I intend to preview as many races for Cheltenham as I can over the next few weeks and I will start with the Supreme where I already advised a 1 pt win on VAUTOUR at 20/1 and a 1 pt win on MOYLE PARK at 16/1. I will put the latest Paddy Power prices next to each horse.

Before the preview I must make a few observations about the general state of racing which in turn gives us a clue as to why and where the strength of the all powerful, all conquering Willie Mullins has come from and why he is dominating the preview of a huge number of races at the Festival barring the Gold Cup which of course his two very well fancied runners have unfortunately been struck down by injury. Mullins, in my opinion is now the equal of the legendary Vincent O’ Brien in terms of ability. It is one thing to have the super rich owners but Willie’s expertise is second to none in the modern era and he has moved on to a different level to the rest.

Mullins domination is having a knock on effect on the home scene and is papering over huge cracks as to what is happening underneath at every other level in Ireland.

The major European depression has only now filtered down to the mid and small owners who were funding their own horses in breeding and training and who cannot do so anymore. The dream of having that big winner and not selling a good horse is gone for the foreseeable future. The playing pitch is tightening rapidly. Hard pressed trainers who were taking half shares in the horses in lieu of waving their training fees is not sustainable either. This is a practise rife in Ireland at the moment but it was only delaying the inevitable , which of course is meltdown. The game is in serious bother here. I can see field sizes dwindling all the while and it is only getting worse. Owners are broke, trainers are going out of business, no spectators going to the meetings, only for ATR most of the courses could fold up the tent and close down . The one exception is Dundalk and their lucrative agreement with France Galop. Surely this type of arrangement is the only way forward. I always predicted it would happen this way.
Following the ”crash” many people decided the last thing they would sacrifice or get rid of were their horses. They were all in too deep to do so and in many circumstances simply had to see it out in the fading hope that their investment might come good. That was never going to happen in this country and even less so in the UK. The pitiful prizemoney and the cost of keeping an animal in training just does not add up. It would be completely different of course if we all moved to France. There, the sport is run as it should be. Incredible as it may seem it is more likely than not that you will make a profit as an owner in France, no matter how big or small you maybe. Prizemoney levels are huge and in fact their total yearly purse is larger than the rest of Europe combined. Imagine for a second , it is easier to make money as an owner in France than to lose it. In France most of the horses are owned by working folk [like you and me] or by stud farms that breed them. The French Government incentive scheme gives the owner of a domestically bred horse 60% on top of the huge advertised prize fund on raceday for two year olds,40% for three year oldS and much less thereafter which encourages the owners/breeders to sell at end of their three year old career and cash in for a second time. This then further incentivises the owners to re invest into a foal and start the lucrative subsidy process all over again. It is all great for the French people and the irony of the whole situation is that as long as it continues their horses will continue to be sold as they edge towards four years of age in huge quantities and transferred to Ireland and the UK where the prizemoney is derisory. Waiting in the wings to purchase these expensive French breds are the super rich, Gigginstown, Rich Ricci, J P McManus, Barry Connell and Graham Wylie. These men do not mind losing money on these horses in Ireland or the UK and for that they must be applauded as they could divert their fortunes into something else or somewhere other than these shores. The French have taken over and to such an extent that they are now buying tracks in other countries and are awash with endless money.

Ireland will continue to dominate Cheltenham like in recent years if the rich owners continue to plough fortunes into buying the expensive horses and breeding them and have a handful of outstanding trainers like Willie Mullins and Dessie Hughes etc to train them. They are the only real players left playing. It is now really the sport of kings and super rich. The small man’s dream is over.

I could have had the second favourite for the Supreme if I could have afforded to keep Irving but I am one of the aforementioned ” small owners with a dream” . Now of course having said all that I am also lucky enough to be involved in ERLKONIG who is still entered in the Triumph and he is a proper horse, who ,if we get a run into him in time could easily have a big say in the finish and realise a lifelong dream for this particular person. It is much more likely that we will wait foe Aintree , Fairyhouse or Punchestown. Irving will carry my hopes now as we did so well to spot him and sell him on.

Now for the preview of the Supreme Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham.

IRVING 8/1 : I spotted this horse in Germany last year with the help of Philipp Stauffenberg and Tom Malone. We viewed him early in the season while he was still off recovering from a slight problem. He had everything you want to see in a racehorse and his speed figures were matching. It all added up and we duly bought him after he was successful at Fontainebleau in an amateurs riders race over one mile five furlongs on the 30th August. He is now unbeaten in three races for Paul Nicholls including a Grade Two and his victims included the subsequent Betfair Hurdle winner Splash Of Ginge whom he beat by six lengths and giving him three pounds. He is now a close second favourite behind Vautour and is very exciting for us all. The downside for Irving is the fact that he has never raced on an undulating track and this could prove significant . There are no idiosyncratic tracks in Germany where they tend to race on all flat courses. Irving’s biggest asset is his potent turn of foot. There is no evidence to say he will not act at Cheltenham and if he does he will be a danger to one of the best novices I have seen for sometime. It would obviously be great for the team and I also. Here’s hoping.

THE TULLOW TANK 14/1 : Barry Connell’s charge had been favourite for this up until his comprehensive defeat by Vatour in the Deloitte. He was attempting to win the three big Grade One’s for novices in that one , a feat which is so difficult to acheive. He didn’t seem to travel that well early and even appeared to hang slightly to his right during mid race but he did rally strongly to finish a staying on but well beaten second by Willie Mullins French import. The Tullow Tank has had a pretty tough campaign and it will be interesting to see if he will be fresh enough or fast enough to cope with the speed of Irving , Vautour and others. He is a really fine big strong individual and will undoubtedly make a smashing chaser and could easily end up a Gold Cup horse in time.

WICKLOW BRAVE 10/1 : Another from the Mullin’s dynasty and there are many that fancy him. He has won his last five races on all sorts of ground and tracks. He was particularly impressive last day in a Listed race where he pulled hard for three quarters of the journey and still just blasted away from his rivals when asked and despite a very sloppy jump at the last. He looked green there still despite it being his seventh career start. The big question for Wicklow Brave is will he be able to handle the traffic at speed when jumping is at a premium in this helter skelter event and is he good enough anyway ?

JOSSES HILL 10/1 : Fine big chasing type who has won two and finished runner up twice from four career starts, the latest being a close second to stablemate Royal Boy in the Grade One Tolworth. He jumped very big on that occasion and it looked as if he was cantering all over the winner at the last until another ballooning jump and then failed to quicken. In keeping with recent tradition the Tolworth seems to be a race for strong staying types and Josses Hill seemed to conform to this with his showing. I feel he will lack the tactical speed necessary to triumph here and if he were mine I would be steering him towards the Neptune or the Bartlett. He should make a high class chaser next year and will be performing at the highest level.

WEST WIZARD 16/1 : Had his lofty reputation enhanced with a facile victory in a Kempton bumper last Spring and was the early favourite for this race when the markets opened in the Autumn. A bruising defeat by Sgt.Reckless on his hurdling debut back at the London venue in November and a continuing absence from racing has seen him slide in the betting. There has to be question marks now. He will need to be out soon to get some valuable experience in order even to make the line up.

VALSEUR LIDO 20/1 : Another one from the juggernaut Mullins yard and a serious player if he turns up. After a debut 6th at Fontainebleau he won well at Lyon-Parilly before Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary diverted one of his planes to pick him up and drop him down to Terminal 5 in Willie’s yard. He has been unextended to win both of his starts since , a maiden at Cork and a minor conditions event at Navan. Impossible to gauge as to how smart he may be as he was not asked to run fast but he looks the part. Holds entries in all 3 novice events at the Festival. Very smart prospect indeed.

WESTERN BOY 16/1 : A likeable sort who is progressing but has been put in his place by both Vautour and Wicklow Brave but that is no disgrace considering the incredible strength of the Mullin’s runners. If he were mine I would be waiting for one of the later Festivals as things might be a little less demanding by then.

FIRST MOHICAN 16/1 : The late Sir Henry Cecil used to train him last season on the flat and he was very smart in that sphere. Transferred to Alan King, he was laid off until last week at Doncaster where he made a winning debut. King suffers repeated downtime with his yard but his horses are firing at the minute. Many observers were taken with the manner of victory by First Mohican but I have to say I was not one of them. Despite what Thornton and King said and the pundits, I felt his jumping was very moderate [ as indeed one would expect on a first try and in a crowded field] but my main concerns were his head carriage in the closing stages and the narrow margin of victory against pretty average opponents. He can only improve and King said some time ago that he was thinking of keeping him to the flat altogether this year but there was a change of heart and now he is due for another run in a fortnight and a decision on Cheltenham to be made after that. I have to rate him an unlikely starter and an even more unlikely winner if indeed he does turn up. Aintree might be a much better option but he seems to prefer a more wide open galloping course like Fairyhouse or Punchestown.

MOYLE PARK 33/1 : One my my original tips for this race along with Vautour. Everything was in order up till his Christmas defeat. He was trounced by The Tullow Tank . I did not say much at the time but I felt it was obvious that Moyle Park had underperformed massively and that he was feeling something or was sick. The excellent Willie Mullins is a great believer in blood testing his horses and I am sure when he read the full bio chemistry and haematology reports that they went to work immediately to cure whatever was ailing the horse. You must always forgive a horse one bad run , especially when that run is just too bad to be true. Let me remind you of a certain horse called Montelado. Back in December 1992 [ Jesus ,is it really that long ago ] the great horse was beaten by the much inferior Bayrouge in the First Choice Hurdle and everybody crabbed the horse and his Cheltenham chances. Pat Flynn thought otherwise , bought him home, blood tested him and found there was a problem. He rested him until March and won the Supreme so well by 12 lengths that Charlie Swan had a devil of a job to pull him up. It is not inconceivable that Moyle Park could be another Montelado. Willie’s horse was unbeaten going into that Leopardstown race and that should not be forgotten. Nick Mordin has given this horse a huge speed figure also and I rate him just about the best novice around bar one and therefore he must come right into the reckoning. The big question is , will he run ? The incredibly very rich Rich Ricci rich also owns the mighty Vautour.

ARCTIC FIRE 20/1 : Decent as he is he looks third ,fourth or even fifth sub for Mullins.

DELL ‘ARCA 25/1 : Another huge money buy from France but this time by Professor Caroline Tisdall who sent him to David Pipe in England. Dell ‘Arca is by a sire I simply love , Sholokhov and this horse is pretty smart. The negative for me is that although lightly raced he has been campaigned in handicaps and the stats for such horses in the Supreme is not good and I also feel he is not fast enough in any case. I am sure his owner will have plenty of fun with him in the future but not here.

ZAMDY MAN 20/1 : Has been a revelation this season for the relentless Venetia Williams winning all three of his starts following a disappointing juvenile campaign.He goes well on soft ground but can act on good. I feel his running style and action will not be best suited to Cheltenham’s undulations and I am going to overlook him here.

WILLOW’S SAVIOUR 20/1 : Has gone from a mark of 115 to 143 winning his last three handicaps culminating in a very impressive win in the Ladbroke at Ascot. He looks as if he will be best fresh and missing the Tolworth could have been a blessing in disguise but the stats about handicappers means his profile does not match that of a likely winner and in any event he might not be good enough and is passed over.

RENNETI 33/1 : Another import to Willie Mullins but unlikely to take his chance and would struggle if he did, nice as he is.

ROYAL BOY 33/1 : Unusual insofar as he is 7 years old and has only run six times in total including a pt to pt. He also ran in a novice handicap chase and two Tolworth hurdles which must be unique. He won his last one beating Josses Hill. Everything about him screams he will not win this and is just not quick enough for the top horses in my opinion. He is smart nonetheless and could be interesting over further at the later Festivals.

VANITEUX 20/1 : Market support for this Henderson runner today but his trainer has said he is an unlikely runner and more likely to be saved for later in the campaign.

BRIAR HILL 33/1 : Will not be running in this.

THE LIQUIDATOR 33/1 : Was very impressive up to a crushing defeat in the Tolworth and there now has to be a question mark but you must always forgive one bad run. Likely to be suited by further though and will probably lack the speed of some of the others but could run well at a big price.

VAUTOUR 7/2 : I have him tipped up on an earlier Cheltenham preview blog at 20/1 and as I am writing this he has been backed from 5/1 into 7/2. Vautour lost his first two races in France including a demolition job by Black River in an ordinary event at Auteuil. I am beginning to understand why he failed to win those races. I am sure now it was down to the heavy ground. True ,he has won on similar ground over here but you need only look at his action to realize where I am coming from. He flicks his toe out with little knee bending in a daisy cutting fashion and is undoubtedly suited by good and better ground. He has been winning impressively here in spite of conditions not because of them. Nick Mordin gave him a huge number when he won on good ground at Navan on December 7th and that ties in even more with my contention regarding the surface. Mordin is the best judge in the world and when he talks one up one should immediately take notice. Vautour destroyed the opposition on the unfavourable soft at Leopardstown yesterday and for me the most impressive part was his electric jumping. For a big chasing type he is cat like over the smaller obstacles. He seems to be more or less bombproof.

Summary : In a normal year Moyle Park [now an unlikely runner] or Irving would look to hold a great chance. It would be fantastic for us [ Tom Malone , Philipp Stauffenberg and myself] if Irving could do it. You could argue an each way case for Valseur Lido and The Liquidator also. However I believe that one of the best novices I have seen in years is VAUTOUR. He has size, scope, athleticism and a huge cruising speed plus a big turn of foot. He has everything. I feel that unless he doesn’t travel over well or something unfortunate happens in the race itself then he will win and win impressively. I have already advised him at 20/1 so no further bet.


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