The Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup is the jewel in the crown of the National Hunt season. Run over 3miles 2 furlongs and 70 yards it is the ultimate staying test and in this year’s renewal it may well be those last 70 yards that decide the winner as it would appear to be a red hot renewal. Who will follow in the footsteps of the greats that have landed this prestigious prize such as Kauto Star, Denman and Best Mate, to name but a few of the more recent champions. Let’s have a look at the contenders and see if we can unravel the puzzle. The current market leader is Gordon Elliot’s Don Cossack who is a multiple Grade One winner and has won 11 of his 18 starts over fences including the Melling Chase and Punchestown Gold Cup along with many other of the top prizes in Ireland. He had been impressive on his first two starts this season in Ireland before falling at the last in the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day when he appeared to have the measure of eventual winner Cue Card. There is some debate as to whether he would have won the race but I’m inclined to think he would have gone very close given that he appeared to have the beating of Cue Card at the time he departed. The important thing is that he would have gone very close, despite things not really going his way throughout the race. Don Cossack appeared to find the track a little sharp for his liking and was also shuffled back at a key point in the race so it’s with great credit that he was able to get back into the race at the business end. That performance despite the fall confirmed to everyone that he is a top class staying chaser and a worthy favourite for this race. He has been to Cheltenham twice before and disappointed, firstly when falling when travelling OK in the RSA Chase and then when beaten for speed in the Ryanair behind Uxizandre last year. We know that he is a very good horse and he is sure to run a solid race, but for some reason I remain unconvinced that he will win. Current second favourite is Willie Mullins superstar Vautour who arrives here after being beaten in a photo finish in the King George. He has two previous victories at the Cheltenham Festival in the Supreme Novices Hurdle and last year’s JLT Chase which is a huge positive. He would appear to be a much better horse going left handed an indeed a lot has been made of his tendency to jump out to the left, particularly at Ascot prior to the King George. It was therefore very striking that he went so close in the King George and he looked certain to win going to the last before being reeled in late on. That has brought about some question marks regarding his stamina and it is something I would definitely be concerned about if there was cut in the ground come Gold Cup Day. For whatever reason Vautour reminds me of Kauto Star whose best efforts in the Gold Cup came when he was able to track the pace and utilise his turn of foot, something which is very hard to achieve in a strongly run race with any cut in the ground, for instance when Kauto was beaten by Denman. There is a big difference between staying 3 miles around the likes of Kempton and staying the Cheltenham Gold Cup trip and if either scenario of a strongly run race or soft ground occurs (and both are likely) then I don’t see Vautour having the reserves of stamina at this stage of his career to deal with that. Willie Mullins has a strong hand in this year’s Gold Cup and Djakadam also has leading claims in this year’s renewal. He finished strongly in last year’s race to finish second to Coneygree but was never really able to land a blow. That was by far his best run to date and he remains open to significant improvement. He returned at Punchestown to win the John Durkan in good style on heavy ground in December before falling at Cheltenham in his prep race for the Gold Cup in the Betbright Chase. He is very highly regarded and clearly has some sort of a chance judged on last season’s effort but the level of his form simply doesn’t stack up against the likes of Don Cossack. Djakadam has just 4 wins from 9 starts over fences and his best two performances came in the Thyestes (handicap chase) and the John Durkan where he didn’t beat any world beaters. Both of those races were on heavy ground and he has fallen on two of his 3 starts at Cheltenham. Backers of Djakadam are taking a leap of faith that he will show the vast improvement needed to win this race and at his current odds he is priced as if that is a certainty. There also cannot have been many previous Cheltenham Gold Cup winners that had fallen on their most recent start and for me there are just too many question marks regarding Djakadam to be backing him at his current price against such a high quality field. Willie Mullins number one contender for this year’s crown in my opinion is Don Poli. He is quite simply a street fighter, which is exactly what we need. Last year’s RSA Chase winner is 5 from 6 over fences and has started his season well with victories at Aintree and in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown. Some critics highlight that he was not particularly impressive on either occasion but neither race was ever likely to be run to suit and like all great Champions he found a way to win. I am almost certain that Don Poli is just bone idle and only just does enough. At the end of the day he had the speed to win a Martin Pipe so I don’t think he is devoid of pace, but he is certainly a thorough stayer. Importantly, he seems to love the Cheltenham Hill, having bounded up it twice to victory. The hill really brings his stamina into play in much the same way as it did for Ingles Drever. It may be a little controversial but Don Poli is my idea of the most likely winner here as he looks sure to be involved regardless of how the race is run. He is a fantastic jumper, has been here and done it at the festival twice, doesn’t have many miles on the clock and appears to have bottomless stamina; he ticks all the right boxes. The only thing that puts me off backing him at his current price is the strong likelihood that he will be a bigger price in running on the day as he may get a little outpaced at some stage, but if he is within 10 lengths turning for home I think he’ll win. For that reason I recommend potentially topping up on him with an in-running bet on the day. Colin Tizzard’s Cue Card is another who could quite easily be involved at the finish having showed massively improved form this season in winning the Charlie Hall, Betfair Chase and King George. That is clearly the best form of the season but I am more than a little concerned about this test of stamina for Cue Card, particularly given that those performances must surely have left their mark, despite having been given plenty of time to recover. He has been a revelation since undergoing surgery for a trapped Epiglottis but in all of his runs to date I have never seen signs of the abundant stamina required for this test. It is also quite possible that he has peaked too soon this season. It is extremely difficult to keep bringing horses back to their best and even if he were to run to the same level as he did in the King George that might still not be enough in this company. I would love him to win but I’m not convinced there is going to be enough left in the tank to climb the hill in front. Alan King’s Smad Place was an impressive winner of the Hennessy and the Betbright Chase this season, running below par in the King George in between. Positive front running tactics have proven to be the secret with him and we can expect him to be setting the pace throughout. In my opinion he doesn’t have the class to make all in a Gold Cup against this level of opposition and his presence in the race is a massive positive for the likes of Don Poli who will benefit from a strongly run race. Smad Place’s front running tactics may also hinder the chances of Vautour who himself likes to dictate the pace and has unproven stamina. I expect Smad Place to run and jump well for a long way but ultimately give way to stronger stayers brought into the race from off the pace. In a Gold Cup with significant depth there are yet more viable contenders in the form of Road To Riches, Holywell, Carlingford Lough and Many Clouds. Road To Riches was disappointing last time out in the Irish Gold Cup when he should have finished third behind Carlingford Lough but for the fall of Valseur Lido at the last which promoted him to second. His performance in last season’s Gold Cup was very impressive though when he duelled with Coneygree up front before eventually giving way up the hill to finish a close third. If he can return to that form he would have a big shout but his most recent run wasn’t close enough to that form for me to think about backing him and he may not even line up with the Ryanair Chase still a possibility. His recent conqueror Carlingford Lough may not have been given the credit he deserves for his win in the Irish Gold Cup where he proved that he has the stamina for this contest, staying on strongly in the closing stages. However, his overall profile is not one of consistency and his strike rate of 5 wins from 20 starts over fences doesn’t scream Gold Cup Winner. Holywell is an interesting contender at a big price. He ran well enough in the race last season, finishing fourth on ground that would have been much softer than ideal. He doesn’t come to hand until the spring and so his recent runs can be forgiven and offer little reflection of his chances come March. Ultimately, I think he is just below top class and I think he could be ridden for a place before having a crack at the Grand National at Aintree, a race which could really play to his strengths. However, at his current odds of 50/1 he is worth a small bet each way given that he is certain to be held up off a strong pace. At one quarter odds for a place he looks a better value bet than backing some of those at the head of the market to win. Many Clouds likewise will be keen not to have too hard of a race with a defence of his Grand National title around the corner. He too has been campaigned with the spring in mind and a step up on his recent form is expected but I don’t expect him to leave his season behind here when the Grand National is clearly the number one aim. To summarise, this looks like a very strong Gold Cup and one which is certain to be run at a decent pace set by Smad Place and Vautour. They look like setting the race up for Don Poli who can prove his class and bottomless stamina. I intend on backing him in two stages, antepost at his current odds and in-running as they turn for home when he has work to do; then it is down to the horse to take off up the hill and silence the critics! A small each-way bet on Holywell is also recommended at 50/1 to pick off some of the more fancied runners in the closing stages from off the pace. Recommended Bets: 2pts WIN – DON POLI @ 13/2 (888Sport, 6/1 General) 1pt EACH WAY – HOLYWELL @ 50/1 (General) 2pts WIN DON POLI (In running on Betfair turning for home if within 10 lengths) CHECK OUT THE BENEFITS OF JOINING US AS A FREE OR COMMUNITY MEMBER
Why not boost your winnings by benefiting from a nice FREE BET courtesy of our partner bookmakers? Check out our FREE BETS page.
A delayed but nonetheless much anticipated renewal of the Coral Welsh National. Jumps fans were treated to some outstanding racing over the Christmas period and the fact that this race could not be run was probably a blessing as there was more than enough to satisfy our appetites in December and we now have something to look forward to in a miserably wet January.
Like many people I had hoped that the extra time would have given O’Faolains Boy the opportunity to recover from his race at Newbury sufficiently and arrive here with an outstanding chance with conditions to suit, however connections have decided not to run and we must wait with interest to see where he goes next.
The Coral Welsh National is a war of attrition like almost no other race in the calendar. Run invariably on deep ground over three miles five and a half furlongs on a testing, undulating track, there is simply no hiding place and certainly no room for inexperience or frailty. Only two horses since Master Oats in 1994 have carried more than 11 stone to victory here and one of those was Synchronised who defied a weight of 11st 6lbs and went on to win the Gold Cup. I’m almost certain that there is nothing of his calibre in here and with that in mind I simply cannot have some of the top weighted horses.
Black Thunder shoulders top weight here and it will be nothing short of incredible if he were to win, particularly given the relatively modest recent form of the Paul Nicholls yard. I couldn’t back him with counterfeit money. Likewise Vics Canvas who is nearly old enough to vote, Shotgun Paddy who has had more chances than Lionel Messi in recent years and Masters Hill, will all need to put in career best performances here to have any chance whatsoever of winning. Given the history of the race and their profiles I just cannot see it.
To win a Welsh National we know that you have to stay forever and relish testing conditions but those qualities are seemingly not enough in their own right. Recent history also shows that you need to race prominently, as making up ground on a testing surface on an undulating track is very difficult to do, unless you are extremely well handicapped, which I don’t think any of these runners are. Being prominently ridden not only means that you are in the race from the start and don’t have to make up ground but it also seems to permit the horse to get into a better rhythm with their jumping and this is enormously important.
Last year’s race was a prime example when Emperor’s Choice and Benvolio got a prominent position and did all the donkey work. They got into a fantastic rhythm out in front and jumped extremely well on the whole before fighting out the finish. I was extremely impressed with their performances and you would have to think that both of them could be involved in the finish once again given that they have proven their credentials. Importantly, they don’t have to make the running. They did so last year as they clearly wanted a prominent position and to make it a decent test but there are others in the race who may do the donkey work for them this time around and that could make them an even more potent threat from just off the pace. Confirmed front runners such as Rigadin De Beauchene, Red Devil Lads and Bob Ford all look set to run and they could set the race up perfectly for Emperor’s Choice and Benvolio. Emperor’s Choice in particular appears to me to be the outstanding candidate. He jumps so well and stays forever and the fact that he rallied so strongly last season was an incredible effort after setting the pace for so long. Benvolio is 7lbs better off with Emperor’s Choice this year and whilst I have touched upon the form of the modest form of the yard, that has clearly been factored into the price as Benvolio is available at an incredible 20/1. They are the two outstanding candidates for me in this year’s race.
Current market leaders Cogry and Upswing have far more to prove to my mind and although they are less exposed, I don’t really fear them and certainly wouldn’t be siding with them at their current prices. Upswing in particular doesn’t appear to me as though the race will suit him. He is highly likely to be held up, at best in mid division and he may struggle to land a blow if he doesn’t get into a good rhythm. Barry Geraghty’s also doesn’t ride at Chepstow too often and has only had one winner here in the last 5 years albeit from just 9 rides. Chepstow and this race in particular is a unique test and I have a feeling that Upswing won’t be ridden prominently enough to land a blow. He also has only one chase victory to his name which came at just short of three miles. Cogry likewise could find himself shuffled back in the pack early on and I’m just not convinced that he has the class or the experience at this stage of his career to deal with the challenges of this race.
Mountainous is potentially well treated as a previous winner of the race from a 5lb lower mark but he is another who may struggle to get into the race from off the pace. He is potentially a big danger given his previous form and racing weight but he hasn’t been seen at his best since and he was pulled up in last year’s renewal when taken well out of his comfort zone from an early stage.
Rigadin De Beauchene would appear to be decent value at the prices. The more testing the ground the better for him and he will no doubt attempt to make all. He is a thorough stayer and is a big danger from a light weight if arriving in peak condition and bringing his best form. Neither of those is assured given his in and out profile and the hard race that he had at Haydock last time but I couldn’t let him go unbacked at 20/1. You only have to look back to his win in the Betfred Grand National Trial at Haydock a couple of seasons ago where he showed bottomless stamina and courage to make all and beat Emperor’s Choice by 10 lengths. He is 4lb better off at the weights albeit that race was a long time ago. If he has recovered sufficiently from recent exertions then he could be very dangerous and at the price it is well worth taking the chance. At the very least we will get a run for our money and he will also boost the chances of our other selections Emperor’s Choice and Benvolio by setting a strong pace.
2pts win EMPEROR’S CHOICE @ 10/1 (General)
1pt win BENVOLIO @ 20/1 (Betway, 16/1 General)
1pt win RIGADIN DE BEAUCHENE @ 20/1 (General)
At the top of the wish list for all National Hunt Racing fans this Christmas is to find the winner of the King George VI Chase at Kempton. This year’s race, once again sponsored by William Hill, promises to be even more mouth-watering than the previous days Christmas dinner and it is the jewel in the crown of the William Hill Winter Festival at Kempton. For more information on the history of this great race – What is the King George VI Chase? Last year’s renewal delivered an impressive performance from Silviniaco Conti who dictated a strong pace and jumped his rivals in submission. He never looked in any danger in the closing stages and his tactics had clearly blunted the potential turn of foot of good horses such as Cue Card and Champagne Fever. It was a superb piece of jockeyship from Noel Fehily and a fantastic performance from the horse himself to defend his crown and land his second King George. Silviniaco Conti went on to disappoint in the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival and he was no match for Cue Card in the Betfair Chase on his last outing. However, he cannot be written off having recorded back to back victories in the race and this will have been his main target. He will be absolutely spot-on come Boxing Day and make no mistake that this race is Silviniaco Conti’s Gold Cup. He is still only 9 and has not become a bad horse overnight. I can’t help but feel that he is being overlooked slightly in the betting for this race. The big three players for the race at present are Don Cossack, Vautour and Cue Card. Don Cossack confirmed himself as a chaser of the highest order last season when landing multiple Grade One’s including the Punchestown Gold Cup and the Melling Chase at Aintree. He has returned this season in rude health by blowing away his rivals at Punchestown and Down Royal. His trainer Gordon Elliot has always spoken highly of him and he looks to be getting better with every run and is a worthy favourite for this, given his official rating of 180. In any ordinary renewal of this race he would go off a fairly short price and the sharp track should also place to his strengths at this trip. However, this is no ordinary renewal. If all of the big players that have been entered turn up on Boxing Day, it promises to be an incredible race, the likes of which jump racing fans have not seen for many years. Willie Mullins Vautour will no doubt be very well supported. He is the apple of Willie’s eye and was unbelievably impressive when winning the JLT Novices Chase at last year’s Cheltenham Festival. A previous winner of the Supreme Novices Hurdle, Vautour clearly has plenty of speed and so the sharp track should play to his strengths. However, some concerns have been raised about his tendency to jump out to the left, a trait which he displayed when narrowly beating Ptit Zig at Ascot on his reappearance, despite being in receipt of 5lbs. That form has also taken a slight knock with Ptit Zig having been beaten in the Peterborough Chase. There is little doubt though that he would have been undercooked for his seasonal re-appearance and he is likely to come on a great deal for that run, particularly as he was made to work for the victory. He will be much fitter on Boxing Day but given the quality of the opposition he faces, his tendency to jump out to the left and his disappointing performance on Boxing Day last year at Leopardstown, he is too short in the betting for this year’s King George and I feel that he will be more in his element in the spring at the Cheltenham Festival. The greatest Christmas present for all National Hunt Racing fans would be to see last year’s Gold Cup hero Coneygree take his chance in the race. He needs to be supplemented for the race following an error which led to him not being entered. There are some doubts hanging over his well-being as he has had a slight foot injury and having been taken out of the Hennessy following an unsatisfactory schooling session. However, in the absence of any further negative reports, one would have to presume that he has come back to himself and if he has then I would strongly urge connections to let him take his chance in the race. Coneygree was a facile winner of last year’s Kauto Star Novices Chase run over the same course and distance as The King George and on the same day. In blowing away his rivals Coneygree recorded a time that was just 1.7 seconds slower that that recorded by Silviniaco Conti. That was remarkable really given that the King George was ridden at a strong pace with a field of 10 high class and mostly Grade One winning chasers. Coneygree on the other hand had just six rivals which weren’t even in the same league as him on the day; two fell and one unseated. Coneygree put their jumping to the test from flag fall and cruised home in his own time and so to record a time very close to that recorded in the King George is testament to his ability. He then went on to deploy the same tactics in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, with the same result. That race has worked out unbelievably well and if Coneygree turns up here then his rivals are going to find out what he is all about. I firmly believe that should he take his chance in the race he will do to his rivals what Silviniaco Conti did in last year’s race, but to even more devastating effect and against an even stronger field. So let us hope that he is sound and well and that we’ll be set up for a truly fantastic race on Boxing Day!
In much the same way that daffodils signify the arrival of spring, The Charlie Hall Chase reassures us that top class jumps racing is back for another great season. It is the first time in the season that we get the opportunity to see some of the top staying chasers in action and in recent seasons it has been a real conundrum to solve, throwing up some surprising results including victories for Weird Al (This is not a misprint), Harry Topper and Menorah to name but a few. Gone are the days when we could default to Ollie Magern each-way; primed and ready for the race of his season. A much deeper consideration is needed at this time of year as to who is likely to be fit enough to do themselves justice as well as having enough class to win the race. Saturday’s renewal is as strong as I can remember in recent years provided all of the runners take their chance. In order to find the winner this year we will have to delve into the form, make some assumptions, connect the dots and have a lot too. It might be likened to attending a fireworks display at your wacky uncle’s house. You know he’s spent a lot of money and bought the best fireworks, but whether he can get any of them to work safely on the night is another problem entirely. On that totally unrelated point let’s start taking a look at the runners and their chances. Grand National hero Many Clouds has won on his seasonal debut the last 2 seasons, albeit in small field contests which you would have expected him to win knowing what we know now. His main early season target will be the Hennessy in four weeks’ time, but I don’t see him turning up here just to make up the numbers. However, he carries top weight and that could compromise his chances significantly against some high class opponents on ground currently better than ideal. I expect him to run a solid race without winning. Menorah’s win in the race last season was a fantastic effort, particularly in carrying top weight. He is such a difficult horse to place as he is just as likely to run a shocker as he is to win, but he is almost certain to be in great shape for defence of his title and the depth of quality in the race could play to his strengths as a horse that likes to be held up to pounce late. With many of his rivals likely to be short of fitness the race may well fall apart a bit in the closing stages, leaving him to pounce and land the spoils again. Given the intended runners, they will almost certainly go a good gallop and stamina, fitness and hold up tactics may well be the order of the day. For this reason Menorah looks a rock solid each way bet. The Paul Nicholls trained Sam Winner also looks to have a strong chance. His early season form has been fantastic in recent seasons and he looked a reformed horse when winning at Cheltenham and Aintree before Christmas last season and then only just being collared in the Lexus Chase on Boxing Day. It would be hard for me to back him with the scars still showing from the Pertemps Final in 2013 when Paul Nicholls described his handicap mark of 140 as a ‘gift from god’, but I certainly think he could go well at a big price. Holywell is one that I would be firmly against on Saturday. Although he brings high class form to the table, he is a confirmed spring horse and often shows very little in the early part of the season. He was beaten a long way by Many Clouds on his seasonal reappearance last year and I would be inclined to lay him for a place given the strength of the opposition and the time of year. Likewise Irish Cavalier is not my idea of the winner. Although I think he is open to a lot of improvement this season having won a decent handicap chase at the festival last year, he was beaten 3 times subsequently before narrowly scoring in an intermediate chase at Newton Abbot. I don’t have the statistics to hand but there can’t be many horses that have won at Newton Abbot and then a graded chase on their next start. He wouldn’t have enough proven class for me to take seriously in a race like this and his price in the market ahead of Rocky Creek and Sam Winner is truly mystifying. Rocky Creek is a horse that I love. His win at Kempton last season was an astounding display of jumping. He was thoroughly disappointing in his subsequent performances at Aintree and Sandown but I’m inclined to put a line through those and given him another chance. He ran a solid race on seasonal debut at Down Royal last season when chasing home Road to Riches with some useful yardsticks in behind. I see him running a big race this weekend at a nice price. We have seen enough of Alderbrook Lad and The Romford Pele to be confident that they are below top class and barring any disasters in the race I can’t see either of them threatening the judge. Ballynagour is another one that I would be firmly against. He has been pulled up on his seasonal reappearance the last two seasons. He has just two chase wins to his name and has never won over 3 miles and is another one that looks way too short in the betting in a market which seems to have accommodated for possible improvement rather than reflecting the bare formbook. Colin Tizzard’s Cue Card has been a phenomenal horse in the past, particularly a couple of seasons ago when he was at his peak and won the Ascot Chase and the Ryanair. However, he has been firmly on the downgrade in recent times. If I had a pound for every time I had read an article quoting that Colin Tizzard believes Cue Card is back to his best I would be a very wealthy man indeed. In fact, several days ago he was quoted as saying “We worked four horses around Wincanton, including a couple of 130-rated horses, and he was far, far superior to them”. That would be a taking piece of insight if Cue Card were running in a 0-140 handicap chase. However, he has a lot more on his plate today and has had some physical problems to overcome in recent times too. I just can’t see him bouncing back to his best on his seasonal re-appearance, as much as I would love to see it. Finally, David Pipe’s Dynaste is the leading player in this year’s renewal for me. He hasn’t won since landing the Ryanair Chase in 2014 but had his problems at the business end of last season. He was given a pipe opener (no pun intended) over hurdles at Auteuil earlier this month and ran creditably over an inadequate trip. That will have put him spot on for the Charlie Hall and having run well in the Betfair Chase the last two seasons when fresh, he could well go one better today. He receives as much as 10lb from some of the leading players and he must be bang there at the finish. The Pipe team won the race in 2006 with Our Vic and Dynaste can take advantage of his fitness and race conditions to land the big prize this weekend. Why not boost your winnings with a FREE BET of up to £200 from one of our partner bookmakers? Advised bets 2pts WIN DYNASTE @ 9/2 (General) 1pt WIN MENORAH @ 13/2 (Bet365, SkyBet) 0.5pts E/W ROCKY CREEK @ 12/1 (General)
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. You’ll also get £10 off admission to our Cheltenham Festival Preview Evening in Cheltenham on Friday 6 March, tips every day and much more – learn more about Free and Community Membership.