I warned that Day 1 would be a pretty tricky punting day if you’re not into backing short-priced favourites, and that rang true with 3 short priced Horses going in, and an 80/1 shot winning the Boodles! Nethertheless the Cheltenham Festival is a marathon not a sprint, and I’ll head into Day 2 upbeat that fortunes will change. Fingers crossed for a much better day! I will be posting my selections on this website between 17:30 and 18:30 each day, so be sure to come back tomorrow for all my Day 3 thoughts. Best of luck if you’re following, and be sure to follow me on Twitter @JakePriceRacing for live updates throughout the day.
13:20 – Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1) – 2m5f
Henry de Bromhead is no stranger to training top-class Horses, but Bob Olinger mightn’t be far off the best Novice Hurdler he has ever had under his care. This facile Turtulla P2P winner went and absolutely bolted up in a 2m2f Bumper at Gowran in March last season on debut for the yard, and since then he has ran three very good races over Hurdles. Often you see these exciting young Horses pitched into the weakest Maiden Hurdles that the trainer can find, but testament to the regard that Bob Olinger is held in by Henry, he decided to let him take his chance up against none other than the reigning Champion Bumper winner Ferny Hollow. Considering that race was over 2m, connections just decided to bounce Bob Olinger out and try to make all of the running – and he jumped really well for what was only his first start over timber. When the pair headed over the second last Bob Olinger was certainly travelling best, but once Paul Townend got serious on Ferny Hollow he managed to get past jumping the final flight – although Bob Olinger very much kept to his coattails when only beaten a length at the finish. It was a massive shame to see Ferny Hollow ruled out for the season subsequently due to picking up an injury as he clearly would’ve taken high rank in the Novice Hurdle division this season, but in terms of Bob Olinger it was a top-class opening effort.
Stepping up in trip at Navan in December for a 2m4f Maiden Hurdle, Bob Olinger this time did find one of those aforementioned weak races, as once again Rachael Blackmore bounced him out in front to score by an impressive 14 lengths without coming off the bridle. He was clearly entitled to win as he did when sent off a 1/8 shot, but the second placed Horse that day is actually pretty useful himself – with Dunboyne rated 130 having won a Maiden of his own subsequently. That run just before Christmas teed him up perfectly for a tilt at the Grade 1 Lawlor’s Of Naas Novices’ Hurdle in January however, and he once more put in a brilliant performance – this time quite importantly from a tactics point of view showcasing that he can sit in and track the leaders. By the time they got to the second last however Bob Olinger was ready to burst into the lead, and he did so under no uncertain terms – putting 6.5 lengths between himself and Blue Lord (145) when properly asked for an effort for the first time in his short career to date. You could feasibly argue that Bob Olinger won that race in equally impressive a fashion as Envoi Allen did 12 months prior, and whilst he is yet to prove himself as being quite that good, I think Bob Olinger has an outstanding chance of repeating what his new stablemate did by going onto land the Ballymore on his next start. When you throw in the trends that recent Ballymore winners are six-year-old’s (9 of the last 10) trained in Ireland (7 of the last 10) who have had 3 Hurdles starts prior to Cheltenham (7 of the last 10), then I rate Bob Olinger as one of the bets of the week.
13:55 – Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase (Grade 1) – 3m½f
Like Shishkin in the Arkle, I’m not going to be able to tell you anything you didn’t already know about Monkfish – but he really has been awesome over fences this season. An easy 4 length winner of a 2m5f Beginners’ Chase at Fairyhouse, Monkfish then went and won the 3m Grade 1 Novice Chase at Leopardstown in December – seeing off Latest Exhibition (153) by 3 lengths in a strong staying performance. This Willie Mullins charge put in his most incredible performance to date at the Dublin Racing Festival last month however, recording a massive RPR of 170 when this time routing Latest Exhibition by 11 lengths in the 2m5½f Flogas Novices’ Chase. If he’s in a similar vein of form, then these lot won’t get anywhere near him.
14:30 – Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3) – 2m5f
When approaching the Coral Cup this year I wanted to take an even more vigorous approach with the trends than normal, as it is a very rewarding puzzle to solve. The key trends I came down on were that a Horse needs to have raced over 2m4f+ in their career, they need to have raced at Cheltenham before, they should not have won a Handicap Hurdle that season, but they should have won a race – although not last time out. You then wanted to look for Horses ideally aged 7 (5-8 is fine), who are a second season hurdlers (third is fine), who have had 9 Hurdles starts (6-10 is fine), and are rated 145 (139-153 is fine). That might sound like a bit of a mouthful when typed out, but what‘s important is that Birchdale only fails on two of those trends; the fact that he hasn’t won a race this season, and the fact that he has (somehow!) only had 4 starts over Hurdles so far in his career.
You can quickly alleviate any concerns about experience however as Birchdale has also had 3 Chase runs – but the fact that he hasn’t shown himself to be in winning form this season is a slight concern. In a race where none of these Horses tick the trends completely however, Birchdale must have a solid chance now he’s proven to connections that he just hates fences. As a Novice this JP McManus charge won a Grade 2 Novice Hurdle over this course and distance when upsides final flight faller Brewin’upastorm (158), but he then pulled up in the Albert Bartlett when not staying the 3m trip. Connections were understandably keen to get him straight over fences last season, but he very much disappointed when 32 lengths 3rd at Ascot – so Nicky Henderson aborted that mission, and instead aimed him at the Coral Cup. Running off a mark of 146, Birchdale ran on strongly from an unpromising position to take 8th place, beaten 9.75 lengths by stablemate Dame De Compagnie (148), but finishing around the likes of Bachasson (150), Alfa Mix (142) and Coko Beach (141) – a promising effort in what looks on paper to be a better race than the 2021 renewal.
Connections tried Birchdale over fences once again this season, and he couldn’t have been given a better opportunity when sent off 3/10f for a Beginners Chase at Catterick in November – but he unseated Aidan Coleman that day, before finishing stone last in a Novices’ Handicap Chase at Newbury off 145 in January. I think it’s safe to say that his Chasing career is now over, and Nicky Henderson is once more resorting back to ‘plan B’ of running him in the Coral Cup. Rather than going there beaten 30+ lengths in a Chase like last season however, he wisely decided to give Birchdale a spin in a Jumpers Bumper last month at Kempton – where he shaped with much more purpose thanks to not having those big fences in his way. Considering Birchdale comes into the Coral Cup this year with a much more encouraging run under his belt, I think he has a good chance of at least hitting the frame as the Handicapper has dropped him 2lb to a mark of 144 – and the Good-to-Soft ground at Cheltenham should further increase his chances.
15:05 – Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1) – 2m
The Champion Chase was one a few high-profile races to be marred by a Non-Runner this week, with Nicky Henderson’s Altior missing his intended target due to a cough after exercising on Monday morning. For the second year running then the dual Champion Chase winner has had to pull out at the 11th hour, but the significance of that withdrawal is definitely less than it was 12 months ago – as Chacun Pour Soi (himself a late withdrawal last year) has really proven himself to be a top class and generally more sound Horse this season.
An easy 19 lengths victory at Cork in the Grade 2 Hilly Way Chase in December was followed by a smooth success in the 2m1f Grade 1 Chase at Leopardstown (Beating Notebook by 6.5 lengths) just 21 days later – which in itself was a small victory for the Mullins team considering how fragile he has been in the past. His most impressive performance this season came in the Grade 1 Dublin Chase at Leopardstown last month however, where he really went through the gears to burn off his rivals – putting 8 lengths between himself and Fakir D’oudairies. If Chacun Pour Soi turns up in that sort of form, then he will be very hard to beat under Paul Townend.
15:40 – Cross Country Chase (Class 2) – 3m6f
Easysland is probably one of these favourites who will just win, but his price of 11/10 doesn’t appeal to me whatsoever. The fact that he missed an intended prep run for this race is clearly not ideal, and he was well beaten when admittedly trying to give away lumps of weight here in November. This is obviously a conditions race rather than a Handicap so I’m sure he will go much closer however, and if he runs to the same level as he did 12 months ago when thrashing Tiger Roll then he’ll take some stopping – but he’s too short to back for my liking.
It would be some story if the legendary Tiger Roll could bow out with one last Cross Country win, but sadly it looks as if his winning days might be behind him, as he never travelled a yard when pulled up on Good ground in November. The drying conditions on Wednesday will definitely suit him, but he will have to show a level of form that he hasn’t really managed since winning the Grand National back in April 2019 if he is to be victorious. I’ll be rooting for him if he has a chance turning for home, but I think the value bet lies with John McConnell’s Some Neck.
This 10 year old was a useful Horse for Willie Mullins back in the day, and he even won the 2m6½f Grade 2 Florida Pearl Novice Chase in November 2018 – but having lost his way a little subsequently, he ended up being sold to join the McConnell team. In a bid to give him a new leash of life, connections gave him a spin in the Grade 2 Lismullen Hurdle at Navan in November before then running him over the banks at Punchestown – the Irish version of the Cross Country course. Some Neck seemed to quite enjoy jumping around the unique course, and he stayed on eye-catchingly for third place – really plugging on in the closing stages and shaping as if he wanted further. That increase in distance was exactly what he got at Cheltenham in December, as Some Neck made his debut on the Cross Country course in the 3m6f Handicap race held at the International meeting. Once again taking to the course well, Some Neck did make a couple of mistakes on the way around but he was put under pressure by Defi Des Carres – who set a quick pace out in front. Rounding the home bend however Some Neck really stuck to his task gamely, and he showed he needed every inch of the 3m6f trip when getting up in the final few strides to score by a shorthead.
As I mentioned Some Neck did make a few mistakes on his first attempt at the Cross Country course, but that is to be expected – and now he knows his way around I’d be hopeful he will put in an even better round at the second attempt, as so many of these Cross Country Horses do. Some Neck will need to step forward to be beating the likes of Easysland off level weights, but it is worth noting that he will be 9lbs better off with Defi Des Carres this time. Now rated 144 in the Cross Country sphere, Some Neck only has 5lbs to find with Potters Corner on official ratings, and whilst the likes of Balko Des Flos/Alpha Des Obeaux are obviously pretty classy over the conventional steeplechase fences, we have no idea how they will get on with the Cross Country obstacles. Considering Some Neck had a spin over Hurdles last month in preparation for this race, he will have been trained to the minute by a very shrewd handler in John McConnell – who is building up a great strike rate at Cheltenham when booking Richard Johnson (2/3 this season). I think course and distance winner Some Neck is a solid each/way bet with the 4 places on offer.
16:15 – Grand Annual Handicap Chase (Grade 3) – 2m
I’ll be having two stabs at the Grand Annual considering there are 6 Places on offer, and I’ll start off by looking at Chris Gordon’s On The Slopes – who looks a big price.
That infamous 2m4f Novices’ Handicap Chase run on Trials Day at Cheltenham always throws up a bunch of future winners, and last season it was an exceptional renewal – with Simply The Betts beating Imperial Aura, in a race which also saw On The Slopes not stay the trip in 3rd place. Imperial Aura was smashed in the betting for the Novices’ Handicap when his mark of 143 was revealed the following Tuesday, but to connections initial disappointment Simply The Betts was handed 149. The punters didn’t seem to mind though, as they just smashed him up for the Plate instead! That left a lot of money going onto On The Slopes when he was entered for the Grand Annual, and it was understandable considering the drop back in trip looked sure to suit. By the time Imperial Aura had bolted up in the Novice Handicap On The Slopes was a strong fancy for many, and he was actually Ante-Post favourite for the race – but his mark of 136 meant he just missed the cut, and was forced to run at Kempton on the Saturday instead. He easily won that consolation race by 3.5 lengths over Return Ticket (138), and although the season was obviously cut short, many had a lot of optimism that he would be able to build on that this year.
Making his return in a 2m Handicap Chase at Cheltenham in October however, On The Slopes ran well for a long way before just shaping as if he needed the run – fading late on for 5th place behind Rouge Vif (163), who of course got his ideal conditions and absolutely bolted up. With that run under his belt then On The Slopes was well fancied when running back over the same course and distance in November off a mark of 142, but again he faded tamely having shaped well – filling the 5th spot once again behind Magic Saint (157). Thankfully connections decided to send him for a wind operation shortly after that run, and after an 88 day break he returned to action at Kempton last month when blowing the cobwebs away in a Jumpers Bumper – where he ran much better when finishing 3rd. The form of those races are useless so there is no point discussing it, but On The Slopes definitely looks worth chancing in the Grand Annual now he is able to breathe again – especially as he has had two course and distance runs on the old course, so he will know what to expect. A mark of 140 doesn’t look beyond him considering It’s just 4lbs higher than his last win where he won with plenty in hand, and his tendency to race prominently is another big advantage.
My second selection for the Grand Annual will be Joseph O’Brien’s Embittered, who has the potential to be way ahead of his official rating of 146 over fences. This 7yo ran a cracker at Cheltenham last season when finishing 3rd behind Saint Roi (155) and Aramon (163) in the Grade 3 County Hurdle off a mark of 146, and since then he’s done nothing wrong over fences. His 2.75 length second behind the late Easywork (153) was a good effort at Navan in November, and he again ran well over that course and distance in December – this time finishing 2nd behind Andy Dufresne (149) in a Grade 3 Novice Chase. It has been Grade 1 company for this Gigginstown runner since then however, as he ran in the 2m Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown on Boxing Day – finishing 4th behind Franco De Port (156), and not completing too far behind Felix Desjy (154). Connections decided to run him in the Irish Arkle at the Dublin Racing Festival last month, and again he filled the 4th place spot – this time no match for Energumene (163). On a line through Franco De Port you could say he actually improved on this occasion however, as he reduced the gap to that rival from 21 lengths to 13 – which reads a little better than the bare result suggests.
I think Embittered is a classic Novice into Handicap company plot job however, as running some decent races in top company has meant that Embittered has been handed the same mark of 146 as he was over Hurdles 12 months ago – and last season he also flattered to deceive in Grade 1 races before running a season best in a Cheltenham Handicap. Joseph O’Brien knows exactly what he is doing when it comes to preparing a Horse for a Handicap target, and although he’s been well found in the market, Rachael Blackmore is a fantastic Jockey booking and increases his chances further in my eyes.
16:50 – Champion Bumper (Grade 1) – 2m½f
The Champion Bumper is by far the race that I am most looking forward to watching this week, and not from anything other than a selfish perspective! When you buy into a Mare freshly purchased from France and set to go into training with Willie Mullins then your mind doesn’t help but carried away with the possibilities, but for the first Horse I’ve ever been involved with from an ownership perspective to be lining up at the Cheltenham Festival is beyond my wildest dreams. When Grangee went at won so impressively at Galway I was just so happy that I hadn’t invested something that would never win a race. That easy 6.5 length win didn’t exactly temper the syndicate’s enthusiasm either, but we were certainly brought back to earth after running in the Listed race at Market Rasen in January. Grangee made the headlines in every racing publication and blog that week thanks to becoming the first Irish Horse to race in Britain post Brexit and the COVID-19 travel ban, and with Nico de Boinville booked we were very hopeful she could go close. When she was kicked out of the way by Eileendover however it was perhaps a bit of a bubble burst – but we were all still extremely proud to have shares in a Mare who achieved black type on just her second racecourse start.
The race I always had hoped Grangee would run in however was the Grade 2 Mares Bumper at Leopardstown, so when Willie said that was the plan I was over the moon. We never really received any vibes that Grangee was expected to get anything more than a place that day, but when she started flying through the pack under Jody Townend I remember thinking wow, she’s actually going to place here! The turn of foot she showed to make up that ground and continue staying on was an unbelievable feeling, and when she came upsides Party Central I’ve never screamed a Horse home more in my life – and I will never forget that feeling of seeing her cross the line with her head in front. She clearly is up against it in the Champion Bumper however, as it will be the first time she has raced outside of Mares only company. I know it’s cliché, but we would be absolutely ecstatic if she could hit the frame. The likes of Kilcruit and Sir Gerhard might just be in a different league at this stage even in receipt of the 7lbs allowance, but her weight adjusted rating of 127 would certainly give her a squeak. I won’t be advising a bet on her, but I cannot wait to see how she gets on – and Danny Mullins is a fantastic Jockey booking.
My idea of a bet in the race however would be Sir Gerhard, as I just think the race which Kilcruit won at Leopardstown last time just completely fell apart for him – as he’s probably the best Bumper Horse there has ever been if not! Sir Gerhard has put in some impressive victories himself this season however, winning by 14 lengths at Down Royal in October before then winning the Listed “Future Champions” Bumper at Navan in December – beating Letsbeclearaboutit by 4.5 lengths in impressive style. One question mark that Sir Gerhard does have to answer is the late stable change from Gordon Elliott to Willie Mullins, but if it hasn’t upset his routine then clearly that isn’t a stable switch which should be cause for concern. With Rachael Blackmore a top Jockey booking, I hope he can get the better of his new stablemate.
Good luck! – Jake Price