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)

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)