There are only five weeks to go before the Horseracing Olympics get under way in the shadow of Cleeve Hill at Prestbury Park. The Cheltenham National Hunt Festival is just around the corner.
I've been going every year since 2000. Each year, at about this time, I start to worry, agitate, stress about the state of my ante-post bets. These bets are usually struck months ago to keep me warm through the dark days of Winter. Bets to pull from my kit back during the festival like precious gems. Cheering on horses that I've backed at double figure prices months ago that trot to post as short priced favourites. It is the stuff of dreams. Every so often these big, ambitious bets pay off. Just now and again a horse backed at a massive price sometime in October on the basis of gentle tropt round Exteter can pay off. These are the moments you live for. The moments that keep the dream alive and also lull you into overconfidence. Down the years I remember the big pay outs, the smug feeling as the bookie counts out the wedge into my graspings paws. But I also know that the other side of this deal is about horses that end up a bigger price on the day than when you backed them, or worse, horses that don't even make it to the hallowed event - dead, injured or simply not good enough. And bottom of the barrel are those outrageous ante-post doubles where the first leg is a loser. These bets simply get forgotten about. Too embarrassing to own up to.
This year, I've taken a different approach. I've been disciplined, measured. In control. I've tried to focus on the Championship races where I know I'm strongest.
Here is the list, and my assessment of their chances.
Arkle Chase: Marodima at 25-1 each way. Thought this was a sound bet when I struck it just after Christmas. He trounced a couple of decent types like Mahogany Blaze and Moon Over Miami round Sandown. Came out again last week and tried to win a race at breakneck pace on bottomless ground. Finished down the field, well beaten. His trainer Paul Nicholls says he's unlikely to be aimed at Cheltenham now. So one down already.
I've also taken an outrageous price about Silverburn in the same race. Also a Nicholls horse, I backed him on Betfair (thank the Lord for Betfair) at about 94-1 just before Christmas when he was still being thought of as a three-miler. Something about his form last season made me think he wouldn't stay and so it proved when he ran in the Feltham Novices Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. Whether he'll actually make it to the Arkle line up is another question (he has an entry and the talent). He may end up running at 2.5 miles. But a moral victory for me if nothing else!
Champion Hurdle: What a race this is shaping up to be. The old guard (Hardy Eustace, Brave Inca, Macs Joy) got blitzed last year by new kid on the block Sublimity (one of my successful ante-post punts). He has headed the betting for a long time this year, but then Osana stamped a massive claim to be taken seriously after an impressive win in the old Bula and next Sizing Europe - who beat Osana in the Greatwood Handicap at Cheltenham earlier in the saeason - came out and demolished a select field at Leopardstown to leap to favouritism. I missed the race , but all the commentators were blown away by this effort. I'm on Amaretto Rose from Nicky Henderson's yard at 33-1. She's not been out this year, so another risky one. Due to make an appearance on Saturday. That should tell me whether the 33s is value or not!
Ballymore Properties Novice Hurdle: I'm on Trafford Lad at 16-1 each way. I'm happy with the price on the basis of what he's done in Ireland, but the form for this race is a bit sketchy. Also, the addition of the 3 mile novice hurdle on Friday messes up the minds of ante-post punters. It's now even harder to guess which race the top trainers might be aiming their horses at. I've backed Crocodiles Rock at 28-1 but he's a Jonjo O'Neill horse and he likes to aim his stayers at the three-miler. Very much the case this year I suspect. Could be another duff one.
SunAlliance Chase: A race I always get involved in months before the off. Can't help myself. Every season I see a decent staying novice chaser win well and I want to back it immediately for this race. So I've shown some self-restraint this year and backed a nice prospect of Philip Hobbs', Lead On at about 27s on Betfair. And now I hear the trainer thinks he's best at 2.5 miles and may go for the Jewson. Trouble is, in my heart of hearts, I knew this too. The bet is a bit too speculative. This is another race where some trainers still have cards to play. I also think that I haven't seen any superstars in this division - with the possible exception of Glencove Marina who's is now out for the season - so it could still be wide open come the big day. I'll get involved agian before then though!
Nothing yet! See, I said I was being strong! The World Hurdle would be my main play here and I will get involved soon. Inglis has come out and franked his class again and again this season so he's really hard to oppose. But if My Way de Solzen is aimed at this race after bitterly disappointing over fences this season, he could still be value as a former winner. We'll see.
The Ryanair over 2.5 miles is also one I will be looking at more closely over the next couple of days. This race is fast becoming a festival favourite and has now been booted up to Grade 1 on the basis of a couple of strong recent renewals.
Spa/Brit/Bartlett Hurdle (whatever it's called this year!): I've followed some of the form this year and there has been an interesting group of races involving Souffleur, Nenuphar Collonges, Carruthers and then some decent Irish form to chuck into the mix, so this is shaping up nicely. I'm on Nenuphar from the Alan King yard at 18-1. Not exactly given away, but he'll love the trip and I think there's a bit of class about him. He's actually a chaser, but has been given a hurdle campaign this year, oddly enough.
The Triumph is always a massive ante-post bonanza. But this year I am staying clear. I always get suckered into backing a bunch of outsiders for this one and they never go anywhere near. So I'm learning the lesson of my stats which tell me that I can't read the form of this one to save my ante-post life. So I'm out of it until much closer to race day.
So that's it for now. I expect the decent cards at Sandown and Doncaster will, no doubt, put paid to a few more of these!