Tuesday, 16 March, 2021
The wait is over and the action about to commence. The CHELTENHAM Festival certainly is, The Greatest Show On Turf, 28 races, spread over 4 days, most of which will probably be won by the Irish and 2 names in particular stand out (or did!), I wonder how many prizes will remain in the UK? All I have to do is find us enough winners, to give us a profit over the 4 days. Sounds easy, I only wish it was. Most races, certainly those big field Handicaps, are extremely difficult and ultra competitive indeed. Still, I do like a challenge, so I will give each and every handicap a go over the 4 days and make a selection in each (some have already been made) but will look at the better quality, graded contests for a number of selections along the way as well. What I intend to do each day is run through the feature race of the day first and hopefully make selection in every one of those, price permitting, then go through the rest of the cards in race order afterwards, with the odd selection or verdict in them as well. So let’s get cracking with day 1 shall we.
The Unibet CHAMPION HURDLE Challenge Trophy (2m) is the feature on day 1 at 3:05. 10 runners.
The changing ground conditions have made me change my mind with this race now. I was going to select the 8yo wonderful grey called Silver Streak, had that blood rain stayed away, but it certainly has dampened my enthusiasm for him now unfortunately. On ground just on the soft side, he would have been fine, soft ground is not ideal, but there is hope it might ride a little better than that still. I will have an unofficial fiver on him, for old times sake and just in case and I will be cheering him all the way, in what looks quite an open race. The market suggests Honeysuckle will take all the beating, which she might, but she looks very short at 11/8, when you consider her rivals this year. In receipt of 7lb from the geldings, I suppose her price does make sense and she is unbeaten in 10 career starts and is arguably still improving as well. A strong pace is very much likely, so it will, or should play to her strengths, as she’s won at 2m4f many times before, as well as 2m. Last year’s winning mare Epatante will also 7lb from the geldings (surely it’s too much nowadays) that’s why she’s only 7/2-4/1 this morning. A defeat by Silver Streak at Kempton last time has been put down to her having a physical issue at the time and connections feel she is back to her best now. If she is and that was just a blip, she is a serious contender once again. What about the geldings, do any have a chance of giving 7lb away to a couple of high class mares? Well, I think it’s a big ask, possibly too much and arguably unfair as well. Goshen will try, by attempting to gallop everything into the ground and with the rain coming to help him, his chance is a lot better now. He could well do the business, but it might depend on how the other prominent racers go about their business later. Not So Sleepy is a fruit cake, but a very capable and useful horse, when he is on the straight and narrow. He likes to go from the outset and set a proper gallop, but then again, so too does Aspire Tower, Silver Streak who did so for the first time at Kempton last time (tactics worked great), Honeysuckle like to be prominent and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mullins used the outsider Saldier to join in as well. This will set it up for the closers, who include both mares, Abracadabras, who’s finished 5th (bumper) and 2nd (supreme) at the last 2 festivals, but it should also suit Mulins other runner SHARJAH as well. He is very useful and very capable of getting involved in his best form, but as with last time out, he can throw in the odd stinker and his cheltenham record isn’t perfect as well. In saying that though, heavy ground was not his bag when 5th in the Supreme hurdle back in 2018, he was brought down at the 3rd in this race in 2019 but did finish well to come home a 3 lengths 2nd last year on very soft ground. Last year, he was held up rear, which he usually is anyway, but they went no pace in the first half of the race and for me, he did well to get where he did. A stronger pace will be much more to his liking this time, as will the less testing ground as well. He acts well on soft and that will not be an excuse, but he is more effective on less taxing ground. He has an each way chance in what should be a tremendous race and definitely the race of the day.
Verdict and Selection – SHARJAH but I will have something on Silver Streak as well, win only.
The opening contest at 1:20, is Skybet Supreme Novice Hurdle (2m). 8 runners.
Numbers for this are usually in the mid teens, so where are all the young promising novices hurdles this year? Who knows. Trainer W P Mullins will not be complaining, he has a sound chance of adding to the 6 winners he’s trained in this race before with the fav Appreciate It. Runner up in last year’s festival bumper (22 ran), therefore proving he can act on the track, Appreciate It has won 3 from 3 hurdling this season, all in comfortable style, beating every other Irish contender for this race today (3 of them) in the process as well. Henry De Bromhead’s Ballyadam has been defeated twice by him, by 16 and 3 lengths respectively, Mullins other runner Blue Lord has 6 lengths to find, whilst the other De Bromhead runner Irascible, well he has to turn a couple of 9 length deficits himself. Basically, the form book tells you that Appreciate It holds all 3 on their Irish form this season and he would either have to under perform or one of those would need to improve significantly, if they are to turn things around. If they have a tough task, what chance do the 4 UK contenders have? The leading UK raider in this Metier, is unbeaten in 3 starts over hurdles himself. This ex f**t performer won those contests in taking style, the latest being in the grade 1 Tolworth hurdle in early January. For what it’s worth though, the bare bones of his form do leave him with a little to find on form with the Irish runners, but he can only beat those that take him on and in fairness, he’s won each race with the minimum of fuss. He looks to have the best chance of toppling the favourite, because we just don’t quite know how good he is or can be. Soaring Glory was a ready winner of the valuable 23 runner Betfair Hurdle at Newbury 23 days ago, on decent ground, but his chance may have been ruined by the recent rain. As a confirmed decent ground performer, it will be interesting to see how he handles the ground now it’s gone soft. The other duo face quite stiff tasks, but will not disgrace themselves, For Pleasure will guarantee a strong pace from the outset, whilst the other contender Grumpy Charley, he’s taking a big step up in class, but at least he is on the up.
Verdict – I can’t bet or oppose the jolly Appreciate It. No Bet
At 1:55, The Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy Novice Chase (2m) will take place. 5 runners!
I can’t believe how much this race has cut up, but saying that, there were only 5 runners in 2018, 6 runners in 2012 and 7 runners in both 2013 and 2016, so small fields are not a new thing in this race at least. The question this year is, with the Mullins runner Energumene out and on the sidelines, can any of the other 5 runners topple the Henderson hotpot Shishkin ? I very much doubt it, but Allmankind will certainly try from the front at least. It’s hard to look beyond Shiskin really, who is unbeaten over fences (3 starts) and unless he makes a serious error or two (yet to make 1 bad blunder), he can add to the tally of Nicky Henderson in this race. He has won it 6 times before, but Willie Mullins has the best recent record in this, with 4 victories in the last 6 years. With his first string Energumene out, he relies on Franco De Port now, but the fact he was 10 lengths behind his more fancied stablemate Energumeme at Leopardstown 38 days ago, tells you his much that horse will be missed. Franco De Port may have been the each way bet in here, as he is more or less guaranteed a decent pace to aim at with both Allmankind and Numitor (out now!) in the line up but with just 6 runners, I see no point in pursuing that betting angle now. Henry De Bromhead has won this race 2 times himself and if his Captain McGuiness can put a clean safe round of jumping together (fell 2 out when prominent last time out), he might well be fighting it out for the runners up spot with something else. Eldorado Allen is the other runner, but Shiskin easily brushed him aside, easing down and beating him by 9 lengths at Doncaster 45 days ago.
Verdict – Shiskin No Bet
Next up is the first Handicap of the meeting, which is The Ultima Chase (3m1f) at 2:30. 16 runners.
I have already dealt with this race in my Lucky 15 and pre Cheltenham investments email yesterday, but that was prior to all the rain falling up at Prestbury Park. My intention was to suggest something else, but that particular horse was not declared to run, so my 2nd choice ONE FOR THE TEAM was my substitute at the 11th hour. It was either him, or the second topweight Aye Right and on drying ground, I thought it best to give the Nick Willaims gelding another chance. I’m stuck with him now anyway, but looking through the list of runners, of which there are just 16, so numbers are down, I doubt I would have picked any other horse out anyway. If the ground isn’t too bad, which I hope it won’t be, One For The Team should run a sound race anyway. He does have form on soft ground anyway, its just that his best form has come on drier surfaces I feel. Aye Right will be considered for a win only only saver, but outside of him, the fav Happygolucky, last year’s Km Muir winner Milan Native and the improving youngster Alnadam (who is untried beyond 2m5f under rules, has won a 3m Ire point), I don’t think this race has as much depth to it, as it normally does, as so many others have a question or two to answer right now. If anything, for one of the season’s leading 3m handicap chases, the contest is arguably a little on the disappointing side. If there is a fly in here it’s Pym, who on his day is a very useful and capable handicapper, but when he wants to be, he can be a very quirky and unpredictable bugger as well.
Verdict and Selection – ONE FOR THE TEAM who is a bigger price now, but that’s not a surprise, given how short he was offered at first thing on Sunday.
Following next is the Champion Hurdle and after that, we have the Close Brothers Mares Hurdle (2m4f) at 3:40. 11 runners
All eyes will be on another Willie Mullins runner here, as Concertista bids to enhance her glowing reputation. She was an impressive winner of the mares novice (2m) at last year’s festival, which at the time, was her first win whilst in the care of Mullins (had won in France) and she’s not looked back since. She has stepped up in trip this campaign (2m4f) and won 2 races, beating 3 of today’s opponents in a really quite authoritative style. My Sister Sarah has little chance of turning a 24 length deficit around, Minella Melody has tasted defeat twice (beaten 2 lengths then 6), whilst the Denise Foster (G Elliott) runner BLACK TEARS has over 12 lengths to make up on here on their form at Leopardstown at the end of last year. On that form alone, she has no chance really, but there is hope I feel. Her record against Concertista does stand at 1-1. BLACK TEARS beat her by almost 5 lengths, when she won a valuable 27 runner mares handicap at Leopardstown in February 2020, when Concertista was conceding 2lb. Strictly on that form BLACK TEARS has to be considered. Admittedly the Mullins mare has improved, but I’m yet to be convinced that BLACK TEARS has gone backwards and may still have plenty of improvement in her yet. After winning that massive 27 runner contest last year, she then came to the festival and finished a 2 lengths 2nd to Dame De Compagnie (reopposes today) in the 25 runner Coral Cup, whilst trying to concede 4lb to her and possibly doing so on ground soft enough for her as well. Dame De Compagnie has only run twice since, she won a 2 horse novice chase at Ayr, then unseated in another novice chase at Sandown 38 days ago. I’m not sure that’s an ideal prep for this and reverting back to hurdles, but we will see this afternoon. I think BLACK TEARS will reverse that Coral Cup form (4lb better for 2 lengths, every chance), on this less testing ground (I hope it rides nearer to good to soft) she should be much more at home and her prep races have gone well too. She would have needed her debut run on heavy and she hated that ground anyway, she may have been beaten by Concertista next time, but she was not at her best then, the ground arguably too soft as well, but she still ran a lot better than the 12 length defeat will tell you, then she easily beat 4 inferior rivals in a conditions race at the start of this month. She is what I would call a typical spring horse. The longer the season goes on, the warmer and drier it gets, the better she seems to be. She has 2 solid runs at the festival already (2nd last year, 4th in mares novice 2019, beaten 4 lengths 4th of 22) so she clearly does like it here. If the ground isn’t too bad, I think she has a sound each way chance. Of course, there is Roksana, who I was expecting would go for the Stayers Hurdle, but no, here she is. She fortuitously won this in 2019 (Bennie Des Deux fell in lead at last) but was a well beaten 4th last year (staying on in a steadily run race) and I’m wondering whether she needs further these days.
Verdict and Selection – BLACK TEARS
We have a 4yo race up next at 4:15, named The Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (2m) 22 runners
I’m not big on 4yo contests, less so when they become handicaps as well, to be totally honest. There is a 50/50 split between the UK and Irish representation here (11 each of course) and working / evaluating the form of these youngsters and assessing the Irish form against the Brits, at this stage of their careers, is virtually impossible folks. To show you how hard this race usually is, let me run you through the last 10 winners of this race, their prices that is, 3 started at 33/1, 2 at 25/1, 1 was at 40/1, the others were 9/1, 15/2, 13/2 and 7/2 fav respectively and those winners were a 50/50 split as well, 5 Irish, 5 from the UK. I always find this contest a bit of a head scratcher, this year’s renewal is no different at all I’m sorry to say, but I will take a stab at it, it is a Handicap and it is the Cheltenham festival after all. I won’t go into too much detail here and I will not pick something out at a single figure price either. So that rules out Houx Gris, Saint Sam and the mare Riviere D’etel, who I will be honest, was at the forefront of my mind. She and those leading contenders, all appear to have very sound claims, but you could say that about a large number of others as well. I have considered Busselton strongly as well, he may be worth a saver, Zoffanien, Cabot Cliffs, even outsiders like Youmdor, Druid’s Affair and Balko Saint were in the back of my mind, the last pair trading at between 25-33/1, may be worth a pound or so each, just in case, but I have eventually nailed my colours to the Dermot Weld trained COLTOR. Dermot Weld knows how to train festival winners, but he rarely sends horses over these days, my view is, if he’s sending this lad over, then he thinks he could well be up to the task. For the record, he has only raced 6 times, which includes 3 times on the f**t. He won over 1m3f on the last of 3 outings at that discipline (with a first time visor) but he has not worn the visor in 3 starts over hurdles since. Not that he’s needed them, perhaps, for he has shaped very well on each occasion, 2nd of 22, followed by 4th of 20, before winning a 9 runner contest last time out, but, the visor is back on him this afternoon. He looks like a real stayer, so I’m expecting this stiff test to suit him really well and with his headgear back on to sharpen him up, we might even see the best of his ability coming up that hill. He has only raced on soft / heavy under rules, which he’s coped with very well, but he ran very well on a decent surface on the f**t once and if anything, drying ground might even bring out improvement in him, if it turns out to be just that.
Verdict and Selection – COLTOR
Finally, at 4:50, we have The Sam Vestey National Hunt Challenge Cup Novices Chase (3m6f) 12 runners
A race normally restricted to Amateur riders, this year none are allowed on the track, so the professionals have to take over, which for me, is a bit of a shame. Never mind. I always have a view in this contest anyway, but this year I’m finding it if anything, a better race this time, maybe because of the riding situation and as a consequence, I think it’s a very difficult race to solve this time. Paul Nicholls has thrown a spanner in the works by declaring Next Destination for this, rather than take on the hotpot Monkfish in the 3m novice race tomorrow. Next Destination has very strong claims and will be a very tough nut to crack, granted a clear round of course. 4th in the festival bumper in 2017, 3rd in the 2m5f Ballymore novice hurdle in 2018, when he was in the care of W P Mullins, he’s done nothing wrong over fences this season at 3m, but I see this lad as an out and out stayer, so this 3m6f race will be right up his street. He, Escaria Ten probably Remastered, definitely the mare Snow Leopardess, all look like the trip will really suit them. Snow Leopardess may be worth a small each way play at a decent enough price, but she might be a better proposition in a handicap, perhaps. Nevertheless, I’m expecting her to run a sound race today. Galvin is the enigma, will he stay? His dam (mother) won over 3m4f, so I guess he will, but it might depend on how much pace is in the race. If he switches off, jumps well and gets a very patient ride, his turn of foot may be the deciding factor here, but there is a nagging doubt about him over this trip, if they do not hang about. The other runner I can see playing a part is the Mullins runner Lord Royal who despite coming to grief over fences at the second last fence back in November (on his first run of the season and over fences), is actually one of the best jumpers in this race. He has a real leap in him this grey and I think he might well stay, but my worry is whether he is good enough to win a prize like this, on just just his 7th career start. Had he more experience and a little more depth to his form, he might well have made my selection list.
Verdict – I suspect one of the market principles, Next Destination, Galvin or Escaria Ten will win, but I couldn’t rule out at least 3 others to tell you the truth, so I have to say No Bets officially for this race.
3:05 – SHARJAH (4/10 E/W) 10/1+
My ratings are 1-10 so 4/10 is 2ptsEW
3:40 – BLACK TEARS (5/10 E/W) 11/1
My ratings are 1-10 so 5/10 is 2.5ptsEW
4:15 – COLTOR (4/10 E/W)14/1
My ratings are 1-10 so 4/10 is 2ptsEW
2:30 – ONE FOR THE TEAM (6/10 E/W) 6/1… can get 8-9/1now!
My ratings are 1-10 so 6/10 is 3ptsEW
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