As I write, we are a week away from knowing the answers to the Grade 1 races played out on the Champion Chase card.
If I am honest, my Cheltenham hierarchy of days goes Tuesday, Friday, Thursday and then Wednesday, bringing up the rear. Yet, do not think it a damning assessment, quite the contrary, compared to something as trivial as Christmas or a wedding day, it is like being on holiday in heaven.
The Champion Chase is a brilliant race, recent memories are of Sprinter Sacre and some ever so slightly older ones of Masterminded, one of the most powerful movers I can recall. Back in the archives, One Man, the little bouncing ball, was a majestic jumper of fences – Yes, this championship race can deliver a true equine star but this year, the cupboard looks a little bare.
Throw in the RSA, a race that has produced some superb staying chasers, such as the current Gold Cup champion, Bobs Worth, yet it also has a reputation for being a race that some horses do not progress from, think Lord Windermere, Bostons Angel or Cooldine, perhaps the biggest head scratcher of them all.
Well look, if you are reading because you are going, ignore my sour undertone. I am merely recording the order of things. Wednesday may be the ugly sister of the week but what a family.
To the Grade 1’s, brace yourselves…
Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle
In recent years, the Neptune has had two excellent winners in the shape of The New One and Simonsig. Whether a horse of that quality lurks in the line up, time will tell. Both of those horses were shorter than 4/1 and with the odd exception, this race tends to go to the known strong contenders.
In a way, I find this generally true of the top class novice events. Earlier in the campaign, when stables are not sure of the best novices, more surprising results can occur but at the business end of the season, the cream rises.
So what of the cream? Let us start with the favourite, Faugheen. Mullins, probably Walsh, barely been off the bridle in 5 bloodless wins… What is not to like? Well there is a chink, he has at times not looked the most fluent of hurdlers. Of course, these are novices and mistakes are to be expected to a degree, so it is a common concern and thus does not weigh too heavily on my mind. He has also only been up to Grade 3 level to date, which makes the face value of his form at first a little harder to read – There are plenty of winners stacked up behind him in his races but like most lining up in the Neptune, we have to judge his true ability on reputation, limited form lines and visual impression.
As far as the ground goes, Faugheen has proven as effective on heavy as good, looks top top class. 11/4 is the general price.
What might trouble him… Well, Red Sherlock is of a similar profile. He has been winning his races with stunning ease and having beaten Rathvinden, the 10/1 shot who is the second favourite Mullins horse in the race, his form stands up. 5/1.
There is a real contest brewing up in the staying novice hurdle races between Pipe and Mullins. The Albert Bartlett which we will get to on Friday night, has Kings Palace representing Pipe and probably Briar Hill (who I have not covered here as is expected in the AB) for Mullins.
Two similar horses, one of which is to be the pick. It has to be Faugheen. I am having this as one of my Cheltenham bankers. Frankly, the reputation seems sky high and while that is not legal tender as such, I prefer to have Ruby anyday (although Tom Scudamore aboard Red Sherlock is not a negative).
At some point, when it comes to Cheltenham, you have to put your marker down. Faugheen…. go large.
RSA Chase (Grade 1)
The RSA is often not the strongest looking of races and this year, it feels a but tame again. Who knows, we might have next years Gold Cup winner about to burst through with a surge of new form, but I am feeling that it is unlikely.
Star de Mohaison was a surprise winner of the race in 2006 at 14/1 being the only 5 year old to ever win the race. Typically it is a race dominated by seven year olds in the entries and the winners. It is the natural progression from the previous years staying hurdles.
There are some real monkey sorts in this race. For example, Sam Winner, long touted as a leading horse by Nicholls, rarely showing us anything until recently when seemingly turning it around. Who knows what he will bring to the party stepped up into this company, if he wins, it will never be with my money.
Smad Place won me a tidy sum when placing in the World Hurdle a couple of years back, I had 40/1 on with Ladbrokes whose special was a third the odds on the place… ah winning memories! Smad Place has had Sam Winner in behind this year and given I am not a fan of the former, I am not going to crow on that form line to make a case for this horse, despite my soft spot.
Balleycasey is of some interest but his Grade 1 win was a three runner affair and it is interesting that he had suffered defeat previously at the hands of Morning Assembly. This is a horse with some admiral races in him, he hails from a yard that you would not count in the highest echelons of training establishments but his form is excellent. His last race was a bit of a disappointment, having powered into a nice looking lead, he was eventually pegged back in the soft conditions by Carlingford Lough – Maybe…
In an open looking race, I am going to hang out a 20/1 shot as my selection…. Annacotty. This Martin Keighley horse has been targeted at this race for some time and he boasts claims. He has some decent Cheltenham form, although I would have liked to have seen him beat Indian Castle, in spite of giving the weight away.
His Feltham win was fair and square, a surprise yes but nothing wrong with the form beating an odds on Paul Nicholls runner. He would be a popular winner being a local horse and 20/1 is too big.
BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase
The Champion Chase, without Sprinter Sacre is suddenly looking a poorer race. I must confess to being sat here in a slight malaise, struggling to raise the excitement over this renewal.
Sprinter’s stand in as ‘chief 2m chaser’ seems to be Sire de Grugy who has been very impressive in winning six of his last seven chases. Those wins include a Celebration Chase, a Tingle Creek and a Desert Orchid… Not a lot wrong with that CV.
Captain Conan is a surprising runner for me. He might be the best that the mighty Henderson yard has for the job in the absence of his stable star (and Simonsig who would surely be favourite if fit) but he is not good enough, too slow.
Avrika Ligieonniere is a contender, needs to put some improvement in but that is perfectly possible given the profile of the horse. I hope Sizing Europe turns up and runs to credit, I cannot see him winning, even in this field – He will be only the second twelve year old to line up in the Champion Chase in 15 years. Hinterland maybe for a place…
On balance, keeping it simple is the Major’s plan. Sire de Grugy has more consistent and quality form, what is not to like? I do not think he is a world beater but it will not take one this year.
Weatherbys Champion Bumper
This must be one of the hardest races of the festival to pick. Last year when Briars Hill stormed up the hill to a 25/1 shock* it was the fourth horse in four years to win at double figure odds. That is the most common outcome so you have to tread carefully.
*Shock – To be fair, I could hear around me the collective muttering as we all realised we let a Mullins bumper horse with Ruby Walsh on the saddle go off at 25/1. Jesus, that was the one that slipped the net.
The horse that Ruby sits on from the many that Mullins has entered will shorten considerably. Us punting fraternity are once bitten and twice shy! As I think it will be long term favourite Black Hercules, I must confess to have been backing it for some time. Mullins has an unbelievably strong hand….
Yet, as we sit a week out, I wonder if last years events and Mullins seeming domination of bumpers in Ireland, coupled with a potentially good opening day for the Irish… well it could lead to an imbalanced market. Grasping at straws? This is the bloody bumper, get used to it.
So, of all of the potential winners, of the masses of unexposed sorts who have won Taunton, Huntingdon, Carlisle, Navan and Kelso bumpers at a canter, of the 20 odd horses that have never been off the bridle, which might be good enough? Which is the best? Oh my.
One thing I will say is that I do not want a four year old. No.
Well that is a line through some. Time for a Pint…. 25/1 Elliot, good yard… won two easily (who hasn’t in this!) but one included a bad error when slipping so that looks promising. Plus, the market is throwing different vibes… My 25/1 is with Skybet but Corals are a measly 12/1.
My advice, turn up on Wednesday, give the entire contents of your wallet (less your per diem of course) to the bookmaker giving you the best odds on the Neptune, have a pleasant day, go collect on your way home and be glad you didn’t play in every race. Let’s see how right I am!
Courage, roll the dice.