Switch ads

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Ante-post bolstering

I’ve been scrabbling around busily bolstering the Festival portfolio by trying to unearth value in opposing Mullins. It is a thankless task. Ahead of a traditionally informative trials weekend here and at Leopardstown, it’s time for a health check.

My nemesis, the Supreme. I’ve sided with Henderson here. There’s a collectors item. The last one was Sprinter Sacre (3rd!) in 2011. In absorbing a good few shrewd observations that Min is far too short for the rubbish he has been beating; and that he shows a little too much green-ness, I’ve backed Altior at 7/1. It’s principally a price call to oppose Mullins with one that is improving rapidly. That said, I think I saw some of those behind Min have now come out and won. Ho hum.

I also had a dabble with Anibale Fly at a neat 225/1 on Betfair last month. He was then beaten easily by Bellshill over 2 ½ miles. I had been hoping that a step back to 2 miles would see him line up in the Supreme, allowing me to cash out my first Festival profit this season. Ha ha!  No. It looks like he’ll go down one of the handicap routes and I’d be surprised to see him in the entries tomorrow.

Very much looking forward to seeing a combination of (is it too much to hope for all of) Yorkhill, Bellshill and Tombstone in the Deloitte Hurdle this weekend. Just about the best yardstick for the Festival novice hurdle grade 1s of the season. I’ll be hoping to get a proper fix on them as there is still some mileage in the Supreme market.

No further action in the Arkle. I have Ttebbob who hasn’t been seen since pulling up behind Douvan at Christmas. Given that he goes well fresh, I assume Jessie will send him straight to the Festival now, if he goes anywhere. Hard to be confident about this one. Finding anything to oppose Douvan is a tough ask and I’ll probably park the bus until the day of race, now. Intriguing selection from Pricewise though. I had to look up The Game Changer as I couldn’t even remember his run in October! We are all scraping around for some angles.

In the Champion Hurdle, I have assumed Old Guard will not line up. I do not know what went on with the Nicholls team over Christmas. There was almost a whiff of panic about the yard as they sensed the ending of their Grade 1 production line. Chucking Old Guard in to the Christmas Hurdle after three swift runs was madness. Especially after the trainer had initially said the horse would have a break before the Festival. Immediately after his poor run, the talk was all about stepping him up to 2 ½ miles.  The vibes coming out of Ditcheat are uncharacteristically knee-jerk. To be fair, it was a rubbish ante-post bet anyway. It now hangs on yet another change of heart from Pumpkin Head.

So I’ve added Identity Thief to my roster at 14/1. Carefully brought along by De Bromhead, I’m suckered in by another deceptively progressive profile. That will do here. Nowt will get near Faugheen the machine.

Nothing yet in the Four-miler. I’ve been very much enjoying Lydia Hislop’s microscopic and entertaining Road To Cheltenham series. I was thinking about Onenightinvienna for this marathon novice chase until I read that Lydia had whistled up Philip Hobbs on the speed dial to ascertain running plans. We discovered that the stout stayer would not be appearing at the Festival at all. He was instead being targeted as a novice at the Grand National. So she promptly backed him for it at 50/1. Fantastic stuff.

I moved to get Yanworth onside at 8/1 for the Neptune the day before his serene victory in Saturday’s novice hurdle trial at HQ. Given the manner of his win and that he now rates as my Festival banker, I feel I should point out that I have witnesses to this apparently brazen spot of after-timing. Happy to provide usernames and instagram profiles as necessary.

Nothing else here for now. And nothing in the Albert Bartlet yet either. Novice work to be done.  

The RSA has an open feel this year. This weekend’s action will shake the market up somewhat, with excellent trials both here and in Ireland. I’ve played some low stakes at biggish prices around Andrew Lynch’s Zabana. I sat up and took notice of his smooth debut in December. He’ll run in the Flogas Novice Chase on Saturday and I have him for the RSA at 26/1 (Betfair) and the JLT at 23 (also Betfair). The plunge on the horse today for the JLT is presumably in response to stable talk. In to 10/1 in some places. The JLT does look like the best race for him. Even if he runs really well on Saturday, the worry is the lack of practice he will have under his belt for the RSA which is always a severe test.

In which case, I’ll be knotted brow over the cards for Saturday when the likes of Seeyouatmidnight, Blacklion, Black Hercules, Roi Des Francs, et al will lay down some more markers.

After looking at Un De Sceaux in the Clarence House Chase, I concluded, like others, that the only horse who can get near him in the Queen Mother is Sprinter Sacre. No rocket science here. After UDS ran so well, Henderson’s standard-bearer drifted out a point and I pounced with a startling turn of feline precision. Sniffing out value as like it was kittekat. (I’ve had a modest interest at 5/1…!)  Sizing Granite, though having a pretty poor preparation, apparently remains on course for this race. However, he’s left De Bromhead and now resides with Colm Murphy. He is still available at prices within the same county as the one I have: 33/1 from December. I don’t take a great deal of comfort from that.

JLT – see Zabana and also Sizing John who will go straight to the Festival now. I do like Killultagh Vic here, but I’m unlikely to play again unless/until my two are scratched.

I’m bereft in the Ryanair. As usual, it’s the Festival equivalent of The Inbetweeners, full of immature types who would rather be somewhere else. Five of the top six in the betting are unlikely to line up. The only one I like is Village Vic. On the one hand, 12/1 with a run looks a smidge short for what he’s achieved. On the other, if Vautour, Smad Place, Road To Riches and the rest of the Gold Cup gang don’t show up, he has the race at his mercy. But now I read that Vroum Vroum Mag has this an option, alongside the World Hurdle and the Mares Hurdle. FFS!  (This is like thinking aloud on keyboard). OK, that’s it. I’m in. Village Vic NRNB at 12/1. 

The World Hurdle looked so open in December and when I backed Martello Tower at 16/1. I thought I’d be having a fistful of juicy double-figure ante-posts to go with. Then Thistlecrack came along and stamped his presence all over the race. Twice. He’ the real deal. In the meantime, Martello has gone backwards and I’ve had no other bets. This race is a now a bit of a shocker. I need to regroup and devise a new strategy. The old one didn’t work.

I’d backed Myska a week or so ago at 7/1 for the new Dawn Run Mares Novice hurdle. She ran a stinker on Saturday and was later found to have a cough. She is the only Mullins horse I have backed for the Festival this year and her participation has to be in some doubt now.

Sceau Royal at 16/1 was added to the collection in early January, after Adrien Du Pont came out and won a decent Triumph trial in style (on desperate ground). My lad had beaten him well before Christmas. He’s ‘done nothing wrong’ as they say, and King is a master with these types. His latest prep was a low key affair and he remains best priced 14/1.

Finally, I have made up my mind about the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Don Cossack was backed at 5/1 with the lumpiest bet in this ante-post ramble so far, before his run in the Kinlock Brae Chase. I had concluded that his ability to maintain a good gallop off the pace and kick on in the closing stages in top company were the sort of attributes I was looking for over a trip where his stamina would come into play.  The key pieces of form that frank this view are the Punchestown Gold Cup where he won well last April and the King George where he fell at the last but looked like getting up.

His run in that Kinlock Brae raised as many questions as it answered.  There has been a lot said about the lazy way he ran. Whilst it’s a worry, I do have some respect for Elliot’s view that better ground will make all the difference. I have to keep the faith now.

Don Poli is the rival I’m most concerned about. That was the case before Djakadam’s fall last weekend. Don Poli is a grinder with stamina to burn. Just the type for that hill. Djakadam now goes into the race with the following stat hanging about his battered frame: Of the 103 horses since 2006 that have come into the Cheltenham Festival off the back of a last time out fall, only one has won. I don’t tend to hold such stats in very high regard, but that one is a cracker.

Roll on the weekend. After which this lot will probably be smashed up and I’ll need to start again. Again.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016


En route to the station I walked past our local M&S where the external sign has been reading F OD HALL for sometime now. I attempted to engage a young man with a mirthful witticism. He was bent over a large vowel swathed in clear plastic which he was slicing off with a knife ready to re-attach to the sign above the entrance.

"Got any Os?" I lobbed.

The sign-smith gave me a look of total confusion. The appeal of the classic Two Ronnies sketch is clearly a generational thing. I didn’t think it was worth inquiring about fork ‘andles…

On the train to Doncaster, there were the usual shenanigans trying to navigate through prats in order to find my seat. For instance the dithering woman on the phone in front of me, blocking the entire vestibule at the end of Car C, and saying, "I'm so busy. I'm literally flying to New York on Sunday!" loud enough so that the passengers in Car M didn't miss her executive travel arrangements. “Literally”, I thought, “as oppose to what...? Metaphorical travels by first-class mind-palace?”

Donny is not the prettiest town in England. Considering its relative Victorian affluence and later railway heritage, swathes of the town are architecturally anonymous and barriered by road infrastructure. And yet there a whiff of ambition in the air. Robin Hood Airport, opened in 2005 on the old RAF Finningley airfield is a success; the new Keep Moat Stadium is home to Doncaster Rovers and a raft of other local pro sports teams; and the Frenchgate Shopping Interchange is a reasonably attractive and popular new shopping centre. I later read of plans to create civic and cultural quarters in the town centre and raised an eyebrow.

Alongside these worthy constructions, the £36m redevelopment of Doncaster Racecourse in 2007 is a lot closer to my heart. Although owned by Arena Racing, the Council earmarked work at the racecourse as one of its seven transformation projects to regenerate Doncaster. The project rolled out during a turbulent time for horse racing as the original and ground-breaking At The Races media rights deal collapsed and as internet betting began to take off.

It was delivered as a joint venture between Doncaster Council and Arena Leisure. The Council was very aware of the potential of a revamped track that would boast a state-of-the-art grandstand, exhibition and conference centre together with a new on-site stables complex, weighing room and accommodation block for racing professionals. Plans also included a four-star business class hotel. It never got built because the tumultuous betting industry backdrop to redevelopment soon gave way to a far deeper malaise in the economy more generally. Now, the mothballed project is being revived. The Council is talking to developers about building a 150 bedroom complex on the site of the former weighing room.

The three of us admired the new five-tier grandstand. It is an attractive, spacious and well appointed structure with excellent sight lines and plenty of seating both inside and out. The terraces provide thoughtful viewing areas and unlike many other new racecourse developments, the best bits of the stands are not just the preserve of VIPs, life members and corporate hospitality. Joe Punter is not squeezed into concrete cattle sheds here. I met Dad and Bruv in the Lazarus stand where we had acres of tables, large screen tellies in every direction and access to a split level outside patio. All that was missing was the hot tub.

In Town Moor racecourse, Doncaster has something of which to be genuinely proud. And this was my first visit. Unforgivable for a Yorkshire lad. On the way out to outside seating, Bruv gave a nod of approval and said "You can really tell the difference between a Grade I and a Grade II track!" Tired old Wetherby is their most frequently visited racecourse.

My appreciation of the place went up even further when I tried to find somewhere to dump my lumpy rucksack.

"Do you happen to know if there's a left luggage anywhere hereabouts?" I asked an under-occupied woman in one of the spacious Tote booths.

"I'm not sure. You could ask in the main reception."

She peered at me over her glasses, weighing me up.

"OK, thanks. I don't really want to lug this thing around all day."

I shook the backpack with a tired looking shimmy.

I was pleased to note that the Tote uniform has returned to its traditional bold pillar box red instead of the vile lime/grass green combination of recent years. Maybe they'll go back to recruiting all their staff from Newcastle and its environs too. Just like the 90s.

"Here, I'll take it." She had obviously decided I wasn't a terrorist. "I'll pop it down there with my coat. I'm here til 15 minutes after the last race".

I was touched and made sure to place all my Tote bets that afternoon exclusively with her.

All three of us backed Coozan George in the opener. A solitary Jefferson runner at Donny should not normally be overlooked. Maybe we should have done. The horse was given a quiet ride on his chasing debut before smacking the last and losing a lot of momentum. He did well to finish in the places. One to take out of the race. Just after that mistake, Bruv dug me in the ribs and shouted,

"He's coming, he's coming!"

"He's getting third!" I thought I was watching the wrong horse.

"No, for my placepot!"

Hardly reckless punters, Dad and Bruv have recently adopted a careful strategy of only backing in races once their Placepots are down. I scoffed insufferably until Bruv described his healthy strike rate. That shut me up. I have an appalling record.  

Landing the Placepot on that card seemed like a taller order than ever. Every race bar one had 16+ runners and there was a fair smattering of impossible handicaps and unfathomable maidens. So it proved. I made it to race 3. Something of personal record. The others faired little better. The pool eventually paid out £172 to a £1 stake.

That said, there was a lot of rubbish in the 18 runner novice hurdle and between us we had whittled it down the three live chances. Why we didn’t perm them I’ll never know. Two of ‘em came home first and second: Cyrius Moriviere for the upwardly mobile Ben Pauling and Moabit for Paul Nicholls. Dashing Oscar, whom I finally settled on, finished no-where.

My only winner of the day was Keith Reveley's Night In Milan. A twice winner at this track over fences, even Bruv couldn't put me off with his remark that the horse was being sent over hurdles today merely "as a Grand National prep, Dave". He came smoothly clear down the home straight and never looked in danger, despite my urgings towards James Reveley to “watch out and get flippin’ busy”. No need. 7-1 looked a steal after the event.

There was a nice moment after the race. George Moor had just seen his last ever runner, Wolf Shield, come home safe and sound. Moor was interviewed in the winners enclosure about his retirement after giving 31 years to the game. He went out with a couple of Northumberland Plates and a Royal Ascot winner under his belt. The horse my Bruv remembers best is Pagan Starprincess whom he managed to back at various odds between 7-1 and 28-1 on each of her hurdle wins.

All his horses have been moved on. And everyone he employed at the stable has been found a job. On the downside, there is no-one to buy his Middleham training facility which is being broken up and sold off in chunks. Much like Ferdy Murphy's state-of-the- art place was a few years ago. This leaves Micky Hammmond as the last credible jumps trainer in Middleham. Even that is stretching a point. The flat business is thriving in Yorkshire, but the jumpers are very much the poor relation. A sad decline which sees no prospect of reversal.

We went off to fetch refreshments, leaving Dad to mind the seats. "We'll try to bring the tea at the same time", we said to him as we headed for the sandwhich bar. "Don't worry", he called after us. "You can allas go back again. He! He!"

The five-runner 3 mile novice chase had the potential to be informative, with useful runners from Nicholls, Fry, Curtis, King and Richards. However, the race was over as a spectacle early when The Tourad Man fell. That hampered Saint Roque into a bad mistake who was pulled up almost immediately. Vintage Vinnie, whom I had backed at Cheltenham in October where he came down, jumped much better here and looked like giving favourite Thomas Brown something to worry about. The improved fencing didn’t last long though. Vinnie hit three out and Thomas Brown stayed on fairly well to win. Harry Fry’s yard has been bang out of form. They’ll take this result, although there’s a suspicion it was gifted to them. Safe to say there were no RSA Chase winners in this field.

We had seen Alex Ferguson’s chopper land in the centre of the track before racing. Now he and the rest of his entourage were attracting attention as they came back from the parade ring, passing the rails bookies. Fergie did his best to sign every autograph and pose for every selfie with something passing for good cheer. All he really wanted to do was look at the prices of the opposition to his horse, Rainy City, in the maiden hurdle. One of his crew sidled up to him and handed over a slip procured from Wensleydale Bookmakers’ pitch. I didn't see how much folding stuff had changed hands. Fergie was getting fed up with the attention by then and the gang headed over to the owners bar.  

Bruv and I watched this heat from one of the two remaining Victorian stands at the track, up by the one-furlong marker, where there is a great view back to the new stands which angle out into the sharp turn just past the winning post. Having the parade ring in front of the stands adjacent to the track is a simple way of engaging everyone with the theatre of dispatching the runners and greeting a winners back in without having to charge from behind the grandstands to the track. We need more of this.

In front of our stand was an attractive family enclosure, used primarily during the track’s extensive flat season. In 1992, Doncaster staged the first ever Sunday meeting on a British racecourse. Sunday trading laws prevented any on-course betting. Despite this, a crowd of 23,000 turned up. Many of them were families who brought their own picnic chairs, flaky sausage rolls and warm lemonade. The day played an important part in setting to the tone for family friendly Sunday fixtures that have since become a staple of the Summer.

It looked like Fergie’s appearance at the track was a sign we had failed to take. His Rainy City moved smoothly to lead at two out. However, he tired alarmingly quickly and Alan King’s Big Chief Benny asserted close home. I’d confidently napped Royal Milan who was being given his second start over hurdles by that nice Philip Hobbs. However, the anticipated improvement eluded him completely. Disappointing.

In the last race both Dad and Bruv found a rare jump winner from the Richard Fahey stable. In an ordinary novice handicap hurdle, Quill Art managed to make his previous experience tell and won a good tussle with the only other horse in the race who could claim any form at all, Mazovian from Neil Mulholland’s team. For my part I backed a Jonjo O'Neill rag on the basis that he had been saved for a handicap touch. I was very wrong.

Nevermind. With each of us claiming winners on the day and avoiding an utter mauling, we easily justified large haddock, chips and mushy peas from Whitby Fisheries over by the carpark. Lightly battered: a fair reflection on the day’s punting.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

New Year sales #2

What I say:
Time to join the discounters... My betting and sports yarns, Mug Punting and Smug Punting have both been lobbed into the New Year sales bear pit. Go on - treat yourself to a good read to sustain you through the back-to-work blues. 

What they say: 
Mug Punting: 
"For anyone with a sporting interest in having a few bets and enjoying a beer, this is a good excuse to lose yourself in someone else's story. Five stars from me."
"This is a laugh-out-loud funny book that is much about men's relationships with each other as it is about horse racing."
 Smug Punting: 
"Another excellent set of tales. Well written too - would appeal to horse-racing fans and others alike."

Where to buy:
Both books are available through Amazon at £2.61 each for an electronic kindle download (free for unlimited subscribers) and £6.91 each for a proper physical paperback. Better value than the Cheltenham Festival ante-post markets!  

Sunday, 3 January 2016

New Year sales

The hangover from some wretched Christmas punting has almost equalled the one that began at 5.30am on New Year’s Eve. Reading back over the Christmas Shopping post induces the sort of head-swimming nausea more common to those ill-advised whiskies that rang out the old year.

Anyone looking for some New year bargains, I’m ready to flog off a few unwanted ante-post purchases. One careful owner. Very few miles on the clock. Just don’t check the service history.

Some runs were too bad to be true. Ttebbob was beaten in Boxing Day’s Racing Post Novice Chase before the end of the first circuit. Douvan bossed the race from the moment the flag dropped and one school of thought is that Ttebbob’s game was affected because he couldn’t dominate from the front. This looked more fundamental than that, though. Poor jumping and sluggish travelling surely meant something more serious was amiss. My 20/1 voucher for the Arkle looks like bad joke. Douvan, however, looks like a po-faced shoe-in, despite one or two sticky jumps of his own. The exuberant and tough Ar Mad is next best, at least on this side of the sea. But trainer Gary Moore is reluctant to commit him left-handed.

My other Cheltenham interest in the Douvan race was Sizing John, backed at 12/1 for the JLT. He ran a strange race on and off the bridle and got no nearer to the Mullins horse than he had done in three attempts over hurdles. A step up in trip needs to bring about both an improved performance for his connections and a confidence booster for me. He is still best priced 12/1 for the JLT.

Earlier on the same card, Rashaan carried my very high hopes in the shape of a day-of-race as well as ante-post punts into the Grade 2 Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle. The burden proved too much and, in the manner of Ttebbob, he bombed out completely. My most confident two Christmas bets inexplicably smashed up within an hour of each other. Boxing day cold turkey, and I was sweating cobs. Surely neither of these previously fine looking steeds could run so badly without something physically wrong? The winner was another Mullins horse, Apple’s Jade, but in terms of the Triumph market, Aiden O’Brien seems to have unearthed a genuine contender in Ivanovich Gorbatov. He has a few interesting prospects on the stocks this year. Keeping them warm for his son Joseph, no doubt, when he takes out a full licence in the near future.

No excuses for Old Guard’s sluggish run in the Christmas Hurdle behind the real Faugheen. It simply magnified the massive gulf between what is happening in this division on these shores and in Ireland. Being turned out four times in three months wouldn’t have helped Old Guard, but it was a man and snotty-nosed boys out there on the Kempton acres. Old Guard 20/1 for the Champion Hurdle anyone? No, thought not.

I found some solace in a splitting a stake between Cue Card and Don Cossack in the King George. The race lived up to its billing. Vautour still jumped left, but cruised along in high gear and had everything in trouble behind. I thought Cue Card had a poor positional ride from Paddy Brennan which didn’t enable the horse to settle in the way he needs. Nevertheless he still found enough to reel in Vautour as that one’s tank emptied and Brennan redeemed himself. The only blemish on the spectacle was Don Cossack who would have gone very close if not falling at the last.

Willie Mullins came out after a few days reflection and committed the horse to the Gold Cup. Who am I? After the shambles of my punting this week, who the hell am I? But is Vautour really a Gold Cup horse on that evidence? Surely vulnerable to the likes of Don Poli (another grinding win, this time in the Lexus Chase, provides more copper-bottomed credibility for the Big One), Don Cossack and Djakadam.

I had also picked up earlier on the card when Tea For Two won the Feltham. Like the King George VI, the pennies I that came my way there were outshone by the race itself. Fantastic to see Lizzie Kelly become the first woman jockey to land a Grade 1 jumps race. Let’s have a bit more of that. But not in the RSA apparently. Nick Williams wants him to stick to right-handed tracks.

Cold turkey sometimes seems never ending. Un De Sceaux’s fall in the Paddy Power Chase should have been good news for my speculative punt on Henry de Bromhead’s Sizing Granite. Sadly, Granite was already way out the back when the Mullins hotpot fell over the second last, having spectacularly failed to build on his seasonal opener. Better ground will suit him more and I haven’t given up hope completely. This was disappointing all the same. Un De Sceaux just seemed too fresh. Sprinter Sacre and Sire de Grugy served up a treat in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton, but that fare is a notch below what UDS can do when he puts it all together. 

To complete the wipeout, Martello Tower put in a laboured performance in the Christmas Hurdle. He goes well fresh and so the manner in which he folded pretty tamely here was not ideal. Davy Russell rode a beautiful, typically stalking ride on winner Prince Of Scars.

Outside my own crumbling world of festive punting, there were many eye-catching performances. In the novice hurdle division, Altior is going from strength-to-strength. The Boxing Day novice hurdle looks good form for the Supreme, with a fair yardstick of Mullins’ back in second. In truth, Open Eagle was probably third string behind Yorkhill who got the job done in the Tolworth in impressive enough fashion, Bellshill who goes again on Sunday, and Min who already heads that market. The pair of hills could both end up in either that or the Neptune. Juggling the preferences of the owners and the stable jockey seems to weigh on Mullins’ mind as much as the relative merits of the horses, judging by comments after the Tolworth today.

Mullins also has Long Dog, who battled well to take the Paddy Power Novice Hurdle, for the 2½m or 3m festival novice events. I thought Gordon Elliott’s Tombstone had a rough passage in Long Dog’s race and seems to be the one to take away from that encounter.

Over further, Barters Hill was perplexing in the Challow Novices Hurdle. Relentless galloping ensured him a comfortable win and propulsion to the top of the Albert Bartlett market. I like him a lot. But he was a tough old ride. David Bass had to urge him into every hurdle and avoid a detour via the paddock at the end of the home straight. Stick a pair of furry cheekpieces on him and he’ll be right as rain. Armchair training is a great lark.

Barter was joined at the top of that market the very next day by Up For Review, who looked like a much more straight-forward ride.

In the novice chasing division, I was really impressed with Zabana’s debut for Andrew Lynch at Leopardstown. It was just an ordinary 2m3f beginners’ event, but the manner in which the Halling gelding put the race to bed revealed potential by the Santa-sackful. The JLT or the RSA looks most likely, but this was just his debut over fences, so I’ll hang for now. No More Heroes is surely heading to the RSA, despite Gordon Elliott giving him entries in the four-miler and the JLT. He was very strong in the former-Topaz Novice Chase.

The New Year’s Day Action was interesting too, though it took me until today to finally catch up with the most notable developments. Paying tribute to Lemmy at 4.30am on New Year’s Eve with a spiralling air guitar solo that took out at least two dining chairs, together with a screamed group rendition of those immortal lines, “You know you’re gonna lose/And gambling’s for fools/But that’s the way I like it, baby/I don’t want to live forever” (which seems entirely appropriate to this particular post) inevitably took its toll. RIP Lemmy. I think an ensemble version of Bo-Rap was also served up at about the same time as the single malts made an appearance.  

So, many hours after the races had been run, and despite a churning stomach and drumming head, I managed to discern that Village Vic is improving at a serious rate of knots and a return to Prestbury Park for the Ryanair looks possible; and that seemingly from nowhere, Robert Walford’s Camping Ground has emerged as a serious World Hurdle player out of a strange race in which all Henderson’s runners underperformed.

Just one addition to the ragged and hanging Cheltenham portfolio (…well what’s the point in giving up?) I backed The Govaness for the Mares Hurdle at 20/1 before today’s listed event. She failed by a neck to take the race from Polly Peachum, but this was a good effort and I think there’s still improvement in the mare.

Some interesting outings tomorrow. At Naas, apart from Bellshill (in a race where I quite like the chances of Anibale Fly) we will see Shaneshill and Kitten Rock in a novice chase; and at Plumpton see the classy L’Ami Serge make a belated start over fences.

The seasonal juggernaut rolls on towards Cheltenham, my trashed ante-post vouchers merely ticker tape in the backdraft. I’ll just have to find some more…

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Christmas shopping

The season is sizzling. This isn’t another global warming warning and it’s not the mild weather that has me clammy all over. The jumps game is hot right now and the festive fixtures look as tasty as a turkey dinner.

The season was full of promise back in October. But aren’t they all? So often the expectancy outweighs the delivery.  Not so far this term.

The Mullins battalion looks even stronger. Last season’s stellar novices are beginning to dominate in new divisions and the established Group 1 talent grows ever more formidable, bar the odd unexpected hiccup. Not by any means in the same league, but the rise and rise of new young trainers like Dan Skelton and Harry Fry is encouraging.

The narrative of the early winter has also been about the return to form of some old lags I was happy to write off. I don't just mean Philip Hobbs (love that guy). Sprinter Sacre, Sire De Grugy, Cue Card, Sir Des Champs, O’Faolains Boy, Simonsig (although that may be brief), and even Smad Place who is starting to deliver on the promise as an 8-y-o.  

Now at the business end of the season, it is time for the novices to show their mettle. We have had some early skirmishes and sighters, but the Christmas fixtures are where we start to see the good ones taking each other on. Particularly so in Ireland. The magnificent Leopardstown four day-meeting is where I have started my Christmas shopping.

On Boxing Day, we will see the best two-mile novice chase of the season. Douvan is held in the highest regard by the Closesutton team, Mullins hailing him as “an amazing athlete and I would say he’s as good as I’ve ever had”. In the Racing Post Novice Chase he will bump into two other decent sorts. I backed Ttebbob at 10/1 for the race a fortnight ago after his scintillating round of jumping in a Navan Grade 3. He’s now 4/1. However, compared to my punting pals Bacchy and Si, I’ve been slow off the mark. They both took advantage of much chunkier prices after his jumping debut at Thurles. Chuck in Sizing John and we have a properly exciting contest. Henry De Bromhead has a good one in this clean-jumping gelding who should get closer to Douvan than he did in his three tries over hurdles.

Once I start to ramble around the Christmas markets, I find it hard to stop. So I’ve backed Ttebbob for the Arkle at Cheltenham at 20/1. I’ve also taken a punt on De Bromhead stepping Sizing John up in trip and backed him for the weaker-looking JLT Novice Chase at 12/1. I may be wrong about both these Festival targets. Let’s face it, that wouldn’t be the first time. I’ll just go in again. None of this false caution of previous years. Gung-ho! It’s the only way.

I haven’t looked properly at the staying novice chasers, except to note that the two at the head of the market both look impressive: No More Heroes and More Of That. Looking forward to Native River and Twea For Two at Kempton. Both have started well. Nevertheless, I’m keeping my powder dry for now. (Is that the shortest-lived ‘gung-ho’ policy in ante-post history?)

Also at Leopardstown on Boxing Day, Rashaan goes in the Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle. He’s the best Triumph prospect I’ve seen all season and I’ve duly backed him for Cheltenham at 16/1. From the small stable of Colin Kidd, I was so impressed with his neat hurdling style and smooth travelling when he took a decent Fairyhouse race last month. You have to trust what you see sometimes.

Mullins hasn’t yet sorted out his Triumph crew. He’ll have plenty to choose from. Here, it looks like Footpad is his current first choice.

Oddly, I haven’t sorted out the novice hurdlers at all, aside from the juveniles. No bet yet. Not even close. I like Barters Hill, Yorkhill and Bellshill. And anything else vaguely undulating, to be honest. But I’ve no idea which race they’ll go for. A little more under the radar, I saw on telly and liked the look of Winter Escape, trained by Alan King. I’ll keep tabs. Early days though. So unlike the novice chasers, I’m not ready to make a call.

Away from the novices, one of the few superstars we haven’t yet seen from the Co Carlow champion trainer is Un De Sceaux. All being well (and him not feeling too flat) he should finally emerge in the Paddy Power Chase on Sunday. The horse is superb to see careering at his fences, but is a ridiculously short price for the Champion Chase. Best price of 7/4. I can’t be having that. Sizing Granite, another from the De Bromhead yard, will line up against him on Sunday. I’ve dipped in to the spends again to take 14/1 there and also 33/1 about this lad for the two-mile showpiece at the Festival. This is a real punt. I thought he put in a beautiful round of jumping at Aintree in April when taking the Maghull Novices Chase. Admittedly not the strongest renewal and he failed to land the even-money on his reappearance this season. He ran well enough though, giving lumps of weight away, and showing some fight to go down by only a head. He has to improve and at the moment 33/1 is a fair price. I’m investing in potential.

Monday 28th sees the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown over 3 miles. Martello Tower is in the early decs and I am keen to see him line up having  had him as a stocking filler at 16/1 for the World Hurdle. The division has suddenly come to life with the mighty marker put down by Thistlecrack last Saturday and the reversion to hurdles of Saphir Du Rheu – surely still feeling the effects of his recent Hennessy run in the same race. I still think there’s value hereabouts, though. Whilst Martello Tower is speculative until he actually reappears, I’m also very interested in Alpha Des Obeaux and Kilcooley. I’m likely to play again.

The best race that day at Leopardstown is the Lexus Chase. The staying chase division is absolutely fascinating right now, despite the recent loss of Coneygree for the season, we are enjoying a bumper show. Mullins holds a strong hand, of course. It’s likely that Don Poli and Djakadam will be his charges here, whilst Vautour and Valseur Lido head to Kempton on Boxing Day to take on Cue Card, Don Cossack, Silviniaco Conti and Road To Riches.

The King George looks the pick of the two races and I can’t wait to see the tactics unfold. I think I will be with Don Cossack who seems to keep on improving and there should be no doubts about the track at Kempton (whether or not there are any valid ones about Cheltenham). I’d love the winner to be the new gurgle-free Cue Card but I don’t think he’s got the beating of the Elliott horse. My only other comment is to note the staggering price available about Road To Riches at 25/1. I could say the same about Valseur Lido, too. I’m talking myself into too many bets here. Maybe it’s one to leave alone and savour.

I have actually had an ante-post interest in this division. O’Faolains Boy has attracted some sentimental shopping for the Gold Cup. In a rather over-excited moment after his impressive win at Newbury last Friday, I found myself unable to resist a little of the 33s generally on offer. Then Rebecca Curtis confirmed him for the Welsh National on 27th and I rather fear that will finish him for the season. Well it’s hardly classic Gold Cup prep is it? Ho hum.

The Irish look to have the spoils of the Champion Hurdle between them. Indeed, it may even be just between three or four Mullins charges. Henderson seems to be misfiring. Peace And Co’s inability to settle is a worry; and on Saturday JP McManus seemed to say that Hargam was a more likely runner in the Ryanair Hurdle than My Tent Or Yours. It may well be that Top Notch ends up being Hendo’s best shout in the Champ, but I don’t think he’s improving fast enough. One who might be is Old Guard. The wise words on the street suggest he’s not really a convincing Champion Hurdle type. I tend to disagree at 20/1 and have had a small interest. Boxing Day will tell us more, though the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton is surely Faugheen’s for the taking.

OK, the credit cards have gone back in the wallet. I’ll wait until these Christmas crackers are out of the way before the re-gifting of ante-posts starts…

Happy Christmas!