Our first ever Tweetup took place in the Montpellier Wine Bar, Cheltenham yesterday, the first day of the Showcase. What’s a Tweetup? A Tweetup is an informal meeting of people who have met through Twitter and want to meet face to face. Whilst turnout was on the low side, those that came along enjoyed Cathryn Fry and Dave Massey’s run through the card, with Cathryn putting in a strong word for Trackmate. This was backed up by owner Barry Preece who kindly provided the latest news on his pride and joy. Hopefully, those present has a few shillings on with Trackmate winning the Pertemps Qualifier at a tasty 9/1 in an exciting finish.
Following on from my Novice Chasers Preview here is a run down of my novice hurdlers to follow in 2013-2014. Minella Foru’s victory at Listowel last Saturday came as a wonderful reminder that the new winter Jumps Season is virtually upon us. A point to point winner back in March, this was his first run under rules for trainer Edward Harty. The horse travelled well through the race, jumping beautifully, before changing gear after the last to beat a well thought of Willie Mullins horse. Harty struggled to hold back his excitement, whilst stating it would be “one step at a time” for his promising hurdler. Minella Foru is a son of King’s Theatre and looks to have plenty of ability. He is the first on my list of novice hurdlers to follow over the winter. He looked to have plenty of speed, and was very slick over his hurdles. It’s possible that he could step up in trip during the season. As with this winter’s novice chasers – read my Novice Chasers to follow – the Irish appear to have a strong hand with the novice hurdlers. Willie Mullins will hope to have another successful season, and he certainly has plenty of firepower in this division. Briar Hill won the Champion bumper at Cheltenham in March. A son of Shantou out of a Bob Back mare, he powered up the famous hill to victory, and is sure to make a terrific hurdler. His breeding, and indeed his victory in March suggests that he could become a better horse when aimed at the Neptune over 2m 5f. The same was thought of Champagne Fever of course, but this winter Mullins has plenty of options for The Supreme. Faugheen is very highly thought of by the Irish Champion trainer. He was devastating in May at Punchestown when winning by 20 lengths in a two mile flat race. A son of Germany, a sire that could be popular this winter, he is out of an Accordion mare. His pedigree suggests he may need decent ground to be seen at his best. He looked special back in May and could well be one for The Supreme come next March. Mullins has another promising looking son of Germany, with the Gigginstown owned Made In Germany. He won flat races at Navan and the Curragh back in February and May. He was especially good in May when travelling strongly before pulling away from good horses including Robert Tyner’s ‘point’ winner Concordin. Turnandgo is the last of the Mullins novice hurdlers on my list. Another carrying the Gigginstown colours, he is a son of Morozov and looks more of a staying type. He ploughed through the mud at Punchestown in April thrashing Nicky Henderson’s Captain Cutter by nine lengths. He should excel in Ireland’s deep winter ground. He could become an Albert Bartlett type. Very Wood is trained in Ireland by Noel Meade. Another ex-pointer, he also carries the famous Gigginstown colours. He was also impressive at Punchestown in heavy ground, winning a flat race over two miles in April. He’s a son of Martaline out of a Cadoudal mare. He is another that looks a strong staying type. The final Irish horse on my list is Moonshine Lad. A son of Milan, he won a point to point in March in very impressive fashion. The runner-up that day is now with Donald McCain. Gordon Elliott now trains this five-year-old and he looks set to have a great winter. As good as the Irish novice hurdlers look, there is plenty of talent in stables this side of the Irish Sea. Nicky Henderson is set to have another terrific season, and he has a number of potential top-class novice hurdlers. West Wizard burst on the scene in March when winning a flat race at Kempton in stunning style. He is another son of the prolific sire King’s Theatre. He looks an imposing, athletic horse and his win was very impressive. A Supreme horse or maybe aimed at The Neptune, he looked something special. Another from the Henderson stable is the JP McManus owned Clean Sheet. Another point to point winner, he looks to be a horse with gears. A son of Oscar out of a Phardante mare he has great potential. Paul Nicholls has again looked to France as he battles to claim back his trainers title. The best of his new novice hurdlers could be Vicente. A son of Dom Alco, one of Nicholls favourite Sires, he is only a four-year-old and has solid French form. He was purchased by Anthony Bromley, who thinks a lot of him. Anthony Honeyball paid only 20,000gns for Regal Encore back in 2011. It’s proved to be an inspired purchase from the West Country trainer. The horse was second in Cheltenham’s Champion Bumper and looks set to have a great season over hurdles. A beautifully bred son of King’s Theatre out of a Bob Back mare, he is slightly small, but clearly very talented. His long term target will probably be the Supreme Novices Hurdle. The final two in my list are trained by major forces in the National Hunt game. Diamond King won flat races at Bangor and Wetherby for Donald McCain, and looks a potential quality staying hurdler. Another son of King’s Theatre, he is a relentless galloper. Finally, a horse that impressed me as much as any when winning a two mile flat race at Haydock in March. Royal Regatta is trained by Philip Hobbs and has the look of another Hobbs star, Menorah. A stocky, powerful type he is yet another son of King’s Theatre. He will need decent ground to be seen at his best. He could be special. So there you have it. A selection of horses that have the potential to thrill us during those cold winter months. Now sit back and enjoy the show!
Given the options available at the Cheltenham Festival these days, particularly in the novice divisions, ante-post punting is becoming increasingly more difficult. But, second-guessing trainers and where their horses will run is part of the fun and, though a number of the horses I’m looking forward to seeing head over either hurdles or fences for the first time in the autumn aren’t even quoted at this stage, there is one that stands out in the RSA Chase market at current odds. [tweet this]. That horse is Nigel Twiston-Davies’ African Gold who went from strength-to-strength last season and has the physique to make a big impact over fences in the months ahead. Having looked a useful novice hurdler in the first half of last season, the son of King’s Theatre stepped forward massively after the turn of the year, beating subsequent EBF Final winner Close Touch at Doncaster, before chasing home At Fishers Cross in the Albert Bartlett. The winner franked the form by following up in the Sefton at Aintree, where African Gold, like stable-mate and fellow leading novice hurdler The New One, was pitched into open company and he fared well in the Liverpool Hurdle. Given this was his seventh start since October, the five-year-old could well have been slightly over the top, yet still stayed on well up the straight before fading late on. He crossed the line 13 lengths behind World Hurdle winner Solwhit in fifth, some 7 lengths in front of subsequent Prix La Barka winner, Celestial Halo. A tough individual, who appears to handle any ground, African Gold is currently trading at 20/1 (Bet365) for the RSA Chase and that price has plenty of scope to contract during the early months of the season. Firstly, several of the horses quoted in and around him might well be targeted elsewhere; Pont Alexandre remains favourite with Boylesports despite being all but ruled out for the season by Willie Mullins; Champagne Fever could be aimed at the Arkle; African Gold’s stable-mate The New One is expected to be campaigned with the Champion Hurdle in mind; Un Atout appeals as a possible Jewson type to me, especially given that race has just been upgraded to Grade 1 status; that race could also be the target for Nicky Henderson’s Chatterbox and Alan King’s Meister Eckhart, with the latter appearing not to truly stay 3m in his novice hurdle days. Of those quoted at this early stage, the other pair I expect to make up in to smart staying novices are O’Faolains Boy, though I suspect Rebecca Curtis might head down the National Hunt Chase route with him (as she did with Teaforthree) and Just A Par, who is completely unexposed as a stayer, but hails from the Paul Nicholls stable but the former champion trainer has skipped the Festival with his leading staying novice chaser in the past couple of seasons, in favour of the Mildmay at Aintree (Silviniaco Conti and Rocky Creek). Given Twiston-Davies’ track record, we should expect to see African Gold fairly early and he could easily find himself towards the head of the betting and trading much shorter before several of his rivals even set foot on the track. Indeed, both African Gold and The New One had made their respective hurdles debuts by 12th October last year, and looking back at some of the stable’s smart novice chasers down the years, they tend to reappear even earlier. The 1993 Sun Alliance winner Young Hustler made his chase debut as early as 5 September and was having his fourth start over fences at Cheltenham on just the 1 October; Grand National hero Bindaree made a winning chase debut at Perth in September 2000, in a race the trainer won with Fundamentalist four years later (this could be a possible starting point for African Gold as trainers are very much creatures of habit); Ollie Magern was also successful at the first time of asking over fences in September and had completed a hat-trick by the end of October; and even Imperial Commander made a winning chase bow at Cheltenham in mid October. Assuming all goes well in the first couple of months of the season, the Feltham at Kempton on Boxing Day could become an option (Ollie Magern won the 2004 renewal), while he has the pace to win over 2m4f, so the Scilly Isles at Sandown in February could well be used as a stepping stone to Cheltenham. Twiston-Davies saddled Young Hustler to win this contest in 1993 before his victory in the Sun Alliance and he also won the race in 1998 with Jack Doyle. An exciting prospect for fences, it will be disappointing if African Gold fails to make up in to a high-class novice and, though there looks like being plenty of strength in depth in the division this season, the 20/1 currently on offer seems more than fair, certainly at this stage. What’s your long term fancy? Let us know in the Comments below. African Gold features among Paul Ferguson’s Jumpers To Follow 2013/14, available to pre-order shortly. Follow Paul on Twitter – @paulfergusonJTF
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This latest Five @ Five focuses on the Cheltenham April Meeting and five horses from the five day declaration stage.
17Apr13 2:45 (Four Day) at Cheltenham, Rundle And Co Handicap Chase
Slightly disappointed with his run at Haydock, yet even though connections stressed that the course would suit him I think the ground had turned against him come post time as when reviewing his run Joe Tizzard didn’t seem happy at any point and he didn’t jump with the verve or fluency of when winning at Newbury previously. Drying forecast will likely hinder his chances on Wednesday, should he run, yet another disappointing run would do his handicap mark and price no harm when returning to Newbury next season:
17Apr13 3:20 (Four Day) at Cheltenham, Auriga Network Handicap Hurdle
19Apr13 1:40 (Four Day) at Ayr, Play Golf At Close House Handicap Hurdle
This small Beat Hollow gelding has some fair form to his name in novice hurdles this season, and his most recent effort under a penalty was probably his best run. Prior to this he was given too much to do behind Uxiandre at Newbury, but that was an EBF Qualifier, and that was seemingly his target before missing out due to the heavy ground. Back on better ground off 10-4, he is most certainly of interest in what looks a typically competitive Cheltenham handicap.
17Apr13 3:55 (Four Day) at Cheltenham, MacMillan Cancer Support Silver Trophy Chase (Limited Handicap) Grade 2
24Apr13 6:40 (Early closer) at Punchestown, Guinness Handicap Chase (Grade A)
26Apr13 4:20 (Early closer) at Punchestown, Aon Novice Handicap Chase (Grade A)
Chances of running have to be slim off 9-6. However, if Patrick Corbett was to get the ride then that would negate the weight issue, and the race make up would suit him ideally with Easter Meteor, Carrick Boy, Petit Robin, Ghizao and Champion Court likely to fight it out for the lead early doors. No doubt he went in to many notebooks following his run behind Rajdhani Express where Richard Johnson went the brave man’s route on the inside throughout but found his run stopped at a number of vital moments. As a result he was better than his finishing position, and this week’s drying forecast is ideal.
Changing The Guard
17Apr13 5:35 (Four Day) at Cheltenham, sportinglife.com Pony Racing Authority Graduates Handicap Hurdle (Conditionals/Amateur Riders)
Strangely Jack Quinlan is booked for the ride. Given Christopher Ward has ridden on his previous five starts it is a slight surprise. However the recent form of Changing The Guard is strong. Following his double during the summer campaign he has finished with great credit behind the likes of Dark Lover over course and distance, Raya Star and most recently Cockney Sparrow at Aintree. Good ground and soft ground come alike as shown by summer form and his run behind Dark Lover here earlier in the season, and with his likely main danger Mr Mole a bit of a nutcase, Changing The Guard is by far the safer proposition.
18Apr13 6:00 (Four Day) at Cheltenham, Nicholson Holman Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase
26Apr13 4:20 (Early closer) at Punchestown, Aon Novice Handicap Chase (Grade A)
The Punchestown entry doesn’t come as such a surprise given that he has shown a tendency to jump right, but I hope he takes his chance here on Thursday as I think we are far from getting to the bottom of him. A ready winner on handicap debut, the form of his subsequent win was franked with the second Ballypatrick winning easily at Fakenham, yet his best performance came at Sandown. I thought Sam Thomas, rather than Arbeo, was ponderous at the railway fences but from the second last fence he was galvanised and won going away. Connections were quick to point out that he disliked the ground, but also quick to mention the hike in the weights, yet the Punchestown entry suggest they think he has a bit left in the tank.
My last blog about modern day racing, and its sanitized ways, seemed to attract a lot of attention or hits as they say. And more than a few compliments from like-minded souls, or perhaps concerned, individuals on Twitter. It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am…in future my rate for such scribing shall be ten pounds an article, and I’m not budging from that. What was absent was the contra view which I expected from trainers and connections of horses boxed away in padded cells for months on end awaiting their glory moment. Shame that. However, all is not lost. I did receive one rather hateful response from a fellah describing himself rather grandly as ‘a proper Bookmaker’ who ranted about my attitudes to modern day betting rings. He wasn’t quite brave enough to tell us all who he was, doubtless of the view should he reveal his true identity, some would have realised the true worth of his business practices. Few punters thoroughly approve of modern day Bookmakers. The horrible truth. Exchanges are the ‘good guys’ wherever they trade from. Who’s going to criticise someone for low liquidity when you’re part of the problem? It’s perhaps helpful if I illustrate the problems as I see it in the modern ring, for those who do not understand the issues. Anyone who goes racing, midweek in particular, can’t have failed to notice the distressed state of the ring. A handful of Bookies, usually with just one member of staff each, huddling for warmth whilst serving but a few customers. In an environment where racetracks claim attendances overall are holding up, it’s a paradox that rings are so quiet. Of course, were I the RCA, I’d be talking up the product. And yes, if they don’t address the problem of stable stars retiring as 3 year olds or worse sitting out for Cheltenham, they’re going to have attendance issues; we’re agreed on that. On a Saturday, and at the major meetings however, the crowds still look good to me, but the public aren’t betting as they used to. Or perhaps they are. I mean who goes racing these days and doesn’t have a bet? Racing’s pretty dull if you don’t have some kind of interest other than an anoraky view of form or breeding. Why does the Queen have so many ladies in waiting when she’s in attendance? Quite right, they’re running her bets out! She’s no fool. Loves a Union Jack does the Boss. Everyone’s having a play in reality. Because if you’re racing, and not betting, you must be wondering what all the fuss and noise is about! As to the Punters, they’re just getting bored. 98% of Bookies these days have turned to trading as a simple and cheap method of making a living. From the moment the interminably ignorant Rob Hughes, of the then controlling Levy Board, cast his vote in favour of opening up the Ring to outside influences, in particular exchanges, the die was cast for the Bookies. Led by ‘pioneers’ like Martyn of Leicester, who I recall describing it as the new Holy Grail to me one day, many leapt from odds, percentages and margins, to trading every dollar they took with an exchange, at better odds. Presto, easy money – minimal risk. At the outset the gap between the odds offered by the trader and the exchange was wide, and the method simple. It was a golden time. As the years progressed, with traders chasing a diminishing pound, and their own silly greed for every bet available, the odds soared to the punters. Traders found with what profits could be engendered, squeezed so tight, they couldn’t breathe. Even when the crowds were good, they moronically bet so tight to the exchange, the profits, if at all, were derisory. In the same period, liquidity on exchanges fell markedly. Now we had a situation where traders would offer 7/1 about a horse trading at 8.2 on the exchange but only to £20. Lord-A-Mighty if someone asked for a couple of hundred each way – a bet far larger than they could stand, trade or even dump with the few proper Bookmakers betting to opinions. Casually they knocked the larger punters back, without thought for their future. They turned to following the exchange win price, but restricting the place returns, making something off of that book instead. Tossing casually away years of agreements and the code laid down by Tattersalls. This code has, and still is, respected in betting shops and credit offices and even improved upon. They laid off staff, and finally stopped going in some cases, altogether. So when ‘a proper Bookmaker’ tells me I shouldn’t be going about criticising their business plan, I have to laugh. Proof of the pudding is in the eating. It gives me little pleasure to be proven totally right. I said this operandi would fail on every platform available to me, to whoever would listen and many who would not. If there’s no work – you’ve failed. I’ve covered the traders, what about the views of my customers? First off, make no mistake, I like a laugh with my punters, especially when they lose – but I don’t mind the jibes when I do either! It’s part of the fun of betting with the old enemy. Because I am, the old enemy in all but age… I still offer odds which reflect my views and I don’t knockback bets from genuine punters, ever. Why aren’t the punters flocking to a ring where they can very often beat an exchange price and pay no commission? Because my friends, like me, they’re so famously bored of a ring with rows of Bookmakers betting like soldiers – all offering the same odds. There’s no variety or choice. It’s uniform and drab. Worse it’s an exchange driven cartel. Most punters believe the Bookmakers win, whatever the result. If everyone has the same price it appears like price fixing. They disapprove of restrictive practices such as 1/5th odds on the Grand National, and traders who dress as if they’ve just stepped out of their front rooms. And worse, they just want the fun of a bet. It really matters little to them whether a horse is 5/1 or 4/1 when the nags are toiling up the straight. One of the loudest punters in the ring I love, little Tommy, makes the most noise. He doesn’t bet big, but to him it’s still the buzz, and I love him for his enthusiasm. These days, customers are afforded little of the respect of past days, when giants like John Banks and Stephen Little battled them with a smile, a thumping bet at their odds, and a tie. I offer two thoughts for punters at this stage, out of balance. If you moan about poor place odds and you give those traders who offer them your fiver each way at 1/5 the odds on the Cambridgeshire because they are 17/2 about something which is 8/1 elsewhere, then you’ve only yourselves to blame for supporting them, in any race. I believe you should identify the culprits and never bet with them; period. That’s how you rid the ring of scoundrels without the business acumen to appreciate exchanges aren’t the savior, but their death knell. Oh, and tell your friends. Second, although I enjoyed the banter from Big Mac, even if it occasionally made no sense, the culture of moreism always has a price; go for service over value, every time. Think I fly Ryanair if British Airways head in the same direction? Fine, I’ve given my thoughts. What of the future? For those leading Bookmakers these days, and for the empty vessels in the ring, standing looking at the tumbleweed, bitching away, and blaming everyone but themselves for the problems, I offer these solutions. Number one; allow the racetracks to dictate the terms of business in the rings. Fundamentally to restore order on place markets, introduce a guaranteed minimum lay to lose amount for each ring. This stops traders betting to pennies, offering unsustainable odds, and knocking back the larger punters. It’s so tiresome to hear dinosaurs claim tracks ‘shouldn’t be allowed to dictate the terms of business’. What a narrow view, especially as even now, they already do! It’s hardly in the favour of racetracks to do away with the draw of their betting rings, is it? Chesterbet is a success, but only in parallel with Bookmakers bringing the punters to play into the track in the first place. On their own, and without a ring, tracks – whilst they can deliver on the bet at more restrictive odds – can’t deliver on the flavour and atmosphere people in this country enjoy about the ring so much. Think that Simon Bazalgette and Charles Barnett are rubbing their hands with a go it alone approach? They’re no fools. They would prefer a symbiotic relationship. Every time we say no to their requests for improved service standards, they become just a little more unsympathetic to our problems. They will naturally turn their vast expertise in running business, into taking betting under their wings and employing people like me to show them how it’s done successfully. And yes, I would, if the alternative is to stand amongst a bunch of fiddlers trading dollars in their jeans. Number two, for racetrack bosses. Extinguish the cosy little relationship between RDT and Betdaq, with software capable of skillfully enabling traders to hive off bets at lightning speed to the exchange. Do away with track broadband and WiFi altogether. Outlaw data cards, secondary laptops and hand held PDAs for Bookmakers. No, it’s not air tight, but it does go an awful long way to restricting the ability to trade with exchanges. Especially at festival meetings where mobile phone networks like Vodafone do a total runner. Fundamentally, switch off the exchange displays on laptops provided by companies such as RDT and return rings to a lower tech environment. Give serious pause for what I’m advocating if you value a vibrant ring, its draw and income. Stop worrying about losing a few traders who do not approve of restrictions. Believe me, they’re no loss! En fin, if you’re showing exchange odds on a big screen at your Racetrack, you’re doing yourselves no favours. It isn’t about price. Number three Bookies, get into the modern day age of cashless societies and find bank’s willing to offer the new fast generations of swipe debit cards to enable punters to bet without the need to queue for hours and days at cash points. I accept there will be a variety of views out there to this. If you’re a hard working Bookie, you have my respect for your efforts, but you’re going nowhere, if you don’t adapt, and you know this is true. If you’re the blinkered sort, who believes the Son of John Banks got here through luck rather than focusing on service standards, or if you’re worried someone else in the ring on a mobile will break the mould and have a huge mass of punters at his joint, whilst you have nothing, then you’re missed the point. It’s greed and an unworkable long term business plan that got you here in the first place. You have to work as a collective, rather than a series of individuals, and you have to act now and stop thinking of what’s good for you, but what’s best for the customers you’ve lost. The tracks have the power to lay down sensible practices, if you’d only let them. One thing’s absolutely for sure, the one you’re using right now has failed, miserably. I don’t think anyone could argue with that. For those that view some of the points as ‘legally challengeable’, I point you to the free for all 2008 Gambling Act. Good luck in Court trying to get a decision as to what is, or isn’t legal anymore, because the Gambling Commission certainly don’t. One final point, Bookies. Just a few years ago, many of these points were laid down by the NJPC articles. I don’t recall anyone at that time complaining, or challenging the terms. We can change, and we must, if the whole shebang doesn’t migrate to GoodwoodBet in a very short time.
Day two at the Cheltenham Festival dawned slightly warmer than yesterday and the name on everyone’s lips was Sprinter Sacre. The big bay looked in a class of his own as he danced around the parade ring before the Queen Mother Champion Chase today. He didn’t disappoint, jumping brilliantly apart from a tiny mistake at the ditch and storming up to the post to beat Sizing Europe by 19 effortless lengths. Trainer Nicky Henderson said, ” It was the worst 5 minutes of my life, absolute hell. He finds it so ridiculously easy you worry complacency could creep in.” Sprinter’s jockey Barry Geraghty said, “He’s top class. Hopefully he’ll stay sound and we will get a lot of fun out of him.” The first two races on the card were a father and son affair; Willie Mullins and Patrick Mullins taking the John Oaksey National Hunt Chase with Back in Focus. The favourite swept past Tofino Bay as he tired on the run up. Willie Mullins was a very proud father in the winner’s enclosure and it meant a lot to him to have a winner with his son up. The Twiston-Davies family were celebrating after the Neptune Investments Novices Hurdle when the better ground allowed The New One to show off his turn of foot. Rule the World fought valiantly but couldn’t match the pace. The favourite Pont Alexandre came third and didn’t seem to be travelling from quite a way out. Willie Mullins said he was disappointed and perhaps soft ground is the key. Lord Windermere managed to edge out Goulanes in the RSA Steeple Chase. His jockey Davy Russell said, “All credit to Jim Culloty and the lads, I only had to steer him today.” The Coral Cup went to outsider Medinas trained by Alan King. There was a photo finish for second which Alan King also clinched with Meister Eckhart by a nose and Willie Mullins’ Fiveforthree took third after an absence of 727 days. The Fred Winter was claimed by Flaxon Flare who cleared the last gaining lengths in the air and charged up the hill winning by four and a half lengths. The Bumper was won by a rarity; a horse ridden by Ruby Walsh, trained by Willie Mullins with a starting price of 25-1. Briar Hill takes Willie Mullins bumper wins total up to 8. Tomorrow the two big races are Ryanair Chase and the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. The current favourites are First Lieutenant in the Chase and Oscar Whisky in the World Hurdle.
The symptoms usually start for me the day the guides start to appear through the letterbox and the racing papers start to get prominent positions on the shelves. Cheltenham fever is a strange condition with only known cure found at Prestbury Park. The beauty of Cheltenham and its Festival is that for those 4 days you can submerge yourself in a parallel universe which, if you so wish, has no footprint on the outside world. Even better than that is the fact that the outside world and all its distractions, frustrations and often its disasters can cease to exist for all those who enter the bubble. Once those guides and previews land then normal papers and novels are better employed as kindling for the fires that keep us warm as the winter clings on. Bed time reading that once was the latest Nordic noir or an educational history tome is replaced with vital facts about 12 yr old horses trying to win Gold Cups and the record of French breds in the Arkle. Come the week of the Festival, the daffodils start to pop their heads up and the world disappears. Cheltenham envelops you like a comfort blanket; it’s all that matters. As you get in the car and the signs switch from Birmingham to Worcester to CHELTENHAM, the radio magically changes from Radio 2 and Jeremy Vine to Cheltenham Festival Radio and the dulcet tones of Lydia Hislop and Steve Mellish discussing the Pertemps. Park up and all of a sudden a mysterious force has changed the gender split from 50/50 to a solid 90/10. The only paper you see is the Racing Post, pub customers are spilling onto the pavement at 10.30am and everyone is walking in the same direction – towards Prestbury Park. The comfort blanket tightens and your child’s grades are forgotten, financial woes disappear, North Korean and Iran and their nuclear capability; who cares? For these 4 days the mind is on only one thing. Scores of visits to the best hypnotherapists couldn’t remove this level of stress in a stroke, but you’ve found it; Cheltenham. Harsh gutteral voices shout out “Any spare tickets, I’ll buy or sell”. Travelling women thrust unwanted heather at your lapel, you start to see the horse boxes with those familiar names emblazoned on their sides. “PN Nicholls” “N Henderson” The pulse quickens, you’re here. Nothing else matters. Cheltenham Racecourse is another world where horses rule. The beautiful paddock contrasts with the hell-hole that is the toilets. You don’t care, you’re here. It’s about to begin. Suddenly there are 20 runners circling in the distance and then the ROAR. It’s deafening and just like a Tornado taking off it means “We’re up and away”. 27 races, the best jumps horses in the world, brave jockeys and grooms who have invested years of their lives into this single week. Heroes are made, wallets are decimated. You may as well be on Mars for all that the outside world has to do with it. Then,as quick as it began, it ends. It changes. Perhaps Nicky and David didn’t win their fathers’ races; it doesn’t matter. You walk out of the course and join thousands walking away from 4 days of amazing sport. You see buses that go to other destinations, you see billboards giving you the news that inflation is up, you speak to your wife and say you’ll be back home soon. The real world begins to matter once again but only until next March. Follow Jeremiah on Twitter @jcatskill.
Look at your clock and rejoice. There is less than a month until the most important week in the calendar – the Cheltenham Festival 2018. Yes, those four days are less than four weeks away and as part of the build-up to the epic festival it’s time to shine a light upon a race that hasn’t had the microscope treatment here – the Betway Champion Chase.
Two deeply impressive performances over the past month has injected a huge amount of potential into the race, and also ignited a rivalry which is by no means unfinished – that of Altior v Min. Altior, so deeply impressive when trashing Min in the Supreme Novice’s Hurdle two years ago, didn’t get a chance to have the rematch that so many had hoped for with the Irish raider when he suffered and injury last year, and in his absence, belted older opposition in the Game Spirit before then winning the Arkle, putting away the penalty kick that he was given by the fall of Charbel.
Some suggested that he wasn’t at his best that day, and his wide margin win in the Celebration Chase afterwards – arguably a more impressive performance – suggested that could have been the case, although there was no doubting for many that he was the best 2-mile chaser in training.
One had expected to see him more than once this season, but fortune was not kind to Nicky Henderson, who found out that Altior had made “a whistling noise” during his work in the lead up to the Tingle Creek, for which he had been a hot favourite – it turned out that he needed a wind op. So away he went, with the Game Spirit the one chance he would have to run before the Cheltenham Festival. Thankfully he made it, and as you can recall, he oozed class in tracking Politologue and then moving past him in a manner of seconds, with Nico de Boinville having an easier time on him than he did for any of his wins last year as he won by four lengths on the bridle.
If that’s what he can produce after such a long time off, imagine what he could produce with improvement – although there is one major caveat. Firstly, the dreaded bounce factor. This is shown by the small but incredibly eye catching (or worrying if, like me, you are a fan of the horse) sample size with over 30 horses having run at the Cheltenham Festival for the second time in a season with 600-day breaks – producing only one winner. That said, none were Altior. There are always different interpretations of statistics which result in many websites and analysts posting tips throughout the Cheltenham Festival 2018.
Min, who met Altior two seasons ago in the Supreme, is accepted not to have run to his best that day and was making into a fine novice chaser before injury intervened and robbed us of a rematch last year. Previously a deeply impressive winner of the Racing Post Novice Chase, his knee injury ruled him out of the spring before a visually impressive return at Gowran over 2m4f. He didn’t have much of a workout there – he did go off a 1/9 shot – but the style enthralled many and it was no surprise that he was sent off long odds on to take the Dial-A-Bet Chase.
However, he found things much tougher there and at many points looked to be struggling against Simply Ned through the straight before he drifted into the general line of Nicky Richards’ horse, and the disqualification that he suffered was deserved. However, that was arguably his first real race since last Christmas and he was a different horse when sitting off the lightning quick gallop in the Dublin Chase.
Special Tiara – the winner of this last year – set a terrific pace and jumped with the verve he’d last showed in March, stringing the field out by 15 lengths after the first fence and refusing to relent until well after the last, By tat time, Min, who was clearly in his element, was tracking him and ready to go and win the race in style, which he did, and announce himself as a huge player. He duly won by seven lengths and is sure to go well at the Festival, but it would not be a surprise if Special Tiara was able to improve on that effort.
Whilst he is now 11, it must be remembered that the better the ground, the better Special Tiara is, and should we get the same surface as last year, then he can surely be expected to go well again. He should improve physically too – he did not get a full runout in the Desert Orchid Chase and had only appeared in the Shloer Chase before that, his seasonal reappearance. He might be more restrained at the Festival but set a strong pace when outlasting his opposition last year and with his target absolutely confirmed, appeals as being overpriced at 16/1.
It will be a surprise to many that I have not mentioned Douvan, odds on for this race last year and serenely unbeaten before that, until now. However, at the time of writing, it is not a certainty that he will run in the Red Mills Chase at the weekend, and should he win that then the Ryanair begins to look the stronger option for him anyway.
Politologue had no answer to Altior in the Game Spirit but might not be the worst each/way option given that he was not going to have been at 100% either (due to a combination of race targeting and a January flu jab) and his extra stamina makes him an attractive choice here. He hasn’t put a foot wrong in jumping terms all season, especially in the Tingle Creek when he got the better of Fox Norton, and he can run well.
Un De Secaux is likelier to defend his title in the Ryanair, unless there was a deluge of rain. Great Field is an incredibly exciting horse, but his problems have robbed him of a clean crack at the race and he is next season’s horse. Last season’s neck second Fox Norton was out jumped when Politologue beat him in the Tingle Creek, and it could be that he’s happier at the Ryanair trip – he certainly looked it when he was a super winner of the Melling Chase at Aintree last season. Ar Mad was third in that race, but beaten fair and square whilst he’s better going right handed. Charbel, fourth there, doesn’t look good enough to run the finish out of a field this good. Yorkhill won’t be running here following his disappointing showing at Leopardstown, and neither will Top Notch unless the ground becomes seriously testing.
1 pt each/way Special Tiara, Champion Chase (16/1 general)