Christmas sees us reach the mid point of the 2010/11 National Hunt racing season. It seems an appropriate time to examine the evidence we have witnessed to date and try to find some value in the current antepost markets for the Cheltenham Festival.
For the first time in many seasons bookmakers have already priced up all the races this far in advance. As always, non runners are certain to become a factor, and only those with a very strong view should consider getting involved with the handicap races this early in the season. Furthermore, many horses have yet to be given firm targets and horses such as Cue Card and Zaidpour have any number of engagements at the festival. So the advice for punters is, thread carefully but have an open mind, and you might just uncover the golden nuggets to keep you warm over the winter months.
The Supreme Novices Hurdle opens the meeting and the two at the head of affairs seem the obvious choices at this stage. Cue Card(3/1)and Zaidpour(9/2) have looked exceptional novices this season and if either turns up here he will take some beating. The problem is that both have alternative engagements, with the former still a strong possibility for the Champion Hurdle, while the latter may well be rerouted to the Neptune Novices Hurdle over 2m 5f. My belief is that Cue Card will run in this contest and most likely win it, with Zaidpour’s connections opting for the longer race on the Wednesday. Similar to Peddlers Cross last season, the latter can win the Neptune before dropping back to 2miles in 2012. With doubts regarding the lineup come next March, at present the race has to be filed away under the “no bet” category.
The Arkle Challenge Trophy is the second race on the opening day of the festival. The betting on this contest is much tighter, with only six points separating the first seven horses in the market. Finians Rainbow was impressive on his recent chasing debut and currently heads most layers lists. Nicky Hendersons horse was a high class novice over hurdles last season before disappointing in the Neptune. The drop back to 2miles appears to suit at present and he deserves his place at the head of affairs. Medermit blotted his copybook on his second start but returned to form last time out. Arguably the best of these over hurdles he could go either way next March but is certainly not one to have the house on. Ghizao was a stylish winner over the course in November beating Captain Chris and Loosen My Load. The win saw the Nicholls inmate chalked up as joint favourite/second favourite in most lists. However it is the runnerup, Captain Chris, who may be worth a small eachway punt at current odds. The horse stayed on strongly up the hill and finished well to take the second place. He has subsequently had a breathing operation and in the belief that this will improve him even further, he is put forward as a solid eachway bet at 20/1.
The Champion Hurdle is the feature race on Day One and looks set to be one of the races of the week. Current champion Binocular faces Hurricane Fly, Menorah and Peddlers Cross in what is certain to be an intriguing contest. While it is difficult to recommend a win bet in such a competitive affair, Binocular looks a cast iron eachway play at current odds. 5/1 is way too big for a horse that was hugely impressive in last years renewal, and only for a below par reappearance the Henderson horse would almost certainly retain his position as market leader. Small fields are never going to suit the ex French horse and we are unlikely to see the real Binocular until he lines up at the Cotswolds next March. Hurricane Fly could be anything and has done nothing wrong in his career to date. The slight worries this far in advance is that the horse is injury prone and being by Montjeu, he could also react badly to the highly charged festival atmosphere. If he jumps off without any problems on the day then he is one they all have to fear. Menorah is another to have done everything asked of him. To these eyes he has been more workmanlike than spectacular, similar to Peddlers Cross. The king has yet to be dethroned and at an eachway price he looks the one to side with.
As in 2009 and 2010, Quevega is the banker on the first day, when she lines up for the Mares Hurdle. Willie Mullins mare would be a serious contender in either the Champion Hurdle or World Hurdle and if as expected, she takes the easier option and goes for the hat-trick here, it will be very difficult to beat her. Although only a 5/4 chance at present those odds are likely to lengthen between here and March. The Mullins inmate looks likely to go straight to Cheltenham without a race, while the likes of Voler La Vedette and Laccordioniste will most likely shorten in the betting if they continue to progress as expected. The latter may well represent the best eachway bet in the race. However, Quevega is a class above this grade and it will be a major surprise if she fails to land the spoils.
Wednesday opens with the Neptune Hurdle. As stated earlier, Zaidpour will take all the beating here if Willie Mullins opts to send the horse for this contest. In the event that he is a non runner, the race becomes much more difficult to bet on. Al Ferof may well be a contender by the time the race comes around, but having taken a heavy fall on his hurdling debut the Nicholls inmate needs an impressive effort next time out. If he delivers and shows that he has suffered no ill affects from his fall then the grey will be a contender here. At bigger prices, Dare Me appeals at around 16/1. Again, similar to the Supreme Novices, the doubts surrounding the likely field make this a “no bet” race.
The RSA Chase often throws up a surprise winner and although Time For Rupert(7/2)looks the most likely winner at present, we look to the Philip Hobbs stable for another value outsider here. Wishfull Thinking has been unlucky around Cheltenham to date, falling in the Coral Cup in 2010 and looking in contention when badly hampered in a Novice Chase at the track in November. At odds of 25/1 it is worth taking a chance that with a clear round he can at least make the frame. Mikael D’Haguenet will take plenty of beating if running in the race, but the gelding has many options including the Arkle and even possibly the Gold Cup.
Master Minded has returned to his best this season and is a 7/4 favourite to land the Queen Mother Champion Chase. At that price and with 3 months still to go before the festival, he represents little value. Big Zeb is probably a fair price at 9/2, as the reigning champion and having proven his wellbeing on his return to action. Sizing Europe is interesting at 43s on betfair. Although he is most likely to contest the Gold Cup this season, if he were to fail badly in the King George, connections always have the option of returning to 3miles. While no bet can be advised on the race at this point, betfair punters could do worse than take a little of those 40+ prices if the Henry De Bromhead runner is back peddling with a furlong or two to race at Kempton.
While antepost bets on the handicaps are a short cut to the poor house, the 16/1 quoted about Manyriverstocross in the Coral Cup is a little too big to resist. Alan King’s horse was high class on the flat and showed plenty over hurdles last season. He lost all chance in the Neptune when badly hampered early on and did well to finish in midfield after. This season he ran an eyecatching 3rd on his return in the Greatwood Hurdle over 2miles at Cheltenham. Taken out of this months Ladbroke Hurdle, he remains a very well handicapped horse who will benefit for the return to 2m 5f. The fact that his stable also house the high class Mille Chief makes this speculative bet that much safer, as the latter is likely to run over the minimum trip in the County Hurdle, allowing King to target Manyriverstocross at this race.
The Ryanair Chase on Thursday is a difficult race to weigh up as most of the field will only enter the equation at the last minute. Those dropping down from 3miles or stepping up from 2miles find themselves targeted at this contest in the last few weeks leading up to the festival. Come March, the race could be a highly competitive affair or a weak race involving mostly grade 2/3 animals. In the belief that he will be stepped up to 2m 4f in the new year, Somersby looks the value bet in this years renewal. Henrietta Knight’s charge was a strong finishing runnerup in last seasons Arkle and always gave the impression that a step up in trip would suit. At 8/1 it is worth taking the chance that connections agree and give the animal an opportunity to show what he can do over that distance in 2011.
Big Bucks will be the festival banker for many people and should deliver the goods in the World Hurdle on Thursday. Although prices around 4/5-4/6 make little appeal, the Nicholls horse may trade at evens at some point in the run up to the race. If not, he is almost certain to do so “in running” as he tends to race on and off the bridle. Bensalem looks eachway value at 33/1 if he is kept to hurdles this season. The King horse was cruising when falling in the William Hill Chase last season and later returned to hurdles when second to Quevega at Punchestown. In a weak grade, where Big Bucks stands out, he may represent value. It is best to wait until running plans are known before having a bet though.
The Gold Cup is the highlight of the week and as always a very difficult race to predict. After the King George the picture should become a lot clearer. The likes of Sizing Europe and Forpadydeplasterer are interesting outsiders who have yet to prove their worth over 3miles. If either were to succeed at Kempton then they would become realistic contenders. The old guard are there to be shot at, and the scene looks set for a new king. Mikael D’Hueguenet would be an intriguing contender were connections to take the brave decision to run here. However novices have a poor record in recent seasons and the ghost of Gloria Victus will always haunt that division. Cooldine at 25/1 and the unpredictable Tidal Bay at 33/1 are interesting outsiders, but at present the Gold Cup is a race to watch rather than invest in.
Summary: Any antepost portfolio should begin with Quevega who looks the odds against banker of the meeting. Willie Mullins mare will be competitive wherever she turns up but it will almost certainly be this race. Willie Mullins has Hurricane Fly in the champion and Ruby Walsh rides Big Bucks in the World Hurdle so it would be surprising if Quevega ran in either of those. At 5/4 she is a reasonable bet but punters should get 6/4-2/1 on the day.
Captain Chris is one of many with a chance in the Arkle, but at 20/1 and the prospect of a breathing operation helping him find further improvement, the Philip Hobbs inmate is worthy of eachway support.
Binocular was one of the most impressive Champion Hurdle winners in recent years when he took the crown last season, and the fact that he is 5/1 for 2011 should be taken advantage of. The McManus horse will almost certainly start favourite in March and punters will do well to get better than 3/1. At present odds he can be backed eachway and that represents one of the bets of the week.
Wishfull Thinking is a more speculative wager in the RSA Chase but at 25/1 it is worth having a small punt on the horse. Even if he makes the frame those that invested will show a return on their investment.
Manyriverstocross is the sole selection in a handicap race and the hint should be taken. Alan King’s horse is very well-in and will appreciate the step up in trip. At 16/1 he makes considerable appeal.
Somersby has an excellent eachway chance but there is a slight doubt about the Knight inmate being aimed at the race. If he does turn up then he will be alot shorter than the current 8/1.
Quevega 5 points win(6/4-2/1)
Captain Chris 1 point e/w(20/1)
Binocular 5 points e/w(5/1)
Wishfull Thinking 1 point e/w(25/1)
Manyriverstocross 1 point e/w(16/1)
Somersby 2 points e/w(8/1)