Tag Archives: Gold Cup

Cheltenham Festival 2018: Day 4 + Gold Cup Fancies

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Delta Work (12/1) lit up the day! In a thrilling finish, driven out by brilliant Davy Russell, won the day, and the week. Back in the profit, and with less races to come than needed to erode the accumulated profit, it’s already, before the final day, a profitable week. Now the question is: is a noteworthy profit or pocket money? On to  Gold Cup Friday….

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14:10 Cheltenham – County Hurdle

The trend horse, the sexy horse…. the winner? Smaoineamh Alainn must go close. This lightly raced six year old has won all his hurdle starts and got up here at Cheltenham over this trip in December – a piece of form that has worked out incredibly well.

Eight pounds higher than that day; he seems very well handicapped. Connections opted against from running him again. It certainly protected his handicap mark.

With the track and trip not imposing any fear, the ground shouldn’t either. He’s won on very soft ground already.

Selection:
10pts win – Smaoineamh Alainn @ 16/1 Skybet

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14:50 Cheltenham – Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle

I take a swing at two pic prices: Fabulous Saga wasn’t right when last seen at Leopardstown. Leaving that form out he won a Grade 2 and Grade 3 on the bounce over this sort of trip on deep ground.

Mulcahys Hill went desperatly close in a the Grade 1 Challow Novices’ Hurdle. Can be a tricky character and bombed the next, but that may came too soon. Step up to 3m should be perfect and ground is in his favour.

Selection:
5pts win – Fabulous Saga @ 33/1 VC
5pts win – Mulcahys Hill @ 54/1 Matchbook

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15:30 Cheltenham – Gold Cup

As open a Gold Cup as I can remember in a while.  Personally I don’t trust Might Bite yet. He has to show it here that he stays professional and can get home in a competitive top class field in the noisy environment that Gold Cup Day at Cheltenham is.

That means, without a clear cut favourite, you can make cases for plenty in the field. I give Our Duke a big chance. However, he’s not a price I want to get involved in. Simply because I feel Killultagh Vic nearly double the price is much better value.

The question is how he has mentally recovered from the crashing fall in the Irish Gold Cup. We won’t find out until he runs. That says, without being able to say for sure whether he would have won, given Edwulf, the eventual winner that day, travelled strongly approaching the last fence too, it’s fair to say Killultagh Vic would have gone almighty close.

Despite his age of nine, the Willie Mullins charge has only nie starts to his name and only three over fences, of which he won two, and the other one the mentioned Leopardstown race.

That means Killultagh Vic may still have a bit of improvement left. That he is up to Grade 1 standard he showed last month. The ground is sure to be to his likening. So, if he has recovered from his fall, he must rate a huge runner.

Another interest I have is American. Not for win purposes. He’s likely not good enough, however, will relish the ground conditions. He has been supplemented for the race and his runner-up performance behind Definitely Red here in the Cotswold Chase at the end of January is a fair piece of form.

He travelled really well for most parts of the race, however might have done a bit too much too early, I felt. So there is a chance he could finish closer to Definitely Red on another day. That should be good enough to see him in the mix. He’s also one who is still open to progress.

Selections:
5pts win – Killultagh Vic @ 10/1 VC
5pts Place – American @ 8/1 Matchbook

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16:10 Cheltenham – Foxhunter Chase

Foxrock can make this a true test for the hype horse of the race: Burning Ambition. It’s true, in the past Foxrock didn’t enjoy the best of runs at this venue. However, in my mind, it was down to bad jumping. He’s older now, wiser, a better jumper and this not as good a race as those he used to run in.

Says, the ten year old is still class. He won four times in this sphere last season and had a fine reappearance at Thurles in January when runner-up behind Gilgamboa. Both jumped the last locked together, but Foxrock got very tired, as he was entitled to after his break in bad ground as it was that day.

Trip and ground conditions will be ideal for him here. Hope he can make it third time lucky – he certainly is the price of the race in my eyes.

Selection:
10pts win – Foxrock @ 8/1 WH

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Coneygree Superstar!

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The Punchestown Gold Cup promised to be a race not to be missed…. it thoroughly delivered! In a thrilling, head bobbing finish, Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Sizing John got the better of Djakadam and the unbelievably brave Coneygree. What a race it was!

It’s been the cherry on the cake of an unbelievable season for Jessica Harrington and Robbie Power – only a good week ago they also landed the Irish Grand National and of course the big price at the Festival in March.

For me, though, this race was all about Coneygree. He who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup as a novice in 2015, but since then until today had only two more runs due to injuries. After another lengthy spell on the sidelines he returned to the racecouese today and tried it once again his way – the hard way – from the front.

He set a rattling pace, jumped explosive as ever, but got tired in the closing stages – who will begrudge him that – and as a result made a big mistake two fences from home, which ultimately ended his dreams.

Though – and that was what impressed me most – he rallied and battled, fought his way back into contention to be in with a chance jumping the last.

It wasn’t enough, Djakadam an Sizing John battled it out in the final furlong – Coneygree came home one and a half lengths beaten in third eventually. Given the circumstances this was as massive a performance as you’ll ever see. What a superstar Coneygree is!

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1.40 Beverley: Class 5 Handicap, 5f

If it wouldn’t be for apprentice Patrick Vaughan on board I’d say Lawless Louis is a penalty kick in this race. The young jockey’s record on turf is atrocious and even on the All-Weather he’s having a hard time this year so far.

On the other hand he’s got some decent rides for the O’Meara yard over the last couple of seasons and is quite an experienced rider for his seven pound claim, so this allowance might come handy here, actually.

Lawless Louis makes his seasonal reappearance here at Beverley where his trainer has quite a fine record over the years and given he can race off what could easily be a lenient mark I assume he’s ready to go fresh.

He finished a fine sixth in the Listed 2yo Trophy when last season in 2016, which was an excellent performance and in line with some other decent performances where he wasn’t all that far beaten and the form has stand the test of time.

Now as a three year old dropping to 5f again and taking a massive drop in class I feel he has a bit of potential to win one or two races. Certainly the handicapper gives him every chance, and while it is no easy feat as a younger horses against older, seasoned handicappers at this point in the season, I feel he has a prime chance in this particular race.

It’s also noteworthy that Lawless Louis is a full-brother to the decent filly Lydia’s Place who herself was a 89 rated individual at some point in her career.

Selection:
10pts win – Lawless Louis @ 5/1 Bet365

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Another winner on the board yesterday – okay half a winner! London Master travelled much the best in the 6.30 at Wolverhampton but just couldn’t quite get past the gutsy filly Log Off. He appeared to be in front behind the line, though when it mattered, it seemed to my eyes that Log Off held on.

After lengthy enquiry a dead heat was declared – certainly a result I can live with, giving I though it was lost! And as I backed London Master at 11/2 the night before, even a dead heat resulted in a decent payout!

Cheltenham: The Future Starts Here

The Festival it was – a crazy week flew by in a blink of an eye. A proper review of all the Cheltenham action is due, though at another time. Nonetheless a big shout out to Sizing John and everyone connected with the new king of jump racing!

What a gutsy performance, he stayed every inch of the Gold Cup trip. A sensational, patient, cool ride by Robbie Power. A horse that was campaigned over two miles where he couldn’t get past the almighty Douvan, but upped in trip and his class could finally shine to its full extend!


Horse racing is the game that keeps giving. It never stops. Only one week then it’s Dubai World Cup day, one week after the flat season starts…. it comes thick and fast. Cheltenham is over and one might think the world ends. But no – the future starts here! Isn’t that beautiful?

So let’s keep the momentum rolling and have a look what racing has to offer on this Saturday. Two races in particular are of interest to me.

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2.40 Kempton: Silver Plate Handicap Hurdle

An ultra competitive race with nearly half of the 2o runners in with a fair shout. However I do like quite a lot Dan Skelton’s Bandsman off a lowly mark on his handicap debut.

The six year old took his time to get off the mark, but was massively impressive once he did it. He followed up with another success at Market Rasen, when he fought gamely to be on top when it mattered most.

This form looks strong through the runner-up who since then went on to win a Grade 3 Handicap Hurdle. An opening mark of 129 may well underestimate Bandsman’s true class, particularly with ground sure to suit and potential improvement to come for the step up in trip.

He’s not a slick jumper yet, so has certainly to do be better in that department against classier opposition here. But if he learned and if he stays the trip then he’s a good chance to be in the shake-up I feel.

Selection:
5pts win – Bandsman @ 9/1 Bet365

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3.20 Limerick: Handicap Hurdle (80-109)

Top weight Hareth looked worth for more than his narrow success in a Handicap Hurdle here at Limerick under a stylish Carberry ride back in April. Off the track for nearly three years subsequently, he made a pleasing comeback at Naas last month when a fair third.

Back at Limerick, he’s probably a good deal better than his current rating and can make that count against very beatable opposition. Slight concern over the soft ground and the 2m trip, given he won on fast ground over further in the past, but class can see him through.

Selection:
10pts win – Hareth @ 7/2 Matchbook

CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL 2017 – FRIDAY PREVIEW

There you go: the finale, the last day – it’s nearly over, gone, history. Time’s flying and these four days of Festival craziness fly by in a blink of an eye. This is Friday, the day were the champ of champs is crowned. Who’ll make history, who will it be, the new king?

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1.30: Triumph Hurdle

The home team has a strong hand in the race with the unbeaten Defi Du Seul and progressive Master Blueyes and French recruit Charli Parcs but I feel it’s the Irish that will take home the price.

If Bapaume would line up I’d be certainly interested in him but the market trend suggests he’s not going to be declared. So it’s left to the horse who has beaten him in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle last month: Mega Fortune.

I really do like the progression this good looking Soldier of Fortune son has made this season.He got closer and closer to the big guns in Graded races until eventually getting his head in front.

In the Leopardstown feature he jumped well but was most impressive once he put the foot on the gas pedal. He jumpedthe second last and wooosh off he went, in the end running strongly to the line.

I’ve got slight worries about the fast ground as he seemed to relish the juice in the ground the last time, but at given prices he’s a bit over here with only a handful of runners having a realistic chance to go close. Further progression must see him go close.

Selection:
10pts Win – Mega Fortune @ 7/1 PP

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2.10 County Hurdle

Gordon Elliott has a massive week so far and it might get even better because with Mick Jazz he has an exciting runner in the race. He won well on his first start for Elliott in October and was a fine runner-up behind Labaik, which looks brilliant form in hindsight.

He then went on to Fairyhouse Handicap where he travelled strongly behind a wall of horses but in the home straight then getting hampered twice, also making a mess of things at the second last, yet staying on strongly. Impressive!

After a break he produced another strong staying performance beating an odds-on Mullins horse at Punchestown. He looks the type ready made for Cheltenham. Even the ground is no worry. He could easily be better than his handicap mark.

Another one I really like to run big is Twiston Davise’s Crievehill. He’s probably getting in off a light weight. He’s progressive, his 3rd place behind Neon Wolf when last seen looks strong form and he might be still able to progress. The ground is a big worry as he never encountered anything less than soft, but at a big price he’s worth a punt.

Selection:
10pts win – Mick Jazz @ 10/1 Bet365
5pts win – Crievehill @ 40/1 Betfair SB

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2.50: Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle

Death Duty may look like a good thing to many – but not to me. He could easily be too good, though at shortish odds I’m against him given he’s unproven on this ground and trip.

Two bigger prices are certainly of interest and seemingly underappreciated: there is the lightly raced Constantine Bay, who stepped up to 3m at Doncaster and produced a strong travelling yet incredibly game and tough performance in a ding dong finish, staying on very strongly. Traits you want to see in an Albert Bartlett contender.

Ami Desbois is the other one: Already  a seven year old, bit more experienced, he’s been improving this year, was only a lengths behind Wholestone over course and distance in December but the price difference in the betting would imply there is a whole world between the two.

I really like Wholestone, but if I do so, then I have to like Ami Desbois even more, given his progressive profile and much bigger price.

Selection:
5pts win – Ami Desbois @ 33/1 Betfair SB
5pts win – Constantine Bay @ 16/1 Bet365

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3.30: Gold Cup Chase

Who’s the new champ? Native River most likely. Hard to be against him? He put in some big performances, is clearly on the up, has Cheltenham form and is only seven. Even if there is no rain arriving, the ground may not necessarily be too big an issue.

But at the given price I can’t have him. Plain and simple he’s got to prove it all now for the first time in Grade 1. He hasn’t done that before. This is the toughest test to date which he may pass with flying colours. But I have to see it to believe it.

The standard is set by Djakadam. Twice a runner-up in this race; seemingly enjoying a better preparation this time and the Mullins yard is bullish. Fact is he’s been here before and ran extremely well, but fact is also his win record is only average. He had a lot of hard races for a horse of his age, so I’m not convinced he is even able to run to his form of the last two years.

He may well, but again, price dictates that he’s not for me. Even at double the odds he’d not be my choice, I have to admit. And that might be unfair to the poor horse and he could easily prove me wrong. If he does: great for Willie Mullins and well deserved.

Looking elsewhere I cant have Cue Card either. The old boy seems to be nearly as good as ever. But does he truly stay the Gold Cup trip? I still have a few doubts. Another one who’d be a well deserved winner, don’t get me wrong. But there are good reasons to oppose him, at least at a shortish enough looking price.

Sizing John is an interesting case. He won’t see the backside of Douvan here, but will he actually have the stamina to get home? Big question mark in my book.

Lexus Chase winner Outlander is a serious horse, though one you never can be sure whether he’s on a good or a bad day. It concerns me that he has not been seen since Christmas. Maybe to keep him fresh. This quirky character is not for me.

Neither is More Of That, even if Jonjo is blullish. Maybe unlucky the last time when he fell in the Irish Gold Cup, but overall his form over fences is below the standard required to land a Gold Cup.

Brings me to the two I fancy – though as it is with each and everyone in this field, you can blow big holes into their form.

After landing the Peter Marsh Handicap at Haydock, Bristol De Mai was odds-on to land the Denman chase, where he was then a long way beaten by Native River. That form is not his true class and I wouldn’t read too much into it. He’s clearly better than that.

Still only a six years old he could easily improve and develop into a top chaser. He may not, of course, that is also possible. At given prices I’m rather backing him to close the gap to the favourite.

Speaking of form that ties in with Native River: he was second at last years Festival behind Minella Rocco in the National Hunt Chase!  For Minella Rocco things did not go well since then. A decent comeback run followed by a fall and unseating his rider in his next two other starts this season.

Hard to know what to make of that. Confidence might be an issue. But if he can get his act together, which is more likely to happen at a place over a trip he has proven to be successful at, then he could be in the shake-up.

Selection:
5pts win – Minella Rocco @ 25/1 WH
5pts win – Bristol De Mai @ 25/1 WH

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The Foxhunter is a race I find impossible to solve. Yes, On The Fringe is the most likely winner, but he is also a very short price. I would love to find an alternative but I rather focus on the last two races of Festival.

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.4.50: Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap

There is no doubt that Battleford ticks every box for me. Granted he gets in to the race, which looks rather likely (otherwise it’s money back anyway), he’ll be a big market mover come Friday I believe.

He had the perfect preparation in my mind, showed excellent form this year – his runner-up effort behind Monalee rates highly in my book. Most importantly he was here last year, finishing an agonisingly close second in the Champion Bumper.

Off a really nice mark he’s got a tremendous chance to win this race.

Selection:
10pts win – Battleford @ 8/1 Bet365

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5.30: Grand Annual

Having fancied Le Prezien to have a chance to have a place chance in the Arkle and subsequently in the Brown Advisory, I have to fancy him for this, right?

The French recruit has had a good – albeit – light season so far, including a Grade 2 success here at Cheltenham. Hi seasonal reappearance when second behind Charbel looks increasingly strong form after his excellent performance in the Arkle on Tuesday.

Ground is a slight worry, but he looks potentially well in on handicap debut, so it’s the risk I take.

However there is another horse I even more fancy: that is Velvet Maker. I was incredibly keen on this lad last year in the very same race, where he bombed out. But he scoped badly- and had his issues in the aftermath, which meant he only made a reappearance last month.

That was an encouraging spin over hurdles where he travelled well and finished a nice third without getting a hard time. He should come on allot for the run – hopefully – with a 2lb lower mark than last year, fit and healthy this time around, I sense he’s a massive chance to lead from start to finish.

Selection:
5pts win – Le Prezien @ 10/1 Bet365
10pts win – Velvet Maker @ 14/1 Bet365

Cheltenham: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

That’s it, all over, the Cheltenham Festival 2016 done and dusted. Time’s flying! The build-up, twelve month long, the Festival fever, and then, blink with an eye and you miss the whole thing. This is my personal review of the week, calling out the moments that caught my attention; positive and negative, beyond all the the self-adulation of an industry that can be prone to turn a blind eye on some things.

Sprinter brings the house Down

All that was good about the week is unified in the this one horse, Sprinter Sacre. It can’t be any different. The old warrior made dreams come true. Dreams many have dreamt but few dared to believe could become reality. And yet here he was, the ex Champion Chaser, jumping the third from home, niggling along but suddenly finding another gear, under  pressure called on for a big effort, jockey De Boinville not shy to ask for everything.

The comeback of comebacks. It’s what makes racing so beautiful. The only sport that can deliver a drama as rich as this, where the red hot favourite find himself overturned by a horse that only twelve month ago looked finished. But Sprinter Sacre is no ordinary horse. He’s an individual full of heart and class. To see him jumping the last ,clear and striding on to win his second Champion Chase – it one of those moments that make this place, Cheltenham, so special. It makes or brakes you. It makes you a legend.

Yes, we could discuss whether this Champion Chase was a vintage renewal, whether it was a below par race, whether the favourite was caught up in  a battle for the lead and therefore racing way too early, whether the eventual winners performance was the performance of a true Champion or not. But no, let’s not do that. Let’s enjoy it for what is was: a moment of magic, a moment where dreams came true,  a moment that made usbelieve in the beauty of the sport.

Victoria silences the Doubters

Personally I never doubted Victoria Pendelton’s ability to ride in the Foxhunter Chase. What I saw from her in advance was clearly good enough to ride in the race. Her credentials weren’t any worse or better than the ones of most of other amateur riders in the field.

In the race itself, she did a good enough job. You can’t ask much more from someone who’s only riding for a year. She looked good for most parts of the race, she showed balls going on the inner, saving ground and waiting for a gap to open. Other than that is was not an outstanding ride or anything close to it in my opinion. She started riding when it was way too late. Any other day and she may have been even called in by the stewards to explain herself under the non-trier rule.

But then, she is an amateur, never rode at Cheltenham before. She reflected afterwards and what she learned and could have done better. This ability to analyzise and reflect is what you expect from a professional athlete as she is. I really liked the way she conducted herself. Open, honest and  transparent.

As such it was good to have her there, it brought unparalleled PR to the sport. It was a feel good story, which was much needed after the death of seven horses during the week.

But I also would have preferred the media to be a bit less VP obsessed in the immediate aftermath of the race. It was attention which the actual winner, On The Fringe, given a peach of a ride by arguably  the best amateur rider around, Nina Carberry, deserved.

On the other hand it is understandable why Pendelton got the full winners treatment. Channel 4 interview, ovations entering the parade ring, all of that. She deserves it. But so does any other amateur riding in the race. It an achievement for all of them to make it there, to ride, to get over the line. We shouldn’t forget that.

Bryan Cooper flipped the right Coin

It must have been some sleepless nights for Bryan Cooper leading up to the Festival. He had to make a difficult decision. Who to ride in the Gold Cup? Stick with Don Cossack – the highest rated chaser in trainer? Who may not be totally suited by Cheltenham, and with whom Cooper – in the opinion of some – didn’t seem to get on well with? Instead should he switch to Don Poli, the up-and-coming star chaser? Twice a winner at the Festival, the horse Cooper won the Lexus Chase with earlier the season?

Cooper stuck to the form book. Decided to ride Don Cossack. It turned out to be the right decision. Young Cooper gave his mount a brilliant ride, patient, waiting for the right moment to press the button. Maybe advantaged by the fact that Cue Card fell, nonetheless Don Cossack looked so classy on Friday, stayed up the hill in the manner of  a true champ – he put the doubters to bed.

So did Bryan Cooper. Not getting on well with Don Cossack? Well, both just won the pinnacle of jump racing! And Don Poli? Cynics where quick to make fun of “Slow Poli” in the aftermath, but seem to forget that he remains a young and promising chaser, who finished 3rd in the Gold Cup, nonetheless. He got rolling when it was too late, that’s for sure, though.

That might have been down to an ultra patient ride by Davy Russell. From my armchair position I’d say with a slightly more aggressive ride Don Poli would have finished closer. However no other ride would have made any difference about the winner of the race. Don Cossack is the best chaser in training.

Mike Cattermole ruins the Gold Cup

I felt Racing UK did an okay job throughout the week. The build-up to the racing every day in the morning was excellent. The coverage in the afternoon was decent, without being really good. Opinions are always divided, but personally I feel RUK’s coverage of the 2015 Royal Ascot meeting was far superior. Somehow the spark was missing this time.

There was more than only the spark missing from Mike Cattermole commentary of the Gold Cup – the feature of the entire week! It was dismal, unworthy of such a big race. Sure, it’s always down to individual taste, but in this case I would have preferred no commentary rather than listening to an uninterested, unemotional, dreary sounding Cattermole who seemed to lose interest completely in the closing stages.

The Gold Cup deserves a commentary that brings the emotions and excitement across, that stands  up to the phenomenal performance of the winner. This after all is the race everyone wants to see. I would have much preferred Mark Johnson, who’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but he’s one who always puts his all into calling a race.

Death is Jumping

Seven horses died this week: Long Dog, Pont Alexandre, Montdragon, No More Heroes, Niceonefrankie, The Govaness and Rezorbi. It’s the ugly part of our sport. In racing people don’t want to talk about it. Usually this topic is brushed away. “It is what it is.”

I’ve been contacted by friends this week, asking about what’s going on there with all the dead horses. The topic debated on national radio, it’s the one thing non-racing folks hear about, it’s what sticks in their mind; not Sprinter’s heroics.

“It’s cruel, how can you support this bullshit?” – It’s a relevant question. And I make the points – happily defending the sport I love – those horses didn’t suffer, they receive the best care in the world, live a happy & healthy life in a way the majority of the human population doesn’t do. It’s not necessarily racing that kills horses.Even leisure horses break their legs when taking  a wrong step on the field. It’s just happens, is what it is. And that is all true.

But even I have to admit – on Friday, two dead horse again – it sometimes gets difficult defending this, no? We bring these beautiful creatures into the world, care for them deeply, bond with them, just to see them getting destroyed jumping hurdles?

It’s a strange thing. I guess it’s one of the things why I prefer flat racing. Although I’m probably just a hypocrite in saying that. Death is less visible in flat racing. But who knows how young horses die before they ever make it to the racetrack? Well, it’s the ugly truth of our sport and Cheltenham gave it a face this week. It’s something I as a fan have to accept.

An over-hyped Festival

So this gets controversial now, and it goes against the general happiness that surrounds the Festival, which again was of course the greatest, the best ever, nothing like it…. everyone seems so freakin’ happy! Praise for yet another sublime festival on every corner, every tweet, blog, commentary. It’s Cheltenham after all!

I didn’t feel it this year. Maybe it’s just me, maybe it was always like that and I just never saw it, however I felt this year the whole thing was so dramatically over-hyped, hyped up so long before an actual race was even run. All this big talk, it drove up the excitement, the “bring it on I can’t wait for it” feeling from pretty much five, six months before the legendary roar of the crowd.

It all got me so early in a state of eager anticipation; I purchased several guides, listened to tons of podcasts, trainer interviews, visited preview nights – all leading up to the big week of course, which should be the culminating point of all the excitement.

It was the complete opposite. By Tuesday the 15th of March there was this empty, burned out feeling: All those details, tons of information, all the emotions created well in advance, already lived through the last number of months.There was nothing left.

There is nobody but myself to blame, of course. Nobody forces you to take part in this. Though this time it seemed more difficult than ever to not get soaked in by the wheels of the Cheltenham machinery. As a racing fan it’s hard to avoid it, isn’t it? As a racing fan I crave for all the details, all the thoughts of “is this a Cheltenham horse?” questions.

Obviously this in itself is nothing new. It been always hat way. But no, not THAT way. It was a different intensity this season, different in a sense of how Cheltenham was at the forefront of anyone’s mind, so much, so early. Everything’s about Cheltenham. A well oiled machinery, in top gear right from the start. Anything beside? Ornamental Art. Hennessy, King George….? Preliminaries. Nobody cares.

Admittedly, that might be slightly exaggerated and I’m not sure if I’m actually able to articulate properly what I really mean. But in short: the Cheltenham hype starts as early as the horses pass the line of Grand Annual. There is no break. It’s constant. Anyone’s caught up in the hype from the earliest moment. It’s like being on drugs constantly. The Festival drug!

To add one more thought: I generally like the idea of  having a season that goes out with a big bang, like you have it in jumps racing with the Cheltenham Festival. But I also like it the way the flat keeps the momentum over a full season with highlights here and then. And this diversity between the two codes is what I generally love about the sport.

And don’t get me wrong, I do love Cheltenham. I’ve been there myself in the past. It’s just this year, I – and I can only speak for myself – got caught up in the hype way to early, which meant when the actual event came around, it felt like all the races had been ran thousand times before.

Now, onwards and upwards I guess. Tomorrow the new Irish flat season starts. Up until now I haven’t really thought about it. But you know what? I’m mightily excited driving up to the Curragh tomorrow afternoon. #Theflatisback

Cheltenham: Thistlecrack & Vautour run the Show!

World Hurdle day, and boy did we see an impressive winner in Thistlecrack! The hype was real – this horse is THAT good. Sure, it wasn’t a vintage renewal of the race, but honestly, is there ever one? Three milers aren’t the most exciting horses in the world, but this lad clearly is one with a bright future. Gold Cup 2017 I hear ya calling?!

I was worried when Vautour was on the drift earlier today. You could back him at staggering 11/10 for the Ryanair. A fools price, one would think, but only if the horse is fit and fine, which we couldn’t be sure of after connections performed a dramatic u-turn.

In the end nobody, including myself, who was big time on Vautour, had to worry. The ultra talented chaser jumped well mostly throughout the race and put the race to bed turning for home as quickly as Ruby gave him a bit of reign.

Relief…. it’s been by far my biggest bet in the last 24 month – Vautour evens with the NRNB insurance of course. So while Cheltenham in general is more like a betting disaster, it doesn’t really matter in the end if this lad goes in. Thankfully he did.

Friday’s Menu: 

It’s all about the Gold Cup and my stance on the race is clear: I’m on the Don Poli bandwagon and can’t wait to see him flying up the hill past anyone, putting all the doubters to shame, who are nicknaming him “Slow Poli”. I’m delighted about the fact that Davy Russell is riding. Nobody’s better equipped to steer home a lazy but classy horse as Don Poli is.

The other ante-post bet  is Velvert Maker @ 16/1 in the Grand Annual. This horse will run a huge race, I’ve no doubts. If all goes to plan this lad should have way too much on his plate for lot he’s facing in this handicap.

County Handicap Hurdle: I really like Starchitect who has the right profile to land this.But he’s short enough in the market and I also like two much bigger prices. Devilment at 40/1 looks overpriced for a horse that goes well around Cheltenham and who’s ran two nice races this year but most importantly will love the fast ground.

It’s a bit more difficult to make a case for Ivan Grozny who can’t be trusted at all. But he shaped not all that badly in his two races this year after a long absence. He’s was a decent flat horse and showed plenty of promise over hurdles before getting injured. If he comes right fitness wise now he’s got a chance to go close. Again ground can be key. I’m pretty sure he’s a different animal on better ground.

Foxhunter Chase: You can be sure On The Fringe is primed and therefore I wouldn’t read too much into the fact that he tired badly when last seen at Leopardstown. More concerning is his age, he’s not getting any younger, and there is at least a small doubt whether he’ll come back from the tough campaign he had last season.

There were plenty of good words about the Jim Culloty horse It Came To Pass in the build-up of the festival. And it’s easy to see why. Lightly raced, unexposed, progressive. Successful in point to point company, he won a maiden hunter chase on his first under rules. He went on to finish an encouraging second at Leopardstown in February, when he had too much to do.

This six year old is likely to have more left in the locker. That says the Foxhunter is a tough test for such a young and inexperienced horse. There’s also a question mark whether he can handle good ground. All in all It Came To Pass remains a very playable price at 12/1.

Martin Pipe CJH Hurdle: I don’t understand how Nabucco can be a 33/1 chance. If you draw a line through his last performance, where he was clearly not himself, you have a progressive animal who’s coming fresh into this race of a very fair mark.

There is a question mark over his stamina, particularly around Cheltenham, but the better ground will surely play to his strengths. Nabucco was a classy flat performer, who too kwell to hurdles, winning three on the bounce last year, including a Listed Handicap off only 4lb lower than his current mark.

If he can ran to that sort of form he’s got to be in the mix, if he finds a bit of improvement for what is only his sixth start over timber, with conditions likely to suit, he’s got to be a big runner.

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!