Cheltenham Festival Antepost
With less than two months to go until the Cheltenham Festival, I’m really starting to accelerate my antepost position. There is some talk that Irish runners might struggle to get over for the event, but I’d like to think that the relevant authorities will have good enough measures and restrictions in place to make it safe. So I’m working off the assumption that everything will proceed as normal in that regard, unless we hear otherwise. I’m sticking with the more predictable races in terms of runners this month, with a view to the handicaps and amateur races next month.
Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
Willie Mullins dominated the Cheltenham Festival curtain raiser for three years running in 2013, 2014 and 2015 with Champagne Fever, Vautour and Douvan claiming the honours. The latter pair in particular, did so with a relevant amount of ease. But since then, the Supreme has generally been a much more competitive affair, especially in the betting market.
This year, to me, has the feel again that Willie Mullins has a horse that is head and shoulders above the rest.
Appreciate It looked set to win the Champion Bumper last season before being run down by stablemate Ferny Hollow. That was still a terrific run and with that stable companion out this season through injury, it’s paved the way for the son of Jeremy to dominate the two mile hurdling division. He made a smooth winning debut over obstacles at Cork when beating Master McShee (28 lengths back to the third), who has since won twice which include a competitive handicap at Leopardstown over Christmas.
Appreciate It then went straight back to Grade 1 company to win at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival, pulling right away from the field in the closing stages. There were doubts about whether he’d be a two or and two and a half miler prior to that, but it seems it’s all systems go for the minimum trip now. Due to head to the Dublin Racing Festival next in a race Mullins has dominated, with 7 of the last 8 winners coming from his stable, including Supreme winners Champagne Fever, Vautour and Klassical Dream.
I’m really struggling to see much strength in depth to this race at the moment. Metier has looked great for Harry Fry, but he’s not even faced close to anything as good as Appreciate It. I am honestly finding it difficult to see anything that can trouble the favourite. As long as he wins in February, I can see him being a really strong market leader, and a far shorter price than he is now, to get the festival underway.
Recommended Bet – Back Appreciate It @ 11/4
This is shaping up to be a fascinating betting market, with Epatante drifting out to 9/4 having been beaten by Silver Streak in the Christmas Hurdle. On any given day, quite a few of these could probably win, granted the right circumstances. For that reason, the 20/1 about Abacadabras looks far too big.
He was around 5/1 at the beginning of this campaign before losing to Aspire Tower at Down Royal, who was able to dominate from the front. He then won the Morgiana at Punchestown, again in a small field, when narrowly holding off Saint Roi. Things started to really catch my eye in this market after Abacadabras flopped in the Matheson Hurdle over Christmas. Fading tamely, he was reported to have scoped dirty after the race and significantly, a lot of Gordon Elliott’s horses didn’t perform as expected over that period. I’m willing to throw that run out in the circumstances.
Abacadabras can pretty much go as fast as anything, yet is still able to quicken. I can’t wait to see him back in a bigger field again, as we saw in the Supreme last year when he got beaten by the narrowest of margins by Shishkin, this horse thrives off a strong pace.
That was a field size of 15 that day, but this year his races have consisted of 6, 5 and 7 runners respectively.
Hopefully the Champion Hurdle attracts a healthy field size and we can see Abacadabras at his best – travelling powerfully through the pack and quickening late. I can’t have people saying he didn’t get up the Cheltenham hill, himself and Shishkin were pulling further and further clear up the run in.
In terms of raw ability, he’s up there with the best in here. Combine that with circumstances that could potentially be a lot more favourable, he shouldn’t be 20/1.
Recommended Bet – Back Abacadabras @ 20/1 Each Way
Yet another race in which Willie Mullins has a terrific record – winning 4 of the last 10. He doesn’t have the favourite this year though as Sir Gerhard sits at the top of the market for Gordon Elliott. Having won two bumpers in decisive fashion, it’s not hard to see why he’s 3/1. But because Envoi Allen won this race in these colours, doesn’t mean Sir Gerhard will do the same, especially when Willie Mullins has them queuing up behind in the betting.
Kilcruit is second in and again looked good in winning on his stable debut. But he didn’t produce as good of an RPR as Ramillies when that one triumphed over Christmas. Costing a whopping £215,000, he was only fourth at Leopardstown in December 2019 having gone off 5/4 favourite. Things maybe didn’t go quite right afterwards as he didn’t reappear until bolting up over the same course and distance a year later. He looked a classy animal and I thought it was hugely interesting that immediately after the race, Mullins said he’d be going back to Leopardstown for the Grade 2 Bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival (which he’s won with Blackbow and Appreciate It). That leads me to believe he’s the stables leading candidate and given the manner of his victory, it’s not hard to see why.
Recommended Bet – Back Ramillies @ 16/1 Each Way
Mares Novices’ Hurdle
Without meaning to sound like a broken record, this is another race which Willie Mullins farms. There has been 5 runnings of this contest, and the festival’s leading trainer has claimed all 5. The first three were strong favourites and Gauloise looks to be heading that way this time around.
I’ve really liked her first two wins for the yard since moving from France.
She hasn’t been particularly flashy, but she’s travelled, jumped slickly, and put the race to bed easily. When Townend has asked her to quicken into a gap, she’s responded immediately then come straight back on the bridle. Her attitude looks excellent and so far the ability seems there to match.
It appears as though they want to get another run into her and as I think she’s going to be the best mare turning up in this race, I can see her price shortening massively if she wins again. Her stablemate Shewearsitwell looked to be a leading rival, but she’s likely going to miss the race due to a setback. Another from the Mullins stable, Hook Up, got beaten by Royal Kahala but from what I’ve seen from Gauloise, I think we’re only just scratching the surface and she’s already a Listed winner.
She seems like one of those horses that will take everything in her stride and simply do what needs to be done, rather than winning by half the track. I’m hoping we’re on a red hot favourite come festival Thursday.
Recommended Bet – Back Gauloise @ 5/1
Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle
Experience is always a word associated with this race when people talk about what’s needed to win. That hasn’t exactly rung true with Minella Indo and Monkfish winning the last renewals, but prior to those two, the likes of Kilbricken Storm (4 runs), Penhill (7 runs), Unowhatimeanharry (16 runs), Martello Tower (6 runs), Very Wood (4 runs), At Fishers Cross (6 runs) all had plenty of know-how before winning the Albert Bartlett.
It’s not the be all and end all, but it certainly helps.
The top of this market looks fragile at the moment, with Stattler having had only 2 runs over hurdles and Bravemansgame likely heading to the Ballymore. One who immediately jumps out at me is Fakiera. He’s not the best novice hurdler we’ll see at Cheltenham, but his credentials for this race are strong.
Firstly, he’s already had 6 runs over hurdles so will be more street-wise than the majority of his rivals. Secondly, his form is consistently solid having never been out of the first two over obstacles. Efforts behind Entoucas, Jon Snow and Ashdale Bob who are all good horses. Plus he’s also won a Grade 3, so there’s nothing wrong with his will to win.
He has been constantly getting outpaced, whether it’s over two miles or two and a half – a step up to three miles will almost definitely see him improve in my opinion.
There isn’t really a change of gear, he’s a grinder and will be battling on when everything else has cried enough.
This sort of slog is going to bring out the best in him I think as he’s crying out for more of a stamina test to be seen to best effect.
Recommended Bet – Back Fakiera @ 25/1 Each Way
Alex Peperell – www.thepeptalk.co.uk