Donn McClean with five Irish handicappers to follow at the Cheltenham Festival - including a 25/1 chance in the Grand Annual.
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Tully East (Trainer: Alan Fleming)
Tully East put up an impressive performance to win the Close Brothers Chase at last year’s Cheltenham Festival. Racing off a handicap rating of 138, the Alan Fleming-trained gelding made nice progress from the rear and arrived there at the final fence under a well-timed ride from Denis O’Regan before keeping on well up the hill to get home by just over a length from Gold Present.
Gold Present obviously enhanced the form of that race this season by winning a decent handicap chase at Newbury in December, and by beating Frodon and a field of high-class handicappers in the Silver Cup at Ascot in December. Nicky Henderson’s horse is now rated 155, 18lb higher than the mark off which he raced in the Close Brothers Chase.
Tully East has been given a mark of 148 by the British handicapper, 10lb higher than the mark off which he won at Cheltenham last March and just 2lb higher than his Irish mark, and that gives him a chance in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate.
He ran a cracker at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown four weeks ago, when he finished third behind Patricks Park and Three Stars on ground that was softer than ideal and over two miles and one furlong, a distance that was probably shorter than ideal. He should be happier back on better ground and back over the intermediate trip.
Barry Connell’s horse is proven at Cheltenham and under Cheltenham Festival conditions. As well as his win in the Close Brothers Chase last year, he belied odds of 50/1 when finishing fourth in the Martin Pipe Hurdle in 2016. He has plenty in his favour.
Three Stars (Henry de Bromhead)
Three Stars finished second in that handicap chase at Leopardstown, and Henry de Bromhead’s horse could be a player in the Grand Annual.
Always prominent that day, he was sent to the front on the run to the second last fence, and he went fully five lengths clear around the home turn. He was just worn down in the end by Patricks Park, a mistake at the final fence not helping, but he still ran all the way to the line. He finished over five lengths clear of Tully East in third.
It was a fine run by Three Stars in his first-time cheekpieces, dropped back down to an extended two miles, having been tried over three in the Paddy Power Chase on his previous run. A fast-run stiff two miles suits Robert Finnegan’s horse well, and that is what he should get in the Grand Annual. His British mark of 144 is just 3lb higher than his Irish mark, which is fair, and he could be an interesting outsider in the Grand Annual.
Squouateur (Gordon Elliott)
Squouateur is fashionable, he has been fashionable for a while, but he still merits inclusion here for the Kim Muir.
The Gordon Elliott-trained gelding was a fair way back when he unseated his rider at the fourth last fence in last year’s renewal of the race, but he was travelling well at the time. Jamie Codd was just starting to ask him for his effort.
He did well to finish third in the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown on his penultimate run. His jumping was not overly fluent that day, and he was always a little further back than ideal, but he stayed on well from the home turn over the last fence and up the run-in to take third place behind Anibale Fly and Ucello Conti.
The extra two furlongs of the Kim Muir should suit JP McManus’ horse well. He has been given a British handicap rating of 135, which is close enough to bordlerline for the Kim Muir. The lowest-rated horse in last year’s Kim Muir raced off a mark of 133, and you wouldn’t have minded another 1lb or 2lb, just to be sure. However, as long as he gets into the race, he will get in on a nice racing weight and a nice mark, the same as last year’s mark. He is only seven years old, and he still has plenty of scope for progression as a staying chaser.
Sort It Out (Eddie Harty)
Sort It Out stayed on well to force a dead-heat for third place in the Pertemps qualifier at Punchestown last Wednesday, and he will be of interest if he lines up in the final at the Cheltenham Festival.
Zero for four over fences in the early part of the season, that was the Milan gelding’s first run over hurdles since he finished down the field in a handicap hurdle at the 2016 Punchestown Festival, and it was his first run under any code since December.
JP McManus’ horse is a talented hurdler though, as he proved during the 2014/15 season, when he won handicap hurdles at Punchestown and Leopardstown and finished second on the County Hurdle at Cheltenham. He rounded off that campaign by winning a big two-and-a-half-mile handicap hurdle at the Punchestown Festival off a mark of 136.
The British handicap rating of 141 which he has been allotted is 4lb higher than his Irish mark and it is 7lb higher than the mark off which he raced in the 2015 County Hurdle, but it is 3lb lower than his peak and it is a mark off which he should be competitive. That County Hurdle run proved that he can operate under Cheltenham Festival conditions, and his latest run proved that he can stay three miles. That was his first run ever over that distance, and he is unexposed at staying trips.
Flawless Escape (Gordon Elliott)
Flawless Escape holds four entries at the Cheltenham Festival, but it looks like connections are leaning towards the Martin Pipe Hurdle, and he will be of interest if he lines up in that.
The Gordon Elliott-trained gelding has run just three times over hurdles, but he has progressed with each run. Second, beaten just a length by Mr Whipped – who has won three of his four hurdle races for Nicky Henderson and is now rated 145 – in his only point-to-point, and winner of his only bumper, he finished second in a maiden hurdle at Punchestown in November before stepping up on that to win his maiden over two and a half miles at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival.
He showed lots of determination to win that day, he stayed on well up the long run-in with the final flight omitted to get home by a length from Jetez, with subsequent Grade 1 winner Tower Bridge back in fourth.
Tim O’Driscoll’s horse stepped up on that last time back in a three-mile handicap hurdle at Leopardstown. Racing off a mark of 128, he kept on to finish third behind the seriously well-handicapped Total Recall, with Delta Work, who dead-heated for third place with Sort It Out in that Pertemps qualifier at Punchestown, a short head back in fourth.
The drop back to two and a half miles should suit him well, and he has the potential to progress beyond his British handicap rating of 137.