There surely won’t be anywhere on the planet where the softness of the ground beneath our feet will be so rigorously tested and analysed than in a small corner of Cheltenham this week.
As all race-goers know, the going is a crucial factor in shortlisting potential winners for any race, whether it’s a fast-and-furious chase or a more nuanced, long distance trek for the stayers.
The forecast for the Cheltenham Festival this week is not pretty, and that follows the barrage of snow and rain brought by the fabled Beast from the East in the last fortnight or so.
With some 11mm also falling overnight on Sunday, the official classification at Prestbury Park – at the time of writing at least – is heavy, soft in places.
Clerk of the course, Simon Claisse, said on Monday: “We’re okay, the track has taken the rain better than I anticipated. There isn’t much standing water around.
“We had a fairly intense period of rainfall between six and seven o’clock last night and again early doors this morning. Further rain is forecast through the day (three to four millimetres) so we’re not anticipating seeing much change.”
One of the first trainers to walk the course was Alan King, who noted the work that had gone into readying the surface has made a small amount of difference. “Where the fresh ground is [Claiss’ team have laid a strip of fresh turf close to the inside rail], it’s not too bad at all,” he said. “But there’s not a huge amount of it, and on the ground that’s been raced on through the winter, it’s showing signs of having taken a hammering.”
King’s final sentiment – “it will be testing” – should set alarm bells ringing in the ears of the horses’ connections and punters alike, with the worrying number of withdrawals and small field sizes already a concern that the Prestbury Park turf could have a significant impact on who flourishes and who flummoxes in what is the UK and Ireland’s premier week of racing.
The forecast for the days ahead is something of a worry too:
Current Weather Forecast
- Tuesday March 13th – It should actually be a dry night/day on Tuesday, as predicted by Claiss, with minimal chance of rain and reasonable temperatures of 9°. Prior to the Old Course track getting cut up, this could be the best day’s racing as far as the conditions are concerned.
- Wednesday March 14th – Wednesday should be slightly milder and, again, there is a lower than 25% chance of rain according to the Met Office. However, that could all change overnight.
- Thursday March 15th – The rain sweeps in overnight on Wednesday, with a chance of rain at midnight of 90% set in place by the Met Office and 80% from 3am-6am. Spots of rain are expected through Thursday as well, with occasional outbreaks of sunshine.
- Friday March 16th – The New Course is likely to be cut to ribbons on Thursday, and the outlook isn’t much more promising on Friday with rain showers and sunny spells once again expected. The Gold Cup could be a rather soggy affair!
Of course, the above forecast is subject to change, but with rain predicted throughout the UK this week Cheltenham would be rather fortunate to miss out on some precipitation at least.
With the heavier going, naturally some horses are expected to thrive and some to, metaphorically and possibly even literally, wilt given the boggy terrain. From a betting perspective, it is essential to know who will prosper and who will disappoint in such trying conditions.
Horses That Could Benefit from Heavy Going
Here are some horses who could lap up the heavy going:
Definitly Red (Gold Cup, Friday)
While there is still time for the declarations to change, it would appear as if Definitly Red is being targeted at the Gold Cup on Friday, and given his pedigree on heavy footing he could well be one to watch.
The Brian Ellison trained nine-year-old won the Cotswold Chase in impressive fashion at Cheltenham back in January, and that followed another decent triumph in the Aintree sludge back in December, where he won the Many Clouds Chase by seven lengths from a field including Cloudy Dream and Alpha Des Obeaux.
The market is never slow to move in such situations, and Definitly Red has already shortened from 16s to 12s for Cheltenham’s richest prize. That, however, still represents fine value.
Samcro (Ballymore, Wednesday)
The odds-against prices available on Samcro to win the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle have been hoovered up after his withdrawal from the Supreme Novices’, but punters can still avail themselves of an 8/11 price that will surely go down as one of the best bets of the festival.
The outstanding six-year-old is also a perfect six-for-six for trainer Gordon Elliott, with four of those triumphs coming on soft or heavy ground.
Samcro won the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle by five lengths last time out, and the fact he was a comfortable favourite for the more prestigious Supreme Novices’ Hurdle before his withdrawal should give punters all the clues they need to get involved here.
Footpad (The Arkle, Tuesday)
If you move fast, you can still get an odds-against price on Footpad to win the Arkle, and that is simply too good an opportunity to miss.
Willie Mullins’ six-year-old has won his last three outings and all on soft or heavy ground, and key was his triumph in the Arkle Novice Chase, where he ousted one of his rivals here, Petit Mouchoir, by some five lengths on the softer footing.
That French horse has been largely shielded from heavy going in his young career, while the second favourite for the Arkle, Saint Calvados, has just three runs to his name on UK soil.
Who Won’t Favour Very Soft Ground?
And here’s a couple to perhaps avoid if the going remains heavy throughout the week:
Altior (Champion Chase, Wednesday)
There are three rather obvious reasons why Altior is on shaky ground as a 5/4 favourite in the Champion Chase.
Firstly, his owner Nicky Henderson’s tweet that the bookies choice is suffering with lame cannot go unnoticed.
BREAKING NEWS ON ALTIOR & WE HAVE A DREAM pic.twitter.com/SewLygV0bX
— Nicky Henderson (@sevenbarrows) 12 March 2018
Secondly, Ruby Walsh – statistically the best rider in Cheltenham history – has confirmed he will take the ride on Douvan, an obvious challenger to Altior’s dominance here.
And finally there’s the small matter of the heavy going, which does not play to the eight-year-old’s strengths one iota.
All of Altior’s best work has come on good or good-to-soft, and the likes of Douvan and Min will be eyeing the big prize here.
Might Bite (Gold Cup, Friday)
On any given day you would be happy to back Might Bite to win the Gold Cup to cap a fine season, but the heavy weather will surely prove to be something of a leveller.
Make no mistake, the nine-year-old is an outstanding horse with proven big race pedigree, but he’s another who would surely prefer a faster pace.
Already out to 4/1 from 7/2, punters can expect further lengthening in the coming days if the rain continues to fall, and for good reason. The likes of Native River, Killultagh Vic and the aforementioned Definitly Red will come into their own at this point.