Day Four of The Cheltenham Festival 18/3/2017
1.30 Cheltenham – JCB Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1)
When it comes to the cream of the juvenile hurdling crop it would seem that money normally talks. Despite there being only 3 winning favourites in the last 11 years, in the same timeframe 9 of the winners came from the first 3 in the betting. Defi Du Seuil, Charli Parcs and Master Blueyes head the bookies’ boards at the time of writing.
The juveniles lining up here, whilst full of potential tend to be short on experience, in fact only 3 of the last 12 winners had more than 3 runs over hurdles under their belt. Given that inexperience, a recent run prior to the Festival is important to refine their hurdling technique. This can be backed up by the fact that no winner since 1992 had been off the course for more than 55 days; a worrying stat for the two at the top of the market, Landofhopeandglory, Soldier In Action and Ex Patriot.
Nicky Henderson has the best record when it comes to trainers, having saddled 6 winners in total. He has 3 victories to his name in the last decade alone and the 2015 renewal in which he had his most recent winner, Peace And Co, also saw him send out the second and third Top Notch and Hargam. Charli Parcs and Soldier In Action represent the master of Seven Barrows this year and must be afforded extra respect.
In terms of trials, the Spring Juvenile Hurdle run at Leopardstown in February is the best guide having produced 4 of the last 10 winners. Our Conor was the only one of those to complete the double in 2013 but Countrywide Flame (3rd), Tiger Roll (2nd) and Ivanovich Gorbatov (4th) were all beaten at Leopardstown before going on to win at the Festival so don’t be too quick to dismiss the beaten horses in this year’s renewal. Bapaume, Dinaria Des Obeaux and Ex Patriot are looking to improve on that already stellar record in this year’s renewal.
The strength of the Spring Juvenile Hurdle contributes to the next factor. In the last 5 renewals, horses that had run in a Grade 1 race have won 4 times from just 20 participants over that timescale. Defi Du Seuil and Bapaume are among those with top-level experience already under their belts this time round.
Flat-bred types used to be the way to go in the Triumph but that trend has shifted in recent times with 3 of the last 7 winners having begun their careers under National Hunt rules. Defi Du Seuil, Charli Parcs, Bapaume and Dinaria Des Obeaux are amongst those who will be looking to confirm that this year.
The ever-increasing French influence has impacted on the Triumph in a big way with half of the last 8 winners having started their careers on the other side of the Channel. The juvenile scene in France kicks into gear from the very early days with 3yos regularly competing under National Hunt rules so this may just give them an edge over the British and Irish types who have either been switched from the flat or are being brought along with their future careers in mind. Leading fancies Defi Du Seuil and Charli Parcs both got their lives on the racecourse underway on Gallic soil.
Dinaria Des Obeaux
Defi Du Seuil
The top three from the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown reoppose here. Bapaume finished second that day to Mega Fortune and has shown progressive from through the season. He began with a runner-up finish to Landofhopeandglory in a Grade 3 at Fairyhouse before reversing the form with that rival in a Grade 2 at Leopardstown in December. Last time out in the Grade 1, the four-year-old was always up with the pace and kept on well under pressure on the run-in, finishing seven lengths clear of Dinaria Des Obeaux. He should enjoy the better ground at Cheltenham and has to be respected, especially as the Mullins stable has now had a couple of winners at this year’s Festival.
Dinaria Des Obeaux has a bit to find against Bapaume but is only lightly-raced, having had four starts to date. That was her only defeat to date and she has returned to the winning ways since then, albeit she was awarded the Grade 3 at Fairyhouse in the stewards room. The filly was staying on well but Ex Patriot passed the post first and then was demoted due to interference. That race was on heavy ground and she will face different conditions at Cheltenham, but with the form that trainer Gordon Elliott is in she cannot be discounted.
Defi Du Seuil is the market leader and will bid to add to trainer Nicky Henderson’s fine record in the race. He has been the long time favourite for the race having built up an impressive record of six wins from seven starts, with the only time he was beaten when finishing second on debut. He boasts three wins here at Cheltenham, including two Grade 2s in the trials for this race. He also landed top level success in the Future Champions Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow in December. The four-year-old put up a fine performance that day, travelling smoothly before going on to record a comfortable thirteen lengths victory over Evening Hush. On his latest outing he won the Grade 2 Finesse Juvenile Hurdle here by nine lengths and he looks to hold strong claims of following that up on Friday.
2.10 Cheltenham – Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3)
The County Hurdle has the appearance of being a graveyard for punters although there was a little respite last year with Superb Story winning at 8/1, the first winner at single-figure odds since Desert Quest back in 2006. However, even in such a competitive handicap as this, the market can prove informative and certainly shouldn’t be disregarded with 10 of the last 16 winners coming from the first 5 in the betting. Winter Escape, North Hill Harvey, Mick Jazz, Air horse One and Ivanovich Gorbatov fill those spots at the time of writing.
Irish-trained runners have tended to dominate in recent history having won 7 of the last 10 renewals. As seems the case in most Festival races nowadays, Willie Mullins is the main man to focus on with 3 of those 7. Mullins saddles Arctic Fire and Renneti this time round with Mick Jazz and Ivanovich Gorbatov also heading the Irish challenge.
Prior to last year, the home challenge had almost single-handedly been led by Paul Nicholls, but it was his former assistant Dan Skelton who masterminded the victory of Superb Story. Skelton seems to following in his former mentor’s footsteps well so the Ditcheat connection shouldn’t be overlooked. Diego du Charmil is Nicholls’ sole representative this time round. The stiff finish at Prestbury Park is seen as one of the biggest tests of stamina in the game.
Therefore, it is a tad surprising that this particular contest has tended to favour those who come from a flat background. This is a stark contrast to the majority of other Festival races but the fact that 9 of the last 13 winners started their careers on the level suggests that speed is of the essence when it comes to the County Hurdle. Leading fancies Ivanovich Gorbatov and Mohaayed have their chances boosted here having started their careers on the level.
Improvers seem to be the way forward in the County so keep your eye out for an unexposed sort. 5 of the last 8 runners had run in 6 hurdles or less prior to lining up here, a bad omen for the more experienced Mick Jazz and Air horse One. However, handicap debutants are 0/63 since 1993 so prior big-field experience is a must, not a good sign for Ivanovich Gorbatov and Tell Us More.
Taking into account that unexposed sorts pay the way here, it isn’t a shock that 13 of the last 14 winners were either first or second season hurdlers. The likes of Renneti, Mick Jazz and L’Ami Serge fall foul of this in this year’s renewal.
In contrast to many other Festival races, those that have ran at a previous Festival have a pretty patchy record in the County Hurdle. Only 6 winners since 1991 had run at the Festival before. Leading fancies Ivanovich Gorbatov, North Hill Harvey and Diego du Charmil are among those to have lined up in years past.
The majority of runners here will find themselves rated in the 130s but it is still a fairly damning statistic that every single one of the 116 horses to have lined up here with a mark of 140+ have been beaten, not good news for the likes of Mick Jazz and Air horse One.
It is a common theme for last time out winners to be approached with caution in handicaps and the County Hurdle is no different. Only Lac Fontana and Final Approach have been most successful on their most recent start prior to lining up here in the last 10 years. North Hill Harvey, Mick Jazz and Air horse One are among those with a ‘1’ next to their names in this year’s field.
De Name Escapes Me
Topping the shortlist is Wakea, who was a 90-rated horse on the level (95 on the all-weather) for Jeremy Noseda before being acquired by Karl Thornton for 16,500gns last February. The six-year-old has been steadily progressive in five runs over the sticks for his new connections, easily winning a Down Royal handicap hurdle back in November. Mistakes cost him on his latest start when 4th behind Supreme winner Labaik at Navan and he unsurprisingly was given the winter off with the ground not to his liking. This is the sternest test he’s faced to date but he should have conditions in his favour and Donagh Meyler takes a handy 3lb off his back.
De Name Escapes Me is another that emerges from the statistical analysis with credit although he would need to show much more than when well beaten in the Betfair Hurdle to figure here. In truth though, he will likely have come on a lot for his first run since April last year and the handicapper has given him a bit of leeway and he lines up here off a 3lb lower mark. Top conditional Jonathan Moore has been booked for the ride and he is great value for his 3lb claim so a return to form isn’t completely out of the question.
He is one of three runners in the famous green and gold silks of JP McManus with Winter Escape another of JP’s runners to make the shortlist. Alan King’s charge has been the subject of strong market support in the last couple of weeks even though he hasn’t been seen since disappointing behind North Hill Harvey in the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle over course and distance back in November. He is still unexposed with only four runs under his belt and if recapturing the form that saw him win the Grade 2 Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle last February, he must have strong claims.
North Hill Harvey looks to be Dan Skelton’s first string on jockey bookings but last year’s winning trainer has two other realistic chances, with Ian Popham’s mount Mohaayed completing the shortlist. The five-year-old just snuck in at the foot of the handicap so looks well weighted with just 10st 2lb on his back. A talented campaigner on the level for Kevin Prendergast, he made a cracking debut for his new connections when second to Elgin at Kempton on Boxing Day before finding a Grade 2 too hot on just his second start over the sticks. He hosed up in a novice at Taunton next time to earn his mark of 134 and looks a lively outsider with a decent chance.
2.50 Cheltenham – Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
Surprisingly the most popular of the Grade 1 Novice Hurdles at the Festival, the Albert Bartlett is a thorough test of any Novice hurdler’s constitution and it’s clear that experience is crucial with horses that had run less than 3 times over hurdles never winning; a worrying stat for the likes of Augusta Kate and Step Back in this year’s renewal.
Older horses with stout profiles that have run over hurdles in previous seasons have done well in this race since its inception with a record of 6/59. The more experienced campaigner is certainly the profile you’ll want to focus on and Wholestone and Ami Desbois fit the bill this time round.
With experience coming to the fore, it makes sense that older horses have been the way to go in the Albert Bartlett. Seven-year-olds are 4/51 since the race’s inception and while Unowhatimeanharry was the first eight-year-old winner he last year, that age group has produced 3 placed horses as well from just 18 runners over the years. The 7-8yo category is where we should be focussing our attention here, which is music to the ears of the likes of Ami Desbois and Turcagua.
7 of the 12 winners of the Albert Bartlett had already won over 3 miles or further under rules, proving their stamina, and 8 of them had experienced the unique test that is Cheltenham. Of this year’s line-up, Wholestone, Ami Desbois and Baden have a win over 3m+ to their name.
All of the winners had contested a Graded hurdle before success in this race so we really need to look for those proven quality competitors to come to the fore in what can often turn into an attritional affair. Any Drama and C’est Jersey are among those with a bit to prove in this department.
3 of the last 4 winners of the Classic Novices’ Hurdle that have taken part, have won, so this is certainly one of the better guides to take note of when it comes to the Albert Bartlett. Wholestone won this year’s renewal which must give his chances a boost.
Despite his excellent record in almost every other race at the Festival, Willie Mullins is 0 from 25 in this, including 3 favourites, a surprise given his success with lightly-raced contenders in the Supreme and Neptune Novices’ Hurdles, but it does reinforce that experienced contenders have an edge in a battle like this; not good news for his runners this year Augusta Kate, Penhill, C’est Jersey and Turcagua.
The Irish challenge has contributed 4 of the last 8 winners, so where Mullins fails, other step into the breach, but there isn’t a trend that specifies which side of the Irish Sea the winner is more likely to come from.
Of the 21 horses to line up here without having had a run in the calendar, only 1 has prevailed, and that total includes 4 favourites over the years. A recent run seems imperative which puts a black mark next to Penhill.
Wholestone was an impressive winner of the key trial for this race last time out, the Classic Novices’ Hurdle. He was always prominent throughout and stayed on well up the hill to gain victory. This second season hurdler has progressed over the longer distances and he was making it back-to-back Grade 2 victories at the course. His previous win came over three miles which will stand him in good stead for Friday. He got the better of Ami Desbois by a length, readily asserting at the finish. That rival could not find extra on the run-in and could find it difficult to reverse the form here. Baden is likely to go off at a decent odds but has experience as a second season hurdler and he has a three miles point-to-point win earlier in his career. He could be a decent price to make the frame here.
3.30 Cheltenham – Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase (Grade 1)
Arguably the most historic and prestigious race of the whole Cheltenham Festival, the Gold Cup is a supreme test for a racehorse, that many horses can raise their level to win only once. This is supported by the fact that 8 of the 51 runners to have lined up having had less than 10 runs over fences since 2006 have been successful; not good reading for experienced campaigners Cue Card and Djakadam.
This theory is backed up when looking a tad deeper into Gold Cup winners’ careers as 10 of the 13 individual winners this century had just the single-season over timber. Outlander and Native River are just two who fit the bill in this particular aspect here.
The Gold Cup test has proven all too much for veterans of late with no horse aged 10 or over winning this century, even with previous winners Kauto Star and Denman taking their chances. It is not a race for the old-boys which casts a doubt on Cue Card and Smad Place.
You want to have a full tank coming into this race and only 1 horse to have raced more than 3 times earlier in the campaign has won in the past 9 renewals; bad news for Native River and Bristol De Mai in this year’s race.
Reinforcing the freshness argument, no horse to have raced on officially heavy ground in the current season has won this century. The extended 3m 2 1/2f with the stiff finish at Cheltenham asks a lot of stamina questions so you don’t want a horse leaving their race behind in a heavy-ground affair prior to lining up here. Cue C ard and Irish Cavalier will have to overcome this particular stat this time round.
As if we needed to back this point up any further, 9 winners this century hadn’t run in the calendar year so we must be fresh as a daisy! Outlander and Djakadam are the only runners who have been off the track since 2016.
Class is obviously one of the biggest factors here and all of the Gold Cup heroes this century had already won a Grade 1 over fences. Proven quality is a must so the likes of Champagne West and Minella Rocco look to have it all to do to if they are to record their first top-level chasing win in this particular contest.
8 winners this century had won at the Festival the previous year, while 4 more were placed, so the type of horse that has proven they can put it all together in March, looks to have an edge on their rivals. Minella Rocco and Empire Of Dirt were winners last year while Djakadam and Sizing John managed to finish placed.
However, being placed in the big race before is a huge negative – no horse this century has won the Gold Cup after being beaten in it before, so it might be difficult for the likes of Cue Card and Djakadam to try and land the big one this time round.
Headgear is becoming more of a factor in general but not in Championship races and the application of any kind of aid is a massive negative when it comes to the Gold Cup. None of the 38 runners this century to have lined up with headgear applied have won which heavily reduces the chances of Native River and More Of That in this year’s renewal.
The bookies have tended to have a good handle in recent times and those in the top 3 of the market have performed well with a record of 15/56 this century. It’s rare that we see a complete outsider prevail (a la the miracle Davy Russell produced on Lord Windermere back in 2014) so we should concentrate on those at the top of the market. Djakadam, Cue Card and Native River are the head of affairs at the time of writing.
It seems obvious that those arriving in top form have a good record but the fact that 12 winners this century, including 8 of the last 10, had won last-time-out is still worth noting. Those without a ‘1’ next to their names in this year’s line-up include Djakadam, Bristol De Mai and More Of That.
Finally, Ireland may only have taken the trophy home twice in the past 10 years, but 15 of the last 20 winners were bred in Ireland. I’m not sure if that will be much consolation but it certainly helps us to narrow down the field a bit. There are six Irish-breds going to post in this renewal, including Outlander, Champagne West and Minella
There aren’t any horses that fit all of the trends here, so at least one of them will be given a knock by this year’s renewal. However, Gordon Elliott looks to have a great change of following up last year’s Gold Cup success with Outlander, who comes out a clear first place on the trends table. As an impressive winner of the Grade 1 Lexus Chase at Leopardstown, he’s an improving sort who looks primed for this race. He’ll enjoy the decent ground, has already beaten the likes of Don Poli, Djakadam, Valseur Lido and More Of That and must hold a superb each-way chance at double figure odds.
Djakadam has already finished second in the last two renewals of this race, so has C&D form to his name and plenty of Grade 1 success too. He’ll have to defy the trend that no Gold Cup winner had been beaten in previous renewals, but his preparation for the race has gone perfectly and the Mullins stable are very bullish that he’ll run a big race once again. He’s a rock-solid standard for the rest to get past and if they’re not up to it, it could be that big trend that gets broken this season.
The horse that’s jumped right into the midst of the battle for favouritism this season is Native River. Colin Tizzard’s second-season chaser has been superb this season, winning the Hennessey and the Welsh Grand National before taking the Grade 2 Demnan Chase in good style, with Bristol De Mai well beaten in behind. His second in the National Hunt Chase last season shows he handles the track, ground and stays well, so he just has to prove he’s up to beating the best of the best at Grade 1 level. He’s got a great attitude, something that will stand him in good stead in what will undoubtedly be a tough race and he’s got a leading chance.
4.10 Cheltenham – St. James’s Place Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase
It shouldn’t come as a massive shock that, given the strength of the point-to-point scene in Ireland, Irish-trained horses have dominated this race in recent times, winning each of the last 6 renewals. On The Fringe, Sweet As A Nut and Grand Jesture head the challenge from the Emerald Isle this year.
There are few, if any, ‘trials’ in Britain that offer anywhere near enough of a test to have a major bearing on the Foxhunter Chase. However, the Hunter Chase scene in Ireland is a completely different animal and the Leopardstown Inn Hunters Chase has been a particularly good guide. One of only a handful of top class hunters run prior to the Festival, the contest in early February has produced each of the last 5 winners. This year’s winner, Foxrock, isn’t eligible but the race is represented by On The Fringe and Salsify, 2nd and 4th respectively.
It seems that those who began their careers in hunter chases or point-to-points are the ones to focus on with 25 of the last 28 winners having started out in either of those disciplines, a good omen for leading fancies On The Fringe and Ask The Weatherman.
In contrast to the Aintree equivalent, the Foxhunter has tended to favour those up-and-coming hunters. horses aged 11 or older are 3/197 since 1990 while those aged 9 or younger have won 8 of the last 11 renewals , the only exceptions being On The Fringe (twice) and Baby Run. The veterans who have to defy father time in this year’s renewal include Buckers Bridge, Balnaslow and Aupcharlie.
Hunter chases have a reputation for favouring front runners and even at this top level, the way the race pans out tends to be little different. There are many arguments as to why this is the case but the fact remains that 10 winners since 1992 have made much or all of the running, given those who tend to race prominently a big edge. Grand Vision and Paint The Clouds are just two of the field that will likely race prominently.
Only Drombeag, who had been off the track for the best part of 11 months, has won this contest having been off the track for more than 41 days this century. Those arriving fully fit in hunters tend to have a big edge on their rivals and this shouldn’t be underestimated. Only Ask The Weatherman, Balnaslow, Barel of Laughs, Let’s Get Serious and Current Event line up here having not raced within that timescale.
Headgear has become an ever increasing factor in Festival races, especially the staying chases, and the Foxhunter has certainly followed suit. 2 of the last 10 winners had the aid of headgear of one sort or another so don’t be put off the likes of Buckers Bridge and Black Thunder in this contest.
On The Fringe
Sweet As A Nut
Due to now being the grand old age of 12, On The Fringe just misses out on the top spot on the shortlist, but that shouldn’t put us off as he’s bucked that particular stat for the past two years! With Nina Carberry currently out of the saddle, Enda Bolger has acquired the services of the red-hot Jamie Codd and the veteran hunter looked as good as ever when finishing runner-up to Foxrock last-time-out. It would seem that he would have to have an off day not to feature once more here.
Those looking to dethrone him are headed by a pair of up-and-coming Irish pointers, with Anseanachai Cliste emerging from the statistical analysis with plenty of credit. The eight-year-old has been quietly fancied in the lead up to the race and enters the contest with an 8-run winning streak in the pointing field. This would take a big step up but he is evidently in great heart at present.
Sweet As A Nut is another that has been the subject of support in the offices and is one of the least exposed horses in the field. The seven-year-old comfortably accounted for the re-opposing Minella For Value in a point last month and if turning up in the same form, could be entitled to make the frame.
Completing the shortlist is Buckers Bridge who performs solidly on the trends but is another that has to overcome the ‘veteran’ moniker. The now eleven-year-old was a Grade 2 chase winner in his prime and was a cosy winner of a point last-time-out, beating Home Farm by 4 lengths. He could well outrun his big odds.
4.50 Cheltenham – Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle
Although there have only been 8 renewals of the race, a pattern is emerging where stamina becomes more of a factor than you’d expect over two and a half miles. The inexperienced conditional jockeys often go quickly, which has led to horses that are held up and have plenty of staying power doing well. Among the candidates likely to wait for their chance this year are Rather Be, Lac Fontana and Tommy Silver.
All 8 of the winners of this race have been aged 5 or 6, so while that bracket tends to comprise most of the runners lining up, it still gives us the chance to narrow the field down slightly. Lac Fontana, Taglietelle and I Shot The Sheriff are just a few of the big names that fall outside of this age group in this year’s renewal.
Only one winner had ran more than 8 times over hurdles, so this is a race where you’re looking for a classy young improver. Leading fancies Lac Fontana and Coo Star Sivola are among those with more experience than is usually required to take this pot.
Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls have done well in the race in the past; winning 5 of the last 6 renewals and that can be attributed to both having the higher-rated horses with access to the best conditionals around. Mullins is represented by Battleford and Coo Star Sivola this time round while Nicholls saddles Lac Fontana and Tommy Silver.
Interestingly, David Pipe, whose father the race is named after, is 0 from 17, including 3 favourites and 3 second favourites. While he is surely desperate to win ‘his dad’s’ race, he did not even have a runner in it last year after Dell’Arca, his sole representative this time round, missed the cut by one.
The O’Leary brothers are proving an ever-growing force on both sides of the Irish Sea and horses that carry the now widely-recognised maroon and white silks of Gigginstown House Stud have enjoyed success in the fledgling history of the Martin Pipe. Sir des Champs and Don Poli have won the contest from just 7 Gigginstown runners so Champagne Classic definitely warrants extra respect.
Last-time-out winners have a solid record here with half of the winners to date from just 44 representatives over the 8 years. A tick in the box for the likes of Runfordave, No Comment and Dadsintrouble.
The headgear debate in the Martin Pipe is a tricky one as it seems to depend on the type applied. horses wearing your traditional blinker/cheekpieces/visors have fared particularly poorly with all 38 runners being beaten. However, hoods are a relatively recent addition to the headgear stable and with Ibis du Rheu wearing one to victory last year, the application of a hood shouldn’t be seen as a negative.
With Paul Nicholls’ strong record in the race, it comes as little surprise that one of his charges performs particularly well on the trends. However, it is Tommy Silver rather than Lac Fontana that ticks the majority of the boxes and heads the shortlist. He was a smart juvenile last term, finishing a respectable 7th in the Triumph Hurdle, and bounced back to form when scoring in a competitive handicap hurdle at Taunton last time. A 6lb rise for that win seems fair and he once again has Stan Sheppard in the plate, who has proven himself a most capable conditional so far this season.
Dadsintrouble was unlucky to just miss out on a place in the Pertemps Final but Tim Vaughan sends his hat-trick seeker to the Martin Pipe instead in search of that elusive first Festival win. He has been impressive in a pair of wins at Haydock on his last two starts and while he has to show that he can cope with the drop in trip and drying ground, it would be folly to ignore him given the form that he finds himself in at present.
After The Storyteller picked up an injury, stablemate Runfordave was rerouted here from the Coral Cup and looks to have every chance. His mark of 140 is only 3lb higher than what he would have carried back in Ireland and he arrives here on the up after a confidence boosting victory at Clonmel a month ago.
He is one of three runners for the red-hot Gordon Elliott stable and his stablemate Champagne Classic completes the shortlist. Owned by the O’Leary brothers’ Gigginstown House Stud, the six-year-old was outclassed in a Garde 3 at Thurles last-time-out but looks to be on a very reasonable mark of 137 ahead of his handicap debut.
5.30 Cheltenham – Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Chase (Grade 3)
With its big field and breakneck gallop, you have to be a serious jumper at pace to win a race like this. Combine that with a need for some luck in running, the tactical turn of foot needed to hold a position, then kick on up the hill and you have a race for specialists. Only 1 winner this century had ever won a chase over further than two miles and three furlongs in their career – the need for speed is key here which leaves the likes of The Velvet Maker , The Ineinval and Rock The World with something to find.
Considering the cavalry-charge nature of the Festival finale, it seems a tad surprising to me that certain trainers have a consistent record. Solar Impulse’s victory last year took Paul Nicholls to 3/26 this century while Dandridge’s runners-up effort for Arthur Moore should have been on the cards with his two victories in the same timeframe. In contrast to David Pipe, Nicky Henderson has enjoyed success in the race named after his father with a pair of winners. This year, Nicholls saddles Le Prezien and Dodging Bullets, Moore is represented by Dandridge and Henderson is represented by Theinval.
This looks like a race that trainers spend all season aiming horses towards, where the best laid plans come to fruition. All of the last 12 renewals have been won by horses that hadn’t won a handicap chase in that season, which bodes well for the likes of Le Prezien , Velvet Maker and Theinval.
Taking this a step further, 5 horses this century were actually making their handicap debuts over fences here. That would seem a tough ask with the frantic pace that is usually set, but it clearly pays off so Le Prezien, Mick Thonic and TheGame Changer are worthy of a second look.
Tying in with the previous point, novices and lightly-raced sorts tend do well in this race. Novices have prevailed in 4 of the last 8 renewals, and 7 this century, so it is the up-and-coming chasers that we need to be keeping an eye out for here. Le Prezien and Velvet Maker lead the charge for the novices this time round.
To further reinforce the young chaser angle, there has been only 1 winner this century to have landed the prize having run more than 12 times over fences; not good news for Dodging Bullets and Dandridge among others.
However, Festival experience has proven to be a big plus with 11 of the last 13 winners having run at a previous Festival. Last season’s Grand Annual has been a decent guide with 5 of the last 13 winners lifting the trophy having been beaten twelve months earlier. Those looking to repeat that feat this year include Velvet Maker, Rock The World and Dandridge.
It isn’t surprising that this race has proven a nightmare for punters given the frenetic pace and the fact that people can often get carried away with this being the last piece of Cheltenham Festival action for a whole year! Alderwood back in 2013 is the only winner to have emanated from the top 6 in the betting in the last 7 runnings. Winning SPs of 16/1, 40/1, 20/1 16/1, 16/1 and 28/1 shows us that outsiders may well be the way forward. Le Prezien, Dandridge, Rock The World, Velvet Maker, Theinval and Dodging Bullets occupy the top 6 positions on the bookies’ boards at the time of writing.
Ratings-wise, 5 of the last 6 winners were rated between 140 and 147, so there’s a well-defined band to look for here. Those falling outside of this hallowed bracket include Mick Thonic and Dodging Bullets.
Le Prezien heads the market but may still be the one to be on in this race as he ticks a lot of the boxes with regards to the trends. He bids to make it back-to-back wins in the race for trainer Paul Nicholls and this novice could provide the answer in this competitive race. The six-year-old has previous winning form at Cheltenham, having won the Grade 2 Arkle Trial here in November. He ran on strongly that day over the two miles trips and looks to have the right combination of speed and stamina for this race. The gelding also has Grade 1 form to his name, finishing third in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown last time out.
Another novice who will be aiming to enhance his trainer’s record in the race is Theinval for trainer Nicky Henderson. He has ran in three novice chases since finishing third in the Listed Summer Plate Handicap Chase at Market Rasen in July. The seven-year-old will appreciate the drying ground at Cheltenham and comes here off the back of a confidence boosting victory last time out. He won a Class 3 Novices’ Chase at Plumpton in December, and although that was a three runner race, he could benefit from coming to the Festival off the back of a win.
Irish raider Velvet Maker finished midfield in this race last year and trainer Alan Fleming, who has had a winner here this week, will be hoping that he can improve on that effort this time around. He has only been seen once since then, finishing third in a Leopardstown handicap last month. The eight-year-old travelled well for a long way that day and the run could have put him spot on for Cheltenham this year