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Plog 50 - 27/03/17:
A Meeting of Two Halves
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That was a bit good, I thought.
The 2017 Cheltenham Festival was a meeting of two halves. I didn't turn up on Tuesday and Wednesday, but was a different animal on Thursday and Friday and, at the end of a Festival that the bookies reckon they got the better of, I ended up on top.
I trod too carefully at the start. The main event, in a punting sense as well as officially, was the Champion Hurdle, in which I'd made one of my extremely rare ante-post bets. How rare? Well, I can't remember having an ante post bet since Teeton Mill for the Gold Cup in 1998. That rare enough?
As long ago as September 2016, I'd thought seriously about backing Yanworth for the Champion. On breeding I didn't think he would stay the three miles of the World/Stayers' Hurdle, and back then owner JP McManus had Unowhatimeanharry for that, and not a lot else in the Champion.
That was a third of the rationale behind it. Another third was that Yanworth was likely to be taking on, at most, only one top-class, Willie Mullins-trained horse. Faugheen was injured, and Annie Power had missed the Punchestown Festival. Mullins could bring them back I thought, but would surely only run one in the Champion. The third third was that Yorkhill, who'd beaten Yanworth in the 2016 Neptune, was going novice chasing, as were Altior and Buveur D'Air.
I got on Yanworth at 20/1. Between then and the day of the race, there was so much nonsense written and said about how he couldn't win - I found it ridiculous and I've no wish to recall it here. Neither do I want to dwell upon the chain of events which led to Buveur D'Air being switched from novice chasing, or on all those stories of Quixall Crossett, or whoever, being supplemented.
Yanworth had kept finding once coming off the bridle when beating the likes of Lil Rockerfeller, The New One and My Tent Or Yours in his races this season, but when he came under a ride coming down the hill, this time there was nothing in reserve, and Buveur D'Air beat My Tent Or Yours in an uninspiring renewal.
Before the ante-post wager became worthless, I'd been on River Wylde in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, to win rather than each way, and after he finished third I looked to Caid Du Berlais - who I thought ran better than the distance beaten suggested behind Ziga Boy at Doncaster - and the well-treated Henri Parry Morgan in the Ultima Handicap Chase.
After last year's self-destruction I was being more selective, and had reintroduced each way into my strategy for this year's Festival. In the first bad decision of the week, my selectivity threw out Un Temps Pour Tout , who I'd highlighted red in my spreadsheet. When you bring back gut feeling into your strategy, this is what can happen.
The novices' handicap chase has been kind to me in the past, but not this year. Burtons Well fell and, well though Double W's and Bun Doran ran, it was only to the last fence. Cue bad decision number two, as Tully East was passed over, on the score of finding little, like he'd done in the 2016 Martin Pipe. No sign of finding little here, obviously. To make matters worse, Tully East is in my Ten To Follow for the 2016/17 season. Hope some of you were on, but I was thinking 'it's 2016 all over again' at the end of day one.
So, this was the plan for Wednesday; three each way in the RSA Chase and the Coral Cup, and that was it.
Well, that's what it ended up as anyway. I'd done a spreadsheet for the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle as well, but after struggling to price the race up to 100% it seemed like, of the 22 runners, 32 had chances. I wimped out of the race after that.
If I could have it again, I'd have swapped the RSA for the Fred Winter. I decided that Might Bite should be taken on, with a few iffy moments during his Doncaster solo on the back of his fall – admittedly when clear and safe – in the Kauto Star at Kempton. The beneficiary in the Kauto Star, Royal Vacation, was backed, as was Marinero, who’d chased home Thistlecrack on an earlier Cheltenham visit, and Our Kaempfer, a hold-up horse who I thought might be able to creep into things, the pace Might Bite was likely to go.
It was hard to predict the way the race went. Might Bite set just the craziest pace and kept it up, taking out most of the opposition, including Royal Vacation who tried to keep up, and Our Kaempfer for whom it was just too much. Marinero played his part in the finish, but unfortunately he was loose when he gave Might Bite something to race with, having unseated at the third. Might Bite’s coming to a near-enough-complete standstill opposite the stands, nearly letting the staying-on Whisper in, is the most extreme example of idling in front that you’ll ever see.
I only broke even on the Coral Cup, and didn’t have a hope of winning from an early stage. Supasundae was well positioned throughout in a steadily-run renewal, and it was only thanks to Scoir Mear’s weaving between and round lots of horses after the last that I got my money back – and only for fifth at that. The wisdom of seeking out bookmakers offering a quarter the odds first five on the large-field handicaps was once again confirmed, at a Cheltenham Festival on which some bookies modified their place terms – 1/4 first four, or 1/5 first five, or 1/5 first six home with some.
There’s no doubt some layers took fright, for fear of a repetition of their alleged hammering last year. Note my use of the word ‘alleged’ – I didn’t notice any familiar bookie-names missing from Oddschecker’s pages. If it was as bad as they made out, they wouldn’t still be trading.
Anyway, back to me. Never mind the bookmakers, I definitely took a pasting in 2016, so I considered getting my money back in the Coral Cup a result. Possibly the best result I would get this Festival. I stuck to my plan and didn’t bet again, but the Fred Winter wasn’t good viewing. I liked the winner Flying Tiger, who started 33/1, quite a bit – not so much on his run in the Adonis at Kempton behind Master Blueyes, but his wide-margin win at Newbury before that. Selectivity and gut feeling were back in my strategy for betting on this Festival and I don’t know if I’d have decided to go with Flying Tiger or backed other horses. As I said before, I thought there were many, many chances in the race – but I wish I’d given myself the opportunity to find out. Not betting in the race at all feels worse than backing the wrong horses.
Something else that should have been worked into my thinking was that, unlike in 2016, there wasn’t anything like Diego Du Charmil lurking, having their first run for a British or Irish yard in the Fred Winter. One thing I will take forward for 2018 is that it’s a good idea to consider anyone with form over around 2m3f or 2m4f – Qualando, the 2015 winner, had a win over a longer trip to his name on his outing before, and this year Nietzsche, who placed, had won over 2m3f at Catterick before lining up at Cheltenham.
Bit More of a Thrash on Thursday
If there was anything good about the first two days, it was that I hadn’t crashed and burnt like in 2016, and that I hadn’t used much emotional energy. Emotion goes both ways when you’re doing the Cheltenham Festival. If you win, you shout at the TV. If you lose you analyse it over and over, which is normal for all losing bets all year round. If you lose bad, you think about phoning work and telling them you’ll be in on Thursday and Friday, which in 2016 I nearly did.
Before betting on Thursday morning, I took a look at what was actually in my account. It was enough to make me decide ‘Roy, you’ve got that amount, your thinking and analysis is good, and you’re betting like an idiot'.
I bet with a bit more freedom, and went for three handicaps – the Pertemps Final (of course), the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate, and the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir. I figured that those at the top end of the market had the non-handicaps sorted, and in three of the four they did, thanks to Yorkhill in the JLT Novices’ Chase, Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair and Let’s Dance in the mares’ novices’ hurdle.
Unowhatimeanharry looked banker material in the Stayers’ Hurdle too, but Nichols Canyon - who on best form over shorter trips was entitled to go close – returned to his best after a couple of disappointments. Nichols Canyon isn’t the most reliable nowadays, but he’d brought his A-game to the Festival in the Neptune as a novice, and – in good old hindsight, one of my coffee-buddies at this time of year – if I’d been prepared to delve deeper into the race, he could have been found.
I didn’t have the winner of the Pertemps, but Sutton Manor’s clinging on to fifth meant that I made a small profit on the race, as I’d got 25/1 at a quarter first five. If breaking even on the Coral Cup was a result, this was definitely cause for celebration. Time to crack open the coffee, albeit decaff!
Having got some money back, the rest of the day could be enjoyed as I knew that, when the others lost – which, of course, was what they were about to do – I wouldn’t have lost a bank-busting sum of money. I wasn’t doing that anyway, but you know, you want something back.
What happened in the Plate was not in the script. I landed on the winner, Road To Respect, who I’d backed at 20/1. The only time it threatened to go badly for him was when he caught a bump in mid-air at the first and was lucky not to get knocked over. The rest was simple, and he was one of the easiest winners of the week. No joy for my other two in the race, Champagne At Tara and Rock Gone - coincidentally also novices, like this winner – but, for once, it didn’t matter.
Be prepared for a stack of novices lining up in the Plate in the next couple of years. So many two-and-a-half-mile novice chasers, who were either too highly rated to get in or were balloted out of the 0-140 novices’ handicap chase, or who were considered not good enough for the JLT, took part in this renewal, including the winner, the runner-up Baron Alco and the pulled-up favourite Diamond King.
The Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir was no good for me, with 40/1-winner Domesday Book a boilover for most, but I was ahead on the day, and having written myself off, I’d given myself a live chance of making a profit on the meeting.
I still had all sorts of demons swimming around my head. The idea for Friday was to have a go in the County Hurdle, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand Annual. The race that got me out of trouble in 2013, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle, let me down last year and I was initially thinking that I might be better off giving it a miss.
That wasn’t the only race causing me angst. Whilst at the breakfast table with my wife, I was focused on Cheltenham and not what she was saying, and I was having kittens in my head about Saphir Du Rheu’s chance in the Gold Cup.
Saphir Du Rheu was a poor jumper who’d fallen in the Hennessy, but his last two runs had seen a definite improvement in his jumping, which was harder to fault when he chased home Foxtail Hill in the 2m5f handicap on the Festival Trials-card in January, and when he had nothing to beat at Kelso on his last start before the Gold Cup. If he kept it together then, bearing in mind that he was beaten only half a length in the 2015 World Hurdle, the possibility that he could shake up Native River and the Irish contenders was not unrealistic.
I was still looking at the County on the Friday morning, and was beginning to tie myself in knots with it just as I’d done with the Fred Winter. Willie Mullins could walk on water again after Thursday and his Arctic Fire, who wouldn’t have been out of place in the Champion Hurdle, would have the clear winning of the County if he was at his best, even off a mark in the high 150s. Ivanovich Gorbatov was also likely to go close, now blinkered as he had been once successfully on the Flat, and I wasn’t convinced by much else. A lot had bits of chances, but only a bit.
These feelings steered me away from the County and back towards the Martin Pipe, and so I started what might be a very lucrative – but undoubtedly with an element of slapdash – hour and a half’s work on the Martin Pipe. With 10 lbs between the top and bottom weight, at least it was more like a handicap than the novices’ handicap chase on Tuesday. It seemed likely, as it does every year, to go to a five- or six-year-old in the top ten of the field – no horse older than six had won the Martin Pipe since it was first run in 2009. Cut out the seven-and-ups and concentrate on those with more than 11 stone (say 11-4 as the ballpark), and extra consideration to anyone proven over 2m6f or 3m, and you’ve taken a shortcut to a shortlist.
As it turned out, the fancied contenders didn't have things their way in the non-handicaps on the Friday card, except for Defi Du Seuil in the Triumph Hurdle. Nothing else was winning the four-year-olds' championship race from the home turn, and if he turns up in the Anniversary at Aintree, I'll be very quickly moving on to the next race.
Don’t know about walking on water – Mullins was walking barefoot on fire after the County. If ever you needed proof after Thursday that, as usual, there was nothing that his horses couldn’t do, Arctic Fire made light of his 16-month absence, and came late and fast to take the County. A lot – probably most - that I might have bet on was out of the first five, but, like with the Fred Winter, something that I might have gone for won.
Mullins followed up with the improver Penhill in the Albert Bartlett to make it six Mullins -trained winners for the week, all of them on Thursday and Friday, and three of them at double-figure prices. Backable Willie Mullins-trained horses at Cheltenham? Who'd have thought that in 2016?
The three I backed in the Gold Cup were Lexus Chase winner Outlander (11/1), Irish Gold Cup winner Sizing John (8/1), and Saphir Du Rheu at 66/1. I was fine about including Saphir and, eventually, decisive in my head. Native River, who hadn’t been a backable price for a long time, is a staying type rather than a class act and didn’t deserve to be outright favourite. Djakadam remains as chancy a jumper as Saphir Du Rheu at his worst, and had been way too short to back for a good while himself.
My eye was drawn to Saphir Du Rheu for the whole race, but when he was pushed along with three or four lengths to find on Djakadam, Native River and Sizing John coming off the bend, the dream looked over. Even then he stuck to his task, before any fading chance of a place had gone after the last, but for me, he more than ran well enough to justify the bet.
However, Sizing John ensured that I didn’t come away empty-handed – far from it. Djakadam’s error two out sorted that. Winning a Cheltenham Festival race is great, but the Cheltenham Gold Cup? I hadn’t managed that since War Of Attrition in 2006. We’ve had Kauto Star and Denman since then, and a lot of Gold Cup winners have been short, unbackable prices, as Thistlecrack would have been had he lined up – so I think ‘top of the betting’s got it’, and leave the race alone.
The Gold Cup is an iconic race, and I personally put it ahead of the Grand National in terms of prestige. I make it the number one jumps race, and so do many others.
I continued to feel great and, even after backing the Gold Cup winner, continued to keep emotions in check. No shouting, but importantly, no beating myself up about wrong decisions, of which there had been a few. But financially it was damage limitation on the day. To make this Cheltenham Festival a profitable one, I needed a result in the Martin Pipe or the Grand Annual.
As I said earlier, I was homing in on five- and six-year-olds in the Martin Pipe. Catamaran Du Seuil nearly made it into my final three, but as a front-runner I felt that he would only set the race up, and the same for Coo Star Sivola, who'd been placed in the 2016 Fred Winter.
Despite reservations that Born Survivor would find little he was in, as was Tommy Silver who looked as though he needed more of a test, and 33/1-chance Champagne Classic, whose Thurles win over 2m6f suggested more to come.
Champagne Classic was prominent on the outer throughout, but kept finding when JJ Slevin got after him from the turn, and stayed on well for a lucrative win. The Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle had come to my rescue again. Against the odds, I'd made amends for 2016's debacle, and pretty much smashed it.
Michael O'Leary clearly couldn't have rated Champagne Classic any lower in the post-race interviews - "he's without doubt the worst horse I own," he told everyone - but those folk who punted him from 33/1 to an SP of 12/1 felt rather differently. I'm pretty sure it wasn't my money alone that moved it.
I could show some emotion now, if you call calmly going downstairs to tell your wife that you'd just backed a 33/1 winner getting all emotional.
It was in the bag going in to the Grand Annual, so it didn't matter what happened and I could enjoy the race. Only Theinval made the frame of those that I'd backed, but I just felt great, wishing that there was a fifth day of the meeting.
There isn't of course, and I hope there never is - four days is enough - but I still wanted to capture the moment, which for me meant a bit more hard work, video-crunching, and keeping a straight, focused mind.
I decided to go for the Midlands National at Uttoxeter for the first time in around 20 years. I returned to usual rules, no gut feeling and backing a few to win at good odds that are at least 170% of the price I've set. Very occasionally in betting everything just goes right, and just in case Cheltenham wasn't enough, I won the Midlands National too with Chase The Spud.
We recommend The Peterboat in Leigh-on-Sea for an end-of-Cheltenham week meal.
Where Do I Go From Here?
I wanted my focus to be different for this year's Cheltenham Festival, with less emotion and greater concentration, single-mindedness. I just about managed that, although the thought of 'I won, I won' after the Brown Advisory hung around for a while on Thursday afternoon, and I developed a headache that night which had gone by Friday morning.
Selectivity and/or gut feeling calls for concentration. After that, you should still end up with a handful of runners who are in your back zone. You still have to pick the right races and the right horses, and I've learned that every Festival, there will be horses and races that you shouldn't have got involved with, and some that you should have but didn't. Perfection will never be achieved. It's all about getting some of it right.
Next year it might go wrong again, but I don't have to think about that till March 2018. Where I go in the short term is, of course, Aintree. Each way, or 'Festivals' strategy, will apply. Thanks to Cheltenham I'm not reliant on a result in the Grand National to rescue Cheltenham and Aintree this year, although of course it would be nice. I just want to go into Aintree in a better frame of mind - relaxed, not necessarily confident, but in a neutral place, not apprehensive about how it might go. For a change, I reckon I'll manage that.