Here is my long-range take on Queen Mother Champion Chase Day -- and ladies’ day at the Festival. Time for seven more fantastic races.
1.30 2m5f Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle
MAIN BET: Un Temps Pour Tout. NEXT BEST BETS: Royal Boy, Rathvinden.
Invariably won by a fancied horse, this year’s Neptune appears to revolve around the stables of Willie Mullins and David Pipe, who are set to saddle four of the leading lights between them.
Mullins’s main hope would appear to be FAUGHEEN, who has been tipped up by virtually everyone in Ireland over the last couple of months as their Festival banker. Racecourse evidence does not quite match their optimism, and Mullins himself has warned that he’s not been too hapy with his work at home since his last outing over Christmas. My information is also that he is a fragile type who might not be suited to the rigours of Cheltenham.
Certainly, I prefer the yard’s second challenger, RATHVINDEN, a speedier animal who is expected to improve immeasurably for better ground. That might well mean bad news for Pipe’s number one contender, RED SHERLOCK, who looked smart when beating Rathvinden here at Cheltenham in January, but was receiving 3lbs. Jockey Tom Scudamore insists Red Sherlock is better than stablemate UN TEMPS POUR TOUT, but I fear he’s much better on testing ground, whereas the latter has surely not stopped improving after only two runs since arriving as an expensive purchase from France. He cruised to victory when stepping up in trip at Ascot last time and could be anything.
Having said all that, it wouldn’t surprise me if all four Mullins and Pipe charges were scuppered by Nicky Henderson in the shape of ROYAL BOY. This seven-year-old has the significant advantage of an extra season of novice experience under his belt, having finished third at Grade One level last term. He has looked such a class act this year, even over inadequate distances, that Henderson quickly abandoned original plans to send him chasing.
2.05 3m RSA Novices’ Chase
MAIN BET: Ballycasey. NEXT BEST BETS: Smad Place, Sam Winner.
There are times in racing when you have to cast aside the stats and go with your gut instincts. BALLYCASEY has never won over 3m, has limited experience in all spheres and even suffered a nasty fall while schooling only last Sunday. But my gut instinct is that Willie Mullins’s grey is a very good horse, and might well harbour the natural ability to ditch all doubts and win what is a richly competitive RSA. Mullins himself thinks so. He described the seven-year-old as an RSA natural after a sparkling win at Leopardstown last month when he comfortably held DON COSSACK, CARLINGFORD LOUGH, both of whom are very smart stayers and represent, along with MORNING ASSEMBLY, high-class Irish form.
If anything goes amiss with Ballycasey, either of that trio are capable of picking up the pieces but on the assumption it doesn’t, it’s worth noting that the UK form is also very respectable. Until his defeat by the improving dark horse O’FAOLAIN’S BOY at Ascot four weeks ago, I was all over MANY CLOUDS, but I wonder if the race at Newbury a week earlier, bossed by SMAD PLACE and SAM WINNER, was stronger. Both jumped impeccably and both are proven round Cheltenham. Indeed Alan King’s Smad Place has been placed in two World Hurdles at the Festival.
As is so often the case, the RSA boils down to a battle between class and graft. Pick of the former camp are Ballycasey and Don Cossack. Pick of the latter are Carlingford Lough and Smad Place.
2.40 2m5f Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle
MAIN BET: Vieux Lion Rouge. NEXT BEST BETS: Bayan, Dell’ Arca, Waaheb.
Before we get stuck into the most difficult handicap of the week, I have a confession to make. I do not remember ever (in 29 years of attending the Festival) backing the winner of the Coral Cup, so if you wish to skip the next dozen or so lines and move on to the Champion Chase, please feel free! It is one of those races I struggle woefully to get a handle on -- and this year’s renewal is no different, especially as final running plans are almost impossibnle to second-guess.
My tentative tips all have alternative engagements, so the race is ready-made for the bookies’ generous Non Runner No Bet concession. I’m fairly sure Gordon Elliott has protected the mark of BAYAN which, remarkably, has not budged since he ran second here at Cheltenham last October. But it would be no surprise to see the prize fall to David Pipe, who has an embarrassment of riches for the novice and handicap hurdles at this year’s Festival. Where they will all end up, I’m not too sure, but if I had the choice, I’d saddle DELL ‘ARCA. For a novice, he has acquitted himself superbly in three top handicaps this term and shaped at Newbury last time as if this step up in trip would be just the ticket. I’m also a huge fan of stablemate VIEUX LION ROUGE, who might well have got in on an attractive mark judging by his remarkable win at Sedgefield last time when he gave 21lbs to a four-year-old with Listed form on the Flat in France but thrashed him 12 lengths. Lack of experience, plus a step-up in trip, are worries with him, though, and similar reservations apply to WAAHEB, who has always enjoyed a big reputation at Dermot Weld’s yard.
3.20 2m Bet Victor Queen Mother Champion Chase
BIG RACE 1-2-3: 1st Sire De Grugy, 2nd Captain Conan, 3rd Arvika Ligeonniere
The worrying absence of reigning champion SPRINTER SACRE might have robbed the Festival of its number one superstar. But it has also manufactured a more interesting race for the feature of the second day. Curiously, it has also created another short-priced favourite in SIRE DE GRUGY who, in a Festival becoming increasingly dominated by the juggernaut yards, can strike a blow for the smaller operators.
Trainer Gary Moore has extracted sensational improvement from his strapping eight-year-old over the past 12 months -- to such an extent that he can only be opposed here on the grounds that he struggles to reproduce his best form at Cheltenham. The evidence, however, is pretty thin and based on just two sample-outings when he still finished a close second to high-class rivals. As for those who reckon he needs right-handed tracks to show his best, did they not see the gobsmacking way he toyed with the opposition on his seasonal re-apppearance at Chepstow?
On the evidence of his sparkling win at Ascot last time, when it looked as if jockey Jamie Moore had finally settled on the best way to ride him, Sire De Grugy is ready to be crowned the new champion. Indeed the only two challengers I respect are Irish raider ARVIKA LIGEONNIERE and CAPTAIN CONAN,, who beat the favourite in their novice days 18 months ago. The former might well prefer more testing ground, however, while it worries me that the latter, Henderson’s substitute for Sprinter Sacre, has not been out since Sire De Grugy gained revenge on him in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December.
4.00 3m7f Glenfarclas Cross-Country Handicap Chase
MAIN BET: Sizing Australia. NEXT BEST BETS: Star Neuville, Big Shu.
While I freely accept that this anomaly of a contest is lapped up by many, it is not my cup of tea. Indeed it’s the signal to go for a cup of tea. If previous years can be relied upon, being trained in Ireland (and preferably by Enda Bolger) is as essential as experience of one of the unique cross-country tracks, either here or at Punchestown.
My eye is also caught by the fact that most winners carry less than 11-0, which hampers the obvious chances of BIG SHU repeating his runaway success of 2013. Peter Maher’s nine-year-old still looks the one to beat on the evidence of his promising seasonal reappearance last month, but top of my list are one battle-hardened campaigner in this sphere and one emerging prospect.
SIZING AUSTRALIA knows his way over every cheese wedge in the business and although 12 years old now, he’s been primed for another bold showing by the brilliant Henry de Bromhead. STAR NEUVILLE was regarded much better than a handicapper in his younger days and can prove why he has been earmarked as the next Bolger flagbearer.
4.40 2m Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle
MAIN BET: Aalim. NEXT BEST BETS: Zamoyski, Handiwork, Katgary, Carry On Sydney.
If you know nothing about racing but would like to impress those in your company who do, just proffer the opinion that “the Fred Winter looks wide open this year”. I guarantee you will receive approving nods from all concerned because the Fred Winter is wide open EVERY year -- as SPS of 40/1 (twice), 25/1 and 20/1 for recent winners testify.
The best guidance I can offer is that none of the nine winners so far has been rated higher than 133, which steers us towards all those in the weights below DAWALAN. I don’t fancy Nicky Henderson’s charge, but his form unveils the chances of CARRY ON SYDNEY, who has a 3lb pull for a narrow defeat at his hands in January.
Oliver Sherwood’s hurdler has improved since but might not make the cut, so I am more keen on AALIM, who has bolted up with the greatest of ease since chasing home HANDIWORK on his timber debut. A return to form for Handiwork, has who become a relaible yardstick for juvenile form, should not be ruled out here, but trainer Steve Gollings just might have a better handicapped one in ZAMOYSKI, who was useful on the Flat for Jeremy Noseda and who gave Triumph Hurdle fancy Pearl Castle a scare last time.
The word from Ireland is that LINDENHURST will be backed after dismissing another Triumph hope, Guitar Pete, on his last start, albeit five months ago. While the word from France is that Paul Nicholls might have inherited a very smart four-year-old in KATGARY, who has yet to run in the UK but apparently worked the house down at Ditcheat the other day.
5.15 2m Weatherby’s Champion Bumper
MAIN BET: Shaneshill. NEXT BEST BETS: Silver Concorde, Vigil, Stack The Deck.
Eight winners in total. Four in the last ten years. The last two. Willie Mullins’s stranglehold on the Champion Bumper shows no signs of relenting -- and he sends over a formidable squad for this year’s renewal. Those who witnessed the runaway romp two weeks ago of KILLULTAGH VIC, who demolished the third in this race last year, GOLANTILLA, will struggle to believe that he is only THIRD choice in that squad. But if the pecking order emanating from Closutton is correct, then SHANESHILL and BLACK HERCULES are considered more realistic prospects of further Mullins glory, while the once-raced WESTHORPE, who unleashed a telling turn of foot to overcome greenness on his sole start last month, cannot be discounted either.
The big two are both owned by Graham Wylie, with Shaneshill more likely to apprerciate the drying ground at Cheltenham. Ground is also likely to determine the chances of a two-handed assault on the race by another Irish yard, that of Dermot Weld, who saddles SILVER CONCORDE and VIGIL, both Flat-bred sons of Dansili who had class stamped all over their latest wins. The latter won’t mind Good, but the latter loves it Soft.
Although I respect Steve Gollings’s DEFINITLY RED and Rebecca Curtis’s FORYOURINFORMATION, the prize looks certain to be heading back to Ireland, and at bigger odds, it wouldn’t surprise me to see bold showings from STACK THE DECK and VALUE AT RISK.