Thursday, November 22, 2012

William Hill Winter Festival

William Hill Winter Festival

By Stephen Dwyer

With twelve top quality races across two days, the William Hill Winter Festival at Kempton is the finest mid-season meeting in the National Hunt calendar. A crowd of over 30,000 travelled to Middlesex to attend the festival last year where Kauto Star was the leading attraction. Since William Hill began sponsoring the Winter Festival in 2009, it has been heavily promoted within the industry. The festival features multiple Grade 1 races including the Feltham Novices’ Steeple Chase, the Christmas Hurdle and the William Hill King George VI Chase, all showcase events in their own right.

From a betting perspective the King George VI Chase day at Kempton is one of the busiest of the year. In 2011 it formed a large percentage of the £100m wagered on Boxing Day. The King George is a perennial favourite for punters and layers alike and with a prize fund of £180,000, it attracts the top staying chasers. The race is the centrepiece of the two day William Hill Winter Festival and is second only in the pecking order of National Hunt racing to the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

First run in 1937, the King George VI Chase has been held on Boxing Day since 1947. Arkle, Wayward Lad, Desert Orchid and One Man are among the greats of National Hunt racing to have won the race. Many will acknowledge that for the first time since 2006, there will be no Kauto Star at Kempton.  Winner of five of the last six King George’s, the retirement of the greatest National Hunt horse since Arkle opens the door for the next contender to the throne. Kauto Star retired amidst good company, Long Run, already a Gold Cup and King George winner heads the betting for the King George at odds of 11/4 with race sponsors William Hill. Multiple Grade 1 winner, Grand Crus (9/2) is close to Long Run in the betting and Paul Nicholl’s holds a strong hand with the exciting Silviniaco Conti (5/1) and Kauto Stone (10/1) who is now proven over the trip.

Even without the great Kauto Star, this year’s renewal of the King George is highly anticipated as Kate Miller, William Hill PR Director, noted: “Whilst Kauto Star has dominated the William Hill King George for the last six years, the entries this year demonstrate what a fantastic race it is and the legacy of the King George being the mid-season Championship is set to continue.  As things stand, we are expecting a competitive field with the winner likely to head the market for the Gold Cup next March.”

Thanks in no small part to Kauto Star, trainer Paul Nicholls boasts no less than seven wins in the race and is its leading handler. Aside from the five timer from Kauto Star, he won it twice with See More Business. The King George is a race famed for multiple repeat winners. This is backed up by the statistic that no less than twelve horses have won it more than once.

Favourite for the race, Long Run, has not raced since his Cheltenham Gold Cup third to Synchronised. Beaten twice by Kauto Star last term, the seven year old boasted his only victory of the season when narrowly winning the Grade 2 Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury. He has yet to confirm the form showed when winning the King George and Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2010/11 season but his record at Kempton reads 112 so he has a huge chance if back to his best. At times Long Run needs to have his mind made up for him at fences and works best when ridden prominently but he is still a brilliant horse and you cannot safely discount him.

Both Long Run and Grand Crus have won the Feltham Novices' Chase at Kempton. Last year Grand Crus ran out a hugely impressive winner of the 3m race when eased down ahead of Silviniaco Conti. Grand Crus has not raced since his fourth in the RSA at Cheltenham but has won twice on his seasonal reappearance and David Pipe’s grey is a class act.

The Nicky Henderson team saddle Finian's Rainbow who overcame early jumping errors in his races last season before comfortably winning the  John Smith's Melling Chase at the Aintree Festival. Finian's Rainbow is unbeaten at Kempton, he won his bumper by 6l in 2009 before outstaying Wishfull Thinking in the Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase at the Winter Festival last year. He has yet to race beyond 2m 4f but he showed stamina in abundance in Aintree and may stay the trip. Another entry worth noting is Kempton Park specialist Nacarat, he has won both the Racing Post Chase and the Racing Plus Chase at the track and has run in the last three renewals of the William Hill King George VI Chase.

Finally, Cue Card is an intriguing contender. He demolished a useful field in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter recently. In beating Menorah and Edgardo Sol, the odds of Cue Card were slashed from 20/1 to 8/1 for the King George. Cue Card’s jumping improved readily towards the business end of the race and his speed allowed for a 26 length victory. Trainer Colin Tizzard has always had Kempton’s Boxing Day highlight in mind for his six-year-old and said after his win at Exeter: “If he’s ever going to get three miles, it will be around Kempton. Pace is just not an issue for him as he was always cruising. He used to tank but he was a lot less fizzy than he normally is on his first run back. When Joe squeezed him up, he was gone.” What is also interesting is that the dam of Cue Card, Wicked Crack, was a three time winner over three miles in Ireland for Eddie Hales so on the face of it, Cue Card is equipped to stay the trip.

Though the highlight of the meeting is the King George, there are several other top class Grade 1 races to contend with. The Christmas Hurdle, won by Binocular for the past two years is always an exciting race and the Feltham Novices' Chase aims to be as competitive as ever.

With stiff fences and a short run in, you need a horse that can jump and travel well at Kempton. With several runners unbeaten at the track, this year’s William Hill Winter Festival promises to be as exciting as ever.


Tom Mullins

Tom Mullins

By Stephen Dwyer

The binoculars were broken, no question about it. Flung with disgust to the Cheltenham concrete as Tom Mullins believed the chance of Alderwood had been taken away in a moment. It was the Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle, one of the most competitive races at the Cheltenham Festival. Badly hampered on the inside rail two flights from home, Tony McCoy steered and squeezed Alderwood out of trouble. The gelding rallied well after the home turn and barely held on by under a length to the Paul Nicholls-trained Edgardo Sol. Despair had turned to disbelief of a different kind, Tom Mullins had just trained his very first Cheltenham winner.

The Mullins family are masters of understatement, true too for Tom when mentioning after Alderwood won; “It is an unbelievable feeling ,I just wanted to get one on the board”. Tom’s father, Paddy along with his brothers Tony, Willie and his cousin Seamus, had all won at Cheltenham. Now another Mullins had joined the illustrious band. In a way, Alderwoood’s victory at Cheltenham was fitting. It had been thirty years since Paddy Mullins won the National Hunt Chase with Hazy Dawn and thirty years also since Tom Mullins completed his jockey’s course at the National Stud.

A stint in America was followed by over a decade as a very useful amateur rider but the training world was never far away. It was the priceless time he spent as assistant trainer with his father, Paddy, that the practicalities and procedures of training thoroughbreds were repeated over and over again. In February 2004, Tom took out his public training licence and since then he has consistently performed well. In his first season he trained fifteen winners. There were eighteen in the second, a season which brought its own good fortune in a resolute mare called Asian Maze.

Asian Maze, a full sister to Quantitativeeasing won four Grade One races for Mullins. She was a top performer at the highest level in races which included the Aintree Hurdle and the Champion Stayer's Hurdle. As well as Asian Maze, Tom also trained Oscar Dan Dan to win the Hatton's Grace Hurdle a couple of seasons ago. Training from his base at Goresbridge, last season was a highly profitable one for Tom Mullins. With 15 winners from 71 rides, Mullins turned out a level stakes profit of €31.71, one of the highest in the region.

A fine example of the ability of the younger Mullins brother was the transformation of Alderwood. Owned by JP McManus, the gelding was winless in his first seven starts. He would become one of the training success stories of last season. Alderwood is one of the most improved horses in training , his progression included that famous win in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham, a Grade Two at Fairyhouse and a gritty Grade One triumph in the Evening Herald Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown. Now destined for a career in Novice Chasing, Alderwood could be one for the notebooks over fences.

Aside from Alderwood, there was another high point this year for the Tom Mullins yard. Bob Lingo provided Mullins with the biggest win in his short career when gallantly powering to victory in this year’s the Galway Plate. He beat his brother Willie’s Blackstairmountain into third when running out a five length winner of the Galway Festival’s biggest race at Ballybrit. Additionally, Some Article ran out an impressive winner of the valuable Goffs Land Rover Bumper at Punchestown.

It was predominantly these achievements which led to Mullins being nominated for the HRI awards under the 2012 National Hunt category. The awards, which take place 10th December at Leopardstown Racecourse acknowledge the human and equine excellence in the sport of horse racing where Ireland continues to outperform other countries with greater resources. In addition to Tom Mullins, the nominees in the National Hunt category are, Barry Geraghty, Tony Martin, Davy Russell and of course Willie Mullins.

Ever modest, no matter what the outcome of the HRI awards, Tom Mullins remains an exciting trainer to follow. As a side note, Tom has the enviable record of being unbeaten on the legendary Dawn Run. It was he who rode her in her remaining two flat races after Mrs Hill stopped riding the mare. There is a lot more than meets the eye with Tom Mullins, lots held in reserve you feel, in a well that runs very deep indeed.



2012 Breeders Cup

2012 Breeders Cup

By Stephen Dwyer

You will be familiar of course with a little horse called Sea The Stars. Winner of six Group One’s he is the only horse to have won the 2,000 Guineas, Epsom Derby, and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in the same year. So exceptional was Sea The Stars that no matter what Aidan O’ Brien threw at him, he was forever bested. Mastercrafstman, Rip Van Winkle and Fame And Glory all finished second to Sea The Stars. In particular Fame And Glory was beaten into second twice, he himself is no slouch having won a collection of Group One’s. As good as the colts were, they were unlucky to run against one of the greatest racehorses of all time.

Such was the case with Frankel and Excelebration. Second to Frankel on no less than four separate occasions, it seemed that Excelebration was constantly the bridesmaid. That was until recently. With no Frankel in the field, Excelebration ran out a comfortable winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot on Champion’s Day. This was the biggest win of his career and he now heads to Santa Anita for the Breeder’s Cup Mile this Saturday.

Opened in 1934, Santa Anita is the oldest racetrack in Southern California. The San Gabriel Mountains provide the backdrop to the prestigious Breeder’s Cup. The 29th running of the showcase meeting will be televised to more than 130 foreign countries It is the richest prize-money event in sports, consisting of 15 races and prize money totalling $26 million. It thus attracts the best thoroughbreds in the world. Worth $2 million alone, the Breeder’s Cup Mile is one of the most valuable races in the world. And Excelebration has every chance of winning it.

Cut from 7/2 into 7/4 favourite for the Breeder’s Cup Mile, Excelebration is bidding to provide Aidan O’ Brien with his first ever success in this race. It is a notoriously difficult race to win. Only two Irish trainers managed this feat, John Oxx trained the brilliant filly Ridgewood Pearl to win the 1995 renewal; this was the last time an Irish trainer was successful in the event. Before that it was Vincent O’ Brien and Royal Academy in 1990.

The 7/4 on offer for Excelebration is a short price for what is a very competitive affair. Excelebration though is held in the highest regard at Ballydoyle. Originally bought for £20,000 at the 2009 Doncaster St Leger sales by Marco Botti, Excelebration was acquired at the start of this season by Coolmore for a sum believed to be in the region of €1.5 million. By champion Australian sprinter Exceed And Excel, Excelebration was precocious in his first season and always showed class in abundance. He won the German 2000 Guineas, the Group 3 Hungerford Stakes and was twice a Group 1 winner in France. Speaking after his win at Ascot, Aidan O’ Brien noted “The boys (Coolmore) had it in their head they would go to the Breeders' Cup after Ascot. He has progressed with every run and we have only had him this year so we were experimenting with him a little bit. The beauty is this horse is on the upgrade.”

O’ Brien also noted "We have learnt a lot about him. He is a very fast horse right up to a mile which he gets well. He shows an awful lot of speed and is a very classy horse." Just the type of horse that could win a Breeder’s Cup.

Speed and class he has in abundance. Excelebration was officially rated as the joint seventh best horse in the world in 2011, with a rating of 126. He was rated the third best miler behind Frankel and Canford Cliffs. But it will be no easy task and the opposition is fierce. Wise Dan, trained in Kentucky by Charles Lopresti is the current second favourite for the race at 3/1. Winner of twelve races, Wise Dan can trace his bloodlines back to 1973 Triple Crown winner and two-time Horse of the Year Secretariat.

Fillies have a good record in this race and Moonlight Cloud, trained in France by Freddy Head is a battling sort. By leading sire, Invincible Spirit, Moonlight Cloud is a three time Group 1 winner and is expected to go well. Animal Kingdom, last year's Kentucky Derby winner and champion three-year-old also lines up in the valuable field.

Successful in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf last year with St Nicholas Abbey, Aidan O’ Brien would dearly love to continue his winning ways. Keep an eye out for Excelebration, he could make the headlines and finally banish the ghost of Frankel from his memory.

The Open Meeting

The Open

By Stephen Dwyer

It is the Home of Jump Racing. As Cheltenham Racecourse opens its doors for The Open meeting, it heralds the start in earnest of another season of top class National Hunt racing. The Open is one of eight major meetings at Cheltenham which culminates in March with The Festival . The Open has steadily become one of the most promoted meetings in recent years and for many it has become the spiritual start of the winter campaign.

Spread out over three days, Friday November 16th to Sunday November 18th, The Open meeting begins with a slew of Amateur and Conditional jockeys races. Coupled with the marathon 3m 7f Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, the first day of the meeting also features a Class 2 Novices’ Chase over 2m 4f. This race in particular is traditionally one of the most anticipated Chases in the early season as it provides useful pointers for the Arkle and the RSA. Won in recent years by Denman and Imperial Commander, the race was taken in great style last year by Grand Crus and this year’s renewal should be just as competitive.

Although it begins with a JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial, Day two of The Open is centred around the Paddy Power Gold Cup Chase. This Grade 3 handicap chase, run over 2m 4f, is one of the best handicap races of the national hunt season.  Often times it is the starting point for one or two of the potential Gold Cup horses at the Festival later in the calendar. It is worthy to note that more than almost any other National Hunt track, course form at Cheltenham is crucial. Great Endeavour, winner of last year’s Paddy Power Gold Cup typifies this. He was a previous winner of a Grade 3 Handicap Chase at the Festival and finished sixth in the 2010 renewal of the Paddy Power Gold Cup. The undulating surface of Cheltenham does not suit every horse and those with proven form around Prestbury Park cannot easily be discounted.

Grand Crus, current 6/1 favourite for Paddy Power Gold Cup, has proven course form and although beaten for the first time over fences at short odds in the RSA last March, he looks a fascinating contender. A three-time winner around Cheltenham, including a ten length victory in the Cleeve Hurdle, Grand Crus also finished  a commendable second to Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle. Winner of three of his four starts over fences, David Pipe’s imposing 7yo deserves his place at the head of the market.

Another interesting runner in the £150,000 Paddy Power Gold Cup is trained by Somerset handler Keiran Burke. Last season’s fairy-tale horse, Hunt Ball aims to continue his winning ways at a track he handles well. Hunt Ball began last season running off a mark of 69 and finished, seven wins later, with a lofty mark of 157. Under top weight, he won the Pulteney Land Investments Novices' Handicap Chase at The Festival and worthy of significant note, this is a race that is run over the same course and distance as the Paddy Power Gold Cup.

Hunt Ball was head and shoulders the most improved horse in training last season and his trainer reported recently “I am very happy with Hunt Ball. He has come back from the summer bigger and stronger and he looks better than ever.” Making light of his a shortening price of 8/1, Keiran Burke also revealed; “I think he can win the Paddy Power Gold Cup off his mark, but he is not the easiest horse to get fit as he is big horse. He will take a fair bit of work and we will give him a few racecourse gallops beforehand and try and get him as fit as we can.”

From a trend perspective the favourite has won The Paddy Power Gold Cup three times in the last nine years with the winning weight spread from 10-2 - 11-7. Given that there are fifteen fences to be jumped over the Old Course, it is a good test of stamina. Cyfor Malta won in 2002 carrying 11-7 but since 2007, all five winners have carried under 11 stone.

Out of eighteen races at last season’s Open meeting there were six winning favourites. Betting interest is expected to increase this year as the stars of the national hunt scene begin their campaigns in style.

At Cheltenham, at The Open, all will be revealed.