The Byrne Group Plate, formerly named after the Mildmay of Flete, is run on the Thursday of the festival over the intermediate trip of 2m 5f. The Pipe team account for 6 of the last 15 winners (40%) so it makes sense to start with the current ante-post favourite and Pond House inmate, Ballynagour. Making his UK debut in a competitive looking handicap chase, the French import made a mockery of an opening mark of 122, cruising clear with a number of solid yardsticks in behind. This performance certainly didn’t come as a surprise to connections as he was well-supported in the betting and although the handicapper is likely to take offence and a hefty rise is certain to follow, he looks the pick of the Pipe entries.
French bred horses do have an excellent record in this race (7 winners since 1999) and the similarities with last year’s winner Salut Flo mean Ballynagour is one of the more interesting horses at the top of the market. A word of caution is required though, he holds no less than 6 Festival entries and it would take a better man than me to predict what the Pipe team have in mind for this exciting horse. As a result, Ballynagour makes no ante-post appeal at the current 10/1 with the handicapper lying in wait after a bloodless victory this afternoon.
Hunt Ball is currently vying for favouritism after mixing it in top company this season. Improving a miraculous 88lbs last term, Hunt Ball has successfully made the step into public consciousness. Although I expect the Antony Knott trained chaser to improve for better ground and a drop in trip, I’d be amazed if he’s good enough to play a hand off a mark of 157. In fact, just 2 of the last 25 winners have defied a mark higher than 141. In truth, I find it almost impossible to comprehend how a 69 rated chaser can improve over 6 stone and consequently I remain sceptical whether Hunt Ball even deserves a mark of 157, never mind whether he’s sufficiently in front of the handicapper to take a competitive Festival handicap.
JP McManus holds a strong hand, with 3 of the top 6 in the betting running in green and gold. All three are lightly raced chasers bought with the Festival in mind. Colour Squadron has some strong form in the book, hanging away his chance in the Tolworth Hurdle last year beaten a head by current Jewson favourite Captain Conan. Phillip Hobbs’ charge is yet to open his account over fences, but has caught the eye a number of times, staying on from the rear when all chance is gone. I think people are too quick to jump to conclusions as far as JP’s runners are concerned and I don’t think Colour Squadron is without his quirks. Whilst I wouldn’t be surprised to see an improved performance come Festival time, I don’t think he appeals as a betting proposition, especially as he also holds an entry in the novices’ handicap that signs off the first day. Cantlow is another JP runner who has provoked discussion this term, running over what looks an insufficient test of stamina based on his best hurdles form. Nevertheless, Cantlow has finished in the front two every run this season and as a result has been given what looks a stiff opening mark of 143. Again, I’m sure many people will play the JP handicap angle but on what I’ve seen I don’t think Cantlow is particularly well-handicapped. Tap Night is the other well fancied JP McManus runner, who has some smart form over hurdles beating Captain Conan by 2 lengths. Lucinda Russell’s charge has progressed nicely over fences, winning 2 of his 3 outings this term and looks a horse with potential. I would imagine with a mark of 145, Tap Night will be routed to the Jewson instead – where he certainly wouldn’t be without a chance. Of the McManus trio, Colour Squadron appeals the most, however at the current prices I think there chances are well found in the market.
Carlito Brigante is a horse that really interests me with Festival handicaps in mind. A previously impressive winner of the Coral Cup off a mark of 142, the Gordon Elliott trained Irish raider was plotted with one day in mind. Winning jockey Davy Russell summed up as much… “He’s been trained by a very good man with one day in mind and this is the day”. Things just didn’t pan out for him last term for whatever reason, but I’ve seen enough promise in his chase outings this season to indicate he’s still in good health. He showed up well for a long way in a novice chase won by RSA favourite Dynaste before fading tamely. Given plenty of experience early in the season, Elliott has chosen to keep his charge off the track since November, possibly protecting what they believe is a lucrative handicap mark of 137. Last seen running on the flat, I’m convinced Carlito Brigante is being primed for an improved performance at the Festival; my only issue being which race! I would hazard a guess the novices handicap chase on the opening day is more likely, but also possible his engagement is dependent on the other Gigginstown runners and consequently I’m reluctantly passing him over for the time being. However, he’s one firmly in my Festival thoughts.
The one that really catches my eye is the Ferdy Murphy trained DIVERS who is another previous Festival winner, landing the Centenary novice handicap off a mark of 132 under an excellent Graham Lee, having been prepared with that race in mind. Last season Divers was aimed at the Byrne Group Plate, finishing 4th off a mark of 142, behind favourite and handicap blot Salut Flo. His form up until that point had been uninspiring in the least, before improving when tackling spring ground. This season Divers has tackled ground softer than ideal and has dropped 7lb as a result. A mark of 135 is more than workable for this French bred and his outing last time out was a promising one. Albeit over hurdles, Divers showed an improvement on this season’s form to finish a staying on third. Although his hurdles mark is 8lbs below his chase mark, this run would indicate he is coming back to somewhere near his old self. The fact that this assignment was chosen probably indicates he’s approaching peak as Murphy would be mad to risk his attractive looking chase mark with Cheltenham just around the corner. Unlike some of the more fancied horses in the betting, Divers only has the one entry and at 20/1 with a choice of Betfred, PaddyPower, StanJames and WilliamHill he ranks the best bet for me.
Article written by Ben Peacock, follow him on Twitter @b_peacock