All you need to know about the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase at Cheltenham Racecourse on March 11.
How good was the 2019 running?
When and where can I watch the race? 4,50pm, Cheltenham Racecourse, Tuesday, March 12. Live on Racing TV, Sky Channel 432, or afterwards at Racingtv.com/videos.
Which Grade? Listed. Which Course? Old Course. What Distance? 2m 4 1/2f (16 fences)
How much is the prize-money? £70,000
What age? For 5yo+. Weights & Allowances? 0-145 handicap. Penalties: After February 25th, 2018, a winner of a chase 5lb.
Sponsor? Close Brothers Merchant Banking Group
Key Statistics and Trends:
Ten of the last 15 winners finished first or second last time out and six of the last nine winners were victorious on their previous start.
Watch what Rachael Blackmore had to say after riding the winner last year
Horses sporting a new form of headgear had won or been placed for six years in succession until 2017 (Irish Cavalier had first-time cheekpieces in 2015).
Horses carrying a weight penalty in the race have struggled.
Winning form not essential:
Finger Onthe Pulse (2008) recorded his first steeplechase success in this race and a maiden over fences has placed in each of the last six years including filling three of the first five positions in 2012.
Not one for surprises:
Thirteen of the 15 winners were in the first six in the betting.
First sponsored by Jewson, this handicap was introduced to the Festival in 2005 as one of several new races created as part of the expansion to a four-day Festival. Initially it took place on day three of the meeting before being switched to the final race of the opening day in 2011. The ratings band is 0-145.
It’s a race normally chock full of fast-improving types, backed up by the fact that five of the last seven winners came into the race on the back of a victory.
Because of the nature of the race, a big field of novices going a strong gallop, jumping is a key feature and it’s hugely important to get into a good rhythm from an early stage.
Ballyalton aside, the race has been dominated by horses aged six or seven in recent years, but it hasn’t always been the springboard to bigger and better things, with only Rajdhani Express and Irish Cavalier going on to achieve a Graded-race success over fences.
Last seven winners and closing stages:
2019 - A Plus Tard
Rachael Blackmore booted home her first Cheltenham Festival winner as A Plus Tard streaked clear for a tremendous 16-length win.
The 29-year-old had been enjoying a fantastic season in Ireland and she made no mistake on the Cheveley Park Stud-owned five-year-old, who had beaten Arkle winner Duc Des Genievres on his penultimate start and was sent on his way at 5-1 for his handicap debut.
His supporters had few concerns for the duration of the two-and-a-half-mile contest, as Blackmore’s mount fenced fluently on the heels of the leaders before moving ominously to the lead racing down the hill.
Once given his head, A Plus Tard shot clear between the final two fences and winged the last to seal a 16-length success.
Joseph O’Brien’s Tower Bridge was second, with Gordon Elliott’s Ben Dundee rounding off an Irish one-two-three.
2018 - Mister Whitaker
The six-year-old scraped in as the 20th of 20 runners from an official mark of 137 and prevailed in a fantastic finish, overwhelming Rather Be in the final strides to register Festival glory for trainer Mick Channon and Brian Hughes.
The jockey took the brave route in mid-division and on the inside throughout. Even jumping the final fence victory did not seem particularly likely and, for a horse that doesn’t want to be in front too soon, Hughes could not have timed his challenge better.
Channon said: “He’d been laid out for two years for this, so he would just scrape in to make you a genius!"
2017 - Tully East:
Placed in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Hurdle the previous season, Tully East appreciated the switch back to handicap chases after two heavy defeats in graded company and that, allied with the step back up in trip, enabled him to run out a pretty comprehensive winner of this competitive event.
Well backed late on, he was given a cool ride by Denis O’Regan who produced his mount at the last before scooting up the hill to win his second chase.
“I’m just so pleased that the horse won. He’s a class horse and has been giving me that feel all year, and he has just run into a couple of good horses on the way,” O’Regan said.
“I was hopeful without being over-confident; we need so much luck here. He jumped, he travelled, and we had luck in the race with horses falling in front of us.”
Tully East was one of the market leaders to follow up at Punchestown the following month but disappointed his supporters with a below-par effort.
2016 – Ballyalton:
Ballyalton was a hugely-promising novice hurdler, so much so that he got within four and a half lengths of the mighty Faugheen in the 2014 Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdles.
Although his career had been hampered by injury after that, he finally translated his high-class hurdles form to fences when travelling all over his rivals, including the well-backed favourite Aloomomo, on his favoured drying ground before outbattling Bouvreuil in the final 100 yards.
Ballyalton’s emotional trainer Ian Williams, who trains at Alvechurch in Worcestershire, said: “That wasn’t bad for a poor jumper, was it?! He’s so good this horse, so good!
“For a horse that has a reputation for not being a great jumper, Brian [Hughes] has given him a great ride. He’s ridden him with a lot of confidence; he threw him at one or two fences and the horse came for him.
“He didn’t deserve to be here off a mark of 140, which gave me a lot of confidence, but he did have to jump, and jump he did.
“I thought we were beaten – I’ve been second here so many times and I was gutted to see one head him on the run-in. But he’s fought back bravely.”
2015 – Irish Cavalier:
Irish Cavalier had progressed nicely in his first season over fences and the addition of cheekpieces for his biggest test to date enabled him to reverse January course form with Generous Ransom.
It looked a tall order when Irish Cavalier whacked the third-last fence but once switched wide, he swept past his rivals under a determined Paul Townend ride to provide trainer Rebecca Curtis with her fourth Cheltenham Festival victory.
Irish Cavalier’s success was a first Festival winner for owner Andrew McIver. He said: “It feels fantastic, but a bit surreal. Halfway through the race I didn’t think he was going to win, and I was very surprised. And it looks like he can go further.”
2014 – Present View:
The 2014 renewal produced a dramatic finish as Brian Hughes attempted a daring manoeuvre up the inside rail aboard the staying-on Attaglance, but Present View, who had hit the front three out, edged to his left and shut the door on that rival, costing him all chance.
The subsequent stewards’ enquiry controversially ruled in favour of Jamie Snowden’s progressive six-year-old, who finished first or second on all five chase starts that season.
A relieved Brendan Powell, who guided Present View to success, said:
“To be honest I was the first one beaten and had to coax him back into the race. He winged a couple down the far side and got back that way.
“When you pull up after a finish like that thoughts are rushing through your head, but I know he would have run on again if the other horse had got to me. Mine’s still immature.
“I half thought beforehand that he wouldn’t be ready for a race like this, and while I jumped off handy I was soon towards the rear. From that point I was riding for a place, but he does jump well and that helped him.”
2013 – Rajdhani Express:
Radjhani Express is one of only two horses to carry top weight to victory in this contest, coming clear with runner-up Ackertac after the second last before showing bags of grit to repel the challenge of his nearest rival in the closing stages.
It provided trainer Nicky Henderson with his first win in the contest after Owen Glendower had finished third the previous season and proved the springboard to further success in a Grade Two novice event at Ayr the following month.
The six-year-old’s victory was the second of the afternoon for trainer Nicky Henderson, after Simonsig.
“He had looked a decent horse when he won at Kempton in December,” said Henderson, “But when he ran here in January the ground was almost unraceable.
“He couldn’t gallop through it, he couldn’t jump out of it, he couldn’t do anything. But today was a totally different ball game and he was able to show what he could do.
“There was a little nervous moment when Sam (Waley-Cohen) went for a bareback session at the top of the hill but other than it was very good.”
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