It’s as if a switch has been flicked. Blinking into the howling gale of a New Year, with Christmas Tree shredded, cards recycled and industrial-size pork pies scoffed, my focus has changed. I’m compelled to peer into the future. The ending of one Festive season seems to clear out just enough mental clutter to make room for another. Driven by a body clock ticking to a seasonal tempo, I am helpless to resist. Involuntarily, my brain has become hard-wired into the Oddschecker Cheltenham Festival countdown clicker: 67 days, 23 hours, 24 minutes, 15 seconds as of this afternoon. My ante-posts bets are now being struck.
Every year I self-medicate caution and restraint. “Don’t go crazy on the ante-posts, Davoski. You know your stats show they don’t really pay”. But the drugs don’t work. I get sucked in, fuelled by eye-catching holiday winners, nagged by juicy but often fleeting prices and pressurised by the diminishing time to festival kick off. I need a suit of shiny ante-post armour to protect my fragile confidence as I gambol through the gates of Prestbury Park every March.
And every year I claim to have a plan. A fig leave to delude myself that ante-post punting is not just reactive, scatter-gun mayhem. This year’s strategy, then, is all about big value. (Do I say this every year?) At least at this stage. Because I know full well that I will resort to the usual pebbledash favourite-backing panic by 13th March.
So here is my progress.
The festival targets for many top novice prospects remain unclear at this relatively early stage. Nicky Henderson in particular is noted for staying his hand until close to race day. Bobs Worth last season was well-backed for the 2 ½ mile Neptune and yet turned up to win cosily in the 3m Albert Bartlett. Henderson once again has a very strong team. I’ve plumped for a couple of his that look to be shaping nicely. Tetlami has shown very good form in two wins this season after coming back from injury. Next stop should be the Tolworth later this month which will inform how far he has progressed. But in a very open looking Supreme market I’ve taken the 20-1 e-w currently on offer. Steps To Freedom and Prospect Wells are obvious dangers with the best form in the book so far. Simonsig could be Henderson’s other representative in this race and he looks very classy too. Plenty of others yet to show their hand – including Weld’s pair Waaheb and Galileo’s Choice, and O’Grady’s Cash And Go. So plenty of scope to go in again. Particularly if Tetlami shortens up.
My other Henderson punt is Broadbackbob. One of my 40 to follow picks for the season, he was subsequently bought out of Steven Crawford’s small but perfectly formed County Antrim yard where he had run well behind Steps To Freedom and Montbazon in the Aintree Champion Bumper. He has since won two pretty competitive novice events and I like him. All the usual qualifications about targets and unknowns apply to this market too – but that’s surely the fun/risk of ante-post punting. Market leader Fingal Bay is a possible for the three-miler, and in truth that market currently seems to have more shape about it with some really good looking horses from Ireland like Mount Benbulben and Boston Bob possibly heading that way too. So I’m happy to side with my fellah at 33 win/7 place on Betfair.
What a bumper bunch this year. Sprinter Sacre, Al Ferof, Peddlers Cross, Cue Card, Grand Crus, Bobs Worth, Blackstairmountain, Last Instalment, Bog Warrior. The list goes on. Sprinter Sacre was breathtaking when beating Peddlers Cross at Kempton. Like others, I think Peddlers would be much nearer at Cheltenham which demands a different style of jumping and that hill. But McCain has already been talking about stepping up in trip. In time that’s likely to be his forte. For now he might turn up in the Jewson. Grand Crus might end up in the Gold Cup. That seems to be the way connections are leaning. He was deeply impressive in the Feltham. I had a few small doubts before hand, but none afterwards.
I’m leaving the Arkle alone for the moment. No real value shout leaps out at me yet. But in the RSA, I’ve had a dip with Hidden Cyclone who was an impressive winner on his chasing debut and has the required bags of scope to improve. At 25-1 each-way, he’s a speculative bet as he’s not beaten much yet. I see him as a staying chaser in the making, and an ideal type for the RSA. Though I notice he’s a shorter price in the shorter distance Jewson, so connections may have other ideas.
I’ve been saying all season that Oscars Well needs further than 2 miles to be seen at his best. But Jessie Harrington has nailed her colours to the champion hurdle mast. And I’ve started to come round a bit. Of course, the hill will play to his strengths, as will goodish ground and a strongly run race. I was mildly encouraged with his run behind Unaccompanied and Thousand Stars in the Festival Hurdle over Christmas where he looked to have them on the stretch two out. I’m also persuaded that Jessie will have him right on the boil come March. Further encouragement came when I spotted Ladbrokes had a non-runner-no-bet market on the Champion Hurdle and at 25-1 I felt I had nothing to lose. With question marks over the fragile Hurricane Fly, Oscars Well is a reasonable each way shout at worst. But we still want to see him over further…. Outside Ireland, it’s that man Henderson again. I’m looking forward to seeing Spirit Son come out - he’s my idea of a Champion Hurdle type, Grandouet has already slammed down his challenge and Binocular is back in the frame after a terrifying McCoy Christmas Hurdle drive. I’ve got a sneaky for Rock On Ruby too, but 2 ½m might be his optimum and Nicholls also has Zarkander. Intriguing renewal this year.
Have pretty much failed to find the big value so far. I keep looking at Captain Chris, but worry that he didn’t convince over the trip in the King George. The Jewson may be the more obvious target. Pricewise disagrees and has put him up for the Gold Cup, so the best value has already gone anyway. And I also keep looking at Weird Al at 25-1. The Charlie Hall was good form and his 10 lengths 3rd to Kauto in the Betfair Chase was better. But he may be more of an Aintree horse and he’s unlikely to visit both. The Irish picture has been muddied by Synchronised – previously thought a national type – in the Lexus Chase by crushing two or three of the home team’s more realistic Gold Cup fancies. He has to rate a contender now. Take out Long Run and Kauto and the field looks a bit thin. The more I write about it, the more I’m convinced Weird Al has credible place prospects. Even if he doesn’t show up, that NRNB at Ladbrokes is hooking me in again. OK, I’m on!
More soon. Inevitably.