Monday March 20th Cheltenham is over for another year and the 2017 Festival was four days of fantastic sporting drama that crosses the complete social spectrum and never disappoints. To my eyes every winner was so on merit but where do we go from here and who will be back next year and in which race? I will look at each division for our four legged heroes before some random thoughts on the two legged competitors and the changing face of betting on the Cheltenham Festival. Many of the opinions won’t be original but they will be personal.
GOLD CUP Quite simply the Holy Grail of National Hunt racing and this is the ambition for all the big hitters writing those six figure cheques, this year it was Alan Potts, last year it was Gigginstown Stud and the O’Learys. The 2017 edition was an excellent race and the good news is that the first five could/should be back again twelve months hence. Sizing John did stay, Minella Rocco kept on best, Native River is more than a handicapper, Djakadam was close again and Saphir de Rheu ran a career best in fifth. If any were to miss out next year it could be Djakadam switching to the Ryanair but much would depend if Douvan returns from injury in full health and if connections see him as a Gold Cup horse. Thistlecrack will hopefully be added as could be Coneygree. There are also a number of contenders possible from the Novice ranks which I will cover when I get there.
CHAMPION HURDLE Buveur D’Air was a comfortable, deserved winner this year in a cracking time, with the 2016 Supreme form once again being franked, and I would be hard pressed to make a case for anything beaten here reversing the form. Of the newcomers only the 4yo Defi du Seuil and possibly the Supreme third River Wylde could be contenders. However this division is dominated by two ghosts, namely the Willie Mullins/Rich Ricci pair of Faugheen and Annie Power, who on most people’s ratings are 7-10lbs ahead but we have seen neither all season.
QEQM CHAMPION CHASE Great race this year but the result was substandard with Douvan landing on top of the third, injuring himself and now out for the season. Altior steps out of the novice ranks for next season and as I think Closutton will step Douvan up in trip I expect Altior to spend the year beating the same five or six horses all season! Min, Un de Sceaux back in trip, Yorkhill back in trip and possibly an eyeballs out Ar Mad might give him a race.
STAYERS HURDLE Would love to see the first three take on each other at Punchestown in six weeks time with a bit more give in the ground. I am not sure that Nichols Canyon, Lil Rockefeller, Unowhatimeanharry would be the I,2,3. Throw in Yanworth and Presenting Percy and let’s see what happens?
NOVICE HURDLERS I am of the opinion that the form of the 2017 Cheltenham novice hurdlers won’t hold up past Aintree and Punchestown! I will be amazed if Labaik, Willoughby Court and Penhill are the top rated horses at their respective trips come the end of the season. The race most likely to hold up is the Neptune. I hope that Harry Fry puts Neon Wolf in the box with Unowhatimeanharry for Punchestown. Melon has another run under his belt and having run a cracker here could be a star at Punchestown. Bacardys never had the run of the race and will do better at his next Festival. Throw into the mix Any Second Now, Finians Oscar, Movewiththetimes, Robin Roe and Invitation Only and I think this division is yet to take shape.
NOVICE CHASERS Altior wasn’t at his best but still won the Arkle although I’m sure the connections of Charbel will be keen to have another crack. Both Charbel and Altior ran in the 2016 Supreme. As did Min who will hopefully lay down a marker at Punchestown. The JLT could be the super strong race from 2017 and Yorkhill answered all his doubters (namely me!) in emphatic style with a flawless display that just oozed class and he and the third, Disko, are surely bound for a Gold Cup campaign whilst the second, Top Notch, would be a RyanAir candidate. No shortage of drama in the RSA with Might Bite’s route choice from the last to the line in getting back up to chin Whisper and supposedly Nicky Henderson will once again have two horses to campaign for the Gold Cup. It was ten lengths back to the third, Bellshill. There were a few notable absentees from the RSA such as Our Duke, Coney Island and Barters Hill. This seasons 4m NH chase looked to have more of the “National” type of horse in it than last seasons that produced this year’s second and third in the Gold Cup. Tiger Roll, the winner here, won the Triumph hurdle in 2014. Extraordinary!
JUVENILES (4yo’s) Simply this a one horse division where Defi du Seuil stands head and shoulders above his peers. In winning the Triumph hurdle by a dominant five lengths he tied the English and Irish 4yo form together and justified the handicappers rating of OR155. His future is intriguing. He is clearly precocious and the French bred has won all six of his races this season. I mentioned the Gold Cup as the Holy Grail earlier on and I could see a JLT at five and a Gold Cup at six maybe being the plan? Just don’t think they will ‘mind’ him.
MARES This division gets stronger every year and the clash between Apples Jade, Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag was perhaps the best race of the four days. Could you call it jumping the last? However there is the small matter of Annie Power who is rated a stone higher than all three! Mind you they had better all look over their shoulder as Let’s Dance was frighteningly good in the Mares novice and she will love the step up in trip to 2m 4f and don’t write off Airlie Beach either as she’s still rated in the top ten novices. If that wasn’t enough this years Champion Bumper saw mares finish 1-2! The winner Fayonagh came from a different parish and could be a superstar whilst the runner up Debuchet is only a 4yo, albeit with all the allowances, and may have the most improvement. Mind you Nicky Henderson has a useful 4yo mare in Daphne de Clos who recently stuffed Western Ryder, the Champion Bumper fifth.
EXOTICS In this I include the Bumper, the Cross Country and the Foxhunters. We mentioned the bumper and as far as the geldings go I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cheltenham form totally eclipsed at Punchestown by the likes of Samcro and it will be interesting to see the strength and outcome of the Mares bumper at Aintree.
The 2017 Cross Country was won by a Cheltenham legend, Cause of Causes, who became only the third horse to win three different races at the Festival. Next year’s Cross Country is his for the taking but let’s see how he does in the Grand National first?
In the Foxhunters a disappointing run from 12yo On The Fringe set up a 1-2 for champion trainer Paul Nicholls with Pacha du Polder and Wonderful Charm. That was as good as it got for Team Ditcheat who over the four days added a third and two fourths underlining just how hard it is winning at Cheltenham!
HANDICAP CHASERS You could have found the Ultima, the Brown Advisory Plate and the Grand Annual but good luck in the Kim Muir and the Tuesday Novices handicap (in name only, in effect 3lb top to bottom!)! For those you could have found they all had Graded form, nothing less than OR145 and two of them had placed in the same race the year before.
HANDICAP HURDLERS You could have found the Coral Cup (that 2016 Supreme form again), the Pertemps (same connections as 2016), the County (long absence but it was second to Faugheen and the stiffer New course suits Arctic Fire) and possibly the Martin Pipe but the Fred Winter is a nightmare! Yet again the first three named were won off OR148, OR146 and OR158!
Handicaps in general I have always started my search for a Cheltenham handicap winner in the OR138-142 range, in form, improving, been to a Festival, Graded form and hopefully the trainer nominating the race as a target. I think I may have to move my OR range up five pounds to OR143-148 to reflect the difficulty of a) getting a run at Cheltenham b) the class needed to win a Festival handicap!
So my top four horses at Cheltenham 2017 were:-
- Un Temps Pour Tout To win the same ultra competitive Ultima Handicap Chase off a mark of OR155 beating the well backed favourite Singlefarmpayment by a short head whilst giving 13lbs was colossal. I can never call the horse right nor the connections for that matter and I’m sure the victory was a huge shot in the arm for David Pipe and all at Pond House.
- Causes of Causes Third victory at Cheltenham adding the Cross Country to previous wins in the Kim Muir and the 4m NH chase. Mr JJ Codd made sure there was on doubt on any occasion and I wish the happy couple every success in the Grand National!
- Altior Never travelled, looked flat yet still got the job done. This is one class animal!
- Yorkhill He had loads of questions to answer although everyone agreed he had an “engine”. His all-conquering connections of Mullins and Walsh had just gone two days without a winner and the clouds were gathering. His performance was absolutely top drawer and clearly the sky is the limit with him. Probably not the brightest equine specimen and he may have a couple of “kinks” but he is some four legged athlete! Ruby Walsh is probably the ideal partner.
It takes two to tango so what about the two legged competitors? Well for trainers it is time to add Gordon Elliott to the King pair of Mullins and Henderson who between the three of them won fifteen of the twenty eight races.
I’m a huge fan of five up and coming trainers in Harry Fry, Dan Skelton, Neil Mulholland, Warren Greatrex and Ben Pauling and between them they managed just the one winner, Ben Pauling won the Neptune with Willoughby Court, but they had five beaten favourites!
As for the jockeys I’m going to contrast and compare. Mr JJ Codd is an amateur in name only, riding in PtP’s and bumpers most days, every week, as well as riding work in some of Irelands biggest yards. Mr Sam Waley-Cohen runs Portman Health Care and since being Young Entrepreneur of the year in 2011 has seen his business grow to over fifteen dental practices. He had had just fifteen rides under Rules since April 2016.
Codd had six rides returning figures 5411UR4 with two winners at 4/1 and 7/1. Waley-Cohen had five rides for 6703P including three sent off at 9/2, 9/1 and 8/1F. This research was brought about by the fact that his ride on Beware the Bear in the 4m NH chase to me looked rusty at best! Decision time Sam!
Time to yet again have one of my favourite rants! Bryan Cooper. He is just not top grade. He had two winners I hear you say. Apples Jade looked to me like a horse who really wanted it, not a case of Cooper lifting the horse home and I’m fairly sure Road to Respect looked a steering job, although Cooper did well to stay on at the first. It’s the others. Death Duty? If he was told to bury it in midfield he did just that but he never gave the horse a chance! No rhythm, no racing room. Looked an absolute non-trier. Empire of Dirt? Second favourite, held up last behind a wall of three no hopers, and when asked Un de Sceaux was already signing autographs! Looked an absolute non-trier. Disko? Why was the Gigginstown second string Balko des Flos where he wanted to be? Namely leading, on the rail, calling the shots? When Balko des Flos fell why didn’t he kick on with Disko, a thorough stayer and get Yorkhill racing from well out and at least ask the question? The man can’t think on his feet. Eleven Cheltenham rides at 10/1 or less, Tombstone, Petit Mouchoir etc. etc. and Gigginstown sacked Davy Russell to give Cooper the job?!!
Just two words for the O’Learys. Jack Kennedy. The sooner the better.
Just a thought or two about betting on the Festival. Ante Post has gone the same way as the Post Office! There are better ways! I will come to the Cheltenham 2018 Festival Ante Post party as soon as Sky Bet go Best Odds Guaranteed, Non Runner No Bet, which was about February 1st. In the big picture I am not a fan of either concession but while they exist it is ludicrous to ignore them.
The modern Festival punter hasn’t got a clue about how to read a form book and for those who can there should be plenty of opportunities. This new breed of punter is all over doubles, trebles etc. on the short priced favourites preferably over hyped horses. Best example this week was on Thursday when Yorkhill and Un de Sceaux both won and Unowhatimeanharry was shortened to 5/6 to reduce High Street liabilities! What price would Harry have been if either of the first two were beaten? 13/8, 7/4? In future it would seem that if you fancy a market leader you will have to take a shorter price but there is better value in the double figure prices!
Finally, my favourite word of the meeting, “quirky”. Dictionary definition, “having or characterized by peculiar or unexpected traits or aspects.” Well quirky seemed to be a positive this year. Certainly applied to the opening winner, Labaik, who had basically refused to race on his last three racecourse visits but a crack of the long whip sorted him out and boy was he good. Then on Wednesday Might Bite made for the betting ring having jumped the last before straightening up to win by a nose! That was certainly an unexpected trait. Finally Yorkhill, who has been called a lot worse than quirky, did nothing peculiar or unexpected except win in the style of a future star!