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)

Ante-Post Angle: Arkle

Since the inception of the mid-distance JLT Novices Chase in 2008, the main danger of ante-post betting on Cheltenham’s novice chases is identifying the wrong race for your chosen horse. Skybet’s early NRNB concession can remove this element of risk, but in many instances at too great a cost to the price on offer. So there are two challenges to overcome in trying to identify value in these markets: firstly, to find underrated horses at good prices, which is hard enough; and secondly to then read all available clues to discern that horse’s March target.

There is next to no clarity for the JLT Chase, with almost every horse in the market having at least one, and sometimes more, alternative entries. Furthermore, there are no key trials for the JLT coming up in the near future, so it’s not the right time to be ante-post betting on that race. But there is a major trial on Saturday for the Arkle – the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown – and as such this is a good moment to try to locate any value.

The English Form

There are three English horses with interlinked form who look set for the Arkle, fitness permitting, and due in no small part to this clarity of Cheltenham target, they represent the head of the market. Lalor leapt his way to clear favouritism with an impeccable and powerful display in Cheltenham’s Arkle Trial in November, and this run probably still represents the best 2-mile form in the UK this season. But he followed this dominant display with a dreadful run at Sandown, when Dynamite Dollars totally reversed the form. His trainer blamed the soft ground, but Lalor was flat from the very start of the race, and he will have to show his exuberance between now and March to be worthy of such a short price. Meanwhile Dynamite Dollars represents a more solid proposition at a best price of 7/1; he’s improved on every start this season, looking progressive while being thoroughly professional. His last win, when he outjumped Kalashnikov at Kempton over Christmas, franked the previous form. There were great hopes for Kalashnikov as a novice chaser, but his jumping just doesn’t seem fluent enough at pace. If his trainer Amy Murphy changes her mind and steps him up in trip in the JLT, and hires a good jockey who can get him into a rhythm, then he would be of interest, but quotes as short as 7/1 for the Arkle represent dire value given the actual evidence on show.

But my strong suspicion is that all of this English two-mile form is slightly suspect, and may have been overrated by both the handicapper and punters. In Dynamite Dollars’ win at Sandown, he was driven all-out to beat Ornua by just two lengths. Yet Henry de Bromhead’s horse was only rated a lowly 138 over hurdles, and his Irish form is hardly top class: two second places and a win in Grade Three novice chases. Ornua’s form ties in closely with Cadmium, and that Mullins horse was beaten out of sight in Irish Graded races by Voix du Reve, Le Richebourg and Delta Work.

The Irish Form

What about the classier Irish two-milers then? The biggest pointer so far took place on Boxing Day in the Grade One Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown. The winner of that prestigious prize – won by Footpad, Min and Douvan in the last three years – was Joseph O’Brien’s Le Richebourg, who now boasts form of 1121 over the bigger obstacles, progressing on RPR every time. He jumps efficiently and can throw in a brave leap where necessary, and stayed on well in a way that bodes well for the Prestbury Park hill. Mengli Khan, the best Irish horse in the 2018 Supreme (3rd), blotted his copy book with a tired-looking fourth place. Also beaten at Leopardstown was Voix du Reve, who jumped badly all the way round under pressure.

Voix du Reve had previously beaten Hardline fairly readily at Punchestown, and he in turn got the better of the well-fancied Getabird on Boxing Day at Limerick. Ruby Walsh had chosen to ride Getabird over Voix du Reve, and the Ricci owned seven-year-old was sent off a well-punted odds-on favourite, so clearly the Willie Mullins stable thought he was well tuned up. On the day, however, he jumped slightly to the right at most fences – a continuation of a previous issue – and then made a shuddering error at the last to hand the race to his Elliott-trained rival.

Cilaos Emery suffered no such problems on his belated chasing debut at Gowran Park. Willie Mullins’ seven-year-old was rated 159 over hurdles, and that mark merits colossal respect if his jumping is up to scratch. It certainly was around Gowran Park: he didn’t stand off any fences, and jumped efficiently and straight-on. A better judge than me, a certain Willie Mullins, said he was “very pleased” and “happy” with his horse’s jumping. But he didn’t beat all that much in this Beginners’ Chase run on soft ground, and the price reflects his likely status as the Mullins/Walsh runner in the Arkle more than anything else.

Muddying the waters slightly is another JP McManus novice Defi du Seuil, whose defeat of Topofthegame at Exeter and narrow defeat to Lostintranslation at Cheltenham marks him out as one to note. His run over JLT course and distance on New Year’s Day was promising but marked him out as more of a two-miler: he jumped well in the main, hit the front two out, but was then outstayed up the hill. Even so, given Defi’s 25-length hammering by Lalor over two miles in November, albeit that was a run that was too bad to be true, surely Le Richebourg will be the green-and-gold’s number one in March?

The man who will make the decision is Frank Berry, racing manager to JP McManus. He said to the Racing Post that “all being well, Le Richebourg will run at Leopardstown [in the Irish Arkle] this weekend. Plans are a bit up in the air [for Defi du Seuil] at the moment as to where he’ll run next – he has quite a few options.”

The Best of The Rest

Another very likely runner in the Irish Arkle – seemingly because the owners want to watch the Ireland v England rugby match in Dublin as much as anything else! – is Knocknanuss. Trained by Gary Moore, it’s no surprise that he’s a brave and bold front-runner. The lightly-raced nine-year-old won two Class 3 novice chases at Fakenham and Newbury by an aggregate 38 lengths, but it was his second place against ill-fated Master Dino at Plumpton that marked him out as an animal with serious class. He conceded five pounds to the phenomenal French raider, yet only went down by a fighting seven lengths, having jumped impeccably and put the rest of the high-class field to bed three furlongs from home. That race was run over 2m3.5f, and he just didn’t quite get the trip; he seems best suited to a strongly run two miles with a stiff finish. Sound much like an Arkle to you? It does to me. The worry is that with Master Dino out injured, there’s nothing to frank his form. Of every single horse beaten by Knocknanuss this season – and I’ve checked – the only one not to run wretchedly since is Glenloe, and he was given a deliberately easy ride at Plumpton in classic JP McManus novice style.

At this point it’s hard to see something emerging as a serious contender from further down the betting. Either they’ve been seen on a racecourse and don’t look good enough, or they haven’t been out this season, in which case they’ll be too inexperienced on the day.

The Conclusion: Don’t Overthink It

There are plenty of races at the festival where statistics, trends and theories will lead to overpriced winners at big prices. The Arkle isn’t one of them. Seven of the last ten winners had the top RPR on the day; 24/27 winners had finished 1st/2nd in their prep run and not fallen in the season; 22/27 had won at least half of their chase starts.

Cilaos Emery may very well turn up as a short-priced favourite, but he’s currently the same price as a horse who’s won not just a Group One, but a Group One that happens to be the key Arkle trial. Ante-post betting is also about timing, and that horse LE RICHEBOURG is a very short price for the Irish Arkle this coming weekend. A win in that race ought to make him outright favourite for the Cheltenham Arkle given the justified doubts over the English contenders.

Is Le Richebourg almost guaranteed to turn up in March, meaning the NRNB concession isn’t required? The one concern at this point is that he won the Leopardstown Grade One after a strong pace was set by his stablemate Us And Them (presumably a deliberate tactic planned by the canny Joseph O’Brien to get the best out of his stable star), and that does bring the JLT into the equation. He’s 14/1 for the JLT, or 9/1 NRNB, reflecting that the bookies think he’s more likely to take the two-mile option, and notably longest with Paddy Power, who tend to have the best inside-track on running plans in Ireland. JP McManus also has both Defi du Seuil – discussed above – and possibly Winter Escape for the JLT, so isn’t short of alternative options.

All of that means it’s time to strike the bet now, gambling that Joseph O’Brien has him full-fit for the Irish Arkle at the weekend. That looks a risk worth taking at current prices, which have bounced back after an unfortunate Pricewise intervention. Hills are top price, and 7/1 is more than fair, but it’s a restrained bet at this point due to slight uncertainty over the weather forecast for the weekend in Ireland. If it comes up good ground, I’ll be very tempted to strike a bigger bet.

 

Recommended Bet

Le Richebourg – Arkle – 1.5pts Win @ 7/1 (William Hill)

Ante-Post Angle: Championship Hurdles

Having identified some possible value in the Gold Cup and Ryanair Chase last week, now the spotlight falls onto Cheltenham’s championship hurdle races. With the entries due to be released later this week, it’s the right time to take a market check to identify any juicy prices before they disappear with increased attention. All three divisions will take some serious unravelling, with knotted form-lines and a tangled series of comments on market principals’ targets, so settle down for a long read…

Stayers Hurdle

The Stayers Hurdle is possibly the most complex puzzle to solve, as almost every contender has at least one key question mark against them, and as such they don’t make attractive betting propositions at this stage. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why:

Penhill 7/1 (5/1 NRNB)In a division without a superstar, or even a notable in-form horse, last season’s winner is deservedly the market favourite. He’s still only eight years old, and Willie Mullins says he’s “ahead of where he was [this time] last year” in his preparations. But those preparations have to be taken entirely on trust, because the first time we will see Penhill this season will be in the Stayers Hurdle itself, as per the method used last season. Mullins is undoubtedly a genius, but with his string running below-par in general at the moment, this year that lack of racecourse fitness is enough of a concern to make me want to wait until nearer March for a wager.

Apples Jade 10/1 (9/2 NRNB) – The super-talented mare is the joker in the pack, hence the large difference in NRNB prices. Despite the fact she’d probably go off favourite for this race, everyone connected with Gigginstown repeats the same mantra with her again and again, that she’s headed to the race where she has “the biggest chance of winning”, the Mares Hurdle. As such her chances will be discussed in that section.

Supasundae 10/1 (6/1 NRNB) – Now nine years old, which is a big negative: only 6/45 winners of this race have been nine or older, and five of those were returning winners. He’s a classy horse, but he’s had his chances to win this, and three miles at Cheltenham isn’t his best discipline anyway.

Faugheen 12/1 (8/1 NRNB) – At his peak, he would be the best horse in this race by a significant margin, but he’s now 11 and suffered a nasty fall last time out. If he can reproduce the form he showed at Punchestown in April, when the fires burned brightly once again, he will demolish this ordinary field. That’s a big ‘if’, hence the quotes of 8/1, but every true racing fan wishes the legend well.

At this point in the market, things start to get a little bit more interesting, as we reach some younger horses who could still be improving. Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park (12/1, 10/1 NRNB) is unbeaten this season, and according to the official handicapper has progressed 16 pounds in the course of registering those three wins. But in my view both of his graded wins are questionable. At Haydock he couldn’t keep up with the pace, and then stayed on from another postcode to get up at the line by half a length; he won’t get that chance in a better field. Then at Ascot he was all-out to beat 40/1 shot West Approach by two lengths in the Long Walk. Sue Smith’s six-year-old Midnight Shadow is certainly progressive, and got the better of perennial bridesmaid Wholestone at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, but he’s never gone further than 2.5 miles. Given that only 8 of the last 42 to win or place in this race hadn’t won over three miles, he can be looked over.

The value in a weak renewal could lie with horses switched back to hurdling after disappointing as novice chasers. Black Op (16/1, 12/1 NRNB) didn’t take to the bigger obstacles at all, but did show off his big engine on both his chase starts; however, he is another that’s never actually proved his stamina, having generally raced at around 2.5 miles. For that reason, he’s not yet a betting proposition.

We can be certain that Colin Tizzard’s KILBRICKEN STORM does not have an issue with stamina, with three wins at three miles on his CV, the best of those his success in the 2018 Albert Bartlett over the Stayers’ Hurdle course and distance. That race has been largely written off because it was run on heavy* ground, but the form is actually working out well: second-placed Ok Corral is now clear favourite for the National Hunt Chase in March, while third placed Santini is very near the top of the market for the RSA Chase. Kilbricken Storm then followed up by finishing only half a length behind the winner Next Destination in the Punchestown Grade One in April, proving his Cheltenham win wasn’t a fluke. Sent chasing this season, he looked very uncomfortable on both his starts, but he had good technique over hurdles, so that shouldn’t be a concern. A more legitimate worry is his lack of speed, given that 15 of the last 17 winners had won a Graded hurdle race over 2m5f or shorter, showing you can’t just be a dour stayer to win the Stayers Hurdle. However in my view Kilbricken Storm’s unbeaten Cheltenham new course record (2/2) is enough of a positive to outweigh this, and with 25/1 available NRNB, a small chance can be taken on Tizzard’s horse to out-run his odds.

Another to note is Aux Ptits Soins, back to somewhere near his best at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day when comfortably winning a three mile handicap hurdle off 141, after missing nearly two years with injury. His ‘best’ includes a win in the Coral Cup and a very respectable fifth in the 2016 World Hurdle (as it was called then), so like any Cheltenham specialist he should be given the utmost respect in March. Given the difference in best prices at the moment, Kilbricken Storm is preferred as a speculative NRNB selection, but if Dan Skelton’s classy charge turns up fit and well on the day, he will be of major interest.

*officially “soft” ground, despite it being clearly bottomless to any onlookers, presumably in a misguided attempt to protect the reputation of the Clerk?

Mares Hurdle

It would be tempting to view this race as a straightforward betting proposition – the short-priced favourite has won seven out of eleven renewals – but that is a misleading statistic given that the mighty mare Quevega was responsible for six of those wins. In fact, since Quevega’s retirement, the favourite has been beaten in three of the four years, including the infamous fall of Annie Power at 1/2 on.

2019’s odds-on favourite is likely to be Apples Jade…if she runs here. Given the level of her form this season, winning three Graded races against the boys by a scarcely believable aggregate of 57 lengths, it beggars belief that she won’t be allowed to take her chance in a weak-looking Stayers Hurdle instead. But at the moment it does seem she will head here to take on her own sex, a decision perhaps taken due to her past inconsistent performances in Spring, usually attributed to being in season. Last year she won the same three races at Navan, Fairyhouse and Leopardstown before disappointing at the festival; at a best price of Evens it would be wiser to wait for the level of her opposition to be confirmed before taking a chance.

That opposition could prove to be anywhere between formidable and facile. 2018 winner Benie des Dieux, Champion Hurdle fancy Laurina, and 2017 favourite Limini could all race here…or not. Benie des Dieux is by far the most likely runner for Wille Mullins, and having vanquished Apples Jade last year, would need to be respected. Indeed, NRNB quotes of 11/4 are relatively tempting, given there’s no chance she would go off a longer price (unless Laurina did end up here). But her price is also unlikely to shorten too much prior to her being seen on a racecourse, so tying up money in January makes little sense.

Given the lack of clarity around mares’ March targets, the no-runner no-bet concession is vital, and the only standout price offered by Skybet is on Pearl Of The West. This likeable five year old has all-important course and distance form having won at Cheltenham in October. After that visually impressive staying-on win, her trainer John McConnell said that he “would take a look at the Mares’ [Hurdle] and see next March”. She is an intriguing proposition, because she’s likely to be progressive and is still unexposed, but counting against her is her lack of runs at a trip longer than two miles. After all, 30 out of 33 horses placed in the 11 renewals have won at 2.5 miles or longer: you have to stay up the hill.

As such, it looks better to play a waiting game in this trappy market.

Champion Hurdle

Until Boxing Day, there was nothing to discuss: Buveur d’Air was inevitably going to be crowned Champion Hurdler for a third successive year, given that he looked better than ever and there was apparently no competition. But that all changed with his shock defeat to the mare Verdana Blue at Kempton, a result that has breathed some much-needed life into the Champion Hurdle market.

Buveur d’Air lost at Kempton because he made a major hurdling error – perhaps the first of his career – and lost momentum and ground at the vital stage. Nothing in the way the race was run indicated that the mistake was due to being pressurised by another horse, and basically he was mugged by a speedier horse on the line given a superb ride by Nico de Boinville. Having managed to win the Champion Hurdle last year despite having never “being at his best” according to his trainer, Buveur remains a rock-solid favourite, and my reading of that Kempton result is that it’s simply put some juice in his price, moving him out to 6/4 NRNB from odds-on. He went off 4/6 on in 2018, but that was against a weaker field, so a best guess of his price on the day is close to Evens. As such, there’s no need to tie money up for two months.

The likelihood of a stronger field this year is due to the presence of two mares near the head of the market: the aforementioned Verdana Blue, and the wildcard Laurina. Willie Mullins – a pretty good judge of equine talent – seems infatuated with her, ranking her as highly as any mare he’s trained. Ruby Walsh also rates her, having all but confirmed he will choose her in the Champion Hurdle ahead of last season’s close second Melon or recent Grade One winner Sharjah. But as mere punters, we are going on trust: there isn’t any substantial form in the book. Yes, she won the 2018 Mares Novices Hurdle on the bridle, keeping pace with talented Maria’s Benefit and then leaving the rest of the field for dead, and followed up with a win in the Fairyhouse Grade One equivalent – but that’s not high-class form in the book. She will need to find nearly a stone of improvement on the day to win, and as such NRNB quotes of 7/2 are the worst value you’ll find for any race in March.

Verdana Blue rates a much more enticing bet at 10/1 NRNB, because she does have some form in the book, and not just the Kempton win. Her early-season defeat of the reliable Old Guard is rock-solid; her 4th in the Greatwood Handicap over Champion Hurdle course and distance was a decent effort considering she was crowded out, and she stayed on well up the hill. The concern is over ground. Her trainer has insisted throughout that she needs “genuinely good” ground, and there is no chance of that on Tuesday 12th March: it will either be good-to-soft, or softer. Her connections previously agreed with Nicky Henderson, saying at one point they’d swerve the Champion Hurdle entirely, but seem to have come to their senses: after all, her win over Buveur d’Air was on officialy good-to-soft ground, and she recorded her best two RPRs of last season on a similar surface. It’s likely that on a track which puts more of an emphasis on stamina than Kempton that she’ll come unstuck, but at 10/1 the only thing stopping a bet is the small possibility of soft ground on the day. Otherwise she seems to have been curiously underrated and could be good value on the day.

The other leading contenders simply aren’t convincing, especially given they’re up against a proven high-class champion. Melon couldn’t beat a below-par Buveur d’Air last year, and though Willie Mullins insists he’ll “only have to improve a head” to win, that’s wishful thinking. Sharjah does look to have progressed significantly this season, with handy wins in two Group Ones and the massively valuable Galway Handicap off 146. But he could only finish a poor 8th in the Supreme Novices last season and was beaten by a below-par Samcro in November. It doesn’t add up to Champion Hurdle form.

At slightly bigger prices are the other two to consider. Brain Power was sent chasing by Nicky Henderson and basically wasted last season as a result; thankfully his owner Michael Buckley finally insisted his horse was sent back over hurdles in December, and he won a Grade Two at Cheltenham on his return to the smaller obstacles. That form isn’t bad: on a line through the second-placed Silver Streak he’s not far off the required standard, but held by Verdana Blue. More troubling is that he was only 8th in the 2017 Champion Hurdle and has never run well on Cheltenham’s old course. Espoir d’Allen exploded onto the Champion Hurdle scene with an easy eight length beating of Stormy Ireland in a Limerick Grade Three. He has handy juvenile form last season, but that isn’t adding up to much in open company; none of last season’s juveniles have really made a name for themselves this term.

With questions to answer for all his competitors, Buveur d’Air remains the best value at this stage at 6/4 NRNB – if you think his price will shorten significantly between now and March and can tie up the money. But waiting seems the wiser choice. After all, a lot can happen in two months, and at short prices, there can’t be any doubts.

Advised Bets (15/1/19)

Kilbricken Storm – Stayers Hurdle – 0.5pt e/w 25/1 NRNB (Paddy Power)

Ante-Post Angle: Championship Chases

Entries for the championship chases at Cheltenham have been made, and this welcome festival milestone provides a perfect excuse for an in-depth look at the current ante-post markets, and a quest for that most elusive beast: good value. Happily, in two of the three races it looks like there is a real outlier in the market, so maybe there is some value after all…read on to find out where.

Gold Cup

To this observer there is no doubting which horse represents the best value in the current Gold Cup market: step forward BRISTOL DE MAI. Nigel Twiston-Davies’ stable star is the joint-highest rated horse out of the 43 entries made, and a two-time Grade One winner. He is also still only eight years old, right in the middle of the perfect age range for winners given that 26 of the last 29 Gold Cups have been won by seven, eight or nine year olds. He should therefore be an obvious leading contender.

But the narrative around this horse is that he ‘only performs at Haydock’ and ‘loves the mud’, and as a result he is available at long prices for March’s showpiece. It is certainly true to say that Bristol de Mai loves Haydock: both of his Grade One wins have come there, and he has recorded four of his five highest career RPRs at the Lancashire track. But his apparent hatred of Cheltenham in comparison has been exaggerated. He has only run at Prestbury Park three times: in January 2018 he was too bad to be true in the Cotswold Chase and had wind surgery two days later; in 2017 he was only 7th in the Gold Cup, but 2016-17 was a poor season all-round for a horse still adjusting to being in open company; while at the 2016 festival he ran an excellent race in the JLT Novices Chase, finishing second and posting his highest RPR of the season in the process. And as far as being soft-ground dependent goes, that is simply nonsense. His win in this season’s Grade One Betfair Chase was achieved on good ground, and his 2016 JLT 2nd was too. In fact, as far as ante-post betting is concerned, his ability to act on any ground is a big positive.

The remaining question mark is his dreadful – and short-lived – run in the King George, when he never settled and fell at the ninth fence. The horse was badly bumped by Thistlecrack at the first fence, which seemed to spook him, and his trainer used this excuse afterwards. This is a slight concern given the hustle and bustle of an open Gold Cup, but it’s not something that’s happened to the horse before, and perhaps it would be wisest simply to draw a line through the King George entirely. It’s certainly easier than trying to explain a race where every single horse surprised onlookers in one way or another.

Given all of that, quotes of 33/1 NRNB with Paddy Power seem extraordinary. The price presumes as fact that Bristol de Mai won’t act at Cheltenham, and that’s been shown to not necessarily be the case. So given it’s no runner no bet and there’s no risk attached, there’s only one question still to answer: could this horse win a Gold Cup if he does show his ability in March around the undulations of Cheltenham’s new course?

My answer, if he does act on the course, is a resounding yes. There are issues with all the other leading players in the market:

Presenting Percy – a worthy favourite, but yet to be seen on a racecourse this season. His previous build-up for Cheltenham wins took in six and five races in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Whilst true that his trainer favours unorthodox preparation for the festival, this unorthodoxy has always previously involved the horse actually running!

Native River – respected of course as champion, but that brutal race last year may mean he is past his absolute peak; also, only the very best horses win two Gold Cups, and he certainly isn’t an all-time great in terms of ability.

Kemboy – not yet shown that he can stay the extra two furlongs up the hill and only fourth in last season’s JLT.

Clan des Obeaux – well-beaten by Bristol de Mai at Haydock; form of his King George win highly questionable.

Thistlecrack – 11 years old and surely not a fluent enough jumper to win the big prize.

Road To Respect – Respected for his fourth in unsuitable conditions last year, but only a distant third in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, and that’s a concern.

Al Boum Photo – only completed four of his seven chase starts, and fell at Cheltenham last year. There’s also no guarantee he will stay.

Bellshill – every chance if fully fit by March, but he has work to do on that front.

Might Bite – potentially ‘gone at the game’ after 2018’s epic battle with Native River.

Sizing John – has yet to show he has retained his ability and is fully-fit.

Elegant Escape – a wonderful horse, but in my mind too slow to win a good ground Gold Cup run at a strong pace.

Many of these horses could win the Gold Cup – and one of them is very likely to – but the question is the value of a 33/1 bet, not 3/1. With so many doubts about his rivals, Bristol de Mai looks a very generous price.

 

Ryanair Chase

The main factor when considering ante-post betting in the Ryanair Chase is which horses will actually end up taking part rather than pursuing alternative targets. Of those almost certain to end up in the Ryanair if fit and well – taking trainer comments into account as well as the most logical targets – Min, Waiting Patiently and Monalee would all have major claims, while Paul Nicholls’ duo of Politilogue and Frodon would have to be respected.

All of these horses have every chance in March, but are accordingly short in the market and represent little, if any, value two months before the action starts. Yet further down the list of highly-likely runners, there is one which may have been underestimated, Venetia Williams’ ASO. On the face of it, this horse isn’t up to winning an open Grade One, having competed largely in big-field handicaps since 2016, but a closer look leads to a different conclusion.

His win over (almost precisely) Ryanair course and distance on New Year’s Day was more comfortable than the two-length margin of victory suggests; his jockey Charlie Deutsch made absolutely sure of the win, rather than testing the horse to his limits. This victory was achieved from an already lofty official mark of 158, meaning Aso is now rated 163 by the handicapper. Any further improvement would put him right in the mix for a Ryanair champion in a year without a clearly exceptional favourite; last year’s winner Balko des Flos was rated 166, and 2015 winner Uxizandre a lowly 161 before the race.

And despite being nine-years-old, there is a strong case that Aso is still progressive. He was off the track injured for 397 days between October 2017 and his comeback in November 2018. In his pre-injury career he competed in eight open chases and posted an average RPR of just 151; post comeback he has been awarded RPRs of 163 at Newbury and then a career-best 166 at Cheltenham. Evidence suggests he has not yet reached the ceiling of his natural ability.

Aso’s record at Cheltenham also bears closer scrutiny. He’s raced at the Festival three times, and could only finish 11th in the 2015 County Hurdle and 5th in the 2016 Arkle on his first two attempts, but those were at odds of 33/1 and 66/1 respectively, so he handled the track with no issues. But it is Aso’s third visit to the festival that is of such interest, because in 2017 – as a weaker horse, remember – he managed to finish third in the Ryanair Chase at odds of 40/1. In fact, his overall course and distance record is excellent: 2nd/8th (lost a shoe)/3rd (Ryanair)/1st.

Given the importance of Cheltenham and festival form – 53% of all the festival races in the last 12 years have been won by horses with proven Cheltenham form (from a much smaller pool of entries) – Aso has every chance of posting another impressive showing. The only remaining potential negative is his target, but Venetia Williams confirmed after his New Year’s Day victory that the Ryanair would now be his main aim. Unfortunately the 33/1 I managed to get (see Twitter!) went before I could post this, but at a best price of boosted 25/1, a small each-way bet is still advised against a field without a definite superstar.

Champion Chase

Altior dominates the market, and rightfully so. He has won against all his rivals in all conditions, is seemingly tactically invincible with his high cruising speed and deadly finishing kick, and has proven he’s not ground-dependent by winning on all types of ground. For an each-way bet to be value, the ‘win’ part must represent as fair a price as the ‘place’ part, and given just how likely Altior is to win this race – quotes of 1/2 are perfectly reasonable – then there is no ante-post value to be found. Instead, simply watch this magnificent horse add to his victory tally!

 

Advised Bets (10/01/19)

Bristol de Mai – Gold Cup – 1pt e/w 33/1 NRNB (Paddy Power) 

Aso – Ryanair Chase – 0.5pts e/w 25/1 (Ladbrokes & Hills – both offering ‘boost’)

Ante-Post Angles – Sam Spinner & Bedrock (30/11/18)

There are a couple of horses running over the next couple of days whose performance looks likely to shorten their odds in ante-post Cheltenham betting – if, that is, they perform well – and as such, prices ought to be taken now.

The first is SAM SPINNER, who is currently 3/1 for the Newbury Long Distance Hurdle. On top form, there’s little question that he’s the best horse in this race: he’s rated 4lbs higher than the consistent Wholestone and 5lbs higher than the past-his-best Uknowhatimeanharry. However, this is his first run of the season against match fit rivals, and that’s reflected in his price. Yet there’s strong evidence he runs better fresh, and still only a 6-year-old he could very well still be progressive. In my book that makes him highly likely to run very well (if not win) this Newbury race.

As such, quotes of 20/1 for the Stayers Hurdle in March look very generous. At this stage, apart from his rivals in this race – and maybe the conversion of Faugheen into a genuine staying hurdler – and two-time champion Penhill, there aren’t many other serious contenders. A ridiculous ride from his inexperienced jockey means we can strike a line through Sam Spinner’s non-performance in the race last year, and if he turns up fit he would have every chance. The time to stake the bet looks like now, as if he runs well today (as I think he will) that price won’t last for long.

The second horse is BEDROCK, who runs in the ‘Mini Champion Hurdle’ at Newcastle tomorrow against Samcro, Buveur d’Air and Summerville Boy. On the face of it, this looks an extremely tall order, and he’s 16/1 in the Fighting Fifth market as a result. Those odds don’t appeal at all. However, he’s currently a massive 40/1 with Bet365 for the Champion Hurdle, and given that Bet365 offer a cash-out facility to most punters, that price is most certainly of interest. The main reason is that Bedrock beat Samcro fair and square at Down Royal. Everybody was queuing up to make excuses for the Ballymore winner – everybody except his trainer Gordon Elliott, who admitted that the horse was fit and primed, and that he was massively disappointed. There are also plenty of shrewd judges out there whose reading of that Down Royal race, using Sharjah as a guide, was that Samcro ran his race, but giving 5lbs to Bedrock was the difference. In that context, the 40/1 looks massive.

Of course, he will have to go close in the Fighting Fifth to show he has a genuine chance in the Champion Hurdle. (And when I say he will ‘have to’, I mean that, because there’s the added complication of his ownership. He’s been sold to go to race in the USA, but apparently trainer Iain Jardine has persuaded new connections to ‘have a go’ at the Champion Hurdle first, hence his entry at Newcastle. That’s why the cash out option is potentially vital to this wager.) He is race-fit, unlike Buveur d’Air or Summerville Boy, and he didn’t spend yesterday in a boat crossing the very choppy seas, unlike Samcro. As such I’d be disappointed if he wasn’t in the frame in the final furlong. Given that, a very small each way wager at 40/1 looks like an option worth taking.


Recommended Bets:

Sam Spinner – Stayers Hurdle – 1pt e/w @ 20/1

Bedrock – Champion Hurdle – 0.5pts e/w @ 40/1 (Bet365 if you can – cash out available)

The Path To Glory – Part Two

The Story So Far

Since the first update in this semi-regular series, there has been an extraordinary amount of notable National Hunt action. Trainers who had previously been reluctant to run their better horses on good ground either ran out of patience, or managed to find the odd bit of good-to-soft ground somewhere in the country, and as such there’s been an almost overwhelming number of top prospects to keep track of. But don’t worry if you’ve not managed to catch the midweek action at Carlisle or Chepstow, or you’ve been too busy to watch back the big clashes at Cheltenham, Haydock and Down Royal: The Path To Glory is back. This is a bumper addition – even including a discussion on bumper horses – and there are even a couple of suggested ante-post wagers if you’re itching to add to your Cheltenham portfolio.


Hurdlers

The elephant in the ante-post room is, of course, the biggest hype horse of the season, Samcro, and his disappointing season debut. Sent off 4/9 on favourite, he failed to beat a supposedly inferior field, finishing a length and a half behind the previously unheralded Bedrock, and immediately the internet screamed in its wisdom: “this horse can’t win a Champion Hurdle!” But closer inspection of the race means Samcro can’t be discounted as a 2-mile hurdler just yet. Firstly, he was giving 5lbs to the 149-rated Bedrock, and 8lbs to the 155 rated Sharjah, who he swatted aside by a relatively comfortable 5 lengths; secondly, the race was won in an impressive time – and so it may simply be that Bedrock had been seriously underrated. The handicapper largely agrees, putting Samcro on 160 for this ‘disappointing’ performance, not enough to win a Champion Hurdle, but only 9lbs behind 169-rated double-champion Buveur d’Air. Bearing in mind that Gordon Elliott’s string was generally lacklustre around this time, the great young hope can’t be written off. But to this observer, he doesn’t seem to have that turn of foot generally required to win a Champion Hurdle, and at this stage he’s unbackable.

Having said that, there hasn’t yet been a truly credible alternative 2-mile champion sighted on a UK or Irish race-track. Willie Mullins ran Faugheen in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown, seemingly because Melon wasn’t firing, and to no surprise to anybody – apart from the betting public who made the ex-champ odds-on favourite, it seems – he didn’t have the pace to win. The great 10-year-old could yet be a force in the Stayers’ Hurdle, and should stay over 3 miles for the rest of the season. Supasundae and Buveur d’Air are yet to run this term, but the latter could line up in a mouth-watering clash with Samcro in the Fighting Fifth; Laurina seems to be waiting for genuinely soft ground, which is a concern with Cheltenham in mind.

Verdana Blue was a magnificent winner of the Grade 2 Elite Hurdle at Wincanton, seemingly putting herself in the Champion Hurdle shake-up, but then failed to win the Greatwood off a mark of 151, taking her out of consideration again – unless she didn’t run at her best due to having just 8 days between assignments. In that intriguing Elite Hurdle, she beat three of last season’s most promising juveniles: Redicean could only finish fourth and can surely now be discounted from Grade Ones this term; We Have A Dream jumped very slickly and came third; and If The Cap Fits kept on well for second, which looked a good effort given he had been off the track for 10 months. This impression was confirmed in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot, when If The Cap Fits came from several lengths down turning into the home straight to land the prestigious Grade 2 for Harry Fry, while We Have A Dream could only finish a disappointing fourth. However, this race didn’t do much for the winner’s Champion Hurdle prospects: he needed every yard of the 2m3f, and in the end only narrowly beat the consistent yardstick Old Guard when receiving 6lbs, which rates him at about 148, so he will need to improve significantly to be a Grade One player. Harry Fry also poured cold water on the Champion Hurdle as a target after the race, saying this sort of trip suits the horse better. That said, it’s looking increasingly likely that last season’s juveniles weren’t a good crop.


Another mare making headlines was Apples Jade, seemingly back to something like her best with an 11-length demolition job over 2m4f in the Grade 2 Lismullen Hurdle. Gordon Elliott maintained throughout the Summer that her Cheltenham and Punchestown disappointments weren’t her true running, and this might prove he was right. The question, as always, with this super-talented horse is: if she is on form, does she go for the Champion Hurdle (surely not?), the Mares (highly likely) or the Stayers (possible)? The answer, as always, is Do Not Bet Ante-Post On Apples Jade.

For the staying hurdlers more cut in the ground would be welcome, but at Aintree Wholestone did a professional job in winning a 2m4f race against the likes of Unowhatimeanharry and Vision des Flos by 3 lengths. That put Nigel Twiston-Davies in bullish mood, commenting that “he’s shown a bit of pace there, which is nice to see. We’ll make our way to Cheltenham in March…via all the top staying hurdle races in Britain”. He’s consistent (3rd at Cheltenham and 2nd at Aintree in the 2018 festivals) but remains unlikely to win the big races. One worth noting for 3-mile hurdles is First Assignment, who hacked up in a Listed Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham when a very well-backed favourite. He could subsequently only place third in a Grade 3 at Haydock, but remains of interest; after all, any horse with a 2/2 record at Prestbury Park should always be on the ante-post radar.
 

Novice Hurdlers

Among the novices, some of those mentioned in Part One haven’t managed to enhance their claims. Pym was well-beaten into 2nd in the Ballymore trial at Cheltenham; Double Treasure never threatened and pulled up. The winner was Fergal O’Brien’s Coolanly, who stayed on nicely up the hill after a patient ride by Paddy Brennan, and the 6-year-old is worth putting on Ballymore shortlists. Meanwhile Good Boy Bobby got stuck in the mud at Ffos Las, and needs to be judged again on better ground.

Some of the most eagerly-anticipated hurdling debuts this season were underwhelming. In Britain Acey Milan also failed to handle the deep ground at Ffos Las and ended up a beaten 4/9 favourite. In Ireland Commander Of Fleet did notch an opening victory, but wandered left at the final furlong and idled in front; still, he remains a major prospect for the Ballymore for Gordon Elliott. Also at Punchestown, Champion Bumper winner Relegate has a defeat in the form book, but would surely have got in front had she not suffered interference from Cuneo; having said that, her jumping could not have been more deliberate, and she can’t be seriously considered for Grade Ones over hurdles until her technique improves.

But happily, other young horses have really impressed, with two in particular taking the breath away with their acceleration in the closing stages. Epatante may not have beaten much in her Kempton romp, but in quickening after the last with a mere shake of the reins by Barry Gerahty, the McManus mare looked uncannily like Buveur d’Air. As a result she has taken a strong hold of the Mares’ Novice Hurdle market, but with Willie Mullins having this race sewn up since its inception, it would be wise to wait to see what the wizard trainer has up his sleeve.

An objectively stronger performance – and almost equally as visually striking – was posted by ELDORADO ALLEN at Sandown. He accelerated so quickly between the second and last, and jumped the last so fluently, that in just that distance he went several lengths clear. Furthermore, he handed a serious beating to a very good-looking big horse, Severano, 5th in the Aintree bumper in Aintree, who himself could be worth following. Joe Tizzard says the winner was “eye-catching and…does everything right at home” and confirmed a tilt at the Tolworth in the New Year, the race won by last season’s Supreme winner Summerville Boy. Everything is in place for an ante-post bet before his next run, as he’ll only shorten in the Supreme market.

One other form line is already promising. Elixir de Nutz bounded up the Cheltenham hill nicely in the prestigious Supreme Trial, beating the well-fancied Seddon, but perhaps the horse to take out of this race wasn’t even running in it! Thomas Darby, trained by future superstar Olly Murphy, had beaten Elixir by more than 3 lengths in October in what now looks like an exceptional maiden, also at Prestbury Park. He then relished an all-out battle to the line at Ascot with equally promising Didtheyleaveuoutto, who is also worth tracking, especially on his strong Bumper form last term. That Ascot race was run at a very steady gallop, and Nick Gifford will want to see his charge quicken off a stronger pace before dreaming of training a Supreme winner. Thomas Darby might be better suited to slightly further.

Novice Chasers

The only place to begin in the novice chasing division is with Lalor, a magnificent winner of the Arkle trial at Cheltenham for an understandably emotional Kayley Woollacott. Lalor travelled easily, jumped safely and efficiently, had notable acceleration when asked, and relished the famous hill. In short, he looked every inch an Arkle winner, and if it was only natural for the trainer to be carried away, the normally sanguine champion jockey Richard Johnson was also effusive in his praise for the performance: “He’s got scope but he’s also quite nimble and clever as well, and the way he finished off the race was really pleasing. You have to think of him as an Arkle horse.” The strength of the form has been questioned, and it is fair to say he would probably have to improve again to win an Arkle, but based on what’s actually happened on the track this season, the form is rock-solid. Dynamite Dollars ran his race in second place, and he had the clear beating of Claimantakinforgan – who looks like he needs further – on form lines through the consistent Highway One O One and Dolos. Therefore at this point Lalor is a fair favourite for the Arkle, but at current prices is too short to back until we have seen all the other contenders.

Lalor was certainly more impressive than the previous ante-post Arkle favourite Kalashnikov, who was merely decent on his chase debut against a weak field at Warwick. He showed off his powerful engine to stretch out an easy 11-length win – and that engine really mustn’t be underestimated – but his jumping was either too safe, or on a couple of occasions a little sketchy. He will need more practice over the fences to become worthy of his short price in the Arkle market. Among other British potential Arkle candidates, Maria’s Benefit got some black type at Bangor with another classy jumping display, but she was all out to beat Jester Jet, an opponent who is better over longer distances. Even so, she’s 2/2 over fences and should be seen in a graded race soon.

The best 2-mile form on the track in Ireland so far this season has been from Voix du Reve at Punchestown, who won a Grade Two handily, but the form could be misleading: the winner received 3lbs from Cadmium, given a very easy introduction to chasing by Ruby Walsh, and more solid evidence is required before he is an ante-post prospect. Meanwhile Paloma Blue was distinctly underwhelming in his beginners’ chase at Navan.

Over middle-distances, no horse has shone as brightly as Lalor, but several have made promising starts. Vinndication missed the business-end of last season, but Kim Bailey has made no secret of seeing this strapping 5-year-old as a chaser, and he looked as tough as teak in getting up to beat a determined Uncle Alastair at Carlisle. The runner-up is worth noting; the front two pulled well clear. Bags Groove was another to make a good start by winning a Grade 2 at Wincanton, when he showed a natural ability to jump at pace and gained ground over the majority of his fences, including an almighty leap 2 out, although did clout the last when the race was won and jumped slightly right-handed. A horse that’s now proven to relish Cheltenham is Count Meribel, guided to a narrow win at HQ courtesy of a stunning ‘sit’ by Mark Grant 2 out, but this may have been a weaker renewal than usual. Mr Whipped, in third, needs 3 miles on this evidence. It should also be noted that Wenyerreadyfreddie thoroughly franked the unbeaten Lil Rockefeller’s form with a huge-margin win against some proven performers and then a gutsy victory at Ascot against some decent sorts (including clear Pertemps Hurdle plot job Moon Racer). Neil King confirmed that his likeable and consistent 7-year-old – with 36 runs, 11 wins and £440k of prize money already under his belt – will now be aimed at graded races.

So far, one novice staying chaser has stood out above all the others. La Bague Au Roi won a hot-looking Beginners’ Chase over 2m7f at Newbury, beating Lostintranslation by 2 lengths, a decent but unremarkable result in itself as she was receiving 7lbs from Colin Tizzard’s strapping 6-year-old – but it the way she won that was so impressive. She attacked the fences with real tenacity, looked to be enjoying tackling the more challenging obstacles, and showed a super attitude to head Lostintranslation between second last and last. Trainer Warren Greatrex was delighted, saying that “she’s high class and deserves to be better than she’s shown – I might never train a mare as good as her”. But as far as ante-post betting is concerned, he added a word of caution: “I’m not sure Cheltenham’s her track. She hasn’t ever really performed there, but that could just be me thinking that”. It isn’t. Taking facile Class 4s and bumpers out, she is 0/3 at undulating tracks (average RPR 136) and 4/5 on flat, galloping tracks (average RPR 146 with a peak of 153). She needs to prove she likes Cheltenham before she is an RSA or 4-miler betting prospect, no matter how brilliant her chasing debut.

Other much-anticipated stayers have been disappointing. The Worlds End did look good on his chasing debut at Chepstow, beating 143-rated hurdler Now McGinty by 14 lengths, but followed that up with a poor run at Cheltenham when well beaten in third. Albert Bartlett winner Kilbricken Storm did manage to get up to win his race at Ffos Las, showing off both his big engine and his love for soft ground, but his jumping was horrendous. A follow-up performance may see Colin Tizzard re-route him to the Stayers’ Hurdle, in which he would have to be respected.


Chasers

The Betfair Chase was run on good ground at Haydock – an almost unprecedented occurrence that sums up just how dry it’s been – and this tempted all the principal staying chasers in the UK to run. As such Haydock’s biggest fan, Bristol de Mai, was sent off as long as 15/2, but he yet again showed his love for the Lancashire track by putting his more vaunted rivals to the sword with a relentless display of galloping. He has now recorded RPRs at Haydock of 170, 182 and 177; no doubt Nigel Twiston-Davies will be petitioning the BHA to hold more prestigious fixtures there. A bigger shock than even the good ground was the poor run of Might Bite, who was off the bridle four out and didn’t travel with his usual zest. This run was too bad to be true, and it has to be hoped that he has a minor issue rather than having been bottomed out by last year’s epic Gold Cup. Nicky Henderson was blaming the “stiff fences”, which is neither one of those options nor the other. Native River certainly isn’t finished as a racehorse, but this was more evidence that he is a straightforward (if brilliant) out-and-out stayer, and can get outpaced on flatter tracks and on good ground. Thistlecrack’s run was encouraging in some ways for Colin Tizzard, because the 10-year-old stayed on gamely and still retains a lot of ability, but his jumping was baffling throughout. He may not now be quick enough to win a Stayers Hurdle, but if I were his trainer, I’d be tempted to find out.

Another heartening comeback run from an old favourite took place in a Cheltenham handicap, where Coneygree stayed on into third despite lumping top weight round for 3m3f. All racing fans will be hoping he has one last day in the sun – or in the mud, anyway – and can stay sound. Current wild prices on him in the King George are worth a thought.

There’s no shortage of up-and-coming staying chasers either, in a division that is starting to have extraordinary depth. Elegant Escape displayed a magnificent attitude in a terrific battle at Sandown with the progressive Thomas Patrick, and both are deservedly short prices in the Ladbrokes Trophy betting as a result. If one of them wins that big prize at Newbury, they will bring themselves into Gold Cup reckoning in the way that Denman and Imperial Commander did in the past. Paul Nicholls has come to the conclusion that the admirably tough Politilogue will develop into a stayer, despite him winning the Tingle Creek over 2 miles last season. He started in the best possible fashion with a gutsy victory over 2m5f at Ascot, seeing off Charbel despite giving the Kim Bailey horse 6lbs. This race was run at a good gallop and looks like rock-solid form; both could be players in the Ryanair Chase in March.

Irish Gold Cup hopes may end up pinned on Road To Respect, who thrashed some decent opposition on good ground at Down Royal to take the Grade One prize. His fourth in last year’s Gold Cup is a good piece of form given that he hated the deep ground, and if he is still progressing then he will have to be respected in March. Also at Down Royal, Monalee fluffed his lines over 2.5 miles, well beaten by Snow Falcon and Shattered Love.

As far as Queen Mother Champion Chase prospects are concerned, we are yet to see the mighty Altior on a racecourse, but the fight to finish second to him in March is warming up. The biggest ripples in the ante-post betting pond were made by Saint Calvados’ thorough defeat of Footpad at Naas. The 2-mile chasing division had been billed as a battle between the reigning champion and the Arkle winner, but clearly this is no longer the case, as a tired Footpad was already well beaten before falling close to home. Harry Whittington was rewarded for doing what other British trainers are so reluctant to do: get your horse fully fit and challenge the Mullins/Elliott duopoly in most of the big races in Ireland. Saint Calvados did his job admirably, but in truth this was a desperate run from Footpad, and probably too bad to be true; his trainer pointed to an overreach early on as the main reason for his run.

The best run in the UK over 2 miles came in the Grade Two Shloer Chase at Cheltenham, where Sceau Royal – a somewhat forgotten horse after he missed the Spring festivals last season with injury – provided another example of his pinpoint jumping, gaining as much as a length on his rivals at every fence. While he may not have the engine of some of his peers, that skill will stand him in good stead, and it will be fascinating to see him try to put Altior in trouble down the railway fences at Sandown in the Tingle Creek. As it stands, however, the champion is still on track to retain his crown, although one to keep an eye on is Ballyoisin, a wide-margin winner at Navan and a horse who could still be anything.

Juveniles

The best juvenile performance so far – among slim pickings, it must be said, until we see the main Irish contenders – came from Paul Nicholls’ Quel Destin in the prestigious Triumph Trial at Cheltenham. He beat a field full of highly-hyped young horses, including Alan King’s Cracker Factory, Nicky Henderson’s Never Adapt, and Jane Williams’ Montestrel, who had beaten Quel Destin previously at Chepstow. Paul Nicholls says the winner is “tough and stays well” but that he might need softer ground to see him at his best. Montestrel’s run was too bad to be true, so don’t discount this one from Triumph considerations just yet.

The value betting angle on the Triumph is to use the early-season form on the track in the UK to try to predict which as-yet-unseen horses brought over from France could be even better. This is hardly a fool-proof strategy, but this year there’s a very obvious contender, Adjali, who beat Quel Destin twice in the Spring in France for Guillaume Macaire, and is being trained by Nicky Henderson, an absolute master at readying juveniles. The only horse to confirm superiority with Adjali in France was Beaumec De Houelle, and he has gone on to win a Grade 2 and a Grade 1 this term. With big odds available, ADJALI is worth an extremely speculative each way punt in the Triumph.

Bumpers

Believe it or not, there has already been a box-office bumper this season. This took place at Punchestown and featured a fight between the two most talked-up Irish prospects: in Gordon Elliott’s corner was Malone Road; for Willie Mullins Mt Leinster went into battle. The bookies couldn’t separate these two before the bell, but there was no doubting the superior horse after the race, as Malone Road delivered a knock-out blow to his rival. His turn-of-foot over the last furlong under Jamie Codd was almost freakish, and earned him the first “you won’t see him again until Cheltenham” from a trainer of the season. He may prove hard to beat in March.

And Finally…

…Grand National winning hero Tiger Roll may not have been victorious in the Cross Country race at his beloved Cheltenham, but he stayed on well up the hill carrying top-weight against some primed rivals and delighted his trainer Gordon Elliott, who confirmed his main season target as the Cross Country at the Cheltenham Festival. On this evidence he retains all his zest and shouldn’t be taken on in the market.


Advised Bets

Eldorado Allen – Supreme Novices Hurdle – 33/1 1pt e/w
Adjali – Triumph Hurdle – 33/1 0.5 pts e/w