Early Bird – Cheltenham Antepost – Day 4

We are on to day 4 of our look at the graded races taking place (hopefully) at Cheltenham. Five races to consider before I will begin cursory looks at the handicaps. I take them much more seriously when we have the weights announced and it is much easier to apply the trends. However, before that I do like to try highlight some horses that appear well handicapped to me. Was hoping to have got this out before the Dublin Festival but unfortunately it wasn’t possible. Therefore, I have added an extra paragraph to each race where anything significant happened at the weekend. I have left my original musings in just to give an insight to my thinking before a race and then my thoughts once that race has taken place.

Triumph Hurdle

Not one of my favourite races at the Festival. It’s like the 2yos at Royal Ascot where you just don’t know how well a horse has improved over the course of the season and how much more they may still be capable of. Does look a very good contest this year which creates a fascinating race. Zanahiyr is favourite after a fantastic performance where he destroyed the well-regarded Saint Sam (Was thought to be Mullins leading juvenile this season). The time judges were drooling over the win as well in comparison to other races run at the course that day. However, seeing what other horses have achieved since especially in relation to the RPRs and Topspeed in the Racing Post then it suggests that Zanahiyr isn’t as far clear as we may of thought. Only eighth fastest according to Topspeed and though has the highest adjusted RPR in the race, it is only 1lb ahead of Quilixios and another 1lb in front of Adagio. This suggests that though Zanahiyr is very good, it is not as far clear as may of seemed and so to me a price of 11/4 is on the short side and is vulnerable from a value perspective.

I’m a fan of Quilixios, who hails from the same yard as Zanahiyr. Has very similar Racing Post Ratings and Topspeed to his stablemate also. Had his first run back at the beginning of March last year when trained in France and straight away set a high standard. Two runs for Elliott, winning both, he has done nothing wrong. The worry is a lack of experience having missed its intended engagement due to travel ban/cancelled meetings. Now set to go for the Spring Juvenile hurdle which could turn into a very hot and strong race. A good performance there will put it right among the principles in the betting. The problem is, underperform and you can write off any value in the price. One to consider though as a non-runner no bet.

Arguably the most impressive debut hurdling performance was from French Aseel who was subsequently bought by the Donnelly’s. Bolted up by 22 lengths in a maiden, the form has taken a couple of knocks. Has plenty of race experience though having competed as a 2yo on the flat in France, running a total of 9 times in that sphere. Now trained by Willie Mullins, if it can build on that initial run then he could be very good. Another that is entered up in the Spring Juvenile, interesting to see he is priced shorter for the Triumph than Quilixios but a bigger price in the Spring Juvenile. Not keen on something going for the Triumph on the back of just one hurdle run, so that second run will have a big impact on what happens next.

A horse that ticks many of the boxes is Adagio. A winner on the new course here, he beat Nassalam last time out to win the grade 1 Finale Juvenile hurdle at Chepstow. Stayed on really well to get on top over an unexposed rival. Has the best form on offer of any British horse though the concern is his only defeat came behind Duffle Coat who is probably only the third best juvenile in the Elliott yard! Saying that, form lines are slightly less relevant when it comes to young, improving horses so it is likely Adagio has improved beyond Duffle Coat. That rival is another who has suffered from his preparation plans being ruined due to Brexit/weather. Got the experience in the early part of the season but now not seen since middle of November when beating Adagio. Another likely to run in the Spring Juvenile hurdle, that race could turn out to be stronger than the Triumph if defeat there puts off several from travelling! I think the yard knows this horse is not the best 4yo in the yard hence his engagements in a host of novice races at Cheltenham including the Albert Bartlett where he can claim a 4yo allowance. Will be too high in the weights for the Boodles to have a chance of winning you would of thought. Nassalam is the only other horse with the experience to get competitive in this race. Hosed up in a couple of novice events, he was somewhat put in his place at Chepstow by Adagio. However, I think the horse learnt more from that run than he did in winning both his novices by big margins. Travelled really well, he just got done for a turn of foot but was closing again at the finish. A stronger end to end gallop may be more to his liking which he should get in the Triumph.

You also have several potential improvers that have had one or two runs over hurdles. As you would expect of young horses, they are getting better and better as the season goes on and they get to showcase their potential at a higher level. This makes it quite hard from an ante post betting perspective because if a horse isn’t as good as first thought then he will get found out as soon as stepping up in class. You do have the advantage of NRNB at least with Paddy Power to cover some of that risk.

One with a lot of potential is Tritonic who was rated just under 100 on the flat. Took a lot of effort to get on top in the end in what was a winning hurdles debut, however, worth considering the horse it beat was only rated 60 on the flat. Should learn a lot from the experience but same price of Quilixios yet hasn’t achieved close to what its Irish rival has. The last I want to mention is Youmdor who is in the same ownership as Tritonic. Two-time winner on the flat in France, he made a winning debut for Willie Mullins in a maiden hurdle, doing so easily. Was well fancied on second start as 4/9 favourite only to come down at the last when still in contention. Much debate has since followed as to whether it would have won or not as the eventual winner still seemed to find plenty up the run in. Personally, I’m not sure it’s good enough, the winner has been talked about as a Boodles possible which doesn’t give much hope. Likely to run in the Spring Juvenile at Leopardstown, it is a big ask to win that on the back of a fall against more experienced rivals. Not for me at the prices and knowing what it now has to achieve.

I have gone into a fair bit of detail on this race which gives you an idea of just how open I believe it is. The problem is with the majority of the Irish runners entered in the Spring Juvenile then it will have a big impact on the betting. If Zanahiyr was to win then it puts a massive dent into many of the leading contenders. However, there is also a chance for something to put themselves right in there in the market. The temptation is to go with Quilixios who could easily be better than his price. But, as his preparation hasn’t gone right and could well be thrown into a very tough Juvenile race, the safest bet is Adagio. Assume now he will go straight to Cheltenham where he is proven at the course and distance whilst also proven in a strongly run race. If all the horses turn up in Ireland as expected then several reputations will be dented. Therefore, I expect Adagio to shorten in the betting without even running. He should be nearer 7/1 so the 10/1 looks solid value.

1pt win – Adagio @ 10/1 WillHill


Addition: The Spring Juvenile hurdle never proved to be the ‘be all and end all’ that it had promised after many of those entered never turned up. Despite this Quilixios proved to be a very good winner of the race, the only one for Gordon Elliott of the weekend (Did have a winner today as well but still feel the yard are not at 100%). Not sure where French Aseel will run now as a prep but would still be going into the Triumph with a maximum of 2 runs over hurdles. Adagio still has solid claims but Quilixios has certainly put itself into strong contention. Zanahiyr is the one to beat, but he certainly doesn’t look infallible.

 

Albert Bartlett

We kind of have the same problem/issue here as we do for the Triumph. So much is going to depend on the Dublin Festival week for this race via the Nathanial Lacy & Partners. Pretty much every Irish horse prominent in the betting is entered in that race. Therefore, I suspect whatever wins will be favourite. Do I want to try and guess what that will be, that is the question we have to ask ourselves. A bad run and you can basically rule it out of the race before even getting there. With that in mind then I would certainly want to be going down the non-runner no bet route. We shall see how we feel at the end of the analysis.

Favourite is Stattler, though I suspect that is down to the fact it has been put up by Gavin Lynch on the Upping The Ante show which saw it shorten in the betting. Still has to prove it wants this trip and is relatively lightly raced for a battle-hardened type you often require in this. Not seen the 2nd and 3rd from his last race run yet whilst the 4th and 5th have come out and been beaten, both as favourite. Looks promising and Mullins broke his hoodoo in the race last year but hasn’t done enough to convince me yet.

Topping the RPR chart is Ashdale Bob who appears underrated despite an impressive win two runs ago. The problem is he made such a howler of a mistake last time. It was as though he didn’t even see the hurdle as he stepped a mile off it and practically landed on it. Now set to race in the Nathanial Lacy, I suspect he will need the run on the back of that, given a confidence boosting run. The problem is if his confidence has been knocked then the bet would be a loser before it even got there, especially when his NRNB price is half that of the best available. Should stay and wouldn’t begrudge anyone taking a chance on it, but can’t see it winning its next race so happy to hold out and see if get a similar price after a clear round. The horse that was second to Ashdale Bob was Fakiera. Been crying out for three miles, staying on strongly in all three runs this season. A second season novice with plenty of experience, he looks the right type for the race. Does have to reverse form with Ashdale Bob who beat it fair and square, but I suspect there won’t be much between them if they went to Cheltenham.

I am a fan of Farouk D’Alene, who is well regarded and at least is proven at the trip. Not the simplest of horses and would like to see it run again hoping that its win wasn’t a fluke. What stood out more than anything was winning in gutsy fashion, in a strongly run race when the yard was really out of form! Going through all of the yard’s winners over the Xmas period you could justify why most of them won, whether it was a strong favourite, or those close in the betting also ran below par. No such excuses I felt with Farouk D’Alene and he really knuckled down all the way to the line. May not have looked very flash but I suspect he could have won easier if the yard form was better assuming he was carrying the same bug/issues as their other runners. Remains to be seen whether he can repeat the process on a left-handed track but he showed the right qualities I look for in an Albert Bartlett winner.

The top British horse in the betting is Barbados Buck’s who is a relation of Big Buck’s so is sure to be popular just on that link. Had three relatively easy assignments and rated just 139 suggests he still has a bit to find at the highest level (yet to even run in a graded race). That improvement could well be there but think it’s priced more on its breeding than what it has achieved on a track. A more realistic British hope is Adrimel trained by Tom Lacey. Winner of 5 of his 6 races under rules, his only defeat coming in the Champion bumper last year when paying the price for tracking the strong pace. Three from three over hurdles including a gutsy win of a grade 2 last time out at Warwick. Has the class in the book but it remains to be seen just how good that last win was. Just three lengths covered the first five home featuring horses in behind all rated in the mid 130s. It’s solid form but it would be surprising if there wasn’t one or two classier horses to beat it.

Like I said at the beginning, ante post betting for this race at this stage is tricky because we are still to see the best trial for the race at Leopardstown next week. Therefore, we have to second guess a little what will happen. Whilst Farouk D’Alene is proven at the trip and could still improve from his run at Christmas, there is also that nagging doubt that he has never been that straight forward and so would be no surprise either if he was to blow out next week in a very competitive race which may still not play out to his stamina strengths. In that case I would rather side with Fakiera who has already been touted by a couple of prominent members of the racing press. I like the fact he is a second season novice with plenty of racing experience. He shapes as though he wants a step up in trip from 2m 4f which he has raced at the last twice. As a hold up horse I can see him running on strongly over 2m 6f next week and though he may not be quick enough once more, a good finish will still see him shorten as an Albert Bartlett type. Betfred are a standout price and that is worth taking.

0.75pt win – Fakiera @ 20/1 Betfred (No longer available!)

Addition: This is the frustration of not getting the bet out. As I suspected Fakiera was running on late in the race looking a strong stayer once again and in need of a step up in trip. The horse is now 11/1 which is a fair price on what we know. Biggest danger from the Lacy & Partners could prove to be Gentlemansgame who was slightly outpaced having raced prominently before staying on again. Just got the better of Stattler who had attempted to make all but a bad blunder when tiring saw it drop away. Was carrying 2lb more than the 2 in front though so has to be still considered. At the new prices I am changing my bet to Farouk D’Alene in the hope that he can perform equally as well at Cheltenham.

0.5pt win – Farouk D’Alene @ 16/1 Bet365

Gold Cup

Time for the main event where we have Al Boum Photo going in as a strong favourite again after a very similar light preparation as normal. Has no question marks as he has been there and done it twice before. Whether it can do it three times in a row is another matter as you do need plenty to go right and I do feel it could be a stronger race this year with the likes of Minella Indo and Champ coming up from the novice brigade (and potentially Royal Pagaille) along with those stepping up in trip with Frodon and A Plus Tard. Now, there are one or two important things that you have to consider when betting on the Gold Cup which many people probably don’t. It is very relevant for your horse to be able to travel well in a race and significantly to be leading or right on the pace turning in. I’ve watched replays of the last few years and it is a very similar story every year. Nothing can make up ground to win though you do tend to remember many of the faster finishers who end up placing! The point is, it is still hard with the two fences in the finishing straight plus the hill for horses to make up ground and win! The only horse not to be leading turning into the straight was Sizing John who was sat in third literally on the heels of the two leaders before switching wide approaching the second last and taking over with a good jump. So, with this in mind I will go through the runners who may be able to serve it up to Al Boum Photo.

With it 10/1 the field then there is sure to be some each way value. Starting with Santini. He is a bit of an odd one. Stays well, races on the pace you would think everything is good for its chances. However, just go back and watch its race last year! Did exactly that, was in the right place on the inside, side by side with Al Boum Photo turning in, only to drop back to 4th jumping the 2nd last and still only third over the last before staying on well but when it was too late. Doesn’t seem unusual for the horse to get outpaced at some stage in a race either having seen it in weaker events. Good horse but do feel it will be better suited to marathon trips, this just isn’t the right test for it.

The horse who could throw up the biggest threat is Minella Indo for De Bromhead who looks to have a very strong team for the Festival. Runner up in the RSA last year when cutting his own throat in a battle with Allaho from a long way out. Two good wins this year before a surprising fall in the Savills chase at Christmas. Travels well and likely to be just off the pace, stamina isn’t exactly proven but as a second season chaser who has yet to run in the race, he has a good profile for the feature. Next week at the Dublin Festival is a big race for the horse as we need to see there are no lasting effects from his fall. If not then he has a very solid chance. The problem is the form of the RSA is questionable also as we haven’t seen Champ and Allaho is going down the 2m 4f route.

A Plus Tard is a hard one to weigh up as he was a surprise stayer last time when winning the Savills chase. Came from a fair way off the pace that day to pick up a couple of tiring horses in front. Normally travels on the pace over shorter so it should be able to race handy, maybe tactics will change slightly now they can have a bit more confidence over his stamina. Trying to pick up the pieces in a Gold Cup though would give it place chances but where it comes to a win then they have to be bolder with him. A similar thing can be said about Champ who ran on strong to pick up Minella Indo and Allaho in the RSA last season. Can’t be doing that in a Gold Cup whilst it is concerning we haven’t seen him this season. Could well run in the Denman Chase but that still doesn’t give a lot of time between that run and the Festival. There has been some talk he could even go over hurdles rather than be risked. We shall see, either way I just don’t see him able to travel and hold his position when needed.

I will give up betting if Royale Pagaille was to win the race this year. Has looked exceptionally good in handicaps, but to then go straight into his first grade 1, the Gold Cup at that and win it, having only broken his maiden tag this season, is the stuff of dreams to be honest! Yet to compete at a graded level where the pace and standard of opposition is very different. This would be a definite place lay for me if taking part. No course form, wins come on bad ground, twice at Haydock where it doesn’t get much worse, this horse has so much to prove at this level in comparison to horses at a similar price. I would rather see it take a novice event in, probably the NH chase and build experience at a graded level first. Native River took in the longer race before placing in the Gold cup and then winning it the year after so it is no bad thing.

As long as the ground isn’t too soft then I do think Frodon has a great chance. Gets on well here and at least we know he will be racing prominently. There are some questions as to whether he will stay this trip though is a winner on the new course over just a furlong shorter in a grade 2. Rarely does much wrong, he wasn’t suited to conditions at Aintree with so many fences left out, unable to get into any rhythm. Not entirely convinced about the soft ground either even though his best performance according to RPR came on heavy ground. 10 of his next 11 were all on faster than soft. While there are a couple who may want to race prominent there are no obvious trailblazers in the race. Bristol De Mai and Native River do like to be handy but hoping they won’t set a stupid pace. The course is well suited to rhythm horses which may mean stamina is less of an issue. Most of the horses will be paddling at the finish in this that something in front could be hard to peg back.

A quick look at the others where Delta Work doesn’t strike me as a Gold Cup horse. Hold up style isn’t suited to this race and doesn’t jump well enough. Another that jumping is a big issue is Kemboy. Can’t afford to be losing ground against the best here. Presenting Percy does have the class but rarely get to see it. Feel it is another hold up horse and not convinced he has a trip either. His win this year came over 2m 6f. Tailed off when last seen he just doesn’t fit for me. Melon could be an outsider with a chance though I’m not filled with hope that they are suggesting he is ridden more patiently next week at the Dublin Festival. I’m guessing they don’t want Kemboy and Melon to cut each other’s throats in front and anyway, his poor win record is always off-putting.

If I wanted to take an each-way punt on something then the experience and class of Bristol De Mai does suggest 40/1 is too big. We know it will race prominently and stay well; it is probably about 5lb worse away from Haydock but even that would give it place chances in an open race. Was going ok in the race last year until hitting the open ditch badly at the worst possible time, losing all ground and momentum. Didn’t have the ideal preparation going into the race but does have history when 3rd in 2019. Probably asking too much as to win chances but would be interesting if getting 4 places at a big price nearer the time.

All in all, I have the race between four, Al Boum Photo, Minella Indo, A Plus Tard and Frodon. At the prices I think Frodon is well worth chancing. Still six weeks to go so hoping the ground will have dried out, it is a pretty quick drying track. Has an element of class and seems to thrive around here when getting into a rhythm. A two-time grade 1 winner including the King George, for me his price is too big despite small concerns over trip and ground.

0.75pt win – Frodon @ 16/1 Bet365, WillHill & Unibet

Addition: Minella Indo was somewhat disappointing in his run. Jumped poorly so to still finish less than 7 lengths off the lead suggests there was promise there if can sort the jumping out between now and Cheltenham. Priced accordingly now out to 20/1. At the moment I wouldn’t want to chance it in case something was to come up with regards the horse’s wellbeing. A couple of movers in the right direction were Kemboy who won the Irish Gold Cup. Not sure how strong that form is though when he made all in a race where less than 9 lengths separated the whole field. Native River rolled back the years in winning the Cotswold Chase. A big boost to the form of the Tizzard yard. That equaled his best RPR when winning the Gold Cup in 2018. On that kind of form he has a great chance of winning. However, it is highly unlikely he can repeat that kind of run with less than 6 weeks break. Chances are it will take the rest of the season for the horse to recover. Santini looks like he isn’t good enough so it just adds more confidence to the recommended bet on Frodon whose price hasn’t changed.

 

St James Place Hunters Chase

Big fan of the Foxhunters at Cheltenham, a race that usually has solid trends and been pretty lucky for me. Had the winner last year at massive prices on the exchanges following my theory of backing the female jockeys in singles. That is now profit in each of the last five years. That theory stands a great chance of profit again this season especially with my personal fancy of Frodon and Bryony Frost in the Gold Cup. Along with Rachael Blackmore and a number of very talented women, I’m sure they will remain underrated by the masses. Back to the matter at hand. I do like horses that showed promise in previous running’s of the race. Bit like the Cross Country, horses will keep running in the race and that experience seems invaluable. Therefore, Billaway should have learnt plenty when runner up in the race last year. Still only a 9yo, pretty young in the context of this race, he has a favourites chance. The problem is, his jumping let him down in last year’s race and once again it was poor when at Naas at the weekend. Under pressure, over these fences, he won’t always get away with it which to me suggests his price of 5/2 is on the short side with plenty of each way value against. The issue we then have is whilst qualification rules have been changed this year, we won’t know till closer the time whether amateur riders will be allowed and who will be qualified to race.

It Came To Pass was the shock winner of the race last year though if you looked back far enough in his form then he should never have been the price he was. Couple of issues though as he is very ground dependent, preferring ground on the fast side which can be no guarantee. Also, he was pulled at the weekend because he was coughing which is certainly not ideal this close to the Festival. As second favourite I would rather let it go unbacked for now. Rewatching the race reminded me just how impressive a winner he was. Racing up with a strong pace all the way, he was still running on at the finish, pulling well clear of horses who had been ridden more patiently. That includes Staker Wallace who clearly has his issues. Was off the track for over 1000 days before returning last season, fitting in two runs before the Festival where he was a solid 4th without quite getting into it. A much better season this time, running in a couple of point to points where he was runner up before winning a maiden hunter. Followed that at the weekend with a decent 2nd to Billaway, beaten just over 2 lengths, but 7 lengths ahead of the third. Very lightly raced for a 10yo and sure to get one of the leading jockeys on board, whether that be amateur or professional. Three second places from four starts this year does make you wonder if he has a habit of finding one too good however.

Red Indian is a fascinating runner after his recent switch to hunting. Was last seen in a chase just over a year ago when rated 139, he was 11th in the Close Brothers back in 2019 behind A Plus Tard and 6th in the Coral Cup of 2018 so has plenty experience of the Festival. Easily won a Ladies open in December when last seen. No evidence though that he will stay a strongly run race at this trip however. Hazel Hill is unbeaten at the track in two starts including when winning this race in 2019 on first try in the race. Missed it last year due to injury but appeared to be nothing wrong when winning a hunter chase at Ludlow last month. That form is still below what he had shown prior to winning this though and is now a 13yo. It would be some ask.

A reliable yardstick for the race is Shantou Flyer who I tipped last year and was pleased to see come into 3/1 but could only manage third. His jumping does leave a bit to be desired at times and certainly proved costly in last year’s race. This is the one the owner/rider wants to win and is sure to be targeted again. That is why I suspect he has moved yards and is now with leading trainer Paul Nicholls who also knows what it takes to win this race. If he can improve his jumping in the next few weeks then he is sure to be thereabouts again.

Others to mention include The Worlds End who is a class act over hurdles but having finished only 3rd in a hunter chase the other day then could be struggling to qualify for the race. Stand Up And Fight is very in and out but showed what he is capable of when seeing off Billaway at Fairyhouse. That form has since been well and truly reversed. If the ground was to come up soft then Minella Rocco could put himself in contention. Not seen since the race last year, he is a class act on his best form.

Though Shantou Flyer is an 11yo, the move to Paul Nicholls yard looks particularly significant and could see the improvement in jumping this horse needs to get its head in front in the race. Considering he started at 3/1 last year then I can’t turn down the 16/1 available today.

0.75pt e/w – Shantou Flyer @ 16/1 Bet365 & Unibet

 

Mares Hurdle

Difficult race from an ante post perspective as we are not entirely sure who of the leading principles will turn up. If we get a combination of Elimay, Colreevy, Benie Des Dieux and Put The Kettle On turn up then we are in for a cracking race. However, Colreevy could well go to Limerick where she would be better suited to the right-handed track. We are not entirely sure where Benie Des Dieux is going at Cheltenham, if at all, though I suspect with Honeysuckle now confirmed for the Champion hurdle then she could well go for this, instead of taking on stable companion Concertista in the hurdle. Henry De Bromhead confirmed Put The Kettle On was being aimed at the Champion Chase though I do wonder whether he will have a change of heart with Chacun Pour Soi looking a class apart for that race.

With this uncertainty there could still remain value to be had at bigger prices. Annie Mc has won well the last twice against her own sex. This is a step up in class though and did flop in the Marsh last year, her only run at Cheltenham. That would certainly play on my mind. Dame De Compagnie still has plenty to prove after unseating on her second chase start in the Scilly Isles. I think the race will come too soon for this inexperienced novice.

The two I do like are Shattered Love and Happy Diva and they are both worth betting at the prices. Shattered Love actually tops the charts for the Racing Post Ratings after her impressive win at Clonmel on second start this season. Has winning course form having taken the JLT (Marsh) chase in 2018. Even her 6th in the Ryanair last year is strong form in the context of this race. Only seen once since that Clonmel run and that was over hurdles when never competitive. Missed her most recent engagement at the beginning of January because she was lame though not thought to be a long-term issue. I have to admit I would like to see her run a preparation before Cheltenham though.

The other mare is Happy Diva who looks tailormade for the race. Her course form over the fences reads B2212F and was second in the Brown Advisory last year behind the progressive Simply The Betts. Wasn’t disgraced behind Annie Mc last time though I do suspect she isn’t suited to small field races. She needs a strong pace to come off which is rarely found away from Cheltenham. 4 of her top 5 RPRs have come in double figure fields. I think she is being primed to peak at the Festival, the question is will she go for this, or take advantage of the same mark in the Brown Advisory and try to go one place better?

With Skybet also now going non-runner no bet, it gives us another option away from Paddy Power to look at. As they are a better price than their rival on both the mares I like and are only marginally shorter than the best price available then I am happy to bet them with the security, especially where they both have question marks about their wellbeing/entries.

0.75pt e/w – Shattered Love @ 16/1 Skybet NRNB
0.5pt e/w – Happy Diva @ 20/1 Skybet NRNB