In his weekly column Tony Keenan takes a close look at a host of Cheltenham Festival races and pulls out a big-priced antepost wager for the Gold Cup
"First Lieutenant ties in closely with both Bobs Worth and Sir Des Champs on a few pieces of form yet is three and four times the price and there is every reason to expect him to be better than ever at the Festival, his peak efforts the last two years having come there. He is worth backing win and place for the race."
With mature markets that have been open for upwards of 12 months, betting on the championship races at the Cheltenham Festival is probably ill-advised but one of my flaws as a punter is trying to find the winner of everything so there's no point in breaking habit. One may need to be artful in terms of finding a bet in each race, straying away from the straight win back, but there are plays out there somewhere.
Hurricane Fly is a worthy favourite 2.767/4 in a Champion Hurdle that lacks depth; I suspect he bounced in last year's race and hadn't recovered in time for Punchestown but things have gone much smoother this time around. There has been a lot of back-fitting the facts about his 2011 win in this race and downgrading him on a line through the 2013 version of Peddlers Cross; that's erroneous in my eyes as that one has gone wrong since and don't forget the third and fourth from that day, Oscar Whisky and Thousand Stars (beaten 6ls and 8ls), fought out the Aintree Hurdle next time, the form looking solid.
I had hoped to take on the second season hurdles like Countrywide Flame and Cinders And Ashes here but they revealed their limitations too early in the season and while Rebel Fitz who tends to go well fresh is an interesting rag the play at current odds looks Binocular to place at 4.03/1. He always needs his first run so the Leopardstown form can be discounted and is a rock-solid 165 horse at his best, form that should be good enough to see him place. Closely matched with Rock On Ruby on last year's Kempton form, he is more than twice the price to hit the frame.
The Champion Chase is a snore and between now and then we'll have to listen to all the racing fans bleating on about what a 'specimen' Sprinter Sacre is and to get along to see him in the parade ring. Boring. I'd rather look at one of the handicaps elsewhere on the card. He's scared off the opposition here despite not having faced an opponent worthy of the name all season and any comparisons to Frankel and/or Moscow Flyer are outlandish at this stage; the former faced talented adversaries in the early part of his career whereas the latter achieved longevity.
I'm not overly keen on backing one to finish second to him as he's beaten all his rivals comfortably before, though I would back Sizing Europe in the unlikely event that he turns up. Sprinter Sacre is 179 horse while Sizing is 170 and there shouldn't be such a discrepancy in the prices.
Sizing Europe is a bet wherever he runs at this meeting, his preparation having been flawless (won four of four starts, albeit connections guilty of some pot-hunting) and holding an excellent record over the Cheltenham fences. Finian's Rainbow may be the highest rated horse in the Ryanairbut things haven't gone right for him while.
Being a contrarian, I think Riverside Theatre is better on his second start off a break than fresh; he may win fresh but in terms of pure form he runs best off a recent spin. His chance is still there to see but he will need to be in peak form to beat Sizing Europe and that's far from assured.
The World Hurdle is a wide-open Grade 1 which is sometimes just the race to have a bet in though I'm struggling to find an angle into this one. Ruby Walsh has talked about the best stayers travelling behind the bridle and Reve De Sivola is that horse in 2013; I just wonder if he jumps well enough though he is hardly a short price. Oscar Whisky is the enigma of the race; his optimum trip is 20 furlongs and one has to wonder do horses win over trips further than their optimum at the Festival? That depends on the opposition and more so the pace but Festival races tend to be hotter than most though like Reve De Sivola he's a fair price.
One horse that isn't is the main Irish challenger Monksland who looks much too tight around 6.05/1 and if there is a play here it's laying him in the place market. His Zaidpour form from Christmas is weak and he is trained by a serial Festival loser so should be a much bigger price than the front two. I really wish Quevega would pitch up here as she'd be a right bet; her defeat of Voler La Vedette at Punchestown last year is strong form in this context. Her connections lack ambition in keeping her for the mares' race, especially with the yard having numerous other possibilities for that race, and this would be a much better showcase for her talents.
Second-season chasers dominate the market in the Gold Cup which isn't a surprise given what they've done in the graded chases this term and the winner can be expected to come from that cohort. I'm not so much worried about the break with Bobs Worth as the fact he had a setback around the time of the Argento and he looks short enough anyway, a comment that also applies to Sir Des Champs. It's hard to get carried away with his defeat of the sick Flemenstar last time and while he may be capable of better form on decent ground (where has all the talk of a soft ground Festival gone now?), the idea that he will jump better on it is illogical; how would a horse jump better when travelling at a faster pace?
Prior to the 2012 Punchestown Festival, there hadn't been a semblance of a jumping mistake from him but after a howler at the last there it has crept into his game and gives cause for concern. He is also something of a public horse in England, punters there having latched onto him off the back of two Festival wins and he looks a touch underpriced.
It is another past Festival winner that really takes the eye at the prices. First Lieutenant is a horse I repeatedly knocked last year but he looks the play if taking his chance ahead of the Ryanair. He ties in closely with both Bobs Worth and Sir Des Champs on a few pieces of form yet is three and four times the price and there is every reason to expect him to be better than ever at the Festival, his peak efforts the last two years having come there. He is worth backing win and place for the race.
Leopardstown host their annual pre-Cheltenham gallops after racing on Sunday and a few dissenting voices, perhaps correctly, will complain about trainers working others Festival hopefuls on the Monday and Tuesday of next week away from the public glare. That shouldn't hide the real issue for punters however that these gallops are essentially useless for betting purposes and are just the sort of noise one needs to ignore.
Someone will undoubtedly trot out the name of Sky's The Limit to support a case in their favour but that was back in 2006 and time in the formbook, perhaps concentrating on the largely unconsidered races with immature markets that will be run on the track on Sunday, is much more likely to bear fruit.
Back Binocular for a place in the Champion Hurdle
Back Sizing Europe in whichever Cheltenham race connections settle on
Lay Monksland for a place in the World Hurdle
Back First Lieutenant win and place in the Gold Cup