Best wishes to you all from a bright breezy Worcestershire where the light of the morning salutes God in his heaven, the early spring clean air bring souls awakening. The Major is reeling a little from the debaucheries of the weekend whence I visited with friends to the fine art deco cinema in Evesham to watch the six nations rugby, good wine under the bewitching spell of which, I hope that I did not mistake words for thoughts and that I kept the company civil.
Sunday, a shining sun and several play mates for the two young masters in the Majors house was not the peaceful environment my mind craves in the preparation for Cheltenham and this Champion Hurdle sermon was delayed unto today.
I feel somewhat of a fraud. Barely writing all these months and then popping back up for the festival period. I hope that you forgive this picking and choosing but it is a necessity of my current arrangements. Each Monday, I awake at 5.ooam and drive north, arriving at Woodall services at 8am ready for a coffee and a sleep. Should you want to kill me following a week of festival posts and punts, I would suggest this is an ideal opportunity. Same place every week, I even take a blanket and a pillow. The business (Ladbrook – An insurance broker for charities) is starting to progress. A rather smart team, all sharp-eyed and curt of lip, knowing sorts who don’t miss much. I like them.
I read through my posts from the festival last year. It recalled for me some memories which needed dusting down. It wasn’t just the big name winners but sometimes a handicap winner and the joyous reaction of their small yard. It made me reflect a bit.
I am always conscious that at this time of year, new readers arrive at the blog. If you have not been here before, allow me to welcome you and signal what you might expect. The tips will be dubious. Some insight will be provided but not one punter has ever gotten rich here, no sir, a record we are proud of. However, that does the tipping performance a little disservice. For over time, it is modestly profitable and we have our days. These thoughts are free, I offer them unimpeded, you have your own agency, use them as you wish.
What we lack in hardcore success, we make up in enthusiasm. My merry band of followers are with me on my wearying search for the mothership, the winner to end all winners, always elusive, eternally seductive.
What you will certainly get is a slice of the unhinged. The thoughts meander, sometimes logically, often not. Stumbling forwards like a great blind beast, they spill onto the screen and you have to take them as they come. Whatever is on my mind, I shall try to put onto yours.
It is easy to become lost in the hyperbole of festival week and to emerge the other side having somehow not felt the experience you wished for. I would forewarn anyone of over hyping the forthcoming attractions. Yes, the anticipation is as much the enjoyment as the event itself but we must be careful not to attach too much importance to the festival, expect too much and it will be hard to live up to.
Am I spoiling your build up? I am sorry. I put it down to an unsettled mind. Maybe the booze soaked weekend, maybe the uncertainties in my life but I spent much of the night in the nether world between sleep and wakefulness, day dreaming strange things and not being sure which of these strange visages were real. Maybe it is not the best basis on which to build up the crowd for the main event.
I shall at this point advertise the Great Twitter Meet Up of 2016. Formerly known as Operation No More Heroes. Please tweet me @tdl123 if you plan on coming along. It is a pretty simple plan, as all the best ones are. 12.30 at the newish Vesey Bar. Bring yourself and a £5 bet which you will exchange blindly with someone else from twitter! Then we drift off as easily as we came together and go about our own days.
Many of you are festival old hands but if you are a novice runner at this years event then I would recommend these five tips to enhance your enjoyment of the day;
- Have a drink in the Arkle Bar it is my favourite bar on the course and is worth a visit!
- Nicky Henderson watches the racing from just outside the Arkle Bar, go stand by him in a race where he has a good chance. Doing so was the inspiration for a big win for me as I sensed the team disappointment in the Long Run defeat a year before his Gold Cup win.
- The Guinness Village is better earlier in the day. It is worth a pint there, the atmosphere can be excellent, especially if the sun is shining. Later on, the floor is covered in broken plastic glasses and as some of the hour drains from the dreamers, it can be replaced by less savoury emotions.
- Get yourself to the parade ring to cheer in a popular winner. It requires some nifty movement but seeing connections celebrate and the crowd receive the returning conqueror is worthwhile. You might do this from the new arc walkway above the winners enclosure, having stood there, I can confirm that the views are exceptional.
- Get to the middle of the course. If you are in club or tattersall, you can head over to the middle of the course for a race. It is quieter there and the view of a packed grandstand is a great sight. Plus, being close to the horses as they ping a fence is something else.
Most importantly, just relax and soak it up. My most memorable festivals were not about big wins (although it always helps) or drunken antics (though debauchery is a given) but it was where I had time to observe. A relaxed state of mind will allow you to absorb the festivities and leave you sated.
I wondered what I might write about. In the same way the anticipation and hype builds for Cheltenham, I wondered how to match that in my own poor words. What could I possibly offer? I am not sure I can.
If there is something magical about Cheltenham, it is not to be found in the drunken antics of the week. There is a deep theme I feel at my chosen temple. It is the same sense that all religions offer in their reflective cathedrals – A pause and a moment to think about life itself.
Ah Major, I hear you cry, you have gone too far, just let me enjoy the Guinness. Well OK. Yet before I go, consider this. Every thing that is alive is related to you, everything you can see and touch that lives, is part of your story too.
If you take your family tree back far enough, you leave humans behind, eventually your ape forefathers move back into their trees. Keep tracing your family tree through time and those apes revert back to rodents who were about when the dinosaurs roamed. Those rodents evolved from reptiles who in turn mutated from amphibious sorts.
You see, our heritage is not on dry land at all, like all life, before we emerged from the ponds, we were fish. Prior to our fishy ancestors, we were funny sort of tube worms in the water and before that sponges, and those came from prokaryotic cells. This might not seem easy to reflect on but trust me. In your family tree, if we go back far enough, you were just a single cell that learned how to copy itself, just like I was.
In fact, this lineage does not just apply to us, by nature, all living things, sentient or not stem back to that one single cell. We have found no life anywhere else in a incomprehensibly vast universe. A dizzying space that contains more stars than there are grains of sand on Earth. Does that not give you a great kinship for everything you see about you? No matter how foreign it seems, anything alive is your cousin.
Life on our own planet seems so diverse doesn’t it? Those trees lining the far side of the course, birds fluttering overhead, magnificent half ton horses, muscles and sinews straining; we all share that one single cell and crucially we have something to learn from it too. For evolution to work, you need two things. The ability to replicate is the first and obviously crucial. Nucleic acids are biomolecules which are contained within all living things and they have that crucial coded instruction to replicate themselves.
The other critical element of evolution that bought us from the thick soup of some billions of years hence, to contemplating the Champion Hurdle card, is mutation. If replication were always perfect, then the copies would be perfect and nothing would ever change.
Whatever causes mutation should be celebrated. We too as people now, should embrace the different. Sometimes the mutations that occur are helpful, more often they are not. Each mutation though throws a chance for development. It might make us more intelligent, faster, taller, stronger; yet most mutations do not, most errors in the replication, like faults on a factory line are not, in themselves helpful.
As an entire race though, without mutation in our ancestry, we would not be here. We would still be those single cells, washing about in the oceans. Celebrate the different my friends, admire difference, it is the only reason we exist, it is not error, all mutation is an experiment in our genetic line.
Would it not be fascinating in our lifetime to find life on other planets. It has to exist. There are billions of Earth like planets so does life exist on others or was the event on Earth that started this stream of living things unique? The only clue we can draw on is timing. The earth formed just over 4 billion years ago. The early Earth had a molten crust, which explains why all the Iron and Nickel was able to make its way to the core of the Earth (it sank) where it is today, leaving the lighter elements from the outer mantle and upwards.
The oldest rocks we can find on Earth today were discovered in Canada and date to about 3.8bn years. Within them is the evidence of life, not the simplest cell types either but cells that have clearly evolved already. This suggests that life was underway within the first available 3-5% of the Earths geological history. In turn, this suggests that life was not some fortunate accident but something that given the right conditions, will happen naturally. Given a warm pool of water, the right mix of organic compounds and life will begin. We are not alone, we just haven’t figured out yet how to use the galactic telephone.
To Tuesday, to Cheltenham. Daub thy war paint oh serious warriors. Celebrate the inter-connectivity of all things. Feel the kinship such thoughts deserve. As you stand there, looking at Douvan, hulking and sweating after punching 20 lengths clear up the hill, look him in the eye and wonder how far back you have to go in your family tree to find your common ancestor. Douvan and I, we are brothers.
To the racing, to the festival, sharpen that lance point and get on parade.
Tuesday Cheltenham Champion Hurdle Tips
Our minds can draw on last year like it was yesterday. The wandered state of my fellow punters as we tried to let the fall of Annie Power sink in. So many of us waiting on juicy four figure payouts, Annie coming clear, just one good jump but it is history.
Remember Douvan too, how well he came clear, Faugheen making mincemeat of the Champion Hurdle field. What a feast we had.
Were we too well treated? Perhaps, I want to dwell on the point.
Consider our situation. Last year the Mullins machine bought over an assault force, the likes of which we had never seen. Many of us held fancy antepost tickets and we were no doubt wondered at the sheer quantum of raw ability coming over the Irish Sea.
My advice last year, even on Cheltenham Eve when much of the value had long gone was to back the four timer. Why? Well, it had less to do with the racing and more to do with the sense of history. I made the point then (and it stands now) that if it happened, would you not want to be able to talk about this famous day with a glint in your eye that told of fine wine, good food and general debauchery?
This, in itself is a rational approach. It might seem counter intuitive to also consider each horse on its merit and have a strategy for that too but I would argue not. You see, irrespective of whether all of this years magnificent four will win (and I have a serious doubt over one in particular), no matter how strongly you might feel that they won’t; it would be unfortunate not to carry a small ticket with all four names on… just in case. Imagine if it did happen and you did not have an invite to the party? No, no, that will not do. Get yourself a Min, Annie, Douvan and Vroum Vroum accumulator for a modest stake, just in case.
The consideration we have to make is whether last year was fortuitous for Willie and team or whether this is a new dynasty in racing, a yard so superior, they can take the Supreme Novices, normally a fiendishly difficult race to predict, four years on the bounce, with a horse in the same owners colours?
As for my own antepost position.
The Good: A tasty single on Douvan at 4/1, some nice Min at 20/1 and a slice of No More Heroes at 12/1.
The Bad: Lots of multiples with Annie in the wrong race, I got Long Dog and Bellshill in the wrong ones too. Faugheen killed lots of lines too.
The Ugly: Vroum Vroum Gold Cup. All I can say was it seemed sensible at the time.
Each race in turn:
The Supreme Novice Hurdle Tips
I am firmly in camp Min. To answer why, I shall answer the question I posed above. Willie Mullins is currently dominant in the novice hurdling ranks. His team is preparing horses beautifully (when do the yard ever have a quiet time?), they are buying the finest french stock and Irish pointers and they are blending, the best jockeys, with the best trainers, with the best owners and purchasing the best horses.
What they are doing is not luck.
Min is currently 2/1 and I suspect, some bookmakers will be keen to make a generous offer for limited stakes in the morning. (Limited stakes are fine by me!)
Indeed, Min has fluctuated about a couple of times in the last few weeks. At one point, he drifted to 8s, perhaps connected to Faugheens withdrawal and suggestions that the team reordering might include a move in race for Min. A further flutter in the price came as a suggestion was made that Ruby might ride Yorkhill, perhaps if the ground came up soft he might have done but with fair weather, Min arrives in rude health.
In the against camp are those that think he has beaten little. I would agree but then who wanted to oppose him? What he has beaten, he has dismissed with an arrogance that speaks of high talent. What encourages me more is the yard confidence. All noises that are reported are of how much they like this one. He is their number one for the Supreme and yes, we need to distinguish between hype and ability but I come down on Mins side.
Altior looks a good horse. Being our of High Chaparral, the better ground will suit him too. Yes, indeed I grant his Christmas romp was very good where he beat a Montjeu sired Mullins horse, Open Eagle.
There are chinks of doubt. He has not raced on good ground, yet his style suggests it should be fine. He also raced pretty eagerly, both on debut in a large field and then when leading five around the Moscow Flyer. That day, he dealt out a fine beating to Elliot’s Ball D’Arc who has won twice since.
Altior’s win was visually very impressive, so was Min. I prefer the current darlings of National Hunt, Ricci, Mullins and Walsh to get us of to a Shabash! Wait for the morning offers.
If you are not the sort to back the short prices… Supersundae would be my 16/1 value pick.
Tips for The Arkle
You might hate me for writing it but I am firmly in the camp of Douvan and think his main rival is the birch. Don’t be angry, I am here as your humble servant and can only report as things are.
Yes, it is not fun or original but Douvan has done absolutely everything right and is a sure-fire star for the years to come.
Garde La Victoria has won three times this year but in small fields. Vaniteux looks flattered by a mark of 152 to me, he is second favourite and a full 9lbs inferior to Douvan on paper, I think it is more like 15-20lbs in practice.
Tipping a 1/3 shot is a low point. Maybe you should include it in some multiples if you feel the need. I might just watch the race.
I do not usually bet on the ‘without’ markets though. If I were, I would certainly be looking down the list. If the horses near the top of the market take Douvan on, second place might belong to a non flashy staying type running a sensible race. Baltimore Rock 20/1 without Douvan? Call me crazy but at least you get Fehily and he knows which side the bread is buttered.
The Ultima Handicap Chase Tip
After such a furious opening to the festival, we have a small interlude in the Grade 1 action with the Ultima. Just over three miles for handicap chasers and a market that is 8/1 the field.
The key to Cheltenham handicaps is to consider a multitude of factors. This is why the prices are generous, there are more possible solutions to this puzzle.
My own view is that… Course form is more important than current form and so is class. Many very good horses are planned and plotted for a Cheltenham handicap and this prize, a festival winner, is more valuable to owners and trainers than say, a fourth place in the Ryanair or some such equivalent.
Watch out for the green and gold hoops, they will have one or two good things lurking on suspiciously good weights about to rise resurgent back to peak form.
Holywell is early on my list and I must confess to having a few tickets on him. At the start of the 2014/2015 season, this horse was favourite for a Gold Cup, is it beyond Jonjo to have him ready for this? Sadly he is in to some very sharp 8/1 prices now so I am not sure he can be the one for the blog.
Theatre Guide is also of interest having won very well at Kempton. If anything, it won a bit too well as now has to contend with a mark 11lbs higher.
The Young Master is an interesting horse. Remember when he smashed a Badger Ales field and then it transpired that due to error, he should never have been in it! His next race was more telling, beating a fine yardstick, Houblon Des Obeaux.
His recent form is not much to squawk about and the handicapper has not yet relinquished the grip but at 7, improvement could still be forthcoming.
My selection is going to be Morning Assembly. This Fahy runner was once third in an RSA, the one won by O’Faolains Boy with Smad Place in second. The horse has a tremendously consistent record and although I harbour a small concern that he might be better on heavier ground, his RSA place came in similar conditions and a repeat of that sort of form puts him in with a place.
In a tough race, I would always want a tough jockey and in Davy Russell we get Iron Lung himself. 14/1 is available.
The Champion Hurdle Tip
If there is one leg of the Mullins sequence I am the most dubious about it is this one. I shall start with the counter argument.
I am a huge Annie Power fan. I backed her with relish for both this seasons and last seasons Mares race and absolutely love the beast. She gets a handy 7lbs from the field but is pretty much top rated and she gets the assistance of Ruby Walsh who will want to put the record right. What is not to like?
Quite a lot in my most humble.
For a start, the preparation. Willie Mullins is in a league of his own but Annie has missed most of this campaign. Yes, there has been a prep run and yes, it went well but she is coming up against horses that are stripping fit after a season of top contest.
Then the jumping. The mares and the champion hurdle share the same obstacles but the extra distance and lack of quality opposition in the former race allow a mare to clip a few and loop over a few and not really concede too much. The Champion Hurdle is different, at two miles on good ground, you need to be on a slick jumper. Annie has never won a championship race over two miles. Remember, if not the mares, until Faugheen’s defection, Annie had the alternative target of the World Hurdle.
Yes, she might be good enough and none will be cheering for the girl louder than I but for value, she has to be opposed.
Identity Thief is one of the most improved horses in training. He is up over 20lbs for his exploits this season. In a poor renewal of this race, he has his chance.
Nichols Canyon is interesting. Not many took his form from the seasonal debut beating Faugheen literally and it proved right to discard it. However, he has beaten Identity Thief since and although he finished detached from Faugheen latest, he was just a couple of lengths down to Arctic Fire who would be the Champion Hurdle favourite if he, like Faugheen, had not gotten injured.
I cannot have My Tent or Yours. Not because of anything wrong in the form, not at all. Who wins a Champion Hurdle though after two years off?
No, I am going back to the horse I wrongfully felt might beat Faugheen last year, The New One. Now 8, I feel this horse deserves a Champion Hurdle and I think he has an excellent chance to collect here. Mighty unlucky two years ago, he returned last year and was soundly beaten. Reportedly, there have been back problems which now have been sorted out and on the bare face of a 7l defeat by Faugheen at Christmas, The New One has to be the form pick for me.
6/1 – Bet like men.
The Mares Hurdle Tip
I was very surprised that Vroum Vroum Mag came back hurdling after looking such a solid jumper. I admire the girl so much, I think she could treat this as a warm up and give the boys in the Gold Cup something to think about on Friday! Perhaps wishful but early in the season, as confessed earlier, I actually took fancy prices about VVM in the Gold Cup.
I see no reason why she does not win this, the most winnable of the grade ones in Cheltenham week.
Nothing wrong with Polly Peachum – She has been consistent this year after losing out by a thin margin to Glens Melody after Annie sacrificed her chance at the last.
The whole market revolves around VVM and I am in this camp firmly. One of my bankers of the week. 11/10 – Again, you might get someone pushing it out in the morning. I hope so. My war chest awaits such an intrepid bookmaker.
The National Hunt Chase Tip
Now the scene has cleared a little on who turns up here and who goes to the RSA, it has made life a little easier. Roi Des Francs caused the most consternation on that score as it looked likely at one stage he was set for the four miler before Gigginstown have called RSA.
To be honest, my strategy here is to pick a list of reasonable horses that will jump and stay and then pick what I judge to be the best jockey. This is an amateur riders contest and the standard of pilot makes all the difference.
At a price, Sam Clements could give Ballychorus a run for 16/1. However, that form is not as strong as some of theatre on offer and jumping is certainly a question.
I love Nina but Southfield Royale, although has a habit of getting round, he also has a blunder or two in him.
Noble Endeavour looks a through plodder. Nothing wrong with that in the context of this race and he has shown up well in some heavy ground races to date.
My money though is going to Vincente who is the Paul Nicholls trained, Will Biddick ridden entry. Three chase wins from six have earned the horse a mark in the 150s, I am not sure the ceiling of his talent is much above! I do think he will be seen in his best light on this better ground though and I am happy to have a slice of that at 16/1.
Finally…. The tip for The Close Brothers Novice Handicap Chase
If you are in trouble nearing this race, it is best to keep your stakes small. Retire from the battlefield with honour, regroup and be prepared for a battle tomorrow. Throwing your forces into one last enormous effort to try to take the heights the enemy holds is not the best tactic.
It is an odd race this one. A novice handicap chase but limited to horses rated at 140 and below – Not much of a handicap since the field are spread by 3lbs. Two and a half miles.
I am having two darts to small stakes.
Willows Saviour – The Skelton’s have had another good year and this one looks consistent and on the upgrade, although recent wins have been in small fields, he has done it against the hustle and bustle of 20 runners back in his hurdling career (which included a defeat of Ptit Zig). There was a significant injury break but two chase wins from three starts since reappearance has convinced me to keep him on side. 10/1.
Bridget’s Pet – Since I have stated my case for Morning Assembly, I must have this one on side who defeated that rival in a Fairyhouse chase in January. Shane Shortall is great value for a 5lb claim and at 25/1, I shall have a slice!
That is it.
Eat well. Myself, I hold two dinner reservations. One for success, one for a more modest day! I hope to see you in the finer establishment.
Please come and introduce yourself at 12.30 on course in the Lord Vesey Bar, tweet me if you are planning on showing up.
Courage, roll the dice.