Cheltenham Festival Day 1: Apple’s to leave Champion field Jaded

After the scares of equine flu, gale-force winds and an unprecedentedly dry winter for racing, Cheltenham week finally arrives with precious few key absentees and no known threats to it’s going ahead. It is fitting that the opening day is just that: open, with both the Supreme Novices Hurdle and Arkle Challenge Trophy at 4/1 the field with seemingly few no-hopers and the Champion Hurdle causing a cracking debate as to which of the big three will come out on top – or whether a left-field outfit will scoot in instead.

Below are my tips for every race of the first day, something I will continue for all four das of the festival:

 

Supreme:

The battle for favouritism between Al Dancer, Angels Breath and Klassical Dream has been a tight one in recent days, but given only two favourites have prevailed in the last ten years, it could pay to side away from them, not least because all have a bit to prove. Al Dancer’s win in handicap company last time looked strong, but he had a dream run around the inside and the form is dealt a blow by those that finished second and third. Angels Breath has to overcome a defeat to Southfield Stone latest, albeit he was conceding weight, while Klassical Dream might just prefer further. Front-runners have also had a tricky time in this race of late and though Elixir De Nutz is undoubtedly tough, he might find a couple too good. It has paid to side with a horse who comes from off the pace, as per Labaik and Summerville Boy in the last two years, and so the vote goes to ARAMON. Though he may have a bit to prove ground wise (most of his runs have been on the unseasonably quick ground this winter) he tore away with a Grade One over Christmas when there was a bit of cut in the ground. He lost out narrowly to Klassical Dream at the Dublin Festival at the beginning of February, but with more patient tactics he should go close on his best efforts, particularly at the prices. The four-year-old Fakir D’oudairies will have to be very good for a juvenile if he is to win this even though he receives a nifty weight allowance while Grand Sancy is another who can go close based on his open Grade Two victory last month. Brandon Castle is worth a mention of the outsiders, being unbeaten in three starts so far.

1. Aramon
2. Grand Sancy
3. Angels Breath

Arkle:

The last four winners of this race have been odds-on favourites so it is very unusual to see such a competitive renewal. Unfortunately as the rain eases the ground, so would it seem to ease Lalor’s chances of an emotional victory. Regardless of who you’ve backed, it would be a joy to see Kayley Woollacott’s charge return victorious, but it seems increasingly unlikely. In pulverising Kalashnikov with a slick display of speed jumping at Sandown, GLEN FORSA recorded the most eyecatching piece of form in a wide-open contest. He’s gradually improved run by run, winning all three over fences while stepping back in trip each time, and if he can remain near the pace, his greatests asset of jumping and stamina may be seen to full effect. Hardline has been the subject of immense support this week. He easily beat dual Grade One runner-up Us And Them at the start of this season before finishing third to La Bague Au Roi upped to 2 ½ miles last time out. That trip might just suit him a little better than tomorrow’s while Duc Des Genievres is only one from eight over obstacles although that was a facile victory on his latest start. Ornua finished ahead of Lalor last time out and Us And Them has only been beaten by Le Richebourg the last twice so neither of those can be discounted, nor can Knocknanuss, who looks a likely pace angle but will have to prove his wellbeing after a heavy fall most recently.

1. Glen Forsa
2. Knocknanuss
3. Hardline

Ultima Handicap:

After a promising comeback run, Give Me A Copper became many people’s “good thing” for the opening day. The vibes from the Paul Nicholls camp are that he’s far better than his current mark, however, he’d be four times the price on form which greatly lessens his appeal. In spite of their poor record in the race, the Irish contingent may land a surprise blow with UP FOR REVIEW. He’s catching the eye of punters looking for value in this race and is one of the few raiders from across the Irish Sea to avoid a rise in his handicap mark. He was a decent third behind a well-treated stablemate in the Thyestes Chase at Gowran in January and has received no punishment for that performance where others may well have done. Mister Whitaker won the Close Brothers on this day last year and retains potential to do even better but has his stamina to prove. Coo Star Sivola won this off only 3lb lower last year but is out of form while Minella Rocco is still only a nine-year-old though his best days have surely passed. Singlefarmpayment usually runs well here while others at decent prices are Beware The Bear, hit by only a 5lb rise for an impressive victory here on New Year’s Day, Vintage Clouds, admirably consistent and interesting after a wind op and Royal Vacation if the rain makes it more of a slog.

1. Up For Review
2. Give Me A Copper
3. Vintage Clouds

Champion Hurdle:

Having backed Buveur D’Air in both his Champion Hurdle victories to date it pains me to move away. But APPLE’S JADE has raised her game to an entirely different level this season and romped away with the Irish Champion Hurdle back over two miles last month. Any doubts about her lacking the necessary pace for this were put firmly in the back of the mind and the 7lb she receives from the reigning champion can make the difference. Laurina adds an extra dimension to the contest as she’s walked to both her victories this season. They have both been against opposition significantly weaker than today, however, and her occasionally novicey hurdling will be tested based on the speed they’ll go from the front. This is no three-horse race though, with Sharjah bringing Grade One winning form from Christmas to the table, Melon having peaked at the Festival the last twice and Espoir D’Allen representing a wildcard option after a hat-trick of wins. The horse to take them along might be Global Citizen, an each-way play after his defeat of Silver Streak at Haydock while stablemates Brain Power and Verdana Blue make up a stellar line-up, though it would be a surprise if either were involved at the head of affairs.

1. Apple’s Jade
2. Buveur D’Air
3. Laurina

Mares:

The each-way play in this contest looks to be ROKSANA. Second to Santini in a Grade One Aintree novice event last season, her comeback run behind Buveur D’Air was over an inadequately short trip. With every drop of rain that falls, this race could be more of a stamina test which will suit Dan and Harry Skelton’s mare: she doesn’t lack for ability either. Benie Des Dieux is understandably favourite given Willie Mullins’ extraordinary record in this race and having won this last year, but she beat an Apple’s Jade who was in season (and so well below her best) that day. Her half-length victory over Midnight Tour, therefore, looks far less appealing at odds-on even though stable confidence is high. Limini isn’t the same horse that was favourite for this two years ago even though she recaptured a little bit of form last time out while Stormy Ireland is unlikely to stay if she sets the pace as is her custom. Lady Buttons is unbeaten this season but she’ll need to up her game again while Mia’s Storm is back on an incline after back-to-back victories. If Momella recaptures her best form, a place isn’t out of the question.

1. Roksana
2. Benie Des Dieux
3. Mia’s Storm

Close Brothers:

The five-year-old A Plus Tard may well have his form boosted earlier in the day if Duc Des Genievres goes close in the Arkle. However, he’s 4lb higher than he would be in Ireland and was in receipt of a stone when soundly beaten by Winter Escape last time – that form wouldn’t be good enough here. Riders Onthestorm has performed well in some high-quality races but preference is for HIGHWAY ONE O ONE who gave weight to the rapidly improving Kildisart when not beaten far into second on the New Course in January. Back on the Old Course, which places more of an emphasis on speed, he should be thereabouts and has performed admirably enough already in some big novice races. Movewiththetimes is a second season novice who is still without a win and has now failed to complete on his last three starts for all he is probably a talent. Walt waltzed away with a big Kempton handicap two weeks ago and wouldn’t be without a chance of defying a 7lb rise while Red Indian ran a massive race when fourth in the Grade One Kauto Star in December. Cubomania was entered in virtually every race at the festival so it may be telling that he runs here and The Russian Doyen may be worth noting if he can find some form at Cheltenham as he has won both starts either side of a heavy defeat here.

1. Highway One O One
2. Riders Onthestorm
3. A Plus Tard

National Hunt:

OK CORRAL (nap) has been on my shortlist ever since a very routine triumph in a Listed Warwick contest at the turn of the year. He also beat Classic Chase hero Impulsive Star on his opening run over fences in December while his second to Kilbricken Storm in last season’s Albert Bartlett, when finishing strongly up the hill, bodes well for his chances at the four-mile trip. Top amateur Derek O’Connor gets the nod for Nicky Henderson’s horse who, crucially, was considered an able deputy to Santini for the RSA. Ballyward and Discorama are the obvious dangers. The former won a Grade Three at Naas, benefitting from the latter’s fall at the last, in conditions likely to be repeated on Tuesday. A slog might be what he’s all about and he represents last season’s winning trainer. Le Breuil and Jerrysback have been re-routed from handicap options to challenge here with Jamie Codd’s presence on the first named an obvious plus. Atlanta Ablaze hasn’t stopped improving all season while Mulcahys Hill has always looked like a horse made for marathon trips and so would be considered if bringing his A game.

1. OK Corral
2. Ballyward
3. Mulcahys Hill

A Long Overdue Ode to Tiger Roll

It is always irritating, especially when you’re in a “business” where people expect what you say to be proven right, when a statement of yours turns out to be shockingly, horribly wrong.

One such example occurred around ten months ago. Advising m family on who to pick for the Grand National, I picked four horses, as you will be able to see in my blog post about the race last year. They were: Anibale Fly (4th), Baie Des Iles (12th & last…), Total Recall (Pulled up) and Pleasant Company (2nd). Overall, that’s not bad and given Pleasant Company was a stride away from winning, I’d rate the prediction a 6 or 7 out of 10.

However, I was also unequivocally convinced about one other thing. I was asked by a few people about the chances of Tiger Roll. My answer: no chance, he’s too small.

My irrational fear of small horses in the Grand National started in 2016 when I confidently tipped up Holywell, a horse with proven class and stamina and a decent jumping record only for him to look terrified as his jockey led him up to have a look at the first, clout it when he actually got there and then fall at the second. It was my first proper bet in the Grand National, the race I love more than any other, having just turned 18 and it was an experience I would rather forget.

It was with this knowledge that I shook my head at any thought of Tiger Roll winning last year’s Grand National. You can imagine my frustration when the gutsy little bugger held on.

It has taken me a while to live it down, but it is time to hold my hands up and admit that Tiger Roll really is some racehorse. His effortless victory in a 2m4f Grade Two hurdle made no sense for a Grand National winner and yet he absolutely hacked up. It was a disdainful victory and a largely humorous one too. Tiger Roll proved that he not only had stamina and heart in abundance, but talent remains as well.

His almost unfeasible versatility is something to be admired and cherished. Punters and trainers alike so often pigeonhole horses as 2-milers or 3-milers that we miss out on clashes between the best. With Tiger Roll, there is no issue. He can win Triumph Hurdles over 2 miles and Nationals over 4 1/2.

Longevity is often cited as the key attribute for a publicly cherished racehorse and while Tiger Roll is now in his sixth season, his ability to turn up wherever he likes and give his all to win every time is surely a more potent heartwarmer.

He has gone from being the bane of my 2018, to one of my naps of 2019. God bless Tiger Roll and all he stands for. Racing needs more of him in the years to come.

Why this season’s big handicap winners may pay handsomely at Cheltenham (Also, hello again!)

Its been far too long since I wrote a post on this blog which simply won’t do. Fortunately, a little titbit popped into my head earlier that I realise may well be worth following.

This season, all of Global Citizen, God’s Own, Frodon, Aso, Paisley Park and Elegant Escape have won major handicaps. Barring any serious mishap befalling any of them before March, I believe all six to be players for the five major Grade Ones at the Festival.

We’ll start in the Champion Hurdle division. Global Citizen has since played his part in successive group races after winning the Geoffrey Fielden/Intermediate Hurdle at Newbury at the beginning of December. He was no match for Verdana Blue and Buveur D’Air in the Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day but wasn’t beaten as far as initially realised having torn off in front and hung left into the straight. Back on a left-handed track most recently he made light enough work of Silver Streak and Western Ryder in the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock.

Those two were also defeated by Brain Power in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham, but he was in receipt of weight from those rivals and beat them by a smaller margin than Ben Pauling’s seven-year-old. Their prices, to me, do not reflect their levels of performance with Brain Power a best priced 16/1 while Global Citizen is available for some at 33/1.

With the Irish form looking mixed at best, Samcro looking more like Samslow (thanks to Paul Kealy for the nickname) and even Buveur D’Air now left with a few questions to answer, Global Citizen looks a value each-way bet at this stage with seven weeks until the off.

God’s Own, meanwhile, is unfortunate to be challenging in one of the most competitive ever divisions in National Hunt racing. Despite the competition, it is a class still utterly dominated, to boot, by a superstar in Altior.

He has been a likeable two-mile chaser for six seasons now and won his second Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter in November when fending off Ozzie The Oscar, a subsequent winner, off a mark of 156. No mean feat for a horse two months shy of his eleventh birthday.

Yet, there have been no signs that his enthusiasm has waned this season compared to last. He followed up victory with a creditable second behind the vastly improved Charbel in the Peterborough Chase and has an admirably consistent record in the Champion Chase. Third last year (at 40/1) behind Altior and Min, he was beaten fewer than ten lengths in both 2016 & 2017 while also being runner-up over course and distance to Un De Sceaux in the 2015 Arkle.

He won’t beat Altior, but with Footpad having failed to scale the heights of last season, Min and Fox Norton harbouring alternative options and Un De Sceaux and Simply Ned ageing just the same, many ahead of God’s Own have as many, if not more, question marks hanging over them. At 50/1, he may well give punters a grand each-way run.

So far, the thesis has been sufficient to provide each-way value, but the next two named may be potentials for the winners enclosure on St Patricks Thursday.

Both Frodon and Aso have returned victorious from Grade Three handicaps at Prestbury Park so far this season. What they have in common on top of that, is they both did so off top weight.

Frodon bombarded the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup field with a succession of exuberant leaps under Bryony Frost despite his diminutive stature. Off a mark of 164, it was one of the standout performances of the season and only Waiting Patiently is rated above him in the antepost market for the Ryanair. He flopped in that last season, but Paul Nicholls’ charge is still only seven and has surely improved. He is currently a highest-priced 16/1.

Aso returned from 13 months off the track with a decisive victory at Newbury in November which sparked a golden spell of form for Venetia Williams. Raised 8lb, he proved it was no fluke when, like Frodon, he won from the front at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. His mark at the time was 158. Having already run a big race in the Ryanair when third to Un De Sceaux in 2017, he is another who looks a revitalised beast. Even with 6lb still to find with Frodon on official ratings, 20/1 looks value for a horse who looks more than set to challenge.

The widest open of the Cheltenham showpieces is certainly the Stayers Hurdle with last year’s hero Penhill at the head of the market even though its likely we won’t see him until the Festival itself. Behind him, Apple’s Jade and Supasundae have other engagements lined up and so we fall on Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park.

There will be some concern that he finished only thirteenth in last season’s Albert Bartlett behind Kilbricken Storm, but he has racked up three successive victories this season, the first two in handicap company. To cement his reputation to the doubters, he won the JLT Hurdle (registered as the Long Walk) at Ascot for his first Grade One success, making him the spearhead of the British assault.

Ultimately, he looks a different prospect this season, so the Albert Bartlett showing can be put down to anomaly. Much like Sam Spinner last season, his form is the one to surpass this and 11/1 will be a price to keep an eye on as the Festival nears.

Finally, I’m putting my head on the line, ready to be jeered into submission depending on the result come Saturday. Elegant Escape will win the Gold Cup.

Now, I’m not normally one for trends. Nevertheless, Elegant Escape fits gloriously into an ultra-successful category of Gold Cup types. He is the fourth horse since 1994 to win the Welsh Grand National off a weight of 11st 6lb. The previous three have all gone on to win Cheltenham’s Blue Riband (Master Oats ’94, Synchronized ’10 and Native River ’16).

Having finished a gallant third in last season’s RSA and runner-up in the Ladbrokes Trophy, he has rock solid form in the book and is shaping better than ever this season. He has guts, bottomless stamina and emerging quality, all of which bode well for the big one. With the favourite yet to show this season and a number of the pretenders falling below par this season, Elegant Escape’s price of 33/1 will look even more generous if he wins this weekend’s Cotswold Chase (less so if he’s well beaten).

The six-piece would certainly pay off as an accumulator at least.

 

 

Boxing Day at Kempton

I haven’t done one of these for a while but, as it’s Christmas, I’m previewing the entire card at Kempton to come up with a few selections.

The opening novices’ hurdle (12:50) is as open as they come, a theme which the rest of the day follows. Didtheyleaveyououto and Thomas Darby had little between them when they met last month and the latter is now 3lb better off but THE BIG BITE is two from two over hurdles thus far and is already rated at least 6lb superior to them both. He won very easily at Haydock latest and would benefit from any rain which may fall before Wednesday. Mister Fisher and Rouge Vif can also be considered as likely improvers.

  1. The Big Bite
  2. Thomas Darby
  3. Didtheyleaveyoutto

(1:20) This novices’ handicap was won last year by the progressive Mister Whitaker and it pays to have recent winning form in the book. As such, LOUGH DERG SPIRIT, who has won his only race over fences looks to hold the key for Nicky Henderson. He was among the antepost favourites for the 2017 Supreme and faced some very tough assignments towards the end of last season over hurdles when finishing midfield in handicaps won by Kalashnikov, Blow By Blow and Soul Emotion, all of whom have gone on to bigger and better things. He won well enough at Wetherby on his chasing bow to suggest 136 is a mark keeping him onside. Dell Oro may have bumped into a useful opponent on his fencing debut while Vivas has already won thrice over fences and could spring a surprise.

  1. Lough Derg Spirit
  2. Dell Oro
  3. Vivas

(1:55) Named after Kauto Star, this novice chase looks set to live up to the name of Paul Nicholls’ quintuple King George winner. Santini could be a monster in waiting and the form of his first run over fences has worked out improbably well. Then again, arguably more impressive was TOPOFTHEGAME’s second in a hot race won by Defi Du Deuil when left 20 lengths at the start upon whipping round. The step up in trip will suit this giant horse. Both Bags Groove and The Worlds End jumped superbly during recent victories and if the rain stays away both will shorten while the mare La Bague Au Roi looks the most exposed of the likely candidates despite her 7lb allowance.

  1. Topofthegame
  2. Santini
  3. The Worlds End

(2:30) A BUVEUR D’AIR defeat in the Christmas Hurdle would be the shock of the season but that almost certainly won’t happen. Verdana Blue has proven that she’s a useful stablemate but the best bet could be to go Global Citizen each way as he’s achieved form of second, first despite pulling the arms off his rider on both occasions. If he settles, even in this field, he could prove he has the heart for this level though he will be significantly inferior to the dual champion hurdler.

(3:05) If Might Bite had even shown an ounce of his ability on comeback in the Betfair Chase, he’d be an easy option in what is the most puzzling of championships. His Haydock flop makes him too difficult to side with despite being the defending title holder here. Native River could find this on the quick side though he is a doughty battler and he will likely give punters a run for their money. That said, his run here as a novice doesn’t inspire confidence so both heart and head side minutely with THISTLECRACK. He won this as a novice two seasons back and though he’s had just three runs over fences since, his third in the Betfair inspired huge confidence that he retains his swagger, especially as he’s capable of jumping far better. Kempton’s flat track evidently suits him and he will stay better than young pretender Waiting Patiently. Ruth Jefferson’s star is undefeated over obstacles but he is having his first run in over ten months and he is thrown right in the deep end. Politologue’s connections are remarkably bullish for their grey’s first run over three miles but he gave weight and a length to subsequent Grade Two winner Charbel when winning at Ascot last month and he has a fair shout. A mention to Double Shuffle at 33/1 as he surprised us all with a huge run last season and horses for courses have performed particularly well so far this season – he could again.

  1. Thistlecrack     2. Politologue    3.Might Bite

(3:40) Although Ballyandy may well be suited on his return to hurdles ERICK LE ROUGE has been in top form recently and can continue his winning run with 7lb claimer Chester Williams likely to be a benefit. Stowaway Magic is a potential danger as well.

  1. Erick Le Rouge
  2. Ballyandy
  3. Stowaway Magic

Jose Goes. So what’s next?

When Jose Mourinho was appointed by my beloved United in the Summer of 2016, it was impossible that it could end acrimoniously. He was the Special One, winning a league title in every spell with any club since Porto. His ego and winning mentality coupled with United’s history and stature were the stereotype of a perfect fit.

Today, he’s gone, taking no Premier League winners’ medal with him. A Capital One Cup and a Europa League is all he has to show for his two-and-a-half years. After all nobody remembers a runner-up.

Critics pointed to his string of short-term stays with his employers. However, a quick fix was what United needed after the spiralling results and charismaless football of David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal. Yet this description remains all too familiar. The 3-1 defeat against Liverpool was arguably the nadir of the entire post-Ferguson era.

It is possible that we will look back and realise Jose did an incredible job. Two trophies in his first season followed by a second placed finish to the greatest team in Premier League history constitutes some amount of success especially with the players at his disposal.

But the football, oh the football, was tedious even last season and since August its been a complete shambles. I’m not pretending the club isn’t rotting from within but Mourinho had to leave. Wholesale changes are needed.

Paul Pogba is first. He has downed tools and his influence in the dressing room has soured the atmosphere, impacting the levels of others. It is an intolerable influence and though he will undoubtedly be a roaring success wherever he journeys next, he cannot remain at our football club after his behaviour.

Romelu Lukaku is another readily disposable asset. Allowed to bulk by nutritionists and fitness coaches, who must also be fearing the dreaded p45, his touch is no longer poor but comical. If he didn’t play for United he’d be a healthy source of entertainment.

There are many others. Dead wood is obstructing a host of promising youth players such as Mason Greenwood, Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes etc. who all deserve a chance. For the next six months there is no excuse for keeping them on the sidelines. Personally, I’d give Nicky Butt the caretaker’s job. He knows the quality of our academy prospects, loves the club as a Class of 92 member and there is nothing to lose. Insiders seem to suggest that United will appoint externally and so Butt is unlikely. Perhaps Zidane? Perhaps Wenger!?

A chance may as well be taken. We will not get relegated. We will not finish in the top four. The Premier League should become a playground to blood youngsters. A bottom half finish is not a disaster from this point onwards. The only trophy we can realistically win is the FA Cup on which we must focus. Whatever our best team is (and I have sympathy with whoever takes charge regards this as I have no idea what it is) should be fielded against Reading as a statement of intent.

It is a situation we must make the most out of. We are already the laughing stock but we’re in danger of becoming the new Liverpool post 1990. Imagine that.

Farewell then Jose. I’m as sorry as anyone that this didn’t work out.

Sports Personality: Is a rename needed and why I feel for Chris Froome

The BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award has once more courted controversy despite not doing a whole lot wrong. Notwithstanding a couple of errors on the night (cutting Helen Rollason award winner Billy Monger short during his speech to make way for Baddiel and Skinner to wail their way through Three Lion was tactless, so too was ignoring the tragic death of trainer Richard Woollacott), the evening celebrated a fabulous year in style and crowned a deserving winner in Geraint Thomas.

In fairness, the other five nominees all had claims to the title but Thomas’ Tour De France victory, having supported both Chris Froome and Sir Bradley Wiggins for so long, was fittingly rewarded and recognised by those who voted. However, for Froome, who outwardly supported a vote for Thomas on his Twitter account, it must have been an internally harrowing evening.

In bare numbers, the voting public has never done justice to Froome’s achievements. He has won four Tour de France’s, only four men in history have won more. That’s twice as many as Thomas and Wiggins put together. Yet that pair each have a SPOTY trophy in their cabinets. Froome has never even featured in the top three.

Both Wiggins and Thomas have an immediate likeability factor and have endeared themselves to a wider public than Froome has. This may seem harsh and Froome has never done anything to harm his personal image. Drug taking accusations may well have put paid to his chances and he is unlucky insofar as those that have dogged Wiggins in recent years came after he’d already won the award. Then again, they didn’t stop Mo Farah last year.

Froome would be a deserving winner if he were to ever take the prize. Saying that, how does one come to deserve the SPOTY award?

There has been a debate, certainly over the last decade, as to what SPOTY actually commemorates. In 2009 and 2010, victories for Ryan Giggs and Sir AP McCoy were wins for longevity, celebrating two stellar careers. However, in their respective years Giggs wasn’t even the best performer at Manchester United and McCoy’s 195 winners were fewer than in ten of his twenty seasons as champion. He won the Grand National yes and to the public who are less knowledgeable about racing, this is probably seen as the pinnacle. Nevertheless, McCoy did not win because he excelled himself more than usual.

Andy Murray has won the award three times in recent years but won no majors in 2015 when taking it for the second time. He is, however, a personality and an increasingly cherished character in our sporting world. Such is the name of the award, that you can hardly baulk at his haul.

Therefore, is there a merit to a renaming of the BBC’s sporting showpiece? Sportsperson of the Year is broad enough that there would be no required criteria but success, whether sustained or sensational. There would be no drama about the winner lacking persona or that they win in a year they shouldn’t have.

Similarly, do away with the shortlist. Those who genuinely care enough to vote seriously will know enough about the past twelve months’ action to make up their minds. All the shortlist did this year was cut two thoroughly deserving sportsmen from the line-up in Tyson Fury and Ronnie O’Sullivan. Both have achieved  their goals late in the calendar and so recency bias could have aided them unfairly but the show itself is there to remind the audience of what has been and gone.

It is an excellent award and the roll of honour is an outstanding one, a testament to British sport. Let’s hope the BBC ensure it stays that way. Fingers crossed for Froome and let’s hope there’s a racing nominee in twelve months time (Bryony Frost anyone?).

Big Races, Small Fields

The Betfair Chase on Saturday was a joy to behold. Five of England’s top staying chasers not only went to post, but had a chance turning into the final straight with Haydock specialist Bristol De Mai tanking to victory from Gold Cup hero Native River.

It was no doubt the highlight of the season so far in Britain and Ireland but for the biggest Grade One this side of Christmas, why were only five horse entered? Is there a dearth of quality among the top rank of there-milers?

I’d suggest not. Not a single novice from last season took their chance at Haydock while the likes of Definitly Red, the Charlie Hall winner, Double Shuffle and Tea For Two, among others, were all absent for reasons which don’t involve injury. Furthermore, there wasn’t a single challenging raider from Ireland.

The problem of small fields in big races exists in the Emerald Isle too, however and arguably to an even greater extent. The recent Morgiana Hurdle, which initially looked set to provide a stellar field, consisted of just four runners, won by Sharjah, a horse who should lack the quality for that level. Three of those four were trained by Willie Mullins and the fourth, Tombstone, had no realistic chance anyway.

Looking ahead to the weekend, both the Ladbrokes Trophy and Fighting Fifth at Newbury and Newcastle respectively, possess fields which could yet implode. The former is down to thirteen runners, the smallest field for the race this century and ludicrously low for such a massive handicap. The latter is reliant on Samcro’s participation which we’ve learnt to take with a pinch of salt. Whether he runs or not, the race looks stronger than average but another five-runner Grade One without him would be a disappointment once more.

Either race could yet shrink significantly further, trainers regularly expressing concerns about suitable ground. National Hunt horses traditionally prefer a bit of cut yet “good” ground is often seen as too quick nowadays. Surely the mere definition of “good” ground is that it is the soundest and most appropriate surface for horses to race on. Either this definition needs changing or the rules require an update with regards non-runners. “Good” ground should not be taken as an excuse for a horse’s absence.

However, particularly with the pressure of mega-rich owners desperate to see their horses win whenever they run, it is understandable that a trainer may want to be absolutely certain conditions are in their favour. Similarly, it is not simply an affliction that affects the top of the game.

A recent example of tiny fields at a run-of-the-mill meeting, and a deeply concerning one at that, occurred at Kempton earlier in the week when just nine runners lined up across the opening three races. For a track whose closure has been threatened, this can only ramp up the pace. Kempton is an historic racecourse but it seems that the sport it calls family is not too willing to save it.

The King George on Boxing Day will no doubt raise the alarm once more and the race is set up to be an intriguing affair whatever the size of the field. It would nevertheless be fabulous if we had a double-figure field. For that, we may need a couple of windmill-touting hopefuls but Double Shuffle was a 50/1 second last year and Tea For Two not much lower in the market in third. Shocks are possible even with the highest prizes at stake.

Nowadays, those highest prizes are under exclusive ownership of Cheltenham racecourse. As much as I love the Festival in March, and it is a truly wonderful time of year, perhaps it has become too mighty. There has rarely been any issue attracting horses to run at Prestbury Park (Footpad scared away the opposition in the Arkle this year and the Ryanair is a reserve race for horses unsure of their chances in the Champion Chase or Gold Cup so their smaller line-ups are understandable), nor will there be in a few months time. There is too much prestige to the point where the general rhetoric about race fitness, even as early as November, is that a horse’s ultimate aim is to be fully equipped for Cheltenham. Anything gained in the interim is a bonus.

Grade One status is not the same as Cheltenham status. Whoever wins the Fighting Fifth, whether that be Buveur D’Air, Samcro or Summerville Boy (or one of the other three, for as I’ve stated, shocks are possible) the celebrations will only be supplemented by claiming the Champion Hurdle. If anything, defeat in the latter would be made even more bitter with victory on Saturday. The higher you rise, the further you fall.

How the BHA could lessen the appeal of Cheltenham I do not know, although Brexit could well make the Irish opposition less prevalent in future years. Until then, we may have to accept smaller fields for the purpose of both quantity and quality come the Festival. It is an investment that pays rich dividends once a year but for most spectators it is worth it.

For now we are all left to question, as Ed Chamberlain just has through my headphones, “where are all the runners?”