Cheltenham – What Price the Feature Race?

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Davy Russell returns a win for Gigginstown in Thursday’s Feature Race

I must admit I was flagging a bit by Thursday at the Festival and at first I thought I just misheard it when the Ryanair was announced on the tannoy as the day’s Feature Race. However, when my racing companion Spread Sheet Martin, who has a far better sense for detail than me, also picked up on it I knew my ears weren’t deceiving me.  Perhaps he’d just misread the notes. There was nothing in the Card to suggest the race’s elevation in status and certainly no advertising in the lead up to the Festival pointing to the Chase replacing the Stayers’ Hurdle as the day’s highlight. But then came all the trimmings associated with the main event- The horse’s being lead out by mounted men in hunting red, the dramatic music and that razzmatazzy stuff they put on the screens.

I found it all very confusing. I had rather assumed there was some sacred law written on a scroll stating that the 3.30 on each day of the Festival was to be the Feature Race and that any change could only be achieved by armed struggle.

I feared I knew the answer, but before jumping to any conclusions I made some enquiries: I tweeted Cheltenham Racecourse, the Jockey Club and the Racing Post, but none replied. I expect they were busy.

I would have to do my own research and it didn’t take long.  A quick google of Ryanair Cheltenham Sponsorship and the answers were there on the Ryanair website.  We are informatively told that Ryanair is Europe’s favourite airline – There was me thinking it was best known for cancelled flights and poorly paid pilots- and that it has extended its sponsorship of the two and half mile chase for five years.  It proudly states it will increase the prize fund from £300,000 in 2017, to £350,000 this year and rising to £400,000 by 2022.  And then the inexorable conclusion “In the light of this significant boost in prize money, The Ryanair Chase will now become the feature race on St. Patrick’s Thursday at the Cheltenham Festival from March 2018 onwards”.

The lack of any publicity by the racing authorities of this change prior to the Festival, might hint at a degree of embarrassment  on their part and I do wonder if Ryanair owner, Micheal O’Leary, was engaged in a back room power struggle with Cheltenham to have his race moved to the 3.30pm slot as well.

It turned out to be a good day for Mr O’Leary. Not only was the feature race run in the name of his company, but for the first time since he has sponsored it, one of his horses from the Gigginstown Stud won. The joy must have been enough to take his mind off the impending strike by Ryanair employees.

Perhaps in the final analysis, other than highlighting the power of money and influence of O’Leary in National Hunt racing, this doesn’t matter a great deal. However, whilst enough cash may buy you the main event and the winner, it can’t guarantee a great race. The Ryanair only attracted six runners, whilst fifteen started in the Stayers’ Hurdle and treated us to a far more thrilling finish.

The Prestbury Cup – State of the Nations

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Davy Russell raises the Tricolour to celebrate another Irish victory

With still more than a day’s Festival racing left, the screens flashed up at Cheltenham confirming that Ireland had an unassailable lead in the battle with the British to train the most Festival winners and had, therefore, retained the Prestbury Cup. Thursday finished 6/15 to the Irish and although the Festival ended with a slightly reduced margin of victory 11/17, there is no doubting on which side of the Irish Sea the balance of power lies.

This bare statistic, however, doesn’t tell the full story. All but two of Ireland’s victories were from either Gordon Elliott’s or Willie Mullins’ Yard, with a final result of 8/7 to Elliott.

If this duopoly is worrying, consider the concentration of ownership. Ignoring the Willie Mullins victories, there was only one Irish winner that didn’t race in the colours of Gigginstown Stud. Michael O’Leary owner of Gigginstown and a man who appears to relish playing the role of Pantomime villain, famously withdrew all his horses from the Mullins’ Yard due to an increase in training fees, and now largely favours Elliott to stable his large number of expensive thoroughbreds.

Whilst the big beasts of Anglo training, Nicky Henderson and Colin Tizzard, took the major Festival prizes, eight British trainers sampled the winner’s enclosure and none more than twice. The glory was also shared amongst a number of owners.

As the proud holder of an Irish passport, I am of course pleased that we won the Prestbury Cup and the dominance is all the more impressive when you consider that Ireland’s top jockey Ruby Walsh missed a majority of the four days, having aggravated a leg injury from which he had only returned to the saddle. However, it seems to me that so much power and money in the hands of so few isn’t good for the sport and it is actually British racing that is in the more healthy state.

Back To The Drawing Board – Part 4

So to the climax of the Festival and my take on whether the favourites will win the Grade 1 races on the final day.

Triumph Hurdle – Apple’s Shakira. Current best odds 7/2. The only rival I could realistically make a case for is Redicean, but where Apple’s Shakira has the edge is her experience of Cheltenham. Unbeaten in a four race career, her three runs  since arriving in England have been at Prestbury Park, most recently on Trials Day.  That race turned into a bit more of a contest than many anticipated, but when it came to a battle on the hill, she easily proved herself. And perhaps also significantly, will have learnt a lot. She has my backing.

Albert Bartlett – Santini. Current best odds 9/2. What Santini has is his favour is that he has won at Cheltenham and on ground that Nicky Henderson said wouldn’t suit him. However, this a race in which favourites have a poor record and is often won by outsiders. It is also a contest which, in the context of novices, experience counts. Santini has only raced twice under rules and yet to run the three full miles. This looks like a step too far, too soon and I’m opposing him.

Gold Cup – Might Bite. Current best odds 4/1. The big one and I’ve probably struggled with this race more than any other. On paper, you have to say Might Bite is a worthy favourite. Following his eccentric victory in last year’s RSA, he hasn’t blotted his copy book this season. However, I do wonder what a genuine test the King George was on Boxing Day.  The great unknown, of course, is given his waywardness in the RSA how he will behave on his return to the Course. Well, he’s looked very straight forward this season.  I know the excuses have been made for Sizing John’s defeat in the Christmas Chase at Leopardstown, but it must be a worry and, leaving aside Best Mate, history is not on the side of back to back winners.  As impressive as Native River’s run was in the Denman Chase last month and looks well timed as preparation for the Festival, it was only a three horse race and it’s been his sole outing since third place in the Gold Cup last year.  With talk of the ground turning softer, there have been those bigging up Definitely Red, but I can only see this as a contest between Sizing John and Might Bite. Both have questions to answer, but of the two, I am less troubled by the one raised by Might Bite and I will back him…….I think.

 

Back To The Drawing Board – Part 3

Answering the question whether the favourites will win the Grade 1 races on day three of the Festival is as simple as it is difficult.

JLT Novices’ Chase – Invitation Only. Current best odds 4/1. With the withdrawal of last year’s Neptune winner, Willoughby Court, this is the difficult one as the market has been thrown into confusion. You’d struggle to put a cigarette paper between Invitation Only and Monalee on the prices, although the RSA has always been the presumed destination of Monalee, who is still trading in that race at 3/1. You fancy he could do well in either, but it looks an open race and whoever starts off favourite, has to be worth opposing.

Ryanair Chase – Un De Sceaux. Current best odds 2/1. Now for the easy bit. I can see why money has come in for the unbeaten Waiting Patiently, although he is untested on a track that compares to Cheltenham and I’m not convinced has won against illustrious company. Last year’s winner Un De Sceaux is lightly raced this season, but has undoubted class and not only is he familiar with Cheltenham, but knows how to win there. For those reasons I’m backing him.

Stayers’ Hurdle – Supasundae. Current best odds 4/1. It’s nip and tuck in the market between Supasundae and Sam Spinner, who you can back at 5/1. This doesn’t look like a strong renewal.  After last year’s race showed  Unowhatimeanharry  was beatable, no one has come to claim his crown. The  highlight of the season was undoubtedly Beer Goggles’ win in  the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in December. He proved if nothing else this is a division capable of surprises and with no outstanding contender, don’t rule out a shock in the feature race on the Thursday. There may be plenty of movement in the market before then, but whoever goes to the post as favourite, I can’t see that they will have my backing.

 

 

Back To The Drawing Board – Part 2

Continuing with day two of the Festival, where I attempt to answer the simple question of whether the favourites will win the Grade 1 races:

Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle – Samcro. Current best odds 4/5. One of the very things I’ve got right so far in the lead up to the Festival is that this will be the chosen race for Gordon Elliott’s 6 year old gelding.  I can only see two rivals, On The Blind Side and Next Destination, working on the basis the latter doesn’t end up in the Albert Bartlett. Both have good records, but from what I’ve seen Samcro is a class apart and has the necessary gears to win. In spite of Elliott saying ‘he still has to keep improving’ I’m backing him.

RSA Novices’ Chase – Presenting Percy. Current best price 3/1. This looks to be one of the best betting races of the week, with Presenting Percy and Monalee (4/1) currently battling for favouritism. I may be missing something , but I would struggle to present an argument for either. I’ve also written previously about my faith in Black Corton and a man has to display some loyalty so I’m against Presenting Percy.

Champion Chase – Altior. Current best price 8/11. All that fuss about Altior and the wind op seems like history now and all people will remember is that win at Newbury earlier in the month. And he looked the real deal. I’d like to make a case for Politilogue, but Altior looked in a different league running against him. Min is a threat, but has shown he can be beaten at the highest grade. In spite of only having raced once since April of last year, he’s a proven winner at Cheltenham so I’m backing Altior.

Champion Bumper – Blackbow. Current best price 6/1. For the avoidance of doubt, I’m hopeless at picking the winner in Bumpers. There will be a lot of unexposed horses who have won on their last time out. The only trick I’ve been told is to look for the distance of the previous victory. But to keep it easy, on the basis only one favourite has won this race in the last ten years, I’m against Blackbow.

 

 

Back to the Drawing Board – Part 1

So far I’ve offered two tips for Cheltenham. Firstly, If The Cap Fits for the Supreme Novices. Harry Fry announced on Friday that due to a muscle tear, he won’t be running. Secondly, Elgin for the Champion Hurdle. I wrote in support of Alan King’s six year old, largely based on questioning the favourite, Buveur D’Air’s preparation. The argument went that due to the cold snap, Nicky Henderson would be unable to get him out for a run around Kempton yesterday and wouldn’t, therefore, be match fit for the Festival. Buveur D’Air got to have his workout and Henderson reported it ‘was perfect’ as part of his build up.

OK so I’m beginning to look like a bit of a dick head. But more than twenty years of defending hopeless causes before hostile Magistrates has taught  me, if nothing else, to be resilient and inbuilt an ability to bounce back.

In an attempt to rehabilitate myself, I’m going to begin by going through the Festival Grade 1 races and give a view on whether to support the favourite. I will avoid any comment on value and, to avoid humiliating myself any further, will try and keep it simple.

So here’s Day one:

Supreme Novices’- Getabird. Current best price 13/8.  Lightly raced. Won all three hurdle contests, but nothing at a pace and unused to large fields. Also untested jumping on the likely firmer ground. Doesn’t get my backing.

The Arkle- Footpad. Current best price 11/8. Has won the key Irish prep races and proved himself on good to soft ground. In a division that lacks any strength in depth, he gets my backing.

Champion Hurdle- Buveur D’Air. Current best price 4/7. Looks to have it all, except for a proper test this season, which could be crucial. Having argued the case against him yesterday, I’m going to have to stick to my guns and won’t be backing him.

Mares’ Hurdle- Apple’s Jade. Current best price 4/6. I can’t say I know an awful lot about any of the rivals, but just looking at the form, I would struggle to argue against her. She, therefore, gets my backing.

 

The Case Against Buveur D’Air

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Buveur D’Air is quite correctly the banker for many at the Cheltenham Festival. Winner of the Champion Hurdle last year, he is currently best price 4/7 to retain the title.   Having raced four times since this victory, he has comfortably beaten all placed in his way.  This includes The Betway Hurdle at Aintree last April, The Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in December and most recently The Contenders Hurdle at Sandown earlier in the month.

The question mark over him, however, is the lack of a test. The Fighting Fifth looked too easy and the The Contenders was a three horse race, with one starting at 100/1. I recently heard it said that he has only run in egg and spoon races this season. That is a bit harsh as most have been in Grade 1 company, but frankly if I’d lost a couple of pounds and held on tightly enough, I would have fancied my chances on his back in the Fighting Fifth.

Whilst the weakness of the division can only strengthen the argument for a win, history might suggest otherwise. Statistically the Champion Hurdle is the least predictable  of the four championship races. Five of the last ten winners have returned at prices of 9/1 or greater and you have to go back to 2005 to find the last back to back victories in Hardy Eustace.

It is always easy to overemphasis historical data, but the case against Buveur D’Air becomes stronger if you factor in the lead up. Nicky Henderson had hoped to give him a run at Kempton before the meeting today, but with the covers on this opportunity was lost. Henderson said earlier in the week “He needs an awful lot of work and he didn’t have a race at Sandown the other day. So we have to take him somewhere”. With the weather set to get even colder and to stay with us, you have to wonder where the chances will come from to have a strong gallop before the Festival. It might just be the weather has conspired against him and thrown the timing out.

Given the paucity of rivals, you may well suggest all this academic, and ask who realistically can beat him. Even assuming Faugheen turns up, on recent evidence would offer no challenge. My Tent Or Yours, must surely be too old. Next in the odds is Yorkhill at 16/1. Really? I’ve read nothing to suggest Willie Mullins has this race in mind and he’s only run twice this season staying over fences, without making any impact.

There then follows a host of prospects at 20/1, many of whom have multiple entries and most of whom it would be hard to make a case for.

Amongst the 20/1 group is Alan King’s Elgin, who isn’t even entered at this stage, but looks a certainty to be supplemented. Far from disgraced with 7th place in last year’s freakish Supreme Novices’, he has since proved himself around the Old Course, winning the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle in November. Given the weight  he can probably be forgiven his subsequent 6th place in December’s Handicap Hurdle at Ascot and bounced back with victory, under a penalty, in last weekend’s Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. This race is really the last British prep run before the Champion Hurdle and is often used by those who are catching up late. However, with the weather likely to frustrate last minute preparations for Buveur D’Air, the timing might just have been perfect for Elgin.

There are worse races than the Kingwell from which to pick a Champion Hurdle winner and it provided Elgin with the one thing Buveur D’Air hasn’t had this season, namely having to prove himself in a proper dust up of a competitive race.