Matt Tombs / Monday 23rd February 2015 / 14:03
Champion Chaser Sire De Grugy made a welcome return to form when winning a Chepstow handicap off 172, beating Grey Gold, (who received 20lb,) by 7l, (extended 2m, soft). Sidelined with a hip injury all season, he’d looked laboured before blundering his way out of the Game Spirit on his belated reappearance. Gary Moore took the bull by the horns and decided to run him again close to the Festival, and was rewarded with a much improved display, as he jumped well and coasted clear.
Whilst he was beating an exposed 152 rated horse here, and 3rd home Mister Grez, (beaten 9l,) was a stone out of the handicap, this was a taking performance. Many, including me, had been writing off his chances of defending his crown – but he’s right back in the mix now and 4/1 looks fair value if this hasn’t taken too much out of him.
It wasn’t the strongest renewal of the Grade 2 Pendil novice chase at Kempton, (extended 2m4f, soft,) and with Melodic Rendezvous bombing, Irish Saint had little to beat. He won in authoritative style though and if it wasn’t for the fact the stable have Ptit Zig for the JLT, he’d probably take his chance (25/1). Paul Nicholls said he’d run only if the ground was testing, in which case he’d have an each-way chance. Whilst he didn’t beat much here, this was a boost for the mare Gitane Du Berlais, who beat him easily in the Scilly Isles, (when receiving 3lb more weight-for-age allowance than she’d get in the JLT).
There was a good mares hurdle at Punchestown on Wednesday, which fell to the progressive Rock On The Moor, who beat Analifet, (who gave 4lb,) by 3¾l, (2m4f, yielding to soft.) If you take Quevega out, novices have a good record in the Mares Hurdle. The other winner Whiteoak was a novice and Kentford Grey Lady and Sparky May were 2nd to Quevega as novices. If Annie Power runs anywhere near her form she’ll win, but that’s far from certain. Jessica Harrington suggested Rock On The Moor would go to Fairyhouse instead but she’d have to face Morning Run there. 40/1 would be a massive price if she were being targeted at the race, (only 16/1 NRNB.)
The Foxhunter has looked really open but a few horses put down markers this week. Top of the list is Paint The Clouds, who made a successful seasonal reappearance when beating Quinz, (who before claims received 8lb,) by 10l at Doncaster, (3m2f, good to soft.) Paint The Clouds completed a 5 timer in handicap hurdles and novice chases on fast ground in 2011, before injury intervened – the last win in a hurdle off 130. He was pulled up on his next run in the 2013 Martin Pipe and then switched to hunter chases, winning all 3 starts last year, including the big race at Stratford, (the form of which got a boost when runner-up Shoreacres bolted up at Huntingdon on Thursday.) He’s been a fragile type, which is an obvious concern, but he’s classy and unexposed - 6/1 looks decent value.
Aiteenthirtythree had a big reputation as a young horse at Paul Nicholls yard and was rated 159 when going off 8/1 for the 2011 RSA. He’s had lots of problems since and now with Kevin Parker, he followed up a string of wins in points when beating the useful, if quirky, Mobaasher in a hunter at Lingfield cosily by 1l, (3m, heavy.) It’s hard to know what level of ability he retains, and horses with his sort of profile have a dire record in the Foxhunter, but you couldn’t rule him out.
A strong hunter at Fairyhouse turned into a dual between Last Time D’Albain and last year’s Foxhunter 2nd Carsonstown Boy, with the former prevailing by 3½l, (extended 2m5f, soft.) The trip would have very much suited the winner and Liam Cusack suggested the Aintree Foxhunters, (over this trip,) was more likely than Cheltenham, (3rd in the 2013 Topham.) Stamina would be a question mark if he lined up but he’d have a decent chance if getting the trip. Carsonstown Boy was, (before claims are considered,) giving 4lb here and this was a solid effort. He’ll try and go one better at Cheltenham and 25/1 is on the generous side.
Given the number of horses targeted at handicaps at the Festival, (and the further reduction in field size for the hurdles to a maximum of 26,) there is an ever increasing need for horses to show their hands in advance, purely to get themselves high enough in the handicap to get a run. It shouldn’t be assumed that they therefore won’t be well enough handicapped to win – there are a lot of exposed horses contesting the handicaps now.
Horses that ran this week will run at the Festival based on their reassessed mark, (whereas horses winning from now on will get a penalty.) Such horses from this week include Ttebob who won a winners-of-one hurdle at Clonmel and might go up sufficiently from 129 to get into the Coral Cup or Martin Pipe. Champagne Present won a maiden hurdle at Ludlow and, rated 128, is in the same two contests. Smokey Joe Joe is rated only 120 but beat 138 rated Dogora at Fairyhouse which might get him into the novices handicap chase.
Tango De Juilley is already rated 142 and so would get a run in the 2½m handicap chase on the third day. His trainer Venetia Williams has won 3 of the last 8 renewals. He won a novice (extended 2m) easily at Huntingdon and shouldn’t go up much for that win.
Bet 365 became the first bookmaker to go NRNB on all the races at the Festival at the weekend, and when that happens I like to trawl through all the races and see if there is any value in uncertain starters who I would give a big chance to if lining up.
One horse jumps out - Vroum Vroum Mag in the 4 miler. At the scratch stage last week, Willie Mullins whittled his team for this down to 4, with Valesur Lido being a highly unlikely runner.
The crux is obviously the ongoing debate between Willie and Gigginstown on Don Poli’s target – this or the RSA. It’s probably 50:50. My gut feel is that Willie generally wins these arguments, but equally the exchanges are suggesting won’t, and that Don Poli will run in the RSA instead. Don Poli’s 3/1 NRNB and whilst I can see him going off very short if he lines up and the likes of Wounded Warrior and The Young Master don’t, that doesn’t scream value at this stage.
The conceived wisdom is that if Don Poli doesn’t run, Patrick will be on Perfect Gentleman (25/1). He’s had plenty of problems but they’ve had a much clearer run with him this time and he won a Grade 2 over 2m4f at Cork in November. He fell early on in the Drinmore and then got stuck in a bog at Limerick at Christmas. It’s difficult to assess how good he is, but he is a ten year old and it’s hard to imagine that he can actually win.
Willie Mullins has said during the season that Vroum Vroum Mag is likely to stay in Ireland, where she’d have some simple tasks in valuable mares novice chases. However, she was left in the JLT, RSA and 4 miler and the vibes are that she might deputise for Don Poli in this, if he were to end up in the RSA.
She’s jumped really well and destroyed her rivals in 3 mares novices chases at up to 2m4f since joining Willie Mullins. The form has worked out with her victim at Cork, Our Katie, winning twice since. She could be anything and already has an RPR of 142 without having come off the bridle – and she gets 7lb here. 4 miles is a different test entirely and good ground is an unknown. However, given her value as a broodmare, there’s no way she’ll be risked unless connections feel that she’ll handle the ground and trip.
She’s 25/1 ante-post but is 20/1 NRNB, which is huge. If she lines up, Don Poli won’t and my guess is that so she’ll start about 5/1 – so she has to be backed now.
1pt Vroum Vroum Mag to win the National Hunt Chase @ 20/1 NRNB
Finally, Willie Mullins suggested this week that the prize fund for the “major contests” at the Festival should be doubled. It’d be interesting to see whether that would have the impact of stopping trainers, like Mullins, pot-hunting at the Festival. The single biggest draw racing has is the top-level match ups like Kauto Star vs Denman. Many don’t happen nowadays, Big Buck’s vs Quevega being one example, because one of the two leading contenders ducks the issue and goes for a minor race. I’d stop that by abolishing some of the smaller races and putting eg 0-150 ratings bands on others, like the Mares Hurdle. However, if reducing the prize funds for those races to help increase the money in the pot for the championship races would have the same effect, I’d be supportive of such a change.