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Cheltenham countdown: Six handicappers to keep an eye on

By Andy Stephens@StevoGG
Mon 5 Mar 2018

By Andy Stephens

There are plenty of short-priced favourites heading to the Cheltenham Festival but those after juicier priced winners need only glance at the handicaps because the bookmakers are betting at least 7-1 the field for all of them.

The weights for what are usually the most fiercely competitive races of the meeting were announced at Cheltenham on Wednesday, with trainers present instantly flicking through hundreds of entries to see if their respective horses have been allotted marks high enough to get them a slice of the action.

It is easier said than done and a far cry from 1990, when I recall New Halen landing the Mildmay of Flete Handicap Chase from 18lb out of the weights at 66-1.

These days the handicaps have become incredibly compressed and generally attract maximum fields. At this stage the ground is an unknown but here are a few who catch the eye.

If nothing else, they have scope to go off at shorter odds than they are currently trading provided they line-up:

DAY ONE:

Horse: SNOW FALCON

Race: Ultima Handicap Chase. Best odds: 20-1 with William Hill

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Connections of Snow Falcon have him entered in four races at the meeting, so he comes with risks attached, but a mark of 149 for this race might well help make their mind up for them.

The eight-year-old is rated 8lb higher over hurdles and you could argue he should be even higher than yet because he finished on the heels of Yanworth and Supasundae at Aintree in April.

He’s twice run creditably in Grade One company this term without being good enough - on the last occasion finishing a close fifth to Monalee in a deep race at Leopardstown.

The novice jumps and stays well enough, but would not want really soft ground.

Horse: MOVEWITHTHETIMES

Race: Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase. Best odds: General 10-1

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The lightly raced seven-year-old, owned by JP McManus and trained by Paul Nicholls, has been scratched from all the Grade One races at the meeting and I can see him being a springer for this.

He has run well in three small-field novice chases at Cheltenham this term and his bare form suggests he is only averagely treated but he appeals as the type to show vast improvement in a well-run, big-field contest where he can be covered up and produced late.

Movewiththetimes has run four times in fields of ten or more and his only reverse in those races was when runner-up in the last season’s Betfair Hurdle.

DAY TWO:

Horse: KURAKA

Race: Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. Best odds: General 25-1

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Kuraka has yet to wins from 11 starts, under both codes, and will need a few to come out to make the cut but that looks a distinct possibility and he makes each-way appeal.

His form on the Flat, when trained by Karl Burke, was nothing out of the ordinary but he has shown promise in four races for Gordon Elliott (three of them over hurdles) and a mark of 121 might well underestimate him.

Last time out over jumps he was third to Mr Adjudicator at Leopardstown over Christmas and that form was franked when the winner followed up in Grade One company to show himself a live Triumph Hurdle candidate.

Kuraka has since had an eye-catching spin on the all-weather, presumably to keep him ticking over, and double your bet on the day if Elliott puts some form of first-time headgear on him. He kept that trick up his sleeve for Flaxen Flare, his 25-1 winner of the Fred Winter in 2013.

Horse: TOPOFTHEGAME

Race: Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle. Best odds: 20-1 with Betfair.

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Topofthegame is every inch a chaser to look at but the imposing six-year-old was switched back to hurdling for this term after a tumble at Newbury in November and that decision has been vindicated.

He ran a cracker next time out when a staying-on fourth to William Henry in a red-hot running of the Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton in January and stepped up on that when landing the Heroes Handicap Hurdle over an extended 2m7f at Sandown.

Topofthegame will have to cope with an 8lb higher mark and a drop down in trip, but he’s getting better all the time and his stamina is sure to come into play. He would meet William Henry on the same terms but he is open to the greater improvement and this track might also suit him better.

DAY THREE:

Horse: SUGAR BARON

Race: Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup. Best odds: General 16-1

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There is surely a decent prize in Sugar Baron if he can learn to jump or travel with a bit more fluency.

He came from a mile back when sixth in this race last year, when beaten about seven lengths, and again finished with a flourish when runner-up in another race for amateur riders here in November.

It was the same story when he was touched off under Nico de Boinville at Sandown last time, when he was equipped with first-time blinkers.

On the plus side, he will be fresh after three months off and the handicapper has only nudged him up 2lb.

Nicky Henderson does not have him entered for anything else and I would imagine he would be spoilt for choice when choosing an amateur to ride him.

DAY FOUR:

Horse: WHATSWRONGWITHYOU

Race: Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle. Best odds: 33-1 with Betfair

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At present there are 38 higher-rated horses than Whatswrongwithyou in the County Hurdle but he would be unlucky not to get in the race and, if he does, he would surely be a massive player.

He’s also in the Imperial Cup six days before. Is that race a Plan B for Nicky Henderson’s seven-year-old, or could he try and pull off the double and land a £100,000 bonus?

Regardless, I want to be with Whatswrongwithyou wherever he turns up because the chestnut looks seriously well handicapped off a mark of 139.

He has clearly not been the easiest to train and has had only six races under Rules - he beat all bar Invitation Only in a point-to-point on his debut - but he has looked seriously slick in winning his past two starts at Newbury.

On the first occasion he breezed past smart stablemate OK Corral, a good winner since, and next time he won with stacks in hand. He has a high cruising speed and will stay further, weapons that also stand him in good stead in this contest.

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