1.30 Cheltenham – The Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle Race (Grade 1) (Registered As The Baring Bingham)
The Ballymore has often been the punters’ friend over the years and the fact that the front 5 in the market are 15/90 in the last 16 renewals really underlines that fact. The market is currently headed by Samcro with Next Destination, Black Op, Duc des Genievres and Vision des Flos completing the top five.
Willie Mullins has been the man to follow here with 4 winners in the last 10 years and he looks to have a strong hand once again with four runners lining up. His assault for a fifth winner is led by Next Destination and Duc des Genievres this year.
Top-level form is a definite plus with only 2 of the last 9 winners not previously successful in a Graded hurdle. Somewhat surprisingly, there are only two horses in this year’s line-up that fit the bill here which is a big plus for the top two in the betting, Samcro and Next Destination.
The extended 2m5f with the stiff finish up the Cheltenham hill is a stern test f stamina so it should come as little surprise that former pointers have enjoyed success here. 5 of the last 8 winners started their careers in an Irish point-to-point which boosts the chances of Samcro, Next Destination and Black Op.
In contrast, horses that began on the Flat have a wretched record here with 0/27 since 2005. Stoutly-bred types seem the way forward so this certainly puts a blot on the copybook of Scarpeta.
Although they have been in the minority for the last thirty years, horses aged seven-years-old and upwards have been easily opposable here with a 0/52 record in the last 18 renewals. Only Black Op and Brahma Bull fall into that category this year.
The official ratings can often be overlooked in these type of races but it is worthwhile knowing that horses from the top 2 on BHA ratings are 7/22 in the last decade. On paper, this should be obvious given only four-year-olds and fillies and mares receive an allowance but we all know races don’t take place on paper! Samcro is top rated this time round and could well improve on that already eye-catching record.
Unsurprisingly, the top two in the market emerge at the head of the shortlist, with a fair distance between them and the remainder of the field. Next Destination just heads the list due to Willie Mullins’ record in the race. The six-year-old is already a winner at the highest level and has the added boost of contesting the Champion Bumper here last year (horses that ran in the Graded bumpers at the big spring Festivals are 6/35 this century).
Samcro isn’t far behind in second on the shortlist as the top-rated runner in the field. Another unbeaten former Irish pointer, Gordon Elliott’s charge skipped the major spring Festivals last year but arrives this time round with very strong claims having sluiced up in the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle last time out.
From a stats perspective it looks like another Mullins/Elliott head-to-head but Black Op leads the British charge and completes the shortlist. Tom George’s seven-year-old has the age trend to overcome but he looks to be getting better with every run and may well have landed the Grade 2 Classic Novices’ Hurdle but for a final flight blunder last time.
2.10 Cheltenham – The RSA Insurance Novices’ Steeple Chase (Grade 1)
This Novices’ stayers’ chase is not one for horses that have spent a full two seasons over hurdles, we have to go back to Young Hustler in 1993 for the last winner of this that has. Ballyoptic and Presenting Percy fall foul of this particular stat in this year’s field.
Having said that, experience is still important in this race, but over fences. There has been just the sole winner since 1998 to have had less than 3 starts over fences; not a good sign for Bonbon au Miel and Allysson Monterg.
Usually an attritional affair, this race doesn’t usually sit well with the flashy types and only Denman and Don Poli have won the race having been unbeaten over fences since 1988. Allysson Monterg will be looking to overcome this trend this time round.
However, top-level form has been a good indicator recently and 3 of the last 9 winners of this had already won a Grade 1 over fences, while 3 of the other 6 winners were placed in Grade 1’s. Monalee and Black Corton are the only Grade 1 victor’s in the field here.
The previous year’s Albert Bartlett has often been a good guide to this and has featured 5 of the last 8 winners of the RSA, a record that may have been even better had Boston Bob stood up at the last in 2013. The likes of Monalee and Elegant Escape may look to improve this stat even further this year.
4 of the last 9 winners also ran in the Flogas Novices’ Chase at Leopardstown, so pay close attention to Monalee, Al Boum Photo and Dounikos.
It seems common place now for Willie Mullins to have a good record in the Festival Grade 1s and the RSA follows suit. Mullins has saddled 4 winners from 21 runners in this race which makes Al Boum Photo and Bonbon au Miel of particular interest.
Monalee ticks a lot of the right boxes here and emerges narrowly at the top of the shortlist. His win in the Flogas Novice Chase is a big pointer when it comes to the RSA and the fact he contested last year’s Albert Bartlett, and performed very well in second, is another massive plus.
Elegant Escape was well adrift in the very same Albert Bartlett but looks a much better animal now tackling fences. He just creeps into second spot on the shortlist with his experience over fences a big plus.
By far and away the most experienced runner in the line-up, Black Corton, completes the shortlist, thanks mainly in part to his win in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
2.50 Cheltenham – The Coral Cup Hanidcap Hurdle (Grade 3)
When faced with a big-field handicap such as the Coral Cup, it can be tempting to try and find a horse who has been under the radar on recent starts. However, it may interest you to know that 9 of the last 15 winners had won their most recent start, which suggests it is horses arriving in top form, such as William Henry and Topofthegame that we should be focussing on.
That is backed up by the fact that 7 of the last 9 winners came from the top 8 in the weights, so we shouldn’t spend too much time looking for one that has managed to sneak in at the bottom of the handicap. Diamond King, William Henry, Topofthegame, Abbyssial, River Frost, Bleu Berry, Burbank and Voix Du Reve top the field this time round.
For a race as competitive as this, it may also surprise you to learn that the market has proved an excellent guide, with 11 of the last 12 winners coming from the first 7 in the market. In fact, other than Medinas who won at 33/1 in 2013, no winner in the last decade has been sent off any bigger than 16/1. Max Dynamite and William Henry head the bookies’ boards at the time of writing.
It appears that the fitting of headgear does not have the same effect in the Coral Cup as some of the other races throughout the week. You have to go back to Sky’s The Limit who wore a visor to victory in 2006 to find the last winner with headgear fitted and the last 60 horses to have worn headgear in the race have all been beaten.
It seems surprising given the strong pace that the Coral Cup is usually run at that stayers haven’t found this race to their liking. Perhaps they find things all happening a bit too quickly, or it may just be difficult to stay on from out the back in such a hotly-contested big-field, whatever the reason, the fact remains that 9 of the last 17 winners had never run over as far as the 2m5f trip here.
Experience, or inexperience, is normally a key factor with Festival handicaps and we have a bit of a mixture of both to take into account when it comes to the Coral Cup. Second-season hurdlers have a very good record with 10 victories in the last 13 years.
Gordon Elliott has been the only trainer to double up in the last 10 years, a very solid record given he has had only 8 runners in the race. Elliott’s challenge this year is led by Diamond King and Barra.
A typically competitive renewal of the Coral Cup in which a couple of last time out winners make plenty of appeal. William Henry seemed to appreciate the switch back to hurdling at Kempton last time and he once again has the assistance of leading conditional James Bowen in the saddle. Topofthegame also won a valuable handicap hurdle the last time we saw him but there is every chance we haven’t seen the best of Paul Nicholls’ lightly-raced six-year-old yet. Diamond King landed this prize two years ago and having slid down the weights in recent months, warrants plenty of respect for the Elliott-Russell axis. The final member of the shortlist is River Frost who was out of sorts the last time we saw him but it would be no surprise to see him go close if bouncing back to form.
3.30 Cheltenham – The Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1)
Unsurprisingly, the equivalent race for novices, the Arkle, has proven a great guide for the Champion Chase twelve months later. Of the 9 winners of that particular contest to line up here since 2003, 5 have won with 3 runners-up. A big boost for the red-hot jolly Altior.
Favourites haven’t had the greatest record in recent times with only 3 of the last 12 renewals being won by the market leader. However, it still pays to keep the focus on the head of affairs on the bookies’ board with 11 of the last 17 winners coming from the top two in the betting. Music to the ears of Douvan and Altior.
With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a shock that outsiders generally have their work cut out. Sizing Europe and Big Zeb struck at 10/1 in consecutive years but only 1 horse with a bigger SP than Special Tiara’s 11/1 last year has prevailed since 1993, meaning we can rule out all but the previously mentioned market leaders and Min.
8 of the last 12 winners won last time out so we need to be looking at a horse that arrives here in form. Only Altior and Min fit the bill here and must come into consideration.
It should come as no surprise that in a Championship race of this calibre, top-level form comes to the fore and the Champion Chase has more often than not gone the way of a proven quality performer. 14 winners this century had already prevailed in a Grade 1 prior to lining up here; leaving Charbel and Ordinary World with a bit to find.
Given the strong record of those at the head of the market, it should come as no surprise that the three currently atop the bookies’ boards find themselves on the shortlist. Altior is the clear leader with an expected strong performance stats-wise, being the previous year’s Arkle winner is always a major plus when it comes to the following season’s Champion Chase. Assuming all is well following his reported lameness on Monday, he should take all the beating.
It’s a bit of a strange renewal though with question marks surrounding the main players as Douvan returns having injured himself in last year’s renewal. Again, it’s a case of taking his fitness on trust but his performance last year was really too bad to be true and there could be a mouth-watering clash on the cards if everyone turns up fighting fit.
His stablemate Min has been the forgotten one of the trio but he comfortably makes the shortlist and could well be the one to pick up the pieces if his two main market rivals aren’t quite at the top of the game.
4.10 Cheltenham – The Glenfarclas Steeple Chase (A Cross Country Steeple Chase)
Always one of the Festival’s most unique spectacles, the Cross Country Chase was run as a conditions race for the first time in 2016, which certainly looks to favour the classier horses as they no longer have to give lumps of weight away.
However, a good grasp of these fences and obstacles still seems to be an essential quality that the winner of this race will have. horses having their first run in a cross country race are 1/53 so far, not great news for leading fancy The Last Samuri, while those placed in their last run in the race have an above average record of 4/30, a boost for last year’s 1-2-3, Cause of Causes, Bless The Wings and Cantlow.
Tying in with course experience, the Cross Country has favoured the more battle-hardened campaigners as well with 8 of the 13 first past the post aged 10+. Factor in that half of those were 12+ and we really shouldn’t be put off by those contenders at the veteran stage of their careers. These include Cantlow, Bless The Wings and Saint Are in this year’s line-up.
Experience of the course is important for jockeys too and Adrian Heskin was the only winner to be having his first ride over the complicated course on A New Story in 2010. Nina Carberry and Davy Russell are the only jockeys with rides to have recorded multiple wins in the race to their name so their mounts, Bless The Wings and Josies Orders respectively, are worthy of extra respect.
With this now being run as a conditions race, the betting can be expected to be a good guide but even when the contest was a handicap, those at the head of the market were certainly the way to go. 9 of the 12 winners, 10 if including Josies Orders being awarded the race in 2016, have come from the front 3 in the market and 11 of the last 13 first past the post in cross country conditions events were in the top 2. Cause of Causes, The Last Samuri and Tiger Roll head the bookies’ boards at the time of writing.
Bless The Wings
No one horse readily stands out once the trends have been applied but we have a three-way tie for the lead which makes the shortlist pretty easy to select.
With the form of the previous year’s renewal coming to the fore, it isn’t a massive surprise that Bless The Wings emerges as a contender. The 13-year-old was well beaten by stablemate Cause of Causes last year but has the benefit of Davy Russell on board once more and arrives here fresh on the back of landing the handicap at the International Meeting in December.
Cantlow was just a couple of lengths behind him that day and finished even closer when third in this 12 months ago. He is another well and truly at the veteran stage of his career but is still well capable of getting involved in these contests and looks to represent a good bit of each-way value.
Like the other two on the shortlist, Tiger Roll has been well rested having been off the track since December. He was just fifth on that occasion but will have benefitted greatly from that experience and we all know that he comes good in the spring having landed the Triumph back in 2014 and the National Hunt Chase 12 months ago.
4.50 Cheltenham – The Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3)
Paul Nicholls has an excellent record in this race over the years having saddled race with 3 winners in the last eight years as well as a number of placed horses. His charges this year, Act Of Valour and Grand Sancy therefore warrant plenty respect.
Given that the minimum number of runs has proved beneficial, it should come as no surprise that those making their handicap debuts have had a good record. Only 2 winners had previously run in a handicap hurdle prior to lining up here, which doesn’t bode well for the likes of Eragon de Chanay, Oxford Blu and Brave Dancing.
It may come as a surprise that half of the 12 winners had raced against their elders over hurdles prior to lining up here. Few juveniles tend to take their place in novice/maiden events throughout the season so this is a stat well worth keeping on the right side of. Leading fancies Nube Negra, Lisp and Esprit de Somoza have this in their favour.
The Fred Winter has been a race in which horses at big prices have done well. Diego du Charmil was well-backed to be sent off 13/2 in 2016 but prior to that the starting prices of the last 4 winners were 25/1, 33/1, 25/1 and 40/1 so don’t be afraid of taking a punt on one at a big price.
With outsiders having such a stellar record, the fact that 6 of the 12 winners had won last time out would seem to be a bit of an anomaly. The strength of novice/maiden hurdles, and in particular juvenile hurdles, can often come into question meaning that a victory in what is perceived to be a lesser race, is overlooked by both the handicapper and the bookies. A ‘1’ next to a horse’s name certainly seems a bonus though, giving the likes of Embole, Nube Negra and Mitchouka a big boost.
Also, 9 of the 10 winners had run over hurdles in the previous 37 days. For horses with such little experience, it is clearly beneficial to have a recent run under their belt, so be wary of any runner returning from a fair absence such as Casa Tall, Nube Negra and Knight Destroyer.
Another growing trend across a number of Festival races is the fact that the application of headgear is no longer a negative. Runners in headgear are 4/73 in the Fred Winter and it may just be the case that the younger horses benefit from the help of cheekpieces/blinkers/visor etc. keeping their focus on the job in hand. Grand Sancy, Embole and Solo Saxophone are among the fancied runners with headgear applied this time round.
It looks to be typically wide open renewal of the Fred Winter but given his excellent record in the race, it is hard to ignore Paul Nicholls’ two runners. The market has spoken in favour of Act Of Valour but he also saddles Grand Sancy at a bigger price who looks to have plenty going in his favour. He has already taken on his elders under rules and he should appreciate the return to soft ground.
Nicholls’ former assistant Dan Skelton is bidding to win the race for the first time and both Embole and Solo Saxophone look well-placed to run well at big prices. The Irish don’t have the best of records in the race but the last Irishman to saddle the winner was Gordon Elliott and he looks to have a leading fancy in the shape of Mitchouka. He won a Grade 3 a Fairyhouse last time and although he has plenty of weight on his back, it would be no surprise to see him run a big race.
5.30 Cheltenham – The Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Grade 1)
Willie Mullins is a master when it comes to bumpers and he has been the main trainer to follow here with 8 of the 25 winners to his name. Blackbow heads the Mullins’ charge this year but it is not always his most fancied runner that has come out on top so don’t rule out Carefully Selected, Colreevy, Relegate or Tornado Flyer either. His last three winners returned at odds of 12/1, 16/1 and 25/1 and though he didn’t win last year, Next Destination (10/1) finished fourth, well ahead of his more fancied stablemate Carter McKay. In particular, the mount of his son Patrick has tended to perform better than expected with 2 winners from 10 rides, a big plus for Blackbow this year.
Irish form still comes to the fore though no matter which country the winner is trained in as Moon Racer and Cheltenian both started their careers in Ireland. 15 of the last 17 winners have made their racecourse debuts across the Irish Sea so pay particular attention to Know The Score and Herecomestheboom who started their careers in Ireland before being acquired by British trainers.
A ‘1’ next to the name is imperative when it comes to the Champion bumper with only 2 of the 25 winners having been beaten on their latest start. Rhinestone is one of the more fancied runners that falls outside of this category this time round.
An unblemished record though is not necessarily a bad thing as 14 of the 25 winners (including 6 of the last 7) had tasted defeat at least once in either points or bumpers. Some of the more fancied runners in this year’s line-up include Blackbow, Felix Desjy and Didtheyleaveuoutto.
Prior experience, whether it be winning or not, has counted for a lot here and it comes as a bit of a surprise that 4 of the last 5 winners were in fact second season horses. Given that very few animals spend more than a single season campaigning in bumpers, this is very much a statistic to take note of. Blackbow, Carefully Selected, Colreevy, Felix Desjy, Doc Penfro and The Big Bite come into this year’s renewal in their second season so are certainly worth a second look.
With the experience factor clearly a big influence, it makes sense that those aged in the youngest bracket, four-year-olds, have a pretty indifferent record. Although 5 have finished runner-up this century, Cue Card is the only juvenile to prevail from 54 attempts. Not a good sign for Acey Milan, Arch My Boy, Jaytrack Parkhomes and Volcano.
Bumper form is notoriously difficult to assess and with the majority of the field here having had only a couple of runs, we rarely have the benefit of crossing form lines. Therefore, it comes as a bit of a surprise that 3 of the last 10 top-rated horses came out on top here. Another tick in the box for Blackbow.
With Willie Mullins’ record, it comes as no surprise that three of his runners make up the shortlist here. Blackbow tops the lot as the top-rated horse in the race with Paddy Mullins in the plate. The knock against the current favourite is that although now trained at Closutton, he started his career much closer to home.
His stablemate Carefully Selected fits the criteria of the bigger-priced Mullins runner and falls into the category of a second-season horse having had a couple of spins in points about a year ago. He looks a likely type given he has already proven his stamina with a 2m4f bumper victory already to his name and is interesting as the choice of Ruby Walsh.
Although a tad left field, Colreevy sneaks into the final place on the shortlist. She was well fancied and looked to be travelling strongly until just being caught for a bit of toe by stablemate and the re-opposing Relegate. Back on more testing ground with the steep uphill finish here, she should be more at home and could well be one to keep an eye on at a big price