1.30 – Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1) – 2m 87y
And we’re off, the best 4 days off the year are underway. I’m going to start in the obvious place, and that’s with the Willie Mullins quartet. The guy has simply farmed the race in recent years, and has a strong hand again this time round. First up is Melon, who of course arrived from France with a big reputation, before going missing until after Christmas to the point where I actually saw people on Twitter asking whether he even existed. When he eventually showed up, he was very impressive in winning his maiden hurdle at Leopardstown as he liked. He cruised through the race with the minimum of fuss, jumped really well (bar the last) and Ruby struggled to pull him up after. He’s clearly got some engine. Bunk Off Early comes here via a well known trial in the Deloitte, where he was 2nd to Bacardys despite looking the winner turning for home. He pulled hard early on, and just didn’t get home. That was over 2m 2f, so the step back in distance here will suit, but I’m not convinced he’ll get home here either. First of all, they go hard straight from the off in the Supreme. The pace is relentless. If you are a doubtful stayer, you don’t win a Supreme. Secondly, he is by Zebedee. He’s bred to be a sprinter. He ain’t getting up that hill. Crack Mome is the Mullins third string in here if you look at jockey bookings alone. However, I’m surprised Townend has chosen Bunk Off Early over him. His 2 races to date have been on soft, firstly in a Clonmel maiden hurdle which he won well, and the last day where he was 2nd to the very exciting Any Second Now in the Moscow Flyer. He’s expected to improve significantly for good ground, and I think he has a great EW shout. Willie’s final runner is Cilaos Emery. At one point it looked as if he may be their first string here, but he was very disappointing behind Mick Jazz last time and has a lot to find now. The second favourite in the race is the Betfair Hurdle winner, and last year’s Champion Bumper hero, Ballyandy. He started off over hurdles with 2 defeats to Moon Racer at Perth and here in November. He was then beaten by Messire Des Obeaux at Sandown, before going on to score in the Betfair Hurdle after the handicapper gave him a gift of a mark. The stats aren’t so encouraging about his chance here. Since 1996, 60 have come here after having their last run in a handicap. None have won. The last 20 winners of the Supreme had all won at least 50% of their starts over hurdles. Ballyandy is 1 from 4. But one stat is in his favour. Of those having finished in the top 5 in the previous year’s Champion Bumper in the last 6 years, only 4 have started 10/1 or shorter. 3 have won, the other was 2nd. Make of that what you like. Nicky Henderson’s only realistic chance here is River Wylde. Henderson had his first winner in this since Flown in 1992 when Altior won last year, but does have a very good record of horses being placed in the race. In the last 10 years, 12 of his 19 runners placed, with 4 of those being priced over 10/1. Incidentally, Flown was the last Dovecote winner to double up here which is what River Wylde will be trying to do. High Bridge would be of some interest with a proper jockey on, but I can’t even entertain the thought of him going close with Alex Ferguson on him. But my pick has got to be Melon. You cannot ignore the way Willie Mullins speaks about him. He has talked about winning Champion Hurdles with this horse, so you’d be wise to take note of the master of Closutton. Yes he has only won a maiden hurdle, but when you also have the 3rd and 5th fav for a race you’ve basically owned in recent years, and you say it will be an easy decision for Ruby to ride him, he’s got to be very good indeed.
Selection: Melon (10/3 SkyBet)
2.10 – Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase (Grade 1) – 1m 7f 199y
This won’t take too long. I think we all agree Altior wins here, and wins very easily. He’s rated better than both Douvan and Sprinter Sacre at this stage, and whilst I’d have liked to have seen him take on Douvan in the Champion Chase, Nicky Henderson has taken the logical option. And that’s probably the right thing to do. But what a treat we’d have been in for if he’d have taken on Altior. Let’s just hope we get to see them clash at Sandown in December for the Tingle Creek. Anyway, we’ve got to look elsewhere into the W/O market for a bet here. Like the betting suggests, the most obvious choice is Charbel. But I’m not keen to back him. The reason for that is because they are going to try and beat Altior. That probably sounds weird but David Bass will be trying to stay with Altior, but none in this field are even close to being good enough to do that. As a result, he will more than likely pay for his efforts late on, leaving it open for one of the others to nick 2nd. The one I like here is Royal Caviar 9/2 EW, 3 places 1/5 odds. With no Min, this will be Ruby’s ride in the race, and whilst he’s no Min, he’s a good horse in his own right. He would’ve won the Irish Arkle last time but for a fall at the last. He is actually a very good jumper, the fall at Leopardstown was the only mistake he’s made over fences. He was a decent hurdler too, finishing 2nd to Sutton Place twice. But he’s really come into his own over fences, and despite being a 9yo, has only raced 11 times under rules (only twice over fences), so has plenty of scope for improvement too. So it’s Royal Caviar EW W/O Altior for me. If he finishes in the top 4 it’s money back, if he finishes 2nd, bingo! Some food for thought though; of course Altior won the Supreme last year and is attempting to follow up here. Since 1965, only one horse has done the Supreme – Arkle double: Douvan.
Selection: Royal Caviar EW W/O Altior (9/2 SkyBet and Bet365, 3 places so finish in first 4)
2.50 – Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3) – 3m 1f
The first handicap of the week, the Ultima. I don’t have the greatest record in the handicaps so I’m going to try something different this year and go stat-based. Whether it works, well I guess we’ll find out on Friday. So 24 runners here, I’ve managed to whittle it down to 4 off the stats alone. 21 of the last 25 winners had finished 1st or 2nd at some point that season. That wipes out 7 here: Holywell, The Druids Nephew, Measureofmydreams, The Young Master, Buywise, A Good Skin and Annacotty. 7 of the last 9 winners had a handicap rating of 142-148. That stat takes out a further 10 (Noble Endeavor, Un Temps Pour Tout, Pilgrims Bay, Theatre Guide, Clarcam, Antony, Go Conquer, Vic De Touzaine, Vintage Clouds and Viconte Du Noyer. Paul Nicholls is 0/19 in this race, so I’ve taken out Ibis Du Rheu and Caid Du Berlais. And finally, 8 of the last 9 winners had run in the 45 days leading up to the race, so that takes out Junction Fourteen. That leaves 4: Singlefarmpayment, Henri Parry Morgan, Label Des Obeaux and Coologue. Singlefarmpayment beat Label Des Obeaux by 8 1/2 lengths off levels here in December, and gets 6lb off that rival today, so I’m happy to rule out Label Des Obeaux. Coologue won here in October, but has disappointed since and I’m happy to leave him out as well. So we’re now left with just Singlefarmpayment and Henri Parry Morgan, and I will be dutching the pair of them EW. Singlefarmpayment is an assured stayer, won here in December and is completely unexposed in 3m chases, and should go very close. He is right towards the head of the market and I’m hoping he isn’t left with the curse of being fav, so the Irish will hopefully smash into Noble Endeavor. As for Henri Parry Morgan, I had him down as a big player for the Grand National at the start of the season, but it just hasn’t worked out for him so far. He disappointed in the Hennessy, before unseating at Wetherby on Boxing Day and falling here on New Years’ Day, both when still in with a chance. He then disappointed twice subsequently but if he’s on an up day, he can go close.
Selections: Singlefarmpayment EW (15/2 Ladbrokes, BetVictor, Coral and Bet365) and Henri Parry Morgan EW (14/1 Stan James)
3.30 – Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy (Grade 1) – 2m 87y
Now then, where do I start here? First of all, we all agree this is a substandard Champion Hurdle, that it lacks the superstar of recent years. However, the race this year is arguably much more intriguing for that very reason; nobody really knows who is going to win. And you never know, it could be the launchpad for a superstar of the future. Ok, maybe I’m going too far here, so I’ll get on with the race itself now. I’ve changed my mind on this time and time again in the past days and weeks. I’ve written off every horse in the race at some point. But finally I’m settled on one: Yanworth. Yes people might moan I took an age to make my mind up and have ended up going for the favourite, and they would be right. However, let’s look at the facts. He’s the joint highest rated in the race (with Petit Mouchoir, who won’t get up the hill). He’s only been beaten once over hurdles, and that was here last year when 2nd (btn 1 3/4l) to Yorkhill in the Neptune and if Yorkhill had been re-routed here, he’d be fav. No doubt about it. Over the years, it’s been well proven that the Neptune is a better trial for the Champion Hurdle than the Supreme too. 20 of the last 27 winners of the Champion Hurdle were course winners previously, a criteria that Yanworth meets, whilst Buveur D’Air, Brain Power, Petit Mouchoir, My Tent Or Yours, Footpad, Ch’Tibello, Wicklow Brave and Cyrus Darius all fail this test. People often crab him for his jumping, but he’s never actually fallen and he’s got some heart on him. He just loves winning. Another key stat I came across was that 17 of the last 20 winners had previously won a Grade 1 hurdle, another key stat Yanworth meets, whereas Brain Power and Moon Racer do not, and The New One’s sole Grade 1 win was over 2m 4f, so he barely meets the criteria either. He also just keeps on improving, and despite having raced on speed tracks that clearly haven’t suited him at all this campaign, he’s still won every time. So I’ve made my case for Yanworth, and now I’m going to go through why the other 11 in the race can’t win. Buveur D’Air won’t be suited by the ground and this is Plan B after chasing was abandoned. Brain Power is a handicapper, hasn’t had a prep run, hasn’t won round Cheltenham before and hasn’t previously won a Grade 1 hurdle. Petit Mouchoir won’t get up the hill, plus he’s only beat a below par Nichols Canyon twice. Moon Racer has well over a stone to find. Can’t blame connections for having a go but he’s going to find this very tough. The New One has never won a Grade 1 over 2m, and was behind Yanworth in the Christmas Hurdle, beaten fair and square. There is no reason for that form to be reversed. My Tent Or Yours is the definition of a bridle horse. He’ll be bang there at the last, before probably finishing about 6th. Footpad is improving, but was flattered by how close he finished to Petit Mouchoir last time and has a lot to find to get competitive. Ch’Tibello has been beaten by Yanworth twice this season, and on a track that now suits Yanworth much better, that form won’t be reversed. Sceau Royal just isn’t that good, and like Ch’Tibello was behind Yanworth in the Kingwell. Wicklow Brave isn’t really top level and Cyrus Darius has 20lb to find. So there we are, Yanworth the pick. He may get a little outpaced between 2 out and the last, but I have no doubt nobody will be finishing quicker, and want to win more, than the orange machine.
Selection: Yanworth (3/1 SkyBet, Betfred and Stan James)
4.10 – OLBG Mares’ Hurdle (Grade 1) (Registered As The David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle) – 2m 3f 200y
This looks like an absolute cracker, with Limini, Vroum Vroum Mag and Apple’s Jade all showing up. This race is usually a formality for Willie Mullins, and plenty say it is this year as well, but I’m not so sure. I think there’s very little between the 3 of them, and the ORs back that up. Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag are both rated 154, with Apple’s Jade just a lb behind on 153. Ruby has picked Limini. There’s a chance he may have picked wrong, we’ll find out later. Earlier in the season, Apple’s Jade became the first 4yo to ever win the Hatton’s Grace when beating none other than Vroum Vroum Mag. Granted, she was getting 4lb that day which she won’t be getting here, but that’s a serious achievement, especially considering it came just a week after she was narrowly denied in the Fighting Fifth. There’s no denying, she’s a wonderfully tough mare. Since then Vroum Vroum Mag won the Leopardstown Christmas Hurdle, but she wasn’t impressive in doing so, and I’d have fancied both Apple’s Jade and Limini to get the better of Clondaw Warrior and Snow Falcon getting the 7lb mares’ allowance. She then went to Doncaster, where she was mightily unimpressive in beating Midnight Jazz by a head. It was then announced she was feeling the effects of a cold that day, which explains the performance, but I wonder if she’s over that, which I’ll come back to later on. Limini and Apple’s Jade have already met this season, when Limini got the better of Apple’s Jade last month in the Quevega Hurdle. In all honesty, Limini won easily, but the way the race was run suited Limini perfectly, whilst it certainly wasn’t run to suit Apple’s Jade. Apple’s Jade and Whiteout were having a little battle for the lead, and when Whiteout fell, Apple’s Jade was left in the lead a long way from home. Whereas Ruby gave Limini the perfect stalking ride, joining Apple’s Jade at the last before going on. The ground was horrible that day, which wouldn’t have suited either mare, and with Gordon Elliott saying he’d left a fair bit to work on with Apple’s Jade, I don’t think there’ll be too much between them today. But Apple’s Jade is almost 4x the price…tempting. Willie was so impressed by Limini that day that a supplementary entry for the Champion Hurdle seemed likely. Quotes like “if VVM is all good and well, we may just take a chance on Limini” were thrown around, which brings me back to Vroum Vroum Mag. If everything is right with her, why is Limini showing up here as well? Did they have second thoughts about spending the £20,000 to supplement, or is all not quite right with VVM? Perhaps we shall find out at around quarter past 4. My choice here is going to be Apple’s Jade EW. I can’t see her being out of the 3, and with there being so little between the trio, it would not be a surprise should Apple’s Jade make it a fruitful double.
Selection: Apple’s Jade EW (5/1 Paddy Power, 3 places)
4.50 – JT McNamara National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase (Grade 2) – 3m 7f 170y
I’ve spent a lot of time going over this one, as it’s been a proper puzzle to try and solve. I’ll start with the favourite, Edwulf. He’s certainly the class horse in the race, already achieving a rating of 159 over fences. He also has a top, top amateur in Derek O’Connor booked, so you’re very unlikely to be blaming the jockey for his defeat should you back him. But he has developed a bit of a habit of failing to complete. He’s fallen twice and unseated once in his 7 starts over fences, so if you’re going to back him I’d do it with faller insurance, but he’s not for me. Champers On Ice has looked like he’ll need 4m all year long. He’s proper slow. But it doesn’t matter if you’re slow here, well it kind of does but you get the idea, it’s not going to turn into a sprint. He’s been staying on in both defeats this year looking like the further he goes the better he’ll be, but there is one aspect I’m worried about. And that’s his jumping. At Warwick he was losing upwards of a length at every fence and you just can’t afford to do that, and he certainly won’t get away with it here. Beware the Bear has a decent chance, having won on both starts this season. The form doesn’t look too bad either, having beaten Singlefarmpayment at Ascot back in November, though admittedly he was getting 3lb and only beat him 2 3/4 lengths. Bigbadjohn has beaten Our Kaempfer and Arpege D’Alene this season, as well as having form behind Thistlecrack, but I’m not convinced he’ll see out the trip. I’d be surprised should any of the others win, bar one I haven’t mentioned. And it’s my pick, A Genie In Abottle. He’s been laid out for this all year. No trip is far enough for him. He has the job amateur booked in JJ Codd. He was 2nd behind Anibale Fly over a clearly inadequate trip (3m) last time. What’s not to like? The ground has been raised as a potential issue by some, but being by Beneficial, the better ground should be fine.
Selection: A Genie In Abottle EW (11/2 Paddy Power 4 places)
5.30 – Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase (Listed Race) – 2m 4f 78y
So the 2nd handicap of the week, and the last race of day 1. Also the last race I’ll be able to watch as I’m working the rest of the week, bastards declined my holiday. Anyway, I went with the stats approach again, but it didn’t quite go as I hoped. I first wiped 8 off the 20-strong field as every single winner of this had ran in the 60 days leading up to the race. So that takes out Hammersly Lake, Sizing Tennessee, Mixboy, All Hell Let Loose, Last Goodbye, Killiney Court, Deans Road and Relentless Dreamer. Conditional jockeys have a poor record here, with only 2 having ever finished in the first 4. With Charlie Deutsch on Burtons Well and Sam Coltherd on Redbeard, I’ve now got it down to 10. The Irish don’t have a good record here either, having only won the race once. That takes out Tully East and Powersbomb. 8 remain. The final stat I used is that 10 of the last 12 winners were beaten in their first 2 starts over fences. Gold Present, Its’afreebee, Bun Doran, Double W’s, Zamdy Man and Templehills all won at least 1 of their first 2 chases, so out they go. They are Foxtail Hill and Two Taffs. Now I don’t like either of those at all so I’ve abandoned the plan. Instead, I’m opting for All Hell Let Loose for Henry De Bromhead and Bryan Cooper. He looked a proper animal when he won his Beginners’ Chase at Kilbeggan in the summer. The fact that he’s been off since doesn’t really concern me, as I’ve a feeling they’ve been conserving that mark for a big pot. Maybe today is that day.
Selection: All Hell Let Loose EW (22/1 Bet365, Ladbrokes and Stan James, 4 places)