Newbury Saturday Handicaps Preview

The Newbury card is obviously headlined by the Ladbrokes Trophy, and I’ve already put up Mister Malarky as my main fancy for the big race earlier in the week. My other recommended bet in that preview was Yala Enki, but little of the forecast midweek rain actually arrived, and with the ground likely to be Good To Soft, his chances have perhaps receded – although let’s hope he pleasantly surprises us. But where one door closes, another opens, and the better ground does present a big opportunity for Alan King’s DINGO DOLLAR. Third last year off a higher mark on unfavoured soft ground, and still just seven years old, this race has always been the target, something that can’t be said for all the other runners towards the top of the weights. King has his horses bang in form, and I have to recommend a saver.

But in my view there is some value in another two races at Newbury:


1:15 Sir Peter O’Sullevan Memorial Handicap Chase 2m6f

Four potentially excellent up-and-coming horses have managed to get into this 0-145 contest, and given how much better than the rest some of these may turn out to be, that’s where my attention will lie.

JERRYSBACK showed some impressive form as a novice over this sort of trip before being (slightly oddly) entered in the Cheltenham four-miler. If that pretty horrendous experience didn’t bottom him out he would have real claims here off a mark of 145, but he was mediocre first time out last season and may be seen to better effect later in the season, especially given his owner’s penchance for managing his horses’ marks.

ROCKY’S TREASURE’s novice form wasn’t quite as high-class, but his best run did come around Newbury in December when he got within four lengths of Santini, the eventual RSA runner-up. A run of that quality would bring him into considerations, but at eight years old and with 18 rules starts under his belt, he might not be as progressive as some of the others.

LARRY races here off a mark of just 142, and it would be surprising if that proved to be the peak of his progress as a chaser. Gary Moore has always rated him highly, and he was sent off at just 10/1 for the graded Sodexo Gold Cup just a month ago. That was a curious outing, with Jamie Moore never getting the six-year-old involved in the thick of the action, meaning this race may have been the plan all along; his shrewd trainer will have noted that Larry’s best RPR last season came at Newbury.

Having said that, this race also looks the perfect opportunity for HIGHWAY ONE O ONE. Regular readers of this blog – if indeed there are any – will know that I love this horse, but you can’t get too sentimental in this game and I passed over backing him at Cheltenham in his last run. That was for two reasons: firstly, he isn’t at his best on soft ground; secondly, that was an immensely hot race. Neither of those factors come into play here. In my mind, Newbury will suit this bold jumper, and this may be the race where Chris Gordon’s pride and joy finally fulfils his huge potential. Gordon is enjoying a good season, with his chasers +10.88 so far, so Highway One O One rates a strong selection.

 

2:25 Ladbrokes “Where The Nation Plays” Intermediate Hurdle

Put simply, if EPATANTE actually was suffering the ill-effects of her ‘flu jab in the Mares Novices’ at Cheltenham – a Grade 2 race for which she was sent off 15/8 favourite, let’s not forget – then she wins this race off a mark of just 137. If she’s simply not quite as good as Nicky Henderson thinks she is, then there are more than enough decent horses in this race to beat her. At the price I will happily pay to find out.

 

Recommended Bets (Newbury):

1:15 Highway One O One 1.5pts e/w 10/1 (5 places)

2:25 Epatante 2pts win 4/1

3:00 Dingo Dollar 0.5pts win 14/1
(Already Advised Mister Malarky win & Yala Enki e/w)

Ladbrokes Trophy 2019 Preview

For me, the Ladbrokes Trophy (ex Hennessey Gold Cup) is about as good as it gets in National Hunt racing. Newbury is a terrific track for this staying test: fair fences allowing quick jumping, the long run-in emphasising stamina, and the tight-ish bends requiring tactical speed. For that reason, it’s very unusual for the best handicapped horse not to win, or for there to be any hard luck stories. This decade the winners have been sent off at 12/1, 9/2, 7/2, 7/1, 8/1, 20/1 (trained by Nicky Henderson, so hardly a pin-sticking job), 4/1, 10/1 and 6/1. It is very much not a lottery and it pays to look closest at those towards the head of the market, particularly before extra place terms are being offered by the bookies on the day.

Nicky Henderson has two of the most fancied runners, which is unsurprising given his great record in this race. The current favourite is OK CORRAL, a very unexposed nine-year-old with just three chase starts to his name. Owner by JP McManus, it’s entirely possible he has been laid out for this and will hose up on Saturday, but there’s little real evidence to point us mere mortals out of the loop to that conclusion, and as such I can’t back him at the prices. Henderson’s other obvious chance is ON THE BLIND SIDE, and he makes more appeal having proven his rating of 149 is workable with a decent fourth place in a hot handicap chase at Ascot four weeks ago. The seven-year-old’s defeat of Talkischeap at Kempton in January reads particularly well, and his peak hurdles rating of 153 suggests he can progress from this mark. But all his good chase form is right-handed, and at short enough prices a leap of faith is required to back him to win this top class race.

Another trainer with an outstanding record here is Colin Tizzard, and his runners merit major respect given his two wins and two places in the last four renewals. In fact, of those at the head of the market, my pick is MISTER MALARKY, who looks to have been trained with this race in mind since his second place to Kildisart at Aintree in April. That is good form, and while he races off a 3lb higher mark here, Tizzard’s chaser can be progressive enough to defy the extra weight: he is just six-years-old and finished a good fourth in the RSA in March. Despite a poor at Ascot – “the handicapper can’t put him up for that,” joked Tizzard – the plan was always this race due to his superb run round the track in January and he wasn’t highly tried. Even with his price having shortened to single figures, he’s worth backing, especially with Jonjo O’Neill Jnr on board.

Tizzard also has the in-form WEST APPROACH entered, and he has claims, but it’s ELEGANT ESCAPE who is also of interest. Such a consistent warhorse, he was runner-up last year and then won the Welsh National in fine style before finishing a respectable 6th in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. His attitude no doubt means he will be involved again at the end, but with his lofty mark of 160 it would be an astonishing performance to actually win, having failed to land the prize last year off 155. There’s no each-way juice in the price, so he has to be passed over reluctantly.

Analysis of Elegant Escape’s excellent form means that a bet on YALA ENKI looks excellent value: their form tallies almost exactly, but Yala Enki can race off a mark of 155, just 1lb higher than last year when he finished third. The experienced nine-year-old was moved from Venetia Williams to Paul Nicholls over the summer, and while Venetia is an outstanding trainer in her own right, Nicholls has a mercurial ability to get an extra few pounds out of chasers in his charge. If he has managed to work his magic, that small improvement could make all the difference, and at 25/1 compared to 10/1 for Elegant Escape, the value is clear. Bryony Frost on board in a big staying chase is another plus.

Two others for the shortlist are DINGO DOLLAR, third last year and now off 2lbs lower, and THE CONDITIONAL, who beat West Approach at Cheltenham with plenty in hand and races off just a 6lb higher mark. But both horses’ chances will be affected by the ground on the day, and with no major reason for their prices to shorter dramatically, it is worth waiting. Besides, as much as I’d like to, I can’t back four horses!

 

Recommended Bets:

YALA ENKI – 1pt e/w at 25/1 (Various, 4 x ¼)

MISTER MALARKY – 1.5pt win at 9/1

Seven Underrated Horses For Your 2019-20 Jumps Season Trackers

VISION D’HONNEUR

Not under the radar, but certainly underrated: Vision d’Honneur ended the season with a relatively low profile, considering his hefty pricetag and big reputation this time last year. That’s because Gordon Elliott’s young horse – and don’t forget how young he is compared to his rivals, with a March 2014 birthday –  fell at the last at Punchestown after only finishing 9th in the Supreme at Cheltenham. But as the Arctic Monkeys famously sang, “anticipation has a habit to set you up…for disappointment”, and those writing off this horse as a result of his poor runs in the Spring festivals are overreacting.

He arrived at Cheltenham having traded blows with Aramon and Klassical Dream in the Grade One at the Dublin Racing Festival before ultimately being outpaced and finishing six lengths back; before that he’d won a decent Punchestown novice hurdle fairly comfortably. That’s pretty decent form, especially for a young horse who clearly had a lot of filling out left to do over the summer.

But a closer look at his apparently ‘dreadful’ run in the Supreme is where things get even more interesting. He was blatantly outpaced down the hill after travelling fine, and then was given the easiest ride imaginable after that. It’s fairly obvious that Elliott, and Gigginstown connections, feel that this horse has far more to offer as a novice chaser over further, and given his scope it’s hard to disagree. Elliott commented in his stable tour for Betfair that “last season…the ground was too quick and he was too weak…we tried him in some bog races before he was ready for that level of competition. Don’t be surprised if he makes up into a high-class novice chaser.”

I won’t be surprised, Gordon. In fact, I think he’s a ludicrous price for the JLT in March, and I’m already willing to have a small punt.

 

BRIGHT FORECAST

Ben Pauling’s pride and joy was picked out by Nico de Boinville as the horse he was particularly looking forward to riding again this season – and that’s quite some statement from the man who rides most of Nicky Henderson’s string!

Pauling gave Bright Forecast a deliberately light novice hurdling campaign last term, feeling that the horse needed to develop further over the summer before being seen at his best over fences as an older and stronger horse. In that context, his form last term is even more impressive. His second place behind Mister Fisher doesn’t look amazing on the face of it, but given it was over a sharp 15.5 furlongs at Haydock, and given he nearly ran out on one bend, it was a good effort. Best of all was his eye-catching third in the Supreme, when he ran on powerfully up the hill after being outpaced.

That run marked him out as a horse with more stamina than outright speed; indeed, Pauling has suggested the RSA could be a target, which seems remarkable given that he was sent over such sharp trips over hurdles. I would be keener for him to run over intermediate trips with an eye on the JLT in March, but either way, he first needs to prove he can jump a fence. If he can – and his schooling has apparently been “electric” – he should go right to the top of the novice chasing division.

 

ELDORADO ALLEN

In my opinion, no two-mile novice hurdler made a bigger initial impression last season then Eldorado Allen at Sandown. He was magnificent that day: he settled well, jumped efficiently, and sped away from the field with an extraordinary burst of speed. And he didn’t beat nothing; the collateral form of many of the horses behind him that day has been strong. Sadly he was the victim of cruel fortune in his next start at Aintree and hasn’t race since, but Colin Tizzard has been making encouraging noises about his recovery, and has confirmed that he will stay hurdling this season.

If he has progressed over the summer – and of course, for a horse who has missed almost a whole year, that’s a big if – then in my view he can make up for lost time and take leading rank among two-mile hurdlers this season. Last season’s champion Espoir d’Allen is regrettably out for the year, leaving Klassical Dream as the only proven outstanding horse in the division, unless Buveur d’Air retains all his ability and speed as he ages. It could be an open division.

Of course, this is highly speculative – this is all based on one run against novices, which might have been a flash in the pan – but Colin Tizzard still thinks the world of this horse, and given the prices available, it might be worth a tiny investment to find out if the wily trainer is right.

 

HIGHWAY ONE O ONE

Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Chris Gordon’s chaser, and backed him for the Close Brothers at the festival, when he disappointed. So there’s a danger that he’s simply a cliff horse for me, but let me try to persuade you otherwise.

Apart from that festival flop, his form is impeccable for a horse rated just 144 by the handicapper in his best conditions (decent ground, 2.5+ miles): he trailed Kildisart, winner at Aintree, by just two lengths carrying two pounds more than him at Cheltenham in January; he was then narrowly beaten back at Cheltenham in an open Grade 2 handicap by the high-class Mister Whitaker. With another year under his belt, he can land a big prize this year off this mark, which to my eyes underestimates his jumping and travelling ability – when things fall in his favour.

 

DRINKS INTERVAL

Colin Tizzard’s mare finished last season with form figures reading PFP, so on the face of it she’s not one to follow, but those letters don’t tell the true story. She’d been on the go since April 2018, and had 11 starts between then and her fairly short 74-day lay-off leading into her three ill-fated runs in Spring 2019. In short, she needed a rest, and Tizzard himself would probably admit he shouldn’t have run her in March and April.

At her best, she was an impressive sight over fences, particularly when allowed to dictate proceedings from the front of the field, and she would probably have got herself some black type but for an unlucky late fall at Market Rasen. Her victory under a penalty at Chepstow was particularly striking, and marked her out as a classy mare.

Following the dreadful finish to last season, she’s back down to an official rating of 137 with a top RPR in her favoured conditions of 148. That makes her one to note in handicaps, although she has shown a tendency to get het up in the preliminaries in open company, most notably before the RSA at Cheltenham. In the right race, she can get back on track, but she does need conditions to be spot on to shine.

 

UNCLE ALASTAIR

Cruelly injured after just one chase start last season, the Rooney’s strapping 7-year-old should have a lot to offer this season if his long lay-off hasn’t done him any permanent damage. Although he only finished second, that chasing debut run was full of promise, as he ran the high-class Vinndication close over 20 furlongs at Carlisle. Watching that run back, there’s nothing not to like: he had to make the running, jumped almost perfectly, stayed on very well and wasn’t given a particularly hard time in the process. He’s only rated 135 by the handicapper, and if he’s fit and firing, he should go close in a big handicap over 2.5 to 3 miles this year.

 

GOOD BOY BOBBY

Another Rooney-owned horse who went under the radar after an underwhelming 2018-19 season, Good Boy Bobby can make amends this year. His novice hurdling campaign drowned in the mud at Ffos Las in November, where he failed to defy Somme-like conditions and was shattered by the experience. To be honest, Nigel Twiston-Davies shouldn’t have entered him, but Twister doesn’t really believe in horses not running. The then 5-year-old wasn’t seen again until the kinder conditions of March and April, where he got back on track with two facile wins, the first by the small matter of 44 lengths at Southwell, and then by a good margin back at Ffos Las (for some extraordinary reason).

None of that bare form screams “proper horse”, but the visual impression given in the three of his four starts on normal ground made this observer believe that Good Boy Bobby has a lot more to offer. He may be the wrong price in his races this side of Christmas, and I intend to take advantage of that.

 

Recommended Bets 

VISION D’HONNEUR – 0.5pts win – JLT Novices’ Chase @ 40/1 (Hills)

ELDORADO ALLEN – 0.25pts win – Champion Hurdle @ 66/1 (Various)

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: 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)