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The Cheltenham Champion Hurdle Day Sermon…. Includes a 40/1 shot…. Courage and roll the dice

Good evening from the Major who writes from a Worcestershire where bright clear skies leak the days warmth away, leaving a breathless chilly evening and stars that seem to shimmer and move like the surface of water gently rippling away.

We are here.  Every tweeter in the world is tinkling at the keyboard, excited at what the morning brings.  The Major will not dribble so trivially and waste your time.  No.

Lest to say this.  We shall witness the four days of Cheltenham, all of life shall be there, rich and poor, every social echelon, the equine athletes, the twinkle eyed Irish sirens at their betting pitches, the tatty commercialism, the genuine rush; it is all ours to savour my friends.

This year, I am attending proceedings on Tuesday and Friday, both will be tremendous occasions I am sure.

Two years prior, I attended all four days and drank and gambled at extreme pace on each.  On the Friday, a fresh set of reserve troops arrived from Birmingham but they were reinforcements, not relief forces.  As such, the expectation was to be back on it, Guinness and Champagne at breakfast and continuing in the spirit.  Ah, I did… I soldiered on but I finished that day a ruin.

Cheltenham for the duration is a physical and emotional war of attrition.

In 1900, as part of force set to break the siege of Ladyship, Natal, Lieutenant Colonel Thorneycroft followed orders to lead his men to retrieve Spion Kop, a height occupied by Boer forces, which had good sight of the road.  As a surprise tactic, Woodgate, giant of a man, led from the front  up the 1500ft slope in complete darkness.  What that must have been like, to be climbing through the mist, knowing you are about to engage the enemy , utter silence and a great hulking officer lumbering in front.  The tactics worked and following a brief engagement with bayonets fixed, they were able to scatter the small Boer force that had been in situ.  This success proved though to be a misjudgment.

The Engineers set about digging in but found hard rock just a foot into the earth. They managed to create a crescent-shaped, several hundred feet long, shallow trench and at daybreak, as the sun rose from some distant point over the Indian Ocean, it was clear that two heavy forces would be engaged heavily in action.

You see, there were several other heights at similar levels that gave the Boers excellent sight of the encamped British forces and so the bombardment commenced.  Shells ranging from 80mm to 600mm rained onto the British position every 6 seconds for which they had little protection.    The British realised that they had also mistaken the summit and the position they had dug, just slightly below had poor sight lines over the Northern crest.

By mid morning, the Boers had resolved to a sortie to recover the position and the Boers that climbed that hill did so with their leaders ears ringing ‘we shall be attacking the enemy and not all will be coming back; Do your duty, trust the Lord’.  The Boers, who were excellent rifleman rushed the summit from the blind side, which the British position allowed, this was surprising and resulted in some warm action with bayonet, fists and knives flashing.

Both sides settled down to exchange rifle fire just a hundred yards from each other, bodies lying all amongst them, the heat of the day rising.  The Boers were tired and morale was low, what they cannot have understood was either the losses of the British or the effectiveness of the continued bombardment which was taking its toll.  The Boer gunners were finding their range and among their British casualties was General Woodcroft.

Confusion started to become prevalent.  Reinforcements for the British were called for and sent but the mortars which may have been used against some key Boer positions were never bought against the enemy.  As battle progressed into the second night, the lunacy of war was such that both the Boers and British were ready to surrender their positions.  The Boers at one point started to but an officer persuaded them to stay and such is the balance of things, it proved decisive.

In the morning, Thorneycroft, receiving messages from the main army was able to lead a retreat down Skion Kop.  He left a devastation at the summit.  Nearly 250 British and 350 Boers were left dead.  The Boers so badly hurt that they were unable to hold the position.  The futility of it all.

Still, a few footnotes worthy of your attention.  Winston Churchill, a journalist but drawn to action, was the runner on the private staff of General Buller in command of the 11,000 strong force from which Lieutenant Colonel Thorneycroft was despatched – Thus he was running the messages to Thorneycroft on the summit and would have seen the bloody mess.  His schoolboy friend from Harrow also died on the summit.  Baden-Powell also served in the action.  It is also the reason that Liverpool has the Kop.

Our battle shall be entrenched too, just less bloody, for most of us.  To the action, the Cheltenham action.  Sabres drawn.  The festival is underway…

Tuesday Cheltenham Tips

Now, if you cheated and have not read about Skion Kop, either go back or exit.  Your sort is not welcome here.

For those who missed my stream of tweets last week, I have written up the Grade 1 races at the festival already and so will be drawing on that shortly.  This is where you will find my Tuesday Grade 1s but I shall summarise with brevity, something I value little, below.

In the Supreme, I have already tipped Vautour and am sticking with it.  I stand by my reasoning that Irving looks a flat track bully and my boy has been in a fight, which fancy dan Irving has yet to experience.  At a price, The Liquidator is an interesting runner and so is Vaniteux who will appreciate the better ground and is the favoured runner of Geraghty (over Josses Hill).

I am also sticking with Valdez who I wrote up in my antepost piece for the Arkle.  His price is unchanged and if anything might be bigger at the off.  The bottom line he is not a popular sort.  Perhaps people are put off by the fact he was not as good as hurdler as this lot but some horses are meant to go over the big obstacles and this season, we have seem him in fine form, even when the King stable was under a cloud.  Grandouet is a bit of a forgotten horse and all of the principles can be argued for, including Rock on Ruby who is a good ground horse in my view – This is not a big stakes race for the Major.

The 2.40 Handicap Chase is a minefield.  I would call out a few I like.  Alfie Sherrin and Holywell at 8/1 and 10/1 are of interest, particularly the latter.  Yet, in this sort of race, I want a tasty price, in the last eight years we have witnessed 28/1, 33/1 and even 50/1 shocks.  My runner to steal the money is King Massini at 20/1.  This Evan Williams horse has been a serious improver and was campaigned aggressively early in the season, unlucky not to complete a four timer.  He has been put away, most likely with this in mind.  As such, I am happy to have a pop but dangers lurk around every corner my friend.

Then the feature dish, the Champion Hurdle.  Again, you will find this on my G1 Tuesday Cheltenham Antepost page but a quick summary….

  • I have been backing Our Conor since my jaw rested on the Cheltenham tarmac as he sauntered over his Triumph field
  • I backed what my eyes saw with real money building up an antepost position
  • His runs in Ireland have been OK but not quite what I wanted, particularly the last
  • He might be better with the pace been forged by Captain Cee Bee
  • I suspect I am suffering from Confirmation Bias and am desperately turning everything I see in his favour
  • He likes good ground… Oh god, I am suffering confirmation bias
  • I will probably have a saver on the Fly – Not because I prefer him, in fact my next best is My Tent or Yours – Yet, I cannot let the place go wild and me not have a winning ticket to hand, no matter what the financial logic.

The Mares Hurdle is a potential moment of history with Quevega, the amazing Mare that the magician Mullins manages to get right for this one day, trying for a sixth Cheltenham Festival race.  Will she?  I hope so – I have some bets that include her name but I have to admit to it not being many.  I was actually a little concerned last year.  She finished well enough to win but to me needed to be niggled earlier than usual, maybe it will catch up with her this year?

I did like Highland Retreat but think the ground is going against her.  So the one I offer as an alternate is Cailin Annamh who won a graded Irish race effortlessly and could be offering a viable alternative if improving a stone… and a bit…. and beating a legend… with the best national hunt jockey in the world aboard.  What am I on about, back Quevega – If she wins, you will be gutted that you did not!

Then the four miler… amateur riders.. The Major is a fan of backing the best jockeys in these races and I also think over this distance, it makes an even bigger differential.  Clements is good but McNamara, Carberry and Mullins are better.

McNamaras mount, Herdsmen, needed the mud, no.  Nina (Carberry for the legion of irregular racing fans joining us today) takes the ride on the favourite, Shutthefrontdoor – That horse is going to love the drying ground and I love watching Nina ride a hold up sort, she has elegance, strength and resolve.  It is hard to pass over but I am resting on Suntiep at 10/1 – There are lots of reasons why not, including the ground and lack of chase experience around such a tough course… take it easy.

Then the Novice Handicap Chase that closes the card and if we need this as a get out of jail, we are in a world of hurt.

I am going to put up two.  First a horse I have watched for a while, Grandads Horse, currently available at 40/1 – Do you want the reasoning? Look, if you are backing a 40/1 shot in the last, you definitely do not… Don’t even start to think about the trainer having Pendra, a seeming much fancied runner…

My saver is another massive price.  Venetia has been the talk of the year with her horses running to tremendous credit on heavy ground.  I think Gardefort forgiven the last time out may be a snip at 40/1 also with BetVictor…

Courage and roll those dice.

Cheltenham Day Three Tips – World Hurdle Thursday, Ryanair, Jewson… The awesome Aeroplane and another day sober in paradise

Good evening from the Major who writes from another bitterly cold Worcestershire which sports a biting wind.  The temperature remains cold enough to numb the touch and add a dull ache to knee and ankle joints.  The only antidote is the warming effect of winners and champions.

The former I had a couple of.  Only a couple and I am in no doubt that day two belonged to the enemy.

The latter we were blessed with, in fact we saw a new legend.  Sprinter Sacre was breath-takingly good.  He beat a Champion Chase field by 19 lengths, hard held.  The commentator summed it up suggesting that this steeplechaser was sent from celestial heavens… who could argue with that.  No doubt, we have a star and let us hope he remains centre stage for many years.

On Tuesday, I left the racecourse by the bottom car park and spent 90 minutes queuing.  Thus in a planned change of operational procedure, tonight I parked in town and walked, a test and learn.  It certainly was easier and it gave me the pleasure of a post-racing stroll through Pittville and across the park to my car.  It was all most pleasant but the trappings of the festival that you witness on this journey remain etched in my mind, as these things will.

The girls handing out cards for gentleman’s clubs look very different through the eyes of a sober man.  The language is the same… the use of the word ‘guys’ in a voice straining to suggest familiarity.  They aim to make the groups of men who average twenty years their senior comfortable, as though they are conversing in normal circumstances.  That level of performance though must tire and something in their body language, the slope of shoulder, the curl of a lip hides a disdain for the work.  It is cold and you can see it in their eyes.

Do not take me as a prude by the way.  I am a believer that consenting adults are perfectly able to choose what they want to do without my views and whatever contracts are struck are for those parties alone.  In fact I am generally in favour of skullduggery.  I just prefer it a bit more refined.

Sadly for the Major, Taquin Du Seuil did not win the Neptune.  I did not pass go, I did not collect significantly more than 200.  Still, the dream itself was worthwhile.  There will be another time.

We go into Thursday with our war chest intact.  Early exchanges have been searching, exploratory forays to test defences and reactions.  I almost fell into the trap of backing Coral Cup and Fred Winter horses with conviction, pure folly and I kept my losses sensible… The enemy allowed me fancy prices about Mullins Jnr and Nina Carberry in the amateur riders…  I took them.

The next two days could be taken easily, too concerned with the fear of loss to try to be glorious.  No, not for us, we know what we must do…  Read on only if you are prepared to come with me and face the abyss.  Fearless.

To Cheltenham…. load the heavy cannons, stand broad and tall.

The Jewson

Dynaste cost me a fortune when defecting from the RSA to the Jewson and I am not sure it was a great call.  His previous Feltham win was very strong defeating Third Intention and generally looking very good.  This is also my issue with Dynaste – He has only won one of four starts at Cheltenham and we know it is a specialist track

I think the RSA field was weaker and today he faces Captain Conan, a horse I can easily forgive a more lacklustre display at Sandown when winning latest.  That day he clearly was not himself but still finished well on the hill to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  He was not right that day and he is reported much better now – I think a 13/2 punt (Paddy Power) is in order.

Aupcharlie has looked an immensely powerful traveller who has not always found much off the bridle.  Interesting but overlooked.

The Pertemps Final

Look, let us keep this really simple.  When Paul Nicholls describes a handicap mark as a ‘gift from God’, one should sit up and pay attention.  Sam Winner heads the market at 9/2 and I think it is well worth backing.  He has won twice at Cheltenham from four visits so the track holds no fears.  His Triumph race was interesting, while only fourth, he was staying on at the end.  He has beaten Grandouet and been within half a dozen lengths of Zarkander.  That makes a mark of just 140 very manageable.. I have to agree with his trainer.

The Pertemps is often won by a more experienced handicapper.  Maybe that is a reflection of the rigours of a big field.

If you like one at a price, Ely Brown at 20/1 does look a tad tasty.  Sam Winner for me.

The Ryanair

The quality of the Ryanair is superb this year as the Aeroplane scared people into stepping up half a mile in trip.

First Lieutenant is favourite and most argue that his form finishing in a heap with Flemenstar, Sir Des Champs and Tidal Bay is also key to the Gold Cup.  The Major remains unconvinced.  It is the presence of Tidal Bay that bothers me.  First Lieutenant is a top horse, he was a superb hurdler beating Rock on Ruby and showed promise as a novice hurdler.  Yet his last win was 9 starts back.  I know he has not been disgraced in any run since but I am always nervous with horses with bad strike rates no matter what their form lines.

Most people will be a fan of the favourite because of the stamina doubts of Cue Card based on a poor King George effort.  I don’t think that day had anything to do with stamina, I think he just had a bad day… it happens.

Champion Court has a lot of plusses but for me lacks the requisite je ne sais quoi.

No… Cue Card.. 7/2… smash it.

The World Hurdle

Reve de Sivola and Oscar Whisky are surely the key starting points in the World Hurdle.

Many had the latter down as a non stayer but I was never convinced about that and his last run at Cheltenham surely put pay to it.  I think he will be fitter for the effort and on much much better ground, he will have the measure of Reve de Sivola in my opinion.

My betting strategy is going to be clouded by the presence of Bog Warrior.  He is my favourite horse in training.  Top hurdle form looked like it might transfer to fences but some major jumping errors have seen them convert the horse back to hurdles and he has been awesome ever since.  If you want to see why I love the horse so much, have a look at the Drinmore he won on Youtube.  His style is head in chest, bowling along… How can you not love him?  He will carry a significant sum of the Majors wedge for that reason alone…

Yet my advice to you all is Oscar Whisky at 7/2.

The Bryne Group Plate

Sorry to be boring but I cannot get away from Ballynagour, 4/1.  The performance it put in suggested that we have missing a lot while he has been lightly raced.

Hunt Ball is eased back into handicap level and his mark may well be passable.  He won this off just over a stone lighter last year but is a class horse.

I cannot get away from the Pipe horse though… Join the money train.

The Kim Muir

The stakes here must be kept to a minimum as the puzzle is vast and the traps numerous.

There are only 5 horses in the vast field though that have won at Cheltenham and that is not a bad angle to take into this.  Super Duty, Prince of Pirates, Swing Bill, Galaxy Rock and Alfie Sherrin should all cope with the decent ground.

I put a line through Swing Bill because although some of his form is working out well, he is 12 and I do not like it.  Jumping puts me off Prince of Pirates but a clean round equals danger for all in my view.

The Major struck well in the John Oaksey by suggesting that the jockey in these amateur races is vital.  This brings other horses into contention too including Vesper Bell and Romanesco.

Class horses have no problems lumping weight around the Kim Muir so Super Duty and my selection should be fine if they have the minerals.  I am sticking with the boy who got the job done for us on Back in Focus…. Patrick Mullins is aboard Vesper Bell.. That one has placed form at the top level and the Irish National trial he competed in has worked out OK.  There is every reason to be excited about 16/1 so have a large slice and berate me later for being so interested in a horse in a ridiculously tricky handicap.

The Cross Country

Go back two days to see the reasoning for Arabella Boy to win the Cross Country.

Courage, roll those dice.

The Banker was a NON RUNNER – 2 More on the watchlist

The banker at Brighton was a non runner but there are two more on my watchlist reappearing today:

Alfie Sherrin – 1.55 Chepstow – This one looked an outstanding prospect at point to point level – Then put away since February by the top trainer nicholls who knows how to handle one.  Novice hurdling over a mile and a half, 2/1 – Load thy weapons and thank me later!!

Madam Macie 3.45 Newbury – This is in on times – It looks good on its debut win at Catterick anyway but the time iot ran was faster than the race involving more senior horses on the same day.  I suspect a number of horses finishing behind will turn out winners and this one could be better than debut.  Listed company today so quite the step up 33/1 looks tasty – HOLIDAYS!!