Champions waiting to be crowned
at horse racing’s Olympics

“My racing stems from the people who love to watch and go to Point-to-Points. People who are willing to stand in a wet field in the middle of winter to watch the horses because that’s what they want to do. They’re the ones who give that Cheltenham roar”, says Trevor Hemmings on his love for National Hunt racing and the Festival in particular.

“My racing stems from the people who love to watch and go to Point-to-Points. People who are willing to stand in a wet field in the middle of winter to watch the horses because that’s what they want to do. They’re the ones who give that Cheltenham roar”, says Trevor Hemmings on his love for National Hunt racing and the Festival in particular.

You have probably heard of him, but being the epitome of modesty and averse to the limelight very little is known of the man. A former apprentice bricklayer from Chorley in Lancashire, he launched his first company with a total capital of £12 and from there went on to become one of Britain’s most successful businessmen.

His love of animals was established early in life on visits to see the retired horses at Abbeywood marshes with his grandfather, and at the age of 12 he was hawking a local greengrocer’s wares on the back of a carthorse called Klondyke. When he secured the contract to build a Pontins holiday village in Southport, outside Liverpool, he would see the Ginger McCain string, including Red Rum, work every day and when his then boss won the 1971 renewal of the Grand National he promised himself that one day it would be him. However, his business interests began to command most of his time and it wasn’t until 1985 that the distinctive green and yellow quartered colours were first carried to victory on a racecourse. The long dormant love of all things equine was awoken and ever since Northern Trust’s success at Bath that year he has had horses in training with such luminaries of the game as Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls and Alan King.

But it was Ireland’s top trainer, Willie Mullins, who helped him fulfil a 34 year-old promise when saddling Hedgehunter to win the Aintree showpiece under Ruby Walsh in 2005, an honour that could well be repeated in April with Ballabriggs.

His association with Irish racing does not end with Willie Mullins, however. Monymusk Stud in Kanturk, Co. Cork, is his Irish base and as well as having a Toomevara-born racing manager in former jockey Michael Meagher there are also horses in training with Fethard- based Thomond O’Mara.

But his affiliation with Ireland is more than just a sporting concern. It goes deeper. As a boy his grandmother often told him she would bring him to see her birthplace, but like many great intentions it didn’t come to pass. So a number of years ago he embarked on a mission to trace his family tree – a journey that led to the Comeragh mountains and a tiny gathering of houses in Glenary. Past Kilmacomma on the Clonmel to Dungarvan Road and immediately before the turn for Carey’s Castle, there is a scarcely navigable boreen that leads to the abode of his ancestors.

During the 19th century the Comeragh natives lived in these clochans – small clusters of homes that shared a common entrance or farmyard. There is nothing left now only ruins but it was once the family home of the Currans. One of the girls, Elizabeth, was born here but moved to Anglesea Street in Clonmel where she would meet, and marry, Corporal Charles Hemmings of the Berkshire Regiment, British Army. Like much of the population the potato blight and ensuing Famine of the mid 1800s compelled the family to emigrate and it was to England that Ellie Curran, as she was known, took her children. Only 50 years later was she reunited with her siblings but would constantly regale her grandchildren of the tiny village where she was born. On a recent trip to Clonmel to visit cousins that still live in the area, Trevor Hemmings made his way to Glenary and stood in the ruins of his grandmother’s dwelling.

Maybe his Irish heritage explains his fixation with horses, and like any owner he dreamed of standing in the winners enclosure in that amphitheatre in the Cotswolds. The maiden Cheltenham Festival winner arrived courtesy of Trabolgan in the 2005 renewal of the Sun Alliance Chase, a victory that was supplemented by Old Benny, Cloudy Lane and Ballabriggs among others. He has a number of horses running this year who could add to the tally, namely Aberdale in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir; Alberta’s Run, who may aim to repeat last year’s victory in the Ryanair Chase but is more likely to go down the Gold Cup route; and Wymott in the RSA Chase. More on the latter in due course.

As usual a strong contingent will leave South Tipperary in search of glory in the Cotswolds. Philip Fenton’s Dunguib, the scintillating winner of the 2009 Bumper, will line up in Tuesday’s feature, the Champion Hurdle. Although disappointing when returning to the venue in last year’s Supreme Novice Hurdle, he could very well have been over the top after four runs beforehand, and he showed his well-being with a seasonal debut victory over the decent Luska Lad in Gowran Park recently. His Achilles heel during his novice campaign was his jumping but it was encouraging to see how fluently he hurdled when the pace picked up at the Co. Kilkenny venue. His jockey, Brian O’Connell, received a lot of unfair criticism for his ride last year when the horse clearly wasn’t good enough on the day. A lot of those critics were talking through their pockets, I fear.

Fethard trainer, Michael “Mouse” Morris has a handful of engagements over the course of the week, with one of the more interesting being the Michael O’Leary owned First Lieutenant. A Grade 1 winner at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting, where he beat the exciting pair Hidden Cyclone and Zaidpour over an inadequate two miles, he will improve considerably for the extra 5 furlongs of Wednesday’s Neptune Investment Management Novice Hurdle. Described by his trainer as being more likely to be “ten times better over fences”, I can already envisage discussing his chances in the RSA Chase in next year’s preview.

For now he has the form in the book to be thereabouts in what looks an ultra-competitive heat. In time he could emulate War Of Attrition and bring the Gold Cup back to Everardsgrange - something that China Rock, another of Mouse’s charges, will attempt next week. Owned by Michael O’Flynn, the Presenting gelding ran to within five lengths of Kauto Star in Down Royal last November on ground he hated.

Already a graded chase winner, he put in an eyecatching performance in defeat in last month’s Hennessy Gold Cup in Leopardstown. Paul Carberry, his jockey on that occasion, must have been on tilt after his ride on Cool Quest in a previous race because he had an aberration here in kicking China Rock for home from a long way out on heavy ground. Not surprisingly the horse folded in the straight but kept on gamely to finish fourth. His sire’s progeny tend to favour the better ground usually associated with Cheltenham and there will be far worse 66/1 shots lining up over the course of the week. I have an inkling, with so many doubts concerning those at the head of the market, that there will be an upset in this year’s race, and though strict interpretation of formlines suggests China Rock has no chance Mouse knows what’s required to win the big one.

Every year it seems that our best hope of success lies with Edward O’Grady and this time around is no exception. Eighteen times previously his runners have returned to Ballynonty victorious. Sailor’s Warn, Alaivan and Jumbo Rio have multiple entries during the week and while none of them appeal as likely winners Alaivan could run well in the County Hurdle.

However, in the shape of Tranquil Sea, who will be running in Thursday’s Ryanair Chase, O’Grady could very well be welcoming his 19th winner back to Killeens. There is an important caveat to note here. Dermot Cox’s 9 year-old excels on slower ground, so any rain that falls in the meantime will be greatly appreciated. If it were to materialise he would rate one of the bets of the week at 8/1. Admittedly he did run poorly in the race last season but his trainer blames himself for running the horse too close to the Festival. The ground, officially described as good, was not to his liking either. He has the beating of the current favourite, Poquelin, on his favoured going, is undefeated in two starts this season and after he won the Clonmel Oil Chase in November the Ryanair was the stated aim.

Parochialism aside, the main aspect of the week is backing winners, be they Irish, British or French. For reasons beyond my comprehension a few acquaintances of mine avoid Cheltenham from a punting perspective, reckoning the competitive nature of all the races does not lend to making money. Admittedly, it is quite easy to eliminate three quarters of the field in maiden hurdles during the winter but at the Festival you can be sure almost every horse is at, or at worst very near to, full fitness. Rarely does a bad horse win at the Festival; in most cases the best ones do. Some argue that the Festival dominates the National Hunt game to the detriment of other big meetings during the season, and although it is a lazy cliché Cheltenham truly is the Olympics of racing. It’s where the champions are crowned. And just like elite athletes use track and field meets for conditioning during the season, so too do trainers use other races as preps for their charges to peak in the middle of March.

The following points appear in this preview every year but they are well worth repeating. The naysayers will cry “lies, damn lies and statistics” and while trends are far from the be- all and end-all when trying to unearth the winners during the week they are certainly a viable weapon to have in your betting armoury. So, take note of the following before parting with your cash from next Tuesday.

48 of the last 58 handicap chase winners (ignoring the cross-country race) carried no more than 11st.Again ignoring the cross country race, 49 of the last 58 handicap chases were won by horses aged between 7 and 10.

Despite my inkling that we will witness a shock in the Gold Cup, don’t avoid the obvious in the big four Championship races (Champion Hurdle, Gold Cup, Stayers Hurdle and Champion Chase). 34 of the last 44 winners were found in the first 3 in the betting.

Since 1994 half of the handicap hurdles have been won by horses that won last time out. Impressive in itself, but even more so considering they accounted for only one fifth of the runners.

In the last five Festivals 122 of the 149 winners finished in the first four on their most recent start. A strike rate of 82%!

Normally, I would allude to the fact that the Non-Runner, No Bet concession will now be available, but in terms of the best bets of the week prudence dictates that we hold fire until the day. The prices, with the possible exception of the first selection, are unlikely to contract.

Alan King has endured a torrid few seasons with sickness infesting his yard, but the adage “form is temporary, class is permanent” is more than apt for the Master of Barbury Castle. As a result his horses are now exceptionally well handicapped and with the stable firing again his runners are worth noting during the week. Foremost among them is Oh Crick, who will contest the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual, the meeting’s final race. Winner of the same race in 2009 he will carry 10-07 if Nicky Henderson allows the current top weight French Opera to take his chance. While the latter is undoubtedly improving, Oh Crick beat him in that 2009 renewal receiving 8lbs. Should they both line up next week King’s horse will be a further 11lbs better off. Henderson will want to win this race with it being named after his father and also has Tanks For That lurking down the weights, but the 12/1 about Oh Crick underestimates his chance.

On Wednesday we have the gruelling test of staying novice chasers, the RSA Chase. Time For Rupert, who found only Big Bucks too good in last year’s World Hurdle, will undoubtedly go off favourite after posting two impressive track victories this season. He fits the bill as a tough, durable type who will certainly stay, but after an interrupted preparation he makes little appeal at 2/1. At six times that price is the Trevor Hemmings owned Wymott. Trained by Donald McCain, he is sure to be staying on when many of the rest have cried enough. He may not have been as impressive in victory this season as the favourite but you get the impression he saves plenty for himself. Not in the way a horse like Forpadydeplasterer keeps it to himself because Wymott has the will to win. 12/1 makes a mockery of his chance.

It would seem unfathomable to a stats anorak like myself to nominate Menorah as the bet of the week in Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle, but that is exactly what I’m going to do in what is positively the week’s most fascinating race. Reigning champion Binocular will attempt to retain his crown, but I have doubts about the form of last year’s race. Most of the runners were still in contention at the second last and although he sprinted clear up the hill I remain dubious of its merits. There were a lot of slow horses behind. If he lines up in rude health his owner, JP McManus, is sure to get involved triggering a price collapse, which is music to the ears of those opposing him.

The home team is supplemented by Peddler’s Cross, formerly in the care of Thomond O’Mara, and last year’s second Khyber Kim. Ireland’s main hope is Hurricane Fly but what he has achieved in constantly beating Solwhit on bad ground is debatable. He has the talent, no doubt, but taking 5/1 about a horse that could get very worked up during the preliminaries makes little sense in these eyes. He also has to overcome his sire’s poor record at producing winners at the track. Forty-four Montjeu horses have tried and failed to win at Cheltenham, twenty one of those at the Festival. One could argue that those runners were just not good enough to win, but others might say they are “hill detectors”! Menorah, too, has history to contend with as he tries to become the first Supreme Novice Hurdle winner in 40 years to follow up in subsequent season’s Champion. He didn’t get the recognition he deserved after that Supreme success, but has shown his ability in two runs this season, taking the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle under top weight and then the International Hurdle, both at Cheltenham, the same two races that another Philip Hobbs trained champion, Rooster Booster, took on the way to winning here. The visual impression Menorah created in winning the latter event was nothing short of sensational. In a race that wasn’t run to suit his strengths (it turned into a sprint finish) he cut effortlessly through a pack of rivals as soon as he met the rising ground. Locate the footage where the camera pans to a side-on angle and try not to be impressed! 5/1 is irresistible.