I was asked to sit on the panel for a Cheltenham Festival preview last night. Being the diligent dutiful type I both agreed to do it and prepared some notes. Rather than keep those notes to myself and the small group of people in the room, it makes sense to share them on here.
These notes represent my current thinking and, while I have bet a good many of the horses mentioned, I reserve the right to tip and/or back something else come Festival week! Assuming that makes sense and seems fair enough, here is what I had prepared:
Cheltenham Grade 1 Notes
Overall: Weather forecast is wet, ground is already soft, heavy in places
Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
5 of last 7 won by the Irish (4 to Willie Mullins, only one clear fav, & one jt fav)
Asterion Forlonge has much stronger form than Shishkin, having bolted up in the Chanelle Pharma Novices’ Hurdle. That is perennially the best novice hurdle run before the Fez. He’s 5/1 and I’ve backed him.
Shishkin obvious ‘could be anything’ material. I was at Huntingdon where he beat Shan Blue in the Listed Sidney Banks. Nothing has run from that race since, though there were some 140-odd rated novices well beaten. His Newbury win has not worked out at all (all eight to run since have finished out of the frame). He’s just too short on what he’s shown in public.
Any of Chantry House, Sporting John if he runs here, and especially Abacadabras would be unsurprising winners.
One thing to note – this is the race above all others where bookies battle for custom. You’ll get money back as cash if you lose, extra places, enhanced odds and so on. Shop around and get some money in the tank: there are 27 further battles!
Willie Mullins has won four of the last five Arkles, Nicky Henderson three of the other four going back to 2012. Mullins has Cash Back, mightily impressive in a couple of novice chases before running HdB’s Notebook to ½ length in the Irish Arkle. Rumour was that Notebook bolted on the way to post there; in spite of that I’d be happy to take Cash Back at more than twice the price.
Notebook is a dual G1 scorer, with narrow verdicts over both Cash Back and Fakir d’Oudairies. He’s done nothing wrong and is a worthy favourite, but he has little in hand over a couple of his rivals.
The Hendo runner is Mister Fisher, but he looks as though he needs a small field to be at his best. Pick of the Brits might be Olly Murphy’s Brewin’upastorm. He’s proved little in two small field novice chase wins, but his hurdling level – close 4th in Ballymore, 2nd in Mersey Novices, both G1 – last season shows his class.
Against Hendo squad: if you’ve got four Champion Hurdle horses, you’ve probably got none.
Epatante whacked in the mares’ novices’ hurdle last year, won a weak G1 at Christmas (Silver Streak second, other joint fav pulled up); Pentland Hills beaten both starts this term, 4yo form seems a distant memory (5yo’s Katchit and Espoir d’Allen won this but both had won their most recent starts convincingly).
Honeysuckle was underwhelming last time, for all that the second (Darver Star) is an improver. She may well go to the Mares’ Hurdle;
The pair I’d take chances on are Darver Star and especially Supasundae. Darver represents last year’s winning trainer, Gavin Cromwell, and has improved from a mark of 104 a year ago to 152 currently. That gives him seven pounds or so to find but who says he’s finished improving?
Supasundae doesn’t win much but he’s run in G1 company the last 14 times, finishing out of the first three just twice. A fast run two miles looks much more his thing than a slowly run three in the Stayers’ and I make him a very solid each way bet at around 14/1.
Cilaos Emery’s jumping is not up to scratch but he has a mighty engine; if he’s supplemented as expected and puts in a good round he’ll go close.
Three horse race: Benie, Honey and Roksana. Trip looks more appropriate for Honeysuckle than the Champion Hurdle and she’s a sporting bet to beat the favourite; but it’s not a race I’ll be getting involved with.
Envoi Allen is a legit fav: last year’s Champion Bumper winner is a dual G1 hurdler this term. Very short, though, against impressive unexposed horses, most notably Sporting John whose three unbeaten runs include a defeat of subsequent Classic Novices’ Hurdle winner, Harry Senior. The Classic is the best UK novice hurdle run before the Festival, and that makes SJ a serious tool. 6/1 e/w NRNB looks a bet, and perhaps in the ‘without the fav’ markets.
Favourite Champ is a bit of a nutter: he nearly took the wrong course two back at Newbury, then he fell when leading at the second last most recently. He’s got bundles of ability but hasn’t looked quite the finished article yet. Opposable at the price.
Minella Indo was a dual G1 winner at this trip over hurdles including as a 50/1 shocker in the Albert Bartlett, but has been less impressive over fences to date. He’s been trained up to the race and the vibes are strong.
Strong stayers and mudlarks Copperhead and Sam Brown interest more at the prices. Both ran in the Reynoldstown at Ascot last time, the former winner, the latter pulling up. The former’s trainer is toying with the NH Chase, the latter’s trainer with Aintree. NRNB is the way to play then in a race where the top of the market has a fragile look to it.
A fascinating race which could be the scrap of the meeting. Altior, at 10, is not the horse he was, but he’s not far off it judged on his recent Game Spirit win.
Against him are two rising stars, Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi. Defi has a great Cheltenham record and has won his last three, all by fairly narrow margins. Chacun has a verdict over Defi from Punchestown last May, but it might be dangerous to take that form literally.
Appreciate It is incredibly short given the unexposed nature of so many of these. He was 3rd behind Envoi Allen in his point debut and bolted up in a Grade 2 last time. If you were being hyper critical he didn’t find a huge amount off the bridle there but he already had the race well won before being ridden.
I was hugely impressed by Panic Attack on her debut at Market Rasen in a Listed race. She beat some solid UK fillies by ten lengths and will get both the fillies’ and the 4yos’ allowances at Cheltenham. She’s changed stables from Willie Mullins to David Pipe, a negative for me, but she must have a big chance.
Marsh Novices’ Chase
A social day where winners are hard to come by, for me at least. The first of a couple of interim distance races where which horses will run is uncertain.
Itchy Feet represents the Scilly Isles form which Defi Du Seuil brought to win last year’s race. But…
7 of 9 won by the Irish.
7 of 9 were 4/1 or shorter.
7 of 9 won LTO.
Willie Mullins has won four.
Mullins has both Allaho and Faugheen, the former half the age of the latter! 12 year olds don’t win Championship races, still less novice championship races. But Faugheen is not your average 12yo novice. He’ll absolutely bring the house down if he wins, and I’d say he has a pretty good chance.
But if you like either Allaho or Faugheen then you have to like Easy Game as well. The third string to the Mullins bow beat the former and was a very close second to the latter. He lacks a bit of experience but will be waited with and can pick up the pieces off what will probably be strong fractions.
Another case of who will turn up. A Plus Tard is more likely here and is a short enough favourite. If you watch last year’s Novices’ Handicap Chase you’ll understand why, but this is a different level.
Min has rock solid form and his 2m4f record is 1211, including two G1 wins. His form is better than A Plus Tard yet he’s a bigger price. He’s been second to Altior twice in the QMCC and this longer trip looks the answer now.
Frodon has to be kept onside after the fairytale last year. Campaigned away from Cheltenham this season – because he’s too high in the weights to contest the handicap he previously did – he looks sure to run his race again.
Aso was 3rd in this in 2017 at 40/1, 2nd in this last year at 33/1, and is currently 33/1 for the race this year. His form isn’t great this season but it can be taken on trust he’ll be ready for this assignment, and he’s worth a small each way interest.
Assuming Benie Des Dieux goes a different route, it’s hard to see past Paisley Park. He’s been the dominant stayer since running midfield in the 2018 Albert Bartlett and improved his unbeaten run to seven in the Cleeve last time. There he won by a little more than a length, having won the same race by 12L the year before.
I think he’ll probably win – I hope he does, for Andrew Gemmill, Aidan and Emma – but I’ll be betting something at a much, much bigger price each way. The one I like is City Island, last year’s Ballymore winner.
City Island has taken the Big Buck’s ‘not very good at chasing so reverting to hurdling’ route here, and his trainer Martin Brassil is a shrewdie. I backed him on 17th March last year for this race, at 22/1. He’s since been as big as 40/1 and is still available at 14’s eleven months later. Luckily the trainer is shrewder than I am!
Emitom is the wild card. He ran RSA favourite Champ to 3 lengths in the Grade 1 Sefton at Aintree last April. Since then he was whacked in the Relkeel on his seasonal debut before running away with the Grade 2 Rendlesham at Haydock 11 days ago. A genuine three miler, it’s possible this won’t be run quickly enough for him.
A race that looks likely to cut up. Recency bias has shunted Solo to the head of the market but the visual impression of his Adonis win last weekend is not backed up by the figures. It was the slowest of the two mile heats on the card, and others have stronger collateral credentials in any case.
This probably rests between Allmankind and Goshen, the former already a G1 winner at Chepstow. He’s headstrong and runs from the front, something that both Solo and Goshen can do also.
Goshen is unbeaten in six – three flat handicaps and three hurdles – most recently kicking Nordano to the kerb in nonchalant fashion. That one has since won a handicap by 16 lengths off 127, while fourth placed Homer also won a handicap next time off 117. Goshen doesn’t need to lead, as he showed when tracking the pace before winning by seven lengths in a handicap at Nottingham.
He’s won his last six races by 12L, 9L, 7L (on the flat); then 23L, 34L and 11L over hurdles. He does jump to the right, which is a worry; but he looks like a machine to me.
Aspire Tower is probably the best of the Irish, and he’s probably not good enough.
Goshen for me.
A race to tilt at windmills. The six-year average winning SP is just north of 26/1, with individual scorers at 50/1 and 33/1 twice during that time.
The reason, I think, is that this is a very different test from the usual six runner Graded races run through the season. The big priced winners have tended to get outrun towards the end of such contests, whereas this more attritional setup favours those perennial placers.
Five of those six winners were beaten last time out, the winner – Unowhatimeanharry – scoring in handicap company.
If that theory holds any water, the likes of Lord Royal and Fury Road are interesting.
Lord Royal was second in the same Clonmel novice that Minella Indo was second in last year. He was a big sectional talking horse prior to Clonmel and those of us who backed him on the back of that chat are clinging to the Indo thread now! He’s 33/1 now, same price as I backed him.
Fury Road is ‘only’ 16/1, having been the beaten favourite in the G1 Nathanial Lacy at the Dublin Racing Festival. Martello Tower was beaten there prior to a 14/1 score in the potato race, and this lad is definitely worth another chance.
Cobbler’s Way, like Fury Road owned by Gigginstown, was second in the same race and is another worth a play here. He’s entered in the Ballymore as well so 14/1 NRNB is the way to go.
Don’t be afraid to take a chance at a big price, and don’t be disappointed if a shortie beats you: they can win, they’re just often poor value.
An open year as 7/2 the field implies. I think it’ll be at least 5/1 bar one on the day, with the one being either Al Boum Photo – the reigning champ for Willie Mullins – or Santini, the pretender trained by Nicky Henderson, depending on how their respective weeks have gone.
Much was made of Santini’s jumping in the aftermath of his dogged, and quietly impressive, Cotswold Chase win; less has been said of the leaping of the Al Boum, who has come down three times in his career, to Santini’s none.
Santini has had a much better prep this year than when second in the RSA last season, and he looks every inch the strong-staying scrapper. I’d take him in a match with ABP every time.
Delta Work is an interesting up-and-comer but he looks like he needs quickish ground. Form on soft or slower reads 33243134; form on quicker than soft reads 212111111. If it did dry out, his recent Grade 1 brace puts him in the mix though I’m still not completely convinced by his stamina.
I’m not sold on Lostintranslation, because of stamina reservations, though I may have that wrong. Couldn’t back him at the price.
Clan Des Obeaux wouldn’t be for me either: I think he wants more of a speed test. It wouldn’t be a shock if Presenting Percy was in the mix off a slightly more conventional prep – albeit in defeat – though he’s not really for me either.
I’m a Santini fan, have backed him accordingly, and will be cheering him from the inebriated depths of the Brown Bear in Leman St.
Irish runners have won 24 of the 51 handicaps in the last five years, from 295 runners. That’s better than 8% win rate. UK runners have won 27 of 51, from 854 runners. That’s about 3% win rate.
Those exiting a Graded race last time won at better than 6%, those who race in Listed or lower last time won at 3%.
Those exiting an Irish Graded race won at 8.75%, though exiting a UK Graded race won at 4.5%.
Those outside the top eight in a Graded race last time won just 4 of the 26 to run in Graded company LTO. Three of those four were non-completions.
Those who ran in an Irish Grade 1/2/3 race last time out, finishing in the first eight, won 13 Cheltenham Festival handicaps in the last five years at a rate of 10.5%, for a Starting Price profit of 18.5 points. (Over 40 points at BSP).
I’ve had one bet, A Great View in the Pertemps. Ran an excellent trial in the recent Punchestown qualifier. Was eight lengths sixth last year but handicapper has given him 142, 5 more than his Irish mark. Not a strong fancy by any stretch of the imagination.
Easysland is an interesting alternative to Tiger Roll, and is unbeaten in his last six, all cross country’s including over course and distance.
Emmanual Clayeux knows how to win on this course. His 12 runners since 2017 have won two and been placed a further five times. The winners, Diesel D’Allier and Urgent de Gregaine, both line up here, as does last time out winner Arlequin d’Allier.
This 10 year old is making his Cheltenham debut, having pocketed €45,000 for that last day win.
What is interesting is that both Diesel d’Allier and Urgent De Gregaine WON on their Cheltenham debuts. This fellow is 33/1.