Donn McClean: Five handicappers
Leading Irish racing writer Donn McClean picks out five handicappers to follow closely at the Cheltenham Festival.
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Trainer: Tom Mullins
Alderwood has been given a rating of 140 by the British handicapper, which means that he just sneaks in under the ceiling for the Pulteney Land Investments Chase, and that has to be a realistic option for connections now. That said, he will also be a leading contender if he lines up in the Grand Annual, a race in which novices historically have done well.
JP McManus' horse suffered significant interference on rounding the home turn in the County Hurdle last year, yet he still stayed on really well up the hill, and appeared to win with more in hand than the three-parts-of-a-length winning margin. That notion was confirmed when he won a Grade Two novices' hurdle at Fairyhouse, and followed up by landing the Grade One Champion Novice Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival, ending the season on an Irish hurdles mark of 148.
The Tom Mullins-trained gelding hasn't been as good over fences this term as he was over hurdles, but he has progressed with each of his four runs, and his latest run to finish second behind Lastoftheleaders in the Dan Moore Chase at Fairyhouse was most encouraging. We know that he handles Cheltenham's undulations, the final hill and the pressure-cooker occasion, he should be better on the better ground, and it is probable that he has been trained all season with the objective of reaching his peak on the second week in March.
His chase mark of 140 gives him plenty of leeway relative to his hurdles mark of 148, and that would see him get into the Grand Annual on 10st 4lb if top weight Wishfull Thinking stands his ground, which would be perfect as it would mean that AP McCoy could take the ride if he so desired. JP McManus-owned horses have won two of the last eight renewals of the Grand Annual, and Alderwood could further enhance that record in the finale this year.
Horse: Buckers Bridge
Trainer: Henry de Bromhead
Like Alderwood, Buckers Bridge has also been given a rating of 140 by the British handicapper, which means that he is qualified for the Pulteney Land Investments Chase, and he would be a really interesting contender in that race if he were to take his chance.
Henry de Bromhead's horse is a potentially high-class individual. Winner of his point-to-point and his two bumpers, he skipped hurdles and went and won his beginners' chase at Punchestown on his chasing bow, perhaps a little fortuitously as he appeared to be losing the argument with Sword Of Destiny when that horse made a bad mistake at the final fence. Nevertheless, that was still a really good run, the pair of them finished miles clear of their field, and Sword Of Destiny was impressive in gaining compensation at Navan on his next run.
Buckers Bridge disappointed behind Arvika Ligeonniere in the Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse next time, but you can easily forgive him that. The ground was very soft at Fairyhouse that day, and the race probably came up quickly enough after he had run his lungs out against Sword Of Destiny. His ability and potential is much better judged on his most recent run at Navan, when he jumped well and travelled through the race before battling on tenaciously up the hill to just get the better of the talented Twinlight.
Even a literal reading of that form - Twinlight basks in a rating of 148, and Buckers Bridge was receiving just 6lb - makes a mark of 140 more than fair. More importantly, however, Buckers Bridge has raced just five times under Rules in his life and just three times over fences. He has significant scope for progression. Two and a half miles is probably his optimum trip, he relished the hill at Navan, which augurs well for Cheltenham, and he has always been held in high regard by his astute trainer. He is in the Jewson Chase as well, but the Pulteney Land Investments Chase is his only handicap entry.
Trainer: Gordon Elliott
Romanesco has four entries at the Festival, but it looks like the Kim Muir is his target, and that is the race in which he would be of greatest interest.
Winner of a novices' handicap hurdle at Perth last September on just his third run for Gordon Elliott, the Epistolaire gelding would surely have won the three-mile amateur riders' handicap chase at Cheltenham's October meeting this season had he not fallen at the final fence when he had just hit the front.
He gained compensation of sorts when easily landing a handicap chase at Fakenham on his next run, and he ran a cracker in the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival off a mark of 125 on ground that should have been too soft for him, staying on strongly from the rear to finish a clear second best behind leading Grand National hope Colbert Station.
You can easily ignore his two runs either side of the Paddy Power, as both were on unsuitably heavy ground, and he came home with a respiratory tract infection after finishing down the field in a novices' handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse on his latest start, his first in the Gigginstown House colours.
A mark of 131 is fair, and he should be much happier on the better ground that he should encounter at Cheltenham. We know that he handles the track, the near-three-and-a-quarter-mile trip will be ideal, and Nina Carberry has apparently been booked for the ride since before his run at Fairyhouse.
Horse: Abbey Lane
Trainer: Willie Mullins
A mark of 139 does not appear to be especially lenient for Abbey Lane, but he has the potential to be a fair bit better than that in time, and that makes him a leading contender in whichever handicap hurdle in which he ultimately runs at the Festival.
Just denied when well-fancied for a hurdle race at Fairyhouse in early January on his first run in almost two years and his debut for Willie Mullins, he stepped up markedly on that performance in the Boylesports Hurdle at Leopardstown two and a half weeks later off a mark of 124, travelling well and staying on best of all down the outside to run out an impressive winner.
Ground conditions will probably be at least a little different at Cheltenham to what they were at Leopardstown that day, but he did win twice over hurdles on fast ground at Perth in the summer of 2010, so all types of ground seem to come alike to him.
The County Hurdle is an option, but you have to think that, on goodish ground, the Coral Cup or the Martin Pipe Hurdle over two and a half miles would play more to his strengths. There is a €100,000 bonus for the Boylesports Hurdle winner if he can win any race at Cheltenham, so you can be sure that his trainer will have him well primed. A relatively lightly-raced eight-year-old, there could be a fair bit more to come.
Trainer: Tony Martin
Edeymi holds entries in both the Coral Cup and the Martin Pipe Hurdle, and he will be of interest in whichever race he contests off a mark of 139.
Runner-up behind Une Artiste in last year's Fred Winter Hurdle off a mark of 135, the Gigginstown House horse didn't really feature in two runs over hurdles behind Monksland and Prince De Beauchene respectively on unsuitably soft ground before the turn of the calendar year this term.
He won a maiden over a mile and a half on the flat at Dundalk, however, on his first run in 2013, bouncing off the Polytrack, and he ran a fairly eye-catching race when sixth of the 24 runners behind Tennis Cap in a competitive handicap hurdle at Leopardstown on Hennessy Gold Cup day off a mark of 132, staying on nicely from the rear all the way to the line. A British mark that is 7lb higher should be more than manageable.
He should improve again for the return to better ground, and we know that he handles Cheltenham and Cheltenham Festival conditions. Also, he shapes like a strong stayer over two miles and, a typically stoutly-bred individual from HH The Aga Khan's Studs from the family of Ascot Gold Cup winner Enzeli and French St Leger winner Ebadiyla, he should improve for the step up to two and a half miles.
* For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com.