Thursday 27 April 2017

Ballyoptic can reverse form to see off 'Harry'

Ballyoptic, here winning a novice hurdle at Uttoxeter under Ryan Hatch last March, can make amends for last month’s unfortunate fall at Ascot by landing today’s Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham for Richard Johnson. Photo: Simon Cooper/PA Wire
Ballyoptic, here winning a novice hurdle at Uttoxeter under Ryan Hatch last March, can make amends for last month’s unfortunate fall at Ascot by landing today’s Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham for Richard Johnson. Photo: Simon Cooper/PA Wire

Wayne Bailey

They say that fortune favours the brave, and you have to be brave to back odds-on horses. But courageous punters were burned last year in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham when the 5/6 favourite Djakadam fell, allowing Smad Place to claim the prize for Alan King, priced at 9/2.

Thankfully, it happened to be a winning race for this column but I've been burned badly in the Cotswold Chase before and it's quite striking to note that not one favourite has won since Martin Pipe's Cyfor Malta powered up the famous hill in 1999.

Priced around 2/5, it will take a braver man than me to back the jolly Thistlecrack in this year's renewal (2.15) although it's hard to see a horse rated 171 getting beaten here.

I was a little concerned about Thistlecrack's exuberant jumping and thought it might be his downfall in the King George - but I was punished badly for my opinion, having bet more than was sensible on stablemate Cue Card.

Prestigious

It was an outstanding win for a novice in such a prestigious race and you can see why he's the one to beat in the Gold Cup, although a price of 8/11 ante-post with one major bookmaking firm seems a little over-cautious, and I sometimes wonder if there's any point in placing early bets on the Festival anymore.

Jockey Leighton Aspell celebrates on board Many Clouds after victory in the Crabbie's Grand National Chase in 2015. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Jockey Leighton Aspell celebrates on board Many Clouds after victory in the Crabbie's Grand National Chase in 2015. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

I've mostly given up ante-post betting and with all sorts of specials available from bookmakers during Cheltenham week, it usually pays to wait until the day itself before having a bet. As mentioned, Thistlecrack is very short today and, as a racing fan, I definitely want to see him win but his prohibitive odds may mean there's some each-way value elsewhere.

Last year's winner Smad Place is back for more but he's failed to place in three races since, despite a good performance in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury last time.

Alan King wasn't overly optimistic when speaking about his charge this week so at odds of 6/1 or thereabouts, Many Clouds gets the nod instead to land the each-way place money, assuming of course that Thistlecrack wins as expected.

Oliver Sherwood's ten-year-old won a pretty decent renewal of the Grand National in 2015 but seemed to have suffered a breathing problem when struggling in the same race in 2016. Sherwood gave him a wind operation, and it appears to have worked wonders as he was back to his best last time when winning a Listed Chase at Aintree in December.

According to the yard, they couldn't be happier with him and even if the price drops slightly, he could be a great each-way 'bet to nothing' today with the slim chance of a win thrown in too should the favourite fluff his lines.

I quite like Sherwood's attitude and he agrees with his old mentor Fred Winter when he said that you should never be scared off by one horse.

"Thistlecrack has been very, very impressive in all his chases this season but he's not had the experience Many Clouds has and we're not going to Cheltenham on Saturday for a canter round," he said.

A little later, there's a good chance that Unowhatimeanharry will also go off at an odds-on price in the Cleeve Hurdle (4.0), and while I was just about happy to back him last time to beat Ballyoptic in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot, at the prices I think I'll reverse my bet and go for the latter this time around 4/1.

Don't get me wrong, there was certainly nothing wrong with Unowhatimeanharry's Ascot success and his rise through the ranks from a maiden hurdler rated 118 to a 167-rated Cleeve Hurdle favourite is remarkable.

But he'll be giving most of these weight due to a penalty for winning a Grade One which may make life difficult if it ends up being a battle up the hill. Although Ballyoptic fell in the Long Walk Hurdle, he was going well hitting 2/1 in-running but I do concede he wouldn't have won had he stayed up at the final hurdle.

Yet a 4lb difference in the weights can make all the difference at Cheltenham, and I suspect it will be a lot closer than the six-length defeat at the hands of Unowhatimeanharry previously in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury when both were carrying 11st 4lbs.

Confidence

The main worry I have for Nigel Twiston-Davies' seven-year-old is his jumping. He's fallen twice in his past three races and sometimes that can knock a horse's confidence - although I'm more of the view that they were unfortunate mistakes and he still has a lot to offer at this level.

In the re-arranged Grade One Clarence House Chase (1.45), Un De Sceaux looks very short at 8/15 and it's a race I'll watch without a bet.

I was looking forward to watching him take on Ar Mad at Ascot last week but Gary Moore hasn't put Ar Mad back in for the rescheduled event today and the main opposition is likely to come from Special Tiara.

EACH-WAY

Bigbadjohn is rated 136 at the moment, and I can't quite make up my mind if the handicapper has his measure at that mark considering he won a beginners' chase and then came second to Thistlecrack without really threatening him in a novices' chase at Worcester last time.

He'll probably go off as favourite for today's Sky Bet Handicap Chase at Doncaster (3.40) but he's yet to race in a big field handicap like this. With just three starts over fences, odds of 4/1 look a little short.

A couple of ticks higher priced in the region of 7/1, Out Sam might be the one to side with. Warren Greatrex's gelding won a novice chase just over a year ago and was quite popular in the Ultima Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival but he got off to a poor start and was playing catch up throughout.

He fell there in a Grade Three handicap in December which is a slight worry, but he was back to his old self when third at Kempton last time in first time cheekpieces off a mark of 136.

The headgear makes a return today and the handicapper has left him on the same mark which seems very fair indeed.

TODAY'S SELECTIONS

2.15 Cheltenham: Many Clouds (e/w)

3.25 Cheltenham: Sneaky Feeling

4.0 Cheltenham: Ballyoptic

3.40 Doncaster: Out Sam (e/w)

6.45 Kempton: Ceyhan

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