Weighing up the Festival Handicap eye-catchers

The Cheltenham Festival handicap weights were announced yesterday. The Irish landed seven out of 10 last year, including all three on the final day of the meeting. I thought for today’s piece I’d take an early glance and try and pinpoint a few eye-catchers.

Singlefarmpayment came within a whisker of winning the Ultima Handicap Chase 12 months ago and runs off just a 3lb higher mark (145) this time. He was in the process of running a huge race in the Ladbroke Trophy when coming down three-out, and in his most recent outing again blundered badly before being pulled up in the Cotswold Chase. That had all the hallmarks of a warm-up run with this race in mind. He has a cracking record at Cheltenham, and if he cuts out the mistakes looks sure to go close.

The Irish haven’t got the best of records in this, but Gordon Elliott had a sensational Festival last year, and has numerous chasers primed for the trip. Monbeg Notorious and The Storyteller are a pair of novices that have been going well throughout the winter. The former has been allotted a mark of 152 having won three of his five chase starts. There’s no reason why a sounder surface shouldn’t be ideal, being a seven-year-old by Milan, out of a Presenting mare.

The Storyteller struggled in Grade One company last time, though was only seven-lengths behind Monalee at the finish. His pedigree (by Shantou out of a Bob Back mare) suggests he’ll appreciate a trip, and a mark of 147 looks interesting. He’s always looked a talented sort and there’s a chance that better ground may see a marked improvement in performance.

Coo Star Sivola has finished third and fourth on his two previous visits to the Festival. If he rocks-up here off a mark of 142 he’s sure to go close.

The Irish ended a lean spell in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, when Tully East landed the spoils last year. The upper handicap limit has been raised from 140 to 145 for this year’s race, with De Plotting Shed given 143 and installed as favourite. His first run over fences was a cracker back in October when he chased home Presenting Percy. That fella is now the RSA favourite off a mark of 157. Better ground, coupled with this intermediate trip, look ideal for this Gordon Elliott chaser.

Any Second Now is another Irish raider of interest. He gets in off the top mark of 145, having spent much of the winter trying to keep tabs on Footpad over an insufficient minimum trip. He did finish a creditable second to Invitation Only back in December when running over this distance, and I fancy he has more to give.

I’m also a fan of Mount Mews, who is yet to fulfil his huge potential. He’s a giant son of Presenting out of a Bob Back mare and was last seen struggling to land a blow on Black Corton in the Reynoldstown at Ascot. Better ground and this trip look ideal, but his mark of 140 leaves Ruth Jefferson sweating as to whether he’ll get in.

The Pertemps Final, like all the Festival handicaps, will prove hugely competitive. A pair that interest me are Calett Mad for Nigel Twiston-Davies and Sort It Out for Eddie Harty. The former reverted to hurdling this winter with a fair degree of success. He won at Cheltenham in October before disappointing behind On The Blind Side in November. He then had a wind-op before a return to the track at the end of January. Beaten some way in an Albert Bartlett trial, his sights appeared to have been lowered when impressing in a Pertemps qualifier at Musselburgh.

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In March 2015, Sort It Out finished second in the County Hurdle at the Festival. He was then stepped-up in trip to win at the Punchestown Festival, defeating some decent types in the process. He missed the 2016/17 season and returned over fences this winter, when campaigned at the minimum trip. Never sighted in four outings, he was suddenly switched to hurdles in February when making eye-catching late headway in a Pertemps qualifier at Punchestown. He’s been given a mark of 141, and though now an exposed looking nine-year-old, he’s the type of JP McManus contender that warrants close inspection. The bookies are taking no chances as he’s currently priced up at 16s or less. Nevertheless, that makes him a decent each-way proposition.

Tully East is expected to head for the Brown Advisory Chase on the Thursday of the meeting, and having won at the Festival last year, looks likely to be sent off favourite. He’s off a mark of 148, which is plenty high enough when comparing to Road To Respect (A Gold Cup contender) who won last year’s renewal off 145.

The Paul Nicholls-trained Le Prezien would interest me more if arriving here. He’s run several crackers at the track over the winter and has been dropped a couple of pounds to 150 following his defeat in December, when stumbling badly at a crucial point in the Caspian Caviar Chase. Nicholls also has Romain De Senam entered off a mark of 142. He’ll need decent ground and is not certain to make the cut.

Another of interest is Foxtail Hill for Nigel Twiston-Davies. He won at the track in October and having since battled through ground he hates, is now back on an attractive mark of 143.

Gordon Elliott’s Squouateur is currently priced up as favourite for the Kim Muir, though may well miss the cut. Mall Dini is again interesting, having finished a close fifth in this 12 months ago (on the same mark of 143). He won the Pertemps in 2016 and as a returning Festival winner he must be considered a serious contender.

Cogry remains on a fair handicap mark of 138 and could run well for Nigel Twiston-Davies. He beat Singlefarmpayment at the course back in October and clearly enjoys the stiff finish. He’s proven over further and is adaptable with regards to ground conditions.

I also feel the need to mention Road To Riches, who is entered here off a mark of 142. Twice placed at the Festival, he’s now an 11-year-old and clearly past his best. If he arrives here, and if he gets an interesting jockey booking, and if the ground runs decent, then he would become a tempting each-way punt. There’s a lot of ifs, but he’s worth looking out for.

The Irish love the County Hurdle, with Willie Mullins having a particularly good record. The Closutton master has nabbed four of the last eight and has this year’s favourite, Max Dynamite. The eight-year-old hasn’t been seen over obstacles since finishing down the field in the Galway Hurdle last August. He’s only won once over the birch in eight career starts and though this is Mullins were talking about, I find myself looking elsewhere.

Of more interest is the young novice Whiskey Sour, also trained by Mullins. He’s two from three over hurdles and was last seen finishing fourth to Samcro at Leopardstown. He’s not good enough to win a Supreme or a Ballymore, and a mark of 141 makes him an attractive prospect for this handicap. He comfortably accounted for the Galway Hurdle runner-up, Swamp Fox, last summer and will therefore likely appreciate better ground at Cheltenham.

I’d also be interested in the Paul Nicholls-trained Divin Bere and Nick Williams’ Flying Tiger. The pair fought out last year’s Fred Winter and look reasonably handicapped at 141 and 140. Ground looks key to the Nicholls runner, whilst Flying Tiger has performed well in all conditions over the winter.

Gigginstown have a strong record in the Martin Pipe. Gordon Elliott’s Champagne Classic won last year and in 2014 Don Poli landed the prize. Sir Des Champs also won for connections in 2011 and I fancy Hardline could run a huge race if taking up this option. His pedigree suggests he’ll cope with a step-up in trip despite having performed well over the minimum throughout the winter. He’s four from nine over hurdles and his mark of 140 looks tasty enough to me.

Finally, the Grand Annual appears to be a race target for Don’t Touch It, trained by Jess Harrington (won last years with Rock The World). He’s yet to spark this winter but is expected to improve plenty for better ground.
Vaniteux is also of interest, having seen his handicap drop from 158 to 151. He moved to David Pipe at the start of this campaign, and it’s likely that this race has always been on the radar. He needs decent ground to perform at his best. If he has conditions to suit, he should go close.

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