I have now awoken from my Winter Hibernation and I'm all set for a major assault on the Cheltenham Festival. That all begins with a trip to Cheltenham this weekend with my good friend Geegeez Matt and both our families to see what clues their Trials meeting can throw up. The SKY+ is set to record the action for some careful analysis tomorrow, my notepad is at the ready for today's notes and I have my binoculars in hand to spot those further down the field who may be looking for a pay day at another time i.e. at a certain meeting in a few weeks time.
To that end my Cheltenham Festival service starts on Monday with a full review of this very important day's racing along with any ante-post action the Route 66 Service recommends. It's then a non stop barrage of Trends, Stats, Facts, Figures, Race Reviews and, of course, Tips over the next 6 or so weeks as I dissect the meeting from every angle. If it's half as successful as last year I'll be a very happy man. £15 gets you everything including a £25 voucher to spend on a Festival Trends Package this year. Click this link or wait until Monday when I'll be explaining more about this fantastic service.
But first the action from Trials Day. Here are my thoughts for all 7 races along with the horses I'll be backing....
12.40 Juvenile Hurdle
I doubt it will be much of a betting heat but the hot favourite Apples Shakira should win and she should win easily. If she doesn't then I think it's goodbye to my ante-post Triumph Hurdle bet. I won't be backing in the race but she'll be my Placepot Banker and I'll be cheering her on from the stand. It's Defi Du Seuil all over again....
1.15 Novices Handicap Chase
The race has cut up a bit and a maximum of just 7 runners will go to post.
Sizing Tennessee sets the form standard with his neck second to Yanworth but despite being a second season novice chaser his jumping has been a bit suspect this term and, of course, his good form does mean he'll carry top weight. If he wins I'll take it as a good pointer to my ante-post bet on Black Corton for the RSA as their form is quite closely matched. Ballyandy carries second top weight but was over 11 lengths adrift of Sizing Tennessee when running in Yanworth's race (in receipt of 3lbs). He won last year's Betfair Hurdle before finishing 4th in the Supreme Novices and looked like the step up to 2m4f should suit. He's worth another chance at the trip but he only gets 2lb here and you'd have to say his chances of reversing form don't look too good on the book. Full Irish was an okay hurdler but nothing special and it's pretty much the same story over fences. He was well beaten over an inadequate trip on his novice chase debut but stormed home when upped to 3 miles in handicap company on his next start. He couldn't repeat that run when upped 8lb in a better class race at Haydock just before Christmas when sent off favourite and this drop back down in trip isn't sure to suit. War Sound has obviously had his injury problems and missed the whole of last Season but his trainer has managed to get him to the track four times so far this Season. On his first three starts over fences he ran into a Nicky Henderson hotpot (River Wylde, Brain Power and Rather Be) off level weights and, unsurprisingly, came off worst each time. For his fourth chase start he contested a handicap from, what looked at the time, a pretty lenient mark of 135 but he toiled throughout the race before plugging on into 3rd. He's been dropped another 3lb so now runs off 12lb less than his hurdles mark and is upped in trip here for the first time and looks ready to run a big race. My only concern is that the Hobbs stable continues in poor form. Solstice Star is still a maiden over fences but won 5 hurdle races from 20 starts and looked an exciting prospect at the end of the 2015-2016 Season. He began the 2016-17 season over fences but cut little ice in three starts and was returned to hurdles for the remainder of the season, again without any success. Back over fences for the start of this year it was a similar story and his run over hurdles last time out showed little of the good form he had shown a couple of seasons back. Connections have turned to that favoured 'last resort', the wind operation, and it wouldn't have to bring about much improvement to give him a squeak from his lowly 130 rating. Mister Whitaker is a lightly raced 6yo novice chaser who appears to be far better over fences than he was over the smaller obstacles. He got within 5 lengths of 145 rated chaser Adrien Du Pont on his chasing debut and, unsurprisingly, had no problem scoring next time out in handicap company from a rating of just 118 (Solstice Star second giving 11lb). He's since ran well from a 7lb higher mark and looks a progressive sort although another rise of 4lb means he's now 10lb worse off with Solstice Star for the 2 lengths he beat him back in early November. Theatre Territory proved no great shakes as a NH Flat horse or hurdler when with Nicky Henderson despite being quite highly tried on occasions and ended last season rated 125. She's now with Warren Greatrex who has run her three times over fences. Those 3 runs have produced two defeats in average novice company either side of an excellent second place finish in a mares handicap chase at Cheltenham behind the subsequent two time Listed Chase winner and now 145 rated Ms Parfoit. If reproducing that run on her return to the same course she must have an excellent chance here from the bottom of the weights.
RACE ANALYSIS: On a strict reading of the form book, Sizing Tennessee should beat Ballyandy if he stands up and Solstice Star should beat Mister Whitaker. Full Irish doesn't look particularly well handicapped while the form of the Hobbs stable rather puts me off War Sound. I make it between Sizing Tennessee, Solstice Star and Theatre Territory with preference for SIZING TENESSEE @ 3/1 BOG.
I will however be doing a combination forecast on the three runners.
1.50 Grade 3 Handicap Chase
A straight forward reading of the trends shows us that 7 or 8yo's rated 144+ have won 6 of the last 8 renewals and supplied the runner up in the two years that they missed out. Just two horses fit the bill this year and both are available at 11/1. So to keep things nice and simple for the toughest race of the day, I'll be backing both of them each way.
SELECTIONS: O O SEVEN 11/1 (EW) & SHANTOU BOB 11/1 (EW) both BOG
2.25 Cotswold Chase
The one thing to note about this race is that fancied horses have an absolutely dreadful record. Stretching back to 2006, the last 23 horses that started under 4/1 have ALL been beaten. That includes Thistlecrack last year at 4/9, Djakadam the previous year at 5/6, Punchestowns at 11/10, 3 x 6/4 favourites, Grand Crus, Dynaste and Tidal Bay all at 5/2 and a whole host of other big name, well fancied runners. So basically, the omens aren't looking good for the top rated horse Bristol De Mai to get back on the winning trail!
If he does manage to defy the stats and win it will at least rekindle my interest in the 40/1 AntePost Gold Cup voucher I hold on him but I won't be backing him here as I prefer to look further down the betting lists for the race winner.
Another interesting recent trend for this race is that 9 of the last 10 winners have been aged 9 or 10yo during which time we have seen all 13 11yo+ runners get beat (although there were three 11yo winners between 2001-2006) and just 1 of the 25 7 or 8yo runners win (Many Clouds in 2016).
With all bar 1 of the last 20 winners having a rating of 151+ it looks likely that the favourite for last years Grade 3 handicap on this card, Singlefarmpayment, may struggle here. With varying weight penalties in play for this race it does make things quite tight on official ratings with adjusted figures reading: Bristol De Mai 167, The Last Samurai 165, Tea For Two 164, American 161 Definitely Red 159.
That alone would suggest Bristol De Mai isn't quite the good thing the bookmakers would have us believe and is another reason I won't be backing him.....unless he drifts out to 4/1 of course
Looking at the other 4 highly rated runners we find The Last Samurai who's really built up a terrific record over the Grand National fences (2-3-0-2). He has a touch of class about him although he's only ever run in one Graded Chase (5th of 7 in an Irish Grade 1). He found trying to give 12lbs to Definitely Red in a Doncaster handicap last year beyond him but stuck on well to be 14 lengths adrift of him in second. As he gets 6lb from that rival here things aren't as clear cut and with a strict reading of the formbook it would suggest he should in fact finish in front of him. Definitely Red actually did finish behind The Last Samurai in last years Grand National when he pulled up but his form this Season reads quite well. No match for Bristol De Mai when third in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby at the start of the season he scored the best result of his career when taking a closely rated 4 runner Grade 2 Chase at Aintree by 7 lengths on his last start. American was 3 from 3 in novice chases last season and wound up the year winning a novice handicap at Uttoxeter by 8 lengths from Rock The Kasbah. Not a bad run at all from top weight but it was a little surprising to see him sent off at 5/1 second favourite for the Hennessey, sorry Ladbrokes Trophy Chase, back in early December. He pulled up there having never travelled in the race and supposedly has been rested while they got to the bottom of that run. It's asking a lot of a 4 time chase runner to win this Grade 2 contest on his comeback from such a disappointing run and he doesn't appeal to me at all at around 11/2. Probably the biggest question we have to ask here is whether Tea For Two's run in the King George can be taken at face value. If it can then the 9/1 on offer for this race would be a cracking each way bet as his 3 length third to Might Bite (Bristol De Mai pulled up) is probably the third best piece of form on show here (No.1 is Bristol De Mai's romp in the Betfair Chase. No.2 is Tea For Two's Grade 1 win at Aintree from Cue Card last Season).
Actually, if Tea For Two runs anywhere near either of those two Grade 1 efforts he will make the frame here and a big each way bet is in order.
SELECTION: TEA FOR TWO (EW) 9/1 BOG
3.00 Ballymore Novice Hurdle
The race brings together the unexposed hurdlers stepping up to Graded company for the first time versus the Graded campaigners who were beaten last time out (plus 3 outsiders who simply don't look up to this sort of company).
In the former team are the two Nicky Henderson runners, Santini and Pacific De Baume, Tom George's Black Op and the Listed Hurdle winner Tikkanbar. Batting for the other side are Colin Tizzard's Slate House and Warren Greatrex's Mulcahy's Hill who finished 4th and 2nd in Grade 2 and Grade 1 company respectively.
It seems strange that Nicky Henderson's Santini should head the betting here as he has only run once when taking a class 3 novice hurdle at Newbury. Even allowing for the fact that the stablemate he beat that day has gone on to win his next two starts in novice company he'll find this a whole lot tougher. It's a similar story with his other runner Pacific De Baume who is close up in the betting to his stablemate and could quite easily end up as the favourite. He too came from the Point To Point field after just one run and has a single novice hurdle win to his name gained at Newbury in comfortable fashion. The runner up from that race has yet to run again but the third home came out and won by 31 lengths on his next start. Black Op was a classy bumper last Season and beat Claimantakinforgan by over 2 lengths when they met last February. He disappointed on his hurdles debut when only 4th in a Newbury Novice but made no mistake when hacking up from a Henderson maiden novice at Doncaster on his next start. The last of the quartet isn't quite as unexposed as the others as Tikkanbar took a Listed Novice hurdle at Cheltenham on New Years Day on his second start over hurdles having previously made all to win easily at Plumpton. It wasn't the strongest Listed Hurdle ever run at Cheltenham and in truth he probably didn't have to be at his best to win that day. He will need to be today though as he is set to carry a 5lb penalty for that win. Aye Aye Charlie was over 8 lengths back in fourth that day and the 5lb he receives should see him get a little closer to that particular rival.
Slate House was another to come from the Point To Point fields and wasted no time in taking two early season novice hurdles back to back. He was then upped in class to Grade 2 where he ran 4th to Claimantakingforgan under a 5lb penalty. He once again shoulders a 5lb penalty and will once again struggle to contain this field, especially Mulcahys Hill whose shorthead second in the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle is by far the best form on show here and more importantly means he doesn't get a penalty. He'd only just scrambled home to score in a Ffos Las novice hurdle previously but showed improved form to go down by a shorthead to the 148 rated Poetic Rhythm who had run so well under a penalty at Cheltenham on his previous run.
SELECTION: For me, the race revolves around MULCAHYS HILL 11/2 BOG and whether he can reproduce his excellent run at Newbury here at Cheltenham. At the current odds, I'll be betting that he can!
3.35 Cleeve Hurdle
Wholestone was beaten by Court Minstrel, Beer Goggles and Colins Sister in his first three races this Season but defeated Agrapart last time out by just over 3 lengths in receipt of 3lb. He loves Cheltenham and returned to form with that win last time out but from top-weight isn't guaranteed to beat any of the four on revised terms. He's 12lb worse off with Court Minstrel for a length and a half beating and I would suggest the 11yo isn't the worst 66/1 shot running today. Ex Patriot was fourth in the Triumph Hurdle last year and has improved for the step up to 2m4f on his last two starts. He'll need to improve again for the further step up in trip but that isn't beyond the realms of possibilities and is another outsider who may run well. The other outsider Saint Are on the other hand is surely just here for a prep run ready to go back chasing once the Grand National weights are published and won't be winning here. Finians Oscar returns to hurdles after two defeats over fences derailed his chasing career. He had excuses for both defeats and it seems a bit of a knee jerk reaction to bring him back to the smaller obstacles although connections obviously feel the staying hurdle division is ripe for the taking. He gets away with just a 3lb half penalty here and will have to win well to be considered a serious contender for the Stayers Hurdle in March. That's entirely possible as he was one of the best novice staying hurdlers last year. The World's End was another top novice but he's not been able to reproduce anywhere near the level of his novice form in two hurdle spins this term. He got stuck in the mud under a big weight in a hot Haydock handicap at the end of November before running 4th to Sam Spinner in the Long Walk Hurdle where Thomas Campbell was having his Graded race limitations exposed by finishing another 2 lengths back in 5th. Agrapart has mixed running in France with here in the UK over the last 2 seasons as connections search for the very soft conditions their horse requires. We saw him at his best when taking Cheltenham's Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle on New Years Day 2017 in soft ground but struggling on better ground in two subsequent seasonal runs. He came back to form when second behind Wholestone last time out and on level terms it should make for an interesting contest between the two of them. Beer Goggles stepped out of handicap company to spring an almighty surprise in Newbury's Long Distance Hurdle with Colins Sister back in fourth and Wholestone well behind in last. Doubts were cast over the validity of the result at the time and with the rest of the jockeys now aware of the front running tactics Richard Johnson is sure to employ I think he'll be hard pushed to confirm the form. Colin's Sister won the Wetherby Hurdle from Wholestone first time up but hasn't run to that level of form since including when behind Wholestone and Agrapart last time out. She's another to enjoy a weight pull with Wholestone but the 3lb may not be enough to reverse the 6 lengths+ defeat last time out.
This race, like the entire Stayers Division this Season, is a bit of a mess and is another Grade 2 race where weight penalties may play an important part in the result. We should get a great race but it's difficult to predict the result with any great certainty.
SELECTION: I'll have a small bet on FINIANS OSCAR at 7/2 with Corals and a couple of even smaller each way bets on EX PATRIOT 33/1 and COURT MINSTREL 66/1
4.10 Handicap Hurdle
Ever since the Fred Winter last Season I've been following DINO VELVET 14/1 (EW BOG)and after three poor runs this term he is starting to look like a horse with an exploitable rating. He didn't run too badly on either of his first two starts but didn't appear to stay the 2m5f at Kempton last time out. Today is purely a 'get my money back' bet but if he can't go close in this off just 121 then I'll give up betting.....well on him anyway. I mean even the winner of a seller last time out is giving him 4lb!
As always, do what you will with the selections - Back Them, Lay Them or Ignore Them!
Whatever you decide to do with the selections, just make sure you don't miss the racing. It's going to be a very informative day at both Cheltenham and at Doncaster and there's bound to be a stack of Festival clues to be had...