Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

With Cheltenham on the horizon, our Irish expert Tony Keenan has five rules to guide you through the cacophony of emotions which is The Festival.

  • Wednesday 04 March
  • Blog
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Cheltenham Overview

The prediction game can be fickle. That is especially true for those of us who follow racing at this time of year. We all know the story, the annual text/WhatsApp/email arrives with the question ‘Any tips for Cheltenham?’ and you get the chance to be either hero or zero – there is rarely an in-between.

So please bear this in mind when judging my ideas on what I expect at Cheltenham next week, the focus here being more general before going into the specific races on the day.

1. Strange, unexpected things will happen

Something will go wonky next week because it always does. This is getting the excuses in early but history tells us that with a host of tightly-wound animals (and that’s just the punters I’m describing!), weird stuff occurs from Oscar Delta unseating Jane Mangan to Annie Power falling at the last. Horses do bizarre things and so do humans.

Take last year’s Champion Hurdle as an example. The betting suggested a three-cornered affair between Apple’s Jade, Laurina and Buveur D’Air, starting prices giving them a 78% chance of winning but none even placed. Could this year’s Champion Chase be the same? I don’t know but by next Friday evening it is almost certain that things unforeseen will have occurred.

2. Dublin Racing Festival form will work out

Only Klassical Dream and Envoi Allen emerged from the Dublin Racing Festival to win at Cheltenham in 2019, a sharp drop from the eight winners in 2018, but last year was a strange one for the meeting with fast ground and decimated fields and I expect things to return to normal this time.

Leopardstown has long been the best track for Cheltenham trials in either jurisdiction with 74 Festival winners since 2003 having their final run there; Cheltenham itself is next best with 50 winners, Kempton and Newbury on 33 and 32 respectively. That figure brings in the Christmas meeting for those that went straight fresh but even so is a big number.

I’m inclined to believe that a tough race in early-February puts more into a horse that it takes out and this year’s fields stood up further better bar a couple of significant non-runners. It will be interesting to see if the form from the Saturday and Sunday of this year’s meeting works out differently as the ground was quite different judged on times, the executive having put a lot of water on overnight between the two days after criticism on the Saturday.

Chacun Pour Soi and Appreciate It are two that really stood out on the clock on the first day but there would be a slight concern that they might have run too fast.

3. Henry De Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore will dominate

It is hardly a hot take to praise the De Bromhead/Blackmore axis at this stage but I’m expecting big things next week; maybe not top trainer/jockey big but not far off it. The trainer’s best season in terms of prizemoney prior to last term was €1.56 million in 2016/17 but he hit €1.96 million in 2018/19 and has already broken the two million barrier this season.

He is just a better trainer now with better horses and a top-class jockey, and while his form sometimes ebbed in mid-winter there has been consistency this time. The depth of talent in the novice team of last season has been parlayed into strength in open company this year, notably with A Plus Tard and Honeysuckle.

Blackmore has been brilliant this season, her gradual style of asking for effort highly effective while she also possesses initiative; it is hard to believe that this time last year she had not ridden a Grade 1 winner whereas now she is on eight. De Bromhead may not have the strength in the handicaps to get her to the top jockey spot but Willie Mullins has used her plenty this season and she could pick up rides in the races where his team runs deep.

4. The Irish Juvenile Hurdlers will flop

I seem to doubt the quality of the Irish four-year-old hurdlers every year going into Cheltenham but this crop do seem a poor group; the UK team may not have a true star but they certainly have depth at the top end with Solo, Allmankind and Goshen whereas Aspire Tower looks the only meaningful Irish challenger in the Triumph.

He was impressive at Christmas but that was a funny race with a low finishing speed percentage and those pace collapses don’t always work out; even if he had stood up at the Dublin Racing Festival, he would have been below that form while the pair of JP McManus-owned runners A Wave Of The Sea and Cerberus don’t entirely convince with their temperaments, the latter having been well behind Allmankind when the pair met at Chepstow.

Perhaps Gordon Elliott will pull another Fred Winter rabbit from the hat with Aramax or Tronador but I would not be at all surprised were the Irish horses to struggle in both juvenile races.

5. Front View will win (or at least go close in) the Martin Pipe

The claims of FRONT VIEW for the closing race of the Festival have been well flagged up in the market since the handicap weights were released but even so there may be some juice in his price; Early Door was sent off 5/1 for this last year whereas Squouateur was 9/4 in 2016.

Hopefully his fate will be more in keeping with the former than the latter but he does look to have strong claims. A decent bumper horse last term, he mixed it with some classy novices in the early part of this season, second to Envoi Allen at Down Royal before beating Uhtred at Cork; that one may be one of the best bumper horses in Ireland but hasn’t fully shown it because he can’t run in some graded races due to having run over hurdles.

Back from a 95-day absence at Thurles last month, he shaped well against race-fit horses in the Michael Purcell having been weak in the betting beforehand. He made his move a bit earlier than ideal and got squeezed out after two out before making a mistake at the last, looking like the run would bring him on.

His jumping could do with being better than and that’s a concern in this big field but the time for the Thurles race was good and he looks on a fair mark of 139 with his owner likely to have one of the best riders available on board.

Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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