Apart from the Champion Hurdle, the opening day of the Festival is always a tough one for me. The stats tell me in hollow ringing tones that however the programme is tweaked and swapped around, the Neptune, the RSA Chase and the Champion Chase are three of my best yielding races. So time to strap in for Day 2 at Prestbury Park, for what might be a recovery mission.
National Hunt Chase (four miler)
Fittingly named in honour of Lord John Oaksey, this is a race I have struggled with since Rith Dubh stole it by a nose the first year I came for the (then) full three days. It was my only clear cut win at 2002 festival. Grim. The race conditions have changed significantly since then and it is now a straight Class 2 amateur riders staying novice chase. The 2013 renewal looks strong. Willie Mullins won’t run the Graham Wylie-owned pair Boston Bob and Back In Focus (8-1 NRNB) against each other. The market suggests that the former will head to the RSA and the latter here. BIF's form is top notch and he’ll stay all day. But his ability to run well on good ground is a concern. The horse’s only failure was at Aintree when he could hear his hooves rattle. That was under the tutelage of the tarnished Howard Johnson and I’m tempted to hold that up as a more plausible explanation than the ground. Nevertheless, he may not show up at all.
Pipe fields Goulanes who was very brave at Wetherby recently on his chase debut under rules and has points form to throw into the mix. Godsmejudge and Rival D’Estruval bring strong form claims and deserve to be at he head of the market. Further down the betting, if Make A Track (25-1) lined up here I’d be all over him. Charlie Swann’s charge beat Vesper Bell (another live chance here) in a novice chase at Thurles back in November and looked ready to step up in class. Not sighted since, I’m assuming he’s had a setback and won’t be ready in time for this. But I’m keeping my eyes peeled.
This is a great race and regularly becomes the novice hurdle heat that sets my pulse coursing the quickest. It is a watershed race with some legendary winners subsequently stepping back to two miles (Istabraq, Hardy Eustace) and the likes of Denman (runner up in 07) going up in trip.
That intermediate distance factor has already resulted in the race cutting up faster than the Tories after Eastleigh. Many of the early season principals are looking like they are Supreme-bound (Champagne Fever, Un Atout) or set for three miles in the Albert Bartlett (Ballycasey, At Fishers Cross). I reckon there are five live chances at the head of the market. Pont Alexandre has won his races well but appears a short price for what he has done and so must be opposed on those grounds. Rule The World must have a good shout on his Slaney Hurdle win from Minsk, although Champagne Fever appeared beaten too easily there and there was probably something amiss. That suggests the form is not as rock solid as it could be, given the way CF ran next time out. There is a suspicion that he has a preference for soft ground, too.
The English challenge is headed by The New One who has only been beaten twice: once in the Champion Bumper and once by At Fishers Cross in bad ground and after being given a poor ride. Given those excuses he holds strong claims. However on price and form lines I’m siding with Taquin Du Seuil. Despite Pricewise having put him up, Jonjo O’Neill’s inmate is still a couple of points bigger than The New One and the manner of his Challow Hurdle win at Newbury was authoritative. There’s enough in his flat form to suggest goodish ground will suit and I’m happy enough with the 13-2 I’ve pouched, though a little aggrieved that I dithered too long and missed the 10s. This is very close to call and I can see some acca action involving at least The New One. Puffin Billy gets a little buzzed up in his races and though connections found excuses for his defeat by Melodic Rendezvous (puss in hoof), I feel he has questions to answer now.
|Taquin Du Seuil|
RSA Novice Chase
This is a gruelling race and favours the archetypal dour stayer, ala Bob’s Worth and Denman, rather than the flashy eye-catchers and horses that win on the bridle. It is regularly the graveyard of Festival good things. Grand Crus last year emptying at the top of the hill is only the most recent example. Who can forget the ringing silence when Rule Supreme came home at 33-1 in 2004 with hotshot Our Vic at 11/8 back in third. Or Punchestowns’ no show at 2-1 in 2010 and Time For Rupert the year after?
Long time market leader Dynaste also has the option of the Jewson at 2 ½ miles on Thursday and I can see the attraction of sending him there over a less arduous trip. But he will probably line up here and ticks plenty of boxes: distance, ground and track. He’s a good jumper too, and I’ve been impressed with his athletic ability to put himself right at fences when on the wrong stride. I’m opposing only on value grounds and I’ll no doubt have Dynaste, wherever he turns up, in some increasingly far-fetched combinations.
I’m opposing with Unioniste (8-1 NRNB) who was thumped by Dynaste at Cheltenham over half a mile shorter back in November. This is Unioniste’s trip, however, and he has obviously improved since, with a good handicap win off a featherweight back at HQ. And subsequently a less convincing win at odds-on last month at Newbury. This wouldn’t be my most confident bet, but a better gallop will suit him round here. Five year olds have a poor record though and the 2lb allowance isn’t a massive game changer. Unioniste’s handler, Nicholls was the last to train a five year old winner in the shape of Star De Mohaison when the allowance was much more hefty.
Goulanes would be interesting if routed here as would Boston Bob, who looks slow enough to enjoy the grind of this race and would be there if they go off too fast in front. Take out the Pipe grey and I’m not convinced this is a classic renewal.
Queen Mother Champion Chase
A place call here. On all known form, Sprinter Sacre cannot be beaten. I’ve taken 20-1 each way about Sanctuaire at ¼ the odds to three places. The reasoning is that I won’t get those terms on the day and with some of the market principals heading elsewhere, he should have a good chance of filling 2nd or 3rd. Sanctuaire has seen enough of the back end of Sprinter Sacre this season, having been slammed by him twice: once when trying to force the pace and once with exaggerated hold up tactics. Given a sensible ride on decent Spring ground he should run well.
Who he will need to beat to get his bonce in the frame is guesswork at the moment. Cue Card is market leader for the Ryanair, though if I was Tizzard, I’d come here. I don’t think he’ll get home well enough over half a mile further. He could end up taking on Sizing Europe there and I know who my money would be on. Finian’s Rainbow could come here, but it’s an act of faith to blame only the ground for his two desperate runs this season. Somersby is not the horse he was and arguably never has been.
I love this race. I used to hate it and then I backed the winner two years on the bounce. Now I love it. Fickle and capricious. That’s me.
I’ll be punting the event nearer the day, but of the market principals I’m drawn to two of my 40 to follow horses whom I will back if I can find some value: Pendra and Cotton Mill. Pendra ran strongly behind Melodic Rendezvous in the Tolworth and could not match the winner’s turn of foot over the last two furlongs. The extra half-mile will be perfect here and connections have sought to exploit his handy handicap mark – an increasingly common tactic - rather than take their chance in the Neptune. See the Champion Hurdle preview for comments about Cotton Mill.
Get Me Out Of Here is another 40 to follow horse whom I may feel obliged to get behind here, although the way this gutsy horse has been campaigned is a travesty. Twice set impossible tasks in bottomless ground that he hates against Oscar Whisky and then Darlan must have mashed his spirit. Carrying top weight here for the 2nd successive season might just break him. The World Hurdle over a trip he has never tried is GMOOH’s other Festival option. I think connections should head to Aintree instead.
Further down the list, Many Clouds is interesting too – progressive profile, willing attitude and a price of 25-1. There will be plenty of others.
Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle
A race I’ve never managed to get my head around. I recognise its value in that it has made the Triumph Hurdle less of a cavalry charge and more of a quality race. Beyond that I don’t focus on the juvenile form closely enough to identify where there might be handicap value. This will be a low punting race. My shortlist had included Ruacana who looks real quality, but might now be burdened with too much weight here and Saphir Du Rheu about whom the value appears to have gone already. I’m looking again at Brian Ellison’s Totalize who seems to be going the right way and is available at a double figure price.
A race to watch, enjoy and note for next season. Consequently a low punting heat. Another of my 40 to follow horses is entered here. Fascino Rustico switched to Paul Nicholls in the early part of the season. After running 4th in a decent bumper at the Open meeting, he’s had a breathing operation and was put away. I’d be tempted into a small wager at 33-1 or better if he showed up.
Nap of the day: Taquin Du Seuil