reinvigorated, former Gold Cup runner-up Might Bite could run a place too.

4.50 (Fred Winter Juvenile Novices’ Handicap Hurdle – Grade 3) – GALAHAD QUEST

This is a typically open four-year-old handicap, but if we’re allowed to dare stick with proven form around here then Trials Day Grade 2 winner Galahad Quest looks hugely overpriced at around 20/1.

Proven in the conditions, Nick Williams’ runner has raced recently enough to be as fit as a flea and yet has had just enough time off the track to remain fresh, so given that more improvement is very likely he can outrun his current handicap mark.

Old rival Night Edition looks strong on paper too, as does big-priced Irish challenger Gealach.

5.30 (Weatherby’s Champion Bumper – Grade 1) – QUEENS BROOK

Willie Mullins’ Appreciate It has been dominating the market and may well prove to be a superstar in this sphere, however at the odds there is more than enough to like about Queens Brook and it’s Gordon Elliott’s mare who gets the nod instead.

A very easy winner at Gowran Park in February, her level of form is already not far away from what’s required and yet she has a year on the favourite and will be properly fit.  Ferny Hollow is best of the rest in the lucky last.

Monday, 9 March 2020

Cheltenham Festival Day One: Pentland Just Champion on Day One

The Cheltenham Festival is back upon us once again having seen off extreme weather and, hopefully, the coronavirus outbreak too.

Day one gets off to its usual frantic start with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in which we’ve gone for one to upset the favourites in the market.

1.30 (Supreme Novices’ Hurdle – Grade 1) – FIDDLERONTHEROOF

An exciting renewal of the Supreme and one in which there has been serious money for Willie Mullins to follow-up the win he managed last year with Klassical Dream.

His Asterion Forlonge, under the same ownership as long-time favourite Shiskin of Nicky Henderson’s yard, has overtaken his rival in the market on the run-up to the opening day despite carrying the second-choice colours.

We’ve found it incredibly hard to split the two as well on all known evidence and both look more than capable of putting up a bold show, however having registered his equally impressive speed figures in soft and heavy ground, Colin Tizzard’s Fiddlerontheroof is fancied instead to outpace them when it counts before staying on to the line.

If his hat-trick is landed we’ll be off to a great start, with Willie Mullins and JP McManus’ Elixir D’ainay also fancied to run well at a price.

2.10 (Arkle Challenge Trophy – Grade 1) – BREWIN’UPASTORM

Too many British trainers keep their Cheltenham Festival hopes off the track for too long and Olly Murphy falls into that category when it comes to discussing Brewin’upastorm, but he has been having some away days and so as long as he is indeed fit enough for this then he looks the best horse in the race to us.

A perfect two from two over fences; he has proven he can handle a stiff track, has enough pace which is needed on the Old Course to get into position, has run well on soft ground and is also among the horses with the most potential improvement left to come.

Esprit Du Large could arguably be overpriced for Evan Williams and Notebook is the obvious danger to all, while Al Dancer shouldn’t be overlooked.

2.50 (Ultima Handicap Chase – Grade 3) – THE CONDITIONAL

With so much in his favour in terms of track, trip, ground and weight it’s perhaps surprising that this course and distance winner and Ladbrokes Trophy runner-up isn’t favourite.

That honour goes to Vinndication who may just be carrying too much, while there could be big runs coming from Discorama and Who Dares Wins too.

David Bridgwater’s The Conditional however has so much in his favour that he’s impossible to ignore and he may well provide his yard with a massive win on the opening day.

3.30 (Champion Hurdle – Grade 1) – PENTLAND HILLS

A competitive renewal of the day one highlight, but certainly not the strongest we’ve ever seen.  Favourite Epatante is arguably no better at the weights over this sort of track than around six other contenders in the race, but in the absence of Buveur D’Air and with topsy-turvy form from the British prep races the Irish Champion Hurdle form could be worth more than just a second look.

With winner Honeysuckle not being aimed at this race, it falls to Darver Star to represent that form and he may do so very well however there may yet be a home winner and one indeed for trainer of the favourite Nicky Henderson in the shape of Pentland Hills, the 2019 Triumph Hurdle winner.

His form is among the best on offer here and, while he was beaten last time, he will be better on this ground and for the benefit of his recent breathing operation.

4.10 (Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle – Grade 1) – HONEYSUCKLE

On paper there aren’t too many mares who should get into this uncompetitive affair, save for perhaps Stormy Ireland running into a place maybe, but it’s her teammate Benie Des Dieux who once again dominates the betting for this race.

The winner in 2018, she became one of Ruby Walsh’s unfortunate infamous last-flight fallers when trying to double-up last year but she has a whole new challenge this time around anyway in the shape of Irish Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle.

Given the form this year as mentioned above, Henry De Bromhead could have gone for the big one 40 minutes earlier but she’s arguably better over this 2½-mile trip and she looks good value to overturn the jolly.

4.50 (Centenary Novices’ Handicap Chase – Listed Race) – IMPERIAL AURA

In a race in which the handicap is so tight, things look competitive on paper but perhaps are much less so in reality.

It’s doubtful that all of these 20 runners are within 7lbs of each other really, so while it’s true that some may well show a big improvement from their last run to this one given that they are novices, a race of this nature often needs a horse who has the requisite experience and that in this case is undoubtedly Imperial Aura.

Second to Pym over an apparently unsuitable 3m1½f here back in December, Kim Bailey’s seven-year-old improved on that when runner-up in a course and distance novice handicap in January and with the form working out well, he is taken to go one better now at the expense of the overpriced Paint The Dream.

5.30 (National Hunt Challenge Cup – Grade 2) – NEWTIDE

We have another typically hot favourite from the Willie Mullins yard in the shape of Carefully Selected here, but he appears to have been winning well without necessarily improving massively and around here he could be vulnerable.

The one to catch him out might just be Newtide.  A winner when idling at Ffos Las, he followed-up at Wetherby but was underestimated having initially not been able to go with them over three miles and having to swerve.  The form of that race therefore can be upgraded in the context of him going over 3m6f here and another step forward would see him right in the front rank, maybe giving Kim Bailey a wonderful day.

Springfield Fox is best of the rest.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Cheltenham Festival 2020 Should Go Ahead Despite Coronavirus Fears

After Monday’s Cobra meeting regarding the worldwide coronavirus outbreak and its effect on sporting events, the BHA have moved to assure punters that the government has told them it should be business as usual as we head towards Cheltenham Festival week.

Odds Shortening on Festival Thumbs-Up

A horse racing industry steering group made up of horsemen, the BHA and the Racecourse Association, has been coordinating government advice and sharing it with the appropriate parties during this process.

As of now, they remain in contact with government sources as it considers what to do to stem the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, although the industry is now confident that the Cheltenham Festival will not be affected after fears of cancellation following announcements that large gatherings should be limited.

The good news comes as the odds on betting exchanges for a scheduled start shorted drastically, showing the festival now going ahead as being around a 70% chance after betting indicated earlier that the likelihood was closer to 50/50.

This is all based on guesswork and conjecture of course, but this more positive outlook more closely mirrors the wider racing industry’s viewpoint, at least in terms of betting and journalism, which has been carrying on regardless as though the £4.5million meeting was never in doubt.

The betting market on this has been surprisingly lively, with over £1.5million traded on whether the festival goes ahead or not, something that just epitomises everything that is the Cheltenham Festival.

Sport Already Affected Worldwide

It seems all is well at present as trainers, jockeys, owners and racegoers make their final preparations for National Hunt’s biggest meeting of all, but nobody should get too cocky just yet as the threat of government action still looms.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired the Cobra meeting on Monday morning and spoke out to warn that the coronavirus outbreak is likely to escalate further in Britain in the coming weeks.

The PM said it is a problem that is likely to become more significant but it seems horse racing doesn’t need any further excuse after the words “business as usual” were uttered by the country’s leader, and it seems the industry is well prepared.

Wagering has been as hot as ever in the build up to the start of the action on Tuesday March 10th, with the announcement of the handicap weights triggering the betting markets with tens of millions already placed on ante post bets.

Despite the confidence now flooding within racing, Cheltenham being given the go-ahead was never a shoo-in.  This week three French meetings are to take place behind closed doors, despite nothing like the expected 280,000 at Cheltenham being in attendance, while other sporting events have already been affected.

The Six Nations rugby match between Ireland and Italy has been cancelled, while the Chinese Grand Prix has been called off too although much less surprisingly given its location.