The new flat season is less than two weeks away, so I thought it was time to start getting a blog under way. However, although all at home are working hard in preparation for the new season, this week is dominated by the Festival, an event some regard as racing’s Olympics (imagine the build up if we had to wait every four years for it to take place!) and for those interested I have some selections and analysis for day one of the meeting.
The Festival gets under way with the Supreme and punters like to get off to a flyer by latching onto a horse trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by Ruby Walsh, ideally in the “Mr Blobby” silks of Mrs Susannah Ricci. This year’s candidate is Getabird, who arguably surprised connections by showing plenty of speed when winning over two miles at Punchestown last time and thus appointing himself as the stable’s Supreme candidate. Undoubtedly, he was visually impressive last time, quickening clear to beat the enigmatic Mengli Khan but there are a few lingering doubts in my mind for him to be the solid banker that punters desire. That day Patrick Mullins stole a few easy lengths at the start, was tracked by a couple of his stablemates who allowed him to do as he pleased, something that will not be happening this afternoon and by running out on his debut in a point to point, it suggests he may have his quirks for one so short in the market.
A horse that has impressed from day one is Kalashnikov, who powered clear when making a winning debut in a bumper at Wetherby last year and has been expertly handled by Amy Murphy in just her second full season with a licence. His transition to hurdling has been smooth with successes back at Wetherby and Doncaster before becoming unstuck on heavy ground in the Tolworth at Sandown. There he never travelled, looking especially uncomfortable on the downhill run after the opening bend and it was only his class that enabled him to claim the runners up slot. Understandably connections were concerned by soft ground heading into the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury and once again he struggled early but some excellent jumps kept him in contention before the engine kicked in up the home straight as he powered clear to a cosy success. That is strong form but I fear heavy ground on an undulating track could find him out and horses that have run in handicaps do not have a great record in open novices at the Festival.
Kalashnikov’s conqueror in the Tolworth, Summerville Boy, is the only other runner at a single figure price and while considered, it must be a concern that he has been beaten by both Western Ryder and Slate House in visits to Cheltenham earlier in the season and that pair represent much better each way value in a race that has far more depth than the market suggests.
However, the horse who may provide the best value is the progressive First Flow, as the unseasonably wet spring allows this exciting youngster to take his chance at the Festival. He has made heavy ground look effortless in his last two wins at Newbury and Haydock, a Grade 2 contest that was won by 2012 Supreme winner Cinders and Ashes. Unlike some of his rivals he has his optimum ground conditions and while this is his first run at the track, he had no issues with the sharp downhill bend at Lingfield and he could be an exciting horse for Kim Bailey.
There has been a lot of concern voiced at the fact that just five horses have been declared for this year’s renewal and while that is undoubtedly due to the fact we have a red-hot contest, an easy solution would be to remove the JLT, a race that quite simply is surplus to requirement. In years gone by, Gold Cup winners like Kicking King (runner up to Well Chief in 2005) set up their chasing careers quite nicely by running in the Arkle and having three novice chases throughout the week dilutes the quality and provides too many options. This action might also help strengthen the hurdling programme by encouraging more horses to have a second season over the smaller obstacles rather than going straight over fences, after all Buveur D’Air initially went novice chasing last year.
All that aside, we have what could be the race of the week with both Footpad and Saint Calverdos making an explosive start to their chasing careers. From day one, Footpad has looked a complete natural, proving extremely economical over the bigger obstacles, punishing any rival that makes the slightest mistake. At the Dublin Festival he won with ease and while some felt that Petit Mouchoir could overturn the five-length deficit back at Cheltenham due his superiority over hurdles last year, Footpad has improved so much over fences that he appeared to be my banker of the meeting. However just a week later, Saint Calverdos absolutely bolted up at Warwick, jumping exuberantly from the front yet had enough in reserve to ease clear under hand riding from the last to win by twenty-two lengths from Diego Du Charmil. While there is much more strength in depth to the Irish form, he could not have been more impressive and once again he gets heavy ground which suits him so well. The obvious question mark is whether he will be as effective away from a flat track and the opposition will certainly provide a much sterner test, he could be anything. While I think Footpad will edge it, there will not be much in it.
This race appears to be all about last year’s winner Buveur D’Air who has not looked back since switching back to hurdles. His season has been seamless with wins in the Fighting Fifth, Christmas Hurdle and a canter round Sandown last month. The slight concern is that he hasn’t really faced a serious test this season and he takes on 2015 winner Faugheen for the first time. The ‘machine’ is now ten years old but his comeback at Punchestown suggested that everything was in working order after twenty-two months off the track where he beat Jezki by fourteen lengths in a good time. That form is better than anything achieved by the favourite this year and while the wheels have come off since, I can see him returning to that form. After the puzzling Christmas effort at Leopardstown, it is unlikely Willie Mullins would have been hard on him going into the Dublin Festival yet he still ran a solid race behind Supasundae and that form is stronger than most of the opposition can muster. Cheekpieces are on for the first time and while time may have caught up with him, with Willie Mullins likely to have eked out some improvement, it would be very surprising if he was not in the first three and he represents a cracking each way bet at current prices.
The rest generally lack the class to win a standard Champion Hurdle but one that has been progressive this season is the Alan King trained Elgin and connections have supplemented him for the race. His win in the Greatwood shows that these conditions are ideal and his latest Wincanton victory under a four-pound penalty had a strong boost from Call Me Lord at the weekend. He has good each way claims and is overpriced at 16/1.
Apples Jade is some mare and she would have her supporters in either the Champion or the Stayers and she has replaced Footpad as my banker of the meeting. The Ultima is competitive but maybe today is the day Vintage Clouds lands a big handicap, he looked dangerous when falling in last year’s contest and will handle the ground. Ms Parfois will enjoy the step up to four miles in the National Hunt Chase with her mare’s allowance under Will Biddick. Mister Whitaker has sneaked into the finale off bottom weight and he impressed when winning on Trial’s day.
1:30 First Flow
2:50 Vintage Clouds
3:30 Faugheen (Elgin each way)
4:10 Apples Jade (nap)
4:50 Ms Parfois
5:30 Mister Whitaker