There are three things in life that have the potential to make me leap out of bed in the morning; a round of golf, the Grand National and house fires. With the former two being preferred, this is an incredibly exciting time of year for me with the Masters at Augusta and the world’s greatest horse race, the Grand National. My first experience of the national was in 1992 at the age of 8 (nearly) when Party Politics reigned victorious. My granddad was fanatical about horse racing and his enthusiasm for racing and the Grand National in particular clearly rubbed off on me in a big way. In the years that followed I remember waking up in the early hours of the morning begging my father to go to the shops to buy the newspapers so that I could pick my horses. I would spend all morning looking through them trying to find the winner and nothing much has changed to this day. My imagination was set alight by the Grand National and I was buzzing for the whole day; particularly if I had found the winner. In actual fact I had a fairly prolific strike rate as an adolescent having backed Royal Athlete, Rough Quest, Earth Summit, Red Marauder and Bindaree. My thought process back then was simply to identify a horse which was likely to get round and would appreciate the marathon trip. Recent renewals have not been quite so kind, having backed only 3 winners in the last ten years, my finest of which was Amberleigh House when relieving William Hill of a nice amount using a £50 free bet as a student. No prizes for guessing what the money was invested in! Some people will argue that the Grand National is a lottery, but not me. I am a purist and believe that it is the ultimate analytical challenge for horse racing fanatics like myself. Furthermore, there are few things in life that can bring a nation together, but the Grand National is certainly one of them and this is one of the many reasons that the race is so special for me. This year’s renewal is as always hugely competitive and the modifications to the course in recent years have really opened up the winner’s enclosure to a new batch of potential Grand National winners. There is now less of a premium on sound jumping and more on having the ability to travel through the race. Sound jumping is still important but not as crucial as it has been in the past. A sound attitude and good level of concentration is also critical as incidents will happen around you and the electrifying atmosphere and nature of the course can set some horses alight. You need a horse that is likely to settle and that comes with experience, particularly at the course. Another increasingly important factor in finding big races winners is the nature of their preparation. My preference is to identify horses that not only have the requisite skills for the race in question but have also been laid out for the race. After all, success occurs when opportunity meets preparation. We only have to look at the number of big race Saturday winners that Paul Nicholls has had recently to know that this is true. Yes you need to be coming into the race with good form, but equally important is to arrive fresh and well. Other sports provide evidence for this point too. Tiger Woods in his prime had a very select campaign where he would prepare his game almost exclusively for the major championships. Likewise we see in football with the Champions League and Europa League that it is very difficult to perform at the top level in Europe midweek and then deliver domestically on the weekend. With this in mind I have focussed my attentions on six leading contenders for this year’s Grand National, most of which have been prepared for the race by trainer’s with a rich history of preparing horses for the big day. In my opinion there is no better trainer to prepare a horse for this race than Paul Nicholls, who won the race for the first time recently with Neptunes Collonges. All of his contenders are interesting, however Unioniste and Rocky Creek stand out for me. Both horses have had this race in mind for a long time. Unioniste ran a solid race when finishing sixth in the Hennessy on his first run of the season. That was a hot race and it was impressive that he was able to run so well on his seasonal debut given the way the form of the race has worked out, with the likes of the Druids Nephew and Djakadam in behind. He then went to Sandown and won a valuable handicap chase in grand style. Unioniste then ran in the Denman Chase at Newbury and you would have been forgiven for thinking he was a little disappointing at the time when finishing third to Coneygree. However, we now know that he simply ran into an extremely talented horse and was conceding weight to him. Ultimately he wasn’t beaten that far and so the form of that race has now been turned on its head. At only seven years old and appearing to be a dour stayer he ticks all the right boxes. Being by Dom Alco he would benefit from softer conditions but connections are confident that it isn’t crucial. He has a lot of weight to carry but does have a touch of class. Rocky Creek also arrives with a strong chance and should arguably be favourite for the race on recent form. He made his seasonal debut at Down Royal where he chased home subsequent Gold Cup third Road To Riches. He ran disappointingly in the Hennessy at Newbury when pulled up, for which there was no real explanation. However, his most recent performance when winning the BetBright Chase at Kempton was breath-taking. He was foot perfect, breezed through the race and won with any amount in hand. That run was the ideal prep run in my opinion on a flat track with sufficient time to recuperate. Paul Nicholls insists that he wasn’t finishing off his races last year and having had a wind operation he is now fulfilling his potential. He ran a super race in the national last season when leading until the second last and he arrives in better health and form than ever before and runs from a 2lb lower mark; he simply must have an outstanding chance. Phillip Hobbs also knows how to get one ready for the big occasion and has strong chances in the form of Balthazar King and Chance Du Roy. Balthazar King has run in the race twice and has finished 15th and 2nd. He is clearly adapting to the challenge of the course and his recent form in Cross Country races has no doubt helped him in this regard. When second last year he had previously won the Cross Country at the Cheltenham Festival and had carried top weight. That race simply must have left its mark on him and he surely could have gone even closer had he not run at the Festival which is the case this year. Furthermore, he covered more ground than any horse in the race, running out-wide for the vast majority of the race. He has been laid out for the race this season having run only once when winning a Cross Country race at Cheltenham in November. He runs from a 3lb higher mark and on decent ground he will be thereabouts. Chance Du Roy is my idea of a lively outsider for this year’s Grand National. You always need to have one of these on your side particularly with a light weight and Chance Du Roy fits the bill perfectly. He was sixth in the race last year having been hampered at Valentines on the first circuit. He won the Becher Chase in 2013 and ran well to finish fifth in the same race on his seasonable debut this year, staying on nicely in the closing stages. He then ran in a hot handicap chase at Exeter where he finished fifth behind the David Pipe trained Soll. That run would have put him spot on for this and the four horses that finished ahead of him that day were all winners next time out so the form couldn’t have worked out better. With the benefit of last years’ experience under his belt, slight relief from the handicapper and a targeted campaign this season he looks massively over-priced at his current odds of 40/1. He also goes on any ground. Grand National favourite Shutthefrontdoor has also been laid out for the race by trainer Jonjo O’Neill. He won the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse last season in good style. He has only had on prep run this season when winning a graduation chase at Carlisle impressively. Connections clearly belief that he is still on the right side of the handicapper and he is almost certain to go off favourite. In my opinion he will go off the shortest price favourite in recent history eclipsing the 5/1 starting prices about Clan Royal, Master Oats and Moorcroft Boy. The ‘McCoy effect’ is always pronounced in the Grand National but with the enhanced media coverage surrounding his retirement, the world and his wife will be set to back the Champion jockey in what could be his final race. My advice would be to put a significant bet on Shutthefrontdoor at around 8/1 (hopefully) on Betfair on the eve of the race and then lay it off a few minutes before the race for a nice risk-free profit (or to fund more selections!). Please be careful as you won’t be able to do this on the antepost market on Betfair as this will be suspended when the day of the race market is put on site and therefore you will not be able to trade out. Our final contender The Druids Nephew was tipped up by myself at the Cheltenham festival as being a well handicapped horse and he certainly didn’t disappoint when winning cosily at a nice price. He goes to Aintree as probably the best handicapped horse in the race. The manner of his performance at Cheltenham was hugely impressive. He traveled and jumped extremely well and was waited with until it was no longer possible. He eased to the front and won with plenty in hand. That race was clearly his target though and he will need to have recovered quickly for this extreme test of stamina. If his he jumps well he could go well for a very long way but ultimately I feel that despite being the best handicapped horse in the race fatigue will tell and he no longer has the services of Barry Geraghty who is side-lined with injury. All in all a fantastic renewal and let’s hope to have some luck with our selections: 2pts win ROCKY CREEK at 10/1 (General) 2pts win BALTHAZAR KING at 12/1 (General) 1pt win UNIONISTE at 25/1 (William Hill, Ladbrokes, Stan James) 1pt e/w CHANCE DU ROY at 40/1 (Betfair, Boylesports, Bet365) 5 places
EXTRAORDINARY SPRINTER TO BE CROWNED CHAMPION AGAIN
Viking Flagship… One Man… Edredon Bleu… Flagship Uberalles… Moscow Flyer… Azertyioup… Voy Por Ustedes… Sizing Europe… Master Minded. For jumps racing fans of the modern era, the names of these previous winners of the Champion Chase should evoke a response of salivation similar to that of a Pavlovian dog. Only the Cheltenham Gold Cup can boast a roll of honour to rival the Champion Chase and this is why the race has long captured the imagination of the British public. There is no hiding place in a Champion Chase and no lucky winners. To become a Champion you must be a high class horse with lots of speed and fantastic jumping ability. To coin a phrase, form is temporary; class is permanent. The Champion Chase bears this statement out like no other and this is evidenced by the roll of high class winners mentioned above. The great race takes place on the Day 2 of the Cheltenham Festival and there looks sure to be some frenetic 2015 Cheltenham Ladies Day betting – click here to get best odds guaranteed on the feature race as well as the Neptune Investment Novices Hurdle and RSA Novices Chase. To read a preview of the latter from Oliver Wagner, please sign up as a Community Member.
In order to finds this year’s winner let us first start by looking at some trends from previous seasons:
- Ten of the last fourteen winners had run in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown
- Fourteen of the last fifteen Arkle Trophy winners to run in this race the following year have all been placed at worst (Simonsig was injured in 2014)
- Twelve of the last thirteen winners were officially rated 160 or higher and won at least one Grade 1 race
- 32 of the last 33 winners had an SP of no more than 11/1
The Tingle Creek at Sandown has long been one of the key trials for the Champion Chase and the stats support this with 10 of the last 14 winners having run in the race. This year’s Tingle Creek saw Dodging Bullets step up markedly on his achievements the previous season, when running out a comfortable winner from solid benchmark Somersby on soft ground. Dodging Bullets travelled well throughout and picked up well after jumping the last to settle the race in determined fashion. He then appeared to step up again on that performance when lowering the colours of market leader Sprinter Sacre in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, once again on soft ground. It is clear that he is an improved horse this season, but whether he is this year’s Champion Chaser is open to some debate. For whatever reason I cannot visualise him winning the Champion Chase and find myself trying to pick holes in his form.
His record going left handed would be a slight concern for me having won only 3 races from 11 starts over jumps going that way round. However, all three of these wins were at Cheltenham, where he has recorded 3 wins from 7 starts. Much more of a concern for me would be the way in which he progresses through the season. Dodging Bullets has never won a race in the spring and his most recent win at Ascot on 17th January was the latest in the season the he has triumphed over jumps. He demonstrated this palpably last season when he recorded impressive victories in his first 3 starts, before being narrowly beaten at Newbury by Module in early Febraury; comfortably brushed aside in an average Arkle in March at the festival and then when finishing last of 5 finishers beaten a long way at Aintree. That is a very worrying profile for me and for those advocating that he looks an each way bet to nothing given his recent performances, I would have a rethink. I believe that we saw Dodging Bullets at his very very best at Ascot last time and I simply cannot see him repeating the same level of form going left handed again in the spring. He simply isn’t for me.
Conversely, Champagne Fever has demonstrated a very high level of form in the spring, having won Grade One races at both the Cheltenham and Punchestown festivals in recent years. He absolutely bolted up on his re-appearance in the Clonmel Oil Chase in November, before running a decent race in the King George, having raced prominently and jumped extremely well, before ultimately not quite getting home. Although he was beaten just over 10 lengths that day he demonstrated real class in his jumping and his attitude. Much like with Dynaste, the King George appeared to be a fact finding mission and the only sensible conclusion was to step back in trip, which he did when falling at the last at Thurles when alongside the smart Don Cossack. The Ryanair seemed to me to be the most plausible option at the festival, but connections rightly perceive the Champion Chase to be wide open, so why not have a go, particularly when your horse has demonstrated such a high level of form over 2 miles at previous festivals. The question is does he have the gears of a Champion Chaser. Is he a Moscow Flyer or a Sprinter Sacre? The answer for me is no. Whilst he did beat Jezki when winning the Champion Bumper and My Tent or Yours when winning the Supreme Novices, those races are a very different test to that of a Champion Chase. I firmly believe that he is a two and a half miler and lacks the explosive pace of a Champion Chaser. However, with course form and stamina assured, he for me is the each way bet in the race given the likely strong pace if the likes of Special Tiara and Uxizandre take their place alongside Champagne Fever in front rank. I would much rather be with him than Dodging Bullets.
So we are heading in the right direction in terms of finding our Champion Chaser 2015 and now our attentions turn to last year’s champion Sire De Grugy. I must make a point of saying that my judgement may be somewhat clouded with respect to Sire De Grugy as he let me down for a huge treble when beaten in the Schloer Chase at the November meeting in 2013. He landed 3 lengths clear over the last before allowing the enigmatic Kid Cassidy to go past him like a parked car up the hill. That was his only defeat in his last 9 starts (typically for me) and it will come as no surprise to readers that I didn’t back him in last year’s Champion Chase for that reason.
Putting that defeat aside, Sire De Grugy does bring a very high level of form to the table, including victory in last year’s race, following on from majestic performances in both the Tingle Creek and Clarence House Chase. However, he has not been seen on a racecourse this season and that has to be of major concern. He has won twice when fresh in the past but not in this grade. It would be some training performance if he were to be delivered in peak condition in March and be good enough to beat a much stronger field than last year. Putting aside question marks regarding his fitness and well-being it is the latter point which provides the stronger repellent to his chances for me. This year there are some very credible opponents to get the better of and given that I didn’t attend the wedding last year when all he had to beat was an ageing Somersby, I will be damned if I will be attending the funeral this year, with the likes of Sprinter Sacre, Dodging Bullets and Champagne Fever to beat.
Of the outside chances for this year’s Champion Chase, I wouldn’t look any further down the betting than Al Ferof and Uxizandre at 11/1 and 16/1 respectively. The remaining horses in my opinion lack the class for a race of this magnitude and with many of them their participation is not assured. Al Ferof would have some sort of each-way chance in a strongly run Champion Chase on soft ground having been impressive on his seasonal re-appearance at Ascot, before running a nice race in the King George. However, he would certainly lack the gears on top of the ground as he showed in the Ryanair in 2013 when he was bitterly disappointing. I think connections will keep his options open until very late in the day when we have more of an idea of the ground. Uxizandre does have some gears but he is likely to be taken on for the lead by horses with much more class in the form of Champagne Fever and Special Tiara. He has more scope than most but I couldn’t see having the class to be involved in the finish.
Having effectively ruled out the majority of the field, it will come as no surprise that my proposed Champion Chaser for 2015 is Sprinter Sacre. Having already run through the qualities of a Champion Chaser earlier in this column, it is clear that the Sprinter Sacre of old had all these qualities in abundance. His problems have been well advertised and many of his critics will be keen to make reference to an ‘underwhelming’ performance in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot when beaten fair and square by Dodging Bullets. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Sprinter Sacre travelled very well for most of the race. Whilst his jumping wasn’t as exuberant as we have come to expect, he appeared to be travelling much the best as the race began to get serious, before producing a relatively weak finish. I believe there was a lot to like about the performance. He showed that he still has the class to tank his way through a top class race and he was only outdone by a horse at the peak of his powers, with several previous runs under his belt and who produced the performance of his life.
We have already discussed the way in which the form of Dodging Bullets is likely to regress come the spring and it is also likely that the Champion Chase will be run on much better ground, which will play to the strengths of Sprinter Sacre. So with better ground, increased fitness and the full commitment of jockey Barry Geraghty all but assured at Cheltenham, I have every confidence that Sprinter Sacre will be crowned champion again. He will be ridden much more positively at Cheltenham than he was at Ascot and will be asked for 100% effort. The race also looks likely to be run to suit with a strong pace almost assured. This will bring class to the fore and will help to identify this year’s extraordinary horse. As a wise man once said, the difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little ‘extra’. In respect of a Champion Chaser, that little extra is the high cruising speed, the spectacular jumping, the standout physical capability to be set apart from your rivals. I believe that Sprinter Sacre can still be extraordinary and he wouldn’t even have to be to win. At the current odds of 3/1 my advice is simple: Reminisce, back him and BELIEVE. Cheltenham is the place where magic happens; particularly in the Champion Chase.
3pts win SPRINTER SACRE at 3/1 (Betway, 11/4 General)
PRIORITY BOARDING TO PAY OFF IN RYANAIR (Updated 16th February) The second Thursday in March features two wide open renewals of both the World Hurdle and the Ryanair Chase and it is the latter that is the focal point of our attentions. With top British trainers Nicky Henderson, David Pipe, Paul Nicholls and Jonjo O’Neill all boasting a brace of winners in the contest in the last decade, it is sure to be a competitive race, with each of them likely to field at least one runner. Interestingly, Irish runners have not performed well in the race and in fact have never emerged victorious. Further key trends reveal that each of the last 7 winners had run in the King George at Kempton that season. In addition, nine of the last ten winners had also won at Cheltenham previously, with all but one of those winners going off at 6/1 or shorter in the race itself. For more information on betting on the Ryanair and other Cheltenham Festival races, make sure you keep up to date with the latest Paddy Power Cheltenham betting previews. The Ryanair Chase is another race in which it can pay to get involved ante-post, since the race can cut up markedly in the run up to the Festival with a field of only 8 to 12 runners in recent years. Indeed, if we look at the current market principles one would have to question the participation of Champagne Fever (Champion Chase), Djakadam (Gold Cup), Al Ferof (Owner’s obsession with the Gold Cup and multiples entries) and Hidden Cyclone (Champion Chase) at the very least. With that in mind there does seem to be some value in the remaining candidates, especially towards the front of the market. Balder Success has looked a potential contender in recent times judged on some of his best runs over the last 2 seasons, not least in winning a Grade One novice chase at Aintree last season after bypassing the festival. He was also very impressive at Kempton last time out in a Listed Chase, but only beat Fox Appeal and Hunt Ball in a race ridden to suit. There was also a suggestion earlier in his career that he was a better horse going right handed and whilst he has arguably put that to bed with wins at a number of left handed courses such as Aintree and Warwick, he has never really delivered on a track as testing as Cheltenham and the way in which he bypassed Cheltenham last season coupled with the manner of his victories to date suggest to me that Cheltenham will not play to his strengths, putting aside whether he is in fact good enough which is also open to some debate. He has run three times at Cheltenham and has fallen or unseated on each occasion. For those believing in horses for courses, it would be hard to put this information to one side and with only negative memories for the horse himself, he looks one to rule out. John’s Spirit has some useful form at Cheltenham but does not look top class. All of his course form is in early season handicaps and he simply doesn’t seem to carry his form through to the spring. He proved his limitations in running 4th in an average Byrne Group Plate at the festival last year. In my opinion he simply isn’t good enough, although he will likely travel well for a long way. Colin Tizzard’s Cue Card would be a very tough horse to beat if returning to his best form of the last few seasons such as when winning the Betfair Chase last season, before looking the likely winner of the King George, only to run out of steam in the closing stages. He is also a previous winner of the race having bolted up in 2013 in what appears, on reflection, to be one of the weaker renewals of recent years. It will however be a huge challenge for his trainer to bring him back to his best, having looked a good 10lbs below his best on his performances so far this season. Whilst it isn’t inconceivable, my preference is to side with horses that seem to be heading in the right direction and not the wrong one. To this end Don Cossack looks to have a fantastic chance to win the race for Ireland for the first time. Gordon Elliot’s gelding has been hugely progressive this year, winning his last 4 races in good style and beating some high class horses. He showed fantastic resolution to draw back alongside Champagne Fever going to the last at Thurles last time out and had Champagne Fever not fallen at the last fence it is still likely that he would have come out on top. He will need all of that determination and more up the Cheltenham hill in March, but the way in which he has been finishing off his races over 2m4f against decent opposition can give us a good deal of confidence that he is up to the challenge. Another possible Irish contender Champagne Fever, would have a huge chance if taking part, given his two course victories in the Champion Bumper and Supreme Novices Hurdle and also his narrow defeat in the Arkle last year. The trip would seem to me to be perfect for Champagne Fever, especially after travelling so well for a long way in the King George. However, every indication suggests that he will be heading to the Champion Chase. Likewise Hidden Cyclone would be an interesting contender having been second in the race last year, but he also looks set to step back in trip and go for the top prize. The leading contender for the Ryanair this season had appeared to be the David Pipe trained Dynaste. He was an impressive winner last season and appeared to be at least as good this season, having stayed on extremely well in the King George before being asked to turn out again fairly quickly in the BetBright Cup Chase at Cheltenham where he again ran a strong race, with his Kempton exertions perhaps catching up with him at the business end of the race. Perhaps connections were keen to find out if they had a potential Gold Cup winner on their hands, given his taking staying performance at Kempton. However, having been ruled out for the rest of the season, the race is now left wide open. Of the remaining contenders Taquin Du Seuil has strong course form, having won the JLT Novices Chase at last year’s festival. However, he had shown much more on the racecourse at this time last year and barring a miracle training performance from Jonjo O’Neill to bring him right back to his best, he is readily opposed. Uxizandre is of considerable interest on his best form, which includes a taking performance in the Shloer Chase when finishing ahead of Dodging Bullets at Cheltenham in November. His subsequent performance at Leopardstown was disappointing, but he was only narrowly beaten at the Festival last year and went on to win a Grade One Novices Chase at Aintree. Should he take his chance he will likely be front rank from the off and that should ensure a sound gallop throughout. His participation however will only play into the hands of Don Cossack, who has the class to lay-up close to the pace and finish off his race far more strongly than his rivals. The recent performance of Champagne Fever in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park has really franked the form and he is strongly fancied by his trainer Gordon Elliot to land this years renewal. 2pts win DON COSSACK at 5/1 (General) For Oli’s exclusive Community Members only preview of the RSA Chase, JOIN US for just £6 per month. 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