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Cheltenham Festival Focus: The forgotten value, 25/1 Festival Novices’ Chase selection

There’s plenty of action to get stuck into this week and given today’s column has been written before Fairyhouse’s excellent meeting on Sunday we will have to pick that action up in next weeks column. So let’s get reviewing the week and the weekend’s notable Cheltenham performances.

Bookies on the run from Fred

Runwild Fred scored in excellent style in the Troytown Handicap Chase at Navan last Sunday off a handicap mark of 145 to win by seven lengths from Farclas. The second season Novice Chaser finally got off the mark at the ninth attempt and now holds an official rating of 159.

To put that rating into perspective, he will be the highest-rated horse to run in his intended target the National Hunt Chase in the last ten years and will be rated seven pounds higher than 2021 winner Galvin.

It does seem strange calling one that placed second in the Irish National last season a Novice, but that experience will give him a big advantage on his rivals should he go for the National Hunt Chase, for which he is now as short as 9/2f .

It might be worth keeping in mind that the Grand National is just three weeks later, which could also be on the agenda.

On the same card at Navan, Hollow Games ran out a good winner of the Monksfield Novice Hurdle, a race his trainer Gordon Elliott has used for Fury Road, Fakiera and Death Duty on route to the Albert Bartlett for which he is now 8/1f.

Despite being comfortably on top at the finish, it was a workmanlike performance, and he recorded the lowest Racing Post Rating in the race for the last ten years.

Epatante exposed in dead-heat Fighting Fifth win

There is little doubt that 2020 Champion Hurdler Epatante was the best horse in the Betfair Grade 1 Fighting Fifth on Saturday despite the dead heat result with Not So Sleepy, a general 18/1 shot.

Jockey Aidan Coleman suggested after the race that “he got there too soon” on the seven-year-old mare who was making her reappearance on the back of three below-par efforts last season.

Connections had her undergo back surgery, which they felt could be the excuse for her disappointing efforts at Kempton, Cheltenham and Punchestown last term. There will no doubt be the talk of her improving for the outing, evident by her price cut in the Champion Hurdle to 10/1 from 14/1 on the Betfair Sportsbook.

However, punters may just want to be a little sceptical of the back injury excuse and the expected improvement – she was the best horse in the race, but not by far.

It’s always best to use your eyes rather than your ears, and with Epatante, there were three alarming similarities in her three defeats last season which suggest it wasn’t her back causing her issues but rather where the pace was injected into the race.

Injection of pace causes mare problems

Now, Epatante has always been a horse that travels strongly only to loom up and use her sharp turn of foot to quicken away from rivals, but she wasn’t able to do that in her three outings before today’s race.

At Kempton, Adam Wedge gave Silver Streak an excellent front running ride but stole the race on the bend approaching the home straight. It was a shock to the system for Epatante when she was put under pressure around the bend, and for the first time in her career, she was unable to sit and pounce as she usually would.

In the 2021 Champion Hurdle, she was asked to quicken just after three out approaching the bend when Rachel Blackmore injected pace into the race and stole three lengths out of the field (as she did all week). Epatante, who was travelling well at the time, was forced under pressure around the bend, and she could make no inroads.

This all was a complete contrast to how she was able to win her 2020 Champion Hurdle, for which she didn’t make her move until two out and then at the final hurdle, similar to Saturday at Newcastle.

Finally, at Punchestown in the Irish Champion Hurdle, it was the same story, and even Sharjah went past her as though she had glue stuck to her hoofs.

She is vulnerable to an injection of pace in a race around a bend but even examining the final circuit time of her Champion Hurdle win suggests she was fortunate to beat Sharjah. Sharjah was quicker on the final circuit but was given too much to do from the rear of the field in what was an average overall time figure in a race that lacked any depth.

It’s no surprise on reflection that Rachel and Honeysuckle demolished her last season in the Champion Hurdle getting the tactics spot on in a division that lacked any sort of depth.

Saturday’s result highlighted the issue of the 2m hurdle division with just 1 1/2 lengths separating Epatante, Not So Sleepy and Sceau Royal, the last-named both nine-year-olds.

Monmiral was found to be lame after the race and never seemed to be travelling a yard so he could prove a different proposition but looks one for further at this level.

All in all, this was a backwards step for Epatante, who now looks exposed, and the Champion Hurdle winner almost certainly will come from Ireland.

What did Jonbon actually achieve?

I wasn’t immediately blown away like many others with Jonbon’s hurdle debut at Newbury on Friday, given the overall race was a bit of a farce. It took the runners just over 50 seconds from flag fall to get going, with none of the eight keen to make the running.

Jonbon was on his toes at the start and has been described as a free-sweater – all things to note should he attend the Cheltenham Festival with a huge crowd and a lively atmosphere.

Primary market rival Good Risk At All jumped poorly in the main yet again and may turn out to be a better bumper horse than a hurdler so it’s not wise to rate that form around Good Risk At All’s bumper runs given that horse hasn’t matched that over hurdles to date. While the third, Boombawn, had little chance from the rear of the field and may want further in time.

It was a simple gallop and jump task for Jonbon as Aidan Coleman took up the lead, but it’s not a given that would have suited him either. He carried his head high at a couple of his hurdles, almost looking hesitant at one or two in the home straight, but he jumped well on the whole and ran out a comfortable winner.

Getting a handle on what he has achieved, especially as there were no time-comparative races on Friday other than those run over further, is difficult.

I also felt it wise to take the time from the second hurdle (first after the post), given that the early part of this race gave us unreliable information.

Time figures from Newbury Friday and Saturday

In comparison to the three-mile races won by Thomas Darby and Dolphin Square, he showed all the right signs, having been fractionally quicker on the final circuit as well as three and two out. Still, it was hardly a blow away performance given those two had run six and a half furlongs further, and the former’s race was run at a blistering early clip.

We should never compare times across different days for many reasons, but below is how he fared against three of the hurdle races on Saturday.

Jonbon looks a very promising recruit to hurdles, but the 3/1 Supreme Novice Hurdle price looks rather short to me. He is untried on ground softer than good to soft and has a very good flowing action which could be a cause for concern this winter. He is yet to beat anything of note despite his visual impression, and I have him running to around 140, which means he needs at least another ten pounds of improvement to justify his current price.

Of course, he is entitled to improve significantly on that first outing over hurdles, but it would be nice to see him in a deeper race, and that could come at Kempton.

It’s worth letting this one slide for now.

Stage Star the Ballymore value?

Stage Star had run eight lengths slower on the final circuit than Jonbon but ran over four furlongs further. Still, despite a mistake at the second-last, he picked up in excellent style and clocked a faster time two-out to the finish than Jonbon.

Both horses won in no more than a hack canter, but visually it looked as though Stage Star had much more left in the tank than his counterpart.

Stage Star is almost certain to get further, and following the same route as last year’s winner Bravemansgame he could end up in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle for which he is a 20/1 chance – Jonbon a 5/1 favourite.

Elle Est Belle on Saturday at Newbury won in good style but was hard pushed to do so and is now 8/1 favourite for the Mares Novice Hurdle. I have her running to around 135, and that’s enough with natural improvement to see her in the mix.

On the other side of the water at Fairyhouse on Saturday Grangee won at skinny odds of 2/7f and could not have been more impressive. The time figure was slower than the preceding Maidan Hurdle on the card, but the bumper sixth firmly through her hat into the Mares Novice Hurdle ring where she will renew rivalry with Elle Est Belle and is a 9/1 chance.

Incredibly disappointing as Ahoy Senor dominates

Our National Hunt ante-post selection, Mr Incredible, was heavily backed to take the scalp of Grade 1 winning hurdler Ahoy Senor on Saturday. Still, he could hardly land a glove of the runaway 31 length winner.

I wouldn’t give up on Mr Incredible just yet, Rachel Blackmore never looked happy from the getgo, and the five-year-old was only having the fifth run of his life – let’s be optimistic.

Ahoy Senor, in turn, didn’t jump with fluency, particularly at the water, but he galloped his rivals into submission and went further clear in the home straight. He is a bright prospect, and Kempton looks on the agenda for a rematch with the horse he beat at Aintree – Bravemansgame.

His price has tumbled into 8/1 for the Festival Novices Chase and 6/1 for the National Hunt Chase, which looks about right.

Unsung hero Gaillard Du Mesnil the Festival Novice value

It’s the final week in which no single figure priced horse will grace this column, and with every runner subsequently cut for the festival, it has become more challenging to stay outside of that bracket. However, it may pay to take a chance on one we haven’t seen yet but is sure to go chasing despite the Stayers Hurdle entry, and that’s Ballymore Novice Hurdle runner-up Gaillard Du Mesnil.

Willie Mullins has been quoted in his stable tour saying,”He looks a fine horse to go novice chasing. He’ll want a trip over fences and jumps very well and will start off in a novice somewhere.”

On reflection of the Ballymore run, Mullins said,

“ran well, but he was beaten by a much better horse on the day. Maybe he needs a bit further. We’ll look at next year going over fences.”

All encouraging signs that Gaillard Du Mesnil will go over fences this season, and it’s doubtful that connections will want to bump into Bob Olinger again in the Marsh (16/1 shot) if reading between the lines, so that leaves the Festival Novices Chase for which he is a 25/1 chance.

Heading the market is Bravemansgame, the horse he beat into third and outstayed in the Ballymore Novice Hurdle, so his price on that factor alone looks a small bit of value and connections may see this as a softer option.

He, of course, needs to come out and prove his worth but a small Novice Chase win on seasonal return will see him shorten considerably on the back form of his hurdle runs last season.

He has seen defeat just twice, once to Bob Olinger in the Ballymore Novice Hurdle and the second on debut to Holymacapony. The strongest Novice stayers from last season was run over the middle distance trip in the Ballymore, with the 2021 Albert Barlett having the lowest-rated field for some time.

He looks a wild price considering his improvement last term, so he gets on the teamsheet at what could look like an absurd price on the back of a winning debut.

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