Pat Keane: Notebook looks Festival banker

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NOTHING for it this week then, with Storm Ciara messing us about big-time, but to look ahead to the Cheltenham Festival in an effort to pinpoint some value.

Practically all the relevant Cheltenham trials have taken place and the form is there for everyone to see.

I have never been a great fan of ante-post betting and, of course, it has become even more complicated with the dilution of the meeting, extended to four days and offering multiple opportunities for horses.

Sooner, rather than later, we will be dealing with five days, ending on Saturday, because it is a massive cash-cow which will prove too hard to resist.

That, however, will only be a further complication betting-wise, because just two extra races will likely be added to make five six-race programmes.

Anyway, for those who cannot resist wagering ante-post and there are, apparently, still plenty about, then it has to be with those layers who are offering a guaranteed run.

Thinking you have grabbed some real value isn’t much good if your horse fails to turn up in the relevant contest.

We know the traditional highlights are the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle, but ploughing through those races this week was a frustrating experience.

Bookmakers are going 4-1 the field in the Gold Cup and it shapes as an almost impossible contest to solve.

I mean do you want to be with last year’s winner, Al Boum Photo, fresh from what worked 12 months earlier, enjoying a spin around the delights of Tramore, or Santini, Delta Work, King George winner Clan Des Obeaux, Kemboy, Presenting Percy, the list goes on?

It is a while now since we saw a true superstar land a Gold Cup, the likes of triple winner, Best Mate, dual winner, Kauto Star, or a Denman and how we yearn for those days.

The Champion Hurdle is almost as big a puzzle, although not quite. There are a number of horses towards the head of the market that will surely go elsewhere.

Third favourite is Benie Des Dieux and only his owner, Rich Ricci, has mentioned the Champion Hurdle as a possibility. The silence from Willie Mullins on the subject has been deafening.

Honeysuckle is fourth favourite; we know she won’t run, while it would be a major shock should Envoi Allen not head for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.

Accordingly, I believe Nicky Henderson’s Pentland Hills is the 5-1 each-way value of the contest.

Now, as a five-year-old, he should face an especially tough task, because that age group do not have a good record in the Champion Hurdle.

That said, though, Gavin Cromwell’s five-year-old Espoir D’Allen, a 16-1 no-hoper in a modest ten-runner renewal last year, scored by 15 lengths.

But he was the first of the age group to win since Katchit in 2008 and, prior to that, you had to go all the way back to 1985 and See You Then, who went on to win for the next two years as well.

Pentland Hills has been beaten in both his races this season and has plenty to prove. Only fifth at Cheltenham in December, he looked all over a winner in a Grade Two at Haydock last month, until headed on the line and beaten a nose by Ballyandy.

Pat Keane: Notebook looks Festival banker

Now Ballyandy has no p retensions to being a Champion Hurdle horse, so that’s an obvious worry. But Pentland Hills can be very free and ideally needs a strong pace and something to aim at late on.

If those requirements aren’t met in the Champion Hurdle then they are unlikely to be satisfied anywhere!

As well as that Pentland Hills didn’t half face the hill when taking last year’s Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham and he followed up at Aintree by beating a smart sort in Joseph O’Brien’s Fakir D’oudairies.

This week Philip Hobbs confirmed the worst kept secret in racing, indicating his Defi Du Seuil would run in the Champion Chase, rather than the Ryanair.

That means Defi Du Seuil, Altior, and Chacun Pour Soi are now on course to provide what promises the race of the festival.

Altior, after failing to cope with Cyrname over two miles and five furlongs at Ascot on his seasonal debut, got back on track at Newbury last Saturday when winning easily enough, returning to two miles.

There were plenty crabbing that effort, but I couldn’t see much wrong with it, as Altior did what he often does, looked in trouble, before winning easily.

He has a remarkable record, taking 20 of his 21 races over jumps, five as a hurdler and 15 as a chaser.

The last time he met defeat, prior to failing to cope with Cyrname at Ascot, was at the Punchestown festival of 2015, when only sixth to Willie Mullins’ Bellshill in a bumper.

He’s going for the hat-trick in the Champion Chase and this will represent his stiffest test.

I’m already on record as being against Chacun Pour Soi, on the basis he just won’t have it at the death against this type of opposition.

For me, Defi Du Seuil is the percentage call. He’s tough and resolute, stays beyond two miles, has won six times around Cheltenham and is three years younger than Altior.

Another that falls into the tough and resolute category is the Paul Nolan-trained Latest Exhibition and 8-1 each-way about him for the Albert Bartlett is attractive.

We’ve said it before and will say it again, he gets down and dirty when the need is greatest and the swinging three miles of the Albert Bartlett is made to measure for him.

For me the value banker bet of the meeting is Notebook in the Arkle Chase, available at 3-1 this week.

He is unbeaten in four outings over fences, jumps for fun, is a powerful stayer and has an excellent attitude. Hopefully, he will keep a lid on things before the Arkle and save his energy for the track.

Gordon Elliott’s Envoi Allen will be a banker for many in the Ballymore Properties Hurdle. He’s unbeaten in a point-to-point, four bumpers and three times over flights and there is simply no knowing just how good he is.

But 5-4 this week was no value this far out.

That Ballymore shapes as a very hot race, although I have little doubt, come the day, we will want to be with Envoi Allen.

One of the worst value market leaders, arguably the worst, is Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin (3-1) in the opening heat of the festival, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

He’s looked good when bolting in at Newbury and Huntingdon, but taking on some hard-nosed Irish rivals will be an entirely different proposition.

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