Scottish Grand National 2019 Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Recommended Bet

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

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

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: 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: 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’)