Ahead of the Cheltenahm Festival kicking off, Rory Delargy (@Helynsar) has picked out his Irish fancies for some of the big handicaps of the week...
There are too many valuable three-mile handicap chases in the Irish calendar for trainers to generally lay one out for the Ultima (formerly the National Hunt Handicap Chase), and the trophy has only crossed the Irish Sea twice in the last fifty years. Gordon Elliott had plenty of interesting entries but stated at a recent preview event that he would have nothing in the race.
I always have this contest booked to stay at home, partly due to Elliott's coolness towards the contest, but also because the Kim Muir is a much more likely medium for an Irish gamble, with many of the entries for the races duplicated, and the latter contest is a classier affair since its upper limit was increased to 145. The depth of quality in the amateur ranks in Ireland is exceptional, so it is deemed a big advantage for Irish trainers to have first call on the top riders.
Ante-Post View: No Bet
Close Brothers Novices' Chase:
This is another contest which has seen the ceiling rating increased from 140 to 145 recently, and this will be the first running since, which might see the race take a slightly different shape to previous editions. The likelihood is that the minimum rating needed to qualify will rise in line with the upper limit, and some under-the-radar types will struggle to get a run. The going is also a factor to consider, and the chances of this being run on ground with genuine spring in it are slim after a deluge on Friday. although betting on ground conditions is a gamble in itself.
De Plotting Shed has been the talking horse of the race, and will surely improve for the step up in trip, while his maiden status over fences isn't a concern based on past results. A slight worry is whether he finds enough off the bridle, and after winning three on the bounce early last season, he's now lost his last ten, although there are a host of solid runs in there, both over hurdles and fences. In fact, he's a rarity in that he's lower in this sphere than over timber despite showing plenty, and I believe he's an example of the official handicapper being lenient with relatively classy horses who are run on their merits.
Any Second Now represents J P McManus, who has the well-fancied Movewiththetimes, but Ted Walsh's 6-y-o is very interesting on balance, and has attracted support in recent days. A winner on debut when paying 750/1 on Betfair, he has clearly got more ability than he shows at home, and he won a Grade 2 on his next start despite still looking a work in progress. He's failed to win in four starts over fences, but has shaped very well as a rule, and while disappointing in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown, he was notably looked after, and looks fairly handicapped on his earlier efforts, which include a second in Grade 1 company behind Footpad, to whom he conceded a big early lead.
Any Second Now only holds one Festival entry having been taken out of the JLT, and needs respect for all this is a hugely competitive affair.
Ante-Post View: Back De Plotting Shed each way @ 13/2 (general)
Coral Cup/Martin Pipe:
Possibly the most heavily-subscribed handicaps at the Festival, and therefore takes a hell of a while to wade through, with a lot of the unexposed Irish contingent (particularly novices) pencilled in for both races, and often the County Hurdle as well. Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins are mob-handed, and these contests bear a total reappraisal at the declaration stage, when the wood may be discerned from the trees.
Max Dynamite is my idea of a likely County Hurdle type, but it seems connections are set on running him in the Coral Cup instead. It's easy enough to pick holes in Max Dynamite's hurdles form, and he's never been the most fluent of jumpers, as shown when beaten favourite in the Galway Hurdle.
The flip side of that, however is that his handicap rating of 141 is very lenient based on his flat ability, and he's run huge races to be placed in the Melbourne Cup and Hong Kong Vase on his last two starts on the level. I'm certain that he will be better suited by Cheltenham than Galway, and while he can't afford to miss one out here, he has the class to blow his rivals away if jumping accurately. If.
Gordon Elliott has won the Coral Cup twice in recent years, and has an embarrassment of riches in this department, particularly since inheriting a big share of the Gigginstown horses from Willie Mullins. He has nominated Ben Dundee as his best chance, and while I'd not argue against his chances (ran below form last time, but likely to bounce back, and will relish the return to a longer trip), the one I'm taken by is Sire du Berlais.
The French import has had just three starts over hurdles for his current yard, running well in listed company after an absence, and enjoying no luck when well backed at the Punchestown Festival next time.
He posted a career best when runner-up behind another of JP's at Fairyhouse last time, and that despite coming from an unpromising position on the home turn. On that evidence, three miles might suit better, but I think he'll find this trip perfect granted a stronger pace than he was given there, and although the UK Handicapper has not been lenient in raising him to 144 for that, it's the fact that he's completely unexposed which makes him of particular interest, and if he's given his chance, he will tumble in price. It's probably more likely that he will go to the Martin Pipe, but a NRNB wager for the Coral Cup appeals as better value at the odds.
One horse who has no other entries other than the Martin Pipe is Early Doors, who went into my notebook when second to Mengli Khan in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novices' Hurdle earlier in the season. He actually shaped a fair bit better than the bare form at Fairyhouse, pressing on a little too early and then making his only mistake at the second-last flight, but for which he'd have finished close to the winner.
He didn't reproduce that effort behind Samcro in the Deloitte, but that qualified him for a handicap mark for this, and the fact he's been put away rather than been found an easier option is encouraging. He had beaten Merie Devie and Delta Work in a Grade 3 on his previous outing, and a collateral form line suggests that his opening mark of 142 is lenient if he can shrug aside one poor run.
Ante-Post View: Back Early Doors to win the Martin Pipe @ 14/1 (NRNB)
Ante-Post View: Back Sire du Berlais to win the Coral Cup @ 16/1 (general – NRNB)
I had my eye on a very dark one for this, who I thought would have been ideally suited to the race, but alas, he wasn't entered, and the Irish challenge looks rather weak here, with nothing sailing under the radar with the possible exception of Veneer of Charm, who is better than he showed last time, but the Irish entries are closely tied together through collateral form lines.
My fancy, Randalls Ur Poet was third behind the well-fancied Mitchouka and Mastermind last time, and I would have fancied him to pass a few up the hill given his run style.
As it stands, Mitchouka is exposed and seemingly in the grip of the handicapper while Gordon Elliott has expressed doubts about how well he'll come up the hill. He's too skinny at 10/1, but it's not easy to provide a solid alternative.
The aforementioned Veneer of Charm could be overpriced as a second/third string, while Vision D'Ete is probably the hardest to weigh up, having won easily off a slow pace at Cork last time. Noel Meade's charge may be flattered by being well positioned there, but could equally be underestimated by time aficionados. He's unlikely to get in, but would be worthy of considerations if making the cut.
Ante-Post View: No Bet
The Pertemps is unique in being a handicap which runners must qualify for other than by dint of official ratings, with a series of qualifiers in which runners need to finish in the top six to meet the race criteria. Despite this, it's rare for the winner of this contest to have won a qualifier, with trainers less than keen to show their full hand. I'm not sure why this is, as many then have to win a race later in the season in order to get a mark high enough to qualify. Old habits die hard, I guess.
There are only six Irish entries, and three of those filled the frame in the Christmas qualifier at Leopardstown, with Mine Now beating A Great View and Glenloe. The first and second pulled clear, and are now 10lb and 9lb respectively above their marks, which is not excessive on balance, although Mine Now is a little more exposed than his rivals and was well placed there, so makes least appeal, even without considering his winning a qualifier as a negative. Both A Great View and Glenloe are of interest, and the last-named has been the subject of strong support already, having been laid out for this by Gordon Elliott.
Both race in the colours of J P McManus, who tends to go mob-handed into this contest, and has been known to win with apparently unfancied runners like Creon and Kadoun (both 50/1). Of the pair, I would nominate A Great View as better value, as he was again eyecatching in the race won by Total Recall at Leopardstown, and I still prefer to see my fancy in recent action, for all the trend to put horses away before the turn of the year is on the increase.
Delta Work is interesting, but has several other entries (I'd back him at big odds for the Albert Bartlett, fwiw), and Moyross is hard to fancy, but the remaining Irish runner, Sort It Out, is one to keep on side. He's lightly raced for his age, has returned to form after not taking to fences, and most importantly, he ran a lifetime best on his previous visit to the Festival, when finishing second in the County Hurdle in 2015. He hails from a yard which had been doing virtually nothing all winter, but Eddie Harty has shown he can produce them for this fixture, and when Sort It Out was an excellent third in a qualifier at Fairyhouse, Harty also saddle the winner, suggesting he's finding form at the right time.
AntePost View: Back Sort It Out each way @ 12/1 (BetVictor, Boyles)
Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate:
A race I enjoy, but the one in which may advice to bettors is to steer clear. The nature of the track and field size for handicap chases started in the chute at Cheltenham means that the race is often won and lost before the field has jumped two fences, and horses caught back in the field often end up unable to make ground through a bunched pack, especially if the race is reduced to a standing start. It's a little bit like a Formula 1 race in that regard.
The Irish won this last year with Road To Respect, who had tonnes in hand, but the race often falls to a big outsider, and I'm convinced that is because of the vagaries of the starting position/procedure. Tully East won the Novices' Handicap Chase at the meeting last year, and has been spotted by plenty of judges warming up ominously for another big Festival run.
He would make plenty of appeal in a smaller field, but given how rarely hold-up horses figure in this contest, he doesn't actually appeal that much as a bet. Remember that only one winner has started shorter than 12/1 this century and it becomes easier to avoid the market leaders. At bigger prices, I'd be interested in Attribution who should sneak in at the bottom of the handicap, and has the combination of sound jumping and a prominent-style of racing which suits this contest.
Henry de Bromhead's son of Alhaarth would appreciate better ground than he raced on last time, and is owned by Gigginstown House Stud. He'd be of interest on the day if rocking up, but only if the ground improved.
Ante-Post View: No Bet.
Fulke Walwyn/Kim Muir:
As mentioned in the Ultima write-up, the Kim Muir has always been a better medium for an Irish gamble than the other 3m handicap chase, largely because the Irish yards have historically had pick of the jockeys, although Gina Andrews rode shock 40/1 winner Domesday Book last year. I'd be surprised if this doesn't go for export again, and while there are plenty to consider, there is one absolute standout to my eye.
Mall Dini was my ante-post fancy for this a year ago, and I still feel he ought to have won, but he got caught out of his ground and could never reel in the leading group despite staying on dourly. Pat Kelly got it spot on with him in the 2016 Pertemps Final, and repeated that feat with Presenting Percy, so should be respected as having an exceptional eye for what it takes to win a Cheltenham Festival handicap. Some quiet runs this term have seen the handicapper allow him to run off last year's mark, and I don't doubt he's improved, with those efforts when held up in tactical races not designed to show him in a positive light.
Despite that, he still caught the eye when fourth to Presenting Percy at Fairyhouse in December, earning the Timeform comment "late headway, more to give, never nearer". Once again, he'll be coming from off the pace, but I don't think he'll be leaving things as late this time, and he can win granted a sound pace throughout.
Ante-Post View: Back Mall Dini to win @ 6/1 (general)
The number of horses entered for all three of the sub-three mile handicap hurdles at the meeting makes predicting the fields, and therefore the likely winners, very difficult, and that gets even more tough where Willie Mullins is concerned, with running plans always up in the air until the last minute. Max Dynamite, mentioned earlier, would appreciate the lesser test of jumping which the County presents over the Coral Cup. Firstly, there are several fewer hurdles over this trip, but just as significant is the long run from between the hurdles from the back straight, which allows sketchy jumpers to use their flat speed to get a position.
The worry, as with many of these, is that very soft ground would blunt his class, and he is undeniably at his best on a sound surface; that comment also applies to former Triumph Hurdle winner Ivanovich Gorbatov, who is very unconvincing indeed in the soft. If having a bet here, the advice would be to wait for declarations ideally, but if betting early then look for proven soft-ground performers towards the lower middle of the handicap.
Such horses have not really figured in the ante-post market for this, and could be overpriced, especially if the top of the handicap cuts up as it looks like it will.
Voix du Reve would probably have won the Fred Winter as a juvenile but for a last-flight fall, and he's run quite well on both starts this season after a long absence.
Both those runs have come over three miles, but it's clear that he does not stay that far, so he can be expected to show much more now dropped in trip. As with his trainer's other entries, he also has options in the Coral Cup and Martin Pipe. The market suggests this is the race he's least likely to win, but I think the prospect of him running here are not as remote as some would suggest, and he's worth an interest at 33/1 (NRNB).
Ante-Post View: Back Voix du Reve e/w @ 33/1 (NRNB)
The Grand Annual is a pretty hideous getting-out stakes, although the market hasn't been a bad guide in recent years. One of the more eye-opening stats of the week is that none of the last 14 winners of this contest had won over fences other than in non-graded maiden/novice company, and while the vast majority of winners had previous Festival experience, that does not include any previous winners over fences at Cheltenham's premier fixture.
Of those prominent in the market, Don't Touch It has been beaten over ninety lengths in three completed starts this season, and yet is vying for favouritism with another one who has beaten just two rivals in his last four starts!
Dandridge has run well in this before but is another who has been largely tailed off this term, and yet is near the head of the betting. Everyone seems to be expecting a filthy plot, in short, and they may get it, but second guessing Mseers McManus and Moore is not a profitable occupation, and I'm inclined to pass on that pair. Patricks Park needs a swathe of horses to come out if he's to get a run, but he's improving rapidly, and won a good trial for this, the Coral Sandyford Handicap Chase at Leopardstown last time by a comfortable margin.
He's only had one outing over fences since joining Willie Mullins after stints with Harry Kelly and Matt Sheppard, and while he is stepping up again here, he is expected to find the requisite progress to be competitive. His lack of experience at Cheltenham is another barrier to overcome, but he's in the right hands.
Powersbomb was a selection in this column a year ago when he ran in the novices' handicap on the Tuesday, finishing fourth having briefly looked the likeliest winner between the last two fences. He seemed not to stay then, and I wondered at the time if this might not have been a better option. Well, he's had an odd preparation for this, running five times on the flat in the summer, but not sighted since August, and not over fences since contesting the Grade 1 Ryanair Novice Chase at Punchestown in April.
He's now likely to make the cut for this, but his unusual preparation has me scratching my head, and the advice is to consider him if he's declared, but at no shorter than 25/1.