The little bit of Christmas in March which is The Cheltenham Festival has now come and gone. It’s a little bit over 50 weeks until we get to do it all again (and about 6 weeks until the hype starts for next year), so it’s time to reflect on what happened and what we can take away for the future. The general consensus seems to be that the betting shop punters all won so much on the first day that the three subsequent days weren’t enough for them to do it all back, my week was summed up in the statement I made to ‘The Laird of Airdrie’ when he asked for the ‘quick version’ of how I had fared : ‘ I didn’t carry much luck, made a couple of poor decisions, didn’t play as heavily as normal for the most part, small to me ‘.
It all kicked off, as ever, with the Supreme Novices’ on Tuesday. To my eye it wasn’t exactly a great renewal with Douvan looking the obvious stand-out for the Irish and L’ami Serge the clear form pick for the home team. I couldn’t have Jollyallan (will make a lovely novice chaser) on the drying ground and found the bits of money for horses like Seedling nothing short of bizarre, so it was time to get the meeting started by going for ‘half a touch’. With the slight doubt (as he was unproven on an undulating track and drying conditions, but not unlikely to be effective on them) surrounding Douvan, a ‘lump’ each-way on L’ami Serge looked the way forward, especially with connections past and present suggesting they thought he would improve for the better ground. Unfortunately a 12 runner field meant that Hills didn’t commit commercial suicide again and offer extra places, but to my eye he looked in a different league to all bar Douvan and was ‘bomb proof’ for the frame. A small 4 figure each-way bet at 7/2 and 4/1 was purloined and a saver on Douvan at 9/4 to cover the win stakes was struck. What could possibly go wrong ? I am afraid this was one of those occasions when I knew I was in trouble from the get-go. Slower away than ideal and further back than I had hoped he never travelled with any fluency, was hampered in rear by the fall of Seedling and again down the hill when running into the rear of the weakening Some Plan. I can’t help but think, even though he never really ‘ran his race’, he would just about have been third without the trouble, the saver on Douvan dulled the pain a little, but it was not the desired start. I am sure L’ami is better than this. Douvan did nothing wrong, won comfortably and clocked a ‘proper’ time, but I can’t help but feel it wasn’t an equivalent performance to that of Vautour (The Monster) 12 months before, time will tell…..
The Arkle brought about another tactical ‘mistake’. It has been apparent for years that quality hurdlers (145+) are the call in the Arkle (with the exception of the aberration that is Western Warhorse, how did that happen ?), but I was seduced by the shape of the race and with some proper ‘muck’ lining up, I felt compelled to play the ‘snide’ each way on Vibrato Valtat. I did manage to get a few ‘buttons’ on Un De Sceaux at Evs, but surely with most of the field lacking experience and/or a recent run the place part of the bet looked massive and it was always possible that the jolly might tip-up, right ? Alas, once again it was not to be, coming down the hill it was all going to plan, but in attempting to go-and-get Un De Sceaux, Vibrato left his finishing effort behind, another decent each-way poke one place out of the frame and my position ‘behind the eight-ball’ was well and truly secured just 2 races in. As far as the race goes. The winner looks a proper tool, destined to take high rank in what is, at the moment, a far from vintage 2 mile chasing division. He will always be free-going in front, but does it within himself and proved he can go-again from the front up the hill. I doubt W. Mullins will be losing any sleep at the prospect of taking on Dodging Bullets and Somersby in the future.
The Champion Hurdle was all about 2 things: Was Faugheen as good as he had looked in every run he had ever had ? ; and what was going to fill the places in one of the outstanding each-way thieving races of the season ? The answer to the first question was a resounding yes. We all know Ruby rode them all to sleep from the front and the race was won in a substantially slower time than the Supreme, but he was quite clearly in a different league. It transpires that a ‘kissing spine’ was the excuse for The New One, but it’s hard to envisage the circumstances under which any of those who finished behind him could ever reverse the placings. It was also another plus for the Neptune Investments hurdle as a pointer to the Champion Hurdle (as opposed to the Supreme). From a punting point of view the race was another disappointment, too little on the winner at 6/4 and too much each-way on Jezki (he had to frame if The New One didn’t, didn’t he ?) We were now not only ‘behind the eight-ball’, but ‘up against the cushion’ as well !
As anyone who read the day 1 preview I did for those lovely people over at Betting Expert will know, I had been doing a rain dance (in vain) for weeks in the run up to The Festival. The reason for this being my strongly held belief that Glens Melody is the second best hurdling mare in Britain and Ireland. They will also know that this opinion was marginal on good ground, but substantial on soft ground. If the hurdles course had ridden ‘Soft’ I would’ve had my biggest bet for years on Glens in the ‘without Annie Power’ market, but it didn’t…. hence Plan B came into operation. I took all the bits of 5/2 that I could with Powers and had a saver on Polly Peachum at 9/2 with Ladbrokes (in the shops of course, imagine getting a bet from them online !!) We all know what transpired, Annie Power was on her way to proving herself head and shoulders above the rest when she appeared to jump the shadow of the final hurdle and came down leaving Glens and Polly to fight out the finish. With the retiral of Glens, any conjecture about who would win a rematch has been removed, but we are left with a few obvious clues to take from the race. Firstly, that Polly Peachum is clear second best on good ground (I doubt she will be asked to run again on proper soft); secondly that The Pirate Queen is better than her mark of 135 on good ground (the going descriptions for her previous two wins are wrong !) and that Bitofapuzzle is going to be a proper 3 mile staying chaser on Soft ground. It’s hard to imagine any of the others of her ‘sex’ living with her next year and, despite the mares chase program not offering quite as many options as the hurdle program, she should run up a sequence when she goes over fences next year. Financially we were still ‘behind the eight-ball’, but we had at least spotted the angle to get out of the snooker.
The National Hunt chase is a race I have always loved and, over the years, had a reasonable amount of success in (if you want to see a piece of ‘magic’ watch J.T McNamara’s ride on Rith Dubh in 2002, it still gives me goose bumps). Once again the wagon-shunters backed a 6yo in to favourite so we had to play in the race. In a moment of genius totally in line with pretty much everything else I had done that day, I decided to abandon the JP/Elliott plot up Cause Of Causes and go all in 4 places on the runner of the other man with a great record in the race, Alan King, and his Sego Success. I am still at a loss as to whether the steady pace meant he got outpaced late, or he didn’t stay the 4 mile trip, either way it was another bet one place out of the frame and another chance missed. Back ‘behind the eight-ball’ we went…..
The novices handicap chase to finish the card had been dominated a couple of years ago by 2 horses who ran in the Timeform race at the January meeting and I decided this was the way to go. I had an each-way swing at Generous Ransom at 10/1 (the winner of that race) and the Phillip Hobbs trained Horizontal Speed at 16/1 (similar profile to his previous winner Copper Bleu). Horizontal traded a shade of odds on going to the last and Generous traded a shade of odds on just after the last, of course neither won, that honour went to Irish Cavalier, who had run third in the Timeform race ! A bit of pace money was had, so it was far from a disaster, even if it did feel like another crossbar rattled….
I won’t spend too long on Day 2 as it was one of the least inspiring Festival cards I have ever seen.
The Neptune was run at a farcical pace, some nice staying novices all finished in a heap after a three furlong dash to the line as no one was prepared to go on. The whole world seemed to know Windsor Park would reverse form with both Nichols Canyon and Outlander, apart from me that is…. Two tiny each-way bets on the latter two named resulted in a small loss on a race in which I had no strong opinion. Form to ‘wipe your arse with’ I fear.
The first bet I struck on The Festival this year was on Don Poli, technically he lacked the experience (and recent run) of a ‘standard’ winner of this race, but, it looked a shocking renewal. His opposition was The Young Master, a handicapper who hadn’t run this calendar year, Southfield Slowboat (Theatre), and Kings (I can beat Sausalito Sunrise if you give me a solo) Palace. With Coneygree looking set to go for the Gold Cup the 3/1 and 5/2 was starting to look good and then it happened…. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but, Richard Birch of the Racing Post is (in my most humble of opinions) the absolute kiss-of-death, any punter who writes regularly about his credit accounts (who the f**k still has them in this day and age ?!) is not someone who’s opinion would reinforce my own. I have made it a habit to bail-out of any position I have if he has tipped the beast in question, or forget about the race if I’m not already involved.This is a tactic which has worked VERY well in recent times. Don Poli was his nap of the meeting….. So there I was, stuck in a quandary, when my mobile rang, it was Davie C (my partner in crime), I told him the dreadful news (having got him involved in the bet initially) and was surprised at his reaction, a massive guffaw !! Not only was it Birchy’s nap, it was our mate George’s. I appreciate this won’t mean much to you, but take it from me, the Birchy/Geo combo can only lead to disaster ! It’s not that George is a bad judge, far from it, but he is (even more than me) the WORLDS UNLUCKIEST MAN, this is a guy who once bet a Lucky 15 and all four horses in it died on the track !! (I swear that’s the truth). Throw in the fact that Brian Cooper needs a map and compass to complete the course at Cheltenham without meeting trouble 6 times and my decision was made for me, BAIL !! Shrewdly I decided to do this at 2/1 (just before he went 13/8) and ended up in the position where, no matter what happened, I got a round of drinks to dull the pain. You know the rest, like total solar eclipses, weird things happen once a century and Birchy and Geo got paid. As for the form of the race, Don Poli won, despite ground on the quick side for him, despite his lack of experience and despite a massive amount of assistance from the saddle. He’ll be a proper 3 mile plus chaser on soft ground and (for stakes race purposes) is the only animal which holds any interest going forward, in general, more form to ‘wipe your arse with’.
I have little to say about The Champion Chase and, without wanting to detract from the achievement of the winner, ask you to consider one thing, is beating Somersby and Special Tiara by 1 1/4L and 1 3/4L ‘Championship’ form ? I fear next year there will be a changing of the guard. Also, if you backed Sprinter Sacre at single figure odds, you really should have a good hard look at yourself, that is, if you can still look yourself in the mirror….
Having missed the early 9/1 Moon Racer in the bumper, the rest of the day held no interest for me other than more minor frustrations.
Thursday arrived and with it the mad scramble to get what I could on ‘The Monster’ (Vautour) at best prices available. Unfortunately it was not as much as I hoped, but still my biggest bet of the week, some 9/4, a bit of 2/1 and a press-up at 2.7 meant I averaged a bit better than 2/1. I had rather hoped to avail myself of a bit of Corals 5/2 at 8.30am that morning as advertised, but as their shop didn’t open until 9am, it proved to be yet another ‘fantasy price’. Those of you who spot my occasional Twitter comments will know that I was threatening to ‘unfollow’ anyone who repeated the nonsense about him having jumped poorly in the past. His ‘massive error’ at Leopardstown was nothing more than a slip and to my mind he had barely touched a twig in three chase starts. He faced 2 solid opponents in Apache Stronghold and Valseur Lido (who seemed to run to the pound on their previous meeting) and the useful Ptit Zig, but his marked preference for soft ground meant that I felt he could be easily discounted. More of a problem might be if team tactics were employed and his stablemate Irish Saint was used to get Vautour ‘at it’ a long way from home. The long and the short of it is that they tried and they failed. The race was effectively over after 2 fences, Vautour’s jumping was prodigious, breathtaking and (bar getting in tight at one) flawless. He’s the real deal, a champion in the making, hopefully to be enjoyed for years to come. Almost certain to be at his very best on decent ground, he’s got the pace to drop back in trip and the pedigree to have no problem going up in trip. They will all come and have a go, but, unless it’s a real slog-in-a-bog, they will all come up short. He’s a horse worth travelling to see, personally I hope it’s to Kempton at Christmas (on some nice ground) to watch him win his first King George.
We had now hit the front on the meeting, but the frustrations were far from over. A small and unsuccessful pop at the now seemingly impossible Coral Cup was followed by a decent each-way swing at Ma Filleule at 13/2 and a win saver on Don Cossack at 9/2 in the Ryanair. A mistake at the top of the hill when going well and almost being brought to his knees at the second last when Cooper tried to go between horses (how poor is he here ? Was getting rid of Davy Russell for him not a shocking decision ?) put paid to Don Cossack, but I did think turning in that Ma Filleule would go and get the enigmatic Uxizandre. Alas it was not to be, Uxizandre ran a belter (and a belting time) from the front and kept going strongly, A.P got his winner and the world was a better place, apparently….. This is undoubtedly strong form, but whether the winner will put it in again like that I wouldn’t like to guess. I would definitely be worried if he was asked to do it again quickly at Aintree off the back of such a monstrous effort. Don Cossack looked the best horse in the race to my eyes, but perhaps on a flatter track with a bit more give in the ground. Ma Filleule might be hard to place in top company as I am led to believe she was totally primed for the Ryanair.
The World Hurdle is another race I’ve grown to love over the years. From the days of Galmoy and Trapper John in the 80’s to the glory days of the noughties and Baracouda, Iris’s Gift, Inglis Drever and Big Bucks. Alas no more, what a motley crew went to post this year. It is a race where you just don’t finish out of the first 2 and return to win the next year. To that end I went looking for a young pretender, the pin fell on Lieutenant Colonel (very small as Cooper was involved again) and the race was won by another ‘ex wind-op’ job in Cole Harden, good luck to them, but it’s a medicre division compared to years of old and I doubt I will get involved with any of them any time soon.
Alas,alas, alas, the frustrations were far from finished. The Plate involved a few each-way attempts, the best of which would have been Monetaire and Champion Court. Front running tactics were sensibly re-employed on Champion, but he couldn’t see it out up the hill and Monetaire getting ‘left’ around 8 lengths at the start before getting done a length and a quarter did little for my mood. A fair handicap as ever, but I doubt it’s form to get carried away with.
I had no great view in the Kim Muir and am afraid that by the time I got the message that The Package had ‘worked the place down and was as good as ever’ he was 16/1 into 8/1, no good to man nor beast. When he drifted back to 13 on the machine I threw my smallest bet of the year (not just at Cheltenham, but of the entire year !) at him and then proceeded to boo in running ! If there is such a thing as a ‘sickening 12/1 winner’ this was it. Ho hum.
Friday the 13th and Gold Cup day too, what more could you want from a days racing ? (I love betting on Friday the 13th !). The answer to that is a few opinions. I had nada, zilch, nowt, more than a passing fancy and the uncertainty about the ground with the arrival of the rain meant that the foot was well and truly off-the-pedal.
I couldn’t get the fancy early prices in The Triumph so had a small win bet on Peace and Co and a small each-way Top Notch 4 places. Another ‘cup of tea’ to me, with Top Notch ultimately proving the better result. It didn’t look like ‘Our Conor form’ , but the 3 Henderson horses appear significantly ahead for their contemporaries without looking likely to worry Faugheen and co as 5yos. The Triumph is invariably a good guide to the 4yo race at Aintree these days. If ‘Chemical’ lets any of the 3 take their chance there, they would be the obvious one to beat.
I swerved the County totally and did likewise with the ‘Potato Race’ (how slow did they all look ?) and not being convinced that the ground had quite ‘gone’ enough for Coneygree and Many Clouds in the Gold Cup (could you really bet an Oliver Sherwood horse to win a Gold Cup ?), swerved that too. I did, however, cheer like a madman for Coneygree all the way up the run in like everyone else with a soul. A terrific performance and result for real jump racing people. The kind of result which is nigh on impossible on the flat. Coneygree will of course be a player if he returns next season, but his troubles are well documented and it couldn’t be relied upon. Djakadam ran a corker for a 6yo and will definitely be a force in years to come, but I think they will all be looking over their shoulders next year, if not for ‘The Monster’, then for Don Poli (but probably for The Monster !) The winning time was particularly good, so it would be foolish to underestimate the form.
I missed the early move for Killultagh Vic in the Martin Pipe and refused to take ‘unders’, despite him looking like he might have got in cheaply on his L’ami Serge and stakes race form (yet more frustration) and all that remained was to trade the nice few quid I had on Ned Buntline at 8/1 when the firms stepped in and shortened up A.p McCoy’s final Festival mount, as they surely would, right ? Wrong, 30 mins before the race I could’ve had it all away for a nice little wage at 4.5/4.6, instead I got greedy thinking it could get shorter still. 6.0 and 6.2 were the levels I had to trade at in the end and all that was gained was a slightly larger ‘cup of tea’ than earlier.
All in all, a week of frustrations. Great racing in places, disappointing in others and a load of new champions in the offing. ‘Small to me’ just about summed it up.