Festival Focus: Juvenile Races
The juvenile races have been an interesting watch this season. It’s debatable about the future of British jumps racing, given that four Graded juvenile hurdles were won by the Irish. But the festival can often give us the answer. Here’s a look at the two juvenile hurdles, plus the bumper. Bets of Bets takes a further look.
Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle – 2m 87yds – Premier Handicap
As predicted, the top of the market is littered with Irish runners. Tekao heads the Emerald Isles’ challenge for a certain W P Mullins. He has some good form behind his back, including Comfort Zone on his maiden. He finished third in the Spring Juvenile at Leopardstown, as Lossiemouth and Gala Marceau went off ahead. He looks a solid horse and has quite a weight on his back, that he looks capable to defy.
Byker for Charles Byrnes also looks a good sloid horse, finishing a close third at Naas last time out. He actually broke his maiden tag this year at the back end of January, beating Mighty Mo Missouri (who Tekao also beat when he shed his maiden tag). On evidence, he’s a decent jumper of hurdles but stays on home really well.
Nusret won the Adonis as a prep race, but the question is which race does he go to. There’s debate around whether Nusret attends the Festival or goes to Aintree/Punchestown. His run in the Adonis was made for him; nice good ground and a right-handed track, which jockey Daryl Jacob said suits him a lot. He has some decent Irish form behind him, and made the British look feeble in defeat at Kempton.
Risk Belle was winning races in France, before she was bought by the green and gold of J P McManus and sent to Willie Mullins. Her Irish record now reads 54F. But because she isn’t a maiden, it makes her quite appealing when you remember this race is a handicap. The British handicapper puts her 4lbs better than her Irish equivalent, and looks decently handicapped.
Gary Moore holds the cards for the British and Perseus Way and Bo Zenith sit next to each other in the market. Perseus Way was actually the best of the British in the Adonis, and laid down a slight challenge to Nusret. His form book has been boosted, particularly his run at Huntingdon, as second Samuel Spade won on his next run. The Graded form from the Finale has also worked out well with Comfort Zone winning on Trails Day.
Bo Zenith hasn’t had too many starts over hurdles, but has broken his maiden tag thanks to a win up at Haydock, beating Cianciana and previously fancied Paul Nicholls horse, Afadil. You could argue the handicapper has been quite harsh on him, given that he is less experienced over hurdles and the form from his British debut hasn’t worked out well.
Verdict: Perseus Way; The debate can be settled, that British racing is in safe hands. Well for this race anyway. The form has worked out tremendously well for this horse, and with a run over C&D earlier on in the season, will put him at an advantage to the others. Currently 12/1 with bet365.
Each-way pick: Punta Del Este; You don’t have to look to far down to find him. He finished third behind Bo Zenith at Haydock, which was his first British start. He grew into the race, and stayed on well up the run-in, and that could benefit him at Cheltenham. A decent pick at 14/1 with bet365.
Weatherbys Champion Bumper – 2m 87yds – Grade One
This race will be won by Willie Mullins. Fact. He has 14 runners entered. That’s nearly a third of the entries. And as of writing, none of the are favourite.
That position is held by A Dream To Share for John Kiely. Unbeaten on all starts for the unsung hero of small stable Irish racing, he put in a great performance at the DRF to deny the Mullins brigade. The question is the weather. When I started to write these previews, not a drop of rain was forecast. Now it looks like the Festival will start off soft, and stay that way. But the Clerk of the Course, Jon Pullin, doesn’t know either. A Dream To Share looks like he’ll prefer the better side of good to soft.
The Irish bumpers have been dominated by Willie Mullins, and Simon Munir and Issac Souede. The Double Green army have invested heavily in the Irish market, after being involved in British racing for so long. There investment has paid off, with the next two in the market of that partnership. It’s For Me was eye-catching by winning his only Irish start by nine lengths on deep ground at Navan, but the form hasn’t worked out particularly well (despite the second placed horse being a long distance third on its next start)
Fun Fun Fun was kept warm in her box since her debut back in October. She then went to beat Lily Du Berlais by nine-and-a-half lengths. With that eye-catching run behind her, plus being kept fresh for the Festival, and with a mares allowance, she looks a lot better than the price she is.
Gordon Elliott runs Better Days Ahead, which ahs been kept fresh since the start of December. He beat Chapeau De Soleil by almost four lengths on deep ground at Fairyhouse. The only negative I would have for him; is he hasn’t run over a left-handed track.
You then have to scroll down a bit to find the first of the British runners. Queens Gamble looked an almost banker for the Bumper, after winning over C&D twice, winning by a combined distance of 18 lengths. She succumbed to her defeat in the Alan Swinbank at Market Rasen but only lost by a length, on a track that isn’t even like Cheltenham. I predict there may be a big gamble on the day for Queens Gamble.
Verdict: Fun Fun Fun; Really took to this mare at Leopardstown, and if she comes here, she has plenty going for her and at 9/1, with bet365, she can’t be sniffed at.
Each-way pick: Queen’s Gamble; Just because she’s at an each-way price, she should be a win bet for her record at Cheltenham. In a way, she has everything going for her too. It’s just that the British haven’t won the bumper since Ballyandy in 2016…
JCB Triumph Hurdle – 2m 179yds – Grade One
In recent years, this race hasn’t produced many recognisable Cheltenham Festival winners, apart from Tiger Roll. Hopefully, we can see some bright young stars come through to win here in the future.
As always, the Irish dominate with Blood Destiny top of the shop. We were expecting to see him at Leopardstown, but Mullins has decided to keep him fresh for the Festival. He was impressive on debut winning by five lengths, then even more impressive when winning by 19 lengths at Fairyhouse in deep ground. Winning distances like that just cannot be touched.
Lossiemouth wasn’t disappointing at the DRF. Paul Townend put her in the wrong position and was riding hard, and getting a response, on Lossiemouth. She did manage to bridge the gap, but to no avail. You could say that she does have the staying power for the trip that Gala Marceau may lack.
But Gala Marceau was actually impressive. The way she went away from Lossiemouth was a brilliant turn of foot. Arguably you could, on paper evidence, say that ground benefitted her that day, but Lossiemouth did come home the strongest and will be looking fired up in the paddock to get revenge.
A surprising French raider entered the market, with a Welsh name. St Donats, trained in France hasn’t been seen since last November but is a Grade One winner. Whilst the ground description says heavy, the ground was probably somewhere nearer the soft side of good-to-soft. But the winning margin puts St Donats in a league of his own. Can he follow up Gold Tweet’s shock win in the Cleeve?
Talking of C&D winners, Comfort Zone. The winner of two Grade Two races in the UK, and one on trails day, beating Scriptwriter. He looked well suited to the track, and the challenge of Scriptwriter up the hill really pushed him on, and he showed that little bit more to win. Arguably, the form isn’t worked out too well, with Scriptwriter finishing distant in the Adonis (Active Duty finished third on his next start). But Course form helped Pied Piper finish a close second to Vauban last year, it could prove vital again.
It’s unclear whether Bo Zenith comes here, but may hold an each-way chance, but Scriptwriter will definitely come to this race. If Milton Harris stuck on £1000 each-way then he must know something. That bet was put on before his Adonis run, but he had excuses. You could argue he prefers to go left-handed than right, the ground was too firm for him, the loose horse caused carnage at the third last, even though he hit the hurdle pretty hard himself. But two good Cheltenham runs, can’t be dismissed.
Verdict: Blood Destiny; It’s hard to stay away from the favourite. The form has worked out, his individual performance is one of the best, and he’s been kept fresh for the festival. What more could you ask at 15/8 with bet365?
Each-way: Scriptwriter; A lot of things went wrong in the Adonis. Cross a line through it and get over it, he’s a had two fantastic races at Cheltenham. And a grand each-way from the trainer, isn’t just chucking money away.