Friday, March 20, 2020

Eclectic thoughts after Cheltenham 2020

This time last week Al Boum Photo had just retained the Cheltenham Gold Cup; it seems like half a lifetime ago.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, there is currently no racing in Britain while an announcement from Boris Johnson this evening means that all betting shops are set to close until further notice.

Racing goes ahead in Ireland tomorrow; ITV4 will cover the first five races from Thurles.

Some very brief personal thoughts after Cheltenham...

Best finish of the meet - Samcro beating Melon a nose, Faugheen third, in the Marsh Novices' Chase.

The two that came to grief in the Supreme - Captain Guinness and Elixir D'Ainay - both appeared to be travelling well enough coming to the penultimate flight. Given that front-runner Asterion Forlonges had persistently jumped out to his right during the race, I'm still at a loss to explain why Mark Walsh presented Elixir D'Ainay at that flight in the way he did.

As Cathal Gahan notes in the Weekender, Sire Du Berlais won the Pertemps Network Final in a time nearly three seconds faster than Lisnagar Oscar recorded in winning the Stayers' Hurdle.

To focus on the ten handicap races, as in 2019, Britain won five Ireland five; Column Of Fire (trained by Gordon Elliott) looked a serious threat to all when coming to grief at the last in the Martin Pipe.

Last year 19% of Irish runners achieved a first three finish in handicaps; on initial inspection this year I think 17 runners (from 73 starters) achieved a first three finish which equates to a comparative figure of 23.29%.

Given that last year Irish runners achieved even better results in handicap races at the Aintree Festival, I was working on this cunning Baldrick-like plan for this year's meet...

Stay safe.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Cheltenham Festival 2020 - the betting debrief

Shown below a record of the blog's highlighted selections at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival to a nominal one point level stakes wager (1 point win, 0.5 points each way) with bets settled at advised prices and each way returns calculated to one fifth the odds.

For the fourth time in the past five years the blog's Festival selections have returned a profit, although this year's modest figure contrasts rather sharply with last year's performance.

To quote my regular life coach and mentor: 'Let's be honest, now, a modest profit beats the thumping loss you usually record over the course of a season.' Withering. What with the whole wellbeing agenda and everything, perhaps it's time I started looking for a replacement...

2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase
Selection: The Conditional
Bet: Each way
Advised price: 9/1
Starting price: 15/2
Result: Win
Return: 6.40
Profit/Loss: +5.40

3.30 Champion Hurdle
Selection: Cornerstone Lad
Bet: Each way
Advised price: 33/1
Starting price: 33/1
Result: Pulled up
Return: 0.00
Profit/Loss: -1.00

Profit/Loss Tuesday +4.40

2.10 RSA Chase
Selection: Copperhead
Bet: Win
Advised price: 9/2
Starting price: 6/1
Result: Fell
Return: 0.00
Profit/Loss: -1.00

2.50 Coral Cup
Selection: Alfa Mix
Bet: Each way
Advised price: 11/1
Starting price: 14/1
Result: Seventh
Return: 0.00
Profit / Loss: -1.00

4.50 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle
Selection: Zoffee
Bet: Each way
Advised price: 16/1
Starting price: 16/1
Result: Pulled up
Return: 0.00
Profit/Loss: -1.00

5.30 Champion bumper
Selection: Israel Champ
Bet: Each way
Advised price: 12/1
Starting price: 8/1
Result: Seventeenth
Return: 0.00
Profit/Loss: -1.00

Profit/Loss Wednesday: -4.00

2.10 Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle
Selection: Third Wind
Bet: Each way
Advised price: 14/1
Starting price: 12/1
Result: Fourth
Return: 1.90
Profit/Loss: +0.90

2.50 Ryanair Chase
Selection: Min
Bet: Win
Advised price: 11/4
Starting price: 2/1
Result: Win
Return: 3.75
Profit/Loss: +2.75

3.30 Stayers' Hurdle
Selection: Penhill
Bet: Each way
Advised price:14/1
Starting price: 10/1
Result: Pulled up
Return: 0.00
Profit/Loss -1.00

Profit/Loss Thursday: +2.65

2.10 County Handicap Hurdle 
Selection: Thatsy
Bet: Each way
Advised price: 14/1
Starting price: 8/1
Result: Seventh
Return: 0.00
Profit/Loss: -1.00

3.30 Gold Cup
Selection: Lostintranslation
Bet: Win
Advised price: 17/2
Starting price: 10/1
Result: Third
Return 0.00
Profit/Loss: -1.00

Profit/Loss Friday: -2.00

Outlay over four days: 11 points
Profit/Loss over four days: +1.05 points
Profit as percentage of outlay: 9.54%

Friday, March 13, 2020

Midlands Grand National 2020

A curtailed post on Gold Cup day to look at tomorrow's Midlands Grand National (3.35); the going at Uttoxeter is described as heavy, soft in places.

With other major sporting events postponed or cancelled on account of the coronavirus pandemic, you feel it's only a matter of time before racing is affected.

Ladbrokes Trophy winner De Rasher Counter stands his ground; Ben Jones can claim three but the top weight still has to give away a minimum of ten pounds to his rivals over this marathon four mile two furlong trip. Petite Power, Sheneededtherun, Very First Time and Financial Outcome all contest this from out of the handicap.

Christmas In April won the Sussex National at Plumpton in January and the Devon National at Exeter last month and as a result is now rated 14 pounds higher. I'm just concerned this will may well prove one trip to the well too many.

Truckers Lodge is priced up favourite on the back of his second behind Potters Corner (won this last year off 135) in the Welsh National; the handicapper has raised Paul Nicholls' charge just one pound for that effort but this trip is the best part of four furlongs further.

Prime Venture was fourth in that Welsh National, beaten just over four lengths, and the handicapper has dropped Evan Williams' charge one pound. Fourth in this race last year off 139 he tries this time off 135 and connections fit blinkers for the first time. You can see why this one makes plenty of appeal but at 7/1 now the value has disappeared.

Joe Farrell would prefer better ground while the mare Sheneededtherun has really improved for a move of yard but this represents a step up in class.

I'm considering two at an each-way price: Dominateur and Just Your Type.

The former is unexposed; in the RP Weekender [11-15.12.19] Oliver Sherwood said:

"I think he can make up into a nice staying chaser and could be worth following."

Just Your Type finished second behind Bigirononhiship over an extended four miles at Kelso in December. He never really travelled next time in the Towton at Wetherby and has since undergone wind surgery; if that surgery has helped the cause, 14/1 (five places) looks tempting. Connections have ditched the tongue-tie tried in the Towton.

Along with Captain Drake (unseated twice in last three runs), Just Your Type is joint top-rated on Racing Post ratings.

It's certainly a risky wager but it may just be the last one for quite some time...

For those with money to burn after Cheltenham Just Your Type (14/1) is the each-way suggestion; Sky Bet pay one fifth the odds five places.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Cheltenham Festival 2020 - Friday

Over the years I haven't spent an awful lot of time on the Triumph Hurdle (1.30) but this looks a particularly high class renewal. I was taken with Sir Psycho's slick, fluent hurdling the last day at Haydock but on ratings he has enough to find with a few of these (including stablemate Solo) and the 12/1 on offer doesn't quite cut it - one to watch with interest.

I've had more tips for the Country Hurdle (2.10) than you could shake a stick at, yet most of them have failed to make the final declaration stage. The Evan Williams trained Mack The Man is an absentee but holds an entry in the Silver Plate Handicap Hurdle over two miles five at Kempton on Saturday. Stablemate Quoi De Neuf stays put in his stable.

At a preview event Gordon Elliott was quite bullish about Thatsy indicating he thought this one well handicapped. The gelding appeared to meet some trouble in running the last day at Leopardstown behind Thosedaysaregone (third in the Coral Cup on Wednesday); Davy Russell does the steering.

Newbury's Betfair Hurdle form is represented by Ciel De Neige (raised four pounds after finishing second to Pic D'Orhy), Sir Valentine (fourth, also raised four pounds), Zanza (sixth, raised two pounds), Oakley (seventh, dropped one pound) and Stolen Silver (eighth, dropped two pounds).

A word too for Moon Over Germany at a much bigger price; trainer Henry De Bromhead said in the RP Weekender [29.01.20-02.02.20]:

"I gave him a run over hurdles at Leopardstown over Christmas as I feel his mark is more favourable - he is rated 15lbs higher over fences. He has a mark of 134 over hurdles here in Ireland and 140 in Britain so the plan is to go to Cheltenham for the County Hurdle."

That discrepancy between the hurdle and chase ratings makes Moon Over Germany an intriguing proposition (28/1 in places this evening) but the last nine-year-old to come home in front was Pedrobob in 2007.

Thatsy is the each-way suggestion, 14/1 with Paddy Power who pay one fifth the odds six places. I note that no favourite has won this in the past ten years.

Al Boum Photo may well go off favourite for the feature Gold Cup (3.30) as he bids to become the first horse since Best Mate to win two consecutive renewals (2002/ 2003/ 2004). You could never accuse Henrietta Knight of over-racing her stable star; Al Boum Photo has followed a similar preparation to last year - after finishing second to Kemboy in the Punchestown Gold Cup, Al Boum Photo has had just the one run over an extended two miles five at Tramore on New Year's Day.

The handicapper rated stablemate Kemboy the best chaser in the land after that Punchestown victory but he hasn't been in quite the same form after a delayed start to the season following problems regarding his ownership. He has been beaten twice by Delta Work this season and questions marks remain over his jumping.

Santini will be challenging for favouritism and certainly looks a stayer but Bristol De Mai made a significant mistake three from home in the Cotswold Chase the last day, ceding the initiative to the Henderson horse.

Connections fit cheekpieces for the first time here but I'm just not convinced and I don't think drying ground will help his cause.

Lostintranslation ran a shocker in the King George at Kempton last time but before that was a must for any shortlist. He has undergone wind surgery since he 'made a noise' at Kempton and wears a first-time tongue tie; handler Colin Tizzard has been very pleased with his preparation..

Clan Des Obeaux has won two King Georges at Kempton over three miles but patently didn't come up the hill in last year's renewal (close 3rd two out, soon ridden, no extra from last). Paul Nicholls has adjusted his charge's preparation, missing out the Denman Chase in February (run at Ascot last year), and feels this will make all the difference; from a very early stage Nicholls has compared this one to See More Business who won the Gold Cup for him in 1999 (Mick Fitzgerald up).

Presenting Percy looked very good when winning the 2018 RSA Chase by seven lengths from Monalee but he was beaten 33 lengths into eighth behind Al Boum Photo in last year's Gold Cup and has finished behind Delta Work twice this season.

Bristol De Mai appeared at the end of his tether when claiming third last year while Monalee is certainly a smart operator and overpriced at 25/1 (beaten a head by Delta Work the last day) but has stamina questions to answer. Elegant Escape simply doesn't jump well enough while several commentators have put up Chris's Dream (won Red Mills Chase with Real Steel pulled up) as one that could make a place at a price.

In 2014 Lord Windermere won at odds of 20/1 and Al Boum Photo obliged at 12/1 last year but all the other winners over the past decade have been priced in single figures. The Irish challenge looks particularly strong with Al Boum Photo the percentage call and Delta Work bang there.

I'm going to take a leap of faith and support Lostintranslation who on official ratings has two pounds to find with top-rated pair Al Boum Photo and Kemboy.

Lostintranslation is the win selection, generally an 8/1 chance, but William Hill go 17/2 at the time of writing.   

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Cheltenham Festival 2020 - Thursday

A number of media outlets reported the attendance at the first day of the Festival was 60,000, a drop of some 7,000 compared to last year. Apparently empty hand-sanitisers were in plentiful supply; rumours that toffs in tweeds had been spotted sharing tubs of Swarfega have yet to be confirmed.

Paisley Park is an odds-on favourite to repeat last year's victory in the showcase race, the Stayers' Hurdle (3.30); on official ratings he is 12 pounds clear of nearest challengers, Apple's Jade and Barcadys.

Last time out he beat Summerville Boy here in the Cleeve Hurdle when Aidan Coleman kept his mount much closer to the pace than we'd seen previously, no doubt wary of allowing front-running Summerville Boy too much rope. Tom George's charge didn't really take to fences; reverting to hurdles and stepping up to a trip of three miles for the first time certainly suited the gelding well.

Warren Greatrex has always thought a lot of Emitom; back at the beginning of the core 2018 NH season he said:

"He's won his only outing in a Warwick bumper back in April. It didn't come as a huge shock to us as he'd been showing all the right signs at home and he travelled really well.

The form isn't much to write home about but he won pretty well and if we've got a novice hurdler that could go to the top then it might just be him.

Put it this way, he's in Cole Harden's box [winner 2015 Stayers' Hurdle] so he's obviously got a lot to live up to!"

His only defeat that season was a three length second to Champ [wins RSA Chase earlier today] in the Sefton Novices' Hurdle at Aintree but, unfortunately, things haven't been quite so straightforward this term. He suffered a setback during the build-up to his seasonal debut and, after a rushed preparation, was well beaten in the Relkeel. Next time out he won the Rendlesham at Haydock in taking fashion and warrants every respect.

My each-way play is 2018 winner Penhill on the back of these comments from Willie Mullins in the RP Weekender [04-08.03.20]:

"The big target for him all season has been the Paddy Power Stayers' Hurdle. I was very happy with his run in the Boyne Hurdle at Navan last month and what was most encouraging was that he usually comes out of his races a little bit stiff, but on this occasion he was fine. He would have needed that run and that would have put him spot on... Although he missed last season he is bidding to make it three Cheltenham Festival wins, having won he Albert Bartlett in 2017 and the Stayers' Hurdle in 2018. I would be looking for another big show from him."     

All winners in the past decade have been aged between seven and nine; two nine-year-olds have obliged - Big Buck's (2012) and Solwhit (2013).

Penhill (14/1) is the each-way selection; BetVictor pay four places on this race.

Irish trained horses filled five of the first seven places in last year's renewal of the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle (2.10) so it's no surprise to find Relegate, The Storyteller and Sire Du Berlais at the head of the market.

From among the home challengers I like Skandiburg - Olly Murphy describes him as 'an improving handicapper' who'll 'thrive in a big field' - and Third Wind. Hughie Morrison's charge beat five time winner Jatiluwih at Wincanton on Boxing Day; Hobbs describes the winner as 'a smart opponent' and says of his own charge: 'That was a very good run last time and he [Jatiluwih] has to be a contender...upped in trip'. Taking into account Mr David Maxwell's three pound claim, the pair look closely matched.

Third Wind is the each-way selection, currently 14/1 with Sky Bet who pay one fifth the odds six places.

The Racing Post ratings for the 2019 running of the Ryanair Chase were:

180 Frodon
178 Balko Des Flos 
178 Un De Sceau
176 Footpad
174 Road To Respect
171 Monalee
170 Aso

The Racing Post ratings (with official handicap ratings in brackets) for tomorrow's renewal (2.50) are:

184 Min (170)
177 Frodon (168)
175 Aso (162)
174 A Plus Tard (166)
171 Riders Onthe Storm (162)
170 Duc Des Genievres (161)
169 Saint Calvados (161)
168 Shattered Love (151) [mare]

On these figures Min looks the one; his record over two miles four furlongs reads three wins and one second (beaten a neck by Politologue who won the Champion Chse earlier today) but he has never won at Cheltenham.

Willie Mullins said: 'Last year we changed tactics with him at Cheltenham and it didn't work out but we know where we are with him now.' 

A Plus Tard won the novices' handicap chase here last year by an astonishing 16 lengths and beat Chacun Pour Soi at Leopardstown over Christmas. That form reads very well and the stable chalked up two wins on Tuesday.

Frodon hasn't been in quite such good form this season but beat Aso in last year's renewal.

Riders Onthe Storm is unbeaten for the Twiston-Davies team but had a hard race when seeing off Cyrname (and Traffic Fluide) at Ascot less than four weeks ago.

Aso is a course and distance winner who happens to like it here; he has been placed in the last two renewals but hasn't been in the best of form this term. He could make the frame again at a decent price if first-time blinkers have the desired effect.

Min's jumping hasn't always been foot prefect, particularly in his last two runs, and his course form is a worry but on those figures Min is the win selection; he's generally 11/4 at the time of writing.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Cheltenham Festival 2020 - Wednesday

Unbeaten in seven starts to date, Envoi Allen takes his chance in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (1.30) with Davy Russell doing the steering. On official ratings Gordon Elliott's charge is seven pounds clear of nearest rival Sporting John (unbeaten in three) and is priced accordingly.

Champ is a horse with a serious engine but his price has been on the drift for the RSA Chase (2.10); he doesn't look the easiest of rides or the best of jumpers for that matter. Both his defeats over obstacles have come at this track; he finished second behind City Island in last year's Ballymore and then took a crashing fall at the penultimate flight when in command of the Dipper on New Year's Day. His jumping up to that point wasn't always as slick as you might have wished for - I'm a layer rather than a backer.

Minella Indo won last year's Albert Bartlett at odds of 50/1 with Allaho third, beaten nine lengths. Alloha reduced that deficit to two lengths in the Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle at Punchestown in May. In the RP Weekender [04-08.03.20] Willie Mullins informed readers Alloha 'can be quite keen in his races' and they were looking to 'give him some more work before Cheltenham to try to get some of that keenness out of him'.

Battleoverdoyen fell last time out and was pulled up when sent off 3/1 favourite for last season's Ballymore.

Colin Tizzard saddles two, Copperhead and Slate House, and the pair are joint top-rated. The former looked most impressive when winning the Reynoldstown at Ascot last month; Tom Segal (Pricewise) expects this one to oblige. Slate House was set to go close in the BetVictor Gold Cup here in November but came to grief two out. He was disappointing in the Cotswold Chase last time but has more experience than several in the field.

A couple of trends in a trappy race: since 2000 only two horses younger than seven have collected the spoils - 5-y-o Star De Mohaison (2006) and 6-y-o Don Poli (2012); nine of the last ten winners have run at least three times over the larger obstacles.

Copperhead (win) gets the nod.

Alfa Mix is the each-way suggestion for the fiercely competitive Coral Cup (2.50) on the back of Gavin Cromwell's comments that the gelding is 'one of the few Irish handicappers who can run off his Irish mark'. Several layers are paying six places on this race - at the time of writing Coral go 11/1.   

This year's Queen Mother Champion Chase has received star-billing in recent weeks with the battle of the 'big three' - Altior, Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi - anticipated with some relish. Altior was reported lame on Sunday and unfortuantely has failed in the race against time; he misses the chance to defend his title.

Chacun Pour Soi defeated Defi Du Seuil a convincing four and a quarter lengths in the Ryanair Novice Chase at Punchestown last May; a mistake five from home didn't help Defi's cause. Defi remains unbeaten since (including a course and distance win in the Schloer Chase in November). His track record - 6 from 8 - tips the balance for me; he is my idea of the winner but with just six facing the starter now this is a race I'm going to watch rather than bet on.

Tom Segal has said anything can win the Boodles (4.50). Well, my fancy for this, Rowland Ward, can't as he never made the final declaration stage. Badly hampered last time out, he is probably better than his final finishing position might suggest.

Irish runners filled the first three places in this race last year; Gordon Elliott has expressed a reservation about Aramax on very soft ground and appeared to favour Tronador.

I like Philip Hobbs' understated style and his Zoffee is of interest. In the RP Weekender 26.02.20-01.03.20 he states:

"We are lucky to have a strong team for the Cheltenham Festival this season and one of the more interesting ones could be Zoffee. He finished second on each of his first two starts before trotting up at Doncaster last time out. He has really thrived since then and is very much on an upward curve. He goes for the Fred Winter and I hope he will be competitive." 

Quoted at 16/1 with Sky Bet - the only bookmaker paying six places at the moment - Zoffee is the each-way suggestion.

I'm happy to lay Champ in the RSA and back Israel Champ each-way in the bumper (5.30).

Irish runners have won six of the past ten renewals and the word on the street is that the Willie Mullins trained Appreciate It is the one. That said, there have been some shock results over the years including Cue Card, the last four-year-old to come home in front at odds of 40/1 in 2010.

Course and distance winner Israel Champ looks the best of the British and comes from the David Pipe stable responsible for Moon Racer (owned by Professor Caroline Tisdall and Bryan Drew) in 2015.  Panic Attack won a listed mares' race at Market Rasen for Willie Mullins in January and was subsequently bought by Bryan Drew and transferred to the Pipe stable last month - she could be absolutely anything. I think I'm correct when I say the only filly /  mare to win this since 2000 was Fayonagh in 2017.

Most layers are paying four places and at the time of writing Unibet offer 12/1; Israel Champ is the each-way pick.   

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Cheltenham Festival 2020 - Tuesday

It's been a messy season all round and this year's Festival takes place with the threat posed by coronavirus on everyone's mind.

As always, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle opens the meeting (Tuesday 1.30); this renewal looks particularly trappy. Asterion Forlonge has been well tipped up and likes to race from the front but his tendency to jump right would be a worry.

Gordon Elliott had indicated Envoi Allen might run in the Supreme rather the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Wednesday 1.30) if the ground turned up testing; after walking the course on Saturday he indicated Envoi Allen goes in the Ballymore.

At present the going is described as soft with further rain predicted on Monday evening.

This year the showcase race on the first day, the Champion Hurdle (3.30), has been routinely declared as substandard and 'wide open' by the world and his wife; the final declarations number seventeen.

The Nicky Henderson trained Epatante heads the market and her seven pounds mares' allowance looks significant. She has won four of her five hurdle races to date, her only defeat coming in the mares' novices' hurdle here last year. That course form leaves a question mark but she comes here a much fresher horse after winning the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day (Silver Streak second, Ballyandy third, Fusil Raffles pulled up). The favourite has obliged on four occasions in the past decade; the last three mares to win this race: Dawn Run (1984); Flakey Dove (1994); Annie Power (2016).

Pentland Hills won last year's Triumph Hurdle well but he has been turned over twice this term and makes little appeal at the price.

Cilaos Emery has been supplemented so connections clearly feel their charge will be competitive.

Given the open-looking nature of the race, a number of runners have been put up at each-way prices including Supasundae, Coeur Sublime, Ballyandy and Silver Streak (for me, not always fluent enough at his obstacles).

On official handicap ratings the best horses in the race are:

163 Sharjah (prefers better ground)
160 Supasundae
159 Epatante
159 Cilaos Emery
159 Cornerstone Lad

Cornerstone Lad pulled off a shock when beating Buveur D'Air in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle; it later came to light that Buveur D'Air had suffered a freak injury when jumping the penultimate flight.

Micky Hammond's charge was then beaten threequarters of length into third in Haydock's Champion Hurdle Trial, trying to concede six pounds to Ballyandy and three pounds to Pentland Hills. That form reads well.

He prefers soft / heavy ground and, to date, has finished in the first three on his fourteen starts over hurdles. His handler has indicated he doesn't have to race from the front - and perhaps won't get there with Not So Sleepy in the field! Hughie Morrison's charge is not for the faint-hearted but, if he gets to the front, he could easily outrun his odds; 40/1 has long since disappeared; at the time of writing he is a 25/1 chance. 

Cornerstone Lad (33/1) is the each-way selection with most layers paying one fifth the odds four places.

Off a mark of 159 Vinndication heads the market and the weights for the Ultima Handicap Chase (2.50).

Last year the Trevor Hemmings owned Lake View Lad carried top weight off a mark of 155 and finished third, two lengths behind the second, another Hemmings owned horse, Vintage Clouds. Vintage Clouds is rated seven pounds higher this time (151); connections are probably using this as a stepping stone to the Grand National.

Several commentators have put up Kildisart on the back of his recent fifth behind Mister Malarky in the Betway Handicap Chase at Kempton. He has been declared with first-time cheekpieces but I just wonder whether he might prefer better ground.

Irish trained runners don't have the best of records in this in recent years (last winner Dun Doire in 2006). Discorama's previous two runs have been disappointing but he has had a wind operation since and is near the head of the market.

I had Now McGinty pencilled in for this but he's nowhere to be seen.

At the weights the one to catch my eye is previous course and distance winner The Conditional. He has made marked improvement since moving over the water to David Bridgwater's yard in Gloucestershire and found only De Rasher Counter too good in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November (Mister Malarky ten lengths adrift in sixth). He didn't appear to stay thee miles five at Warwick the last day; the handicapper has relented and dropped him three pounds for that effort.

At a bigger price Activial looks to have been trained with this as his target. He finished sixth last year  - beaten just over seven lengths - and he lost a right hind shoe that day. He tries this year six pounds better off and his last run behind Native River at Newbury should have put him spot on. However, at ten years of age, the trends suggest he may struggle to come home in front  - the only ten-year-old to win in the past decade was Chief Dan George in 2010.

William Hill offer 9/1 and pay one fifth the odds five places - The Conditional is the each-way selection.

The Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle sees a clash between Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle while Irish runners filled the first three places in last year's running of the 4.50 (cf. previous post). It's not a bet for me but Gordon Elliott has indicated Galvin, sixth behind City Island in last year's Ballymore, is expected go well.               

Friday, March 06, 2020

Cheltenham Festival 2020 - early thoughts and handicap hints

It's been a wet winter. With tomorrow's Imperial Cup card at Sandown abandoned, I'm keeping my power dry for next week's jamboree.

In the run-up to last year's Festival I wrote:

"Festival handicaps are an absolute minefield, come with a health / wealth warning and really need to be avoided at all costs."

As a general rule of thumb that advice still holds good but, hell, yet again, I hear those Siren voices starting to call...

It all stems back to a salient piece of analysis Simon Holt produced after last year's event [RP Weekender 20-24.03.19] in which he pointed out that Irish runners 'again performed exceptionally well in handicaps'.

Of the ten handicap races staged over the four days, Great Britain won five, Ireland five.

However Irish trained horses filled the first three places in the following races:

Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase (this year named the Northern Trust Company Novices' Handicap Chase):

 1. A Plus Tard 5/1f
 2. Tower Bridge 6/1
 3. Ben Dundee 33/1

Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle:

 1. Band Of Outlaws 7/2f
 2. Coko Beach 14/1
 3. Ciel De Neige 17/2

Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle:

 1. Early Doors 5/1
 2. Dallas Des Pictons 7/2f
 3. Defi Bleu 14/1

The winners of the Close Brothers and the Boodles were both running in handicaps for the first time.

In addition, in the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle, five of the first seven home were trained in Ireland:

 1. Sire Du Berlais 4/1f
 [2. Tobefair 40/1] 
 3. Not Many Left 16/1
 4. Cuneo 12/1
 5. A Toi Phil 20/1
 [6. Theclockisticking 25/1]
 7. Thermistocles 9/1

Holt notes that of the 226 runners in ten handicaps, 13 out of 68 Irish runners finished in the first three (19%) compared to 17 out of 158 British runners (10.8%).

Three weeks later Holt doubled up with a piece entitled 'Handicaps at Aintree a rout for the Irish' [RP Weekender 10-14.04.19] with Irish runners winning five of the seven handicaps from just 32 entries, with an additional four runners finishing placed; Ireland returned a 28% placings to runners figure while the British figure was just 9.4%.

To quote Holt directly:

"...there is no parity between British and Irish handicapping systems, and even though British handicappers run their own Irish ratings and generally have Irish horses a bit higher than back home, the returns at Cheltenham and Aintree suggest there is still a significant imbalance."

BHA handicapper Martin Greenwood has recently stated:

"Generally speaking I have the biggest problem with the Irish novice chasers as not everyone knows they go back to a rating of zero when starting over fences, whatever they've done over hurdles.

"That has made the Northern Trust Company Novices' Handicap Chase the hardest for me this year, and a few...are higher than their Irish ratings."

Esoteric stuff and I'm no expert, not by a long chalk. Perhaps the professional handicappers have sought to address the imbalance referenced above - or maybe they haven't...

Bang on cue, in this week's Weekender [RP Weekender 04-08.03.20], Tom Segal pens a piece entitled 'Handicap grumbles tell a story', focussing on, amongst others, the rather aptly named The Storyteller:

"The extra few pounds didn't stop Presenting Percy or Sire Du Berlais and I doubt very much a horse like The Storyteller will be stopped by a couple fo pounds either. The Pertemps Final is hard to win but the fact many are suggesting he has been handicapped out of it tells me all those connected with him seriously fancy he will go close."     

At this stage, with several runners holding multiple entries, it's not that easy to predict which race named horses will run in, never mind if they're in with a serious chance of landing the spoils.

A few brief notes that might help along the way...

Aramax, currently favourite for the Boodles (4.50 Wednesday), won the same Naas race as Band Of Outlaws last year. The price disappeared a long time ago but in a recent interview Gordon Elliott expressed some reservation about this one on very soft ground and seemed sweeter on the chance of Tronador and possibly Saint D'oroux.

Gavin Cromwell says Alfa Mix is 'one of the few Irish handicappers who can run off his Irish mark'; he holds entries in the Coral Cup (2.50 Wednesday) and the Martin Pipe (5.30 Friday).

Thatsy holds entries in the Coral Cup (2.50 Wednesday), the County Hurdle (2.10 Friday) and the Martin Pipe (5.30 Friday) and is considered 'well handicapped' by Gordon Elliott.

Relegate holds an entry in the Pertemps Final (2.10 Thursday) and is a big loser in Paddy Power's book.

Gordon Elliott suggested Galvin would go well in the Northern Trust Company Novices' Handicap Chase (Tuesday 4.50).

Just for the record, I've noted that Gordon Elliott's win-strike rate over the past fortnight is just 8% (4-50) which is perhaps a slight concern.

After all that, I'm not really sure I'm any further forward...

As always, I'll aim to post a blog for each day's racing at the Festival. Current thinking, subject to change, briefly outlined below...

Cornerstone Lad overpriced at 33/1 for the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday; an each-way play with conditions to suit.

Soft ground against Altior in the Champion Chase on Wednesday.

Third Wind not guaranteed to stay but of interest in the Pertemps Final on the back of his one length second behind Phoenix Way conceding that winner six pounds (Plumpton, January 2019).

Penhill an each-way play in the Stayers' Hurdle, Willie Mullins talking up his chance in the Weekender.

I was impressed with Sir Psycho's slick hurdling at Haydock the last day.

Mack The Man took a very nasty fall in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury but trainer Evan Williams sounds keen. More work to be done; he's 25/1 with some layers for the County Hurdle but just 12/1 with Coral.

Not long left to wait now...