A brief glance at the ante-post list for the Cheltenham Festival 2015 very quickly reveals that at this relatively early stage of the season Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins has an embarrassment of riches in most departments and once again appears the man they all have to beat at jump racing’s premier fixture of the year, writes Elliot Slater.
Mullins, who sent out a record seven winners at the meeting back in 2012, was once again the top dog at last year’s ‘greatest show on turf’ where he began by saddling the exciting Vautour to win the opening race of the fixture, the Grade 1 Supreme Novices Hurdle. Plans for the exciting five-year-old for this term have yet to be finalised and no decision appears yet to have been taken as to whether the Susanna Ricci-owned gelding will stay over hurdles and bid for the Champion Hurdle, or switch to the larger obstacles and work towards a shot at the two-mile Arkle Trophy, the first-season novice chasers championship at that distance.
Long-time stable star Quevega will not grace the Cheltenham Festival 2015 having been retired after her defeat at Punchestown in May. That surprise loss came after the outstanding mare had landed a remarkable sixth successive OLBG (David Nicholson) Mares’ Hurdle, a record that may never be equalled in the history of the sport, never mind surpassed. Mullins does however appear to have a ready-made replacement for Quevega in the shape of the terrific mare Annie Power, (also owned by Ricci), a hot favourite in the ante-post market to continue the Mullins stranglehold on the mares’ hurdle.
The winner of 11 of her 12 career starts, Annie Power’s only defeat came at Cheltenham in March when she stepped up to three miles for the very first time and ran her heart out in finishing a brave second to the unbeaten More of That in the Grade 1 Ladbrokes World Hurdle. She remains a possible to try and go one better in the third day feature event, but Mullins also has potential candidates for this race in the shape of the undefeated Un De Sceaux, winner of two graded races in France during the spring and also a leading fancy for the two-mile Arkle Chase, and the exciting Briar Hill, whose only career defeat came at Cheltenham in March when favourite for the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle.
The Andrea and Graham Wylie-owned son of Shantou was travelling comfortably in midfield when falling at the seventh flight in the race eventually won by Very Wood, but is understood to be back in training and shaping well ahead of his first run of the new term. Like a number of his top stable companions, Briar Hill also has the option to switch to fences and is prominent in the betting markets for the Grade 1 RSA Chase over three miles at the Cheltenham Festival in 2015.
Shaneshill, another tremendously exciting prospect to represent the Wylies, should make his eagerly anticipated hurdling bow before too long and is already amongst the market leaders for the Supreme Novices Hurdle, having proven himself one of the very best bumper horses in the business last campaign. He found only Silver Concorde too good for him at the Cheltenham Festival before gaining his revenge on Dermot Weld’s smart sort in the equivalent event at Punchestown six weeks later.
Together with the high-class Champagne Fever, Black Hercules, and a host of other talented prospects, there is little doubt that once again Willie Mullins is the trainer to look to ahead of what promises to be another amazing four days in March at the Cheltenham Festival 2015.
In the Arkle Finance Handicap (4.50) at Newmarket on Thursday, September 25, Billingsgate is one of the few runners obviously in form and can record his third win of the campaign. Charlie Appleby’s three-year-old won, in this grade, over the testing mile at Sandown three starts ago and, although subsequently only sixth of eleven, beaten 6½ lengths, in a higher grade handicap at Ascot, was only beaten three-quarters of a length in a similar race at Kempton last month.
The son of Exceed And Excel is another 3lb higher in the weights here, but went down fighting at Kempton, despite carrying his head at an awkward angle in the closing stages, and could still be open to further improvement after just seven career starts. Indeed, the Ascot form has worked out well enough, with the winner running an excellent race in defeat when second, off a 6lb higher mark, over 1 mile 2½ furlongs, at Doncaster two weeks ago and the fourth winning comfortably over 7 furlongs on the July Course at Newmarket last month on his only subsequent start.
Billingsgate has won on good to firm and good going on turf, so probably doesn’t want too much rain, although he did run well enough on his seasonal debut, on soft going, at Doncaster in April to suggest that he won’t be unduly inconvenienced if the showers forecast for the East of England overnight on Tuesday and on Wednesday do materialise. The uphill climb to the winning post on the Rowley Mile should play to his strengths, whatever the weather between now and Thursday, and he appears to have excellent prospects of improving his (already healthy) win-to-run ratio.
Statistically, trainer Charlie Appleby has a 3-15 (20%) strike rate with his three-year-olds on the Rowley Mile at Newmarket and jockey William Buick is 9-41 (22%) for the yard on runners in that age group, so the signs are quite encouraging on that score, too.
Another three-year-old trained in Newmarket, Master Of The World, has run well on all six handicap starts since finishing down the field in the 2,000 Guineas, over course and distance, in May, and could be the one who gives Billingsgate most to do. However, the Mastercraftsman colt is 6lb higher in the weights than when winning at York last month and appears more exposed than Charlie Appleby’s charge. In any case, the progressive Billingsgate is readily preferred on this occasion.
Selection: Newmarket 4.50 Billingsgate to win
Manton based trainer George Baker has narrowly missed out on a few big prizes this term and is hoping that his decent performer Boomshackerlacker can finally find the lucky breaks going his way when he bids for the cavalry charge that is the Cambridgeshire Handicap at Newmarket on September 27, writes Elliot Slater.
Last term Baker sent out Belgian Bill to land the Royal Hunt Cup at Royal Ascot at odds of 33/1, and his Boomshackerlacker is offered at a similar price at http://www.bet365.com/news/en/betting to land the nine furlong Cambridgeshire Handicap, a contest that is always one of the most hotly contested handicap events of the year. Hopes are high amongst the Baker team that their four-year-old will give a very good account of himself given a decent draw, luck in running, and essentially, a little bit of juice in the ground.
The son of Dark Angel likes nothing better than to get his toe in, and a glance at his career performances so far clearly indicates that when it is easy ground or, even better, when the mud is flying, Boomshakerlacker invariably runs very well indeed. That was certainly the case last time he encountered such conditions when sent across the English Channel to Vichy to contest the listed Prix Jacques de Bremond. With star jockey Mickael Barzalona booked to ride, the 73/10 shot came with a storming late run but was carried right by the eventual winner, going down by just a half-a-length.
Last season, when racing on heavy ground at Chantilly in the listed Prix Tantiemme, the Manton-based colt again ran a cracker to be second of 13 runners behind Combat Zone. Some rain is forecast at Newmarket in the mid-week prior to the big event, but connections would certainly be happy to see a more unsettled forecast; a thunderstorm or two would be a dream come true!
Ignore his disappointing effort when parked out wide throughout the ultra-competitive Betfred Mile at Glorious Goodwood in August, Boomshackerlacker’s overall form suggests he could go very close at HQ and the handicapper has also given him some leeway in setting him a mark of 101, 7lbs lower than at this time last year, despite the colt having some run some very good races in the interim. A winner of two of his 18 starts, including a listed contest in France as a juvenile, and also placed in the Group 2 Criterium de Maisons-Lafitte and the Group 3 Worthington Whizz Kid Stakes at Newbury, the grey ran 5th in last year’s German 2000 Guineas and definitely has a touch of class about him.
Current odds of 33/1 will surely dry up if the heavens open, raining on the parade of many of his expected rivals but doing the Baker representative no harm whatsoever. And with his handler’s string having emerged in fine form throughout August and September after a fairly quiet spell during the mid-summer run, there are far worse each-way chances to invest in come the big day.
Every now and then a horse comes along that really captures the imagination of the racing public, and this season the two-year-old Tiggy Wiggy, trained by Richard Hannon, has done just that. She’s a clear ante-post favourite in the betting to win the Group 1 Prix de l’Abbaye sprint at Longchamp on October 5, but is by no means certain to take her place in the line-up in Paris.
It’s not just because she has a name like a character from a Beatrix Potter novel or that the daughter of Kodiac has set the juvenile sprint divisions on fire; it’s because Tiggy Wiggy has shown blistering speed from the very first day she set foot on a racecourse and has continued to go from strength-to-strength with virtually every outing.
Possibly the last two-year-old filly to attract such a following was the mighty ‘Pocket Rocket’, Lyric Fantasy, trained by Hannon’s father, Richard Hannon Snr., who carried all before her in the sprint division way back in 1992. It has not gone unnoticed that Tiggy Wiggy has followed a very similar path to her illustrious predecessor. Lyric Fantasy ran six times as a juvenile winning her first five outings, most notably the Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot where she ‘hacked up’ by five lengths before winning the Newbury Super Sales Sprint by an unprecedented six lengths.
It was after her Newbury win that Hannon Snr. took the unorthodox decision of deciding to run Lyric Fantasy against the top older sprinters in the Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes at York, a move that many observers deemed ‘balmy’. But Hannon knew he had a very fast filly and also calculated that with the generous weight-for-age allowances she would have a sporting chance of beating some of the best older colts and geldings in the world, despite her relative lack of experience.
On a very memorable day on the Knavesmire in August 1992, Lyric Fantasy – ridden by South African star Muis Roberts – and sent off as the 8/11 favourite before blasting down the straight five furlong to run on gamely until the finish to beat her older stable companion Mister Brooks (Lester Piggott). Brooks was the winner of the July Cup, by half a length, while Lyric Fantasy also outraced top US sprinter Diamonds Galore, who finished third. The horse then returned to York to see one of the most raucous ovations in living memory.
Much thought had been given this summer to allowing Tiggy Wiggy to follow a similar path to York, but in the end connections decided to wait for an autumn campaign and their patience deserves to be rewarded.
Tiggy Wiggy was already all the buzz when she made her racecourse bow at Kempton in March on the Polytrack. She was sent off as odds-on favourite and duly obliged with minimum fuss, scoring by seven lengths. Her first run on turf saw her work harder in defeating Excentricity by a length-and-a-quarter in a Salisbury conditions stakes, before tasting defeat for the first time in the listed Langley Solicitors LLP EBF Stallions Marygate Stakes at York.
Ridden by Sean Levey, Tiggy Wiggy had every chance but just couldn’t hold the late burst of Patience Alexander, (ironically also by the sprint sire Kodiac), and went down to a half-length defeat at the hands of the talented David Evans-trained filly, who herself went on to finish third to the high-class Cursory Glance in the Group 2 Albany Stakes at Royal Ascot on her subsequent outing.
Seemingly thriving on her racing, Hannon then decided to run his speedball at Sandown in the listed Cantor Fitzgerald Equities National Stakes over five furlongs, just 13 days after her York defeat. His decision to go to the well once more was vindicated as Tiggy Wiggy produced a tremendous turn of foot under Richard Hughes to storm to a highly impressive three-and-a-quarter length success over Cock O’The North, a run that persuaded connections they should head next to Royal Ascot and the Group 2 Queen Mary Stakes.
On June 18 at Ascot, Tiggy Wiggy took on the star Irish juvenile sprint filly Anthem Alexander and the pair produced a memorable contest. Hannon’s filly travelled well close to the pace but then appeared a little outpaced when they quickened two furlongs from home. Shaken up by Hughes, she responded well to surge back into the lead, but Anthem Alexander (trained by Edward Lynam) who had been slower than many coming out of the stalls, began a withering run and joined Tiggy Wiggy 150 yards from the finish.
The result was in doubt all the way until the last 20 yards when the Irish filly came home that little bit stronger to defeat Tiggy Wiggy by a neck, the pair coming home more than two lengths clear of the third-placed Zuhoor Baynoona, under Ryan Moore.
A month later Tiggy Wiggy returned to the fray to the race that had made Lyric Fantasy’s reputation 22 years earlier. The Weatherbys Super Sprint race at Newbury carried £122,000 in prize money to the winner and attracted a field of 24 runners. Tiggy Wiggy was sent off the 5/2 favourite in the horse racing betting and in a change of tactics Richard Hughes decided to let her have her head and bowl along in front.
In a breath-taking performance, his mount pinged out of the gates and simply had her rivals beaten at half-way, going clear within a furlong-and-a-half of the stalls then maintaining a tremendous gallop to cross the line no less than six lengths clear of Haxby and Fast Act. The BHA handicapper reacted by raising her official mark from 104 to 117, an indication that Tiggy Wiggy had literally improved almost a stone within a month, aided by the new riding tactics.
At York on August 21, Tiggy Wiggy tackled six furlongs for the first time in her life in the Group 2 Pinsent Masons Lowther Stakes, where she was taken on by two Royal Ascot winners; Anthem Alexander, who had narrowly beaten her in the Queen Mary Stakes, and Cursory Glance, impressive winner of the Albany Stakes. Despite questions over the longer distance Tiggy Wiggy was sent off 15/8 favourite in the horse racing betting to beat the pair – and the punters got it spot on.
Again showing blistering early pace under Hughes the Newbury winner had her rivals in trouble some way from home. Although shaken up inside the final furlong she had enough in hand to defeat Cursory Glance (subsequent winner of the Group 1 Moyglare Stud Stakes) by a length-and-a-half, with old rival Anthem Alexander held half-a-length further back in third.
It was this superb effort that sparked talk of a bid for the Prix de l’Abbaye de Longchamp in October, a race for which Tiggy Wiggy remains the 4.5 ante-post horse racing betting favourite on Betfair. She has terrific speed, handles the soft ground that invariably prevails at the Paris track in October, and has won in a big field as well. The big issue though is that it appears that Hannon prefers to bid instead for the Group 1 Connolly’s Red Mills Cheveley Park Stakes at Newmarket on September 27, instead of taking in the French race.
The advantage of the Newmarket contest would be that it would avoid the young filly having to travel abroad at the end of a long season, and more significantly, would allow her to remain racing against her own sex and age group. It’s a tough decision. Both races carry Group 1 status and are both worth substantial amounts of money, but recent reports suggest Hannon’s mind is made up.
“Tiggy Wiggy definitely goes to Newmarket,” Hannon declared, when speaking to Newmarketracecourses.co.uk. “We will consider the Prix de l’Abbaye after the Cheveley Park. She is in very good form, is fresh and well and has put on a bit of weight since York. What sets her apart is that she is such a good-moving filly; when other horses strides are shortening she is lengthening.”
“I think that it was the best Lowther [Stakes] for a number of years and I said at the time that I thought that the Cheveley Park might turn out to be the same sort of race. If that does prove to be the case I just hope that they finish in the same order,” Hannon added.
So it looks she’ll run in the Cheveley Park Stakes, with the faint possibility of going to Paris 10 days later if Tiggy Wiggy comes out of the Newmarket race still full of beans.
Assuming she handles the undulations of the Rowley Mile track, Tiggy Wiggy has to have a terrific chance of following up her Lowther Stakes success and would be a tremendously popular winner. It would be asking a great deal of her to go on to Longchamp so soon after the Newmarket race, but the Kodiac filly has already shown tremendous toughness this term and nothing would surprise with this lovable two-year-old.