Matt Tombs / Monday 10th February 2014 / 14:10
Two years ago I was hugely taken with Last Instalment’s win in the Moriarty and, after all his injury problems, it was heartwarming to see him demolish the Irish Hennessy field, (3m, soft to heavy.) Remarkably after serious injuries to two legs, he retains his ability and if he gets to the Gold Cup on ground with cut, he’ll be a major player. I’m not sure why his stamina is being doubted, I’d expect him to improve for the extra 2½f. Fingers crossed this quality performer stays sound.
In theory 10/1 NRNB is generous as it takes the risk of such a fragile type not lining up out of the equation, although as a 9 year old there will be a big temptation to run him if the ground quicker than ideal. It’s worth remembering that whilst the ground is watered, (as needed,) to be no faster than the dead side of good on Tuesday - good, quick ground is by no means out of the question come Friday. 2 of the last 3 Gold Cups have been won in times under standard, with Long Run’s 2011 win coming on what the times that day suggested was good to firm ground.
The other Gold Cup trial was the Denman at Newbury, (3m, heavy) which unsurprisingly turned into a slog. This favoured Harry Topper who demolished his field, coasting home by 25l. He jumped better on this flatter track but even if it came up really testing in the Gold Cup (25/1) I’d be skeptical about whether he’d jump well enough round the undulating track. Al Ferof got very tired and given he acts well on ground with plenty of cut, this looked to point to the Ryanair (8/1) not the Gold Cup (25/1). As Paul Nicholls said, if it were very soft at the Festival then the Champion Chase (20/1) would be an option.
The plethora of conditions hurdles around 2m inevitably mean that the big handicaps rarely attract top horses these days. The biggest handicap, (in terms of prize money at least,) is the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury, where the top weight ran off 150, (heavy). It produced an upset as novice Splash Of Ginge made most for a cosy 1¾l success off 134. This paid a compliment to both Irving, who gave him 3lb and beat him 6l in the Kennel Gate and Deputy Dan who beat him 16l at Warwick over 2m5f. He’ll get a hike for this, probably into the low 140s, so might be better off in one of the Grade 1s. Assuming the ground dries out the Neptune is apparently his most likely race – 66/1 is an insult.
Fingal Bay was a much vaunted novice hurdler 2 seasons ago after beating Simonsig. He picked up a tendon injury in an abortive novice chase campaign and had been off for 15 months before winning a Pertemps qualifier at Exeter off 142. He’s in the World Hurdle and 40/1 is generous as, if he retains all his ability, he’s in the mix. It’ll be interesting to see what mark he gets now – to put it in context, no horse has won the Pertemps Final off a mark of more than 142 since 2000.
Not many novice chasers win even weak renewals of the leading open conditions events, so those holding Arkle vouchers about Dodging Bullets shouldn’t be too downhearted after his neck defeat to Module (who received 3lb) in the Game Spirit, (2m1f, heavy). Dodging Bullets is a sound jumper who ought to appreciate better ground and is a player in an open looking Arkle, (7/1). I’ve got more impressed with him as the season has progressed, though I’m still open-minded about his appetite for a battle. Module really ought to have won this more convincingly if he was going to have a chance in the Champion Chase (33/1) or Ryanair (16/1).
Rock On Ruby made it 2/2 over fences when beating sole rival Mr Mole 10l at Doncaster, (extended 2m, good to soft.) He heads to the Arkle having beaten 3 rivals at 1/10 and 1/3. He jumped adequately but connections have opted to give him just a couple of schools round over fences. Whilst he’s mentally battle hardened from running in top class hurdles, his lack of experience of jumping fences at speed is a concern. He has a significant advantage on hurdles form, and horses that had recorded an RPR of over 160 over hurdles the previous season have a great record in the Arkle, (8/1). However, the last 9 year old to win was in 1988. Not many have tried but Overturn, Captain Cee Bee & Barton have all bombed at short prices in recent years. The reality is that a younger, progressive type almost always improves past them.
The Grade 2 Kingmaker at Warwick, (2m heavy,) has been won by some top horses in recent years, including Champion Chasers Voy Por Ustedes & Finians Rainbow and Gold Cup winner Long Run. Voy Por Ustedes followed up in the Arkle and Balder Succes (25/1) shouldn’t be underestimated. His yard was badly out of form when he bombed in the Henry VIII behind Hinterland. The rest of his form reads well and, whilst he isn’t the most straightforward type, he has enough ability to be a factor.
The 3m novice chase at Newbury, (heavy) was a graded contest in all but name and high class hurdler Smad Place made it 3/3 when completing over fences by beating Sam Winner (who gave 3lb) by 2l. Given he’s miles better on a sound surface, this was impressive. He’s 8/1 for the RSA and goes there with sound claims. Sam Winner hadn’t run on really bad ground since coming over from France and might also improve for better ground. He’s 16/1 for the RSA and 10/1 for the 4 miler. With Nicholls having Black Thunder for the RSA, the 4 miler looks more likely.
The Grade 1 PJ Moriarty novice chase has been a fantastic guide to the RSA, with 4 of the last 5 RSA winners contesting it. The graded form in the staying novice chases had looked weak this season and it was no surprise to see Ballycasey beat Grade 1 winners Don Cossack and Carlingford Lough, (who looked held when unseating at the last.) He’s always been talented and jumps and stays well. He ought to improve again on good ground but he’s only had 2 chase runs and inexperience is a big worry for the RSA (6/1). The other issue is fragility – anyone thinking about backing him might be best waiting for NRNB and seeing how the prices compare.
The Grade 1 Deloitte novice hurdle, (2m2f, soft to heavy) has a rich history and this year’s renewal looked up to scratch, with Vautour showing far too much toe for dual Grade 1 winner The Tullow Tank, winning by 3l. Vautour has a big reputation and now heads for the Supreme. He’s 6/1 for that and deserves his place at the front of the market. Whilst at first sight it looked as if The Tullow Tank was put in his place here, he wasn’t shown to best advantage being ridden well off a steady pace. He might be best going right handed, but he ought to get cover in a bigger field at Cheltenham and surely the Neptune (14/1) rather than the Supreme (10/1) is his race.
As a 106 rated flat horse, First Mohican brought plenty of class to a strong looking novice hurdle at Doncaster, (extended 2m, good to soft.) He jumped pretty well for a debutant but had to be driven out to beat outsider Huff and Puff by ¾l. He’s open to any amount of improvement, but he needs to make a huge step up to be competitive in the Supreme, (20/1.)
The Foxhunters looks wide open, which makes it surprising that Tammy’s Hill, who won the big hunter at Leopardstown, now goes handicapping. He’s 7/1 2nd favourite for a wide open Foxhunters and given the doubts about Mossey Joe lining up, he looked a highly feasible winner. In some ways it’s a breath of fresh air to see connections who don’t see Cheltenham as everything, but I’m sympathetic to anyone holding ante-post vouchers.
Finally, one aspect that differentiates racing from most sports is the presence of complete amateurs mixing it with the pros. There aren’t many sports where a dentist like Sam Waley-Cohen can win the blue riband. Of course, money plays a big part, but I’m hugely in favour of such amateurs taking on the pros and there being amateur riders races at the Festival. Whilst Ruby Walsh delivered another riding masterclass at Leopardstown on Sunday, it’s worth remembering that, huge plus though he is, there’s even more of an advantage in having a top jockey in the amateur races, (like Derek O’Connor or Jamie Codd). That’s because there is much more of a range of abilities on show – the hunter chase at Huntingdon on Thursday being a classic example of how a jockey can lose a race that looks impossible not to win. First rule of betting in the amateur riders races at the Festival – start by looking at the jockeys.