Bet365 Gold Cup Preview

The curtain closes on big Saturday handicaps in this UK jumps season with the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown Park – so let’s see if we can find a winner to round off the year.

While it’s not quite as prestigious as in its former guise as the ‘Whitbread’, this 3m5f test is a terrific race. The winner needs: tactical speed, because Sandown can be tight when there are 20 runners, and it’s generally run on properly good ground; stamina, of course, because any horse that’s not a proper stayer will get found out over this extended trip with a stiff uphill finish; and proven jumping ability, because taking the infamous railway fences in the midst of a helter-skelter handicap isn’t for the faint-hearted.

What the winner doesn’t need is out-and-out class: since the mighty Desert Orchid won in 1988, 25 of the 30 winners have carried less than 11 stone. Looking at the last five years in more detail, in case the nature of the race has changed recently (like the Grand National), the picture is very similar. It’s easier to use horses’ official ratings rather than their weights to do this, and the picture is clear: horses rated 145 and under outperform the rest.

Weights

That means that the top five in the weights of Beware The Bear, Rock The Kasbah and Present Man can be overlooked for betting purposes. Of those, Rock The Kasbah & Present Man are hardest to ignore given they were second and third respectively in this race last year and both get to race off only three pounds higher this time around, but there should be more likely winners lurking lower in the weights.

In many of these big-money handicap chases, it’s a distinct advantage for trainers to have targeted the race, but perhaps not here. This is probably because the race is the final winning chance of the season; if you’re wrong as a trainer, or if your horse is unlucky in running, there’s no opportunity to put things right for six months. It’s clear from the statistics that it’s a positive to be match-fit, but not overcooked.

Season Runs

Having said that, all this year’s entries have had between three and seven runs this season, although with both West Approach and Flying Angel having already run seven times this term, they might not be at their absolute peak, and should be approached with caution. The latter is tricky to pass over given that he seems fairly well in at his peak, but we can’t have a bet on every horse in the race!

What about the career profile of horses who run well here? Last year’s winner Step Back was very much an outlier, being a novice with only three runs to his name. In fact, only 2 of the last 20 horses in total have had fewer than seven chase starts, meaning that novices and inexperienced chasers would need to be long prices in the betting to be worth following.

Chase Career Runs

Therefore while Talkischeap, Give Me A Copper and Just A Sting all have obvious claims, their short prices mean they don’t represent value in the market. Prime Venture is also probably too inexperienced – and won’t handle the quick ground.

That leaves a shortlist of Joe Farrell, Step Back, Rolling Dylan, Vyta Du Roc, The Young Master and Le Reve to look at in more detail in order to choose our selection(s). Rathlin Rose just shouldn’t be good enough to be getting involved here, even though Sandown is his favourite track.

Screen Shot 2019-04-27 at 09.51.43

The final four columns of the summary above show: horses’ peak career chase RPR and the difference between that and their current OR; and horses’ peak chase RPR this season, and the difference between that and their current OR.

The latter is used to identify horses hopelessly out of form, and Vyta Du Roc certainly fits that description, with his three runs this season PU, PU, 7th. It would be a surprise if he ran well. Step Back is a much more complex case. The defending champion has been average at best this season, running below par in handicaps at Chepstow and Warwick, but he has consistently struggled in his career with going left-handed, and so perhaps those runs can be overlooked. Of more concern is whether he has recovered sufficiently from a bold front-running show in the Grand National, where he was only pulled up after the Canal Turn on the second circuit. He jumped wildly right round Aintree, and Sara Bradstock suspected he had a foot issue, something he has suffered before. If he were at long odds, he would certainly be worth a bet, because he was so magnificent last year, but there are too many negatives to take a short enough price.

Another who may have gone too far in the Grand National to have recovered for another marathon test is Joe Farrell, who was only pulled up two fences from home.

Given the non-runners, that leaves us with just three:

THE YOUNG MASTER – 25 career chase runs (and 46 runs in rules races!) would suggest that this 10-year-old is gone at the game. He started the season rated just 130, and presumably a couple of poor races away from retirement, but he won back-to-back handicaps at Chepstow and Cheltenham, and then ran a terrific race to be third in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham. He won this race in 2016 off a mark of 148, meaning that if he is anywhere close to his best, a mark of 142 is workable.

ROLLING DYLAN – As a progressive second season chaser, he has a lovely profile for this, and he’s been on my radar for a race of this type ever since an impressive staying-on third in a big Cheltenham handicap in December. His last run over 3m4f at Taunton was excellent off top weight, proving he’s in good nick. The ground should be fine, but the only concern is no proven Sandown form in the book, although he goes right-handed no problem.

LE REVE – You’d have got long odds on this 11-year-old being on the shortlist after an uninspiring 8th place in the Veterans’ Final in January off a mark of 135, but since then Lucy Wadham has managed to reignite the spark in this gutsy horse. He’s won twice since then, at Lingfield and Sandown, and with Maxime Tissier taking off five pounds, it doesn’t matter that he’s slightly out of the main handicap. If he arrives on a going day, he should have a decent chance, given he was 3rd in this race in 2015 off a lofty mark of 147.

 

Recommended Bets:

Rolling Dylan – 1pt e/w 20/1 (5 places)

Le Reve – 0.5pts e/w 20/1 (5 places)

The Young Master – 1pt win 9/1 BOG

Scottish Grand National 2019 Preview

In April, Grand Nationals come thick and fast. After Tiger Roll’s extraordinary victory at Aintree last Saturday, it’s the turn of Ayr to host its own Grand National this weekend. The Scottish version can’t quite match the prize money or prestige of its English equivalent, but it’s still an exceptionally competitive handicap in its own right, and one that trainers can target with superb stayers perhaps not quite up to the rigours of winning a modern Aintree National.

Ayr could barely be more different from Aintree: it’s a tight, undulating, one-and-a-half mile oval. That makes the profile of winners slightly unusual for a ‘National’: they obviously need to be proper stayers, because they need to finish the marathon four-mile trip strongly, but they also must have tactical speed in order to hold their position around the tight bends. As it’s a race that tends to take place on genuinely good ground, bearing this ‘speed’ angle in mind is important – and can potentially lead to finding some value.

Beware The Bear will be bearing top weight, running off his newly lofty mark of 160 after winning the Ultima at Cheltenham. He’s undoubtedly a very good horse, but as a nine-year-old it seems likely that he’s reached the ceiling of his improvement, and to win such a competitive race of such a high mark, he’d have to be a graded horse in waiting, similar to Frodon or Aso for example. I’m not convinced that’s the case.

The Ultima is a significant form line for this race. In second place was major Aintree Grand National fancy Vintage Clouds, who fell at the first in Liverpool. Given he was such a short price for the superior race, he should have every chance at Ayr, especially when his third in last year’s Scottish Grand National is taken into account. But it’s not quite that simple: that third place was achieved off a mark of 141, and while he was able to run off 144 at Aintree, he now has to run off his ‘true’ rating of 149 at Ayr. Although he only shoulders 11-1, that means he’s no shoo-in for this contest. But his profile contains the key requirements of proven staying form combined with a speedier edge, as well as that bonus of proven course form. He is the standard against which other runners have to be judged.

Also in the Ultima were Big River (4th) and Sizing Codelco (PU). The latter is now 10-years-old, was only 8th in this race last year off 150 (with Paul O’Brien taking off five pounds), and runs off 152 this time with no form in the book. He seems to have little chance, whereas the former is of significant interest based on that Ultima run, where he stayed on strongly up the hill and gave the impression he wanted a longer trip to be seen to full effect. However, the five best RPRs of his career have all come on heavy or soft ground, and with good ground in prospect at Ayr, he looks to have been overbet.

Dingo Dollar does enjoy good ground. Alan King’s horse is just seven, so likely to still be progressing, and was a good second at Ayr last April in the three-mile novice chase. He has since been third in the Ladbroke Trophy off 148, then ran a poor race in a Doncaster handicap, but showed his health with a second place back at Doncaster in March. That recent average form means he runs off 147, which looks more than workable. He should be a major player if he is on his peak form, although the trip is unknown.

Crosshue Boy was the horse to beat Dingo Dollar at Ayr last April, but he had 17lbs in hand that day to get up by a length; he only has five pounds to play with this time. He’s been targeted at this race all season, something confirmed by his trainer Sean Doyle, but even so, the relative prices of the two contenders seem lopsided, with Dingo Dollar having proven his quality more than once versus a horse who’s quality has to be taken on trust.

Crosspark has certainly proved his credentials with a gutsy win over four miles at Newcastle in the Eider Chase. He was previously third in a good handicap at Warwick, but both those performances came off a rating of 135, and he will now run off 142. As a nine-year-old, is it fair to assume he’s still progressive to such a degree that this competitive handicap remains within his grasp? The aforementioned “good handicap at Warwick” was won in January by Impulsive Star off 133, and he now runs off 139, so similar concerns apply to Sam Waley-Cohen’s mount, especially after a brutal run in the Cheltenham four-miler. Fourth in that Warwick race was Carole’s Destrier, who won at Newbury in March and in so doing also went up the handicap from a generous-looking 137 to a tough mark of 143.

The strongly-supported Cloth Cap fell at Ayr last April – not a good sign – and has been winning class 3 and class 4 handicaps this term for Jonjo O’Neill, going up 13lbs in the process. His short price is speculative. Another younger and progressive runner is Geronimo, who would be running from two pounds out of the handicap, but Rachael McDonald will claim five pounds to negate that disadvantage. He’s risen 22lbs in the handicap this season from just four runs, and hasn’t competed in a big race such as this before. With so many other classier and proven contenders to choose from, he can also be passed over as poor value.

Blue Flight is another progressive novice in the line-up, and arrives at Ayr in top form with three wins and a second this calendar year. The best of those performances was victory over Black Corton on almost level terms at Kelso, but he’s up 16lbs in the handicap since then, putting him near the top of the weights. There are also doubts about a six-year-old being pitched into his first major race against more seasoned rivals. Nigel Twiston-Davies’ other fancied runner is the veteran Cogry, pulled up in last year’s renewal. On his day, Cogry is a doughty and tough competitor, but this mark of 140 seems too high to win from. Twiston-Davies also saddles Arthur’s Gift, who has a lot to do off 137.

Red Infantry was sent off 14/1 for the valuable Grand National trial at Haydock when rated 142, and runs at Ayr off 140. The form of that race hasn’t worked out too well since, but his second in the London National at Sandown over 3m5f showed that he should stay the 4m trip. Market support for Ian Williams’ runner would be intriguing, but on pure form he can be passed over.

Chidswell gave a nine-length beating to Dingo Dollar at Doncaster, and demands respect as a result, but he’s up 7lbs for that win, which should remove him from considerations. The other contender who merits a closer look is the staying-chase veteran Mysteree, beaten only a neck by Crosspark in the Eider. At 11-years-old, however, it would have to be a weaker renewal than this for him to win.

Skipthecuddles looks to have a colossal mark based on very little, and would have to improve significantly to get involved, while Kingswell Theatre, Brian Boranha and Takingrisks can’t be backed with any confidence based on their form. Other runners will race from out of the handicap, and none have overwhelmingly obvious claims that overturn this disadvantage. Chic Name did beat the 2018 Scottish Grand National winner Joe Farrell at Newbury recently, but he will carry an entire stone more at Ayr, and that will make a repeat victory unlikely.

 

Recommended Bet

Truthfully, this isn’t a vintage renewal of the Scottish Grand National. There are several dark horses in the race who boast progressive form as novices, and of course one may very well have several pounds in hand, but none are obviously well-in based on what they’ve produced on the track. Contenders with proven form in the book are all higher than their habitual winning marks, and that may mean that the classy VINTAGE CLOUDS is still comparably well-handicapped despite having to run off his true rating. Beware The Bear’s burden allows Sue Smith’s horse to shoulder just 11-1, and as he’s just five points shorter to win at Ayr than he was at Aintree, there is still juice in his price.

Vintage Clouds 2pts e/w at 9/1 (6 places only – SkyBet, Ladbrokes, Hills)

Cheltenham Reflections: Focus On The Handicaps, and The Drugs Don’t Work

  1. Ante-Post Betting Can Offer Good Value (No Matter Who Says Otherwise)

It seems to have become accepted as fact that “there’s no point in betting ante-post any more” – but that’s simply not true. If you are lucky enough to have open and largely unrestricted accounts with several bookies – as I am, largely due to an abysmally sloppy spell of betting about four years ago – then there was a perfectly decent variety of prices and betting terms available for ante-post bets on the Festival. Some bookies even took the old-fashioned approach of having an opinion, a good example being Paddy Power’s 33/1 NRNB on Bristol de Mai in the Gold Cup. Thanks gents. An equally stand-out instance of blatant long-term value was provided by Tiger Roll, who was available with several firms at 5/1 after his defeat under top weight at Cheltenham in November.

Of course, several of my ante-post wagers were lost due to horses being unfit to race in March – I’m still frustrated by the almost comically unlucky circumstances of the injury to Eldorado Allen – but that risk should be priced in to your betting. I have no sympathy for lost bets due to horse taking up an alternative engagement or skipping the festival: if you bet before any NRNB is available, weighing up the horse’s target is a key part of whether the price is value; if you choose not to take a smaller NRNB price once the option is there, then again, that should form part of your value consideration.

 

  1. Value Is King (It’s Not Always The Bets You’re Excited About That Work Out)

If you’re even a semi-regular gambler, then it should be obvious to you that the game is finding value, not necessarily finding winners, although a quick look at Twitter confirms that this concept remains elusive to a depressingly large number of people. I was reminded of this by getting totally unexpected returns from a couple of bets I’d struck at small stakes during the season. My answer to the question “what is your stupidest open ante-post bet?” in the pub in Painswick on the Monday night of festival week didn’t require much thought: Sam Spinner. Everybody laughed, including me. As we know, on the day I was still laughing, but this time with delight! The proven Grade One performer, running in a weaker renewal than last year (when he was sent off favourite), finally ran back to his form after a strange season. In the cold light of day, that bet was obviously good value.

Equally, even though I lost a fair chunk on him, I wouldn’t take back my bets on Pic d’Orhy in the Triumph. A proven Grade One performer in France, he looked to be facing only one serious rival in terms of outright ability (Sir Erec), is trained by a genius at bringing French horses straight onto a UK racecourse (Paul Nicholls), and yet was available at 20/1+ in January and February. He was dreadful on the day, but I maintain that bets placed at 22/1 and 25/1 weren’t poor bets.

Sometimes prices are just wrong on all objective evidence. Keep taking those prices, and things will work out in the end.

 

  1. The Handicaps Are Well Worth The Effort

Repeat after me: Cheltenham handicaps are not ‘impossible’ or ‘unbelievably competitive’. In fact, they ought to be a punter’s dream: there are great place terms on offer, a betting-friendly over-round online, and every horse in the field is trying to win.

My ante-post handicap betting didn’t work out this year – although I was already counting my Éclair de Beaufeu money on the turn for home! – but there’s always at least one winner to be found in the open handicaps during the week. Any Second Now obliged in the Kim Muir for me this year, and I’m not going to call myself a judge for finding him, as it was relatively obvious. The Pertemps didn’t offer too many surprises either, although I didn’t back the winner. And the Plate was so predictable that I managed to persuade myself into the first successful reverse forecast of my life!

I’m not saying all of this to big myself up – I only broke even across the week, which given the offers available and effort put in, is pathetic and proof I’m no judge – but I met a number of people during the week insisting many of the handicaps were a ‘lottery’. Can I play a lottery that’s this predictable please?!

 

  1. Betting During The Week Itself Requires Iron-Willed Discipline (And Fewer Pints Of Guinness)

I go the Festival to enjoy myself, and this can lead to a fairly, ahem, enthusiastic Guinness intake during the four days on-course, especially in the unlikely event of me having a decent winner. This means that when I’ve tallied everything up, I’ll have lost money on bets placed during the week itself, versus having made a profit on ante-post betting. I’ve now done this five years in a row.

My sloppy betting on course is due entirely to my inner monologue which, drunk on both alcohol and Cheltenham adrenaline, and overloaded with information, gives me thoughts like the following:

  • “Last year’s Coral Cup is looking amazing…maybe I’d better have some money on Bleu Berry [but not William Henry because he’s done nothing this season]”
  • “I’ve got ample ante-post on Pic d’Orhy at 22s and 25s, so why NOT go in again on the day at 14s?”
  • “Glen Forsa cannot lose this Arkle if he turns up. A few bets won’t cut it. I need to absolutely smash this [totally unproven at the top level, English] horse”
  • “Only having one horse in the Albert Bartlett just won’t do. I should pick another one [in the race I have never ever had a place] and punt way too much on that”
  • “Yes, I know I liked the look of him, and I know I even wrote than on the blog, and I know Duc Des Genievres has just totally franked his form and proved he’s a graded horse in a handicap…but there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY I’m backing A Plus Tard at that short a price”

I could go on. Suffice to say, this nonsense does not do wonders for my P&L.

 

  1. Pay More Attention To Collateral Form

The example I’ve just mentioned – A Plus Tard hosing up in the Close Brothers – should serve as yet another reminder that despite all the bells and whistles, and special Cheltenham trends, form is still king. If a horse’s form is franked during the week itself, that’s a good thing. If the price is still there, that’s an even better thing. Be flexible, be willing to change your thinking, and back the horses whose form is being proven as strong. I forget this every year, turning up to Cheltenham with my opinions already set in stone at the beginning of the week.

 

  1. Multiples Are A Mug’s Bet

Every year I try to resist the siren call of the muggy multiple, and then every year I get lured in and dash myself on the trixie-and-yankee-shaped rocks. Repeat after me: Cheltenham is incredibly competitive, and it’s hard enough to find a single winner, let alone predict a precise combination of winners.

My failure this year was particularly noteworthy, because it was actually based on a solid logical premise – or so I thought. I had picked out the Champion Hurdle as my starting point, due to my very strong opinion that Laurina had no chance of winning the race, even if she ran at her best. As Laurina’s odds shortened, I placed various trixies and yankees based entirely around Buveur d’Air and Apple’s Jade as the ‘banker’ leg – because with Laurina out of the picture, one of the two was certain to win. We all know what happened next: I was barely able to watch the second mile of the race, with Buveur d’Air down and Apple’s Jade already well beaten. Laurina’s bang average performance wasn’t much of a consolation given the siren’s call had basically bankrupted me yet again.

Bookies base their whole business model around what they call “exotics”, as that’s where all their money is made. Don’t do doubles, kids: leave the accas to the one-bet-a-week Ladbrokes lads.

 

  1. Play To Your Strengths

I have a good record over the years in big-money handicaps. I have a distinctly average record in open Grade Ones. Yet I continue to bet more on the Grade Ones than the handicaps. Why? Why, just because the average punter prefers to bet bigger on the championship races, should I follow suit?

Even more bafflingly, what made me suddenly decide I was a brilliant judge of juveniles this season? I know next to nothing about pedigrees, I’m not a good paddock judge, and I don’t have contacts in the game. Why I am lumping on horses ante-post for the Triumph? What possesses me to do that?

And, for the love of God, WHY DO I CONTINUE TO BET ON THE MARES NOVICES AND THE ALBERT BARTLETT?

Next year, I’m going to play to my strengths. We all have them, so be honest with yourself, and play to yours too.

 

  1. Cheltenham Form In The Book Is Invaluable In The Handicaps – Never Ever Forget It

Of course we all know this, but it was proven yet again this year. Here’s some examples, and there may be a few more I’ve forgotten:

Ultima Chase: Beware The Bear (4th Ultima 2018)

Coral Cup: William Henry at 28/1 (4th Coral Cup 2018)

Brown Advisory Plate: Siruh Du Lac & Janika (1st and 2nd over C&D earlier in the season), Spiritofthegames (5th 2018 County Hurdle)

Grand Annual: Croco Bay at 66/1 (5th 2017 Grand Annual)

 

  1. And Finally…The Jockey Club Needs A Reality Check (The Drugs Don’t Work, Kids)

Racecourse owners and administrators need a wake-up call: drug use on course is rife from Tuesday to Thursday, and it reaches another level entirely on Friday. It’s not a few leads sneaking in the odd bit of coke; it’s a very significant percentage of the crowd whose every thought during the day is focussed on how and where they can do yet another line.

Now, I’m not a reactionary, by any means: I’m young(ish) and I don’t have any particular objection to other people deciding to do drugs, apart from the fact that in the case of cocaine, it turns them into an interminable arsehole for the duration of their high. But the level of drug-taking on course at Cheltenham on Friday has reached such a level that the experience for the small number of us who haven’t snorted half of Colombia’s GDP has become unpleasant.

The general atmosphere is tense, like a town-centre nightclub on a Saturday night, rather than friendly and inclusive, meaning you constantly wonder whether accidentally bumping into someone will start a fight. People don’t really bother to watch the racing, even the Gold Cup, and cheer horses falling if it gives their £5 bet a better chance. And trying to go to the toilet between races becomes an impossibility given the number of those queuing who want privacy for something other than seeing to their bodily functions.

While it was welcome to see a couple of sniffer dogs on duty this year, this token gesture doesn’t even scratch the surface of dealing with the problem. Either Cheltenham management needs to get serious about deterring drug use on-course, and employ a far, far higher number of dogs plus random searches, or it should accept the inevitable and adapt its facilities accordingly. There would need to be loads more toilets, and stewarded “quiet areas” within each stand where people who want to watch the racing can actually immerse themselves in the action without the constant background banter of people whose copious cocaine intake means they can’t possibly concentrate for five seconds, let alone five minutes.

I don’t think any of the posh older gents – and let’s be honest, they are posh older gents – running the racecourse have any idea of the scale of the problem. If it continues for another year or two, there won’t be any actual racing fans on course on the Friday – and that’s surely not what the sport wants for its blue riband event, is it?

Ante-Post Angle: County Hurdle

On first glance, the County looks like a punting minefield two weeks out: there are 90 entries, and the majority of those are young, unexposed horses who could have as much as a stone in hand on their official marks. But with some judicious rules applied, that minefield can be negotiated, leaving only a handful to consider in more depth. That doesn’t mean we’re certain to find the winner, of course – this race is just about the trickiest of all 28 at the Festival! – but we may be able to find some terrific value, and that’s what’s all-important.


Willie Mullins

Before identifying horses with appealing profiles, it’s critical to bear in mind that Irish trainers have a very strong recent record in this race, winning in 8 of the last 12 years, with one man to the fore: Willie Mullins. The Closutton-based genius clearly targets this prize, and his successful County runners don’t tend to fit into any trends boxes, so his entries demand a separate look:

Wicklow Brave (OR 153, 10yo) – won this race back in 2015 at 25/1 off a mark of 138. Has had an extraordinary career since, running in two Champion Hurdles and two Melbourne Cups for good measure! He was an eye-catching easy second last time in a Naas G3 hurdle over 2 miles…was that a prep run for this? Mullins won the County in 2017 with Arctic Fire off a massive mark of 158, so it’s not impossible. But he is 10 years old now, and seems to save his best for Punchestown these days.

Mr Adjudicator (149, 5) – a Mullins 5-year-old…sounds good. But he’s only raced once this season, and this would be his first race over hurdles in open company. That’s a tough ask off such a high mark.

Saglawy (148, 5) – this 5-year-old is of significantly more interest. Mullins thought so highly of him that he was sent to two Auteuil graded races in May & June, but he hated the very soft ground there. This season he has shown progression after his summer break, particularly in an eye-catching display in a valuable handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse, where he finished rapidly behind Wonder Laish (the current County favourite, who is as short as 10/1). He didn’t enjoy the soft ground last time out at Limerick, but that slightly disappointing run means the English handicapper has only raised him one pound from his Irish mark, meaning he would meet Wonder Laish on favourable terms at Cheltenham. Despite all of this, the market does seem to have missed him, and he’s available at 25/1 NRNB. That’s very appealing, but only if we remain confident of good ground in two weeks’ time.

Blazer (144, 8) – a chaser and shouldn’t run here.

Whiskey Sour (144, 6) – his third-place last year off 141 merits respect, but he’s had a baffling campaign this year, even by Mullins’ standards: he hasn’t run since November, when he was 9th in a Naas flat race, and he hasn’t seen a hurdle since August. Given the trainer we are talking about, he can’t be discounted, but he can’t be backed either.

Uradel (137, 8) – the shortest of these in the betting at just 14/1, so there’s no value to be had. He’s also 8-years-old, shown no signs of being progressive and has had one run over hurdles this season. He may well win, but two weeks from the off, at that price, this horse represents some of the worst value available in any race. No thanks.

Cut The Mustard (137, 7) – definitely can’t be ruled out once a line has been drawn through her sixth in the Mares’ Novices at Cheltenham last year, when she was in the race purely as pacemaker for Laurina, and succeeded in her job of putting off front-runner Maria’s Benefit. She looks progressive, with two second-place finishes in decent open handicaps this term showing she definitely can cut the mustard at this sort of level, but on a line through Wonder Laish, Saglawy looks better handicapped given the English handicapper has hiked her five pounds.

Dolciano Dici (134, 6) – has been chasing and shouldn’t run here.

In summary, then, while the man in the street has latched onto Uradel, he/she seems to have completely missed the more obvious – to my mind, anyway – appeals of SAGLAWY. Mullins has a phenomenal record with his ‘second horse’ in the County, rather than his short-priced one, and this progressive sort can repeat the trick. The note of caution is that he very clearly wants good ground, good-to-soft at absolute worst, and the forecast for next week is for a significant amount of rain. But with the ground currently good at Prestbury Park, it still seems likeliest that we won’t get genuinely soft ground. At the prices, he’s worth a speculative punt now with the NRNB concession.

 

The Profile Shortlist

Unlike in the case of, for instance the Coral Cup, there’s not a lot of value in going through each entry’s form in detail, because many of them have been prepared with today very much in mind. Instead the vast majority of County winners this century – pretty much all of them apart from Mullins’ freakish Arctic Fire in 2017 – fit into the following profile, which makes sense for a highly-competitive 2-mile handicap hurdle:

  1. Aged 7 or younger – and 5-y-o’s have a particularly strong record, with 10 winners from the last 20 renewals from well under 50% of the fields;
  2. Novice or second-season hurdler;
  3. Unexposed to the handicapper – running off an Official Rating of <=144;
  4.  Progressive – in first 4 last time out and best RPR within the last 3 runs, ideally (if we are being picky) on a left-handed track.

That doesn’t leave too many off workable-looking marks. Dream Du Grand Val is a promising sort from Nicky Henderson’s stable, but has only had three runs over hurdles and just doesn’t jump well enough to be of any further interest. Eragon De Chanay appeals as a 5-year-old with a good attitude who won last time out in fine style for Gary Moore, but he just doesn’t look progressive enough for such a hot race, and may be held by the handicapper’s grasp. The most below-the-radar horse who fits the profile is River Bray for Victor Dartnall, who was visually impressive in dispatching the highly-rated Dogon at Wincanton last time out. That run was his first after a wind operation, and his first wearing a tongue-tie; the combination of those factors clearly unlocked a major improvement with the six-year-old recording a career-best RPR of 130. But the handicapper hammered him 15 pounds for the win, which could prove his undoing in such a tight race. If he is a massive price on the day, and it’s good ground, he could be worth a small each way dabble, especially if Dogon has run well in the Fred Winter (or ‘The Boodles’ if you insist, you weirdo).

The horse who does tick all the boxes is ECLAIR DE BEAUFEU. He’s 5 years old (big tick), rated 136 (put up just 4lbs by the handicapper – tick), a novice (tick), finished 4th last time out (tick), and recorded his best RPR last time out on a left-handed track (double tick). He was given a very easy ride that day, which kept his mark intact. For a young horse, he’s experienced, with seven hurdle starts, including four in the kind of big field he’ll face at Cheltenham, and in my mind that’s a good thing. And more importantly than any of that, he looks like a good horse to the eye, with an economical style over the obstacles coupled with a tidy head carriage.

He’s also trained in Ireland by none other than Gordon Elliott, which can only be a bonus. Yet it’s fair to say that Elliott, and Eclair’s owner Gigginstown, see the County as a lower priority than some other handicaps – and that is a critical point to make at this juncture before we rush off to have a bet, because he’s also entered in four other races! By far the most likely, and interesting, of those other engagements is the Martin Pipe Hurdle, and that makes taking NRNB for the County absolutely essential. Elliott/Gigginstown already have the favourite for the Martin Pipe, a Cheltenham handicap which they do relentlessly target, in Dallas Des Pictons. But of Gigginstown’s other five entries, Eclair De Beaufeu looks to have the best claims: he’s in form, experienced, and shaped like another half a mile wouldn’t be an issue in his recent starts.

He’s a very likeable and progressive horse who seems to have been overlooked in favour of more spoken-about animals, and is too big a price for both races given that he’s not ground-dependent. If he does end up taking his chance at Cheltenham, given his trainer and his profile, he will rightly go off a lot shorter, so it’s advisable to take the price with the NRNB concession in both races now, and hope that Gigginstown see things in the same way.

 

Recommended Bets (1/3/19):

Saglawy – County Hurdle – 0.5pts win @ 25/1 NRNB (Bet 365, Skybet)

Eclair Du Beaufeu – County Hurdle – 1pt win @ 20/1 (must be NRNB)
Eclair Du Beaufeu – Martin Pipe Hurdle – 1pt win @ 25/1 (must be NRNB)

 

Ante-Post Angle: Close Brothers Novs’ Chase

With more and more firms going NRNB, and the handicap weights out today (Wednesday), these handicap previews barely qualify as ‘ante-post’ betting any more. Having said that, this is an excellent time to bet in the handicaps on the right horses: yes, all horses are priced defensively by the bookies, so 50/1 shots are priced at 33/1, but on the other hand there are plenty of horses which are likely to go off 10/1 or shorter available at 16s and 20s NRNB. It’s just about picking the right ones – easier said than done of course!

The Close Brothers is a race which very strongly fits this theory. Almost every horse is priced in the range of 12/1 to 33/1, yet a quick look at their form they have wildly different chances of winning. Furthermore, this handicap switched from 0-140 to 0-145 last year, and that makes it significantly easier to predict which horses will get a run. The lowest mark to race is consistently 137, so any horses rated below that can be discounted (taking into account any raises imposed on Irish horses by the English handicapper).

Given the nature of this race, the profile of the winners is logical:

  1. Finished in first 3 last time out (preferably in the first 2 unless it’s a top race) – i.e. they are proven to be in form;
  2. Have won a maximum of 2 races in the season – i.e. not overexposed, and had faced a setback along the way, meaning they ended up here but had the potential to be in the JLT instead.

And unlike some of the other handicaps, the market is good at identifying the best horses: 12/14 winners were from the front five in the market. Therefore a market check is advisable at this point: if the shortest five horses all have obvious claims, then actually there isn’t a lot of point in looking for value further down the list and we can wait for the day for a bet.

Some at the head of the market can be discounted from considerations immediately: Movewiththetimes‘ last three runs are PU/UR/F; Any Second Now was only 8th here last year so can’t be given a second chance; Whisperinthebreeze could only win an Irish handicap off a mark of 130 and is also entered by Jessie Harrington in the Kim Muir and 4-miler, suggesting she feels stamina is more of a strength than speed. Meanwhile the appealing mares Castafiore and Pravalaguna should go to the JLT to take advantage of their mares’ allowance, where both would be of major interest.

But there are three heavily-punted horses which merit a closer examination of their chances in the Close Brothers:

A Plus Tard – Has a good profile for this race, with one win from three starts, and ‘only’ up five pounds from his Irish mark, so still in with a shout. That win was a three-length success over Duc Des Genievres, but he was giving the older horse seven pounds that day, and showed real signs of greenness on the run-in. That inexperience is the big concern: he is only five years old and has run just eight times under rules. He is clearly very talented, but a 20+ runner handicap on the Old Course may not be for him.

Clondaw Castle – Again, the right profile with two wins from four this term and a win last time out. However to be so short in the betting (8/1 generally NRNB), he needs to be rock-solid, and the substance of his form leaves a fair amount to be desired to this observer. His only left-handed run saw him hammered at Newbury, and he has excelled on flat, quick tracks; also, his only visit to Prestbury Park (admittedly over hurdles) saw him post a dismal RPR of 106 last season. That’s too big a chance a take at the prices and he’s too short.

Campeador – Will no doubt be a warm order in the betting for this, with his prep run over hurdles screaming ‘JP McManus plot horse’, especially given that his hefty-seeming seven-pound rise in the weights still puts him below his official mark over hurdles. On paper, therefore, it’s all good…but Campeador’s jumping is iffy at best, and downright terrifying at its worst. I’d be very worried about him making one too many errors in the hurly-burly of this hot race, especially as he’s never jumped fences in a big field before.

 

In summary, then, none of those three can totally be ruled out – but there should still be some value elsewhere in horses whose equally obvious claims have yet to come to the attention of many. A thorough look through the list of the remaining entries brings me to the conclusion that this race isn’t as strong as some previous renewals, with the vast majority having fairly obvious weaknesses in their profile and/or form lines. That makes two British-trained seven-year-olds very appealing at the prices:

Highway One O One – Chris Gordon – OR 145
This tough campaigner has had six starts over fences already, which will stand him in good stead in the raucous surroundings of a Cheltenham handicap. He has only won twice, meaning his mark is low enough to get into this race, but the second of those wins is a serious bit of form, as he saw off Paul Nicholls’ Dolos in gutsy fashion at Carlisle. Since that victory, he has trailed behind horses right at the top of the Arkle betting, so lost nothing in defeat, and then ran a stormer at Cheltenham when narrowly denied by Kildisart, who has every chance in the JLT. That Cheltenham trial has produced three winners of this race already, and while he achieved a massive RPR of 151 for that run, the handicapper only put him up two pounds, allowing him to take his chance here. His trainer will have targeted at this, and smaller yards do very well in this race. In short, there’s nothing not to like, and 16/1 looks like almost double his true price.

Lough Derg Spirit – Nicky Henderson – OR 142
The Champion trainer has a good record in this race – 1 winner and 5 runners-up from 14 renewals – and this exciting Grech/Parkin-owned beast looks his best shout in 2019. He was awesome on chasing debut at Wetherby, but then couldn’t stay with Glen Forsa in an extremely strong race at Kempton on Boxing Day. The form of that race has worked out very well, and he never really got going – but in the Close Brothers, one below-par run is not a bad thing. Lough Derg Spirit bounced back to winning ways with a terrific spin around Ludlow and recorded an RPR of 145 in the process. That puts him right in the mix, and Nicky Henderson is sure to have him spot-on for his big day, as this is his only Cheltenham entry. It’s hard to see the market leaving him anywhere near 20/1 on the day.

 

Recommended Bets (27/2/19):

Highway One O One – 2pts win @ 16/1 (Bet365 NRNB, or Generally)
Lough Derg Spirit – 1pt win @ 20/1 (Bet365 NRNB, or Generally)

 

 

 

 

Ante-Post Angle: Brown Advisory Plate

The Plate is not as easy to whittle down to a shortlist as the Grand Annual, because winners of the race don’t tend to come from a clear profile. That said, there are a couple of things that the winners of this race do tend to have in common, and both of them make sense:

  1. Must have won at least a Class 3 chase between 2m3f and 2m5f – i.e. must have proven quality over fences;
  2. Must not have won a graded chase and must not be rated above 145 – i.e. must be on a workable mark with room for further progression. This is a hugely competitive race and it follows logically that only improvers tend to win this.

There are also some factors which are clear positives, particularly given results in the past decade or so, and would count in a horse’s favour:

  • Successful returners to the Festival – and indeed this race in particular – do particularly well here. Horses with proven Cheltenham form always tend to do well, of course, but that trend applies more than ever to this race, where proven ability in the hurly-burly of a 2.5 mile cavalry charge around the New Course is a big positive.
  • French-bred horses outrun their numbers here. I’m not sure if this is a statistical quirk, or whether this trend has some merit: their more precocious natures would seem suited by this test.
  • Certain trainers definitely target this race: Gordon Elliott (clearly, with 2 of the last 3 winners), but also David Pipe and Venetia Williams, both of whom have a declining record in other festival handicaps.

 

Profile Eye-Catchers

So, are there any horses with the right profile lurking out there at big prices?

Didero Vallis – Venetia Williams – OR 135
French-bred, Williams-trained and with the correct profile (won 1x C3 h’cap), this six-year-old jumps off the page. However his dire run last time out when stepped up in grade recently at Kempton is a big negative, and his opposition in his earlier season wins may not have been the best. His mark of 135 would not have got him into the race last year, and at a best price of only 33/1 there is better value out there.

Gun Digger – Gordon Elliott – OR 139 (IRE)
Gigginstown and Elliott have both won two out of the last three renewals, and they team up with this likeable seven-year-old. He has been campaigned in a fairly similar way to last season’s winner The Storyteller, with a couple of ‘sighters’ over this sort of trip over fences before a crack at a grade race. But whereas The Storyteller was only four lengths off classy Invitation Only in his Grade 3 run, Gun Digger was 31 lengths off the pace in his graded attempt. That evidence doesn’t suggest he is in the same class as his stablemate. Even though he will inevtiably shorten in the market, it could pay to wait to see the value of his form; he was a close second to Chris’s Dream, who will run in the RSA Chase. Of course, given this is Elliott/Gigginstown, Gun Digger has an array of other entries and may not turn up here at all. Another of Elliott’s entries, Ben Dundee, is more likely to run here, and is clearly held in higher regard by the yard, having been entered in a Grade One, but his last three runs have been dire and he can’t be backed blind.

Bouvreuil – Ben Haslam – OR 142
The JP-McManus owned veteran is only eight-years-old, and seemed to have been revitalised by a switch from Paul Nicholls to Ben Haslam when winning on his debut for his new yard at Wetherby in December. That win took him back up to an official rating of 142, and as he was third in the Plate in 2017 off a mark of 145, he is of serious interest. Bouvreuil’s festival record is superb: four visits, three placed finishes, and in his one failure he was unluckily brought down. His last run, only sixth in a C2 handicap, looked like a blatant bit of mark-management with this race in mind and shouldn’t be taken too literally. If he turns up at Prestbury Park full of his own vigour, he has every chance of going very close on good ground off this extremely workable mark. The one note of caution is that he is also entered in the Grand Annual, but Haslam has been open in saying he will only take up that option if the ground is soft. That means an NRNB safety-net is essential, but with Skybet providing that and a generous 33/1 price, this is a stand-out value bet. All aboard.

 

Form Eye-Catchers

Having identified some horses with the right profile, it bears repeating that this race is one of the weakest for trends and profiles at the whole festival, and as such horses with obvious form claims must still come into consideration.

One of the most glaringly obvious of these is Happy Diva. Kerry Lee’s mare spent last season learning her trade against her own sex, but has stepped up into open company with distinction this term. Her close second to Aso over course and distance on New Year’s Day demands respect, and she has backed that up with a good third at Ascot behind none other than Cyrname and a gutsy win over classy Magic of Light at Huntingdon. However, she is entered at Newbury this coming weekend, and with her price already trimmed to 16/1 for the Plate, now is definitely not the time to be backing her.

In my opinion, the Plate entries with the best form this season by a distance are Janika and Siruh du Lac. The former is now rated 156 after two outstanding runs in the UK following his transfer from France to Nicky Henderson’s yard, recording RPRs of 158 and 161 in the process. That massive last figure was recorded when he lost a titanic tussle with the aforementioned Siruh du Lac over Plate course and distance, with both horses refusing to yield up the hill. Nick Williams’ French-bred (tick) six-year-old was raised just seven pounds for that, although he will not get Lizzie Kelly’s three-pound claim in March, so he will run off 10 pounds higher. That rating of 141 still seems a very workable mark, and given that Janika is perhaps more likely to go for the Ryanair, Siruh makes more appeal of the two. But his claims haven’t been missed by the market, and at a best priced 10/1, there is no point whatsoever in striking a bet now.

 

Recommended Bet (26/2/19):

Bouvreuil – 1pt e/w @ 33/1 NRNB (Skybet)

 

Ante-Post Angle: Grand Annual

This is the beginning of a series of closer looks at the handicaps at the Festival, and I will start with the Grand Annual. There are obvious reasons why this is the right place to start:

  1. There are only 58 entries, the lowest of any handicap;
  2. Only 20 horses can run this year, which makes bookies offering 4 places each way (as the majority do at this stage) acceptable;
  3. No race at Cheltenham has a clearer profile for winners, so it’s easy to come up with a plausible shortlist.

That third point is worth making clearer, because many people incorrectly (in my view) simply look for ‘trends’ to guide their choice in handicaps. These ‘trends’ are often simply statistical quirks from a relatively small sample size; the crucial thing is to use them to see if the profile of winners the trends offer makes sense given the type of race.

The Grand Annual is a ferociously run race, usually run on genuinely good ground: it is a test of heart, courage and speed where the smallest margins can make all the difference. So, given that, the profile that the trends provide does make perfect sense:

  • 7/8/9 years old and fewer than 12 chase career starts – i.e. still with enthusiasm for the battle;
  • Hasn’t won a handicap or graded chase this season, so the handicap mark is intact – i.e. every pound counts;
  • If not a novice, competed in a previous festival chase, ideally with distinction, and ideally in this race itself – i.e. unexposed, or proven to be up to the task.

Applying these criteria, plus limiting ourselves to horses with an official rating of between 139 and 152, leaves a very short list of horses to examine more closely. Of these, most have really questionable claims. De Plotting Shed and Tycoon Prince are lurking on suspiciously attractive marks…but they may just be on those marks because their form is on a permanent downward trend. Bun Doran is in terrific form this season, and absolutely loves Cheltenham, but his handicap win in November put him up 10lbs and his mark is likely bust as a result, although he seems likely to run with distinction.

Last year’s winner LE PREZIEN leaps off the page, because he will run this year off only 1lb higher than his 2018 winning mark. That proves he enjoys the race, and returners have an outstanding record. His trainer Paul Nicholls is in stunning form, so there are no worries on that front, and he is available at a scarcely believable 20/1 NRNB with Skybet. This would be his 14th run, failing one of our ‘trends’, but that is only one higher than the historic rate, so that’s not something to get hung up about.

The actual negative – and the probably reason for that generous price – is that he put in the worst run of his career last time out at Sandown. That is a concern, because he will need to be foot-perfect in March to make an impact. But he was poor in his prep run in 2018, only finishing a distant 8th out of 10, and so at the price, I’m willing to overlook the Sandown run as a bad day at the office, especially given how weak the opposition looks this year.

Recommended Bet (22/2/19):

Le Prezien – 1 pt e/w @ 20/1 (NRNB, Skybet)