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This is a race where the make-up of the winners has changed dramatically in the past few years. Novices never really had a look in pre-2010, but four of the past 10 winners have been first season chasers, so as with all the handicaps at Cheltenham Festival week an unexposed and lightly-raced staying chaser is the order of the day.
One For The Team remains on an upward curve following his distant third in the SkyBet Chase and better ground will almost certainly be in his favour as he weakened from the top of the stretch that day. Handed a 5lbs penalty for hacking up in a lesser race here in December, Happygolucky hails from arguably the stable of the season (Kim Bailey) and is the type of strong staying novice to consider very seriously despite his current price.
There hasn’t been an Irish trained winner since 2006, but if the novice Escaria Ten were to turn out here in preference to the National Hunt Chase he would have first class claims judged on his strong staying second to the well regarded Eklat De Rire in a Grade Three at Naas.
But in his absence another novice, REMASTERED, could be the call. He jumped brilliantly to make it three from three over fences at Ascot and has any amount of physical scope to take another step forward from his mark of 146. If there is any give in the Prestbury Park turf he could be tough to pass forcing the pace off his relatively light weight.
Of the more established chasers, last year’s Kim Muir winner Milan Native and the Grand National bound Ok Corral make the most appeal.
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Those horses at the very top and bottom of the weights have a good record in this 2m5f cavalry charge and with this event normally run at a solid pace, the complexion of the race can change completely up the final climb.
Nicky Henderson has captured the last two renewals of this massive betting heat and despite a 12lbs hike in the weights for his runaway seven length success from the smart Ecco at Kempton, MONTE CRISTO is a prime player from a rating of 145. The son of Montmartre also has an entry in the Martin Pipe, but this is a bigger prize and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Seven Barrows’ maestro were to send him here.
Grand Roi ran a cracking race behind Bachasson (winner since) in the Limestone Lad Hurdle last time out, but I suspect 149 may well be a tad too high for him and for my second selection against the field I am going to suggest relative outsider SAYO.
The Willie Mullins’ charge hasn’t always been the most fluent of jumpers, but better ground this time around would certainly help in that respect.
His run behind the progressive Flooring Porter at Navan in December hugely caught my eye. He raced in midfield that day on the outside of the pack so he could get a good view of his obstacles and only came under pressure with a sloppy jump at the third last. Thereafter, Paul Townend wasn’t overly hard on him and he is able to race off only a one pound higher mark of 143.
Nine of the last 10 winners have carried 11-5 or less and eight or nine-year-olds have landed the gold medal in this speed test in six of the last 10 years.
I was rather sweet on the claims of Eldorado Allen after he lost nothing in defeat behind Shishkin at Doncaster and it is worth remembering he is already a Grade Two novice winner at the track. However, the continued poor form of the Colin Tizzard yard is a massive worry. If he is supported on the day I may well have a saver on the seven-year-old.
With form figures at the track of 2F751, the much improved Sky Pirate certainly comes into the equation, but the market has well and truly found him, while recent Leopardstown winner A Wave Of The Sea could have a lovely racing weight and is ideally suited to coming off a helter skelter pace in a big field,
But this is a race which lends itself to finding the value with recent winners at 40/1, 20/1, 28/1 and 16/1 twice and I can see ZANZA running a huge race if he turns up on the day.
Following an impressive win at Newbury off 148 he looked set to follow up here in December before coming to grief at the third last when galloping all over his rivals.
The Phillip Hobbs’ runner will get the chance to run off the same mark of 145 and looks a solid each-way play as long as we don’t get extremes of ground.
Recent Wincanton winner PADDY’S POEM would be well suited to the way this race is run and would be my back up bet if turning out here in preference to the Paddy Power Plate.
With the qualification rules for this staying hurdle, any amount of entries have been hiding their true talent under a bushel more so than in any other Festival handicap.
As recently as Tuesday, I thought that Lynwood Gold was ridden to that effect in a qualifier at Punchestown when just sneaking into sixth spot, beaten some 10 lengths by Atlantic Shore off a mark of 130.
That was only his fifth run over timber and off a 4lbs higher mark it wouldn’t surprise me to see this Jessie Harrington charge become a major gamble. However, he will surely need to improve his hurdling dramatically to put his undoubted stamina to good play on the long run for home.
Imperial Alcazar has been at the head of the ante-post lists since flying home in a Warwick qualifier. An 8lbs penalty seems more than fair and he deserves his spot at the head of the market place.
Yet only two favourites have obliged in the past 10 years and with last year’s Martin Pipe fifth, The Bosses Oscar short enough, Champagne Platinum not sure to stay and Southfield Harvest (good warm up run at Newbury) in need of genuinely soft ground, I think we will get a massive run for our money with DALTON HIGHWAY, two places ahead of the aforementioned Lynwood Gold in that Punchestown contest.
In a race run at a stop-start gallop, the Dermot Weld charge was badly hampered at the third hurdle and then when making a menacing move was stopped in his tracks again when he clattered the third last obstacle.
Back on an even keel, the eight-year-old ran on strongly down the home run and finished a closing fourth, beaten five and a half lengths by race fit rivals and that run should have brought him nicely to the boil.
All ground comes alike to this son of Zoffany and where he to sneak in at the foot of the weights he could easily start at a much shorter price.
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