Our Antepost Angle expert Matt Brocklebank completes his Cheltenham Festival portfolio with a look at the best bets from the handicaps.
STARCHITECT may have proved a bitter disappointment when fancied for the Betfred Cesarewitch in the autumn but he can repay punters’ faith by claiming the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase – the final race of the Cheltenham Festival.
Barring that one high-profile blip, the move from Donald McCain’s stable to that of David Pipe has been a really positive one for Starchitect.
First time out representing Pond House, he finished second to Agrapart in the Betfair Hurdle and his very next outing saw him end up fifth in the County Hurdle last March.
That doesn’t tell the whole tale as while he clearly wasn’t an unlucky loser, it’s fair to suggest he was unfortunate not to finish closer to Superb Story. Alongside the winner on the downhill run to the turn in, he suddenly found himself behind a wall of horses following a slow jump at what proved to be the final flight (normal second-last), before staying on strongly on the rise to the line once granted a clear run.
No doubt the Pipes have been working back from March 2017 ever since that day, but it’s not like the six-year-old has been stood in his box for 12 months. On the contrary, he’s actually been quite busy. A solid third over two and a half miles at Aintree followed the County run, then a comfortable victory from a mark of 143 at Market Rasen.
That’s the key figure to keep in mind as he destroyed his rivals there on decent ground and it’s exactly the same mark he’s been allotted following three chase starts this season.
Considering that win, the potential he showed for McCain in his youth (fourth in the Fred Winter at the Festival), as well as a classy Flat success off 82 at Salisbury last May after Aintree, Starchitect is potentially really well handicapped over fences and his eased-down victory at Ayr in January should have done his confidence the world of good.
He was an easy-to-back 11/10 favourite in Scotland, perhaps on account of the heavy ground, but produced a powerful display to beat Takingrisks by three lengths and although that race clearly doesn’t resemble anything like a Grand Annual in terms of depth, the form has worked out well with Takingrisks winning at Kelso since and the fourth Aminabad going in at Newcastle at the weekend.
It’s also encouraging that he was able to show the raw speed to win so easily at two miles. For a novice chaser who has already struck over further over hurdles, and at a mile and three-quarters on the level, it’s no surprise to see the son of Sea The Stars has been given entries in the JLT and the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate, as well as the Arkle and Grand Annual, but a strongly-run two miles looks absolutely ideal at this stage in his development and it would obviously be a shock if he were sent down the Grade One route, with Altior an obvious put-off.
He's already near the head of the betting but Pipe handicappers have a habit of shortening dramatically - fellow Flat recruit Junior winning the 2011 Kim Muir at 100/30 springs to mind - and Starchitect is a very fair 14/1 chance.
SHANTOU VILLAGE is another fascinating novice worth getting on side at 16/1 (general) ahead of a likely tilt at the Plate.
He pulled-up having been struck into when favourite for the Albert Bartlett last year but had earned his spot at the top of the market with a string of wins and a smart second behind Yanworth on Trials Day last January, and the way he has bounced straight back this term has been commendable.
A facile success on his chasing debut at Fontwell blew the cobwebs away in August but it was his destructive display at Cheltenham’s Showcase meeting in October that really marked him out as a horse with a future over fences, after which trainer Neil Mulholland commented: “We don’t really want to have him revved until some of the bigger races.”
It’s a pity that Shantou Village fell when seemingly held by Frodon at the time at Wincanton when last sighted, but he consequently comes into the spring slightly under the radar and there’s clearly no great shame in struggling to give Frodon 9lb, considering he’s since landed the Caspian Caviar Gold, a race at Musselburgh and last weekend’s Grade Two Pendil at Kempton.
If you think predicting Starchitect’s eventual big-race target may be a bit too tricky, then look away now.
Shantou Village has six Cheltenham Festival entries in total, ranging from the JLT Novices’ Chase, to the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle, and the four-miler.
Thankfully, Mulholland was already talking about handicaps after winning at the course at the start of the season and the markets strongly suggest he’s heading for either the three-mile Ultima Handicap Chase on the Tuesday, or Thursday’s Plate over the best part of two miles and five furlongs.
He’s shortest for the latter and that looks to make plenty of sense as he’s been kept to that trip this season, including that impressive win on the Old Course in October.
The switch to the slightly more demanding New Course later this month should bring his stamina into play and while the Ultima could be tempting if the ground looks like drying out through the week, the Plate is invariably more winnable.
Luckily the 16/1 non-runner, no-bet is the best on offer across the board so the insurance is there in case connections opt to aim elsewhere.
Four of the 10 Festival handicaps were won by Irish-trained horses last term and while the County Hurdle wasn’t one of them, it’s a race the Irish have done extremely well in recently, taking top spot seven times in the last decade.
Tombstone is the massive eyecatcher having been given a favourable British mark of 149 after beating Jezki by four lengths at Gowran, but until Gordon Elliott fully cements his target it’s a situation that must be watched for now. A shot at the Stan James Champion Hurdle appeared to be Plan A during a recent press visit to the yard, while a step up in distance for the Coral Cup could also be considered closely.
However, stablemate MICK JAZZ is definitely on course for the County and Elliott has had the race in mind since the start of the season.
Still lightly-raced having spent a year on the sidelines after flopping when favourite in the 2015 Greatwood on his final run for Harry Fry, the six-year-old has won two of his four starts in the care of Elliott this term and showed last time out an important trait that had previously been missing from his repertoire - guts.
He’s always been highly regarded and has occasionally shown the glimmer of quality that he must display quite regularly in his homework, not least when a staying-on third after an interrupted passage in the big handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse in December, but knuckling down to see off smart novice Cilaos Emery at Punchestown last month was surely a career best.
He responded to Jack Kennedy quite sweetly when asked for maximum effort and it’s hoped he retains the ride at Cheltenham, though it’s quite clear he won’t be short of options.
His revised mark in Ireland follow that Listed success is 142 so, in an age of being told it’s perfectly normal for raiders to expect a 6-8lb hike for the privilege of lining up in England, there’s clearly a lot to like about his 143 rating for the County.
Philip Hobbs is responsible for two interesting horses lurking near the likely cut-off point for the opening day’s Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, namely Brother Tedd and DRUMLEE SUNSET, who are both rated 136.
Brother Tedd is arguably one of the best handicapped runners in the race based on what we know already, his Coral Cup seventh from a lofty perch of 150 last season not only a standout piece of form but also going some way to dispelling the theory that he’s only fully effective on right-handed tracks.
Granted, his five career victories have all come racing clockwise, the most memorable of which saw him defeat a below-par Silviniaco Conti in a handicap hurdle at Kempton in November 2015. That was the last time he got his head in front and obviously played a major role in his rating shooting up to 155 at that point.
He’s unlikely to scale those heights again in terms of the bare figures but his chasing career this term has been one of reasonable consistency, without quite being able to get his head in front.
He was a creditable second to Different Gravey at Ascot in November and was in front before departing at Wincanton last time, but he didn’t jump at all well at Cheltenham when bombing out behind Shantou Village earlier in the season and, at nearly twice the price, stablemate Drumlee Sunset (25/1) is far more appealing with the greater potential to improve.
Like Hobbs’ 2010 winner Copper Bleu, Drumlee Sunset made his chasing debut at Exeter in November and he appeared to take to it like a natural, knuckling down well to beat odds-on favourite Aux Ptits Soins by two-and-a-quarter lengths.
Aux Ptits Soins may not have quite lived up to Paul Nicholls’ expectations this season but he did go on to win at Kelso and there was nothing wrong with his recent Rendlesham second behind stablemate Zarkandar.
As for Drumlee Sunset, it’s been a steady learning curve since his debut win, finishing second in a couple of open handicaps at Doncaster and Chepstow.
Those efforts may just have toughened him up ready for the heat of Festival battle and there was certainly loads of encouragement to be taken from his latest run when putting it up to Aso before being outclassed by that far more experienced rival between the final two fences.
While he handled the soft ground well that day, his two hurdle victories, as well as the aforementioned Exeter success, were all on good going and his smooth action suggests he’ll be even happier if conditions dry out a little in the next couple of weeks.
Drumlee Sunset also has plenty of Cheltenham experience, which is always a major plus. He’s yet to win from four visits and did unship Richard Johnson at the start in the Sky Bet Supreme trial won by Altior last November but he also has a decent course second to Mister Miyagi and third to North Hill Harvey on the CV so there’s nothing to fear on that front.
Antepost Angle Cheltenham 2017
Posted at 1605 GMT on 01/03/17.