Festival Trials day and all Saturday’s TV races

I suppose as race titles go, the 1:50 isn’t at all bad, given that it tells us exactly how much time we have to wait for The Festival. However. it doesn’t tell us how much time until the announcement by Martin St Quinton, Cheltenham Chair, regarding the introduction of a five day Festival. So, as all we do here is second guess the outcomes of events, this is my prediction.

The announcement will be made in the next three weeks and it will tell us there will be a five day Festival, each of six races per day. and including the introduction of two or possibly three new races, maybe even including a handicap for “Veteran” Cheltenham winners aged 11+. This might well be the weakest part of my prediction, because as Lee Mottershead wrote recently in the Racing Post: “One of the great beauties of the Cheltenham Festival is that every race should matter. If Cheltenham and its Jockey Club owners freely admit five of the existing races are candidates for the chop [to accommodate a new graded mares’ chase from 2021] it is hard to see how there can be any justification for extending the festival.” Elsewhere I have seen suggestions of a sort of Ascot “Heath” day on the Saturday, which would focus on the Cross Country course (only used four times a year) and introducing a graded 2m4f hurdle race. Or why not move it to Wednesday and have it end on a Saturday, rhetorically perhaps because it would not increase income? Which brings me neatly to what I suspect is the real reason for all this brouha.

Simply put, The Jockey Club owns a shed load of racecourses that do not make money. I would guess that only Cheltenham, Aintree and possibly the Derby Meeting at Epsom, actually make a positive contribution to the JC coffers, and the advent of Tote ownership and the last gasps from the Levy system, will keep things ticking over for the next three to five years. However, as The University of Liverpool’s Management School research into racing between 2002 and 2018 clearly shows, attendances are down on average 7.8% since 2015. For a standard jumps meeting, attendances on a like-for-like basis have dropped 25.3% between 2018 and 2002. Prize money (except at the big festivals) is static, or as in the case of ARC racecourses, falling. While there are 27.3% more race meetings for the same period, the number of horses in training has fallen by 12.3%. Add to this heady mix, if you will, the changing face of society. Is it possble that the average millennial takes into account the time between races, the shortness of each race, animal welfare concerns, perceptions of value for money when it comes to food and drink and entry fees and perhaps the feeling, that it is an elitist, arcane world which requires study, social skills and some sort of inherited interest to enjoy. Perhaps..

More immediately, I wonder whether the whole Festival ethos, whereby all roads lead to it, may potentially be harming the rest of the calendar. A Festival Trials Day by any other name, is by no means unique even for non-Jockey Club courses, who as a result, are making their own race meeting subservient. For example, Newbury’s Denham Chase day aka Betfair Super Saturday, writes this; “Taking place just 6 weeks before the Cheltenham Festival, Betfair Super Saturday is the last chance for you to see your equine heroes in action.”  Musselburgh racecourse has this: “Edinburgh’s Jumps Racing Festival – the build up to The Cheltenham Festival starts here! Saturday features The Edinburgh National, with over £250,000 prize money across the weekend; we attract contenders for The Cheltenham and The Grand National Festivals.”

I think a five-day Festival is inevitable, but my fear is that it might harm the industry through bad press and perceptions of greed. It will drive more people to watch it on television, and a bigger TV audience will simply increase social detachment from the sport, creating confusion and further misunderstanding about the realities of this traditional sport, at a time when all traditions are being questioned.

Anyway, time for the tips and some thoughts on a cracking day’s racing.

12:40 CHELTENHAM The Finesse G2. Hendo has won four of the last seven Finesses (Finessi?) so MONTE CRISTO commands respect.  However one from the hat and possibly bigger than 5/1 is GALAHAD QUEST. The odds for his previous starts have suggested a decent horse with ability.

13:15 CHELTENHAM Timeform Novice Chase. I had a whisper for Michael Scu’s COURT MASTER and backed it yesterday at 20/1. I see it tipped in the RP and it hasn’t moved a whisker in price. He’s a 1lb out of the handicap, but this is really a question of whether he has the ability to compete at this higher level. The market doesn’t think so! Of course I could have got it wrong and my man meant CHAMPAGNE COURT, who is also progressive. He’s wearing a first-time tongue tie and he deserves to be second favourite.

1:50 CHELTENHAM Paddy Power 45 Sleeps To Cheltenham Trophy Handicap Chase (Grade 3) Cl1 (5yo+) 2m4½f

All 13 winners were 12/1 or shorter, had run at least twice that Season and the majority had a Top 4 last time out and had run a maximum of 15 Chase starts. That has left me with a choice between LALOR and WARTHOG and my preference is for the latter. I shall Dutch the two to win.

2:05 DONCASTER Albert Bartlett River Don Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 2) Cl1 (5yo+) 3m½f

There are some decent trends here and the last 11 winners were aged 5-7yo and had a top 2 finish LTO. In fact all 11 had a Top 3 finish on their last 2 hurdle starts and a TOP 2 LTO. The trends narrow the field down to CHAMPAGNE WELL, BOSS MAN FRED and THOMAS MACDONAGH, but BOSS MAN FRED is the only one who matches the exact profile of the last eight winners, being a 5/6yo, with 1-4 Hurdle starts and a Top 2 LTO.

2:25 CHELTENHAM Paddy Power Cotswold Chase (Grade 2) Cl1 (5yo+) 3m1½f

I am startled to discover that 24 of the 25 horses that started under 4/1 have been beaten (the exception being Frodon who beat the 2/1 Fav! This removes BRISTOL DE MAI, who I had more serious question marks over, and the trends leave me with SLATE HOUSE – MASTER WHITTAKER – TOP VILLE BEN. I shall have the former to win and to beat the other two. I rather think that Mr Whittaker is capable of a decent race and were you on course, I might have a couple of bob on a place.

2:40 DONCASTER Napoleons Casino & Restaurant Owlerton Sheffield Yorkshire Rose Mares’ Hurdle (Grade 2) Cl1 (4yo+) 2m½f

FLORESSA can’t be beat and I’ll have IRISH ROE e/w

3:00 CHELTENHAM Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (Registered As The Classic Novices’ Hurdle) (Grade 2) Cl1 (4yo+) 2m4½f

I have this between HARRY SENIOR and PROTEKTORAT. Both are relatively unexposed, but have strong form lines. Rebecca Curtis appears to be on the up, and I am bamboozled at the appearance of RUTHLESS ARTICLE so far south and on ground one would have though too soft. You know me for backing a conundrum in my desire to end my days under the Charing Cross arches. I shall have a small e/w on that one. The other two I’ll back to win for an even money bet.

3:15 DONCASTER Sky Bet Handicap Chase (Listed Race) Cl1 (5yo+) 3m

This is the trickiest race of the day and so I am relatively unsure of the outcome. Alan King could win this with an y of his, and I have two, GOOD MAN PAT and AZZERTI. I also fancy Sue Smith’s RAVENHILL ROAD. IF I had to narrow it down further, I would have to say that I’m not sure that GMP is either a fluent enough jumper, or likes Cheltenham so Sue to win with RAVENHILL ROAD who looks unexposed and AZZERTI to deliver the king place over Dingo Dollar and Good Man Pat.

3:35 CHELTENHAM galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle (Grade 2) Cl1 (5yo+) 3m

PAISLEY PARK is the one to beat, but the trends suggest a tussle between SUMMERVILLE BOY – KILLBRICKEN STORM and TOBEFAIR.  The former might win, again, but is way too short for me; Summerville might make a place, but I am interested in TOBEFAIR especially as Mrs Debra Hamer has a very sensible mark on one of my research sources, TrainerTrend. The horse loves Cheltenham, was a Neck second in the Pertemps last year and is good odds for a place here today. If I had to pick a winner I’d bet without the favourite and have a small punt on SUMMERVILLE BOY.

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