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)

2018/19 Season Preview

The days are getting shorter, the air is (gradually) getting colder, and department stores have started playing the same old Christmas hits over the loudspeakers on repeat – but it’s not all bad, because that means it’s time for the jumps racing season to begin in earnest. The most dedicated jumps followers may have had a flutter on some of the Summer action, but the top-class British horses will only start heading back to the racecourse over the coming weeks, starting at Chepstow. There’s a fascinating season of racing ahead, with champions looking to become all-time greats, and some of the most exciting young horses for many years seeking to dethrone them.

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated clash may take place in the 2-mile chasing division. The undisputed king is Altior, who despite a season interrupted by injury, swept past the field using his unrivalled finishing speed to land the Champion Chase in breathtaking style. The pretender to the throne is Footpad, a horse whose pinpoint and fluid jumping technique has seen him progress from a good hurdler into a potentially great chaser: Footpad hammered the field in all five of his starts last term, including the ruthless demolition of a strong Arkle field. But with Altior trained by Nicky Henderson in the UK, and Footpad trained by Willie Mullins in Ireland, the much anticipated battle may not ultimately take place until the Champion Chase at Cheltenham. Even if that is the case, it promises to be worth waiting for.

Staying chasers always capture the imagination, but with the Jockey Club offering a £1 million bonus for winning the so-called ‘Triple Crown’, and the possible return of the high-class Thistlecrack and ex-champ Sizing John from injury, jumps fans are licking their lips in anticipation even more than usual. The winner of the epic 2018 Gold Cup, Native River, is an out-and-out stayer who relishes tough conditions, which makes him ideally suited to the first of the three legs of the triple crown, the Betfair Chase at Haydock. Yet Bristol de Mai is a proven course-specialist who has an exemplary record at the Lancashire venue, and he’ll be targeted at the race by Nigel Twiston-Davies. The next major clash will be the King George, ran on Boxing Day at Kempton, a track which generally rewards a high cruising speed and out-and-out class and as such is made for unlucky Gold Cup runner-up Might Bite. And there looks sure to be yet another major player to add to the mix in the Gold Cup itself, as impressive RSA Chase winner Presenting Percy has shown he simply loves the Cheltenham hill, with a 2/2 record at the Festival. If even most of these top horses stay fit, it could be an unforgettable season of chasing action.

The hurdling divisions also contain no lack of intrigue. Two-time Champion Hurdler Buveur d’Air is still only 7 and has every chance of retaining his crown, although he never truly convinced last season, only getting up by a neck to beat Melon at Prestbury Park. That could tempt Gordon Elliott into keeping the most exciting horse in training over hurdles this term. That horse is potential superstar Samcro, who lived up to his substantial hype when winning the Ballymore and Deloitte Novice Hurdles last season in fine style. This physically imposing specimen was bought to be a chaser, but can Gigginstown’s O’Leary brothers really resist a tilt at the Champion Hurdle? Even if Samcro does go chasing, Buveur d’Air is likely to face a serious challenge from other up-and-coming horses. Summerville Boy won a strong-looking Supreme Novices Hurdle in a quick time, but the Tom George-trained 6-year-old will need to improve his careless hurdling technique. Last year’s juveniles seemed a mixed bunch, looking to have ability but running inconsistently, until the aptly-named We Have A Dream delivered a dream performance at Aintree in April, which suggested a serious tilt at this year’s Champion Hurdle could be a reality.

Meanwhile in staying hurdles, all eyes will be on the great Faugheen, who stormed back to somewhere near his magnificent best with a 13 length defeat of two-time Stayers Hurdle champion Penhill at Punchestown in April. Was this a glorious one-off or can the 10-year-old roll back the years and dominate again?

And what of those hurdlers from last season who will now look to take on the bigger obstacles in novice chases? If Samcro does go chasing, he will prove hard to beat, but one horse who would relish a battle with him is also well-named, the reliable and battle-hardened Kalashnikov, narrow runner up in the Supreme Novices Hurdle and previously winner of a hard-fought Betfair Hurdle. Paul Nicholls, who has had a dearth of top-class horses recently, cannot hide his excitement with the “massive” Topofthegame, who “reminds him of Denman” – and there aren’t many bigger compliments than being compared to ‘The Tank’. Similarly, Tom George cannot understate how thrilled he is at the prospect of Black Op going chasing, and training genius Nicky Henderson loves Santini’s chances this coming season. With the amount of talent in this division, trainers will struggle to keep their prized horses apart before the Spring festivals, meaning it could be a year full of titanic novice chase battles.

However, even with all of these top clashes due to take place, the jewel in the crown of British jumps racing is still undoubtedly its fiercely competitive big-field handicaps, run throughout the season at even the smaller tracks. Punters will already be seeking clues from stable tours for likely runners in the Ladbroke Trophy at Newbury on 1st December, twice won by Denman and possibly the highest class handicap of the whole season. Of course, the biggest betting race of the year will be the Grand National, and ante-post wagers are already flying in, many on reigning champion Tiger Roll to repeat his victory or 2017 winner One For Arthur to re-gain the title.

Thankfully there’s an almost limitless amount of tremendous racing to watch before we reach Aintree in April. From now until then, every weekend will have at least one meeting of major quality, midweek races are becoming more and more punter-friendly too. So don’t make the mistake of waiting until Cheltenham in March – the action starts now. I’ll be keeping you up to date with all the developments through the season, with a round-up every two weeks, so bookmark this page, and see you back here soon.