Cheltenham Festival Focus: Minella no show in the King George but punters can prosper

Cheltenham
Daryl takes aim at the Gold Cup in week eight of Cheltenham Focus.

Welcome to week eight of Daryl Carter's Cheltenham Festival Focus, and as things start to take shape, Daryl reflects on the Boxing Day madness.

"Henry doesn't get many wrong, but he did with this one, and now is the time to act on his price.."

Things are certainly starting to shape up, and the column had a few boosts over the Christmas period. Captain Ferny Hollow was a personal highlight, while Mighty Potter looked excellent on Monday at Leopardstown and Eric Bloodaxe put himself right back in the game. We just focus on Boxing Day today, and we can pick up any loose bits next week.

Assessing the colossal amount of racing on Boxing Day this year is no easy feat. To ensure that we haven't missed anything, I think it's only wise to break this week's column down in alphabetical order, starting with Down Royal. We will, of course, round out with a selection to add to our growing portfolio for the Cheltenham Festival, but there is little time to waste, so let's get stuck right in.

Down Royal - Don't underestimate the potential of Gerri

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Gerri Colombe ran out an impressive winner on hurdle debut to remain unbeaten in four career starts, including a point to point, two bumper runs, and this latest easy eight-length victory.

The level of form is hardly much to scream from the rooftops, but he effortlessly pulled clear from his rivals after the final flight, and the runner-up did finish a similar distance (6 1/2 lengths) behind Hollow Games on her penultimate start. He jumped well throughout, looking like an old pro and this 2 1/2 mile trip is likely to prove on the short side for him going forward.

The time figure was ten seconds slower than the Beginners Chase on the card run over the same distance, but in comparison to O'Toole, who won the proceeding 2m Maiden Hurdle, he was 9.96 lengths faster on the final circuit and 3.28 lengths faster three out to the finish line.

It's hard to weigh up what the performance was on the whole, and he remains one to be interested in for the Albert Bartlett, for which he is now a 25/1 chance. That looks a little on the big side through the form line of the second and Hollow Games, who remains an 8/1 chance.

Significant improvement needed from O'Toole to warrant Supreme consideration

The one thing we can take from Gerri Colombe's performance is that O'Toole, who for many was an impressive winner on the day, needs to significantly improve on this first start over hurdles to be considered for Supreme Novice Hurdle glory at his current 33/1.

A winner last term taking the scalp of Sir Gerhard and Kilcruit at Punchestown in the Grade 1 bumper, he did little wrong in all honesty on this just his third career start and first over hurdles, but he needs to quicken up.

His future could prove to be over further, and he is a 16/1 chance for the Ballymore Novice Hurdle, which looks short enough on the evidence of this performance. It was hardly impressive on the eye either. He is entitled to improve significantly, of course, but it may be worth taking that Punchestown bumper form with a pinch of salt for now.

Broomfield Burg another potential Supreme Novice hope for Hendo?

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While all the talk was about King George on Boxing Day, the review of Kempton left me wondering whether what I was seeing was true or not in the opening Novice Hurdle won by Broomfield Burg. This was a horse that took good money out of my hands when failing to score in a handicap hurdle at Cheltenham off 130 just 16 days ago but here had improved leaps and bounds on the clock at least.

The form of the race is less than worthless in all honesty, and he won as his SP odds of 1/3 suggested he would, but it was the comparison to the Christmas Hurdle that got me questioning whether he should be a big as 40/1 for the Supreme Novice Hurdle in March.

His jumping was fast and fluent, not the only comparison with Epatante worth noting, and he travelled through the race like a dream and showed a bright turn of foot between the second to last and last flights. He won in no more than a common canter recording a circuit time 13.92 lengths slower than the Christmas Hurdle winner Epatante but was faster 2.72 lengths faster from three out to the finish - in a canter.

He may not be good enough yet for the Supreme Novice Hurdle, but the hood's removal clearly had a positive effect, and it will be interesting to see where connections go next with him. He is rated 134 at the time of writing but is surely closer to 140, and with improvement forthcoming, that won't leave him too much to find if you like the price.

Epantante, in turn, likely ran right up to her best, but she was all out at the finish and lacked her usual impressive finishing kick despite having ground and a flat track to suit. She was ridden a little more aggressively than she had been in the likelihood to keep Not So Sleepy in her sights, and perhaps she paid for it late on.

She is a very good mare but a far cry away from her peak performance in the Champion Hurdle two years ago, and it's hard to see her beating the reigning champ Honeysuckle. She surprisingly shortened from 10/1 into 8/1 for the Champion Hurdle in March and has been introduced to the Mares Hurdle market over 2m4f at 6/1.

He is brave, and he is game, but he might not go to Chelts

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Ahoy Senor failed to hold up last seasons end of year Aintree form with Bravemansgame as he was firmly put in his place by the Paul Nicholls runner in the Kauto Star Novices' Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Starting with Ahoy Senor, who went off 11/10f for the contest, the statement of fact is that his jumping is just not good enough at this moment in time, and it will be back to the schooling yard for him. He was an impressive winner on a big galloping left-handed track at Newbury, but this sharp right-handed track didn't seem to suit him. He could well prove much better going left-handed, given his dominance on his left lead, but that wasn't the reason he got beaten today.

He put in an extra stride at the third and then in tight to the same fence on the second circuit, and at the fourth from home, his rider asked him up, and he failed to respond to his jockey urgings. His final mistake came at the last when readily outpaced by Bravemansgame as he pecked on landing. On the whole, there were few excuses for him, and he now looks more of a National Hunt Chase horse for which he is a 6/1 chance.

There is a good chance he will finish closer to Bravemansgame going back left-handed, but he is a relentless galloper with few gears, and that would be his undoing in the Festival Novices Chase.

The winner, Bravemansgame, is frustratingly smart - frustrating because he is yet to touch a twig over fence. Excellent to watch, but as a punter, I need to see what's under the bonnet and how he will react to a mistake. He is firmly on the upgrade, and there is little to grumble about what he has done to date and is the worthy 4/1f for the Festival Novices Chase.

It is worth highlighting that his trainer did say that he is not sure to go to Cheltenham and would rather wait for Aintree and added,

"If you wanted to get him winning King Georges when he's nine and ten, you would want to be minding him and not overdoing him now. I know the guys would like to go to Cheltenham, but my target was always next year's King George. If you want to get horses like Clan and Frodon to their best, you need to give them time to mature."

King George continues to throw up strange results

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The King George continues to baffle me with the results it throws up, and a lot of the time, it is worth ignoring the winner as harsh as that sounds. Kauto Star is the only horse to do King George, Gold Cup double in the same season in recent times, and the race has only produced two Gold Cup winners in the last 11 years, so it's not the race it used to be.

People will say: "everyone said it was a strong race before the result" and that's quite right, but every piece of form is judged after the race, not before, and this is much the same with a handful of horses underperforming considerably.

Minella Indo was surprisingly put into first-time cheek-pieces - no horse had won the race at least in the last 20 years in first-time headgear - and he is now one for seven going right-handed. The bookmakers may have overreacted by pushing his price for a repeat victory in the Gold Cup out to 8/1 on the back of a scenario that didn't suit him.

Chantry House looked extremely awkward from fence one and was never travelling a yard through the contest, so it's hard to say he ran his race, although he seems far from a natural chaser to my eye now and where they go with him is surely up in the air as his 25/1 Gold Cup price tag suggests.

It had been highlighted before the race that Clan Des Obeaux's record fresh is appalling, so him running here off a 250-day break indeed wouldn't see him to best effect even if connections drilled him at home - there's no practice like match practice.

Frodon was always vulnerable to pace pressure, and Lostintranslation confirmed he hates the sight of Kempton.

The winner, Tornado Flyer, was unexposed over this trip for all he hadn't won for more than two years, and he is not bred for staying trips which is far from a positive for those in behind. The runner-up Saint Calvados has an excellent record right-handed and fresh, having only been beaten in the Ryanair by Min, and now Tornado Flyer, off a break, but given those two both came from the rear of the field to pick up the pieces, the form is questionable.

Tornado Flyer was cut into 14/1 for the Gold Cup, but his stamina for an extra two furlongs on a more demanding track will need to be taken on trust.

A slick Sir and a Flawless Ferny at Leopardstown

The 2021 Champion Bumper winner Sir Gerhard made an easy transition to hurdles with a slick jumping performance at Leopardstown. It was hard not to be impressed with the manor of the victory, even if the clock suggests he needs to improve.

In my opinion, he stole the race by setting slow fractions in the Champion Bumper. Still, he looks sure to be a better hurdler, unlike the runner-up of that contest and that sets a good foundation for his likely target of the Supreme Novice Hurdle in March, for which he is now a 9/2 chance.

We need to see more from him, but he is worthy of his place towards the top of the tree.

Fill Dor split the two Cheveley Park runners mentioned in the title with a good win in the Frank Knight Juvenile Hurdle, a race that has notoriously been an excellent pointer to the Triumph Hurdle in recent times for which he is 4/1. His jumping was sloppy at times, but he has a big engine, and this division is starting to look rather weak. However, the overall time of his race was the slowest of the four 2m races on the card. He was 26 lengths slower than Sir Gerhard and 41.20 lengths slower than the Maiden Hurdle winner Watch House Cross.

You get the feeling that the market is waiting for a springer in this division, and while he sets the standard, he doesn't get the pulse racing - wait it out.

Captain Ferny's monsterous performance

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On Fill Dor's overall time, Ferny Hollow ran over fences, carried 11 pounds more on his back, ran over a furlong further, and was just 0.10secs slower than the Juvenile Hurdle winner - a remarkable performance.

It was a complete transformation from his debut run at Punchestown. This time he looked much more measured, took fences at full flight and was low and economical and lost no ground at his obstacles. His jockey Paul Townend oozed confidence when taking a flight, and he set a furious gallop from start to finish.

It was a performance that screamed class, and he took on an excellent mare in Riviere D'etel, who was armed with a healthy 13 pounds weight allowance.

On this performance, just his second start over fences, he has surely run to a near 160 figure if taking the RPR of the runner-up's penultimate start of 146 as a base mark. She has recorded higher, so even that could be lowballing him, but using 146 and adding seven pounds given that is the weight she would receive anyway gives her a rating of around 153. Using 150 as a fair mark and using the weight of 6lbs and the defeat of nearly two lengths, he is approaching a conservative 160 mark.

Nine of the last ten Arkle winners had a run by the 21st of December, and three of the last four of Willie Mullins' winners had at least two by the end of December.

>He is open to further improvement and is a hugely exciting prospect.

If we want to be picky, he did adjust to his right slightly at one or two, but it was nothing to be alarmed about. He was strong at the finish and found plenty for pressure and in comparison to the Handicap Chase won by the 130 rated Grange Walk, Ferny Hollow was 26.12 lengths ahead at the final flight in the back straight and 27.64 lengths ahead at the last flight (omitted for the Grade 1).

Furlong per furlong, Ferny Hollow was bettered by only 0.03secs, and that came in the 2m bumper (run over a furlong shorter).

It's no surprise he is 15/8 for the Arkle.

Master Bob gets a boost from McShee

Bob Olinger's debut chase form got given a good boost by the third Master McShee, who rallied to get up and win the Grade 1 Faugheen Novices Chase at Limerick. He took the scalp of Farouk D'alene in a photo finish and proved he belongs at the top table. He is not listed in the Festival Novice Chase betting, but the runner-up is a 25/1 shot, and he shouldn't be much shorter than that, although a step up in trip will certainly suit.

Oh no Drogo

My Drogo is out for the remainder of the season with a tendon injury, with Dan Skelton reporting this morning (Monday), "We scanned him this morning after feeling heat in his near fore tendon and whilst it is a very small lesion and will heal it just requires time."

All that's left is to help ourselves to the Betfair Sportsbook ante-post market.

I can forgive Henry and Minella, can you?

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I am shocked that Minella Indo was as short as he was for the King George and even more so by how many people seemed to fancy him on the day. Minella Indo doesn't go right-handed and if there weren't enough clues in his six previous runs, now indeed confirms the fact.

Henry doesn't get many wrong, but he did with this one, and now is the time to act on his price.

The fitting of the cheek-pieces for the first time was a rather strange move, and his first run of the season, which was a defeat to Frodon at Down Royal this term, has been needed every year. However, that aside, he is just a better horse at Cheltenham, and his current 8/1 for the Gold Cup looks a good bit of value now he has been pushed out on the back of those runs.

Last season, he was an excellent winner of the contest, which took his form figures at the festival venue to 121. His Cheltenham form has worked out at every turn, and he should not be a shade shorter than his win last term.

His Albert Bartlett win, RSA second and his Gold Cup win have all produced top-class Grade 1 winners. We know all we need to know about this horse, and whatever he does between now and March makes little difference to his performance on the day.

I like to jump back on a horse when everyone seemingly gives up, you get a little more value that way, but this time people are writing him off for the wrong reasons.

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DARYL'S ANTE-POST PORTFOLIO

Back Mr Incredible for the National Hunt Chase @ 17.016/1 1pt win NOW 26.025/1
Back My Mate Mozzie for the Supreme Novice Hurdle @ 15.014/1 1pt win NOW 15.014/1
Back Eric Bloodaxe for the Albert Bartlett @ 17.016/1 1pt win NOW 17.016/1
Back Gaillard Du Mesnil for the Festival Novices' Chase @ 26.025/1 1pt win NOW 34.033/1
Back Constitution Hill for the Supreme Novice Hurdle @ 7.06/1 1pt win NOW 4.03/1
Back Mighty Potter for the Ballymore Novice Hurdle @ 15.014/1 1pt win NOW 11.010/1
Back Ferny Hollow for the Arkle @ 4.57/2 2pt win NOW 2.89/5
Back Abacadabras for the Stayers Hurdle @ 21.020/1 1pt e/w NOW 21.020/1
Back Minella Indo for the Gold Cup @ 9.08/1 1pt win

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