Dunwoody on Cheltenham

Dunwoody on Cheltenham

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The excitement for National Hunt racing fans at this time of the year always hits fever pitch with the Cheltenham Festival and the Aintree Grand National Meeting, the two biggest events on the jump racing calendar, and this year’s no different.

For the past five months or so, all the leading stables, top jockeys and, of course, the best horses have been gearing up to have a crack at one of the lucrative prizes on offer at these two festivals, and having a successful time at these meetings can really determine how prosperous a yard’s season has been.

For me, what sets the NH game apart from the flat is that we get to see the same horses year-after-year in these historic races and, therefore your affinity with the superstars grow, as each season you go on journey with your favourite equine jumpers.

Starting at Cheltenham, this year’s four-day meeting is jam-packed full of past winners, with Hurricane Fly (Champion Hurdle), Big Buck’s (World Hurdle) and Sizing Europe (Champion Chase) just a few past champions looking to defend their Prestbury Park crowns, but the biggest subplot surrounding this year’s meeting has to be the Gold Cup clash between two-time winner Kauto Star and last year’s hero Long Run.

The two have dominated the ante-post betting all season and, with no Denman this year, having been retired earlier in the season, it really does look a two-horse battle. We can expect the media and the track to ramp up the coverage surrounding this race, while we are sure to see the Cheltenham crowd in a sea of either brown (Long Run) or green (Kauto Star) scarves and rosettes, with the football-style support of our favourite horses really taking off in the last few years.

Last season it was all about Long Run as he gave trainer Nicky Henderson his first Gold Cup winner, with Kauto Star 11 lengths back in third, but this term Paul Nicholls’ old warrior has defied his advancing years to turn the tables on the younger Long Run – twice: first in the Betfair Chase back in November and on Boxing Day when landing a record-breaking fifth King George at Kempton.

A third win for Kauto Star will surely bring the house down and make those recent King George celebrations look tame, and although we’d all love to witness those scenes, the head says that, over this longer trip, Long Run can gain his revenge and defend his crown.

Yes, some judges are questioning the decision to stick with Sam Waley-Cohen in the saddle, but he rode a great race 12 months ago to land the prize. In my eyes he’s a very good rider and this should not be an issue. I’ll take him to win his second Gold Cup and, with Kauto unlikely to be on the scene in 2013 and with not much else coming through the ranks in this division, as well as the fact he’s still only seven-years-old, I believe the Henderson horse can make this race his own for the next two or three seasons.

Of the others, this year’s Lexus Chase winner Synchronised has shown improved form and will certainly love the trip and the stamina test the famous Cheltenham hill provides, but based on the sheer ratings he’s still got over 10lbs to find with the main two and will, therefore, need to improve again. David Pipe’s exciting novice Grands Crus will be popular if he takes his chance, but be warned: he could opt for the easier-looking RSA Chase earlier in the meeting.

The final horse that warrants a mention is Midnight Chase, who was fifth in the race 12 months ago. Okay, so he’s got a lot of ground to make up based on last year’s race (beaten 19 lengths), but his advantage is the track. He absolutely loves it round here – winning five times from seven outings and, having beaten a decent field here in the Argento Chase back in January, he’ll be hoping to emulate past Gold Cup winners Master Oats and Looks Like Trouble, both of whom took that race en route to Cheltenham glory.

?Key Cheltenham Gold Cup Trends
· ?16 of the last 17 winners were aged 9 or younger
· 9 of the last 11 winners had won or finished second at the festival before
· 12 of the last 13 winners had won earlier that season
· The last 11 winners started in the first three in the betting
· 9 of the last 11 ran in the King George VI that same season
· Since 1963 all-bar-one winner had raced at least six times over fences

As soon as the curtain goes down on another Cheltenham Festival, then all eyes to turn to the Aintree Grand National Meeting a month later. Yes, it’s virtually a full four weeks later this year, with the Merseyside Marathon being run on Saturday 14th April, there’s a strong chance the ground will once again be riding on the faster side of good.

Having landed the world’s greatest steeplechase twice during my riding days, it’s a contest that brings back plenty of good memories, especially my first victory on West Tip in 1986. I had to wait eight years for the second when I managed to navigate the Freddie Star-owned Miinnehoma to glory, but it was always a great test of jockeyship and, despite the much-publicised changes to the fences, I still feel this is very much the case.

With 30 unique fences to negotiate over four and a half miles, and with upwards of 39 other horses around you to keep an eye on, it isn’t a race for the faint-hearted, but that’s what makes it such a special event for connections and jockeys to win – and also why it’s so hard for horses to win the race more than once.

Many have tried and plenty have come close, but you still have to go back to 1977, when the legendary Red Rum won the third and final of his Grand Nationals, to find a repeat winner of the race, so although he’ll be popular in the betting, you might want to bear this in mind if you fancy last year’s winner Ballabriggs.

A lot can happen in the build-up to the big day. With the final 40 runners unconfirmed until a few days before the race, you should only play in the ante-post market if you can be certain not only that your horse is going to get into the race but also get there in one piece.

That said, if you like your big race trends – and, believe me, the Grand National is often a great race for the stat students – you can always give yourself a head start by applying these key six pointers to the entries so far.

Age: 17 of the last 18 winners were aged 9 or older – Only Bindaree, who was an 8-year-old, in 2002 blotted this excellent trend.

Weight: Make 11 stone your cut-off point: Only two horses in the last 25 runnings have won the race with MORE than 11 stone on their back.

Stamina: You have to go back to 1970 to find the last winner that hadn’t previously won over at least 3 miles.

Irish Bred: 9 of the last 11 winners, including Ballabriggs last year, were bred in the Emerald Isle.

Ignore Cheltenham Festival Winners: Since 1961 only Silver Birch (2007) had won a race at that year’s Cheltenham Festival before going onto National glory.

Course Experience: 7 of the last 11 winners had previously run over these Grand National fences – either in the race itself in a previous year on in other races like the Topham or Becher Chase.

For all my FREE Cheltenham tips go to www.richarddunwoody.co.uk

Tags: Cheltenham Festival, horse racing, Richard Dunwoody, columnist, Kauto Star, Long Run