Encouraged by my friends over at William Hill, where you’ll find all the Cheltenham Odds, I’m going to write a betting preview of Opening Day at the Cheltenham Festival. In terms of anticipation, it’s rivaled for me only by Opening Day of the baseball season and Opening Day at Saratoga. How did an American get so invested in Cheltenham? Several years back, when American turf writer Sean Clancy started his one man campaign to make Cheltenham popular in America, I was one of his first converts. Since then, I’ve done my part to spread the gospel of Cleeve Hill. My wife, Susan, and I got engaged on the day when Best Mate won his third Gold Cup.
This year, I’ve run into a small issue in doing my preparations for Cheltenham — and I mean that literally. The small issue in question is my daughter Perrin, born in December in New York City. I’ve been on the night shifts with her, meaning I haven’t really been able to get up in time to watch an appropriate amount of racing to write an intelligent preview. That’s where my friend Lee Keys, AKA The Betting Man, comes in.
Lee is a propunter who ran a successful tipping service for many years but is now just betting for a living. He’s been kind enough to allow me to share his thoughts on biggest races on Tuesday. Let’s start with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle:
LEE KEYS: Going through this race and there just does not seem the strength in depth to really say I really want to lay [oppose] the favourite, My Tent Or Yours. However at the prices there are sound reasons for taking him on. Firstly he has looked a bit of a speed horse and conditions on Tuesday in the very first race will certainly be at their most testing (clerk of the course states ground not likely to dry out). Added to that he did have the complete run of the race at Newbury in the Betfair Hurdle (the first three were all handy) and the time of the race wasn’t sparkling. So at the prices the form/time purist will be saying he is more than beatable. My moles on the other hand say he will absolutely hack up and is working the house down so for me I wouldn’t be laying him with such a strong mark from the work riders.
There is one horse here for me that certainly isn’t flattered by his rating and has ticks in every single box is the Willie Mullins trained CHAMPAGNE FEVER, who at 8/1 certainly gets my juices flowing for a decent each way bet. I am scratching my head as to why Jezki (a turn of foot horse) is half the price of my choice? Yes he beat Champagne Fever a touch cosy at Fairyhouse but we are talking one and a bit lengths here and he certainly wasn’t going to win by any further as they went past the line. We already have the course form when winning The Champion Bumper and this horse reminds me a little bit of former winner Al Ferof, who was vulnerable to something with a bit of pace, but nothing could come up the hill like he did when he won this race. Yes, we might have to make our own running, which certainly isn’t ideal but this horse is a genuine top performer and out and out galloper that won’t be stopping up that hill when the bridle horses have had enough. The ground will be testing enough for him and with a race that is certainly lacking in depth I can’t see him being far away here. 8/1 is indeed super value.
Note that since Lee wrote that, CHAMPAGNE FEVER’s price has shortened to 6s, but that still might be good enough for a bet for me in this race. I’d certainly consider saving or betting a forecast [exacta] with MY TENT OR YOURS.
Now on to Lee’s thoughts on the Arkle Chase. . .
LEE KEYS: Not really going to spend much time on this mainly because I can’t really see SIMONSIG beat but he can’t be a betting proposition at around 8/11 in a race of this nature. I do feel that the soft ground will favour him more than Overturn and tactically Geraghty will have the edge here being able to track his rival and make sure he isn’t too far adrift if his rival is getting a soft time in front. SIMONSIG is more of a natural jumper than Overturn, who is all heart more than anything and could well be struggling to cope with SIMONSIG up that hill so I will sit this out from a betting point of view.
As for me, while I can certainly understand who a professional like Lee will pass on SIMONSIG at the odds, for me it’s a little different. I approach Cheltenham primarily as a fan [that's mug for you UK readers]. I have no problem taking a small flyer on a shortie, if only to give me something to root for as they turn for home.
And for the biggest of the big ones, the Champion Hurdle?
LEE KEYS: Hurricane Fly is about a 9/4 shot to emulate his win in 2011 but as a nine year old that has been beating mince for years in Ireland on heavy ground that’s a tricky price. Not that the opposition inspire either, the vibes about Grandouet aren’t good and his chances will depend on the pace of the race. A war of attrition on tacky ground isn’t what he’s about but his chances would strengthen if the pace was slow. He has an abundance of speed but I never think this course suits him that well.
I then look at Binocular but he, like Hurricane Fly, is nine years old now and clearly with the amount of times we see him on the track he certainly must have issues. A fully fit and tuned Binocular is obviously dangerous but you can’t be confident. Countrywide Flame and Cinders And Ashes would really devalue this race if they were to win. I didn’t like the latter’s head carriage at Kempton, whilst the former could go well if getting an easy lead but seriously lacks the class and a par figure of a Champion Hurdle winner.
Rock On Ruby looks sure to run a decent race but wouldn’t want very soft ground and for me my best bet of the day by a long way on the first day is the Nichols trained ZARKANDAR, who rates as a maximum bet at around the 7/2, 4/1 mark. I really like the profile of this horse. He’s a Triumph Hurdle winner at four, at five he won The Betfair Hurdle off a mark of 151 (solid form) and if you watch last years Champion Hurdle, he would have won in about another half a furlong as he flew up the hill (five year olds 1-88 in the Champion Hurdle since 1985). What makes his form more impressive last season was that he missed the early part of the season through injury, was coughing before The Betfair Hurdle yet still won it and was on antibiotics on the run up to The Champion Hurdle. Before last years Champion Hurdle his trainer described him as looking a shell of a horse and wasn’t all together happy with him.
Another year on his back he’s a stronger horse, has had a perfect preparation this time around with his trainer very happy. Connections for me deserve some credit for changing his running style. Last year Zarkandar was always a little bit too far back and since changing to more positive tactics the horse has looked much better and has been able to cope with slowly run races. What I like even more about this horse is that he tends to do just enough when he hits the front, which augurs well for here and now and in the longer term. I think he’s an absolute certainty for the race as long as again they ride him handy. No good asking to him to come from too far back, particularly in what could be a tactical affair. The testing ground will also play more to his strengths than the good ground last year.
Rates as my best bet of the meeting at the prices and it could well be the start of a couple of years of dominance if he stays injury free.
So that’s that for Day 1. I’ll see if I can coax some more info out of my friends and if I can, perhaps I’ll return later in the week. Oh, and if you do happen to do well based on any of Lee’s info, or even if you don’t, please consider donating to his charity, Tree of Hope. You can find the details here.