This week’s and next week’s column are slightly different to normal as I will be taking a few days of this week and next week I will be doing an in-depth analysis of the Cheltenham Festival which is now just three weeks away. Where has this winter jumps season gone?
In this week’s column looking at horse racing eyecatchers, you will find the following:
• Look at the best performances from the weekend;
• Last week’s horses for your trackers;
• A look at the Champion Hurdle picture for the next instalment of my Cheltenham Ante Post Briefing.
Weekend Look Back
Yanworth did just enough to win the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. He knows how to win although the manner of his wins this winter has hardly been in the spectacular category. Trainer Alan King felt the seven-year-old was only 90% fit and a sharp two miles around Wincanton would be plenty sharp enough him. He looks the one to beat in the Champion Hurdle and gives owner J P McManus the first and second favourites for the race.
Cue Card bounced back to form by winning at Ascot Chase on the drop back to 2m 5f. He clearly wasn’t right in the King George at Kempton on his previous start. All roads now lead to the Gold Cup, a race where he fell when disputing the lead three out. There would be some great scenes of if this popular horse was to win the big one next month.
Vieux Lion Rouge trained by David Pipe followed up his Becher Chase with a win the Grand National Trial at Haydock. In all truth, it paid to be up with the pace as no horses could get into the race from behind. Gas Line Boy jumped well out in front and was still in with a chance three out but he couldn’t find any extra as the Pipe horse and the eventual runner-up Blaklion went on to fight out a great finish at the end of a true test of stamina. The winner and runner-up will meet up again at Aintree and both can go well but I just wonder if Vieux Lion Rouge will stay the extra distance of the National and if this will be a year too early for Blaklion. The Sue Smith-trained Vintage Clouds did best of the hold-up horses. He remains a maiden over fences after five attempts but at least he showed he can stay a marathon trip. Maybe connection will look at the 4m Scottish Grand National as an end of season target for the 7-year-old.
This Weeks Eyecatchers
Friday 17th February
Popelys Gull – Pam Sly – Trainer has her horses in cracking form and the five-year-old built on his staying on 4th at Catterick on his last start. The step up to 3m looked set to suit on the evidence of his previous run and he saw it out well but sadly he came up against a horse who improved for the first time cheekpieces. He finished nicely clear of the 3rd and there should be a modest staying handicap hurdle in him before the season is out.
Saturday 18th February
Max Forte – Chris Down – Was nicely backed before running in the 3m handicap hurdle. Clearly, the market thinks the 7-year-old is on a winnable mark. He was still in with a chance two out but soon faded out of it to finish a well-beaten 4th. This was a much better run than his two previous starts this season. He possibly found the soft ground too much given this was his first run since the beginning of December. His best performances so far have come on good or good to soft going. Has only had 8 starts over hurdles winning the once at Wincanton.
Cheltenham Festival Ante Post Briefing
Stan James Champion Hurdle – 14th March 2017
The Champion Hurdle is the highlight of Day 1 of the Cheltenham Festival and is the top level weight 2-mile hurdle race of the National Hunt calendar. In the past ten years, the average number of runners in the race is just under 12.
The withdrawal of both Annie Power and Faugheen trained by Willie Mullins caused a major upheaval of the betting market. With the ante-post favourite now being the Nicky Henderson-trained Buveur D’Air who is around the 3/1 mark for the race. This one started this season chasing but returned to hurdles with a facile win at Sandown this month. His purchase by J P McManus could well turn out to be a shrewd one but even in what looks a weak renewal he makes no appeal at his present odds.
The second in the ante-post betting is another J P McManus horse in Yanworth who added the Kingwell Hurdle to the Christmas Hurdle. As I mentioned earlier his trainer Alan King felt he was only 90% fit for the Kingwell. The 7-year-old looks like his optimum trip will be further than 2m and his wins at Kempton and Wincanton have both come on what are considered speed favouring tracks so not surprising then he hasn’t looked that spectacular in winning there. The stiffer track at Cheltenham will suit as would a strong early pace. Barry Geraghty will have a tough choice to make but I think he will opt for the King horse who should be favourite for me and he can still be backed at 9/2 with the sponsors.
Third in on most ante-post lists is the Henry De Bromhead trained Petit Mouchoir who comes into the race having won the Ryanair Hurdle and the Irish Champion Hurdle which are both Grade 1 races. Arguably he goes into the race with the best form of the contenders but he has only beaten 7 rivals in those two races and was allowed to dictate the pace on both occasions. I am not sure he will get that luxury next month.
Of the rest, I have been of the opinion that The New One’s chance of winning this race had gone but now I am not so sure. This year’s renewal is probably the weakest one he has run in. He always gives his backers a run for their money and has solid each-way claims even at the age of 9. He can still be backed at 16/1 in a place and it could just be his year.
Vroum Vroum Mag trained by Willie Mullins who was set for the Mares Hurdle at the Festival a race she won last year could be switched to this race but on the evidence of her last run in a mares race at Doncaster, when she just scrambled home over an extended 2 miles, looks in need of further. A classy mare at her best that wouldn’t be out of place in the race if she did take her chance in the race!
Verdict: It looks a weak Champion Hurdle this year and none of the front three in the ante-post betting are asking to be backed at their present odds. It will be worth holding on till the night before the race when the bookmakers will be offering better odds about the main contenders.
I was hoping my Cheltenham Gold Cup ante-post briefing would be ready for this week but it will now be in next week’s column.
Something for the Weekend
There is some good racing this weekend coming up with the 4 mile Betfred Eider Chase at Newcastle and the 3-mile Betbright Handicap Chase at Kempton. I would have fancied the recent Punchestown winner Baie Des Iles but she’s not a certain runner as she set to carry top weight of 11-12. If the ground is soft the well handicapped Shotgun Paddy will take some beating, he was runner-up in the race last year and now races off a 7lb lower mark. He usually runs well in this big field handicaps and looks set to go off favourite despite not having won for over 3 years. The 8/1 available looks solid each-way value, however.
The going on Saturday will determine my final selections for the Betbright Chase. Heading the ante-post betting for the race is Tea For Two (7/1) who is a much better horsed going right-handed and is 3 wins from 4 runs at Kempton. Then there is recent Market Rasen winner Three Musketeers who is another who is suited by going right handed and a flat track. Recent C&D winner Double Shuffle has to be respected and he would be suited by good ground. Add in last year’s winner Theatre Guide and we have the makings of a good race.
My Eider and Betbright Chase selections will be available for Eyecatcher Pro subscribers on Friday evening although I will not be adding any notes to the eyecatchers running, this week until the weekend!
All that’s left is to wish you all a profitable weeks betting.