Monday, 12 March 2012

Cheltenham Festival 2012 - Racing Preview

By Dan Morris

A quarter of a million visitors, half a billion pounds gambled, half a million pints of larger consumed. The pinnacle in jumps racing - The Cheltenham Festival.

As bookies brace themselves for record pay-outs punters the world over will be getting caught up in the romance and the magic of the festival.

Over the last week I've spent considerable time looking over the cards and reading the form lines on most of this years races and have tried to come up with a portfolio of bets that should see a profit come Friday.

The only real question on everyone's lips, as four of the biggest names in jumps racing prepare to defend their titles and regain their crowns; they couldn't all win, could they?

Top trainer

Willie Mullins 11/10

It is nice to have an interest in most, if not all, of the race at Cheltenham but that is a sure fire way to the poor house. The top trainer market can offer some value and provide that sustainable interest across the entire four days.

While backing Willie Mullins is not going to make you rich quick, I think he has to be a strong fancy to come out on top at this years festival.

With a runner in all most every single race you are going to have something on your side, many of which have outstanding chances - non more so the the great Hurricane Fly.

Day 1 – Tuesday March, 13

William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 110y

Steps to Freedom 5/1

The curtain raiser to the festival is one of the highlights of the racing calendar. The last three years it has been first blood to the bookmakers with the last three hot favourites getting stuffed.

This year it's a wide open contest but for me Steps to Freedom is of real interest. He comes into this race off the back of a very impressive bumper win at Aintree. This is a horse that is unbeaten over hurdles and has won in group class on the flat. He has won at Cheltenham and has done so on ground that was possibly a bit too soft for him on that day.

Steps to Freedom has beaten a number of class horses, most notable Prospect Wells. His gallop work has been impressive working alongside the like of Oscars Well and beating them easily. Doubts are raised over its recent absence – as much as 100 days – but his past form is enough for me to take a chance with what could be a well laid out horse by a very astute trainer.

Tetlami – 16/1 EW

Nicky Henderson has not had a Supreme Novices' winner for 20 years but I think Tetlami has a fantastic chance of a place here. He won five of his seven starts and is an unbeaten two from two over hurdles - both defeats coming on ground slightly too quick for him.

What I have been most impressed with is his ability to finish a race - he travels well throughout his races on the whole, but it was the way he quickened up the stiff hilled finishes in Cheltenham's NHF (Listed) race at the January meeting in 2010 and on his hurdles debut at Sandown in December, on the back of an eight month lay off. He was just hitting the front at the last in Sandown before he strongly dispatched of odds on shot Knight Pass and second favourite Black Thunder, both winners next time out.

He was equally as impressive over a sharp two miles at Kempton's Christmas Hurdle meeting, doing all his best work at the finish, suggesting a stiffer test was in order. He has since ran, and won easily, in a "Jumpers Bumper" on Kempton's all-weather track to keep him sharp for the big day.

Racing Post Arkle Chase (Grade 1) 2m

Sprinter Sacre – 5/4

This is not the most exciting of selections but Cheltenham is about picking winners and this is a horse who I watched set a course record in a well contested group one victory at Newbury – on the bridle.

Sprinter Sacre has the potential to be one of the most exciting novices of all time and has done everything that has been asked of him. Running in the The Stan James Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham last year he ran the best race he has ever ran but given his size and scope of the horse he was never going to make a competitive hurdler. He has an incredible engine and ample pace, if it is one thing that will win him this race it will be his inexplicable ability to quicken up the hill – something most of his rivals will fail to achieve

Barry Garrety believes Sprinter Sacre is in the same league as the great Moscow Flyer, many believe he will evolve into the best two mile chaser of all time. If these expectations alone are anything to go by, he will have this won three furlongs out.

JLT Specialty Steeple Chase (Handicap) (Grade 3) 3m 110y

Tullamore Dew – 14-1 E/W

The JLT Speciality Steeple Chase is the best handicap of the week and Nick Gifford’s horse Tullamore Dew gets the mod here. Narrowly denied by Massini's Maguire at Ascot in a strongly run race over three miles, he has proven he gets the trip – the only question is the mentality.

Ascot is a stiff three miles and will have been great preparation and the weather looks on his side. Tullamore Dew should love the ground and love the trip – it is in with a great place chance.

There’s no doubt this horse has the ability to win, the doubt being which horse will turn up.

Stan James Champion Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 110y

Hurricane Fly – 5/4

Hurricane Fly will go off the hot favorite and currently heads the market in the Stan James Champion Hurdle. Willie Mullins' brilliant eight-year-old has won his last seven starts, all of which were Grade Ones, and showed he was as good as ever when destroying the opposition in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in January on his belated first run of the season.

He now bids to become the first horse to retain his Champion crown since another Irish-trained hurdler, Hardy Eustace, in 2005, and will be accompanied to post by his stalemate Zaidpour, himself unbeaten in four races this season.

The main threat in this race has to be the 2010 winner, Binocular after his impressive performance over Celestial Halo last time out but I am not convinced he is good enough to beat Hurricane Fly.

With an exceptionally high cruising speed and great turn of foot this looks the standout horse in the race and despite the stats being against him I think he will retian his crown and rewrite the history books with another impressive win here.

Zarkander W/O Hurricane Fly – 9/2

I can't really see Hurricane Fly being beat and at the odds it may be an idea to turn your attention to the Without Hurricane Fly market.

If so, I'd be siding with Zarkander who could be the only horse to considerably challenge Willie Mullins horse. While Paul Nicholls has never won the Champion Hurdle that wouldn't be enough to put me off this horse who has one a Triumph Hurdle and who came from last to first to win impressively at Newbury last time out.

At five years old, the stats aren't on his side but having had a recent breathing operation this hordee could be open to any amount of improvement and could be the value against the favourite.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase 3m 7f

Scotsirish – 2/1

Ireland have won all seven of the renewals of this quirky event which takes place in the middle of the course. They can take eight, with Willie Mullins in 2012.

In the cross country race that took place here in December, few would have forgotten how the majority of the field took the wrong course and gifted the race to Garde Champetre for his sixth win at Cheltenham. Scotsirish was one of those who went the wrong way whilst few would deny he looked to have the race at his mercy travelling really well coming into the bend. He can gain recompense for that on Tuesday when the best of the Irish pointers line up once again to take on the ups and downs on the track.

Day 2 - Wednesday March, 14

Diamond Jubilee National Hunt Chase (Amateur Riders) 4m

Teaforthree – 8/1 E/W

This is a race for ameture riders and not one to go made on but the course form of Teaforthree speaks volumes for his chance here. He was just a head in front of Alle Garde in the Albert Bartlett last season and is a great chance for Rebecca Curtis to taste Cheltenham success. he has certainly improved for the switch to chasing and has shown more than an ability for this track when second behind Join Together back in November.

He has won twice since, both at Chepstow, sandwiched in the middle the Feltham Stakes in which he was pulled up after trying to go with Grands Crus. That crazy pace killed his chance and Tony McCoy rightly identified when he had had enough and pulled him up. The win at Chepstow after probably justified that decision and gives us confidence in the ease of his win there. There is some 8/1 around for him and that could looks good as I think he could go off favourite and certainly if he were from one of the bigger yard she would already occupy that position. He looks like a very good chance indeed.

Teaforthree's other two efforts have seen him win in heavy ground and soft ground at Chepstow - both in relatively quick times considering the ground conditions. He never looked in trouble when beating Restless Harry in heavy ground but his better performance was his most recent. I was thoroughly impressed by the way he quickened out of the soft ground to beat Roalco Des Farges by nine lengths. His ability to increase the pace after making the running in soft ground bodes well for his ability to stay the four mile trip and his jumping ability is superb, rarely putting a foot wrong.


Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 5f

Battonier – 9/1 E/W

With Boston Bob now entered into the Albert Bartlett and doubts over Simonsig's staying power (as well as his price), value lies elsewhere in this race. Battonier ticks all the trends boxes, is on form, and has proven he can get up the Cheltenham hill.

RSA Chase (Grade 1) 3m 110y

Grand Crus 5/4(NAP)

Grand Crus is another obvious selection, but he is one of my favorite horses. His efforts in the Feltham at Kempton on boxing day is form alone to suggest this horse will win going away, the way he travelled and jumped superior to anyone else in the field and not to mention the performance he put in this time lat year against Big Bucks in the World Hurdle. The story shouldn't be too dissimilar this time around. 

Since his career began he was always going to be an exciting chaser. Traditionally this is a minefield for punters and a graveyard for favorites - but have any been as good as this Paul Nicholls horse. 

Grand Crus has a proven ability having jumped around Cheltenham, Newbury, Kempton, flat tracks, galloping tracks and comes into this race off the back of three runs. He has rarely been troubled in his three starts picking up a Grade two and a Grade one on his last two runs. Had a little bit left in the tank last time out, but I'm unsure exactly how much. His winning time was impressively faster than Kauto Star's C&D in the King George so he has to be taken seriously. The faster they go the better I feel. Queen Mother Champion Chase (grade 1) 2m

Sizing Europe – 11/10

Of all the champions returning to defend their crowns at the Festival, Sizing Europe is the one that looks to have the best chance in the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday. His form is head and shoulders above the rest, he is going for a hat-trick at the meeting and his prep run could not have been more impressive. He should be long odds on in my opinion.

Sizing Europe probably only ran to a provable mark of 166 in the Tingle Creek but it was still visually impressive and he probably put up a mark of at least 177 in winning the Champion last year unless you can believe the first five to finish behind him all ran off form.

It is interesting to read some thoughts that Sizing Europe might be at least 11lbs clear. If so, anything around even money is a steal.

Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3)

Ulck Du Vin – 7/1 E/W

Little to say about this horse other than I have a sneaky feeling this could be one of those Cheltenham festival Paul Nicholls handicap plots.

No real form lines to go on but I am willing to take a risk on this one with a potential profit to be made.

For me Vendor would be the danger, a horse that had been well backed and one that fits all the trend lines. He'll go off well handicapped and is reportedly as good as the likes of Grumeti and Balder Succes.

Day 3 - Thursday March, 15

Pertemps Final (Handicap Hurdle) (Listed) 3m

Our Father – 4-1 NB

For me this is one of the bets of the festival. Our Father is up 19lbs for his win at Ascot but that was a race he could have gone twice round and still won .

The Pretmeps is a race that the Pipe yard like to target and Our Father looks this years prospect.

He has only had four runs in his short career, on his debut in January 2011 he won a 2m 4f maiden hurdle at Chepstow by four lengths, both the second and third won races later that year. On his second start again over 2m 4f at Chepstow he found one too good but he was giving him 6lb and the front pair pulled well clear of the third.

On his fourth run over 2m 5f at Newbury he again found one too good and again conceded him 6lb and only went down by four lengths, there was a six length gap to the third and an even bigger gap to the fourth. His most impressive run was his last in December 2011 over 2m 6f at Ascot in a handicap hurdle, he had to give weight to all of his rivals bar one and won by one and half lengths, with the third placed horse a further 14 lengths back, the runner up has finished 2nd since in a graded hurdle and the third placed horse won next time out.

Ryanair Chase (Grade 1) 2m 5f

Nobel Prince 5/1

At Cheltenham I like horses that are proven at the course, in contrast I am put off by a horses that have yet to run at the track. Riverside Theatre is the clear favourite in this race and is a horse in excellent form. Having said this, his Cheltenham form is not so good and one I like is Nobel Price.

The Paul Nolan trained horse has excellent course form and has won at Cheltenham - that victory coming in the Jewson last year. Riverside Theatre is unexposed at the trip while Nobel Prince is open to any sort of improvement. Coupled with a recent breathing operation that looks certain to overturn his recent disappointment last time out; back at his ideal trip and with ideal ground and track I would be confident about a solid performance from Nobel Prince.

Ladbrokes World Hurdle (Grade 1) 3m

Oscar Whisky 4/1

Big Buck’s is the class horse in this race and without doubt the one to beat. He’s been an absolute star since returning to hurdles and will no doubt go very close in his bid to defend his World Hurdle crown.

At the prices I’m willing to side with Oscar Whisky who, on his day, has the beating of Big Bucks. If nothing else, this horse has course and distance pedigree having tasted defeat in the last two festivals. With stamina and a high cruising speed Oscar Whisky could well trouble Big Bucks and if the tactics are right Barry Geraghty could cause an upset – if he is produced late.

Byrne Group Plate Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 2m 5f

Divers 7/1 E/W

After winning the novices' handicap chase last year at the festival, Divers has been primed to challenge the Bryne Group plate this time around. His first run this season was a credible third behind Great Endeavour in the Paddy Power from 5lbs out of the handicap, before being totally outpaced last time out over hurdles. That run can easily be overlooked as it was run over an inadequate trip and the drop back down in trip will no doubt see this horse improve. Divers goes well on good ground and Ferdy Murphy is a shrewd trainer who tends to have a couple of well handicapped horses at the festival.  

Interestingly, AP McCoy spoke personally with trainer Ferdy Murphy to request that he could ride this horse - his form in the Paddy Power Gold Cup probably had something to do with it. Murphy’s horses are hitting a bit of form and he reported recently Divers is in great nick.

Day 4 - Friday March, 16

JCB Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 1f

Pearl Swan 7/1 E/W

I'm surprised more people aren't talking about Pearl Swan in the JCB Triumph Hurdle. I doubt he was 100% when he beat Grumeti, giving him 3lb. The turn of foot he showed was similar to that of Zarkandar on his debut and whatever the rights or wrongs of his disqualification, he showed a great deal of ability.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) 3m

Boston Bob 2/1

The Irish have played a part in the story of this race with five of the last nine winners taking the trophy back across the sea. Willie Mullins has current favourite Boston Bob lining up following a hat-trick of wins this season including the beating of Gordon Elliots Mountbelbulben in a grade one at Navan and most recenty landing a grade two novice event ahead of some decent rivals at Leopardstown. He is just another in a long list of great chances Willie Mullins has prepared this season, and another that could go toward the Thomas Pink Trophy for the trainer with the most numberof winners over the four days.

Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase (Grade 1) 3m 2f 110y

Kauto Star 4/1

Kauto Star is the only horse to have won the King George 5 times, he's also the only horse to have regained the Gold Cup (this stat was widely used against him leading up to the Festival in 2009 but again he proved everyone wrong). He is the only horse to have won 16 Grade one races, he also achieved a rating of 193 when he won his fourth Gold Cup which is the highest rating given to a chaser. He is probably one of the best three mile chasers ever.

Having beaten Long Run at Kempton last time out.Kauto Star is an all round class act and on top form he jumps better, stays better, is faster, bigger and stronger than Long run in every conceivable way.Kauto Star continues to improve and Paul Nicholls has reported his star horse to have improved further. I’m not convinced Long Run has ever come up against a ‘top form’ horse and certainly not a ‘top form’ Kauto Star. For me the three time Gold Cup winner is one of my bets of the festival.

Kauto Star on his two runs this season has been a totally different proposition and back to his best. Others will no doubt disagree but my issue with Long Run is his jumping - he wasn't foot perfect in the Gold Cup last year. In the Betfair Chase, even though he wasn't 100% fit, the jumping was atrocious and after the final flight Kauto pulled a further 6 lengths ahead.

Now, should Kauto Star go on and win the 2012 Gold Cup, he would be achieving the nigh impossible and could quite easily be described as the best ever Gold Cup winner. To win the Cup three times, as Best Mate and Cottage Rake did in consecutive seasons is quite amazing, to do it without back to back wins over six seasons would be ridiculous.

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