Just over 3 weeks until the start of the Cheltenham Festival, and you can smell the anticipation in the air among National Hunt fans. I haven’t done many Cheltenham clue blogs this season and I’m likely just to do one more blog post in the next couple of weeks with my thoughts on all races, but for now, we are going to have a go at pinpointing a few horses to follow in the Cheltenham handicaps for this season. We did one last season and it turned out fairly well with a couple of places and a winner. I hope you enjoy the read anyway and if we can have some success then that will be great, as we all know, it is hard to get a winner in those big field handicaps at the festival. Lets have a go anyway:
Hargam – Dropped 6lb since his dismal run in the Betfair hurdle on Saturday, he is currently rated 140 and I’m banking on this fella turning the tables round on his performances in his last 3 runs at the Festival. Bare in mind that Hargam was 3rd in a Triumph hurdle 2 seasons ago, and considering those 5 year olds always struggle in their second season over hurdles where they have to contend with over inflated marks and running in open company, he still ran well with a 3rd place in the International hurdle and Christmas hurdle and finished his season with a 10th place in the Champion Hurdle. Never up to the class of those Grade 1’s, he finally got his head infront this season at Kempton in a listed hurdle on his favoured good ground beating a couple of decent horses in Court Minstrel and Mister Miyagi. Dropped 2lb’s for that win, he has had to contend with top weight in 2 mile handicap hurdles that were the competitive Greatwood, Ladbroke and Betfair handicap hurdles. Considering his light frame and small demeanor, it was always going to be hard for him to contend with well handicapped horses off top weight. Dropped to 140, he has a serious chance of going well in the either the County Hurdle or possibly a step up in trip to the Coral Cup, although he really doesn’t strike me as a horse who is crying out for a step up in trip, the way he finishes off his races but with these flat horses, they probably do want a step up in trip in time and is bred to probably go further despite being flat bred. Don’t give up on this lad, who has bundles of ability but race conditions have prevented him from showing that in the past 2 seasons. Priced at 33/1 for both races with NRNB firms, worth a couple of quid.
Poker Play – Poker Play carries a very notable piece of form where he was only 1 length behind a very well regarded horse in Charli Parcs, who looks an exceptional animal based on his win at Kempton and his trainer Nicky Henderson’s words. That was in November 2016 and has since moved to David Pipe for 250k following his win 19 days later in France over hurdles. He was last seen making his debut at Kempton in the middle of January where he started at 1/3f to win a juvenile hurdle. He took a strong hold that day which didn’t help his chances at all and found zero off the bridle when asked on the run in. Now it’s notable to me that his keenness prevented any chance of him winning that day at the winner had his own way out in front (Fidux has since gone on to compete in a listed event finishing 4th) and a possible tilt at the Fred Winter may be on the cards for Poker Play where the fast pace and big field will help him settle, especially with that freshness from his Kempton outing taking a little bit of an edge out of him. Rated 133, which could look very tasty come the day and despite being entered in the Triumph and the Neptune, I’d be surprised to see the Pipe team not take advantage of that mark of 133 in the Fred Winter. 20/1 with Skybet who are NRNB looks fair and is one to take advantage of right now as you get your money back if he doesn’t run. It’s also worth noting that if Charli Parcs runs in the Supreme, and runs well, you’d look to get involved with this fella on the Wednesday.
Mall Dini – Quite an obvious one for a handicap, it’s hardly a big secret that he is expected to go well in whatever race he goes for considering his win in the Pertemps last season. Things haven’t gone to plan for him over fences yet, having failed to get his head infront in any of his novice chases so far, although he has finished in the first 3 in all of them. Given a mark of 143 in England, according to the newspaper the Irish Field, I’d say there is a big chance of him going for the Ultima Handicap Chase on the first day given that his trainer will not want anyone riding him except for Davy Russell, given his partnership with Mall Dini over hurdles. An ex point to point gelding, he has looked assured and comfortable over fences this season and I’d expect a big performance from him at the Festival on better ground in the Ultima, given all his form this season has been on soft or heavy ground. Currently 12/1 NRNB or 16/1 with William Hill free bet concession.
Southfield Royale – I originally requested odds for the Ultima Handicap Chase after his dismal run in the Skybet Chase at Doncaster a couple of weeks ago and was given 50/1 by William Hill at a NRNB/Free Bet concession, which I found very favourable and tempted me to have a small flutter on him. 4th in the National Hunt Chase at last years festival, which has turned out to be a race that has several form boosts since, he looks well weighted to have a good chance of winning a good handicap in the near future. Rated 147 on his appearance in the Skybet, he finished 12th of 14 that day and has been dropped 6lbs since. That should ensure he gets into the Ultima off a low weight (139 got a run last year) and possibly the Kim Muir as well although they would need to find a decent amateur for that one. Better going left handed and out of Presenting, you would expect him to improve for better ground, he found the 4 miles out of his reach last season and the step down to 3 miles with a good pace will help. Neil Mulholland has mentioned that he will be ridden more prominently in his next outing and I’m struggling to see an alternative race he could run in before Cheltenham and he looks a little big at 33/1 with William Hill for the Ultima (Free bet if he doesn’t run and best price 16/1 NRNB) or best price 16/1 for the Kim Muir NRNB. If he doesn’t go close at Cheltenham, wouldn’t give up on him as he had a setback early season which has given him a bad preparation for the Festival, and may improve for the run again.
Mister Miyagi – 6th in the Supreme Novices last season, Mister Miyagi brings a strong piece of form already to the table in the Coral Cup, which has been identified by his trainer already last weekend in his Coral blog. That Supreme has included graded winners and competitive handicap winners already this season and while he hasn’t got his head infront this season yet, he hasn’t enjoyed his conditions to date. Good ground is essential to this Zagreb bred gelding and while he has had those conditions in 2 of his races, he hasn’t enjoyed the fast pace as they’ve been depleted fields of just 4 and 5 runners. His last win came at the April meeting at Cheltenham where he won comfortably against a very easy field that day that included some solid horses and enjoyed the step up in trip to 2m4 on good Spring ground. Entered in the Champion Hurdle, he is likely to bypass that unless it turns up a very small field and run in the Coral Cup where he should enjoy his favoured conditions and runs off a rating of 149, dropped 2lbs since his last outing in horrible conditions in the International Hurdle in December. The Coral Cup has often favoured horses with a little bit of class and Diamond King won off a rating of 149 last season, and the race should suit Mister Miyagi who is a good traveller, has a fair turn of foot and is trained by a solid trainer who had a very decent festival last season and can get one there on the day. He is currently 25/1 NRNB with 3 firms and I’d suggest an investment right now.
Wotzizname – Big things were expected of this fella over fences this season over fences, but that hasn’t exactly worked out where he was only seen once at Aintree in November in a farce of a race (Fences on the run in taken out due to low sun). Not seen since, he ran in a Pertemps Qualifier at Musselburgh finishing 4th (Wasn’t run over fences as want to keep novice status for next season). That was a cracking run as he was heavily supported before the race into 7/2f and travelled well before match fitness creeping up on him. Given a rating of 141, he will definitely get into the Pertemps final in March and looks like he will enjoy the stamina test of this race on the stiff Old Course on the Thursday and looks well weighted to run a big race. An out and out stayer, it’s worth considering that Harry Fry mentioned he was a horse to follow this season and said ‘A horse we can all dream about’, so clearly rates this lad highly and while he may be more of a chaser, he has shown enough ability to run a race in the Pertemps and his form has some solid base to it when reading through from his p2p days and his novice hurdle win at Exeter. 25/1 NRNB with Bet365 is an interesting price, no doubt.
Two Taffs – Probably not a horse you’d be thinking of going well at Cheltenham based on his form this season but Two Taffs looks like a horse who is capable of running a big race in the Close Brothers Novice Handicap Chase this season. Rated 137, he looks guaranteed a run at Cheltenham if Skelton decides to send him for this race and they have the added bonus of having the master jockey Davy Russell on board, with his current association with Dai Walter horses. I recently took the 25/1 with William Hill for this fella before his last run in the Kingmaker at Warwick he finished a distant but not overly exerted 3rd that day. He hasn’t been lost in the betting however recently and is best priced 16/1 NRNB with those firms offering that, and that would be a tempting bet given you get your money back. Beaten in all 3 of his novice chases this season, he is a little complicated in that he needs to be delivered late and small fields with little or no pace not helping this Flemensfirth gelding, however he is assured to get a good pace and with the race being run on the Tuesday, it’s likely to be a little dead. A horse with plenty of ability, he finished a length behind Brain Power over hurdles and won a decent handicap at the Scottish Grand National meeting over 2m5 against some decent sorts and started favourite in the EBF final at Sandown last year, so a horse who has definite ability to be better then his rating of 137. His 2 lengths 2nd behind Poker School in a decent novice handicap chase at Kempton in December and the fact that those 2 miles at Warwick in bad ground will probably sharpen up his jumping, he could easily run a big race in March in a compressed handicap and the fact that he could have Russell on is a major positive too.
Romain De Senam – Paul Nicholls aimed Bouvreuil at the Close Brothers Novice Handicap Chase last season and came within a whisker of winning it before the classy Ballyalton chinned him by 1/2L on the run in. He could potentially have another smart one for the same race with the Fred Winter 2nd Romain De Senam this season, who has had 4 runs to date over fences this season where he has looked comfortable enough winning a walkover at Leicester at 1/20f while finishing 2nd to Top Notch and finishing a close 3rd at Newbury. Just like Two Taffs, he is another one who needs to be delivered late, as shown by his short head 2nd to Diego Du Charmil in the Fred Winter last year, and hasn’t had that this season. Entered in a 2 mile handicap chase at Doncaster 4 days after that novice chase win at Leicester last month, I get the feeling that was a plan by Paul Nicholls to sharpen up the jumping of this Saint Des Saints gelding for a tilt at this race, quite similar to last year when he sent Romain to Sandown in a 2 mile handicap hurdle to sharpen him up to good effect. It’s worth noting that Nicholls wrote in his stable tour early season that Romain was crying out for a step up in trip and has only been aimed at 2 mile chases this season. Unexposed at the trip and enjoys good ground, he isn’t entered in any novice chases and I expect him to run in this race and go in with a decent chance of filling the frame. Unfortunately he’s been cut by William Hill who went 20/1 today, and is best priced 16/1 NRNB with 365 and Paddy’s.
Its’afreebee – Was hoping for good things over fences for this Danroad gelding. 3rd in the Neptune behind Yorkhill and Yanworth last season after meeting traffic in running reads really well and he started his novice chasing campaign at a canter at Fakenham at odds of 3/10. Since then it’s been an indifferent season for him, winning at Wetherby beating Cole Harden whilst finishing well beaten on his other 3 chases including a woeful novice chase, despite carrying 2 penalties, at Southwell. I don’t want to give up on this gelding considering his hurdles form was very strong winning a Grade 2 and is currently rated 139 which gives him a couple of options in the Close Brothers, BA Plate, Ultima or even a possible step up to the Kim Muir given he is an ex p2p competitor. Able to handle any type of ground, his 3rd in the Neptune gives him right to improve off his current mark and is a horse who is capable of running a big race when ignored. Certainly one to keep in mind despite recent form, although his trainer has had a poor January in general with many runners not running their race and Its’afreebee has the experience over fences to run a big race in whatever he goes for at the Festival. Currently 16/1 best priced NRNB with 365 for the Close Brothers.
Bouvreuil – Fancied in both his races this season in the big middle distance handicaps at Cheltenham, Bouvreuil shaped the making a big challenge to win both the old Paddy Power Gold Cup and the December Gold Cup before being outstayed on the soft ground. It is envisaged he will get his conditions in March for a tilt at the Brown Advisory Plate off a mark of 145 on better ground and looks well handicapped to do just that. As discussed earlier, he was a good 2nd to Ballyalton in the Close Brothers at last years festival and looks the ideal progressive type to win a big handicap at Cheltenham. Looking at possible JP McManus owned horses for this race, they are a little thin on the ground (Not sure what is in Ireland mind) and that would be ideal as Nicholls would be able to secure the services of retained jockey and Cheltenham specialist Barry Geraghty. Aged only 6, he is sure to improve at some point in the handicap system and this looks ideal. Not seen since December may be a slight concern, but I can find no piece of news to say he has suffered an injury and Nicholls will have no problem getting this lad fit from a break and with good Spring ground, he looks ripe to run a big race off a decent rating.
Diamond King – Diamond King is a horse I love and was my money was involved with him last year in the Coral Cup. He absolutely oozed class in that race and won comfortably under a masterclass ride from the master Davy Russell off a rating of 149. Rated around the same this year (Entered at Cheltenham in January to see what rating he was given and was rated 150). Although he could go for the JLT in March, I do think he could excel in a fast paced handicap like he did last year at the festival and the Brown Advisory Plate would be right up his street as the option. He looked a natural in his first outing over fences at Punchestown in the early season and despite being well beaten in his next 2 outings in graded races in Ireland, he doesn’t really look the type to enjoy those small field graded chases and would relish the bigger fields with cover on better ground like the Plate would offer. One must give caution though as given his rating for what he has done over fences, he has been given no chances by the handicapper who seems to despise Gordon Elliott rated horses and his comfortable Coral Cup win off 149 hasn’t helped him. Taking that into consideration, he could end up being one of the top rated horses in the handicap in this race and you’d have to wonder whether connections would let him take his chance when he could possibly be ridden for place money in the JLT in a field that could cut up, so it would probably be wise to wait for the day before backing Diamond King, however saying that he is potentially a horse who will acquit himself well in high level handicap chases this season despite having only 3 runs over fences.
Rock the World & Mr Fiftyone – 2 Jessica Harrington horses catch my eye for the Grand Annual and Harrington has confirmed that both will take their chance in the big 2 mile handicap on the last day at the festival and look capable of running their race in both. In this cut throat race, you need horses who have experience of jumping at this pace and both have big field experience including Rock the World who was 3rd in this race last year. As we know, those 2 mile handicap chases, you can run them 10 times and get 10 different winners and it’s a race worth keeping horses who have shown ability to jump at speed throughout their career. Rock the World brings Grand Annual form to the table and is only 1lb higher then last season and with Dandridge carrying more weight then this season, he could turn the tables on him this time and horses who have ran in this race before have a good chance of running well again and this suits Rock the World who loves good ground and has even more experience then last season as he was technically still a novice last term, he is priced 20/1 NRNB which looks fair. Onto Mr Fiftyone, rated 144 on his last outing and been saved for the Grand Annual, going in fresh just like ROW, he came a good 4th on his first attempt at Prestbury Park in the race where Fox Norton hosed up and he should appreciate the good ground and looks progressive enough and is 20/1 NRNB with Paddy’s. Both are ones to keep onside and it may be worth taking 20’s about Rock the World right now before his price tumbles given his 3rd in this race last year.
Consul De Thaix – Rated 140, he could be an absolute shoe in for the County Hurdle if he runs. 2 very big performances behind Champion Hurdle contender Brain Power, he could possibly go the Supreme or Neptune but connections might be mad not to exploit his rating of 140 in the County Hurdle especially as those second season novices tend to struggle with the improving first season novices in those Cheltenham races. Expected to run in the Betfair hurdle last weekend, he unfortunately had some inflammation that required medication and had to miss his intended target. I’m hopeful that he will compete in the County Hurdle off his rating of 140 and could absolutely hose up in that race given his form and the fact he is progressive. Given his rate of improvement among others from that Triumph won by Ivanovich Gorbatov, you have to wonder why so many are improving and that Montjeu gelding is regressing although the fact that the juvenile division probably wasn’t that strong when they were put up into open company. Saying that, you’d still have to have Ivanovich Gorbatov in mind for any handicap he goes for although I’m sure he won’t be given much margin for error from the handicap with his English rating. 2 horses to keep in mind and I’d have to say Consul De Thaix given his solid running in both the Sandown and Ascot handicaps behind Brain Power would give him a great chance in the County, if that he’s intended target and he might be worth a go at 16/1 with William Hill, despite the risk, with their NRNB/Free bet concession. After all, this is Cheltenham!
Hopefully we can pinpoint some horses here who can go close in various handicaps and get a free bits of profit. Make sure you back what you fancy with the NRNB concession to ensure you get a run or money back. Good luck and see you in 4 weeks!