Friday, March 11, 2011

Cheltenham 2011 Festival Preview


Cheltenham 2011 Festival Preview

By Stephen Dwyer

The Cheltenham festival, described annually by those in the racing world as “The Equine Olympics” celebrates its centenary this year. Starting on Tuesday next, 28 prestigious races will be run over four days and all involved will be hoping to share a total prize fund of €4 million (£3.38 million).

Cheltenham communications manager Andy Clifton expects an attendance of over 220,000 for the festival, which will contribute £50 million to the local economy. Over €500 million will be gambled in the course of four days, which is one of the highest valued betting events outside of the World Cup.

10,000 Irish racing fans will descend upon the track at Prestbury Park to witness first-hand the illustrious meeting. The very best of Irish, British and French horses will be pitted against each other, each race having an average value of £125,000.

The Irish invasion of Cheltenham began in earnest in the late 1940’s when Cottage Rake trained by the great Vincent O’ Brien, won three consecutive Gold Cups (1948,1949,1950) and Hatton’s Grace also won three Champion Hurdle’s in a row (1949,1950,1951). The Gloucestershire track has since become a mecca for the Irish, many of whom save year-round for the pilgrimage.

The gambling stories about Cheltenham are legendary, one Irishman won enough on Istabraq in the Champion Hurdle of 1998 to pay off his mortgage, then he proceeded to lose his house on Doran’s Pride in the Gold Cup a couple of days later. “It was only a small house anyway,” he is reputed to have said.

Irish and English alike know by now that “there is no such thing as a sure thing” in Cheltenham. Since 2006, fifteen horses were beaten there at odds of under 2/1. The track itself is carved out of cleeve hill and its undulating dips and rises do not suit every racehorse.

At maximum capacity the grandstand at Cheltenham will hold nearly 70,000 spectators; it will swell with anticipation at 1:30 on Tuesday as the starting tapes go up for the first race, the Supreme Novice’s Hurdle.

The world-famous Cheltenham roar marks the moment when the festival really begins but even that does not escape the betting frenzy. Paddy Power once rigged up a decibel recorder and offered 5/1 that the noise will be between 130-140 dB, same as that of a jet engine.

If you are lucky enough to be at the festival do not be surprised to see racegoers donning unusual headwear on the first day. The racecourse is giving away thousands of free bowler hats to honour those who started the meeting in 1911.

With the wait almost over, we will keep you updated with tips, advice and the inside track on all the runners and riders for the most popular horse race meeting in the world.

Out of the past 72 races run in Cheltenham, 24 of them were won by Irish horses. With St. Patrick’s Day taking place on day three of the festival, Irish eyes may well be smiling around the Cotswolds and beyond.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Star Neuville


Star Neuville

By Stephen Dwyer

When the Champion Bumper was first run at Cheltenham, many traditionalists heralded it as the “beginning of the end of the festival”. What they meant by this was of course the inclusion of an all-flat race into jump racing’s annual Olympiad would somehow dilute it. As is often the case with the old guard when faced with new ideas, they were merely fearful of the unknown. Such is the popularity of the Champion Bumper nowadays that winning it is seen as a major stepping stone in the career of a young horse.

Indeed since its first running in 1992, three Champion Bumper winners have returned to the Cheltenham the next year to win their Festival race (Montelado won the Supreme Novice Hurdle, Florida Pearl won the RSA Chase and Monsignor won what is now the Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle). There have been of course major upsets, Dunguib last year and Cousin Vinny in 2009 both lost the Supreme Novices Hurdle when favourite. Cue Card bids to set the record straight this year.
The Champion Bumper is the race in which the Irish boast the highest strike rate of winners at Cheltenham. 14 out of 18 runnings have been won by Irish-trained horses. From his base on the Kilkenny-Carlow border, John “Shark” Hanlon is dearly hoping to continue the Irish stranglehold on the race this year with Star Neuville.

A former cattle dealer, it was only a few short years ago that Hanlon took out a trainer’s license; he was kicked by a bullock in 2001, an incident which kept him low for a year. Along with that year’s foot and mouth crisis, he eventually changed profession in 2006 when taking the plunge into horse racing on a full-time basis. A trickle of horses flowed into his yard, many from contacts he had made in the cattle business but one owner in particular; Barry Connell has brought many fine horses to Shark’s stables including Luska Lad and Star Neuville.

Star Neuville has raced five times, second in his first point to point; he duly obliged next time out when winning by ten lengths at odds of 4/6. He was an £80,000 purchase at the Cheltenham sales last April and has since progressed to become one of Ireland’s leading hopes in the Champion Bumper.

He boasted a very good time at a Galway bumper in August when unsuited by the fast going and his latest run was when beating a Willie Mullins trained hotpot, Champagne Agent at Leopardstown over Christmas.

It is worth noting that the Leopardstown bumpers over Christmas are a significant signpost for Cheltenham hopefuls. Wither or Which, Florida Pearl and Total Enjoyment all won bumpers at Leopardstown before taking their respective Champion Bumpers in Cheltenham.

Shark has admitted "I think the world of this horse and he's improved loads since he won at Leopardstown". Looking closely at his last run in Leopardstown, he put the race to bed in a matter of strides. He did idle slightly when the front but perhaps this was boredom as the race was wrapped up at this stage, It was 4 lengths back to Champagne Agent and 22 lengths back to the third horse.

Star Neuville is currently fourth in the betting for the Champion Bumper, hovering around the 12/1 mark (from 25/1) he represents solid each-way value in the race. Did I mention that Champion jockey Tony McCoy also looks set to take the ride? McCoy will be bidding for his second Champion Bumper victory, following on from Liberman in 2003. His authoritarian style of riding will suit the five year old gelding. Star Neuville is also Shark Hanlon’s only Cheltenham runner.

Hanlon had intended on running the five year old gelding in a Grade 2 bumper in Newbury last month but instead his connections opted to complete his festival preparations with a racecourse gallop at Leopardstown on Sunday last. This may have been a boost to the chances of Star Neuville as horses that do not run in the same calendar year as the Champion Bumper have an excellent record in the race. Many trainers put their best bumper horses away for the race and five of the last eight winners had not run after New Year’s Day.

Ever honest, Hanlon has stated that Star Neuville would probably start favourite if trained by bumper king Willie Mullins. In less than two weeks we will see just how good he is, but as a progressive, experienced horse, he goes to Cheltenham with every chance.

In the end, stars always shine, we will hope that this one lights up the sky for the Shark.