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.
6. Pertemps Network Final
Back in the days when it was the Coral Golden Hurdle, this contest created a few legends, none more deserving of that title than Willie Wumpkins, who won the Aldsworth (Neptune) Hurdle in 1973 for Adrian Maxwell before heart problems threatened to derail his career. He was nursed back to health by Cotswold permit-holder Jane Pilkington, and between the age of eleven and thirteen, landed a near-incredible treble in the race under her son-in-law Jim Wilson. A couple of years after his final win, a new star emerged in the shape of Forgive’N Forget, who had been acquired for Tim Kilroe via Barney Curley, and whose remarkably short SP was in large part due to the money shovelled on by Curley, in one of his most celebrated gambles. Unsinkable Boxer landed a similar plunge for Martin Pipe in 1998, while Martin Tate showed that landing a touch wasn’t just for the big boys when Rogers Princess justified joint-favouritism nearly a decade earlier.
Given the qualification conditions, this race has traditionally been one for the “plungers”, but like most Festival handicaps, it’s now almost impossible to get in off a light weight, and the handicap is compressed as a result. Connections must show enough to guarantee a run, which makes plots easier to spot. Arguably, the one who looks most leniently treated is the top weight Fingal Bay, who was a cosy winner of what looked a very deep qualifier at Exeter last month. He and runner-up If In Doubt are obvious contenders, but I’m not here to state the obvious, so here are a quintet of contenders from slightly murkier waters:
UPSWING – Jonjo O’Neill (J P McManus) 6-10-10 (OR 132)
It may appear that J P McManus ahs stronger contenders than Upswing in this year’s Pertemps, but it bears repeating that he’s often gone mob-handed into the contest, and has twice won it with unconsidered outsiders in the shape of Kadoun and Creon. This improving handicapper certainly doesn’t fit into that category, and is a very live outsider indeed.
A winner on his first 2 handicap starts over 17f either side of a seasonal break, he’s progressed again since, and was too strong for the underrated Rydon Pynes at Newbury last month on his first try beyond 3m. The fact that he had the speed to win around 2m, and yet saw 25f out thoroughly at Newbury augurs well for his chances in a race which tests tactical speed just a s much as stamina, as dual winner Buena Vista has shown in the recent past.
Upswing was given plenty to do when a respectable sixth behind Thomas Crapper at Cheltenham in November, and showed enough there to suggest he handled the track perfectly well. With only none runs under his belt, he’ll do better again in all likelihood, and is in with a fighting chance.
UNCLE JIMMY – Philip Hobbs (Andy Ash) 7-11-4 (OR 140)
Minehead handler Philip Hobbs has an extremely strong hand in this contest, as he has the Exeter one-two Fingal Bay as well as Champagne West among the market leaders, while Uncle Jimmy (a couple of places ahead of Upswing at Cheltenham in November) also took a qualifier at Warwick last month. Throw in the likes of Pateese and So Fine, and Hobbs might well fancy his chances of nailing the tricast.
Uncle Jimmy was steered to his latest win by Tom Cheesman, and it’s to be expected that the conditional will retain that partnership next week. His trio of wins have come with the mud flying, but he ran with great credit on good ground here behind Thomas Crapper, and underfoot conditions are immaterial, it seems. What I like about him is that he’s got a degree natural pace for a stayer, and seems adaptable in terms of tactics. Cheltenham, contrary to popular belief, is no pace for a one-paced plodder, and the ability to get out of trouble in a race which sees plenty of congestion is crucial. A rise of 7 lb for Warwick is no gimme for the Alderbrook gelding, but he’s another who isn’t fully exposed after just half a dozen handicap outings.
DRUM VALLEY – Oliver Sherwood (Tony Taylor/Adam Signy) 6-10-9 (OR 131)
A winner twice at up to 21f on good and dead ground, Drum Valley has somewhat surprisingly looked in need of a stiffer test when running creditably at Sandown (2¾m) and Doncaster (25f) on his last 2 starts, getting tapped for toe but strongest at the finish on both occasions, the first in a Pertemps qualifier won by Saphir de Rheu. That sixth-placed finish leaves him with a bit to find, but he was dropped slightly afterwards, and again on the back of a staying-on fourth to Mister Dillon at Doncaster in December. Said to need good ground, he’s been rested since, but such a lay-off hasn’t been a bar to success in this race of late.
In terms of handicapping, he may not be the most obvious, but with his mark just 1 lb higher than when a head second to Crowning Jewel at Aintree in October, with Uncle Jimmy in third, but due to be 11 lb worse off should the pair clash next week, perhaps he’s not weighted out of things after all. Still only a five-year-old, he may well step up again after a break, for all his tendency to get outpaced at a crucial stage is a slight concern. That makes him more of a place-only contender than a likely winner, but if the leaders press on too far out, he’s one of those who can be expected to come with a scything run from the ruck.
CANNON FODDER – Sheena West (The Cheapskates) 7-10-7 (OR 129)
It’s hard to imagine a more genuine mare than the pony-sized Cannon Fodder, who has thrived since being stepped up to staying trips over hurdles, making the frame on all eight starts at 2¾m or further. Those runs have been market by a tendency to go forward early allied to a rare tenacity when tackled, and the way she kept coming back at the superior Mayfair Music in a listed race at Doncaster at the beginning of this month was typical of her attitude.
There must be a worry that such a hard race so close to Cheltenham will leave a mark, but she’s thrived on similar battles in the past, and her appetite is undiminished. She doesn’t appear to have anything in hand of the assessor, but the Doncaster effort was probably a career best, so to assume she’s fully exposed because she’s so often off the bridle is foolish. Another who appeals more for minor money than as a realistic contender for the win, she’ll be priced accordingly, and is the type to include in exotic bets. She and her connections epitomise the spirit of Cheltenham handicaps, and is one little ‘un that I would be happy to roar home even if my money lay elsewhere.
BYGONES SOVEREIGN – David Pipe (Arnie & Alan Kaplan) 8-10-2 (OR 124)
Bygones Sovereign is probably too low in the weights to get a run in the Pertemps, but as discussed earlier, that should be no bar to ante-post betting, and he’s very interesting off his current mark. Kept pretty busy all season, he’s only run moderately once, and has shaped much better than the bare result on his last two starts at Wincanton (2½m) and Ascot (19f), gunned out of the proverbial gate on both occasions, and looking sure to drop away when headed, only to stay on again on both occasions. The pace he set under the unfortunate Kieron Edgar at Ascot was absolutely suicidal, and it says much for his fortitude that he was coming back for more in a race where most of those to mix it up front were legless by the home turn.
As his pedigree suggests, the son of Old Vic (out of a King’s Ride mare) a trip in excess of three miles is surely what he wants, for all previous efforts at the trip have been mixed. He was just over 5 lengths fourth to Uncle Jimmy in the Warwick qualifier, and would be 7 lb better off with that rival should they re-oppose.