Top tipster Simon Rowlands has three selections for day two of the Cheltenham Festival, including a strong each-way fancy in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.
It can be difficult to identify a race of the week in advance when the week in question is the Cheltenham Festival, during which Grade Ones abound. But, for me, nothing rivals Wednesday’s Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase (3.30).
We have been here before, in that Shishkin and Energumene fought out an absolute epic for the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January, but this time we have another top-notcher in Chacun Pour Soi in the mix. Add to that the last two Champion Chase winners – Politologue and Put The Kettle On – and the gelding who arguably should have won 12 months ago, Nube Negra.
That Clarence House certainly delivered for drama and quality, but if you think it settled once and for all who was better out of Shishkin and Energumene then I have to disagree. The latter had the former in trouble and went roughly 8/1 on in running before Shishkin surged past late on to win by a length.
The sectionals told of a strong pace, which tested Shishkin’s jumping like never before, and show that it was more a case of Energumene coming to the end of his tether late on than Shishkin quickening on the run-in.
Even if you accept that Shishkin is a length better horse than Energumene at present, it can be queried as to why the former is odds on and the latter is around the 7/2 mark. Ratings-to-odds conversions have it significantly closer than that.
Some of those connected with Energumene are on record as saying they don’t think they can beat Shishkin doing what they did at Ascot, which is disappointingly negative.
Doing what they did at Ascot worked extremely well until the last 150 yards or so. Crucially, there is more than a furlong shorter to travel and less testing ground (somewhere between “good” and “good to soft” judged on early times on Tuesday) this time.
I have Shishkin rated 178 and Energumene rated 177 – two of the best chasers of the modern era – but Chacun Pour Soi is not far behind on 174.
I don’t accept that the last-named cannot travel, for there was a legitimate injury reason for his flop at Sandown before Christmas. But he may have passed up a gilt-edged opportunity in a much easier race 12 months ago.
Regardless of the outcome, let’s hope we get a thriller like the one we got at Ascot, with the promise of further thrillers to come. But it has to be said that I have plenty of reputation as well as money invested already in Energumene turning the tables!
‘Sir Gerhard is there to be taken on’
The second day kicks off with an enthralling Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (1.30). Sir Gerhard dominates the betting, having been switched to this from an even hotter Supreme on Tuesday.
This is understandable in one respect, but speed was the feature of his bumper career and I am far from convinced that the extra five furlongs here will suit him.
Sir Gerhard is there to be taken on, anyway, and the jockeys on his rivals will be well aware of the possible chink in his armour. This is also a mathematically good race in which to bet each way.
I would not put you off Three Stripe Life or Stage Star – Journey With Me has more to prove in my view – but the one I like most is I Am Maximus.
I imagine connections’ response to his defeat at this course on New Year’s Day was disappointment at the time, but that effort looks a whole lot better now that the gelding who beat him, Hillcrest, looks a potential star.
The pair came clear of some fairly useful rivals that day, and there is also a good chance that I Am Maximus will be played later here than he was that day. That makes him appealing at a double-figured price, for all that he has improvement still to find.
I am a big fan of L’Homme Presse and almost as big a fan of Bravemansgame, who meet in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase (2.10), but I think connections should have stuck at around two-and-a-half miles with the former and the latter is too short, with Ahoy Senor and some smart Irish rivals also in the field. A race to savour more than bet in, for me.
You are welcome to the Coral Cup (2.50) – one of the toughest races of the week to crack – and the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase (4.10) – once memorably described as being like having crazy golf at The Open – though I may be tempted to lay Tiger Roll against two or three borderline Cheltenham Gold Cup horses in the latter.
The Grand Annual (4.50) is more my cup of tea, especially because the prospect of a crazy pace sheds a whole different light on proceedings.
I make it seven habitual pace-forcers in this, though the problem for anything trying to come from behind is in picking a path through the carnage and the rapidly weakening in a field of 27.
Frero Banbou is better equipped than most and comes here in good form, having had the misfortune of running into a rejuvenated and therefore very well handicapped Dolos last time. He has scarcely run a poor race since coming from France and has looked especially good when able to pounce late against tiring rivals. Frero Banbou is a fighting proposition in a tough race.
The Weatherbys Champion Bumper (5.30) could well be another cracker, with the market suggesting it largely concerns two or three despite a field of 22.
Facile Vega and American Mike are well ahead of the rest, headed by Redemption Day, on my figures, but the value has long since disappeared.
I will be cheering on American Mike – put up ante-post at 7/1 after his Down Royal win in October – but reckon he has two to three lengths to find with Quevega’s son Facile Vega, a breathtaking winner at Leopardstown last month.
Simon Rowlands’ selections…
Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (1.30) – I AM MAXIMUS (0.5pt each-way)
Queen Mother Champion Chase (3.30) – ENERGUMENE (2pts win)
Grand Annual Handicap Chase (4.50) – FRERO BANBOU (0.5pt eachway)