Matt Tombs / Monday 2nd March 2015 / 16:49
1. The Ground Will Start Slower and Finish Quicker Than Last Year
Where else to start than the omnipresent question of the ground? One key mistake to avoid making when analysing previous Festival form, is to take the official going as an accurate description of the ground. Last year the ground was officially good to soft on the Tuesday, only for course records to be broken. All 3 Grade 1s were run at least 4 seconds quicker than standard.
The ground was amended to good for the Wednesday when all the Grade 1s over obstacles were run at least 2 seconds quicker than standard. The New Course was heavily watered, and although officially good, all 6 Grade 1s were run in times at least 2 seconds slower than standard.
The perceived wisdom that the ground starts good to soft and quickens up through the week, was turned on its head. Timeform had the ground good to firm on the Old Course and good on the New Course.
It may well be that the very high water-table, but dry run-up to the Festival, caused the so called ‘trampoline effect’ to come into play on the Old Course. That’s where there isn’t the moisture in the top to slow horses down, but there is enough give underneath to allow horses to let themselves down on it. That’s what leads to fast times – you could describe it as good, quick ground. I’d have described the watered ground on the New Course as close to good to soft.
That good, quick ground played hugely into Jezki’s hands in the Champion Hurdle. Arctic Fire also loves fast ground, but the watering on the New Course really counted against him when touched off in the County. If the ground is similar again for the Champion Hurdle, it wouldn’t surprise me if Jezki and Arctic Fire fought out the finish.
However, the Festival is at its earliest point in the cycle, starting on the 10th and, with a wet end to February and start to March, it’s looking like it’ll be naturally good to soft ground to start with. If there’s then no material rain during the week, it’d be good ground come the Gold Cup.
When looking at the form from last year’s Festival, its crucial to factor in how the ground actually rode on different days last year – which is likely to be quite different to how it’ll ride this year.
2. How Last Year’s Winners Will Get On
The incredible profits from backing winners from the previous year’s Festival shows that, whilst we all know Festival form is important, it still gets under-bet. It’s therefore worth looking at all the winners from last year that look like lining up and assessing their chances.
Faugheen obviously has a great chance in the Champion Hurdle, and if he doesn’t win Jezki may well do. Sire De Grugy bounced back at Chepstow last time and, if 18 days is enough time for him to recover, he must have a good chance of retaining his Champion Chase crown.
Less obviously, I think Very Wood has a decent chance whether he lines up in the RSA or the 4 miler. He obviously wasn’t right during the winter but came back to form last time, and he jumps, stays and goes on decent ground. I also like Ballynagour at a big price in the Ryanair. He hosed up in a handicap here last year. He goes well fresh and, whilst proven stayers have tended to win this, it’s been hard to work out his trip – this might suit him ideally.
A few I’m less keen on include Don Poli who probably goes for the RSA rather than the 4 miler. He’s inexperienced for such a tough race after just 2 runs and he’s been off since Christmas. He looks one to take on at a short price. Vautour could bolt up in the JLT but it’s looking a strong renewal and whilst the vibes are improving, he hasn’t had a clear run. I’d liked Whisper in the World Hurdle, but he’s apparently a couple of weeks behind and is more likely to shine at Aintree. The Gold Cup is wide open but I doubt Holywell is good enough and, whilst Lord Windermere is a fair price, I’m expecting one of the 2nd season chasers to improve past him.
3. Trainer To Watch
Spotting trainers coming into or going out of form approaching the Festival is great, but personally I find it really difficult. For most top trainers the sort of horses they’ve been running in the previous fortnight or so are the lesser lights and often not a great indication of the health of their string.
Sometimes there’s value in taking a contrarian view – horses from stables that haven’t been firing inevitably go off bigger prices. Last year the Gold Cup was won by Jim Culloty, who came into Festival week not having had a winner since the previous summer. Jessica Harrington, who’d been out of form for much of the winter, won the Champion Hurdle.
Many punters focus on promising young trainers who might make their Festival breakthrough. There are some really promising young trainers like Harry Fry and Dan Skelton, whose horses are in danger of being over-bet.
A darker horse amongst the new guard to make the breakthrough this year is Warren Greatrex. He’s already recorded a personal best tally of 44 winners this season, despite going through a quiet spell after the turn of the year. He’s back firing in the winners now and he has some genuine chances in the level weights races.
Seedling looks good each-way value in the Supreme, Cole Harden could easily bounce back on good ground in an open looking World Hurdle and Shantou Bob could go well at a big price in the Albert Bartlett. His best chance though is Paint The Clouds who looks a good favourite for the Foxhunter.
4. The Irish Will Be Underestimated
I think many punters don’t realise just how much of a power shift there’s been across the Irish Sea over the last couple of seasons. Willie Mullins obviously has led that, but Noel Meade is resurgent and Gordon Elliott and Tony Martin have stepped up to the next level.
By contrast in Britain, whilst Paul Nicholls has had a great season, Nicky Henderson has been blighted by injuries to his top horses. Many of the other top yards like Alan King and David Pipe are broadly where they were 2 or 3 years ago and Donald McCain is at a lower ebb. Jonjo O’Neill is definitely on the up, and Philip Hobbs is to a lesser extent – but there isn’t the same momentum.
Despite winning 14 of the 27 races in 2013 and 12 last year, the overall Irish challenge still seems to be underestimated. Ladbrokes offer 5/6 that there’ll be 11 or less Irish trained winners, and 5/6 there will be 12 or more – which massively looks to underestimate their chances. I did a very rough calculation using the market leaders in each race and it came out about 14.5 v 12.5 in Britain’s favour – even before I factor in that the market is underestimating the Irish horses.
The Irish are usually strong in the novice races, especially the novice hurdles, but they are really strong in the novice chases this year, (the British won all 4 level weights novice chases last year). That strength in depth should give them some well handicapped chasers, an area where Britain usually dominates.
I’ve tipped Ireland to have 15 or more winners at 9/1 and the 13/2 still available is good value for anyone not yet on. It’s 3/1 the Irish have 14 or more winners which is great value – I’ve got it about 6/4.
5. Watch Out For Horses With Penalties In Handicaps
The shape of the handicaps has changed hugely. A few years ago, horses could be plotted up - all the established handicaps having been won off marks in the 120s this century. For most of the handicaps this year you’ll need a mark in the mid-130s to get a run. Last year the lowest mark an open handicap was won off was 139.
This new world of ever more limited handicaps creates a completely different puzzle and there are plenty of angles to consider. One is horses with penalties. Only a handful competed under penalties last year but there are races like the Coral Cup and Martin Pipe with much higher entries this year.
As the handicaps have got harder to get into, trainers have shown their hands more during the season to get a run. I think there will be a few who’ve looked at the entries, and subsequently the weights, and think they need to be a couple of pounds higher in the handicap to get a run than they originally thought.
Entries that have picked up penalties include Crookstown in the novices handicap chase, (now runs off 135), Bishop Wulstan in the Fred Winter (129), Call The Cops in the Coral Cup or Pertemps (138), Bobcatbilly in the Plate (139), No Secrets in the Kim Muir (137) and Dresden in the Grand Annual (135). Ballyboley (134) has a choice of handicap hurdle options and may squeak into a race somewhere.
There’ll be a few more over the next few days and the bonus offered for an Imperial Cup winner following up at the Festival, (as Gaspara, Blowing Wind & Olympian have done,) makes the Imperial Cup an even more attractive target for hurdlers that need a penalty to get a run at Cheltenham.