The days don’t come often, but when they do, punting’s an easy game. If you were to have looked skyward, you’d see that every star in the sky had aligned. The first day of Cheltenham Festival 2016, Champion Day, had been well and truly solved. Min would get us off to a flier, with Douvan, Faugheen and Annie Power all hacking-up in grand style. The Racing Post would be unabashed in their praise for the triple threat of Mullins, Ricci and Walsh, with punters tapping the mother lode of Cheltenham payouts. With that sentiment in mind, the afternoon of Wednesday, 17th February changed the entire complexion of the Festival. What was supposed to be a facile tune-up for ‘The Mare’, instead became the day of the highest profile Cheltenham defection since Big Bucks. In the aftermath of ruined ante-post portfolios, jubilant bookmakers and boastful layers, the only thing that’s for sure is how badly Faugheen will be missed. A suspensory ligament problem has robbed us of his presence, potentially damaged in his career-best performance in the Irish Champion Hurdle – a race that owner, not trainer, was keen to secure. Where does that leave us? As the front page of the Racing Post exclaimed the next day, it’s Faugheen out – Annie Power in. Our new Champion Hurdle favourite is likely to be supplemented for a £20,000 fee, and despite some serious form questions, is certain to be heavily backed. It was recently suggested to me that Oscar Whisky was the worst campaigned horse in recent memory, a point I countered with Rich Ricci’s mare. Lightly raced over the past two seasons, partly due to a combination of minor setbacks, what’s certain is that Annie Power hasn’t been trained for the rigours of a Champion Hurdle this season. After finding More Of That much too good in the World Hurdle, the horse has handed out facile beatings to inferior mares. Last year’s fall in the Mares’ Hurdle will have worried some about her jumping, all of which suggests that the 2/1 available today is awfully short. The 7lb mares allowance is huge and could make the difference, but it’s my view that we’ll find the winner elsewhere. Willie Mullins holds a number of entries, with both Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon prominent in the betting. Arguably the most progressive horse in the division last year, Arctic Fire went from staring at Irving’s backside to finishing runner-up to the imperious Faugheen. Many judges noted how strongly the horse finished his race with a view to being the main threat to the champion’s crown this time around. However a crushing fall at Aintree and an abysmal performance at Christmas, over three miles in bottomless ground, raises serious questions about the horses’ condition. My main concern is Mullins had a tilt at the World Hurdle in mind, leaving his re-emergence in the two-mile division as an afterthought. Compound that with a completely different tactical scenario minus Faugheen and the case for Arctic Fire becomes harder to make. Nichols Canyon is a far better horse than we seen in last year’s Neptune, with Ruby Walsh quick to accept the blame for the tactics he employed. This season started by lowering the colours of Faugheen, form that’s since been definitively reversed, either side of a workmanlike two length defeat of Identity Thief at Christmas. Best used at the head of affairs, the opportunity is there to pick up the pieces, however the horse completely emptied at Leopardstown, paying the price for taking on the champion. As a result, what state will he be in for the Festival? It’s due to this that the horse should be dismissed. The horse who I feel is best placed to take the spoils is Henry de Bromhead’s progressive IDENTITY THIEF. A good, if unspectacular, novice, the horse has improved with every outing this season. Defeating the disappointing Top Notch by a neck in the Fighting Fifth isn’t exactly Champion Hurdle form, but finishing a game two lengths behind Nichols Canyon puts him squarely in the mix. As the front three in the market have a combination of issues, two lengths isn’t a lot to find for a young, unexposed hurdler, giving him every chance to get his head in front. As for the rest of the market, it’s doubtful that the winner has yet to be mentioned. It will be great to see My Tent Or Yours back to his best, but with no prep run and a long lay-off, it’s hard to see that happening at Cheltenham. The 8/1 available is among the worst prices for the whole meeting, for a horse who couldn’t win the race, nor the Supreme, before his injuries. Nicky Henderson also has Peace And Co for the race, a horse whose Triumph victory was thought to put him amongst the contenders. The form of that race hasn’t held up with Top Notch, Hargam and Peace And Co all disappointing in open company. The Triumph winner has embarrassed both himself and his connections with his performances this season, and hasn’t done enough to warrant lining-up for the race. One horse who will have his backers is The New One. Still available at a bigger price than My Tent Or Yours, surely that says it all about the Twiston-Davies charge. The horse’s best chance came in Jezki’s Champion Hurdle, hampered by the late Our Conor, but badly outpaced later in the race. A year later he paid the price, alongside Jezki, when both attempted to take on Faugheen around the final bend, with both finishing outside the places. Faugheen’s defection potentially opens the door for an each-way squeak, but he should find a few too good for him on the day. Consigned to the status of lively outsiders, the likes of Sempre Medici, Old Guard and Camping Ground may take their chances on the day. Of the three, Ricci’s Sempre Medici has improved, albeit not at the rate of Identity Thief. A seven length beating of Bentelimar shouldn’t be good enough. Old Guard was exposed in his last outing, leaving him with a fair bit to find. Camping Ground is interesting, especially if the ground is soft. His Relkeel win was eye-catching and he may well have this target in mind. Of the three, Camping Ground is by far the most interesting each-way proposition. Henry de Bromhead will send some fine horses to the Festival this year, with Identity Thief backed to pick up the Champion Hurdle in Faugheen’s absence. Tips: Winner – Identity Thief @ 6/1 Each-way – Camping Ground @ 25/1
Nicky Henderson’s Dawalan has been awarded favouritism in this year’s Fred Winter and is available at around 7/1.
Ante-post watchers can crawl through the entries looking for the faintest clues of a Sanctuaire-like plot. What should serve punters well is to adhere to the prevailing trends in this devilishly tough handicap hurdle.
- 8/9 rated between 124 – 133
- 8/9 were sired by a Group 1 flat winner
- 6/9 won within their last two starts
- 6/9 won carrying at least 10st 13lb
- 5/9 won their last start
- 5/42 of the horses rated 120 or below were placed
Henderson’s Dawalan enters the fray with likeable credentials. The horse achieved a RPR of 89 on the flat and has won within his last two starts. The French-bred will carry 11-0 and is a strong contender based on the key trends of the race. Henderson won the race in 2012 with the 40/1 shot Une Artiste and stands a great chance of making the frame.
Oliver Sherwood enters the intriguing 14/1 shot, Carry On Sydney. The trainer recently remarked that the horse was notably laid-back, but has some decent form this season, including a one-and-a-half length defeat to Dawalan in January. Off 10-4 the horse has seen his price chipped away with the knowledge that Sherwood’s had the Fred Winter as a target for a while.
Dispour may well be the pick of Donald McCain’s two entries. Priced at 33/1, his last two runs were fairly miserable including a thirty length defeat to My Tent Or Yours in February’s Jumpers’ Bumper. He’ll run off a decent mark and answers some of the key trends required to get into the shake-up. McCain named the horse as one of his most promising at the beginning of the season and could be a shrewd each-way play.
Preference is for Clarcam from Gordon Elliott’s yard. He’s never finished outside of the top three since joining Elliott and finished a good second in the Scottish Triumph Hurdle Trial at Musselburgh recently. He’ll run off a good mark and is genuine enough to give backers value in a minefield of a race. Clarcam can be backed today at 16/1.
Looking back at the history of the race, only two of the previous nine winners had won one of their first two starts. Those horses had scope to improve at an attractive pace with the handicapper, affording them the chance to enter this race with eye catching performances. The last two years have produced winners at big prices – Flaxen Flare (25/1) & Une Artiste (40/1).
Selection – Clarcam – 20/1 (E/W) with William Hill
Selection – Carry On Sydney – 14/1 (E/W) with William Hill
|Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle – History|
|2013||125||Flaxen Flare D||4||10-8||127||25/1||G Elliott (IRE)|
|2012||11114||Un Artiste D||4||10-8||127||40/1||N Henderson|
|2011||757||What A Charm||4||10-6||115||9/1||A Moore (IRE)|
|2010||531||Sanctuaire D||4||11-2||127||4/1F||P Nicholls|
|2009||52111||Silk Affair (5x)||4||10-4||125||11/1||M Quinlan|
|2008||531||Crack Away Jack D||4||11-10||133||14/1||E Lavelle|
|2007||22111||Gaspara (4x) D||4||10-11||130||9/2J||D Pipe|
|2006||4P1||Shamayoun D||4||11-3||124||40/1||C Egerton|
|2005||225||Dabiroun||4||11-4||124||20/1||P Nolan (IRE)|
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Feature photo by Kerry Hendry of Love The Image Stephen Smith takes a look at the big races on each day of Cheltenham Festival 2014. We start off with a look at the big race on Tuesday 11 March, which is a hurdle race over 2 miles.
Stan James Champion Hurdle
In what promises to be the race of the Festival, Hurricane Fly seeks to repeat last year’s triumph and win a third Champion Hurdle crown. Willie Mullins promises to have his charge primed for the Tuesday showpiece, but many argue that they stare down the barrel of a who’s-who of new hurdling blood. Favouritism is shared with The New One, the precocious 2013 Neptune winner who aligns genuine two mile speed with a proven ability to power up the Cheltenham hill. Amid a season of setbacks, Nicky Henderson concedes his best chance across the festival may constitute the impressive My Tent or Yours. After defeating The New One this season, the 7/2 currently available is certainly tempting, with last year’s second behind Champagne Fever doing little to diminish this season’s credentials. However preference is for the talented Our Conor, so impressive in securing the 2013 Triumph Hurdle in blistering fashion. Whilst the form of that race hasn’t been covered in glory this term, the progression in his Irish performances shows enough promise to believe a reversal with Hurricane Fly is inevitable. Jezki has done little to convince he’s of the class to line up here and can be dismissed. Depending on conditions, Melodic Rendezvous could arrive on the scene but would require bottomless ground. Selection – Our Conor – 9/2 (Win) Next up is Ladies Day where off the track the brave and beautiful ladies will compete for the title of the ‘Most Stylish Lad’ and a first prize of £5000 of Joules vouchers. On the track the big race is a chase run at a furious pace over 2 miles.
BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase
With Sprinter Sacre being rested until next season, Gary Moore’s Sire De Grugy is in pole position to pick up the considerable pieces on offer. Entering the race with a RPR of 174, it would appear that there’s no better two-miler in the country at the moment. Holes in his candidacy become gaping chasms under scrutiny. headlined by a defeat to Kid Cassidy in November, a horse who would surely have too much to find to win here. Ante Post gamblers have a few curveballs to negotiate here. Al Ferof’s disappointing comeback season has saw hints he could arrive here – heavy ground permitting. Connections of 2011 winner Sizing Europe are suddenly enthused by Sprinter Sacre’s withdrawl, but is the ability still there? No. The classiest animal in the race comes in the form of Willie Mullins Arvika Ligeonniere. The 11/2 on offer would be far shorter if his form went left-handed, but he’s oozed style and class too often not to contend here. Selection – Arvika Ligeonniere – 11/2 (Win) On Thursday, it’s the long distance hurdle Championship in which Big Bucks aims to win for an astonishing 5th time.
Ladbrokes World Hurdle
If the Champion Hurdle promises to be the race of the Festival, the showdown between Big Bucks & Willie Mullins champion-elect Annie Power won’t be far behind. After last year’s open renewal won by Solwhit, the 11 year old Big Bucks has it all to do to claim a historic fifth crown. With defeat tasted in his comeback, connections are still bullish on Paul Nicholls ability to get the great horse back to his imperious best. Regardless of the 2/1 being short, he could be 20/1 and opposable. He’s simply not demonstrated his ability and can’t be backed. But is Annie Power the heir apparent? Not for me. She’s beaten Zarkander twice this season, utilising a mares allowance. Those victories weren’t impressive enough to hand her the title, and has she peaked already? Memories of Pont Alexandre loom large and we should look elsewhere for the winner. A positive word is had for Rule The World, so impressive last year but has too much to find in this company. My idea of the winner is the horse described by some as the biggest disappointment of this season – At Fishers Cross. Rebecca Curtis has brought the horse back from a shaky start by beating Big Bucks in the Cleeve Hurdle, and has aimed the horse towards this race all year. The 6/1 is far too short considering his earlier season form, but the bookmakers sense the animal’s class. Selection – At Fishers Cross – 6/1 (Win) On Friday, it’s the week’s showpiece event and climax to the meeting where the best chasers from England and Ireland do battle to take the crown in Jump Racing’s Blue Riband event.
BetFred Cheltenham Gold Cup
Dubbed as the ‘cash machine’ by Cheltenham backers, Nicky Henderson looks to guide Bobs Worth to a second consecutive Gold Cup – and a sixth Cheltenham win on the bounce. Putting a disappointing Betfair Chase behind him, Henderson’s charge returned to form with a resounding Irish Lexus victory, seeing his price tumble into today’s 7/4. An out and out Cheltenham horse, bookmakers dread the consequences of a successful defence. The winner of an Albert Bartlett, RSA Chase and Gold Cup, it’s only the brave who would desert such a reliable animal. Braver still as this year’s renewal lacks the firepower of the last six years. With the withdrawals of Sir De Champs and Cue Card, Dynaste’s preference to go back in trip and Long Run’s capitulation, only Silviniaco Conti lays down a serious challenge. The King George winner dug deep to overhaul Cue Card that day, and while the Nicholls horse has no Cheltenham form, he lacks the obvious flaws that every other rival has. For me, Silviniaco Conti is the likely winner, but at a short 3/1 it’s a gamble which I won’t be making. Value lies elsewhere in a race that’s cutting up badly. Last week’s performance by Captain Chris has given hope that he’s the best he’s ever been. Groans are heard from those who remember his recent left-handed form, but the horse is an Arkle winner and has earned his RPR of 170. His price is being trimmed all the time, and the 14/1 available today is great value to finish on the premises. Selection – Captain Chris – 14/1 (E/W)
2014 Racing Post Arkle Chase
This year’s interesting renewal sees Willie Mullins’ Champagne Fever head the ante-post betting in pursuit of a third consecutive Cheltenham Festival victory.
The winner of the Champion Bumper and Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the classy grey is available at a best priced 3/1, which with his formidable course form represents significant value. Like last year however, holes can be found in his credentials. With only two starts over fences, he made a bad mistake in the Grade 1 Novice Chase at Leopardstown at Christmas, losing that race to Defy Logic. We haven’t seen him since. Critics point to his jumping which in a red hot two-mile Arkle could be his undoing. The truth is we’ve been here before. A sub-par run before his impressive victory in last year’s Supreme can reassure backers of his ability to rebound. If Vautour hacks up in the Supreme the 11/4 will collapse.
Unlike last year the challenge will come from a number of intriguing candidates. Harry Fry switched Rock On Ruby to novice chasing early in the season after a drubbing from The New One over hurdles. Similar to Mullins’ grey, Ruby has made only two starts over fences – winning them both. Whilst the standard of his opponents can be called into question, the horses Cheltenham record is ominous. A Champion Hurdle winner over Hurricane Fly, a second place to the same horse last year and a second place in the Neptune, his Festival record demands respect. Opponents will argue that 9 year olds have no place in this race and that his switch to chasing was an afterthought; enough to deter me from backing the animal.
The Paul Nicholls’ challenge is headlined by the likeable Dodging Bullets, who’s achieved a RPR of 161 this season across his four starts. After thumping Grandouet by ten-lengths at Christmas, he found the experienced Module too hot to handle in his last outing. That defeat was only by a neck and the winner was in receipt of 3lbs on the day. The problem with the horse is his Cheltenham form and the fact that he’s let his backers down on the big Festival stage. Is beating Grandouet the benchmark for winning this race? I can’t see it.
Trifolium has been nibbled all the way into 9/2 after claiming the Irish Arkle, seeing off both Defy Logic and Felix Yonger. Charles Byrnes’ charge has shown a predilection for crisp, clean jumping, but the consistency of his form this season is a little murky. Backers will be enthused by his reversal of form with Defy Logic in the Irish Ankle, but is a singular electric performance enough to pin one’s colours to his mast? Certainly going the right way, but the class of Champagne Fever at the Festival should prove insurmountable.
Grandouet has yet to taste victory this season and can be overlooked. At a recent Festival Preview night it was said that Nicky Henderson’s high-class hurdler would fall in a jumpers’ bumper and should be a bigger price. Surely Alan King’s Valdez would need to find more to win this competitive renewal. Unbeaten this season, he struggled to see off Trifolium’s stable mate Arnaud. He may be progressive enough for each-way punters, but there’s more than a couple who’ll fancy seeing him off.
Selection – Champagne Fever – 3/1 (Win)
|Arkle Chase – History|
|2013||11-11||Simonsig C, D||7||11-7||174||8/15F||N Henderson|
|2012||3-111||Sprinter Sacre D||6||11-7||179||8/11F||N Henderson|
|2011||22221||Captain Chris C, D||7||11-7||163||6/1||P Hobbs|
|2010||41111||Sizing Europe C, D||8||11-7||170||6/1||H De Bromhead (IRE)|
|2009||-1222||Forpadydeplasterer D||7||11-7||160||8/1||T Cooper (IRE)|
|2008||-1112||Tidal Bay C, BF||7||11-7||160||6/1||H Johnson|
|2007||21211||My Way De Solzen C, D||7||11-7||161||7/2||A King|
|2006||-1111||Voy Por Ustedes D||5||11-2||164||15/2||A King|
|2005||-2213||Contraband C, D||7||11-7||161||7/1||M Pipe|
|2004||3-151||Well Chief D||5||11-3||144||9/1||M Pipe|
The last 2 favourites for the Arkle have both won – Champagne Fever to win 3/1.