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Closer to the Festival I will upload all my Cheltenham trends to the Big Race Trends section of the website for All-Inclusive Service members but for now, on the cusp of Festival Trials Season, I thought I’d pop up my trends on the big five championship races in the blog, so that you can see how things are unfolding at the time and I will update this blog as and when those major trials have been run.
STAN JAMES CHAMPION HURDLE
For any championship race at the Festival, revisiting the previous season’s renewal is the starting point for many and last season’s Champion Hurdle has featured nine of the last 19 winners. No unplaced horse from the previous year’s running has won for 25 years and a total of 23 of the last 34 winners finished in the first four at last season’s Festival. At the time of writing, it is still possible that the Champion Hurdle could attract four winners from last season’s Festival; Buveur D’Air, Laurina, Samcro and Summerville Boy.
Buveur D’Air will attempt to join the likes of Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq as a triple Champion Hurdle winner and, with as many as seven Champion Hurdles already banked, he is stabled at the perfect address of Seven Barrows for the race and won last season’s contest despite not being at his best. His hurdling wasn’t as super slick as when he won the 2017 Champion Hurdle which meant that he had to show real fight and determination in wearing down Melon. His owner, J P McManus, is also chasing an eighth Champion Hurdle.
Unlike for the previous two seasons, Buveur D’Air has tasted defeat having been caught by stablemate, Verdana Blue, in the Christmas Hurdle at odds of 1/4. Winners of that prize have generally struggled in the Champion Hurdle as only Kribensis, Faugheen and Buveur D’Air have doubled up in the Champion Hurdle from the last 26 to try and Verdana Blue does look more suited to flat courses.
The third Seven Barrows contender is the International Hurdle winner, Brain Power, and that has been another race where the winner has an unremarkable strike rate in the Champion Hurdle – the Grade 2 race in December placing more emphasis on stamina being run over half a furlong further, on the stiffer of the two courses and usually on more testing ground. Beaten horses in the International Hurdle actually have a superior record to the winner in the Champion Hurdle but Brain Power very much looks the one to take from this season’s running.
The Fighting Fifth in which Buveur D’Air destroyed the Ballymore and Supreme winners, Samcro and Summerville Boy looking better than ever, has been a good pointer of late. Buveur D’Air also successfully kicked last season’s off in that Grade 1 at Newcastle. Before then, the Fighting Fifth winner placed in four successive Champion Hurdles between 2011-2014, Katchit improved on his third place to win the big one in 2008 which sparked off a notable revival as the 2009 and 2010 Champion Hurdlers then also ran in the North’s premier 2m hurdle. I say revival as prior to Katchit, no Fighting Fifth participant had won the Champion Hurdle for 18 years.
Of those with a realistic chance, Supasundae is the senior candidate at the age of nine. Since Sea Pigeon won at the age of 11 in 1981, Royal Gait, Rooster Booster and Hurricane Fly have won at the age of nine but when a contender reaches the age of ten for any of the championship races at Cheltenham then we should start to get twitchy and only two horses have won aged 10+ in Champion Hurdle history and, significantly, they were defending title holders.
At present, Laurina is the shortest-priced, Irish-trained contender to give them a fourteenth Champion Hurdle going back to 1998 and become the fourth successful mare since 1984 following Dawn Run, Flakey Dove and the same stable’s Annie Power. Like the latter, Laurina will receive a 7lb mares’ I’m going to say ‘advantage’ rather than ‘allowance’ in her particular case just looking at her physique (Paul Townend described her as stronger than most geldings, as was Annie Power and Dawn Run) which is 2lb more than the 1984 and 1994 winners received.
It is hoped that last season’s Supreme winner, Summerville Boy, can recover in time from the hairline fracture to his off hind that has hindered him this season to take his place in the line up. Sublimity (4th), Jezki (3rd) and Buveur D’Air (3rd) have come on from that contest to win the Champion Hurdle on the corresponding day 12 months later in the last 11 years. In addition, Hors la Loi III, Brave Inca and Binocular contested the Supreme in an earlier season before winning the Champion Hurdle. I dare say that the brilliant Golden Cygnet may have completed the Supreme-Champion Hurdle double had he not suffered a fatal fall two starts later or maybe Browne’s Gazette would have won had he not whipped round at the start or Douvan or Altior would have been triumphant had they not been sent down the chasing route and won the Arkle instead (likewise Vautour and the JLT) but the record books tell us that the last Supreme winner to win the Champion Hurdle the following season was as far back as Bula in 1970/71.
It was the way that Summerville Boy won the Supreme that gives most hope as to why he can be a leading contender as horses who make a mistake as serious as he did two out just don’t recover to win the race. Not only that he also bungled the last flight so he had to start all over again for the second time in a short space of time but he was still able to run down Kalashnikov who wasn’t stopping in front.
The Ballymore won by Samcro has also been a good guide and, similarly, it is hoped that he can recover from his physical problems (deep lung infection) to take his chance. The record of Ballymore winners is actually superior to Supreme winners in the Champion Hurdle, possibly because they don’t go an all-out gallop in that 2m5f contest whereas that is more likely over 2m so the winner has to show a burst of speed to win it more often than not.
Last season’s Triumph Hurdle winner, Farclas, might be the pick of the five-year-olds that also feature Saldier and Espoir D’Allen, but that generation’s record since See You Then won back in 1985 reads one winner (Katchit) from 100 to try. Six five-year-olds have hit the frame from 29 runners in the last 12 runnings however.
The Kingwell Hurdle is ideally positioned 3½ weeks away from the Champion Hurdle for connections to put the final touches to their preparations and was the final prep-race for Hors La Loi III, Katchit and Punjabi since 2002 and Kribensis and Alderbrook during the 1990s. It is now starting to fall out of fashion though.
Faugheen took the 2015 Champion Hurdle and in doing so he became just the second horse since Granville Again in 1993 to do so having not run in a recognised trial since the turn of the year.
AT A GLANCE SUMMARY
Five-year-olds (for win-only purposes)
Not raced during the same calendar year
Unplaced in last year’s race
Trained in Ireland or by Nicky Henderson
Owned by J P McManus
Finished in the first four at last season’s Cheltenham Festival
Contested the Fighting Fifth Hurdle
BETWAY QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE
Only Badsworth Boy has won three Champion Chases but Altior will start at odds-on to become the twelfth dual winner. For the record, 12 of the last 18 odds-on favourites have been beaten in the Champion Chase but Altior’s turbo kicked in once he turned for home last season having hit a flat spot to beat Min by seven lengths as the Evens favourite.
The best guide from the current season over a long period of time has been the Tingle Creek in which Altior beat Un de Sceaux, Saint Calvados and Sceau Royal who got stuck in the mud as that Grade 1 race at Sandown has featured 11 of the last 18 winners.
In fact, three of the last six Tingle Creek winners went on to add win the Champion Chase having also collected the Clarence House Chase in between which was also won by Altior who jumped out to his left on occasions when beating Fox Norton by 7l, a margin of victory that very much flattered the runner-up. His jumping was described by Henderson as “no consequence whatsoever”, especially with the Champion Chase in mind which is of course the other way round, and something that he has done before on right-handed courses, though not to the same extent as at one fence in the back straight. Their feeling was that Altior wouldn’t have jumped left at all if he had taken a lead rather than made the running as he was just dossing in front. In victory he moved to within one win of 18 consecutive victories achieved by Big Buck’s.
In between Sandown and Ascot, Altior collected the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton with the minimum of fuss beating Diego du Charmil and Special Tiara. Although it is only a Grade 2 race, six of the last 13 Champion Chase winners had also won the Desert Orchid Chase en route.
Footpad looks like being his main danger as the stats are very much in favour of last season’s Arkle winner as 16 of the last 17 winners of the 2m novices’ championship from the previous year went on to finish in the first three in the following season’s Champion Chase (Douvan being the other who returned injured), of which as many as eight completed the double. In addition, the Champion Chase has been a terrific race for the Irish since it was first run in 1959 winning on 22 occasions and it is also worth noting that on the last seven occasions when they have supplied the winner, they have also weighed in with the runner-up five times.
With 36 of the last 37 winners sent off at a SP of no bigger than 11/1 (and 16 of the last 19 could be found at no bigger than 5/1), this is not the race to go in search of that elusive big-priced winner. That’s some change around from when 14 consecutive favourites were beaten between Crisp (1971) right through to Badsworth Boy’s second victory in 1984.
If you believe that the 2017 champion, Special Tiara, can win a second Champion Chase crown at the age of 12, the age stats are against him as only Moscow Flyer has won aged over ten since 1977, only two horses have regained their title after losing it and the only 12-year-old winner in the race’s history was Skymas in 1977.
Other trends to bear in mind are that 12 of the last 16 winners won a graded chase last time out, only Master Minded of the last 17 winners entered the race having not already won a Grade 1 contest, 21 of the last 34 winners had won at the Cheltenham Festival before and 14 of the last 15 winners had run during the same calendar year.
AT A GLANCE SUMMARY
Failed to win a Grade 1 race
Failed to win a graded chase last time out
To start at 12/1+
Not run during the same calendar year
Ran in the Tingle Creek Chase
A top-two finish in last season’s Arkle or this season’s Clarence House Chase
Winner of the Desert Orchid Chase
Successful at the Cheltenham Festival before
To start no bigger than 5/1
Last season’s six-runner Ryanair in which Balko des Flos beat the odds-on, defending title holder, Un de Sceaux, by 4½l into second was somewhat of a damp squib but both could return to this year’s race. Victory for Balko des Flos finally gave Gigginstown the win that they wanted so badly in the race they effectively sponsor having had three seconds in the race in addition to the subsequent Gold Cup winner, Don Cossack, also placing and they could also be represented by this season’s Kinloch Brae 1-2, Tout est Permis and Sub Lieutenant (second and fourth in the last two years).
Balko des Flos was returned at 8/1 so wasn’t one of the ten winners in 14 runnings to be sent off in the first two in the betting. He tracked the leaders before taking over three out in last year’s race so I wouldn’t quite include him as one of 11 winners from 14 runnings to race close to or right on the pace, with two of the last six making all the running. Un de Sceaux took over at the fifth fence when he was successful.
Twelve of the 14 winners had won at Cheltenham before as had eight runners-up so previous course form is a big positive. Previous course winners have outnumbered their non Prestbury Park-winning rivals to the tune of 77-70 beforehand but that still doesn’t suggest that the record of previous course winners should be as dominant as is the case. The Ryanair takes place on the New Course over which four previous winners had won but ten winners had previously won on the Old Course (three of which had won over both courses in case you are wondering why the maths don’t add up) so although some horses excel more on one course than the other, it hasn’t had a bearing on the Ryanair.
However, the best individual guide has been the King George VI Chase as seven of the last 11 Ryanair winners ran at Kempton on Boxing Day and another was second in the King George the previous season. Maybe that’s a pointer to Politologue who shaped like a non-staying fourth but his Cheltenham record isn’t anywhere near as good as on flat or right-handed courses. Of those seven Ryanair winners to run in the King George earlier in the season, only Our Vic and Vautour could finish placed.
The BetVictor Gold Cup and Ascot Chase have both featured four winners apiece but it has been the Grade 1 race at Ascot rather than the Grade 3 handicap at Cheltenham that has by far a better record since the Ryanair was promoted to a Grade 1, not unexpectedly given its upgrade. Two of its winners doubled up here (Riverside Theatre and Cue Card) and two other winners (Albertas Run and Fondmort) finished placed at Ascot.
Checking out last year’s renewal has been productive as Albertas Run won back-to-back runnings and Fondmort and Our Vic went one place better than 12 months earlier so I wouldn’t put it beyond Balko des Flos bouncing back to his best after he returned from the Savills Chase with sore shins. Frodon was a well-beaten fifth last season but has taken a big step forward since then.
When analysing patterns for the Ryanair, it is important to differentiate between the early trends when it was contested as a Grade 2 prize and results since it was elevated to Grade 1 status in 2008 as a different type of horse has been emerging on top. Prior to 2008, it was 2½ mile specialists just below top class that held the call but, following the upgrade, top notchers with high-quality form over 3m+ have taken over. Balko des Flos had previously finished second in the Savills Chase over 3m. Nine of the last 11 winners had already won a Grade 1 race and winners at the very highest level have recorded four 1-2s in the last eight years.
Irish-trained horses were 0-32 heading into the 2016 but they put an end to that blip in style when Vautour led home a 1-2-3 beating Valseur Lido and Road To Riches and then Un de Sceaux gave the Irish back-to-back wins followed by Balko des Flos completing a hat-trick for the raiders last season leading home an Irish 1-2 with their only two runners.
AT A GLANCE SUMMARY
Lack of Cheltenham-winning form
Yet to win a Grade 1 race
To start at bigger than 6/1
Contested the King George VI Chase
Finished in the first three in the Ascot Chase
Ran well in last season’s Ryanair
Start in the front two in the betting
Stamina proven at three miles
SUN BETS STAYERS’ HURDLE
Nichols Canyon’s success in 2017 was a much-needed win in the race for the Irish as, despite having won over one-third of the first 24 runnings since the Stayers’ Hurdle was first run at the Festival in 1972, just one win since Dorans Pride took the 1995 running had been an awful and surprising run. As with the Ryanair, it was a case of waiting very patiently for a bus as the next winner followed at the next opportunity as Penhill and Supasundae fought out an all-Irish finish.
I thought that Penhill won it pretty cosily too. It was almost a carbon copy of his Albert Bartlett success in the way that he smoothly made his ground from rear to clear away on the run-in without ever really looking like getting beaten when he was produced to challenge. Most of the best staying hurdlers in history were ridden in this manner. An Irish victory had to come sooner rather than later as they had not been short on runners-up; Alpha Des Obeaux, Annie Power, Limestone Lad, Bannow Bay, Le Coudray, Golden Cross and Voler La Vedette.
Five of the last eight Irish-trained winners prepped in the Boyne Hurdle at Navan in February but it could be that last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle winner, Penhill on his seasonal debut, will start his campaign at Cheltenham again. Mullins managed this feat successfully on five occasions with Quevega in the Mares Hurdle so it should not be seen as a negative. Cyborgo also won the Stayers’ Hurdle on his seasonal debut.
Backing the defending title holder, whose record reads 101211114 since 1998 or second-season hurdlers that have won on 14 other occasions during that time period, has been the way to go. Regards second-season hurdlers, they supplied three 1-2s between 1990-1998 but we had to wait for 16 years until for the next occasion when the previous campaign’s novices fought out the finish and, for good measure they recorded a 1-2-3.
Returned at 12/1 last season, Penhill became only the second winner in the last 18 years that failed to start in the first four in the betting following Cole Harden at 14/1. It’s not just the winners that are well fancied either as eight of the last 15 runnings have witnessed the first five in the betting provide the 1-2-3.
Cole Harden also became the first horse to even place that had tried to make all the running since 1996, let alone win it and, to top it off, he also defied the last-time-out stats having finished unplaced in his prep race whereas nine of the previous ten winners and Penhill last season had won last time out.
The Cleeve Hurdle has been the key recent guide since it was upped from 2m5f to 3m in 2005 so the only real difference between the two races now is that there is a penalty structure in place for the Cleeve as they are also both run on the New Course. Just under 50% of Stayers’ Hurdle winners and runners-up combined (10-24) have prepped in that race in the last 12 years.
Numerically speaking, the best guide in the last 14 years has been the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury won by Unowhatimeanharry, though Inglis Drever and Big Buck’s, who won seven staying hurdle crowns between them, were responsible for the lion’s share. That said, two of the last four Stayers’ Hurdle winners, Cole Harden and Thistlecrack, finished second and first respectively in that Grade 2 race at Newbury. Hard to think that this season’s race will have a major impact this time as the winner was receiving 6lb from his main rivals and he was only tenth in last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle. In addition, the last winner to run in the previous season’s Stayers’ Hurdle that failed to occupy one of the top two positions was Derring Rose back in 1981, and he finished third 12 months earlier.
Unowhatimeanharry is now also aged 11 but, more significantly, so is the former Champion Hurdler, Faugheen. The only Stayers’ Hurdle winner to be aged in double figures was Crimson Embers who caused a mini surprise at 12/1 when successful at the age of 11 in 1986, by 15 lengths no less. It was a very different race back then though taking 45 seconds longer to run. The two greatest staying hurdlers that I’ve ever seen were Big Buck’s and Baracouda and both of them could only finish fifth in the Stayers’ Hurdle aged 11. Granted, they had many more miles on the clock as had injury-free careers and most of their races were over 3m whereas Faugheen has had the best part of two years off and campaigned mainly at two miles. At the other end of the age scale, no five-year-old has won the Stayers’ Hurdle since it was introduced into the Festival.
In the past I have highlighted the fact that horses stepping up to 3m for the first time here, and especially those having contested the Champion Hurdle earlier in their career, had a poor record. That came to an end when the previously-unbeaten duo of More Of That and Annie Power emulated two very different horses in the firmly-established pair of Solwhit and Celestial Halo 12 months earlier by dominating the finish. Prior to Solwhit’s victory, the previous time a former runner in the Champion Hurdle won the Stayers’ Hurdle was Nomadic Way in 1992.
Faugheen has proved himself more than once over 3m however, notably when beating Penhill by 13 lengths at Punchestown last spring. Hard to believe that Penhill was at his best that day in having to chase down a sole rival rather than working his way through a field a runners to bring him to the tail of the leader and David Mullins was allowed a free 10 lengths’ head start on Faugheen over his main rival as the tapes rose and immediately set a good gallop making all. It’s usually not wise to trust end-of-season Punchestown form anyway but especially when races are run like this.
Just in case Apple’s Jade is sent to the Stayers’ Hurdle we should also consider the record of mares and, as only relatively few have run in the race, I’d say that they have over-performed in general. Annie Power became the fourth mare since 1996 to fill the runner-up berth in 2014 following Naevog, Mysilv and Voler La Vedette. The two successful mares were Rose Ravine (1985) and Shuil Ar Aghaidh (1993).
AT A GLANCE SUMMARY
Outside of the first four in the betting
Unplaced in last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle
Failed to register a top-two place last time out
Last season’s winner
Ran in the Cleeve Hurdle or Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury
Won last time out
Confirmed hold-up horses
MAGNERS CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP
I love a second-season chaser for the Gold Cup and Sizing John became the fourteenth such winner in the last 28 runnings in 2017, which is saying something given how heavily outnumbered they have been. In fact, when Sizing John beat Minella Rocco and Native River, he was a leading home a 1-2-3 for second-season chasers. Their chief contenders this season at the time of writing are the Irish quartet of Presenting Percy, Kemboy, Al Boum Photo and Monalee. The Welsh Grand National winner, Elegant Escape, looks the best hope of second-season chasers representing the home team.
Naturally, the RSA Chase has been the key guide for second-season chasers and Presenting Percy will attempt to become the ninth Gold Cup winner to have contested that contest the previous year since 1980 and his supporters will hope that he can emulate Master Smudge, Garrison Savannah, Looks Like Trouble, Denman, Bobs Worth and Lord Windermere who completed the RSA-Gold Cup 12 months apart. He was as classy as any of those in victory and so leads the Irish challenge in search of the 25th Gold Cup who had a 1-2-3-4 in 2016.
The last winner aged in double figures was 21 years ago when Cool Dawn was successful so that’s the big statistical negative against last season’s runner-up, Might Bite, who hasn’t beaten a rival in two starts this season, the 2015 hero, Coneygree at the age of 12, the 10-year-olds Definitly Red and Valtor, and most significantly of all, Thistlecrack at the age of 11 having missed the last two Gold Cups through injury after a stunning victory in the Stayers’ Hurdle. All 75 horses aged 10+ since then have been beaten which included 16 horses sent off at 10/1 or lower and four outright favourites.
With regards to current-season form, 15 of the last 19 winners were in action over Christmas either contesting the King George VI Chase in which Clan des Obeaux beat Thistlecrack or the Savills Chase won easily by the Willie Mullins-trained Kemboy in a very-steadily-run race. Ten of the last 19 Gold Cup winners contested the King George and five of the last 13 winners ran in the Savills Chase. From 22 runners to date, Mullins has saddled as many as six runners-up; Florida Pearl, Hedgehunter, Sir Des Champs, On His Own and Djakadam (x2) so his quest for that elusive Gold Cup victory continues.
Sticking with current season form, 27 of the last 31 winners finished in the first four last time out, only two winners since 1997 had not won earlier in the season, nine of the last 17 winners had not run during the same calendar year and, when two of the last six winners only had one run earlier in the season. Garrison Savannah did likewise in 1991.
With regards to proven class, if your fancy has yet to win a Grade 1 race then you might want to seriously think again as the last 19 winners entered jumping’s blue riband with a victory at the highest level safely locked away at some point earlier in their career. The shortest-priced contenders that trend would be against are Definitly Red, Elegant Escape and last season’s third, Anibale Fly. On a similar theme, of the last 18 winners, only War Of Attrition and Lord Windermere failed to enter the race with an official BHA rating of 166+.
Sixteen of the last 18 winners could be found in the first three in the betting, which doesn’t include Sizing John who was sent off 7/1 fourth-favourite two years ago so it has very much became a race for the leading fancies, which was not the case in the 1990s.
Although 13 of the last 18 winners had finished first or second at the Festival before, 12 of the last 14 winners were running in the Gold Cup for the first time. Not so Native River last season who improved on his placed effort the previous season, as did Bregawn in 1983 and Kauto Star in 2009. Road To Respect finished fourth last season on ground too testing for his liking, so that run can be marked up, and his supporters can take hope from the fact that Cool Ground and The Fellow both finished fourth the season before they won the Gold Cup.
AT A GLANCE SUMMARY
Never won a Grade 1 race
Not officially rated 166+
Failed to win earlier in the season
Failed to finish first or second last time out
Ran in the King George VI Chase or Savills Chase
Won or second at the Festival before
Front three in the betting
Not run during the same calendar year