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.
7. Byrne Group Plate
The Festival Plate, to give it its formal title, was known as the Mildmay of Flete for much of Cheltenham’s history, and has been won by such luminaries as Mont Tremblant, who scored in 1955, three years after landing the Festival’s feature event, while 1975 winner Summerville was arguably unlucky not to add the Gold Cup to his CV after breaking down when leading Tied Cottage and Davy Lad in the 1977 race. Grand National winner Specify won this a couple of years prior to his Aintree heroics, with Grand National bridesmaids Tudor Line and The Tsarevich also on the roll of honour.
The race was originally a 2½m contest on the Old Course, but the advertised distance has changed a little over time, with remeasurement prior to the 1992/3 season pegging the race distance on the Old Course as 2m4½f, and that distance increasing to 21f when the race was moved to the New Course in 2005. With the other Festival handicaps at 2m and 3m (give or take the odd half furlong), the National Trainers’ Federation requested an official change in distance for the 2014 running, and the race will now revert to its original distance, meaning the first fence in the chute will no longer be jumped, as it is in the Ryanair. That may seem like a small change, but the amended starting position can affect the early tempo of the race, and it will be interesting to see how the race develops.
Favourite in many lists is Jonjo O’Neill’s Paddy Power winner Johns Spirit, and I must say that the 14/1 about him in a place or two is very fair, but the onus on this column is to dig out something a little more leftfield, so here are my five to consider:
SRAID PADRAIG – Tony Martin (Barry Connell) 8-10-3 (OR 140)
Tony Martin’s Sraid Padraig would have been a strong fancy in the valuable Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, but was forced to miss that race after a bout of coughing. That setback may well prove a blessing in disguise, as his very best performances have come after several months off the track, and he did particularly well to beat Cause of Causes on his reappearance, given that race came over an inadequate 17f. He stays 3m, and is engaged in a both the Baylis And Harding and Kim Muir over that sort of trip, but it’s possible that the intermediate distance of the Plate will prove ideal, while his jumping really is exceptional for one with fairly limited chasing experience, and I’ve had him as one to keep onside since he won on his chase debut at Limerick last season. He’s not been overfaced by his shrewd trainer, and his best days are surely still ahead of him.
RAJDHANI EXPRESS – Nicky Henderson (Robert Waley-Cohen) 7-11-4 (OR 155)
Nicky Henderson has won the Plate 4 times as a trainer, including with The Tsarevich, who won consecutive running’s in the 1980s. It could be argued that he controls the weights this year, with four of the top seven in the initial entries hailing from Seven Barrows, and of those, Rajdhani Express is the most appealing, particularly if the weights don’t rise overnight. It’s interesting that Henderson was considering a tilt at the valuable Nakayama Grand Jump until a conversation with Willie Mullins put him off the idea.
Like 2005 winner Liberthine, the son of Presenting is owned by Cheltenham chairman Robert Waley-Cohen, and he proved his credentials for a similar race when winning the Rewards4Racing Handicap at last year’s meeting. Despite having form on soft ground, his trainer feels this fluent mover is best on a sound surface (hence the consideration of a trip to Japan), and the prospect of several days of drying weather plus fresh ground must be a boon to his prospects. Henderson was pretty effusive about the prospect of landing a fifth Plate success when hosting a media day recently, and while such talk can often see prices crashing, he’s still available at a general 16/1, which qualifies him for inclusion here.
NADIYA DE LA VEGA – Nicky Henderson (J P McManus) 8-10-2 (OR 138)
Henderson and J P McManus have several more fancied runners in this race between them, but it would be folly to ignore the claims of the well-handicapped Nadiya De La Vega despite a poor run when last seen. A winner of a good-ground handicap from an identical mark at the track in October 2012, she was an excellent third in the Paddy Power, and landed a Fairyhouse Grade 3 in April. The handicapper was never severe on her, and she’s quickly fallen to her last winning mark despite having excuses for a couple of below-par efforts this season. Like many, the return to a sound surface will suit, and she isn’t the forlorn hope her form figures suggest.
Always highly strung (she actually fell over backwards leaving the paddock before her defeat of Easter Meteor here last season), she boiled over before the Paddy Power, and that aspect of her make-up is always a concern. That said, she’s belied paddock appearance to win in the past, and is capable of doing so again, with any errant behaviour sure to see her price lengthen. She’s got the look of a second or even third string about her, so will be best played on the day, with exchange and tote odds sure to be lengthier than those on the bookmakers’ boards.
FIRTH OF THE CLYDE – Malcolm Jefferson (Robert Goldie) 9-9-13 (OR 135)
Owned and bred by Ayrshire permit holder Robert Goldie, Firth of Clyde has reaped the rewards of his breeder’s patient approach, and is now thriving as a 9-y-o. That’s fairly long in the tooth for a novice, but he’s lightly raced, and is still progressing. Bred to stay well, he’s done most of his racing at shorter trips, winning handicaps at Wetherby (2m) and Market Rasen (2¼m) this winter. He enhanced his reputation in defeat last time at Kelso, when finishing powerfully only to run out of room in the dying strides, and that effort suggested strongly that he would benefit from a step up in trip.
He’s not the sexiest in the line-up by any means, but his trainer knows how to win a Festival handicap, as he showed when successful with Attaglance and Cape Tribulation in 2012. Attaglance is also entered here, but appears more likely to go for the novice handicap on Tuesday, for which I’d originally suggested Firth of The Clyde. That means the son of Flemensfirth will either take his chance with the ballot here, or miss the meeting altogether. As mentioned before, that’s not really an issue if getting NRNB, as long as the odds are appealing enough – that’s certainly the case with the 33/1 currently offered by both Paddy Power and Betbright with the non-runner concession, and I wouldn’t put anyone off at such odds.
THIRD INTENTION – Colin Tizzard (Robert & Sarah Tizzard) 7-10-7 (OR 143)
It pains me to include the frustrating Third Intention in this list, but while he’ll almost certainly engineer a way of getting beaten, he is essentially a high-class chaser who will be ideally suited by race conditions, and has the raw ability to race on the bridle longer than most. While those who have backed him in the past may be reluctant to stump up their hard-earned once more, he really does make plenty of appeal for trading purposes.
In-running betting isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I’ve largely steered clear of the more complex trading strategies in this series, but if Colin Tizzard’s son of Azamour doesn’t trade at a fraction of his pre-race price, I’ll be staggered. You’ll probably be scratching your head looking for a placepot banker to land a share of that massive pool, too, and this fella fits the bill in that regard too.