Andy Gibson's Cheltenham Trail

In this latest instalment Andy Gibson reflects on the recent victories of Imperial Aura, Presenting Percy, Ferny Hollow, Notebook and Shishkin.

  • Tuesday 24 November
  • Blog
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The jumps season stepped up another gear this week, when we saw a couple of impressive reappearances from youngsters with their careers ahead of them and a return to the winners enclosure for one of the sport's most popular horses. 

No need to hurry with Imperial Aura

It would be very easy to jump on the Imperial Aura bandwagon after his scintillating performance in the Grade 2 Chanelle Pharma 1965 Chase at Ascot on Saturday. He jumped superbly, won in impressive style and is clearly a very progressive horse to consider. He has strong Cheltenham Festival form to his name on the old course and one would imagine he could be even more suited to the more sweeping turns on the new course. He will clearly be aimed at the Ryanair Chase and is currently available at a best priced 7/1 for that race. Although he has some good ground form to his name, his better quality form has all been when competing on soft or heavy ground. I suspect he will need the going to be on the soft side of good or even softer to offer him his best chance of success in March.

The point with Imperial Aura is that he has already been seen in a very good light this season and the market has already responded accordingly; conversely, the horses closest to him in the ante-post market have either yet to run, or in Samcro’s case, have only had a prep race before a first main target. 
Min, Allaho and Samcro are all set to line-up against each other in the Grade 1 John Durkan Chase at Punchestown on 6th December. An impressive-looking success from any of those three in a prestigious Grade 1 chase would very likely elevate them beyond Imperial Aura into favouritism for the Ryanair Chase.

Personally, I hope that Min steals the show at Punchestown as, although I believe he can stay an intermediate trip on an easy course like Punchestown, I am not as convinced that the Ryanair Chase distance will be within his stamina range if competing in a stronger renewal than the one he won last season. I have included my post-race thoughts on Min’s performance in the 2019 Ryanair Chase below:

“Min was about three seconds quicker than Samcro from his second fence (Samcro’s first) until Min’s fourth. From there the pair ran similar times all the way through until three out. Samcro gradually ‘caught up’ with Min from this point of the race and finished a few lengths clear at the winning line. Paul Townend appeared very keen to hang onto his horse from three out until he finally asked for everything immediately after the final fence. This strategy probably impacted on how much Samcro ‘caught up with Min’ from before the second-last fence until the winning line.

Willie Mullins suggested post-race that this trip might be right at the ceiling of Min’s stamina limitations, and this is also how it looked visually. The fact that Paul Townend was so keen to hang onto Min on the approach to the second-last fence, combined with Min’s subsequent slow time comparison with Samcro from the last to the line, adds plenty of weight to this possibility.

Min is a very classy chaser; however, I would suggest that he has managed to hang on in the closing stages in what was probably a very average renewal of this Grade 1 contest. Both A Plus Tard and Saint Calvados have closed on him from half-way up the hill to the winning line. My instinct would be to hope that he has a classy rival with guaranteed stamina lining up against him in 2021”.

Imperial Aura, Samcro and Allaho could all the fit the bill as a ‘classy rival with guaranteed stamina’. I was really impressed with Imperial Aura at Ascot; however, with the John Durkan Chase just around the corner, there may be little upside to getting financially involved at this point in time.


Andy Gibson's Cheltenham Trail

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Percy is half as attractive now

It was really good to see Presenting Percy get his head in front for the first time in almost two years. He held a race-fitness advantage over his three rivals in the Chase at Thurles which was a race run at a crawl compared with the opening chase on the card. Perhaps he will be better suited to a faster pace on another day; then again the same might be said for his two main rivals. 

Relatively speaking, this was a sprint finish up the home straight and Presenting Percy managed to win this dash to the line with plenty to spare. I would prefer to remain open minded as to his chances of confirming this form on another day. He looked an interesting outsider for the Cheltenham Gold Cup at 33/1 prior to this success. He remains an interesting outsider to consider post-race; though he is probably half as attractive now at 16/1. He is ground dependent so will need very soft conditions to hold his best chance of success in March.

The post-race Gold Cup prices available for Monalee were, perhaps, more thought-provoking. Understanding whether to forgive, or not to forgive, an apparently poor performance is an important ingredient in one’s chances of staying ahead of the game.

Monalee generally needs his seasonal debut run so no reason to assume it would be any different at Thurles. He set a pedestrian pace for much of the race; at least in comparison to the Beginners Chase that opened the card half-an-hour earlier. He was quickly left behind in the sprint finish up the home straight and was beaten close to 9 lengths at the line. However, if anything this was a more promising seasonal debut performance compared with the one he put up a year ago when finishing behind both Douvan and Jett. 

Monalee generally improves significantly for his first outing before his Xmas target race. He has finished runner up in the latest two renewals of the Grade 1 Savills Chase and finished clear of Presenting Percy in 2019. He is less ground dependant than Presenting Percy and, consequently, is probably the more solid long term ante-post proposition of that pair. In addition, Monalee’s record at the Cheltenham Festival reads: 2 2 4 4 – and he has competed in Grade 1 races in all four contests in that sequence.

Neither horse could be offered up as the most likely winner of the 2021 Cheltenham Gold Cup; nevertheless, Presenting Percy can be supported at 16/1, whilst Monalee is available at 50/1 on the back of an apparently poor performance which is extremely easy to forgive. Their respective Gold Cup prices might look very different after the upcoming Savills Chase.

Still Plenty To Prove For Ferny Hollow

Ferny Hollow remains at the head of the betting for both the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle at the Festival. Clearly his position in both markets has a lot more to do with his Champion Bumper success rather than anything he achieved on his hurdles debut at Gowran Park. Furthermore, the fact that he has the same connections as Envoi Allen probably adds a little more support to his elevated place in those two markets. That is not to suggest that he did anything wrong on his hurdles debut last week; more that he did not actually do anything to positively support his place at the head of either market. 

Ferny Hollow
Ferny Hollow lands over the last on his way to victory at Gowran.

He tracked one target horse throughout at a particularly pedestrian pace in the I.N.H. Stallion Owners EBF Maiden Hurdle at Gowran Park. When comparing his hurdle to hurdle times with those of the juvenile hurdler Youmdor, who won the opening race over course and distance half-an-hour earlier; Ferny Hollow was more than 20 lengths behind by the first hurdle down the far side. He was still a long way behind at the entry to the home straight before closing the deficit rapidly from there to the line. The juvenile was eased considerably yet Ferny Hollow still finished around eight lengths down at the winning post. 

I would not be in a hurry to mark the quality of his form down as a consequence of a single time comparison; what I would suggest, however, is that this sprint finish after a prolonged pedestrian gallop might bear little resemblance to the skill set required to succeed at a higher level in a more competitively run race. Consequently, I will prefer to watch Ferny Hollow again before considering his potential as a Grade 1 novices’ hurdle prospect; hopefully in a more competitively run race than the one at Gowran Park turned out to be.

A big-priced horse to note for the Champion Chase

The Henry De Bromhead - trained Notebook made it five wins out of six with a 12 length success in the Grade 2 Poplar Square Chase at Naas. His one blemish over fences came when he finished last of six finishers in the Arkle Chase in March. Perhaps a subsequent suspicion that he might not be suited to Cheltenham is responsible for his current double figure odds for the 2021 Champion Chase. I suspect there is a reasonable chance that his poor performance was as a consequence of having had a tough battle with Cash Back in the Grade 1 ERSG Arkle Novice Chase at Leopardstown six weeks earlier. The fact that Cash Back also ran disappointingly in the Arkle Chase at Cheltenham adds some substance to this possibility. Either way, I would guess that Henry De Bromhead will send Notebook straight to Cheltenham after he competes in the Grade1 Chase over two miles and a furlong at Leopardstown on the day after Boxing Day. 

Notebook is a superb jumper of a fence and clearly handles a variety of conditions. He is generally available at 16/1 for the Champion Chase and is a best price 20/1. He has an excellent record at Leopardstown and will shorten up considerably for March should he be successful there again on the 27th December. Perhaps, more importantly, we have the Tingle Creek Chase a few weeks prior to that Leopardstown contest. Altior is a short priced favourite for that Grade 1 Chase at Sandown. If he wins in his usual style then he will inevitably be promoted to being a short priced favourite for the Champion Chase. In turn this could make a serious impact further down the ante-post market. Notebook is a very interesting outsider at 16/1 for the 2021 Champion Chase; whether he looks even more attractive immediately after the forthcoming Tingle Creek Chase is open to question.

Shishkin a shoe-in?

Shishkin made his chasing debut in the Racing TV Beginners Chase at Kempton on Monday afternoon. He was fast and fluent over his fences before running out a wide margin winner from the 137 rated Mick Pastor. 

He was very clever when getting in too short to a fence and absolutely brilliant when jumping long. He stays further than two miles and acts on a variety of grounds. All things considered Shishkin represents a relatively safe type of horse to side with in an ante-post market for Cheltenham in March. 

Assuming Envoi Allen heads for the Marsh Novices’ Chase then it would be difficult to see many, if any, challengers emerging in the Arkle Chase market. Shishkin is now generally available at 7/4 which makes no appeal whatsoever at this early stage of the season. That said, his price will probably shorten up significantly between now and March providing he stays fit and well. 

The fact that Shishkin is said to be heading for the Grade 2 Wayward Lad Chase back at Kempton over Christmas adds plenty of substance to him being viewed as an Arkle horse by his connections, rather than a Marsh Novices’ Chase type. 

Nicky Henderson has a 14.11% strike rate in Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival in the last ten years. More significantly, over the same period of time he has had three winners and three horses finishing placed in the Arkle Chase from just nine runners. (Stats courtesy of Proform Racing).

I find it very useful to analyse each favourite in depth for the Grade 1 Cheltenham Festival markets before marking each favourite on a scale of one-to-ten. This helps me to decide whether or not a favourite might be worth supporting, opposing or maybe avoiding via the ‘without’ markets.

On balance, I strongly suspect that the ‘betting without the favourite’ market will be my main place of interest for the 2021 Arkle Chase once the non-runner-no-bet rule comes into play.

Andy Gibson's Cheltenham Trail
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