Drawn in

Mindful of last season’s profit-sapping ante-post performance at Cheltenham, I had been determinedly keeping my oars clear of the swirling pools of Festival disinformation. This was no easy ask. Ante-post punting has been a staple of my Festival build up for 13 years or so: a financial and mental outlet for the simmering championships build-up and a chance to be a smug stride ahead of the bookies come the big day.

The scales tumbled from my eyes in the aftermath of last season’s Gold Cup. Keeping pace with the frontal lobe thump of a Laphroig hangover was the insistent snare drum of mug punting realisation. I declared that there would be no raft of ante-post bets in 2013 until bookies began offering Non-Runner-No-Bet guarantees. This would rule out finding fancy-priced early season value. Injuries and drops in performance I could take on the chin. That’s part of the ebb. The flow is the rare joy of a long-priced ante-post winner sent off at short odds on the day.  But I had become fed up with trying to second-guess the plans of trainers at a Festival with increasing options every year. It had become a frustrating and expensive task. My mate Bacchy’s recent blog post accurately identifies the beginning of the end. It just took me another 6 seasons to act on it.

This is a wise, level-headed and measured commitment. And like most of the purging and abstinence that goes on in January, these reckless statements came under the severest of pressure long before the month was out. I found myself unable to keep jittery digits away from Oddschecker. That nice Victor Chandler’s excellent Non-Runner-Free-Bet initiative was too good to miss. So I’ve tooled up on a good many of my more likely Forty To Follow Festival runners where VC has them chalked in at something approaching value. The company has clearly stolen a march on its rivals. “Antepost bets on this year’s Cheltenham Festival have increased by over 350% on this time last year” reported its PR head honcho, Charlie McCann.

Its offer hasn’t taken care of all my needs though. Victor is too short about some of my fancies and so the free bet offer alone isn't enough to entice me. I’m sitting on my hands and waiting for the chance of better value when other bookies go NRNB.

And now the first real trials weekend of the season has exploded into the ante post markets. Given added impact because of the largely barren preceding 10 days. And I’ve had my first risky ante-posts.

The best thing I saw this weekend was the Cleeve Hurdle. A brilliant finish involving the two market principles. Geraghty impressively eased Oscar Whisky, a doubtful stayer, into the race, but could not get past Reve De Sivola driven out by Johnson, harnessing his one true talent – brute strength. The general consensus following the race seems to be that Oscar Whisky now stays 3 miles. In so far as he didn’t run into a brick wall at the bottom of the Cheltenham hill as he did last March, this conclusion is true. On the other hand, neither did he stay like he does over 2 ½ miles where he would have buried Reve De Sivola. The latter’s preference for bad ground does not explain his beating of Oscar as that one has plenty of rock solid form in a bog too. Three miles is not his Oscar’s best trip. This staying business has shades of grey. Not 50, but certainly enough variations to have me doubting that Oscar Whisky is a sure fire thing in a very open World Hurdle. Neither was Bog Warrior totally convincing on Sunday. Zaidpour is not a three miler so the form is shaky and Tony Martin’s lad will want soft ground more than many. I’ll be looking elsewhere. Meanwhile I have Smad Place with Victor at 16-1. King’s charge has much improving to do, reflected in that price, but is better than he has shown this season and a return to good ground at the Festival ground would be a bonus.

The worst thing I saw was Bold Sir Brian taking a horrific fall at the last in the Murphy Group Chase. Having backed him to win, I confidently monitored his easy progress through the field before Kitenko kicked on from 3 out and Brian went backwards. Thankfully he walked away from his tired fall a few minutes later, seemingly none the worse. The only casualty is my speculative ante post bet at massive prices on the Ryanair and the Gold cup, courtesy of Victor. Speculative, but risk free. Haha! The system is working! Send more money!

Two surprises of the weekend. Firstly that total dog Vino Griego managing to win a race rather than throw a hissy fit with a victory in reach. It is three years almost to the day since his last win. After 18 chases he has shaken off his novice tag. At least the handicapper can get after him now and I can stop worrying about trying to predict his next win. There won’t be another.

I also remain surprised by Cape Tribulation’s improvement as a chaser. Before his win at Wetherby on Boxing Day, Jefferson’s stable star had won only one chase from six attempts. He had reverted successfully to hurdles last season following an undistinguished novice campaign. Now he is being talked of as a Gold Cup horse. His Argento win on Saturday was visually impressive and Jefferson sagely remarked that “I might be wrong but there appears to be a lot of two and half mile horses in this year´s race and he´s an out and out stayer.” We will readily remember Synchronised’s win in a Gold Cup for the stayers last season. However, I’ve backed Silviniaco Conti today after Stan James pushed him out to 15-2. I wasn’t convinced by his form last season, but quickly revised my opinion when he won the Charlie Hall comfortably. His Betfair Chase win was foot perfect and he remains firmly on the upgrade.

I saw nothing this weekend to shake my existing NRFB Supreme punts. Though subsequently, it is interesting that Sherwood is now leaning towards that race with the exciting Puffin Billy, after previously nominating the Neptune as his preferred option. This looks so obviously like he’s running scared of Pont Alexandre after he took apart a decent novice hurdle field at Leopardstown on Sunday. Chuck in The New One and At Fisher’s Bridge and the Neptune is shaping up to be a very strong race. I have a small bet on Pendra at a big price struck on the basis of his decent Tolworth 2nd behind the classy Melodic Rendezvous. The extra half mile will suit him, but this is tough.

With many races not fully considered yet, the ante-post book currently looks like this.

Supreme Novice Hurdle
Two 40 To Follow horses who have real, live chances. I’m happy with this portfolio. Plenty of dangers, but I’m mildly confident of breaking my Supreme duck this year. 
Melodic Rendezvous 1pt e-w @ 12-1 VC NRFB
Dodging Bullets 1pt e-w @ 12-1 VC NRFB

Champion Hurdle
A couple of 40 To Follow outsiders. Raya Star is a massively improved horse over the last 18 months and he must have an each way squeak. My hand was forced into backing Cotton Mill by Pricewise’s selection. I was keen to pocket some value before it disappeared. In the event, I missed most of it anyway! Risky.
Raya Star 1pt e-w @ 40-1 VC NRFB
Cotton Mill 1pt e-w @ 26-1 Stan James

David Nicholson Mares Race
Another massively improving horse. This would be a cast iron bet if Quevega decided to run in the World Hurdle. The currently looks unlikely. Someone have a word with Willie Mullins.
She Ranks Me 1pt e-w @ 16-1 VC NRFB

Neptune Novice Hurdle
See above.
Pendra 0.5pt e-w @ 33-1 Stan James

Ryanair Chase
Two Irish 40 To Follow raiders and one from Scotland. Call The Police can only be an outsider at best and needs to build on last season’s potential. There’s still time. Hidden Cyclone on the pick of his form would be an interesting shout. But he flopped badly in the Lexus and ran only a little better under top weight in a testing handicap on Saturday. See above for Bold Sir Brian comments. The Ryanair could be a really string race this year and these are not amongst my most confident bets.
Call The Police 1pt e-w @ 25-1 VC NRFB
Hidden Cyclone 1pt e-w @ 33-1 VC NRFB
Bold Sir Brian 1pt e-w @ 25-1 VC NRFB

World Hurdle
See above
Smad Place 1pt e-w @ 16-1 VC NRFB

Gold Cup
See above
Silviniaco Conti 2pts win @ 15-2 Stan James
Bold Sir Brian 1pt e-w @ 50-1 VC NRFB

...And so it begins.


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