In this series, Rory Delargy looks at 5 relative outsiders in the Festival Handicaps, horses who haven’t been splashed over the front pages of the trade papers, paraded at Media Days for the leading yards or tipped up at one or more of the legion of preview nights which have littered the past weeks. With everyone trying to unpick the major races, the handicaps, oversubscribed as they are, tend to be glossed over, with the few contenders who are talked up in advance usually proving overbet, as results at last year’s Festival suggest. Aside from the well-touted Alderwood, last year’s handicaps went to relative outsiders, with eight of the eleven winners priced at 16/1 or bigger.
1. Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase
Baylis & Harding are new kids on the block when it comes to sponsorship, so we ought to indulge them this rather long-winded race title. Instead we should be thankful that we don’t have to put up with the “JCB – Because Everybody Loves A Digger Triumph Hurdle”, and others of similar ilk.
TIME FOR RUPERT – Paul Webber (Littlecote Racing Partnership) 10-10-6 (OR 138)
Time For Rupert is an intriguing runner here, as he’s till lightly raced over fences having looked a Gold Cup contender earlier in his career. In fact, he ran a stormer in that contest behind Synchronised a couple of years ago (finished distressed), but has had his career interrupted by niggling problems for some time. The handicapper has given him a real chance, however, and he showed he was no back number when a fast-finishing second to Tranquil Sea at Doncaster last month. The key to him is good ground, and the latest forecast is very promising in that regard, with a sudden increase in temperature expected just in time for raceweek. He’s older than ideal for a race of this type, but has only had eleven starts in total over fences, and is absolutely thrown in on the pick of his chase form off a mark of 138.
Best priced currently at 33/1 with William Hill, he’s worth a nibble, but given he also holds a Kim Muir entry, it may be prudent to wait a while. I’d be inclined to keep an eye on whether he is jocked up for the latter contest at the 5-day stage in order to get a handle on connections’ intentions. If he does go for Tuesday’s shorter contest, it’s hard to believe that he won’t be much shorter in the betting, and the onset of NRNB offers will render such concerns obsolete in any case.
Update(05/03): Denis O’Regan booked to ride in the B&H, which strongly suggests he’ll run here – the 33/1 is still showing with Hills, but surely won’t last.
GREEN FLAG – Lucinda Russell (John R Adam) 7-10-11 (OR 143)
One of the strongest angles in handicaps is to find a horse who is improving faster than the assessor can gauge, and while it’s never easy for a raw novice to defeat experienced handicappers, it’s a ploy which has been employed successfully by shrewd trainers through the ages. First-season chasers have been successful in this contest several times in the past decade, and Green Flag is a prime candidate despite being slammed by Annacotty in the Feltham at Kempton over Christmas. He was unfortunate to unship his rider after clipping heels last time, and had looked an assured jumper prior to that. He’s yet to reach his peak as a chaser, although is believed to be better on genuinely soft ground by his trainer, who describes him as a “phenomenal jumper for a novice”.
With his only other option at the Festival being the RSA, in which he looks to have a mountain to climb, connections will surely be more tempted by the handicap route if running at the meeting. The concern would be underfoot conditions, and while the going will be at its softest on the opening day, it may not be soft enough to tempt Russell to race. A general 25/1 shot, he may still be around that price if appearing in the declarations, so the advice for prospective backers is to wait.
Update (05/03): Peter Buchanan is pencilled in to ride, which again looks a statement of intent from connections, and his price is now under pressure. I would recommend taking 20/1 with Ladbrokes and/or Hills.
ALFIE SHERRIN – Jonjo O’Neill (J O McManus) 11-10-02 (OR 134)
Jonjo O’Neill has a very strong hand in this contest, with Alfie Sherrin joined by Burton Port, Shutthefrontdoor, Dursey Sound, Twirling Magnet and Holywell. He’s been typically coy about plans, except in the case of the 2012 winner, who is languishing near the foot of the weights, but will run if making the cut. For that reason, he’s the best ante-post bet of the Jackdaws team, for all William Hill’s 20/1 is hardly a licence to print money. On the other hand, he’s around 33/1 to small money on Betfair, and the likelihood is that fancier prices will become available once liquidity grows on the exchange.
Alfie Sherrin sparked quite a gamble when a surprise declaration for the race a couple of years ago, and he’s followed that win with in-frame efforts on four of his five subsequent starts, including the Irish National, and the Kim Muir at last year’s Festival. Best away from deep ground, he’s been kept fresh specifically for a spring campaign, and remains on a very fair mark.
The stats will tell you that horses older than ten have a poor recent record in this contest, but few of his age have been looked after in the way he has, and he was paraded for the media last week looking as fit as a flea. The flip side of that negative trend is that horses who have made the frame at a previous Festival have a remarkably good record when returning.
A point in his favour when it comes to sneaking into the race is that the official ballot for places has already been made, and of eight horses perched on the projected cut-off weight of 10-2, he’s second in line to get a run. He’s theoretically got a much greater chance of getting a run in the Kim Muir, but the ballot has been unkind to him there, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t take his Tuesday entry if the option arose, making him an attractive bet at inflated exchange odds. If he does miss out, then punters can simply collect their cash and reinvest in Thursday’s amateur event. Simples!
Update (05/03): No change with this one, although few firms are being lulled in to laying over the odds, sadly. One to monitor.
LOS AMIGOS – Jim Dreaper (Mrs P J Conway) 7-10-2 (OR 134)
Green Flag has been nominated as a sound-jumping novice, and another who fits that bill is Jim Dreaper’s Los Amigos, who has jumped like an old hand in his three chase starts to date, winning at Fairyhouse in November before going straight into handicaps. Runner-up on both starts in such events, his second to a revitalised On His Own in the Thyestes was an excellent performance, and makes his revised mark look very fair indeed. He had Balnaslow behind him at Gowran, and the pair may clash again, with Willie Mullins’ representative another who would be of interest, but his entries for raceweek are too numerous to guess where he might go. Los Amigos has just this and the Kim Muir as options, and needs keeping on side whichever race he shows up in. He’s on the same mark as Alfie Sherrin, but just below him in the ballot for this, whereas he’s more likely to get a run in the amateur event. That may be his best chance, as he’s certainly a straightforward ride, and has been ridden by Jamie Flynn on a number of occasions.
Update (05/03): Non-runner now, but holds entries in the Leinster National on Sunday, and the Kim Muir at Cheltenham. Worth keeping on side wherever he goes.
MIDNIGHT APPEAL – Alan King (David Sewell) 9-10-9 (OR 141)
The race formerly known as the Racing Post Chase (now sponsored by BetBright) threw up the winner of this ten years ago, and plenty to have run creditably there have done the same in this or other Festival contests. This year’s renewal may not have been vintage, but several of the beaten horses caught the eye. Bury Parade probably tops that list, but makes limited appeal for me, and I thought Midnight Appeal ran just as well in defeat. An early error didn’t help him, but he travelled better than most, and Robert Thornton was possibly guilty of pressing on too soon with the gambled on Tours Des Champs, for all that seemed a sensible ploy at the time. He initially got the better of that battle only to find his exertions taking their toll after the last, but that was a highly creditable run, and added to a solid profile.
David Sewell’s gelding has only flopped once this season, and that was excusable when simply not getting to grips with the National fences in the Becher Chase. His impressive win at Bangor was gained in the mud, but his best form prior to this season had come on a sound surface, and he’s another who ought to do better if the forecast warm sunshine arrives in time. A 2 lb rise for his latest effort is harsh enough on the face of it, and there are less exposed runners in the line-up, but this is his sole entry, and he’s guaranteed a run, so the 40/1 on offer is more than fair each-way value, and he can also be backed at 65 on the exchanges.
Update (05/03): Misses Cheltenham entirely. Possibly one for the Midlands National, but watching brief advised.