Matt Tombs / Thursday 14th November 2013 / 15:00
1pt Ballynagour to win the Paddy Power GC @ 8/1
1pt Gift Of Dgab to win the Paddy Power GC @ 25/1
One of the key elements of betting on races where there are ante-post books is timing. I've been considering a bet on the Paddy Power since the entries came out, but fortunately decided there were too many uncertainties around the horses I fancied to take the plunge. Whether by luck or good judgment that's worked out well as the field and ground conditions look very different to what I’d expected.
The ground is officially good, good to soft in places. Whilst I doubt there'll be much rain, it wouldn't be the first time that Cheltenham 'good' ground has a lot of cut in it. I've mentioned before before that going descriptions at this meeting often need to be read as being slower than identical descriptions at the Festival. All that said, I expect the ground to be decent - quicker than is often the case for this meeting.
With Finian's Rainbow a surprise runner off 163, the shape of the handicap is different to what many of us expected. Whilst that gives some help to the likes of Champion Court and Rajdhani Express, arguably it's had more impact on those near the foot of the weights. JP McManus has 3 runners and AP McCoy is riding Tap Night (14/1) who was the outsider of the 3 in ante-post books and doesn’t look well handicapped. Nadiya De La Vega is on 10-3 and Colour Squadron 10-2 and AP's lowest riding weight in the last year is 10-3 - so the fact that he's not getting light enough to ride either puts me off their chances.
My original fancy was Colour Squadron (14/1) who would have won the Tolworth if he hadn't gone sideways close home and he again hung badly when favourite for the novice handicap chase at the Festival. He looked the classic sort who could be a Grade 1 performer that was chucked in, (off 139.) 10-2 probably pushes it for McCoy nowadays but if they really fancied this horse I think he'd have ridden. With Philip Hobbs stable jockey Richard Johnson (who can ride at 10-0) choosing Wishfull Thinking instead, it may be that Colour Squadron needs more experience before he can win one of these big handicaps.
Nadiya De La Vega (12/1) goes really well fresh and likes a sound surface. She was 15l 3rd off 5lb higher last year and this looks a weaker renewal on more favourable ground, so you can make a form case. However, she’s had 14 chase starts and the balance of her form implies she’s just not good enough to win a Paddy Power. The fact that AP isn’t doing 10-3 suggests he thinks so too.
The market leader is John’s Spirit (6/1) who won the equivalent handicap at the October meeting. The winners of that race have a dire record in this – Shooting Light 12 years ago is the last to do the double and he was a much more typical winner having been rated 155 over hurdles (2nd in the Fighting Fifth) before winning this off 137. John’s Spirit won off 129 and has gone up 10lb, (now 6lb above his hurdles mark). He’s progressive and may well improve but he doesn’t look the classy and really well handicapped type that tends to win this. His style of racing, starting last and gradually cutting down rivals, needs luck in running and is hard to execute against the quality of horses that run in this, as there will be a few who won’t be stopping. It’ll be disappointing if there’s nothing classy enough in the field to beat him.
Champion Court (13/2) is the sort of horse who always runs well without winning a big race - off 157 he is in that twilight zone where he's not good enough for the top contests but vulnerable in the big handicaps. He did manage a win at the end of last season but that was getting 17lb from Menorah and he was all out to win by ¾l. If he can win this off 157 it implies Menorah could win it off a mark in the early 170s. Whilst you shouldn't take lines of form too literally, that's so far from being plausible I couldn’t back him.
A completely different type is Ballynagour (8/1) who is the choice of the Pipe yard. Considering they've decided not to run ante-post favourite Dyanaste, nor Salut Flo - it's natural to think they really fancy his chances. He was incredibly impressive on his British debut at Warwick off 123, earning an RPR 32lb higher than his official mark. Golden Chieftain franked that form by hacking up on the opening day of the Festival and Ballynagour was backed into 7/2f for the equivalent handicap to this at the Festival off a 20lb higher mark. He bombed there and apparently bled, something he'd done in France. It might be that his Warwick win was a fluke, but equally he might be best fresh or if his bleeding issues have been resolved, he may be a top class horse in the making. In a race where many of the market leaders look more exposed than usual, he's one of the few that have the potential to be much better than their mark, (143).
Rajdhani Express (10/1) may have shown his hand to the handicapper. He won the novices’ handicap chase at the Festival off 140 and then won a Grade 2 at Ayr, which resulted in his getting bumped up another 5lb to 155. You usually need to be a Grade 1 horse to win this off that sort of mark, (Al Ferof last year was the first for a decade to win off a mark higher than 150). Rajdhani Express looks promising and Sam Waley-Cohen can claim his 5lb in this race, but he’ll need another big step forward to win this.
Hidden Cyclone (14/1) is the classic conundrum in a big handicap. After 9 chases it looks as if he simply doesn’t think quickly enough at his fences for his jumping to stand up to the hurly burly of this, especially as the ground may be quicker than ideal. Shark Hanlon’s yard is in much better form than last season and he’d always threatened to be a Grade 1 horse, so might be well handicapped off 152. Having followed him for 3 seasons he’d be a hugely frustrating winner but I’m going to oppose him.
On his Champion Chase and Melling Chase form of 2 seasons ago Finian’s Rainbow (14/1) can win off 163. At the time it looked disappointing that he couldn’t give 4lb to Sire De Grugy back on his favoured good ground at Sandown. With Sire De Grugy now rated 169 after hacking up off 161 at Chepstow the other day, the fact that Finian’s Rainbow comes out the better of the two at the weights (beaten 1¾l) suddenly looks like evidence that he retains his old ability. You need to go back nearly 20 years to Dublin Flyer and Bradbury Star for horses winning this off marks in the 160s and both were a year younger. On balance I think it’s too big an ask.
Two are interesting at longer prices. Battle Group (20/1) is a big price for a horse who has won his last 3, including a listed chase by 16l. He is 13lb worse off with favourite John’s Spirit now but he beat him 19l so there shouldn’t be such a disparity between their prices. He’s 19lb higher now and is 0/6 at Cheltenham, so it’s hard to know what you’re going to get - this hasn’t been his time of year historically, so I’m passing him over.
Gift Of Dgab (25/1) was a fair 2nd to Hennessy favourite Invictus when last seen on these shores and then spent the rest of his novice season chasing Flemenstar’s tail. Injury kept him off the course for 18 months before running well on his first try beyond 2½m, when 15½l 6th to White Star Line in the Kerry National. This looks his ideal trip and ground and it’s just a question of whether he retains his ability. If he does then a mark of 138 looks to really underestimate him. Tony Martin’s resurgent stable has some Grade 1 horses these days but he is a genius at laying one out for a handicap and the fact that Gift Of Dgab is running here at all suggests Gigginstown, who rarely have a runner in this race, think he’s really well in.
It doesn’t look a strong renewal but with the doubts over whether Colour Squadron will be mentally ready for this, Ballynagour looks the one horse in the field that might be a Grade 1 horse in disguise. With the front 2 in the market looking vulnerable, it wouldn’t surprise me if he ended up favourite and he looks a good bet. Gift Of Dgab is a huge price for a potentially well handicapped horse and is worth a saver.