Ignore the hype and use your head
Patriotic betting at the Festival is all well and good, but you’ll need to be shrewd and look beyond the Irish contingent in some of the big races, says Wayne Bailey
I saw her beaten at the last, at best she
might be third – but Jonjo knew her better
and he said the magic word. With bursting heart and thrusting head she made it to the line – and Wayward Lad knew he met the greatest of our time.
- From The Ballad of Dawn Run
IRISH victories at Cheltenham have always been a big deal and one of my earliest racing memories is from Leopardstown in 1984. I was a very young child when my father brought me up to see the famous mare Dawn Run compete in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Trained by Paddy Mullins, Dawn Run also won the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle that year and the Gold Cup in 1986 – the only horse to ever complete the double.
My old man even had a record with a song called The Ballad of Dawn Run, which he’d play on Saturday evenings after a few jars if he’d had a good day on the horses. As far as I know, the song was written by Val Joyce from RTÉ radio. Paddy’s son Willie is now the man of the moment and, once again, expectations are sky-high.
Multiple Irish-trained winners are commonplace today but that wasn’t always the case and in 1989, for example, there was none. It just goes to show how far Irish racing has come in a relatively short space of time, with Mullins set to send an astonishing 60 horses to the Festival.
Gordon Elliott also has a strong team and I suppose we could half-claim the JP McManus/Jonjo O’Neill horses too, even though they are registered as British winners.
But from a betting perspective, caution is advised when backing certain Irish horses. Patriotic punting is often quick way to the poorhouse - although with Ireland being such a small country, there’s a reasonable chance you’ll know a friend of a friend who is involved somehow with a Festival runner.
It’s hard not to be drawn in by the hype and excitement. Irish or British, we all love watching great horses and come Friday evening, those of us that like to take on the old enemy will have plenty of stories of near misses, bankers and Bismarcks.
With Arctic Fire and Faugheen out, the Champion Hurdle is wide open this year and at the time of writing, there’s still uncertainty about which horses will make the final line-up. However, things are a lot clearer in the Arkle Chase, with Douvan set to go off at a very short price having been described by Willie Mullins as his best chance of the week. Lots of favourites have bombed in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle over the years and I’m keen to oppose Min, which races for the first time against some potentially top class animals.
Food for thought... Five of the last nine Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winners were priced in double figures.
Un De Sceaux put Sire De Grugy to the sword in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot and is almost certain to be odds-on for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. He’s definitely the best horse in the race, although favourite backers will be sitting on the edge of their seats as he’s had two falls in seven races over fences. Gordon Elliott has a great chance of winning the RSA Chase with No More Heroes, which put in a nice schooling session at Leopardstown late last month.
Food for thought... The Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase was introduced in 2005 and nine of the winners were trained in Ireland. This is the first year it will be run as a conditions race, rather than a handicap.
We could use any amount of hackneyed phrases about the luck of the Irish on St Patrick’s Day but my banker this week is trained near Dorset by Colin Tizzard. Thistlecrack won the Long Distance at Newbury and the Long Walk at Ascot in fine style and fits the profile of a World Hurdle winner perfectly. In the Ryanair Chase, course form would appear to be important and seven of the eight winners had previously scored at Cheltenham.
Food for thought... Established in 2011, four of the five JLT Novices’ Chase winners had won their previous race.
The final day of the Festival is all about the Gold Cup and as you’d expect from the sport’s Blue Riband event, it’s a tough one to win and is always super competitive. Indeed Willie Mullins has trained the runner-up on numerous occasions but never won. This year, Mullins’ Djakadam should prove popular in the betting but horses which fell last time out have a very poor record at the Festival, which is a big concern. I’m sticking with Don Cossack, which I backed in the King George. Although he fell on that occasion, Gordon Elliot gave him a confidence-boosting spin in the Kinloch Brae so he comes to Cheltenham in good order.
Food for thought... Despite saddling seventeen runners since 2009, David Pipe has never won the Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle which is named after his father Martin.