Matt Tombs / Friday 13th December 2013 / 10:45
1pt Ma Filleule to win the December Gold Cup @ 20/1
The Paddy Power Gold Cup is such a strong race nowadays, often containing future Grade 1 horses, that it's not surprising that it's had a big influence on Saturday's big handicap at Cheltenham. 5 of the last 8 winners had run in the Paddy Power but only Exotic Dancer was completing the double, (off a 10lb higher mark.) The other 4 were running off a mark within 1lb of their Paddy Power mark.
This isn't usually as strong a race, because the unexposed 2nd season chasers who often dominate the Paddy Power en route to Grade 1 races, have usually run by now. That might explain why the likes of Quantitativeeasing, Poquelin (twice) and Monkerhostin were able to win this after being comfortably beaten in the Paddy Power off similar marks.
The conundrum this year is that the Paddy Power might not have been as strong a race as usual. Johns Spirit has been upped 9lb to 148 and is 2lb worse off with 3/4l runner up Colour Squadron, (up 7lb to 146.) Attaglance was beaten 6l in 4th and remains on 137 so has a good pull with the first two.
I was very much against Johns Spirit (5/1) in the Paddy Power as I didn't think he had the class to win that sort of race, and I wonder if I'm in danger of underestimating him again, but he looks to have a tough task here. Jonjo O'Neill's yard was in blinding form last month, but have rather run out of steam now, (1 winner from last 53 runners.)
I much prefer the chances of Colour Squadron, (5/1). Having just watched the Paddy Power again, he was even more unlucky than I thought and would surely have won if he hadn't been so badly hampered by a faller at the 2nd last. He gets a 2lb pull as well and really ought to reverse the form. He would have won the Tolworth but for hanging badly close home so has Grade 1 credentials, (albeit over hurdles,) and might still be very well handicapped off 146. He's obviously not straightforward but he looked much more the finished article last time and he rates much the most likely winner with the Hobbs team going well.
Attaglance (9/1) completed a double in handicap hurdles at the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals 2 seasons ago, the latter off 144. He was a slow learner over fences but ran really well in the Paddy Power and is another who looks decently handicapped off just 137. Like Colour Squadron, he's a maiden over fences but one who looks to be getting his act together now. The forecast good ground is in his favour and he has a sound chance.
The other interesting runner from the Paddy Power is Easter Meteor, (14/1) who was the faller that hampered Colour Squadron. He was still bang there, so has a chance from an 8lb higher mark. I get the impression his form is levelling out a bit and whilst it was a good effort to split Cantlow and Grandioso last time, I wonder if the handicapper has got his measure now.
There was plenty of money for Grandioso (7/1) earlier in the week and he looks a progressive type, having won the Pendil last season. Plenty of the Nicholls horses have come on a lot for the run this season and the yard is going really well, so despite going up another 2lb for his 3rd to Cantlow, plenty of improvement can be expected. The value has rather gone now though and his price is about right.
Cantlow (11/1) was a real talking horse for festival handicaps last season having looked to have been laid out for one, (when running in novice chases over distances well short of his optimum.) He missed the Festival with a minor setback in the end and is just the sort who pops up in a good handicap once a season, but that's already happened. He's gone up 8lb for beating Easter Meteor and Grandioso and doesn't appeal as the sort to put two good runs together, (has failed to impress with his finishing effort more than once.)
Salut Flo (10/1) was a really impressive winner of the equivalent handicap at the 2012 Festival off 137. He's not run since and is now off 144 which looks fair - if he retains his ability and is fit enough to do himself justice. The vibes were that he was the Pipe yard's choice for the more prestigious Paddy Power, (the autumn race they always target, having had so much success in the past.) They finally decided to run Ballynagour instead which raises a concern about how well Salut Flo has been going at home.
Double Ross (12/1) had a try at chasing last season and it didn't work out. His 1 3/4l defeat of Attaglance (who's now 4lb worse off), in September looks good but the form of his two runs since has taken plenty of knocks and the suspicion is that Attaglance wasn't at his best when they clashed. He's 5lb lower than his hurdles rating on 133, but that doesn't look a winnable mark based on what we've seen over fences so far.
Sew On Target (20/1) was a good 4 1/2l 3rd to Johns Spirit in the October race here and now enjoys a 16lb pull, which must put him in the picture. He's since been 2nd over 2m at the Open meeting and is a really consistent type on decent ground. There will be lots of worse 20/1 each way bets in big races this season, but it's obvious to think Johns Spirit improved a lot between his 2 wins this season, and he looks the type to run well without having the class to win this sort of event.
Sedgefield handicap form isn't the obvious place to start looking for the winner of this but Silver Roque (20/1) hammered his field there by an easy 16l off 132 last month. His opponents did look a mixture of average types and good horses on the downgrade though and this will be a lot harder off 11lb higher.
The fascinating contender is Ma Filleule (20/1). Nicky Henderson's 5 year old looked a much better chaser than hurdler in France, (3/5 over fences and 0/4 over hurdles.) Her novice status in tact, she was campaigned over hurdles last season, winning a mares Grade 2. She started only 9/1 in the conditional's handicap at the Festival off 134, implying she's well regarded at Seven Barrows. Reverting to fences, (and trying British fences for the first time), she begins off 142.
That French form isn't easy to assess, (the now 152 rated Fago was amongst her victims in one chase but the messages are mixed.) The reality is that she's an unknown quantity here and whilst her 3 chase wins preclude her from graduation chases, it's very un-Henderson like for her to be pitched into such a competitive race first time. That suggests she's going really well at home and it might be Nicky was taking things easy with her last season as she acclimatised, and she's only now being hard trained. If she is much better over fences than hurdles she could be well in here.
This is the sort of race where, the more you look at it, the more competitive it seems. Colour Squadron has obvious claims but there is such an element of chance in these big field Cheltenham handicap chases, that backing a horse at 5/1 is rarely going to be profitable in the long term. He's 0/5 over fences, can be a difficult ride and the vibes were that Tony McCoy had a tougher decision between him and Cantlow than you'd have expected. He's not the solid type you'd want to be backing at those odds.
It's not the sort of bet where I can confidently say Ma Filleule is likely to run up to a certain level of form, or is an each way steal. It's much more an instinct bet, based on the nature of the race, the field being comprised of loads having chances without anything having the profile to be a strong favourite, and the way Nicky Henderson operates. I had expected her to be half the price, and if Seven Barrows vibes are strong then she might be by post time - she's well worth risking at such big odds.