Matt Tombs / Monday 11th March 2013 / 11:00
2pts – Less than 10 winning favourites at the Festival – Evens with Betfred/Tote
With nearly half an inch of rain falling since Thursday and, crucially, covers on the entire course because of the threat of frost, genuinely soft ground is a real possibility. The official going will almost certainly be ‘soft’ as the Festival kicks off, (1/5 on the exchanges.) There’s no more rain of any consequence predicted before Friday and forecasts that far out aren’t worth paying too much attention to. It’s due to be cold over the next couple of days so, whilst it’ll dry out during the week once the covers are off, it won’t do so quickly - although the likely strong winds will help.
A rough guide is that a winning time in the Supreme of 3m52s – 3m56s indicates good ground, 3m56s – 4m good to soft and over 4m soft ground. It’s usually a truly run affair and with Champagne Fever running it should be again, so the time ought to give an accurate indication of conditions. Based on Simon Claisse’s prediction of soft ground all week, you’d expect a time no quicker than 4m5s. It’s common for the official going to be changed during the Tuesday’s racing and I can see it riding anything from ‘decent good to soft’ to genuinely testing in the Supreme – ie much more uncertainty than usual.
From the Portfolio’s point of view, it’s not good news. After nearly two decades of Festival races being run virtually exclusively on decent ground, a key factor in my ante-post betting is finding horses that’ll improve for better ground. My two main hopes of the week, Jezki and Salsify, both want good ground and having strongly fancied both a few days ago, my confidence is ebbing away, particularly for Jezki who’ll have to cope with the worst of the ground on Tuesday.
Every cloud has a silver lining though and the layers are just as used to the Festival being run on a sound surface, so there should be some value as they take time to adapt. The most common thing I hear punters say is that there’ll be huge winning distances but that’s one type of market that tends to be overbet and I can’t see any value in it at the moment.
The market that does look wrong with the possibility of soft ground in mind is the number of winning favourites market. There were 9 last year, 8 in 2011, 4 in 2010 and 6 in 2009. If everything else was equal you’d probably therefore guess at about 7 this year – ie just over a quarter of the races. When you express it as a fraction, a quarter sounds quite a lot for what’s supposed to be an ultra competitive meeting. So Tote/Betfred’s Evens there to be less than 10 winners sounds like great value.
Presumably the logic when pricing this up is that so many of the conditions races are cutting up so badly, that they’ll be less competitive and so more favourites should win. The 11 Grade 1s over obstacles in 2008 had an average field size of 14. Just looking through the lists I think the average field size for those races will be no more than 10 this year and that’s obviously a big difference in the races where most of the winning favourites tend to occur. However, I’m not sure it makes it a 50% chance there’ll be 10 or more, even if you don’t factor in a soft ground Festival throwing up lots of surprises.
Bad ground generally makes good races less predictable and the fact that most of the form this season is on testing ground won’t stop that – all the pre-Festival analysis is based on what we’re used to at Cheltenham in March. Much faster run races on soft ground is a virtual unknown and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a string of unpredictable results if the ground is genuinely soft.
The best comparison is probably with 2008, (based on race times, the softest ground we’ve had in modern times – 1995 is too long ago to compare what’s likely to happen now, but for completeness 5 out of the 20 races were won by the favourites then). There were only 2 winning favourites in 2008. My initial reaction was that were probably few short priced bankers – but 6 went off 2/1 or shorter. Inglis Drever won the World Hurdle at 11/8 but 5 lost - Kauto Star (Gold Cup, 10/11), Franchoek (Triumph, Evens), Noland (Arkle, 7/4), Ashkazar (Fred Winter, 15/8) and Sizing Europe, (Champion Hurdle, 2/1).
If you take the single day with the worst ground I can remember this century (Champion Chase day in 2002), Flagship Uberalles won the big race at 7/4, but the other winners were returned at 10/1, 12/1, 14/1, 25/1, 25/1 & 33/1.
At the moment there look to be 7 horses likely to go off 2/1 or shorter – Sprinter Sacre (currently 2/7), Quevega (4/7), Simonsig (4/6), Dynaste (7/4), Pont Alexandre (7/4), My Tent Or Yours (15/8) and Hurricane Fly (2/1). There are 3 odds on shots but that doesn’t feel like a 10 favourites winning week, even on good ground.
Taking all that into consideration, my guess is that there will be about 6-7 winning favourites. It should be 1/3 that there will be less than 10 so it’s definitely worth a maximum bet.
Often the biggest Cheltenham clue of this week comes in Sandown’s Imperial Cup, (extended 2m, heavy,) given the £75,000 bonus if the winner wins at the Festival, and First Avenue gave Laura Mongan her biggest win yet. She didn’t think First Avenue would get in the conditional jockey’s race, but given that the bottom weight has been on a mark between 128-132 so far, getting a run off 135 (with a 5lb penalty) looks feasible. Having been ridden by a 10lb claimer here, he’d look the right type for that, especially if it’s soft ground on Friday. This was a boost for Cause of Causes' Ladbroke form and whilst the Supreme looks the novice race of the week, 33/1 is a bit of an insult against a 152 rated novice who won the Ladbroke off 142.
The EBF Final (novice’s handicap hurdle – 2m4f, heavy) is usually a really good guide to future chasing prospects. This renewal looked well up to scratch with plenty appealing for next season, but more immediately Close Touch’s facile win was a boost for African Gold’s (9/1) Albert Bartlett form. With the Twiston-Davies yard under a cloud you couldn’t back him yet, but if the stable’s horses perform well earlier in the week, he’s got every chance.
One potentially interesting outsider in the Albert Bartlett, Lienosus, may have booked his ticket by comfortably taking an ordinary maiden hurdle at Fontwell on Wednesday, (extended 2m2f, good). He’d chased home Wonderful Charm and Ballybough Pat in a Grade 2 at Chepstow in October and Clondaw Kaempfer at Haydock the following month, (2m, soft). He was reportedly not right over the winter but has come to himself now and this dual winning pointer may improve substantially for the step up to 3m. There’ll be much worse 50/1 shots during the week.
The Naas card on the Sunday of Festival week is usually a good card and it kicked off with a strong looking listed novice hurdle over 2m, (soft). The money came for Champion Bumper 4th Moscow Mannon who was expected to strip fitter for a fair run behind Annie Power a fortnight ago, but he faded and it was the progressive Mallowney who beat Shrapnel by 1¼l. This was a boost for the form of the big Leopardstown handicap won by Abbey Lane (14/1 for the Coral Cup) in which Ted Veale (16/1 for the County) was 3rd - as Mallowney was 7th off 119 there.
The Grade 3 2m4f novice chase was a shoot out between Flemenstar and Bog Warrior last year. There was nothing of that quality in the field this time around but it was still a good race and the well backed Dedigout finally started to deliver on his big reputation, with a clear cut victory. Boston Bob already looked a shaky favourite in the RSA (3/1) and his form took a knock as there seemed no excuses this time for You Must Know Me who finished a well held 7½l 2nd.
Finally, it’s shaping up as the sort of Festival week where the form book could go out of the window and days go past without any of your horses even being in contention at the business end. It’s therefore worth going into the week with it at the front of your mind that it’s the best week of the year because the best horses and jockeys are doing battle in a sport that epitomises bravery and athleticism. Even if you do your money.