3:40 Kildare Hunt Club FR Sean Breen Memorial Chase
Not the most inspiring race to kick off the five days often being the worst cross country race at the meeting but it a race in which I has fared well in down in the years. Enda Bolger has won four of the last eight runnings so inevitably much of the focus will be on his quartet of Be Positive (Nina Carberry and in a first-time hood), Phar And Away (Derek O’Connor), Fade Away (Mr B Linehan) and Wish Ye Didn’t (Mr T Ryan). Jockey bookings suggest the first-named pair can be the two to concentrate on and they are also the youngest four horses in the 18-runner line up aged five or six.
The horse to beat, however, might be last season’s 7½ lengths’ runner-up Lord Hawkfield as horses to run well in this race the previous year have a good record. Connections have also turned to a hood for the first time and the same jockey, who has only ridden him once in his last 16 starts, is reunited with him so it looks for all the world that he has been primed to go one place better and I doubt any of his rivals today would have beaten Zest For Life who won the race 12 months ago. He was also tracking the leaders in this race two years ago when exiting six out in a race eventually won by Big Shu no less. Big Shu’s trainer is represented this time by Enniskillen who was sixth last year and has run well at Punchestown more than once over the standrad fences including winning a point-to-point here in February so he can go well. Arthur Moore’s Linnel could also be quite interesting over these fences. Not disgraced when fifth to a hunter chaser as good as Warne three starts ago (beaten just under ten lengths though a couple of others beat him as well of course), he was second in the Grand Sefton Chase over the Grand National fences as just a six-year-old in 2011 but he has clearly lost his way since then but shows he likes quirky tests.
Although this is little better than a point-to-point (if that) it has been a good starting point for me down the years and is usually dominated by the leading fancies (13/2 biggest SP of winner in the last nine years) though it has been six years since the favourite won. Last season’s runner-up, Lord Hawkfield, who was also going okay when he exited two years ago, looks like he has been trained with this one race in mind and a first-time hood has been applied so he might be hard to kick out of the frame in a race featuring more dead wood than my back garden. I like the fact that horses who have run well in this race before often return and run well again. Wedger Pardy and Zest For Life, for example, are both dual winners in the last six years. Jockey bookings make me lean the way of Be Positive of the Bolger quartet with Nina Carberry keeping the ride after a no-show at Fairyhouse last time in a hunter chase which was probably a prep to get him ready to give the yard their fifth win in this race in the last nine years. A first-time hood today suggests that might be the case. I will take a chance on Enniskillen rather than any of the three other Bolger runners to complete the short list. Sixth last year for a stable that won this race two years ago and a winner of a point-to-point two months ago, he could also start at a nice each-way price.
4:20 Herald Champion Novice Hurdle
Dawn Run, Hurricane Fly, Moscow Flyer, Brace Inca and Jezki, not a bad Roll of Honour and this season’s renewal looks up to scratch headed by the Neptune winner, Faugheen. Willie Mullins has thrown a curve ball by wanting to drop him in distance to 2m here and raise the brilliant Supreme winner, Vautour, up to 2m4f later in the week and it would be nice to hear an explanation why, but so far that has not been forthcoming though from his comments it has more to do with wanting to see Faugheen over this trip than Vautour over further. Had Vautour run here instead, he would have started an even shorter price favourite than Faugheen will who is currently a shade of odds-on. The favourite has a good record despite six Supreme winners being turned over here having won over half of the last 20 runnings. The last ten winners could be found in the first four in the betting.
I would have looked to take Vautour on here given that the record of the Supreme winner has been surprisingly poor record in this race but as Neptune winners usually run in the 2m4f novice hurdle, we can’t make a similar judgement or otherwise about Faugheen. What I would say, however, is that Neptune winners have a fare better record of following up at Punchestown than the Supreme winners, though how relevant that is given that he drops 5f in trip, I have my doubts. He will certainly need to hurdle much slicker than he did in the Neptune and also his two previous starts dropping back to 2m. Faugheen is a Grade 1 winner and, as 11 of the last 14 winners had won a Grade 1 or Grade 2 race, he is just one of three qualifiers on that count as The Liquidator won the Grade 1 Bumper at this meeting last season (albeit a weak renewal) and Valseur Lido won at Grade 2 at Fairyhouse earlier in the month.
Jezki hit the frame last year in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle before winning this prize and the Supreme is the best relevant guide this year with four winners going back to Brave Inca given that the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle is unrepresented and five of this octet took part in the traditional Cheltenham Festival curtain raiser with Sgt Reckless (4th) finishing ahead of Wicklow Brave (6th), Western Boy (7th), Valseur Lido (10th) and The Liquidator (11th). Vautour was in a class of his own on that occasion but just six lengths covered the next 11 horses home so there is not a lot between this quintet that re-oppose each other today. Wicklow Brave shaped like a non-stayer at the highest level at Cheltenham dropping back from second to sixth on the run-in and has since run like a tired horse when only sixth behind Valseur Lido and Real Steel in a Grade 2 at Fairyhouse since. Sgt Reckless has since finished second at Aintree behind the Supreme second, Josses Hill, (pair clear but he finished five lengths further adrift of the winner than at Cheltenham) whereas Western Boy (previously made Vautour work for his win here in January) and The Liquidator have not run since.
The Grade 2 novice hurdle run at Fairyhouse over Easter has been a very notable guide of late as it has been contested by three of the last six winners but that race was switched this year to take place 23 days ago (maybe as Easter was so late to give the winner a realistic chance of also running here) and was won by Valseur Lido who beat Real Steel by 4½ lengths with Wicklow Brave looking like this race was already one too many for the season running a listless sixth. Quickpic Vic was back in seventh. It was also a very taking win from a horse that had impressed in his first two hurdles starts before meeting with a setback which meant he entered the Supreme off a far-from-ideal preparation.
There has been no British-trained winner for 17 years. That winner was Midnight Legend who won the Top Novices’ Hurdle on his previous start, the race in which Mick Channon’s Sgt Reckless was second earlier in the month. In total, the Brits have sent over just ten runners since his success but perhaps they are missing a trick because from such a small number they have claimed the runner up spot three times so he has each-way claims for sure, and I also think he will appreciate this stiffer course.
All but three of the last 17 winners finished first or second last time out so a demonstration of a horse’s wellbeing on their previous start has proved important. That clearly counts against Wicklow Brave who was poor last time out in addition to Quickpic Vic and that also means Western Boy or The Liquidator would be unusual winners even if was a race as hot as the Supreme where they finished unplaced last time out.
Valseur Lido looks a decent each-way alternative if the likely shade of odds-on about Faugheen doesn’t float your boat, even if this a race in which the favourite has collected 11 times in the last 20 years. The Grade 2 event at Fairyhouse earlier in the month has been an excellent recent guide to this race with three winners emerging from it in the last six years and there was much to enjoy about the style of that success and especially the way he made his ground between the last two flights, which was unsurprisingly a step up on his run in the Supreme as he did not have an ideal preparation heading into Cheltenham where he showed up well until two out. Of course the Supreme is also a decent guide to this race even if the record of the winner at Cheltenham isn’t great so that is another plus point for Valseur Lido but his stable companion, Faugheen, is clearly going to be a huge threat having won the Neptune so well despite errors at three of the last four flights. You only have to watch his bumper win from last May when he destroyed Josses Hill by 22 lengths not to have any concerns whether he has the basic pace to be as effective over 2m as he is over further and I don’t think they would see which way he goes if this were also a bumper but the combination of 2m with eight sets of hurdles means he is no cert to follow up his Cheltenham success if he jumps shoddily again.
4:55 Bragbet.com Handicap Hurdle
The handicaps at this meeting are incredibly difficult and as the last 11 winners of this 18-runner, Grade B, 2m handicap hurdle have all started at a double-figure price, the very best of luck to you. Upgraded from a Class C event last year, eight of the last ten winners carried no more than 10st 7lb so my first inclination is to look at the bottom seven in the weights who carry 10st 7lb or less whereas there is a notable gap to the top 11 in the handicap carrying 10st 12lb+. The most lightweight interesting is the four-year-old, Sea Beat, for Arthur Moore who many fancied for the Fred Winter but he was balloted out so he has not run for 80 days when, in typical Fred Winter profile style, he won a maiden hurdle on his third start over timber to qualify for the race. Unfortunately they did too good a job and he had to miss Cheltenham. As such, he’s fresh and open to any amount of improvement and the yard won this race nine years ago with the subsequent Grade 1 winning chaser, Mansony.
Nicky Henderson does well with his Punchestown runners and sends over Cool Macavity who has not run for 191 days. A useful Flat handicapper, he has won three of his six novice hurdles at low level so he might be better than jumps handicapper believes. Glen Beg and Rocky Wednesday were both sent to Aintree earlier in the month for the 2m handicap hurdle on Grand National day in which Glen Beg fared much the better in third behind Court Minstrel. Any softening in the ground will help there chance. Both should be considered, especially the mare.
Of the higher weighted horses, City Slicker and Lucky Bridle represent Willie Mullins who has won two of the last eight runnings, the former having been outclassed in Grade 2 novice hurdles on his last two starts and the latter returning off a 152-day absence with his last start when winning a maiden hurdle at Thurles in a first-time hood for Graham Wylie but the yard have won handicaps at this meeting with horses returning from much longer breaks that have been aimed at this five-day fixture. Charlie Swan has turned to a hood for the first time for The Game Changer and I have to mention those this week after Cheltenham. Outclassed when eighth behind Josses Hill in a Grade 2 at Aintree last time out, this should be more his bag. Diplomat for the in-form Dermot Weld is also worthy of consideration. His last run was on the Flat 24 days ago when beaten at odds-on in a four-runner heavy-ground affair. If it was the ground he didn’t like (though he has won on Heavy before but he looked much better suited to Good ground with a win and a close-up third the next day at last year’s Galway Festival), he can be given another chance now back to hurdles where the last time we saw him was finishing in midfield in the viciously-competitive Boylesports.com Hurdle.
The Game Changer
Going with the low weights has been the way to go in this race so I will suggest two of those starting with the bottom weight Sea Beat who was a sneaky fancy for many for the Fred Winter at Cheltenham until he was balloted out. Glen Beg was on and off the bridle before finishing third at Aintree last time so that sharp track may have not been ideal for her but it was good run in a competitive race so she can also make her presence felt again here. Lucky Bridle would be my pick of the Mullins pair on his handicap debut and coming off a break so this could have been a long-hatched plan for a yard with two fairly recent wins in this race and I will throw in The Game Changer as the potential fly in the ointment wearing a hood for the first time and seemingly the number one hope of Gigginstown who won his only hurdles start at this course back in December.
5:30 Boylesports.com Champion Chase
Since this race became a Grade 1 contest in 1999, all but two winners started in the first three in the betting and had won a Grade 1 or Grade 2 event. The latter stat is therefore against the three-time Grade 3 winner, Baily Green, the two Cheltenham Festival handicap winners, Ballynagour and Savello, and the Dan Moore Handicap Chase winner, Turban. Hidden Cyclone has Grade 2 wins over hurdles to his name but has only won at Grade 3 level at best over fences. The best Irish two-miler chasers generally bypass Aintree for this Grade 1 contest but as their best three two-mile chasers (Flemenstar, Benefficient and Arvika Ligeonneire) are all injured, and the latter pair have probably run their last race, plus Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy also miss the race, so this season’s contest lacks a horse rated higher than 164. Therefore if that class angle trend is to be beaten, then this looks as good a year for that to happen as any.
It is not at all surprising that the four most prestigious two-mile chases, the Champion Chase, Tingle Creek, Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase and the Clarence House, have featured in the campaigns of plenty of contenders for this Grade 1 prize with the BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase proving to be top dog as you might expect featuring nine of the last 11 winners. Module would have beaten Somersby for second place in a couple more strides at Cheltenham as was the case in the Haldon Gold Cup so there is very little between the two British-trained raiders. The Brits have a decent record since this became a level-weights Grade 1 winning it six times in addition to Big Matt winning the 1998 running when it was Grade 1 handicap and Viking Flagship took the 1993 edition as a novice. Sizing Europe was 3¼ lengths back in fourth in the Champion Chase and Baily Green fell four out when going okay.
Five of the last nine Tingle Creek Chase winners have triumphed here but as there is no Sire De Grugy, the runner-up, Somersby, represents that Sandown form. Two starts later Sire De Grugy put up an even better performance when destroying the subsequent Ryanair Chase second, Hidden Cyclone, by 11 lengths in the Clarence House Chase so, on that form, Hidden Cyclone has something to find and the runner-up’s trainer stated afterwards that he is better left-handed so that is not ideal for Punchestown. Three winners in the last six years finished first or second in that Ascot Grade 1 prize (though it was postponed to Cheltenham when Sprinter Sacre won). The leading Irish guide featuring four of the last ten winners is the Paddy Power Dial-a-Bet Chase where Hidden Cyclone split the retired pair of Benefficient and Arvika Ligeonneire. The Kinloch Brae Chase, run over 2m4f at Thurles in late January, has thrown up two winners in the last decade and this season’s runner-up, Baily Green, might be interesting here having split Texas Jack and Last Instalment with many feeling 2m is still his best trip.
The only three winners since 1992 aged older than nine were all ten-year-olds that won the previous season’s Queen Mother Champion Chase and their class was enough to see them through. No previous non-Champion Chase winner has won aged over the age of nine which is against the 12-year-old Sizing Europe who has form figures of 212 in this race and the ten-year-old, Somersby. French-bred horses have won five of the last seven runnings and they are three-handed this season with Module, Twinlight and Turban. Prominently-ridden horses that have won 13 of the last 15 renewals
Module fits most trends being a French-bred who contested the Champion Chase, and ran very well at that, and is one of two British-trained raiders in a race where they have fared well in so he tops the list. Personally, I think he is better over further than two miles so the faster they go, the better his chance. Baily Green was going well enough when he exited at Cheltenham and then set it up for the mud-loving Bog Warrior on his next start over 2m4f on heavy ground when kicking ten lengths clear down the back straight making it a test of stamina so it was no surprise he was worn down giving away weight to a horse with 3m form. Back to 2m on better ground, the only slightly off-putting factor is his lack of Grade 1 or Grade 2 success but this is not an up-to-scratch renewal and he has won three Grade 3 races and there is no real difference between Grade 2 and Grade 3 races in Irish chases in my opinion. Hidden Cyclone is not my kind of ante-post favourite as he doesn’t fit many trends and may be better left-handed so even if he is older than ideal, Somersby gets the final berth having run well in the two best guides, being British-trained and, despite his lack of big-race wins for one with his talent, he is certainly a proven Grade 1 horse in not the strongest renewal. Also very interesting that McCoy takes over on Somersby from Dominic Elsworth for the first time since 2009.
6:05 Goffs Land Rover Bumper
The first of two bumpers today (and six at the meeting all told), this is restricted to horses bought at Goffs in June last year so few have run, just five of the 20 in fact, but with 100,000 euros up for grabs, it should produce a good horse or two. Four-year-olds have won six of the last eight runnings (but are responsible for 16 of the 20 runners this time) and Willie Mullins has won three of the last eight and he relies on Very Much So, a four-year-old making his debut.
Interesting that Jonjo O’Neill sends over Ustica who made a winning debut at 20/1 at Newcastle last month where he showed a real good turn of foot. Jessica and Katie Harrington combined to win this race in 2009 and they are represented by Gimli’s Voyage who only beat one home on debut at Limerick so perhaps the other horse to consider with a run under its belt is Just Get Cracking who was second in just a six-runner bumper at the same course.
Of the 15 unraced horses, in addition to Very Much So, others likely to attract support are Nicky Henderson’s Native Display with Patrick Mullins booked rather than him being aboard his father’s representative, Tony Martin’s dreadfully-named Whatsforuwontgobyu, Caleb Coomer for John Kiely who has a real touch with bumper horses, Exxaro who is by Presenting for Henry De Bromnhead and top owner Alan Potts, Mags Mullins’ Burton Hall in the colours of Barry Connell and Noel Meade’s Snow Falcon who wears a hood and appears to be the number one with Nina Carberry booked with Katie Walsh on Russian Bill.
Very Much So
Absolute guesswork but the booking of Patrick Mullins for Nicky Henderson aboard Native Display has to be interesting as Willie Mullins has won this bumper three times recently and has a representative in Very Much So. Given the stable’s record of three wins in eight years he therefore has to make the short list. Burton Hall represents a top owner for a yard that does well in bumpers so he might be worth checking out in the market but the percentage play would be Ustica who has already won well showing a good turn of foot when not expected to win striking at 20/1 and although it is a valuable pot, Jonjo O’Neill doesn’t often send over young hoses to this meeting.
6:40 Growise Champion Novice Chase
The Punchestown Festival equivalent of the RSA Chase first run in 1992 and won by the Martin Pipe-trained nine-year-old, Milford Quay, who was the first of five British-trained winners but they are unrepresented this season. However, it was upgraded from a Grade 2 2m5f event to a Grade 1 3m1f race in 2007 so just there are seven runnings to work off in reality so strong patterns are thin on the ground at present.
Sir Des Champs became the first successful favourite two years ago since the race took on a new look when outclassing his field at odds of 2/7 having won what is now the JLT Novices’ Chase on his previous start so he was giving Gigginstown House Stud successive wins in the race following on from Quito De La Roque 12 months earlier and their maroon-and-white silks only found one too good last season when the NH Chase runner-up, Tofino Bay, was the bridesmaid again behind Mount Benbulben. Gigginstown are represented this season by the Grade 1 Drinmore winner and Mildmay Novices’ Chase runner-up, Don Cossack, who fell in the RSA plus Mozoltov who unseated his rider in the Powers Gold Cup nine days ago and fell in the JLT but has won three small chases and finished third in the Irish Arkle.
A big run at Cheltenham Festival can take too much out of a novice, it certainly did for the RSA Chase winner, Cooldine, who had the look of a horse that had not come close to recovering from those Festival exertions when beaten here five years ago and last year’s defeated favourite, Back In Focus, was also below par back in fourth having won the NH Chase on his previous start. As such, this race has so far had an end-of-season feel to it which has resulted in four relatively-surprising winners at 7/1, 9/1, 16/1 and 14/1 in smallish-field events in the seven years since it became a Grade 1 event.
The best Cheltenham Festival form is that of Morning Assembly who was third in the RSA Chase one place ahead of Ballycasey in fourth and a poor-jumping Carlingford Lough who was sixth after being well backed (Don Cossack fell six put when the pace started to quicken). Since then Ballycasey has fallen when leading two out in the Powers Gold Cup nine days ago (three of the last five winners ran at the Fairyhouse Easter Meeting, two finished unplaced in the Powers Gold Cup) but Walsh prefers another last-time-out faller in Djakadam who came to grief in the JLT Novices’ Chase probably as he receives a hefty 9lb weight-for-age allowance which he didn’t get at Cheltenham. You would have to think that allowance was a big factor in Walsh selecting Djakadam over a proven Grade 1 winner over 2m5f in Ballycasey in addition to the potential improvement this five-year-old may find over 3m1f whereas Ballycasey shaped like 3m stretched him in the RSA and this is 3m1f.
The first three winners since the elevation to a Grade 1 had all won at least three times over fences and also over at least three miles as had Quito De La Roque three years ago. However, only Mozoltov has three chase wins to his name but he has yet to win over 3m+ which I would argue is the stronger of those two stats and which is also against Djakadam, Ballycasey and Don Cossack. Then again, two of the three winners that had not won over 3m+ were both trained by Willie Mullins who trains the first-named pair.
A hard race to come up with a short list using purely trends as this is a different race of late but the RSA Chase third Morning Assembly has the least question marks as we know he stays well which is likely to be a big factor having won the 3m Grade 1 novice hurdle at this meeting last season and we know he loves Punchestown having won four times here in five starts. The ground might have been a little livelier than ideal at Cheltenham for him so any more cut would increase his chances. I would prefer Djakadam to Ballycasey and Mozoltov of the Mullins runners as I doubt the latter is good enough and I question whether Ballycasey stays this far on two pieces of form. Walsh seemingly also has his doubts as he rides Djakadam who receives a very tasty 9lb here (only received 1lb weight for age allowance when he fell in the JLT) but his stamina must be taken on trust. Then again, Mullins doesn’t like to run his staying novices over 3m until the day that matters and he has won this race twice with novice trying 3m+ for the first time. I remain unconvinced that Don Cossack has what it takes or stays well enough and it would appear the second-season novice Carlingford Lough has now been caught up with and passed by more talented horses so he has lost his experience edge.
7:15 Finlay Motor Group Bumper
A bit more form to go on in this bumper for four-year-olds who are maidens under Rules than the bumper earlier on the card but not much as 12 of the 19 runners are unraced. Last year’s winner was Very Wood who went on to win this season’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival for Noel Meade but he entered this race having won a point-to-point when trained by Gordon Elliott and ridden by Jane Mangan. Elliott is represented this time by the debutant Alamein for the same owner (Gigginstown) with Nina Carberry booked with Mangan riding Bell Of The Ball on which she was second for another owner/trainer at Wexford 18 days ago. That might just be the best form of the race but there is not a lot in it as Ange D’Or Javilex has twice placed third for Philip Fenton (also runs a debutant called Akito) and four others have also placed.
On balance, however, I would prefer to take a chance on one of the debutants being above average and Forgotten Rules is surely going to be very popular for Dermot Weld and Robbie McNamara in the colours of Moyglare Stud far better known for Group 1 winners on the Flat. The Aga Khan-bred Hasanour for Mick Halford and Katie Walsh is another debutant worth checking in the market and Paul Nolan caused a 25/1 upset when winning this race three years ago and is represented by Fine Theatre.
Those with form, of which Bell Of The Ball appeals most, look beatable, so if I wanted to get involved I would prefer to look at Dermot Weld’s Forgotten Rules for Moyglare Stud who is sure to be popular. Maybe too popular in which instance Hasanour might be a better value each-way alternative as being Aga Khan-bred, he is bred for the Flat (his dam was a dual Listed race winner at the Curragh) so he might be a more than useful bumper horse. Alamein represents last season’s successful owner-trainer combination so is another to consider.