Taxi for Vana

Taxi for Vana

Earlier in the month, I went to the Czech Republic to see the Velka Pardubicka for the first time. I’m really glad I went this year as the race marked the last ride of legendary jockey and 8 time winner of the race, Josef Vana, a few days before his 61st birthday. For real jumps fans its definitely one of those things to do before you die – which is appropriate given Vana was once pronounced clinically dead after a fall but was resurrected to win another 4 renewals of this race.

I honestly never cease to marvel at the bravery of jump jockeys in general, but if ever you’d be convinced it was a young man’s game, rather than one for 60 year olds - it would be standing by the famous Taxis fence. When you see it from the take off side it looks nothing at all – just a typical hedge in a cross-country race. All the problems are out of view on the landing side. The ditch is 10 foot below the top of the fence and the landing area, (which is 6 foot below the top of the fence,) is a massive 10 feet away. As one local put it to me – “this is real men’s racing, like you used to have in your country”.

It is an amazing sight and very intimidating to look at. I went with a friend who is a promising point-to-point jockey, who’d said he was going to go into the weighing room to say he was keen if a spare ride became available. After seeing the Taxis he made a beeline for the bar.

In the end all those who jumped the Taxis did so safely. With 12 falling or unseating elsewhere it was another demonstration that when courses are set up well and jockeys respect a fence, very big obstacles may be safer than smaller ones where that respect isn’t there.

Orphee Des Blins followed up his runaway 2012 victory (at huge odds) with a similarly emphatic victory from the front this year. He never looked in any trouble and had his rivals burnt off a long way from home. Jan Faltejsek has taken a lot of stick when riding the likes of Knockara Beau over here, but he got his mount into a great rhythm and judged the pace perfectly. Unlike the mad dash up the straight that often occurs in cross-country races at Cheltenham, Orphee Des Blins has had the race won before the straight for the last 2 years.

I rarely bet on the cross-country race at the Festival as it’s not really my cup of tea. Having seen the great Czech race I was struck by how different it is from ours, which set me thinking about how form would read across to our cross-country races.

Looking at Cheltenham results, form from the Pardubicka doesn't seem to translate to Cheltenham with no Pardubicka winner ever winning at Cheltenham – triple Pardubicka hero Peruan has done best, being a neck 2nd to Fiftysevenchannels on his only run at Cheltenham. That might be why so few Czech runners try nowadays – Orphee Des Blins was pulled up in the November race last year won by one of his Pardubicka victims Uncle Junior, (who was 45l behind him at Pardubice on 3lb better terms). He was the first Czech runner at Cheltenham since 2009.

Having been to the Pardubicka now it's easier to understand why. It's half way between our cross-country courses and the National. Whilst coping with the ploughed fields over which a fair chunk of the Pardubicka is run is obviously important, the crucial difference is that it is a big test of jumping. It’s not just the Taxis, there are a number of other sizeable obstacles.

Looking at the Cheltenham course, there isn't a big fence on it. In 4 of the 9 runnings of the Festival cross-country not a single horse fell or was unseated. In total there have been 9 unseats and 2 falls in its history, (Guns N Roses and Commanche War Paint in the inaugural running are the only fallers for those who enjoy obscure Festival trivia.)

The Punchestown and especially Cheltenham courses are more tests of nimbleness than jumping. Whilst there are clear differences between the Cheltenham and Punchestown courses - the latter is actually called a “banks” course and coping with that sort of obstacle is more important there - they are relatively similar. Both Native Jack and Big Shu have won the Festival cross-country on their course debuts, having run over the banks at Punchestown previously.

The main difference between Cheltenham & Punchestown is that the Cheltenham course looks to my naked eye as being much tighter. When you consider the history that’s not surprising. At Pardubice the course is set up as a cross-country course, with the odd race over conventional fences and hurdles thrown in. Punchestown’s banks races are ancient (conventional chases and hurdles only began in 1960) and so form an integral part of the course design.

By contrast, at Cheltenham, the cross-country course was introduced in the 1990s in the confines of the space allowed in the middle of the existing conventional tracks. The tightness of the track should very much favour nimble types – it also means they go slower because they are on the turn all the time. That probably accentuates the ease of the jumping test.

Given the relative similarities of the Cheltenham & Punchestown courses it’s no surprise that some of the leading cross-country specialists have excelled at both. The 2 most successful Cheltenham horses are Spot Thedifference (7/10 at Cheltenham and 2/5 at Punchestown) and Garde Champetre (6/13 at Cheltenham and 4/5 at Punchestown.) The legendary Risk Of Thunder who won the La Touche Cup 7 times in a row at Punchestown never ran at Cheltenham, though he did finish 2nd in the Pardubicka. Of course some horses excel at both cross country and conventional chases - such as Silver Birch who was 2nd in the cross-country at the Festival and then won the National.

When looking at ante-post bets for the Festival cross-country, ground is a key factor. For the last decade or so, Cheltenham’s management has tried to produce “championship ground” at the Festival for the conventional chases and hurdles. This means watering as needed to try and ensure the meeting starts on good to soft and doesn’t get any quicker than good. Inevitably it doesn’t always work, but that basically limits the spectrum of ground conditions. By contrast, they don’t water the cross-country course given its size and the fact it’s only used for one race. The range of possible ground conditions is therefore much wider and how a horse will react to genuinely fast ground is an important consideration if betting ante-post.

The other important factor in these races is that weight doesn’t seem to matter much. Garde Champetre won off 129 in 2008 and the following year as a 10 year old off a 21lb higher mark. Such an improvement in a conventional handicap chase at the Festival at that age would be very unusual. They go so slowly that additional weight isn't much of a burden compared to running over a similar trip over conventional fences.

I can't see myself raising the enthusiasm to bet on the Festival cross-country when there are so many other better races to look at during the manic week of the Festival. But if you are going to bet in it, my advice would be to focus on form over the Cheltenham and Punchestown cross-country courses, not others like at Pardubice. Don’t worry too much about weight but more about ground conditions. Most of all, if a horse has been beating other horses round the Cheltenham track and is encountering similar underfoot conditions - he'll very likely beat them again.

From my point of view, having seen the Pardubice course, I’d urge trainers of decent staying chasers to consider the Pardubicka. At £62,000 to the winner its one of the biggest pots of the year and the quality of the horses is more akin to those running for £6,200 over here. Of course they need to be able to cope with banks, ploughed fields and a wider variety of obstacles – but the race would be at the mercy of any smart or even useful staying chaser if they could. I can understand why trainers are put off running good horses in cross-country chases at Cheltenham as that’s a completely different test – but many more conventional steeplechasers could adapt to Pardubice. Lets hope a few good horses give it a try.

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Cheltenham Countdown

Welcome to our exclusive betting blog focusing on the 2014 Cheltenham Festival.

For the third year running, we welcomed National Hunt expert Matt Tombs to blog all things Cheltenham through the winter. The highlight was Jezki's Champion Hurdle win, which was a vindication of a long-term plot and went some way to ensuring another Festival in profit. Click through to view the archive of 2012 and 2013.


2014 Results:


Western Boy - Supreme Novices - 1pt 20/1 - U/P

Zamdy Man - Supreme Novices - 1pt 33/1 - N/R

Ted Veale - Arkle - 1pt e/w 25/1 NRNB - U/P

Felix Yonger - Arkle - 1pt 16/1 - N/R

Jezki - Champion Hurdle - 1pt 12/1 - WON

Cockney Sparrow - Mares Hurdle - 1pt 10/1 - U/P

Foxrock - National Hunt Chase - 1pt 9/2 - U/P

Gullinbursti - National Hunt Chase - 1pt 33/1 NRNB - N/R


Rathvinden - Neptune Novices - 1pt e/w 16/1 - 3rd

Corrin Wood - RSA Chase - 1pt 14/1 - U/P

Ifandbutwhynot - Coral Cup - 1pt 28/1 - U/P

Arvika Ligeonniere - Champion Chase - 1pt 16/1 - U/P

Balthazar King - Cross Country - 1pt 33/1 - WON

Modus - Champion Bumper - 1pt 10/1 - U/P


Mozoltov - JLT Novices Chase - 1pt 25/1 - U/P

Champagne Fever - JLT Novices Chase - 1pt 7/1 - N/R

Benefficient - Ryanair Chase - 1pt 9/2 - U/P

Baily Green - Ryanair Chase - 1pt e/w 20/1 NRNB - N/R

Salubrious - World Hurdle - 1pt e/w 25/1 - U/P


Captain Cutter - Albert Bartlett - 1pt 10/1 - U/P

Arctic Fire - County Hurdle - 1pt 16/1 - 2nd

The Giant Bolster - Gold Cup - 1pt 16/1 - 3rd

Dynaste - Gold Cup - 1pt 25/1 NRNB - N/R

Certain Flight - Foxhunter Chase - 1pt 20/1 NRNB - U/P


Gigginstown - Top Owner - 1pt 7/1 - WON

Good Ground - Official Going - 1pt 10/1 - LOST


Advised Bets:

Sizing Gold - Aon Novice Handicap Chase - 1pt 7/1 - U/P

On The Fringe - Champion Hunters Chase - 1pt 7/4 - WON

At Fishers Cross - World Series Hurdle - 1pt 5/1 - 3rd

Balder Succes - Ryanair Novice Chase - 1pt 11/4 - 3rd

Art Of Logistics - Handicap Chase - 1pt 12/1 - 2nd

Lyreen Legend - Punchestown Gold Cup - 1pt 6/1 - U/P

Shanahan's Turn - Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle - 1pt e/w 33/1 - U/P

Mozoltov - Champion Chase - 1pt 9/1 - U/P

Western Boy - Champion Novice Hurdle - 1pt e/w 10/1 - U/P

Mullaghanoe River - Irish National - 1pt 18/1 - U/P

Mozoltov - Powers Gold Cup - 1pt 11/2 - U/P

Quito De La Roque - Grand National - 1pt 40/1 - U/P

Salubrious - Liverpool Hurdle - 1pt 16/1 - U/P

Ted Veale - Maghull Chase - 1pt 16/1 - U/P

Saint Are - Aintree Handicap Chase - 1pt 10/1 - U/P

Ballynagour - Melling Chase - 1pt 7/1 - 3rd

King Of The Picts - Top Novices Hurdle - 1pt 33/1 - 3rd

Themanfrom Minella - Sefton Novices Hurdle - 1pt 50/1 - U/P

Giorgio Quercus - Topham Chase - 1pt 25/1 - U/P

Dynaste - Betfred Bowl - 1pt 15/8 - 2nd

Turn Over Sivola - Red Rum Chase - 1pt 8/1 - 2nd

Uxizandre - Manifesto Novices Chase - 1pt 9/2 - WON

Mossey Joe - Aintree Fox Hunters - 1pt 13/8 - 3rd

Baby Shine - Reynoldstown Chase - 1pt 7/1 - U/P

Grumeti - Kingwell Hurdle - 1pt 5/1 - U/P

Bog Warrior - Red Mills Chase - 1pt 9/4 - U/P

Lord Windermere - Irish Hennessy - 1pt 12/1 - U/P

Vautour - Deloitte Novice - 1pt 2/1 - WON

Tammys Hill - Hunters Chase - 1pt e/w 5/1 - WON

Vendor - Betfair Hurdle - 1pt 12/1 - U/P

Boston Bob - Cleeve Hurdle - 1pt 5/1 - U/P

The Giant Bolster - Argento Chase - 1pt 7/1 - WON

Unioniste - Sky Bet Chase - 1pt 9/2 - 3rd

Hidden Cyclone - Clarence House Chase - 1pt 7/2 - 2nd

Captain Chris - WH Chase - 1pt 2/1 - WON

The Liquidator - Tolworth Hurdle - 1pt 5/2 - U/P

Lord Windermere - Lexus Chase - 1pt 12/1 - U/P

Hey Big Spender - Welsh National - 1pt 25/1 - U/P

Shantou Magic - Challow Hurdle - 1pt 6/1 - U/P

Morning Assembly - Topaz Novice Chase - 1pt 9/4 - 2nd

Cue Card - King George - 1pt 7/2 - 2nd

My Tent Or Yours - Christmas Hurdle - 1pt 5/4 - WON

Defy Logic - Racing Post Novice Chase - 1pt 6/1 - WON

Salubrious - Long Walk Hurdle - 1pt 9/1 - 2nd

Totalize - The Ladbroke - 1pt 9/1 - U/P

Ma Filleule - December Gold Cup - 1pt 20/1 - U/P

Prince De Beauchene - Hennessy Gold Cup - 1pt 16/1 - U/P

Grumeti - Fighting Fifth - 1pt e/w 10/1 - 3rd @ 9/1

Sizing Rio - Drinmore - 1pt 5/2 - U/P @ 3/1

Jezki - Hatton's Grace - 1pt Evens - WON

Roi Du Mee - Betfair Chase - 1pt e/w 20/1 - U/P

Ballynagour - Paddy Power Gold Cup - 1pt 8/1 - U/P

Gift Of Dgab - Paddy Power Gold Cup - 1pt 25/1 - U/P

Cash And Go - Greatwood Hurdle - 1pt 13/2 - U/P

Cotton Mill - Elite Hurdle - 1pt 6/1 - U/P

Cue Card - Haldon Gold Cup - 2pts 11/8 - U/P

Benefficient - Charlie Hall Chase - 1pt 9/1 - U/P

Sizing Europe - JNwine Champion Chase - 1pt 3/1 - 2nd