Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Why The Long Face…? Part III: Punters’ Revenge - Cheltenham Festival 2011 Preview

In less than a week now the 2011 Cheltenham Festival will be upon us and the age old dual between bookies and punters will go into overdrive as for four glorious days the world of racing’s eyes are transfixed on Prestbury Park.

The 2010/11 National Hunt Season has been a strange one thus far. The Cheltenham Festival may be right around the corner but to me it doesn’t feel like the season’s really even got going yet; usually by this time it feels like Cheltenham is the crescendo to months of build up but the weather this season has conspired to decimate the jumps programme and really leave punters scrambling to draw form lines for the Festival.

The stop-start nature of this season really makes me think we are going to be in for some shocking results at Cheltenham this year. Last year certainly had its fair share of gambles landed and outsiders romping home like odds-on shots, but I genuinely think this year will dwarf that by comparison as so many supposed ‘stars’ have not had much of a chance to prove themselves this season.

The 2010/11 season has hit the headlines a number of times this year, not just for the chaos the arctic weather brought with it but also for some other wrong reasons. Too many times this year we have been left mourning the loss of popular horses. The risk of fatality is the nature of the beast I’m afraid, not just in horse racing but in keeping horses in any capacity. When you have an animal so thick on top but walking around on what are effectively shards of glass bad things will inevitably happen from time to time. Yet 2010/11 seems to have been the worst year since I’ve been following the sport for deaths, both on and off the course and it has unfortunately left a sour taste in the mouth. We need a grandioso Cheltenham to really remind everyone of everything that is great about Horse Racing and the Cheltenham Festival in particular.

Not to do any horse sadly no longer with us an injustice but just a couple of the old favourites we have lost this year are Twist Magic and Eric’s Charm as well as promising young stars yet to really reach their potential such as Pride of Dulcote, Tell Massini and Backspin. And let’s not forget the tragic events down at Newbury a few weeks back; all in all it’s not been a vintage year for Racing on or off the track.

The other reason that this year’s National Hunt season has carried less favour with me than previous years is the ‘changing of the guard’ theme that has run through the big races of the season thus far. I have had a love affair with both Kauto Star and Denman since I began watching Racing back in 2006 – they are the two dominant forces that have been mainstays of my time as a Racing fan and they both have a likeability factor that is sadly lacking in some of the other top chasers coming through.

To see both these superstars possibly coming to the end of their dominance has been sad and has had an adverse effect on my enjoyment of this year’s season. Racing isn’t a sport for sentimentality really, although there inevitably are moments that can bring a tear to even the most hardened and cynical eye, so the heart ruling the head mentality that I often adopt when punting is a trait that usually sees me losing.

Yet for some reason I am almost more excited for Cheltenham this year than I have been in previous years, even though it’s kind of crept up on us all. Cheltenham week is always one of the best weeks of the year and win or lose is a lot of fun.

Genuinely though, this year I feel like I may have finally made a breakthrough when it comes to Cheltenham and how, who and when to back, even if I haven’t though I can’t do any worse than last year’s baron, winless week can I!?

Famous last words perhaps but without further digression let’s have a look at some of my leading fancies and my thoughts on the week’s biggest races at this year’s Festival.

As always, we start with Tuesday and the first race of the festival: The Supreme Novices Hurdle. Last year Dunguib was inexplicably everyone’s banker of the week so when he was turned over in the first race it was an ominous sign for punters.

Those bookies are already at it again though this year and the punters appear to be falling for it as Cue Card has been inserted at the head of the market and Paddy Power are doing their best to make people think this horse is unbeatable.

I’m definitely treating Cue Card as this year’s Dunguib and like the bookies I’ll be happy to oppose him. My plan will probably be to bet with Paddy Power, that way if Cue Card does put the punters 1-0 up in the first race I’ll get my losing bet back on whomever it is I end up plumping for in the curtain-raiser.

That could well end up being the Willie Mullins trained Zaidpour (9/1) who I haven’t quite lost all faith in yet in spite of a couple of recent defeats. Bred by the Aga Khan and half-brother to Zaynar, given Willie Mullins’ record at the festival you’d be a fool to write this one of just yet.

Cue Card is currently best-priced 9/4 for all you layers, or backers, out there but for someone looking for a value bet or a cheeky each-wayer there are plenty out there at the moment. Win, lose or draw here, there is no doubt Cue Card has a big future; but Cheltenham has a habit of throwing up surprise results and I’m surprised the lessons of last year haven’t been learned in people lumping on a short-priced favourite in the first.

The Supreme will no doubt be a hell of an opener to the week and I for one can’t wait to hear that famous roar as they set off down the hill come 1.30pm next Tuesday.

Race two on what many would consider the Festival’s best day is the Arkle and rather boring and predictably I can’t see past the favourite Medermit (3/1). Alan King’s charge looked a horse of considerable talent when cantering home last time out and has always looked like a star in the making dating back to his early hurdling days.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say he was a banker for the Arkle but I expect a bold showing and he should have enough class to come out on top of his rivals next week and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Medermit eventually grow into a real force to be reckoned with in the 2m chasing division.

Race three on day one is the 3m Stewart Family Spinal Research Handicap Chase and I although I haven’t quite sifted through the bones of this race thoroughly yet I like two Alan King runners here. Bensalem (11/2) is currently favourite and has disappointed me a couple of times in recent years, but he has looked to finally be getting things right this year and with Choc Thornton presumably on board looks a worthy favourite at the moment.

The other King runner I like here is Blazing Bailey (14/1) who has finally started to fulfil the potential he showed over hurdles earlier in his career now he is tackling the bigger obstacles. Assuming Choc Thornton elects to ride Bensalem it would be a blow to Blazing Bailey’s chances here but Wayne Hutchinson did ride him last time out when he extended his winning run to two on the bounce. This race is a lot tougher than he’s faced yet but he has beaten some good horses and in a race that is wide open is a belting each-way bet at his current price.

Now we get to the big one on day one: The Champion Hurdle. As always this race promises to be a heart-pounding, clusterfuck and to make matters worse it looks the most wide open renewal in years.

It is almost impossible to pick between the top four in the betting here: defending champ Binocular (10/3 - who has had another uninspiring prep), Menorah (5/1 – who conversely, has had a very inspiring prep), leading Irish challenger Hurricane Fly (11/2 – who I have fancied for this race for years only to see him fall to injury each time) and the unbeaten Peddlers Cross (7/1 – who has looked mightily impressive in the past and crucially, again, is unbeaten).

My very wise Father once told me that you keep backing a winning horse until it loses and that is what I am going to keep doing here. I have followed Peddlers Cross since he burst into my consciousness at the festival last year and he has rewarded me handsomely several times since then, notably when turning over Binocular in the rearranged Fighting Fifth earlier this season.

When I learnt Jason Maguire may miss the ride due to suspension my confidence waivered slightly but now, knowing Maguire will be on board once more, I am firmly back in the Peddlers Cross camp and believe he can extend his unbeaten streak even further next week.

He has course and festival form, has beaten some very good horses (including Binocular) and seems to get better with every race; if things go right for him on the day I think Peddlers Cross will take all the beating in Tuesday’s feature.

Binocular remains too short for me given his unpredictability but I have written this horse off before and he has proven me wrong spectacularly so I’m by no means writing him off but my heart and the value look to be elsewhere in this race even if the head can’t shake the image of him romping home in this race 12 months ago.

Hurricane Fly looks set to finally make a Cheltenham Festival after missing the last few with injury and although a couple of years ago he was my idea of the winner of this race I can’t help but feel that maybe the horses he has been dominating in Ireland aren’t quite up to the calibre of some of the leading contenders this side of the Irish Sea.

As for Menorah, he loves Cheltenham, has course and festival form too and is as tough as they come – he is my idea of a winner should Peddlers Cross not get his race; but at these prices you could back both and still show a very healthy profit.

The final televised race on day one is the Cross Country and the old warrior Garde Champetre (9/2) is once again favourite. Garde Champetre was my idea of a banker at last year’s festival and probably would have obliged but for a terrible blunder half way round that effectively ended his chances.

One year on and at slightly greater odds he is at the head of the market again but I think my faith in him may have run dry now. He has been winning Cross Country races again this season and with his old friend Nina Carberry on board once more I don’t think the horse that was famously bought ahead of Kauto Star can be ruled out, but at twelve years old now it may be time to buy into this year’s ongoing narrative and plump for one of the young pretenders, such as Paul Nicholls’ well thought of eight year old Gullible Gordon (16/1).

The first of the non-Channel 4 races on day one is the Mares Hurdle and I’m going to be very boring here and tell you that Quevega (6/5) will take this for the third year in a row. Small stakes backers would do well to look at some each-way alternatives in this race as I think the Willie Mullins-trained Quevega will be most people’s get out of jail free card.

In the last, the Centenary Novices’ Handicap Chase, I have yet to make a selection so I will allow myself a pass here rather than blindly picking something out and swiftly move on to day two of the festival.

Day two will begin with the Amateur Riders Novices’ Chase which is run over four gruelling miles but this looks like being a very tricky race to sort out so I’m going to quickly gloss over this one and hope no one notices.

Race two (the Neptune) on day two however is a race that I have a very strong opinion about, as I will be on, that man again, Willie Mullins’ So Young (11/2) here.

Unbeaten in his two starts so far, So Young has obliged at very short-priced favouritism both times. This is obviously a whole other challenge entirely but providing he keeps improving there is no reason he shouldn’t be able to make the step up to festival company comfortably.

On to the precursor to the day’s big race and it’s one of my favourites of the whole week, the novice Gold Cup as some people like to call it, the RSA Chase.

Time For Rupert (9/4 - an impressive second in last year’s World Hurdle) has long been the ante-post favourite for this race and not even quite a lengthy absence from the track seems to have been able to topple him from the head of the market.

There’s no doubt Time For Rupert is a class act but at such a short price I’d be very wary of his inexperience when it comes to a big race like this. I was all ready to jump on the band wagon when he was due to go off favourite for the Argento Chase at Cheltenham earlier this year but he was scratched and now hasn’t had a prep race and it’s made me question his credentials a little.

I genuinely also think it is too soon to completely write off the once very highly thought of Mikael D’haguenet (14/1). Yes, he hasn’t had the best of years but you don’t just stop being a good horse and it will only take one performance back at his best for everyone to start waxing lyrical about him again.

That said, at the time of writing I am leaning more towards Ian Williams’ Wayward Prince (12/1) for the RSA. I’ve learnt over the years since Denman’s win in the race that you need to be able to stay and slog it out for all it’s worth coming up that hill in the RSA and there is no doubting Wayward Prince can do that.

Last year’s leading fancies that ended up disappointing behind Weapon’s Amnesty, Long Run and Diamond Harry may both have come good this year but if anything they have both proven that they have class in abundance, whether they have what it takes to really get down and dirty when push comes to shove I’m yet to be convinced. So with that in mind, I’m now tempted to swerve Time For Rupert, at one time earmarked as one of my big bets of the week, to go for a horse I know has the toughness to see the RSA out and that would be Wayward Prince.

Day two’s feature is the Queen Mother Champion Chase and much like the last two years, I can’t see anything beating Master Minded (11/4). Obviously that way of thinking was proven to be completely wrong when he disappointed last year when the race was taken by Big Zeb, but this year the two-time champion has looked back to his best and I think he will take all the beating here, especially with Ruby Walsh back on board.

Master Minded has looked untouchable this year, apart from a last minute scare from Somersby (8/1) last time out when he idled a bit in front under Tony McCoy. Master Minded’s current price is incredibly generous if you ask me and as I’ve never truly been convinced by Big Zeb I’d be tempted to lump on with quite a big bet here.

The final C4 race of Wednesday is the Coral Cup which is a notoriously difficult nut for punters to crack. I’d be lying if I said I had any strong fancies here but the Irish usually have a very strong hand in this race so I’d be very interested to see what a certain Mr. Mullins runs here.

Looking at the list of possible runners, three at longer odds that catch my eye in a race where an each-way punt may be the answer are Bothy (20/1), Get Me Out of Here (16/1) and Walkon (16/1). Walkon in particular I had considered a possible threat in either the Champion Hurdle or the World Hurdle, so if he does indeed take his chance here he could be of great interest.

The first of the non-C4 races on Wednesday is the Fred Winter and I’m yet to dive too deeply into that market yet so I’m going to divert your attention away from that one to the final race of day two The Champion Bumper, won in previous years by Dunguib and Cue Card.

I don’t have too strong a preference yet for this race but given Willie Mullins’ success in this race in the past I’m going to stick with him and flag up distance winner Allure Of Illusion (11/1) before moving us along to World Hurdle day.

Day three of the festival kicks off with the Jewson and Philip Hobbs; Wishfull Thinking (6/1) currently heads the market and again, boringly, looks like the most likely winner to me at the moment.

The dilemma Hobbs and connections have is that potential rival Captain Chris (7/1) is in the same ownership and that may just throw a spanner in the works in terms of one, or both, of their participations in this race.

Race two of day three is the Pertemps Final, a race which if you can pick the winner of at this stage you’re a better man than I am.

Race three is another of the non-feature races that often outshines the day’s feature in terms of excitement and intrigue: the Ryanair Chase.

Last year I very much believed Poquelin (7/2) would pay me back for a season of following without backing and come home with his nose in front. This didn’t happen though and Alberta’s Run (12/1) ended up getting up to win.

Therefore I do find it strange that after an arguably less impressive season than last, that Poquelin is once again favourite and defending champ Alberta’s Run is at such long odds.

That’s not to say I fancy Alberta’s Run to retain his title here because I do think Poquelin can make amends for last season and take the win here.

Next up we have the day’s centrepiece The Ladbrokes Word Hurdle and if you’d asked me for a festival banker before Christmas I’d have told you it was Big Buck’s for the World Hurdle.

But here we are only a few short months later and not only will I not be backing Big Buck’s (11/8) I’m actually quietly confident my selection will dethrone the king of the staying hurdlers division.

David Pipe’s Grands Crus (2/1) has looked brilliant in his wins this year and I expect him to give Big Buck’s a real run for his money if he is to keep his crown and complete the hat-trick. That being said, is his current price a little on the short side when you consider he is still relatively untested at the highest level? I would say yes, but he is still better value than Big Buck’s and has brought a genuine excitement to this race that was missing last year and was in danger of being lacking this year.

Small stakes backers may choose to go each way on the World Hurdle and there are certainly plenty of options if you do: I’ve long thought Zaynar (20/1) was made for this race as he has a similar running style to Big Buck’s so finally seeing him in there and hopefully ready to take his chance is of great interest to me and any support in the market (given that the grey is owned by Victor Chandler) should be duly noted.

The tough Cross Kennon (50/1) is another at big odds I can see battling on up the hill past beaten horses to possibly snatch a place and he has winning course form this season to boot.

The one-two is by no means a foregone conclusion as the betting would suggest but I’d be surprised if two, if not three, of the horses mentioned above were not filling the places when the race is done and dusted next Thursday.

The last two races on the Thursday are the Byrne Group Plate and the Kim Muir which are both handicap chases that feature a number of horses with entries in more than one race still declared for them at the time of writing. So for that reason we’ll skip past them both and straight on to Friday – Gold Cup Day.

First up on Friday is the JCB Triumph Hurdle, which you may be shocked to hear, I have a decent(ish) record for finding the winner of; in somewhat of a cop out though I don’t have a leading fancy yet this year. I usually know a great deal about the leading contenders in the race but as a result of this year’s disjointed season I’m struggling to make an informed decision at present on a likely winner.

To not be a total pussy though and at least try and flag up something, I am very intrigued by the Paul Nicholls’ trained Zarkandar (7/1) who is half brother to Arc hero Zarkava. They say class always comes to the fore at Cheltenham and if anything in this race is likely to have class coursing through its veins it’s Zarkandar.

The Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle is next up on Friday and is another race where it is difficult to know exactly what will be lining up at the start come Friday week. I don’t have a leading fancy here but the once highly thought of Blackstairmountain (16/1) could be an interesting contender if he takes his chance.

The Albert Bartlett is up next on the Friday and again leaves me scratching my head at the time of writing as there are several entries at the head of the market who may yet take their chance elsewhere; so I’m going to leap head first straight in to the granddaddy of them all the Gold Cup.

Last year’s renewal broke my heart as my equine heroes Kauto Star (7/1) and Denman (7/1) fell and were beaten into second respectively.

Further heartbreak came this season as Denman could only manage, an albeit heroic third, in his bid to break Hennessy records and Kauto Star trailed home a very disappointing third in his attempt at a record-breaking fifth King George VI.

I’d love to be proven wrong, but I think Kauto’s day in the sun may finally be over and, although I’ll cheer him home until I’m hoarse (pun intended) if he’s in front coming up the hill, like last year I won’t be backing him.

I will however be backing Denman whose Hennessy run was nothing short of sensational, sure I lost a lot of money on him that day but it was impossible not to be moved by just how brave that horse was lugging nearly two stone more than the majority of his rivals round Newbury.

A breathing operation since then may seem like a last roll of the dice to some but I genuinely believe Denman could emulate his great rival and stable mate Kauto Star this year and reclaim the Gold Cup.

The heart and the value may unequivocally lie with Denman but there’s that pesky part of the head that won’t let me block out Imperial Commander’s party-pooping performance last year.

Like him or hate him, Nigel Twiston-Davies knows how to win at Cheltenham and Imperial Commander (7/2) did look frustratingly good when landing the Betfair Chase in his only race this season.

With Diamond Harry now out of the picture I think the reigning champ will be even harder to beat but I have (possibly blind) faith that Denman can gallop them all into submission like only the tank can.

Friday and the week’s C4 coverage is rounded out by the Foxhunter Chase in which Twiston-Davies will be hopeful of completing a big double if Imperial Commander can retain the Gold Cup as the well-fancied Baby Run (3/1) once again takes his chance here and he looks as good a bet as any at this stage at what is a decent price if you ask me.

The week will be rounded out by the Conditional Jockey’s Handicap Hurdle and the Grand Annual, which are usually, as you would expect, somewhat of an after-thought after the day’s earlier festivities but can give punters a last ditch opportunity to try and pick a big-priced winner and try and claw back some of their inevitable losses.

Whatever the outcome of the races and our bets anyone who’s ever got involved in Cheltenham week knows that you’ll have run through every emotion possible by the end of the week and will be physically, emotionally and mentally drained. You’ll vow never to come back again and that next year you won’t have a bet but twelve months later you’ll not only be priming yourself to do just that you’ll be writing an essay like preview…

A special Cheltenham edition of The Big Punt podcasts that I am involved in will be up on TV or not TV’s affiliate site The Minty Pocket before the festival kicks off; and keep an eye on The Big Punt’s twitter @thebigpunt during the week as I’ll be putting up best bets for each of the day’s races.


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