Ante-Post Angle: JLT Novice Chase

The JLT Chase is undoubtedly one of the trickier races at the Festival for ante-post betting, given that so many of the horses in the picture also have entries for the Arkle, RSA or handicap chases. But this year, this lack of clarity presents an opportunity. A quick look at the odds makes it relatively obvious: most of the current markets leaders aren’t even going to be in the race, so there must be value at bigger prices.

Topofthegame – RSA Chase (for which he has every chance)

La Bague Au Roi – will skip Cheltenham altogether

Le Richebourg – Arkle (already backed in this series)

Kalashnikov – Arkle (although he would have a great chance in the JLT)

Delta Work – RSA (with a huge shout as clearly the best of Irish)

Vinndication – RSA or may skip Cheltenham altogether. Anyhow, he wouldn’t have anywhere near the pace for the JLT.

That leaves Defi du Seuil (9/2 or 3/1 NRNB) and Lostintranslation (5/1 or 9/2 NRNB) as the clear favourites, with the next priced horses who are actually going to line up in March available at 16/1 and bigger. If you can’t spot the potential value in that scenario, you shouldn’t be reading an ante-post betting blog!

The challenge, of course, is to figure out which of those big prices does represent value, if indeed any do – because if Defi du Seuil and Lostintranslation are nailed on to finish 1-2, then we’re wasting our time. Happily, my view is that both horses’ chances have been exaggerated, and there’s no way they can be 12+ points clear of all of their rivals. The two horses have intertwined form: on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham, Lostintranslation stayed on up the hill to narrowly beat his rival; then in the Scilly Isles at Sandown, Defi du Seuil got his revenge by showing a lovely turn of tactical speed at the key moment. The margins of victory almost cancel each other out, and the horses’ form lines via the other British novices La Bague Au Roi and Topofthegame just confirm how closely matched they are.

As such, their form and class can be examined as a pair – and the argument that they are clearly superior to all their rivals really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Most obviously, they are rated 150 and 151 by the handicapper after four runs each on a variety of courses. This only just makes them the highest rated horses in the race, and these ratings aren’t obviously superior: without further improvement, that level of performance wouldn’t have won the JLT in 2015, 2016 or 2017, and maybe not last year’s running where the front two were rated 151 (Shattered Love with her allowance). In fact, only one of the eight runnings of the JLT has been won by the highest-rated horse going into the race, because it’s a novice race for improving horses. If a horse is exposed already, it needs to be blatantly high-class to justify such skinny prices. Both these animals are clearly good chasers, but 12 points better than any rival? There’s no firm evidence for it.

So what about the rest of the horses who are entered? Which horse can outrun its odds?

 

EACH-WAY CONTENDERS

 

Champagne Classic (16/1)Chase OR N/A (RPR 153), Hurdles OR 150, 1 chase run (3rd G3)

Famously described by Michael O’Leary as his “worst horse” when he won the 2017 Martin Pipe Hurdle, that 100% record at the Festival immediately makes him of interest. He followed up that victory with an impressive win in the Grade One novice hurdle at Punchestown, beating Penhill into second, so he has the class for this level of racing. He was then off the track for 641 days until his chasing debut in January, where on the face of it his 12-length third behind Ballyward over 3 miles at Naas was uninspiring. But there was a fair amount to like about that run: he jumped slickly in the main and travelled very well for 2.5 miles, and it was no surprise he didn’t finish his race off after so long off the track. The problem is that he is entered for Gigginstown – never the easiest owners’ intentions to read – in the RSA and 4-miler as well. Discorama looked awkward and fell in the same Naas race, and can’t be considered without more form in the book.

 

Real Steel (20/1) OR N/A (RPR 147), Hurdles OR 140, 2 chase runs (F,1)

As possibly Willie Mullins’ main chance in this race, by default this unheralded 6-year-old merits further consideration. He was a mediocre hurdler, with only one victory over timber to his name, and could only trail into 11th in last year’s Albert Bartlett. That in itself is a concern, not for his finishing position, but more for the fact he was entered in that 3-mile slog rather than a shorter trip. A further concern is that he fell on chasing debut at Leopardstown before winning last time out at Fairyhouse, prompting Paul Townend to comment that “he’s won two races going right handed, whether that makes a difference to him or not”. While The JLT is probably his target – Mullins, a creature of habit, sent Kemboy to the same Fairyhouse chase before running him in the JLT last year – there are too many negatives to be interested at this point, and his trainer ensures he’s exposed in the market. Voix du Reve is Mullins’ other possible major player here, but he seems far more likely to go the Arkle. Other Mullins runners could include Robin Des Foret – only entered for the JLT, extraordinarily, although already 9 – and mare Camelia De Cotte, but playing Mullins Bingo isn’t an attractive ante-post proposition.

 

Winter Escape (20/1)OR 150 (top RPR 157), Hurdles OR 141, 6 runs (3,2,1,1 G3, 1 G3, 5 G1)

After a long break, Winter Escape went chasing for Aiden Howard in two low-key races over the Summer at Galway, before two impressive wins in Grade 3s brought him wider acclaim. This saw him go off in the Flogas Novice Chase just 9/2, but in the end he was well beaten into fifth by La Bague Au Roi and others. Hardline, who finished third that day, looked a real stayer and was outpaced at the critical times, meaning he would be far more suited to taking up his entries in the RSA or National Hunt Chase. Winter Escape did break blood vessels in that run, but it may be that his impressive RPR figures up to that point were inflated. When pushed, he just didn’t look good enough, and with six chase runs at eight-years-old there may not be too much more improvement to come.

 

Paloma Blue (20/1, 25/1 Unibet)OR 146 (RPR 144), Hurdles OR 149, 2 runs (4,1)

Henry de Bromhead’s fascinating seven-year-old would be the classiest hurdler to line up in the JLT, so can’t be discounted, but on all available evidence at the time of writing he jumps like an equine washing machine.

 

Kildisart (20/1)OR 147 (RPR 154), Hurdles OR 142, 3 runs (2,1 C2,1 C2)

In such a weak renewal, handicappers who have proved they are ahead of their official mark should not be discounted. The fact that Kildisart did this over JLT course and distance, in some style, makes him an even more interesting contender. Given that he beat two very reliable yardsticks, Highway One O One and Spiritofthegames, into second and third that day, his form is rock-solid. That means a further improvement on the day of 5-6 pounds could be enough to see him win the JLT, and his trainer Ben Pauling’s comments that “I’m hopeful there’s more to come…he’s a work in progress” offer encouragement of that possibility in March. Having been raised above the level where he could take part in Pauling’s previous first choice race, the novice handicap, he is almost certain to take his place in the JLT, so no NRNB concession is required. That makes quotes of 20/1 generous given the paucity of his likely opposition, and a small wager should be chanced that he is progressive enough to get himself into the frame in March.

 

Drovers Lane (25/1)OR 150 (RPR 154), Hurdles OR 131, 4 runs (1,7,1,1 C2)

On the face of Drovers Lane’s ratings, it’s absolutely baffling that he is five times the price of Defi du Seuil and Lostintranslation, who have similar marks. However, he was only rated an ordinary 131 over hurdles, and his two chase wins in November and December – rated so highly at the time – are looking more questionable with the benefit of hindsight. Le Breuil, beaten at Cheltenham, followed up that second place with a 14-length 4th in a Grade 2 at Haydock, way behind Jerrysback and the winner Castafiore, and that casts major doubts over the whole form line. In addition, Drovers Lane’s jumping during his Cheltenham win was far from foot-perfect. At this stage, without any runs since, there are too many question marks to back Rebecca Curtis to land the JLT.

 

LIVE OUTSIDERS


Mr Whipped (33/1) –
OR 145 (RPR 152), Hurdles OR 145, 2 runs (3 C2, 1 C2)

Nicky Henderson’s young hopeful was involved in a terrific four-way tussle at Cheltenham in November, but after belting the last couldn’t challenge Count Meribel and Le Breuil. He since won a good race at Haydock, but had to be given five pounds to beat Springtown Lake by just two lengths. Put simply, this form looked good at the time but is now highly questionable, and he just doesn’t seem good enough – but he is one of the entries with the biggest potential for major improvement – and his target for March is also unclear.

 

Pravalaguna (40/1) – OR N/R (RPR 144), Hurdles OR 138, 3 runs (4,1 Mares,1 Mares)

This Willie Mullins mare wasn’t discussed in the Mullins section above, because she’s a little different from his other entries: she has only raced this season against her own sex, winning both times. Given her allowance in the JLT, and her RPR, she would have a chance of following up Shattered Love’s win last year to make it two in a row for mares. However, she is also entered for the Arkle, won over 2 miles last time out, wasn’t a star hurdler, and as such her NRNB quotes of just 20/1 are far too skinny.

 

Castafiore (50/1, 40/1 NRNB) – OR 139 [+7] (RPR 148), Hurdles OR 128, 3 runs (4,1,1 G2)

Another mare, she sprung a huge surprise when landing an open Grade Two at Haydock in January at odds of 28/1. It’s not hard to see why she was so long in the betting for that contest: she was only one win from two in weak Class 3 chases going into it, and it would be too kind to call her hurdling record mediocre. But she did win, and in some style too, trouncing Jerrysback (by 5 lengths), Crucial Role (14) and Le Breuil (14.5), and that can’t simply be explained away as a freak result. Her previous win at Wincanton didn’t look much at the time, but the second placed mare Little Miss Poet since won a decent race handily at Ludlow. It’s certainly true that Jerrysback didn’t take to the Haydock fences – many horses don’t – but she didn’t just beat him, she beat four well-regarded geldings. At this stage of the season, it is still possible that this was indeed a freak bit of form, but the fact remains that she won a Grade Two Novice Chase over 2.5 miles in a year where the JLT field looks weak. An improvement of 5-6 pounds on that run – as it was rated on RPR – plus her mares allowance would put her right in the picture in March. With quotes of 40/1 NRNB available, she must surely be a minor each-way play, with very little risk attached.

 

RECOMMENDED BETS (13/1/19)

Kildisart – 1pt win at 20/1 (Hills, Betfair, Coral)

Castafiore – 0.5pts e/w at 40/1 NRNB (Bet 365, 3×1/4 or Paddy Power, 3×1/5)

Ante-Post Angle: Grand National 2019

Far from the supposed lottery that it used to be, the Grand National has become a more predictable race in recent years due to three key changes. Firstly, the severity of the notorious Aintree fences has been reduced, in order to (successfully) reduce the death rate in British racing’s biggest showcase. This means that the pile-ups of the past have disappeared, reducing the randomness of the outcome and giving better horses a greater chance of getting round. Secondly, the winning prize fund has mushroomed to an almost vulgar £500,000, and it’s hardly surprising that connections who would previously have swerved this risky and brutal test are now sending their classier staying chasers to Aintree. Thirdly, recently retired UK Head Handicapper Phil Smith deserves credit for his policy of compressing the weights, which has given quality horses a genuine chance of winning, and has made victory more difficult for bang-average sloggers at the bottom of the handicap.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that picking the winner is easy – this is still a 40-runner handicap run at a furious initial pace over imposing fences for a marathon four-miles-two-furlongs, in case you’re getting cocky – but it’s become a race where ante-post betting is no longer purely the pursuit of lunatics. For the sake of all-important value, it’s imperative to stake a wager before the weights are released, when punters’ attention suddenly shifts to the race. There is no real reason to wait for the weights, after all, as the handicapper’s changes tend to be fairly predictable: Irish horses go up a few pounds, and English course specialists can get raised a pound or two if they’ve obviously been held back all season for April. Rather than going through all the entries – which would be an act of lunacy in mid-February – I’m going to pick out one horse whose price seems inflated given his obvious claims, and another whose sheer class demands consideration.

MISSED APPROACH – Warren Greatrex

Greatrex confirmed the Grand National as the nine-year-old’s “big target this year” in an honest and revealing piece in the Racing Post Weekender. “We’ve deliberately kept him back until the weights are announced and then he’ll have one run, preferably in the Eider, before Aintree. He’d need his next run to blow away the cobwebs but then he’ll be a seriously interesting horse for Aintree as he’ll definitely stay and the race will bring out all of his biggest attributes.” With a deeper look at his profile, this horse has every tick in the book for a Grand National winner:

  • Rating & Weight: Rated 145, which barring a strange set of circumstances should be enough to get into the race, but not high enough to take him above the historically-significant 11-stone barrier.
  • Proven Stayer: Won the Kim Muir at Cheltenham last year on soft ground, a proper test over 3m2f, and had previously stayed on strongly when second in the 4m1f Edinburgh National, third in the 3m5f Betfred Classic Chase and second in the 2017 Cheltenham 4-miler behind a certain Tiger Roll.
  • Big Fences: Enjoyed the Grand National fences on his sighter over them in the Becher Chase in December, although he did make one error when trying to get back into the race after being left at the start.

That all said, this is still a handicap, and as such form is king. It’s that run in the Becher Chase that makes this horse such good value: the bare form says he finished a distant sixth, but that doesn’t tell half the story because he had two big excuses. Firstly he was left at the start, giving up several lengths to the rest of the field; secondly, he was badly hampered at the key moment in the race when the major players made their move, and had no chance of getting involved after that. For much of the race, he shaped as the best horse.

Given Missed Approach was good enough to beat two comically well-handicapped Irish plot horses in last year’s Kim Muir at Cheltenham off a mark of 138, a mark of 145 (even if adjusted slightly by the handicapper) looks more than within his grasp. With his target confirmed, he rates an excellent bet at 40/1.

 

ELEGANT ESCAPE – Colin Tizzard

Elegant Escape is a seriously classy staying chaser. He won this season’s Welsh National off a mark of 151, the sort of run that marks him out as having the potential to go close in a Grand National off a mark in the 160s, and as such he merits serious respect. After all, the much-missed Many Clouds, who triumphed in 2015 off 160, had earlier that season landed another big staying handicap chase (the Hennessey) off a mark of…151. It’s true that Many Clouds won that season’s Cotswold Chase, while Elegant Escape had to settle for a staying-on second place, but that run should be seen as another positive showing for Tizzard’s charge. Firstly, Frodon’s official mark of 169 is rock-solid given his runs in open handicaps earlier in the season, meaning that Elegant Escape could still be well-treated off 162. Secondly, Elegant Escape yet again showed off his stamina, passing his rivals up Cheltenham’s stiff hill only to find Frodon just too good.

In fact, in my opinion, the further Elegant Escape has to run, the better he will be. He was simply outpaced at key moments in both the RSA Chase and the Ladbroke (née Hennessey!), yet rallied in both quality races to finish in the places. When allowed to settle into his rhythm at a gentler pace in the Welsh National, run over 3m5f and against the kind of horses he’d be up against in the Grand National, he was always comfortable. If anything, having to run another half a mile would be to this out-and-out-stayer’s benefit. He also jumps impeccably and efficiently, something that’s vital around Aintree’s big and imposing fences.

That combination of class, reliability and stamina is not common, and means he has to be considered good enough to emulate Many Clouds and put himself in contention despite his lofty mark. But despite all of this, Elegant Escape really doesn’t have the profile of a Grand National winner.

Let’s take his age first. He is only a seven-year-old, and that is a concern: no horse younger than eight has won the race since Bogskar in 1940. But this is a very experienced horse who has had 17 rides under rules, including 11 chase starts, and he proved his toughness by winning the normally brutal Welsh National at Chepstow in December. He also competed against older horses with merit in the second-biggest handicap of the season, finishing second in the Ladbroke Trophy in November, and as such I’m happy enough to overlook Elegant Escape’s age.

Clearly, he would also be carrying a significant weight around Aintree, being officially rated 162, but there is still a major doubt about just how much weight that would be. His ability to win may depend on the participation of top-rated Bristol de Mai. Given Bristol de Mai is likely to run in the Gold Cup, he’s by no means certain – or perhaps even likely – to take part, even with connections’ current insistence that he will. Yet if BdM does turn up, his huge official rating of 173 might allow Elegant Escape to ‘only’ shoulder something around 11st5lbs rather than top weight, a significant boost, and something that would make Tizzard’s horse a much more attractive bet.

Most worryingly, in Colin Tizzard’s own words, “he wouldn’t be certain to run because he’s still a young horse and there’s plenty of time later”. Tizzard added that “if it was soft at Aintree he could be very interesting”, which puts into question Elegant Escape’s participation on standard Aintree good-to-soft going. 

Having long thought “the further the better” for this horse, I just couldn’t resist taking my chances, but there are too many unknowns to suggest others follow me in. Gambling on soft ground in April is too big a chance to take, and as such, despite all his class and form, Elegant Escape can’t rank as a recommended bet at this stage. If you are tempted despite the negatives, I’d insist on using the exchange markets, as not only will you secure a slightly juicier price, but the option of trading out of the bet remains on the table.

 

Recommended Bet

Missed Approach – 1pt win at 40/1 (General)