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 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.

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.