Cheltenham’s Old Course, the New Course and the effects of the going

spyglassDuring the coming week you’ll hear much talk of the Old Course and the New Course at Cheltenham.  In October and November the Old Course is used, in December and January, the New Course. That’s the regular schedule. Only the spur was not used in January due to waterlogging.

Frost covers are already down. There’s been enough rain for the course to be declared officially soft everywhere and overnight temperatures in the coming 48 hours are set to plunge well below freezing, The upside of frost covers is that we almost always get to race. The downside is that they can trap moisture in ground that’s already very wet; this can leave sticky, cloying going for horses, although Andy Clifton, Cheltenham’s PR boss tells me the covers are breathable so let’s hope they breathe enough to prevent pudding-type ground but not enough to let frost through.

Frost covers

Sandown on Saturday looked sploshy and very wet, but horses and riders invariably prefer this as horses run through it, finding it easier to splash through than sticky ‘waterless’ mud. They’ll still be tired but  not Tough Mudder tired.

Cheltenham’s a stamina-sapper as it is, and while it’s almost always better to race than not to, we could see some very tired animals slogging up that hill. Let’s hope for minimal use of the stick: the public will not be aware how well-padded whips are, and hitting exhausted horses climbing a muddy hill could bring us the kind of publicity we’d don’t need with the Grand National looming (April 6th).

Anyway, I am blethering away here, let me get to the point. The Racing Post carries just one course graphic for Cheltenham – that of the Old Course. The blessed Timeform display two. I’ve used them below. You can get them, along with course maps for every other track as a free download.

Although it’s a taxing track, whichever course you’re on, I’m never afraid to back front-runners at Cheltenham; I have no stats but from my many years watching racing here, I’ve formed the impression front-runners can do better than they would on tracks which appear to be easier.

Cheltenham's New Course
Cheltenham’s New Course

Something you’ll hear at least once before the Champion Hurdle is that Zarkandar won his Triumph Hurdle in 2011 on the New Course whereas the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday will be on the Old Course, considered by many less of a stamina test because it is a slightly shorter run-in (In Tuesday’s field, Zarkandar should be much better suited than most of his rivals to a stamina test).

A peculiarity of the New Course is that only 2 hurdles are jumped in the last seven furlongs – 42% of the race gets  just 25% of the jumps.

The Old Course
The Old Course

The only other course at Cheltenham is the cross-country, a race you love or hate. I love it. I enjoy the spectacle of watching the jocks figuring out the twists and turns (many don’t manage it!). I like to see the horses scale the banks and face all different sorts of obstacles. Racing should have more of them – I’d be amazed if newcomers to the sport, especially youngsters, don’t enjoy them.

You’ll see by the map why the jocks need a GPS (some senior jockeys refuse to ride in these races for fear of ‘taking the wrong course’ bans).

The map and the fence illustration are courtesy of the talented folk at Chestnut Creative



Let’s hope the Cheltenham exec has updated the signage for jockeys on this maze of a course. We don’t want to see something like this happening this week . . .


Finally, an aerial pic of the track to give you a truer perspective on how the courses wind through those famous undulations in our modern-day Colosseum, where you can gaze in horror while live humans are devoured by bookmakers.

Cheltenham racecourse
Cheltenham racecourse

If your brain needs a break from form study, try the Kindle version of Warned Off, a snip at £2.50. It’s a Dick Francis-type mystery which has garnered 95 reviews on Amazon (UK &.com), most 4 & 5 star.

Good Luck for Cheltenham



Join my Skin Geoff Banks campaign with this 3,756/1 treble

cashBookie Geoff Banks is  a bit of a throwback – the arch-enemy of punters, but one with a face. We’re all used to tilting at the corporations like Hills and Ladbrokes without experiencing the pleasure of visualising the pain in their eyes as they pay out.

Geoff is bred for it, his father being the Frankel of bookmakers, the great John Banks, who died ten years ago. I remember John well; I was at my first Ayr meeting as a boy, it was a hot day, and as I stood looking at John’s board he reached down and gave me a choc ice – God knows how he kept them cool for his punters. John was cooler than any ice cream and pulled off some great PR stunts, managing, at the same time, to irritate Cyril Stein of Ladbrokes. But those tales are for another day.

I ought to make it clear now that I have no association with Geoff and take no reward of any kind for promoting his business. I admire him because he lays a decent bet and, more importantly for me, he was first to go non-runner-no-bet for Cheltenham. The majority of my punting is ante-post and the comfort of knowing your stake doesn’t go west with a non runner is worth a lot at any time never mind on the approach to the biggest meeting of the year.

Around this time I like to dig out a fiver each way treble for the festival, to try to win an amount which for many would be life-changing. Geoff Banks offers best price NRNB on the three I’ve chosen this year.

If you don’t already have an account with Geoff, you can open one here. It can take a few hours to get your account approved. Once it is, you have the option of credit or the standard deposit with a debit card. Geoff tells me that one of his most popular services is the text service – you just text what you want in plain English and get a quick acknowledgement.

Geoff has kindly agreed to hold these prices as long as he can for readers of this blog.

If you just want to get on with it, here are the selections:

Update, March 13th

Prices have changed, but I still think these three are well worth an EW treble: Third Intention is now 20s with Betvictor, though GMOOH is down to 9/1 & TGB is 14s in places.

Jewson Chase – Third Intention 16/1

World Hurdle – Get Me Out of Here 12/1

Gold Cup – The Giant Bolster – 16/1

Return on a £5 win treble is £18,785: a winning EW treble returns £19,285: a place treble returns £500.

And here’s the reasoning . . .

Third Intention is a horse I’ve been watching for some time; I think there’s at least one good race in him, and I believe he’s close to twice the odds he should be  for the Jewson. Two things are important to him: decent ground and a hold-up ride (he can idle badly in front).

At last year’s festival he ran well to finish 8th in the Coral Cup with 11st 10lbs. Since going chasing he’s had three unsuccessful attempts at beating Captain Conan who will probably start favourite for the Jewson if  Dynaste misses the race. But last time at Sandown I think Third Intention would have beaten Cap Conan had he not idled after being in front a long time – he was beaten a neck at levels.

Many say Captain Conan did not show his true form that day, but I always take the view that such conclusions should be treated with caution. Despite that being a substantial turnaround on earlier form, I think there’s every chance that TI was much better suited by the step up in trip (previous runs against CC were at 2 miles, this one was 2m 5f: Jewson is 2m 4f)

Third Intention is better going left-handed, better on decent ground and is improving: 16/1 is far too big and even if Dynaste runs here I think TI will be hard to keep out of a place.

Get Me Out of Here is another I’ve always liked, and one I’ve believed capable of winning good races. He’s been 2nd four times at Cheltenham, three of those being at the festival. Like Third Intention, decent ground  is important for GMOOH, much more so than TI. This will be his first attempt at 3 miles, but he stayed on for pressure when 2nd in the Coral Cup last year carrying 11.12.

Jonjo, the master of getting them cherry-ripe for the festival will have him spot on. AP rides. It’s a fairly open race and he has every chance of being placed and perhaps just nicking the race late. My main fancy here is Oscar Whisky but GMOOH definitely represents value.

The Giant Bolster. This bugger’s jumping flaws must make him horribly frustrating to train; he rarely puts in a clear round and in his early days was regularly on the floor. But he has bags of talent and loves Cheltenham. His record at the track, when he has stood up, is 6112: that 2nd was in last year’s Gold Cup (I’d backed him at huge prices and was going mental as they went for the last!).

His trainer and jock think he needed the race at Newbury when blown away by Silviniaco Conti who was giving him 4lbs. One thing we do know with him over Silv Conti, he loves Cheltenham.

My main bet here is Bobs Worth but of the outsiders I was between TGB and Cape Tribulation. TGB’s comparative youth, his fine run last year and Cape Trib’s habit of dropping in the odd poor run (never completed a hat trick) swayed me toward The Giant Bolster.

So there you are. Risk a tenner and it might just give you something to shout about. If they all get placed, come back and buy a copy of Warned Off!

Good luck



Cue Card now looking a very strong bet for King George

binocularsThe victory of Bobs Worth in the Hennessy Gold Cup franked the form of Cue Card who had failed by just a short head to give that top class horse half a stone at Newbury last season over 2m 4f. Some say Cue Card would have won that day had his jockey not looked round after the last fence.

Cue Card went on to run 2nd in the Arkle to the brilliant Sprinter Sacre who beat the Tizzard horse 7 lengths. But  Cue Card was 22 lengths clear of the third, Menorah with Al Ferof (who’d made a bad mistake) back in fourth. Sprinter Sacre’s astounding performance at Sandown yesterday forged a gold edged seal on that Arkle form.

First time out this season Cue Card won the Haldon Gold Cup over an extended 2 miles 1 furlong, by 27 lengths. Best Mate won the Haldon Gold Cup by 20 lengths the year before he won his King George.

Cue Card has won over 19f on soft ground at Newbury and over 20f on good at Chepstow where he comfortably beat fellow chasing debutant Silvianaco Conti.

Cue Card can be a tricky ride; he dislikes restraint and often has to make is own running. The hot pace of the King George should suit although it will also test his stamina on his first attempt at 24 furlongs. His jumping, touch wood, is pretty sound these days though, like Sprinter Scare, he is not always straight in the air – there can be a degree of lateral movement which sometimes leads to him screwing slightly on landing.

Still, I would say he has the most solid form in the race. I fear Al Ferof and have had a saver on him, but the 7/1 about Cue Card holds strong appeal. The race is definitely his target according to his trainer and unless a training mishap derails him, he will be there on the day. I suspect, by then, the 7/1 will have shrunk to 11/2.

Bearing in mind that ante-post bets are losers if your selection does not run, some might be willing to sacrifice a point or two in price and wait for the day.

If you decide to back him for the King George, you’d be as well having a small bet at 33s for the Cheltenham Gold Cup too. If he wins well at Kempton he might drop to a single figure price for the festival showpiece.

Good luck




Where is the Gold Cup value now?

Long Run might be the superstar many think he is, but I believe he still has quite a bit to prove to merit his 9/4 ante-post Gold Cup price for 2012. The 6-year-old beat Riverside Theatre in the King George with an arguably past-it Kauto Star not running to form, Albertas Run pulling up suspected lame (sound on inspection) with the rest a relatively poor bunch.

Impressive as he was in the Gold Cup, filling the places were Kauto and Denman, almost twice Long Run’s age. Remember that the 2nd fav, Imperial Commander pulled up and was found to be lame as well as bleeding from a broken vessel.

So there has to be value somewhere in the Gold Cup market, but where is it?  RSA winner Boston’s Angel, though game and consistent, doesn’t seem up to Gold Cup class (trainer reportedly thought him a Midlands National horse prior to Cheltenham).

Arkle winner Captain Chris’s owner commented after Cheltenham that the horse probably wanted two and a half miles but a crack at the King George would be on the agenda.  A fine jumper but his stamina would need to be taken very much on trust.

Wishfull Thinking is in the same ownership as Captain Chris. Despite defeat in the Jewson at the festival, he went on to win at Aintree and Punchestown, showing he’d found his niche with front-running.  His trainer says he has bags of pace and he is another likely King George contender.

Plenty pace and good jumping are admirable qualities but a stayer’s what you want for the Gold Cup. The first two in todays’ Bet365 Charlie Hall, have plenty stamina and with 16s and 20s available, you can try and narrow it to the best value, or have a bet on each of them.

William Hill pushed Time For Rupert out to 16s after today’s defeat. He was very fresh in the race, I thought, and ran with the choke out for much of the way. He’s also a big, gross horse who who should improve markedly for the outing.

It’s the first time he has led pretty much throughout. I suspect it was more by accident than design and jockey Will Kennedy decided to let him stride on rather than fight him, but it led to him taking too much out of himself and he’ll do much better held up off the pace in future.

He jumped cleanly throughout apart from a tired effort at the last, though he lugged noticeably left at a few fences and gave Weird Al a bit of a bump two out. Weird Al was giving him 3lbs so on paper it’s hard to argue that TFR can beat him in the Gold Cup, especially as Weird Al is relatively inexperienced and entitled to improve too.

On his record, the ground seems key to Weird Al – Wetherby rode much slower than the official ‘good’ ground, and most of his racing’s been on soft. He’s also one of those frustrating horses with lots of talent but little luck.  A fracture kept him out of the 2010 RSA. In this year’s Gold Cup he broke a blood vessel. After an early hurdles victory, he needed oxygen.

The one disappointing run he seemed to have no excuse for was last year’s Hennessy, 8th of 18 beaten 42L.  That was far and away the biggest field he’d faced over fences and I wonder if that might be a weakness?  Having said that, if Long Run does not blot his copybook, he might scare a few Gold Cup prospects away, leaving a comparatively small field.

After today, Weird Al’s rider Timmy Murphy said he’d barely been off the bridle and idled towards the end.  I’ll back Weird Al and Time For Rupert at 20s and 16s respectively. If you want just one bet, Weird Al is probably the better value.

Good luck.

Long Run heading for Betfair Chase – extensive interview with NJ Henderson here

A stronger and taller Long Run exercised today in preparation for his return to action in the Betfair Chase at Haydock Park on Saturday, November 19 and Britain’s top chaser has his first schooling session of the season with Sam Waley-Cohen up at Yogi Breisner’s tomorrow. 

Nicky Henderson could not be more happy with his 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner. 

The trainer said: “Long Run has grown an inch and is quite heavy at the moment. He is also quite laidback, which is good. Everything is cool. We have not woken him up in his work yet and I really need to get on the grass with him. “He will probably do plenty tomorrow in the schooling session. We all know he can gallop down and jump five fences in a row but he just needs to get the technique right. 

“Long Run is nice and relaxed at the moment. He will get a change of scenery tomorrow because of his indoor session at Yogi’s and then in a couple of weeks he will jump five fences before going back to Yogi just ahead of the Betfair Chase. “It is just about getting his technique right – before last season there were plenty of doubters about whether his jumping was accurate and neat enough for English fences but the doubters have wilted a little bit after the King George and the Gold Cup but we have got to keep working at getting Long Run into our style of jumping fences and away from the French style. 

“His jumping tends to be little bit French at times. Yogi is a big help to the horses and the jockeys. From Sam’s point of view it is a good session for him because he cannot be riding every day of the week. The horse has got a good attitude to life and so has Sam. Sam keeps fit and never seems to be under pressure going into any of these races – he takes it all in his stride. I think I am the one who lives on the pressure button. “I get asked the question, wouldn’t you love to have McCoy or Geraghty on the horse, and the answer is no. Long Run is Sam’s horse and he has done a brilliant job on him. Sam knows the horse very well. 

“I like to think we will get on the grass on Saturday. The horses could just do with two bits of work on the grass. This weekend will be the first real test of our horses. We had a second yesterday at Haydock with Pippa Greene but he had been running all summer so that does not tell us anything. “We really haven’t run much. Of the new ones, I was pleased with Bear’s Affair at Aintree – A P said he thought Bear’s Affair would turn out to be the best horse in the race but he was still green – it was only his third jump race of his life. 

”If the horses are behind, they are behind – we cannot push them. Long Run has been back here plenty of time – he came here straight from the field in early July. I think he had a good summer at Robert Waley-Cohen’s, with eight weeks of doing nothing. “I went to see Long Run three weeks before he came back here and I thought he was someone else when coming out of the stable. I nearly did not recognise him because he was considerably bigger and had grown quite a lot. Horses will go on growing but at six they should be getting to full maturity. If a horse has grown, he must be getting stronger. There should be more to come. 

“I don’t know what that means but he is a fantastic-looking horse. He is a beautiful horse and it is quite nice when the form book follows the rule book that the correct good-looking horse that does look like a natural athlete is the natural athlete. “Long Run takes his races well – he soon bounces back. The pressure will be on us this season as he has to defend his crown.  

“We want to start in the Betfair, which is a relatively new race, as it is ideally placed in the calendar before the King George. I want to win the Betfair and then the King George. He will be wound up the best we can but the horses might be a bit behind because of the dry weather we have had.”  

Long Run’s schedule is the £200,000 Grade One Betfair Chase, the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, maybe Newbury’s AON Chase and then the Cheltenham Gold Cup on March 16.  

The trainer commented: “I hate looking further forward than one race at a time but if we wanted a race between the King George and the Gold Cup then the AON Chase would be the obvious one. There is a huge gap to Aintree this year (after the Cheltenham Festival) and that might be a target too (Betfred Bowl).  “Long Run will remain at three miles and he proved he stays three and quarter in the Gold Cup last season so I don’t think he will be dropping back in trip for the Ryanair. 

“It probably wasn’t the best decision to start him off in the Paddy Power last season – going flat out around Cheltenham over two and a half miles. As soon as he got back to three miles, it was so much easier for him to get into his comfort zone.”  

Of the potential challengers to Long Run this season, Henderson is most afraid of Master Minded. “I cannot believe that was his form at Aintree last weekend and he would be the standout horse if taking to three miles.  “Then there are horses like Wishfull Thinking. I am sure there will be plenty of horses ready to bounce out of the woodwork – it is never easy. We just have to concentrate on what we have to do – anything can go wrong at any minute and getting them there is half the battle.”  

Long Run was one of 36 horses out with Henderson’s third lot this morning under regular work rider Nico de Boinville.

Why bother studying festival form? Should we just back Ruby and Mullins, lay AP and PFN for a fat profit?

Figures for the past five festivals suggest a cold-blooded approach to profit might well be best served by backing certain jockeys and trainers and laying others. But is it as straightforward as it seems?

Listed below are the records for jockeys, trainers and Ruby/trainer combinations over the past 5 festivals.

In order the list reads:

number of runners/rides

number of winners

strike rate

return on investment at Betfair odds where 100% = break even

cash profit/loss at £100 unit stakes (Betfair commission omitted)

Ruby Walsh







AP McCoy





£3,158 loss


Barry Geraghty







R Johnson







R Thornton







Willie Mullins







PF Nicholls





£4,301 loss


NJ Henderson





£3,530 loss


Alan King





£3,512 loss


D Pipe





£2,559 loss








NB this combination ran at a slight loss before the victory of Final Approach last week








Interesting that the 100 non-Walsh ridden runners for PFN produced just 4 winners and a substantial loss for backers. Also, the 70 (from 100) non-Walsh ridden Mullins horses also managed just 4 winners.

Ruby’s 7 ‘outside rides didn’t provide a winner. Following Ruby when riding for his two main ‘suppliers’ brings this result:






Building a ‘system’ on betting Ruby’s mounts would need to be a long-term strategy.  Had you begun following Ruby on day one of the 2007 festival, you would not have gone into profit until he rode American Trilogy (returned at 22.2 on Betfair) to win the County Hurdle in 2009.

Also, layers will be a shade wiser come next March and Ruby’s mounts will get tighter in price though whether they are ‘overbet’ to the extent that AP’s are (on the basis of these figures) is debatable.

Still, AP backers since 2007 would never have reached profit at any time; the bottom of their punting pit, at £100 stakes, being as low as £4,351 in losses.

A judicious combination of backing Ruby and laying AP might prove the best solution.

Good luck

Albertas Run – 7 from 9 on good ground: can he do the Ryanair double?



Seasonal form figures of 4FP are the type that give a horse a bad name and a big price coming into a Grade One race at the festival. Albertas Run, last year’s Ryanair winner, has had a poor season by his standards; he fell when under pressure against Master Minded at Ascot then pulled up in the King George next time (jockey thought AR had ‘gone wrong’ but the horse finished sound).

An RSA trophy alongside his Ryanair one didn’t prevent the ruthless boys at Timeform giving him the dreaded and thoroughly undeserved squiggle (all they needed to do was check his going requirements).

He has won seven of his nine races over jumps on good ground (Timeform going description used). In the other two he was 2nd to Kauto Star in the King George and 3rd to Madison Du Berlais at Aintree.  Assuming good ground tomorrow as forecast, failure to make the first three would be a career first, yet he can be backed each way at around 6/1.

His Ascot fall was his first ever (he can hit the odd fence) and it might have left its mark mentally, but at 6/1 I am willing to take the chance that his favourite surface and track (won 3 of his 4 races over jumps at Cheltenham) will see him back to his best.

Good luck