Friday, April 29, 2016

A brief review of the 2015/16 jumps season

Champion jockey: Richard Johnson
Champion trainer: Paul Nicholls
Winning owner: Gigginstown House Stud
Champion conditional jockey: Craig Nichol

Following years spent in the shadow of A P McCoy, Richard Johnson deservedly collected his first champion jockeys' title with 235 winners; nearest rival Aidan Coleman chalked up 130. Perhaps the name of the winner was no surprise but the margin of victory was - in real terms Johnson had the championship in safe-keeping before Cheltenham's Open meeting.

In stark contrast the battle for the trainers' title between Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins went to the final day at Sandown; with Just A Par and Southfield Theatre finishing second and fourth respectively behind The Young Master in the bet365 Gold Cup, Nicholls claimed his tenth championship. Vicente's victory in the Scottish Grand National the previous week, the third leg of a four-timer for the Ditcheat handler, proved crucial and changed momentum. 

For many the season was defined by two horses - Sprinter Sacre and Cue Card.

Sprinter remained unbeaten and and amidst emotional scenes rolled back the years to reclaim the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Festival. Back in 2013 commentator Simon Holt had described Henderson's charge as 'a steeplechaser from the gods'; who are we to argue?

Cue Card won the Charlie Hall at Wetherby, Haydock's Betfair Chase, the King George VI Chase at Kempton and looked to have every chance of claiming the £1 million bonus offered for winning the Gold Cup when taking a crashing fall three from home. In the post-race aftermath Colin Tizzard opined 'there's not a bother on him' and his charge proved as much three weeks later by winning the Betfair Bowl at Aintree. His subsequent fourth in the Punchestown Gold Cup was a race too far.  

Don Cossack was the principal beneficiary of Cue Card's Gold Cup mishap providing young jockey Bryan Copper with redemption following the ride he'd given the same horse in the Ryanair Chase twelve months earlier.

Owners Gigginstown House Stud went on to claim a famous treble with Rogue Angel giving Mouse Morris an emotional win in the Irish Grand National and then Rule The World winning for the first time over fences in the Grand National for the same handler. Jockey D J Mullins, victorious on his first ride in the National, returned to the same winners' enclosure an hour later aboard Ivan Grozny, recording a 578/1 double in the process.

Festival memories that still linger include Ruby Walsh's ride aboard Annie Power in the Champion Hurdle and Thistlecrack's annihilation of his field in the World Hurdle. Several bookmakers reported big losses after the meeting with Ladbrokes suffering its 'worst in living memory'; the blog's Festival selections were the most profitable on record. 

Earlier in the season Alan King bagged two big prizes with Annacotty holding the fast-finishing Buywise in the Paddy Power Gold Cup and Smad Place running his rivals ragged in the Hennessy.

Hats off too to Lizzie Kelly who became the first female jockey to win a Grade One jumps race in Britain aboard Tea For Two in the Kauto Star Novices' Chase at Kempton. Six weeks later she was aboard Agrapart, winning Newbury's Betfair Hurdle by an astonishing eleven lengths.

At a slightly less lofty level, I had some modest success, particularly in the autumn, with runners from the yards of Harry Whittington, Anthony Honeyball  and Stuart Edmonds.
I saw both Wolf Of Windlesham (Stuart Edmonds) and Arzal (Harry Whittington) win at Ludlow's second October meet; Wolf Of Windlesham beat a couple of highly-regarded sorts at Sandown last Saturday but Harry Whittington's yard will still be reeling following the sad news about Arzal earlier this week.

Surprisingly the post 'Ten years of PG's Tips' generated a number of queries, most coming from readers who were keen to ascertain what my mother-in-law was backing in this year's Grand National... I don't think I've got another ten years in me. 

The award of blog horse of this year has to go to Johnny Og trained by Martin Keighley.

I'd hatched a plot to back this one at a fancy price at a Newbury midweek meeting I was set to attend in January. Frost put paid to that cunning plan but just three days later I missed the wretched beast at Ascot where he trotted up at odds of 14/1. Six weeks on, up he popped at Newbury once again. I took 14/1, he went off at 8/1 and duly obliged, coming home one and threequarter lengths ahead of nearest rival Exmoor Mist. I'm still not quite certain what I would have done if he hadn't won...

And finally... At Cheltenham on Wednesday Sam Cavallaro, trained by Miss H Brookshaw and ridden by Mr R Jarrett, won the first race of the 2016/2017 season.  

Friday, April 22, 2016

bet365 Gold Cup 2016

The curtain falls on the 2015/6 NH season at Sandown tomorrow.

After years spent in the shadow of A P McCoy, Richard Johnson will deservedly collect his first jockeys' title.

In marked contrast, the trainers' title is still undecided; at the time of writing Paul Nicholls leads Willie Mullins by some £44,000. The Ditcheat handler saddles four at Chepstow's evening meeting  - Rainy City finished third in the 4.30 and Simon Squirrel was unplaced in the 5.00; Ruben Cotter goes in the 6.05, Whispering Storm at 8.05.

Tomorrow's finale promises an enthralling conclusion; Nicholls remains odds-on to win the title.

The highlight on the Sandown card is the bet365 Gold Cup at 4.10.

I thought last week's Scottish Grand National handicap rather 'compressed' but incredibly this end-of-season finale sees the bottom weight allotted 10-11 - just five of the twenty runners will carry less than 11-0!

Paul Kealy makes a strong case for The Young Master in the Weekender but on the back of the trainer's comments I'm going to side with stablemate Carole's Destrier. I tipped this one for the Ultima Handicap on the opening day of the Festival but he ran no sort of race whatsoever and was pulled up.

Neil Mulholland points out this has been the target for the selection since winning the London National over this course in December. The horse has also undergone a breathing operation since.

In an ultra-competitive looking event, Carole's Destrier (12/1) is the each-way suggestion; he comes to this fresher than some of his rivals. Most layers offer a quarter the odds four places; bet365 and Sky Bet pay five places.   

Friday, April 15, 2016

Scottish Grand National 2016

This year's Scottish National picks up where last week's Grand National left off with a number in the field, having failed to make the cut for the Aintree showpiece, turning out here instead; among them are Cause Of Causes, Midnight Prayer, Royale Knight, Pineau De Re, Highland Lodge and Alvarado.

My overall record in this race doesn't stand up to the closest scrutiny (Milborough's fall early on last year a fair benchmark) but Hello Bud was one of two selections put up for the 2009 renewal.

Mouse Morris and Gigginstown House Stud try for a hat-trick of Grand Nationals with Folsom Blue while in the contest for the trainers' title Willie Mullins sends over Measureofmydreams and Paul Nicholls saddles Vicente.

Nicholls could be worried by the stats which show just two seven-year-old winners since 2000 (Gingembre in 2001 and Godsmejudge in 2013); Godsmejudge was the first horse to carry more than 11-0 to victory since Grey Abbey in 2004.

On the back of his sixth in last year's Grand National, as well as Dr Richard Newland's subsequent remarks, I quietly fancied Royale Knight to run a big race at Aintree and at a fancy price too.

I'm going to stay loyal here; the horse will appreciate testing ground but I have this feeling the opportunity may have passed and quotes of 14/1 for this week's race are nowhere near as tempting as the 50/1 on offer for last week's. It will be important Brendan Powell secures a prominent pitch early on.

Rather ironically, in the Weekender Peter Naughton quotes Dr Newland about the selection's stablemate:

'Pineau De Re did his best piece of work in around two years last week and the race will suit him perfectly.'
Highland Lodge is worthy of a mention on the back of his win in the Becher Chase in December. That day, on his first run for Jimmy Moffatt, he had Vics Canvas, third at Aintree, three and a half lengths adrift in fifth. In the past he hasn't been one to trust implicitly but perhaps the change of scenery has helped work the oracle.

And you just wonder if first-time cheekpieces will help Shotgun Paddy who has some decent efforts in the book (including Warwick's Classic Chase in 2014) but whose jumping frequently causes a problem.

Royale Knight (14/1) is the each-way selection; a number of layers are offering a quarter the odds five places.

On a slightly different tack, the story that has generated most comment from the blog's tenth anniversary post a couple of weeks back is the telephone interview conducted with my mother-in-law after she had backed Mon Mome at 100/1 in the 2009 Grand National.

Here's the abbreviated detail of a further family fiasco following this year's race...

Two minutes after Rule The World had passed the winning post in front our landline rang; caller display indicated it was my brother.

'That's unusual - for a Saturday - to get a call from your brother,' quipped Mrs Tips emerging from the scullery. In an instant my worst fears were confirmed; he'd backed the winner at 50/1.

PG: 'What made you chose that one?'

Bro: 'I met this guy in the bookies and he had bet Boston Bob as his name was Bob so I started to think I need a horse with a Welsh connection.'

PG: 'The old Welsh connection, huh?'

Bro: 'Ydw. Browsing through the runners, when I saw Rule The World I immediately thought of Harry Secombe singing "If I ruled the world".'

Bro continues, singing limpidly in Secombesque fashion into the handset:

'If I ruled the world
Every day would be the first day of spring
Every heart would have a new song to sing
And we'd sing of the joy every morning would bring.'

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry and still don't - where's Thora Hird when you need her? I'm considering burning the form books - offers invited.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Aintree Grand National 2016

The changing nature of the National is reflected in the fact that most of the horses I fancied this time last week have failed to make the cut...

Last year's winner Many Clouds bids to become the first horse to win back-to-back Nationals since Red Rum (1973 and 1974); Leighton Aspell aims to become the first jockey to record three consecutive wins in the race, having ridden Pineau De Re to victory in 2014.   

In his 'today's tip' selection, Coral's David Metcalf makes a cogent, persuasive case for Many Clouds; from a handicapping perspective, the favourite looks favourably treated. His chance is certainly respected but the gelding has to carry top weight over four and a half miles on ground far more testing than encountered last year.

The last horse to carry top weight to victory was Red Rum. Suny Bay, second to Earth Summit in 1998, is the only other top-weight to make a place since - in a race of forty runners, I'm happy to look elsewhere for some value.

There have been some big-priced winners in recent years including Silver Birch at 33/1 in 2007; Mon Mome at 100/1 in 2009; Neptune Collonges at 33/1 in 2012 and Auroras Encore at 66/1 in 2013. The last two winners, Pineau De Re and Many Clouds, were both sent off at odds of 25/1.

Those who like to pick their own horses will find the BBC's Grand National Pinstickers' guide a valuable tool; for everyone else there's this...   

The stats suggest the winner will be aged between nine and twelve and will have had at least one run since the turn of the year. With further rain forecast overnight, the ground is likely to remain on the soft side so I've concentrated on horses carrying no more than 11-0.

Selections are shown below with prices correct at the time of publication; note the majority of High Street bookmakers are paying a quarter the odds five places - check yours is one of them.

1. Morning Assembly
Looks to have been trained with this in mind and ran a decent trial in the Ultima Handicap Chase at Cheltenham three weeks ago (25/1).
2. The Druids Nephew
In with a major chance last year when coming to grief with an indifferent leap five from home; four pounds worse off with Many Clouds at the weights (16/1).
3. Saint Are
Put up as the best long-priced outsider last year finishing one and three quarter lengths behind Many Clouds; soft ground isn't ideal (16/1).

4. Kruzhlinin
Better expected when behind Morning Assembly in the Ultima at Cheltenham. Completed in tenth in the 2014 renewal and seventh over the same fences in the Becher Chase the following December (25/1).

5. Ucello Conti 
Not guaranteed to stay, a comment that applies to several in the field. Switched to Gordon Elliott to be trained for this; soft ground no problem (25/1).

Good luck!

Finally, spare a thought for the lady who organised our annual work sweepstake.

Keen to get the job done and dusted early on, she wandered into the office Tuesday lunchtime with just a handful of horses left to sell. I paid my £2 and drew Bob Ford; my colleague drew Godsmejudge. A quick glance at her list and I saw Lord Windermere at the head of the handicap.

'Out of interest, where did you get this list?' I enquired. 'Google' came the reply.

Harsh, I know, but it had to be done - I pointed out she was using a list of last year's runners. Required action: return stakes to the individuals concerned and start afresh.

The 'revised' sweepstake arrived in the office late yesterday afternoon; I paid my £2 and drew Devon Loch.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Aintree 2016 - Friday

Friday is Ladies' Day.

In recent weeks Aintree racecourse has attempted to walk a particularly tricky line by suggesting racegoers may wish to adopt a more understated sartorial approach this year; I'd suggest it's odds against racegoers heeding the advice proffered.       

For those interested in the racing, Vautour will be no betting proposition in the JLT Melling Chase at 3.25 but in full flight Willie Mullins' charge is a sight to behold.

Blaklion is as tough as old boots and did me a favour at Cheltenham but I won't be playing up winnings in the Mildmay Novices' Chase at 2.50. Un Temps Pour Tout won the Ultima Handicap Chase with something in hand at the Festival and is now rated five pounds better than the RSA winner. Back in February I gave Native River one final chance in the Towton at Wetherby but he just didn't cut it; he finished a close second to Minella Rocco in the four miler at Cheltenham and may just get outpaced on this track.

In this week's 'Straight from the Stable' feature in the Weekender Lucinda Russell has a strong word for Sky Khan who was third in the Martin Pipe last time and goes in the opener:

"He ran on really well and Derek [Fox], who rode him, keeps saying he would have won if he had gone sooner, but that is always how he will run as he has to have a strong pace and run through horses late on."   

Ballyandy had a hard race in the bumper at Cheltenham and is saddled with a four pound penalty for his trouble in the Aintree equivalent at 5.15.

I thought Limini potentially vulnerable in the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham but we now know she's clearly very good. That said, she faces a tougher-lookng assignment against the likes of Buveur D'Air and Agrapart in the 2.15. With the ground riding on the soft side, Buveur is my idea of the winner but at the prices I'm considering an each-way interest in Agrapart who won Newbury's Betfair Hurdle by an astonishing eleven lengths and on official ratings has three pounds to find with the two market leaders.

9/1 in several places, Agrapart is the each-way selection in the Imagine Cruising First In The Frame Top Novices' Hurdle.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Aintree 2016 - Thursday

After my most successful Cheltenham in recent memory, unusually I come to Aintree with some money in my pocket; I'm in no particular rush to give it back to the bookmakers.

To my mind Aintree's April fixture remains one of the most trappy in the calendar. Those Cheltenham Festival winners - can they come out on top three weeks later over a course that presents a very different type of examination?

Added to the habitual dilemmas, this year Willie Mullins brings his stable stars over from Ireland in an attempt to secure his first British trainers' title.

I certainly won't be knocking anyone out of the way to take an odds-on price about Annie Power in the Doom Bar Aintree Hurdle at 3.25; champion hurdlers have a poor record in this, run over a distance of two and a half miles. Annie had four of her five opponents behind last month but course and distance winner Nichols Canyon is a threat here while Coral's 25/1 about Camping Ground looks too big; Robert Walford's charge impressed in the Relkeel and will be better suited by this trip with give underfoot.

Cue Card is the form selection for the Betfred Bowl (2.50) and is on a retrieval mission after a nasty-looking fall three from home in the Gold Cup. He hadn't jumped with particular fluency up to that point but, that said, there appeared plenty left in the tank when he came to grief. Quotes around the even money mark make little appeal.

They're likely to go hard up front in the opener with both Sizing John and Arzal in the line-up - Rock The World has also made the running previously.

I intend to have a small each-way wager on Azzuri in the Betfred Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle (2.15).

The Triumph at Cheltenham was dominated by Irish runners and the first three home head the market here; I tipped Alan King's Sceau Royal for that race but he was a desperate disappointment in twelfth. Zubayr was one further place behind in thirteenth, having previously beaten Azzuri in the Adonis at Kempton.

Azzuri went off like a scalded cat that day but he maintained his gallop to the line, beaten just under four lengths (Nicky Henderson's Khezerabad a further three quarters of a length behind third). That looked a marked step-up on his second run for the Dan Skeleton yard; I'm hoping the first-time tongue-tie can elicit some further improvement on a track that should suit his style of racing.

At 33/1 (BetFred) Azzuri is an each-way selection for those of an adventurous disposition... 

Friday, April 01, 2016

Ten years of PG's Tips

This weekend marks the tenth anniversary of the very first blog post inspired by a guy called Mike whom I met at a wedding reception in York.

The inaugural tip a few days later was a match bet in the 2006 Grand National. Paul and Nina Carberry were the first brother and sister to ride in the same National and I was sure I'd seen Nina quoted at 2/1 to get further round than Paul.  In the event she finished ninth on Forest Gunner while Paul fell from Sir OJ at Becher's on the second circuit.

The very next selection, Mam Ratagan in the concluding bumper at the same meeting, proved far more representative of the performance of the blog's selections over the ensuing ten years - the gelding finished twentieth of the twenty two runners.

I was a different person in those early days - keen, much too keen for my own good, with a tendency towards verbosity taken from the Leonard Sachs school of music hall and at a completely different juncture on my personal betting journey.

Ten years and over a thousand posts later, I retain no plans to give up the day job - a salient demonstration of my ability to find winners - and I've failed miserably to address the prolixity issue. In all that time Ludlow has been a 'lucky' track - the other 38 jumps courses have proved far less propitious.

Still, this exercise in self-indulgence has generated the odd wry laugh here and there, helping to ease the pain of egregious performance...

The saga of John Parrott and the infernal pub quiz machine remains one of the most widely read posts, primarily because back then people had started to search Google for answers to the questions posed by those wretched machines; I still haven't received an apology from Mr Parrott for the part he played in that particular downfall.

As any follower of National Hunt racing will tell you, the twin threats of abandoned fixtures and a family Christmas make for a particularly difficult time over the festive period; on at least one occasion The Really Nasty Horse Racing Game has provided some much-needed light relief...

And perhaps you were unaware the 2012 Grand National runners had starred in a piece of 'fiction noir' of their own making?
Bay mare Big Knickers proved a source of some ribaldry back in 2010 when finishing a staying-on third in a Plumpton maiden; the comments-in-running included 'held up towards rear'. Helpfully, further additional suggestions for potential use in future racecourse commentaries were offered up:

Big Knickers pulled up / brought down; Big Knickers out the back struggling with a big weight; Big Knickers just held on; Big Knickers stayed on (up the hill); Big Knickers looking comfortable; Big Knickers squeezed for room; Big Knickers out with the washing etc. etc.

Mrs Tips continues in robust health and still retains that most piquant of qualities, the ability to walk into a room where televised racing is being broadcast and pick the winner of the next whereas all of my own carefully researched selections carrying my own hard-earned money have already fallen by the wayside...

The most galling interview I have been obliged to conduct came after the 2009 Grand National when my mother-in-law backed Mon Mome each-way at odds of 100/1; the telephone transcript, reproduced below, makes no record of my own silent sobbing:

PG: 'What made you choose that horse?'
Mother-in-law: 'Well, the name Mon Mome is quite close to Mum and as I'm Mum to five girls I thought I'd go with that.'
PG: 'What did you think during the race?'
Mother-in-law: 'I didn't realise it was going to win until right at the end. Grandpa said the horse had gone - I thought he meant it had fallen.'
PG: 'How did you feel?'
Mother-in-law: 'Very excited - we were shouting at the telly. We didn't even realise what price the horse was until the caption came up on screen! When we went to the bookies the lady said "Here comes the woman with the big win."' 

It took me some five years to recover.

Horse-racing, you know, it's a game of regrets. Allowed just the one, I'd cite watching the ill-fated Synchronised pass The Giant Bolster to win the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup with a 66/1 slip about David Bridgwater's charge stuffed in my pocket; Sir Anthony Peter McCoy OBE has never apologised for that particular disservice.

And a tip to mark the tenth anniversary? 

Well, the predominant themes discussed include fancy prices, the Grand National and loosing wagers so in that spirit Royale Knight is a cautious suggestion for next Saturday's showpiece. 

Before rushing in (where angels fear to tread), note that at this stage he needs twenty to drop out in order to make the cut and soft ground would appear to suit; I've seen one 10 day forecast that predicts rain in the Liverpool area on Thursday, Friday and Saturday next week. Beaten 15 lengths in sixth off a mark of 139 last year, Dr Newland's gelding runs off 142 this time and is currently priced at 50/1 in places; Paddy Power offer 40/1 with a non-runner no-bet proviso and are paying a quarter the odds five places.

Quixotic? Of course!

Onwards and upwards as they say...