New Superstars Emerge As Curtain Comes Down On National Hunt Season

The National Hunt season has finally come to an end and once again we have enjoyed a thrilling campaign on both sides of the Irish Sea. The feature races were once again dominated by the big name trainers but rarely have we finished a season so excited to get the next one underway after a number of young horses ‘jumped’ on to the scene.

Established superstars like Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig were non-existent this winter due to injury, while the likes of Hurricane Fly, Bobs Worth and Big Buck’s to name just three, were disappointing at the Cheltenham Festival with a new, younger crop stepping up to challenge the old guard and provide plenty of reasons to wish away the next six months…

A void was left in the two mile chasing division after Sprinter Sacre was ruled out for the campaign after being pulled up on his seasonal debut at Kempton in December. The door was left wide open for another star to emerge and barging straight through was Sire De Grugy!

The Gary Moore trained eight-year-old swept all before him to win the Tingle Creek Chase, the Desert Orchid Chase and the Clarence House Chase before going on to Cheltenham to claim victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. He proved himself as a Champion in his own right and added the Celebration Chase at Sandown last weekend before being named the horse of the season to ice a wonderful campaign. Sire De Grugy appeared to get better with every run this winter and with his colourful owners adding some great personality to the season, the prospect of him meeting a fully fit again Sprinter Sacre next season is something to look forward to.

There was also a new star emerge in the stayers hurdle division with the unexposed More Of That going unbeaten through the campaign for Jonjo O’Neill. That culminated in a famous victory in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham where six-year-old saw off hot favourite Annie Power up the Cheltenham hill.

More Of That is likely to have plenty of improvement in him ahead of next season given that he has only had half a dozen starts and remains just six-years-old. However, it does remain to be seen whether he will be aimed a World Hurdle repeat in 2015 or whether the chasing route will be pursued. The same can be said of Annie Power who does still appear to have the world at her feet despite her defeat in that race with two mile and three mile hurdling or even a title at chasing under consideration for the Willie Mullins star.

Willie Mullins has long sung the praises of Annie Power and that has also been the case for two other young horses currently residing in his County Carlow yard. Faugheen and Vautour wowed punters at the Cheltenham Festival back in March as they won the Supreme Novices and Neptune Novices Hurdles’ respectively and both could really still be anything.  Faugheen remains unbeaten and looked even better down at two miles when winning on his last start at the Punchestown Festival while Vautour was equally impressive in winning the Supreme at Prestbury Park.

Both horses are owned by Rich Ricci and decisions need to be made about their futures with one likely to go chasing and one likely to be aimed at the Champion Hurdle in a bid to take over from their legendary stable-mate, Hurricane Fly. Wherever these two horses turn up, they are both set for big futures given their form this past winter with both clearly possessing an abundance of talent, massive engines and the ability to win over various trips and I’ve a feeling it will be Vatour that takes his chance over bigger obstacles and Faugheen will be the Mullins flag-bearer as he bids to emulate The Fly.

Over fences, there was a surprise winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup back in March when Lord Windermere got up on the line in a blanket finish and it will be fascinating to follow his progress next season but it may be worth taking this season’s Gold Cup form with a pinch of salt. Nicky Henderson meanwhile will be hoping that Bobs Worth can bounce back to his best, while a new crop of Gold Cup contenders’ looks set to emerge come the autumn with Cheltenham winners Dynaste and Champagne Fever expected to be stepped up in trip for their respective connections.

It is also worth acknowledging two legends of the sport who retired this past season with Big Buck’s and Quevega bowing out after glittering careers. Big Buck’s was unable to win a fifth World Hurdle despite returning from injury but was retired as the greatest staying hurdler of all time, while Quevega recorded a sixth success in the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham before being sent off for a breeding career after suffering defeat at the Punchestown Festival. They will of course be missed but with stars like Faugheen, Vautour and More Of That coming through, a new golden age of National Hunt racing could just be round the corner.

How the Grand National Was Won…

Leighton Aspell’s reserved celebrations as he crossed the Grand National winning line on board 25/1 victor Pineau De Re may have lacked the traditional display of emotion from previous winning jockeys but this was a man accomplishing his dreams of winning the world’s greatest steeplechase and a weighing room stalwart who only a few years ago had hung up his riding boots and exited the jockey scene.

A brief sabbatical from the saddle may have galvanised Aspell and having had one of his most successful seasons as a National Hunt jockey with 62 winners so far, the 37-year-old went one better than he did on his maiden ride in the big race on Supreme Glory in 2003 and managed to grind his rivals into submission piloting the Dr Richard Newland-trained Pineau De Re to a five length victory in the Aintree feature.

A race that oozed quality throughout the 40-strong field was duly whittled down to 39 after the flag fell with the enigmatic Battle Group showcasing his stubbornness for the world to see as Brendan Power was left motionless on board the Johnny Farrelly-trained runner, as his rivals hurtled towards the first fence.

Prior to the off, both Tidal Bay and Long Run were both Grade One winners looking to make their class count but the pair had hardly warmed up before tasting the turf with the former unseating Sam Twiston-Davies at the eighth, whilst the former Gold Cup winner suffered an eye-popping tumble when a prominent figure at the next fence. so the early casualties saw the race take an unexpected turn with many expecting that duo to be prominent come the finish but they were amongst ten runners that had already gone by that stage.

Teaforthree was gallant in defeat when third to Auroras Encore 12 months ago and having been waited with a little bit more this time around, the Rebecca Curtis star made an uncharacteristic error at the Chair and he too was out of the race but at that halfway stage, there were still an array of horses in contention for a slice of the race’s first ever £1 million prize.

The traditional pre-race public gamble on an AP McCoy mount was proving to be an inspired one as Double Seven was an eye-catching runner throughout the second circuit and Martin Brassil’s Irish Raider was in close proximity to the smart jumping duo of Rocky Creek and Balthazar King, whilst Pineau De Re, who may have been scratchy at various fences along the way, was stalking his rivals under a patient Aspell.

Turning for home there were a handful of runners in contention but the petrol light was flickering on Rocky Creek as he struggled to quicken and it was Aspell who kicked for home on Pineau De Re and hit the front following a delightful leap at the last fence, all-but putting the race to bed as went three lengths clear.

As he sprinted up the energy-sapping elbow, defeat looked out of the question and he continued to gallop to the line to land what was a stunning success for jockey, trainer and horse, whilst McCoy and Richard Johnson fought it out for second place with Balthazar King prevailing, with Paul Moloney cajoling the fast-finishing Alvarado into fourth place in what was a race that saw all 40 equine warriors return unscathed in what was another cracking renewal of the Aintree showpiece.

So what did we learn from the winner’s profile based on the recent post looking at 12 key criteria that each of the 10 National winners prior to 2014 shared? Pineau De Re ticked 11 of the 12 boxes before the race, falling short on the variable, ‘had won a chase worth more than £29,000’. Therefore, ahead of next year’s race, it may be worth ignoring the trend that points towards a horse having superior ability based on winnings as it would certainly appear that the handicap system worked on this occasion.

And the winner of the 2014 Grand National is…

It’s that time of year again, when everyone who knows I work in the betting industry asks me ‘any tips for the National?’

It’s as though they conveniently overlook the fact that it’s a 40 runner handicap and expect an inside line about who is going to win the Aintree spectacle. To be honest though, most of those asking wouldn’t know what a handicap was, let alone the fact that 40 runners in one race is unique to the Grand National and is about four times bigger than average field-size of races I bet on.

However, failing to provide a pick for the National is bordering on fraudulent for anyone who pays an iota of interest in National Hunt racing, let alone someone who carves a living from the sport. Therefore, I always have a couple of National selections on hand for those who expect me to know the winner like some equine clairvoyant.

I actually enjoy the annual battle with the Racing Post website as I try to untangle the Grand National and whilst finding the winner is a colossal task, I do approach it in a totally different way than I would any other race and I’m sharing that process on the blog this year.

I do consider trends when looking at any race but since I prefer to bet in non-handicaps, I tend to find that assessing ability of a horse in terms of its rating along with consideration of the other core variables such as distance, going and breeding is the most sustainable way of finding winners. However, when there’s 40 runners to consider and an infinite amount of measurables, something has to give and therefore, I reduce the Grand National field based on trends and this year I have chosen to illustrate the process of elimination I use that has seen me make the Grand National a 12 runner race (click the spreadsheet link or image below to view the full data).

Taking 12 factors that each of the last 10 National winners have all shared going in to the race, I produced the spreadsheet below. The 12 criteria are as follows – every winner of the Grand National since Amberleigh House in 2004;

  • Was aged between 8 and 12
  • Carried 11 stone 6lb or less
  • Had won a chase over at least 25f (3 1f)
  • Had placed in a race over 26f (3m 2f)
  • Had won a chase worth at least £29,000
  • Had at least three prep runs during the season
  • Had won at least three times over fences
  • Had raced at least eight time over fences
  • Had an official rating between 136 and 157
  • Had run during the 53 days prior to lining up in the Grand National
  • Had either won or been placed in chase that featured 15 or more runners

National Runners Spreadsheet 2014

National Trends

Collectively, I think these 12 commonalities constitute a strong profile for a Grand National winner and eight of this year’s entries satisfy all 12 criteria, they are:

Balthazar King
Teaforthree
Godsmejudge
Lion Na Bearnai
Monbeg Dude
Burton Port
Chance Du Roy
Raz De Maree

There are also 12 who meet 11 criteria and of those, I’m happy to consider the one’s who miss out on either ‘days since last run’  or ‘number of prep runs’, two criteria that I think can be overlooked. I wouldn’t ignore question marks about ability to stay the trip, jumping and big field experience or value of races won but if they are a couple of weeks short on days since last run or have two runs for the season, I’m happy to include and they are:

Prince De Beauchene
Big Shu
Mountainous
The Rainbow Hunter

So there you have it, the Grand National looks a much more manageable 12 runner race, they question now is which of the earmarked dozen is capable of finishing ahead of the rest?  Of those 12, I am happy to draw a line through Mountainous straight away as he is a horse that has only ever won on ground with the word soft or heavy in the going. Unless the heavens open over Merseyside over the next week I can’t see him featuring, if he runs at all. For similar reasons, I am happy to dismiss the chances of Raz De Maree, who has done all his winning on rain soaked ground.

I should point out that one that missed out on inclusion on my short-list having ticked 11 boxes was Hennessy winner, Triolo D’Alene, who is arguably a top class prospect in the making and the only negative is that he is seven-year-old and not horse younger than eight has won the National since Bogskar in 1940! There’s also the question about how much the Gold Cup took out of him but I like him and think he provides Nicky Henderson with the best chance of ending his wait for Grand National glory.

From a value perspective alone, Lion Na Bearnai (50/1), Chance Du Roy (40/1) and Big Shu (40/1)  are the biggest priced runners of these who make the cut and for little more reason than they meet all criteria and are big prices, all merit each-way consideration on the grounds of value.

Of the others, I really like Balthazar King, who is just one pound higher than last year and heads to Aintree on the crest of four consecutive wins this season, the most recent of which came in the Cross Country at Cheltenham, however, he ran out of fuel in last year’s race after leading after the 16th fence before the light went out and I can’t see him staying the distance again this time around.

I also like Godsmejudge, winner of the Scottish Grand National last year and off a mark of 148 he looks well treated on that form but his last two runs leave a lot to be desired having been pulled up on both occasions and whilst the Alan King yard may have always had one eye on a tilt at the National I’d like to have seen more since that win at Ayr.

It can’t go unnoticed that the ante post favourite, Teaforthree, also ticks all the boxes and whilst I could make a solid argument for the Rebecca Curtis runner going one better than when third twelve months ago, especially now 5lb lighter, I simply can’t have the favourite for a 40 runner race  on the grounds of value alone but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 10-year-old win and if you think 9/1 is value, go ahead and take that price.

Former Welsh National winner, Monbeg Dude, is another that makes plenty of appeal but there is just one too many below par runs in his form for me to get excited and I think that Teaforthree will easily reverse Welsh National placings with just three pounds between the pair at Aintree instead of the 16lb difference that saw the Michael Scudamore runner get the better of the pair by half a length at Chepstow last year.

The one for me though is Burton Port, who is a best price 33/1 shot and whilst he’s not won in over three years, he has finished second on four of the ten runs since that last victory, including the Grade One Betfred Bowl at Aintree’s Grand National meeting two years ago. Three weeks prior to that, he had finished fourth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup behind Synchronised and those two runs saw him rated 166, some 21lb greater than his current mark of 145!

This is a horse full of ability, there’s no doubt about it and at 10-years-old, he should have more than enough left in the tank to see that ability exploit the 10 stone 8lb he is set to shoulder on Saturday, 5th April. He has had five runs this season following an 18 month lay-off and whilst none of those have suggested he is anywhere near the Grade One winner he threatened earlier in his chasing career, he did finish second at Newbury last time out on heavy ground and that was enough for me to think he is far from finished, especially after a recent breathing operation should also see him improve some more on that latest run. Add to the equation that he is trained by Jonjo O’Neil and owned by Sir Trevor Hemmings, neither of whom are strangers to Grand National success, Burton Port is my pick to win the 2014 Grand National at odds of 33/1.

At the end of the day, it’s a lottery as several big price winners have shown in recent years and whilst I’m anything but confident, I do think the selection satisfies the objective of finding a horse that has a profile that matches the last 10 winners of the Grand National together with the proven ability to potentially exploit his handicap mark.

There’s bound to be a few changes over the next week and I’ll aim to update the spreadsheet at the 48 hour decs but if you find it useful, please let me know.

Good luck!

2014 Grand National Pick – Burton Port @ 33/1

2014 Cheltenham Festival Will Be Remembered for Vanquished Champions and Emerging Stars

A hush has now descended around Prestbury Park following an electrifying week that was the Cheltenham Festival and the jamboree of National Hunt racing once again provided some amazing highs but the 2014 meeting will also be remembered for some lows, particularly after four horses lost their lives and a couple of jockeys suffered injury but here’s a look back at the highlights…

Often hyped beyond gargantuan levels in the build-up, the opening day didn’t disappoint as Vautour produced a sensational display to romp to a six-length victory in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the Willie Mullins trained five-year-old could be a regular Cheltenham visitor over the coming years with both Champion Hurdle and Arkle Trophy potential targets for 2015, for which he is priced at 6/1 and 5/1 respectively depending on which route his trainer and owner, Rich Ricci, decide to take.

The David Pipe trained Western Warhorse caused a major shock in the Arkle, nailing another Mullins and Ricci runner in the form of Champagne Fever late on in the hands of Tom Scudamore at odds of 33/1!

The Champion Hurdle had been touted as the best renewal of the two-mile event for a generation, with an array of top speedsters doing battle. Hurricane Fly had been the poster boy of the race as he aimed for a third win in the race but the ten-year-old was unable to quicken against his more youthful adversaries and whilst The New One was hampered by the fatal fall of Our Conor, it was the JP McManus-owned duo of My Tent Or Yours and Jezki left to fight out the finish and it was the Jessica Harrington trained 9/1 shot who got up to hand the bookies a good result as the Irish Raider finished ahead of the four market leaders who had battled for favouritism all winter.

Whilst the Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh combination failed to retain the Champion Hurdle with ‘The Fly’ finishing an eventual fourth, they didn’t have any such problems with perennial Cheltenham champion Quevega who continued her reign as Queen on Cheltenham. The wonder mare bagged her sixth consecutive win in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle to send the jam-packed stands into raptures, as she reeled in stablemate Glens Melody close to the winning post.

Day two lacked an element of intrigue with the Queen Mother Champion Chase lacking its star attraction in Sprinter Sacre but Sire De Grugy showed why he has been the dominant two-mile chaser this season with an authoritative six-length victory for the ever-popular family duo of Gary and Jamie Moore.

Whilst the image of fellow jumps jockeys forming a guard of honour to welcome back Moore on board Sire De Grugy was enough to bring a smile to the face of any racing fan, the most abiding memory of Wednesday’s action was Faugheen’s scintillating display to land the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle and he is the next elite performer off the Mullins-Ricci production line and looks set to be a Cheltenham Festival contender for many years to come and with a chasing career beckoning, the six-year-old is already the 7/1 favourite to win the 2015 RSA Chase.

Both Vautour and Faugheen may have eclipsed stablemate Hurricane Fly in the first two days but it was Annie Power from Mullins’ County Carlow stable that provided the Irish punters to claw back their lost Euros on the Fly as the unbeaten mare headed in to battle with four-times Ladbrokes World Hurdle winner Big Buck’s in the most eagerly-anticipated renewal of the three-mile Championship race in years.

Since the news broke that Annie Power would step up in distance she was backed as if defeat was inconceivable but Barry Geraghty had different ideas on the ever-improving More Of That, who was also trying to maintain an unblemished record.

Whilst Big Buck’s struggled to fight out the finish and was duly retired at the end of the race by his connections, it was Annie Power and More Of That who fought out an energy-sapping finish, with the latter just outclassing the mare late on to thrust into the staying limelight and bag victory for a jubilant Jonjo O’Neill, who had a terrific week with Holywell winning the Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase and Taquin Du Seuil landing the JLT Novices Chase to add to More of That’s success.

On Friday, all eyes were on Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti heading into the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup but the two heavyweights were forced to settle for the minor honours in a breathtaking renewal of the week’s feature event, as an army of runners jumped the final fence in contention in front of a capacity 67,000 racegoers.

Whilst the leading two in the betting failed to pick up on the inside, it was towards the stands side that caught the eye as Lord Windermere, who was out the back for most of the race, before the 20/1 shot and last season’s RSA Chase winner came with a barnstorming run to outstay the front running warrior On His Own, with The Giant Bolster back in third.

As the celebrations reached fever pitch in the winner’s enclosure, the Prestbury Park public address system echoed around the course and a lengthy stewards’ enquiry ensued but Lord Windermere, trained by three-times Gold Cup winning rider, Jim Culloty, was announced the winner to hand the Irish their first win in the race since 2006.

The Emerald Isle had a day to remember on Friday afternoon as they bagged a six-timer on the afternoon with Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud racking up a phenomenal 79,611/1 four-timer with Tiger Roll kicking off the quartet with victory in the JCB Triumph Hurdle, whilst 33/1 shot Very Wood saw the bookmakers bag another positive winner when easing to success in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle before Don Poli won the Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle and Savello capped a great day for the Ryanair boss with a win in the Grand Annual as the curtain fell on a fantastic four days of racing.

The 2014 festival will be long remembered for the vanquished champions and the emerging stars of the National Hunt and whilst Hurricane Fly and Big Buck’s may not be seen at the top of the pile in their specific divisions in the future, the sport has a host of stars to look forward to with Vautour, Faugheen and More Of That the most exciting of those who won at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival.

Here’s the YouTube video of the 2014 Gold Cup, arguably one for the ages!

Banking on Rich Ricci for a Cheltenham Payday

Pen in hand, Racing Post website open in front of me, I found myself scratching my head this past week as I looked to mastermind my annual assault on bookmakers at the Cheltenham Festival. Sadly, in recent recent years, that attack has resembled a lame retreat by the end of day two, although for anybody willing to listen, I am always happy to talk about the time I took Skybet for £3,000 from a tenner  having backed Zakandar to win the Adonis and Triumph Hurdle in a double in 2011. I also enjoy recalling the halcyon day that was March 13th 2003  when a £5 Yankee on Baracouda (Stayers Hurdle), Best Mate (Gold Cup), Kingscliff (Foxhunters Chase) and La Landiere (Cathcart) returned £2,700 thanks to Betfred’s generous 100% bonus on an all correct multi!

Meaty wins from small stakes have been few and far between but that doesn’t deter me from going in search of the big one ahead the Festival each year and as I tried to fathom my angle for 2014, I had a moment of sudden inspiration when I thought to myself, “is there a more aptly named person to base my Cheltenham ‘get rich quick’ plan around than multimillionaire banker and racehorse owner with Willie Mullins than Rich Ricci?”

The former Barclays executive has a string of top jumpers based at the the Irish champion trainer’s County Carlow stables and since moving to the UK from the USA just 10 years ago, Ricci has quickly established himself amongst the leading jumps owners. A quick glance at the ante post markets ahead of the Festival shows that Mullins has eight of the favourites in the meeting’s 27 races, four of which are owned by Ricci. They are Champagne Fever in the Arkle Chase,  Faugheen in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle, Ballycasey in the RSA Chase and Annie Power in the World Hurdle.

That quartet make up the first four selections of my multi along with Vautour, who is second favourite to win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Arvika Ligeonniere will also carry the familiar pink silks (with green dots) and features prominently in the Queen Mother Champion chase market at 6/1 but is the one I feel least confident about given. That said, none of the five I’ve backed are certs but I am working off the theory that they all represent a powerhouse of a stable and an owner who is all too familiar with the Prestbury Park winners enclosure. Twelve months ago, Mullins landed the Cheltenham top trainer crown with five winners and his embarrassment of riches sees the 57-year-old the 2/5 favourite to retain that title and recording a quintuple of victories  in 2014 should be more than achievable and  if that proves correct, Ricci’s runners are sure to form the cornerstone of that success. I’ll save the 2,000 extra words and time that it would take me to justify the claims of all five but if you hadn’t realised already, they all boast mighty chances.

A purely speculative bet but one I feel is underpinned by sound logic. A profit of more than double my outlay is the return should just three of the five selections win, four winners will see me smiling and all five will see me on Expedia booking my next excursion to Las Vegas but only after I’ve had a small coronary prior to the conclusion of the World Hurdle!

This kind of bet is normally one I’d keep under my hat and going public sets me up for huge indiscretion should the Mullins challenge flop at Cheltenham but is that really likely? I just hope that I’m on the right runners and since I’m documenting my betting activity a bit more via this blog, any success always seems a bit diluted if bragging after the event so putting any thoughts of ‘jinx’ to one side, here you have it, my pink and green colours firmly nailed to the mast ahead of the Cheltenham Festival!

Best of luck to everyone over the four days…

The bet is the following five horses in trebles, fours and an e/w fivefold.

ricci-bet

What We Learnt Following Cheltenham Trials Day

When Sam Twiston-Davies glanced behind him as he eased Big Buck’s to the front turning for home in the Cleeve Hurdle on Cheltenham’s Trials Day at the weekend, it appeared that the staying sensation was going to record a victory on his return to racing following a near fourteen month absence and a 19th consecutive win. However, the four-times Ladbrokes World Hurdle winner was swamped by 66/1 outsider Knockara Beau in the final furlong in what was one of the biggest shocks seen at the Gloucestershire track in recent years as Big Buck’s slipped back into third place up the hill.

Although a deathly silence spread around Prestbury Park following the defeat of the Ditcheat stable star, it was Paul Nicholls who was first to announce his joy of Big Buck’s run and that he would return considerably fitter for a tilt at a fifth World Hurdle title when he’s next seen in March and the 11-year-old is certainly the one to beat on day three of the Festival according to the bookmakers with the reaction following Saturday’s result just a slight negative market move with Big Buck’s odds of winning the World Hurdle pushed out to 9/4 from 2/1.

Whilst that could prove to be a massive price about one of the best runners the sport has ever seen come the Festival, he will have his work cut out to regain the Championship crown based on the latest form with At Fishers Cross, who finished second in the race, produced his best display of the season under a superb ride from AP McCoy and last year’s Albert Bartlett winner has to be given respect as he excels around the undulations of Cheltenham and should be thereabouts and won’t be short of backers at 7/1.

There’s also Annie Power to consider in the World Hurdle picture. The Willie Mullins trained mare recorded her third straight victory of the season with a 15 length demolition job in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at Doncaster. The ante post value has long about the six-year-old, who is now a 3/1 chance to upset the boys in the old Stayers Hurdle but in receipt of 7lbs from her male counterparts and seemingly of a rapid upwards curve, she’s going to be hard to beat if Mullins does opt to run her in the three mile contest and given he’d be cannibalising his and his connections chances was he to run her in the Champion Hurdle or David Nicholson, the World Hurdle looks the logical choice and for my money, Annie Power is definitely the one to be on at this stage.

Elsewhere at Cheltenham, Paul Nicholls went in to the meeting with an embarrassment of riches but the former champion trainer was forced to take a back seat as he was unable to kick the day off in winning fashion as 11/10 favourite, Vicenzo Mio, was comfortably beaten by Nick Williams’s Le Rocher in the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial and the winner is now a best price 12/1 chance with Ladbrokes for the Friday curtain-raiser in March. However, I’ll be holding off having an ante post bet in that race until the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton at the end of February, which is my favourite trial for Triumph Hurdle clues.

Another Nicholls runner in the form of Rocky Creek was also sent off the favourite, a 6/4 chance to win the Argento Chase, but eight-year-old was out-sprinted by The Giant Bolster in the closing stages to finish seven lengths back in second and Nicholls is now set to try and head for the Grand National in April and at 25/1 in the latest betting for the Aintree spectacle, Rocky Creek could be worth a speculative bet ahead of the weights being announced for the race in a couple of weeks time.

David Pipe’s Red Sherlock was already a name etched into punter’s notebooks after a couple of eye-catching successes in lower company, but the Pond House inmate emerged as a genuine Neptune Novices’ Hurdle challenger as he held off a spirited effort from Willie Mullins’s Rathvinden in the Classic Novices’ Hurdle and is available at 8/1 with Betfred for the Neptun, whilst the Co. Carlow runner-up is on offer at 20/1 but it is another Mullins runner in Faugheen who looks the one to beat in the opening race of day two in just six weeks time.

On a weekend that also saw Hurricane Fly land his fourth Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, there were festival clues aplenty in the UK & Ireland, but the major positive to emerge from some terrific National Hunt action is that Big Buck’s is back and will be bidding for a fifth World Hurdle and that can only be great news for the sport of jumps racing.

Untangling The King George – Al Ferof Taken To Fulfil Grade One Potential Over Fences

The highlight of the festive racing calendar is arguably the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day and following years of domination by Kauto Star, who accounted for five wins in the race between 2006 and 2011, there’s an opportunity for the next generation of chasers to stake a claim at entering the Grade One event’s history books.

Twelve months ago, it was Long Run who looked every bit capable of assuming Kauto Star’s mantle after the Nicky Henderson runner won the Kempton Park feature for a second time, adding to his victory as a six year old in the 2010 renewal. That effort was enough to see him go off as the second-favourite to win this year’s Gold Cup but the eight-year-old failed to make an impression on the eventual winner Bobs Worth to finish back in third and on his subsequent three runs since, has never looked like winning.

Defeat in the Punchestown Gold Cup followed before disappointing in the Charlie Hall Chase on his seasonal reappearance. He finished tailed off when fourth in the Betfair Chase last time out and it’s safe to say that Long Run has not progressed at the rate at which many had hoped when amateur jockey, Sam Waley-Cohen, steered him to victory in the 2011 Gold Cup. In fact, he has just two victories to his name since that Cheltenham triumph almost three years ago.

It would be foolish to totally dismiss his chances of winning the King George for a third time but there’s nothing in his form during 2013 that suggests he’s due to bounce back but with a record of three wins and a second from four starts at Kempton, he’ll not be short of each-way backers at 12/1 but it may pay to look elsewhere to find the winner.

Cue Card is the current market leader at a best price of 3/1 following his win in the Betfair Chase back in November, a performance that sounded out the Colin Tizzard trained seven-year-old as a genuine top-class middle distance contender over fences.

Prior to that win at Haydock , the former Champion Bumper winner had never won beyond 2m 5f and there were plenty of question marks surrounding his stamina. A theory that many thought was confirmed when he failed to make an impression in the King George 12 months ago before making a return to winning ways at Cheltenham when landing the Ryanair Chase by nine lengths back in March.

The current campaign started with defeat in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter in November, where a couple of questionable jumps saw Cue Card finish third when the 11/10 favourite. That effort resulted in him going off at odds of 9/1 in the Betfair Chase but a comfortable four and half length victory made a mockery of the odds compilers opinion and put paid to any stamina doubts.

On that back of that latest win, Cue Card is arguably the one to beat, setting a high standard and whilst there’s no doubting his ability, his lack of consistency does mean that backing him with any great confidence should be approached with caution.

As he proved on his seasonal reappearance at Exeter, a couple of questionable jumps undoubtedly prevented him from winning at the Devon track and any such errors over the 18 obstacles at Kempton will not be forgiving either and for anybody who can remember last year’s King George, Cue Card pecked on landing when jumping the first before eventually finishing fifth so with his reliability the biggest doubt, it may pay to look elsewhere in the market and the answer could be Al Ferof…

Lightly raced for an eight-year-old, Al Ferof is an intriguing contender who could have plenty more to offer with the step up in trip likely to suit. A top-class hurdler for Paul Nicholls, highlighted by his Supreme Novices’ Hurdle win in 2011, the grey had mixed fortunes during his novice chasing campaign but since leaving those ranks, he is unbeaten in two starts having won the Paddy Power Gold Cup on his only start of last season and opening up this term with victory in the Amlin Chase at Ascot last month, albeit against just one rival in the form of Nicky Henderson’s French Opera but he did put in an eye-catching round of jumping.

That race should have worked wonders for his fitness and the King George will be the first time he has raced over three miles since winning a point-to-point in Ireland at the age of four back in 2009. That stat alone suggests that Al Ferof was always intended to be a top performer over jumps from a very early age and with Paul Nicholls accounting for seven of the last 16 winners of the race, there’s no arguing that the Ditcheat handler knows what is required to win the prestigious Grade One and whilst a top level race currently eludes this runner over fences, his calibre is clear for all to see based on recent and past form and he should be more than capable of making his presence felt to continue the Nicholls success story in the race.

Of the others, Dynaste deserves respect but must reverse the four and half length deficit with Cue Card from Haydock as is the case with Silviniaco Conti, who was a further length back in third that day and as already mentioned, it would be foolish to write off Long Run given his past performances at the highest level but it would be a huge upset if any of those not mentioned were to win.

At a price of 4/1, it is Al Ferof though who is the pick to win the Boxing Day showpiece.

Road To Cheltenham Market Movers And Eye-Catchers Update on Irishracing.com

The Cheltenham Festival is just 12 weeks away! That may seem a long time away but Christmas felt a long time away 12 weeks ago…

As such, there’s been a good three months worth of jumps action to cast the eyes over with Cheltenham constantly at the back of the mind. The main protagonists for the Festival’s 27 races have all been seen on a racecourse, allowing for analysis of their Festival credentials, barring a couple of exceptions, namely Sprinter Sacre and Big Buck’s, who will hopefully be seen back on track soon.

Of those that have run, there have been plenty of eye-catching performances and movers within the Cheltenham ante post markets and with the busy Christmas schedule of jumps racing ahead, there’s likely to be a few more twists and turns on the ‘Road to Cheltenham’ to come. However, I have produced a fairly in depth look at the National Hunt season so far over at Irishracing.com, where I summarise the best I can in 1,500 words, the current state of play in the main markets for Cheltenham, reflecting on those performers that have caught the eye during the first half of the season and those who have been subject to market support.

I draw a fairly bold conclusion that Willie Mullins is armed with a battalion of runners that should see the Irish Champion and last season’s leading Festival  Trainer well equipped to successfully defend his crown in 2014.

Read my article @ http://www.irishracing.com/news?prid=73619&headline=Cheltenham-eye-catchers-and-market-movers

I would welcome any feedback either in the comments below or via my Twitter @RichonRacing

Cheltenham Photos

I headed to Prestbury park last Weekend for the International Meeting and took a couple of photos, I wasn’t planning to upload them but felt the blog could do with a bit of colour. I don’t post images with articles to avoid the possibility of legal threats from the big brand “stock photo agencies” but they can’t do anything about my iPhone handy work :-)

Looking Down The CHeltenham Hill

Looking down the Cheltenham Hill before racing.

Best Mate Statue

The great Best Mate

Winter Afternoon at Cheltenham

Winter Afternoon

Off To Cheltenham For The International Meeting

Since I’m off to Cheltenham tomorrow for the International Meeting, I thought I’d do something different and type my form analysis in the way of a blog post, writing straight to the site rather than on to paper.

It’s worth saying that I really love this particular meeting on the occasions I’ve been in the past as it’s never too busy but the magic of Prestbury Park is still as tangible as ever and possibly more so with a few festive touches for good measure.

On to the action and it’s certainly a tough card to untangle with seven races of varying degrees of competitiveness. There are two stand out bets with the first being The New One to win the feature race and I fully expect the Nigel Twiston-Davis trained runner to continue his upward curve on just his second start of the season. Zarkandar is the possible thorn in the side of the current Champion Hurdle ante post favourite as Paul Nicholls will be hoping his charge can confirm the form the last time these two met at Aintree in April where Zarkandar saw off the young rival by 1/2 length. However, with more improvement likely from The New One, he is my pick to reverse the form but isn’t really worth a win bet at the quoted odds of 1/2 and as such, I’ll be doubling him up with French Raider, Gemix, in the last.

The Nicolas Bertran De Balanda trained five year old heads to Prestbury Park to contest the 2m 4f Relkeel Hurdle, which was won by Oscar Whisky the last two years, and this will be his first time running outside of France. That should always spell caution but one look at his eight length win over Solwhit at Auteuil in June suggests that this could be a special horse and is very much the one to beat and at 2/1, he’s worth a single but I’ll also be including him in a ‘banker’ double with The New One.

The Stewart Family Thank You Gold Cup looks an ultra tough handicap chase to decipher but I’m plumbing for Salut Flo who will be running for the first time since winning the Byrne Group Plate at the 2012 Cheltenham Festival. Bouncing back from a 21 month stint off the track will require some doing but if anyone can ready a horse for a handicap following a layoff it is the Pipe yard and I think the eight year old could be very leniently treated by the handicapper and at 10/1, I’m happy to find out if he is fit enough and he makes plenty of each-way appeal.

Elsewhere on the card, another David Pipe trained runner in the form of Kings Palace looks a good thing and following his 18 length demolition job at Cheltenham in October, he’s the pick to make it three wins from three runs for the season in the Albert bartlett Novices’ Hurdle over three miles and looks on course to make a bold bid for the race of the same name at the Festival in March.

Le Bec is the selection in the 12:40, as I’m taking Emma Lavelle’s runner to build on two promising starts so far this campaign to upset the favourite, Shutthefrontdoor, from the Jonjo O’Neil stable.

I’ll be swerving the opening race, a Triumph Hurdle trial for three-year-olds and in the 1:15, the Jenny Mould Memorial Handicap Chase, a small each way interest in Shooters Wood will be my only bet as the Paul Nicholls runner loves running at Cheltenham, as his three wins from four starts suggests.

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