Good evening from the Major who writes from the lounge, the wood stove is alive, furiously swirling great licks of fire against the dirty glass plate door. Outside, a chill air and a dark night, inside, warmth. Bed is beckoning but I am to record my Cheltenham thoughts as I am attending the track tomorrow in fine company.
I shall write a brief report on the evening as part of the Saturday Sermon but here are my tips for what they are worth. Please remember to gamble irresponsibly, if you remain entirely sensible then you shall not enjoy the thrill of your pounding heart as your horse rounds for home, time seems to slow, the leader is a clear 15 lengths up but your boy is stout and plugging on and the front runner puts in a weary leap as he approaches the hill… Is there time?
What is the point of losing what you can afford to lose? You are an adult and I would suggest that pushing your boundaries is a healthy thing… Live, this is not a dress rehearsal.
We have a cracking card at Cheltenham for a Friday. We have Grade 1 winners, the cross country hilarity and a Tony Martin gamble, ah, it is good to be alive, n’est pas?
Cheltenham Open Friday.
This meeting comes as the National Hunt season is getting into full swing. The Paddy Power Gold Cup is a good race but the Hennessy is around the corner and the Gold Cup contenders will be out for that.
We are still early in the season but plenty are arriving now with runs in them and that is always an advantage. Trainer form is also more critical than usual at this time in my view as some yards tend to start so well while others build up a head of steam.
The Friday card is composed of a novice chase (very very good race with a disappointingly small field), four handicaps and the cross-country. I shall take them race by race.
The opener (1.05) is an amateur riders race, contests I feel have a disproportionately high predictive factor in the quality of the jockey. Amateurs vary from the god-awful to the actually quite good and this field are no different. In the last year, all of the field have raced less than an average of once per week which informs you as to their experience. The sole exception is Patrick Mullins who is a regular rider as an amateur for his fathers all-powerful yard – He has amassed 175 races in the last twelve months. Biddick, Bannister, Waley-Cohen and Clements all have far less experience but do at least have a strike rate of above 10%, with, to my eye, Biddick and Waley-Cohen being the pick of that lot.
This four jockeys give us the choice of Standing Ovation, Mr Moss, Fredo and Ruben Cotter.
Standing Ovation has been in fine form and has won his last four – Race fitness is assured and Pipe knows how to handle one of this profile – Improving at a rate of knots, he is due to go up another 6lbs after his last win which was in the listed Badger Ales trophy at Wincanton – The rise in the weights looks a tad generous. Yet, I cannot have him, I fear I am trying to find fault where there is little but….. There are several concerns for me. Number one is that he has not faced the Cheltenham obstacles and has done his winning going right handed. The latter is a lesser part of my thinking but Cheltenham does not suit all horses and this one might just get found out.. The other concern for me is that he has had three races over this sort of distance in the last month, it is quite a heavy schedule and while he seems to take it well, Cheltenham’s undulations will exploit any weariness. He is being backed heavily tonight but I am seeking other shores.
Fredo gets the assistance of Waley Cohen and while I think he will be better after his seasonal reappearance, I am not sure he is good enough. It leaves me with Mr Moss and Ruben Cotter. I side with the latter who has had a lot of problems but is in good hands and could well be fit first time out. 7/1, take a slice and thank me later.
The second race (1.35) is a particularly trappy handicap with 6/1 the field being available as I type. I like Eastlake, who started where he left off last year and Jonjo knows how to eke the best out of these sorts but he would be trying to win off a new high mark and it is off-putting enough, though he is young enough to defy it. As a good ground specialist, Tindaro enters calculations but his Fontwell win last time reads a little flatly in the context of this race. Sew On Target has the vote of Joe Tizzard who had the pick of Theatrical Star and the former had a tidy piece of form in behind Johns Spirit. Oh Crick should not be 25/1 but I shall pass over in favour of Ballyadam Brook at 20/1. It takes a little imagination but… My tip has a very able jockey on board in Paul Townend, absolutely will love the drying ground and has some useful form hidden away.
The novice chase is the race I am looking forward to the most, despite a disappointing turnout of just four runners. It looks a match race between Taquin Du Seuil and Oscar Whiskey and that is where I focus my cash too. The former is a horse I have a big soft spot for. I met Tony McCoy last year at the SPOTY awards and he gave Taquin to me as a horse to follow for the season. I had him twice as a winner over Christmas before losing any gains in building an antepost position for the Neptune that failed to fire. Taquin has a much more impressive record on heavy ground and the rattling conditions are a concern. I always thought he jumped like a chaser though and he has a win under his belt at this discipline, signalling ability and experience. Given he has to concede weight on his less favoured ground to a top class hurdler, I find my head sways towards Oscar Whiskey but my heart remains true…. Taquin du Seuil it is and sod the lot of you.
It could be a busy little spell for Dai Williams, owner of Oscar Whiskey as he has both favourite Top Gamble and second favourite, Whisper going in the next (2.40). The latter looked a horse of promise to me last season but failed to fire when stepped up in class. He always looked a bit slim to me and I hope he might have beefed up over the summer. I would be backing him if it were not for a horse that I think has plenty of scope in Killala Quay at 12/1. To start with, the horse gets the assistance of the incredibly talented Noel Fehily. Secondly, the horse has won every start on anything better than good to soft. He does not have Cheltenham form, but does have Chepstow form which is a good proxy. Plenty of dangers plague the selection including Warden Hill, Handazan (who I will have a saver on), Atlantic Roller, Upswing and Gods Own. It is a minefield! To add to that list of significant risks, Top Gamble, must rate a worthy favourite and one I would not put you off. Pipe must have laid him out for this race, which is in honour of David Johnson, his biggest supporter….. Oh Killala you’ve some horses to beat
The Cross Country is not everyone’s cup of tea but it is a different spectacle and if ever on course, I would recommend you walk to the middle to watch the race up close. It is a bit baffling as they criss cross in a seemingly looping and purposeless path but you get close to the action to see what it is about.
As for the runners, Uncle Junior had the beating of Balthazar King in this last year and won the year before too so will have his fans but my tip, the favourite, has three years on Uncle Juniors’ ageing legs (12) and won the big XC race at the festival last year. He is fit after winning on seasonal bow over Cheltenham fences and I fancy 2/1 is generous enough.
Having had generous prices for the first four races, I finish with both favourites. Tony Martin has Ruby over for the ride on Quick Jack. It is Ruby’s only ride. It has been backed. I am on!
Courage and roll those dice.