Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

Our Irish expert Tony Keenan looks at the balance of Irish versus British hopes at Cheltenham, as well as pointers for some Cheltenham novice events.

  • Wednesday 13 February
  • Blog
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GREAT BRITAIN vs IRELAND

The weirdest of jumps seasons got even weirder last week with the equine flu crisis. Yet with the return of UK racing imminent, one wonders if the flu situation will have any meaningful impact on the preparation of Cheltenham horses. Some meetings have been cancelled, vaccinations will need to be administered, but the day-to-day work of yards has continued.

In any case, the majority of the trials are already in the book. There have been 163 Festival winners since 2013 and only 57 of those winners ran in the five weeks prior to the meeting, 106 of them having been off for longer, a ratio of 1.86 to 1. That’s broadly similar whether the horse was trained in the UK or Ireland, their respective ratios 1.81 and 1.90.

Since racing was stopped last Thursday, there has been little movement in the betting for individual races but one market that has seen a shift is the Prestbury Cup with Ireland hardening into a general 8/13, Great Britain best priced at 7/4, the tie around 7/1. I appreciate that no one cares about this unless you have had a bet but perhaps there is one to be made here.

The Prestbury Cup was inaugurated in 2014 with the UK winning the first two by scores of 15-12 and 14-13. Since then it has been an Irish three-peat by scores of 15-13, 19-9 and 17-11, the first of those in 2016 initially a tie which later became an Irish win when Any Currency was disqualified from his Cross-Country win.

Maybe Irish trainers and horses are simply better than their UK equivalents at the moment and the past few Festivals might suggest as much. However, the cutting of Ireland into short-priced favourites for this seems an overreaction with the flu situation perhaps influencing the betting too much as the individual ante-post race markets don’t support this.

Some of those markets are surprisingly underdeveloped for the stage we are at but that is the 2018/19 season for you and they are hardly completely inaccurate with less than four weeks to go. Leaving aside the handicaps as there are no entries available, there are 18 non-handicaps at the meeting with UK trainers having eight favourites in those races, Irish trainers having ten, hardly enough of a margin to justify prices of 8/13 and 7/4.

That’s quite a basic way of looking at those races however and a better approach might be to add up the theoretical chances of there being an Irish- or UK-trained winner of each race. To do this I looked at all the horses priced 16/1 or shorter in the handicaps and expressed their odds as a fraction of a winner where a 2/1 short is 0.33 winners and so on, using a little artistic license about where horses might run when they had multiple entries.

Looking at it from this perspective, Ireland came out with 6.1 winners and the UK with 5.3 winners, the numbers not adding up to 18 because the markets aren’t fully formed yet. But the point about Ireland being a bit short holds, these figures suggesting they should be closer in the betting.

But none of this takes into account what might be most important of all: the Mullins factor. This has not been a vintage winter for the trainer judging on past standards and while he has had winners they have not been coming at the same rate as previous seasons.

At the past four Festivals, Mullins has had eight, seven, six and seven winners respectively but it is a big ask to expect him to do likewise in 2019, especially with his novice team, typically the strength of the yard, looking relatively thin. At the moment, only three of his novices are trading at single figures for Cheltenham and none can be described as a banker; Klassical Dream is 8/1 for the Supreme, Cilaos Emery 6/1 for the Arkle, Ballyward 6/1 for the Four-Miler.

If Ireland can’t rely on Mullins for his usual tally of winners, then where are the Irish winners coming from? Perhaps Joseph O’Brien is going to fill the breach and he certainly has good chances but ultimately a lot will have to rest on Gordon Elliott.

At the prices, I am inclined to think it might all be too much for Ireland but if all this sounds like a massive emotional hedge from someone who is going to back a host of Irish runners in four weeks’ time, I won’t argue with you.

CHELTENHAM NOVICE POINTERS

Most of the Cheltenham clues were at Naas on Saturday with City Island shortened into 12/1 for the Ballymore after winning the opening auction novice hurdle. He was doing no more than his previous form entitled him to and his price-cut looked a by-product of there being little else happening over the weekend. While he does things right in his races and has a good attitude, it is hard to get carried away with what he has achieved, his defeat of Dallas Des Pictons over Christmas coming over a trip that is too short for that one.

Pravalaguna was another easy winner at Naas but the fact she is being mentioned as an interesting Arkle outsider says more about the weakness of the Mullins novice challenge than anything else. If there is a Clossutton-based mare to spring a Festival shock, it might be Camelia De Cotte in the JLT, allowing that that race may be the strongest of all the novice chases. She was visually impressive in a good time at Thurles when last seen and her jumping is improving.

The Joseph O’Brien juvenile train kept rolling though not with the one most people expected, Band Of Outlaws claiming the scalp of stablemate Konitho amongst others. Konitho wasn’t in the same form as last time but this was a good performance from the winner, again ridden with confidence by JJ Slevin, four lengths down jumping the last and winning by nearly five, only pushed out to do so.

Splitting his juveniles will the challenge now, but the obvious thing would be for JP McManus to have as much representation across different races as possible, Sir Erec and Gardens Of Babylon in the Triumph, Fakir D’Oudairies in the Supreme and Konitho in the Fred Winter.

On this evidence, Band Of Outlaws should be running in the Triumph, not least because he is due a lofty handicap mark after this. The New Course may not suit him as well as the Old given his turn-of-foot but he looks much improved for going hurdling despite initial stamina doubts (he was a miler on the flat) and is worth his chance.

THE SHORTER THE BETTER

The Grand National Trial featured at Punchestown on Sunday but the horse to take from the race was one that might be better suited to shorter distances, Fitzhenry. Paul Nolan expressed such concerns pre-race and they were borne out in the race itself as he travelled strongly in first-time blinkers only to fade from two out in a race that did not emphasise stamina as it was run at a slow pace. He wasn’t helped by a couple of minor jumping errors and did best of those held up.

Fitzhenry has been tried over these staying trips before but both his wins to date came around two-and-a-half miles and he made a big move from rear in the Paddy Power at Christmas before his effort flattened out. Given he is McManus-owned, not all of the race planning decisions are being made by the trainer but Nolan seems correct in his assessment of his horse’s trip preference and he’ll be interesting back down in distance.


Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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