The Young Master spent a lot of last season as a well-handicapped horse, but he never truly looked like delivering on the handicapper’s leniency. This season, however, has been a different story, with the Neil Mulholland-trained stayer winning on his return at Chepstow in October, before following up at Cheltenham (amateur event, by eight lengths from Station Master) in November. He was pulled up in the Ladbrokes Trophy won by Sizing Tennessee at Newbury when last seen in December, but lost interest after being hampered there, and has been given plenty of time to get over that.
From a handicapping point of view, The Young Master is now 12 lb higher than for his Chepstow success, but that still leaves him 6 lb below his highest winning mark. While he may never match those 2016 heroics, he’s still only a 10-year-old, and he remains one to be interested in whichever race he runs in. He’s also got an entry in the Kim Muir (Thursday 5.30pm) where he finished sixth under his amateur-rider owner last year.
As a 12-year-old who handles soft ground well, Fergal O’Brien’s charge may seem more like the perfect candidate for the Midlands Grand National on the Saturday after Cheltenham, but the horse’s record at Cheltenham suggests that he would be no back number if running in the amateur riders’ race on the Thursday of the Festival.
Perfect Candidate was last seen finishing third at the track on New Year’s Day, where he produced his best performance of the season behind Beware The Bear and Shanroe Santos. The fifth has come out and won since, so the form looks solid enough. It was not only a welcome return to form for Perfect Candidate, but a reminder that he is very well handicapped on his best form, not least because of a further 3 lb drop in the weights.
He’s now got a BHA rating of 140 which is 12 lb below his mark when winning at the track in November 2017 and is fancied to improve upon his mid-field finish in this race back in 2016 if lining up.
Sternrubin has mixed chasing and hurdling to good effect this season, the Philip Hobbs-trained gelding adding to a maiden chase win at Exeter when scoring two starts later at Ludlow. However, his jumping of the bigger obstacles was less than foot-perfect back in Shropshire on his next start, so it was no great surprise to see him back over hurdles at Taunton last month.
He ran as well as ever when one and a half lengths second to Capitaine there, earning himself a 2 lb rise in the weights as a result, but that’s no bad thing on this occasion, as it guarantees him a place in the County Hurdle line-up. It also leaves him below his last winning perch, which came from a BHA mark of 142 in a listed handicap hurdle at Ascot back in late-2016. He’s only eight now, so there is plenty of time left on the clock, and he could go under the radar in one of Cheltenham’s most fiercely-contested handicaps.
Forest Bihan almost made the cut for this entry, but he’d make The Tin Man (the Wizard of Oz character, not the horse) look brave in a finish, and Top Gamble comes out with a better chance on Timeform’s weight-adjusted ratings, anyway. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a gamble putting up a horse who has fallen on each of his last two starts – including at Cheltenham – but those jumping frailties have only recently come to the fore, and it’s likely that he’s had some lessons at home to help that side of his game.
Top Gamble’s best effort last season came when four and three quarter lengths third to Le Prezien in this race from a BHA mark of 149, and he’s now 6 lb lower in his attempt to go two better. He’s likely to be refitted with cheekpieces/tongue strap here, and, having won from a higher mark in the past, is another to consider for what used to be the traditional finale to the meeting, but is now the second-last race.