Matt Tombs / Tuesday 24th February 2015 / 14:49
The Festival handicap entries came out last week, but for most of my handicap bets I’ll be waiting for the weights, which are published on Wednesday. However, there is one handicap I’m itching to get stuck into now.
The novice’s handicap chase over an extended 2m4f looks at first sight to be a lottery. Handicap chases over intermediate and staying trips at the Festival tend to be really unpredictable, as getting into a rhythm and luck in running are crucial. Add in that it’s a field of 20 unexposed novices and you might be tempted to put it in the too difficult tray.
I’ve often done that in the past, but this year I’m keen on the race as a betting proposition. That’s because the Irish have a terrible record in the race, (as with most of the handicap chases,) with only Finger On The Pulse in 2008 winning for Ireland.
However, this year the Irish novices look stronger than I can ever recall. Un De Sceaux is odds-on for the Arkle. Of the 5 horses shorter than 25/1 for the JLT, 4 are Irish (Vautour, Apache Stronghold, Valseur Lido and Gitane Du Berlais). Don Poli is favourite for the RSA and Valseur Lido will be amongst the favourites if he runs. In the 4 miler, Ireland have 3 of the 4 at single figure prices, (Don Poli, Very Wood and Wounded Warrior.)
I suspect that amongst the also-rans in the top graded novice chases in Ireland, there are some really well handicapped horses. Given the bad record Ireland has in this event, there’s a good chance the Irish runners are being underestimated in the markets.
Looking at the race itself, it’s effectively a limited handicap. Since the introduction of the JLT in 2011, this has theoretically been a 0-140 – but last year it was a 131-140, and the previous year it was a 132-140. It’s therefore not a race where a horse can be plotted up to get a low weight. Instead, trainers are running horses to get them up in the weights so they get a run. Where the plotting tends to occur, is with horses that had hurdles handicap marks in the 140s and their novice chase campaigns have been designed to get the chase mark down to 140 or a bit lower.
Of course the few pounds spread in the weights could make the difference between winning and losing, but there will probably be a few of these well ahead of their marks. Inevitably not all the winners will train on but several have subsequently shown themselves to be chucked in. Rajdhani Express was a close 3rd in the following season’s Ryanair, L’Antartique won the Paddy Power off 13lb higher. Hunt Ball and Reveillez went on to win off 13lb and 12lb higher respectively and Finger On The Pulse won the Galway Plate off 3lb higher. Chapoturgeon went on to record an RPR of 163. It’s therefore more a case of spotting the horses with real latent talent – rather than a weights and measures analysis.
It would be foolish to be dogmatic and not consider the British horses. The well backed favourite at this early stage is 136 rated Generous Ransom (10/1), who won the similar event at the Trials meeting at January off 128, in first time cheekpieces. Nick Gifford thinks he’ll be better on better ground, but he doesn’t look like a star in the making.
A more interesting British contender is Thomas Crapper (16/1) who was a good 4½l 2nd to Don Poli off 134 in the Martin Pipe. He looks to have been aimed at this all season. He had 3 runs over an inadequate 2m in the autumn, chasing home leading British novices Three Kingdoms, Vibrato Valtat and Court Minstrel. He was then well beaten by Irish Saint at Ascot and Third Intention at Kempton over intermediate trips. He looks nicely handicapped off 134, but might be vulnerable to a classier type.
At a bigger price I like fellow maiden over fences Killala Quay (25/1). He didn’t jump fluently in the Neptune last year and met trouble in running before powering home to be 6l 4th to Faugheen. He was a solid 8l 2nd to Puffin Billy on his chasing debut but was then very disappointing in a 3m Grade 2 at Doncaster – perhaps not getting the trip. He made his handicap debut off 141 last time and ran the ideal race to be 7l 2nd to Seventh Sky, which resulted in him being dropped the 1lb he needed to qualify for this. He looks good each-way value.
However, there are 4 potentially class acts from Ireland entered in this. Shanahan’s Turn (25/1) looked a Grade 1 novice in the autumn when beating subsequent Grade 2 winner Wounded Warrior at Punchestown and then winning a Grade 2 over 2m6f at the same track. He has disappointed badly in Grade 1s the last twice. He may not have got home over 3m behind Don Poli at Christmas but was beaten quickly over 2m5f in Apache Stronghold’s race last time. Henry De Bromhead’s yard has been out of form though – of his 43 winners this season, only 4 have come since the turn of the year, the last on January 25th. If the yard bounces back in the interim, he might be one to consider nearer the day - if the British handicapper allows him into the race, (rated 145 in Ireland before his last run.)
After dual Grade 1 winning novice hurdler The Tullow Tank (20/1) made a winning chasing debut, you’d have got good odds on him lining up in this. That Fairyhouse defeat of Mala Beach hasn’t worked out. He was then reportedly sick when bombing as favourite for the Drinmore. He doesn’t look a 3 miler to me and he was beaten a long way by Don Poli in the Grade 1 at Christmas. He ran a much better race to be 8½l 4th to Apache Stronghold in the 2m5f Grade 1 at Leopardstown last time. Sandra Hughes’ yard has also been a bit out form recently and it’s worth keeping an eye on her runners on the run-up to the Festival. The Tullow Tank was rated 153 over hurdles and if he somehow gets a mark of 140 he’ll have every chance.
However, with Willie Mullins deciding to target the handicap chases more seriously this season, he looks to have 2 good horses to fire at this. Blood Cotil (16/1) is the type who might be overlooked as he’s perceived to have been a bit frustrating this season. I think that’s a bit unfair – he chased home leading novices Gilgamboa and Wounded Warrior in his first two chases. He was then nearly taken out at the first on his 3rd run. He was an easy 11l winner on his last run, (a couple of talented, if hard to assess, performers behind.) He was rated 140 over hurdles and it’d be hard for him to be given a higher mark on what he’s done so far – but he looks as if he might be a fair bit better than it.
I prefer another Mullins horse though, Jarry D’Honneur (16/1). He has clearly had plenty of problems since arriving from France, (sick for much of last year.) He finally made it to the track for Mullins in December and was reported to need the race badly when 4th to Lots Of Memories. He then thumped Bishops Road, (good winner off 123 since,) at Punchestown, where Willie said he was ‘half right’ and that he would improve enormously.
He was pitched into the hot Grade 1 at Leopardstown won by Apache Stronghold last time. He was ridden aggressively there, perhaps the thinking being he was a stayer at the trip. He was still bowling along in front turning into the straight, but was up against proven, battle-hardened Grade 1 performers and AP McCoy was easy on him when they went past him approaching the last, (where he unseated.) I think that’s red hot form and the experience should have taught him a lot.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Jarry D’Honneur was winning open Grade 1s next season. He’s rated 140 in Ireland and if the British handicapper takes the same view he might just be a cut above these. He has various other options, and JP McManus has 6 in the race, but his other main contender Noble Emperor (14/1) is up to 142 in Ireland so presumably won’t qualify.
In any case, Bet365 are top price NRNB – if he gets the go ahead he’ll be half that price. If Willie Mullins has run through the card in the earlier races he’ll be even shorter, so I want to get stuck in now, in the hope he’ll give AP a winner on the opening day of his last Festival.
1pt Jarry D’Honneur to win the Novices’ Handicap Chase @ 16/1 NRNB