Cheltenham Festival Preview – DAY 1

The Festival

Finally it’s here – the Cheltenham Festival! It feels like the build-up to it would never end, with all the talk (and hype to an extend) about the biggest four days in jump racing effectively starting as soon as each new jumps season gets under way. But let’s jump right into it now and concentrate on what this is all about: The great sport we all love so much!

I’ll be previewing each day in advance over the course of the week. But no worries, I’ll keep it short and snappy. I’m sure you have heard and read so much the same horses and races over and over again, be it on TV, on other blogs, Twitter or on one of the countless preview nights!

Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1)

Two standout horses here: Willie Mullins “supposed to be banker” Douvan and Nicky Henderson’s L’ami Serge. Both haven’t done much wrong in their young careers. Douvan been mightily impressive in two starts since moving to Ireland from France. He’s beaten some smart horses with ease and Cheltenham will tell us more about how much he has left once off the bridle. L’ami Serge has been equally impressive thanks to a couple of wide margin wins. He has an awful lot of potential.

From the bigger prices, Qewy is interesting and looks talented. He may be better suited to Aintree but could still run into a place here. I feel Douvan is a rock solid selection, though, and should prove very hard to beat. His form looks stronger to my eyes and he looks such a huge, imposing individual, with plenty of scope – I just can’t look past him, particularly not at 2/1.

Douvan @ 2/1 William Hill – 10 pts win

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Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase (Grade 1)

Un De Sceaux will win this. Full stop. He looks a superstar in the making, and while I was still a bit unsure before his last run at Leopardstown, I’m now pretty sure he is the real deal, after slaughtering two smart rivals in breathtaking fashion. If he jumps well tomorrow, and I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t, then he must rate “banker material”.

Main danger should be progressive Vibrato Valtat. He always seems to travel well and nowadays also seem to finds something off the bridle. Not sure if he really would stick his neck out in a tough battle up the hill though. Clarcam finished a long beaten runner-up to UDS recently, but if ridden with more restraint, he may finish in the money. Looking elsewhere for a bit of value, I particularly like the 40/1 for God’s Own. He comes here as a fresh horse which seemed to work best for him in the past. The last two runs were poor but he didn’t have the ground he needs to be seen to best effect. That should be different tomorrow and he should show a much improved effort.

God’s Own @ 40/1 VC – 2.5pts EW

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Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy (Grade 1)

This looks a straightforward race to my eyes. Faugheen is better than anything else in this race. It’s that simple. There are no worries about match fitness due to his lack of run since December. Connections did the same last year, when he won so impressively at the Festival. He may miss the odd jump here and there, but he is learning and certainly has a touch of class about him. Some say he didn’t beat much this season, and yes that is true to an extend. But Blue Heron, who was 17 lengths behind Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, was subsequently a runaway winner in Grade 2 company.

What about the rest? The New One won’t be quick enough. Too much has been made of the trouble he meat in-running last year in the Champion Hurdle. Jezki got a super ride last year but even with his Cheltenham form and liking for decent ground, it’s hard to see him good enough this year. I’d love to see The Fly doing it for a third time, but he isn’t getting any quicker and for me it’s proven that he is not quite the same horse at Cheltenham, despite two Champion Hurdles. The ground is certainly against him.

Kitten Rock is one I like from the bigger price. He has a lot to find on form and ratings, but is an improving sort and may be better than the price suggests. Nonetheless, it’s Faugheen all the way!

Faugheen @ 6/5 Coral – 10pts win

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Mares’ Hurdle (Grade 1)

Another race with a red hot favourite trained by Willie Mullins. Make no mistake, he has four “bankers” on the opening day of the Festival, but none is a bigger one than Annie Power. She is the highest rated horse in the race and has a proven her class last season. She is simply a league or two above the rest in this field. The vibes from the yard are good, Annie is in fine form and while it is slightly disappointing to see such a high class animal in the  below Grade 1 level Mares Hurdle (despite the status as one), it makes sense to give Annie a potentially easier race than in a tough World Hurdle. If nothing unforeseen happens, she’ll win.

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Toby Balding National Hunt Chase (Listed Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase)

This looks a wide open renewal. Noel Meade has the very promising favourite Very Wood in the race and this former Festival winner must have a big chance as he’s getting his ground here. Sego Success looks to have the right tools to run a big race too. Nonetheless this looks an open enough contest and I feel the mare Theatre Queen is a big price and worth an each-way nibble. She can be a tricky customer but has Cheltenham form, looks a stayer through and through and goes on decent ground with a nice weight here.

Theatre Queen @ 33/1 PP – 2.5pts E/W

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There are two more Handicap Chases on the card. Plenty of runners there, hard to distinguish form in those races for me. I don’t want to pretend t be able to solve the puzzle in those races and leave that up to the National Hunt experts. My advice would be: Sit back and enjoy these races. They’ll be competitive and probably pretty exciting to watch.

I like to make a call for one double bet: Annie Power and Un De Sceaux look unbeatable for me. And while there is no such thing as certainty in jump racing, combining these two short prices gives us odds of about @ 2.79. Do I think there is a better than 36% chance that both win their races? Yes, absolutely.

AP + UDS @ 2.79 Betfred – 10pts win

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Another Round for Frankyfourfingers

This race looks certain to evolve around the first three in the betting: African Story, Prince Bishop and Frankyfourfingers. Those three renew their rivalry from the recent Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2, where Frankyfourfingers prevailed under a canny front-running ride by Mickael Barzalona.

The French gelding has rapidly improved since his first start on the Meydan Dirt, which came in January in the Round 1 of this race. That day over 1m, he travelled well but couldn’t quite match the speed of eventual winner Surfer. However he looks a horse naturally suited to the Dirt, and he proved that when he took Round 2 in excellent style. Critics would say he got tired in the end and the additional half a furlong could find him out today. I would rather think the opposite. He looked to idle as he was alone in front and in fact the slight step up in trip should very much suit on pedigree. More improvement is not unlikely to come.

What about Prince Bishop, who came very close in the very same race after staying on in extremely eye-catching fashion? Yes, he is a big player, certainly. He proved to be able to cope with the new surface and his past form rates a very strong one. He may stripper fitter today, and must be in with a big shout. However there is a valid concern, given the fact that he seems to develop a habit of starting slowly and lazily these days. He won’t be able to allow that to happen again today. With this risk in mind, he looks a very short price.

Stable mate African Story is the reigning Dubai World Cup champ and naturally warrants plenty of respect. His Dirt debut was okay I thought, given the long break. He didn’t look like really enjoying to get Dirt into his face, though, and I would rather like to see another run of him performing really well on this surface before I would back him. US runner Long River makes his Meydan debut and has fair form in his native country. He surly will enjoy the test but if he is quite up to the standard required here remains to be seen.

As touched on already, I feel Prince Bishop is too short in the betting given his habit to blow the start. If he could get it right this time, he is obviously a very big runner. I can’t trust African Story today but I’m interested to see some improvement. Natural choice is Frankyfourfingers with the right form in the book and the right profile to take this. He looks overpriced and would have thought that he is at the top of the market.

3.30 Meydan: Al Maktoum Challenge R3 (Group 1)
Frankyfourfingers @ 4/1 VC – 10pts win

Halation can defy career highest mark

No surprise to see this Handicap as competitive as it is with more than half of the field in with a legitimate win chance. Right at the head of the market is the recently so impressive Lingfield winner Mindyourownbusiness. A progressive colt, he improved nicely from run to run and got his game very much together the last time to win with a bit of authority. He had quite the run of the race, though, and up 7lb in the handicap mark, more is needed. Though, given his profile, he could easily be up to it.

Melvin The Grate finished a gallant fourth that day, following on from some excellent performances. He tracked the eventual winner all the way but couldn’t cope with the acceleration of Mindyourownbusiness. Not impossible that he can improve again, but he will have to as it looks to me as if he may be in the grip of the handicapper now. He certainly will need a quick pace and probably a bit of in-running luck if connections decide to revert to the successful hold-up tactics.

Always consistently competitive is Marco Botti’s Solar Deity. In his last five starts he has never been beaten by more than three lengths and finished was in the money in the majority of those races. That is reflected in his handicap mark, which stand stiff at 105. For that reason he has to carry a very big weight today as the highest rated horse in the field and may find one or two too good once again. Godolphin’s Billingsgate had a quick trip to Dubai, but finished last in a competitive Handicap there. Shipped back to the UK, he must rate a good chance here, based on last seasons form, though the travel stress is a slight worry.

David Simcock’s Halation is an interesting runner. This Azamour gelding is clearly progressive, and had excuses when he finished down the field behind Mindyourownbusiness at Lingfield on his seasonal reappearance. The handicapper gave him a big chance subsequently and he obliged duly. He was in the right position that day, but also travelled beautifully and looked like a horse with much more to come. Consequently raised in the mark, he will need to improve, but the trip should suit well as on pedigree he is supposed to get further as well as get better with time. A fine 7lb claimer cancels effectively out the 6lb rise of the the handicap mark and therefore I would expect Halation to be very competitive today – if he is able to overcome his wide draw – which has to be a slight concern.

Veteran Santefisio hasn’t been seen to best effect in recent starts, however he is on a very long losing run and simply need more help from the handicapper. Jack Of Diamonds ran with loads of credit in his last starts. Expect him to be competitive today. He has a bit to find with the more fancied rivals, though. Don’t Call Me looks as good as ever, but that says looked unlikely to be able to win off a mark as high as the current one in this grade. Pearl Nation is better suited to Southwell, though has Wolverhampton form. He did well lately, however it’s much more required here today.

On balance, I feel Halation is the dark horse to an extend and is overpriced. He is on a mark that gives him a chance to win if natural improvement would kick in for this lightly raced gelding. He showed nice form recently, has a good 7lb claimer on board and should like the trip.

2.50 Wolverhampton:Lincoln Trial Handicap (C2)
Halation @ 6/1 PP – 5pts win

Pharmaceutical competitive with handy weight

This is quite an interesting little race which features two rapidly improving Godolphin horses right at the top of the market. If the bookmakers got the order right, I’m not so sure, though. Four Seasons with Ryan Moore on board makes plenty of appeal for obvious reasons, as he is on a hat-trick here today. That says visually his most recent win wasn’t all that impressive in a race which he was clearly entitled to win on ratings and weights. That doesn’t mean that he can’t improve again and he is obviously nicely bred and cost a good deal as a yearling, nonetheless I think he is a very short price, given that you can pick big holes into his recent forms and that he has to overcome a three month long break.

I’d prefer stable mate – though trained by bin Suroor – Greatest Journey. He cost even a bit more as a yearling and he looks a really nice, big, scopy gelding who improved dramatically on the All-Weather this winter – he is here to complete a five-timer today! He went up big time in the ratings for obvious reasons and now on a mark of 97, he’ll need to improve again. I’m not so worried about that, and think he could be absolutely up to it. However the drop in trip is a big question mark. He looks more like a horse crying out for further, as his pedigree is pointing that out too. He won over 9.5f already, and while he may have enough class to be competitive even over 7f, I believe off a mark as high as he is on right now, it is very seldom that you can afford to race over a trip clearly too sharp of the optimum.

Carry On Deryck could run well fresh and should find this easier than what he competed in last year, however he has to overcome a very big weight and may struggle. Anonymous John is consistent and competitive. He can win a race but maybe the step up to 7f is not the right thing to do. Polarisation has loads to find and doesn’t make any appeal.

Much more interesting is Charlie Hills’ very lightly raced colt Pharmaceutical. Only two starts to date, he could be open to any kind of improvement. He was not a cheap yearling by any means either, with a price tag of €100k and in fact is a pretty nicely bred Invincible Spirit son, out of a Listed race winning mare. He did a fair job in a rather poor maiden on a winning debut run, but couldn’t quite back it up subsequently. That was an odd race though and he kept on nicely. Despite finishing second last he was less than two lengths beaten, without getting beaten up at all. Obviously he needs to show more today, up in grade against better opposition.

That says he should improve naturally, have learned a fair bit from his first two starts and if he could live up to his pedigree, must rate a competitive runner in this field. Pharmaceutical receives an awful lot of weight from most of his rivals here, most notably from the favourite Godolphin horses. In addition to that he has Cam Hardie on board who is more than worth his 3lb claim. So effectively he can race off 76 today! I believe there is a very good chance that this colt is a fair bit better than that. If that is the case indeed, he will go very close.

4.30 Lingfield: Class 3 Handicap, 7 furlongs
Pharmaceutical @ 6/1 PP – 5pts win

Viewpoint can outrun the odds at Kempton

The clear favourite at head of the market is Godolphin’s progressive gelding Tryster. He is on a hat-trick and has to carry a big weight of 9st 7lb according to his high rating of 100. The four year can be a tricky ride sometimes and clearly showed signs of greenness at Chelmsford when he beat Gaelic Silver in a controversial finish. Tryster made things look  much easier the next time at Wolverhampton and won like a horse that could go on to bigger things. A hike of 7lb in the mark is fair for that performance on on hand, but could still be generous on the other hand. The best price of 11/10 looks a fair one too, no doubt. But is there a chance to take this hot favourite on?

Nearest pursuer in the market is Beach Bar who also ha a progressive profile. Only beaten in the last couple of strides over 10f at Lingfield the last time, he has clear credentials to run well again. I’m question his stamina, though. He had the run of the race lto on his only start over a trip that far, and looked like he couldn’t quite hold on to it. He is bred rather for a mile in my mind and the speed on the dam side clearly makes me wonder if he may fade away in a race where a couple of runners might want to chase a bit more aggressively the lead. On the other hand if he could get an easy lead in front he has a chance to get home, particularly over the sharp Kempton 10f course.

The Gay Cavalier has won his last two starts and clearly thrives on the Kempton All-Weather. He never does too much once in front, yet his recent success was visually a compelling one to my eyes. He takes quite a step up in class now and has effectively to carry 7lb more on ratings this time against much stronger opposition. He may well be up for it with further improvement not unlikely, but that also says he faces a tough task in my mind.

Gaelic Silver was a controversial runner-up behind Tryster at Chelmsford in January. He disappointed subsequently of a revised mark and has to prove that he can overcome a career highest mark. Rebellious Guest on his best, would have a chance, but his form is poor lately. Same applies to George Guru. It’s hard to see either of them going close here.

Leaves Richard Hannon’s six year old gelding Viewpoint. Once a progressive and prolific 10 furlongs handicapper, he won a big Apprentice Handicap at Glorious Goodwood in summer 2013 and also landed the All-Weather Championships Apprentice Handicap over 12f on Good Friday last season. Since then things went downhill for him. Last year was mainly a complete disaster, bar the early Al-Weather success, and his most recent efforts didn’t instil too much euphoria either. However the last three back on the All-Weather he ran in hot competition and looked a bit better again. With the AW handicap mark falling, he was well in contention at Lingfield lto back in January, though lost all chances when a horse fell right in front of him.

Now, there is still not too many positives speaking for Viewpoint. However I believe he is a huge price here against the favourite. He gets a good deal of weight, and would go very close if he finds back to anything near his best. The drop in trip back to 10f looks ideal, particularly here at Kempton. I can see him reverting back to more positive tactics, to be right up with the speed and make it a stamina test. Then being up with the pace is a huge advantage at Kempton’s 10f course. So if he would be able to kick on turning for home, I could see him holding on to it over the short run-in while Tryster, sitting probably trailing, may not be there in time.

6.45 Kempton: Class 2 Handicap, 10 furlongs
Viewpoint @ 14/1 Ladbrokes – 5pts win

Racing’s Weekend Review

8days

Yep, it’s hard to believe, but it’s March again and Cheltenham is literally just around the corner! Next week were’ already discussing the big races, fallen favourites and hopefully some surprising & heart-warming stories. It’s a shame, I can’t make it this year. I broke my Cheltenham maiden tag last year, and it was absolutely amazing. Tuesday with club enclosure was the perfect race day. Top class racing action, big crowd but not that it felt uncomfortable, and some lovely warm spring sun shining down into this natural amphitheatre . It’ll be a shaky stream at work this time, and replays on TV afterwards (no need to cry for me – I’ll be going to the Grand National instead!).

VIEW: Our Photo Gallery – Cheltenham Festival 2014

The formerly in Ireland trained Designs On Rome has rapidly become one of the best middle distance horses in the world. Since he left Pat Flynn’s yard to start a new career in Hong Kong, he has nothing but improved. Now a three time Group 1 winner in overseas, he’ll be one of the favourites for the Sheema Classic on Meydan’s World Cup night. And rightly so. He won the prestigious Group 1 Hong Kong Gold Cup in very taking style on Sunday morning UK time. Having it all to do turning for home, he had come from the widest travelling welloff the pace for most parts of the race, but was simply too good for his rivals, mainly old foe Military Attack.

It was Gauteng Guineas day at Turffontein, South Africa, on Saturday. You may have seen my previews for both the fillies’ and boys’ races. They promised allot and didn’t disappoint, though it was slightly surprising to see both races won by very convincing winners – that says it wasn’t the usual bunched up finished! Siren’s Call took the Fillies Guineas in style of a really good horse. She’s a hardly filly with the touch of class. Harry’s Son overcame all troubles in preparation to the big race and proved far too good for the opposition in the boys’s Guineas. Last seasons champion two year old will now try to go on to win the Triple Crown before he’ll be on the move to Dubai for next years Carnival.

Gauteng Guineas – Winner: Harry’s Son:

Gateng Fillies Guineas – Winner: Siren’s Call:

It’s not news to readers of this blog that I‘m a big fan of Bob Baffert’s colt Dortmund – who is my pick for the Kentucky Derby. It was pleasing, though also kind of odd to a certain extent,to hear Baffert talking about Dortmund, following a workout at Santa Anita: “His last two works have really been his best works. I think the light finally went on. I think he’s finally figuring out how he’s supposed to do it.” Mind you Baffert is talking about a Grade 1 winner, who is currently trading as the co-favourite for the Derby. One has to wonder, if Dortmund has been able to win all these races before without ‘the light on’, how much more improvement could potentially come from this extremely good looking colt?!

Eye-Catcher of the Weekend

Sundays card at Geyville, South Africa, was largely low grade stuff. With the exception of a fair Graduation plate, which saw 2013 champion two year old Kochka back on track for his second run after a long injury related lay-off. The four year old colt ran on well on his comeback run and has clearly grown physically into a brute of a horse. He was the clear favourite today to beat rivals below his natural class and for that reason he was our banker of the day. As expected, Kochka finished the job, even though it was slightly more thrilling than I as a punter would have like it. Which was very much the down to the very confident and light ride the big colt was given. Kochka itself is a horse to keep in mind when he steps up in trip again. 1.200m is too short against better opposition, but he is clearly back and should be a force over a mile.

My eye-catcher of the week ran in the very same race. The three year old Saratoga Dancer Saratoga Dancer, officially rated a low 78 rated, finished a fine third, less than two lengths beaten by Kochka, who is 105 rated, and runner-up Nineteen Fourteen who is a fair measure stick at 88 and clearly ran to form. Saratoga Dancer only received 3.5kg and 0.5kg respectivelly by these much higher rated individuals, yet he was able to finish so close. He is still lightly raced, was back from a break today and probably needs further. Not to mention that he got an odd ride, was never touched and still finished as close as he did. Let’s see what the handicapper does next But I suspect that Saratoga Dancer, once up in trip again, will be a big runner regardless of where he pops up next. .

Horse Racing Around The Globe

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