Cheltenham 2020 Handicaps

Each year I look forward to the handicap weights coming out. I take the week before Cheltenham off work to study these races, breaking them down by trends that I determine are significant. Time and time again there are patterns that point towards certain horses winning races. Whilst this is somewhat true in the graded races, it is a massive help in narrowing a field down when it comes to hundreds of handicap entries.

When I have narrowed a field down to a handful of runners I will then go through those looking at them with my ‘handicapping’ head on. That is, assessing whether they are handicapped to run well and likely to have the right conditions to do so. I will then determine whether the horse represents value at this stage. It is worth remembering I am still studying these races with a week to go. Circumstances and conditions may change whilst several on my shortlist may not even turn up at Cheltenham or the corresponding race I have them down for.

I will then conclude with any bets that I recommend for the race at this stage before returning to the race on the night before with my subscription service. It is not unusual for me to tip a horse twice if I consider it as value a week before and is still a value price the night before. For me it is all about betting value. Getting horses in our book who will start shorter on the day. If I can back one of two horses in advance then it opens further options to bet horses to increase the chance of making a profit, which is what it is all about. Therefore, with the risks at stake at this stage then most of my bets we will be with bookmakers who are non-runner no bet. That way we should be looking at a ‘no loss’ situation. That is horses that will start at a shorter price than advised or won’t run. If you back enough horses at a value price, then in the long run you will make a profit. Whilst I can’t guarantee you all the horses advised will win, or that I will make a profit in every race, I can assure that every race has seen significant time and study put into the trends and assessing the horses for you to read. Ultimately I will try and convince you why I believe a horse is value, whether you agree or not is up to you, but hopefully you will get as much enjoyment reading my thoughts as I do writing them for you.

Tuesday

2:50 Ultima Handicap Chase

First handicap of the Festival and the third race in, run over 3m 1f on the old course. It is not a bad one for trends either though it will be interesting if any of the horses I am narrowed down to run in the NH Chase. From my original shortlist of three, one never ran and the other two Le Breuil and Discorama finished first and second in the 4m race (3m 6f from this year) (£89.40 Exacta if interested).

Won over at least 2m 5 ½ furlongs (20/20) – This is a tough early race usually run at a good pace. Beware The Bear, prior to last years win in this had run in the NH Chase, Welsh National and a Scottish National. Whilst it didn’t do a great deal in those races it did show that it had shaped in the past as a stayer.

Recorded best RPR at three miles plus (20/20) – Like above, you are looking for a good stayer at the distance who has already shown its best form at 3m or further.

Finished 1st 6 last time out (19/20) – Considering the test this is then it doesn’t pay to be coming into it on the back of a fall or a poor run.

Under 15 starts over fences (18/20) & 1st or 2nd season chaser (11/12) – Have grouped these two together as they are similar. Quite simply it is not a race for exposed chasers. Generally, you want to be lightly raced and still improving. Beware The Bear was an exception last year in its third season but was still only its 10th start over fences having lost its way a little in its 2nd year.

Run at the festival before (9/10) – I am a massive fan of course form and Festival experience when it comes to Cheltenham. It is something you see time and time again including in graded races. It is invaluable as the fences can be stiff and the pace often strong, not something a horse may face many times in a season.

Minimum Official Rating of 142 (8/10) – This also includes the last 6 winners. The standard of this race is getting stronger and while lower rated horses may get in they just don’t have the experience of racing against this standard of opposition. Five of the last 6 winners carries 11st 3lb with last years victor weighing 11st 8lb off a rating of 151. With Vinndication a likely runner we could see top rated off 159 with those rated less than 142 looking at a weight of 10st 8lb or lower.

Applying these leads me to just 7 horses which is a nice manageable number considering the entry list of 91 runners. Unfortunately, at first glance several of these are prominent in the betting, but then it is a good sign we are on the right tracks when attempting to find the winner.

Vinndication – Top weight and the current favourite. I will start with its rating of 159 as I am reluctant to be betting horses to win handicaps off such a high mark. Admittedly though two of the last three winners were rated in the 150s. It is still a big ask off top weight especially if the ground is going to be soft which is the assumption you must make now. Progressive second season chaser who was 5th in the JLT last year behind Defi Du Seuil and Lostintranslation. Only seen once this year when winning the Sodexo Gold Cup at Ascot off 151 over 3m. The form was franked with the runner up winning off its same mark. However, as said already, the race often goes to stout stayers and this has yet to prove that. Not racing over this far whilst its win came over 3m on good to soft ground. It has also run most of its races going right-handed, the only time it went left was at Cheltenham last year. Maybe just a coincidence though can’t help but feel if a horse gets used to jumping one way then they will end up having a preference to it. Re-watching the JLT Vinndication shaped right at several of the fences and made a couple of mistakes, despite being kept to the inside, which possibly helped straighten it a little with horses on the outside. Was outpaced before running on so can understand the improvement stepped up to 3m. Prominent racer, on a left-handed course with stamina not proven for beyond 3m, there are likelier types lower down from a valuer perspective for me.

Mister Malarky – 4th in the RSA last year so has the Festival form and worth considering that 11 of the last 22 winners had a top four finish at the Festival before. Have always believed it had plenty of stamina, believing it should have gone for the NH Chase rather than the RSA last year. This year had been quiet before seemingly getting things together to win at Kempton. However, top five runs according to RPRs have all come on good to soft or faster so looks very ground dependent and with conditions on the soft side then it is not one I can consider now. However, if the ground was to firm up then it would be on my radar having only got a 4lb rise in the weights for its win.

Kildisart – Been well touted by several shrewd judges and form ties in nicely with Vinndication with whom it gets a massive 10lb despite finishing a nose ahead of it in the JLT last year. Form also links with Mister Malarky having finished 5th at Kempton, beaten 6 lengths and gets a 4lb pull. Won over 3m 1f at Aintree at the end of last season off just a 2lb lower mark. A couple of runs at shorter on heavy ground this season has seen its handicap mark drop to something more respectable whilst shaping as though a stiffer test will suit. A concern that faster ground suits as that run was on good and, similar to Mister Malarky, in that its top four RPRs were on good to soft or faster. It is another I will wait on in the belief it is ground dependent.

La Bague Au Roi – 9yo mare who has had just the 9 starts over fences. Had a great novice campaign last year though in the end she skipped Cheltenham, instead targeting Aintree where she was 2nd to Kalashnikov. Can’t fault her 5th in the Irish Gold Cup last time though she was getting her mares allowance which she won’t get here. Has always been considered a bit of a ‘flat track bully’ so must be doubts about Cheltenham suiting her.

Le Breuil – Fits the idea of a horse proven over further having won the NH Chase last year and worth considering he gets a 3lb pull with Discorama despite finishing ahead of that rival. However, the Grand National has always been the plan this year and a hard race just over 3 weeks before the big event is hardly good preparation. However, Le Breuil is no guarantee to get into the National this year off its mark of 145 in a very competitive season. Also holds a Kim Muir entry which may be more likely with the possibility of linking up again with JJ Codd and the trainer also having a solid entry for this in Kildisart. With a preference for better ground also I think it is sensible to hold fire.

Atlanta Ablaze – Another 9yo mare who I don’t think should be discounted. Had tipped her ante post for the NH Chase last year and was in the process of running a big race in third (Unlikely to challenge the front 2, though looked to be travelling the best turning for home) before tipping up two out. Should be remembered that was a grueling contest so no shame in that. Pulled up on next start when a bad mistake saw her lose confidence according to the jockey. Showed no ill effects of that on first start this season when taking a mares chase at Market Rasen over 3m on heavy ground, her stamina proving crucial in the closing stages and I liked the way she stuck her neck out and knuckled down in the closing stages despite carrying 4lb more than the rest of the field. Was tailed off on next start when the trainer blamed the drop in trip to 2m 4f and good to soft ground not being a sufficient test of stamina before then giving her a wind operation just three days later. Handicappers that had their first run after a wind operation are 3/19 since data has been recorded which is an interesting statistic with regard this mare. Unfortunately, doesn’t get the mares allowance so is worse off at the weights with Le Breuil and Discorama though will love likely soft conditions and this test of stamina could be right up her street. Admittedly, most of her form is also in mares’ races but if it was to come up soft then she is the first that would enjoy it.

Mulcahys Hill – Another to come from the NH Chase last year and another to fall, having done so when looking beat. Is in fact a 2nd season novice as failed to win last year. Not the most consistent, its win over Wholestone reads well when considering hurdling abilities at the start of this season but failed to go on from that, pulling up in the Becher Chase when backed down to favourite, when it was reported the drying ground didn’t suit it (official going was soft when had won on good to soft time before). Followed up when 2nd of 2 runners over 3m at Newcastle on soft ground when trying to give 6lb to a horse rated 2lb better. Debatable whether that would have been a significant test of stamina for it. Likely soft ground would be in the horses favour according to the trainer as well as a stronger stamina test. A course and distance winner who was believed to be well handicapped to starts ago when going off favourite, it can compete off the same mark. Like Le Breuil it also holds a Kim Muir entry where it can be partnered with the same amateur as last year in the NH Chase. Hopefully preference will be the Ultima having already won on the Old Course as opposed to the Kim Muir which is on the New Course.

Conclusion

With doubts about the ground at this stage I really wouldn’t want to be backing the likes of Mister Malarky and Kildisart if the ground was to come up soft which it is looking. With weight an issue for Vinndication and the concern La Bague Au Roi prefers a flatter track then I am happy to back Atlanta Ablaze and Mulcahys Hill at this stage. Both look to have the right prerequisites of a winner, i.e. likely to benefit from a stiff test at this trip, both have course form and excel on soft ground. At the prices and with non-runner money back they are worth betting.

0.5pt e/w Atlanta Ablaze @ 28/1 Ladbrokes 1/5th odds 5 places

4:50 – Northern Trust Company Handicap Chase

2m 4f chase restricted to novice horses, previously known recently as the Close Brothers, who now sponsor the Mares hurdle to add further confusion! While this is a handicap in name, in practice it is like an open race with the weight spread between runners being 6lb, 4lb, 5lb, 8lb and 7lb in last 5 years. It looks like it could be a mark in the high 130s needed to get in. Seeing as no horse rated 135 or lower has made it in the last four years then I will automatically reject them, though can always come back the night before racing when final declarations are known. Once again trends are applied and the reasoning, which has meant a shortlist of just three horses.

Aged 7 or younger (8/10) – Only 9yo Ballyalton defied this statistic in 2016 and Copper Bleu in 2010 (8yo) though several have tried. 8yos and older are 2/68 compared with their younger counterparts 8/130. Whilst I don’t like rejecting horses purely on age, in this race it does seem significant that older novices have proved susceptible to younger horses.

Running within 60 days (10/10) – A recent run has been crucial entering such a competitive race. Only 2 horses in the last 12 years hadn’t run within 45 days either. With three runs needed to qualify and any added experience only a bonus then its not a race for horses to be held back.

Cheltenham course experience (10/12) – I have always been an advocate of horses having previous experience of this track and/or of the Festival. It can also be a sign of the regard a horse is held in to have already raced here as well.

Placed last time out (10/12) – It seems imperative that you arrive in good form. The only two to dispute this were Ballyalton in 2016 who fell last time out and Rajdhani Express who had jumped poorly on heavy ground the time before when only 7th. Five of the last ten winners had won last time out though more recently we are seeing good performances in novice graded races coming to the fore.

7 or fewer starts over hurdles (12/15) – While you may think hurdles form would bear little semblance to chasing it does suggest the type of horse needed to win this. More often it is lightly campaigned because it is clear its career will be over the larger obstacles and so hurdle runs are just for racing experience. There is no need to run a horse several times over hurdles if they are going to make a chaser.

Won a chase over 2m 5 1/2f or further (0/11) – While races such as the Ultima suggests that you need to stay further than the trip to win, this novice handicap chase is an exception. I think it’s because if you have won over further by this stage of a novice season then you will generally be a 3m+ horse and so would race at Cheltenham as such. You still need to have an element of speed. A Plus Tard, last years winner has proven equally effective at the minimum trip for example.

Applying these with an official rating limit as well of 135 leaves me with just three horses to look at:

Hold The Note – Crept in here off the maximum rating of 145 which seems excellent placing by his trainer Mick Channon who won this in 2018 with Mister Whitaker. A good bumper horse who was 4th at Cheltenham in a listed race. Didn’t do too much over hurdles with just the three starts though managing to win on the 2nd of these. Not disgraced on chase debut when third to a pair who were rated higher over hurdles. Pulled up at Kempton on Boxing day but that doesn’t tell the whole story as was jumping and travelling well up the rail only to ground to a halt when a horse fell in front of it. Finally in a grade 2 at Warwick last time it travelled like the winner but just got outstayed by Two For Gold over three miles who while was put in its place in the Reynoldstown by Copperhead it would still stand a chance in a weak looking NH Chase this year. Watching the replays of Hold The Notes chase runs what impressed me most of all was its jumping. Hardly a foot wrong and so efficient which would put it in good stead here. Unfortunately, it has been found somewhat in the market with 10/1 the best around though can see it starting a bit shorter on the day. The question is how much mileage is there in the price now? Interestingly, maidens have been profitable to follow each way in the race having also won three renewals.

Knight In Dubai – Trained by Dan Skelton who has yet to win the race but has had a runner placed. Is a second season chaser having fallen last year and reverting back to hurdles where it finished midfield in the Coral Cup. That did it no harm though as has returned in fine form on a second go at fences, winning a pair of novice chases before second to Sam Brown in a grade 2 at Haydock. Whilst beat 15 lengths the form is a little hard to assess as Haydock heavy ground is very tough going and can always forgive a horse a poor run on it. Its beating of Ballymoy by 12 lengths looks solid as that had been beat by the 153 rated Nube Negra. It then carried a penalty to victory in another novice chase, generally jumping well and staying on strongly. What I do like is its form is very hard to assess with just the three starts. Not unreasonably treated on hurdles form, it pops up a couple of times on other profitable trends. 6 winners had fallen over fences, seemingly having learned from the experience, whilst 8 winners had contested a graded novice hurdle without winning one. Admittedly the absence of 52 days is a slight concern with 10 of the last 12 winners racing within 45 days, though A Plus Tard defied a similar absence to win this last year. Cheltenham form doesn’t look anything special, though consists of well beat in the Ballymore, falling on its chase debut before 13th of 25 in Coral Cup which doesn’t tell the whole story. Racing wide throughout, it led over the third last only to set the race up for the closers to come from well behind. Eased home from the last when chance had gone it should be marked up for the performance considering where the runners to race in front ended up. Looks an interesting each way price now.

Champagne Platinum – Going to be a tight thing to get in off a mark of 138. If it was then would make an interesting contender for Henderson and McManus. Good hurdler despite just the three runs, winning its first two before thought good enough to go over to Punchestown for the Irish Champion Novice Hurdle. Didn’t do much finishing 5th of the 6 runners but was invaluable experience for the horse. Quickly switched to fences it left a lot to be desired on first two starts finishing well beat each time. However, Nicky kept his faith, pitching it in the Scilly Isles grade 1 chase where despite the favourite Laurina running well below par, he still finished a creditable 3rd of the 6 finishers in a race run in a good time and finishing amongst horses rated much higher. Jumping still left a lot to be desired though clearly the horse has some engine. Not sure in a big field where space is at a premium that it will be suited to this contest.

Conclusion

While this is a very competitive race, the cream tends to rise to the top. Only two winners of the race have gone off at bigger than 12/1 with only one in the last ten years. Therefore, it may not pay to look too far from the obvious. With that in mind I am happy to back Hold The Note from a win perspective. The more replays I watch the more I notice just how good a jumper the horse is. Be sods law now that it makes a howling error, but in all the build up races it jumps so well and efficiently that under a good ride it shouldn’t be far away. A stiffer test at this trip is fine and is proven on any ground. I am not convinced on the jumping of Champagne Platinum though wouldn’t put anyone off backing it at 20/1 as if it was to make the race and knowing connections then it wouldn’t take much to shorten in price. However, none of the firms offering 5 places are non-runner no bet and 20/1 together so will pass it up for now. I will back Knight In Dubai however who fits my main trends plus also pops up on a couple of interesting profile ones. Has the big field racing experience whilst looking unexposed over fences.

0.75pt e/w – Knight In Dubai @ 20/1 widely available 1/5th odds 5 places

Wednesday

2:50 Coral Cup

2m 5f handicap hurdle which is always well over subscribed and as competitive a race as you will find at the Festival. However, 9 of the last 11 winners came in the top 8 of the weights (1st and 2nd last year) whilst 6 of the last 7 winners were rated 143 or higher which accounted for the first four home in last year’s race and three of the first four the year before. Therefore, I have been strict and set a cut off point at 143 which eliminates approximately three quarters of the 148 entries. Class seems to rise to the top here with horses that struggle at the highest level well suited to handicap conditions here. With no open graded hurdle race over 2 1/2m then the race does have a high standard.

9 or fewer hurdle starts (17/20) – While it seems like you must have attained a good standard of form, you need to have done so in quick time. Not a race for horses who have had long careers over hurdles. Invariably the winner is lightly raced and quite possibly still improving.

4 or fewer runs in a season (11/11) – Doesn’t suit to be coming here for such a hard race after a long and drawn out campaign. Those that do best come here fresh after a light season.

At least 2 hurdles wins (12/12) – The race doesn’t go to horses that have been creeping up the handicap on the back of good runs in handicaps where they haven’t been winning. It is a prerequisite that a horse has shown on at least a couple of occasions the ability to knuckle down and deliver when needed.

No first season novice has won (0/26) – Several novices hold entries though to be rated in the 140s and higher then the general route would be to go for one of the graded novice races, ultimately the Ballymore run over 2m 4f as opposed to taking on good experienced hurdlers here.

Elfile – An improving Mullins mare though not sure she will take up her engagement here. Yet to race in handicaps, she was 6th in the Mares Novice last year and given her mark has received a 6lb increase from the British handicapper then the logical route would surely be the Mares hurdle over the same trip, despite the strength in depth and the owner also having Honeysuckle for the race (Who could also go Champion hurdle).

Janadil – Another Mullins recruit, this time from France, having failed to win in three starts at home. Began for the yard last new year when 2nd in a maiden to Notebook before put away for this season. Done nothing wrong, winning a maiden before taking two handicaps all at around 2 miles. In theory is a third season novice and not exactly a fan of horses stepping up 5 furlongs in trip for such a competitive race. However, UK handicapper only put it up 4lb which isn’t unreasonable for a horse who has won its last three races including two good handicaps whilst French-breds generally have a good record in this race.

Eglantine Du Seuil – It’s another mare and one that looks to have a serious chance if coming here. Last year’s surprise mare’s novice winner at the Festival over two miles, was quickly stepped up to 2m 4f on next couple of starts when not disgraced behind Honeysuckle and Elfile in 3rd before 3rd to Reserve Tank in the Irish Champion Novice Hurdle. Decent third first time up this year to the improved Stormy Ireland before jumping let her down on next start. When last seen was 4th of 22 in the Ladbrokes hurdle, a very competitive 2m race. May not want the ground too soft and a question whether they will go for the Mares Hurdle, this or drop back to 2m for the County. I suspect they may go for the latter given soft ground whilst she does have to carry 6lb more than in Ireland, though clearly boasts course form.

Franco De Port – Fourth horse in and the fourth runner of Willie Mullins to look at! Very lightly raced, this French bred won a 4yo hurdle at Auteuil by 13 lengths from Fred, who was subsequently bought by Munir and Souede. That has won its last couple of races and is now a 144 rated hurdler for Nicky Henderson. Since joining Mullins, he has won a novice at Gowran Park before a poor run at Limerick when starting at 2/1 for a grade 3 where a skin wound was found after the race. Showed no ill effects anyway when 2nd to Stormy Ireland, trying to give his opponent 2lb in the weights, the same with the 144 rated Mengli Khan who was 1 ½ lengths behind. All runs have so far been at 2m so unsure whether they would step him up 5f in trip for this. Also has a 6lb rise in the weights from its Irish mark to contend with. However, is very unexposed, shapes as though a longer trip will suit and potentially could be a lot better than its mark.

Birchdale – What can you say on this? Aborted chase season after just one run, its not been seen over hurdles since the Albert Bartlett last year when it was pulled up despite being well fancied. Was its first run over 3m so possible it didn’t stay and had previously looked very good. Soft ground would be a concern though hard to gauge much as it came on its chase debut. Hard to say it is well handicapped based on the two novice races it won though is a grade 2 winning novice who has always been well regarded. Prominent in the betting and last two winners came here with just one run in the season to their name. Several imponderables to consider though also could be the one that is thrown in off its mark.

Coko Beach – Interesting one for Gordon Elliott who was 2nd in the Fred Winter last year to a winner who was thrown in off its mark. Coko Beach started this year off well with a win at Punchestown, easily beating an odds-on favourite. Not matched that since though when well beat behind Coeur Sublime before upped to 3m and falling when beat in a Navan handicap which was a fair test of stamina. Worst of all was to follow last time out when only 11th of 12 again at Navan but over 2m 4f. Would need a leap of faith to back it here though last two winners have took this on the back of finishing 17th and pulling up respective.

One For Rosie – Fits the trends, only had the one race this season when a fair 6th against race fit rivals, just blowing up at the finish. Third in the grade 1 Mersey hurdle last year behind Reserve Tank and Brewin’Upastorm doesn’t read bad at all either, despite everything to finish around it now going chasing. However, jumping leaves a lot to be desired despite there being a decent engine there. Another that has the potential to be better than its mark but does need to improve its hurdling.

Braid Blue – Elliott runner who had a good campaign brought over in the summer months to notch a couple of wins. However, clearly seems at home on better ground and unlikely to get that after the amount of rain we have had in the last few weeks.

Mister Blue Sky – Grade 2 winning hurdler as a novice who was third to Klassical Dream at Punchestown in a grade 1. Not really trained on this season though which may be down to the experience it had gained racing on the flat. No winner had begun on the flat since 2011 and its hard to see that continuing here with this horse on what it has shown this season.

Conclusion

Plenty of horses with the potential but then they all have question marks to answer. So, I am going with my gut feeling on this one in backing two horses in the hope they turn up for the race. Franco De Port has so much potential considering its one run and win in France. Lightly raced, 5yos have a good record along with precocious French bred. 9 of the last 12 winners were also in their second season over hurdles which fits this and my other selection One For Rosie. Seems to have been saved after a promising seasonal debut, he looks to have plenty of ability if that jumping can be brushed up. However, yard doesn’t just run their horses here for the sake of it and with a record of 2 placed from 4 to run then it looks to have a fair shout if taking up the engagement. Unfortunately, One For Rosie now appears to be a non-runner and so is no longer recommended. Instead I will have a ‘saver’ on Birchdale being the horse on my list who could well be ahead of the handicapper and has already seen good support in the betting. If JP McManus gets behind it then it could end up a plunge horse.

0.75pt e/w – Franco De Port @ 16/1 Ladbrokes, 888Sport & Betfred 1/5th odds 5 places NRNB

4:50 Boodles (Fred Winter) Juvenile Handicap Hurdle

A handicap for 4yo hurdlers, generally those not good enough, or not rated high enough for the Triumph. Often this race can throw up a shock though last year it went the way of the punters when Band Of Outlaws justified strong support and favouritism to win at 7/2. However, we have had 40/1, 3 33/1s and 2 25/1s in the last 8 years. I’m not looking at horses rated 125 or less as they are unlikely to get in.

Run within 32 days (10/12) – With 4yos that are still developing and improving it is not surprising that a recent run has helped a horse peak for this race. You also must fit in at least three starts to ensure meeting the qualification procedure.

Only had three runs over hurdles (12/15) – For many trainers the idea is to get a horse as best handicapped as possible for this race. Therefore, it makes sense the more it runs then the more they will give away to the handicapper. Off a minimum three runs it becomes a lot harder for the horse to be assessed. Three of the last four winners had only raced the minimum required times.

Previously run in handicap company (2/14) – It’s a massive negative. Like as mentioned above, if you run a horse in handicap company then you run the risk of revealing a horse’s true capabilities. If you win a handicap easy the handicapper will penalize your horse, however, is less likely to do so if you win a novice event.

Night Edition – French recruit who had three runs on the flat. Then moved to the David Pipe yard where you assume he had been showing plenty at home as having finished only 4th in a 3yo hurdle at Taunton they ran it next in the grade 2 at Cheltenham, a race that generally is a good guide for the Triumph though did look a below par running this year. Still, it was an excellent second there before winning an all age maiden hurdle at Ludlow where the hood worn the previous two times was left off. I wonder if that was a deliberate ploy to get the horse to run a little below par having done enough at Cheltenham to get into this race. Either way it won the maiden cozily without being asked much of a question under a good ride from Tom Scudamore. Jumping probably needs to improve as was rather fiddly at a few but yard have had two placed from six to run in this and with it still unexposed it could run a big race.

Fraser Island – Useful horse on the flat attaining a rating in the mid-80s. Not so bad over hurdles either in three starts. Winning on debut at Newbury, doing the job quite nicely before following up with a close third at Kempton to Goa Lil who unfortunately never franked the form. Finally, was second to a Paul Nicholls French bred who then disappointed at Kelso. Most of its racing on the flat was on much faster ground so assuming it was to come up soft then it would be a major concern.

Scorched Earth – Another interesting one to come from the flat, this time from Ireland where it was last seen winning a handicap off a mark of 77, so perhaps we never got to the bottom of how good this was. Started well when winning a juvenile hurdle at Catterick before taking in an open hurdle at Newbury against some very nice older sorts. Was getting the allowances as a 3yo but still ran a very good race to finish 4th, outpaced at the finish. That seemed to be the case again when last seen at Warwick, finishing third, unable to match the well-regarded winner. Seems to hurdle well, handles any ground and does look like it can benefit from a strongly run race. Is going to be tight to get in off a mark of 127 with the last 6 winners all rated 129 or higher. However, 127 was also the mark that 3 of the 4 winners won off between 2010 & 2013. Currently needs 7 to come out. Last year you needed 129 to get in.

Conclusion

Knowing the often-unpredictable nature of this race it is one I don’t want to get too heavily involved in, either now or even before the race. However, both Night Edition and Scorched Earth seem fair prices at this stage considering the form and ability they bring to the race. With the prospect of a horse like Night Edition (Progressive, winner last time out, yards runners often perform at Cheltenham) it would be no surprise to see some money for it, whilst the current odds available for Scorched Earth, admittedly with only 4 places, looks too tempting to ignore.

0.5pt e/w – Scorched Earth @ 33/1 Bet365 ¼ odds 4 places

Thursday

2:10 Pertemps Network Final

Always a fascinating handicap where you must finish in the first six of a qualifier to be eligible but then still make it into the race at the weights. Often it is a case of horses that would have no problem at the weights being run down the field looking for 4th to 6th. This is kind of how the race always was and this year it very much has a sense of that again with few runners matching the profile I am looking for. Therefore, it may be a case of taking the trend analysis for this with a pinch of salt and not getting too committed or bogged down in the trends.

6 – 10 hurdle runs (11/13) (8/8) – The winner of this race of late needs to have the right balance of experience but also be unexposed to think there is more to come. Whilst last year Sire De Berlais had 9 previous starts over hurdles the previous six had exactly 6 or 7 starts. This is a change from when Buena Vista won the race twice in a row on the back of 22 and 29 starts in 2010 & 2011. This is significant in the sense there are a lot of horses likely to line up with vastly more starts over hurdles than the last 8 winners.

Winning form between 2m 4f to 2m 6f (11/13) – I believe that whilst invariably you have to stay the trip well to win, you still need that certain element of pace shown earlier in your career to win a race at a trip short of potentially best. If you think about it, it is a sign of a good horse if you can win at the wrong distance. That seems to be the case here, especially as a way of highlighting a horse who may be well handicapped.

Last run within 61 days (11/12) – Sire De Berlais last year was the first horse this century to defy an absence of more than 61 days. He was also only the second French-bred horse to win in the past 24 years. Got to accept the horse was a bit of a trend’s buster. I expect this trend to revert back proving it pays to have had a recent run under your belt.

Stoney Mountain – Interesting horse who I am on bad terms with having come from out of the clouds to pick up my tip Acey Milan back in November just when it had looked like it had got the better of a duel over the last. That was Stoney Mountains second run and second win of the season having previously won over 2m 4f on soft at Aintree. As a novice the previous season it had placed twice in grade 2 contests before contesting the Albert Bartlett but pulling up. That wasn’t the first time it had been to the Festival as it had also contested the Champion Bumper the year before though was well beat. Its only other Cheltenham visit saw it unseat on a very brief and aborted chase campaign, which followed its win over Acey Milan. Therefore, could have some nagging doubts about the suitability of the course though the long run in to the last and up the hill would suit a horse who takes a little while to warm up. Qualified for this with a good 5th place in the race won by Silver Sheen. More eyes were drawn to Sire Du Berlais in fourth who having been hard at work for a long way just to stay in touch, stayed on nicely in 4th. To be honest I thought Paddy Brennan rode an equal race on Stoney Mountain, pretty much keeping it in 5th all the way round and crossing the line standing up in the saddle. Didn’t jump as well as it had done at Haydock which may in part be a legacy from chasing the time before. It was a good confidence booster for the horse and job done in qualifying. The yard is in cracking form with 4 winners from 10 runners in the last two weeks, if they can keep it up then it’s not without a chance.

Treacysenniscorthy – Second season novice who has improved no end this year. Began the year chasing, winning a 2m 6f Beginners chase at Listowel on second start. Reverted to hurdles when third at Tipperary before the improvement began off a mark of 102 winning its next four races including a good qualifier at Leopardstown. Now rated 138 though must compete here off 142 in the UK, fully 40lb higher than it started its winning run. However, handicapper has struggled to pin it down, not winning any of its races by more 2 lengths with every race featuring 15 or more runners. He is such a hardy battler who took his form to another level when winning a grade B race at Leopardstown over 27 rivals last time. Only 2 of the last 22 winners had won a qualifier prior to taking this but then who is to say he can’t find even more improvement. I can certainly see him thereabouts turning for home.

Sunset Showdown – There will be a concern whether this horse can get into the race having to go back to Buena Vistas first win in 2010 for the last time a horse won with a mark of less than 135 and it hasn’t even been enough to get into the race in the last six years. On the positive side it is bang there at number 33 as a possible to get in with 24 taking part and two already out. Anyway, second season novice hurdler who typically for the yard, improved for the step up to 3m culminating with qualification for this when runner up to Tobefair in a Cheltenham qualifier. Travelled well but was just outbattled by a horse who I think can run well in the Stayers hurdle. Everything looked good put on a rating of 136 only to run poorly next time finishing last of 5 runners over 2m 4f on heavy ground where connections blamed not handling the conditions. However, that meant it dropped 2lb in the weights and is now struggling to get into the race. Wouldn’t be without a chance if getting in but if history is anything to go by then it is looking more unlikely.

Conclusion

Must admit I am not fully convinced on these three. Can’t help but wonder whether Stoney Mountain has just been picking up weak Northern races and though the race suits stout stayers who run on strong, the winners are horses who can travel well and generally need to be bang there at the last. As opposed to horses who make up a lot of ground as I suspect this may need to do. Therefore, it appeals more as a horse with place chances rather than the win. Treacysenniscorthy must defy the poor record of qualifying winners and the incredible amount of improvement it has found this season, to find a fair bit more to take this. Again, I think it will run well but will find one or two too well handicapped against it I feel. Finally, Sunset Showdown is unlikely to get into the race off its current mark. Therefore, I conclude that I won’t be having a bet at this stage. If the Daly yard continue their fine form then I may be tempted by an e/w bet on Stoney Mountain the night before the race whilst I imagine Treacysenniscorthy will maintain its price of around 14/1. Best you can get with the places is 5 now though come the night of the race I reckon you will be looking at 6 available if not even higher so I am happy to hold back with no bet.

4:10 Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase

A little fiddly a race to sort out what will run and what won’t. Novices who have a good record in the race are also eligible for the Northern Trust on day one if rated 145 or below on the Old course so several hold entries for both. You also have those at the top of the handicap who may consider going for the Ryanair rather than shoulder a big weight. As the race itself, it often favours those horses who race prominently, can get in a good rhythm and stay out of trouble. I wonder if its something to do with the trip and course. There just is no time really between fences to make a move and when you do there is another fence to jump. It’s not just synonymous with this race but also the Ryanair over the same course and distance where front or prominent runners seem to excel, look at Frodon and Un De Sceaux which spring to mind there. Last year Siruh Du Lac pretty much made all, though the 2nd and 3rd home Janika and Eamon An Cnoic were in the first 6 throughout the race. It is somewhat surprising if you consider handicap chases with 20+ runners at a massive Festival as you would always imagine the pace being overly strong and setting the race up. This course and distance appear to be an exception however. Maybe even the regularity of the fences prevents them going too fast. They begin on a straight but within a furlong or so they have their first fence quickly followed by another. I wonder if that just helps the front runners to settle and stop them going a breakneck gallop, thus a fair pace which they can maintain through the race. Anyway, I digress as always, though when reviewing the qualifiers from trends it will be something I will have in the back of my mind.

16 or fewer chase starts (20/21) – Like many of the handicaps at Cheltenham now, it is a struggle for exposed horses to make much of an impact here. Carrickboy was the only winner in the last 10 years who had run more than 12 times whilst a couple had the minimum 3 requirements.

3+ runs that season (29/34) – Partly seen from the novices needing a minimum three runs though runners do tend to try and peak at Cheltenham. A couple of horses recently have come and won on the back of just one start on the season, but they are the exception rather than the norm.

Won that season (25/34) (5/5) – A statistic seen from the last five winners of this race, in fact the only two not to have won in the season are the two from above who had raced only once. It’s a race for progressive horses and that means having shown the ability to win in the season.

Won between 2m 3f & 2m 5f (19/20) – As mentioned this is a tough race at the trip and can come as a shock I imagine to horses who have not shown the ability to win at this distance. If not, then you may have horses who are dropping back from 3m that don’t have the pace to get involved. As explained earlier you generally need to be racing prominent to have an effect.

Run in the calendar year (14/16) – Exceptions once more are the two horses who had raced only once in the season. Young Spartacus did manage to win without racing in the season but that was back in 2003.

Horses rated 140-150 (6/6) – The last six winners fit into this category and with the rising class and standard of runners I expect this to continue to some degree. I certainly don’t think we will see horses rated lower winning anymore barring a race that cuts up badly though eventually you are sure to see winners in the 150s after Janika was 2nd last year. However, that has yet to happen with horses carrying 11st 7lb or more seeing just 3 placed from 16 runners. Even those on 11st to 11s 6lb have 1 win and 9 placed from 59 qualifiers.

Whilst there are a few trends they only eliminate a certain number of runners; we are still left with eight to go through at this stage. However, I certainly don’t expect all of them to run.

Simply The Betts – First season novice who has done little wrong this year. Its only defeat coming at Kempton when beaten by Commanche Red having not jumped so well. Did exactly what is required around here last time out when winning over this course and distance, pretty much making all to win, very reminiscent of Siruh Du Lac last year. What impressed me most was the manner of its jumps at the last two with plenty of energy and spring suggesting there was more in the tank. Will need to be as been put up 9lb for the win, though the form was franked with the 3rd winning next time and the front two look unexposed, talented individuals where Imperial Aura is prominent in the betting for the Northern Trust. Nine out of the last twelve winners had course form whilst the past four winners were either novices or second season chasers. 10 of the 16 winners had won in February or March also so what’s not to like? The only worry is that just three winners this century has carried more than 10st 13lb to victory in this and it would become the highest rated horse to take it also.

Clondaw Castle – Creditable fourth in what was a weak Arkle last year. General opinion is that it wants better ground. Four of its six wins have come on good to soft or faster whilst its point to point win was also on good ground, while only 2 of its top 12 runs according to RPR have come on soft ground. Good win last time in a decent handicap which has seen it go up 6lb. Form has been franked somewhat by the 5th then coming 2nd next time out. Interesting that 4 of the last 10 winners had won a point to point like this had. Would rather wait until better ground has been confirmed however.

Two For Gold – Down to two entries with either this engagement or the NH Chase as its declared races. I think it is more likely to go with the latter despite not attempting further than three miles. Seemed to really stay on well when touching off Hold The Note and not disgraced when 2nd to an impressive performance from Copperhead. Has won at this trip in a handicap off 132 and prominent racing style well suited to this race though would be surprised if they turned down the option of racing in a very open and weak NH Chase.

Deyrann De Carjac – Another novice who would also get in the Northern Trust off its mark of 145 and is priced about the same for both. Interesting none the less on its beating of Pym on its second chase start having been first seen in a chase in May last year. Third to RSA fav Champ and Marsh hope Black Op doesn’t read bad either. Could finish only third in the Dipper on New Years Day around this course which was a little disappointing considering odds on fav Champ fell, though finished only 2 lengths behind Midnight Shadow and that is rated 150 having since been second to Itchy Feet in the Scilly Isles. All this suggests a rating of 145 could be a touch lenient though as generally a hold up horse it would be of concern in this race.

Annie MC – A mare who is a little difficult to assess from a weights perspective as been racing solely in mare’s novice chases, mopping up all three she has raced in but beating three, three and two rivals respectively. Therefore, how can we say she is well handicapped to win a race back against the boys, with no allowances off a mark of 145. All well and good but I struggle to compare her favourably with La Bague Au Roi who last year was winning all sex novice chases and beating the RSA winner in doing so. Annie MC must carry just 4lb less, I can’t see why she would beat that rival considering everything, let alone a further 22 possible opponents. Clearly, we may not of seen the best of her but from what we know she needs to find plenty more.

Charmant – Has won half his chase starts though yet to race in a double figure field and those races have largely been weak Northern affairs. Impressive last time though, winning by 23 lengths with a weight rise of 7lb possibly lenient. Race as worked out as well with the 3rd winning since and the 2nd and 4th coming second on their next starts. It was reported the soft ground was riding tacky so if conditions persist at Cheltenham then should be well suited. RPR was equally impressive for the win and it was only its second try at the distance (Fell on previous attempt). Never raced beyond 2m 1f over hurdles from 10 starts so must be a concern a stiff and well run 2m 5f may be too significant a test.

Springtown Lake – Quite like this one having finished 5th in the Close Brothers (Northern Trust this year) behind A Plus Tard last year. Slightly strange run from it as was sitting prominently until going through the top of the 3rd last. Never a good time to make a mistake and lose your position. Dropped to 9th with jockey looking between his legs to see whether anything was behind it suggests he was going to ease off. However, the horse stuck to its task very well to pick up another four positions on the home straight. Only 10 lengths off the 2nd (Ignore the winner as he was an exception and different class to these) it looks a good performance on form. A couple of attempts since over three miles suggests it doesn’t stay whilst jumped poorly in the BetVictor Gold Cup, where I counted 5 errors which meant it continually lost its position, before being pulled up. Outsprinted down the run in at Chepstow, it then romped home at Warwick where it has gone up 7lb. Trainer has had 2 placed from 8 runners in the last 10 years and it is maybe the best it can hope for again. Considering the classy winners of this race in recent years then Springtown Lake just doesn’t strike me as being in the same category.

Listen Dear – Surprisingly the only Irish horse to come up on my list. Crept in on my trends having had 15 chase starts, she would be the first 10yo winner of this race since Holmwood Legend in 2011. Concerns for me that a Willie Mullins mare who has been racing since 2015 yet has still to run at Cheltenham. Suggests to me that he doesn’t consider her a ‘Cheltenham type’ especially when you think of the mares’ race run over 2 ½ miles. Was still going well when falling when in front of the Leopardstown Chase, a big handicap though was still some way out. Was given a confidence booster run over hurdles at the weekend though just how much confidence can be garnered from being beaten 110 lengths remains to be seen. Only up 3lb on Irish rating, she is seemingly well handicapped on best form but has been a while since we have seen that. Always hard to dismiss a Mullins horse but reluctantly I do so.

Conclusion

While there are several qualifiers on the trends for me, very few strike me as being potential winners. The most obvious is Simply The Betts who looks a perfect fit for this race being a novice who could still end up being better than its mark. Likes to race prominently and with the way the race is developing then novices rated around the high 140s to low 150s may well start targeting this race. Already a course and distance winner, its price of 7/1 NRNB may be deemed short, however, when you consider the last two winners of this race have started 5/1 (Fav) and 9/2 (2nd fav) and it’s the only horse a single figure price in the betting at the moment then I would fully expect this to begin nearer 4/1 than its current 7/1.

1.5pt win – Simply The Betts @ 7/1 Bet365 & Paddy NRNB

5:30 Kim Muir Handicap Chase

3m 2f handicap restricted to chasers rated 145 or lower. Difficult to accurately assess the runners without knowing jockey bookings as being a race for amateur jockeys it has proven to be significant who rides. Only two jockeys that can claim have finished in the first 3 here in the last 11 runnings. Often run at a searching gallop, stamina is invaluable while unlike the Brown Advisory we just looked at, it often pays to be held up. I have also applied a cut off at 135 officially rated. Nine of the last ten winners were rated 137 or higher including the last eight but then all the placed horses in the last 4 years were rated 135.

Aged between 7 and 9 years old (14/15) – Only two 6yos have placed in this race from 11 runners in the last ten years. The Package did manage a well-supported win in this in 2015 at the age of 12 though those aged 10 or higher have a record of 1/7/54 (W/P/Runners). Generally, you can dismiss those ‘too young’ and generally inexperienced for such a grueling test, along with those too old.

Run 20 or fewer times over fences (22/22) & Run 6 or more times over fences (12/12) – As can be seen and following on as such from above you need to have enough experience to be able to deal with the conditions of this, but not to be so exposed that you are vulnerable to improvers.

Best RPR within last 2 runs (8/10) – I like this trend. Exceptions have been Missed Approach, who had been improving back to form off a much lower mark than a year ago and Spring Heeled whose best had come three runs previous. It highlights the importance of looking for horses that are improving and shown their best form recently.

Ran in a handicap last time out (24/26) (The two exceptions were both JP McManus owned) – The pace, fields and hurly burly of a race like this can generally only be found in a handicap. Therefore, that experience is vital in a race like this.

Ran over 3m last time out (18/21) – Like above, that experience is vital. For a race where stamina is so important a horse has often already shown a need for a three mile plus trip at this stage of its career.

Last run with 76 days (11/12) – For such a test then a recent run is normally a positive. Only The Package, a well laid out gamble has won this in in the last 12 years off a longer absence.

Once again, I have a rather long list of 12 marked off though several hold multiple entries especially with the Ultima on day 1 so it remains to be seen how many of the shortlist actually run here. I will still briefly go through each of the runners offering my opinion.

Dragon D’Estruval – Nicky Henderson runner for Munir and Souede who love their Cheltenham runners. Had shown some useful form in France before coming over the race in the UK. A light hurdles campaign saw it win a novice over 2m 6f on good ground before peaking with a place in a class 2 handicap at Newbury. Four starts over fences here, winning at Ludlow in a Class 3 over an extended 3m 1f, the form of which doesn’t look anything special. Pulled up when last seen at Sandown, despite being a French-bred I am concerned by the going as its two best runs according to RPRs over hurdles and fences both come on good to soft or faster ground. Slightly unusual considering it has done most of its racing on soft or very soft in France. I must admit, unless this is a big plot then from what we have seen so far it doesn’t convince me as being well enough handicapped to take this.

Burbank – Another Henderson runner in a race where he is an unimpressive 2 placed from 10 runners in the last ten years. A little bit of an enigma for me as he was an eye catcher in the Coral Cup in 2018 but failed to win in three further hurdle starts (Though was 4th of 21 just over a year later at Aintree in the Gaskalls grade 3 handicap at 25/1). Has won twice over fences, making all in a 3-runner beginner in May last year before getting off the mark for the season in a class 3 novice handicap at Newbury over 2m 6 1/2f on soft ground. Looked beat at one stage but rallied well to win nicely in the end. Upped in class and trip in the Skybet Chase where it was a little outpaced at the finish and eased home when chance had gone. Don’t think the horse is particularly straight forward and a doubt whether 3m 2f is what it really needs. Potential is there but not a horse I would rely on.

The Kings Writ – Not won in three starts this year though no bad thing considering 9 of the last 12 winners had failed to win in the season. Raced mostly right-handed which is a concern though its fourth last year at Cheltenham in a grade 3 handicap reads extremely well finishing behind the Brown Advisory 1st and 2nd with the Grand Annual 3rd behind in 5th. Last couple of runs have been at 3m+ on soft ground with amateur Josh Newman taking the ride suggesting that they have had this race in mind for some time. My concern is that with under 10 wins to his name under rules then he would be claiming weight which is a big negative for the race along with the lack of experience.

Bob Mahler – Warren Greatrex runner who won this two years ago with Missed Approach. Like that runner, Bob Mahler is a strong stayer having won over 4m 1f at Musselburgh when last seen. Not exactly a positive coming into this on the back of a win with only Ballabriggs in 2010 doing the double in the last 17 years (Was a hat trick for him). A winner here in April last year so has the course form, it remains to be seen whether its marathon win will have any lasting affect on the horse whilst soft ground is an issue. Only one of its top 8 runs according to RPR came on soft with the top 5 all good to soft or faster.

The Conditional – On my shortlist for trends though looks more likely to go Ultima is the betting is anything to go by. Looks a very promising stayer with its win over West Approach being franked by that one winning next time off a 2lb higher mark. Cogry in third also won next time out suggesting that racing here off 8lb higher may not be enough to stop it. Handles any ground, I wonder if connections would be concerned about whether they could get a good enough jockey for this race whilst its course win also came on the old course on which the Ultima is run. If it was to turn up, then would have a very strong shout and may be a struggle to get into the Ultima at the weights. Bookies not giving a great deal away though with 12/1 best price with NRNB (Though can get 20/1 Willhill but no concession which you would want considering this is 2nd choice).

Like The Sound – Was third here over course and distance two runs ago in a similar if less competitive race than this. That was a good performance considering he had fallen at the first when attempting National fences for the first time. Jumped well and perhaps got to the front too soon as idled, fading back to third. However, was found to be suffering from post-race heat stress which may explain why he stopped so quickly on the run in after the last. Pulled up at Ascot on latest start though may have been feeling the effects still. Bit of a concern therefore coming into this just 26 days later. Currently 33/1, I can’t see that changing much before the race and we are still to know jockey bookings. Not without place chances I would rather hold off and see who the jockey is and get more places closer to the race.

Kilfilum Cross – Have to admit this looks a very strong contender for the race. 2nd last year (Bumping into one that was thrown in) and races this time off 1lb lower mark. Raced five times since but can be excuses each time. It looked to be feeling the effects of its first run after Cheltenham when jumping poorly at Ayr a month later. It returned with promise over a trip too short at Stratford before pulling up on heavy ground at Newcastle in a better race than this (Top rated was 156). Had a wind operation it returned over a trip too short again at Wetherby when well beat. Much more promise when last seen at an easy Kempton on good to soft ground when 2nd wearing first time cheekpieces. With a wind operation, cheekpieces added, where 8 of the last 9 winners had worn headgear and Cheltenham big race experience to its name along with rated 1lb lower, it would be no surprise to see it go off somewhere close to its 7/1 price last year. To add further substance, 6 of the last 11 winners had also won or placed at the Festival before. Plenty to like about its chances.

Quarenta – From the Jonjo O’Neill yard who won this in 2012 with Sunnyhillboy and had two other places in the last 10 years from 17 runners. Its two previous visits to Cheltenham were unimpressive over hurdles when failing to even make the first 10 which would be a concern. Its most recent win was what turned out to be a 2-horse race after the other runner fell at the first. Followed up with a close second to Just A Sting before never getting involved in the Skybet chase finishing 7th (Burbank one place behind). With top weight off just 146 then it wasn’t a much better race than this and so would need to find some improvement I feel. Off 137 I’m not quite sure where that is coming from.

Cloth Cap – Off the same mark and the same trainer of Quarenta we have Cloth Cap which looks far more interesting. Third in the Scottish National last year on good ground it would have been considered more favourable on a faster surface. However, last two runs have come on soft over three miles and has matched its best RPR each time. The concern with that is from 7 runs over fences it has run to an RPR of 142 on four of those. I like its consistency but can’t help but worry that it is reaching its ability and can’t go on from that. To win this it would need to improve and is possible with more of a test on soft ground with stamina proven for 4m. You also wonder whether this is just a prep run for another tilt at the Scottish National for which the owner is so fond of having runners in. It would be a nice gap with just a month to the race considering he hasn’t been out for 89 days.

Just A Sting – Mentioned when beating Quarenta at Kempton. Only raced once since when falling in the Betway Handicap Chase, making a big mistake. 159 top rated so a much better race than this but you wonder if it would have a lasting effect. Was only 10th in this last year off just a 1lb higher mark, it has done most of its racing right-handed which it is quite possibly better going. Apart from the experience I’m not sure how it is likely to better than performance.

Minella Till Dawn – The first and only Irish horse on my shortlist which is interesting, though for a yard who won this in 2016 and has an impressive 1 win, 4 placed from 9 runners in the last ten years. McManus owned, it has the potential of getting a very good jockey booking and he did win the race last year with Any Second Now. A promising hurdler, it didn’t show much at all in its first season chasing. Was off the track from that though for 630 days. Never got competitive on first run back at Punchestown, it went off favourite for next run only to fall when beaten. Proved what it was capable of on next start when winning a handicap at Cork over 2m 4f, doing so easily. Only raced once more since, pulling up in a Grand National trial at Punchestown. Racing here off 6lb higher mark in Ireland, you are basically backing it based on just one good run and that was over 2m 4f. This is the horses only entry at the Festival and the trainer is a master for a very shrewd owner. However, you are looking at a lot of guesswork and a leap of faith to be backing it and its just not my style.

Another Venture – Last horse on my list. Pretty consistent but also exposed. It matched its best RPR last time out with a run from over two years ago so hard to say it is improving. Has struggled off this mark in the past and won just once in the last 10 starts, being a 5-runner affair off a mark of 128. If it was to get in, you would still imagine it would be a struggle to win this.

Conclusion

There was plenty to consider but several have negatives or concerns attached to them. One that doesn’t is Kilfilum Cross who looks a very solid bet for the race. Considering its starting price last year was 7/1, got less weight to carry and is available at 12/1, comes in with very similar form, has had a wind operation since and could well be wearing headgear, a big positive for this race, what is there not to like?

1pt e/w Kilfilum Cross @ 12/1 888Sport 1/5th odds 5 places NRNB

Friday

2:10 County Hurdle

A difficult race to break down with regards trends as you may guess from past results in this race, with prices ranging from 8/1 to 33/1 (Both trained by Dan Skelton). Not been a good race for favourites with no winner in last ten years but then maybe you could argue it is due! Race normally run at a strong gallop so favours hold up horses, though generally you still need to be quick on the flat with a long run in highlighting a need for speed.

Horses aged 9yo and over (0/10) – No winner aged older than 8 has won in the last ten years with just 4 places from the 27 to try.

Winner at the distance (12/12) – Proven winning ability needs to be shown at around 2m and just above as seen with all recent previous winners.

Off for 33 or more days (9/10) – Exception was Wicklow Brave who had pulled up in the Imperial Cup just 6 days before. Bit of a plot race, horses seem to be well rested and prepared at home for this. The last four winners had been off for at least 81 days with Arctic Fire not even seen all season.

Rated 134 or higher (10/10) – While it is not unusual to get in off a lower rating, no recent winners have managed to take this.

RPR best on a left-handed track (12/14) – Quite an interesting statistic. With lots of these runners taking each other on frequently on varying tracks, it clearly pays in this to have its best form going left-handed. It is something that I always consider and look for so nice to have stats to back this up.

Novice or Second season hurdler (15/19) – Turned over a couple of times recently but in general you are looking for an unexposed hurdler who is still open to further improvement. Or has at least the ability to adapt to big field handicaps quickly in its career.

10-22 career starts (19/20) – Like I have said in previous reports, winners of the handicaps at Cheltenham need the right balance of experience racing but not to be exposed. You take many of the races run and invariably they are small fields and/or run at a slow to moderate pace. For those that lack racing experience then it can come as quite a shock for a horse when hustled and bustled about, struggling for sight at the jumps with lots of horses racing around it. Experience can only be gained through racing, learning the right mentality.

No handicap debutant has won since 1993 – A bit like above with the racing experience, it is one thing coming from slowly run graded races or maidens to be chucked into a 20+ runner handicap likely to be run at a furious speed. Horses so far have shown an inability to cope.

Applying these have left me with 9 selections which are worth looking at.

Harambe – Having finished 3rd in the Aintree grade 2 bumper, it took the horse 5 starts to get off the mark over hurdles. Improved no end though to finish 2nd in the Bet365 novices Championship Final handicap hurdle behind Getaway Trump. Returned this year when in need of the run in a novice grade 2, finishing 7th behind Thyme Hill. Stepped up significantly on that to win the Greatwood, run on the old course here. The race hasn’t worked out as well as it usually does however with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th all failing to win since. The 5th did win next time out but back against her own sex in a handicap. Harambe was last seen in the Betfair hurdle when brought down at the last when still in contention, though so were many others in a hard-fought race and not convinced it would have finished first 4. Must race off the same mark as then when a 25/1 chance, I’m not sure it has got enough in hand to win this.

Buildmeupbuttercup – The only Irish horse on my list, though trained by the right man in Willie Mullins who has won this four times in the last ten years. Interesting mare as well though as very talented on the flat having been well backed for the Cesarewitch but finishing only 11th of the 30 runners. Was only 11th in the mares novice last year at Cheltenham, at least she does have some festival experience. Seemed to handle soft when racing in bumpers, her best hurdles form has come in her last two starts which suggests she is going the right way. Both runs were on better ground which is a concern though interesting to watch those two races as she can’t jump particularly well but has some engine and was on the bridle both times coming to the last only to get outbattled. Quite possibly it’s a case she doesn’t find much when in front and so needs delivering as late as possible. With that in mind I can see this race suiting well and I’m sure she will be well schooled at home. She is on my radar for this.

Nelson River – Average flat horse who showed surprising ability over hurdles culminating with 4th place in the Triumph last year at 66/1. That race hasn’t done much from a form perspective though has been highly tried. 9th in the Betfair hurdle last time on good ground probably suggests he isn’t good enough for this with no form on soft to write home about.

Zanza – Phillip Hobbs runner where the yard has had 5 placed from 15 to run in the race in the last 10 years, though no winner. Looks the type to be well suited to this as well, often held up and staying on late. Probably why it has run creditably a couple of times this year in big field handicaps including when 6th in the Betfair last time. Up another 2lb looks a little harsh to me considering the closeness off the finishers and not accounting for the fact one fell and another two were brought down at the last. Strong pace, big field at a course that will favour those finishing fast and late, it is an each-way chance without suggesting it is thrown in.

Lust For Glory – Henderson runner likely to be ridden by Sam Waley-Cohen for his family. Not a race for Nicky this though with just 3 placed from 16 runners in ten years. Ran a good race over course and distance when last seen under a great ride from Sam, who tried nicking the race but got caught. Hard to think is good enough for this from what we have seen off a 5lb higher mark especially considering yards record in the race.

Oakley – Another not without a chance on Betfair hurdle form having got outpaced on the good ground and plodding on for 7th. Unlike those to finish in front of it, the handicapper dropped it 1lb so has a fair weight swing back on a track where it already has a close second to its name. The winner hasn’t been seen out since though the third won her next start off a 2lb higher mark. Looks another with an each-way chance at a good price without suggesting is thrown in.

Le Ligerien – In good form winning last two for Phillip Hobbs. They were a pair of class 4 handicaps however when dominating the races. This is a big step up in class and will not be so easy to control the pace here considering the standard of opposition and the fact they usually go strong early. Up a further 10lb there could well be more to come but I prefer my horses to have been competing at a high level before.

Elvis Mail – Another in good form winning two of his three races this year, both in class 2s. Admittedly last win was only a four-runner affair on heavy ground but handicapper has taken that into consideration with just a 1lb rise. Between them was a run at Newbury in a listed handicap when well beat by Champion hurdle fancy Epatante. Looks progressive but all its wins have come in Scotland and struggled on only time crossing the border over hurdles. Will love the ground if stays soft but not convinced it is good enough.

Sir Valentine – Decent flat horse who has done well the last couple of times in big handicaps including 4th in the Betfair hurdle. Up 4lb for the length defeat and was slightly hampered at the last by the faller. Only 5 runs over hurdles so at least has potential for improvement and seemingly handles soft ground from its two runs before. Has the flat speed to be interesting here and could well be at the right end of the weights. Not a race the trainer targets though with just one running in ten years. Horse only entry over Cheltenham as well.

Conclusion

Several in here in which you could advise as an each-way bet. Both Oakley and Zanza merit some interest in that sphere and are at big prices, but I don’t see them as being well enough handicapped to suggest it will start a much shorter price at this stage than it will nearer the race when more places will be available. Buildmeupbuttercup though for a yard that clearly target this could be one to shorten however when jockey bookings are known, though it isn’t always the yard supposed first string that is best to be on here with his winners coming at 20/1, 10/1, 25/1 and 20/1 respectively. Another that could shorten in the betting is Sir Valentine who is rated 87 on the flat. Has had just five runs over hurdles but seems to be improving all the time.  Has gone up 4lb but with a stiffer finish and a race more set up for horses from the back it would be no surprise if he was able to find the improvement needed after running in a race which has been a good ‘prep’ for this.

1pt e/w Buildmeupbuttercup @ 20/1 Betfred 1/5th odds 5 places NRNB

0.75pt e/w Sir Valentine @ 25/1 888Sport, Paddy and Betfred

4:50 Gran Annual

Handicap race at just over two miles. Usually run at a strong pace, you often need luck in running to win. Can really vary as to what rating it takes to get in. Last year you needed 134 and in 2015 bottom rated was 130, however in 2018 it saw a high of 139 required. For research purposes I have taken a rating of 138 or higher. This would fit the last nine winners of the race and so seems a fair mark to set.

Never ran at further than 2m 6f (20/20) – Not surprising but to have the prerequisites to win this then you must have shown that speed required before, rather than shaping like something that should be running at 3m. If you have been tried at that trip then chances are you won’t be winning this race.

At least 3 wins at 2m/2m 1f (10/12) – Like above, often you have been doing all your racing at winning at the minimum trip. If you have been stepped up in trip to win then you probably don’t have the pace to win this.

At least five chase runs (11/12) – Looks significant this year with a favourite in Greeneteen that has only had the three chase starts, admittedly winning them all. Only the novice Alderwood has won with less and even then, it had four runs.

No more than 12 chase starts (19/21) – The two exceptions were last year with Croco Bay and Oiseau De Nuit in 2011, both breaking that trend significantly with 25 and 20 starts respective. Generally though, the norm is no more than 12 which seems the right balance of experience but unexposed.

Run at the Festival before (13/15) – Its not very often you get very strongly run 2m races such as this so it is no surprise several horses have won having gone well in this race in the past in particular, including the 12yo Croco Bay last year prior to victory. If it is not from running in this then the horse has shown the level of ability in which it was thought good enough to be competing that the Festival.

No more than four runs on the season (8/8) – It doesn’t pay to come here on the back of a hard season. A lot of trainers are now saving their horse to peak at this race, which could see it run only a handful of times, if that.

Ran in either a Grade 1 or Grade 2 race (19/20) – Following on from running at the Festival before. There is a good chance one of those was a grade race. If not then it has still shown plenty of ability to compete at a high level either over fences, hurdles or even bumpers. Class wins races in something like this.

I have a shortlist of five horses from this which is a pleasing number to assess:

Great Field – Was a very talented novice chaser winning the grade 1 Ryanair Novice Chase at Punchestown in 2017 and was rated 164 at best. Lost its way though when falling twice and was easily beat in the Irish Champion Chase in 2019 after missing most of the 2017/18 season. Failed to complete in two runs this season, unseating in the Hilly Way and pulling up in a grade 1 at Leopardstown when most likely in need of the run. Not been seen since but has switched to the Jonjo O’Neill yard which may reignite the horse’s enthusiasm. At its best this is a grade 1 winning novice and grade 2 winning open chaser, getting to compete off a mark of 155. If they have got to the bottom of its problems and sorted the jumping out then it would have a very good chance, even if needing a leap of faith to back it on last few starts.

Paloma Blue – Another Irish runner this time for Henry De Bromhead and has been well touted in several quarters for this. Can see why as well. 3rd in the grade 1 Deloitte novice hurdle at Leopardstown and 4th in the Supreme in 2018 it was soon switched to a chasing career, but only racing twice before 6th in the Arkle when jumping left a bit to be desired, though was lacking in experience and a recent run. Improved with each run this year, firstly when a close second to Getabird when run down last over 2m 4f before then racing over 2m 5f on heavy ground at Ascot bumping into the talented Riders On The Storm but once more not staying the trip. Finally dropped back to 2m 1f for the Matheson when running a belter for second off top weight, giving the winner 12lb when allowing for jockey claim. Irish handicapper has put it up 3lb whilst the UK handicapper has been generous in only bumping it up another 2lb to a mark of 152. With the experience it has you would expect it to go close.

Castlegrace Paddy – Grade 2 winning chaser who has spent most of its time over fences racing at the highest level. Has generally struggled at that level to get close to the likes of Min, Un De Sceaux and Altior in last years Champion Chase. However, began last year winning a grade 2 at Cork giving a 16-length beating to Doctor Phoenix with Special Tiara a further 4 lengths behind. Not shown much spark of late including on 23rd Feb at Naas when last of five behind Any Second Now so hard to assess if it is well handicapped off 150. At its best it is and should be well suited to the strong pace of the race. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was to win but not sure I would have the confidence to back it on recent form.

Lady Buttons – Likeable mare who seems equally at home over fences or hurdles as seen this year switching between codes to win listed chase and grade 2 hurdle. Admittedly those were in mares’ company and unable to claim anything here. But she does hold a Champion chase entry suggesting this could be her optimum code. Last time she was in a handicap was off 149 at Aintree over 2m on soft ground and finished 2nd though beat 10 lengths. Not hit the highs of last seasons RPRs so I’m not sure she is as good. On that basis can see her going well but not well handicapped enough to be winning for me.

Delire D’Estruval – Second season chaser whose last win came over 2m 4f at Sandown on soft ground when generally making all. That immediately would be a concern for me. All five career wins under rules have come in fields of 7 or less when leading and as we know they go a strong pace here. May not have the pace over 2m to go with them though at least it will see the trip out and handle the ground. From a yard that have been very in and out this year though seem to be hitting some form at the right time, off the same mark as last years winner though a poor record in double figure fields would temper any enthusiasm.

Conclusion

While Great Field and Castlegrace Paddy would have great chances if able to transfer its best graded form in this, that seems a long way off. Lady Buttons I expect will run her usual good race but the value I believe lies with Paloma Blue which surprisingly is a bigger price. It’s only entry at the Festival, handles any ground and has decent Cheltenham form. Trainer is a master at getting improvement from his 2m chasers, just look at what he has done with Notebook this year. Has improved with each run this year culminating in 2nd in the Matheson. Strong pace and stiff finish should be up its street so with a bit of luck it looks to have a decent chance.

1pt e/w Paloma Blue @ 14/1 1/5th odds 5 places 888Sport NRNB

5:30 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle

Normally run at a very strong pace, no surprise considering it’s for conditional jockeys and the last race of the Festival, it often pays to be ridden with patience. It also helps over this 2m 4 1/2f trip to have proven stamina for the distance.

8 or less starts over hurdles (10/11) – Attaglance was the exception to this strong trend. Sir Des Champs won this off just 2 starts over hurdles so experience is not so crucial. You are looking for a well handicapped and classy horse who can overcome the fact of racing in a big field handicap.

Won a hurdle with 11 or more runners (10/11) – Perhaps this is the way horses seem to overcome a lack of experience, already used to big field races, showing the ability to cope with lots of horses racing together to go on and win. Often common in Irish maidens who seem to feature many runners, it is still a little surprising how many horses haven’t won under these conditions.

Carrying 11st 1lb or more (11/11) – Don’t think it is necessarily the difference between carrying 11st 1lb and 11st, the point is this is a race where you tend to be towards the top end of the handicap. If you have been showing the kind of ability which would see you competing in graded races, then you wouldn’t be rated 135 or lower on Official Ratings.

Previously run in a graded race (9/11) – Like I said above, good horses win this race, so chances are they have already raced at a decent level. However, graded races don’t suit all horses which can result in horses being well handicapped despite possessing the ability. Take last years winner Early Doors who had twice been second in grade 1 company.

First three position last time out (8/9) – Only Ibis Du Rheu in last nine years has won this despite not finishing in the first 3 when last seen having finished a tired 5th having ran in a grade 3 handicap over just shy of three miles. Therefore, it pays to come in with good form, obviously showing recent improvement. To extend this 7 of the last 9 winners had recorded their best RPR of the year last time out, Ibis Du Rheu was obviously one with the other being the following year with Champagne Classic having won a maiden very impressively (Its RPR for the win was only 1lb off the RPR it got for winning this!) it was eased off when beat in a grade 3 next time.

Run within last 52 days (8/9) – Exception was last year in Early Doors, but it is not unusual for a McManus horse to be held off a long while and peak at the Festival. They have defied other handicaps at the Festival where there had previously been a trend towards a recent run. Therefore, have to give a second thought towards those he owns which may have been held off. In a race with so many improving types who need to be coming in with form then it is no surprise that recent run is within a couple of months.

All these strong trends leave me with just four qualifiers, all Irish trained with three of them from the Joseph O’Brien yard. Looks like it can be going back to the Emerald Isles for the 6th time in 7 years.

Five O’Clock – Has a strikingly similar profile to the Willie Mullins previous winner of this race Don Poli. Both recruited from France, both turned over in an Irish maiden when odds on favourite, before winning at second attempt, then going on to win a grade 3 hurdle on third start. Don Poli was over 3m whilst Five O’Clock was over 2m 5f. Form looks good though funnily enough that grade 3 race could be more significant than I thought with the first three home all on my shortlist of four. Five O’Clock did the job well, winning the race with a good jump at the last which bodes well. This race was also won by Blow By Blow before taking this so looks a very good guide.

Assemble – Attempting to reverse that form is Assemble who must find just over 6 lengths but gets a 6lb pull. Looked a bit outpaced at the finish I thought before plodding on, would therefore worry me that it doesn’t have the turn of foot to win this, though a strong pace will suit. Was tried at grade 1 level, however, represents the yard who won the race last year but owned by Gigginstown who have had 4 winners and 5 placed from just 11 runners in the race so have to take serious note. Champagne Classic was only third in the Thurles grade 3 before taking this.

Front View – Same weight difference as Assemble though reason to think it can reverse placings. Not helped by what looked a tired jump at the last, it still ran on stronger at the finish despite looking in need of the run after being off for 3 months. Should strip much fitter for the run and same connections as last years winner. Looks to have a strong chance but looks to have already been well found in the market as a best price 6/1 only available in one place. The shortest priced winner in the last 10 years has been 9/2 so not sure there will be a great deal of movement on that price from what it will be nearer the time. Has leading conditional Jonjo O’Neill booked for the ride.

Anything Will Do – Last runner and third from O’Brien. Gained plenty of experience this season with seven starts under rules. Was third in a grade 2 behind Andy Dufresne and Captain Guinness though the winner hasn’t done a great deal for the form since. Pacey enough to make all and win over 2m, didn’t look an obvious one for this kind of stamina test last time out over an extended 2m 4f on good ground when well beat. Wonder if it could be more of a pacemaker for the yard’s other runners.

Conclusion

This looks even more competitive than normal with several trainers plotting horses for the race, especially from Ireland. You can’t dismiss the favourite Front View but as I said before, I’m not sure there is much mileage in its price now with bookies hiding for cover already. At more than twice the price and having already beaten Front View then the betting disrespects the chances of Five O’Clock who jumped well when winning which will surely help here. Quickened nicely for a top yard who knows what it takes to win this and for a major owner. From a value perspective then to me that is where it lies.

Final summary

What a cracking Cheltenham we have in prospect with the handicaps looking particularly exciting. Plenty of value to be had I feel, some at very juicy prices which I am sure will shorten up by race time, with the added advantage of non runner no bet in all instances so if they don’t run we get our money back anyway. Hopefully this guide has given you some food for thought when it comes to assessing the handicaps yourselves even if you don’t agree with my opinion. I finish with a reminder of all horses tipped and advised.

All recommended bets

Tuesday

2:50 Ultima Handicap Chase

0.75pt e/w – Mulcahys Hill @ 25/1 WillHill, BetVictor & Coral 1/5th odds 5 places

0.5pt e/w Atlanta Ablaze @ 28/1 Ladbrokes 1/5th odds 5 places

4:50 Northern Trust Handicap Chase

1.5pt win – Hold The Note @ 8/1 widely available

0.75pt e/w – Knight In Dubai @ 20/1 widely available 1/5th odds 5 places

Wednesday

2:50 Coral Cup

1pt win – Birchdale @ 9/1 Bet365 NRNB

0.75pt e/w – Franco De Port @ 16/1 Ladbrokes, 888Sport & Betfred 1/5th odds 5 places NRNB

4:50 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle

0.75pt e/w – Night Edition @ 16/1 888Sport, Paddy & Betfred 5th odds 5 places

0.5pt e/w – Scorched Earth @ 33/1 Bet365 ¼ odds 4 places

Thursday

2:10 Pertemps Network Final

No Bets

4:10 Brown Advisory & Merribelle Plate

1.5pt win – Simply The Betts @ 7/1 Bet365 & Paddy NRNB

5:30 Kim Muir

1pt e/w Kilfilum Cross @ 12/1 888Sport 1/5th odds 5 places NRNB

Friday

2:10 County Hurdle

1pt e/w Buildmeupbuttercup @ 20/1 Betfred 1/5th odds 5 places NRNB

0.75pt e/w Sir Valentine @ 25/1 888Sport, Paddy and Betfred

4:50 Grand Annual

1pt e/w Paloma Blue @ 14/1 1/5th odds 5 places 888Sport NRNB

5:30 Martin Pipe

1pt e/w Five O’Clock @ 16/1 Coral ¼ odds 4 places NRNB