Enda Bolger’s Cross-Country Runners

Enda Bolger was the cross-country genius when the race was first introduced to the Cheltenham Festival. His horses came into this better prepared than any others. While he still has a reputation for being the man to follow in this race, his record has not been as strong in recent years – in fact, he hasn’t trained the winner on the day since 2009, despite having had 24 runners in that period of time (I say on the day as Josies Orders was eventually named the winner after Any Currency was disqualified after winning in 2016). Interestingly, he trained the favourite in 2010, 2013, 2016 and 2017. My theory would be that despite his record in the race having deteriorated significantly, his reputation is factored into the price of his horses in the race – they tend not to represent value for this reason.

The reason for this may be the growing trend of trainers bringing their horses to Cheltenham before the festival in order to school them over the cross-country course. This could mean that Bolger’s edge is decreasing. It could also mean that proven cross-country specialists are no longer the horses to follow in the race, as they might not have the advantage that the form book suggests.

Auvergnat

Auvergnat is one such cross-country specialist from Bolger’s yard. Since arriving from Jonjo O’Neill in 2016, 6 of his 11 starts for Bolger have come over banks either at Cheltenham or Punchestown. His form in such races reads 3U14F1 – Punchestown may well be the preference (311 compared to U4F at Cheltenham). Having said that, he finished a creditable 4th in this race last year in what was a respectable effort. That piece of form gives him over 11 lengths to find with Cause Of Causes, however.

  • Overall Record: 20 runs – 3 wins – 5 places
  • Cheltenham record: 3-0-0
    • Unseated in a 3m 6f Cross Country Chase in January 2017
    • 4th in this race in 2017
    • Fell in a 3m 6f Cross Country Chase in November 2017
  • He probably prefers a cut in the ground – 12-3-4 on yielding to soft or worse, 8-0-1 on yielding or better
  • The majority of jockeys have only rode him once so there’s no point in giving a full list. The one worth noting is Mark Walsh (3-1-1).
  • He has a strong record in February (4-2-1) and while it drops in March (2-0-0) it’s 2-1-0 in May. He may be seen at his best at the end of the season.
  • His record is far better at right-handed tracks – 11-2-5 compared to 9-1-0 going left-handed.

Cantlow

The second Bolger horse in the field is Cantlow. He also arrived in Bolger’s yard in 2016 and began to be campaigned in cross-country races. Like Auvergnat, he might prefer Punchestown, where his form reads 2212, compared to 012342 at Cheltenham – however, the latter record is more than respectable. He was only 11th in this race in 2016 but, having found form the following winter and putting in a good run to finish 2nd over course and distance in January 2017, he went off favourite last year and finished 3rd. Like Auvergnat, this leaves him with form to reverse with Cause Of Causes, who finished 10 lengths ahead of him that day.

  • Overall Record: 46 runs – 7 wins – 12 places
  • Cheltenham record: 11-1-5
    • 10th in a handicap hurdle in November 2011
    • 3rd in the Pertemps Final in March 2012
    • 2nd in a grade 3 2m 5f handicap chase in December 2013
    • Fell in the Festival Plate in March 2014
    • 13th in the Paddy Power Gold Cup in November 2014
    • 10th in this race in 2016
    • Won over course and distance in December 2016
    • 2nd over course and distance in January 2017
    • 3rd in this race in March 2017
    • 4th over course and distance in November 2017
    • 2nd over course and distance in December 2017
  • Completely versatile in terms of ground – records range from 3-1-2 on good to firm, to 6-2-2 on heavy.
  • A few noteworthy jockey’s records include Mark Walsh (8-3-1), Adrian Heskin (2-0-2) and Nina Carberry (2-0-2).
  • He seems to love small fields (5-3-2) in fields of 7 or less. Even in moderately sized fields he has a decent record (27-7-8 in fields of 15 runners or less) but large fields seem to be a disadvantage (19-0-4 in fields of 16 or more).
  • All of his wins have come when back out within 30 days of his last start (21-7-5). However, he’s just 7-0-2 when back out within 15 days of his last start. 24-0-7 when back after a break of over 30 days (10-0-1 when back out after over 60 days).

Josies Orders

The most fancied of Bolger’s 4 runners at the time of writing, Josies Orders technically won this race in 2016 despite having passed the post in 2nd, with winner Any Currency later being disqualified, having tested positive for a banned substance. Another recruit from Jonjo O’Neill’s yard, Josie’s Orders seems to love the Cheltenham cross-country course, with form of 1113 there including his win in this race. His form over the banks at Punchestown reads U122. This season he finished 3rd over course and distance in December before putting in an awful run in a handicap hurdle in Cork at the beginning of January, before coming back to form last month over the banks at Punchestown, finishing 2nd behind Auvergnat.

  • Overall Record: 30 runs – 7 wins – 5 places
  • Cheltenham record: 5-3-1
    • 22nd in the Pertemps Final in March 2014
    • Won over course and distance in November 2015
    • Won over course and distance in December 2015
    • Won this race in 2016 (after first past the post was disqualified)
    • 3rd over course and distance in December 2017
  • Good ground would probably be the preference – 16-5-3 on good to soft or better, 14-2-2 on soft or worse.
  • Nina Carberry is the main jockey worth noting – 5-4-0 is an outstanding record. Mark Walsh is 5-0-3 and M J Linehan is 3-1-0.
  • His win record suggests a preference for larger fields (16-5-1 in fields of 12 runners or more, 14-2-4 in fields of 11 or less). However, these are fairly similar place records.
  • 7-0-0 after a break of over 60 days. 22-7-4 after a shorter break.
  • He seems to really shine during the first half of the season – 19-5-4 from October to December, 10-2-1 from January to May.

My Hometown

My Hometown would be considered the outside of the Bolger quartet, with 29 lengths to find with Auvergnat from Punchestown last month. That was only his third start in cross-country races, with a respectable 4th over the banks at Punchestown last November and a 6th place finish over this course and distance in December.

  • Overall Record: 15 runs – 1 win – 0 places
  • Cheltenham record: 1-0-0
    • 6th over course and distance in December
  • His sole success came on heavy ground at Limerick in a maiden hurdle.
  • Obviously it’s more or less impossible for us to create a profile for this horse on the same basis as the others, as he has just one win to his name and no places.

WIN a Copy of the Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide

With just days to go until the Cheltenham Festival begins, we’re helping out two of our lucky readers with their festival form study by giving away two copies of the popular Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide by Matt Tombs.

The Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide continues as a firm favourite with punters, with the guide now in its 19th consecutive year and back better than ever before.

Building on the success of last year’s publication, lead author Matt Tombs returns and is again supported with key insights from Tony Keenan, Lydia Hislop, Kevin Blake and for the first time Sporting Life’s Ben Linfoot.

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Apples Jade – Does She Need The Run?

Every year, we hear the same rumours that certain horses are “festival bankers”. This year is no different, with 4 favourites on the Tuesday all supposedly “banker material”. However, it has paid in the past to try to pick holes in these favourites and identify reasons that it may be better to oppose them.

Apples Jade is a difficult one. Since winning this race last year, she has looked fairly bulletproof with 4 wins from 4 subsequent starts (3 of them in grade one company). However, the only real question mark over her is that she will go into the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham after a break of 75 days.

Apples Jade has won 10 times from 14 starts over hurdles. Three of her four losses do have something in common. The first came at Cheltenham in the 2016 Triumph Hurdle when she came 2nd behind Ivanovich Gorbatov. Interestingly, this came after a break of 83 days (she hadn’t run since Leopardstown over Christmas). After this, she went on to win two successive races at the end of the season at Aintree and Punchestown. In hindsight, one would wonder whether she needed the run at Cheltenham to shake off the cobwebs.

In the 2015/16 season, she made her seasonal debut at Down Royal following a break of 188 days. She was beaten into 2nd that day behind Rashaan in what was probably the most disappointing performance of her career. She ran again just 3 weeks later in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, finishing 2nd behind Irving. Again, she was the beaten favourite, but after this shorter break her performance was far better than on her seasonal debut. Yet again, one would wonder whether she needed the break to shake off the cobwebs.

After another quick turnaround, she ran in the Hattons Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse in early December and won (narrowly beating Vroum Vroum Mag). This was to be her last start for 80 days, until she ran at Punchestown in late February. Again, she was beaten after a break, finishing 2 lengths behind Limini. However, just a couple of weeks later she would go on to reverse this form at the Cheltenham Festival, and finished off the season with another win at Punchestown.

This season has been slightly different. Her first start of the season came at Navan in November and she did win despite the break of 197 days. She probably still improved from that start to the next, winning the Hattons Grace for a second consecutive year before winning at Leopardstown over Christmas.

Despite having been beaten following a break after Christmas in each of the last two years, the decision has been made to run fresh at Cheltenham. However, her form after a break of over 50 days now reads 12221, compared to 11211111 after a shorter period off the track.

The Opposition

While opposition looked scarce, Willie Mullins announced last week that 2016 winner Vroum Vroum Mag will in fact return to the race this year, hoping to reverse the form with Apples Jade from last year’s race.

Vroum Vroum Mag has won 7 times from 11 starts over hurdles – however, she has also won once from 4 starts in bumpers and has a perfect record of 6 wins from 6 chase starts. We’ll ignore 6 of these starts (her first 6 runs in bumpers and over hurdles in France) and focus on her career since moving to Willie Mullins’ yard.

She was unbeaten in her first two seasons with Mullins, the second of which culminated in a victory in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and the Punchestown Champion Hurdle a few weeks later in April 2016. She then faced a long break and wasn’t seen for 219 days before running in the Hattons Grace at Fairyhouse. She was beaten that day by Apples Jade but ran more or less to form. She went on to win the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown and the grade 2 Mares’ Hurdle at Doncaster at the end of January before heading to the 2017 Cheltenham Festival to be beaten by Apples Jade again. After that, she was 6/4 favourite for the Punchestown Champion Hurdle but was well beaten in 7th – her first ever real underperformance. It later emerged that she had been injured.

Throughout this season, it has been unclear whether Vroum Vroum Mag would stay in training or go to be covered. The decision has been made to run her at Cheltenham, but having her covered is still considered a strong option later on in the season. Mullins’ comments were simply, “She’s in great shape. I didn’t think we’d get her back. She hasn’t been covered yet, but we have plenty of time and she could well be later in the year.”

Of course, if Apples Jade is expected to need the run then the same should be said for Vroum Vroum Mag. However, a look through her past form wouldn’t suggest that there’s any real history of needing a run – she seems to perform to the same standard when fresh as she does when she has run recently. Coming here without having run this season may seem like a negative, but Mullins is more than capable of getting a horse fit and ready for the big day without running them that season. Quevega won this race in 2011, 2013 and 2014 without having run earlier in the season, while Arctic Fire won the County Hurdle without having seen a racecourse last season. Overall at the Cheltenham festival, Mullins has had 4 wins and a place from 11 runners which had yet to run that season.

Buveur D’Air – The Arguments Against

This year’s Champion Hurdle market has been dominated by quite some time by one horse – the reigning Champion Hurdler, Buveur D’Air. With Faugheen failing to show his brilliant best in his last two starts and last year’s juvenile form not working out as well as one might have hoped, Buveur D’Air (currently 4/7 at best) looks like festival banker material.

So, why would we take on the favourite?

The easiest argument that’s been floating around is that it’s hard to retain a Champion Hurdle – Hurricane Fly was well fancied to do so and failed. Really, I can’t take this argument because this year’s Champion Hurdle isn’t just a weak Champion Hurdle, it’s a weak grade 1. The argument that it’s difficult to retain a Champion Hurdle isn’t based on the fact that it’s a gruelling race that takes a lot out of the horse (as could be the case for a Grand National or an Albert Bartlett), but on the fact that the race is generally full of class, with one of last year’s novices coming to challenge or something else emerging. Looking at the list of 11 above, it’s hard to see where that major threat is.

The second argument is that the only defeat of his career since he switched from bumpers to hurdles came at Cheltenham, in the 2016 Supreme. However, that argument can’t really be entertained at all. He was beaten only by Altior and Min in the Supreme (who will be the top two in the market in the Champion Chase the day after this content and both of whom have subsequently proven their class – it was one of the best novice contests in recent memory). That was at the time a career-best performance, probably not bettered until he returned to Cheltenham last March to win this in a stunning fashion. There is no doubt about his ability in terms of the track.

My only real concern (and it is minor) is that Henderson has been quoted more than once as saying that he takes a bit of work. Speaking on February 20th about wishing to take BD for a racecourse gallop, he said: “Buveur D’Air takes an awful lot of work, but he did work this morning. He has not really had a race yet (this season) and he didn’t have a race at Sandown. I would like to work him before racing on Saturday just to get him revved up”. Essentially, the suggestion here is that the lack of competition thus far this season may be a bad thing when it comes to the day itself (this wasn’t enough of a concern for Henderson to take him to Leopardstown for a real race instead of Sandown, of course).

Again, this argument can be countered. Firstly, thinking back to last season, Buveur D’Air was gifted a similarly easy campaign, going off at SP’s of 10/11, 30/100 and 1/4 in his three starts that season. This certainly didn’t have any detrimental effect come the day of the Champion Hurdle. If this was of any concern, Henderson will do whatever he feels is necessary in a racecourse gallop to wind him up a bit more ahead of the day itself. For me, this isn’t anything to lose sleep over.

While his starts this season may not have taken too much effort to win, Buveur D’Air was impressive nonetheless. His hurdling is slick and efficient, and based on what we’ve seen so far he has improved significantly from last season in terms of his jumping. In short, should he run to form, it will take something outstanding to beat him.

Ascot Chase Trends Analysis

This year’s Ascot Chase is a fascinating renewal, with old favourite Cue Card, Gold Cup contender Coney Island and Ryanair Chase hopes Top Notch and Waiting Patiently among the field of 7. I’ve picked out 10 key trends for the race and ran this year’s runners past them to see which horses fit the ideal profile for an Ascot Chase winner.

Key Trends

  1. 10 of the last 10 winners had an official rating of 162 or more.
    These horses filled 74% of the total places (including 100% of the winners) from just 34% of the total field.
  2. 10 of the last 10 winners had at least placed in a grade 1.
    These horses filled 83% of the total places from 61% of the total field.
  3. 9 of the last 10 winners had previously won a grade 1.
    This narrows down the field well, as these horses filled 61% of the total places from 37% of the total field.
  4. 9 of the last 10 winners had won at least once in their last 3 starts.
    These horses filled 91% of the total places from just 69% of the total field.
  5. 9 of the last 10 winners finished in the top 6 last time out.
    These horses filled 87% of the total places (including 90% of the winners) from 78% of the total field.
  6. 8 of the last 10 winners had won 4 or more chases.
    These horses filled 83% of the total places from 64% of the total field.
  7. 8 of the last 10 winners had run between 2 and 4 times that season.
    These horses filled 83% of the total places from 67% of the total field.
  8. 8 of the last 10 winners had previously run in between 6 and 19 chases.
    These horses filled 91% of the total places from 81% of the total field.
  9. 7 of the last 10 winners had previously won at Ascot.
    These horses filled 52% of the total places (incluing 70% of the total winners) from 43% of the total field.
  10. 6 of the last 10 winners ran in the King George last time out.
    These horses filled 39% of the total places (including 60% of the winners) from just 16% of the total field.

This Year’s Runners

Horse 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Total
Coney Island Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No Yes No 6
Cue Card Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes No Yes No 7
Frodon Yes No No Yes Yes Yes No Yes No No 5
Speredek No Yes No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No 6
Top Notch Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No 9
Traffic Fluide No Yes No No No No Yes Yes No Yes 4
Waiting Patiently Yes No No Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No 5

So, the trends shortlist looks like this:

  1. Top Notch – 9
  2. Cue Card – 7

Top Notch

A quick look at Top Notch’s profile confirms that he’s a leading contender:

  • Overall Record: 19 runs – 10 wins – 3 places
  • 3-3-0 at Ascot
    Won a class 3 hurdle over 2 miles in January 2015
    Won a class 2 2m 5f chase in December 2016
    Won c grade 2 2m 5f chase here last November
  • He runs well with some sort of cut in the ground – 5-4-0 on good to soft and 9-5-2 on soft, compared to 3-0-1 on good ground. 2-1-0 on heavy.
  • The majority of his starts have been in small fields, but he has been fairly consistent in them (14-9-1 in fields of 7 or less, 5-1-2 in bigger fields).
  • He has a strong record in November (6-3-1), December (3-3-0), January (2-1-0) and February (3-3-0). This drops slightly in March (3-0-2) and April (1-0-0). 1-0-0 in October.
  • He has a particularly strong record at right-handed tracks (5-5-0), compared to 14-5-3 going left-handed.
  • He has a strong record on tracks described as having slight undulations (such as Ascot), with a record of 10-8-1. 4-1-0 on flat tracks and 5-1-2 at more undulating tracks.

Betfair Hurdle Review – The Stand-Out Stat

Kalashnikov put in a good performance to win the Betfair Hurdle on Saturday in tough conditions. It was undoubtedly one of the best renewals in recent memory in terms of the overall standard of the race. Interestingly, Kalashnikov was one of the horses to come out on top in our trends analysis ahead of the race. However, more interesting than his overall good performance on trends is one particular stat which was backed up by his win. This is most certainly worth noting ahead of next year’s race.

Trend number 9 in our analysis last Saturday concerned horses making their handicap debuts:

5 of the last 10 winners had never run in a handicap.
These 5 winners all came in the last 6 years. This is a significant over-performance, considering these horses made up just 13% of the total field in the last 10 years, but managed to fill 23% of the total places. In the last 5 years, they have over-performed even more significantly – 35% of the total places from 20% of the total field.”

Just 4 of the 24 horses to go to post in Saturday’s race fitted this trend – these were Kalashnikov (won), Moon Racer (11th), Lalor (13th) and Waterlord (pulled up). This means that 6 of the last 7 winners have fit this trend (as have 2 placed horses), despite only 28 runners in the last 7 years having fit the trend, from a total of 146 runners in the race.

In the last 7 years, 19% of the total field have fit this trend. However, these horses have managed to fill 32% of the total places, including 86% of the winners. 

In short, it’s definitely worth looking out for handicap debutantes in this race next February.

In-Form Trainers: February 12th

After some top quality action in Newbury this weekend (and a few Cheltenham festival clues), it’s back to the midweek racing with only 29 days to go until the highlight of the season.

As ever, here’s our update on the trainers operating at high strike rates over the past couple of weeks:

John Gosden has had 3 winners and 2 placed horses from 5 runners in the last 14 days, with form of 21211. He runs one horse today at Wolverhampton:
5:40 Wolverhampton – Orchid Lily

Mrs R Dobbin has had 4 winners from  7 runners in the last 2 weeks, although her good form stretches back slightly further than that, with form of 1211141F51 since January 26th. She has two runners today:
2:00 Catterick – Jack Devine
3:35 Catterick – Monfass

Ed Walker has had 3 winners from 6 runners in the last 14 days. He runs one horse today:
8:10 Wolverhampton – Bold Prediction

Rebecca Bastiman has had 3 winners and 2 placed horses from 7 runners in the last 2 weeks. She runs two today:
7:40 Wolverhampton – See Vermont
8:40 Wolverhampton – Gone With The Wind

J Scott has had 4 wins and a place from 10 runners in the last 2 weeks (in fact, he has had 4 wins and a place from 7 runners in the last 7 days). His form in the last 7 days reads 11118P2, with the horse than finished 8th having had a starting price of 50/1 and the horse than pulled up having had a starting price of 100/1. He has two runners today:
3:50 Plumpton – Two Hoots
4:20 Plumpton – Shoofly Milly

Dr Richard Newland has had 2 wins and a place from 4 runners in the last 7 days (2 wins and a place from 5 runners in the last 14 days). His form over the last 7 days reads 4211. He has one runners today:
2:35 Catterick – Aaron Lad