Confusion makes it wise to wait
Ante-post markets are slow to heat up with good reason, says Ian McClean
Punters' reluctance to invest ante-post is reasonably understandable: primarily owing to the real fear the horse will not turn up on the day. The Cheltenham Festival ante-post market, however, typically ignites around this time.
With the pre-Cheltenham preview-night industry now in full swing, entries completed for all Festival races and handicap weights finally announced and, most pertinently, bookmakers unveiling their annual "Non Runner No Bet" gift to the punters, one typically expects a deluge of activity. But this week, in spite of many of the major firms announcing their now perennial indulgence, punters aren't yet taking the bait.
It could be because bookmakers are more inclined these days to modify the risk of their generosity by systematically shortening runners before releasing the NRNB concession (one firm cut Dynaste's price from 7/1 to 5/2 for the Jewson the night before).
In addition, the handicaps have attracted an inscrutable number of runners – the highest ever at any Festival. The ground for nine days' time is still difficult to predict. The Cotswolds have been drying slowly and another dry week would coax conditions towards good-to-soft. However, rain is forecast for next weekend and into Festival week and given the water table is so high (a record 1,000mm of rain since last April), it would take very little rain at this stage to shunt us back to mid-winter ground all over again.
However, I suspect the biggest factor in punters fighting shy of the ante-post market is the multiplicity of entries for many horses and the ensuing confusion – not helped by sometimes conflicting communications in the media. Take the example of Donald McCain's Super Duty (with four entries at the Festival).
On Tuesday, the trainer reported at his media morning: "I had been very tempted to concentrate Super Duty on the Kim Muir but I am starting to think strongly about running him in the RSA. Super Duty would have to carry nearly top-weight in the Kim Muir – we have done it before and it would not unduly bother me but we have started to become quite tempted by the RSA."
The very next day, amateur Derek O'Connor reported in an interview: "After getting the call-up for the ride on Rival D'Estruval in the National Hunt Chase a few weeks ago, I am pleased to report that I have been booked to ride Super Duty in the Kim Muir. Donald McCain is a trainer I'm very fond of and he seems happy with Super Duty. He looks as though the trip will suit him and I'm hoping he'll go very close."
If Cheltenham is looking for a new sponsor then Confused.com might be an appropriate match. Meanwhile, here's a look at some key contenders that still need to confirm their final destination . . .
It appears Martin Pipe favours the RSA Chase with their outstanding staying novice, while son David is still considering the Jewson. Dynaste will be a short price for either contest, but it is hard for the Pipe camp to erase from its decision-making the recent memory of another grey Grands Crus in an unlikely déjà vu just 12 months on from that horse's capitulation in the longer event.
2 Mullins/Wylie Novice
Back In Focus and Boston Bob are alike in that they both snatched Grade One victory at Leopardstown from the jaws of defeat. It isn't Wylie policy to run two in one race where it can be avoided and a divide-and-conquer scenario seems far more likely. Given the PJ Moriarty is a more accurate guide to the RSA, it seems likely Boston Bob will go there (especially as Mullins has Aupcharlie as a Jewson candidate) and that Back In Focus will step up to four miles for the National Hunt Chase.
3 Sizing Europe/Cue
All have the same apparently insurmountable preoccupation – how do you beat Sprinter Sacre? (I almost wrote Sprinter Scare – which was probably what they meant when they christened him). The old cliché "you should never be afraid of one horse" probably excludes him in the small-print. All three would have a decent chance in the Ryanair as it stands but with Somersby bravely committed to bringing down the "black aeroplane", I wonder how many of this triumvirate will join Mick Shannon's Spartacus on the Wednesday.
4 First Lieutenant?
Another with the Ryanair option, but also a lively Gold Cup outsider. Trainer Mouse Morris is unequivocal in preferring the Gold Cup, but market moves this week are suggesting the draw of the sponsor winning his own money might be too great. Sir Des Champs' presence in the Gold Cup might be another deterrent and First Lieutenant's stamina for the additional two-and-a-half furlongs of the Gold Cup has been questioned by many.
Raised 21lbs for his effortless win at Warwick on his first start for David Pipe, the seven-year-old has no fewer than six entries at the Festival – including two hurdle engagements. The Byrne Group Plate is favourite at the moment if market support is right – and the fact the owner/trainer combination won that race with a similar type (Salut Flo) last year only adds to the interpretation of the tea leaves.
There is no suggestion Willie Mullins evergreen wonder-mare will eschew the opportunity to win a historic five Nicholsons this time around. However, given this is her (traditional) first appearance of the season, what are the chances of a reappearance two days later for the World Hurdle? With no Big Buck's, and Ruby Walsh available to ride – if she doesn't turn a hair in winning on the Tuesday.