Cheltenham & Punchestown selections: Faugheen the star turn on super Sunday

January 24 2016 and Faugheen puts his rivals to the sword with a scintillating 15-length success in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Now, 665 days later, we finally get to see the 2015 Champion Hurdle hero for the first time since that day at Leopardstown. Is he still a ‘machine’? All the signs are that he is, but today at Punchestown is the day we find out. If he is the same horse then the 8/1 recommended in this blog last month for the big one in March will look phenomenal value.

Another antepost bet flagged up before was the 50/1 about Tombstone for the Arkle. Now I have to admit I was worried about this punt after Gordon Elliott’s charge won impressively when stepped up in trip last time out. However, he’s now brought back to two miles to raise hopes that the Arkle could yet be his final destination. Either way, I expect him to build on his win at Down Royal and he’s my Sunday NAP.

Davy Russell rides Tombstone and he’s got a great chance of a quickfire double aboard Presenting Percy, who looked so impressive on his chasing debut at Galway three weeks ago. Shattered Love and Jury Duty are fair opponents but the selection should have too much class.

Moving the attention to Cheltenham, conditions have changed somewhat since I put up Old Guard as a 25/1 fancy for the day’s big handicap, the Greatwood Hurdle. He did win the International on soft back in 2015, so all hope isn’t completely lost, but it’s fair to say that his chances have certainly been lessened by the deluge of rain that hit Prestbury Park on Saturday. One horse that won’t mind the ground however is top weight, The New One. I was keen to find another value bet in the race, with Jenkins and London Prize both a bit short (despite both holding strong claims), and with six places on offer if you look around the double figure price you can get on Nigel Twiston-Davies’ stable star now looks the bet for me. You know he’ll run his race and even if the weight might prevent him from winning, I would be surprised if he didn’t finish in the first six. His place in this race reminds me of Arctic Fire in last season’s County Hurdle, who had to shoulder a similar burden yet class told in the end.

Twiston-Davies also hold claims in the day’s opening race, a competitive handicap hurdle over 2m 5f, with Another Frontier. Favourite Melrose Boy looks the obvious one but at a bigger price the NTD runner is one of the few in the field who will appreciate the soft ground, while he will also have come on for an encouraging fifth at Aintree last month.

Selections:

1.05 Punchestown – Tombstone 6/4 NAP (and previously advised at 50/1 for the Arkle)

1.15 Cheltenham – Melrose Boy 3/1 & Another Frontier 14/1ew

1.40 Punchestown – Presenting Percy 6/5

2.25 Cheltenham – Fox Norton Evens

3.00 Cheltenham – The New One 16/1ew & Old Guard (previously advised at 25/1)

3.30 Cheltenham – Dame De Compagnie 11/10

Previously advised: Champion Hurdle – Faugheen 8/1

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Another blockbuster Saturday at Cheltenham & Punchestown

Two winners from the six races on day one of the November meeting for the blog, but I’m pretty confident of that figure increasing on the second day at Cheltenham.

Leading the charge is my 33/1 antepost fancy Ballyalton in the day’s big race, the BetVictor Gold Cup. That price has long gone now but with at least one firm paying out six places I’d still recommend taking the 12/1 available. In helter skelter handicaps like this it’s always advisable to have two bullets to fire and here my backup selection is Starchitect. David Pipe is already on the board following the success of What A Moment in Friday’s opener and this fella arrives bang in form following an impressive weight-carrying win at Stratford two weeks ago. Fifth in the similarly competitive Plate at the Festival over course and distance in March, he’s fairly weighted on 11st 2lbs and is one of those horses who always runs a good race. I’d be very surprised if he isn’t one of those in the mix going to two out, so he rates as a very good each way bet on those generous terms I mentioned earlier.

The card starts with the Grade 2 juvenile hurdle won last year by Defi Du Seuil and Philip Hobbs has a great chance of making it back to back wins with Gumball. The most impressive of the four-year-olds I’ve seen so far this season, we haven’t yet seen him tested following facile wins at Stratford and Chepstow. I expect him to continue that form today but he does have to give seven pounds to Nicky Henderson’s French import, Apples Shakira. It’s impossible to know what to expect from this sister of Apples Jade on her British debut, although she did impress in the manner of her eight and a half length win on her sole start across the channel. We’ll certainly know more after what promises to be a fascinating contest.

The bookies can’t seem to decide who to make favourite for the 1.15, with some going for Ballyoptic and others siding with West Approach. Both made impressive chasing debuts, but I’m just favouring the Tizzard runner who gets a handy three pounds off his rival. Thistlecrack’s half brother, who of course runs in the same colours as the Gold Cup contender, took high rank among the staying novice hurdlers last season before ending his campaign by being pitched in at the deep end in the Stayers Hurdle at the Festival. Both he and Ballyoptic were pulled up that day, so will want to erase the bad memories of their last visit to Cheltenham, although West Approach was three times placed at the track last term, most notably when just over three lengths third to Unowhatimeanharry in the Cleeve. He can emerge as a strong contender for the RSA and can really lay down his claims here on Saturday.

The 1.50 is a fascinating contest, mainly because of the presence of Minella Rocco. It all depends what side of the bed he’s got out of as to whether he will perform on the track and for that reason I can’t be having him here off top weight. Indeed the only time I do intend to back him will be for the Grand National – one of the few races long enough for him. Instead my selection is Three Faces West, a horse returning after 339 days off the track who has been deeply impressive in winning on his last three completed starts. In his recent Racing Post stable tour trainer Philip Hobbs said “I’m confident he’ll win races this winter” while also commenting about the fact that the horse doesn’t like to be crowded in big fields. Well, he only faces eight opponents today and with the ground seemingly softer than the good to soft stated, conditions are perfect for a bold bid.

When I started writing this blog Thomas Campbell could be backed at 9/4 for the 3.00. In the hour since he’s been smashed into as short as 11/10. Whether he should be quite that short is up for debate but there can be no doubt he looks the most likely winner of this listed contest, with James Bowen’s seven pound claim offsetting most of his ten pound penalty for his easy win at last month’s Showcase meeting. This race has more depth but nothing in the field can boast form like his close up fifth in the Martin Pipe and subsequent fourth at the Aintree Grand National meeting.

Festival form also gives Diable De Sivola good claims in the 2m 5f handicap hurdle at 3.30. Nick Williams’ four year old finished fifth in the Fred Winter in March and previously showed a liking for Cheltenham when less than two lengths second behind Defi Du Seuil at this meeting last year. He looks open to improvement off 132 and should go close today.

There is also a cracking card at Punchestown for our Saturday afternoon entertainment as day one of a meeting that should herald the return of Faugheen takes place. Let’s Dance is one of the stars on show who can get the Mullins-Walsh-Ricci juggernaut in a winning frame of mind before tomorrow’s big one, but one Closutton-based horse that I am opposing is Invitation Only. He lost his way a bit last season but his very presence in the race has made the price of Monalee a very fair one indeed. I expected Henry De Bromhead’s Albert Bartlett runner up, and my main RSA fancy this season, to be odds on, but instead 11/8 is available. A wheel barrow job methinks.

A top class day awaits – bring it on!

Selections:

12.35 Punchestown – Monalee 11/8 (NAP)

12.40 Cheltenham – Gumball 10/11

1.15 Cheltenham – West Approach 11/8

1.50 Cheltenham – Three Faces West 7/2

2.25 Cheltenham – Ballyalton 12/1ew (previously advised at 33/1) & Starchitect 9/1ew

3.00 Cheltenham – Thomas Campbell 7/4

3.30 Cheltenham – Diable De Sivola 6/1ew

Indian Castle can get the weekend off to a flyer

Here it is, Cheltenham’s November meeting, a three-day extravaganza guaranteed to bring us thrills, spills and hopefully a few winners to boot.

I’m hopeful the first of those can come in the very first race, courtesy of Indian Castle. Sixth in the 2016 Kim Muir off of a mark of 134, Ian Williams’ nine-year-old made a very pleasing return from a long absence when second at Prestbury Park last month. Giving winner What Happens Now four pounds that day, he this time meets Donald McCain’s horse on six pound better terms and, with a run also under his belt, can reverse the places off of his current rating of 128.

There are two I like in the second of the day, at 1.15, and both can be backed at double figure prices. Coeur Blimey was a top bumper horse a couple of seasons back, beating Ballyandy in December 2015 before finishing 11th to the same rival at the Festival. He failed to get off the mark during his first season over hurdles, but did finish fifth in a Grade 2 and hopes must be high that off a mark of 121 he can make his presence felt in handicaps such as this one today. The other runner I like in this one is Fergal O’Brien’s War on the Rocks. This brother of Victor Leudorum was fourth, eight lengths behind Charbel, in a very decent novice hurdle in October 2015, finishing in front of Mr Mix, before injury kept him off the track for two years. He made his return at Wincanton last month and a very encouraging one it was too, finishing third to Arty Campbell. His current mark of 110 may well underestimate his ability and at 16/1 he’s a good second bullet to have if Coeur Blimey fails to fire.

The very sad news of Alan Potts’ death was announced earlier this week so wouldn’t it be fitting if his horses were to gain success this weekend. I think the first leg of a first-day double could be in the offing via Shanahan’s Turn in the 1.50. This is a horse that has been in the grip of the handicapper since romping to a five-length success in the 2015 Galway Plate. He won that day off 142 and has since been no lower than 151, struggling as a consequence. A distant 22nd in this year’s Plate, the handicapper has now provided some early festive cheer by dropping him ten pounds. On Friday making his debut for Colin Tizzard, he can be a force off of his new mark. Then, half an hour later I expect Finian’s Oscar to complete a quick fire Potts double.

The cross country is certainly a spectacle at 3.00, although not a race I’ll be punting on too heavily. There are the usual Edna Bolger candidates, as well as Festival victor Cause of Causes, and taking the conditions of the race into consideration Auvergnat has to be the selection. Fourth in March off level weights, he now gets 15 pounds off Cause of Causes if you account for Donal McInerney’s claim, and eight off 12-year-old stablemate Cantlow.

The day ends with what should be a very informative race at 3.35 – the Grade 2 Ballymore Novices Hurdle. A race won by Peregrine Run last year, Colin Tizzard has another favourite with Vision Des Flos, who ran well on his hurdles debut at Chepstow when third in the Persian War. But I prefer the chances of Nicky Henderson’s On The Blind Side, a horse who is unbeaten in a point and a hurdle race so far and shaped with considerable promise on his debut for the king of Seven Barrows at Aintree a couple of weeks ago. Considering a lot of Henderson’s are needing a run, he could be very interesting today, especially as the trainer picked him out as a horse to follow this weekend during his appearance on Racing UK’s Luck On Sunday last week. There are dangers all over the place though and what ever happens this will be a race that shakes up the Neptune/Ballymore market a bit behind Samcro.

Selections:

12.40 Indian Castle 15/2ew (NAP)

1.15 Coeur Blimey 12/1ew & War On The Rocks 16/1ew

1.50 Shanahans Turn 8/1ew

2.25 Finian’s Oscar 11/10

3.00 Auvergnat 3/1

3.35 On The Blind Side 7/2

Champagne can flow with De Bromhead Clonmel fancy

Before we tackle Thursday’s big race, the Clonmel Oil Chase, let’s reflect on two performances from Wednesday. Firstly, Blow by Blow. Yes, he didn’t win but having looked back at the race a couple of times my overall assessment is that on his first run in 567 days, over a trip far too sharp, he ran really well. Gordon Elliott has admitted he’s not been the easiest to train at home and it may be that he needs racing to get him in tip top shape. He’s bound to come on a tonne for the run and next time out, stepped up in trip, I think you will see a different animal. Some firms pushed him out to 33/1 for the Albert Bartlett after today’s third place – a hasty move in my opinion that they may regret in the long run. Don’t lose faith.

Meanwhile, at Exeter White Moon backed up his impressive rules debut with an even more taking performance to beat some smart opponents as easily as he liked, despite the burden of a penalty. Yesterday I flagged up the 25/1 that was available on the dashing grey for the Albert Bartlett. You can still get 20s now and I strongly advise you to take that as this fella is the real deal.

Onto Thursday and the big Grade 2 at Clonmel. The current favourite is Henry De Bromhead’s Galway Plate hero, Balko Des Flos, yet it is the trainer’s other runner that interests me – Champagne West. The nine year old was good enough to take his chance in the Gold Cup last term, finishing ninth in the Cheltenham showpiece, after two very impressive wins in January, most memorably a seven and a half length win in the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park. That day he lead the field a merry dance from the front and I can see him doing the same here, on his favoured soft ground. On official ratings he’s five pounds better than any of his rivals, yet the conditions of the race mean that he’s actually in receipt of a pound from A Toi Phil and only has to give four pounds to his stablemate Balko Des Flos. Whether he’s really good enough to win a Gold Cup, I’d have my doubts, but in this company he should be going close.

Meanwhile, the Cheltenham November meeting is very nearly upon us now and I for one can’t wait. The big race on Sunday is of course the Greatwood and without Defi Du Seuil in the lineup it’s a wide open affair. Jenkins is now way too short at 4/1 at the head of the market but a horse who for me is well overpriced is the 2015 winner of the race – Old Guard. Rated 145 when he won that renewal, he went on to win the Grade 2 International a month later before last season finding life hard in the 150s following an aborted chasing campaign. Now back down to 149, he showed his well being last month when winning comfortably at Kempton and arrives at Cheltenham in his best form since that winter of 2015. He has Bryony Frost, fresh from her win in the Badger Ales aboard Present Man, taking off five pounds and has been hugely underestimated at 25/1. For me, he’s now the each way bet of the race and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that price shorten significantly before the off.

Thursday selection:

2.20 Clonmel – Champagne West 11/4

Antepost:

Greatwood Hurdle – Old Guard 25/1ew

Bartlett fancies ready to strut their stuff

The day has finally arrived – Blow by Blow makes his hurdling debut, a total of 567 days since his last appearance on a racetrack. I was there that day at Punchestown, as he showed what a massive engine he’s got to lead from flag fall to finishing post, repelling the attacks of Moon Racer and Bacardys to win the festival’s Grade 1 Champion Bumper. He was one of my first antepost bets for Cheltenham 2017, but the wait to see him reappear went on, and on, and on. Retaining my faith in him, he then became one of my first antepost bets for the 2018 Festival and Wednesday’s the day when I hope some of that faith will start being repaid.

The fact we see him in a two mile contest I find a little odd, but maybe Gordon Elliott just wants to ease him back into things before stepping him up to the kind of trips where he will excel. I’ve already advised the 25/1 on him for the Albert Bartlett and I’d just reiterate that. I think he’s potentially very very good and hopefully we’ll see some of that talent in this first appearance over timber at Fairyhouse.

Now, as coincidence would have it, my other fancy for the Festival’s novice hurdle three miler also runs on Wednesday. It looked at though we would see White Moon again this week at Cheltenham, but with Colin Tizzard seemingly not wanting to run him and Vision Des Flos in the same race, instead his son of Sholokhov turns up at Exeter. He created a very deep impression with the way he travelled and scampered clear on his rules debut to win by six lengths at Wincanton and I’m optimistic he can offer up a similarly impressive display second time out. If he does then the 25s on offer for the Albert Bartlett won’t be around for long.

My other selections all come at Bangor. The Nipper was given a very tough task on chasing debut the other week at Wetherby, when pitched in against Dan Skelton’s Born Survivor. She certainly didn’t disgrace herself back in second and can build on that performance here back against her own sex. Funnily enough, the first time I saw Warren Greatrex’s mare was at that same Punchestown Festival as Blow by Blow’s, and on that occasion she did disgrace herself – running through the rails and taking my money with her! It’s fair to say she’s always been a bit quirky so having to concentrate on jumping fences might just unlock some of the undoubted talent she has. The 15/2 on offer seems very fair to me.

Rather like White Moon, another horse I was preparing to back at Cheltenham this weekend who instead runs today is Potter’s Legend. Fourth at the Festival in the Kim Muir before finishing in the same position a few weeks later in a listed contest at Aintree, Lucy Wadham’s charge ran encouragingly on his return at Chepstow last month and should be spot on today. Running off a pound less than he had to carry in March, he surely has a cracking chance of getting his head in front for the first time since victory at this very same track just less than a year ago.

Then, in the 2.50 I’m keen on the chances of Leoncavallo. For the past year under the stewardship of Ben Pauling, he’s been in the grip of the handicapper for a while now, since he was beating the likes of Sceau Royal as a juvenile for John Ferguson. Now, however, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. Down to a mark of 135, five pounds less than he had to carry in the Coral Cup in March, the five year old could be weighted to strike at a juicy 12/1.

Selections:

1.10 Bangor – The Nipper 15/2ew

1.45 Bangor – Potter’s Legend 7/2

2.50 Bangor – Leoncavallo 12/1ew

4.05 Exeter – White Moon (NAP) 7/4

Previously advised:

Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle – Blow by Blow 25/1ew

First Assignment can be a winning one for red-hot Williams

Ian Williams can do no wrong at the moment, winning the Elite Hurdle with London Prize and then the November Handicap with Saunter in a memorable 15 minutes on Saturday. He also has leading claims in this weekend’s big handicap at Cheltenham on Saturday, the BetVictor Chase, with Ballyalton – tipped up here at 33/1 two weeks ago.

On Tuesday, in the less illustrious surroundings of Lingfield, he gives a rules debut to First Assignment. A four-year-old son of Vinnie Row, he won his only point back in April but it is who he beat that makes him interesting. He got the better of Red River that day, a horse whose 13-length victory at Wincanton for Kim Bailey was one of the most taking by a novice hurdler so far this season. Taken literally, this means that First Assignment must be overpriced at his current odds of 8/1. He takes on a few other rivals here also making their rules debut with interesting backgrounds, so it’s far from straightforward, but surely at his current price he’s worth an each way punt.

Selection:

1.20 Lingfield – First Assignment 8/1ew

Henderson set for day to remember at Sandown

More stars come out to play on Sunday as the wraps are taken off Might Bite and Apples Jade, at Sandown and Navan respectively, on another cracking day of jumps action.

Gordon Elliott’s Apples Jade is a solid favourite to retain her Mares Hurdle crown at Cheltenham next March but can take a race or two to get going and if there’s a time to take her on it is now. She meets a race-fit rival in Jer’s Girl, whom she also has to give seven pounds to, and I think Gavin Cromwell’s mare is the one to be on in the Grade 2 Lismullen Hurdle. The five-year-old can be forgiven a poor run behind Jezki last time out as the race came just six days after her seasonal reappearance on the Flat, when she ran out an impressive five and a half length winner at Roscommon. The 3/1 on offer is definitely worth taking. 

Meanwhile, over at Sandown while all eyes will be on the return of Might Bite, Nicky Henderson also has a couple of other decent chances. In the 1.20, he runs Baden, the six-year-old son of Martaline who has proven a bit disappointing over hurdles. However, he was always going to make a better chaser and could well prove to be well treated for his debut over the bigger obstacles, getting 11 pounds off current favourite Chalonnial. The winner of a point back in May 2015, he beat the now Neil Mulholland trained Kalondra that day, a horse who gave Modus a bit of a scare at Wincanton on Saturday. At 7/1 he’s a nice each way price.

Then, at 2.55, the champion trainer runs Wenyerreadyfreddie, who looks interesting on his handicap debut off of a mark of 129. An impressive winner at Doncaster when last seen in March, he was third in a hot maiden last December at Newbury and has scope to make an impact this season. He’s currently available at 4/1, so can be backed each way if he only runs into a place.

Selections:

1.20 Sandown – Baden 7/1ew (NAP)

1.40 Navan – Jer’s Girl 3/1

2.55 Sandown – Wenyerreadyfreddie 4/1ew