Tuesday 21 November 2017

Grounds for Festival rethink

'How Bobs Worth would cope with extremely heavy ground is anyone's guess'
'How Bobs Worth would cope with extremely heavy ground is anyone's guess'

Ian McClean

The possibility of heavy going at Cheltenham in March is a real one so ante-post punters should be warned, writes Ian McClean

In many cases where property prices become over-inflated, buyers still continue to pile in. When the rain stops, many people still walk around with umbrellas up. The lag that occurs between a change of circumstances and the realisation that circumstances have changed is typically the gap where economic opportunity presents.

It has been raining incessantly for months now. The GoingStick at Chepstow had a reading of 3.3 for the Welsh National – a full point lower than ever previously registered at a track renowned traditionally as top of the Bottomless League table.

Frequent abandonment of race fixtures is resignedly accepted as the norm. And where racing has taken place this winter, victory has inevitably demanded resilience and guts as opposed to elegance and speed.

The last time we had a heavy-ground Cheltenham Festival was way back in 1995 (it had been an atrocious winter that year too) when Master Oats ground his way relentlessly into Gold Cup history. With the advent of distorted climate change and improved irrigation at jump racing's headquarters, the prevailing wisdom is that we will never again see a heavy-ground Festival. However, the last time Cheltenham lost a race-day (notwithstanding the loss of the Wednesday at a recent Festival where the races were distributed across Thursday and Friday) was 2008 – and then it wasn't due to waterlogging, but to fog. Until this New Year's Day that is, when the interminable rain caused its cancellation.

Simon Claisse reports they have had enough rain there to drown a sleuth of bears, and that the residue isn't going to subside any time soon. So, with just nine weeks remaining until the Festival, what if the rain persists and we have a heavy-ground Festival? It would make the current ante-post markets – formulated on the historic assumption of good ground – worth an early second look and perhaps yield a few early opportunities for those bold enough now.

Be mindful of . . .

Dynaste (Jewson 6/1)

Arguably the most impressive novice seen on these islands so far this campaign, he is currently favourite for both the RSA and Jewson Chases at the Festival. David Pipe's grey has more than just a passing similarity to last year's silver prodigy Grand Crus, which had also won three chases by the end of Christmas, culminating in a scintillating Feltham win at Kempton.

Extreme ground would place a telling emphasis on stamina in the RSA, a race already unsuited to speedier types. From what we've witnessed so far, Dynaste has a real change of gear at the end of his race, some were even imploring the trainer to run him in the Arkle, and that, combined with the fresh scars of Grands Crus' demise last year, would be more than sufficient to tilt David Pipe towards the shorter event. He is 6/1 for the Jewson and only 5/2 for the RSA. You do the meteorological maths.

Boston Bob (RSA 8/1)

If Dynaste gets diverted to the Jewson, then the motherboard for the race gets handed to Willie Mullins who, remarkably, trains the next four horses in the ante-post lists. The MMC (Monopolies Mergers Commission) doesn't operate in horse-race markets but, with Back In Focus more likely for the NH Chase, Aupcharlie dropping back in trip for the Jewson and Arvika Ligeonnniere pencilled in for the Arkle, Boston Bob, runner-up over three miles last year when probably not at his best, would become a very prohibitive price should Mullins perform such a novice diaspora.

Oscar Whisky

(14/1 Champion Hurdle)

Ever since Oscar's tame capitulation in last season's World Hurdle, Nicky Henderson has been pacing all Seven Barrows trying to figure out if his invincible two-and-a-half miler didn't get the trip or if he simply had an off-day. There is little doubt that ground conditions will make up the trainer's mind come mid-March as to whether he will take up a World or Champion Hurdle option.

Heavy conditions would guarantee his inclusion in Tuesday's field and none of those presently ahead of him in the betting would be as convenienced as he by the mud. Although extremely versatile underfoot, his record in ground described as either 'soft' or 'heavy' is a perfect 5-5 over the last four seasons.

Champagne Fever

(7/1 to win any race at the Festival – William Hill)

Anyone who witnessed Willie Mullins' grey slosh through the almost unraceable Punchestown terrain would realise the Festival Bumper winner would handle any surface short of a transfer to the east Atlantic. His double Grade One bumper success marks him down immediately as a candidate for top honours this campaign. Having finished runner-up already in the Grade One Royal Bond on only his second hurdles start, he steps up in trip at Naas today. Where he will end up at the Festival is anyone's guess at this stage (and that includes fences) owing to Mullins' characteristic strength in depth in the novice division allied to Champagne Fever's versatility regarding trip and ground but given that the SP of the last six Festival Bumper winners to return the following year was 7/4, 4/5, 9/4, 17/2, 7/1 and 6/1, it seems fair to assume 7/1 to win any race at this stage represents a decent proposition.

Be wary of . . .

Bobs Worth (Gold Cup)

Strangely for a Gold Cup favourite about whom the tea-leaves began to align over Christmas, Bobs Worth has no form whatsoever on heavy ground. The gelding is unbeaten on all four occasions he has raced on officially "good" ground and his only three defeats (in 11 starts) have all come on ground with "soft" in the description. How he would cope with extremely heavy ground is anyone's guess, but for a horse as short as 5/2 in some places I'd be looking for more reassurance.

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