Category Archives: Cheltenham Festival

Cheltenham Thoughts – Part I

Three more nights to sleep…. clearly I’m in danger of running late with the articles I want to have up before the almighty roar of the crowd signals the start of the Cheltenham Festival. But it’s not my fault! A nasty viral infection made life miserable the last ten days or so. Truth told, I was halfway through the draft of this post before falling ill – so better finish now before it’s really too late!

So here it is, a couple of lose thoughts and bets on a handful of races with some ante-post taken before last week. I reckon some of those prices quote will change soon enough if they haven’t already at the time of posting.

 

Tuesday: Supreme Novices Hurdle (Grade 1)

Visually I loved what I saw from Min so far. He’s such a in impressive individual! But hey, this is Cheltenham, this is a different ball game! Clearly he’s the weakest of the bunch of “Mullins banker” next week and it’s rather easy to pick holes and take him.

Looking for a bigger price, for the potential of x amount improvement as well as proven Festival form: I look no further than Dermot Weld’s Silver Concorde. I was lucky enough to see him close up cruising past the winning post at the Cheltenham Festival this day two years ago in the Champion Bumper. A lasting impression – this lad ticks plenty of the right boxes.

Truth told, there are some of cons too. There always are. He’s yet to get off the mark over hurdles – however remains frighteningly unexposed over timber nonetheless  and I give him the benefit of the doubt as his jumping is not that bad at all. It’s more like in his three starts over hurdles he was beaten by either heavy ground or a trip beyond his stamina.

Silver Concorde goes two miles but not any yard more and he does it only on decent ground. That’s how he won the bumper. With the mild weather settling in, Cheltenham on Tuesday’s likely to be in and around good to soft – here’s hoping it’s going to be slightly better, given it’s dry and all the rain that was there last week should be well absorbed by a track that drains so well.

Look, that’s the risk. Will it be good enough for Silver Concorde? No clue! We’ll find out. But the fact that Dermot Weld has kept faith in him, brings him here again and has spoken very positively in recent weeks, gives me some confidence.

Previous Festival form is so vital in my mind; he stays the two miles, has it proven here, he jumps a hurdle and can only get better in the jumping game anyway – I got 25/1 ante-post (without the NRNB insurance though), but he’s now as short as 16/1. So if you want to follow me on this lad, you might be better off waiting till Tuesday, then fully aware of the ground and bookies maybe offering mad prices.

Selection: Silver Concorde

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Tuesday: Champion Hurdle (Grade 1)

Maybe not quite as good a race as it was in the last couple of years, still an intriguing contest. The addition of Annie Power adds some sparkle and I actually think she’s got a great chance. Sure, there is plenty for and against her. Biggest negative is her lack of form over two miles. But she always looked a keen, pacey individual and there’s no doubt that she operates well at Cheltenham, despite the absence of that elusive W missing the respective CD column.

In a vintage Champion Hurdle of the past she might well have been found out for speed, but in this years edition I can easily see a scenario where she uses her stamina to her advantage. She could dominate from the front, setting freakish fractions in the hope of outstaying everyone in the end rather than outpacing them.

Says I’m not too keen on the price because I don’t feel she has such a big edge on the field, nonetheless. Stable mate Nicholas Canyon is probably not quite as his best around Cheltenham, and has some doubts after a tremendously hard race in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Though he’s got to be a key contender if he can bounce back. He won at Leopardstown at Christmas, slogging it out on horrible ground when caught flat footed at the run-in behind exciting Identity Thief.He just found the bit more under pressure in the end, against a less experiences rival.

The Gigginstown runner seems a bit a hyped up horse I thought. So many have been quite vocal about Identity Thief’s chances. Though I have to come to the conclusion: they are right. I loved the efforts of this lad when winning the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle and when second in the Ryanair Hurde behind Nicolas Canyon at Leopardstown. He’s still learning the game, doing so while competing against the best and is getting better each time.

He jumps well enough, although has still room for improvement in that department, but most importantly has plenty of scope. Still generally lightly raced, we don’t know yet how good he can be. Also he could be better on better ground , which he did get only on his successful seasonal reappearance at Down Royal.

It’s quite surprising that this lad is still offered at 6/1 which looks something like two full points over the top in my mind. Identity Thief clearly has a great shout in this race if he continues to improve.

Selection: Identity Thief

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Wednesday: Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1)

No real need to talk about who’s going to win this. Un De Sceaux has it all to take if he only gets round clear and safe. He did that last year and I don’t like to bet against a horse where the only hope of him not winning is him being a faller.

Some others can run well here. Stable mate Felix Younger most likely is one to be chasing the money. He’ll appreciate the better ground. That should be very much the same for Gods Own who has excellent festival from from last year when runner-up behind UDS. Though it’s hard to see him turning the form around even running the race thirty times.

Special Tiara should go well but his best chance to land this may have passed. Never underestimate reigning Champion Chaser Dodging Bullets if he can find back to something close of his best.

Whether Sprinters Sacre still has it in his locker or not is hard to say, but I doubt it Right, he’s two from two this season, but let’s not forget that a) the form is hardly Champion Chase form and b) he’s had as hard a race as not all too often before in his career when running it out on the line against Sire De Grugy at Kempton. It’s even more evident that Sire has not the legs any more required to perform at the top level too.

Saying that the “Without the Favourite” market is intriguing. For a moment I felt the urge to back old hero Somersby who looks a tasty price here. But he is probably over the edge by now and will be retired right after the race. More interesting is Colm Murphy new inmate Sizing Granite who has been rather disappointing in two starts this season but remains open to improvement.

He won a big Grade 1 Novice Hurdle at Aintree last season, crowning an excellent 2014/15 but couldn’t quite fulfil the promise shown back then this season. But there are fair excuses: he was only beaten by a head on his season reappearance, probably not fully wound up that day, and got completely stuck in the mud at Leopardstown – conditions totally detrimental to his chances.

Sizing Granite is a different horse on decent ground, so it’s easy to assume that we’ll see a different horse at Cheltenham. He has changed yards in the meantime, something that may help galvanise him too. Not to forget he is still a relatively unexposed horse, open for further improvement. You can have 12/1 without the favourite, which looks generous.

Selection: Sizing Granite (w/o UDS)

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Thursday: World Hurdle (Grade 1)

Reading plenty of Festival Guides one could get the feeling it might be a wise move t put the mortgage on World Hurdle favourite Thistlecrack – it’s the “surest thing ever”! And I fully get that. He’s been nothing but impressive since last year. And boy, there was this almighty performance in January when he bolted up in the Cleeve Hurdle. Totally get that.

But wait! Do people realize that the ground was horrific that day? Do people realize that Cheltenham come Thursday will be closer to good than to soft? Bottomless ground often throws up those impressive looking wide margin wins – that sort of form is hardly one to trust! Not that I doubt the class of this lad – not all all. But it’s worth mentioning, isn’t it?! Ah well, it’s only me trying to pick holes into this “sure thing”.

However, honestly, I understand all the hype, and sure thing we find out soon if it’s all justified – but let’s not forget that this is still the hardest test to date for Thistlecrack – shall we run the race first before we crown him?

Saying that because in my mind many people seem to make a big mistake ruling out reigning World Hurdle Champ Cole Harden. A wind op and good ground transformed this horse 100% last season. He looked like the world beater most assume Thistlecrack to be. With the exception: we already know Cole Harden is it! He has proven it!

Point I wanna make: Cole Harden has been beaten in all starts this season, but I’ve no doubt we’ll see a different Cole Harden this time around again. It’s easy to see why. He’s trained only with the defence of the World Hurdle in mind this season. He’ll be primed for the big day.

Drying ground is going to be a big plus for him. Says Thistlecrack is by no means a bad horse on better ground. But surely a much better horse with cut in the ground whereas Cole Harden is a completely different animal on decent ground. So backing the reigning champ at 8/1 makes perfect sense for me under these circumstances.

Selection: Cole Harden

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Friday: Grand Annual Chase (Grade 3)

Big field, open race, through a needle, make your pick….. but I do really like the prospects of Velvet Maker here. He gets this into with a pretty fair handicap mark and showed plenty of promise in his first starts over fences. Still lightly raced, he’s bound to improve for his recent experiences I feel.

Velvet Maker was a fine Novice Hurdler, although found out for class in the Supreme at least years Festival. He got off the mark on his first start over fences at Naas, showing plenty of potential, dispatching a subsequent handicap chase winner easily.

Upped in class significantly, he bumped into the almighty Douvan the last two times, but again there were plenty of positives particularly about his performance in the Leopardstown Arkle. He travelled well for a very long time, was there in touch with Douvan until the last and finished a clear second in front of the third placed Doomesday Book, a decent individual in his own right.

If Velvet Maker runs in the Grand Annual he drops back into Grade 3 and against opposition much closer to his own rating. I wouldn’t read too much into his sole Cheltenham start, he was out of his depth last year. But the likely better ground should certainly suit him here.

In addition to that, owner Barry Connell has called Velvet Maker out as his banker of the meeting. Nothing special, I know,  those sort of remarks have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless it adds to the already impressive list of good arguments for Velvert Maker to be a leading candidate to the win the Grand Annual.

I don’t think he’ll be as big a price on the day as he is right now in the ante-post market. I got 16/1, again without insurance, but he currently still available at around 14/1 NRNB, which is a bit on the generous side I’d say.

Selection: Velvert Maker

On the Don Poli Bandwagon

It’s been a quiet time for this blog… racing hasn’t really got my blood boiling lately. That’s okay. Everyone needs a break at some point, and mine was in recent weeks, taking a step back from racing. It felt good. There are other things in life as well.

Rejuvenated, fresh and less depressed with the days starting to be longer and brighter (and seemingly a bit less rainy – it’s been some depressing months here in Ireland on that front I can assure you!) – it’s time to head right into it again. I can smell the summer and oh…. I can hear the quick horses thundering down the final furlong at the Curragh! Would you believe it, the start Irish flat season is roughly two weeks away?!

There is this small matter of the Cheltenham Festival before that though… so one step at a time please! I was there, two years ago. It was great (just look at the enormous crowd in the lead photo of this article which I took on opening Tuesday that year). This year it’s me in front of the TV. Still good, Cheltenham is the most spectacular week of horse racing… only rivalled by Royal Ascot in my humble opinion. But let’s not get into an argument here. Let’s be focused on what’s really important: the races, the horses, the betting….

Shout it loud, shout it proud: Don Poli wins the Gold Cup! Okay, that’s not news for most of us…. or is it? Well, there’re some prominent advocates for the seven year old gelding, screaming it from roof for weeks, that’s for sure. I’m simply jumping on the bandwagon.

Why? Let’s start with the trainer. Master Willie. Never won the Gold Cup, but this horse is prepared to change it. Lightly campaigned, Don Poli will arrive fresh, trained to his absolute best on the day. But that’s also the case with the other Mullins inmates in the line-up . What’s a difference: the “Polinator” has vital course form – it’s no secret: Cheltenham is one of those rare tracks – it makes or breaks you.

Don Poli won the last two seasons at the Festival, with the RSA Chase arguably his biggest triumph. The way he poured it on and stormed up the hill after clearing the last that day in March 2015 was nothing but impressive.

Some have knocked the horse for his seemingly laziness and potential lack of pace. Don Poli a slow horse? It may appear to be so visually but I would argue that he usually just does as much as is required, without being fancy – nothing more, nothing less. He gets the job done. That’s it. It not “sexy” but Sea The Stars never won by a wide margin either yet I would argue was by far the best horse we’ve ever seen… though that’s a completely different argument, for another day.

In contrast to what some ‘experts’ say, I do like what I saw from Don Poli this season. Two starts, two wins, nothing overly impressive visually, obviously more’s required to win a Gold Cup. Nonetheless winning the Lexus Chase is still winning an important Grade 1 – regardless of how he did it, in terms of style. It’s a prestigious race and it takes a really good horse to land it.

Sure, Don Poli appeared outpaced rather early on, and you could bring up the argument again that he’s a slow horse, who’ll be out of touch once they swing for home in the Gold Cup if he’d show the same traits there. I argue: he has shown again and again in the past as well as here at Leopardstown that he is well able to move up a gear when it’s really needed. He knows to save the best for those key moments.

Not only that. You have to wonder whether Don Poli was actually at his absolute peak in the Lexus Chase. Knowing Willie Mullins I’d rather believe we’ll see an even better conditioned Don Poli when it matters most: at the Festival.

But one last point on the Lexus Chase, which I feel hasn’t been really made by many: while I wholeheartedly agree that on balance a 1/2 lengths defeat of First Lieutenant is short of Gold Cup winning form, I also would say that the runner-up wasn’t necessarily ridden with winning the race in mind, but rather to finish as close as possible – a bit like Arctic Fire in last years Champion Hurdle.

That sort of tactics enabled First Lieutenants jockey to commit much later to a run, asking his mount to go for all too late to win the race, though to preserve as much energy as possible for a big finish, to pass tired horses in front and finish eventually as close as possible.

That’s in stark contrast to what Don Poli had to do, who as a result was in front of First Lieutenant by a couple of lengths clearing the last while going for all of it. Don Poli went on to win his race and seemed to idle once hitting the front in the last 200 yards, while Davy Russell was able to tap into unused reserves on his mount First Lieutenant to finish extremely strongly, without ever looking likely to win – in my mind at least. No doubt Don Poli was the best horse in the race. The quality jumped out.

Now, that is controversial. I’m sure plenty of people will shake their head in disbelief amid such theory, and sure enough, what do I – the armchair jockey – know about riding winners anyway. That’s fine with me.

It’s just another argument adding on to the already impressive list of “pro-arguments” to Don Poli’s cause of winning the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Now, that’s Don Poli. What about the opposition? Top class opposition is awaiting. Don Cossack, the highest rated chaser in training – I was mightily impressed with how he finished in the Ryanair Chase last year, after loads of trouble, making a big mistake, being short of room, yet staying up the hill very strongly. Nonetheless it looks that Don Cossack is not at his best at Cheltenham. Although the Gold Cup trip may see a different horse this time around?

The case of Vautour is a difficult one and could take up another thousand words to write about. Is he going to run in the Gold cup eventually? His owner certainly thinks so. Other sources seem adamant that he’s a sure thing for the Ryanair. Regardless of whether he runs or not, I have to oppose him anyway on the boring argument of stamina. Sure enough, you can say he has this super Cheltenham form, is potentially the most talented chaser in training and he got close enough at Kempton to win the King Goerge. I say: It’s two additional furlongs, plus the daunting hill. At this point in time I believe it’s too far for Vautour, even if he will strip fitter on Gold Cup day.

I’m not really sure about Cue Card. He seems to stay, he’s the form horse you could say  and definitely likes it around Cheltenham. I still have my doubts that he really wants it that far. Not only that, I believe Don Poli is simply a more talented horse, who could still improve. I don’t see that with Cue Card.

Although I see that very much in another Willie Mullins runner, Djakadam. Only seven years of age, lightly campaigned this season too and crucially an excellent runner-up in the 2015 Gold Cup. He’s got everything you want to see in a lively contender – however one shadow is casting my mind: his jumping. He fell here at Cheltenham in a Trial in January, and he fell at the Festival in 2014 in the JLT. So that has to be a concern. I find it hard to have him over Don Poli, for that reason.

Let’s not rule out Smad Place, brilliant winner of the Hennessy this season, nor Road To Riches – if he runs – third in Gold Cup last year…. but I can turn and twist it all day long, I always end up with Don Poli as the winner of the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup!

You can still get 6/1 with some firms for Don Poli, which looks outstanding value in my mind. Sure, the final field isn’t 100% clear at this stage, nonetheless in any field this lad has a better than 15% chance.So lump on, as long as you can!