Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Cheltenham Gold Cup Preview

The Cheltenham Gold Cup, generally considered to be the ‘Blue Riband’ event of the National Hunt season, takes place on Friday, March 13, 2015. Twelve weeks or so may seem like a long time in horse racing but, notwithstanding the result of the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, the Cheltenham Gold Cup market is well formed. We thought it was time to cast an eye over a handful of the possible contenders, some obvious, some less so, to see if there’s any value to be found in the ante post lists.

Last year’s winner Lord Windermere (12/1), who is 2-2 at the Festival, having won the RSA Chase in 2013, is an obvious starting point. Jim Crowley’s 8-year-old was disappointing on his first three starts last season and looked an unlikely winner of the Cheltenham when detached in last place before halfway. However, he eventually held on to beat On His Own (40/1) by a short head, despite hanging badly in the closing stages, with Silviniaco Conti (9/1) and Bobs Worth (11/1) behind in fourth and fifth. On His Own finished tailed off on both subsequent starts, while Silviniaco Conti has since won the Betfred Bowl at Aintree and the Betfair Chase at Haydock, so it’s hard to know what to make of the form.

Don Cossack (25/1) was still travelling well enough when falling in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in April – in so doing, bringing down Many Clouds (20/1) – and beat Boston Bob (20/1) and Lord Windermere by 4½ lengths and half a length, on unfavourable terms, at Punchestown in December. That said, Gordon Elliot’s gelding had already run twice before this season and still has something to learn about jumping fences so, while he’s clearly going the right way, he still has plenty to find with the likes of Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti.

Holywell (14/1) recorded a career-best effort when staying on strongly to beat Don Cossack by 10 lengths in the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree last April, but jumped less than fluently when only third, beaten 16½ lengths, behind Many Clouds on his reappearance at Carlisle and again when unseating his rider at Aintree next time. The Gold Well gelding clearly has bags of ability, but it remains to be seen to what extent his jumping problems limit his progress.

One horse that clearly has no such problems is Many Clouds (20/1), who also demonstrated his stamina when staying on strongly to win the Hennessy Gold Cup, over 3 miles 2½ furlongs, at Newbury in November. He’s currently rated 14lb inferior to Silviniaco Conti, according to the BHA, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he could find the required improvement between now and March and he makes no little appeal at the odds on offer.

The fact that the bookmakers bet 8/1 the field is an indication of just how wide open the Cheltenham Gold Cup appears at this early stage. Of course, former combatants such as Lord Windermere, Silviniaco Conti and Bobs Worth are likely to prove popular once again, but we’re going to throw our hat into the ring with Many Clouds (20/1 with Boylesports). Oliver Sherwood’s 7-year-old jumps and stays well and could still be open to significant improvement after just eight starts over fences.


Thursday, 7 August 2014

Arkle: The Stuff of Which Legends are Made

For younger readers, or those unfamiliar with the history of National Hunt, Arkle is arguably the best steeplechaser of all time. I say arguably because his Timeform rating of 212, which has become the yardstick for every other steeplechaser since the mid-1960s, was achieved at a time when Timeform ratings for National Hunt horses were in their infancy and is considered, by some, an anomaly.

To put things in perspective, his stable companion Flyingbolt achieved a Timeform rating of 210 and the pair is fully 20lb ahead of their nearest rival in the all-time list. Now, given that hundreds of thousands of steeplechasers have raced in the last 50 years, it’s effectively impossible, statistically, the best two, ever, came from the same yard at the same time. The most exciting steeplechaser of recent times, Sprinter Sacre, is in third place with Timeform rating of 192p but, even if he can be coaxed back to his best form, he still has a long way to go to be mentioned in the same breath as Arkle.

The yard in question was that of County Dublin trainer Tom Dreaper and, whether or not you choose to believe the Timeform figures, Arkle was undoubtedly an exceptional steeplechaser who fully deserves his place in the history of the Cheltenham Festival. Owned by Anne, Duchess of Westminster, and named after a Scottish mountain, Arkle won what is now the RSA Chase on his first appearance at the Festival in 1962, but is principally remembered for a hat-trick of wins in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1964, 1965 and 1996.

On the first occasion, in 1964, he took revenge on Mill House, who had beaten him, on 5lb worse terms, in the Hennessy Gold Cup the previous November, winning by 5 lengths. He beat the same horse by 20 lengths in the 1965 Cheltenham Gold Cup and in the 1966 renewal, in the absence of his old rival, beat Dormant by 30 lengths. His achievements are commemorated by the Arkle Challenge Trophy, a two-mile novices’ chase run on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, and a half-size bronze statue at Prestbury Park. His skeleton holds pride of place in the museum of the Irish National Stud in County Kildare.

Despite originally be bought for 1,150 guineas, Arkle won 22 of his 26 steeplechases, including the King George VI Chase, the Hennessy Gold Cup (twice), the Irish Grand National and, of course, the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times. Known in racing circles simply as ‘Himself’, a fractured pedal bone forced Arkle into retirement in 1968 and he was put down three years later after suffering from chronic arthritis.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Once, Twice, Three Times a Champion

The Champion Hurdle is, of course, a mainstay of the Cheltenham Festival where, alongside the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the World Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, it is one of the ‘championship’ races. The first recognisable Cheltenham Festival took place in 1911, but the Champion Hurdle was not inaugurated until 1927. Just five horses have won the Champion Hurdle three times and, coincidentally, all five won in three consecutive years.

Hatton’s Grace (1949, 1950, 1951), trained in Ireland by Vincent O’Brien, didn’t see a racecourse until the age of six because of restrictions imposed during World War II, but that didn’t stop him from winning the Champion Hurdle by 6 lengths at the first attempt in 1949. He returned to Prestbury Park in 1950, once again forging clear up the infamous Cheltenham ‘hill’ to win by 4 lengths after National Spirit made a mistake at the final flight and completed the hat-trick in 1951 when the same rival, who’d led over the second last, fell at the last. Not bad for a horse described by Horse and Hound as a ‘mean, ragged-looking animal’.

Festivalgoers didn’t have to wait long for a new champion because Sir Ken (1952, 1953 and 1954), trained by Willie Stephenson, also won at the first attempt in 1952. A notoriously vicious character, who had apparently fought and killed a paddock companion, he showed a good turn of foot to beat Noholme and Approval on that occasion and won again in 1953, despite being forced to make his own running. Even when he was considered past his best in 1954, he was sent off 4/9 favourite for the Champion Hurdle and, despite making hard work of winning, duly obliged to take his place in Cheltenham Festival history.

Persian War (1968, 1969 and 1970) won the Champion Hurdle three times despite the interference of his errant owner, the late Henry Alper. Effectively rescued and nursed back to health by Chepstow trainer Colin Davies after an abortive spell in France, Persian War won the Schweppes Hurdle at Newbury under 11st 13lb a month before winning his first Champion Hurdle in 1968. A fractured femur kept him off the course until February of the 1968/69 season, but he recovered sufficiently to win the Champion Hurdle again, by 4 lengths, landing bets worth £25,000 for his owner. The following season, Alper insisted that Persian War ran on the Flat at Newbury, on very firm ground, with the result that he jarred a joint and was lame for over a month. Nevertheless, he returned to Cheltenham to take his third and final hurdling crown in 1970, resisting the challenge of old rival Major Rose.

Known to his detractors as ‘See You When’ because of his notoriously fragile legs, which restricted him to sporadic racecourse appearances, See You Then (1985, 1986 and 1987), was apparently another brute who would think nothing of taking a chunk out of anyone who came within range. The son of Derby winner Royal Palace won the Champion Hurdle by 7 lengths in 1985 and, despite a career that lasted only six further starts, won again by 7 lengths in 1986 and again, by 1½ lengths, in 1987. After his third success, trainer Nicky Henderson and jockey Steve Smith-Eccles both conceded that he ‘blew up’ on the run-in, but such was his class that he got away with it.

The most recent three-time winner of the Champion Hurdle, Istabraq (1998, 1999 and 2000), joined Aidan O’Brien after his intended trainer, John Durkan, was diagnosed with leukaemia. John Durkan had already told owner J.P. McManus that Istabraq would win the Royal Sun Alliance Novices’ Hurdle in 1997, which he did, and Aidan O’Brien predicted that he would ‘destroy them’ in the Champion Hurdle in 1998, which he did, winning by 12 lengths. He won again in 1999 and 2000, recording the fastest time ever on the latter occasion and was odds-on favourite for the 2001 renewal before the entire Cheltenham Festival was abandoned because of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Nicky Henderson


Nicky Henderson: “It's getting a bit ridiculous, really.”

Nicholas John ‘Nicky’ Henderson is the most successful trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival with 51 victories, including the Champion Hurdle (three times), the World Hurdle (twice) and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Having ridden 75 winners as an amateur jockey, Henderson began his training career as assistant to the legendary Fred Winter at Uplands, Lambourn in 1974, before taking out a training licence at nearby Windsor House four years later.

Henderson recorded his first win at the Cheltenham Festival in 1985, when the fragile See You Then powered clear on the run-in to win the Champion Hurdle. See You Then was to win the Champion Hurdle again in 1986, and in 1987, joining Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken and Persian War as the fourth horse to win the race three years running. Following a move to Seven Barrows, just north of Lambourn, in 1992, Henderson has continued to churn out Cheltenham Festival winners year after year.

Now 63, he has won all eleven of the Grade 1 races staged over the four days and has won the Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award no fewer than nine times. On the second day of the Cheltenham Festival in 2012 he saddled four winners, Finian’s Rainbow in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Simonsig in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, Bobs Worth in the RSA Chase and Une Artiste in the Fred Winter Juvenile Novices’ Handicap Hurdle at cumulative odds of 3,381/1. A record seven winners, in total, that year took him clear of another National Hunt legend, Fulke Winner, as the most successful trainer of all time at the Cheltenham Festival.

The following year, he sent out another four Cheltenham Festival winners and, although just denied by Willie Mullins in his quest for his tenth Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award, he had the satisfaction of becoming the first trainer to saddle 50 winners at the Festival, courtesy of Bobs Worth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Prior to the 2014 Cheltenham Festival, Henderson acknowledged that his team was weakened by the absence of Sprinter Sacre, whom he described as ‘missing 10%’ after being pulled up at Kempton over Christmas amid fears of an irregular heartbeat, Simonsig, out for the season after developing a splint on his near fore, and Long Run, who ran in the Grand National instead. Nevertheless, he still saddled a total of fifteen runners who came home in the first six, including Whisper, the winner of the hugely competitive Coral Cup on the second day.

Former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Long Run may not be quite the force of old but, no doubt Nicky Henderson will be doing everything in his power to make sure that Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig are 100% for their return next season. Established stars, such as Bobs Worth, My Tent Or Yours and Whisper, to name but a few, should ensure that Henderson remains a force to be reckoned with at the Cheltenham Festival but, as ever, he’s unlikely to rush them or any of his other horses. His patient training methods mean that many of his charges peak late in the season, in March or April, which is definitely a contributory factor in his success at the Cheltenham Festival.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Cheltenham Festival

Anyone with even a passing interest in National Hunt racing has probably heard of the Cheltenham Festival, the four-day celebration of the sport, which takes place in March each year. Nowadays, the Cheltenham Festival features four major championship races, the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the World Hurdle and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, plus six other Grade One races, and attracts over 200,000 racegoers, including an estimated 10,000 from across the Irish Sea.

The first National Hunt Meeting took place at Cheltenham Racecourse in its current location, in Prestbury Park, on the outskirts of the town, in 1902. However, it was not until 1911 that the National Hunt Meeting officially became known as the Cheltenham Festival and returned, permanently, to Prestbury Park.

The Festival grew in popularity and, in 1923, was lengthened from the original two days to three. The inaugural Cheltenham Gold Cup was run in 1924, making it the oldest championship race at the Festival. However, in the early years the Cheltenham Gold Cup was overshadowed by the National Hunt Chase, which had been part of the original National Hunt Meeting, and was only elevated to ‘Blue Riband’ status by the performance of some exceptional winners.

Cottage Rake won the Cheltenham Gold Cup for five years running between 1932 and 1936, Cottage Rake completed a hat-trick of wins between 1948 and 1950 and, after the contest was switched to the ‘New Course’ at Cheltenham in 1959, Arkle, officially the highest rated steeplechaser of all time, according to Timeform, did likewise between 1964 and 1966. All of these performances helped to capture the imagination of the general public and make the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and the Cheltenham Festival as a whole, what it is today.

The Champion Hurdle, the most prestigious hurdling event in the National Hunt calendar, was added to the Cheltenham Festival programme in 1927. The Queen Mother Champion Chase was inaugurated, as the National Hunt Two Mile Champion Chase, in 1959, but renamed in 1980 to commemorate the 80th birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and in recognition of her enthusiastic support of National Hunt racing. The World Hurdle, originally known as the Stayers’ Hurdle, was first run in 1972 and, having been sponsored by Lloyds Bank, Waterford Crystal and Bonusprint over the years, was renamed when Ladbrokes took over sponsorship in 2005.

In 2005, the Cheltenham Festival underwent wholesale changes, not least its extension to four days rather than three, which required the introduction of five new races. Three further races have since been added, bringing the total to 27 for the four days.

Action, anticipation and atmosphere are the key components of the Cheltenham Festival and the famous Cheltenham ‘roar’, which greets the runners as the tape goes up for the opening race, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, is likely to be heard for as long as National Hunt racing exists. If you ever have a chance to go to the Cheltenham Festival, even for just one day, go; it’s an experience you’ll never forget.