A relatively recent addition to the Festival having made its debut in 2005, the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase is a real Marmite race with some Festival goers not even bothering to watch it. I don’t mind it myself, it’s something a little different from the rest of proceedings and can be fun to watch, which is surely what it’s all about.
One name has become synonymous with the cross-country discipline and is the first name many look to when trying to identify the likely winner; Enda Bolger. Despite the strong association, somewhat surprisingly he has not actually had first past the post since 2009, with Josies Orders picking the race up last year as the result of disqualification some months later.
It was initially run as a handicap but as of last year is now run off level weights, so trends wise there isn’t a massive amount to go off here. It does take a certain kind of horse to flourish in this discipline with class over more conventional courses not always a precursor to running well over ‘the banks’, so it probably pays to go with something that has some experience of running over this kind of course.
The current favourite for the race and apparent number one for Enda Bolger is Cantlow. Formerly a bit of a monkey but a monkey who occasionally showed class when trained in England by Paul Webber, like so many he has been transformed since being switched across the Irish Sea to Bolger. He has winning form over the course to go with plenty of experience of banks racing and despite being beaten in this last year and on his last appearance over the course, he must go close and is a worthy favourite.
Winning as smoothly as you’d like when defeating Cantlow over the course earlier in the year when an unfancied 50/1 chance, Urgent De Gregaine is currently vying for second favouritism. He has plenty going for him having won so well last time, whilst the French do plenty of cross country racing so you’d expect him to be well schooled. However, despite winning with plenty in hand, there will be a big swing in the weights with Cantlow being 15lbs better off here and trainer comments suggest he is far from certain to actually run. He has shown his capability of winning over the course and looked to have plenty in hand but there must be a real risk of the form being reversed off level weights.
A dual winner at the Festival, Cause of Causes seems to come to life in March and there were few winners as impressive as he was when winning the Kim Muir in 2016. With the Grand National in mind Gordon Elliott has switched focus to this as a warm-up, as he did with previous National winner Silver Birch. He was far from convincing when trying out over the course earlier in the year but has apparently been brought over for two days of schooling over the course last month and has also travelled to school at Enda Bolger’s own banks course. With a bit more experience of banks racing, he really could be the type to flourish in this.
Another of the JP and Enda horses set to run is Auvergnat. Relatively young for this sphere as a six year old, he has been relatively well fancied when previously entered over the course and won on his last try over the banks in Ireland. He is still learning the game and will surely improve with a little more experience but he should still go close. I can easily see him winning this at some point in the future but think this year might just be a year too soon.
First past the post last year but subsequently disqualified after a banned substance was detected, Any Currency will be the only 14 year old coming to the Festival with a realistic chance of challenging. He has bags of experience in the discipline and the running off level weights is a definite benefit to him; he will there or thereabouts as ever come the business end of the race, but I’d expect at least one to be too good for him.
Third in this last year (officially) but barely seen since, Quantativeeasing was a fairly decent performer for Nicky Henderson before losing his way and being sent to Enda for revival. He has plenty of experience in the discipline and looked like he would have gone close in 2015 before unluckily being carried out when set to challenge. He comes here this year without a prep race, which has not been his usual route so that would not fill me with confidence even if they are trying something different this year.
On a recent stable tour Phillip Hobbs stated “we might just run him in the Cross Country” of Sausalito Sunrise. That hardly reeks of a well thought out plan, but as dual winner Hobbs does have a very good record in this and knows what it takes to win it. If he could transfer any of his usual ability to this sphere he would potentially have a chance.
Bless The Wings has been running in these kind of races for some time without winning, always managing to find one or two too good for him and, whilst I expect him to perform well again, I can’t see him finishing anywhere better than placed here.
A slight unknown coming into this, Usuel Smurfer is new to this discipline and only has the one run over the banks, finishing second to Auvergnat last time out in Ireland. With little prior experience he is difficult to assess, there is some form and potential there but you couldn’t back with any confidence unless the money came in for him.
Formerly top class, First Lieutenant seems to have lost his way over the last couple of years and looks like one on the downgrade. Sent hunter chasing this year, for which he is ineligible in England hence why he runs here, he has shown little form and was beaten a long way by Auvergnat in his one try over banks and it’s hard to see him figuring here.
Yet another JP and Enda horse, Colour Squadron was fairly useful when trained by Phillip Hobbs in England and went close a number of times at Cheltenham, always seeming to find one too good for him. He’s been with Enda for a couple of years but only run over banks once, when beaten by Auvergnat when giving him a stone. The swing in weights could help and he’s sure to have been schooled plenty, but it’s hard to see the trend of one too good being altered.
Willie Mullins has had runners in the Cross Country most years but generally with those entering the twilight of their career, so it was interesting to see him aim a regular graded performer in Alelchi Inois at this. The move to banks racing was largely due to the need for quick ground, which is more likely on the cross country course, and he looked like one who could potentially be a cut above in terms of class. However, when he made his banks debut earlier in the year he showed absolutely nothing and didn’t seem to particularly enjoy the experience. If they are heading here they will need to have schooled him plenty more, but even with that it would be hard to have any real confidence in his chances given what we saw.
Peter Maher, winner of this in 2013, aims banks regular Ballyboker Bridge at the Cross Country this year. Looking to improve on a fifth place finish last year, he has consistently performed well in the discipline and picked up wins in smaller prize fields, so few will line up with such a confirmed love for the discipline, whilst the running off level weights will be a real benefit for one who often has to concede weight. He does have a habit of falling short of the quality required, but he is with a good trainer and has the experience to go close so wouldn’t be the worst each way bet in the world.
There are some other recognisable names quoted in the book, like Rocky Creek and Third Intention, but I can’t see any of these featuring, either literally in some cases or on form in others.
CANTLOW is a worthy favourite and must go close, everything seems to be in his favour to win and bag Enda Bolger another cross country title. The only concern would be any return of his former behaviour, which hasn’t been seen for some time now, or one who is unexposed appearing to spoil the party.
If looking for a little more value the JP McManus horses would be the first place to look, with Auvergnat looking like a future Cross Country winner, but this year might just be a year too early for him, and Cause Of Causes the other who looks really interesting given his Festival record and the rumoured rigorous schooling he has been through, although the price has collapsed here leaving little value. The French horse, Urgent De Gregaine, has to be of interest given the impressive way he won last time but he is far from certain to run and the swing in weights has to be a slight concern. Whilst Sausalito Sunrise is a complete unknown but could be worth a punt if available at a big price.
The each way bet in this, however, lies with BALLYBOKER BRIDGE. He has plenty of experience in the discipline and over the course and the trainer knows what it takes to win this, so whilst he may not be good enough to win I expect him to be there or thereabouts come the business end.
Cantlow – win @ 9/4 (Stan James) – will be same at day or bigger at some point
Ballyboker Bridge – e/w @ 33/1 (Paddy Power, 1/5 odds 1,2,3, NRNB)