Ante-post focus: 2017 Sun Bet Stayers’ Hurdle

Forty-seven horses have been entered for what is now known as the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle, formerly the World Hurdle. It’s great to see two past winners make the initial list, 2014 hero More Of That and 2015 victor Cole Harden. It’s also good to see the world “Stayers” appear in the race name again, it fits the race nicely.

It’s unlikely More Of That will bid to recapture his crown, a tilt at the Gold Cup looks on the cards, but Cole Harden is an intended runner. The betting is headed by Unowhatimeanharry, last season’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle winner who now runs in the JP McManus silks having been purchased during the summer.

Like the Champion Hurdle, Annie Power and Faugheen are both entered in the Stayers’ Hurdle, but won’t run, and having looked at the race in closer detail, despite 47 horses entered, it looks a pretty straight-forward contest to handicap. We’ll just have to try and eke out some each-way value against the hot favourite.

Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle ante-post preview

Unowhatimeanharry is the 6/4 favourite for the Harry Fry team. I must admit, coming into this season I wasn’t sure he’d be good enough to reach his current level, but he has proved me wrong and taken me by surprise.

The son of Sir Harry Lewis won last season’s Albert Bartlett making that his fifth win-in-a-row. Three further victories this campaign now see him bidding to make in nine on the bounce under new regular jockey, Barry Geraghty.

Two Grade 2 wins and a top-level success in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot have not only seen the nine-year-old progress, but have also shown continuity in the gelding’s versatility as he has climbed the ranks. His strong-travelling and stout-staying ability saw him capitulate into the Stayers’ Hurdle reckoning when winning the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.

Faster ground and running the other way round didn’t deter him at Ascot in the Long Walk before he followed up under a Grade 1 penalty in the Cleeve at Cheltenham on soft sod, again travelling into contention effortlessly before putting the race to bed.

There are very few chinks in his armour. Having been held-up in his earlier races this season, Barry Geraghty positioned him far more prominently in the Cleeve and the result was the same. The one slight worry I’d have is if the ground came up good or quicker. I have little doubt he’s much better on soft going, and should it turn soft come March, he’ll be banker material at 6/4.

Debate still rages about where the next three horses in the market will run. Jezki, Nichols Canyon and Vroum Vroum Mag all have multiple entries across the four days and it’s tough to know where they will line up at this time, especially the case of Vroum Vroum Mag.

Rich Ricci and Willie Mullins’s mare holds six entries at the Festival. It’s probably safe to say she won’t run in the Champion Chase or the Gold Cup, the Ryanair would also be a small surprise. The Champion Hurdle, the Mares’ Hurdle or this contest are most likely, but it’s impossible to say where she’ll go.

For that reason, she’s easily ducked at this juncture given the objective of the piece. Should she run here, however, Vroum Vroum Mag (9/1) would be a huge danger to the favourite, especially on good ground in receipt of 7lb. Some have crabbed her ability to stay three miles, but it’s not an issue for me. Her class will take her a long way regardless, but even so, she’s not a bet at this moment in time.

Even less so would be her stablemate Nichols Canyon (8/1). I’d have major doubts about Graham Wylie’s seven-time Grade 1 winner seeing out the three-mile trip. Although he’s had plenty of racing, he still runs keen in his races and I could see the petrol gauge emptying in the latter stages. He’s stuck between trips at the moment so it would be great to see a Ryanair-type Hurdle introduced to the Festival. That’s a joke by the way, let’s hope that never happens!

Jezki (6/1), another JP McManus horse, also has the option of running in the Champion Hurdle, but with his owner having two strong arrows for the Tuesday highlight in Buveur D’Air and Yanworth, it make sense for him to line up here.

An eight-time Grade 1 winner and former Champion Hurdler, the son of Milan has had to fight his way back from injury. Before his return this campaign, Jessica Harrington’s inmate was last seen in April of 2015 fending off the great Hurricane Fly over three miles at the Punchestown Festival.

There is no doubt that the son of Milan stays three miles well, but the question remains, has he returned in as good a shape before his injury? Still only nine, there is every chance physically he could be as good, but his comeback run gave me mixed signals.

In winning a low-key Navan event just over three weeks ago, visually, it was the perfect return. Jezki travelled with enthusiasm, jumped great and found plenty off the bridle over the minimum trip. In terms of form however, that run is just shy of 20lb below what will be required to win this Stayers’ Hurdle should the favourite run his race.

His Festival prep in the Red Mills Hurdle at Gowran Park will be defying for the rest of his season, but at the moment, it makes sense to duck him.

Best of the Rest

Cole Harden (14/1) blitzed the 2015 World Hurdle field from the front on good ground, but lost his way the following season, an issue with his knee sighted by his trainer Warren Greatrex. The son of Westerner only ran twice last campaign due to his issues, but that way well prove to be a blessing in disguise.

Cole Harden is an aggressive free-running horse, his style lends him to never having an easy race. Only seeing the track twice last season and just three times in 2016/17, he comes here a fresh horse. Under renewed energy and indeed a sturdier body, the eight-year-old looks to be getting back to his best.

A novice chasing campaign was halted after one attempt before Christmas, but his two hurdle runs since, especially the latest effort, see Cole Harden coming to the boil once more. Over an inadequate trip on soft ground, promise was shown in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham.

His latest second in the Cleeve Hurdle behind hot favourite Unowhatimeanharry was a step up again. Having raced at a strong gallop on the slowest ground throughout, it was really encouraging to see Cole Harden find plenty off the bridle and stay going to finish second. Back on quicker terrain, he’ll be even better.

The Irish have only won this race once in the last ten years, that victory coming via the classy Solwhit in 2013. There is no better man than Willie Mullins to try and improve the Emerald Isle’s record and in Shaneshill (12/1), he has a horse that looks certain to run here.

Second to Douvan in the 2015 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and again runner up in last season’s RSA Chase, connections have made the right move in reverting him to hurdles. He doesn’t have the natural scope to jump fences; simply put, he’s a much better over the smaller obstacles.

After a tough 2015/16 campaign which saw seven runs, I had my doubts about him coming back strong this season. Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown festivals were all undertaken before a surprising trip Stateside.

Thankfully, his efforts over the last four months have been good. Having blown the cobwebs away on debut, where he finished behind Snow Falcon, an improved run came in the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace. Finishing third behind Apple’s Jade and Vroum Vroum Mag was highly satisfactory and he would’ve been closer only for a bad mistake at the final flight.

Ailments in his jumping would come back to haunt him over Christmas, again at the final hurdle, but this time he would take a heavy fall. He’d never have beaten Vroum Vroum Mag, but second spot was still up for grabs before his exit.

To Shanehill’s credit, he bounced back next time out with the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park, making most of the running and jumping well to just hold off Snow Falcon on soft ground. A return to faster sod will be in his favour and he at least looks to be coming to Cheltenham in good order.

The horse that finished second to Shaneshill in the Galmoy was Noel Meade’s Snow Falcon (16/1). Considering he was giving the winner 5lb and conceded first run on a track that wouldn’t play to his strengths, it must go down as a brilliant run and probably a career best.

The son of Presenting has threatened to be a Grade 1 horse for a couple of seasons now, he was a solid fifth in the 2015 Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, but a career blighted by injury has stalled his progress.

A back problem was the cause of much grievance for connections, but that now looks to be sorted, judging on this season’s form. He goes to Cheltenham on the back of a career best, but this has been supported by other solid efforts.

Snow Falcon was a sound third to Vroum Vroum Mag over Christmas at Leopardstown when the slack gallop probably saw him done for toe in the closing stages. The above pair of runs came on the back of a fall at Newbury in November, where the seven-year-old was in the process of running a cracker in the Long Walk Hurdle. Unowhatimeanharry, the race favourite, went on to win that race in some style, leading me to think Noel Meade’s charge was potentially the one horse that could’ve given him a proper race meaning he has to be respected here.

The final horse to get a significant mention in this section is Lil Rockerfeller (25/1), last season’s Champion Hurdle seventh. The improving six-year-old found things happening too quick at last year’s Festival behind the likes of Annie Power.

Before that run on the opening day however, Neil King’s stable star had been plying his trade over intermediate trips and looking much more at home than over the minimum distance.

The Champion Hurdle test on quick ground didn’t suit, but the Stayers’ Hurdle equation may be more to his liking. Connections correctly put him away after his run at Cheltenham last season and in three efforts this campaign, he has looked on the verge of breaking into Grade 1 class.

Just gone six, there is every reason to believe he can make that further step up in class and while maybe 10lb short of winning a ‘proper’ top-level hurdle, time is on his side.

The son of Hard Spun would start the season off positively in the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby. Carrying a penalty, it was always going to be tough to turn over the likes of Silsol and Native River, but despite racing with little room at times, his gritty attitude saw him post a solid effort in defeat, finishing a close up third.

Connections would drop the former flat runner in trip for the Grade 2 Ascot Hurdle on his next start, where he would again have to carry a penalty. Conceding 4lb to live Champion Hurdle contender Yanworth was always going to prove tough despite the winner making his debut, but in pulling ten lengths of the rest, it was yet another solid effort in defeat going on to run second.

Ascot would again be the scene of his next run, a step back up to three miles in the Long Walk Hurdle saw yet another commendable place. Having had to wait for a run turning for home, Unowhatimeanharry got first run; it made no difference in terms of the result, but maybe he could’ve finished a little closer.

His season took a turn for the worse on his next start however, where Lil Rockefeller ended up a well-held and disappointing fourth in the Relkeel. Neil King’s horses weren’t going well at the time and the six-year-old returned home sick. It’s a run that can obviously be forgiven.

One of my favourite horses in training, Clondaw Warrior (20/1) must also get a positive mention. Willie Mullins’s charge has taken his owners all over the world to compete and given them many special days, there is literally too many to mention, but on the flat and over jumps he has been a star.

He’s getting on now, but the son of Overbury is still holding his form well. At Christmas, he was a sound second to Vroum Vroum Mag on unseasonably nice Irish winter ground before he looked to get stuck in the mud at Gowran Park behind Shaneshill and Snow Falcon.

The faster the ground, the better his chance as it should help him stay the trip in a race run at Championship pace on a stiff track. Stamina is the concern, but you couldn’t rule him out of hitting the frame.

Ballyoptic is the horse I felt could be the one of last season’s staying novice hurdles. He hasn’t improved like Unowhatimeanharry has however, and his run in the Cleeve suggested to me he is not up to winning a Stayers’ Hurdle.

OK, he had a penalty there and sat close to strong fractions, but Cole Harden was on that pace too and held him nicely at the line. Ballyoptic will meet him on better terms come March, but on better ground I’d be confident the Greatrex horse will uphold the form.

Apple’s Jade, Footpad, More Of That, One Track Mind The New One and Yanworth all look like they won’t be running here for various reasons and are best swerved.

The Final Verdict

A race that obviously revolves around the hot favourite Unowhatimeanharry. He has looked bombproof this season, improving on last campaign’s brilliant novice year. There is little doubt Harry Fry’s horse is better on softer ground, the more juice there is in the Prestbury Park sod on March 16th, the better his chance. Good ground just leaves him that tiny bit more vulnerable, but all in all, he is nearing value NAP material of all the hot favourites over the week.

The trio of Jezki, Nichols Canyon and Vroum Vroum Mag may not run here. Of the three, Jezki is the most likely. I can’t have Nichols Canyon over this trip, but I’d have a healthy respect for the Mullins mare, should she run here.

This is the race for Jezki, but while the case, I’m happy to take him on at the prices at this juncture. He appeared to return in good order when winning at Navan, it was great to see him happy and healthy again, but the quality of that form worries me. There is also a chance he could bounce next time out in the Red Mills Hurdle. On old form, he’s a huge price, but he comes with question marks at the moment.

With those four out of the running for a bet at this time, we have four solid options to choose from; Cole Harden, Lil Rockerfeller, Shaneshill and Snow Falcon. Dealing with the Irish pair first, it’s a surprise to see Snow Falcon a bigger price than Shaneshill based on their Galmoy running.

The Meade horse will meet the Mullins inmate on 5lb better terms come March and given he only conceded the run of the race to Shaneshill, there is an even stronger argument to suggest he should be the shorter of the two. The Willie Mullins factor is clearly at play here, but no doubting the Meade horse offers much better value.

At the prices, splitting the British-trained pair of Cole Harden and Lil Rockerfeller isn’t too tough. The former is half the price of the Neil King horse and to be fair, I can see why. Lil Rockerfeller has to prove his wellbeing, whereas Cole Harden appears to be getting back to some of his old form.

At 25/1, I’d chance LIL ROCKERFELLER at the prices ahead of Snow Falcon. He is due to run at Fontwell in the National Spirit Hurdle, a race he won last year. That will obviously be key in letting us know where we stand, but this guy is a classy horse.

He doesn’t travel too well in some of his races, which makes life tough for his regular jockey Trevor Whelan, but what he does do is find for pressure. He has to bounce back from a poor effort last time out, but his good form ties him in with the race favourite and a live Champion Hurdle contender.

Given the bet, we could really do with Vroum Vroum Mag running elsewhere. Were she to turn up here, punters could well be scrapping around fort third place on their each-way bets, assuming Unowhatimeanharry makes it too.

Advice

1pt each-way Lil Rockerfeller @25/1 (Betfair, Betfred – both Non-Runner No Bet)

1pt win Lil Rockerfeller ‘betting without Unowhatimeanharry’ @12/1 (Betfair), @10/1 (Paddy Power)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ante-post focus: 2017 Stan James Champion Hurdle

Twenty-eight horses were entered for the Stan James Champion Hurdle a number of weeks back, but since the initial entries have been made the race has been dealt two big blows.

Last year’s winner Annie Power and the 2015 champion Faugheen were both ruled out of the race over the last fortnight, dealing their trainer Willie Mullins and owner Rich Ricci two bitter blows.

Their absence now means we have a wide-open renewal of the Tuesday showpiece. A lot of chopping and changing in prices has gone on and the market now has a settled look to it. We are just under six weeks away however, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if we saw more rumblings.

For example, with the two Mullins hotpots out of contention, the current JLT Novices’ Chase favourite Yorkhill could be rerouted here although, a £20,000 supplementary fee would need to be paid.

Knowing Annie Power was out of the picture and with Faugheen still to prove his race-fitness, at the time, connections of Buveur D’Air cut short an uninspiring novice chase career to tackle the Champion Hurdle. After all the shake ups in the race, amazingly, he is now the favourite.

The Stan James Champion Hurdle ante-post preview

A classy bumper horse in 2014/15 Buveur D’Air (7/2) had a highly successful novice hurdle campaign last season, winning a Grade 1 at the Aintree Festival the highlight. The well-bred son of French sire Crillon only had a trio of runs beforehand, where he bagged two low-key events before going on to finish a credible third in a strong-looking Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

At Newbury and Huntingdon on route, this half-brother to former high-class stayer Punchestowns showed a real liking for soft ground before his Supreme effort behind Altior on the fastest terrain he’d ever experienced.

A big drifter in the market before receiving an usually poor Noel Fehily ride – maybe connections knew he couldn’t beat Altior and had one eye on Aintree – Buveur D’Air deserves plenty credit for making the frame on ground he clearly handled.

His day in the sun would come on Merseyside, ironically, on softish sod where he just got the better of the Supreme Novices’ eighth, Petit Mouchoir. Having looked like he was going to win comfortably, the six-year-old struggled home a touch, maybe indicating he wasn’t at his best or a step up in trip would help.

To be fair to him, that form now looks extremely solid with the runner-up significantly boosting the run and the fourth home solidifying it further.

This season he was switched to fences and won his first two starts before connections had a change of heart and rerouted him over hurdles. His Cheltenham prep came in the Listed Contenders Hurdle at Sandown, he and Barry Geraghty went on to win smoothly in what turned out to be a poor contest.

He could do no more, but he hasn’t proved he is an improved performer this campaign and that must be a concern for a current Champion Hurdle favourite who will most likely race on his less-preferred spring ground come March.

Petit Mouchoir (9/2) is another horse that strikes me as being that bit better of softish sod. Formerly with Willie Mullins but now in the care of Henry de Bromhead, this free-going grey has readily improved this season.

The son of Al Namix was a very good novice hurdler in 2015/16, but just fell short of being top-class. His keen nature wasn’t a trait that served him well, but now he’s had another summer to mature, the Gigginstown House Stud-owned gelding is seeing his races out much better.

This has allowed Petit Mouchoir to improve, but his progress realistically started from Cheltenham to Aintree last year. A well-beaten eighth in the Supreme behind Altior when still buzzy, he turned in a much improved effort on softer ground at Aintree, making Buveur D’Air pull out all the stops, when more prominent tactics also aided his progress.

He’d go on to disappoint at the Punchestown Festival when probably feeling the effects of a long season and then started this campaign on the back of an eye-catching run at Down Royal. From here he went to Newcastle for the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth, only to fall four out when still bang in contention.

Two subsequent runs in Grade 1 company at Leopardstown have now confirmed him to be an open company Grade 1 horse. In winning the Ryanair Hurdle at Christmas and then the Irish Champion Hurdle, he has firmly put himself in contention for National Hunt’s most-prized hurdling asset.

The question is however, to what level has he improved? It’s hard to get a handle on his two Leopardstown wins when beating Nichols Canyon and Footpad, respectively. What we do know though, is this slick-jumping, strong-travelling type is tailor-made for the Champion Hurdle test on Cheltenham’s Old Course.

The same can’t be said for last season’s Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle runner-up Yanworth (5/1). Since that gallant effort behind Yorkhill we’ve only seen Alan King’s stable star run twice this campaign, winning both starts at Ascot and Kempton.

With those victories under his belt it means the strapping son of Norse Dancer has only been beaten once over hurdles, at last season’s Festival, and, there’s a case to say he’s a little bit unlucky not be unbeaten over obstacles.

There are few better big-race jockeys than Barry Geraghty and he’s one of the finest National Hunt riders I’ve ever seen, but his effort in last season’s Neptune is up there with one of his worst ever Grade 1 rides.

The past is gone and we won’t dwell, either will Geraghty with his strong mental approach to the game, but if he feels he got it wrong, there is a good chance to put that right in this year’s Champion Hurdle.

Yanworth is one of those classy horses that continues to divide opinion, but I like him, and so should you. Why? Because he’s a horse that continues to get better and there may well be more improvement to come, in fact, I’d be surmised if there wasn’t. In a depleted-looking Champion Hurdle, his form is right up there with the very best available.

He’s a strong-traveller for a big horse, people feel he lacks pace, but that isn’t the case. OK, he’s a stayer, too, but one quick look down through the most recent Champion Hurdle winners and that will tell you, staying ability is no negative.

The one thing people keep failing to see with Yanworth is he has the natural ability to win this race. There are negatives however; he couldn’t be described as the slickest jumper and he’s had a setback on route to March.

While the case, his gritty comeback win when not fit in the Ascot Hurdle and his beating of The New One on a track that didn’t play to his strengths means I’ll be keeping him firmly on side.

Best of the Rest

Nicky Henderson has a strong-looking hand in this year’s Champion Hurdle and Brain Power (15/2) is another inmate of his to respect. You really get the feeling they’ve liked this horse from day one, that he’s showed plenty at home, but failed to reproduce it on the race track at times.

Mental and physical immaturity surely contributed to some disappointing efforts while his early career over hurdles was blighted by poor jumping. Less than fluent hurdling was seen in his first three novice hurdle starts last season before improvement came in this department at Punchestown.

To connections and the horse’s credit, this progress, in both ability and jumping, came in a Grade 1; the son of Kalanisi improving in all aspects, finishing a highly encouraging third behind Don’t Touch It and Petit Mouchoir.

Brain Power actually shaped like much the best horse in the race, travelling strongly into the lead turning for home before his unfurnished frame laboured late and he was outstayed.

This season started poorly in the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham, but he shaped much better than the bare result. Two high-class wins in competitive handicaps have seen the six-year-old climb the ranks since.

Once again, his strong-travelling ability was clear to all, but this season his body is capable of lasting out the latter part of the races. His slack jumping could be seen at times at Sandown while not a lot could be observed at Ascot when winning the Grade 3 Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle in fog.

He is set to go straight to Cheltenham, but I’d like to see him run again for further progress. Apart from that, and a feeling the handicapper has overrated him, there is plenty to like. He could be next year’s Arkle winner.

As short as 6/1 with non-runner no bet firms, the 2015 Champion Hurdler Jezki (12/1) is entered again, maybe with hopes of recapturing his crown. Jessica Harrington’s inmate missed all of last season through injury, but returned in good heart to win a pretty low key event at Navan three weeks ago.

Considering he was coming back from injury, visually, it was a highly satisfactory return. That form is nothing to write home about in terms of winning a Grade 1 however, and I feel he’ll be best served by running in the Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday.

The Stayers’ is a contest many would like to see The New One (16/1) running in, too. The gallant nine-year-old might still, but it appears connections are leaning towards a run in the Champion Hurdle, the likes of Annie Power and Faugheen’s absence a significant factor.

Nigel Twiston-Davies’s charge has run in the last three Champion Hurdles, his form figures reading 354. On those numbers with him getting older and not showing improvement, you couldn’t really give him a chance, but this year’s renewal won’t be as strong as those won by Jezki, Faugheen and Annie Power, respectively.

While the case, he’s already been beaten by the likes of Yanworth and others look more progressive. I’m sure he’ll run well, but when the taps are turned on approaching three out, he’ll be under pressure. He’s a horse that would love the Champion Hurdle to be on the New Course.

If there is one horse in this year’s Champion Hurdle field capable of hitting the frame at a big price, I think it’s the Willie Mullins-trained Footpad (25/1). The Simon Munir & Isaac Souede-owned gelding was a two-time top-level winner as a four-year-old, winning the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown and a Grade 1 in France.

He was also third in last year’s Triumph Hurdle behind the subsequently disappointing Ivanovich Gorbatov and the improved Apple’s Jade. His run here is worth upgrading. Jumped off last by Ruby Walsh, he was given way too much to do and while there is an element of him running on past beaten horses, he did well to finish as close to the front two.

He was clearly off his game at Aintree when he fell next time out before running well (winning one) in three French races. The son of Creachadoir was disappointing in the Ryanair Hurdle over Christmas where a bad mistake at the first didn’t help his cause before he ran a lovely race to be second in the Irish Champion Hurdle.

There is no doubt he’s a little flattered to get as close to Petit Mouchoir, but I don’t think it was hugely benefitting to be ridden like he was. Daryl Jacob also took an age to get after him proper. It was at least encouraging that he improved massively on his previous run and he now looks to be going the right way.

Last year’s Champion Hurdle third, Nichols Canyon (25/1) is worthy of a mention despite him now looking ready for a step up to two-and-a-half miles and possibly being a little below par this season. Sceau Royal (33/1) is better than his Fighting Fifth effort, where he travelled into the race nicely before fading badly. It wasn’t his true running, but he looks up against it in this field.

The two mares, Apples Jade (20/1) and Vroum Vroum Mag (14/1) are entered here, but I think it’s highly unlikely we’ll see them in the Champion Hurdle.

The Final Verdict

A poorer renewal of the Champion Hurdle with both Annie Power and Faugheen set to miss out. The race has at least benefitted from Buveur D’Air coming back into the hurdling fold, but I’m happy to take him on at this juncture.

While his form over hurdles now looks classy, mostly due to the exploits of Petit Mouchoir, his early season campaign over fences, while successful in terms of wins, hasn’t necessarily told us he’s an improved performer. Proper spring ground could see him tapped for toe and it makes sense to take him on.

The shape of the betting to this year’s Champion Hurdle doesn’t exactly lend itself to being a great ante-post betting heat. Those at the head of the market are mostly priced about right while very few horses at bigger prices look good enough to compete with the market leaders.

With that being the case, I see four potential bets, three obvious and one slightly left of field. The trio of obvious options are Brain Power, Petit Mouchoir and Yanworth. The outsider? Footpad. Given the situation, it probably makes sense to narrow the obvious options down first.

I’m happy to swerve Petit Mouchoir at this time. Like the race-favourite, I suspect he may be a handful of pounds better on soft ground, which is not a given at Cheltenham. He really impressed me over Christmas when hammering Nichols Canyon, but his Irish Champion Hurdle victory suggested his progress may have curbed.

Maybe this was due to the quicker ground or him not being at his very best, I’m not sure. Petit Mouchoir’s aggressive style of racing means he rarely has an easy race and I wonder has he now reached a peak for the campaign.

Brain Power and Yanworth are much tougher to separate. On what we currently know, Yanworth, for me, is around a 5-6lb better horse, maybe more. The market suggests similar, but with the McManus horse having an interrupted campaign with a muscle injury setback, it casts doubts in my mind.

On what we’ve seen this season and on their last two starts, there isn’t much between Brain Power and Footpad. Both will come to Cheltenham on the back of career bests and are young enough to improve.

At 15/2 and 25/1, respectively, a chance is taken on FOOTPAD to prove his Irish Champion Hurdle second was no fluke. He’s in the right hands with Willie Mullins and will most likely be given a patient ride. He’s not good enough to win, but he offers value in the each-way part of the bet.

There is one huge caveat to note in this year’s Champion Hurdle. For me, this is the race for Yorkhill. He is not entered, but Willie Mullins may ask Graham Wylie to stump up the cash to supplement him.

I’m itching to see him in a strong-run race over two miles. Visually, we could see a breath-taking performance, but that’s all ifs and buts at the moment.

Advice

1pt each-way Footpad @25/1 (Betfred, Coral, Ladbrokes)

Ante-post focus: 2017 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

Just 28 horses have been entered for the 2017 running of the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. Twenty-seven of those have the arduous task of beating current race-favourite Douvan. Best-priced 1/3 at the time of writing, that tells you all you need to know about a horse Willie Mullins described as “potentially the best I’ve ever trained”.

We won’t get rich backing Douvan, but with him taking such a sizeable chunk out of the market, we may be able to obtain some each-way value or, possibly explore the route of backing a horse in the ‘without Douvan’ market.

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase ante-post preview

At the prices, there is obviously little point wasting time talking about Douvan. At 1/3, it will be the shock of the Cheltenham Festival if he doesn’t win, such is the gap in ability the rest of the field trail him. Quite simply, he’s the full package, a special talent.

The closet horse to Douvan in terms of ability is Un De Sceaux (14/1 in a place), his stable mate and last season’s runner-up in this very race. It’s highly likely the nine-year-old will run in the Ryanair this season however, meaning Douvan’s task will be made easier. It also means Un De Sceaux is an easy swerve in this piece.

Take out the latter of the Mullins runners and we are really thin on the ground in terms of credible opposition to the favourite. I wouldn’t be quick to knock the race for that however, it’s merely a case of racing being in the midst of a special horse. Let’s enjoy him.

God’s Own (20/1) has the quality to run well in this race, but I feel he’s best served by running in the Ryanair this season. Tom George’s inmate was put up as an ante-post bet in the Ryanair ante-post preview, but since that piece, George has made it public that his charge will be aimed here. That’s disappointing news, but there is still plenty of time for change.

Should connections decide to run here, I’m happy to take him on over this trip. As we saw in last year’s Champion Chase behind Sprinter Sacre, he couldn’t lay-up with the field when the race started in earnest before he kept on for a well-held fourth.

Fox Norton (8/1) is one horse who will have little trouble laying up during the heavy skirmishes of the Queen Mother. Now in the care of Colin Tizzard having been bought by owners Alan and Ann Potts, this fast improving seven-year-old has youth on his side in comparison to a number of Douvan’s other rivals.

While the case, he has faced Douvan twice and both times come out badly on the wrong side. The son of Lando has to make up 11 lengths on their Arkle meeting and 32 lengths on their clash at Aintree.

To be fair to Fox Norton, he ran a perfectly good race at last year’s Cheltenham Festival before a combination of soft ground, poor early positioning and never being able to land a blow contributed to his heavy Merseyside defeat.

This season he has looked a completely different proposition, however. He was so far ahead of his 146-rated mark in a handicap at Cheltenham in October, the field couldn’t even lead him to the top of the hill. From there, he coasted to a hugely impressive 11 lengths victory before taking a step up in grade in his stride.

In winning the Grade 2 Shloer Chase by nine lengths on his next start, Fox Norton put himself firmly in the Champion Chase picture. Now best-priced 8/1, we haven’t seen the Tizzard inmate since, connections reporting he tore the hair off the back of a tendon and he needed rest.

He is due to reappear in what could be a blockbuster renewal of the Game Spirit at Newbury against the likes of brilliant novice Altior and former Champion Chase winner Sire De Grugy. We’ll have to see how he goes there on the back of an interrupted training period.

Best of the Rest

Small fields have sadly been a mainstay of recent Champion Chase renewals and this year – especially if Douvan runs – will probably be no different. Of the 28 currently entered, it is highly unlikely the likes of Altior, Black Hercules, Champagne Fever, Sizing John, Un De Sceaux, Uxizandre and Vroum Vroum Mag will run here.

Many entered simply don’t look good enough, have well-being to prove and hold entries in other races. With that being the case, it’s a nice race to play in at this stage and some serious each-way value could be obtained.

The standout value horse on the pick of this year’s form has to be Sir Valentino (40/1). One of two Tom George equines entered – the other being God’s Own – the eight-year-old has returned this season the near complete article.

He’s now run 19 times over fences and looks quite exposed in comparison to some entered, but on his sixteenth chase start, he showed improvement and maturity. A fine, big horse, the son of Early March may just have clicked mentally and physically this season. His win – on top of two other good runs – in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter has officially seen him improve 11lb from 147 to 158.

He has since finished a sound 5th in a sound Tingle Creek and finished second in the Grade 2 Desert Orchid at Kempton. His Sandown run behind Un De Sceaux can be upgraded. A rare lapse of concentration from Noel Fehily saw Sir Valentino playing early catch up in the toughest race of his career, a bad mistake down the far side not helping either before he ran on to be beaten 5 ½ lengths.

A career best came on his next start at Kempton over Christmas, dispelling any doubts about being flattered in the Tingle Creek. Giving last year’s Champion Chase third Special Tiara 6lb, he narrowly went down by half-a-length, a bad mistake two out not helping his cause.

On that form alone, it’s a huge surprise to see a horse that is obviously improving sitting at 40/1. OK, it was a four-runner event and Sire De Grugy unseated early with the third horse tailed off, but on his day, on good ground, on a flat track, Special Tiara is a Grade 1 horse. The time of the race was good, meaning it’s form to respect.

Garde La Victoire (33/1) was the chief sufferer when finishing second behind Sir Valentino in the Haldon Gold Cup. He only went down by a short-head at Exeter, just failing to give the winner 4lb. He’ll meet the George horse on better terms come March, but I’m not sure he’s improving like him.

Philip Hobbs’s charge has a hell of a lot of ability, but his jumping has never convinced. He can be quite low and stiff-looking over his obstacles, too, and that may be found out over two miles on decent spring ground.

A favourable mention must go to Special Tiara (25/1). He’s been sixth, third and third in the last three Champion Chases and is a good horse on his day, but he’s now ten-years-old and maybe hasn’t got the scope to improve any further. Given his Kempton run over Christmas, it’s a surprise he is so much shorter than Sir Valentino in the betting.

A year older again, Sire De Grugy (25/1) is probably best watched at this stage, too. The 11-year-old won this race three seasons ago and has remained in good form this campaign, but father time is creeping up on him.

Like Sire De Grugy, Gary Moore trains the classy pair of Ar Mad (25/1 in a place) and Traffic Fluide (33/1). Both were touched upon in the Ryanair piece and swerved there and it’s the same case again here. These are two quality horses, but they have struggled with injury over the last year.

Uxizandre (25/1) made a brilliant comeback at Cheltenham last weekend and has the ability to run well here, but he looks a Ryanair horse to me.

The Final Verdict

A race that revolves around Douvan meaning ante-post backers taking him on will need an act of mother nature to turn over the brilliant seven-year-old. His presence does mean there are plenty quality horses in double figure prices that could offer some each-way value, though.

Fox Norton is the horse most likely to run second to Douvan with the likes of Un De Sceaux and Uxizandre potentially Ryanair bound. While the case, he’s been well found in the market and must overcome a setback on the run up to the Festival. His fans can take solace in the fact Colin Tizzard reports him to be in great shape – at the time of writing – but it would be nice to see it on the track again.

God’s Own I like, ability wise, he’s near the top of the 28 horses entered, but his effort in last season’s Champion Chase stunk of a horse wanting to go out in trip. His run behind Un De Sceaux in this season’s Tingle Creek also suggested he could thrive over further.

The aging pair of Sire De Grugy and Special Tiara accompanied by the injury-prone duo of Ar Mad and Traffic Fluide don’t offer as good a value as Garde La Victoire and Sir Valentino, but with the former’s jumping still not convincing and the latter looking a progressive horse, SIR VALENTINO gets the nod.

Tom George’s inmate just looks a completely different animal this season and his two runs in the Tingle Creek and Desert Orchid mean he is well entitled to be here. I honestly think he should be half the price he currently is and sitting in front of Special Tiara in the market.

Being eight, there is every chance he could improve again and while his record going left-handed doesn’t inspire, he has jumped left at times this season.

Forget what you’ve seen on the old Sir Valentino and judge him on this campaign’s three impressive runs.

Advice

1pt each-way Sir Valentino @40/1 (general)

1.5pts each-way Sir Valentino ‘betting without Douvan’ @20/1 (Bet Victor), @18/1 (Betfair), @16/1 (Paddy Power)

Ante-post focus: 2017 Ryanair Chase

Forty-eight horses have been entered for the 2017 Ryanair Chase, 18 of those Irish based. In Cue Card (2013) and Uxizandre (2015), we have two past winners in, but the former is highly unlikely to run here – he’s Gold Cup bound.

Since the race’s inception at the 2005 Festival, the first 11 runnings went the way of UK-trained horses; the Irish sponsors unable to bag their own event. The Emerald Isle finally broke their duck in last season’s race, the brilliant Vautour stamping his class and winning for the Ricci, Mullins and Walsh team.

The Ryanair Chase ante-post preview

Mullins and Walsh currently house the race-favourite in six-time Grade 1 and 2015 Arkle winner Un De Sceaux (7/2). With Mullins holding all the aces in the Queen Mother Champion Chase with Douvan, a contest Un De Sceaux was runner-up in last season, it’s increasingly likely the free-going nine-year-old will run here.

The son of Denham Red has only had two starts this season, winning a strongly-run Tingle Creek at Sandown and then following up in the rearranged Clarence House Chase at Cheltenham. At Esher, despite the pace being brisk, Un De Sceaux travelled powerfully under Walsh before showing a great attitude to out battle Sire De Grugy after two sloppy jumps in the straight.

In the Clarence House, he would fend off the returning-from-injury Uxizandre by an easy five lengths on his favoured soft ground. Top Gamble, a solid and inform rival was a further five lengths back in third.

Un De Sceaux didn’t have to be at the top of his game to win here, but in doing so his jumping improved from Sandown and he went through the race like a horse at the top of his game, setting himself up nicely for March.

Stepping up in trip in the Ryanair will be a new test for him over fences however, and will also likely come on his less favoured spring ground. I have no doubt Un De Sceaux will see out the trip and handle decent terrain, but he is susceptible to a horse with gears, as Sprinter Sacre proved in last year’s Champion Chase, although, there’ll be nothing of that quality likely to run against him on current evidence.

Second favourite is another Irish-trained horse, Sizing John (8/1). Jessica Harrington’s inmate was covered in the first ante-post piece – the Gold Cup – and was recommended as a bet there. I think there is every chance he could run in the Gold Cup so; he obviously doesn’t make much appeal in a long-term market here. While the case, should he run in the Ryanair, he’ll go close as he looks on great terms with himself currently and has the requisite class to win.

In 2006 and 2012, Nicky Henderson won the Ryanair with Fondmort and Riverside Theatre, respectively. The master of Seven Barrows looks like he might run Josses Hill (10/1), but he makes no appeal at that price this far out.

While his jumping has undoubtedly improved ten-fold, I feel he is best dominating small fields on right-handed flat speed tracks. He won’t be afforded that luxury here and, even if he was, I’m not sure he’s good enough.

After a brilliant run in the Clarence House behind Un De Sceaux, Uxizandre (12/1) has firmly put himself in the Ryanair picture. A breath-taking and runaway winner of the 2015 renewal of this event in a first-time visor, the horse that gave AP McCoy his last Cheltenham Festival winner hadn’t been seen on the racetrack for the best part of two years before his Trials Day effort.

All the old enthusiasm and spark still appeared to be intact despite racing on ground much softer than ideal over an inadequate trip. Apart from guessing at one down the back, his jumping was also good and he really pleased with how he saw out the race having been outpaced before they started coming down the hill.

On back class, the nine-year-old is good enough to win this year’s Ryanair if bouncing back to that sort of form. A return to positive tactics, quicker ground and two-and-a-half miles is sure to suit, but it’s impossible to say how he’ll perform on his next start having been off the track so long.

Another horse with the undoubted ability to win the Ryanair is God’s Own (25/1), the 2015 Arkle runner-up and 2016 Queen Mother Champion Chase fourth. While comfortably held in both those quality races, I do feel there is a case to suggest he is an improved horse.

Eight-and-a-half lengths Tom George’s inmate would finish behind Un De Sceaux in the 2015 Arkle. That gap, behind the Mullins runner up, was down to five lengths in last year’s Champion Chase behind the brilliant Sprinter Sacre although, it could’ve been closer but for a mistake at the penultimate obstacle.

Having looked outpaced at the top of the hill in the Queen Mother, connections rightly stepped him up in trip at Aintree where he won the Grade 1 Melling Chase. Going right-handed, the direction his trainer is convinced suits him best, the son of Oscar would dethrone the mighty Vautour in the Punchestown Champion Chase.

In three efforts this campaign, God’s Own has yet to win, but his fans can take solace in the fact he has run a trio of highly credible races at Aintree, Ascot and Sandown. He hasn’t been seen since his fast-finishing 1 ½ lengths defeat by Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek, but that’s no surprise given he isn’t a winter ground horse.

He’s good enough to go close here, but there is a chance he could run in the Champion Chase. There is also a case to say he’s not as good over the Ryanair intermediate trip, but of the two races he’s most likely to win at the Festival, the Ryanair is it.

Best of the Rest

Although the Ryanair has been well-supported at this entry stage, many of the real class horses like Cue Card and Douvan won’t be running here and it’s a race that will likely cut up quite badly.

Gigginstown House Stud, otherwise known as Michael and Eddie O’Leary, have entered six horses, but five of those, for various reasons, may not run here and Sub Lieutenant (14/1) looks to be their number horse on paper.

Now in training with Henry de Bromhead, the eight-year-old has done nothing but progress since joining the Waterford handler. Two wins came early in the campaign before he finished behind the likes of Djakadam in the John Durkan and the new-and-improved Sizing John in the Kinloch Brae at Thurles.

Jumping is his main asset and with him now looking good enough to at least hit the frame in a Ryanair, he’s worth considering. An athletic-moving horse, he’s a half-brother to Gold Cup hero Lord Windermere and finally looks to be finding his feet.

Finding his feet is something last season’s JLT Novices’ Chase winner Black Hercules (16/1) is struggling with this campaign. Willie Mullins’s horse has at least improved in his three efforts in 2016/17, but he has failed to trouble the judge.

He was well-beaten on his return behind Djakadam in the John Durkan where Danny Mullins reported him to be “flat” on the way to post. He had little chance of beating Douvan over two miles at Christmas, but at least showed more before nothing much went right in the Kinloch Brae on his last start.

He got behind early and could never really land a blow, running an inefficient race to end up nicely held. He did at least show a glimmer of hope by latching on to the leaders turning in and he is a Cheltenham Festival winner, but he’s just not showed the same appetite this season. There is still time for him to spark however, and if he does, his current price would look more than fair.

The Gary Moore-trained pair of Ar Mad and Traffic Fluide get favourable mentions on the basis that they are good enough to run well in a Ryanair. Both had injuries that ruled them out of last season’s Festival, but the former has at least made one appearance this season.

Having drifted in the betting like a poor run was expected, Ar Mad (25/1) shaped with promise behind Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek. He was only beaten 3 ½ lengths in the end despite over racing early and then threatening to be well-beaten turning for home. The Ryanair intermediate trip could suit, but there still lingers a doubt about him performing to his best in Grade 1 company going left-handed.

Traffic Fluide (25/1) is an easier dodge at this stage given we haven’t seen him this season, but he remains a horse to monitor over the coming weeks.

I’ve been really disappointed with Vaniteux this campaign. His run in the 2016 Arkle, where he fell two out when looking booked for a sound second behind Douvan, has worked out nicely, but he hasn’t gone on. Flat tracks maybe suit him best and with worries about his optimum trip, he can be left alone at this juncture.

Zabana (20/1) was another to cross my mind at the prices, but there is every chance he could run in the Gold Cup if he shapes well on his next start. He has a disappointing effort at Christmas to put behind him, too, so he’s best watched at this stage.

The Final Verdict

In terms of ability and having had a faultless preparation, at the time of writing, I think there is a case to suggest Un De Sceaux could even be shorter than the best-priced 7/2 on offer. Sizing John looks his biggest and most solid danger, but could yet run in the Gold Cup. Uxizandre is another with the past ability to run Un De Sceaux close, but it’s impossible to know how he will come out of his brilliant 2017 comeback.

While the case however, Un De Sceaux must prove he is as good over two-and-a-half miles on potential spring terrain as he is over the minimum on soft ground. With him being an extravagant horse by nature, he could overdo things early and be a sitting duck up the home straight. Horses with a turn of pace could also cause him trouble and it makes sense to duck him now.

Josses Hill is another to swerve. He looks criminally under-priced by the bookmakers.

Three horses that interested me now were God’s Own, Sub Lieutenant and Uxizandre. Of that trio, Sub Lieutenant looks the most solid contender, but on all-known form, is simply not as classy as God’s Own and Uxizandre. He is improving however, and getting better at the right time.

Uxizandre was brilliant on his comeback in the Clarence House. On ground far too soft for his liking over an inadequate trip, to get as close to Un De Sceaux as he did – while finishing ahead of the solid Top Gamble – it must go down as an excellent return.

His price has correctly contracted after that effort and the big-time value has disappeared. It’s also hard to know if he will come forward for the run after nearly two years off the track.

This leaves us with GOD’S OWN who, like Sizing John in the Gold Cup blog, comes with risks. I have no doubt he’s good enough to go close in the Ryanair, but he may well run in the Champion Chase. On the evidence of last year’s fourth to Sprinter Sacre where he was outpaced a fair way from home, connections should strongly consider running him here.

Should the likes of Ar Mad, Josses Hill, Sub Lieutenant, Village Vic, Un De Sceaux and Uxizandre all run here, there could be a serious pace war on favouring those with a hold up style. God’s Own fits that bill, but more importantly has the requisite class to win so, gets the nod. Hopefully we get a bit of luck and connections take in this contest.

Advice

1pt each-way God’s Own @25/1 (general)

Ante-post focus: 2017 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup

We are just under seven weeks away from the Cheltenham Festival and it’s a nice time of the year to try and unearth some ante-post value. Entries for the handicaps are obviously quite a bit off, but initial admissions are now being made for the Grade 1s.

Two weeks back, connections had to put forward horses for the Gold Cup, the Champion Chase and the Ryanair. The big hurdle races are also now in and novice entries will soon be made so, it’s time to get cracking on some ante-post pieces.

Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup ante-post preview

As everyone is well aware, Thistlecrack is now the horse to beat in the Gold Cup. Trained by a man who is currently ruining National Hunt racing, Colin Tizzard’s charge made a seamless transition from novice chase company to win the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day in astonishing fashion.

On goodish ground around a speed track, the son of Kayf Tara had too many gears for his four rivals. He will face a different test in the Gold Cup, however. As well as having to run an extra two-and-a-half furlongs, Thistlecrack will tackle Cheltenham’s New Course, a track designed to test stamina.

If the ground came up similar to what it was at Kempton, in March, the gelding will have to run for an extra 40+ seconds which equates to around three and a bit furlongs. How will he handle this more demanding test given his exuberance? It would be a slight concern for me.

Tom Scudamore will have an important role in utilising Thistlecrack’s energy efficiently. The 2016 World Hurdle winner has been ridden more forward in his races this season, small fields allowing Scudamore to keep things simple, but come Gold Cup day a switch to more reserved tactics should be employed, especially if the early fractions are quick.

There is little doubt Thistlecrack is the classiest horse in the race and he should be ridden so, particularly, with potential pace spoilers like Bristol De Mai, Many Clouds, Native River and Zabana in.

Nothing in the Gold Cup field can match his raw pace, but the classiest horse with the best gears often lose races and at a best-price of even money, he’s obviously not worth considering backing at the moment.

According to the betting, Native River, the favourite’s stable mate, is his biggest danger. Best-priced at 6/1, those odds look fair at this early stage with the Gold Cup test looking tailor-made for this relentless galloper.

Having made a lovely seasonal debut at Wetherby over hurdles in the West Yorkshire Hurdle, Native River then went on to win the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury and the Coral Welsh National at Chepstow.

I had him running to circa 160 in the Hennessy and I don’t think he needed to improve to beat a soon-to-be 12-year-old Raz De Maree in Wales. He didn’t jump as well as he can, but to win in the style he did off top-weight was a classy effort and I certainly respect his chances.

The two Tizzard runners take a sizeable chunk out of the market and are next followed by Cue Card, yet another Tizzard possible, Djakadam and Outlander.

The old boy Cue Card is now 11 and will find it tough to win against horses with youth on their side. While the case, he still has to be respected and could easily run into the frame. With connections last week confirming him for the race, his price (10/1) has detracted and is now no more than fair.

He also needs to bounce back from a slightly below par effort in the King George behind Thistlecrack. He was beaten over three lengths there, but on a sharp track that rode quicker due to the ground, it didn’t play to his strengths.

Some sloppy jumps and him having to navigate three and four wide at various stages didn’t help either, nor, being the only horse to take on the brilliant winner before the straight; those exertions softening him up for the remaining pack to close.

On softer ground around Cheltenham’s New Course, it wold suit better, but winning Gold Cups is a young man’s game and father time is as much a nemesis as the likes of Thistlecrack.

It feels like Djakadam (10/1) has been around nearly as long as Cue Card, but Willie Mullins’s inmate is still only eight! Rich Ricci’s horse has been second in the last two Gold Cups behind two very good winners in Coneygree and Don Cossack.

A reproduction of those efforts – one coming on soft, the other on good – would see him go very close. Softer ground would blunt the finishing kick of potential speedier types and I feel his chance would be helped by rain-softened sod on March 17.

Djakadam started this campaign in adequate style when beating Outlander readily in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown. It came as a shock to see the aforementioned runner-up turn the tables just over two weeks later in the Lexus Chase.

A lack of an end-to-end gallop and a keen-going Djakadam contributed, the son of Saints Des Saints looking paceless turning for home before staying on strongly. The fact he still finished his race out despite being keen was a great sign and off proper Gold Cup fractions I could easily see him turning the form.

Outlander (14/1) surprised me in winning the Lexus, but the step up to three miles obviously helped him and given the pace, he deserves great credit for getting up to score given his early backward position. He’s a horse I’ve never really warmed to in terms of winning at the major festivals.

He’s obviously good and maybe he’s just an improved performer this season; the switch to Gordon Elliott’s yard unlocking further progress, but I do wonder how he’ll cope in a proper-strong run race?

Best of the Rest

Nigel Twiston-Davies’s Bristol De Mai (20/1 in a place) threw his hat into the Gold Cup ring with a brilliant performance in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock, bolting up hard on the bridle for a 22 lengths success.

Visually, it was devastating, but I’m finding it hard to believe he ran to a mark nearing the 170s – if you think the second home didn’t significantly run below par, which I don’t think he did.

He has earned his Gold Cup place, no doubt, but Haydock’s flat three miles where he could get into beautiful rhythm will be a far cry from Cheltenham’s New Course where pace pressure will come early. A young horse and just gone six, this test may also come a year too early in his career.

Six other horses remained that I thought were potentially worth backing at this stage. Three fall under ‘soft ground is key’ and three fall under ‘nice ground is key’. Predicating ground conditions this far out is impossible, but Bobs Worth’s Gold Cup (2013) aside, the race tends to be on nice terrain.

With that being the case and Donald Trump still not believing in Global Warming, it’s safer to assume we’ll get nice sod come March.

On soft ground, the likes of Don Poli (33/1) and Many Clouds (40/1) would be huge prices while, to a lesser degree, Minella Rocco (33/1) would be of interest. The aforementioned pair may also take the Grand National route meaning they come with risks attached.

Don Poli ran a credible third in last season’s Gold Cup on ground that was far too quick for his liking. Many Clouds was a brilliant Grand National winner and has a distinct touch of class while Minella Rocco is still an unknown in this sphere despite already being a Cheltenham Festival winner. We must remember, it was less than 12 months ago he beat Native River in the National Hunt Chase.

Just like the ‘soft ground is key’ horses, a now National Hunt stalwart figures among two potential horses in this ‘section’. At their current prices Sizing John (50/1), the experienced Road To Riches (50/1) and Zabana (40/1) are worth considering.

Of that trio, on current form, Sizing John looks the safest option on the back of an excellent Kinlock Brae success at Thurles. There was no Douvan to take on this time and on his first try over two-and-a-half miles on nice sod, he created a big impression, staying on strongly to win by 2 ½ lengths from Sub Lieutenant.

At the line, he was well on top of the runner up, a horse who on his previous effort finished third behind Djakadam and Outlander in the John Durkan. There is no doubt in my mind Sub Lieutenant ran his race and the form looks strong and reliable.

The one big question with Sizing John is if he will stay, but on his Kinlock Brae performance, on nice ground, I feel he has every chance of seeing out three miles, after that, who knows? His pedigree and laidback approach to life add further positives and Jessica Harrington’s inmate is live outsider, if connections decide to take this route.

Zabana is another Irish horse to consider for trainer Andrew Lynch. On his 2 lengths defeat of Outlander at last year’s Punchestown Festival, he looks a big price. His seasonal debut at Down Royal was a pipe opener before he won in the fog at Gowran Park.

His last run in the Lexus Chase behind Outlander was disappointing, but he just looked off his game, for whatever reason. Maybe they didn’t go quick enough with him and the fact he travelled wide throughout is also a potential negative. Despite his flat pedigree, the son of Halling looks like a proper stayer and the Gold Cup test could unlock further improvement.

Having finished third in the 2015 Gold Cup behind Coneygree and third in last season’s Ryanair behind Vautour, Noel Meade’s Road To Riches has the back class to run a big race. Things haven’t got swimmingly since however, a crunching fall last campaign at the Punchestown Festival maybe leaving its mark.

Then pulled up in the Galway Plate before a well-beaten second behind Ballycasey at Gowran Park, I thought he shaped OK in the Lexus when beaten around 17 lengths. He wasn’t fully primed that day and the hold-up tactics used may suggest connections are just trying to get his confidence back.

A better run in the Irish Gold Cup could see his odds tumble for March and while he is ten, he’s no pensioner. He clearly likes Cheltenham in the spring and with the Meade team in much better order this season, he could run big.

The Final Verdict

At the prices, despite being comfortably the best horse in the race, Thistlecrack has to be taken on at this juncture. His charming zest for life and voracious bravery to attack obstacles could see his petrol gauge starting to empty in a strong-run Gold Cup on the New Course, especially on ground with juice in it.

I have an awful lot of time for Native River and to be honest, before sitting down to do this piece, I felt he was criminally under-priced. But, having gone over his form, I now feel it’s fully justified. He is a huge threat to Thistlecrack, especially on, say, soft (good-to-soft) ground. His price is the problem, however.

Winning Gold Cups is a young man’s game and Cue Card will bid to become the first 11-year-old since Mandarin (1962) to score in the Blue Riband. I could easily see him hitting the frame, but he offers no value each-way.

Either does Outlander who could be outclassed in a strong-run contest. Bristol De Mai impressed me in winning the Peter Marsh, but I’m struggling to get to grips with that race and as a six-year-old, I can leave him.

Djakadam I too can leave. He’s another that has strong each-way claims, but the place part of the bet doesn’t offer value. So with the front six in the market all looking about right in terms of their price, it’s worth swinging the bat in this year’s Gold Cup.

Don Poli and Many Clouds are far too big in the betting, but their chance really relies on softish ground. The percentage call is to assume we’ll have nice terrain come March. This pair may also take in the Grand National instead of coming here.

Looking at the early entries for this year’s Irish Gold Cup, it may not be a race run to stretch stamina and with that in mind, it could set up nicely for SIZING JOHN. It will be a first try for Jessica Harrington’s inmate over three miles, but he has a great chance of seeing it out.

A laidback back attitude and a by a sire (Midnight Legend) laden in stamina, Sizing John’s visual impression in winning the Kinlock Brae suggests he is well worth a go. After that victory, his winning rider, Robbie Power, said:

“He is so laid-back. I knew I had plenty left. He has that bit of speed. When I gave him a squeeze, he really quickened up. I think he would stay any trip. He is so lazy. The Ryanair would look tailor-made for him”

Positive words about a potential step up in trip although negative news in terms of mentioning another Cheltenham target, the Ryanair Chase. Given his owners however, Alan and Ann Potts, a good run in the Irish Gold Cup would almost certainly secure his place at Cheltenham on March 17.

A good third in the 2015 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and second in last campaign’s Arkle, Sizing John’s festival form is another plus. He’s only had two runs this season, too, another positive as he’ll hopefully be fresher than most.

It’s a risky proposition, as he may not run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but at 50/1, I’m willingly to take a chance.

Advice

1pt each-way Sizing John @50/1 (Betfred, Bet Victor, Boylesports, StanJames, William Hill)

2016 Cheltenham Festival ante-post previews

In the build-up to the 2016 Cheltenham Festival, I will be doing previews of the big Grade 1 races for BetBright. When new pieces go live, I’ll put the links here. If following the advice in the blogs, please shop around before placing any bets as better odds and terms may be available elsewhere. (Sorry BetBright)

2016 Champion Hurdle ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-2015-ante-post-champion-hurdle-preview/

2016 Queen Mother Champion Chase ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-2016-queen-mother-champion-chase-ante-post-preview/

2016 Ryanair Chase ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-ryanair-chase-ante-post-preview/

2016 World Hurdle ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-world-hurdle-ante-post-preview/

2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup ante-post preview

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-gold-cup-ante-post-preview/

2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle ante-post preview

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2015-supreme-novices-hurdle-preview/

2016 Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle ante-post preview

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-neptune-investment-management-novices-hurdle-ante-post-preview/

2016 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-albert-bartlett-novices-hurdle-ante-post-preview/

2016 Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-2016-arkle-challenge-trophy-chase-ante-post-preview/

2016 JLT Novices’ Chase ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-jlt-novices-chase-ante-post-preview/

2016 RSA Chase ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-rsa-chase-ante-post-preview/

2016 Triumph Hurdle ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-triumph-hurdle-betting-preview/

 

Royal Ascot 2015 – Ante-Post Focus

Wednesday 17 June – Prince of Wales’s Stakes

Having taken a closer look at this year’s running of the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, I feel the race is open to an upset, of sorts. Those to the head of the market have plenty question marks about them and it may pay to take some early value.

That comes in the form of Japanese raider, SPIELBERG. Now, I won’t even try to suggest I’m in the know, where the Japanese formbook stands, but with the ‘local’ challenge looking tepid, it wouldn’t surprise to see one of Japan’s top middle-distance horses go close.

His win at Tokyo in the Grade 1 Tenno Sho back in November saw him defeat a top-class horse in Gentildonna. Like I said, I don’t know much about the Japanese form, but I do know Gentildonna is a genuine top-class horse.

Having watched that race and his Japan Cup third, where he again beat Gentildonna, over her preferable trip, it’s clear to me Spielberg is a very useful type.  It’s also worth pointing out, Just A Way, another top-class Far-Eastern horse, was just ahead in second, too.

In terms of his strong suits, the son of Deep Impact looks to have a nice turn of foot. He really gets motoring at the end of his races. Ten furlongs, according to his connections, is his best trip, so I can see the stiff course and distance of the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes suiting him. Fast ground, which he likes, it looks like he will get meaning some of the most important variables for him are covered.

A massive factor in the bet is the booking of Christophe Soumillon, who knows the Ascot track well through his exploits with Cirrus Des Aigles. Soumillon will replace the selection’s regular rider back home, and that is another bonus.

With Free Eagle having his first start of the year, The Grey Gatsby looking overrated (officially), the inexperienced and free-going Ectot having his first run and California Chrome’s inexperience of European turf racing all being negatives for his main rivals, a price of 16/1 is simply too big.

He’s worth chancing at that price.

Advice

1pt each-way SPIELBERG @16/1 (Bet Fred, Bet Victor, Coral, Ladbrokes, StanJames)

Wednesday 17 June – Royal Hunt Cup

Where the Hunt Cup is concerned, two horses catch my eye and it may will be a case of grabbing a decent bit of value at this early stage before the declarations come out. AMERCIAN HOPE and FIRST FLIGHT both ran crackers at last year’s Royal Ascot meeting in the Britannia Stakes despite being drawn on the ‘wrong side’ of the track.

The main action happened stand-side where the first five places were filled with runners drawn high. American Hope was sixth while First Flight was ninth, beaten under fourth lengths.

Straight track form at Ascot always holds up well back at the course, so I feel it’s worth getting this duo onside early as there is a strong chance they may go off shorter.

I fancied American Hope last time out when he bombed out, but that effort is easily forgiven. Quite simply he was too keen into a strong headwind and was beaten early. He’s a horse who needs to get cover and if Shane Kelly can anchor him early on Wednesday week, American Hope will finish off strong.

In terms of First Flight I was very taken with this season’s comeback run at York where he finished third in a useful handicap. Held-up near last off a sedate gallop he was in an awful position to get competitive, but he still managed to do so through a sharp turn of foot. He shaped well despite the trip appearing to stretch him and back over the stiff Ascot straight mile he is very intriguing.

Advice

1pt win AMERICAN HOPE @25/1 (general)

1pt win FIRST FLIGHT @20/1 (bet365, Ladbrokes, Sky Bet)

Thursday 18 June – ASCOT GOLD CUP

The final ante-post bet of the evening comes in the Gold Cup. With conditions looking like they may be fast, it could well be that two of the market leaders, Forgotten Rules and Clever Cookie don’t line up. If that’s the case, horse’s prices will freefall, so getting on early may be beneficial.

The horse in question is the Willie Mullins-trained SIMENON, a stalwart of this race. He was second in 2013 and fourth last year, but with many horses who beat him in previous Cups not returning, any weakness in the current crop may be pounced on.

Run over two-and-a-half miles at Ascot, this race is all about stamina. No matter how good you are, if you don’t stay this trip, you won’t win. Simenon is certain to finish his race off and with him having a decent amount of class, he is simply too big a price at 20/1 in a race that may cut up badly.

He made a lovely return at Sandown two weeks ago despite plenty in the race playing against his strengths. For a start, he had to carry a penalty. Than the race was run at a crawl which wouldn’t suit his staying strengths, and this all came on debut.

It was interesting Ryan Moore rode him and I have a funny feeling Moore may keep the ride.

Even if the favourites were to line up, I still feel the current price is too big. He and Brown Panther are the only two guaranteed stayers, of the class horses I like, this year, and with Simenon receiving a poor ride in last year’s race, there is every chance he can turn that form with Brown Panther.

If the younger brigade don’t stay Willie Mullins’s stayer may pick up the pieces.

Advice

1pt each-way SIMENON @20/1 (Bet Victor, Ladbrokes, StanJames)

Ante-Post Focus: Duke of York Clipper Logistics Stakes

York, Wednesday 13 May – Duke of York Clipper Logistics Stakes

The first ante-post bet for the blog is coming pretty soon into the season, but given what Astaire did today (16 April) at Newmarket  it looks like we have a young, progressive sprinter on our hands in NAADIRR.

Marco Botti’s inmate put this afternoon’s Group 3 Abernant Stakes winner Astaire in his place easily last time out at Doncaster, on the opening day of the flat season. While being nicely on top close home, in a race that wasn’t run to suit his hold-up style, the son of Oasis Dream also gave the Kevin Ryan-trained runner three pounds. This adds plenty merit to an already visually impressive performance.

The form of Astaire’s victory today looks solid for Naadirr fans. He fended off a progressive sprinter in Watchable while having a classy speedster in Music Master back in third. Jack Dexter (fourth) is no slouch either, and while the run came on faster than ideal ground for him, it adds to the form’s concrete look.

Yes, Astaire had a fitness edge on the second and third home, but both of those won first time out last season so may have been pretty straight; after all they both ran perfectly satisfactory races.

With the above in mind Naadirr’s Doncaster win now looks sound and he interests me going to the Duke Of York Stakes. His progressive profile is just what you want in a young horse and the four-year-old has clearly summered well and returned in rude health.

This 425,000 guineas purchase may now start to pay back that hefty price tag and a return to York will possibly bring out further improvement. Two of his best efforts in 2014 came on the Knavesmire and given how well course form stands up there it’s another positive.

As ever with ante-post betting we are in the lap of the gods. We need our selection to turn-up on the day. Soft ground would be a concern and as with all races over sprint distances a favourable draw is desirable; there is little room for error racing over such trips.

Should Naadirr turn-up on May 13 I’m sure he won’t be a 12/1 shot and could in fact even be half that price. Here’s hoping he makes it and turns up in form. With fast ground. With a good draw. Is that too much to ask?

Advice

1pt each-way NAADIRR @12/1 (Betfair Sportsbook, bet365, Boylesports, Ladbrokes)

 

 

Ante-Post Focus: Aintree 2014

The start of the Aintree Grand National meeting is just three days away so I’m thinking it might be time to show a little bit of initiative in the ante-post markets in the hope of obtaining some value. Entries for all races are now through, but it’s the Betfred Bowl and the Melling Chase runners and markets that have caught my eye.

2.30 Aintree Thursday – Betfred Bowl

Fourteen have been entered up in this, but although no more than a fair price currently, I’m willing to stick up the confirmed runner, DYNASTE. This classy grey has grown on me over the last year or so. He‘s one of the most consistent top horses in training and has been bang there in good races throughout his career, especially over the last two seasons.

His chasing record is impressive, in terms of consistency, despite one blip, which came in this year’s King George. The son of Martaline was too poor to be true and subsequently was found to have pulled muscles in his hind quarters. This setback was a worry coming into the Cheltenham Festival, but he’d still go on to win the Ryanair in great style. It wasn’t a vintage running by any means, but I felt he gave some good horses, who had the race run to suit, a bit too much leeway. It didn’t matter in the end as he bounded up the hill to score convincingly.

Cheltenham is also a track that I feel doesn’t bring out the very best in him so his performance can possibly be marked up further. The eight-year-old has always shown his best for on flat tracks, like Aintree, so a return to a less demanding circuit is another positive.

In summing up the case for him, Dynaste too is a good jumper. A strong ability to travel through races is also another plus. While his price is only fair there is a chance the race may cut up further and current odds of 9/4 may contract.

Silviniaco Conti looks to be the selections biggest danger. He too is a classy horse, but there must be a strong possibility his brutal Cheltenham effort, a good run, has left its mark? Dynaste comes in a fresher horse and Silviniaco Conti was behind him earlier in the season in the Betfair Chase, too.

Another strong challenger is First Lieutenant, the Gigginstown horse that sadly missed the Gold Cup due to not eating up. (Connections possibly leaving a Gold Cup behind – we’ll never know) He’s another good horse, but finds it difficult to win and is highly dependent on good ground and a strong gallop to show his best form. Even that may not be good enough here and Bryan Cooper missing must be another negative.

The rest really don’t look good enough. Cue a boil over.

3.05 Aintree Friday – Melling Chase

The second selection runs on the Friday and like the above race we have a double figure entry, this time 13 runners. Like the Bowl the Melling may also cut up so in acting fast, we may be able to obtain a bit of value while too holding genuine claims of scoring.

To my eye, the market has this wrong at the moment. Only one book have priced up the race, Paddy Power, but it’s a small surprise that MODULE is not favourite. While official ratings can be a touch, well, inaccurate at times, it’s interesting the handicapper has Module six pounds clear of his nearest market rival, Rajdhani Express and a further three pounds clear of the next, Ballynagour.

Tom George’s chaser is still only seven-year-olds although it feels like he’s been around a fair bit longer. Since going over fences the son of Panoramic has taken his form to another level. As a novice he was a staying on fourth in the Jewson at the Cheltenham Festival before being put away for this current campaign. Connections patience may be starting to pay off as this season has seen the bay reach new heights.

An excellent second in the Haldon Gold Cup (just behind Somersby) at Exeter was followed by a disappointing effort next time out at Huntingdon. The nature of the latter track probably didn’t suit. That said, it’s encouraging that his last two runs improved.

A win at Newbury in heavy ground came before another Cheltenham Festival run, in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, behind Sire De Grugy. Having done a lot right he found himself outpaced approaching the straight, fighting a losing battle, before running on to grab third. That was a career best and given how he was finishing the step-up to this intermediate trip should be perfect. He jumped superbly, too so that is another asset to have.

It doesn’t look the strongest of heats and while there is a chance I’m maybe under-rating Rajdhani Express, history shows Ballynagour struggles to put back to back races together. This rest are really all of a muchness and I’d be disappointed if he didn’t go close, if on form.

As you can see, I’ve put up two horses here and there is good reason in this instance. I’m advising an each-way double. As said I feel like Dynaste’s price is fair with the ability to contract while Module’s odds offer a touch of value. Furthermore, one or both races may cut up badly leaving first two placings on the day(s).

Both hold outstanding chances of winning, but I really couldn’t see either out of the frame so an each-way double is the bet I’ll be doing.

Good Luck!

Advice

2pts each-way double Dynaste @9/4 and Module @4/1 (Paddy Power)

Blog update – March 2014

Well it’s not an update I wanted to do, but it had to be done. It makes for pretty grim reading, a significant part of the fall deriving from a poor Cheltenham Festival.

I did a lot of work for Cheltenham, maybe too much, and I possibly over-complicated things. So for people that followed me religiously, if there are a such, I can only apologise. It’s another lesson so I’m hoping I can take from it.

Going into December 2013 we were up +55.21 for the year, since September (the blog first started in September 2012), but from here it went downhill. A loss on non-Cheltenham related blogs equalled -20.9, from December to March.

So before the March madness started we were 55.21 – 20.9 = +34.31.

Now it’s where it gets depressing:

Ante-Post Cheltenham blogs showed a loss of -29.

Blogs from Cheltenham on the day showed a loss of -16.5.

Therefore, for the year we are showing a loss of +34.31 – 29 – 16.5 = –11.19.

Our overall blog score now reads +207.45 – 11.19 = +196.26.

I am sorry for that, Cheltenham was a real killer this year, the complete opposite of 2013. The highs and lows of it all, hey? Anyway, with a bit of hard work I’m sure we can finish the year out strongly as I’ve always preferred punting on the flat. Here’s hoping.