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.
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.
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.
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’)