The Champion Bumper is a fairly recent addition to Cheltenham week but is one of the more intriguing races with so many unknown quantities lining up. Backing the winner of the race is now up there with finding time to queue for a Prestbury Park pint as one of the more tricky tasks over the four days, with the last four winners – returning at SPs of 25, 16, 14 and 40/1 – having had only six previous runs under rules between them. Congratulations to trainer/jockey combo followers who may have latched on to Briar Hill last term, but on bare form he was a tough one to pick out having won a weak small-field race over the Irish Sea at long odds-on on his only start. That Willie Mullins trained the winner should be of no surprise though – since Wither Of Which in 1996 the Irish handler has added another seven to his Bumper hall, with two ridden by son Patrick who retains first option on his old man’s runners in this race. Having jocked himself up on the wrong one last year Patrick has another apparently difficult decision to make between market principles Black Hurcules and Shaneshill this time around.
Despite the SPs of the recent winners the form tends to hold up, and the race continues to throw up future stars of the NH scene – Cue Card (surprise yet emphatic 40/1 victor in 2010) is now one of the top staying chasers in the land, Champagne Fever Arkle favourite via success in a very strong Supreme Novices Hurdle, and the aforementioned Briar Hill sits behind only King’s Palace in the betting for the 3m Albert Bartlett. There are also honourable mentions for the likes of the unfortunate Missed That, as well as Cousin Vinny and Dunguib who looked to have huge futures over obstacles without ever reaching the real top level.
This really is a race for the Irish horses, both bred and trained:
- Horses with the (IRE) suffix have won 17 of the last 21 renewals
- Mullins has trained by far the most winners, and when we add the successes of his compatriots over the Irish Sea we have 16 of the last 21 winners coming from the Emerald Isle
- As you would expect, last time out winners and unbeaten horses have an excellent record. With seven of the last 11 winners having raced more than twice, experience appears to be a help.
- It seems to be an advantage to have winning form going left-handed
In last year’s race preview I wrote that I felt the appalling winter ground meant that not only did we have inexperienced horses with untested form, but they were racing on a surface many hadn’t even encountered. This made the Bumper even more of a minefield for punters, and unfortunately it may be the same this time as we emerge from one of the wettest winters on record.
BLACK HERCULES (W.P.Mullins)
(Heron Island x Annalecky)
RPRs (TS) – 120 (51), 132 (111)
Notes: Unbeaten in a PTP and two bumpers in Ireland, Black Hercules represents the powerful Willie Mullins – Graham Wylie combination. He ticks a couple of trends boxes as an Irish bred being trained in the country of his birth, although another run may have been beneficial and his two outings have both been on right-handed tracks. The son of Heron Island was tidy if not spectacular on his rules debut (4/7f), being given a straightforward front-running ride by Patrick Mullins which suggested he knew he was on comfortably the best animal. It was no waltz around Punchestown on the bridle & the winner’s stamina did need to come into play when things got semi-serious, but the race showed Black Hercules has a bit of fight in him & the winner did plenty for the form when beating Vigil at Fairyhouse next time. This horse was much more visually impressive in late January at Gowran Park when taking a race for winners by 8.5 lengths, and although that form is yet to be tested there were horses in behind who had run to some decent numbers when winning their bumpers. Clearly a strong candidate with the blend of stamina and obvious ability required, although Mullins expressed slight ground concerns should it come up ‘Good’ at the Festival.
(King’s Theatre x Darabaka)
RPRs (TS) – 114 (70), 129 (82)
Notes: Although beaten in his point, Shaneshill comes into the Champion Bumper with a similar record to stablemate Black Hercules with a fairly workmanlike introduction being followed up by a much more stylish effort around Fairyhouse. The Fairyhouse performance was visually very impressive and he was obviously head and shoulders above his eight rivals, however that form has been put to the test several times and looks pretty dismal so he’s going to need to be! The 5-y-o King’s Theatre gelding is a half brother to very smart hurdler (and Ascot Gold Cup second!) Far Cry, as well as maiden hurdle winner Captainofthefleet, both of whom stayed at least two-and-a-half miles. The injection of King’s Theatre into the pedigree suggests Shaneshill will stay at least that far as well, and that’s a positive looking at careers of the past winners of this race. Mullins felt that Shaneshill (also owned by Festival-winning owner Wylie) would be more suited to the potential Good ground than Black Hercules, and it’s no secret that Patrick’s decision between the pair isn’t an easy one.
(Motivator x Alessandra)
RPRs (TS) – 103 (98), 123 (57)
Notes: A flat-bred gelding who never saw a racecourse when trained by Roger Charlton, Modus owes his position in the market to a 13-length romp around Cheltenham on New Years Day over a furlong short of two miles. That race is almost always a good one, with potential Champion Hurdler The New One one of the names on it’s roll of honour. Modus is the obvious example of how difficult it can be when assessing the chances of these lightly raced bumper performers, as that victory came on desperate ground (winner’s topspeed rating a lowly 57) which several of his opponents just couldn’t deal with. Being by Motivator it is no surprise Modus cut his way through it, although it would be unfair to pigeon hole him as exclusively a deep-ground performer as his taking debut success come on good-to-soft ground at Exeter- the third there also ran a solid race in the same Cheltenham event. It’s difficult to discount him, but he’s as short as 8/1 in places based on that New Year’s effort and it would take a leap of faith to go in at single figures in what should be very different conditions. Britain’s best chance according to the bookmakers.
(Dansili x Magnolia Lane)
RPRs (TS) – 119 (32), 134 (99)
Notes: Another runner bred more for a career on the level, Vigil has a pedigree to make the flat boys drool being out of a full sister to the great stayer Yeats. His sire Dansili has also produced classy bumper performer Perce Rock (fourth in this in 2006) as well as a number of solid performers over jumps, and this horse could go on to be the best of the lot. Originally in training with a view to a flat career with Ballydoyle genius Aidan O’Brien, the gelding was the 6/4f to make a winning debut at Fairyhouse on New Year’s Day but couldn’t match the experienced Cillian’s Return and went down by just under three lengths. Plenty said before the race that it was a surprise the debutant had been made favourite ahead of the very solid Cillian’s Return, so having looked inexperienced under pressure it was a nice introduction from Vigil and he would kick on from it in no uncertain terms next time out. His four-and-three-quarter length Leopardstown success earned an RPR of 134 – just ahead of the 132 registered by Black Hercules – and he travelled supremely well before going away easily from Mullins’ debutant Lockstockandbarrel. Mullins alone will know how Lockstockandbarrel compares to his better bumper horses, but this was a very striking performance from a horse who looks capable of living up to his gallops work- good ground should suit even better.
KILLULTAGH VIC (W.P.Mullins)
(Old Vic x Killultagh Dawn)
RPRs (TS) – 109, 123 (100), 138 (111)
Notes: After previewing a couple of flat breds, this 5-y-o is a real NH type. If you’re a trends follower then it may be difficult to get away from this lad – a 5-y-o winner of his last race, with 3 runs under rules and bred and trained in Ireland! Not only that, all three of his bumpers have been at left handed tracks (Navan & Naas) and to top it all off he’s trained by that man Willie Mullins. With all of those boxes ticked it may be a surprise to some that he is available at double figures while Willie has two others at the head of the market, especially as he’s a fast improving animal with a recorded RPR of 138 on his CV. That RPR is a slightly questionable figure however, with his main market rival and fellow Champion Bumper entry Golantilla appearing to ‘blow up’ in the straight after a long absence and as such it is difficult to take the 138 at face value, and it’s worth noting that his second start RPR of 123 is a fair bit behind that of those ahead of him in the market. It should also be noted that he has never once raced without the ground being on the Heavy side, although there is the possibility he could be even better on a sounder surface & with the stiff finish sure to play to his strengths he looks a pretty solid each way option in a race full of unknown quantities.
(Golan x Scintilla)
RPRs (TS) – 127 (69), 131 (119), 127 (92)
Notes: A rarity in that he has already run in the Champion Bumper in 2013, Golantilla was a huge talking horse before his third to Briar Hill last season where he seemed to flatten out when he hit the rising ground at Prestbury Park. A year older and almost certainly stronger, he was slightly disappointing when being beaten 16 lengths by Killultagh Vic but that effort was explained away by his lack of race fitness and it isn’t out of the question that he could reverse those placings with the cobwebs blown away. Although it wouldn’t be a huge surprise for Golantilla to finish ahead of Killutagh Vic, he is only a couple of points bigger than his conqueror in most places and that looks pretty stingy to me. The fact we know he can run well at Cheltenham is a big plus, although his struggles with the hill do stick in the mind and it may not have been a particularly strong renewal of the race in any case. He will appeal to some each way backers on that effort last season, but on balance he is probably not a good price compared with Killutagh Vic.
VALUE AT RISK (P.Fenton)
(Kayf Tara x Miss Orchestra)
RPRs (TS) – 117 (1), 117 (13), 132 (106)
Notes: Value At Risk started life as a fairly unconsidered 20/1 shot in a warm bumper won by Gordon Elliot’s Graded performer Very Wood, and has graduated from finishing second there to winning his next two races. In the first of those he beat Dermot Weld’s subsequent winner Windsor Park by a length-and-a-half having made all before following up by seeing off an okay inmate of Aidan O’Brien’s and the heavily backed but disappointing Fort Smith. That form isn’t much out of the ordinary on paper although it wouldn’t be the first time one of O’Brien’s had found improvement from seemingly nowhere, and this half-brother to good staying chaser and RSA third Battle Cry would be worth his place in the field should his trainer decide Cheltenham and not Punchestown is the right destination.
In an Irish-dominated heat, could John Ferguson and his army of ex-Godolphin horses get the job done for Britain? Ferguson’s New Year’s Eve was second to Champagne Fever in 2012 as the 9/2 favourite, and looking to go one better is the 5-y-o Authorized gelding El Namoose (Best RPR 112)- the winner of what is usually a decent Musselborough event. Experience may be an issue as he hasn’t been seen since, and the second didn’t do a great deal for the form when finishing fourth next time. Dermot Weld has another son of Dansili entered in Silver Concorde, a winner of one of his three starts and as short as 10/1 in places. At the time of writing there is only £6 up looking to back him at big prices on the exchange and it looks doubtful that this improving horse will turn up. Another British hope is the Steve Gollings-trained Definitly Red (121), with the son of Definite Article a general 20/25-1 poke. Unbeaten in a low-key Uttoxeter bumper and a Listed contest at Newbury, Gollings was quoted as saying his charge is only likely to run with give in the ground which isn’t a great surprise considering both of his efforts have come on heavy going. His trainer is likely to want to look after the horse as he’s looked like a lovely prospect for the big obstacles in future. There are some cautious firms pricing Third Act (112 after 3 runs) at 20/1 after the same connections prepared Cue Card to win at 40/1, but he looks short of having the ability to win this. There is very little activity on Betfair at this stage which makes sorting out definite runners quite tricky.
As ever a bit of a guessing game. Willie Mullins has three of the first four in the betting with Black Hercules appearing to be the first string at a general 6/1. His most recent effort was very promising, although it’s stablemate Shaneshill who would be more at home should the ground be close to Good as expected. It’s a bit off putting that Killultagh Vic is twice the price of Black Hercules, and with Patrick Mullins apparently struggling to make a decision on his mount the tentative vote goes to the regally-bred VIGIL for Dermot Weld, with his latest performance as good as any in the line up and the promise of plenty more to come. Golantilla and Modus both have course form in very different circumstances, and whilst it’s difficult to rule either of them out completely at the prices there are enough question marks about both to side with the Weld horse.