Matt Tombs / Monday 19th January 2015 / 13:39
This week was all about Sprinter Sacre who was a strong travelling 2nd to Dodging Bullets in the Grade 1 Clarence House at Ascot, going down by 3l, (2m1f, soft.) He looked as if he might cruise clear in familiar style but got tired in the closing stages and was understandably given a very easy time. Whilst it’s now unlikely we’ll see him back at his magnificent best, it’s worth remembering that Finian’s Rainbow fell in a hole in similar fashion in this race before winning the Champion Chase. In that context 3/1 is tempting, but having been asked for nothing here, we can’t know what’ll he find off the bit at Cheltenham and I doubt he’s good enough to win a Champion Chase on the bridle now.
Dodging Bullets is clearly holding his form better this season. He was under pressure when Sprinter Sacre was on the bridle, but as a race fit horse, he found plenty. If he can keep that level going to the Festival he must have a solid chance. Its arguable that he’s being underrated – 5/1 is a big price for a horse that has won the Tingle Creek and Clarence House during the season. Everyone underestimated Sire De Grugy last season because the division was so weak and there’s a danger of that happening with Dodging Bullets.
I’d thought The New One had looked an improved horse this season, his jumping seeming more efficient. However, he made hard work of landing odds of 1/6 at Haydock, running down Bertimont close home to win by 2¼l, (2m, heavy). He jumped badly to his right at a couple of hurdles and made a mistake 3 out. He obviously won’t get away with that in the Champion Hurdle, but on much better ground, without a leader jumping right in front of him, he’s likely to return to his best. He was arguably a bit short before the race and 100/30 looks a fair price.
Thurles is in some ways the lifeblood of Irish racing, staging a huge amount of fixtures and it was fantastic to see two genuine Grade 1 performers line up for its flagship race, the Grade 2 Kinloch Brae Chase, (2m4f, soft to heavy.) It was shaping up into a cracking race when Champagne Fever fell at the last, leaving Don Cossack, (who gave 2lb,) to coast home. Don Cossack looked like he might be getting the upper hand anyway, but it was far from certain. He’s now 4 from 4 this season and whilst its possible to argue all the horses he’s beaten weren’t at their best on the day, (Champagne Fever apparently felt flat here after his hard race in the King George,) he’s building an impressive record. He heads for the Ryanair, for which he was rightly made favourite, (5/1.)
Champagne Fever is a hard horse to assess – he keeps looking like a top class horse in the making, without actually performing like one. My initial reaction was that he should be freshened up and re-oppose the winner in the Ryanair (10/1). However with Sprinter Sacre beaten at Ascot, the Champion Chase, (8/1) must be tempting.
The Champion Hurdle is a market looking for an each-way springer and Kitten Rock looked a possible candidate when lining up in the Limestone Lad at Naas, (2m3f, soft.) He pulled far too hard though and in the end it needed a mistake at the last from the useful mare Glens Melody, (who received 5lb,) for him to assert, winning by 3¾l. I suspect he’s much better than he showed here but a strong looking Champion Hurdle (40/1) doesn’t look feasible. His mark of 148 ought not change materially for this and the County might be a better option.
Attitudes to Vautour have swung wildly during the season. After he ran away with a good beginners at Navan, some commentators were saying he was unbeatable. After he bombed at Leopardstown at Christmas he was being written off. He got back on track in a 2m3f Grade 2 at Leopardstown, (soft) – he’d mastered the useful Real Steel when that one fell at the last. If Un De Sceaux wins the Irish Arkle next week, Vautour will almost certainly head for the JLT. 7/2 is a big price for a horse of his ability but it’ll be a stronger race than usual if Ptit Zig, Valseur Lido and Gilgamboa line up against him.
The British challenge for the Arkle is looking a bit threadbare, but an interesting dark horse might be Top Gamble. He was campaigned as a potential stayer in handicap hurdles by David Pipe last season, but dropped back to around the minimum trip over fences by Richard Lee, he made it 3/3 over the larger obstacles when winning a novices handicap off 143 at Newbury, beating Far West by 2½l, (2m1f, soft.) He’s now 5/6 around 2m, and 0/3 at 2m4f+ but its still hard to know what his trip is. Richard Lee says he’ll get an Arkle (40/1) entry but the JLT (not quoted) looks a feasible alternative – he’s the type to be underestimated.
The 3m Grade 2 novice chase at Naas brought together different lines of form and looked a good race, (soft). Wounded Warrior had plenty of experience around 2½m and had bustled up Don Poli at Gowran before beating Blood Cotil at Navan. He’d disappointed on horrible ground at Limerick but the step up to 3m really suited him and he ran away from a good field to beat Rule The World by 9½l. If Don Poli contests the RSA, then he might be Gigginstown’s horse for the 4 miler.
This is the time of year when you usually see a very lightly raced Nicky Henderson novice hurdler put up an impressive performance. Kilcrea Vale looked a classic example when bolting up by 26l at Market Rasen, (2m3f, good to soft.) He won a point that’s worked out pretty well in May on his only other run and is firmly in the ‘could be anything’ category. He’s 33/1 for the Neptune, which would look tempting if that’s the plan.
Milsean had been well thought of by Willie Mullins and looked like winning a novice hurdle at Thurles, (2m6f, soft to heavy,) but was mown down close home by stablemate Measureofmydreams. The winner had looked to be going nowhere and its hard to analyse this form – it might be that Milsean doesn’t stay as well as connections thought. It does look to be a boost for Martello Tower’s Albert Bartlett chances though as he beat Measureofmydreams miles at Limerick last time. Measureofmydreams is 25/1 for the Albert Bartlett.
The Grade 2 Rossington Main novice hurdle at Haydock, (2m, heavy,) has a good roll of honour. Whilst this didn’t look the strongest renewal, heavily backed favourite Aso shouldn’t be underestimated, after beating 138 rated Kiama Bay by 4½l. He’s progressing fast and Liam Tredwell said he is as good a hurdler as he’s ridden, (has ridden 150 horses like Australia Day and Dee Ee Williams.) He’s entered in the Betfair Hurdle and 138 looks an attractive mark – he looks the type to enjoy a big handicap and has the experience of 6 hurdle races now. He has plenty to find to trouble the likes of Douvan in the Supreme but 50/1 is a bit of an insult.
Zip Top had been 2nd in a Group 1 as a two year old in 2011 but had been off the course until last year when showing little on two flat starts. He was well beaten in a hot novice won by Jollyallan at Kempton at Christmas but he beat another smart flat recruit Shwaiman by 3¾l, at Fakenham, the pair clear, (2m, soft.) As John Ferguson has pointed out, plenty of his smart ex-flat horses have had lots of hard races and its always open to question how much of a stomach they retain for a battle. Tony McCoy reported Zip Top found plenty for pressure here and a good jump at the last made the difference. If he goes the right way, he could be the right type for the County.
Finally, the markets for the championship races confirm my belief that bookmakers fail to cut the prices of horses anything like enough when going NRNB. Looking at the 6 horses shorter than 25/1 for the Champion Chase, all look far better value NRNB than ante-post. Dodging Bullets (5/1) and Uxizandre (16/1) are top price NRNB. Sprinter Sacre is 11/4 compared with 3/1 ante-post, which given his problems must be better value. Sire De Grugy hasn’t made the racecourse yet this season yet is 4/1 NRNB and only 9/2 ante-post. Champagne Fever and Al Ferof both have the Ryanair as an alternative yet Champagne Fever is 7/1 NRNB and 8/1 ante-post, and Al Ferof is 8/1 NRNB and 10/1 ante-post. In the vast majority of cases at the moment, if you’re having a bet on one of the championship races, it’s a no-brainer to have it NRNB.