The final curtain is drawing ever so nearer, and with every winner, every fairytale, story and emotion, whilst every winner is celebrated, it is something of the pleasure/pain variety, knowing that with every rush, every buzz, the same event and hysteria is now a year in waiting for the next.
Friday is notoriously the most difficult day of the festival, with the Blue Ribbon event, The Gold Cup, not being my best betting race. The County hurdle and the Martin Pipe are large fields with plenty of handicap plots, and could be something of the unknown. The Albert Bartlett and the Triumph are easier puzzles, yet still remain difficult, and are used as good pointers towards future Champion Hurdle, RSA Chase and Arkle Chase contenders for the following year, whilst the Foxhunters adds variety and the Grand Annual closes the show.
The Triumph Hurdle was a terrific benchmark for form last year, with class Grade 1 and Grade 2 horses coming from Grandouet, Zarkander, Unaccompanied, Third Intention, Molotof as well as numerous handicap scalps. This year’s race looks wide open, and with no obvious winner on paper, we must delve deeper into the formbook.
Saddlers Risk leapt to favouritism after a Kempton novice hurdle win in January, but he was easily dispatched by Cheltenham novice hurdle winner and subsequent Adonis Hurdle winner Baby Mix. Baby Mix was however soundly beaten when running against Pearl Swan and Grumeti in the Triumph Hurdle trial at Cheltenham towards the back end of January. Further down the field Hollow Tree for the Donald McCain stable was soundly beaten, and can be overlooked as well. Pearl Swan won the race, but caused interference and lost the race in the stewards room to GRUMETI for the Alan King stable. He went onto frank the form with a tough, gritty defeat of Dodging Bullets at Kempton in the Dovecote Hurdle, and he looks to have the pick of the form. His only defeat came when falling when 10 lengths clear in a decent look Newbury juvenile hurdle. He is the clear pick of the British, but the Irish don’t look too great a threat this year. Their form is equally as intertwined, with many horses beating each other, and then reversing the form. The last Irish winner was in 1994, and with no powerful claims, it rests with Gordon Elliot and SHADOW CATCHER to offer the each way value. He ran a terrific race when second behind fellow contender Hisaabat in the Sprint Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown, and would have won if held up, hitting the front too soon. With Paul Carberry on board, there is no better jockey when it comes to hold up tactics, and he may prove an upset.
The County Hurdle is one of the most notoriously difficult handicap hurdles of the season, let alone the festival, and has had some memorable finishes in the history of the festival, Final Approach beating Get Me Out of Here on the line, in a thriller. The spoils could remain with The Irish with the Jessica Harrington trained CITIZENSHIP looks to have excellent claims based on his win last time out in the star handicap hurdle of the Leopardstown Spring Festival, keeping on well over the two miles to win comfortably by 2 lengths. He creeps in at the bottom of the weights and based on the form of the race, has a great chance, with numerous horses down the field coming out and running well. A lively outsider could be LOCAL HERO for the modest Steve Gollings yard, and it comes back to the Triumph Hurdle form from last year. He was a 20/1 outsider but ran very gamely to finish eight, only beaten by ten lengths, behind subsequent Grade 1 horses. He ran with credit on his comeback at Kelso behind subsequent Neptune Hurdle winner Simonsig, his first run of the season, and that should have brought him no end for a spring campaign, starting here.
The Albert Bartlett Hurdle is for the novices over the three miles on the new course, and has been a great betting heat for punters. I have already dipped my toe in the ante post pool, and have invested on Mount Belbuben, Sea of Thunder and Boston Bob at significantly bigger prices, and the value seems to have dried up. Willie Mullins has indicated that BOSTON BOB could be one of the horses of a lifetime, and he has done nothing but progress this season, and is unbeaten over hurdles. The strapping seven year old looks to be a potential Gold Cup horses, but has shown tremendous ability over hurdles, winning consecutive Grade 2’s on good and heavy ground. He has had the beating of his only main dangers in the two before mentioned horses, and barring accidents, should win this by a stretch. Sea of Thunder, based on his fall when running over course and distance in January, could chase him home at the prices.
The Gold Cup requires no build up and is the contest that the racing world has been waiting for. Kauto Star, “King Kauto” has passed all fitness tests and will run, aiming to break yet another record. He is the only horse to regain the Gold Cup, and will go up against last years winner Long Run who has finished second behind Kauto twice, in the Betfair Chase and the King George. I love Kauto to bits, and can not bring myself to bet on him, when my heart tells me yes, and head says no. The value looks to be in the betting without the front two, and WHAT A FRIEND makes plenty of appeal. A narrow fourth last year, he has been brought along well, finishing four lengths behind Long Run in the Denman Chase last month. He should appreciate the better ground, and although I hope Kauto wins, I can’t conceivably back him, and will cheer What a Friend on into a place.
The Foxhunters race is somewhat an afterthought and the phrase ‘After the Lord Mayors Show’ springs to mind, but to those involved; it is their respective Gold Cup. With two major absentees in Backstage and Baby Run, the race is wide open, but the classy CHAPOTURGEON would be the most likely winner. The eight year old ticks all boxes from a trends perspective, and was impressive when beating current favourite Cloudy Lane at Newbury in January after a year out. He is entitled to improve and won the Jewson Novice Chase at the festival three years ago, and is clearly a good horse. MERCHANT ROYAL was impressive for the Dermot Weld stable when winning a three mile hunter chase at Thurles on soft ground, and travelled very impressively. There could be more improvement to come and is respected.
The Martin Pipe Conditional Handicap Hurdle was won in impressive fashion by subsequent Jewson Chase winner Sir Des Champs, and usually leads to greater things. A horse already on a promising road is EMPIRE LEVANT for the Paul Nicholls stable. He got within 6 lengths of eventual Champion Hurdle winner Rock on Ruby in a listed hurdle at Newbury, and a line can be wrote through the Betfair Hurdle, with the slow pace not suiting, although the form is working out well. Another strong chance is TONER D’OUDARIES for Gigginstown Stud and Gordon Elliot. He has been aimed at the festival for a long time, and has good heart this season, running behind Steps to Freedom, Unaccompanied, Jetson and Sailors Warn, in a slow steady build. He has good form as a novice, winning a Grade 3, and given he has yet to run on good ground, on breeding, he should thrive on it.
The Johnny Henderson Grand Annual is the final swansong for the 2012 Cheltenham Festival, and is usually the ‘Death or Glory’ moment for punters chasing the week long losses, invariably ending in a bloody and gory finale. This get out of jail opportunity consists of a twenty-one runner handicap chase over the extended two miles, and is one aimed at by the late trainers son, Nicky Henderson. The Master of Seven Barrows has had a record breaking Cheltenham with wins for Simonsig, Finians Rainbow, Bobs Worth, Sprinter Sacre and Riverside Theatre, all in Grade 1 races. He has been plotting this race for months, and has SIX of the current entries, all with strong chances.
Anquetta has Andrew Tinkler on board, and was impressive in a Listed Handicap Chase at Ascot. He has since lost his way though, falling in his subsequent run, and finishing last of ten in a valuable chase at Doncaster and can be overlooked. Novice chaser Eradicate finished his hurdling campaign with a Grade 3 win at Haydock, and in novice chases, has two wins and a nose defeat. Leading jockey Barry Geraghty has opted for Tanks for That, and he looked to have a bright season on the cards with a win at the Cheltenham Open Meeting in a valuable seventeen runner handicap chase. He has struggled since the 9lb hike in the weights, and prefers running fresh. Kid Cassidy has AP on board, and chooses him ahead of Bellvano, but both look poorly handicapped. FRENCH OPERA looks to be on his way back, since returning behind Sprinter Sacre in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury. Sprinter Sacre beat him by six lengths, on the bridle, but that was shown to be no fluke, sparkling in the Arkle. French Opera is a Grade 2 winning chaser and has a good record at Cheltenham, including two victories. He looks very interesting. The other fancy is TARA ROYAL for the in form Donald McCain yard, and as cliché as it may sound, if this horse was well backed, I would be even more appealed to it. The stable landed a touch when winning the Scottish Champion Chase with him at Musselburgh and he seemed to appreciate the strong pace and good ground, both he will find to his liking at Cheltenham. Ultimate finished down the field that day, and now has a 6lb swing, but the Brian Ellison charge could be out of his depth here. Tara Royal and French Opera look the two most appealing at the prices, and have come good at the right time. Both stables are enjoying exceptional weeks, and have come into the race on the back of terrific runs, in good company, and further more will like the strong pace mainly only seen at Cheltenham. Cornas and the JP McManus could fill out the places, if ridden to their style of running.
1.30 Grumeti (Ew) & Shadow Catcher (Ew) 2.05 Citizenship & Local Hero (Ew) 2.40 Boston Bob (Nap) 3.20 What a Friend (Betting without Long Run/Kauto EW) 4.00 Chapoturgeon & Merchant Royal (Ew) 4.40 Toner D’oudaries (Ew) & Empire Levant (Ew) 5.15 French Opera (Ew) & Tara Royal (Ew)
The Yorkshireman – Jack Milner