Cheltenham – Day 2

The second day of Cheltenham provides the racing enthusiast a feast of quality racing with four grade one races, two competitive handicaps and an amateur riders race to kick off the card. The 320 race, the Queen Mother Champion Chase would look to be a penalty kick for last season’s Arkle winner Sprinter Sacre. However, the inclusion of the 2011 winner Sizing Europe will provide some substance to a race were most of the opposition have been running for cover.

The opening race, the Amateur riders’ race run over 4m, for me looks between the Willie Mullins trained Back in Focus, who won the Topaz Novice chase at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival, and the Dessie Hughes trained Tofino Bay. Both horses stay very well, my preference is for Back in Focus, whose win at Leopardstown was impressive and beat some decent rivals, I also thing he would be competitive if he were to run in RSA.

The Neptune Novices’ Hurdle run over 2m5f looks a high quality renewal with many Irish people’s festival banker, Pont Alexnandre, the hot favourite at 6/4. The other fancied Irish representative is Rule The World, trained by Mouse Morris, priced at 11/2. Both runners have looked impressive on their previous outings, Pont Alexandre, for me is too short on what he has achieved, connections would lead you to believe he is a very high class horse. Rule The World won the Slaney Novice hurdle at Naas in February, the race fell into his lap after both Minsk and Champagne Fever cut each other’s throats in testing conditions. The New One has looked impressive in his early season wins, but got outstayed last time out over course and distance by At Fisher Cross, who runs in Friday’s Albert Bartlett over 3m. I am very keen on Taquin Du Seuil, he didn’t disgrace himself going down to My Tent or Yours at Ascot early in the season giving 5lbs. He followed up with a win at Sandown in a Grade 2, then captured the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle at Newbury in testing conditions. I think he brings more substance to the race than some of the other contenders, and is my selection for the race.

The Coral Cup Cup is a fantastic handicap hurdle, run over 2m 5f, it is an ultra-competitive handicap with 16lb separating the field. The market is headed by the Charlie Longsdon trained Pendra, purchased by JP McManus in February, he is fantastically bred, and looks a horse with a massive future. One reservation I have about him is the fact he does not have a lot of experience, this race may pass him by. Xenophon won the 2003 renewal, en route he won the Boylesports hurdle at Leopardstown, this year’s winner is the second favourite, Abbey Lane, priced at 8/1. Trained by Willie Mullins, he will have to overcome a 15lb rise to follow up on his Leopardstown win, Mullins also runs 2008 Neptune winner Fivefourthree who returns to the track after a 727 day absence. Gordon Elliott, who trained the 2011 winner Carlito Brigante, has two entries in this year’s race, Bondage and Un Beau Matin. Bondage won over C&D in October, he ran off 127, he was raised 18lb for that effort, but I think he could still be competitive off a mark of 145. Barbatos looked an improving novice last season, he won a decent novice hurdle on New Years Day 2012. He was injured after that run, and returned last January at Cheltenham, to finish down the field on testing ground with a tame effort. If he retains the form that he showed in 2012, I believe he is on a mark that he can exploit.

Best Bets of Day Two:
130 Back in Focus 10/3
205 Taquin Du Seuil 5/1
400 Bondage 16/1 and Barbatos 16/1

Cheltenham – Day One

Tomorrow sees the 1st day of the 2013 Cheltenham festival get under way. In over ten years of following horse racing, this is by far the coldest and dampest festival I can remember. In previous seasons we have been used to seeing horses favouring better ground get the opportunity to reverse early season winter form. With the going stick at Cheltenham currently reading 6.0 as opposed to last season’s reading of 7.7 on the opening day, expect horses with a preference for soft ground to flourish at this year’s festival.

The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle opens the meeting with the Betfair Hurdle winner My Tent or Yours clear favourite at 15/8. This race has proved an unhappy hunting ground for favourites down the years, with the likes of Dunguib and Cue Card beaten at short prices. The field of 12 runners in this year’s race sees a smaller field than previous seasons, in the last 5 renewals, the lowest was 15 (2011) and the highest was 22 (2008). The small field has to be an advantage for My Tent or Yours as it should eliminate the hustle and bustle that normally is associated with this race. I would expect the Willie Mullins pair of Champagne Fever and Un Atout to race prominently to ensure the race is a stamina test and try to expose any chink in the armour of the Nicky Henderson trained favourite. Although My Tent or Yours has plenty of gears, it should be worth noting that his dam is a half sister to 2008 St Leger winner Conduit, I don’t think stamina will be an issue. Though short enough at under 2/1, I would not be a layer of the horse and expect him to confirm his promise with Champagne Fever not too far away in second.

Nine runners will line up in the Champion Hurdle, with the 2011 winner Hurricane Fly the current favourite at 9/4. With no Overturn in this year’s race, it’s hard to see who will make the running. Rock on Ruby, Zarkandar, Countrywide Flame will require an end to end gallop in order to nullify that finishing kick that Hurricane Fly possesses off a slow pace. Grandouet is a very talented horse, but his preparation has not been ideal for a horse who seems to flourish with his racing. If the race is run at an even gallop, Rock on Ruby should win his second champion hurdle and prove that last season’s victory was no fluke.

The last race of the day is the Rewards4Racing Novices’ handicap chase run over 2m 4f. It is a compressed handicap with top weight off 140, bottom weight 132. The favourite, Colour Squadron, trained by Philip Hobbs and owned by JP McManus is priced at 6-1. He is still a maiden over fences having been treated with kid gloves on his previous three attempts. The horse I like in the race is the Andy Turnell trained The Druids Nephew. On his chase debut at Ascot in November he was beaten a nose by Hadrian’s Approach with the Racing Plus Chase runner up Rolling Aces in third. He didn’t stay next time out at Kempton over 3m and broke his duck at Wincanton in early January over 2m 4f. He is a very proficient jumper and looks open to improvement, at the current price of 13/2, he is be my best bet of day one.

Recommended Bet – 515 The Druids Nephew 13/2.

Gold Cup Preview

When Denman won his first Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in 2007, he was devastating, he beat an 18 runner field carrying top weight of 11st 12lb. After the Newbury race his odds were cut to 6/4 and held joint favouritism for that season’s Gold Cup with stable mate and reigning champion Kauto Star. Denman went on to capture that Gold Cup of 2008 with his most devastating performance of his career, it could be argued he never recovered from that race, although he did win another Hennessy in 2009.

Bobs Worth heads into this seasons Gold Cup as the current 3-1 favourite, he is yet to be beaten at Cheltenham, winning twice at the festival, the Albert Bartlett in 2011 and the RSA in 2012. He won the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on his first and only run this season in December and it could be argued that the performance of this year’s Hennessy winner, Bobs Worth, was equally as devastating as Denman’s 2007 win. Running off a 1lb lower mark than Denman’s 2007 rating of 161, he took up the lead jumping the last to beat the Paul Nicholls top weight Tidal Bay by 3¼ lengths with the RSA runner up First Lieutenant 5 lengths back in third. Tidal Bay went on to frank the form by capturing the Grade 1 Lexus chase at Leopardstown in December just heading First Lieutenant on the line.

The Willie Mullins trained Sir Des Champs is the second favourite, steadily improving with every run, he captured the Irish Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month. His previous run saw him staying on to finish a very close fourth to Tidal Bay in the Lexus, also at Leopardstown. His price of 4-1 looks based on the promise that he should improve for the step up in trip and better ground.

The Paul Nicholls trained Silviniaco Conti is next in the betting at 5-1. He has had a very successful season with three wins from three runs, winning a weak Charlie Hall at Wetherby, the Betfair Chase at Haydock and the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury last month. He didn’t run at the Festival last season, bypassing the novice chases to run at Aintree, capturing the Mildmay. A lot of has been made of his Cheltenham absense, some suggesting he won’t handle the undulations of the Cheltenham track. He ran perfectly well in the International hurdle in 2010, finishing a respectable third behind Menorah and Cue Card. He is a progressive horse, though I think this may be a step too far for him.

The 2011 winner and two time King George winner Long Run is the next in the betting at 13/2. He opened his season finishing behind Silviniaco Conti in the Betfair Chase, it was a rather tactical race, which wasn’t run to suit. He captured his second King George at Kempton in very testing conditions just heading Captain Chris in an exciting finish. Long Run will require a strongly run race to be seen at his best, however that may only get him placed.

Of the other horses, The Giant Bolster, Captain Chris and Imperial Commander add a lot of depth and quality to the race. Of the three, the Giant Bolster looks most likely to run a bold race, Imperial Commander is not the force of old and Captain Chris’s jumping would be a major worry. I have written about First Lieutenant in a previous blog, I think he should run in the Gold Cup, but he looks more like lining up in the Ryanair.

In summing up, the race looks between last year’s RSA and Jewson winner Bobs Worth and Sir Des Champs. In my opinion Bobs Worth’s form is strongest, he will tackle the Gold Cup with a 104 day break, the break before his Hennessey win was 262 days, his absence for me is not a worry. Sir Des Champs price is based on expected improvement, for me, he will need to improve considerably to beat Bobs Worth.

Hurricane Fly – Can he stick the pace?

The main talking point of day one of last year’s Champion Hurdle was the surprise defeat of the odds on favourite and 2011 winner Hurricane Fly. There was much talk post-race about the defeat of the Willie Mullins gelding, some analysts suggesting the winner Rock on Ruby was given an enterprising ride. Ruby Walsh said his horse didn’t find anything coming down the hill to two out, he stayed on to finish third with the Donald McCain trained Overturn finishing second.

Hurricane Fly again is the Champion Hurdle favourite at bigger odds of 7/4, having started the 2012 renewal at 4/6. The current champion, Rock on Ruby, who won his last start at Doncaster, albeit fortuitously after the ill-fated Darlan fell at the last hurdle, is priced at 6-1.

In the 2011 Champion Hurdle, Hurricane Fly looked visually impressive as he cut through the field to lead over the last beating Peddlers Cross to win by 1¼L. I have done an analysis of Hurricane Fly’s time that day, using sectional time from hurdle to hurdle, i.e. from the time the horse passed the starting line to the 1st hurdle, then to the second, so on to the 8th hurdle and on to the line. It reads, in seconds: –

1st – 6.6; 2nd 43.9; 3rd 43.6; 4th 25; 5th 20.6; 6th 34.6; 7th 17.1; 8th 25; To the line 13.
It is worth not the stick reading for the Old Course was 7.7

For the 2012 renewal, using the same basis as above, with a sick reading of 7.3, the times are: –
1st 6.5; 2nd 44.1; 3rd 41.9; 4th 23.5; 5th 20.1 6th 35; 7th 16.9; 8th 25.9; To the line 13.8

I have also analysed Rock on Ruby’s time, again using the methodology used in Hurricane Fly’s timings, they are: –
1st 6.1; 2nd 44.2; 3rd 41.5; 4th 23.7; 5th 20.4; 6th 35; 7th 16.9; 8th 26.2; To the line 13.4

The times suggest that the 2011 renewal was run at a slow pace, with Hurricane Fly held up, then quickened to take command of the race over two out. As mentioned, this looked visually impressive due to the fact he was cruising past horses who are not top class 2 milers, the likes of Peddlers Cross, Oscar Whisky and Thousand Stars.

The 2012 running showed a vulnerability in Hurricane Fly (again held up), this was down to a quicker pace being injected into the race early on and thus eliminating the turn of foot that he has used to great effect in his thirteen grade one wins over hurdles. The key for Hurricane Fly’s rivals is to ensure that this year’s renewal is run to a similar pace as last years. This may be all the more difficult with Overturn absent as he takes up his Arkle engagement.

If Zarkandar or Rock on Ruby are to ensure there is no repeat of the 2011 victory by Hurricane Fly, both their jockeys Daryl Jacob and Noel Fehily will need to ensure there is a quick pace and eliminate that devastating kick.

Recommended bet – Rock On Ruby 6/1

First Lieutenant – Ryanair or Gold Cup?

The Lexus chase in December was arguably the National Hunt race of the season so far. Just ¾ of a length separated four top class chasers in the premier race of the Leopardstown Christmas festival. The mercurial Tidal Bay just headed the Mouse Morris trained First Lieutenant, with the strong travelling Flemenstar in third and the staying on Sir Des Champs in fourth. It is a shame that all four will not participate at this year’s festival, Tidal Bay’s omission is due to a stress fracture of his cannon bone on his right hind leg and Flemenstar’s omission due to a lung infection.

The Gigginstown pair of First Lieutenant and Sir Des Champs will both go to the festival in just over three weeks. The intended target for Sir Des Champs is pretty clear, he won the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown, outstaying a reported off colour Flemenstar. The Willie Mullins seven year old showed a much improved round of jumping and the extra two furlongs in the Cheltenham Gold Cup should play to his strengths. He is 4-1 second favourite behind the Nicky Henderson trained Bob’s Worth.

The intended target for First Lieutenant is not so clear, but if the market is an indication (it normally is), then the 8 year old gelding will be heading to the race his owner sponsors, the Ryanair, over 2m 5f. Although First Lieutenant won the Neptune Investments novices hurdle in 2011 over the same distance, I don’t believe he still possesses the required speed for this trip. He was a six year old when he won the Neptune, outstaying last year’s Champion Hurdle winner Rock on Ruby to prevail by a short head. It is also worth mentioning that this looks the strongest renewal of the Ryanair since its inception, due to the 2m chasing division being dominated by the awesome Sprinter Sacre.

The Gold Cup should be the preferred option for First Lieutenant, his chase form over 3m is where he is seen at his best. He has also shown a marked improvement for better ground in spring, improving 7lbs when winning the Neptune in 2011 and 11lbs when running second to Bobs Worth in last season’s RSA. He ran to a career high mark in the Lexus, attaining a rating of 167 (currently 1lb higher than Sire Des Champs), there is no reason to think that he cannot improve again under his ideal conditions.

Gigginstown have a tough decision to make, but running their horses to their strengths should ultimately decide which race they contest.

Betfair Ascot Chase -16/02/2013

Six runners line up in tomorrows Betfair Chase at Ascot, it looks a high class renewal with four of the runners rated 165+. Runner up in this season’s King George, Captain Chris and Ryanair favourite, Cue Card currently share favouritism at 5/2. Next in the betting is last seasons champion chase winner Finian’s Rainbow at 3/1 followed by Ascot specialist Somersby at 9/2. The field is completed by Ghizao and Pigeon Island.

Cue Card, who made the running in his Haldon Gold Cup win at Exeter in November will probably employ similar tactics with Captain Chris tracking the Colin Tizzard horse. Captain Chris, who won the Amlin Chase at the course earlier this season, will probably be ridden somewhat aggressively also, as he clearly stays further than 2m 5f, it could develop into somewhat of a battle up front. This may set the race up for Finian’s Rainbow and Somersby who I would expect will track the pace set by the market principals.

Finian’s Rainbow put in a dire performance in the Amlin and clearly is not at his best on an easier surface. The race looks ideally set up for the Mick Channon trained Somersby who is best seen tracking a decent pace and saves his best performances for Ascot.

Recommendation – Somersby 9/2

Neptune Invesments Novice Hurdle 2013

As much as I enjoy the Championship races at the festival, the races I look forward to most are the novice events, whether it is over hurdles or over fences. It’s the anticipation of finding out if the horse you spotted at the early point of the season, or in a bumper last year is really as good as you thought it was.

The Neptune Investments hurdle run over 2m 5f has produced some high class horses down through the years, Istabraq, Hardy Eustace, Peddlers Cross, First Lieutenant and last years runaway winner, and current Arkle favourite Simonsig.

The Willie Mullins trained Pont Alexandre heads the market at 11/4. He has won both starts in Ireland, firstly at Navan turning over the highly touted, Don Cossack. He won decisively next time out in a Grade 2 hurdle at Leopardstown at the end of January. He raced from the front on both occasions, galloping his rivals into submission. The only negative point, he has a tendency to jump to his right at each hurdle, it didn’t inconvenience him on both wins, but at a faster pace and against better horses, it may.

The New One (5/1) has been described by his trainer as the best horse he has trained, a sweeping statement by Nigel Twiston Davies, who trained Imperial Commander to win the Gold Cup in 2010. He won the Aintree bumper last season defeating Saturday’s Betfair Hurdle winner My Tent or Yours. He has had four starts over hurdles this season, winning three and meeting defeat last time out on heavy ground at Cheltenham by the Rebecca Curtis trained At Fishers Cross. There was a lot of talk that The New One enhanced his reputation following that defeat, I take a differing view. I think if The New One was a potential Neptune winner, he should have easily disposed of At Fishers Cross, who looks destined to contest the Albert Bartlett over three miles.

You will hear in the build up to the festival that no winner of the Challow has won the Neptune since 1415, the last time the pope abdicated. This year’s winner, Taquin Du Seuil, trained by Johnjo O’Neill, started his hurdle career over 2m in the UK at Uttoxeter in October with a facile win. Next time out, he finished 1¾ length behind My Tent or Yours at Ascot conceding 5lbs to the Betfair Hurdle winner My Tent or Yours. He won his next two starts were in a Grade 2 at Sandown and in the Grade 1 Challow, winning both easily. He is best priced at 8/1.

Mouse Morris won the Neptune in 2011 with First Lieutenant, he is represented by Rule the World, running in the same Gigginstown House colours. He is a half-brother to the 2008 runner up Venalmer, who was also trained by Morris. He has been beaten once after four starts over hurdles, the defeat came over 3m at Cork to the promising Our Vinnie. His price halved into 10/1 with an easy win in the Grade 2 Slaney Novice hurdle at Naas defeating Minsk and an out of sorts Champagne Fever. I am pretty sceptical about the form of the Slaney, both market principals went too fast early on which set up the race for Rule The World who picked up the pieces to win.

The Jeremy Scott trained Melodic Rendezvous is priced at 10/1. His target at the festival would seem to be ground dependent after winning a listed hurdle at Exeter at the weekend. In fact, his last three wins, including the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown, have been on heavy ground. According to his trainer, if it came up soft, he would run in the Supreme, if the ground was faster, then he would head to the Neptune. I think the Neptune may be more suitable for Melodic Rendezvous, he has shown good turn a foot against horses who look like they would be potentially better over further. He is out of an Old Vic mare so there is no reason why he wouldn’t get the trip on breeding.

Bright New Dawn runs in the same colours as Rule the World, he finished second to Champagne Fever on his last start in the Deloitte at Leopardstown. Prior to that, he ran third to Jezki and Waaheb at Leopardstown over 2m in the Future Champions Hurdle at Christmas. He looks very much a staying chaser in the making, but there can be no doubt how well he has taken to hurdles. Improvement will come running over a further trip and chances are, being by Presenting, he will be suited by better ground. He is currently priced at 20/1, with his trainer stating he would like to run him in the Neptune, but it will be the owner’s decision. He is currently priced at 20/1

Looking through the rest of the field Champagne Fever, At Fishers Cross, Un Atout, Mozoltov and Coneygree look to be heading to the Supreme or the Albert Bartlett. Puffin Billy, Gevrey Chambertin and Don Cossack don’t look good enough.

From the horses that look likely to line up on the day, I would side with Taquin Du Seuil, he ran extremely well to a point at Ascot against the recent Betfair Hurdle winner My Tent or Yours. Although he was beaten reasonably comfortably that day, he was conceding 5lbs and running over an inadequate trip. I would also consider the chances of both Bright New Dawn and Melodic Rendezvous if they took up the engagement.