Rachael Blackmore, pictured after a Clonmel winner, bids for Cheltenham glory this week.
Irish Gold Cup day at Leopardstown is always a superb day. Four Grade 1’s grace the card, Cheltenham clues abound and there were a number of significant results there three weeks ago.
Sizing John, more of whom later, won the feature event giving Jessica Harrington her first victory in the race, Sean Flanagan rode his first Grade 1 winner aboard Disko in the novice chase, Mega Fortune announced himself as Ireland’s leading Triumph Hurdle contender while Bacardy’s stayed on best to beat better fancied stablemates and book his ticket to Prestbury Park.
But the opening race on the card was hugely significant for Killenaule jockey Rachael Blackmore who, partnering Who’s That to victory in that mares handicap hurdle, was riding her 40th winner on the track and thus riding out her 5lb claim. With that allowance reduced to 3lbs things are supposed to be a little more difficult, trainers may choose to use a conditional who can take a few extra pounds off their horse’s back, but she came out at Navan this past weekend and rode a double, lifting one of those home in bad ground to beat a Gordon Elliott trained money-on shot, rode another winner at Leopardstown the following day and put paid to any notion that demand for her services may be reduced.
In fact, Rachael has ridden for over eighty different trainers this NH season and stands fourteenth on the Irish jockey’s table with 26 winners, plus three in Britain. For a bit of context, and he rides quite a bit in the UK admittedly, Barry Geraghty has 30.
This has been her breakthrough season but it’s not been an overnight success. Her first win came in a pony race when she was fourteen years old and that’s when the racing bug bit. In Transition Year she started riding out for neighbour Aidan Kennedy, eventually took out an amateur licence and won eleven races in point to points. The first winner on the track was aboard a horse called Stowaway in Thurles in 2011, trained by her principal employer John “Shark” Hanlon. A few fallow years followed and in March 2015 she decided to turn professional, breaking her duck among the paid ranks in September of the same year at Clonmel.
Then on Sunday she enjoyed another huge win with victory on Abolitionist in the Leinster National at Naas at 12/1.
Next week Rachael heads to Cheltenham where she will ride morning work on Willie Mullins’ string but is also likely to ride Linger for Hanlon in Wednesday’s Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. That one’s form chance isn’t obvious but is well experienced over timber and has won its last two starts. Shark is a shrewd operator and at 33/1 it may not be a forlorn hope. His jockey is on fire too, with five of her last six mounts finishing first or second.
Apart from Rachael Blackmore, we may be relying on Mouse Morris for South Tipperary success in the Cotswolds. We’re all aware of the recent times of Mouse, from the tragic death of his son, Christopher, to carbon monoxide poisoning while travelling in South America to the incredible and emotional victory of Rule The World in last year’s Grand National, a maiden chaser Mouse had nursed back to health from a twice broken pelvis. This season his horses have been mostly in the doldrums but in the last week there has been a marked change in fortune with a couple of winners registered. He’ll have few runners next week but Alpha Des Obeaux is on course for Wednesday’s RSA Chase. That seemed highly unlikely when he burst badly at Leopardstown over Christmas, was pulled up and hasn’t been seen since. The horse absolutely has the ability to win it – he destroyed the rest of the field when beaten into second by Thistlecrack in the 2016 Stayer’s Hurdle It will take all of Mouse’s genius to get him there and be competitive but you wouldn’t put it past him.
We’ll leave local allegiances aside for now and get to the real business – winners. But, first, a warning. While Cheltenham is indubitably the best racing week of the year it is quite easy to get snared by the hyperbole that surrounds the festival. It remains a race meeting so adhere to your betting principles and remember these do’s and don’ts.
Do shop around. Bookmakers will be falling over themselves seeking your business on the most fevered betting week of the year. There will be many price enhancements, money back specials and enhanced place betting terms available. There has been a recent tendency for some punters to expect justice refunds on horses that refuse to race or unseat the jockey after the last and that’s slightly different but if I’m having an each way bet in the County Hurdle and two firms price up my pick identically I’ll be using the one paying an extra place.
Don’t feel compelled to bet in every race. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion and excitement of the week but I doubt you have valid reasons for getting involved in all twenty eight races. Keep the powder dry. The bookmaker has to price them all up but you’re not obliged to bet. There is no such thing as a last race.
Do respect previous festival form. Cheltenham is an idiosyncratic track, a stiff test that can ride like a tight track as a lot of time is spent on the turn. It’s also important to remember that, Cross Country chase aside, two courses are used during the week. The Old Course is used on Tuesday and Wednesday and is a sharper track with more emphasis on speed, while the New Course is used on the concluding two days and is more of a stamina test.
Don’t pay any attention to what an owner, trainer or jockey has to say at one of the many preview nights that infest the build up to Cheltenham, especially about a horse they are connected with. They will talk forever without saying anything at all. Instead, spend your time watching race replays and forming an opinion of your own. That said, three lads from the Final Furlong podcast, Tony Keenan, Kevin Blake and Rory Delargy, have opinions worth listening to so take note if they appear.
Do get the price you want, and if not then walk away. Books have been written about the concept of value so there’s no point in discussing it here but, suffice to say, if you can price up a race somewhat accurately but start taking under those odds you are doomed to failure.
Don’t read anything into the annual after-racing gallops that took place in Leopardstown last Sunday. Unless you are privy to how these horses work at home on a daily basis it meant nothing to you. Watch video replays to see how they fare where it really matters - during the course of an actual race.
Do back the following five horses.
Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle looks far from a vintage renewal and there still remains uncertainty about who will actually line up - Willie Mullins’ Yorkhill tops some lists but he isn’t even entered and will need to be supplemented. The recent suggestion is that the stable will do just that with Limini and in receipt of a mares allowance she would have definite claims. But Alan King’s Yanworth is the selection at 7/2. The loss of Barry Geraghty through injury is a blow because the 7 year old is not straightforward and takes some knowing. The sharper track on Champion Hurdle day isn’t ideal either but he’s won seven of his eight hurdle starts (beaten by Yorkhill at festival last year) and the two most recent victories were achieved on speed courses that wouldn’t have played to his strengths, the latter on the back of an interrupted preparation. JP McManus has diverted Buveur D’air here in a strange move considering his novice chase career had yielded two victories from a pair of starts. Yanworth will be stronger at the finish.
Another to revert to hurdling is Cole Harden who bids to repeat his 2015 victory in Thursday’s Stayer’s Hurdle. Last time out in the Cleeve Hurdle, on ground much softer than ideal, he was beaten less than two lengths by current favourite, Unowhatimeanharry. He will be 8lbs worse off but that run signalled a return to form and mirrors his build up to the 2015 renewal. Unowhatimeanharry has won eight on the bounce and looks like one that does just enough to win but I’m happy to take him on at 5/4. The selection is a cracking each way bet at 10/1 on good ground. He’ll be shorter than that on the day.
Thursday’s Ryanair Chase looks a three horse race. Un De Sceaux heads the market at 3/1 but that makes no appeal at all. He’s not running in the Champion Chase because stablemate Douvan wins that if he stands up. He has won over 2m 5f in France but their races tend to be slowly run and develop into a sprint finish and he doesn’t look to me like he wants this trip. Connections argue that he settles better now enabling him to see it out but at the odds I’m happy to pass him over. Uxizandre won this in 2015 giving AP McCoy his final festival winner but, following injury, has run only once since and could well bounce. Empire Of Dirt will bid to give Michael O’Leary victory in the race he sponsors and is well worth a bet at 5/1. A winner over the course and distance at this meeting last year when trained by Colm Murphy he has continued on the upgrade for Gordon Elliott, winning the Troytown Handicap Chase under a big weight in Navan before a huge effort in the Irish Gold recently. With no doubts concerning ground, trip or wellbeing he’s the most likely winner.
Singlefarmpayment has a number of entries during the week but is of particular interest in Tuesday’s Ultima Handicap Chase. Travelling well when brought down at the course last time out just when he was creeping into contention there are a number of reasons for getting involved at 12/1 in a wide open affair, not least his handicap mark which surely underestimates his ability. He also has a splendid course record and will stay. His trainer Tom George and jockey Adrian Heskin are enjoying a great season and while he currently needs a few to come out of the race to get a run, that looks likely.
Friday’s Gold Cup has lost a lot of its lustre with injuries to Don Cossack, Coneygree and the mighty Thistlecrack but it remains a competitive, if not vintage, running. Native River and Cue Card, both stablemates of Thistlecrack, vie for favouritism around 3/1. The former is improving and has an abundance of stamina but is of little interest at the price, while the latter still has to definitively prove his stamina for this trip. Djakadam, twice a runner up in this, is a serious contender at 5/1 but at that double that price I would much rather side with Jessica Harrington’s Sizing John. Having spent much of his career seeing the back end of Douvan over two miles he has improved with every step up in trip this season, culminating in a victory in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. He has yet to prove his stamina or even run over this 3m 2f trip but at 10/1 I’m willing to bet he stays.