Cheltenham 2021 - no fans, no owners and unfortunately small fields in many races as the 'social' runners aren't bothering to turn up and get beaten 100L. At least the handicap races are holding up but outside of them, don't be expecting too many shock results.
Hated by many, I've always been a fan of the juvenile races, particularly this race, a handicap hurdle for 4yos. Why I hear you ask? It's all about predicting the scope for improvement, which horses have already shot their load and overperformed to get here and those who are bound for bigger and better things. The Triumph covers the best of the crop, the Boodles (Fred Winter as it is officially registered) appeals to those just below the top rung covering a good spread in the weights.
Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (registered as the Fred Winter)
Grade 3, 4yo only, 2m87yds
Tuesday 1615 GMT, 0315 AEST
Expected Going - Soft
1. Nassalam - impressive Gary Moore 4yo who triggered memories of Goshen last season with a pair of dominant wins (49 and 59 lengths!) at his first two hurdle starts in Britain. Has since been tamed by Adagio and Monmiral who are two of the best in this year's crop. High class but no winner of this race in 16 editions has been rated this high (141). 13 of 16 winners of the Boodles/Fred Winter rated 124-134 although last two winners have defied that, carrying 139 and 138. So does that represent a change in quality as the race gets better? Beat Houx Gris by 20L at Chepstow at Christmas off level weights. Likely to lead or camp right on the pace like a typical Moore juvenile. Right in this provided it's not a mad dash for the lead.
2. Youmdor - successful in France before heading to Ireland. Bolted in at first start for Mullins and went favourite for the Triumph. Since then it's all gone tits up. He fell when cruising to victory at next start at Fairyhouse then finished fourth in the G1 during the Dublin Festival, eased down and beaten 57L by Quilixios and Saint Sam. Definite class about him but form heading the wrong way and is stable second string. Perhaps he was overcooked as a 3yo and now it's downhill from here. Chance but this race is about horses on the way up rather than flat line or declining.
3. Saint Sam - three starts for Mullins, finishing behind Zanahiyr (x2) and Quilixios. Strong form, would get 8-10lb off that pair now who are in the top three in the betting for the Triumph. Not the smoothest of jumpers but does have a handy turn of foot. Will wear a hood for the first time which might fix his concentration. The drums have been pounding about this one for a while and French-breds have a tremendous record in this race, no doubt down to being a better school for juvenile jumping. This is one of the few races Willie Mullins hasn't claimed, in fact he's only had one third placing from 14 runners. Worthy favourite, perhaps a touch on the short side.
4. Cabot Cliffs - a mediocre Coolmore juvenile for Charles Hills, has turned over a new leaf as a hurdler, winning three of five so far over obstacles. Ran fourth here in the Triump Trial in November, behind Duffle Coat (going for novice races?), Adagio (see Nassalam) and Balko Saint (runs here) while Hell Red, pulled up, was 11/10 favourite. Up 12lbs since then with two wins against weaker opposition, think that might be a tough mark against a handy field.
5. Druid's Altar - has had five runs over hurdles - two wins, and defeats behind Zanahiyr (twice, 48L & 8.25L) & Teahupoo (15L). Beat Zoffanien (won easily next start, rec 1lb) on Feb 21. Messy jumper, fought on well when challenged at Naas and that race was won by the two most recent winners of this race, Band of Outlaws - same trainer, and Aramax. Wouldn't have run a place at Fairyhouse if not for fav falling at last causing interference. Seems a bit immature, runs with a high head carriage which is rarely a good sign but I wouldn't call myself an expert on equine mannerisms, it could be trivial. Has the services of Hugh Morgan, a 5lb claimer from Ireland, who hit the spotlight recently for THAT ride in a winning 3m chase without irons after the first fence. Has been tipped up by a few in Ireland, but I can't have him.
6. Busselton - named after a city on the southwest tip of Western Australia, famous for humpback whales and just down the road from wine and surfing destination Margaret River. Another French-bred who had two starts in France, including a win on hurdling debut, before joining Rick Astley, sorry, Joseph O'Brien, in Ireland. Almost five lengths in arrears of Saint Sam at Leopardstown last month, and now receives 4lbs and the addition of cheekpieces to remedy that. Stable and jockey won this two years ago, won't be far away.
7. Riviere d'Etel - French-bred filly, had two starts before being bought by Morans and sent to Elliott. Won easily on NYE at Punchestown, didn't beat much. Went up to a Novice next time, started 11/10 but ran only third. Didn't find a lot after last hurdle but was against more seasoned campaigners. Winner has since won a Listed Novice. Will have her supporters but needs to settle better. Trained until a week ago by Gordon Elliott, that stable has a tremendous recent record in this race (three of first four last year, 2nd 2019, winner 2018). Who knows how the stable change will affect her. Don't underestimate.
8. Balko Saint - the runner with the shortest back-up in the field, just 13 days since his first victory, in a novice hurdle at Wincanton. It was some effort to beat older rivals after he was unruly and fell over on the path heading onto the course. He and the runner-up dominated the betting (6/5 vs 11/10), and the race panned out as such, beating the third home by over 20 lengths. But that didn't tell the whole story, as Balko Saint went hard in front, was challenged at the top of the straight and refused to lay down, prevailing by a neck. He'd shown serious talent before that, finishing third in the Triumph Trial, ahead of Cabot Cliffs (5L at level weights), and after the claim of Chester Williams, will carry eight pounds less than the Skelton runner. Officially trained by Mrs Jane Williams, she is the partner of Nick Williams who won this in 2017 after a third in 2016, and no doubt had a significant hand in those successes. The stable is in fine form and I am expecting this one to go around at quite an attractive price.
9. Longclaw - not raced since October when 4th in Listed race, just behind Cabot Cliffs (4.5L) but was shorter in the betting - in fact he was only marginally behind Duffle Coat on the boards (16/5 v 11/4) while in the same stable. Won first three over timber after a flat career which included a stint in the States with Brad Cox. Switched from Gordon Elliott to John McConnell pre-scandal, bit of a task to win this after such a break but obviously well regarded. Has the talented Irish conditional Simon Torrens lightening the load by 3lb, he is regularly employed by the likes of J.P. McManus in Irish handicap plots...
10. Hell Red - another juvenile who hasn't quite lived up to the early hype but might have had excuses. Bought out of Guillame Macaire's yard after a debut second to Monmiral (now also in the Nicholls yard) in March last year - over a month before his third birthday. He bolted in on British debut in October before being pulled up 'with a respiratory noise' in the Triumph Trial. Off to the vet for a wind surgery and into the paddock for a spell, he resumed in a Novice hurdle at Wincanton three weeks ago and finished third, beaten 7.5L at the prohibitive price of 4/11. It could be he needs a further run to understand he can run fast and breathe properly again, he may prefer going better than the heavy at Wincanton, but there's a lot of faith required to have much confidence in him at the price. Could shock but won't have my money on him.
11. Glorious Zoff - another Elliott/Denise Foster runner with snippets of form. Winning on debut at Sligo over Crassus (formlines through Duffle Coat, Teahupoo and Zanahiyr), he later faced Monmiral at Doncaster but went down to the tune of 33L. His last run was a spin on the Flat during the deepest cold of January, a victory at Dundalk. The Elliott stable has won this race three times, including prices of 25/1 and 33/1, so don't be put off by the price.
12. Zoffanien - another Irish runner with interlocking formlines. Finished close behind Curious Bride, Coltor and Druid's Altar, before stepping out on a handicap at Naas and winning with ease. One of the more experienced in the field, or should that be more exposed? In the mix like numerous others.
13. Houx Gris - the big early gamble of the race, being available at 20-25/1 just a few weeks ago but may now start favourite. He ticks all the trends: a French-bred, trained by Paul Nicholls, lightly raced and rated in the prime handicap band of weights. He faced Adagio and Nassalam in a G1 at Chepstow in his only British run, fading to a well-beaten third after crashing through the second last. Matched closely with Homme Public on French form, it's the Nicholls touch that we have to gauge. Big chance.
14. Soldier on Parade - intended to rule a line straight through this one after being beaten 43L in the Adonis behind Tritonic, but has form through Hiconic which intersects with a few of these. Strung together three wins at Market Rasen through July to September, chances are that was his level and rivals here still have plenty of scope for improvement.
15. Coltor - beaten 22L behind French Aseel on hurdle debut, then fourth as favourite behind Curious Bride and Zoffanien at Punchestown. Turned that form around quickly winning a Naas maiden, just ahead of Zoffanien at level weights. Jumped well apart from the last hurdle. It's a rare winter trip across the Irish Sea for Dermot Weld, he's not had a NH runner in Britain for at least five years and this horse has been his only Irish winner this jumps season. Typical Irish rumours abound of a long-term plot to win this race so it's no surprise bookies and punters alike are keeping a close eye on this one. In the mix but taking a little on trust.
16. Her Indoors - filly, stayed on well for 2nd at Kempton Dec 27 but beaten 10L behind winner who was subsequently thrashed by Cabot Cliffs and then spelled. Stayed on well again to win fillies' race at Doncaster, reversing form against Talking About You. Connections thought long and hard about tackling the mares' novice but sticks to her age group. Probably looking for further but might relish the hill? One to look for in-running if they go hard up front.
17. Sage Advice - started his career on the Flat in Ireland before changing hands for 65k at the Tatts sales. Had wind surgery before winning his hurdling debut at Kempton over Tinnahalla. Next up he started fav over Cabot Cliffs (beaten 1.5L) at Warwick then flopped, last of three at Fontwell. Those last two runs were on heavy tracks and it wouldn't surprise if he preferred a firmer surface - a quick check of his sire's progeny's stats tail off severely from soft to heavy tracks. Has started favourite each time so must be showing something at home.
18. Tinnahalla NON RUNNER
19. Burgundy Man - form in France appears terrible on face value, not sure how he got a rating high enough to get into this field.
20. Homme Public - beaten a neck by Houx Gris at Auteuil in October. Stumbled at last, beaten 2.5L by Tinnahalla at Catterick in thick fog when lost a shoe, 25L ahead of third. Won subsequent start at Market Rasen, won well but ridden out and weak form behind him.
21. Jeff Kidder - won his hurdle maiden in November then was thrown in the deep end over Xmas at Leopardstown, running last behind Zanahiyr, Busselton, Saint Sam and Druid's Altar, albeit only 8.75L back in a muddling tempo race. Trainer Noel Meade is no mug, you see worse 33/1 shots every day of the week.
22. Elham Valley - won on hurdling debut in December (beat Hudson de Grugy who won at Sandown on the weekend), and was promptly thrown in against the lions, facing Adagio (+ Nassalam and Houx Gris) at Chepstow in a G1, then against Monmiral (and Nassalam) at Haydock, beaten at least 27L each time. Now meets Nassalam 17lb better for those margins, but it would still be a massive shock for him to win.
23. Curious Bride - won nicely at Punchestown, defeating Zoffanien and Coltor (6 and 9L, 7lb fillies allowance), before being pulled up in deep ground at Navan in a Mares Novice. Forgive that and she gets in light. Tipped up by Paul Kealy last week, Gets a run with the withdrawal of Tinnahalla.
A proper handicap where I think the front few in the market are too short based on their trainers and there's just a handful of runners I'd rule out completely. I'd hoped putting several hours into researching this race would discover hidden treasure but I don't think it has solved anything!
Very tough race, cases made for many, taking a stab at Balko Saint and Her Indoors at 18-20/1 marks.