Matt Tombs / Tuesday 26th February 2013 / 14:00
1pt Rival D'Estruval to win the National Hunt Chase @ 8/1 (NRNB)
The 4 miler used to be my lucky race of the Festival. Under the old conditions horses needed to be maidens over hurdles as well as fences at the start of the season. Opposing horses with the double penalty for 2 chase wins was a great strategy - only 1 of the last 10 winners carried it before it became a level weights race in 2010, but 6 favourites did (all were beaten). The halcyon days of victories for Christmas Gorse, Wandering Light, Loving Around and Another Rum feel a long time ago now.
The race has changed hugely and I haven’t found the key to it under the revised terms, so I’m starting from scratch this year. With the penalties gone and hurdle winners allowed, the race has become classier and more predictable. Under the current conditions 2 favourites have won in 3 runnings and the winning SPs have been 5/1, 5/1 & 14/1.
Looking afresh, there look to be 4 main criteria for the race. Firstly, and most obviously, 4m races are rare these days so evaluating a horse’s stamina (usually from runs over much shorter) remains key. That’s far from straightforward but watching how horses are finishing their races is a guide.
Secondly, jockey bookings are crucial. That’s always been the case as there is a huge disparity in terms of the ability on show. For example, Derek O’Connor would be judged a good jockey if he was a professional, and over 4m is probably worth 10-15lb compared to some of the genuine amateurs in this.
What’s changed is that the top amateurs get booked for the top horses now, whereas in the past a stable amateur or local point jockey known to the trainer often ended up on the best horses. The best 2 jockeys are probably O’Connor and JT McNamara – and they’ve won the last 2 renewals. The previous 3 winners were ridden by Katie Walsh, Sam Waley-Cohen and Charlie Huxley, all of who were one of the best half-dozen jockeys riding in the race.
The 3rd criteria is experience over fences. Whilst this isn’t usually run at the sort of strong gallop that makes the RSA such an attritional race, amateurs don’t hang around and with 25 fences to jump, plenty of experience over fences is crucial in the 4 miler too. The last 11 winners have had 5, 9, 11, 3, 3, 7, 4, 4, 4, 4 & 10 runs over fences coming into this – it’s worth being wary of horses that are inexperienced over fences, especially given they’re amateur ridden.
The 4th criteria is proven class. That usually wasn’t needed under the old conditions - in fact opposing those with classy form who tended to be at the front of the market was a great betting policy. However, the last 2 winners were rated in the 140s over hurdles and had run in Grade 1 novice chases.
I think plenty near the front of the market won’t run. Boston Bob (6/1) came with a strong late run to win the Grade 1 Moriarty (2m5f, soft to heavy) at Leopardstown and does look a real stayer. Willie Mullins seemed keen to run him in the Jewson, with the RSA also a possibility. He’s also short of experience after only 2 runs and so is easy to oppose. Kim Bailey has said for most of the season that Harry Topper (7/1) won’t go to Cheltenham this year as he’s still a big baby. He’d have a great chance on form but is unlikely to run.
Back In Focus (12/1) has looked a classy out and out stayer in rattling up a hat-trick on soft ground in Ireland, culminating in chinning Aupcharlie in the 3m Grade 1 at Leopardstown at Christmas. He looks to need a real cut in the ground and if he runs at Cheltenham its more likely to be in the RSA.
Given the need for plenty of experience over fences Goulanes (12/1) is easy to oppose after only 1 chase and only 3 runs under rules. Similarly, Buddy Bolero (12/1) has had only 2 runs over fences and 5 under rules. Both are promising types who look like they’d get the trip but they’d need to look exceptional to make me want to back them for this when so inexperienced.
That leaves 6 at shorter than 20/1, 2 of which I don’t fancy. Vesper Bell (14/1) has run in 3 chases on heavy ground this season, winning once and finishing 23l 3rd to Spot The Boss (who received 28lb) off 138 at Punchestown (3m4f, heavy) last time. He is particularly well suited by heavy ground and he’d be one I’d only consider nearer the time - if the heavens open. Terminal (16/1) is another Willie Mullins runner and had been running over much shorter before staying on well on atrocious ground at Navan to beat classy staying novice chaser Tofino Bay (who gave 5lb) 5½l over 3m. The vibes are he won’t run.
If the ground came up quick due to a drying crust on top of a high water table I’d fancy Sea Of Thunder (25/1) who stays and loves fast ground, but you couldn’t back him until you’d seen Tuesday’s racing. None of the other outsiders catch my eye, which leaves 4 to focus on.
Lyreen Legend (16/1) was a good and tough novice hurdler on all sorts of ground last season (rated 142, won a Grade 2, placed in two others and a Grade 1 at around 2½m). After winning a beginners chase he was narrowly beaten by Back In Focus in a Grade 2 (2m6f, heavy) at Punchestown and Boston Bob in a Grade 1 (2m5f, soft to heavy) at Leopardstown. Although he fell in between he’s generally jumped soundly. I’ve tried to persuade myself to back him as he’s 14/1 non runner, no bet and is the class horse in the race but I just can’t see him getting home.
Merry King (14/1) was the sort of more modest hurdler (rated 120) that used to do well in this. He’s run well in each of his 4 chases this season, especially when narrowly defeated off 128 by Rolling Aces (who’s now 19lb higher) at Newbury (extended 2m6f, good to soft) and course specialist Cannington Brook at Haydock off 134, (3m heavy). Jonjo O’Neill has won this race 5 times and Merry King looks his only realistic contender this time. He’s just the sort I’d have backed in the past but he may run in a handicap instead and is only 10/1 non runner, no bet, so I’m holding fire.
Godsmejudge (12/1) is a realistic contender for this as he looks one of the more likely to stay the 4m. He’d done almost all of his racing over hurdles on a sound surface but coped with the mud when stepped up in trip on his last 2 starts. He was edged out off 128 in the valuable open Classic Chase at Warwick, (3m5f, soft) before beating Keppols Hill by 2¾l in a novice chase at the same track (3m2f, heavy). He’s sound each way claims but I wonder if he’s as classy a type as is now needed.
The one to back is Rival D’Estruval (8/1) who ran in 4 chases last year. After a good 2nd in April to the then promising Pacha Du Polder in a Grade 2 at Ayr, he returned in the autumn to thrash the now 140 rated Changing Times over 2m4f at Carlisle. He ran a fair 2nd over the same course and distance behind Bold Sir Brian (now rated 155) before hacking up over 3m at Kelso. He looked a real stayer over hurdles (beating Across The Bay (now 15lb higher) at Aintree over an extended 3m off 124 at the start of last season.) He’s not raced over further as yet, but looks a stayer and should improve again for better ground.
The huge bonus is that Derek O’Connor has been booked to ride him and unless one of the doubtful runners turns up my guess is he’ll go off favourite. He’s 8/1 and I can see him being around half that price on the day so with non runner, no bet protection he should be backed now.