Friday, 23 January 2015

Festival 15: Progress on ante-posts: St Patrick’s Thursday & Gold Cup Day

St Patrick's Thursday

I very rarely stay past the first two days for Thursday's action. Like Al Ferof, I’ve tried the extended trip a few times, but recognise that I should really stick to something that doesn’t test my suspect stamina quite so ruthlessly. Persevering with the analogy, I refuse to rule out stepping back up at the right moment for the right opportunity.

It could be this year. Tickets never sell out for the ambiguously titled St Patrick’s Thursday, so the option is always there. It’s all about quality. This card looks like it’s shaping up nicely.

I’ve stoked up a little interest.

JLT

A fascinating race. Like the Neptune, the market for this intermediate trip has more questions than answers. For my ante-post porfolio, the nightmare scenario is that Gilgamboa and Valseur Lido both pitch up here rather than the Arkle and the RSA respectively. Given that turn of events I’d probably end up backing them both at odds shorter than ideal.

The market is now made by Vautour. He’s as short as 7-2 after Mullins tacitly nominated this as the prize following an uninformative race last weekend. The performance of Un De Sceaux on Sunday could still change all that of course. Vautour’s wins have come in bloodless schooling sessions. His defeat came in his only good quality race, when jumping was put under pressure. In mitigation, the trainer suggests last year’s Supreme winner was not right when Clarcam won so convincingly. Observers have also commented that he sweated less profusely on the occasion of his win last week. I was quick enough to back him for the Queen Mother after his fencing debut. I’m now swerving him in the much lesser quality JLT. How fickle is the reasoning behind ante-post punting. It’s all about the value.

Notwithstanding the Gilgamboa/Valseur Lido scenario, I’ve backed Ptit Zig. Hardly left field, and 4-1 is far from a give away. The bet is based simply on the best form I’ve seen so far at this trip. He’s unbeaten over fences, running up a sequence of four wins in which he has improved every time. His win at Cheltenham against decent yardstick Champage West was assured and confident. What can go wrong? [Pause.]

Ryanair

Hidden Cyclone is one of my 40 to follows this year and I always had it in mind to back him here, assuming he showed some promise after his tumble at Thurles in November. Interesting that Pricewise has put him up in the Champion Chase. His 2nd behind Twinlight over an extended two miles now reads pretty poorly after the latter was outclassed on Saturday. So I’ll stick with him at this 2½ mile trip. In fact, I had him down as a likely stayer a couple of years ago. A theory that has not been categorically bottomed in my view. Whether he can improve on his runner up spot behind Dynaste last year is open to question. I still believe he has not fully delivered on his potential. Others may think he is now exposed. Don Cossack’s excellent win last week makes the race suddenly look much tougher. I need Shark Hanlon’s stable stalwart to repay my long held, but increasingly fragile faith this time. 

World Hurdle

A really open, scarily inviting renewal this year. Even though last year’s winner More Of That is four points clear in the market. Despite his obvious class, the reigning champ is a risky proposition at the moment. Clearly wrong on his poor seasonal debut, there is still a cloud hanging over the form of inmates at Jackdaw’s Castle. I’m not saying Jonjo won’t have him right come the big day, just that I’m looking elsewhere. I like Beat That, but he too is suffering an interrupted preparation and backing him requires a leap of faith.

Saphir Du Rheu has a touch of class and the decision to revert to timber is a good decision after his two falls over the larger obstacles. If they have not left a mark, this could be the right race for him. Whisper, having also blotted his copybook over fences, comes into a similar category.

I haven’t bypassed Lieutenant Colonel either, after a great tussle with Jetson at Christmas. However, I may well bypass two of my old friends who will line up here. Zarkandar isn’t quite the horse he was and although there are positives to be drawn from his 3 mile races this year, I don’t think he has the engine on a sounder surface anymore at this level. Rock On Ruby I would love to back. What a warrior. Owes me nowt. I can’t shake the nagging doubt that he’ll struggle to get the trip. I’m more concerned about the stamina issue than the age stat that is being bandied around about winners of this race. ROR has not had a hard career and still shows plenty of zest. If he wins, I’ll be screaming the place down, but he’ll only have a sliver of my sentimental money on his back, if anything.

I backed Monksland at 16-1 after his 3rd place behind Lieutenant Colonel over  Christmas. There’s class about this Noel Meade charge and his potential hasn’t yet been fully tapped. Whilst he should have won in the mud yesterday at Gowran, I’m not unhappy with the way he travelled and jumped. That he got nutted on the line says a lot about Bryan Cooper on Dedigout and even more about my fella’s dislike of heavy ground. Assuming there’s no bog awaiting him at Prestbury Park on 12th March, he should go well.  

That said, this is shaping up to be a good race, and I’ll no doubt return for more action before the off.

Gold Cup Day

By 1.30pm on Friday, I will be part of a large and unruly gang of enthusiastic punters up to its neck in beer, whip money, 12 to follows, and the excruciating final stages of Fantasy Festival in the Barley Mow.

I’ll need reminding that I’ve had some ante-posts already. Many of which will may well be long dead. This is for the record.

Triumph

A race I used to target, but increasingly I’ve become a casual punter. Like the world and his dog, I loved Peace And Co’s easy win at Doncaster. This weekend will tell us more about him and the rest of Mr Munir’s strong hand of 4yos. I haven’t had a bet yet, but trainers often play their hands late in this division so I’m not ruling out a little dabble over the next week or so.

Albert Bartlett

Another of my favourite races. Bloody hell, aren’t they all? What an unrivalled feast of top quality fare! I’ve taken a view about Fletcher’s Flyer at 27 with Betfair. He hasn’t yet achieved as much as those at the top of the market. Harry Fly is nevertheless bringing him along nicely and he has won both his outings this year like a horse with plenty up his sleeve. He hangs a bit, which is a small concern, but with one more outing before th Festival, he should be spot on, especially with better conditions underfoot that he’s met so far.  

My other bet was a speculative punt (again) on Out Sam after the horse he beat at Newbury, Thomas Brown, came out and won well on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham. Then Tea For Two – also beaten by this lad – won the Lanzarote. I took a little bit of 45s with Betfair. Then I got the wobbles and backed him for the Neptune at much shorter as well. Even though my instinct was for the longer trip. So when Out Sam turned out last weekend I was expecting the odds to contract and for me to be sitting pretty. I thought I’d covered the angles. He won. But it was a tad scrappy to be honest. Then Hendo said they’d probably skip the Festival and head to the 3m novice at Aintree. Why? I can’t see much else that he’s got for this. Bastard.

Gold Cup

I started this series by saying in that I’d never won the Festival opener, the elusive Supreme. I’m closing it by saying I’ve never actually won the Gold Cup either. Terrible. Not with an outright bona fide win bet. I’m excluding a few combination place returns and other such spawn.

I’ve come close a couple of times. Maybe Road To Riches can get me over the line this year. His Lexus Chase victory had all the hallmarks of Gold Cup quality. The usual stuff: jumping, travelling, yawn yawn. What marked him out for me was the way he responding to a patient ride from the impeccable Bryan Cooper and found plenty when asked to go and reclaim the lead, staying on powerfully to the line. I backed him at 12-1.

He is second in the betting at about 8s now, behind Silviniaco Conti. Probably rightly so. That one’s King George victory was a joy. Slick jumping is his hallmark. I’m a little burned by his capitulation after the final fence in last year’s Blue Ribband when for all the world I was counting my cash. I couldn’t bear to be all over him in March and see the horse knuckle up the hill again. Cheltenham simply may not be his track.

Djakadem must also come back into the reckoning after a superb performance in the Theystes Chase at Gowran yesterday, Mullins pretty much said it left him no other option. He had a tough assignment under 11st 10lb and won in the way he needed to if he was to dispel concerns after his tame Hennesey run back in November. A lingering question mark is his ability to handle ground better than soft.

I don’t go a bomb on any of the others at this stage, though it’s a brave punter that excludes Lord Windermere.


That’s me then. The quivering mug punter in the corner, stealing glances between fingers at the shifting tales of horror on Oddschecker.


Thursday, 22 January 2015

Festival 15 - Ante-post progress: Ladies Day

Traditionally, my strongest day. And in many ways my favourite day, though not just because of the positive financial returns.

I love the staying novices better than anything. Save perhaps for the sight of a select bunch of two-mile top-notchers attacking fences with pace and skill in the Queen Mother.

Do I say this every year? Yep. But last year I missed this day. We left after the first day due to a number of dull reasons. It felt so odd, out of place, to be at home watching on the races unfold on the telly, rather than baying my head off on the rails. I’ll be back this year. I hear they missed me.

My punting action has been limited and unsuccessful this ante-post season. Just a quick round up then.

Neptune

A market that I habitually get stuck into, but this season is subject to the ebbs and flows of Willie Mullins’ impressive novice hurdle brigade and the shifting targets of other principles. It feels as though Parlour Games heads the betting almost by default. I haven’t waded in properly on this race yet. There are too many question marks. I did have a small covering bet on Out Sam before his last outing, but my main interest in him was for the Albert Bartlett. Both now look fruitless – but see later for more discussion. I’ll be back soon to stamp my calamitous opinions all over this race.

RSA

I have a long standing bet on Champagne West at 20-1, but it’s not a confident shout. I think he’ll need cut in the ground and that seems unlikely. I’d like to see Valseur Lido targeted here. Impressive winner of the Drinmore, he seemed to have bags of stamina. He’s a shorter price for the JLT though and I’m not keen to split my stake at these shorter prices. Gigginstown are less loathe to keep their best runners apart than Rich Ricci is, so it’s conceivable that Mullins could run both Don Poli and Valseur Lido in the RSA, with Vautour now confirmed for the JLT… I’m talking myself into this. If I can just find 14s somewhere.

Champion Chase

I suspect I’m not the only one struggling to know how to tackle this race. It’s complexion has changed markedly in the last few days. The welcome return of Sprinter Sacre was a big boost for the sport. The event has been widely covered and the consensus seems to be that there is some way to go to regain the electric invincibility in the six weeks that remain. Dodging Bullets is only third in the market for the race, which seems odd on the face of it. However, SS and Sire De Grugy cast long shadows, even with doubts about them both. I’ve followed Dodging Bullets to my cost in the big end of season meetings. He’s fluffed his lines plenty. This must also be a factor in his relative market position. Nicholls is convinced he is a reformed character, but I’m still nervous. Lydia Hislop said of him this week “The Sprinter Sacre of old would eat that horse for breakfast and go back for the jockey.”

Champagne Fever now seems to be targeted at this race and has been clipped in accordingly. Ruby Walsh feels that his horse was already beaten by Don Cossack when falling at the final fence in last Thursday’s Kinloch Brae Chase. Agreed. He also said that Champagne Fever never travelled or jumped as well as he had in the King George. That surprised me as I thought he cut decent shape out in front and put in some impressive leaps. I’m more interested in him at 2 miles than any other trip, but can’t quite bring myself to back him.

With so many doubts about the race, there must be some value here. I don’t see it in Al Ferof who can’t now have the raw speed at 10 years old to drop back in trip and win this. But I don’t really see it anywhere else, either.

I’ve had two little Betfair speculates. One was an ill judged biggish-priced punt on Vautour after his sparkling debut, when I imagined a plunge scenario on a race that could cut up, his other novice chasers sticking to that route and Champagne Fever in the Ryanair or Gold Cup. With hindsight, that is not really Mullins’ style. Ho hum. The other is still alive, but is an even longer shot. Mr Mole has a modicum of Davoski wedge at about 65 after his handicap win at Sandown. If he turns up in the Game Spirit and performs with credit, JP McManus, in the absence of any other live contenders, may be tempted to run him here. He’s quirky, but so is Dodging Bullets and the former’s price is much more attractive.

Though don’t be surprised if I back the latter as well. And Sire De Grugy, once there are signs he is fit and well. Oh dear. This race may well be my nemesis.

Festival 15 - Ante-post progress: Champions Day

Like a mud-caked cartwheel turning slowly out of the claggy mire, I’ve come full circle with my Festival ante-post punting. Returning to a decade old strategy of backing big priced Betfair outsiders struck to low stakes that I think I might lay off when the market turns my way.  I rarely did lay off. The markets too often drifted the other way, or I got greedy and hung on to my big prices. I can think of only two occasions when I laid off to a reasonable profit.

Once when Nicholls took over the training of Venn Ottery for the irascible Oliver Carter and I backed him at massive odds in the 2004 Champion Chase place market. Nicholls then coaxed four wins from five runs out of the horse who was almost as quirky as his owner. A shot at the Champion Chase became realistic and I laid off my bet. Ottery finished 5th and tired after cruising into contention at the top of the hill.

The other occasion was Sublimity in the 2007 Champion Hurdle. Again backed at huge odds, I laid off a significant chunk on the eve of the race.  This proved to be a mistake. He won a race run to suit, bouncing off the drying ground at 16-1. I collected nicely enough on the on the locked in profit, but it could have been so much better if I’d resisted the lay.  

I fell out of love with Betfair and wrestled with the logic of trying to manage down the scale of my ante-post punting. Then followed a flirtation with No Run No Bet and No Run Free Bet offers. Seemingly risk free betting became a thin veil for tying up loads of wedge and lop-sided each-way caution. False economy and folly. Even though I had a couple of successful Festivals, I’m now back to backing win only long shots and multiple selections in single races, at small stakes.

Of course there are increased elements of lottery compared to ten years ago, given the additional targets that now exist for runners, particularly in the novice ranks. This has its compensations and risks in the fluctuating markets. Investment values may decrease as well as increase.   

Enough preamble already. What damage has been inflicted so far? Here’s the grizzly word:

Supreme

I’ve yet to claim this race with a proper bet and it looks like another year will slip by. I’m not on Douvan. I wasn’t ready to plunge after his eye-catching debut at Gowran. I gave up after his demolition job at Punchestown. He looks a notch above L’Ami Serge who won a sub-standard Tolworth very well. It’s any price you like for the rest, with many contradictory form lines, particularly in Ireland. I’ve had a couple of quid or so on Sizing John at 51. You can get twice the price now. That seems crazy on the face of his Grade 1 win over Christmas. But that race has more form holes that a lump of gouda. And back in November, he was smashed to bits by Douvan, of course. De Bromhead is no fool though. Far from it. He’s keeping the horse fresh for a Spring campaign and I hope that he’s looking after an improver to send to Cheltenham where in an ideal world he’ll find Douvan on an off-day. Similar scenarios have played out plenty of times before in the Supreme: Cue Card and Dunguib most recently.  I’d been hoping David Pipe’s exciting Moon Racer would have made his debut over hurdles by now. He’s still in some markets, but looks like he’s being saved for the Bumper. Whatever, I’ll be back for more in this market, whether or not Sizing John lines up.

Arkle

Yes, Un De Sceaux, if he stands up after his exuberant over-jumps. Yes, Clarcam who looked quality in despatching Vautour over Christmas. But for me, yes also Gilgamboa who should come here instead of the JLT, in my humble opinion. He’s shorter for that race – generally 8s – and I have him in this at 12s. So the wager is not a Betfair flight of fancy, but a proper bet. His win at Limerick on Boxing Day was just what you want to see in an Arkle candidate. Slick jumping, easy travelling, and high ratio gearing when given a squeeze. This weekend’s Irish Arkle will be a compelling event, with many of that country’s best two-mile novice chasers lining up.  That will clarify the target for plenty in this division. Entries for this and the other novice chases are out later today.

Champion Hurdle

Statistically, my best Championship race: Sublimity, Punjabi, Rock On Ruby and Jezki.
Maybe I should be looking for a contender that fits this rhyming pattern. I’d have as much chance. Jezki will no doubt get his ground again this year, but 5-1 doesn’t seem much value in this make up. Hurricane Fly is winning more respect for his warrior status with every race he runs and 14-1 seems insulting. And yet unless it comes up soft, he won’t be winning this. The New One ran his best race in two seasons at Cheltenham in the old Bula, to my eyes. Jumping fluently, travelling strongly and quickening away. I finally started to see what he was all about. Credit to Twiston-Davies for running the horse in all the decent races. That’s why they are in training, Hendo. However, The New One’s Haydock outing last week prompted questions again. Jumping right, making mistakes and only nailing an inferior opponent late on, admittedly out of ground he hated. So that brings us to Faugheen who has not put a foot wrong and answered every question. At nearly evens, it’s no bet for me.

On the basis of unearthing some unlikely value, I’ve dabbled with Greatwood Hurdle winner, Garde La Victoire. 66-1 and it’s an each-way NRNB. Breaking new rules early here. He has improved all season but it takes a stretch of logic to see him progressing past Faugheen and co. If he did turn up in this race, it would be via a strange handicap route – then again, it’s something his trainer Philip Hobbs has done before. Remember Rooster Booster? My only real hope is that Diakali turns up so that I can continue the phonetic sequence…

Mares Race

Annie Power’s race to lose if she makes it to the tapes. I was taken by Carrigmoorna Rock at Leopardstown over Christmas. Real battling qualities and should improve for better ground. I took 12-1, but bigger prices are available now. Carole’s Spirit, whom I love, will be another to improve on better ground, but seems to have developed a tendency to jump right. Both Glens Melody and Aurora D’Estruval will make it interesting. It all hinges on Annie’s fitness.

Four Miler

I’ve long been a fan of Sausalito Sunrise. King’s Palace has put him in his place twice over three miles, showing up the Hobbs’ horse’s lack of killer pace. So the extra mile in this extended novice event should work out well at a track he likes. He was still in touch with Coneygree when falling at Kempton last time and it’s to be hoped there’s no confidence damage. I’m on at 22 with Betfair and covered him in the RSA at 25s as well, but to smaller stakes.

That’s enough grief for this instalment. Back with Champion Chase Day howlers later…