Three value bets for the festival

In search of some early value for the 2019 /Cheltenham Festival, I’ve found three horses who look too big a price.

The first is Sceau Royal for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at 14/1.

Alan King’s horse looks much happier over fences than he did over hurdles, racing with obvious enthusiasm and fencing with confidence and, at times, real zest.

He’s won 5 of his 6 steeplechases (a close second in his other one when giving North Hill Harvey 5lbs), and returned on November 18th to win the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham in fine fashion, value for a fair bit more than the two-and-a-quarter lengths he won by. Some will crab the form with the 11-y-o Simply Ned in second, but that horse has kept good company most of his life.

Sceau Royal’s main March rivals will be Altior and Footpad. Footpad fell at the last when odds on in early November, his seasonal debut, a Grade 3 Chase at Naas won by Saint Calvados. That fall ended a poor round of jumping in general although he was found to have suffered an overreach (a cut on the front leg caused by a back foot).  It could have happened at the last where he sprawled badly, or it might have been much earlier.

It’ll be interesting to see what that race and the fall, his first over fences, have done to his confidence..

Since I watched Altior win The Supreme I’ve always wanted to see him in a Gold Cup. Speed doesn’t win Supremes in the fashion he did; power, stamina and, above all, class wins them. He has never looked a two-miler to my eye and I think he wins these races because that’s the only trip he’s been raced over. He wins because he’s a fabulous racehorse. But I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him and I’d love to see Henderson changing tack and running him in the King George.

Altior runs these days almost as though he is bored. He’s getting lazier, needs driving into fences at times and just kind of toddles along until he decides to move up a gear. There will come a time when that gear change will take too long, and that day might not be far off. In the 2018 Queen Mother Champion Chase, he traded at 5/1 in running so laboured did he look when full pressure was applied. 

Sceau Royal is not even close to Altior’s talent level, but he has a hundred times more enthusiasm for the business of 2 mile steeplechasing and his fencing compared to the favourite’s is electric. Sceau Royal looks highly likely to carry on improving over two miles and I suspect Altior’s laziness will only get worse.  The best thing that could happen for the horse and the racing public, I think, is a very close call in the Tingle Creek. That would help concentrate his trainer’s mind.  What a joy it would be to see Altior in a Gold Cup before he retires.

Value horse number two is Bedrock, the first horse to take Samcro’s scalp when Samcro has stood up. And Bedrock beat him with comparative ease. Samcro put up little fight as Bedrock simply galloped past him. Few will have heard of Bedrock before this season, but he hasn’t sprung from nowhere. He was 3rd in a Grade 1 at Aintree on his 2nd start over hurdles, then won his next two before disappointing twice, after which he had wind surgery.

On his first run back after the op, he won easily at Musselburgh, then ran 3rd to Lalor in a Grade1 at Aintree in April 2018. First time out this season he was 4th to Sharjah in the Galway Hurdle, beaten just over 6 lengths. On his next run, a Grade 3 at Tipperary, he won very impressively, leaving the likes of Wicklow Brave and Arctic Fire in his wake. 

Then came the defeat of Samcro, with Bedrock’s Galway conqueror Sharjah well beaten, despite being much better off at the weights. 

Bedrock is 40/1 for the Champion Hurdle – a bonkers price given his form and his early promise. The price can be put down to two factors: 1 – his trainer, Iain Jardine, a comparatively ‘small’ operator training in the Scottish borders (at Len Lungo’s old yard). Year after year, betting traders working for the big bookies will overprice good horses with unpopular trainers. The latest example was a pretty much across the board 10/1 Arkle quote for Lalor, trained by Kaylee Woolacott, after he thrashed the best field ever assembled for the Grade 2 November Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham recently. 

A lump of money seems the only thing that brings these traders to their senses and Lalor is now 5/1. After Saturday’s Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, where I expect Bedrock to go very close, if not win, I suspect he’ll be much shorter than 40/1 for the Champion Hurdle.

The second factor in his price is probably the fact that he was sold just before his last run to race in the USA, specifically to try to win the Grand National at Far Hills.  The trainer is working on the new owners to consider the Champion Hurdle and after Saturday, I don’t think they’ll take much persuading. Their main target in the USA at Far Hills takes place in October, so a big run in March is hardly going to cause a major change in training plans. And what racing fan would need talking into trying to win one of the blue riband races at the Cheltenham Festival?

 At 40/1. I’m more than happy to take the chance. I’m also willing to back Bedrock now for the Fighting Fifth on Saturday. His last 2 wins have been on good ground and if the BBC have it right on the weather front, there’s not much rain due there before Saturday – some ‘light rain’ Wednesday and Thursday with Friday and Saturday sunny.

And, if the ground turns to good, I think there’s a chance Samcro will miss the race. His defeat came on good ground, and he was withdrawn at Punchestown last weekend, the good ground cited as the reason. He looked flat footed behind Bedrock and it might be significant that this was his first experience of good ground. By the way, Bedrock took quite a bit of pulling up that day, something I always like to see. Saturday’s third favourite, Summerville Boy, is a horse I like a lot. But there’s a fair possibility that he is ground reliant and would need much more rain than is forecast.

There is still of course Buveur D’Air to overcome and that will not be easy. He was at his most impressive, visually, at least, in this race last year. But this running is much tougher, it’s his seasonal debut, and Bedrock will be hard fit. 

My third horse is 20/1 for the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It’s my old friend Bristol De Mai, a horse I’ve long been convinced is top class and not ground dependent. The theory took an awful long time to come good, but the grey delivered in style in Saturdays Betfair Chase.

After the race his trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies criticised himself, quite rightly I think, for the way he’s handled this horse. He described Bristol De Mai as fragile and yet he ran him in The Cotswold Chase in January. That race is a graveyard for Gold Cup horses, and I cannot understand why fancied contenders are sent there year after year. Henderson had the sense to stay well clear of it with Might Bite last season saying, ‘The last thing he needs is a slog through a bog.’

But Nigel Twiston-Davies is by nature a trainer who likes to run his horses as often as he believes they will stand it.  I strongly suspect Bristol De Mai  needs plenty recovery time between races in order to establish consistency.  While he appears to saunter home imperiously at Haydock in these big races, such performances simply must take an awful lot out of him.  But his trainer now says he will accept the blame for any future poor performances.  He talked of the grey horse’s fragility; perhaps because Bristol De Mai  has suffered stomach ulcers in the past, an affliction that can simply be down to the stress of racing/training. 

The big grey also had wind surgery after The Cotswold (a lung busting race, as mentioned) and missed the Gold Cup back in March.  Nigel Twiston-Davies took him out of the Gold Cup about two weeks before the race – an almost unheard of move from a trainer who’s more optimistic than most. The horse must have been unwell.

An unfortunate corollary to The Betfair victory on Saturday is that Bristol De Mai  will almost certainly be going for the King George in five weeks’ time.  I just wonder if the trainer would have missed the race had the Jockey Club Million Pound Bonus not been on offer.

I think that race will come too soon and I don’t think the track suits Bristol De Mai whose signature strength is rhythm. Tracks like Haydock and Wetherby with relatively long back and home straights, are perfect for the grey who just gets in the groove and gallops from jump to jump. 

Kempton’s triangular course offers a longest straight run of around 670m compared with 910m at Haydock and 880m at Wetherby. Speculation on my part, of course, but rhythm is vital in any staying steeplechase and it seems a crucial requirement for Bristol De Mai. I’d love to see him win the King George, but I don’t believe he will. The best I can hope for is that after the race he is put away until March. If that happens I’d give him a huge chance of winning the Gold Cup.

Cheltenham is much more Bristol De Mai’s type of track than Kempton. The old course at Cheltenham is actually fairly sharp, but the new course – on which the Gold Cup is run – is much more a galloping track (longest run without a significant bend  1.1k). Bristol De Mai has run well there in the past without (with hindsight) the ideal prep. He was 2nd in the JLT and ran a good race in last year’s Gold Cup.  My advice is to take the 20/1 and hope that his trainer gets things right this season. Although it isn’t Haydock, I’d have no concerns about trip or ground for Bristol De Mai. In fact, I think when on song he probably prefers good ground.

As ever, the usual warning – antepost betting can damage your wealth. It can be a lot of fun sitting on hot antepost vouchers through a winter, but if anything happens to your selection and he does not turn up on raceday, your money is lost.

Good luck

Joe

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