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Cheltenham Festival Focus: Now is the time to bring out the captain

It’s that time of the week again to review all the action and find some ante-post punts to pay the way in March.

We have plenty to look back on as we assess some of this week’s Cheltenham Festival hopes. We had Cork and Punchestown last Sunday, which will produce some festival winners and Cheltenham’s December meeting on Friday and Saturday along with Doncaster, where RPRs could prove valuable info for the Juvenile contest in March.

It’s hard to forgive Kilcruit

There were few excuses for Kilcruit’s defeat at odds of 1/14 on hurdle debut at Cork last Sunday when convincingly beaten by Largy Debut by ten lengths.

The pair went hammer and tongs from the off and went a true gallop compared to the proceeding Maiden Hurdle, and a case could have been made had something picked the pair up in the closing stages. However, nothing did, and even with 24 lengths back to the third-placed horse, neither jumped well enough to impress bookmakers, with Kilcruit now a 10/1 chance and Largy Debut 14/1 shot for the Supreme Novice Hurdle.

Kilcruit had been the 4/1 favourite for the Supreme Novice Hurdle after a promising bumper season last term, which included an arguably unlucky second in the Champion Bumper behind Sir Gerhard.

In all honesty, though, the bumper division was not deep last term.

The pair mentioned above dominated the Cheltenham Champion Bumper betting at odds of 10/11f and 85/40 with the remainder 10/1 bar. Even his trainer Willie Mullins was on record last season, surprised that Kilcruit was his number one for the race he had dominated in the last ten years, scoring in five.

It’s also worth noting that Kilcruit had a Maiden Hurdle entry at Clonmel for Willie Mullins before connections decided to go down the bumper route in December of 2020 – perhaps he will prove a better bumper horse than a hurdler and of course he will be the dreaded age of seven come March.

Largy’s dominant hurdle debut overshadowed

The poor performance of Kilcruit shouldn’t mask the excellent time figure that Largy Debut ran for Henry De Bromhead. He was faster than the other three 2m races on the card despite some sloppy jumping, and that includes Grade 1 Lawlor’s Of Naas entrant Dusart Dynamo who remains unbeaten after a 19 length Maiden Hurdle win. Largy Debut remains one to be positive about and may go under the radar due to Kilcruit’s “below-par run” overshadowing the performance.

Dusart Dynamo was cut into 12/1 for the Ballymore Novice Hurdle with the Betfair Sportsbook and should make up into a graded novice performer.

You couldn’t help but be impressed with Concertista, who scored in the 2m Mares Novice Chase on seasonal/chase debut at Cork last Sunday.

The 2020 Mares Hurdle winner and 2021 runner-up left plenty to work on in the jumping department, but she looks like a promising recruit to this sphere. A step up in trip to 2m4f for the 152 rated hurdler looks on the cards and she is now a 5/2f for the Mares Novice Chase in March.

The comparison with Energumene (who won on the same card over the same distance) looks favourably upon her for a move up in trip. Magic Daze, who led the Mares field, went a good early gallop only to slow the pace during the mid part of the race. Although Concertista was well-positioned, she powered away from her rivals and made up some significant ground between the third last and the line.

It will take a good one to beat her.

Energumene will play the role of the Champion Chase mouse

It seems pretty clear what the tactics in the Champion Chase will be for Energumene after he fought off Notebook for the lead at Cork last Sunday to land the Hilly Way Chase in impressive style.

Jockey Sean O’Keefe would not relinquish the lead onboard the now 9/4 second-favourite for the Champion Chase and set a relentless pace and killed the race through the midsection.

In comparison to Magic Daze, who had previously run a 145-150 time figure on her latest start, Energumeme was 6.19 secs or 24.76 lengths ahead of the Mares field as he approached five out and continued to pour the relentless pressure on his rivals at four out (6.66 secs) and three out (5.09 secs).

It was no surprise he slowed approaching two out, but he was still 3.43 secs ahead of the comparative race and came home in easy fashion after the final flight.

It was an excellent display of jumping and a relentless end to end gallop with nearly all of his rivals looking like coffee beans thrown into a grinder.

Outside of the five Nicky Henderson winners of the Champion Chase in the last ten years, four of the five have made the running. This year’s renewal looks to have minimal pace in the field, and giving Energumene a freebie on the front end will be a dangerous game for Nicky Henderson and Shishkin to play.

It’s unlikely that Put The Kettle On will be able to go the early pace of Engergumene, while Allmankind threw his toys out the pram when not getting things his way in the Arkle courtesy of Captain Guiness.

He looks excellent value even at the current 9/4, especially when the likely cat in this game Shishkin will give him a headstart, but I can’t, I just can’t put that sort of price up in this column.

Festival clues from star-studded John Durkan

Yes, we are still on last Sunday! The Grade 1 John Durkan did not disappoint with nearly all of Irelands big guns turning out for the occasion.Allaho ran out a commanding winner after the departure of stablemate Asterion Forlonge at the third last – Asterion doing what Asterion does.

The 2021 emphatic Ryanair winner scored on his seasonal reappearance with a career-best form performance taking some notable scalps, including Melon, Fakir D’oudairies, Janidil and Envoi Allen.

Allaho is now a 5/2 favourite for back to back wins in the Ryanair at the Cheltenham Festival, and it’s very hard to put you off. After a few jumps out to the left, he will prove even better going left-handed, and he ticks all the boxes.

Envoi Allen exposed?

What has Envoi Allen achieved over fences? It’s hard to weight up, but on the figures and the bare form his sixth in the John Durkan was a career-best effort.

It would be foolish to blame his so-called demise on the move to top trainer Henry De Bromhead, and more answers are likely to be found in the bare form on his previous chase runs. Hindsight is beautiful, but even a glance back at his hurdle form doesn’t scream superstar – yes, hindsight.

On the flip side he didn’t seem to finish out his race on this occasion, and something may have been a miss? But he is hard to figure out as is his likely Cheltenham Festival target.

Captain Ferny screams Arkle class

The leading light to come out of Sunday’s meeting at Punchestown was the successful chase debut of 2020 Champion Bumper winner Ferny Hollow. The Cheveley Park runner returned from a spell on the sidelines with an excellent display on his first start over fences.

The six-year-old is now unbeaten over obstacles from three starts, including a Point to Point, a Maiden Hurdle, and a Novice Chase.

The most impressive part of his performance was how he warmed to the jumping task, which screamed potential improver. He was sticky at the first two, tight to a couple and slightly left at times but fast and fluent at four and three out before getting in tight at the second last. When asked at pace at the final flight, he gave supporters precisely what they would have wanted to see as he was foot perfect and quick away.

There was a lot to like about this performance despite the omission of three fences. The comparison to the John Durkan won by Allaho over 2m4f reads favourably from five out to the finish line (three omitted by both). Ferny Hollow recorded a time around eight lengths faster.

He looks a huge player in this year’s Arkle for which he is a 10/3 chance, and the power-packed finish suggests that there is plenty more to come.

This horse has had only six career starts, and the sky is the limit for him. He could easily go off a short-priced favourite for this contest should the current favourite and stablemate Appreciate It – who we haven’t seen yet – go up in trip. There is a lack of depth in this division already, so the price must be taken, and he must captain the teamsheet thus far.

Let’s not get too excited

At Cheltenham on Friday, the opening Novice Hurdle won by Datsalrightgino recorded a winning RPR of just 124. That was the lowest by eight pounds in the last ten years, and it’s hard to see any of those runners making waves in the Supreme Novice Hurdle market without significant improvement – the winner priced at 33/1.

Corach Rambler was cut into 16/1 for the National Hunt Chase after scoring in a decisive fashion over Eva’s Oskar. He is currently rated 134 (due to go up) but will have plenty of improvement to find with those currently heading the market in Run Wild Fred (159) and impressive Saturday Fairyhouse scorer Stattler (142 due to go up) who is a 9/2 chance.

Cool it on Khal

There was a social media buzz about Blazing Khal’s win in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ trial at Cheltenham as he confirmed last months placings with Gelino Bello.

It was a slopy jumping performance in parts, but he still ran out a good winner of the contest, suggesting he has a fairly sizeable engine. In no way should the performance be crabbed because of his jumping, but the level of form required is some way off a typical Albert Bartlett winner in the last ten years.

The runner-up Gelino Bello is rated 140 after an excellent performance at Aintree, which has seen the form boosted multiple times after running an excellent time figure. However, he has failed to match that in his last two outings at Cheltenham on the clock at least, and he may fair better on a flatter track after looking out paced down the back straight and being ridden along down the hill.

It would be dangerous to judge this form on the back of Gelino Bello’s official rating, and the question has to be asked as to why trainer Charles Byrnes has come over to England to pick up these races when there have been ample opportunities in Ireland?

The lessons of 2020/21 should not be forgotten

While the performance has merit on a stand-alone basis, the level of opposition in England, as highlighted by Emmet Mullins raiding the British shores on multiple occasions last term, is far from strong and almost easy pickings.

This is not as straightforward as “beating a 140 rated horse by four lengths.”

Blazing Khal’s current 9/2 price tag for the Albert Bartlett – a race that notoriously has the biggest turnout in terms of the number of runners at the Cheltenham Festival – is short enough.

Last year’s renewal was well below average on the official ratings and figures, and there is sure to be much stiffer competition down the road rather than across the water.

My Drogo always in command

It wasn’t the mind-blowing performance we hoped to see from My Drogo at Cheltenham on Saturday. However, he was always in control of his three rivals as the SP odds of 2/9 suggested he would be, and connections will be thrilled with a clear round after falling on seasonal/chase return. By the time he had hit the line, he was in no more than second gear, and the 133 rated Torn And Fayed had few answers to the power of the Dan Skelton runner as he cleared away by seven widening lengths – job done.

Plenty of horses, especially Novice Chasers, will shy away from a fence or two after a bad experience, and although he was a good winner, that fall was evident in the display of My Drogo on a couple of occasions.

He was keen from the get-go, a similar trait he showed on reappearance on the old track when falling in a two runner race here last month and a similar characteristic to some of the yards Novice Chasers this term – Third Time Lucki is the one that springs to mind.

His jumping, on the whole, was ok. He took a few long, notably the tenth, where on the approach, he cocked his head to the left, almost shying away from the fence leading him to drag his hind legs through. I’ve seen this technique on multiple occasions and it is concerning so improvement will be needed and quickly.

It’s probably no more than interesting, but that mistake was the flight after the water jump, and he made an almost exact error on chase debut at the same fence, albeit on the old course for which the fence after the water is the eleventh.

It’s not until the pace lifts that you really get to see what metal a novice is made of. When the pace quickened into the second to last flight, he was economical and quick through the air. However, the final flight saw his second notable error when again asked at pace by jockey Harry Skelton and took off early. There seemed to be a miscommunication between horse and rider, and My Drogo dragged his hind legs through, losing momentum.

As a punter, you don’t always want to see a polished jumping performance early in the season. The jumping technique can be improved, but the mistakes will always expose what is under the bonnet, and there was no exposure here – he has a sizeable engine.

The overall time of the race was comparable to that of the Racing Post Gold Cup won by the 143 rated Coole Cody.

It didn’t read well. Coole Cody’s overall time was 9.69 secs or 38.72 lengths quicker, but it would be foolish to expect a four-runner Novice Chase to be faster than a top-class handicap. It would also be unwise to judge him on the time figure achieved, given this run came on the back of a fall, and it was only his second outing over fences against inferior rivals.

A big positive to take from his performance is that he seemed to handle this new course much better than the old one on debut. His target is the Marsh Novice Chase, for which he was cut into 7/1, and that is the only one of the three novice races run on the new course.

There is talk of an Arkle tilt. That would be concerning, given he would likely need an aggressive ride, and he needs to get intuned with his rider to be effective for that scenario.

The Marsh Novices’ Chase looks as though it will be the deeper of the three divisions this season. He rightly deserves his price, given the ceiling of his ability is yet to be reached, and he is the only British hurdler turned Novice Chaser that the Irish haven’t exposed.

A final word of warning for British Juveniles

Knight Salute remained unbeaten when scoring at Doncaster on Saturday in the Grade 2 Juvenile Hurdle over favourite Porticello, and he is now as short as 12/1 for the Triumph Hurdle and here is why I wouldn’t be rushing to back him.

Porticello recorded the highest RPR (racing post rating) before the race in France of 122. Of those that had run Britain, including Porticello, the highest RPR rating recorded from any of the runners was 116.

Today’s winner Knight Salute recorded a Doncaster RPR rating of 124 when scoring in this contest and produced the lowest rating of any winner in the last ten years.

The lowest RPR recorded by a winner of this race in the last 11 years was 118 by Royal Bonsai, and he was beaten 20 lengths in the Fred Winter Handicap off 126. The highest was 148 recorded by Peace And Co for which he went on to win the Triumph that year.

The average RPR recorded of the winner of this race in the last ten years is 132.3.

So it gives us a good guide on how our British Juveniles are fairing against previous years, and this year’s crop looks well below average – or at least those in this contest.

Five winners of this race have gone on to run at the Cheltenham Festival, and other than Peace And Co, the best we have managed is 4th, and it reflects on the RPRS.

Navajo Pass 4th at Cheltenham recorded an RPR at Doncaster of 131, and Quell Destin 5th recorded an RPR at Doncaster of 125. Kashmir Peak was 12th at Cheltenham and recorded an RPR at Doncaster of 129 and Royal Bonsai was 14th at Cheltenham and recorded an RPR at Doncaster of 118.

So just a word of warning about the level of our Juveniles at this current time.

That’s a wrap for this week, but don’t just use this column as an ante-post recommendation, use it as a seasonal journal to be as prepared as you can for the 2022 Cheltenham Festival.

Until next week, be lucky!

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