Good evening from the Major who writes from a cool and breezy Worcestershire where the Major has been swimming and continues to make good ground on my recovery from a slipped disc.
I am considering making a raid on Cheltenham tomorrow. I might check the weather forecast again in the morning. Currently, we are looking at a decent downfall tonight and showers through until 11am. If that weather front is still coming through at the prescribed rate, I might just head to the course. Asking on Twitter, I know a number of folk are heading there. I even had an invite to the pub for a boozy breakfast at 10am, well before the sun raises above the yardarm. I remain undecided and likely some small matter will settle the issue.
Tonight I am going to get straight into the action. A run through of the highly entertaining Cheltenham card. To the sport.
Cheltenham International Meeting – Friday
The International is the first meeting of the Cheltenham season to utilise the New Course. This can be significant from a punting perspective as it has a considerably longer straight which on decent ground, provides less of an advantage to front-runners. October and November use the old course, December and January meetings are run on the New. The festival uses both, Tuesday and Wednesday are on the Old, switching to the New for Thursday and Friday, which is why you want a front-runner like Champagne Fever for the Supreme, kapiche?
Anyway, enough pet theories… The card opens with an absolute cracker of a novice chase. What it lacks in field depth, it makes up for in quality with four credible potential high-class chasers facing off over a staying trip.
Paul Nicholls won the race last year with Sam Winner. He is a horse that is starting to cost me money as I have had him down as too quirky to back too often and he is starting to repay some of the Ditcheat faith. This year, they are represented by Vivaldi Colognes who won a reasonable handicap in April but has probably posted even better form this year finishing second to In the Rough by half a length and then being put in place by the very smart-looking Katkeau last month. Both of those runs were at Cheltenham so he knows his way around. On balance though, he has not shown as much form as the others, although it is worth considering that Nicholls was not firing early on but has saddled 13 winners in the past fortnight.
Backers of Return Spring need not be concerned come rain or shine, he seems entirely at home on all ground. He is one of two that Hobbs saddles and I could make a case for him. His defeat of Highland Retreat at Exeter looked pretty good at the time and even better when his conquered foe went on to dish out a 9l beating to Mickie at Aintree. Return Spring gave 3lbs at Exeter, a tricky course which although goes t’other way around, I think is a decent proxy for Cheltenham. Tough fences, undulating ground, you need to stay.
The other Hobbs horse is Sausalito Sunrise. He was defeated by Kings Palace at Cheltenham in November having given 5lbs to his master. He was also tuned up for the race having won well at Chepstow (another undulating course) in October. Is the weight change (now receives 3lbs) enough to suggest he might reverse form? Well, No, I thought Kings Palace had more in hand and if anything could be the one to improve out of the race. If there is an argument to be made and I think there is, it would be to do with the added distance. Kings Palace and Return Spring have won at the distance but Sausalito is yet to attempt it, the way he shapes it might just suit him but I do feel like I grasping a bit. There was money mind last time at Cheltenham….
So, Kings Palace, really looked the business last time, his jumping was exceptional, accurate and fast and when called upon for the big one he delivered. He may well have learned something too as he got close in a couple of times but was smart and pathetic enough to correct himself. I know it is not much fun but I think Kings Palace is the bet. He is 10/11 with Paddy Power and double your money, he proves best again is reasonable. He looked good to my eye and I ask your forgiveness for not tipping up a 100/1 winner in the opener! The biggest danger for me is Return Spring who I think you ignore at your peril (8s also with Paddy), for that reason, I will not be loading both cannons, merely asking the naval gunners to launch a barrage of congreve rockets to burst over the enemy positions.
The second race on the cards is a conditional jockeys affair and as always, I consider the pilot quality in these races to be paramount. There are quite a few decent jocks in this so it is not as narrowing an angle as it often proves but it does help me eliminate a few runners from my enquiries.
Wiffy Chatsby catches the eye. Nicholls is firing in winners as earlier advertised and this conditional has won 5 races from 16 rides for Ditcheat. The jockey lacks a little in experience from the de Boinvilles of this world but that might be tempered by the reputation he is garnering in such hallowed quarters. The horse though is questionable. He is still lightly raced to be good enough and has won two hurdles and a chase. He suffered a fall on his seasonal debut under Sam Twiston-Davies and then went on to run no race at all at Stratford where I cannot find a decent excuse. That doubt is baked into the 10/1 (again Paddys, I am unaffiliated I promise!) it certainly piqued some interest.
None of the field of horses have won at Cheltenham and only a few of the jocks have too, this does not help us thin things out. I am going to back Liberty Point who could well be a bit better than this mark and gets the dependable Nolan to guide him around. His last run at Newbury was in a better looking race and watching the finish you might think he did not stay. I am not sure about that, he is a former pointer and although his two attempts at beyond 2 and a half miles have yet to yield a place, I think on this ground, he might show stamina is not the problem. He pecked badly at Newbury and I choose to read that error, at the second in the infinitely long Newbury straight as the cause of his weakening. 6/1 is generally available.
The 1.40pm is a handicap hurdle. I have had a soft spot for Starluck over the seasons and he has won twice at Cheltenham, off higher marks too. His price really reflects his recent efforts, he won here in April of 2013, missed the 13/14 season with injury and has got three races in this year already and although not quite disgraced, has also remained unplaced. As a consequence, his mark is now 134, 6lbs below his current chase mark and 9lbs below his mark immediately after his 2013 win which would have rendered him ineligible for this race, what with it being a 0-140. Interesting but best watched for me.
Vintage Vinnie is trading as favourite and his bumper win warrants respect although this is reasonable company for a maiden to lose the tag.
Another horse that was once over-qualified for the race is the rank outsider Bothy. Being of the Ellison yard, money for this would be a massive sign, he was once rated 142 and now competes off 125, receiving 9lbs today from Starluck.
Lough Kent looks an awkward customer judging by his head carriage at Kempton. That said, he clearly has some talent and with Geraghty riding, he is going to get the best assistance.
All things being equal, I would back Kalimantan at 10/1. I think his recent shows indicate a handicap horse on the improve and I do not worry about the ground. The problem I do have is the yards record at Cheltenham. They have had 127 goes at finding a winner and are yet to hit the mark. That is seriously off-putting on sheer statistics although I always reason that for a trend to be adopted, you must rationalise the reason. By chance, there is going to be a trainer that has equal chance of having Cheltenham winners on preparation and quality but is just always a tad unlucky at the course, Vaughan could be that yard… I mean, he is coming back after all…
The dart has to drop somewhere on the page and I am investing tentatively on Goohar for the Henry Daly and Richard Johnson combination. The jockey is on fire, the horse has plenty of scope yet to improve and will be fitter for a run in the mud at Exeter. 11/2 is freely available.
The 2.10 is a handicap chase and it is hugely skewed due to the presence of Hadrians Wall who has put 5 horses from Benbane Head and down out of the handicap, thus running with weight they were not allowed to carry. This seems fair, Hadrians Approach has won the Sundown Bet365 Gold Cup race, a highly decent effort and while half a stone worse off as a result of that success, it was a notable achievement on the CV.
I am going to something a little rare for the Major and that is back the old man of the field, now a veteran, Charingworth. You simply cannot ignore his form this year, including two excellent spins at Cheltenham. In the first, he was honourable in defeat to The Young Master. Name ring a bell? That was the horse who went out next time and tore apart the Badger Ales Trophy to subsequently find that a cock-up had meant he was not eligible for the race! Charingworth put that second behind him when carrying a few extra pounds himself to a decent victory over Benbens. Up another few pounds today but clearly revelling in his latter years, Charingworth, on the verge of turning 12, might be the one to peg these younger horses down a notch. The old course and an extra 200 yards should only help. 7/1 William Hill.
The Cross Country is not everyone’s cup of tea but I quite like it. There is always the fun of half the field going the wrong way and the obstacles show a different discipline. Many of the seasoned specialists are about and Big Shu could well be popular having won around here at the 2013 showpiece. He is giving away more weight here though and there is value in opposing the favourite. Uncle Junior is no young pup but he showed his is adept at this race when giving his old mate Balthazar plenty of trouble last month, very much considered.
In the end though, while the two aforementioned horses have the Cheltenham Cross Country form booked, I am backing the King of Trainers in this sphere, Enda Bolger has kept Keep on Track running at this discipline despite no joy last season However, that was a six-year-old and horses mature into these events so I have no doubt that the animal will be wiser, more experienced and could leave former impressions behind. StanJames (see it’s not one-sided!) go 15/2 which is plenty enough for me. Even if there is lots of rain (this one wants good), I am to too concerned as the centre of the racetrack tends to ride harder than the main course anyway.
The penultimate race at 3.10pm sees the Cesarewitch winner, Big Easy try and give weight to a reasonable field of handicappers. You have to like his chances, Hobbs has been in well reported good form, although that feels as though it is tailing off slightly. The horse has run well in defeat and could well go on here. He will be held up and the course should suit. Of clear interest.
However, I prefer a 10/1 (Bet365) shot in the nicely named Peckhamecho who runs for Curtis and with the assistance of Geraghty. His last race was a Grade 2 and he did get a sound beating but I am not sure soft at Newbury was his race. He has done his winning when the word good appeared in the going. I prefer it but will not back it.
Instead, the money is going on my NAP Ulzanas Raid at 4/1. Alan Kings runner only just managed to win here in October which might lead many to think that the rise in the weights might just stop him. I am not at all sure. The case for my defence includes the fact that he raced very wide that day, probably covering another 100m than the runner-up and the nature of the win also suggests hope again. He was staying on suggesting that another 600 yards would be right up his street. Only 5 years old, plenty of improvement left.
The final race is a novice hurdle and I am sticking with Alan King to fire in a double with his representative Miles to Memphis. The horse boasts solid bumper form and won his hurdle debut at Ffos Las with panache. Subsequently a dip in form can be attributed to heavy ground and as long as Cheltenham has not felt too much rain, I back the horse to bounce back to form, 7/1 with Paddy Power.
Good luck if you are at the course or having an interest. Courage, roll the dice.