Brendan Duke: Here’s three Cheltenham handicap snips to have a cut at Paddy with

The weights for the handicaps were published on Wednesday and El Duke is hoping the early bird catches the Festival worm ...

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‘You should have a crack at the Cheltenham handicaps’. That was the suggestion from the PP News lads.

Perfectly sensible suggestion too. Weights day on Wednesday is one of the more interesting stops on the road to Cheltenham. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling it. An inability to back a winner, had sapped my confidence. The thought of wading through a series of tightly packed, uber competitive heats held little appeal even with the added insurance of Paddy’s non-runner, no-bet concession.

Just in the nick of time, one of my horses finally worked as hard as me. The light at the end of the tunnel appeared, appropriately enough at Ffos Las. The former open cast mine was a long way down my list of favourite racecourses. Any port in a storm though. After Tuesday’s heroics, I approach the festival handicaps with a renewed sense of optimism. Come to think of it, I got a haircut that morning. Perhaps I’m the anti Samson.

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It’s tempting to wait until the day to bet. These races invariably attract full fields, and fierce competition between bookmakers, means plenty of horses will be bigger prices on the morning of the race. Still, some horses will shorten. Hopefully, I have found a few of those. The other advantage of waiting is that we will know what the going is. I’m fairly confident that one way or another it will be good to soft.

Hopefully the 35 millimetres of rain will arrive. The ground will be glad of it, and it removes the need to water. It seems like a lot of rain, but it will fall over a week, on a quick draining, already parched track. Shouldn’t result in deep going.

The Tom Taaffe-trained Riders Onthe Storm looks well handicapped off a mark of 140. I had my eye on him for the Grand Annual on the final day. He might just have squeaked in at the foot of the weights in that race. Connections prefer the Close Brothers handicap on Tuesday. He will almost certainly get in to this race. He’s a very talented horse. His accurate jumping will be a big asset. The quicker tempo and big field should help too. He’s inclined to be quite keen. He settled a bit better when winning at Punchestown last time out.

It was interesting that he was only brought to the parade ring at the last moment. He didn’t even complete one lap of the ring, before heading to the start. They will probably do the same at Cheltenham. Whether that will be enough to keep a lid on him, remains to be seen. He won very easily at Punchestown, cruising to the front turning for home. That was probably soon enough, and he idled in front.

His stamina isn’t guaranteed, but it’s very easy to see him being the last horse off the bridle at Cheltenham. Paddy haven’t missed him in the market. He’s 10/1 third choice. I expect him to start favourite though. With the NRNB concession, now looks the time to back him.


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The Kim Muir on Wednesday throws up another attractive betting proposition. Jonjo O’Neill has had a lean time of it lately. He won’t be sending many to the Festival. Still, he has a fine record in handicaps at the meeting, and is unlikely to have forgotten how to play the game. He should be very pleased with a mark of 134 for Sky Pirate.

This horse looked like going very close, off the same mark, in a handicap at the course in November. Patrick Mullins had done a fine job of settling him, and was just about to pull the trigger, when the horse was brought down at the second last. Sky Pirate was given three months off after that mishap. His comeback was full of promise. He again settled quite well. He looked to blow up, before staying on at the end. It looked every inch a tune up for March.

The horse is only six, with few miles on the clock. The form of his Carlisle second, off a 3lb lower rating suggests he’s well handicapped. He was keen that day. He now seems more amenable to restraint. It’s probably too much to hope that Patrick Mullins takes the ride again. His father will probably have a runner.

Jonjo will know the value of a good amateur in this race. I expect him to engage one.

His mark is usually high enough to get in the race. If he does, I could see him going off quite a bit shorter than the current 14/1 available.


Finally, we turn to Friday’s County Hurdle. Last year’s winning trainer Dan Skelton, has a few entered. Ch’tibello should give him a very sporting chance of a repeat victory. A very smart horse, he ran in the Champion Hurdle last season. He wasn’t up to that level. However, his form that season made a mark of 154 look fully justified. He will run in the County off a mark of 146.

This looks lenient.

He struggled early in the season. His rating had fallen to 143, before a good second at Aintree suggested the fire still burns bright. Subsequent events proved that trying to give Midnight Shadow 2lbs was a near impossible task.

The handicapper could reasonably have seen fit to put him up by more than 3lbs. The horse subsequently had a wind op. It was probably a minor procedure, but can’t do any harm. He’s also entered in the Champion Hurdle. People are strange, but connections would surely prefer to run in a race they can win.

He’s possibly a better horse on soft ground, and may ideally want further these days. We can’t be definitive about ground preference though, and stamina is a big asset, over this trip, on the new course at Cheltenham. The current 16/1 looks a generous price.

It’s not hard to see him vying for favouritism on the day.

*Prices correct at time of publishing

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What do you think?