Cheltenham Festival 2023: Day Four Preview, Tips
We're onto Give Back Friday, which is bad news if you're already in negative equity. Traditionally the hardest of the four days, this year Day Four looks as fiendish as ever. Still, where there's light there's hope...
1.30 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)
Time was when the Triumph Hurdle, for four-year-old novices only, could throw up a shock or three. And, in 2019, the winner was returned 20/1 in spite of being unbeaten in one over hurdles and trained by Nicky Henderson; a year later, in 2020, the winner was 12/1 even though she was unbeaten in one over hurdles and trained by Willie Mullins. Go figure.
With the advent of the Fred Winter (Boodles) handicap for the same age group, Triumph fields tend to be a little thinner these days: the average field was 26 between 1997 and 2004, compared with 16 since 2005, the first year of Fred Boodles. In the past five years, the average field size has been just eleven runners. Yet this time, we have 15, in a few cases as a result of the Boodles over-subscribing and, therefore, the dreaded 'social runners'.
In recent seasons, only Henderson (twice) and Philip Hobbs have managed to repel the Irish raiders, and this season looks virtually certain to result in another 'away win'. That man Willie - Triumph winner in 2020 and 2022 - and before he was a 'thing' in 2002, with Scolardy, ridden by Charlie Swan - has the market in a half nelson this time, courtesy of his t'riffic triumvirate of Lossiemouth, Blood Destiny and Gala Marceau, along with four others!
Lossiemouth was considered the pick of the Closutton squad, even though she finished behind Gala Marceau in the key prep, the Spring Juvenile Hurdle. There, she endured a difficult transit and Gala scampered clear. There's no doubt Lossie was unlucky in second, and there's little doubt that the margin would have been narrower with a clear passage for her; but the market has them further apart than perhaps they ought to be. Gala Marceau was having her first run away from France when a seven length second to Lossiemouth the time before, and she would have narrowed that margin the last day regardless of clear or troubled trips in behind. She has more experience and could improve again.
Blood Destiny is harder to fathom, having not yet faced Graded company. He was second to Bo Zenith, whose limitations have since been exposed, in France before Willie sent him unbeaten in two. He won his maiden by five lengths in a field of 20 from Sir Allen (two from two since), and then sauntered 18 lengths clear of 131-rated Common Practice and subsequent Adonis Hurdle winner, Nusret.
Still Willie has more. Zenta won a Listed hurdle at Auteuil, jumping flawlessly, and was again brilliant - apart from annihilating the flights in the straight! - at Fairyhouse (Grade 3) last time. I wonder if the sun was in their eyes that day because those blemishes were out of character with everything else she'd done. Mullins suggested it might have been because she was in front, in which case she'll be ridden patiently in the Triumph. She has a similar profile to Burning Victory and is a big price in that context.
Milton Harris has enjoyed an incredible renaissance in the past two seasons, plenty of which is down to his inspired campaigning of juvenile hurdlers. The flag-bearer in that discipline this term is Scriptwriter, bought off the flat from Aidan O'Brien and a winner of his first two hurdle races. That double included the Grade 2 Prestbury Juvenile Hurdle here; but he's since run a close second to Comfort Zone - again at Cheltenham - and, more concerningly, was thumped in the Adonis. Perhaps that more speed-favouring hurdle track did for him, or maybe he was feeling the effects of some hard races; either way, he's now a precarious proposition in this company.
The rest don't look good enough, though Je Garde is a total unknown after a debut third at Auteuil. The winner has won her two starts since, and the runner up won next time, too, all in and around Paris, so the form - in French terms at least - stacks up.
Triumph Hurdle Pace Map
Not one to take too literally with the limited amount of form on the table; but it would be wrong-headed to think that (at least) one of the Willie's won't go to the front. It might be Blood Destiny, but not necessarily.
Triumph Hurdle Selection
This is a Willie cartel. It's not a question of whether he wins but with which of his many options he does so. Lossiemouth and Gala Marceau should be in close proximity to each other, while Zenta and especially Blood Destiny are unknowns at this level and could be better or, more probably, worse than the G1 proven pair. Lossiemouth is the most solid and probably ought to be favourite on track performances; but obviously the yard has a line on the perceived hierarchy.
Suggestion: Tricasts or trifectas with Lossiemouth/Gala Marceau, and Blood Destiny/Zenta, might be a way to get almost everything right about the race and still lose money!
2.10 County Hurdle (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m1f)
For such an open handicap, this race has been dominated by a handful of trainers in recent times. Paul Nicholls bagged four of them between 2004 and 2014, Dan Skelton - Nicholls' protégé - claimed three of his own between 2016 and 2019, and, of course, Willie Mullins has his fingerprints all over this trophy as well: six wins since 2010. That's 13 of the last 19 County Hurdles shared among them.
If we, sensibly, extend the sequence to 20 races to render it slightly less arbitrary, we will note that six of the remaining seven renewals were won by another Irish trainer. So, in the past two decades, the score reads W Mullins 6, rest of Ireland 6, P Nicholls 4, D Skelton 3, rest of UK 1. This is a handicap that has been contested by 24+ horses in all but one of those 20 years. Wow.
My shortlist is Sharjah, Hunters Yarn, Path d'Oroux and Pembroke.
Sharjah is top weight, and that's because he has been there, seen it, done it. He's in the Arctic Fire mould of Willie County winners, as a dual Grade 1 winner just 15 months ago. Though he might be a touch below that level now, he's still run close to State Man twice this season before a lovely trial for this at Gowran last time. He's going to cruise all over these through the race and then it's a question of whether either of age and/or weight tell in the closing stages. They might not.
Willie also saddles Hunters Yarn, a high class novice and winner of his last two hurdling starts, most recently a Listed novice at Navan. He bolted up there, in a small field, and was 13 lengths too good for two dozen rivals on his previous run; but this is a significant step up in class. The fact he's handled a big field is a plus and I have already backed him; I'd be less attracted by his current odds from a value perspective, however.
Lower down the field is the potentially very kindly weighted Path d'Oroux. This fellow won a bumper and a maiden hurdle, both in huge fields, before his sights were raised to Grade 1 novice company. He pulled up behind Supreme winner Marine Nationale on his first attempt, and was then fourth to Supreme runner up Facile Vega on his second G1 try, beaten far enough. An easy score in lesser grade since will have boosted confidence and he might be a 'lurker' for his shrewd trainer, Gavin Cromwell.
The best of the British could very well be the Dan Skelton-trained Pembroke, whose profile screams County Hurdle. A lightly raced novice having won his bumper this time last year, he was seventh to Grade 1-winning Tahmuras on seasonal bow. He then easily won a pair of novice hurdles, one in a big field, before running second in the Grade 2 novice on Trials day over two and a half miles. That will have been a perfect prep for this and, if anyone can from this side of the water, Dan can, with easily the best race record in the past decade.
Many more can win, natch, including Filey Bay, an Emmet Mullins-trained runner who has done everything he can to show the UK handicapper he's not as good as he actually is, while still winning twice and running second in the Betfair Hurdle last time. He also has a lovely racing weight but a commensurately skinny quote.
County Hurdle Pace Map
The Chris Gordon pair may be to the fore, as might something from the Mullins quartet; and so might a number of others. This is unlikely to be a pedestrian gallop.
County Hurdle Selection
The more I look at this, the more I think old boy Sharjah (8/1) still retains more than enough talent to overcome his weight allocation. He has no secrets from the handicapper, but sometimes the good ones just win, don't they? And I think 9/1 Pembroke is sure to run well, even allowing for the hard time UK novices have had against their Irish counterparts. He's with the right man, and has a featherweight to carry. I'll probably have a small bit of 16/1 Path d'Oroux as well. Keep the extra place concessions in mind again here.
Suggestion: Back a few each way with extra places, perhaps including some/all of the above trio.
2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)
The Spuds Race. Ten years ago, At Fishers Cross won at a starting price of 11/8. Since then, eight winners have returned a double figure SP, including 50/1 and 33/1 twice. Willie Mullins has had winners at 16/1 and, last year, 18/1 since 2017. It's that sort of a race.
There are lots of credible horses at the top of the market, notably another Emmet green and golder, Corbetts Cross (who did remarkably well to win over two miles last time), Hiddenvalley Lake and Favori de Champdou. Literally nobody will be shocked if one of those, or Three Card Brag or Embassy Gardens, wins. But that's not the way to play this race, is it?
We need to ask, and answer, the question, "why do so many big prices win the Spuds?"
My contention - and a lot of other peoples', also - is that it is to do with the juxtaposition of pace between the trial races and the Albert Bartlett itself. In plain English, five runner 2m6f Grade 2's do not translate well to 16-runner three mile Grade 1's. In the latter, they go faster and demand less class but more stamina and steel.
A quick look at some of those big priced winners reveals an identikit of sorts:
The Nice Guy was stepping up more than half a mile in trip after winning a huge field maiden
Vanillier was another big field maiden scorer before getting outpaced in an 8 runner race. Was wrong in G1 before Cheltenham
Minella Indo was 3rd in small field maiden and 2nd in a small field Grade 3 (3m) before relishing this stiffer test
Kilbricken Storm won at Cheltenham (3m) before getting outpaced/not handling heavy in G1 (2m5f)
Penhill had actually won a small field 3m G2 on his prior start and was just a big price on the day
Very Wood was stepping up to 3m for the first time having finished 3rd of 3 over 2m4f
Small field preps, up in trip seem to be the main clues. Let's see if that can be applied to anything at a bumper price this year...
Sandor Clegane fits the bill but is too short a price having run third in a G1 last time. I'm unashamedly swinging at the big odds here and obviously that probably means a losing bet; but the risk/reward ratio is in our favour based on the nature of the beast.
Gigginstown-owned and Gordon Elliott-trained is Search For Glory, keeping on in third behind subsequent G1 winner and Ballymore fourth Good Land over 2m4f; and then keeping on for a much closer third over 3m in a five-runner Grade 3 last time. He's very interesting for this assignment.
Affordale Fury is trained by Noel Meade, who saddled 33/1 Very Wood in 2014. A winner from the front in a 14-runner maiden (2m6f, soft), he then fell at the last when contesting in a 2m4f G3. Most recently he was outpaced all the way in the G1 Lawlor's of Naas (2m4f, soft) but made some minor headway. I'm not sure that's good enough even when looking through the big-priced prism.
Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Pace Map
Expect many fewer than the number which start to finish. There is plenty of pace on, and it will be the tough and hardy blokes over the classy but flimsy snowflakes - if you'll pardon the phrase - that prevail.
Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Selection
The horses I'm interested in are all far less credible winners on the evidence of the form book, so if you're following me you need to know they might bomb out completely. In that scenario, win only is the way to go (and we can cry together later when rounding out the minor podium positions!!) - and I'm going with Search For Glory and Sandor Clegane against the top of the market. This is a race where it feels like we'll have a bit of a chance with our windmill-tilting; at least, it often is that way.
Suggestion: Back something that has been getting outpaced in smaller fields and/or over shorter trips. 25/1 Search For Glory and 14/1 Sandor Clegane are my guesses against the field. Lots of more obvious horses, so this is a bet where I'm happy to wave goodbye to the tenner.
3.30 Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2 1/2f)
This is the big one, the Blue Riband. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the pinnacle of the sport and is always a fantastic spectacle, though winner-finding can be tricky.
This season, one horse towers above the rest in terms of his chance; that horse is Galopin Des Champs. Trained by, you guessed it, Willie Mullins, Galopin Des Champs won the 2021 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle and would have cruised home in the Turners Novices' Chase a year ago but for falling at the last. Since then, he's won three straight Grade 1's, a novice at Fairyhouse's Easter fixture and two opens this campaign, the John Durkan and the Irish Gold Cup.
The margin of victory in that trio of G1 was scores was 18L, 13L and 8L, and he appeared to answer the stamina question with his three mile win last time - partially, at least. The Gold Cup is, of course, three miles two and a half furlongs, and that's another quarter mile and more than he's gone to date. So will he stay? That's simply not an easy question to answer. His sire, Timos, has had no other runners in Britain or Ireland; himself a German-bred (by Sholokhov out of a Surumu mare), he raced in lower Group class on the level at ten to twelve furlongs. His dam, Manon Des Champs, was by a US-bred stallion, Marchand De Sable, who won a heavy ground ten furlong Group 1 as a two-year-old. Helpful? Not really, I know. Where I get to is that there must be at least some chance he won't stay in a truly-run Gold Cup, especially if the going is on the softer side. But if stamina holds, he is the clear form pick.
There are pro's and con's with all his main market rivals. Let's consider a few, starting with A Plus Tard. The pro's are that he won last year's Gold Cup and was second in the race a year prior; thus, we know he stays, we know he handles the track and we know he has the class to win the race. But the con is a big one: he has only been seen once since this day last year, when bombing out completely in the Betfair Chase, a race in which he'd pulverised his opposition twelve months earlier. Add to that the fact that he was due to run at Christmas - his trainer related to attheraces.com, "he got a bang that ruled him out of Christmas, so we said back in January that we’d go straight to the Gold Cup". You've got to take a lot on trust to side with A Plus Tard at this stage against something of a changing of the guard - some high class second and third season chasers.
One such second season chaser is Bravemansgame, winner of the King George in dominating fashion at Christmas. A look at the Paul Nicholls-trained star's form profile renders most of the names he's been called grossly unfair: as well as that G1 King George, he's won the G1 Challow Hurdle, the G1 Feltham/Kauto Star, and the G2 Charlie Hall. His sole Cheltenham run was at the 2021 Festival when he was third to Bob Olinger in the Ballymore. He tried to make all that day in a bigger field than he's typically faced, and was spent in the run to the line. This season, he's raced more patiently under Harry Cobden, and followed a gutsy win at Wetherby with a classy one at Kempton.
But is he a "flat track bully"? Yuk, it's such a horrible phrase - I apologise for using it; and I only do it to counter the barb. As you can see from the image below, in the 'Profile' section, he's only run on flat tracks over fences - that means he can't handle undulating tracks no more than a horse encountering different underfoot for the first time.
What it does mean is we don't know whether he'll handle it or not; but what we do know is that he has excellent form this season, stays pretty well, jumps well, has class and can be ridden wherever. Given his odds, that's a lot of positives on which to take a chance that he might not handle the track.
This time last year, Noble Yeats was finishing slightly better than midfield in the Ultima Handicap Chase, which is not a well known springboard to the Gold Cup! Of course, he followed that effort up with a dazzling 50/1 triumph in the Grand National. It didn't pan out first time this season at Auteuil but he then doubled up at Wexford (Listed) and Aintree (Grade 2) before running a fair third in the G2 Cotswold Chase in late January. That looked every inch a prep - think last season's Ultima - for his spring targets, which are this race and a defence of his National title. Noble Yeats obviously stays well and he handles any ground, too. It could reasonable be argued that his best form is on flat tracks, too, though.
Stattler was a staying-on second to Galopin Des Champs in the Irish Gold Cup and won the NH Chase at last year's Festival; so he is another second season chaser and has stamina in abundance. He has also demonstrated his aptitude for the track, albeit Old and New courses here are different tests; and he seems to handle most terrain. This season he was just pipped in a sprint (relative, it was heavy ground) finish over 2m6f before beating all bar GdC last time: his is a nicely progressive profile.
Running here rather than the Ryanair, where Conflated fell a year ago when likely booked for second, is a nod to the regard in which his trainer, Gordon Elliott, holds the horse. A look at his form implies this is the right race: a pair of three-mile Grade 1 wins at Leopardstown have been supported by a silver medal in the 3m1f G1 Aintree Bowl, and it's not impossible this longer trip will eke out a couple of pounds further improvement. If it does, he's another who figures on the premises.
Lucinda Russell trains the hugely popular second season chaser Ahoy Senor, second in last year's Brown Advisory Novices' Chase and winner of the G1 Mildmay Novices' Chase at Aintree. This campaign started on the back foot with a hard race in the Charlie Hall, the mark from which was probably left when he ran flat enough at Aintree and Kempton subsequently; but he got right back on track last time when beating Noble Yeats and Sounds Russian in the Cotswold Chase. The problem is that Sounds Russian, though progressive, is some way short of the ability required here; and, further, that Noble Yeats is expected to be a different proposition fitness-wise this time. All that said, Ahoy Senor does have a chance to control the pace and, if doing that easily, may be difficult to shake off in the finish.
One of the great under-rated horses of recent Cheltenham Festivals is Minella Indo. Winner of the 2019 Albert Bartlett (at 50/1!), he showed that was no fluke when running up to Champ in a memorable (for all the wrong reasons if you, like me, punted him) 2020 RSA Chase. Then, at the top table, he won the Gold Cup in 2021 from A Plus Tard, and got closest to that one last year - granted, that was no closer than 15 lengths. He's only had one run this season, a win, in the previously referenced New Year's Day Chase at Tramore. Trainer Henry de Bromhead is calling his quiet lead up "the best preparation he's ever had for Cheltenham" and, even aged 10, his Fez form of 1212 commands plenty of respect: he's been here and got the T-shirt, so to speak.
Two and a half lengths behind Minella Indo last year, and nearly twenty back from A Plus Tard, was Protektorat. On the face of it, he has a mountain to climb; but he was only seven then and one year more mature now - a good age for a Gold Cup challenger. He barrelled clear of the Betfair Chase field in November, scoring by eleven lengths, but was behind Ahoy Senor, Sounds Russian and Noble Yeats in the Cotswold Chase on his sole run since. He was sent off 5/4 favourite there, so presumably was fit enough; nevertheless, he's sure to come on for the run and is another on a very long list of place possibles and, on the Haydock run, not out of it for the win.
There are others with good form that doesn't quite match up to a Gold Cup. Royale Pagaille will again have his followers - all of them rain dancers - and he may again lollop into fourth or fifth; but he's unlikely to get the pace setup, though he may get the deep ground, he needs to outstay smarter oppo.
Cheltenham Gold Cup Pace Map
It might be that Ahoy Senor gets a free hit on the lead, which would be optimal for his legion supporters. There is a group of others who like to race handily and it's no more than evens that something from that cohort contests with the Senor.
Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection
A very tough race to weigh up. If you think Galopin Des Champs will definitely stay, there's your bet as he's looked a Rolls Royce for a couple of seasons. If you don't, or you want to bet something each way, it's trappier. You're asked to take a lot on trust with A Plus Tard, you have to assume Bravemansgame will handle Cheltenham's undulations, or you have to believe that the likes of Minella Indo and Royale Pagaille still retain sufficient verve to mix it with the kids.
Or you can just back Noble Yeats each way and see how close he gets.
Suggestion: Back 9/1 Noble Yeats each way with four or, preferably, five places.
4.10 Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2 1/2f)
The hunter chase gold cup (small 'g', small 'c') and always a good - if sometimes faintly bonkers - watch. As with the Gold Cup itself, the previous renewal is often the best form guide. Twelve months ago, it was heartbreak for David Christie and Winged Leader as his notable lead was whittled to nothing a stride from the line and Billaway pipped him. Billaway himself was certainly not winning out of turn, having been second in 2020 and 2021. Although he's eleven now, that's more a positive in a race where the last eight winners were all aged ten or eleven and where there have been three back-to-back winners since 2012.
After Cheltenham last year, Billaway won a thriller against another rising star from the Christie yard, Vaucelet, but, on debut this season, he was thrashed by yet another Christie inmate, Ferns Lock. Since then, Willie Mullins' star hunter has somewhat unconvincingly despatched a lesser field. Though he always brings his 'A game' to Cheltenham, he arrived in slightly better nick the previous twice, I feel. He tends to race on the lead and there might be a little more contention for that this season, which could add a further challenge to his defence.
Vaucelet is the chosen one of Christie's three and, aged eight, would be the youngest winner since Salsify in 2013 (who had also won aged seven a year earlier). Based on his form, youth won't stop him and, as a winner over three and half miles in the Stratford Champion Hunter Chase late last spring, he ought not to fail for stamina either. He's progressive where Billaway might be slightly on the downgrade, the fine margin between them at Punchestown a year ago perhaps not enough in the champ's favour now.
The British challenge - historically strong, as shown by four of the past six winners - is headed up by Chris Barber's Famous Clermont. Another eight-year-old, he's sent the likes of Shantou Flyer and Envious Editor packing this season, including when romping to victory in the Walrus Hunter Chase, a high class contest in the sector run in February. Famous Clermont made a few errors in the Intermediate Final at Cheltenham's April hunter chase meeting last year and was eventually pulled up (as the 6/5 favourite), and his continued propensity for a mistake is a niggle.
Paul Nicholls has won this four times since 2004, with Earthmover, Sleeping Night, and Pacha du Polder twice. Since PdP's last win, in 2018, Nicholls is 0/4, though Bob And Co failed to jump round as his sole representative in the past two seasons - at short prices both times. This year, the Ditcheat yard have Secret Investor as their main hope. Now eleven, all of his best form - both as a hunter and previously under Rules - was on decent ground, so the wet week in the run up may be a concern. Cat Tiger, for the same yard, handles softer terrain and, while seemingly a little out of form this term, he's been racing in Class 2 and 3 handicap chases under Rules. His 2nd of 23 in last year's Aintree Hunter Chase (2m6f) gives him a squeak if he stays this far.
Bob And Co is now with Harry Derham, Nicholls' former assistant and, if he can jump round, he'd be a place player even at the age of 12. But I don't like backing horses who fail to complete.
Meanwhile, former Gold Cup runner Chris's Dream has won two point to points recently and comes here in form. He has obvious back class but he didn't get home in the Gold Cup and has never won over this far. His last win of any description under Rules was more than three years ago.
One of the first questions in this race is often, "What's Jamie Codd riding?" Answer: The Storyteller. A former Festival winner on soft ground, his stamina for this longer shift is presumed rather than established; but we do know he handles the other conditions and represents the most robust of connections: Gordon Elliott still trains him.
Rocky's Howya is a bit of a 'wise guy' horse getting some love on the preview circuit. He's young - seven - and been bashing up his rivals in point to points to a fair level of form. But I feel he should be a bigger price: he's one for the guessers - which, in fairness, most of us are in this race, if not the other 27 at the Festival!
A couple to mention in the long grass are Dorking Cock, Mighty Stowaway and I K Brunel. Dorking Cock has form with Vaucelet that gives that one only a small edge over this bigger priced runner. It's possible - perhaps likely - that Vaucelet was under-cooked that day; and DC had previously been thumped by Billaway. Still, he stays and handles all ground. Mighty Stowaway was third last year and represents the top UK point yard of Alan Hill; he might just be regressing aged twelve now but he'll surely run better than his early season form. From the same yard and still on the ascendant in this sphere is I K Brunel. He was a 130-rated chaser last season for Olly Murphy and comfortably beat Not That Fuisse in a hunter chase last time. He probably wants quick ground.
Maybe the ground has come right for Shantou Flyer, a horse that loves it soft and stays very well. He's 13 now, which is probably too old, and he's ridden by Paul Nicholls' daughter, Olive, who will obviously have grown up around horses and be very well schooled.
Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase Pace Map
Pinch of salt pace map because we don't have point form so these are Rules races only.
Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase Selection
I hope Vaucelet wins, for connections of Winged Leader who was so cruelly denied on the line last year; but he's a short enough price. Billaway is an obvious horse to run close and is around 8/1 - he was the horse to pip the Leader last year, and has run 221 in this the past three years. In the longer grass, horses like The Storyteller and perhaps Shantou Flyer may still have enough gusto about them to hit the board.
Suggestion: Back 8/1 Billaway each way with extra places and you'll probably get close to the winner's enclosure and hopefully the payout window.
4.50 Mares' Chase (Grade 2, 2m 4 1/2f)
The Festival is pretty much over for me at this point, I have to concede. I have little interest in the Mares' Chase and know I'm not good enough to handicap the Martin Pipe. So let's keep it brief...
Allegorie de Vassy is a classy mare, winner of all four races - two hurdles and two chases - since moving from France to Willie in Ireland. Her two fencing scores were in Grade 2's, the same level as this, and she bolted up on both heavy and yielding so there are no grounds for concern, as it were. She has jumped right on occasion which, given this is a left-handed track, would mean she concedes a few lengths at her obstacles potentially: that, clearly, is undesirable for all that she may have a few lengths in hand of the rest.
The obvious danger is Impervious, herself a winner of three straight, including in G2 and G3 the last twice. She handles soft very well and had the beating of Grand Annual runner up (should have won) Dinoblue by three lengths two back. She's tough and seems to stay well.
Jeremys Flame is tough and consistent, graduating this season from handicaps to win a Listed race at Huntingdon last time. She's nine though, a veteran of 29 races, and her form is not as compelling as the other pair. She just about fits on the pick of her ratings, however.
Magic Daze has to prove she staze - sorry, stays; and the rest, most notably last year's winner Elimay, need to revert to the pick of their back class to feature. Zambella does look like getting her optimal soft turf and 2m4f trip
Mares' Chase Pace Map
A good bit of pace on, which will test jumping. Allegorie de Vassy, Magic Daze and Zambella are expected to be front rank.
Mares' Chase Selection
This looks between the top two in the betting but they're not that far clear on ratings. What they do have is more scope than most of their rivals, and I think Impervious looks slightly better suited to the task, particularly with no reservations about her jumping (please don't let me have jinxed her jumping).
Suggestion: Back 5/2 Impervious to win, or retire to the bar and watch.
5.30 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 4 1/2f)
To the lucky last. Erm. We're probably looking for a potential Grade 1 horse of the future. The alumni for this final race includes Sir Des Champs, Don Poli, Killultagh Vic, Galopin Des Champs and Banbridge. All those mentioned were Irish-trained, too. So that will be my starting point.
The top three in the betting are all defensively short at time of writing: around 5/1 each. They are Spanish Harlem, Imagine, and Cool Survivor.
Spanish Harlem cost €360,000 at the Arqana sale last summer, and he'll pocket... checks notes... £39,000 if he comes out on top here. More to the point, if he does win, he's probably smart enough to be contesting for bigger purses in the not too distant future. He's gone to Willie's and, though a hurdle winner in France already, has yet to add to that tally in three races since the stable switch. Of course that might very well be by design and, in any case, he's been running in small fields where his French victoire was against 16 rivals.
Gordon has the other two at the top, Imagine another to pepper the places without winning in recent efforts. He steps up from two miles to this two and a half, and was still entered in the three mile Albert Bartlett until 48 hour decs: clearly connections have few reservations about his stamina. He's been second in a Grade 3 and a Listed race since November and this will have been the plan.
Cool Survivor is also a Gordie runner and he, too, was in the Spuds before routing here. He finished fourth in a 2m6f G1 at the DRF last time and, prior to that, had won and been second (G3) over three miles. This step back in trip is a small niggle for a horse who, while doubtlessly having a splash of class, seems to stay very well.
At bigger prices, Firm Footings is in the same ownership and trainership (sic) as Imagine; he's had plenty of practice in defeat and steps up in grade for handicap debut with, like many others, the handibrake presumed off now. And Haxo is another Willie possible. Like all those previously mentioned, he's making his handicap bow after a couple of mark-securing efforts. His sixty length sixth in last year's Ballymore doesn't read as promisingly as some of the other form lines but he could still run well.
If there is to be a British winner, it's most likely to be from the barn of either Dan Skelton or Paul Nicholls. Skelton saddles two, Molly Olly's Wishes and West To The Bridge, but both are hooj prices and not remotely obvious winners even allowing for Dan being the UK Man in this setup. Dr Ditcheat has a credible contender in Irish Hill, a highly progressive handicapper that has won his last three, including most recently in a good Class 2 at Ascot. His problem is that we know pretty much what he is: he could improve three or four pounds but the winner here is probably going to find eight to ten pounds on its published rating.
Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map
Plenty of pace on, as you'd expect for a big field handicap hurdle at Cheltenham; perhaps more so because it's a conditional jockeys' race.
Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Selection
I obviously don't know. The market has been a fair guide to the Martin Pipe winner, with seven of the last nine sent off 12/1 or shorter (and one other at 14/1). I'd rather have a small interest in the top of the market than set fire to money lower down the lists; and I'll be a bit left and right by this point anyway - Friday is Brown Bear hostelry day!
I'm not trying to be too clever here, and I've had a quid each on 9/2 Spanish Harlem and 5/1 Imagine, win only. I told you I wasn't trying to be clever.
Suggestion: Back Spanish Harlem and/or Imagine, win only. Or bet something else. It's your life, after all 😉
And so, the end of a testing but glorious four days is in sight. Win or lose, it's a pleasure to fritter so many hours in the form book, and to share my cogitations with you: it's normally the case that I get many more points for the 'working out' than for scribbling down the correct answer. But, for weirdos like me (and maybe like you, too), the joy is almost all in the working out; in the puzzle. All the same, it obviously helps when we land on a fat one or two.