3m6f National Hunt Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase (Grade 2) – Tuesday 10th March 2020
The National Hunt Chase is the longest race run at the Cheltenham Festival, traditionally being dubbed the ‘four-miler’. After the controversies of last year’s renewal with only four Horses finishing the race however, a BHA review has made several changes to the race conditions for 2020. Significantly, the race distance has been reduced to 3m6f, with the number of fences jumped decreasing from 25 to 23. The participants also have more boxes to tick; Horses must have a minimum rating of 120, have ran at least twice over fences (including finishing in the first four of a Chase over 2m7f+), and have ran at least once during the current season. With the race being for Amateur riders, the Jockey’s also have new conditions to meet; they must have ridden a minimum of 20 times over fences, achieving at least five winners, all under National Hunt rules. Safety is clearly paramount in Racing, so fingers crossed these changes to the race conditions will provide a middle ground – as some fantastic Horses have graduated from this race in recent years including; Cause Of Causes, Minella Rocco, Rathvinden, Native River and of course the legendary Tiger Roll.
Over the past ten years, Gordon Elliot is the winning-most trainer with three victories; Chicago Grey (2011), Cause Of Causes (2015) and Tiger Roll (2017). Willie Mullins has won the race twice in this time period, with Back In Focus (2013) and Rathvinden (2018). Irish trainers have won six of the last ten renewals.
Jamie Codd is unsurprisingly the tied winning-most Jockey over the past 10 years, sharing the honour with fellow top-class Amateurs Patrick Mullins and Derek O’Connor – all with two victories in the race. Irish-based Jockeys have won nine of the last ten renewals.
Seven of the last ten winning Horses have been aged either seven or eight years-old, with only one six-year-old winning the race in that time period. Each of the last ten winners had at least placed in a race over three-miles before hand (although clearly this is now a requirement), but only four Horses (2010, 2012, 2013 and 2014) had won a race last time out. Interestingly only four of the last ten winners ran in a point-to-point as a young Horse, with three of them winning. Seven of the last ten winners were rated 145+.
The Horse that I am extremely keen on here is Champagne Classic, who has been absolutely laid out to try and give Gordon Elliot a fourth victory in the race. This Cullentra House inmate is already a Cheltenham Festival winner having landed the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle back in 2017, and he followed that performance up in the three-mile Grade 1 Novice Hurdle at Punchestown a month later, beating a high-class field which included three subsequent Cheltenham Festival winners; Penhill, Al Boum Photo and Presenting Percy. This unfortunately would be the last we would see of Champagne Classic for a long time however, as he missed the whole 2017/18 season through a leg injury.
641 days after his Grade 1 success, Champagne Classic finally made his return to the track at Naas in January last year, running in a three-mile Grade 3 Novice Chase. Making his Chase debut in a Graded race was hardly ideal, but with the well-documented dry ground last season, connections were running out of time and options. Despite such a lengthy absence, Champagne Classic shaped with real promise to hold a close second after the third last, but faded behind two nice Horses in the late Ballyward (150) and recent Troytown Handicap Chase winner Chris’s Dream (160). Champagne Classic once again bumped into that classy Henry de Bromhead charge when finishing a much closer half-length second in the Grade 2 Ten Up Novice Chase at Navan in February last year, only just failing to reverse the ten-length deficit from Naas a month prior. He showed a tenacious attitude to keep on strongly to the line that day however, and connections were lining him up to have a crack at the 2019 National Hunt Chase on his next start – but he pulled a muscle before the Festival and was taken out at the confirmation stage.
Not winning a race over Fences last season has worked out to be a blessing for Champagne Classic, as it meant that the Gigginstown Horse could continue his career over the larger obstacles this season as a Novice – despite twice placing in Graded Chases! Gordon Elliot started this nine-year-old off in much calmer waters by easily winning a Beginners Chase at Fairyhouse in October, before taking Listed honours at Wexford just sixteen-days later – the same race which Tiger Roll finished third in before landing his National Hunt Chase. This Listed event is for second season Chasers, and a decent field turned up – including the 2019 National Hunt Chase second Discorama (148), who was so narrowly defeated by Le Breuil at Presbury Park. Champagne Classic put in a fantastic performance under Robbie Power at Wexford however, jumping well and comfortably accounting for a more experienced rival.
Champagne Classic was last seen on the track when stepped up into Grade 1 company at Leopardstown over Christmas in the Neville Hotels Novice Chase – the same race which Chicago Grey ran in on his last start before winning the National Hunt Chase in 2011. The race was decimated with high-profile withdrawals on the day due to the drying ground (which hardly would’ve been ideal for anyone), but Gordon Elliot clearly felt the ground was safe enough to let both Battleoverdoyen and Champagne Classic take their chances. The race quickly developed into a match between the Gigginstown stablemates, and Battleoverdoyen (155) was able to make the most of track position to take the running rail after the last and win all out. Despite being a couple of lengths behind, Champagne Classic once more showed a great attitude stay on at the finish and close the gap to a length. A step up to 3m6f should be right up this Son of Stowaway’s street, and connections will be extremely hopeful they can make amends for last year’s late withdrawal – especially with a much more experienced Horse this time around.
Champagne Classic fits the majority of trends mentioned above; He is of course trained by Gordon Elliot, and is owned by Gigginstown, so will crucially have a top-class Irish Amateur Jockey aboard – namely Jamie Codd or Lisa O’Neill (who won the race on Tiger Roll). He currently has a rating of 151 over fences which covers the class angle, and he didn’t win his last race – albeit he could yet run again (holds an entry in the Flogas Novice Chase at the Dublin Racing Festival). It’s worth noting that it wouldn’t concern me if they went to the Festival with a fresh Horse mind – as Gordon Elliot’s three winners have come after breaks of 78, 47 and 134 days. One downside to Champagne Classic in regard to trends is that he is a nine-year-old now, however he did have the best part of two-years off the track through injury, so this wouldn’t particularly worry me. This Horse has further positives in that he looks like he wants a step-up in trip, and Gordon Elliot has planned to run him in the race for about eighteen-months. Another huge positive is that, like Tiger Roll, Champagne Classic is already a Cheltenham Festival winner – proving that he can handle the unique track and atmosphere. Although Champagne Classic is well found in the market since I highlighted him at 16/1 back in October, I still think that the 6/1 available will look big come the day – especially if Carefully Selected heads for the RSA.
Champagne Classic 2.5pts Each/Way (3 Places) @ 6/1
My second selection is from Nicky Henderson’s Seven Barrows stables, in the shape of Pym. This seven-year-old was a bit of an enigma over Hurdles, with connections not exactly helping expectations by running him in the same Novice Hurdle which Altior had previously won at Chepstow. Whilst he clearly isn’t as talented as Patricia Pugh’s star, he is a good Horse in his own right. Having won that infamous Novice Hurdle in good style, the expectation was that Pym would go on to be one of the top Novice Hurdlers last season, but a defeat to Anemoi at Ascot on his next start when sent off 4/7 curved some of that enthusiasm. His next race came in the Grade 2 Hyde Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham’s November meeting, where again he was sent off favourite, running well in defeat when finishing second behind the more experienced Coolanly. The step-up in trip to 2m5f certainly shaped the foundations for Pym to show his real quality however, backed up by a victory at Kempton in January last year when beating stablemate The Cashel Man (now rated 147) in game fashion. Pym signed off last season with a midfield finish in the ever-competitive Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle, but it is the larger obstacles that seem to have brought out the best in him.
Starting his career over Fences off at Huntingdon (2m4f) in November, Pym jumped to the left a little and was outpaced approaching the second last, but rallied on the flat to take second in the final strides. This run came behind a very useful rival in Alan King’s Deyrann De Carjac (145), who has since finished third behind Champ and Black Op in the Grade 2 Berkshire Novices’ Chase, before once more filling the third-place spot behind Midnight Shadow in the Grade 2 Dipper Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham. Pym’s next start over fences came at Ascot in November when running in a Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase off top weight, from a mark of 137. On the basis of his Huntingdon run, going up in trip to three-miles looked exactly what the Horse needed – and he duly obliged, making almost all from the front under a good Nico de Boinville ride. Colin Tizzard’s Highest Sun (141) was a strong fancy of mine that day back in second, and although he is a good Horse, Pym’s fantastic jumping meant that he was not for catching – silencing any doubts about stamina in the process.
Stepping up in trip once more at Cheltenham’s International meeting in December, Pym laid down his credentials for a race like the National Hunt Chase by winning a Class 2 3m1½f Novices’ Chase. Once more sent off into a lead by Nico de Boinville, Pym put in another fantastic Jumping display. Despite being joined by Imperial Aura at the third last flight, Pym quickly drew clear once more rounding the home bend, showing yet again how well he stays. Kim Bailey’s Horse eight-lengths back in second is a nice prospect in his own right and will be a big fancy of mine on Cheltenham Trials Day back in trip to 2m4f, so the form could receive a nice boost this weekend. The way that Pym effortlessly drew clear up the infamous Cheltenham Hill clearly shows he is suited to these sorts of trips, and although connections haven’t yet touted it his Festival target, the extra four-and-a-half furlongs of the National Hunt Chase would surely be right up his street.
Pym’s slick jumping is a brilliant asset for the unique test of the National Hunt Chase, and the fact that he has already won over 3m1½f at Cheltenham is a huge positive. This seven-year-old fits into the winning-most age bracket over the past ten years, and he has already earned himself a rating of 152 over fences to cover the class angle. A further positive for Pym on recent trends is that he didn’t run in point-to-points – instead making his racecourse debut in a Bumper at Ayr. Whilst recent trends have been pointing towards Irish Horses having the upper hand, it is far more important to have a top Irish Amateur Jockey in the saddle – and if Derek O’Connor didn’t have a ride in the race (as it currently seems), he would be an obvious booking considering he rode Ok Corral for Nicky Henderson last season. With stablemate Champ seemingly Nicky Henderson’s best chance in the RSA, it’s surely worth splitting the pair and allowing Pym to take his chance over this extended trip.
In the event that Pym isn’t aimed at the National Hunt Chase, I will put him up in the ‘to win any race’ market at 16/1 with William Hill. This price seems to be completely wrong as Pym is currently best priced at 12/1 for the Ultima Handicap Chase, another race in which he would be suited to off his current mark of 152 (Nicky Henderson won the race last season with Beware The Bear off 151). Although the Ultima is run on the Old Course, Pym is of course already a winner on the New Course over this trip. Another potential option for Pym is the RSA Novices’ Chase, where he is currently a 20/1 shot. The race is likely to cut up considerably between now and the Festival, Pym wouldn’t be without an each/way chance if turning up there either – especially as he jumps so well. Clearly this would be his toughest plausible assignment at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, but betting in this Market covers off all eventualities – which is useful considering his plans are yet to be confirmed.
Pym ‘To Win Any Race’ 1pt Each/Way (3 Places) @ 16/1
With regards to the new race conditions outlined above it’s worth baring in mind that, current Ante-Post favourite Carefully Selected will need to finish in the first four of a race over 2m7f+ between now and the Cheltenham Festival in order to qualify for the race. Connections have highlighted the Grade 2 Ten Up Novices’ Chase at Navan on February 16th as a potential option, but it is worth noting that this race has never produced the winner of the National Hunt Chase. Faugheen is another Willie Mullins Horse to feature prominently in the market with a lot of bookmakers, but again is not yet qualified for this race, and is more likely to go for the Marsh or RSA. Both Horses are however entered in a 3m Grade 3 at Naas on Sunday, alongside stablemate Allaho.
Good luck! – Jake Price