Matt Brocklebank picks out four of his Cheltenham Festival handicap fancies including a 33/1 chance in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle.
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In for a penny...
The NRNB funds may not yet have cleared, but having put MISTER WHITAKER up for the Ryanair Chase at 33/1, it would seem folly to desert him now we can back him at 12/1 for his confirmed target - the Ultima Handicap Chase on the opening day of the Festival.
Without wanting to go over old ground, last year's Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase hero has been kept relatively fresh for another big spring campaign and Grade One plans were being hatched after he readily accounted for Happy Diva and Cyrname in Carlisle's Colin Parker Memorial Chase at the start of the campaign.
Things haven't quite worked out for Mick Channon's seven-year-old in two subsequent starts but he wasn't ideally positioned in the BetVictor Gold Cup (when sent off 6/1 favourite) prior to being among those totally blown away by a seemingly transformed Cyrname in a 2m5f handicap at Ascot on January 19.
Being put in his place (fourth) by the subsequent Grade One Ascot Chase winner and highest-rated horse in training clearly wasn't a disgraceful effort in hindsight and it's one which has sparked connections into action to try three miles for the first time at the Festival.
In brief, the new trip promises to bring about further improvement in Mister Whitaker. He's a half-brother to several bumper, hurdle and chase winners and they include Broadway Buffalo, who was second to Cause Of Causes in the 2015 National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham.
From a handicapping perspective, he's a full stone higher in the weights than for last year's triumph but he's been eased 1lb following two perfectly creditable runs in top handicaps this season and there's still a strong suspicion he remains a Graded performer in the making.
Others of significant interest here are novices Le Breuil and Crucial Role.
The latter beat Now McGinty by nine lengths in a really warm race at Uttoxeter on December 11 and consigned a low-key Haydock effort to the past when getting back in the groove at the Staffordshire venue last time.
The penalty he picks up for that win should get him into the Ultima and Dan Skelton's charge looks underestimated if you're able to grab any of the 25/1 (NRNB).
You've got to go back to Dun Doire for the last Irish-trained winner of this opening-day contest and it's apparently just not a race that the top Irish yards target.
That could obviously change this year with Gordon Elliott entering eight or nine who could potentially make the final cut including Punchestown Grand National Trial winner Dounikos, who was all at sea on the bad ground in last year's RSA Chase.
He's back in top shape and might not be handicapped out of things from a mark of 154.
Speaker claims loud and clear
The Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase is another Festival handicap which has predominantly been bossed by the home team, in its relatively short existence, but Tully East struck for the Irish two years ago and SPEAKER CONNOLLY could follow suit for the same connections.
Trained by Alan Fleming and owned by Barry Connell, Speaker Connolly has had a couple more goes over fences than Tully East had heading into the race but that doesn't look a bad thing at all as his jumping has clearly been a bit of an issue.
That's far from ideal when it comes to a Cheltenham Festival bid but the six-year-old put it all together to win well from Poker Party at Leopardstown over Christmas.
That came from a lowly mark of 119 but his subsequent effort at the Dublin Racing Festival was an important run to get more match practice in before the big day and he shaped very much like a horse with considerably more to offer.
He got in tight to a couple of fences again but was staying on in good style after the last under Donagh Meyler, who was riding him for the first time in place of conditional jockey Liam Gilligan.
Meyler, who rode out his claim at the start of last season before winning the 2018 Martin Pipe on Blow By Blow, looked to be getting to grips with the horse late on and it will be very interesting to see if he keeps the ride at Cheltenham.
Speaker Connolly is also entered in the Ultima, National Hunt Chase, JLT Novices' Chase, Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate and the Kim Muir - be sure to seek out the NRNB firms, a couple of which go 20/1.
Tower Bridge has shortened in the betting quite considerably since being allotted a BHA mark of 141 and last year's Albert Bartlett fifth could take another leap forward having shown improved form over fences when a staying-on, albeit distant, second to Duc Des Genievres at Gowran last month.
A Plus Tard beat the same horse at Naas in December and, having been second to Winter Escape in Grade Three company at Punchestown since, could be let in lightly here from a perch of 144.
It's obviously going to be a very tightly-knit handicap come final declarations and top weight Highway One O One might just be underestimated under top weight for Chris Gordon.
He's been given plenty of experience over fences and even tackled the Grade One Henry VII Novices' Chase at Sandown in December but he was a good second to JLT-bound Kildisart - conceding him 2lb in the process - at Cheltenham on Trials Day and a 2lb rise for that doesn't seem excessive.
Chris Gordon's charge is 16/1 in places and it's not hard to envisage him being a bit shorter on the day.
Cuneo can claim Pertemps prize
Last year's Martin Pipe fourth Sire Du Berlais has been given a brilliant Pertemps campaign by Gordon Elliott and JP McManus, having just the two spins in public and running on nicely into sixth (the final qualifying position) in the race won by CUNEO at Leopardstown over Christmas.
The British assessor hasn't been too unkind in nudging him up 3lb from his Irish mark of 142 to 145 and if you've snapped up the big prices early doors then you're obviously in a very strong position.
However, there's precisely zero value left in his odds at this stage and the more you watch back the replay of that qualifier the more it's hard not to be impressed with the attitude of the winner.
Cuneo has seemingly never been a flashy type - he took four goes to get off the mark - but Henry De Bromhead doesn't have too many winners on the bumper scene so it's clearly a mark of the animal that he was able to land one at Tramore last April.
This season, switched to hurdles, has been a story of rapid progression and he battled really bravely to get off the mark over timber when edging out Walk To Freedom and Theristocles, with Satoshi, Rock De Baune and Sire Du Berlais in behind.
Walk To Freedom has been a major mover in the Pertemps betting and is generally 12/1 (14/1 in a place) but the improving Cuneo is only 2lb worse off for a half-length victory over Jessica Harrington's horse and backing him to confirm superiority at 16/1 makes plenty of appeal.
Cuneo's subsequent fifth to leading Martin Pipe hope Dallas Des Pictons was definitely another step in the right direction and De Bromhead is on record stating the ground was far too quick for his runner that day.
A strongly-run three miles around Cheltenham promises to suit Cuneo, who has a lot more to offer as a stayer after just eight career starts and six in total over hurdles.
Defi may be the one for Elliott
Gordon Elliott is bound to be mob-handed as he goes for a third straight success in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle.
Elliott speaks openly about how much he loves to win the race in honour of his former mentor and the last two winners have been for Gigginstown House Stud, whose Dallas Des Pictons dominates the market already after he followed up his Punchestown maiden win in a handicap at Leopardstown's big meeting last month.
The French import is seemingly going places fast and could be ahead of the curve and in line for Grade Ones later in the campaign.
However, one of his stablemates has already been tried at that level and although DEFI BLEU didn't come up to scratch when down the field on lively ground behind Commander Of Fleet at Leopardstown, it's possibly worth putting a line through that form as Elliott admits he shouldn't have run him in hindsight.
If judging the expensive son of ill-fated sire Saddler Maker on his previous Grade Two second to Derrinross at Limerick, Defi Bleu suddenly becomes very interesting from what looks a perfectly workable mark (139).
Derrinross hasn't raced since the Sky Sports Racing Launching January 1st Novice Hurdle but he's reportedly heading for the Albert Bartlett (16/1 chance for that Grade One), while the Limerick fourth Cap York has come out to frank the form with a Punchestown victory off 132.
That career-best effort from Defi Bleu came over three miles but stamina is a must when it comes to the Martin Pipe, with the last five winners all going on to win races over three miles-plus, and it's that element of his profile which tempts me into the 33/1 (William Hill) without the NRNB concession.
It's a relatively risky play but the Coral Cup is the horse's other realistic Cheltenham target (also entered in Ballymore and Albert Bartlett) and he just doesn't look like he'd be suited by a race of that nature on the Old Course, where experience and track craft are equally as important as raw ability.
The best handicapped horses generally come to the fore in the Martin Pipe, which is run on the far more galloping New Course, as they have time and space sort themselves out on the long run to the last flight.
In this instance, I'm willing to sacrifice the possibility of him not running here for the significantly bigger, standout price, but the 20/1 NRNB is there for those wanting a safety net.
Elsewhere, Capitaine might end up here if he misses the cut for the County Hurdle and he's still well treated off a 9lb lower mark than his current chase rating. The wind op worked the trick with him at Taunton and he's got Cheltenham form in the book, but the step up to an extended two miles, four furlongs isn't guaranteed to suit.
Antepost Angle - 2018/19 National Hunt season record
- Ultima Handicap Chase (04/03/19) - 1pt win Mister Whitaker at 12/1 (Betfair)
- Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase (04/03/19) - 1pt win Speaker Connelly at 20/1 (NRNB, General)
- Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle (04/03/19) - 1pt win Cuneo at 16/1 (NRNB, General)
- Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (04/03/19) - 1pt win Defi Bleu at 33/1 (William Hill)
- OLBG Mares Hurdle (28/02/19) - 1pt e.w. Roksana at 11/1 (William Hill, Marathon Bet)
- Tattersalls Mares' Novices' Hurdle (28/02/19) - 1pt win Salsaretta at 20/1 (NRNB Betfair, Paddy Power)
- JCB Triumph Hurdle (18/02/19) - 1pt win Carlo Biraghi at 16/1 (General)
- National Hunt Chase (18/02/19) - 1pt win Mister Malarky at 16/1 (General)
- Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (04/02/19) – 1pt win Itchy Feet at 33/1 (General)
- Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (04/02/19) – 1pt win City Island at 20/1 (General)
- Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (04/02/19) – 1pt win Kateson at 33/1 (bet365)
- Arkle Chase (28/01/19) - 2pts win Cilaos Emery at 8/1 (General)
- JLT Novices' Chase (28/01/18) - 1pt win Hardline at 16/1 (General)
- Stayers' Hurdle (12/01/19) - 1pt win Darasso at 33/1 (William Hill, Unibet)
- Champion Hurdle (12/01/19) - 1pt e.w. Vision Des Flos at 100/1 (William Hill, Betfair)
- RSA Chase (07/01/19) - 1pt win Vinndication at 16/1 (General)
- Cheltenham Gold Cup (14/01/19) - 1pt win Sizing John at 20/1 (General)
- Ryanair Chase (14/01/19) - 1pt win Sizing John at 12/1 (NRNB, General), 1pt win Mister Whitaker at 33/1 (NRNB, General)
- King George VI Chase (27/11/18) - 1pt win Politologue at 9/1
- Ladbrokes Trophy (13/11/18) - 1pt win Sizing Tennessee at 33/1 (WON)
- BetVictor Gold Cup (04/11/18) - 2pts win Baron Alco at 12/1 (WON)
- Unibet Greatwood Hurdle (04/11/18) - 1pt win Hunters Call at 16/1 & 1pt win Off You Go at 12/1 (BOTH NOT DECLARED)
Antepost Angle: Cheltenham Festival schedule
- Monday January 7 - RSA Chase
- Monday January 14 - Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup & Ryanair Chase
- Monday January 21 - Unibet Champion Hurdle & Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle
- Monday January 28 - Racing Post Arkle & JLT Novices' Chase
- Monday February 4 - Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Ballymore Novices' Hurdle & Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle
- Monday February 11 - No preview this week...
- Monday February 18 - National Hunt Chase & JCB Triumph Hurdle
- Thursday February 28 - OLBG Mares' Hurdle & Tattersalls Mares' Novices' Hurdle
- Monday March 4 - Cheltenham Festival handicaps - including Ultima Handicap Chase, Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle and Grand Annual Handicap Chase
- Thursday March 7 - Any other business, including current positions and additional selections
Posted at 1745 GMT on 04/03/19.