Clear, concise, comprehensive horseracing analysis and insight from Paul Jones, former author of the Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide, concentrating on jump racing in addition to the best of the Flat and leading Sports events.
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Pre-Cheltenham Festival Itinerary


Hopefully the ban on racing in the UK won’t last for more than a couple of weeks (next Wednesday looks an ambitious date to restart racing though) and everything will be back to normal in time for the Cheltenham Festival.

The one quote that I saw about the Festival being abandoned yesterday was 4/1 but in that instance I would hope that they have a contingency plan. Aintree is a much bigger meeting these days of course but the 1978 Cheltenham Festival was put back to April following inclement weather in March. Hopefully I am getting miles ahead of myself.

Even losing two weeks is going to impact on some horses’ preparation though as unless Newbury is rescheduled there are no more obvious Gold Cup trials in the UK for example (unless anyone fancies doing a The Fellow and running him in the Betdaq Handicap Chase at Kempton) but connections trying to qualify a horse for the Foxhunters’ are now really up against it as the cut-off date is February 25th. If the ban continues for more than two weeks then it is also going to have an impact on qualifying for the Pertemps Final. I’ll discuss how the abandonment of the trials could affect horses in Monday’s Cheltenham Festival Ante Post Week 13 copy, where I also expect to have a recommendation or two. The Cheltenham ante-post service will go from weekly to daily on March 4th right through to the end of the meeting.

Racing continues in Ireland though and the odds for them to retain the Prestbury Cup, which they won 17-11 last year, should shorten for every week that there is no racing in the UK. Given the margin of victory last year, there was already a case that Ireland were overpriced at 10/11 to have more Cheltenham Festival winners than Great Britain and that has been cut to 4/5 since the BHA announced the cancellation of all UK racing. The Brits have also been banned from travelling to Ireland so they can’t be sent over to get in a run over there, though I note that there are British-trained runners on the flat at Cagnes-sur-Mer today.

If racing is given the green light by February 21st, then I will be on a Cheltenham Festival Preview panel at Huntingdon Racecourse after racing, which is the official launch of the Weatherbys-published Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide written for the first time this year by Paul Ferguson. Way back in 2000 I wrote the first edition (and then the next 15) so when asked if I would contribute an article to recognise the milestone of the Guide reaching 20 years, the most obvious content to write about was looking back on how much the trends have changed over the last two decades. Here’s four paragraphs of the near 3,000 words’ article that I recently fired over but to read the rest, and of course all the other content from Paul and his other contributors, you will have to purchase the Guide from Weatherbys:

“Ahead of writing this article I dusted off the first edition of The Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide, which I have to say looks very primitive now including a very grainy front page image of the Royal & Sun Alliance Chase (as it was known back then) field heading out into the country, and re-read it with a view to highlight what the biggest changes have been. Back in 2000 there were just 20 races taking place over three days, one of which was the now-defunct Cathcart Chase. Also irrelevant now is the National Hunt Chase as, given all the race conditions changes, it has undergone more face lifts than Cher. As such, to all intents and purposes it is now a Grade 1 4m novices’ chase without that status rather than a glorified point-to-point. Therefore I have taken a look at how the other 18 races have changed since that very first edition.

The biggest alterations to trends since that first Guide at the turn of the century have unquestionably been in the handicaps where (a) the Irish now have a fantastic record, notably over hurdles and (b) the higher-weighted horses fare substantially better. As much as 24lb+ use to cover some handicap fields back in 2000 when it paid to study a race from the bottom of the weights upwards and winners could regularly be found from outside of the handicap. Twenty years on and it is more likely than not that no more than 14lb will cover the whole field and it was even just 3lb-4lb in the case of the Close Brothers and Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir until the extension to allow horses rated 141-145 for the first time last season meant that those two handicaps weren’t quite as condensed as the years that immediately preceded it.

Given the emerging class in the handicaps at the Festival and in a complete u-turn from the original Guide when, race after race, I suggested that we shy away from those towards to the top of the weights, I now tend to concentrate on the top half dozen or so at the head of the handicaps providing that the ground isn’t very testing. To win Cheltenham Festival handicaps now, we need horses capable of holding their own in non-handicap pattern races.

The top weights in handicaps didn’t fare as well in 2018 as the previous year where they supplied two winners and two runners-up, which I put down to unusually-heavy ground at the Festival last year. I don’t like to be tied down to rules but there’s a big case now to concentrate our efforts on the top half a dozen in the weights in the Festival handicaps providing that we don’t have a second testing-ground Festival in succession - a recommendation for which I would have been laughed out of town even only five years ago.”

After the Huntingdon preview event, I plan to be at the unveiling of the Cheltenham Festival Weights a couple of weeks before the Festival, appear on a panel just outside of Banbury on March 6th alongside Charlie Longsdon, Tom Messenger (assistant to Dan Skelton) and Richard Hoiles amongst others and probably attend a couple of other preview evenings as an audience member. My Big Race Trends analysis for all 28 races should be uploaded to the website in the next fortnight.

My feeling is that there won’t be any racing in the UK next weekend either but the Grand National weights are released on Tuesday so I will have a first proper look at the race in Ante Post Focus on Wednesday.

On the sports front, bad news, you have got me rather than Ciaran Meagher for the Genesis Open next week which is more likely to be uploaded on Wednesday but we did more than okay for my last golf preview on The Ryder Cup and we have also had a 33/1 winner in ‘Thought of the Day’ since. Hopefully my 25/1 each-way (first 8) recommendation on Phil Mickelson from Wednesday’s ‘Thought of the Day’ for the AT&T can give us a good run over the weekend being one of five joint leaders at the half-way stage.

Well done to Mike Henderson for a fine PDC World Championships set of results and he hit the ground running for Week 1 of the Premier League Darts on Thursday going 2/2 at 13/8 and 11/10. He will be continuing with weekly copy until finals night in May and also cover the UK Open between March 1-3, a tournament that proved to be most profitable last year for anyone who followed him blindly.

It’s the FA Cup (zzzzzzz) next weekend so there will be no Premier League Picks this week. Hopefully my pre-third round recommendation on Manchester United at 9/1 will still be going strong (unlike Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs) but after beating Arsenal away they now face a trip to Chelsea. Before then the Champions League restarts on Tuesday but we will have to wait an extra week before my pre-tournament fancy of Liverpool at 12/1 face Bayern Munich.


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