Following quickly on the heels of a dewy-eyed and sentimental blog about a decade riding the Cheltenham roller-coaster, it’s time for a hard-nosed analysis of my festival ante-post folio.
This season has been a bugger to get to grips with. Desperate weather conditions have punched a hole the size of a cow in the mid-season fixture list. No wonder stuff (apols) of such vitriol has been written about the protection policies of some of our leading tracks. Too many high profile fixtures have been lost needlessly to the elements. Kirkland Tellwright, clerk at Haydock, was on the receiving end of some incandescent rage after his shambolic performance last weekend. His failure to deploy frost covers – which are now proven to work (c.f. Cheltenham’s meeting on Saturday) - was widely interpreted as complacency and incompetence or, worse, a lack of commitment to meetings that are more profitable for the insurance payout upon cancellation.
So there is hardly a dense network of informative, cross-tabulated form lines from which my festival ante-posts have flowed. Indeed - yes, another rant - it’s not just the weather that results in a paucity of evidence. Many trainers are now sending their main festival hopes to Prestbury Park in March with very few runs under their belts. Training facilities these days are so good that trainers often don’t need to get their best horses match-fit slogging around Chepstow and Ludlow. This applies in particular to the novice chase division, but can also be seen in thin fields for Class 1 chases and hurdles. The irony is that the Haydock card the other Saturday had pitifully shallow fields (outside the handicaps) supporting two or three bright stars. The dominance of Cheltenham is suffocating decent cards in the middle of the season.
Bring it on…
But I absolutely love Cheltenham. Yes, this is a contradiction. Its dominance is its very attraction. Just sometimes I crave a better balance. I don’t want to see the rest of the fixture list decimated.
This is a long-winded, bad-tempered excuse for putting together a festival ante-post roster that I don’t have shed-loads of confidence in.
This is how it shapes up as at 1st Feb 2011.
I’ve never won the festival opener. A stat that I’m keen to dump. With Cue Card, quite rightly dominating the market at a short price, I’ve been looking for some value. My two ante-posts in this race are currently still alive. Megastar at 25-1 each way from Gary Moore’s stable and Irish raider Hidden Universe at 16-1 from master trainer Dermot Weld.
I like Megastar. He’s a fantastic looking horse, a massive stamp of a beast. He needs a sound surface and to improve his jumping a smidgeon. But he’s travelled nicely in defeat at top level when giving weight away and in the mud. I’ve seen enough to think there’s more to come, given good ground, at the festival. 2 miles seems to be his trip.
Hidden Universe won the Grade 1 Punchestown Festival Bumper very smoothly in April, he’s got gears and looks class. 4 from 5 in the jumps sphere, he won his first race over hurdles in some style. A tendency to jump right is something Weld is working on. On the downside, he was beaten out of sight by Cue Card, in the Cheltenham bumper. This has got to be a blip. He runs on Saturday in a Grade 1 in Ireland against another leading fancy for the race, Zaidpour. I backed Hidden Universe not long after his debut over hurdles and the price then reflected some doubt about him even lining up at the Festival, let alone whether this is his trip. Nevertheless, he’s now as short as 10-1. Saturday will tell us a lot more.
I’ve got a better record in this mesmerising 2m novice chase. Nothing in this field has set the world alight yet. Finian’s Rainbow heads the market at 9-2 after two wins in, frankly, mediocre races. Hard to tell how good he is. The same can be said for next best in the betting, Ghizao (5-1) from the Nicholls yard. I’m on Realt Dubh, backed early in January at 25-1 e-w after his win in a heavy ground Gr 1 at just over 2 miles. I took a chance. Back then his credentials were a fraction sketchy and his best trip was unknown. His attitude, however, was of no concern. Having won the Irish Arkle last weekend – admittedly with a dose of luck when the better travelling Flat Out fell – his price has crashed in to 10-1. I like him. He’s a real battler.
But there are still cards to be played in the Arkle line up and I’m likely to go in again. The picture is slightly confused because of the new Grade 2 2 ½ mile chase. It is an obvious gap on the card, but just adds another layer of imponderables for the ante-post punter.
The festival used to have the most perfect opening combination: Supreme, Arkle, Champion Hurdle. What a beautiful sound. That went down the pan a couple of years ago when they brought the time of the first race forward. Now the William Hill Chase messes up the dream start. I’ll get stuck into that once the weights come out. But the Champion Hurdle is once again shaping up to be the most anticipated of the Festival. Hurricane Fly, Binocular, Menorah and Peddlers Cross have put down the firmest of markers. I’m in the Peddlers Cross camp and have been since I backed him in every race last year. He’s got guts as well as class. He’s also unbeaten. But this is such a strong renewal I can’t be confident. I’m on at 7-1 and again at 6-1 courtesy of a Christmas present ante-post voucher from my bruv. Now that’s quality!
My punt here may have hit the buffers. I liked Rock on Ruby after his win at Newbury over Christmas in the fog. I backed him at 11-1 for this 2 ½ mile grade 1. He ran well in defeat on Saturday at this trip. However, the concern is that he couldn’t go passed the winner, Bob’s Worth, after joining him at the last. Shocking ride by Skelton though. Missed the rail, involved in argey-bargey and dropped his whip. Nevertheless, connections may want to return him to 2 miles. The markets favour him for this – best price 9-1, as oppose to the Supreme at 14-1. But I’m not so sure. I’ve also backed Dare Me at a massive price to minimum stakes on Betfair. He needs to turn out and do something in a decent race before this is a live one though.
Bobs Worth, Zaidpur, Backspin, Habbie Simpson, Minella Class and others look strong. The Neptune’s another race that I’ll dabble in again soon.
One of my bankers at the Festival. This year, Time for Rupert has gone from strength to strength. I went in early for Wymott at 18-1 after a good effort in November at Bangor. His subsequent race at Exeter was not particularly impressive, though he still won. In the meantime I’ve missed the boat on Time For Rupert. He looks the one to beat and I may involve him in some crazy combinations. The race has still to take shape though, and will change in complexion if the real Mikael D’Haguent turns up in Ireland this weekend. The new 2 ½ mile novice race messes things up of course.
Bit of a laugh this one. My only bet so far for Thursday has an air of comic farce about it. Spirit River is a horse I enjoyed following last year. When he won the Coral Cup he went in my notebook for this year. But his fencing has gone backwards. An unexpected fall on his debut followed by an atrocious round next time out has shattered his confidence. This time last week I spotted that Henderson had given him an entry in the Cleeve Hurdle as well as the World Hurdle. So the yard was serious about giving him a go against Big Buck’s. I plundered a few quid of the 70s on offer on Betfair and felt very smug with myself. Next day, Tom Segal of the Racing Post puts him up as his value bet for the World Hurdle! He was backed into 20s….that should have been the time to lay off my outrageous punt on Betfair. I didn’t. He ran a shocker in the Cleeve and failed to get the trip. He’s back out to 55 now, but I’d be surprised if he turns up. This is a talented horse who seems completely out of sorts right now.
A couple of wild punts here. I backed Denman at the arse end of last season when he drifted out to 16-1 with Ladbrokes. I thought that was an insult. After another epic Hennessy Gold Cup run, he’s shortened up to a slightly more respectful 8-1. But I can’t really see the old boy winning. It’s a sentimental bet.
The bet on Kempes is a long shot of a different nature. I backed him on Betfair before Christmas at 240-1. I kid you not. To pennies, admittedly. (I see someone has got a little bit of 420-1!) But he won a good ground G1 3 mile novice chase at Punchestown with some aplomb last Spring. I genuinely think he could be a Gold Cup contender. His run on bad ground at Leopardstown over Christmas went wrong when he unseated four out. But the truth is he had been travelling very strongly up to that point. Willie Mullins has had enough faith subsequently to enter him in the Gold Cup. He’s also in the Ryanair. The acid test comes on Sunday in the Irish Hennessy over 3 miles. Good ground is key, but time is running out and the Gold Cup is probably a step too far.