Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The Intelligent Punter's Guide to the 2022 Cheltenham Racing Festival

By Neil Clark After a year racing ‘behind closed doors’ how great it is that crowds will be back at this week’s Cheltenham racing festival, the Olympics of National Hunt racing. The roar from the 60,000 or so spectators will be quite something as the starter lowers his flag to get the Supreme Novices’ underway on Tuesday, with 28 races for punters to look forward to over the next four days. But who are the likely winners and how can we get one over the bookies? To help us tilt the percentages in our favour, it is important to keep in mind the following key factors when deciding what to back. 1. There really is no form like previous Cheltenham Festival form. Year after year we see horses who have won or run well at previous Festivals do the same again.  Even if horses haven’t run before at the Festival, previous course form is a definite advantage. Look at Day One in 2020. Put the Kettle On, our 16-1 Arkle winning tip, had won over course and distance at the November meeting. Then a year later Henry de Bromhead’s mare won the Champion Chase.  Imperial Aura, who won the novices’ handicap chase in 2020, had finished second over course and distance on his previous start. The horse that had beaten him in January, Simply the Betts, went on to win a chase on Day 3 of the Festival. Last year Shiskin followed up his Supreme Novices’ win of 2020 by landing the Arkle, while Honeysuckle who won the Champion Hurdle had won the previous year’s Mares’ Hurdle. In short, the best guide to what’s going to win the top races at the 2022 Festival is to look at races from the 2021 Festival. 2. At modern Festivals, a few big yards tend to dominate especially in the championship races. At the 2018 Festival 60% of the races were won by just three stables: Mullins, Elliott and Henderson. Another trainer to keep on the right side of is Henry De Bromhead who won six races at the Festival last year- and became the first trainer to win the ‘Big Three’, the Champion Hurdle, The Champion Chase and the Gold Cup in the same year. Mid-range English trainers do still pick up the odd race but generally have struggled in recent years with Irish handlers so dominant. Last year it was 23-5 to the Emerald Isle and Saturday’s 1-2 for Ireland in Sandown’s Imperial Cup doesn’t instil confidence that the tide is about to turn this year. 3. Age. These days the Festival’s top races are not usually a place for ‘golden oldies’; there’s been no winner of the Gold Cup older than nine since 1998, and no winner of the Ryanair older than nine since 2011. The stats for the Champion Chase are a little better for the ‘oldies‘ though with three horses older than 9 prevailing since 2014. 4. Going. Nowadays because of watering policy and good drainage you are unlikely to get the extremes might have had in the past with the ground usually the soft side of good or thereabouts. The going for the opening day of this year‘s Festival is good-to-soft with the only forecast rain of the week coming on Wednesday. How much we get will have to be seen, if it is heavy and prolonged as predicted then that’s good news for horses who prefer more testing conditions, if they’re running on Wednesday or Thursday. 5. Don’t forget Fakenham! You don’t have to have a flutter in Festival races if you don’t fancy it, and there will be other, possibly even better opportunities at other jumps meetings taking place this week. So while it’s great to have a winner at Cheltenham, remember, a 5-1 winner there pays no more than a 5-1 winner at Fakenham (even though the boasting rights may not be quite the same). Day One: (Tuesday) The feature race is the Champion Hurdle at 3.30. The intriguing runner is Appreciate It who hasn’t been seen on a racecourse since winning last year’s Supreme Novices’ by 24l. That would normally be a negative but master-trainer Willie Mullins’s record with Quevega shows if anyone’s able to get a horse to win at the Festival after a year’s absence it’s him. That said the 7lbs sex allowance that he has to concede to last year’s winner Honeysuckle does tilt things in the reigning champion’s favour. Henry de Bromhead’s mare has won all fifteen of her career starts and once again is likely to prove very tough to beat although she‘s no working-man’s price at 4-7. Epatante won the race in 2019 and was third last year and given that she also gets the mare’s allowance could be overpriced at 18-1 from an each-way perspective. In the Arkle at 2.10 the each-way value could be Magic Daze, currently available at around 14-1. Henry De Bromhead has won the race twice since 2010 and landed it in 2020 with 16-1 shot Put the Kettle On, which gave our Intelligent Punter’s Guide for that year a great start. Once again his entry gets the valuable 7lbs mares allowance. Willie Mullins has taken this prize four times since 2015 and so you have to put Blue Lord on your shortlist. He‘s unbeaten in three runs over fences and was staying on in second behind Appreciate It when falling at the last in last year’s Supreme Novices. Last year we tipped up Vintage Clouds the 28-1 winner of the Ultima (2.50), citing the Sue Smith trained gelding’s excellent record in the race. He was third in 2018 off a mark of 141, second in 2019 off 144, eighth in 2020 off 151 and won last year off 143. This year he’s back up to 144 so is handicapped to go close again and at 16-1 he makes each-way appeal, though at the age of 12 winning again might just be beyond him. The Irish surprisingly don’t have a good record in this so for once it may pay to focus on the home contingent. The drying ground should suit Tea Clipper who ran very well at last year’s Festival over hurdles when a staying on third in the Coral Cup at 33-1. He’s attracted support from 16-1 to 11-1 following the 48 hour declarations. Day Two: Wednesday In the Champion Chase (3.30), it’s hard to oppose the machine that is Shiskin from a ‘win’ perspective, but with rain forecast on the day then Put the Kettle On, who’s done us a huge favour at the last two festivals does make each-way appeal. ‘Polly’ is 4 from 5 at Cheltenham, like Shishkin has won at the last two Festivals and the 22-1 currently on offer consequently looks too big. In the Cross Country Chase (4.10) Tiger Roll goes for his fourth victory in the race and his sixth Festival success of all. He’s likely to be tough nut to crack again (he won the race last year doing handstands) but that is factored into his current price of 6-4. Win, lose or draw let’s hope he comes back safe to loud cheers on what could well be his last race before retirement. In the Coral Cup (2.50) previous course form is usually a big advantage with 10 of the last 12 winners all having run at Prestbury Park before. Last year Grand Roi was sent off favourite but got checked at a crucial stage when rallying and in first time headgear could be worth chancing again each way at 16-1 for Gordon Elliot who saddled the second in 2020 and the winner in 2016. The Shunter won at the Festival over fences last year and is respected too given his course form. Thursday and Friday to follow….