TFI Friday. Back from the Festival, I'll haul my battered frame, empty wallet and spinning head up to town and meet the boys in the Barley Mow. Gold Cup day in the pub. Add in the tough-as-teak Fantasy Festival competition to be played out in the raw, uncomprising pell-mell of bar room mayhem and we have the ingredients for a serious day out.
What will I have left on the locker to keep my spirits up? Despite this being the dizzying climax of the Festival, it is a day of low-level activity in terms of long-range punting. For instance, the three races that close this tumultuous four day betting bonanza are heats I will not get involved in ‘til the morning of the races.
So, as rain continues to feature increasingly persistently in the Cheltenham forecast and I plough relentlessly into good ground selections, let’s check out those fields.
A breathless start to proceedings and always a thrilling spectacle. Over the years it’s a race I’ve managed to get on the right side of enough to stay in the black, but take out Zarkandar and you’d need the memory of a medium sized elephant and a scanner akin to Jodrell Bank to register them. Spectroscope anyone?
This season, Our Conor has posted the best single piece of form in Leopardstown’s Spring Juvenile Hurdle and I’ve missed the fancy prices. Apart from his appearance in some increasingly desperate grab-a-grand Lucky 15s, I’ll be looking elsewhere for the value. The next two in the betting are from the English powerhouse yards of Nicholls and Henderson. Far West has racked up four wins since October, but I don’t believe that three of those amount to a whole hill of beans: small fields, dawdling pace and/or weight allowances. His win at Cheltenham in November had more substance about it, but overall he will have it all to do on likely better going (...is that the windy rush of teeth being sucked?). Rolling Star was a bit more impressive in his win over Irish Saint at HQ in January and the latter has gone on to frank the form, though unlikely to run here. Better going may work against RS too.
Beyond these three, the prices are much more attractive and I’m tempted to side with last year’s winning trainer, John Quinn who seems to have such a talent with juveniles. He has Hidden Justice at around 20-1 though I like the way Kashmir Peak (16-1 e-w NRNB) travelled sweetly in his Grade 2 win at Doncaster and found plenty at the finish. That bodes well for what is likely to be a strongly run race on Friday. To side with Kashmir, however, we need to strike through his howling error next time out at Musselburgh where he unseated. And that’s what I’ll do.
Stepping away from Grade 1 territory for a moment, those who have read the previews for earlier days will have noted that I've been pursuing Cotton Mill across Prestbury Park with the blind compulsion of a Royal stalker. It seems now that the County Hurdle is to be his intended target and the 9-1 I have secured about him is a fraction of the price I could have had last week. NRNBs offer precious little value opportunities at the best of times and here is some that I have missed through distraction and preoccupation. Poor. Still, I like his chances on the basis of his showing in the Betfair Hurdle and a fair handicap mark here.
Forgotten Voice was visually impressive on Saturday and given good ground will surely go well here. A more truly run race may not play to his speed strengths though. There are too many other multiple entries to be firm about shouts at bigger prices, but I’ll be watching closely to see where the likes of Mr Watson (quirky but talented and well weighted here), Native Gallery (off for nearly a year, but fits the profile) and Ifandbutwhynot (track form and a willing attitude) end up.
Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle
Another race where I claim to have some cast-iron pedigree, having backed four winners in the eight runnings of this race. To be fair, only Nenuphar Collonges landed the race at anything like reasonable odds. Here, Our Vinnie comes as tough as biltong, and with an attitude to warm the most frazzled of Festival spirits. That’s just what is needed. Outclassed by Pont Alexandre over an inadequate 2 ½ miles over Christmas, he has some form on better ground, will love the trip and is worth a play at 16-1 e-w.
Ballycasey has to be feared simply because he’s another unexposed Mullins horse who looks a million dollars winning dibbly-dobbly races that offer scanty clues about how good they really are. It’s hard not to like what At Fishers Cross has done. The grinding down of The New One at Cheltenham was visually impressive. Soft ground will be important to him. Utopie Des Bordes didn’t do enough for me to justify prices here of 8-1 in beating She Ranks Me in a mares event over half a mile shorter last month, when also receiving weight. She’s entitled to come on for that run, but I don’t know if she’ll have the balls for this. Road To Riches seems to lack a bit of experience, which just might be needed here and his jumping could come under pressure. African Gold would be interesting if sent this way, but he seems to have handicaps on his agenda, as does Gevrey Chambertin who brings a tall reputation and short prices into 5 races. His trainer’s Dad’s conditionals race seems most likely for the full brother to Grand Crus.
Another open renewal. And a fascinating clash in prospect now that the old guard have moved over – Imperial Commander’s (regrettable) withdrawal this week confirms that. I nailed my colours to the Silviniaco Conti mast at 8-1 before his Denman Chase win. He ticks all the boxes for me and it’s interesting that Sir Des Champs’ victory over Flemenstar the same weekend was much more loudly trumpeted. Despite the latter being found to be lame, the Gold Cup market still hardened in favour of the Willie Mullins inmate. I went back to look at the Denman Chase to see what I was missing. I can’t see it. He travels strongly in his races, stays, jumps neatly, straight as a dye and ground conditions are not a deal breaker. He has won at Wetherby (an undulating track with stiff fences) and Newbury (a left handed track), so I don’t really buy the ‘hasn’t done it at HQ’ argument. So I’ve gone in again at 4-1. It’s the only thing to do. I fear Bob’s Worth the most, however. The great grinder will eat up this track and there’s a chance he will out stay Conti. Long Run’s jumping errors leave him there for the taking (Yogi Breisner’s been in town again). First Lieutenant I like a lot round here, but I’m hoping he heads to the Ryanair. I can’t see anything else getting in to it. Captain Chris may stay on late, but his jumping erratic.
Foxhunters, Conditional Jockeys Hurdle, Grand Annual
The Foxhunters will be a minimum stakes race and it is not something I have a view on right now. I see that the Martin Pipe Conditionals Hurdle has a mere 196 entries to wade through. I’m not going there. How much quality has this race really added to the Festival? Is this the place for a debate about the return to a three-dayer? Possibly not. The Grand Annual I do like however, and will be getting stuck in with alacrity come the day. It is also the final race in our local Fantasy Festival which becomes such a blood and thunder preoccupation on the last day. Things will be very, very messy by 5.20pm on Friday afternoon.
It is almost upon us. So close I can smell the burgers. Good luck if you are playing. You will need it.