This is usually the most exciting time of year for a racing fan. The Cheltenham Festival is less than a week away, the entries are out, the winter trials have all been run and the form is in the book.
Under normal circumstances talk among punters would concentrate on identifying the handicap blots, wishing the Champion Chase was run right handed so they could have what they wanted on Arvika Ligeonniere or trying to second guess where Willie Mullins will run his battalions.
But this year will be different. A shadow has been cast over racing, and Cheltenham by extension, with the news that Philip Fenton has been charged with possession of prohibited substances at his yard in South Lodge outside Carrick On Suir. Drugs in sport is anything but a new phenomenon but it has hit close to home this time, in both sporting and geographic terms.
As of now Fenton is an innocent man and he is entitled to that presumption until proven otherwise. I’ll leave the intricacies and debate about the pending court case to those far more educated in such spheres than I. My attention is focused entirely on events on the track.
As I write, the participation of any Philip Fenton runners at Cheltenham depends on the outcome of an investigation by the British Horseracing Authority. On Wednesday last, at the behest of his principal owner, Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud who have given their man unequivocal support, they visited Garryduff where they took hair and blood samples for testing from Fenton’s three festival entries while also taking the opportunity to interview the trainer himself.
If his horses do get the all clear to run, the reaction of the crowd, and the public in general, will be interesting if Fenton trains a winner next week and such an eventuality is a distinct possibility in the meeting’s main event, Friday’s Gold Cup.
Last Instalment is the current third favourite in that market at 9/1, odds that belie his chance. Since going over fences the nine year old has only once been beaten in six starts, that defeat coming at Thurles in January. It was, of course, his first run back from a two-year injury layoff so he was entitled to the run. Before his enforced absence he had won two Grade 1s as a novice at Leopardstown and it was victory in the Hennessy Gold Cup at that track three weeks ago that heralded his return. He had multiple Grade 1 winners behind him that day but the most significant aspect of the performance was his jumping.
It’s well worth watching the whole race back for that alone and his ability in that regard will be a huge asset at Prestbury Park.
This is also a poor Gold Cup. Silviniaco Conti doesn’t convince, beat a bunch of non stayers and poor jumpers in the King George and is way too short at 3/1 to even be tempting. The current favourite is the defending champion, Bob’s Worth, trained by Nicky Henderson. There’s no doubting his ability but he takes time to get motoring and if Last Instalment jumps like he did at Leopardstown he may be left with too much to do. The one caveat with Last Instalment is the conditions. Reference has been made to his fragile legs and how they will cope coming down the hill on good ground, and it’s a fair point, but if there’s cut underfoot and he’s still around 9/1 on the day he’s a bet.
Fenton’s other two runners are engaged on Wednesday. Value At Risk is set to contest the Champion Bumper, a race the trainer has previously won with Dunguib. If he’s half as good as that one was in 2009 he’ll win by a furlong, but that’s just fantasy. The reality, however, is that Value At Risk has shown decent form to date and he’s not easily dismissed.
The aformentioned Dunguib is due to line up in the Coral Cup, an ultra competitive 2m 5f handicap hurdle. Following that brilliant Champion Bumper performance he rattled off four novice hurdle wins but could finish only third in the Supreme Novice as a 4/5 shot. After a disappointing run in the following season’s Champion Hurdle it would be three years before he saw a racetrack again. His return effort at Naas was fine and he improved for it when taking the Boyne Hurdle at Navan last time out over the Coral Cup distance. Although impervious to ground conditions and proven over the distance he’s eleven now and won’t recapture the glory days, and will also be burdened with top weight.
These are testing times for Philip Fenton. A victory for any of the above three next week would be a welcome fillip. How they are greeted by the racing public, well, we’ll have to wait and see.
I make no apologies for the following sentence. Mouse Morris is a genius when it comes to preparing horses for Cheltenham. The Everardsgrange, Fethard, trainer brings horses along slowly, not only during their careers but over the course of a season, and he has few peers at producing a horse at its peak for the day that matters. This modus operandi has served him well over the years and he has enjoyed significant success at the festival, none more so than War Of Attrition’s Gold Cup victory in 2006.
Mouse, by choice, doesn’t have a huge string so a total of seven winners at the meeting is admirable. There have been near misses too and we only have to look back to last year for an example – three seconds from three runners and all of them in Grade 1’s.
It seems that Mouse is on a revenge mission in 2014, as all three are entered up again.
Baily Green chased Simonsig home in the Arkle and although he holds another entry later in the week he will surely line up in the Champion Chase on Wednesday given Sprinter Sacre’s absence.
First Lieutenant came second to Cue Card in the Ryanair and will go that route again if Last Instalment, under the same ownership, makes the Gold Cup.
He was a Grade 1 winner at Aintree in April 2013 but that’s his only victory in his last fifteen runs. He rarely runs poorly but tends to find one too good.
That said, there could be a lot of defections from the Ryanair to the Champion Chase this year and it might not take a whole lot of winning.
The final leg of the implacable trio is Rule The World, who finished runner up to the exciting The New One in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle and who will bid to lower the colours of Big Buck’s and, possibly, Annie Power in Thursday’s World Hurdle.
He will have his work cut out but Big Buck’s, albeit on his first run back off an injury, shouldn’t be beaten by the 145 rated Knockara Beau, likewise At Fishers Cross, while if she lines up, Annie Power has yet to prove her stamina over 3m. You just wouldn’t rule out a Mouse reprisal.
Punting with the heart over the head is the quickest way to the poorhouse so we’ll have to leave local allegiances aside for now. The single most important factor when determining any bet is the ground conditions and with much of southwest England still under water (Cheltenham isn’t) we could be looking at a soft ground festival. That is how the ground is currently described and the course’s (in)famous drainage system will be fully tested over the coming week.
The first bet runs in the festival opener, the Supreme Novice Hurdle. Willie Mullins’ Vautour is vying for favouritism but it’s his other runner, Wicklow Brave, that I’m interested in. It wouldn’t be the first time a Mullins second string has won this race and at 8/1 he’s a bet. His form ties in with that of his stablemate while Irving, the current favourite, has to be taken on at the prices.
The Champion Hurdle is the race of the meeting but I have no strong opionion on the winner. I am convinced, however, that The New One will finish in front of My Tent Or Yours and suggest him in a match bet. The latter is a flat track bully and that type don’t win Champion Hurdles. The New One will battle and at 4/5 I’ll be getting involved.
Finally, I hope Gilt Shadow runs in Friday’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle because if he does there’s no way he’s a 50/1 shot to win it with the step up to 3m sure to bring improvement.