Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Dark, The Fog and The Fluke


I was sorry to hear of the death of James Herbert this week. Like most blokes of my vintage, Herbert's dark, often psychological horror was required reading during the early eighties. As a teenager with a healthy, inquiring mind, Herbert hit the spot for both suspense filled fear and the best naughty bits going. Facebook posts have been paying tribute to this very duality all week. It is with some regret that I realise you cannot find the high class filth in a well thumbed electronic copy of, say, Creed by shaking the spine of a Kindle to see which pages are bent back the furthest. Where do today's teenage boys get their cheap thrills? That's a rhetorical question. I don't really want to know.

The Facebook discussion about Herbert's demise also led to the title of this post. As I listed my favourites from his oeuvre, Brynaldo suggested this would be a good title for my Cheltenham Festival post mortem. A doomed strategy conceived in the Fog, delivered in the Dark and supplying just one Fluke winner.  I might add that my selections acted as a Jonah for many horses, but that was crap book, so doesn’t get a mention.

A more straight forward title might have been "Where did it all go wrong" but there is a risk of confusion with the Manic Street Preachers' 2010 track “Golden Platitudes”. That track expresses a frustration with the demise of radical politics rather the puncturing of a punting strategy. It’s hard to see Nicky Wire penning anything for the Racing Post.  

The stats offer no platitudes, golden or otherwise. Nowhere to hide: 42 bets, 1 win, 4 places, points staked 382, net loss 229. ROI -60%.

My worst festival ever. It has taken me over a week to come to terms with this. I even ploughed back through my records to seek a sliver of comfort. There was none. I had a bad year in 2005 when many ante-posts went astray. I had Black Jack Ketchum at fancy prices for the (then) Sun Alliance Hurdle, but his ‘canny’ trainer mischievously rerouted to the new 3m Brit Novice Hurdle. He won at a canter. I lost a wad. But not as much as this year. I also discovered that I have made a profit – some very healthy ones too – at eight of the last 12 festivals. I made a small loss last year and there are worrying signs pointing to the start of a trend. It is getting harder every year with more races, moving targets, deeper plots, bigger fields and tougher competition.

That reflects the increasing prominence and domination of the Festival over the rest of the season. Indeed, to the utter neglect of the rest of the season. I moan (too often) about insultingly small fields for novice and intermediate chases, as well as graded hurdles and chases offering good prize money. Before the Festival there had been 23 grade one events, 16 of which were won by the favourite, and 6 by the second favourite. How competitive are these fields? Not at all is the answer. And what has it come to when leading stables would rather give their best Festival prospects a track gallop in front of a few hardy punters at the end of racing rather than a test in a real race? Vacuous arguments about too few appropriate races and losing valuable work time due to bad weather just do not wash. This absolutely undermines the game. Bob’s Worth, Grandouet, Binocular, Riverside Theatre all raced just once before the Festival; Dynaste and Simonsig hadn’t been spotted since Christmas. (And yes, I’m jabbing an accusatory finger firmly in Henderson’s direction, but he is not alone). Add to this the relentless concentration of big talent in a small number of yards and resulting reluctance to run stable stars, or horses in the same ownership against each other and we are left with plenty of evidence of the pitifully weak top class action outside Spring. Thank God for the handicaps. And the Irish.

On the question of the overall quality of the Festival itself, I tend to agree with my mate Bacchy who observed that:

“…with the principal Grade 1 winners lining up in the 4-miler and the Jewson, the RSA was an anticlimax. This is not what we come here to see - especially when Back In Focus and Dynaste are allowed to contest those lesser events without a Grade 1 penalty. That's what they mean when they talk about diluting the Festival.....”

All this rustling bluster could easily be seen as an attempt to obfuscate the direness of my week at, despite rantings, the greatest week of racing on the planet. Time to man up. Where did it all go wrong?
  • Bad judgement and poor research: I got too many of the big calls wrong. For instance, Silviniaco Conti was always going to be outstayed by Bob’s Worth, and despite my attempts to rationalise his suitability for the track, SC patently didn’t warm to Prestbury Park. Even had he stood up, it is hard to see him coming up the hill like BW or even Sir Des Champs. Another example: one of the few things I got right was the ground call. It was pretty much good to soft until Friday. So how does that square with one of my main bets on Taquin Du Seuil whose knee action betrays a liking for mud flying up by his ears. Missed that one. And, hands up, I got Cue Card all wrong. Concerns raised by his win over 2 ½ miles at Ascot and the proximity of Captain Chris before his final flight blunder were banished here. Cue Card sluiced home with confidence and stamina after making his own running at a pace too sharp for First Lieutenant. And here’s an interesting piece by Dan Kelly that suggests Zarkandar had been bottomed long before he got to the Festival. The signs were there for all to see, if you know how to look.
  • Bad performances: Alongside the rank bad selections, I’m arguing that too many of my selections did not run to anything like their marks. In the big ones, Arvika Ligeonniere (Arkle) failed to settle or jump with fluency; Unioniste (RSA) was entitled to run much better than this on all known form. Elsewhere, She Ranks Me (Mares Hurdle) barely travelled a step; Loch Ba (JLT Specialty) was being rousted disturbingly early and eventually unseated; and Cotton Mill (County) and Kashmir Peak (Triumph) both disappeared without a trace. Initially, I had thought Dodging Bullets’ run in the Supreme fell into the same category, but his position relative to River Maigue suggests the form is probably solid.
  • Bad luck: Not too many moans here, given that we are talking about 27 races. That said, a triple whammy on Friday just about put the tin lid on my Festival. Cousin Vinnie brought down in the Albert Bartlett before the race had got serious, Siviniaco Conti falling before the hill and Tetlami crashing through the wings whilst leading the Grand Annual just about summed my week.
I didn’t mean this post to turn into spleen-venting about the Festival. For all the concerns about the dominance of these four days and its impact on the rest of the season, and indeed the shape and quality of the four day bonanza itself, I would not be anywhere else on earth. For just a few days, my world revolves around those gleaming acres of turf sitting beneath Cleeve Hill where the most intense kind of equine theatre is played out for an audience of screaming, laughing, weeping emotional and financial wrecks. Bonds forged here in the white heat and heady atmosphere of Festival competition are never broken, whether that is man-to-man or man-to-beast.

This year, the highlights came hurtling at us from the very first moments. Champagne Fever’s gutsy win from the front in a brilliant finish to the Supreme. Ruby Walsh in very different mode getting Hurricane Fly back on the bridle to then win the Champion Hurdle as Mike Cattermole was desperately trying to call his race over. Sprinter Sacre causing the biggest intake of breath in the Champion Chase since Master Minded sprinted clear in less anticipated circumstances back in 08. The New One already setting pulses racing for a tilt at next year’s Champion Hurdle and in the same race Rule The World laying down a giant marker for his chasing career. Bob’s Worth equalling Flying Bolt’s 47 year old record of winning three different Festival races. Quevega matching Golden Miler’s achievement of five consecutive wins. Cue Card shutting up all the doubters in the Ryanair. Our Conor dropping jaws in the Triumph. I could go on.

On the human side, thoughts must be with JT McNamara. He remains in an induced coma after falling from Galaxy Rock in the Kim Muir. My mate was walking the path outside the perimeter fence at the time, showing his young son some of the action. He witnessed the incident and heard a crack as rider and horse came down. His relief at the sight of the horse getting up was immediately replaced by concern that the jockey had not moved. The green screens were erected to shield the view from the stands – but curiously not from the perimeter fence – and as my mate saw medical staff and ambulances arrive, he realised it was time to move on. Disturbing scenes.

I have a soft spot for JT. He rode Rith Dubh to a beautifully crafted victory in the 2002 Four Miler. That was my only winner at that year’s festival. I celebrated like I had screamed home the trifecta. This year, 11 years on, my only winner at the Festival was also in the Four Miler.

On a personal note, a big shout out to our mate Nev. He was the life and soul with us on Tuesday and Wednesday and smashed up a series of improbable forecasts before blowing a chunky part of his stash on the Coral Cup. He wouldn’t be the first to do that. Nev has been taken ill and is still in hospital as I write. Things are going to be different for Nev from now on and this one is for you mate. Get well soon.


Friday, 15 March 2013

Glaciation

The three-day glacial freeze/thaw and epic scouring wind in the Prestbury Park bowl has turned me into a fair approximation of the The Old Man of Hoy. My face has been chiselled into features craggy enough that outdoor types want to embed climbing nuts in my permanently furrowed brow.

I had a hangover yesterday morning so piercing that I thought the cast from Stomp were rehearsing in my brain. I couldn't manage a fry up until dangerously near the off-time of the first race.

I didn't find a single winner at all on World Hurdle Day. My pockets, on-line accounts and children's piggy banks are empty. Cleaned out. Mother Hubbard is empathising.

And yet, what a fantastic festival it is. I can't imagine one single place I would rather have been this week.

Today presents an opportunity for some juvenile relaxation over a Doom Bar or two in the pub with a dozen or so lairy, fired up mates who think they can still fleece both the bookies and each other in the final of the Fantasy Festival.

Is there anything left to go to war with today? A last rousing effort smacking of doomed bravado last seen at a well known cavalry charge near Balaclava (a useful piece of clothing this week) identifies the following:

1.30 - Triumph Hurdle
Kashmir Peak (16-1 ante-post)

2.05 - County Hurdle
Cotton Mill (8-1 ante post)
Ifandbutwhynot (9-1)

2.40 - Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle
Our Vinnie (16-1 e-w ante-post)

3.20 - Cheltenham Gold Cup
Silviniaco Conti (15-2 and 9-2 ante-post)
With the Nicholls' yard yet to find a winner at the festival, I am much less bullish about this bet than I was last week.

4.00 - Foxhunters
Cottage Oak (9-1 - minimum stakes)

4.40 - Martin Pipe Hurdle
Bourne (25-1 e-w)

5.15 - Grand Annual
Tetlami (18-1 e-w)

And nap of the day? This little beauty, spotted in a loose gallop on the way up to the track yesterday:








 

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Keep moving

Don't know where the day has gone. I blame Chris and Laura for their wonderful hospitality last night, resulting in everything turning rather more slowly than planned this morning. It was tremendous to catch up, though I fear I exhausted their patience with my ceaseless blatherings about hitting crossbars and near nap misses. Thanks guys.

So without further ado, and rooted on the back foot, though convinced that day 3 represents my strongest book of punts yet (the sorry cry of a desperate man), here are today's bets. Surely one of these can get competitive?

1.30 - Jewson
Module (8-1 ante post. Now a bigger price since Dynaste was rerouted here.)

2.05 - Pertemps
First Fandango (66-1 e-w - tiny stakes)

2.40 - Ryanair
First Lieutenant (9-2 win ante post)
For Non Stop (16-1 e-w ante post)

3.20 - World Hurdle
Get Me Out Of Here (11-1 e-w ante post)
Smad Place (16-1 e-w ante post)

4.00 - Byrne Group Plate
Vino Griego (11-1)

4.40 - Kim Muir
Problema Tic (23 win, 6 place Betfair)

5.15 - Cross Country
Any Currency (12-1 e-w)

And if you have been wondering how Nev has managed to sniff out so much combination value, here is a revealing photo of the great man at work:

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Grandouetto

As if the first morning of the festival isn't tense enough without little added dramas.

Clerk Claisse decided that a -11 degree windchill overnight was enough reason to call a track inspection. Probably fair enough. But it did nothing for the nerves and pent up energy of those around me on the train. "You wha? A birra frost and they wanna cancel the races? Fookin' jokers". This was Wayne on the 10.29 from Birmingham New Street. He wasn't eating weatos though. He was necking Magners Premium.

The other added drama was Nev. Nev had an Oyster card problem, his local machine in Charlton refused to accept notes. Then he had a Bakerloo line problem. He missed the train from Paddington for the planned rendezvous with Col by a fistful of minutes. Instead he was required to take the scenic trip via Bristol and looked like missing the Supreme. "I'll have to do the pisspot from my moby" was his text code for not being at thetrack in tme to get his placepot down in person.

Both these situations were amicably resolved when the track passed the inspection with the proviso that the first race was delayed until 2.05. And this enabled Nev to arrive in time for the Supreme.

Train journeys to the Festival are always enlightening experiences. Two blokes behind me were reminiscing about Cheltenham's past.

"Last year was bonkers, Whitey. Jimmy Devine and Beano going off with them hookers after racing."

"Really? Bloody hell, they'll do that anywhere. Remember Bournemouth Pier?

"Don't see the point. I'd rather have a cheeseburger. Or a fight."

"Yeah. Someone told me this Granduetto should be all right in the 3.20."

Grandouet wasn't alright. He fell when travelling well and Hurricane Fly reclaimed his Champion Hurdle crown from 2011. Zarkandar was my best bet going on to today, but was critically outpaced turning for home and beaten two out.

At least Zarkandar got competitive. That is more than can be said for all my other runners, none of whom ran to any known form or were found to be wading out of their depth.

Adjectives for the scouring wind sweeping the track all day could easily be applied to my punting experience: battering unrelenting and, er, cold.

But at least the jerk burgers warmed us up and the company was top notch.

Col was talking to a 75 year old lady before the last who had been to loads of Festivals and was clutching an envelope from her son stuffed with wedge to put on Une Artiste. Great stuff. Something to aspire to in my mature years.

Back to Bristol then, to lick my wounds - though Col and Nev had emerged unscathed - in a very pleasant pizzeria near our berth and a decent pint in a properly unreconstructed local boozer. The King's Head. We can recommend.

And so, loins girded up so high my pips are squeaking. I offer - for information only - my selections for Champion Chase day:

1.30 - Four Miler
Back In Focus (4-1)

2.10 - Neptune Novice Hurdle
Tarquin De Seuil (6-1 ante-post)

2.45 - RSA Novices Chase
Unioniste (8-1 ante post)

3.20 - Champion Chase
Sanctuaire (20-1 e-w 3 places)

4.00 - Coral Cup
Pendra (8-1)
And to tiny stakes;
Barbatos (20-1 e-w, 5 places)
Urbain de Sivola (25-1, 5 places)

4.40 - Fred Winter Juvenile Novice Hurdle
Totalize (16-1 e-w)

5.15 - Champion Bumper
Fascino Rustico (25-1 e-w ante post)






Posh restaurant for a bit of tea. 
Bring. It. On. 


Braving the elements

All set: hillbilly long johns, touchscreen thermal gloves, woolly hat, Betfair scarf (to be collected en-route), oversize hip flask and an overdose of first day optimism.

These are the selections carrying the bulk of my hopes today, the portfolio having been rattled by recent withdrawals:

1.30 - Supreme Novices Hurdle
Dodging Bullets (14-1 ante-post)
Disappointed by Melodic Rendezvous' withdrawal yesterday)

2.05 - Arkle Novices Chase
Arvika Ligeonniere (8-1, WIlliam Hill offer - money back if 2nd)

2.40 - JLT Specialty Handicap Chase
Loch Ba (12-1 e-w, 5 places Bet 365)

3.20 - Champion Hurdle
Zarkandar (13-2 ante-post)

4.00 - Cross Country Chase
Any Currency (to be struck on the Tote on course)

4.40 - Mares Hurdle
She Ranks Me (14-1 e-w & 6-1 place only with Betfair)
Available at a much bigger price now. No-one else seems to share my faith!
Mae's Choice (24-1 place only with Betfair)
A 40 to follow horse who has shown only minimal form this year. Minimum bet here at a big place-only price.

5.15 - Rewards4Racing Novice Handicap Chase
Hazy Tom (16-1 e-w)

And of course a series of horses involved in various impenetrable combinations of accas and Lucky 15s, struck in order to some insurance. Today's legs include: My Tent Or Yours, Un Atout, Overturn and Zarkandar.

Expect plenty of after-timing once the juices start flowing on the track. Blimey, it's more exciting than an episode of Ice Road Truckers!



Friday, 8 March 2013

Wilko Johnson


It would be easy to get a little mawkish over the news that one of your favourite musician was dying. The temptation to crawl with a sentimental and slushy pen over career highlights is palpable. That situation is impossible with Wilko Johnson. The legendary r ‘n’ b guitarist announced in January that he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He had refused debilitating chemotherapy which would only be palliative at best and instead was choosing to wring the most out of his remaining good health by going back on tour, and recording new material.

This isn’t an approach that would work for everyone. But it is typical of Wilko’s unique way of dealing with life’s challenges. First the music media and then mainstream news began picking up on the story when he consistently and genuinely used terms like ‘uplifting’, ‘inspiring’, and ‘euphoric’ to describe his predicament. I challenge anyone not to be moved by the interview he gave to Radio 4’s Front Row a few weeks ago where he put his condition into perspective and talkes with such warmth about his family, his music and his priorities.

On a more personal level, my challenge was about getting tickets for his farewell gigs. I’ve seen Wilko play live nearly every year for the best part of a fifth of a century and felt that as an act of loyalty I should be there.  Respect here to the promoters and management who resisted the temptation to hike up ticket prices, play overly large venues or extend the tour. I sat online for an hour or so after the tickets went on sale and bagged three at £20 for Koko in Camden. I confess to a few long moments of internet anxiety during that morning. Each time my fumbling digits hit the ‘buy tickets’ button, I was rebuffed with an auto-generated response declaring ‘This event is not available. Please select another’. My blood pressure rose a little. But soon realised that although the press release said tickets would be on sale at 9.30am, in fact no-one had bothered to update the web links until about half past ten. That’s precisely when I bought my tickets. This is the nocturnal entertainment industry after all.

The first few gigs sold out the same day and another at Koko was quickly added. It was no surprise. This would be the last chance to see a genuinely influential and properly unique British guitar genius who was choosing precisely the conditions under which he would depart the scene.

Wilko’s profile has seen a resurgence following the excellent Julien Temple biopic ‘Oil City Confidential’ in 2010 and last year’s biography ‘Looking Back At Me’. I just about managed to get hold of a signed copy of the latter at the launch (blogpost here) last Summer. Though I have to confess that the book isn’t an easy read. It is put together as a stream of consciousness. This is an approach that suits Wilko’s character perfectly, but becomes a random and scattergun wander through a few hobby horses and remembrances. From the fans viewpoint, I wanted to know much more about the relationship with Lee Brilleaux, the Feelgood’s brilliant vocalist (especially about his death), and the rest of the band; some reflections and anecdotes about the writing and recording sessions; an honest view about the reasons behind his split with the band and at least a nod to a meaningful retrospective of his recording output since the Feelgoods. Apart from all that it was reasonably entertaining I suppose…

The touts were mlling round Koko in force by the time I turned up to the adjacent pub at 6.30pm. No surprise, given the exposure the short tour had been given. They really are scum bags. Reports of tickets being sold online for 100% mark ups abounded in the weeks before the gig. Three lads in the boozer next to us had a spare one to sell and went outside to find a real fan who could use it. They succeeded but not before receiving abuse from touts who wanted to rob this geezer of £80 for the ticket.

Koko is a magnificent venue. It’s a Victorian multi-tiered and domed music hall wrought in gilt and shiny ceramics. It looks unprepossessing from the outside, possibly because the main floor is buried 25 feet underground. On entering the edifice at pavement level, it is quite a surprise to emerge from a little tunnel in to the auditorium at 1st floor balcony level. 

And what a treat to find bottles of Theakstons Lightfoot nestling in the fridge behind the bar, rather than tin cans of Worthington’s smoothflow at a fiver a gassy time. We tucked into a round whilst trying to work out why Viv Albertine from The Slits, the scheduled support act, had morphed into a terrible bastardisation of The Buzzcocks crawling from the wreckage of a crash with Dr Feelgood’s wardrobe circa 1976. A terrible, one-dimensional punk band called Eight Rounds Rapid, apparently.

Wilko, on the other, beer-clenching hand, smashed the joint. He served up a furious, high octane performance that was a life affirming celebration of all that is good about real music. Here’s my full review for the GRTR website, so I won’t repeat all that now. Suffice to say his and the band’s usual lofty standards were exceeded. The addition of a top of the range PA courtesy of a better venue, and a packed crowd intent on Wilko feeling their love simply enhanced the quality of the experience. As my mate said, it was an “I was there” night.

Photo: (c) Simon Jay Price

Long live Wilko. You are an inspiration.  

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Cheltenham Festival 2013 - Day 4 preview

TFI Friday. Back from the Festival, I'll haul my battered frame, empty wallet and spinning head up to town and meet the boys in the Barley Mow. Gold Cup day in the pub. Add in the tough-as-teak Fantasy Festival competition to be played out in the raw, uncomprising pell-mell of bar room mayhem and we have the ingredients for a serious day out.   

What will I have left on the locker to keep my spirits up? Despite this being the dizzying climax of the Festival, it is a day of low-level activity in terms of long-range punting. For instance, the three races that close this tumultuous four day betting bonanza are heats I will not get involved in ‘til the morning of the races.

So, as rain continues to feature increasingly persistently in the Cheltenham forecast and I plough relentlessly into good ground selections, let’s check out those fields.

Triumph Hurdle

A breathless start to proceedings and always a thrilling spectacle. Over the years it’s a race I’ve managed to get on the right side of enough to stay in the black, but take out Zarkandar and you’d need the memory of a medium sized elephant and a scanner akin to Jodrell Bank to register them. Spectroscope anyone?

This season, Our Conor has posted the best single piece of form in Leopardstown’s Spring Juvenile Hurdle and I’ve missed the fancy prices. Apart from his appearance in some increasingly desperate grab-a-grand Lucky 15s, I’ll be looking elsewhere for the value. The next two in the betting  are from the English powerhouse yards of Nicholls and Henderson. Far West has racked up four wins since October, but I don’t believe that three of those amount to a whole hill of beans: small fields, dawdling pace and/or weight allowances. His win at Cheltenham in November had more substance about it, but overall he will have it all to do on likely better going (...is that the windy rush of teeth being sucked?). Rolling Star was a bit more impressive in his win over Irish Saint at HQ in January and the latter has gone on to frank the form, though unlikely to run here. Better going may work against RS too.

Beyond these three, the prices are much more attractive and I’m tempted to side with last year’s winning trainer, John Quinn who seems to have such a talent with juveniles. He has Hidden Justice at around 20-1 though I like the way Kashmir Peak (16-1 e-w NRNB) travelled sweetly in his Grade 2 win at Doncaster and found plenty at the finish. That bodes well for what is likely to be a strongly run race on Friday. To side with Kashmir, however, we need to strike through his howling error next time out at Musselburgh where he unseated. And that’s what I’ll do.

County Hurdle

Stepping away from Grade 1 territory for a moment, those who have read the previews for earlier days will have noted that I've been pursuing Cotton Mill across Prestbury Park with the blind compulsion of a Royal stalker. It seems now that the County Hurdle is to be his intended target and the 9-1 I have secured about him is a fraction of the price I could have had last week. NRNBs offer precious little value opportunities at the best of times and here is some that I have missed through distraction and preoccupation. Poor. Still, I like his chances on the basis of his showing in the Betfair Hurdle and a fair handicap mark here.

Forgotten Voice was visually impressive on Saturday and given good ground will surely go well here. A more truly run race may not play to his speed strengths though. There are too many other multiple entries to be firm about shouts at bigger prices, but I’ll be watching closely to see where the likes of Mr Watson (quirky but talented and well weighted here), Native Gallery (off for nearly a year, but fits the profile) and Ifandbutwhynot (track form and a willing attitude) end up.

Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle

Another race where I claim to have some cast-iron pedigree, having backed four winners in the eight runnings of this race. To be fair, only Nenuphar Collonges landed the race at anything like reasonable odds. Here, Our Vinnie comes as tough as biltong, and with an attitude to warm the most frazzled of Festival spirits. That’s just what is needed. Outclassed by Pont Alexandre over an inadequate 2 ½ miles over Christmas, he has some form on better ground, will love the trip and is worth a play at 16-1 e-w.

Ballycasey has to be feared simply because he’s another unexposed Mullins horse who looks a million dollars winning dibbly-dobbly races that offer scanty clues about how good they really are. It’s hard not to like what At Fishers Cross has done. The grinding down of The New One at Cheltenham was visually impressive. Soft ground will be important to him. Utopie Des Bordes didn’t do enough for me to justify prices here of 8-1 in beating She Ranks Me in a mares event over half a mile shorter last month,  when also receiving weight. She’s entitled to come on for that run, but I don’t know if she’ll have the balls for this. Road To Riches seems to lack a bit of experience, which just might be needed here and his jumping could come under pressure. African Gold would be interesting if sent this way, but he seems to have handicaps on his agenda, as does Gevrey Chambertin who brings a tall reputation and short prices into 5 races. His trainer’s Dad’s conditionals race seems most likely for the full brother to Grand Crus.

Gold Cup

Another open renewal. And a fascinating clash in prospect now that the old guard have moved over – Imperial Commander’s (regrettable) withdrawal this week confirms that. I nailed my colours to the Silviniaco Conti mast at 8-1 before his Denman Chase win. He ticks all the boxes for me and it’s interesting that Sir Des Champs’ victory over Flemenstar the same weekend was much more loudly trumpeted. Despite the latter being found to be lame, the Gold Cup market still hardened in favour of the Willie Mullins inmate. I went back to look at the Denman Chase to see what I was missing. I can’t see it. He travels strongly in his races, stays, jumps neatly, straight as a dye and ground conditions are not a deal breaker. He has won at Wetherby (an undulating track with stiff fences) and Newbury (a left handed track), so I don’t really buy the ‘hasn’t done it at HQ’ argument. So I’ve gone in again at 4-1. It’s the only thing to do. I fear Bob’s Worth the most, however. The great grinder will eat up this track and there’s a chance he will out stay Conti. Long Run’s jumping errors leave him there for the taking (Yogi Breisner’s been in town again). First Lieutenant I like a lot round here, but I’m hoping he heads to the Ryanair. I can’t see anything else getting in to it. Captain Chris may stay on late, but his jumping erratic.  


Silviniaco Conti

Foxhunters, Conditional Jockeys Hurdle, Grand Annual

The Foxhunters will be a minimum stakes race and it is not something I have a view on right now. I see that the Martin Pipe Conditionals Hurdle has a mere 196 entries to wade through. I’m not going there. How much quality has this race really added to the Festival? Is this the place for a debate about the return to a three-dayer? Possibly not. The Grand Annual I do like however, and will be getting stuck in with alacrity come the day. It is also the final race in our local Fantasy Festival which becomes such a blood and thunder preoccupation on the last day. Things will be very, very messy by 5.20pm on Friday afternoon.

It is almost upon us. So close I can smell the burgers. Good luck if you are playing. You will need it.


Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Cheltenham Festival 2013 - Day 3 preview


At this stage there is nothing for it but to top up the hip flask, grit your teeth and march back in to the ring with something suitably girding from Last Night of the Proms swirling round your head. If Day 2 has gone badly, Day 3 is the last realistic chance to come out ahead at the Festival without resorting to shit or bust tactics on Day 4. No-one wants that.

Jewson Novices Chase

A race that came into its own last year. Though this 2 ½ mile Grade 2 is not a championship race and has properly muddied the waters of ante-post markets since its upgrading in 2011, it is now becoming a serious option for decent novice chasers.  This year and last, entrants have been attracted here by Arkle markets skewed by one dominant horse. In successive years, Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig have sent trainers scurrying for easier options. Sir Des Champs was an eye catching winner in 2012 and the way he powered up the hill has seen him close to the top of the Gold Cup betting ever since.

Capatain Conan heads the market this term and may have ended up in this race anyway, despite stable mate Simonsig’s monopolisation of the Arkle betting. He’s not for me though. It may be his trip, but he’s vulnerable to both jumping errors and getting caught flat-footed. His price reflects the prominence of his stable at this year’s Festival and he’s too short for what he has done. I like Module (9-1 NRNB). He has strong hurdles form at this track on good ground from earlier in the season. And whilst he hasn’t achieved much over fences yet (handing out a beating to the over-rated Colour Squadron doesn’t quite cut it), he looks to have bags of improvement in him and I want to be with him rather than against.


Module
I’m also looking at an improver who may just be coming to his own. Third Intention (16-1 e-w, NRNB) has been beaten twice by Captain Conan this season. Nevertheless, in the Scilly Isles Novice Chase at Sandown, most recently, he gave CC an almighty fright. The Jewson, run on better ground (hopefully) at a stiffer track will be perfect. Connections have taken a while to find his best trip and conditions. I believe they have that now and the thus-far under-performing TI will come into his own here.

Elsewhere, Dynaste would probably win if he turned up instead of in the RSA. I’m not convinced by Aucharlie, who’s jumping doesn’t seem sharp enough for this and I’ve got doubts about Oscars Well, though this trip will suit him better than the Arkle. Tap Night at a bigger price could be interesting but can be inconsistent and the pick of his form seems to be on soft and heavy. The Byrne Group Plate might be his better option.

Pertemps

I once backed the winner of the Coral Cup and the Pertemps in the same season. I walked around shaking my head for two days. Impossible. Chuck out the season long analysis of the Grade 1s, I briefly thought, and get stuck into the handicaps the week before the Festival.  Such delusions lasted an unmeasurable fragment of time, of course. I got lucky on a Pipe scam. Buena Vista had been campaigned in poxy little hurdles over the wrong trip most of the season and turned up at the Festival to make all and lead the field a merry dance. He did the self same thing the year after, but that time I didn’t spot it.

And if there’s one in there this year, I‘m failing to spot it again. This is one for the night before the race over a smokey Laphroig and a sizzling Gloucester Mix.

Ryanair Chase

Another intermediate trip that suffers from multiple entries and unclear intentions. I think Cue Card’s best trip is a stiff two miles and so I wouldn’t be keen to back him here at a short price. That said, it could be a weak renewal if Sizing Europe takes up his Champion Chase option and First Lieutenant heads to the Gold Cup. It may not take much winning. If the latter runs here, I’ll back him. Although mostly campaigned over 3 miles this season, FL has winning form at Cheltenham over this trip. He comes to life on this track and seems to run pounds better round here.

At bigger odds, I like For Non Stop 16-1 NRNB. His win at Aintree over this trip on good ground was impressive. Next time out in the Amlin Chase, his jumping was a bit ragged out of bad ground and then the Peterbrough Chase, again on bad ground came too soon. Put away since then - running fresh is important –  this race has been his target. His hold up running style should suit the race with Cue Card (if here) cutting it out and the track shouldn’t present any problems, though he’s never won here.

I’ve also still got an ante-post token on Call The Police (25-1 e-w NRNB) but his price is now bigger after an average run over an inadequate trip at Leopardstown late last month. I can only assume Mullins wanted to get another run into him and didn’t want to muller his handicap mark. 2 ½ miles suits him though he can get out paced and I’m assuming he is instead being primed for the Byrne Group Plate handicap later in the day.  

World Hurdle

I’m struggling to make sense of the form without the longstanding benchmark of Big Buck’s.

Oscar Whisky brings the best form, but he doesn’t get three miles the way he gets 2 ½. He’ll need some cut to be at his most effective and otherwise could be vulnerable to something else. I’m not tempted at the prices.

On soft ground, Reve de Sivola can stay all day and gets better the further he goes. He even seems to jump more competently out of bottomless ground. But I am not prepared to countenance ground that will be soft enough by Thursday. (Even with rain in the forecast, the improved drainage of the track and dry weather over the last few weeks means a bog is highly unlikely.)

Monksland is a newcomer to the staying hurdles game and dispatched Zaidpour over Christmas in perfectly effective style. It’s hard to say that form alone is good enough. Zaidpour is not a top notch 3 miler and was beaten here going the wrong way round. (Not literally!)

I backed Smad Place at 16-1 e-w NRNB ages ago but it was a 40-to-follow act of faith and I had hoped to see him out again before now. He has been below his best on both runs this Winter and its hard to simply blame the ground. King was quite bullish about his chances before he flopped first time out at Wetherby.

Bog Warrior is a bit of an enigma and adds a dollop of spice to this event. As much as Reve De Sivola, he would appear to need deep ground to be seen at his best.

Peddlers Cross doesn’t look like the same horse that won the Neptune – beating Reve De Sivola – and pushed Hurricane Fly in the 2011 Champion Hurdle. That was an epic duel and there are suggestions that it left a deeper mark. Peddlers didn’t really convince in his trial at Musselburgh and I’d only back him here if the price drifted a touch. Even that would feel like a sentimental bet.

Grand Crus is unlikely to turn up in this. It’s hard to see that a return to hurdles, especially over three miles, will provide the impetus to re-ignite his career. I fear he may be gone.

Get Me Out Of Here might come here, but it would be a serious gamble by connections over an unknown trip and the ground would have to be good for him to get nearer to Oscar Whisky than he did back in November at Ascot.

Solwhit’s price at 10-1 or thereabouts seems madness based on what he has done this season – two satisfactory runs after two years off and untried at this trip. Of course at his peak he was a fine animal at the summit of the 2m hurdle division and the price must reflect that. To be seen at his best he will also want it soft.

Sherlock Holmes would say eliminate what is impossible and what remains, no matter how implausible, must be the truth. I seem to have eliminated everything. Against cries of cop out, I’ll most likely wait until the day to see the shape of the ground and who has actually deigned to turn up.  I’ll plump for one off a short list of Bog Warrior, Monksland, Get Me Out Of Here and Peddlers Cross.

Byrne Group Plate

Plenty to like near the top of the betting. I may be forced to eat my derisory words about Vino Griego and recognise that connections have now found the key to his undoubted talent. There is still juice in his handicap mark and as long as the horse’s confidence stays high he should go well again here. This is Hunt Ball’s trip and given a fair surface, he should put early season struggles behind him. He could be vulnerable of likely top weight though. I’ll be interested in Call The Police if redirected here and both improving handicappers Howard’s Legacy and Tap Night are on the shortlist.

Kim Muir

The worst race at the Festival, frequently throwing up bizarre results or handicap plots and overly dependent on securing the services of one of the few decent amateur jockeys. Recent Racing Post winner Opening Batsmen is likely to come here and will be the best horse in the race, but will have a welter burden to defy. Minimum stakes betting on the day only.

Nap of the day: Module

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Cheltenham Festival 2013 - Day 2 preview


Apart from the Champion Hurdle, the opening day of the Festival is always a tough one for me. The stats tell me in hollow ringing tones that however the programme is tweaked and swapped around, the Neptune, the RSA Chase and the Champion Chase are three of my best yielding races.  So time to strap in for Day 2 at Prestbury Park, for what might be a recovery mission.

National Hunt Chase (four miler)

Fittingly named in honour of Lord John Oaksey, this is a race I have struggled with since Rith Dubh stole it by a nose the first year I came for the (then) full three days. It was my only clear cut win at 2002 festival. Grim. The race conditions have changed significantly since then and it is now a straight Class 2 amateur riders staying novice chase.  The 2013 renewal looks strong. Willie Mullins won’t run the Graham Wylie-owned pair Boston Bob and Back In Focus (8-1 NRNB) against each other. The market suggests that the former will head to the RSA and the latter here. BIF's form is top notch and he’ll stay all day. But his ability to run well on good ground is a concern. The horse’s only failure was at Aintree when he could hear his hooves rattle. That was under the tutelage of the tarnished Howard Johnson and I’m tempted to hold that up as a more plausible explanation than the ground. Nevertheless, he may not show up at all.

Pipe fields Goulanes who was very brave at Wetherby recently on his chase debut under rules and has points form to throw into the mix. Godsmejudge and Rival D’Estruval bring strong form claims and deserve to be at he head of the market. Further down the betting, if Make A Track (25-1) lined up here I’d be all over him. Charlie Swann’s charge beat Vesper Bell (another live chance here) in a novice chase at Thurles back in November and looked ready to step up in class. Not sighted since, I’m assuming he’s had a setback and won’t be ready in time for this. But I’m keeping my eyes peeled.

Neptune

This is a great race and regularly becomes the novice hurdle heat that sets my pulse coursing the quickest.  It is a watershed race with some legendary winners subsequently stepping back to two miles (Istabraq, Hardy Eustace) and the likes of Denman (runner up in 07) going up in trip.

That intermediate distance factor has already resulted in the race cutting up faster than the Tories after Eastleigh. Many of the early season principals are looking like they are Supreme-bound (Champagne Fever, Un Atout) or set for three miles in the Albert Bartlett (Ballycasey, At Fishers Cross). I reckon there are five live chances at the head of the market. Pont Alexandre has won his races well but appears a short price for what he has done and so must be opposed on those grounds. Rule The World must have a good shout on his Slaney Hurdle win from Minsk, although Champagne Fever appeared beaten too easily there and there was probably something amiss. That suggests the form is not as rock solid as it could be, given the way CF ran next time out. There is a suspicion that he has a preference for soft ground, too.

The English challenge is headed by The New One who has only been beaten twice: once in the Champion Bumper and once by At Fishers Cross in bad ground and after being given a poor ride. Given those excuses he holds strong claims. However on price and form lines I’m siding with Taquin Du Seuil. Despite Pricewise having put him up, Jonjo O’Neill’s inmate is still a couple of points bigger than The New One and the manner of his Challow Hurdle win at Newbury was authoritative. There’s enough in his flat form to suggest goodish ground will suit and I’m happy enough with the 13-2 I’ve pouched, though a little aggrieved that I dithered too long and missed the 10s. This is very close to call and I can see some acca action involving at least The New One. Puffin Billy gets a little buzzed up in his races and though connections found excuses for his defeat by Melodic Rendezvous (puss in hoof), I feel he has questions to answer now.

Taquin Du Seuil
RSA Novice Chase

This is a gruelling race and favours the archetypal dour stayer, ala Bob’s Worth and Denman, rather than the flashy eye-catchers and horses that win on the bridle. It is regularly the graveyard of Festival good things. Grand Crus last year emptying at the top of the hill is only the most recent example. Who can forget the ringing silence when Rule Supreme came home at 33-1 in 2004 with hotshot Our Vic at 11/8 back in third. Or Punchestowns’ no show at 2-1 in 2010 and Time For Rupert the year after?

Long time market leader Dynaste also has the option of the Jewson at 2 ½ miles on Thursday and I can see the attraction of sending him there over a less arduous trip. But he will probably line up here and ticks plenty of boxes: distance, ground and track.  He’s a good jumper too, and I’ve been impressed with his athletic ability to put himself right at fences when on the wrong stride. I’m opposing only on value grounds and I’ll no doubt have Dynaste, wherever he turns up, in some increasingly far-fetched combinations.

I’m opposing with Unioniste (8-1 NRNB) who was thumped by Dynaste at Cheltenham over half a mile shorter back in November. This is Unioniste’s trip, however, and he has obviously improved since, with a good handicap win off a featherweight back at HQ. And subsequently a less convincing win at odds-on last month at Newbury. This wouldn’t be my most confident bet, but a better gallop will suit him round here. Five year olds have a poor record though and the 2lb allowance isn’t a massive game changer. Unioniste’s handler, Nicholls was the last to train a five year old winner in the shape of Star De Mohaison when the allowance was much more hefty.

Goulanes would be interesting if routed here as would Boston Bob, who looks slow enough to enjoy the grind of this race and would be there if they go off too fast in front. Take out the Pipe grey and I’m not convinced this is a classic renewal.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

A place call here. On all known form, Sprinter Sacre cannot be beaten. I’ve taken 20-1 each way about Sanctuaire at ¼ the odds to three places. The reasoning is that I won’t get those terms on the day and with some of the market principals heading elsewhere, he should have a good chance of filling 2nd or 3rd. Sanctuaire has seen enough of the back end of Sprinter Sacre this season, having been slammed by him twice: once when trying to force the pace and once with exaggerated hold up tactics. Given a sensible ride on decent Spring ground he should run well.

Who he will need to beat to get his bonce in the frame is guesswork at the moment. Cue Card is market leader for the Ryanair, though if I was Tizzard, I’d come here. I don’t think he’ll get home well enough over half a mile further. He could end up taking on Sizing Europe there and I know who my money would be on. Finian’s Rainbow could come here, but it’s an act of faith to blame only the ground for his two desperate runs this season. Somersby is not the horse he was and arguably never has been.

Coral Cup

I love this race. I used to hate it and then I backed the winner two years on the bounce. Now I love it. Fickle and capricious. That’s me.

I’ll be punting the event nearer the day, but of the market principals I’m drawn to two of my 40 to follow horses whom I will back if I can find some value: Pendra and Cotton Mill. Pendra ran strongly behind Melodic Rendezvous in the Tolworth and could not match the winner’s turn of foot over the last two furlongs. The extra half-mile will be perfect here and connections have sought to exploit his handy handicap mark – an increasingly common tactic - rather than take their chance in the Neptune. See the Champion Hurdle preview for comments about Cotton Mill.

Get Me Out Of Here is another 40 to follow horse whom I may feel obliged to get behind here, although the way this gutsy horse has been campaigned is a travesty. Twice set impossible tasks in bottomless ground that he hates against Oscar Whisky and then Darlan must have mashed his spirit. Carrying top weight here for the 2nd successive season might just break him. The World Hurdle over a trip he has never tried is GMOOH’s other Festival option. I think connections should head to Aintree instead.

Further down the list, Many Clouds is interesting too – progressive profile, willing attitude and a price of 25-1. There will be plenty of others.

Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle

A race I’ve never managed to get my head around. I recognise its value in that it has made the Triumph Hurdle less of a cavalry charge and more of a quality race. Beyond that I don’t focus on the juvenile form closely enough to identify where there might be handicap value. This will be a low punting race. My shortlist had included Ruacana who looks real quality, but might now be burdened with too much weight here and Saphir Du Rheu about whom the value appears to have gone already. I’m looking again at Brian Ellison’s Totalize who seems to be going the right way and is available at a double figure price.

Bumper

A race to watch, enjoy and note for next season. Consequently a low punting heat. Another of my 40 to follow horses is entered here. Fascino Rustico switched to Paul Nicholls in the early part of the season. After running 4th in a decent bumper at the Open meeting, he’s had a breathing operation and was put away. I’d be tempted into a small wager at 33-1 or better if he showed up.

Nap of the day: Taquin Du Seuil





Saturday, 2 March 2013

Cheltenham Festival 2013 - Day 1 preview



The murky Festival markets are beginning to settle. Running plans are a touch clearer, handicap weights are set and bookies are dusting down their annual Non-Runner-No-Bet offers. With the shackles shaking loose, I feel the urge for a broadside of scattergun punting. Must. Keep. My. Focus.

Time to preview the greatest show on earth.

Supreme

Nothing further added to the two each-way singles on Melodic Rendezvous (14-1) and Dodging Bullets (14-1). Both have shortened up since those bets were struck and Melodic Rendezvous further enhanced his claims with a demolition job of previously unbeaten Puffin Billy at Exeter. However, My Tent Or Yours has changed the complexion of this market with his rout of a very strong Betfair Hurdle field at Newbury last month. That form is head and shoulders above anything else here. But with the exception of MTOY, these are all unexposed novices. I really like the look of MR and reason that he goes there with a very strong chance, having improved for every run and likely to do so again on better ground. Despite his exciting turn of foot over this trip, the trainer has not ruled out the Neptune and I would be gutted if he went there instead.

Dodging Bullets has translated solid efforts amongst last season’s juvenile crowd into encouraging form this season. I don’t think he’s been seen to best effect yet. On a couple of occasions DB has had to make his own running. Even his race behind Darlan in the Christmas Hurdle turned into a five furlong sprint. A strongly run Supreme will play to his stamina strengths and will see him bang in the mix.

Jezki looks the pick of the Irish challengers and add in Un Atout for a fascinating curtain raiser. This is the Festival, and if ever mug punts were permissible it is here. I will inevitably have My Tent Or Yours in a portfolio of crazy acca combinations with other novice hurdlers and other bankers.  

Arkle

This season’s renewal is following the pattern of last year when a flying grey from the Nicky Henderson stable frightened off most of the competition. Simonsig brings a reputation into the race only slightly less tall than Sprinter Sacre’s. There are at least two other rivals that have this race as their confirmed aim. However, whilst we can expect Overturn and Arvika Ligeonniere to be joined by others chasing a bit of prize money, this will not be a race with any great strength in depth.

That said, this has all the hallmarks of a great encounter. Overturn – rated higher than Simonsig over hurdles – will have Maguire on board cutting out the running and praying that he calls the fractions right to make the most of his mount’s strength and fighting abilities. Overturn is sure to make it a true test and exert some pressure on the jumping of Simonsig who comes here with less experience than his two principal rivals. The latter would appear to have all the bases covered, having won his two chases both from the front and tucked in behind, and with cast iron 2 ½ mile form in the locker. Lack of experience hasn’t been a barrier to previous Arkle winners. Although word has it that Yogi Breisner turned up this week at Seven Barrows to put Henderson’s charges through their paces. That’s enough to convince me Simonsig is not the Festival banker! Arvika Ligeonniere has the potential to be a rather large fly in the ointment. His style of running is also to cut out the pace and his wins this winter have been stamped by exuberant jumping that has taken lengths out of opponents. Arvika would be sensible bet for this race at the prices but for the nagging doubts about his tendency to jump right at some fences and that irritating soft, novicey fall last time out. This won’t be a big betting race for me and I’ll probably leave it until the day. I expect Simonsig to win, I’ll want to back Overturn, but I’ll probably have a couple of quid on Arvika. Mullins won’t have any need to resort to Breisner’s practices to iron out jumping issues.

Festival Trophy handicap Chase

The old National Hunt Handicap Chase over 3 miles, now sponsored by JLT Specialty, regularly throws up competitive renewals.  Even at this close range to the Festival, multiple entries and massive fields make sorting the wheat from the chaff a tricky proposition. As ever, there are conflicting clues amongst the race trends: outsiders can do well and yet nine of the last 12 runners were in the top four in the betting.  Previous festival form seems to be important and yet novices have won three of the last nine renewals. One set of stats do stand out though; top weights have a shocking win record and only one horse has carried more than 11 stone to victory since 1998.  That was Bensalem on 11-2 in 2011. No winner has been rated over 150 for 30 years.

Problema Tic at 28-1 NRNB looks to have the right profile. His style of racing off the pace will suit this race. The horse (like so many being readied for the Festival) is crying out for a piece of decent ground. David Pipe is clearly plotting up something after he was hunted round without ever threatening in a race at least half a mile too short at Warwick last month.  That came after a fall in the Becher Chase at Aintree when tanking. Problema Tic has other options, notably the Kim Muir, but I hope he shows up here.

Champion Hurdle

As ever, an absolutely fascinating race. Always the highlight of the first day and one of my most profitable events of the entire carnival. Dripping with intrigue and speculation, as usual, much hangs on the way the race will be run. Some of that comes from the howlers that Ruby and AP served up on Hurricane Fly and Binocular last year, riding to keep tabs on each other and letting Overturn and Rock On Ruby get first run.

The pace could well come from Cinders and Ashes who will go better here on good ground than in either of his disappointing runs this season.  But I find it hard to believe he’s good enough to win. Countrywide Flame will also step up on his last two runs back at the track he loves and with the hill to devour. He’ll be staying on and will outrun his odds. I’ve yet to be convinced by Grandouet and harbour a suspicion that he may be a bridle horse. Geraghty will certainly leave his effort to the last possible moment. Binocular is the subject of favourable noises from Henderson’s yard. McCoy will be looking to make amends. Hurricane Fly is hard to assess this season, having beaten the same old faces in Ireland again. His best chance is on bad ground. Though this is hardly a killer stat, his win in 2011 was on a considerably slower surface than his 3rd last season.

I’m expecting Zarkandar (backed at 13-2 prior to his Kingwell victory) to have travelled through his race better than recently, off a stronger pace and to have enough left to grind out a win up the hill. He is very tough and has track form. I have Raya Star (40-1, but now available at much bigger) as a genuine each way hope. He clouted a hurdle in the back straight during that Zarkandar race, which ended any chance and back on good ground, this massively improving hurdler can get amongst them turning for home.  I’ve also got Cotton Mill at 25-1 who would be very interesting after his very good 2nd in the Betfair Hurdle, but may instead go for the County Hurdle where he is amongst the market leaders.

Cannot wait for this one.

Cross Country Chase

No bet at this stage. Will certainly have a dig on the day, but this is not a race I want to invest too much research in at the moment.

Mares Hurdle

This race, of course, is all about one horse. She Ranks Me (16-1 e-w and 7-1 place, BF). A progressive and game novice. 2 ½ miles is her trip. A good win over Ma Filleuil is probably her best single piece of form back in December and she has come on oodles for that. She needs to be more fluent at her hurdles and to find a better rhythm in her races, but better ground will help. And if Maguire can get those oversize, fluffy white cheekpieces to settle her, then she will be storming up the hill to give Quevega the fright of her life. Of course that one may end up in the World Hurdle and then we are in a very different shooting match.

Centenary Novice Handicap Chase

The old Jewson, run over 2 ½ miles and this year known as the Pulteney Land Investment Chase. Good form coming into the race is important, as is previous Festival and distance form. This market is still very difficult to assess, but I wouldn’t be put off backing something close to the top of the weights here. Buckers Bridge (12-1 NRNB), beating Twinlight in the Flying Bolt Novice Chase last month appeals over this trip. Hazy Tom would be interesting if showing up and so would a few others further down the handicap.

Nap of the day: Zarkandar