Donn McClean picks out five Irish-trained handicappers to keep a close eye on at the Cheltenham Festival next week.
There will be lots of Irish handicappers racing at the Cheltenham Festival next week. Here are five who might be worth a second look.
Measureofmydreams (Trainer: Gordon Elliott)
We hadn’t seen Measureofmydreams in almost two years before he made his debut for Gordon Elliott in a three-mile chase at Fairyhouse last month. His trainer said before that race that he would come on appreciably for the run, but he still ran a fine race in finishing third behind two talented rivals in Snugsborough Benny and Call It Magic.
His British handicap rating of 137 is identical to his Irish rating, and it is 10lb lower than his peak. He has class, as he proved when he won the Grade 2 Ten Up Chase at Navan in 2016. Black Hercules fell at the final fence that day when travelling like the likely winner, but Measureofmydreams still had good horses in Noble Endeavor and Pleasant Company and Sub Lieutenant behind him. That triumvirate are now rated, respectively, 151, 152 and 157. That gives Measureofmydreams plenty of leeway off a mark of 137.
The Shantou gelding has Cheltenham Festival form too, he finished third behind Minella Rocco and last year’s Gold Cup hero Native River in the National Hunt Chase in 2016. The Kim Muir is his only entry now at Cheltenham, and he could have one of the top amateur riders in the business in Jamie Codd for company.
Early Doors (Joseph O’Brien)
Early Doors ran a big race in last year’s Martin Pipe Hurdle. JP McManus’ horse raced in mid-division that day in a race that was run at an unusually sedate pace and which was ultimately won by early pace-setter Blow By Blow. He made nice ground down the hill and he travelled well into the home straight before just keeping on to take third place.
The Joseph O’Brien-trained gelding has run just twice this season, both times in Grade 1 company. He was well beaten on his seasonal return in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse in early December, but he kept on well from the rear last time to take second place behind Apple’s Jade in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle over three miles at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival.
He was only a five-year-old when he finished third in the Martin Pipe Hurdle last year. Twelve months on, a year older, a year stronger, he will get to race off a mark of 145 this year, just 3lb higher than last year’s mark. He is still lightly raced, he still has potential to progress from that mark and, while he also holds an entry in the Coral Cup, it would not be surprising to see him go back to the Martin Pipe Hurdle this year and try to go two places better.
A Plus Tard (Henry de Bromhead)
A Plus Tard ran a fine race on his debut for Henry de Bromhead to finish a close second to Dr Mikey in a beginners’ chase at Gowran Park in November, and he stepped forward from that next time to win well at Naas in December.
That was a strong beginners’ chase. Runner-up Duc Des Genievres was impressive in winning a beginners’ chase at Gowran Park on Red Mills Chase day and is now high in the betting for the Arkle, and fourth-placed Midnight Stroll was impressive in winning a competitive handicap hurdle at Cork next time, while fifth-paced Ex Patriot won his beginners’ chase at Thurles last month.
A Plus Tard himself was beaten on his only subsequent run in a Grade 3 contest at Punchestown, but he wasn’t beaten far by a high-class rival in Winter Escape, and the pair of them pulled nicely clear of last week’s Flyingbolt Chase winner Jetz.
The Cheveley Park gelding has been given a handicap rating of 144, which gets him in under the ceiling for the Close Brothers Chase, and he could run well in that race.
Wicklow Brave (Willie Mullins)
Wicklow Brave has dropped to an attractive-looking handicap rating of 153. He is obviously a classy individual, an Irish St Leger winner who won the Punchestown Champion Hurdle two years ago and who finished second in the race last year, and who proved that he could operate under Cheltenham Festival conditions when he won the County Hurdle in 2015.
He is 10 years old now, but he proved that he retains plenty of ability when he stayed on well from the rear off a sedate pace to take second place behind Champion Hurdle aspirant Espoir D’Allen in the Grade 3 Limestone Lad Hurdle at Naas at the end of January. He holds one entry in the Coral Cup after being taken out of the County Hurdle and, off a handicap mark that is 11lb lower than his peak rating, he could go well if he lines up on Wednesday.
Band Of Outlaws (Joseph O’Brien)
Band Of Outlaws is the correct favourite for the Fred Winter Hurdle. Joseph O’Brien’s horse has improved nicely in three runs over hurdles this season. He won his maiden on his second attempt, at Limerick’s Christmas Festival, and he stepped forward nicely from that to win a winners’ race at Naas last time.
They didn’t go a great gallop in that race, but he came through his field nicely and he showed an impressive turn of foot to come clear of his rivals. That turn of foot will be a serious asset to take into a Fred Winter Hurdle and, rated 93 on the flat, a handicap rating of 139 over hurdles looks fair. With just three runs over hurdles under his belt, he has the potential to go higher than that.