Welcome to the first instalment in what will be a weekly series on attheraces.com as we build up to the highlight of the Jumps season, the Cheltenham Festival. Each week I'll dissect the most relevant Festival trials from the previous seven days with the aim of highlighting aspects that the form book won't tell you.
This week, we start with what is traditionally regarded as the true starting point of the jumps season, Cheltenham's prestigious November meeting.
Too soon to get carried away by The Big Breakaway
One of the major pointers when considering the early ante-post markets for the Cheltenham Festival is often not to take notice of a horse after it has just put up a sparkling performance; better to consider those horses one feels are about to be seen in their best light. Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule; occasionally, we might believe a horse has won in more impressive fashion than the post-race market response would imply.
Likewise, leaving the door open to mark-up a horse that has performed badly for reasons you believe you can understand, is a better way forward compared with getting carried away, along with the crowd, after any horse has just put up a career best effort.
One horse that has already ‘sparkled’ is the Colin Tizzard five-year-old The Big Breakaway who won the mallardjewellers.com Novices’ Chase on Sunday in impressive-looking style. As a consequence he is now one of only three horses trading at a single figure price for the 2021 RSA Chase. This is despite him beating three horses that had previously struggled when competing on soft ground; thus leaving the 136 rated Doc Pentro as the only other horse in this five runner race with the potential to perform close to his best.
We don’t have to dig too deeply to question the wisdom of considering The Big Breakaway’s claims at this stage of the season. After all he will face stiffer tasks prior to March than he did on Sunday. Consequently the potential for him not to look as good next time out as he did against Doc Penfro is obvious. Moreover, at this stage of his development we can only guess how his jumping will stand up to a tougher examination against more worthy opponents.
The key factor with the validity of his short price in the RSA Chase ante-post market, however, lies in the record of his trainer at the spring festivals in recent times.
Colin Tizzard’s record at Aintree in the last five years is exceptionally good. In this period of time he has had an amazing 13 winners from just 44 runners at Aintree. Unfortunately we can see a very different story with his Cheltenham runners in March over the same time period. He has had more than twice as many runners (90 to be precise) and yet only recorded three Cheltenham Festival winners in the last five years. His more recent record reads 0/38 in the last two years. (Stats courtesy of Proform Racing).
Obviously just because Colin Tizzard has had a poor run of form in March in recent years is no guarantee that this will happen again in 2021; nevertheless, it would be foolhardy to ignore those statistics when considering the early markets.
On the evidence before us at this moment in time The Big Breakaway would stand out more as a horse to consider for the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree rather than the RSA. Of course, if the excellent Colin Tizzard yard hits top form just prior to the second week of March in 2021 we may want to take another look.
With the ground riding very soft for most of the final two days of the Cheltenham November meeting there will be plenty of good ground horses we could consider forgiving for an apparently poor run.
Personally, I prefer to have a few horses in mind prior to any given race that I feel confident are going to struggle in the prevailing conditions. Conversely, I try my best not to be too quick to confirm my pre-race beliefs just because the race in question happened to pan out as predicted.
Andy Gibson's Cheltenham Trail
This weekly feature is just a small sample of the expert analysis Andy Gibson offers through his Cheltenham Trail subscription service.
Formulated through hours of intensive study and analysis, The Cheltenham Trail builds up into a dossier of key notes, trends, stats, horse profiles, previews and reviews leading up to the Festival, giving subscribers the opportunity to study alongside a professional punter and race analyst.
Mister Fisher deserves another chance to prove himself Ryanair material
In Saturday's Paddy Power Gold Cup, Mister Fisher actually performed much better than I had anticipated in the testing conditions. There was a lot of stable confidence attached to his entry and as a consequence he was sent off as the 11/2 second favourite. He was kept very wide throughout the contest to avoid the worst of the ground and was still in seventh or eighth place after the fourth last fence. He was then pulled up immediately after the third last fence.
If the rain had not arrived at Cheltenham and Mister Fisher had performed as well as he would have been expected to on good to soft going, he would now be being touted as an interesting horse to consider for the Ryanair Chase. This was one of the races on my mind for him when I prepared my post-race notes after the Marsh Novices’ Chase in March:
“Mister Fisher was about one second quicker than Min from his first fence (Min's second) to the winning line. The difference with Mister Fisher and the three Irish-trained horses that finished in front of him was his track position as the action really began after the third last fence. He had been stuck behind Reserve Tank on the inside from the sixth last fence and also had Bapaume pinning him in to the rail.
I thought Nico de Boinville had the option of tucking up behind the leader Melon half way down the far side but he seemed to be happy with where he was. This resulted in him having to be switched after the third last fence which cost him valuable ground and momentum. He also raced wide off the home turn before being tucked back in at the second last. This resulted in him remaining three or four lengths behind three high class horses that were quickening up in front of him. He has pretty much maintained his losing margins from there to the line and has performed with credit in a race that, at least on the clock, looks a hot renewal.
One would be hard pushed to suggest that Mister Fisher was unlucky in anyway as his starting position off the home bend was of his own making; at the same time he did not lose any ground on the leaders from three out to the line and was simply not in the best place to challenge at a vital part of the contest; moreover, if anything he was slightly closing on the leaders in the final fifty yards on a day that proved difficult to make up ground on the chase course.
Given how much faster Samcro, Melon and Faugheen were from two out compared with Min in the Ryanair Chase, then Mister Fisher would have had to produce something very special to significantly narrow that deficit. He has done nothing to dent his reputation here and he should be better on a faster surface. Mister Fisher remains a very good intermediate chaser and one to look forward to in some high class contests next season.”
It may be a little bit early for many of us to be getting too involved with ante-post betting for the Cheltenham Festival; nonetheless, Mister Fisher is now available at 40/1 for the Ryanair Chase on the back of an apparently poor effort which can be very easily accounted for. This is despite the quality of that Marsh Novices’ Chase run suggesting he has every chance of finishing in the first few at worst on the third day of the 2021 festival.
Maybe he is no ante-post prospect anyway given that his chances would improve significantly in March should the Ryanair Chase be run on good to soft or good ground. Either way, Mister Fisher remains on my mind for the festival despite what the market response to his recent effort would suggest.
Le Patriote and Proschema have Festival potential
Although Le Patriote finished third of four finishers in the Grade 2 From The Horse's Mouth Podcast Novices’ Chase he has still performed extremely well on ground that would have been far too testing for him. His form on good ground reads: 8 1 1 1 1 – and his only defeat in that sequence came when making his seasonal debut in 2018. He is rated 148 and won a valuable handicap hurdle off that same mark in 2019.
Maybe the Arkle Trophy would be flying too high; however the Grand Annual might be a possibility. He has won two handicap hurdle races with double figure field sizes and could be suited by a big field chase run at a typical festival pace. Le Patriote is an exciting proposition, in my opinion, because he has had very few opportunities of competing on a sound surface, and therefore showing his true worth. If it happens to be soft at Cheltenham in March then maybe the Maghull Chase at Aintree would provide the good ground which suits him so well.
The conditions were tough at Cheltenham by the time the Unibet Greatwood Handicap Hurdle runners went to post on Sunday. Consequently, I would be happy to forgive any horse that put up an apparently disappointing performance in such extreme conditions.
Proschema’s shrewd connections obviously believe he is a well handicapped horse off 131. There was plenty of money for him in the early markets before his starting price returned at 5/1. He was kept wide throughout and was never really travelling until being pulled up before the final hurdle.
The Skelton team often target the Greatwood prior to having a crack at the County Hurdle in March. Superb Story, North Hill Harvey and Mohaayed have all competed in both races with plenty of success since 2015. The obvious recent exception has been Ch’tibello who won the 2019 County Hurdle without having competed in the 2018 Greatwood Hurdle.
The problem with Proschema is that, after not being competitive on Sunday, he will remain on a mark of 131 or, possibly even be dropped a pound or two. The lowest rated horses to get into the County Hurdle in the last five years have been rated 134, 127, 133, 134 and 138 respectively. Presumably the Skelton team will now have another target race in mind for him prior to March - assuming the County Hurdle is on their minds at all that is. The last race on the Ascot card on the Saturday before Christmas would be an obvious race to consider. Wherever he heads between now and the spring time I will be monitoring the entries and performances of Proschema closely in the coming weeks.
Morgiana post-mortem reveals first two must up their game
It would be remiss of me not to mention the Unibet Morgiana Hurdle in my opening piece for the Cheltenham Trail. It has to be said that this year’s renewal of this prestigious Grade 1 contest was a particularly messy affair. Saint Roi found himself with nowhere to go on the approach to the final hurdle and has arguably done well to run the winner so close.
At the same time Abacadabras managed to hold on in a tight finish despite hitting the front much sooner than ideal. Gordon Elliott was on record as saying that Abacadabras would have needed his seasonal debut run like many others from his yard. Consequently, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of his performance was the fact that he was only able to repeat the quality of his previous run in relation to Jason The Militant, who has finished next to him on both occasions. Clearly, Jason The Militant is a 147 rated hurdler and could not be considered as a Champion Hurdle contender at this point in time.
As disappointing as both Abacadabras and Saint Roi were in their own particular ways, a small field messily run race on heavy ground in November is unlikely to have much bearing on either horses chances when it matters most in March.
Of the two, I would suggest that Abacadabras has an excellent chance of finishing thereabouts in the Champion Hurdle; however, he will need the gaps to open up for him at precisely the right time; consequently, this potential hazard has to be taken into account when assessing his true place in the Champion Hurdle market.