Saturday, 18 October 2014

A right good go

I was ready to bemoan the quality of Champions Day and hark back, again, to the balance of the pre-2011 Champions Stakes fixture that also boasted the Cesarewitch and the Dewhurst. Not least since the defections of Australia, Kingman and The Grey Gatsby had taken some gloss off the day.

But I’ve been around that particular nostalgic hamster wheel before. We are where we are. I have warmed to the Qipco series, even though some of the divisions are a little thin. Overall, the programme deserves this end-of-season climax. If only the weather would oblige a little more often.

So what of the quality of the racing? In this well thought out piece, Jamie Lynch of Timeform poses the question “is British Champions Day the best laid plan?” and answers with, “under the circumstances, yes. It might not do what it says on the tin and, related, it probably doesn't have the right name, but as a day, a draw and a definition for British racing it's a work-in-progress that's both working and in progress.”

This will be the richest day’s racing ever hosted in Britain. Churlish then to sit on my hands. Particularly as I appear to be plunging down the vertiginous slopes of a punting trench the depth of the Marianas trench. I’ve forgotten what a winner feels like.

Yesterday, the latest episode in a pattern of choking muggings unfolded when Present View chucked away a winning position by slamming into the last hurdle at Cheltenham. The vital momentum he sacrificed gave Sam Twiston-Davies aboard Vicente all the encouragement he needed. Not for the first time in this fledgling season that Twiston-Davies has impressed from an apparently forlorn position. It could be a big year for the carrot-topped stable jockey to the champion trainer.

Back to the flat then, for the season showstopper. Only one way to combat a losing streak. Stand square-jawed and resilient in the face of adversity and get stuck in. I’m going to give the card a right good go.

1.45 – Long Distance Cup
At 5-2, I’m happy with Leading Light. He’s by far the best horse in the field and should go as well as anything on the ground. It’s unlikely that Joseph O’Brien will ride as bad a race again as he did in the Irish St Leger (although he also rode a shocker the day before aboard Australia when he was comprehensively out-ridden by Ryan Moore piloting The Grey Gatsby). Forgotten Rules seems short on the basis of what he’s achieved, but will like the ground. I like Pallasator on this ground too.

2.20 – Sprint Stakes
I’m a big fan of G Force. He had been unlucky in running over a couple of good 5f races before the step up to 6f made all the difference in the Haydock Sprint Cup. There is reason to believe he won’t be massively inconvenienced by the ground. I can’t abandon him now (even if 7-2 is tight enough) although others may go better through the slop: Gordon Lord Byron, for instance, whilst some of the other mudlarks look too far out of form: Maarek and Jack Dexter. Viztoria looks more of a threat, as does Eton Forever. I’m relying on the class of O’Meara’s charge to get him home.

2.55 – Fillies & Mares
This has a wide open feel about it. At the prices, I like Cubanita, who seemed to run well at Newbury last time after a break and has Group winning form on heavy. That could be key, with question marks about the others, though it will need a career best from the Ralph Beckett inmate to take it.

3.30 – Queen Elizabeth II Stake
The first of the day’s two super-big races and it is a really good one. 2000 Guineas winner Night of Thunder should be popular with ground conditions likely to suit and a good run last time out in France. There are others I want to back though and I’m struggling to pin it down. Custom Cut still looks massively progressive and has a great attitude, serving up the big questions from the front. Integral won her last race that way too. Take out her poor performance in Deauville when in-season and she too looks a serious improver. A doubt might be around her ability to dominate against the chaps and with others who like to cut out the pace.  I really like Tullius on this ground as well, but this is tough and may be beyond him. Graphic is almost certainly out of his depth, but this is so, so his ground and at silly prices I’ll take a place only bet. Tough call, but the win wedge piles on Custom Cut on the basis of his visually impressive win at Newmarket.

4.05 – Champion Stakes
And so to the day’s biggest race, a mere £¾m to the winner. Almost a no bet race, though. Everything seems to be in place for the wonderful Cirrus Des Aigles who comes here in imperious form and on a surface that will suit. I don’t like the price, of course, and I may just have a small interest in Ruler Of The World instead. He ran well in this last year and is arguably better over 10f than 12f. Not convinced about the ground, but at a best-priced 8-1 I’ll have a nibble.

I haven’t even mentioned the decent card at Cheltenham. Changing of the seasons. I’ll probably have a right good go over there too.

Sunday, 12 October 2014


All that late Summer flat smash-and grab-seems like a long time ago. Tiggy Wiggy, G Force, Nafaqa. Ah, splendid stuff. Now in the fag end of the season, confidence has leached away like a Tory safe-seat majority. The list horses are dispiritingly uncompetitive and I’ve inevitably hung on to some for too long. Over-a-cliff-itis. My Achilles heel. A twitter compatriot made me laugh the other day when he said his "nag-me’s" were coming through and now all he needed to do was work out why he had put them in there in the first place. I know the feeling.

Outside the mini-projects that keep me interested throughout the flat, I’m finding that I’m off the pace in the big handicaps too; and properly struggling in the graded pool. Arc weekend was a washout in punting terms.

Though it’s hard to feel anything other than warm, moist-eyed, tingly emotions at the performance of Treve in the big one. The style of her swooping victory was sensation enough, without the stellar training achievement provided by the resilient, faithful Criquette Head-Maarek. Treve’s fragile season has been well documented and to peak a horse in this manner is special. You want icing on the cake? Well, in a positively received u-turn for which Mssrs Miliband, Cameron or Clegg would willingly have pawned their black hearts, the Treve team decided to keep the wonder mare in training next season.

So any doubts about the horse’s constitution or concerns around the reported ‘kissing spine’ can, we assume, be managed through a careful training programme. The prospect of Treve returning to Longchamp in October 2015 at five is proper dreamweaver territory. A prospect to entice, though to treat with the requisite caution, of course. Lots of water to pass under the bridge, etc., etc

The only possible loser is stud-stallion Dubawi who will have to wait another year before he girds his loins before Al Shaqab’s pride and joy. I imagine he will have other business to keep him out of mischief in the meantime.

That this decision is the exception rather than the rule for the finest flat performers is a source of constant angst amongst racing fans. It is precisely the stud fees commanded by the likes of Dubawi, as well as the prospect of lucrative broodmare offspring, that curtails many a glittering career. Coolmore fees for their top-rated stallions have barely dropped from pre-recession levels; and the investment required for a pop of Galileo is not even publicly declared.

I suspect this is an overly simplistic, reactionary view. I’m intrigued by the economics and statistics around this and plan to explore a bit further. At least that way I’ll have less time for daft bets. Because I’m making a ham-fisted start to the jumps campaign too.

I’ve dabbled ineffectively in a couple of half-decent races at Chepstow, Newton Abbot and Market Rasen to little effect. Maybe I should take comfort from the fact that Taquin Du Seuil looked as far off the pace as me on Friday in Devon. He’ll be back once he loses some condition. Let’s hope the same can be said for me.

The early days of the jumps season are increasingly phoney war territory. Years ago, I had a very fixed view that Tipperary’s decent card in early October marked the launch point. The Tipperary Hurdle – now the Istabraq Hurdle – was the first meaningful Grade 1 of the Autumn and it traditionally threw up Champion Hurdle contenders. Istabraq, of course, farmed it, and others to go on and figure prominently at Cheltenham were Back In Front, Harchibald and Intersky Falcon.

The race was down-classed to a Grade 2 in 2006, Since then, Go Native has been the only winner to emerge as a genuine Champion Hurdle candidate. That was in 2009. This year’s renewal lacked any strength in depth. Rebel Fitz is a useful horse, but he’s unlikely to be in the Champion Hurdle mix next March. A sign of the changing times, though Ireland still presents the best racing over the obstacles this time of year. There is the odd decent race over this side of the Irish Sea but the quality doesn’t really ramp up until the last couple of weeks in October.

Nevertheless, a couple of my 40 follow chaps and chapesses are out today at Ffos Las. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Fergal O’Brien’s The Govaness in the maiden hurdle. Plenty of interest to be gleaned from low profile Autumn cards, despite the paucity of top class action.

Oh, and a quick explanatory PS. Anyone who read my post about the Champion Hurdle earlier this week might have detected an slight variation from the usual Mug Punting style. Truth is I took the King’s Shilling and succumbed to the offer of an advertising fee in return for an article with links to a well-known bookmaker. (Other bookmakers are available…) Well, one has to earn a crust somewhere along the line. Not sure I’ll be repeating the experiment though. 

Friday, 10 October 2014

2015 Champion Hurdle

The 2015 Cheltenham Festival is now just five months away and the excitement for this showpiece of the national hunt season is already starting to build. It will all begin on March 10th and the highlight of day one is undoubtedly the Champion Hurdle. Run at a ferocious clip over a trip of two miles, this grade 1 race is open to horses aged four years and upwards, and is run on Cheltenham’s Old Course.

Being the premier hurdle race of the season, this event attracts the very best hurdlers from the UK and Ireland, and has been won by some real legends of the sport down the years. Notable Champion Hurdle winners include Istabraq, See You Then, Persian War and Sea Pigeon to name but a few. The Jessica Harrington trained Jezki will arrive in Prestbury Park as the defending champion following his impressive victory in the 2014 renewal, when seeing off both My Tent Or Yours and The New One.

The layers at Betfair have put the Irish raider in as their 6/1third favourite behind the unlucky in running The New One, and exciting youngster Faugheen. Jezki confirmed his improvement by beating Hurricane Fly comfortably two months after the Festival and looks set to make a bold attempt at successfully retaining his crown.

The NigelTwiston-Davies trained The New One is the current favourite for next year’s Champion Hurdle, with odds of 9/2 currently available on the exchange at The six year old son of King’s Theatre was particularly unlucky when being badly hampered during the early part of the 2014 Champion Hurdle and following that interference, his chance looked to have gone completely. However, The New One showed just what a tough and talented horse he is by battling his way back through the field and using his powerful turn of foot to take third spot in the race. A previous Festival winner in 2013, The New One gained compensation for his defeat at Aintree in the Doom Bar Hurdle where he coped with the step up to two mile four furlongs, but was made to fight all the way to the line by 2012 Champion Hurdle winner Rock On Ruby. Harry Fry’s horse looks very unlikely to try and recapture his Champion Hurdle crown next year and is available at odds of over 100/1 for small money at Betfair.

Arguably the biggest danger to The New One’s bid to win the Champion Hurdle will come from the Willie Mullins trained Faugheen. Unbeaten in his six career starts to date, Faugheen is one of the most exciting hurdlers to be seen for many years and this horse has the potential to dominate the Champion Hurdle for many years to come. The manner of this horse’s victories in both the Neptune Hurdle at Cheltenham as well as the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown suggest that Faugheen is a very special thoroughbred indeed. At last year’s Cheltenham Festival, Faugheen had any amount in hand when accounting for a field of top class novices and he was even more impressive at Punchestown, with his nearest rival a full twelve lengths away.

The layers on the Betfair betting exchange are not prepared to go any bigger than 5/1 about this horse and I can completely understand why that is the case. It will be interesting to see where Willie Mullins chooses to send Faugheen for his seasonal debut, but another top class display could well see the horse’s Champion Hurdle price shrink further. Punters may do well to take the 5/1 available at Betfair now.