12.40 Cheltenham – Markel Insurance Amateur Riders’ Handicap Chase.
For a Class 3 Amateur Riders’ contest, this has turned out to be a decent race on paper, with much of the field rated 130 and above, but in terms of ratings trends, the field is within the 123-134 range that most of the last ten winners fall within, so no help there!
With such a good quality contest in the offing, perhaps it would be prudent to focus on those with good form at high levels and Nicky Henderson’s Sugar Baron certainly fits that brief. A close seventh in the bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown on his final appearance of last season and a seven-length sixth in the Kim Muir at last season’s Festival look to be the best pieces of form on offer in the context of this. A mark of 134 is the same one from which he ran well at Sandown Park on that last run and the assistance of 3lb claimer Harry Hunt is certainly no handicap. The only issue would be that, despite having his preferred conditions, this is his first run of the season and he may need it.
All of the last four winners of the race had already had a run in that season before winning this and in a race that is always such a strongly run test of stamina, I’d be wary of any horse with race fitness not already on his or her side. Solstice Son, Anthony Honeyball’s eight-year-old, and last year’s winner from the Pipe yard, What A Moment, are two to fall foul of this and despite both having claims and decent pilots on board, I’d rather side with one who’s already had a good blow on the racetrack recently.
Phil’s Magic is an interesting runner from across the Irish Sea and Tony Martin doesn’t usually send horses over just for a jolly, so must be given plenty of respect. The handicapper’s been a little harsh on him, giving him 4lb extra to carry than his Irish mark of 129, but that’s usual procedure for Irish raiders to have to defy that. He goes on most surfaces but this decent ground should be fine for him as he’s been steadily improving over the summer on this kind of ground. This is a career-high mark for the seven-year-old to defy over fences, but he’s younger than most in this so progression is not ruled out, even though it does look a tough ask. He stays extremely well and should be running on up the hill stoutly, but it’s just a question of whether the handicapper has anchored him or not.
As De Pique is another Irish-trained contender with claims, and Gavin Cromwell’s 12-year-old is another who certainly doesn’t lack for stamina and will enjoy the better ground. He fell on his seasonal reappearance and his jumping is certainly his weak point, but if he can get round, he looks on a handy enough mark (123) to make an impact. Again, the stronger the pace the better for this horse as he stays very well indeed, but it could be that this horse is ideally suited by even further and may get taken off his feet, even over this three mile, one furlong test.
The ’home team’ also takes some Irish inspiration as Kim Bailey has booked crack amateur Jamie Codd to ride his seven-year-old, Dueling Banjos. Bailey’s stable has been in great form recently and he must think this second-season chaser has a chance off a mark of 131 to have booked arguably the top apprentice out there, however, he’s been beaten off lower marks each time he’s run in handicaps so far in his career and even though progression is certainly not out of the question for this young chaser, he’ll have to have improved plenty to win a competitive affair such as this. He seems to go well on the front end of contests for most of his races before not finding that much in the closing stages and I wonder whether that could be the same story here, especially given the fact there are plenty of horses who like to be handy in the race.
Speaking of crack amateur riders, Derek O’Connor showed his worth when winning one of these contests very nicely indeed at the Showcase meeting here in October on Donald McCain’s What Happens Now. The horse goes again here with conditions in his favour once again, but must contend with an 8lb higher mark this time around. After winning three times over hurdles in the summer, his trainer said that he was handicapped up to his best over fences and that was off 122, so even though he won well last time, this 8lb rise could be too much for him to go in again and this does look a tougher ask.
Of course, What Happens Now had the benefit of race fitness on his side in that previous race, whereas the second-placed horse, INDIAN CASTLE, was making his first appearance of the season. Ian Williams’ nine-year-old is 1lb higher after that promising run, but he’s surely come on for that first run of the year and his yard has hit some flying form recently so he’s sure to be primed and ready to show his best here. Incidentally, his best over the past couple of seasons has earned him a rating as high as 142, so his mark of 128 is clearly an exploitable one if he can re-find his best form. Decent ground is ideal for him and he’s run plenty of good races here at Cheltenham in the past, so there’s no worries over any of that. Sam Waley-Cohen rode him for the first time in that race three weeks ago and will have learned plenty from that, while the horse certainly won’t be wanting for assistance from the saddle as Waley-Cohen’s one of the best and most experienced around. The 7lb swing with the winner of his last race and the fact he’s now had a run are huge positives for this horse and if he can re-find some of his best from for an in-form stable, he could be tough to beat off a generous-looking mark.
Less than a length behind the selection back in third that day was the Bob Buckler-trained Regal Flow and, perhaps because of his rather ‘less fashionable’ trainer and connections, will be a considerably bigger price than Indian Castle. However, he looks a solid each-way proposition if he runs to the same level again, or even comes on for that first run of his season. I do feel that Ian Williams’ horse has the more scope for improvement, but on the bare form of that last run, you can’t rule out this horse if you fancy the former.
Finally, another threat to the selection could be the Colin Tizzard-trained Gentleman Jon, who won the Badger Ales handicap chase last season and looks on a decent mark once again now. He may well be beginning to enter the veteran years of his racing life now as a nine-year-old and could have stopped improving, but he was a solid third behind Mr Mix off this mark at Wincanton on his latest run and will enjoy this good ground and three and a bit mile trip. He doesn’t carry much weight, has the very competent Mikey Legg on board and could run well from his basement mark.
INDIAN CASTLE – 0.75pt e/w @ 10/1 (4 places)
1.15 Cheltenham – Fairlight Books Novices’ Handicap Hurdle.
This looks a devilishly difficult puzzle to try to solve but COUNTER SHY stands out as an unexposed four-year-old who looks on a fair mark for his handicap debut. The well-bred gelding is out of a winning hurdler (who is a half-sister to connections’ Gold Cup winner Synchronised) and he has already shown a decent level of ability in just three racecourse outings. He finished a neck third to recent Uttoxeter scorer Who’s My Jockey on his debut in a Market Rasen bumper back in April and struck at the first time of asking over hurdles at Worcester in September, defeating the re-opposing Banditry comfortably by two lengths off level weights (now receives 1lb from that rival. It’s probably fair to say that he disappointed somewhat under a penalty on his latest start but the testing conditions could have been an excuse and it means he can line up here off an opening mark of only 124, which looks pretty lenient. Jonjo O’Neill has had a penchant for this particular contest over the years, landing back-to-back renewals with Kia Kaha and Sunnyhillboy back in 2007 & 2008, and could well have another to add to the role of honour here.
The biggest danger to the selection could well be his stablemate Spiritual Man, who has dropped 10lb in the handicap since being allotted a mark back in April. It is for good reason as his last couple of efforts have been decidedly modest but a return to the form that saw him hit the frame in some tasty novice events last term would give him a chance off a mark of 110. An additional 3lb off his back thanks to talented conditional Killian Moore’s valuable 3lb claim makes things easier still and he could surprise a few at a big price.
Monday’s Kempton winner Magic Dancer has to enter consideration given he can run here off the same mark for his victory in that conditional jockey’s handicap. The five-year-old has showed improved form since switching to Kerry Lee over the summer and the way he shaped earlier this week suggested that he is right at the top of his game. It may take a leap of faith given the close proximity of his latest effort but this could be the best time to catch him before the handicapper gets wise!
Of the remainder, Coeur Blimey is a horse that I think can make his mark in handicaps given what he showed in his last couple of hurdles runs last season. A Listed bumper winner back in December 2015, Sue Gardner’s charge hasn’t quite gone on to reach the expected heights, for all he has been quite highly tried, but he starts off in handicaps off a realistic mark of 121. When defeating subsequent Champion Bumper winner Ballyandy at Ascot, he showed he can return from a break at the top of his game and would be a live contender if coming back in similar form after nearly a year off the track.
COUNTER SHY – 1pt win @ 9/2 (bet365)
1.50 Cheltenham – BetVictor Handicap Chase.
When you look at the history of this race, a striking pattern emerges – in the past eight years, the winners have either been high in the weights and trained by Nicky Henderson (2009, 2010 & 2011), or lower down in the handicap, rated in the mid to high 120’s. With no representatives from the Lambourn stable of the Champion Trainer entered this year, it’s the latter category that looks the bunch to focus on.
The likes of the Venetia Williams-trained Bright New Dawn, who was very consistent in defeat last season, running well in plenty of decent contests, including in the Grand Annual where he was a ten-length seventh, will have plenty to do if the recent history of the contest is continued in terms of heavily-weighted horses struggling. Still, he has dropped a couple of pounds in the weights since that Festival run and if he’s ready to roll first time out, he could be a big threat despite being the veteran of the field at ten-years-old. Good to soft ground will be perfect, as will the stiff finish, but he may just come on for this run and there may just be some better handicapped horses with potential for improvement down towards the bottom of the weights.
Speaking of which, there are only four in the race that fall into the ‘sub 130’ category that has had so much success in the race in recent times, including last year’s winner, Un Beau Roman, trained by Paul Henderson. This race may well have been the long-term plan, but the horse has been in no sort of form at all recently and, as a nine-year-old, it may well be that his best days are behind him. However, he came into last year’s race in similarly bad form and off 2lb higher so he can’t be ruled out with conditions very similar to last year, even if this does look a stronger race.
Rock On Rocky is in a similar boat – nine-years-old and in pretty poor form recently, but down to a winning mark and back on a solid surface that he enjoys despite the race being more competitive than he’s used to. He’s a one-paced two miler and surely can only win this if they go hard from the front, but he does look feasibly handicapped for trainer Matt Sheppard and could take advantage of his featherweight – he was once rated 135 over hurdles, so the ability is there.
Paul Henderson also trains Doitforthevillage, who ran respectably in a better race over C&D off the same mark of 135 last time out and this horse probably falls into the same category as the above duo. He was beaten around 20 lengths by Foxtail Hill and Le Prezien on that occasion, but was held up throughout and stayed on at the one pace, so if ridden a bit closer this time, could well have a say in things. He’s probably the most interesting horse out of Henderson’s pair, but a mark of 135 might just be a bit too high for him to defy.
One who the market seems to have latched onto is Kapstadt from the in-form Ian Williams yard. He’s already had two runs over fences this season, one very unremarkable effort at Stratford where he was a 36 length third to Western Miller and then when beaten by Darebin at Ludlow. Neither effort suggested that this horse was a high-level chaser in the making to my eyes but his handicap mark of 127 does suggest that and looks fair. Still, there’s every reason to believe that the horse can improve, even though Darebin was well-beaten at Huntingdon this week, and he does fit all the ‘trends’ that this race has thrown up recently – he’s seven years old, carries very little weight and is in the high 120’s in terms of his rating. The market support is interesting, but I think there might be a few on a steeper upward curve.
In addition to saddling the top weight, Colin Tizzard also has stablemate MICK THONIC entered and he’s a very interesting horse in this race, even though he’s a little higher-rated than the past few winners at 132. Mistakes have curtailed his progress in his last two runs, including a soft-looking unseat in a handicap chase at Ludlow when going well alongside eventual winner, Bigmartre, and then when clouting one in the hot Novices’ Chase won by North Hill Harvey over C&D in October, casuing jockey Bryan Cooper to lose his irons and not recover. Clearly he’ll have to be better on the jumping front, but if he is, he could be very nicely handicapped. His defeat of the then 146-rated Marracudja in receipt of 8lb in April last season reads well and even though he unseated three out in the race won by Bigmartre, he looked to be much the more comfortable and that horse is now rated 137. With stablemate Shanahan’s Turn, returning from 478 days off and at a trip well short of his ideal, helping to frame the weights so that this horse can carry less, it looks as if Tizzard may well be trying to win the race with this one and if his jumping holds up, he should go very nicely.
Exitas currently heads the market after his authoritative success at Ascot two weeks ago and if he brings the same level of form to the table again, he looks as if he’ll be there or thereabouts under impressive young 7lb claimer James Bowen. He has gone up a rather harsh-looking 10lb for that win though, and he does seem to do most of his running on easier flat tracks so this venue may not be ideal for him. Also worrying is the fact the trainer, Phil Middleton, spoke of a plan to exploit a lower hurdles mark, so he may think that the horse is coming to the end of his sharp improvement over fences now, even though he’s clearly in great form and is race fit.
MICK THONIC – 0.75pt e/w @ 11/1 (Paddy Power)
3.00 Cheltenham – Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase.
As often has been the case in the last 20 years, Enda Bolger looks to hold all the aces in this cross country contest with the top three in the handicap.
Grand National runner-up Cause of Causes will likely have his backers running off just 2lb higher than when second to One For Arthur at Aintree. However, he is 10lb higher than when scoring over course and distance at The Festival in March and looks to have a tough task conceding weight to a pair of race-fit stablemates. He is undoubtedly one of the top staying handicap chasers around but is opposable on his seasonal bow especially considering he usually saves his best form for the spring.
Therefore, preference is for CANTLOW, who should be ready to roll having had his trademark pipe-opener over hurdles last month. He was beaten just over 10 lengths into third by his stablemate back in March but receives a 9lb swing in the weights here and is only 4lb higher than when hosing up in similar conditions in December last year.
biggest threat to the selection could well come from his other stablemate Auvergnat who also benefits from a recent spin over the sticks. The seven-year-old is still finding his feet on the banks circuit but showed enough in three spins last term (twice over C&D and once at Punchestown) to suggest he can make his mark in this sphere. However, he is 14lb higher than when fourth behind his other two re-opposing stablemates at The Festival so would have to find a lot extra to make his mark on these terms, for all that could be entirely possible!
Of the remainder, Urgent de Gregaine has to come into consideration having sprung a massive shock when winning this at 50/1 back in January and races off just a 6lb higher mark this time round. He was a very creditable length second in the Velka Pardubicka last time out so clearly remains in good form and has an affinity with the banks courses.
CANTLOW – 1.5pt win @ 9/2 (BetVictor)
3.35 Cheltenham – Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 2).
The Hyde has been won by some top horses over the years, including Gold Cup hero Coneygree, and this year’s renewal looks like another quality contest
Carrying a penalty in these types of races can often be a deal breaker but that hasn’t been the case here over the years. That’s good news for Poetic Rhythm who concedes at least 5lb all round thanks to his win in the Grade 2 Persian War Novices’ Hurdle last time out. That form has been franked with the runner-up Amour de Nuit landing a Listed contest at Kempton next time out and he showed that he can perform early in the season when landing the Listed bumper at this meeting twelve months ago. However, this field looks stacked with quality and potential and there is the suspicion that he may be vulnerable to those receiving weight.
VISION DES FLOS was only third behind Fergal O’Brien’s charge at Chepstow last time but still looked pretty green there and will surely have learnt a lot from that effort on only his first run for Colin Tizzard. The four-year-old was purchased for €270,000 on the back of landing the Goffs Land Rover Bumper at the Punchestown Festival in April and stayed on nicely enough last time to suggest that this step up in trip will suit. He looks a good prospect and I think it speaks volumes that he has been pitched in at Grade 2 level for his first two starts over hurdles
One of the most experienced in the field is Calett Mad, who proved himself a very capable staying novice chaser last term and has returned over this sticks this time round at the top of his game. Still only a five-year-old, Nigel Twiston-Davies’ charge won easily at Perth in September and followed up with a dominant display here at the Showcase Meeting, defeating Robbin’Hannon by four and a half lengths. However, although his ability cannot come into question, the marked drop back in trip is a bit of a worry.
Receiving weight all round, the mare Momella has to be taken seriously and would have a big chance if replicating the form that saw her beat Brillaire Momento by two length back in May. She returned from a summer break with a facile victory in a small field Fakenham novice last month and while that form is difficult to assess, she clearly possesses the ability to take her place in this line-up. There may well be one or two with a bit more scope for improvement taking her on here though.
One of which is definitely On The Blind Side, who rates the biggest danger to the selection. Purchased for €205,000 on the back of a debut win in an Irish point in January, The five-year-old made it 2-2 with a decent display in a hot-looking Aintree maiden hurdle last month (Aye Aye Charlie back in third). The extra furlong here shouldn’t pose a problem and he rates one of the more interesting novice hurdlers this season.
VISION DES FLOS – 1.5pt win @ 11/4 (bet365, William Hill)