Matt Tombs / Tuesday 4th March 2014 / 13:15
Of all my failings as a punter, discipline isn’t generally a problem. Unlike those for whom racing is just horses running round in a field if they don’t have a bet, I love the sport. I can go racing, not have a bet and enjoy it. I’ve always thought it’s that love of the sport that helps me be patient and wait for the right betting opportunities.
However, try as I might, I can’t resist backing Arctic Fire (16/1) for the County Hurdle. There are plenty of reasons to wait. Firstly, he’s really ground dependent – he must have decent ground. The drying forecast is encouraging, and with the race being on the Friday the ground may well be at it’s quickest then. However, there are still 10 days to go and weather forecasts that far out are notoriously unreliable. We saw last year how rain on Gold Cup day made the ground really soft because of the high water table. If that happens again, Arctic Fire would have little chance – which ought to be reason enough to wait until the morning of the race.
The second reason is more difficult in the context of a column putting up tips. Arctic Fire is a really buzzy character, (races in a hood) and it remains to be seen how he takes the razzamatazz of the Festival. Ruby will need to be at his best to get him switched off so he can use his turn of foot late on. It would be better to be making a decision whether to back him after seeing how he takes the preliminaries. For those who like betting in running, watching how he settles in the first half mile or so is probably an even better way to play it.
And that’s before we get to the opposition. The handicapper seems to have had a bit of a blind spot with last year’s Bumper 2nd Regal Encore, (8/1). On the face of it, he’s been a bit disappointing over hurdles but he won a weak event cosily on his 2nd run and was trying to give 7lb to Seeyouatmidnight last time. Given that Seeyouatmidnight is now rated 155 and Regal Encore was only beaten 2l, it doesn’t take a genius to believe he might be chucked in off 130.
In Regal Encore’s case the problem connections have is that they’ve got him too well handicapped and he might not get a run. Whilst 130 would have got a run in several recent renewals, for the last two years the cut off has been 132. He’s also in the Martin Pipe over an extended 2m4f, (he looked to stay well enough in the Bumper, so the Martin Pipe might be his race,) but 130 wouldn’t have got in that for the last 2 years either. Regal Encore therefore heads for the Imperial Cup to get a 5lb penalty. If all goes well he could clearly win the County, but what could be a hard race in testing ground on Saturday first isn’t ideal, and he might go for the Martin Pipe anyway.
Regal Encore fits into the category of a classy horse that hasn’t yet shown his form over hurdles. The other 3 I fear most are the other typical type of winner – those who haven’t been able to show their class recently. First up is Montbazon (25/1) who I fancied at big prices for the Champion Hurdle at the start of last season, only for him to miss the whole campaign with a setback. Alan King had reported him a bit babyish as a novice and that he was the sort that he’d expect to improve a lot as he matures. Given he was leading the Supreme field coming to the last but wasn’t quite streetwise enough at the business end, that maturity might make a mockery of a mark of 140. He travelled well for a long way on his return after nearly 2 years off in the Betfair Hurdle on unsuitably soft ground. However, he was beaten 46l in the end and hasn’t yet proved he retains his ability.
Cheltenian (14/1) is another on the comeback trail. He won the 2011 Bumper in good style, having previously given Montbazon 10lb and beaten him at Kempton. After 2 years off injured he returned in a hot novice at Doncaster last February, when splitting the now 144 rated Minella Forfitness and Arkle fancy Valdez, (albeit getting 6lb from the former and 10lb from the latter.) It was too big an ask in a vintage Supreme at that stage, but he returned this season with a facile win at Uttoxeter, before a good 4l 4th off 134 in the Betfair. That was his first experience of a competitive handicap, he should have learnt lots from it and he still looks nicely in off 137. He won the Bumper on good but his breeding suggests he’ll be best with plenty of cut.
Having put up Cash And Go (33/1) for the last two renewals of the Greatwood, he’s in danger of becoming a cliff horse. He’s clearly had plenty of issues but Nicky Henderson has described him being potentially a Grade 1 horse and, if he can put it all together on the big day, then he’s much better than a mark of 138. The likely drying ground will really suit him and he’s one to consider once we’ve seen how the vibes are nearer the day.
There will be obviously be a stack of other dangers too, but having been through the race I really think that if Arctic Fire puts it all together he could be chucked in off 141. All season I’ve been convinced he was the best horse in the Royal Bond. I wouldn’t be over-critical of David Casey as Arctic Fire is clearly headstrong and he was presumably instructed to try and get him settled at the back. However, he got into all sorts of trouble in the straight in a steadily run race, and when he got some daylight he flew home showing much the best turn of foot, going down by 1½l. If he’d beaten The Tullow Tank that day he’d be at least 10lb higher here.
The British handicapper hasn’t been totally fooled and has upped him 3lb from his Irish mark to 141 but I think if he was with any other stable he’d be in the Supreme. However, the same owners have Wicklow Brave. I’m not convinced Wicklow Brave is the better of the two, but he is the more straightforward and, with both looking 2 milers, you can understand why Arctic Fire is being aimed at the County where the big field and fast pace should suit ideally. He hasn’t had the benefit of Ruby riding since he won his maiden, and that can make all the difference here.
Given that he is ground dependent and might run his race in the preliminaries, he’s not the type that’s guaranteed to run his race. He’s therefore not an each way steal, he’s a win only bet. However, if he goes the right way, I think he might be a Grade 1 horse in open company on decent ground next season – and if all the horses produce their best here, I reckon he’s the winner of this.
It’s great that you can watch Festival previews online these days and on Monday night at the Direct Aid For Africa event in Galway, the forthright Patrick Mullins was very bullish about his chances, making him clearly Closutton’s best handicap chance of the week. I also can’t get out of my mind Willie Mullins comment at Christmas that “lots of people think Arctic Fire is the best novice hurdler around,” (before prophesising correctly that he wouldn’t handle soft ground at Leopardstown).
I doubt any trainer has ever brought a more powerful overall squad to the Festival than Willie Mullins does this year. If he dominates the week, especially in the novice divisions, then I can see Arctic Fire being a 4/1 favourite for this – so I’m giving in to temptation and getting stuck in now.
1pt Arctic Fire to win the County Hurdle @ 16/1