FESTIVAL FOCUS: THE HANDICAPS (The Weighing Room)

by The Final Flight Team

3/9/2016 5:11:49 PM


The Cheltenham Festival is notoriously competitive throughout, particularly in the handicap races. In this column I focus on six of the handicaps in which I have a strong opinion and advice that these are kept on side in their respective races during National Hunt season’s ‘Olympic Games’.

I hope you enjoy this column, my first for the new magazine ‘The Weighing Room’ and that it provides you with plenty of pointers to the upcoming Cheltenham Festival. 

Grant Copson, Author of ‘The Final Flight Jumps Guide’.

ULTIMA BUSINESS SOLUTIONS HANDICAP CHASE (GRADE 3) (Class 1) (5yo+) 3m1f

The first race that comes under the microscope is the Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase which is contested over three miles and one furlong on the opening day of the festival. Although I am not a firm believer of statistics, it is fair to say that novice chasers and second season chasers have a good record in this particular race and after basing my selections on form, I was pleased that both horses advised fit this trend too.

THOMAS BROWN is a horse that I have always held in high-regard and after a good season over hurdles in 2014/2015, he was switched to the larger obstacles at Ascot in November. He made a smooth transition to that sphere when running out an impressive nine length winner before returning to that venue where he bumped into the smart Paul Nicholls-trained Le Mercurey. He was back in the winning groove at Doncaster in January when tackling three miles for the first time over fences and his emphatic ten length victory over the useful Vintage Vinnie went a long way to booking his Cheltenham Festival ticket. At the time of writing, this gelding is declared to run at Kempton on Saturday 27th February and I hope that this race will be an ideal preparation for his assault on this fiercely competitive handicap event. I must stress that I do have a nagging doubt that his connections may opt for the RSA Novices’ Chase instead, but as I feel that this Harry Fry-trained 7-year-old will fall short at the highest level, I hope that they decide to let him continue his progress in handicap company. After achieving a rating of 142 over timber, I am certain that there is more to come from Thomas Brown and the 20/1 that is currently on offer represents excellent ante-post value.

With question marks surrounding the participation of the aforementioned Thomas Brown, I feel that the Paul Nicholls-trained SOUTHFIELD THEATRE is also worth a punt. He has plenty of positives including all-important course form over fences when second in last season’s RSA Novices’ Chase, he is an assured jumper and with this race looking like his only target, he is almost certain to take-up his engagement. The obvious negative with this 7-year-old son of King’s Theatre is his lack of current form after failing to beat a rival on either of his two starts this term. However, it is important to note that a number of Nicholls’ string have been below-par this season, but they have begun to fire in recent weeks and with a return to better ground this spring likely to suit, he looks overpriced at 33/1.       

CHAPS NOVICES' HANDICAP CHASE (LISTED RACE) (Class 1) (0-140, 5yo+) 2m4½f

This highly-competitive novices’ handicap chase over two miles and five furlongs is the concluding race on the opening day of the festival and this race is often a good pointer to some of the following season’s handicap chases, meaning that a number of the horses that contest this prove themselves to be well-handicapped. I have decided to focus on horses that feature near the top of the handicap and once again two horse take my fancy at this stage.

ALOOMOMO, trained by Warren Greatrex at his famous Uplands stables, strikes me as the ideal type for this race; young, progressive and relatively lightly raced. Since making his debut for Greatrex in March last year, this 6-year-old gelding has risen from an opening mark of 113 to an impressive 140. The highlight of his career to date was when bounding clear of a competitive field at Newbury’s Hennessy meeting in November and with this race in mind, there is no surprise that connections have refrained from running him over fences since. However, as he is still a novice over hurdles, he contested a hot novices’ hurdle in February and his third-placed finish behind the talented Yala Enki was a perfect pipe-opener. If I were to judge him solely on this performance then his mark of 140 looks a fair assessment of his ability (three lengths behind Yala Enki who is rated 142). Having said that, I feel that this scopey individual is a better chaser and with further improvement highly likely, I expect him to run a huge race if taking up his engagement in this particular race. 

The second horse who is worth consideration for this event is DOUBLE SHUFFLE. His trainer Tom George pitched this lightly-raced hurdler in at the deep end on his chasing debut at Cheltenham in October and his second behind the smart Art Mauresque was a good effort. He returned to Prestbury Park the following month and although he only managed to finish fourth of seven, he was far from disgraced, finishing eleven lengths behind RSA Novices’ Chase fancy More Of That. This 5-year-old gained much deserved compensation for his efforts with victory in a two and half mile novices’ handicap chase at Ludlow, beating subsequent winner Fourth Act by a narrow margin, with the runner-up in receipt of a significant nine pounds. Not sighted since, there is every chance that Double Shuffle has had this race as a spring target and off a mark of 138, he is guaranteed to get a run. This gelding is open to plenty of improvement in this sphere considering that he has only raced three times and the tasty 20/1 that is available is a tempting ante-post proposition.  

CORAL CUP (HANDICAP HURDLE) (GRADE 3) (Class 1) (4yo+) 2m5f

The Coral Cup, run on the second day of the festival over two miles and five furlongs, is one of my favourite races of the week and I think in the form of POLITOLOGUE, Paul Nicholls may have a star of the future on his hands. This 5-year old French import rates who as one of my strongest ante-post fancies as at this stage, appears to have an incredible amount of untapped potential. Since unfortunately unseating Sam Twiston-Davies on his British debut at Cheltenham, this son of Poligate then finished behind Barters Hill in the Grade 1 Challow Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury in December. He shed his maiden tag at Exeter in February in facile fashion and although he was fully-expected to land the odds on this occasion, he jumped particularly economically and the manner in which he sauntered away from his rivals to record a wide margin success was very easy on the eye. Nicholls and Twiston-Davies teamed up with the John Hales-owned Aux Ptits Soins to land this prestigious handicap hurdle last season and I think that this dashing grey gelding has what it takes to record back-to-back victories for his leading connections. He is a strong travelling individual who is certain to be full of running turning into the straight and the stiff finish will bring his stamina into play, when a number of his rivals will have already given maximum effort.

Two others to consider for this fiercely competitive affair are KILCREA VALE and SAINT CHARLES who look progressive young hurdlers on fair handicap marks but as Politologue is currently best priced as 14/1, I advise that he is a very good each-way bet.

PERTEMPS FINAL (A HANDICAP HURDLE) (LISTED RACE) (Class 1) (5yo+) 3m

After finishing third in last season’s Grade 1 Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree’s Grand National meeting, I thought that OUR KAEMPFER was capable of winning a decent prize over timber, particularly in the handicap hurdle sphere. He ran creditably to finish fourth on his seasonal reappearance in the Silver Trophy at Chepstow before posting a runner-up effort at Aintree over three miles on his next run. However, the most eye-catching performance was when he was brought down when travelling well in the ‘Fixed Brush’ Handicap Hurdle at Haydock in November and although it was too far out to confidently predict the outcome, he held every chance at the time of coming to grief. I feel that it is significant that Charlie Longsdon has protected this 6-year-olds handicap mark and he remains feasibly treated off a mark of 139. This son of Oscar is often held up in his races which is dangerous in big fields, but granted a clear run, I fully expect him to be delivered late to form a strong challenge. He needs to prove that he stays a stiff three miles but taking into account that he will be ridden to get the trip, I see this as a minor issue. Based on the form in the book and the potential that I feel he possesses, I find it difficult to envisage this gelding finishing out of the first four if taking up his engagement here and therefore he is a good each-way bet. It is important to note that this horse holds an entry in the Coral Cup and although I understand that the Pertemps Final is the target, he would warrant the ultimate respect in either race.

It appears that current ante-post favourites CUP FINAL and MISSED APPROACH have been campaigned with a crack at a big handicap very much in mind and both certainly have progressive looking profiles. However, with the step-up in trip bringing out more improvement on his first start for over a year at Musselburgh in February, I would side with the Jonjo O’Neill-trained Cup Final as an alternative to the selection, Our Kaempfer.     

VINCENT O'BRIEN COUNTY HANDICAP HURDLE GRADE 3 (Class 1) (5yo+) 2m1f

The County Hurdle over two miles and one furlong is often targeted by connections of novice hurdlers who are judged to be just below Grade 1 class at this stage of their career. Having said that, as it is often contested by a number of unexposed hurdlers, there is reason to suggest that this race can be used as a springboard to the Champion Hurdle, with Rooster Booster completing the double in 2002/2003.

Philip Hobbs trained the aforementioned Rooster Booster to success and his WAIT FOR ME looks to have an outstanding chance in this year’s renewal. After proving himself as a high-class bumper performer last season, this 6-year-old son of Saint Des Saints made his hurdling debut at Newbury in November, where after failing to fire in the jumping department, he was no match for impressive winner, Buveur D’Air. However, this race has worked out particularly well and he returned to this Berkshire venue to get off the mark over timber, beating subsequent winner Potters Legend by seven lengths. He then followed-up under a penalty at Kempton where his jumping was again suspect and after a workmanlike performance, the handicapper allotted him a mark of 139. Although his latest display was far from impressive, I expect that this gelding will show lots of improvement when he encounters better ground and the guaranteed strong gallop means that the County Hurdle is the ideal assignment. Wait For Me will need to become the first horse to win this particular race on handicap debut but records are there to be broken and the reward outweighs the risk at a current price of 16/1.

The Dan Skelton-trained SUPERB STORY ran a good race to finish second in the Grade 3 Greatwood Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham, only two lengths behind Champion Hurdle hope Old Guard. The majority of his form is on better ground so it is no surprise that he hasn’t been sighted since but the wet weather during the winter may be a blessing in disguise as he will run off his revised handicap mark of 138. On the evidence of his latest effort, this 5-year-old son of Duke Of Marmalade is a progressive type and similar to Wait For Me, he is one of the more intriguing contenders.       

MARTIN PIPE CONDITIONAL JOCKEYS' HANDICAP HURDLE (Class 2) (0-145, 4yo+) 2m4½f

Known as ‘the boys’ race, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle is a race that is often targeted by leading connections well in advance and has been a good pointer to future stars of the National Hunt game in recent years with winners including Sir Des Champs, Don Poli and Killultagh Vic.

With 158 entries for this year’s renewal, there is every chance that a new star is lurking and I consider the Gordon Elliott-trained duo of JETSTREAM JACK and TYCOON PRINCE as live contenders if they take-up their engagements here. Currently rated 134, it is touch and go whether Jetstream Jack will make the cut but this son of Beneficial ticks a lot of boxes for this race, most notably that he is a proven stayer (this race is often won by future staying prospects) but he has a progressive profile that is essential when attempting to win a race of this nature. A winner of three races over timber, this Dianna Whateley-owned gelding has been highly tried at times and has far from disgraced himself finishing behind some smart prospects including Up For Review in the Grade 2 Dorans Pride Novices’ Hurdle at Punchestown on his penultimate start. The fact that he finished thirteen lengths ahead of Nambour who subsequently ran a solid race last time out at Thurles further enhances my belief that this horse is well-handicapped and I expect that he will make his presence felt if he were to sneak in at the bottom of the weights. Tycoon Prince has always been held in extremely high-regard by his handler and announced himself as a bright prospect when winning all three starts in bumpers last season. However, after bolting up in his maiden hurdle, this son of Trans Island has disappointed on his two subsequent starts and finds himself only rated 136 at present. Assuming his handicap mark is not altered drastically when re-assessed by the British handicapper, I believe that this 6-year-old is fairly treated. Taking into account that Gigginstown often target this race with their novice hurdlers, it is possible that this race may have been the plan for a while.

Of the remainder, IBIS DU RHEU deserves a mention after some good performances in some competitive handicap hurdles this term and the fact that he is a half-brother to Saphir Du Rheu, there is every chance that there is more to come when he encounters a sounder surface. It is also a positive that when Paul Nicholls’ string were out of sorts this winter, this 5-year-old was running some very respectable races and taking that into account, he has scope for further progress in this sphere before switching to the larger obstacles in the autumn.