Andy Gibson's Cheltenham Trail

Andy Gibson recaps the highlights from the Cheltenham December meeting and highlights a Champion Hurdle candidate who remains under the radar.

  • Tuesday 15 December
  • Blog
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International implications

With three hurdles omitted in the Grade 2 Unibet International Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday, I would not want to get too carried away with any pounds and lengths calculations. Prior to the race I felt reasonably sure that the omission of the hurdles would be more against Song For Someone compared with any of his rivals. After all, he was probably the most fluent jumper in the field, and possibly by some way. 

The fact that Song For Someone has still managed to come out on top augers well for his chances at the highest level; perhaps even more so when competing on testing ground. Proform Racing figures suggest that the ground may have been closer to good to soft by the end of the day; nonetheless, the drying, sticky conditions would still have made it hard enough work.

Obviously the biggest impact on the Champion Hurdle market resulted from the last of ten finishing position of Goshen. Prior to the weekend he was a single figure price for March and is now generally available at 25/1. Whatever the reasons for his poor show at Cheltenham, this has clearly added plenty of substance to the claims of the top three in the market. 

Although Epatante holds a strong chance on the opening day of the Festival; at the same time, her current odds of around 5/4 make no appeal whatsoever. Both Saint Roi and Abacadabras are much more interesting at 8/1 at this stage of the season. The pair look set to take each other on in the Grade 1 Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown on the 29th December. With Epatante heading for Kempton on Boxing Day, the ante-post market for the 2021 Champion Hurdle could be set for a big shake up before the New Year.

Song For Someone
Song For Someone, white cap, deserves more credit for his win in the International Hurdle

Back to Song For Someone, who can still be supported at 20/1 for the big race. As mentioned earlier, he is such a fast and fluent jumper over his hurdles and, although we have no idea how he will compete against the front three in the market up the final hill in March; those three favourites are all hold-up horses and unlikely to want to hit the front until close to the final hurdle - or even later in the case of Abacadabras. 

This seriously increases the chances of the smooth travelling Song For Someone remaining in front until, at least, close to that last hurdle; irrespective of what might happen from thereon in. In addition, hold-up horses generally need a little more luck on their side to assist their run through a race; consequently, what are the chances of the Champion Hurdle panning out perfectly for all three favourites? 


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When to forgive a poor performance

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the importance of not waiting for a horse to shine before supporting it at a subsequently shorter price in the ante-post market for the Cheltenham Festival. Conversely, if we have good reason to believe a horse is not going to be suited to the conditions on the day we should not then be in a hurry to cross him out of our potential ante-post plans.

The previous example I used involved Mister Fisher after he had apparently flopped in the Paddy Power Handicap Chase. After his success in the Grade 2 Fitzdares Club Loves The Peterborough Chase on Friday Mister Fisher has halved in price for the 2021 Ryanair Chase. Given that he has now been able to get his head in front in high class chases, on soft ground and on the New Course at Cheltenham for the second season in a row; it is a little surprising to see him still trading at 20/1 in a place for the 2021 Ryanair Chase. 

I think we saw a similar situation this weekend after Al Dancerfinished well beaten on taxing ground in the Casper Caviar Gold Cup Handicap Chase. Perhaps he had previously handled the wet and soft conditions better at the November meeting, rather than the drying, sticky ground he was faced with on Saturday? 

Whatever the reasons for those two very different performances, his ninth place finish in the Caspian Caviar is easily forgiven. On the approach to this weekend I held a very similar view on Al Dancer as I had with Mister Fisher prior to his Paddy Power flop. That is, although both horses can sometimes handle soft ground, I would suggest that they will also be seen in their best light only when competing on good to soft or good going. 

In the case of Al Dancer, his record on soft and heavy ground now reads: 2 3 1 4 1 0 2 5 3 9 – and his two successes in this sequence have come in a minor bumper race at Bangor and a weakly contested novice hurdle at Ffos Las. Conversely, his record on good and good to soft going reads: 1 1 1 1 2 1 – and his only defeat in this sequence came ‘at the hands’ of Mister Fisher in the Grade 2 Napoleons Casino & Restaurant Owlerton Sheffield Lightning Novices’ Chase in January; however, I strongly suspect he would have come out on top at Doncaster if held onto longer on that day.

As a consequence of his ninth place finish at the weekend, Al Dancer is now available at 50/1 in the ante-post market for the 2021 Ryanair Chase. As with Mister Fisher, his chances will be more obvious should the first day on the New Course in March 2021 provide good to soft or good ground.

A wide-open Ryanair Chase?

The 2021 Ryanair Chase certainly appears to be building up into a much more competitive affair compared with the 2020 renewal.

Samcro, Melon and Mister Fisher were all more impressive than Min on the clock when comparing the 2020 Marsh Novices’ Chase from fence to fence with the Ryanair Chase on the same day. If we add into the mix a very obvious danger in Imperial Aura then I would suggest that Min is likely to be lining up in March 2021 against three or four rivals with arguably stronger credentials than Saint Calvados who was, perhaps, a little unfortunate not to overturn Min last year. 

The Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Al Dancer is yet to prove he can bridge the gap and be added to the 2021 Ryanair Chase shortlist. However, his record on good and good to soft ground suggests he is a high class horse when faced with his optimum conditions; furthermore, one would have to be encouraged about his stamina for competing over an intermediate distance in a competitive race, after his third place finish on unsuitably testing ground in the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at Cheltenham in November. 

The 'Challenger Du Luc Strategy'

The Spreadex Handicap Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday was a fascinating renewal to analyse. The field of nine included a favourite in Ibleo, who I believe to be extremely well-handicapped. Just behind him in the market was the seemingly quirky Sky Pirate who has been high on my list of horses to consider for my ‘Challenger Du Luc Strategy’. 

For those of you too young to remember him, Challenger Du Luc was a wonderfully consistent and high class chaser who would generally travel extremely well through his race until finding little to nothing when asked for an extra effort.

This strategy is summarised in my Blog from Monday 23rd November 2020 and covered in more detail in my book ‘The Cheltenham Trail – A Modern Form Book’:

"By the time he lined up in the 1997 King George Chase the Martin Pipe- trained Challenger Du Luc had already finished runner-up in his three previous races. This habit of travelling well before not finding any extra when asked had already come to the fore prior to Boxing Day and he was a 16/1 shot on the off in the main win market due to that particular tendency. 

This is one of the first times I can recall noting that the potential Straight Forecast returns would be greater due to a trait which actually increased a horses chances of finishing in the runner-up spot; when See More Business outbattled Challenger Du Luc from the final fence to the winning line, the resulting SFC paid £125.40."

I have paid close attention to similar situations ever since. Strong travelling bridle horses and one paced front-runners, are particular favourites of mine to consider for a potential second place finish.”

Prior to Cheltenham on Saturday, Sky Pirate had finished in second place in five of his previous eight completed starts and this record was more than just a coincidence in my mind. Whilst the fact that he was dropping back in distance to race over the minimum trip did add some doubt to the way he would finish off his race; at the same time, I was still quite hopeful pre-race that he could make it into the runner-up spot for the sixth time in nine races by finishing second to the well-handicapped Ibleo.

Everything went to plan as the two horses began to move clear of the field on the approach to the final fence. Unfortunately, the Jonjo O’Neill horse finished his race off in a way that suggested that, rather than ’downing tools’ in the finish; perhaps he had simply failed to stay the longer trips he had previously competed over. Indeed, it is now hard to believe that he ran well until the final fence in the 2019 Kim Muir which is run over three miles and two furlongs!

Back to the Spreadex Handicap Chase, where I was also hoping to see Ibleo held onto for longer as I felt he had got to the front sooner than ideal previously at Ascot. This issue is clouded by the fact that in his two previous wins for Venetia Williams he had made much of the running on both occasions; however, in those earlier races he had finished in front of horses rated 117 and 118 respectively. Consequently this now 137 rated seven-year-old would probably have won both those races irrespective of how he was ridden. 

At Ascot he was caught close to the finish and narrowly beaten by a horse rated 132; furthermore, at Cheltenham Ibleo was taking on a top weight rated 159, and only finished behind the 134 rated Sky Pirate. 
Perhaps, Ibleo hitting the front sooner than ideal ultimately accentuated the positive impression that Sky Pirate made from the final fence to the line? Either way, I am happy to have both horses on my side now that the handicapper has had his say.   

That is not to suggest that Sky Pirate’s winning performance on Saturday was some sort of guarantee that his previous habits are a thing of the past; after all, he could easily regress to mean on another day. However, if he trades at a double figure price in a big field, fast run, festival style race over the minimum trip, there is more upside to having him on side. Even more so, as we still have the option of taking out some insurance in the in-running markets. 

One or two for the Grand Annual shortlist?

Ibleo will need plenty of cut in the ground to be seen in his best light; consequently he should have one or two opportunities to show his best form in the next few weeks. Now that he has finished well beaten I am hopeful that the market might under estimate him on another day; if not next time out then a Grand Annual Chase run on a testing surface could play to his strengths.

Sky Pirate is even more interesting for March as he has already proved to be suited to competing off a strong gallop in a double figure field size. 

Sky Pirate
Sky Pirate, left, challenges Ibleo over the last; both are candidates for the Grand Annual

Although only nine runners lined up at Cheltenham on Saturday, the veteran Gino Trail made sure it was run at a really good clip from the off. Once the 13-year-old had run his race, Ibleo immediately hit the front and pushed on again before the second last fence. 

Now that Sky Pirate has discovered the winning way I would be happy to support him to continue on this path (when competing over two miles) until he shows something to the contrary. 

Sky Pirate has run four excellent races from four attempts over fences at Cheltenham. He is versatile with regards the ground and has an excellent Cheltenham Festival run attached to his name. There is plenty of available evidence to suggest that he will travel and jump well enough in a big field chase around Cheltenham. His trainer mentioned the Grand Annual as a likely target which was very encouraging as it would be difficult to see where else his connections would want to go with him after his smooth success over the weekend.

Ibleo has only been raised 3lbs due to the comprehensive nature of his defeat and thus lives to fight another day; in addition, the handicapper could not have raised Sky Pirate by enough to seriously impact on his chances in March. What he happens to do from the last fence to the winning line in the Grand Annual Handicap Chase will have more to do with what is going on between his ears rather than due to his new 144 rating.

Andy Gibson's Cheltenham Trail
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