Donn McClean: Irish handicappers
With Ted Veale possibly handicapped out of the Grand Annual, Donn McClean nominates five other Irish handicappers to follow.
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Ted Veale was the first name on the original 'Irish handicappers' team sheet. He was this year's Alderwood: County Hurdle winner, sticking out a mile for the Grand Annual.
Not any more though. The difference between Ted Veale and Alderwood is that Alderwood won the County Hurdle off a mark of 139 in 2012, rounded off his novice season over hurdles by winning a Grade 2 race at Fairyhouse and a Grade 1 race at Punchestown, and returned to Cheltenham in 2013 to win the Grand Annual off a mark of 140, just 1lb higher than his County Hurdle mark.
Ted Veale won the County Hurdle last year off a mark of 134 (check), but he got beaten in the Grade 1 race at Punchestown that Alderwood won. This season, he has been beaten in the three chases that he has contested so far, and yet he has been allotted a mark of 146 for the Grand Annual, 12lb higher than his County Hurdle mark.
Trainer Tony Martin says that he may go for the Arkle now instead, yet he is still the 7/1 clear favourite for the Grand Annual. Tread warily.
Here are five other Irish handicappers who might be worth noting.
1. Seefood (Trainer: Dessie Hughes)
Seefood is interesting for the Pertemps Final. Dessie Hughes' horse was a decent staying novice hurdler last season. He beat Sizing Gold in a two-and-a-half-mile contest at Fairyhouse early in the season, and he wasn't at all disgraced behind Ubak at Aintree or behind Morning Assembly at Punchestown last spring.
It has taken him a little while to find his range this term but, fitted with a visor for the first time, he ran well to finish third behind Foildubh and Rubi Ball at Thurles in November, and he stepped up on that to put up what was probably a careeer-best effort in finishing second to Courage in the Pertemps Qualifier at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival.
He raced handily that day in a race in which it was an advantage to be held up. The early pace was strong, and the other six horses who, with Seefood, filled the first seven places were all ridden patiently.
The Irish handicapper raised him 5lb to a mark of 139 for that run, and the British handicapper has added another 4lb. That makes things tougher than they might have been, but he remains of interest. He is a progressive young staying hurdler who goes well on good ground and who is trained by the man who sent out Oulart to win the Pertemps Final in 2005.
2. Star Neuville (Enda Bolger)
Star Neuville put up a nice performance to finish third in a two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse on Saturday. That was his first run for 10 months, and he is entitled to come on for it with a view to taking his chance in the Cross-Country Chase.
Barry Connell's horse was a decent novice chaser last season. He has yet to win over fences, but he ran a cracker to finish a close-up third behind Sizing Australia and Zest For Life in the Irish Field Chase over Punchestown's banks the last time we saw him in April, on just his third run for Enda Bolger.
Bolger has trained four of the nine winners of the Cross-Country Chase and has sent out three runners-up and, while he has four entries at this stage, it would be surprising if Star Neuville did not make the final team. The East Of Heaven gelding is only eight - like the last two winners of the race - he still has scope to progress off a mark of 130 after just five runs in chases, and he jumps banks well.
3. Never Enough Time (Tom Foley)
Never Enough Time ran out a most impressive winner of the two-mile handicap hurdle at Leopardstown on Hennessy Gold Cup day, and there is every chance that there is more to come.
The Tom Foley-trained gelding has a really likeable progressive profile now. Winner of just won of his first eight races over hurdles, he has now won his last two. He was raised 14lb for an easy win at Gowran Park in January, but he made light of that at Leopardstown, travelling nicely for Ger Fox and showing a fine turn of foot from the final flight to catch and pass the well-fancied Blacklough, coming four lengths clear by the time he reached the winning line.
His new Irish mark of 140 is another 10lb higher than the mark off which he won on Hennessy day, but his British mark is just 1lb higher, which is fair. He is entered at Leopardstown on Sunday, but, owned by JP McManus, you have to think that Cheltenham will be high his agenda. He is in the Martin Pipe Hurdle and the County Hurdle, and he would be of interest if he lined up in either. Ger Fox would be a significant asset if he were to take his chance in the conditional riders' race.
4. Cause Of Causes (Gordon Elliott)
Cause Of Causes holds no fewer than seven entries at the Festival, and he will be of interest in whichever race he contests.
JP McManus' horse was a seriously progressive hurdler throughout last season, and he is a similarly progressive chaser this term. Raised 4lb for going down narrowly to Sraid Padraig over two miles at Fairyhouse in November, he proved that he stayed three miles when he went down by a short head to Rockyaboya in the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival off a mark of 133.
He was raised 7lb for that, but that still leaves him on a mark of just 140, which is still 2lb lower than the mark off which he won the Ladbroke Hurdle at Ascot 14 months ago as a novice hurdler, and 7lb lower than his current mark over hurdles.
There is no reason to presume that he will not be as good over fences as over hurdles, so he could be a well-handicapped horse over fences. Also, as a six-year-old who has raced just seven times over fences, he still has scope for progression. He hasn't run since Christmas, he should be fresher than most going to the Festival, and he proved with his run in the Greatwood Hurdle at last season's November meeting that he could handle Cheltenham's undulations well.
5. Sadler's Risk (Henry de Bromhead)
Sadler's Risk is an interesting addition to the ranks at Henry de Bromhead's.
He was not beaten far behind subsequent Irish Derby winner Treasure Beach in the Chester Vase during his first spell with Mark Johnston, and he finished second in the Adonis Hurdle as a juvenile hurdler when with Philip Hobbs. Returned to Johnston, he finished second in the Shergar Cup Challenge at Ascot last August, but had been disappointing in three runs since on the flat before he joined de Bromhead.
His run in the Pertemps Qualifier at Punchestown on his first run for his current trainer was much more encouraging, when he stayed on well to finish seventh behind Jetson. That was his first run since last October, his first over hurdles since Aintree last April, and his debut for a new yard. He is entitled to come on appreciably for it.
He is obviously in the Pertemps, but he is also in the Coral Cup, and he may be of more interest in the latter contest. A fast-run two and a half miles could be his optimum. He is fairly handicapped on a mark of 145 - he was rated 150 in his pomp - and it would not be surprising if his astute new trainer could eke out a little more improvement.
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