Tony Keenan's Irish Angle

Our Irish expert Tony Keenan has five takeaways from this years very eventful Cheltenham Festival.

  • Wednesday 18 March
  • Blog
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Cheltenham Review

Cheltenham last week feels like it happened in an alternate universe and everything below is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things; a racing writer is a pointless job at any time, a enjoyable role that contributes little, but that is one of things I do so I’m going to do it. So, Cheltenham 2020, reprised…

1. Crazy Stuff Happened

It always does. The Champion Chase cut up to little, just one of the big three making it to post and even then Defi Du Seuil could only manage fourth of five. The two horses that had been odds-on in the run-up to the meeting got beaten, Benie Des Dieux by the obvious danger, Paisley Park by one from the furthest part of the left-field.

Four more horses became odds-on on the day –Defi Du Seuil, Carefully Selected, Tiger Roll and Envoi Allen – with only the last-named winning and there were surprises at big prices too, chiefly It Came To Pass (66/1) and Lisnagar Oscar (50/1). Overall, though, it was no bad week for punters, 20 of the 28 winners returned at single-figure prices.

Perhaps the craziest thing of all happened to one that was expected to win and granted normal luck, would have, as Triumph Hurdle favourite Goshen was set to produce the performance of the meeting only to unseat when his hooves got caught up after the last, adding another moment to Festival folklore.

2. Gordon Elliott Rules Cheltenham

Willie Mullins may have been leading trainer at Cheltenham for a seventh time last week but Elliott was the moral winner, his Column Of Fire likely to have won the final race at the meeting before falling at the last and he was doing it in the toughest of races, winning four of the ten available handicaps.

Perhaps most impressive was how the National Hunt Chase and Kim Muir shook out, Champagne Classic and Ravenhill having been his planned runners in those respective races initially but when the former got injured the latter was switched to the three-mile sixer with Milan Native heading the Kim Muir team; the trainer still won both.

There is a sense that the Elliott-trained handicappers are becoming the punters’ pals at the meeting in the way the Willie Mullins short-priced favourites used to be; four of them won but seven more were in the frame.

It is worth looking at where Elliott has had his successes at the Festival in recent years (2016-2020) as a clear pattern emerges:

Race Type Winners Runners Strikerate Places Place Strikerate Level-Stakes Actual/Expected
Handicaps 12 86 13.9% 32 37.2% +43.5 1.50
Novices 7 41 17.1% 17 41.4% +28.3 1.17
Open 2 15 13.3% 4 26.7% -7.25 0.78

Elliott has had 27 winners in all in that period so six aren’t included above – three were in the Cross-Country, two in the Bumper, one in the Triumph (though those last two groups are novices races of a sort) – and his two winners in open races were back in 2016 and 2017, the last one to place being Mick Jazz in the 2018 Champion Hurdle. Getting horses up to the level where they can win those races will be his next challenge.

3. The Handicapping of Irish Horses

I don’t want to get deep into this issue for a few reasons, chief among them that I have neither the knowledge nor the data to hold a strong view on it but I have some thoughts. Elliott for one seems to have mastered – if you can master Festival handicaps – the art of getting a novice well-weighted in these handicaps but then the previous section shows that he is good with novices full-stop.

One must be open to the possibility that Irish trainers and horses, backed by owners willing to spend, are just better right now; perhaps this is a golden age of Irish jumps racing and certainly the Irish trainers seem better at the handicapping game. The rules are as they are, we may not like them or how they are applied, but they are the rules.

But one can also wonder if it is a level playing field, an issue raised by a simmering Philip Hobbs following the unlucky defeat of Thyme Hill in the Albert Bartlett (not a handicap, I know), the trainer bemoaning so few yards getting in on the act in terms of winners, commenting that it was ‘just a coincidence.’ Infer from that what you will.

A race that probably needs to be looked at is the Pertemps Final as the qualification process incentivises horses with a high hurdle mark to hit the first six places rather than win in their qualifier. That was the case with Sire Du Berlais, The Storyteller and Relegate, the one-two-five last Thursday and as one wag pointed out Relegate was ridden like she was looking to qualify for next year!

There is a certain element among punters that relish this aspect of the challenge and it could even be argued that it simplifies the winner-finding process but it is hardly the best look for the sport.

4. Paul Townend Bounces Back

Townend endured a less than auspicious start to the meeting, getting beaten on Benie Des Dieux on Tuesday and seeing Chacun Pour Soi ruled out on Wednesday before getting his first winner of the meeting in the Bumper.

The Mares’ Hurdle was interesting for what happened after the race as much as during it, Willie Mullins seeming to criticise Robbie Power’s ride on the front-running Stormy Ireland, saying ‘there was a miscommunication turning for home, maybe,… [and] it looked like he just gifted the winner a huge gap while Paul was on the outside.’

Power got it in the neck there but in truth Townend ideally should not have been on the outside, as after three out Racheal Blackmore had astutely squeezed him out of his position behind the leader and forced him to go back and around, these things mattering when the margin of victory was half a length.

Power may have been at fault but so was Townend yet Mullins backed his man and got repaid later in the week as the jockey rode five winners out of the trainer’s total of seven (the two others were ridden by JP McManus retainers), initially building confidence on the less-fancied Ferny Hollow before delivering on Min, Monkfish and Al Boum Photo.

His ride on the last-named in the Gold Cup was a fine one, making his move early to be close to a slow pace, and he got his bit of luck too as Burning Victory was handed the Triumph Hurdle after Goshen fell. Townend may not be Ruby Walsh but the end results were not massively different as he finished leading jockey at the meeting.

5. Fun and Games in the Markets

As a punter, I sometimes find the most interesting thing about meetings like this is not what happens on the track but what unfolds in the markets beforehand. Supposedly mature markets shifted a lot more than expected and when they moved was notable too; the afternoon before would often see major springers, something that didn’t seem to happen before 48-hour declarations. Perhaps bettors were using this window to get out ahead of things as the betting companies had their eyes on that day’s racing?

Abacadabras was one that shortened more than most, going from a general 13/2 when declarations were made into a starting price of 11/4, plenty of people taking the early view that the Royal Bond Hurdle form was strong and while he didn’t win, that race worked out very well at the meeting with subsequent runs of Envoi Allen, Darver Star and Embittered.

The handicaps are always subject to big moves, those markets typically not as mature as the graded races, with a pair of JP McManus-owned hurdlers Dame De Compagnie and Saint Roi particularly well-backed in the Coral Cup and County Hurdle respectively, Chosen Mate another example at a point when punters were riding the Gordon Elliott wave.

Not all the supported horses won of course and there were drifters in there too, notably Shishkin in the Supreme; they can win too!

Tony Keenan's Irish Angle
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