Cheltenham Festival Focus: Shan and Dan can land the Ultima Handicap Chase

Dan Skelton's Shan Blue
Shan Blue's return is eagerly awaited in the spring.

Daryl Carter is back with his Cheltenham Festival Focus column for week nine, and after reviewing the week's action, he takes his first stab at a handicap with a requested bet...

"There won't be too many horses that have run in a handicap at this festival, having won a Grade 1 or recorded an RPR of 172 - none, I suspect."

Welcome to week nine. Christmas is over and done with, and the racing action was thick and fast every few minutes with little time to swallow a bourbon biscuit with a cup of tea - stop thinking of me stuffing my face!

There is so much to cover this week, so I have tried to touch on as much as possible, but only briefly. The markets are taking shape, and those at the top of some trees are pretty difficult to shake off, but it won't be long before the handicaps start flying at us!

I have requested a bet this week that I think should interest us, and although 8/1 is borderline what I would take, it is a stand-out price across the board from Betfair and one I don't want to miss out on.

This week's round-up starts on 27th Dec...

British Juvenile form still worth very little

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Porticello ran out a comfortable winner of the Grade 1 Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow, and although Grade 1 in name, that's all it was.

Gary Moore's youngster was a convincing winner by eight lengths over Saint Segal as 9/4f Forever Blessed disappointed and pulled up quickly before two out as though something was a miss. The race was run in good time in comparison to the Novice Hurdle later on the card, but again, this is another Juvenile contest in which the winner was given the lowest RPR rating in the last ten years - and by some way.

Porticello was giving the form of Knight Salute's Doncaster Grade 2 win a boost, and that contest was also rated the lowest on RPR's in the last ten years.

Both Knight Salute and Porticello are 12/1 chances for the Triumph Hurdle, but they need considerable improvement. The lowest RPR recorded by a Triumph Hurdle winner in the last ten years was Burning Victory 140, when a fortunate winner after Goshen's last gasp fall and 144 by Tiger Roll in 2014. To put that into context, Knight Salute and Porticello, who sit top of the British Triumph tree, have recorded RPR's of 124 and 128 - continue to wait it out.

At Kempton, Iceo surpassed anything that Knight Salute and Porticello have achieved to date when running out a convincing 17 length winner on British Debut.

He recorded an RPR of 130 and a time figure quicker than Rowland Ward's handicap win off 129, carrying two pounds less and he is a 14/1 chance for the Triumph Hurdle.

However, a word of caution, Paul Nicholls has won the race twice in the last ten years, both winners went on to be beaten at Cheltenham on trials day (26th Jan) and both by-passed the Cheltenham Festival after so it's worth seeing how he gets on later this month.

Edward the good, not great

Edwardstone had run out a commanding 16 length winner of the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown earlier this month and had plenty in his favour on these terms, despite his penalty. He solidified his Arkle claims with an impressive display in Kempton's Grade 1 Wayward Lad Novices Chase and is now a 5/1 chance for that race in March with the Betfair Sportsbook.

Solid is perhaps the correct word. He is a talented horse but doesn't excite you as a Ferny Hollow would, and it's hard to envisage him playing a strong hand in either the Champion Chase or the Ryanair the following season.

He has done absolutely nothing wrong, but I am not convinced he is the superstar we are looking for.

Simply stunning from Shishkin

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Shishkin returned to action with a sensational display in the Grade 1 Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton to win by ten lengths and was going away from Tingle Creek winner Greaneteen in excellent fashion.

It was a hugely exciting performance from the Champion Chase favourite, now 11/10.

We all know he is a brilliant horse and arguably the best chaser in training, and backers may only have one concern - the trip. Now there are few knocks you can give Shishkin, but we have to play devils advocate for the sake of this diary.

He was niggled along on the turn into the home straight here at Kempton, a sharp speed favouring track, and although the response was excellent, it was the 148 rated Before Midnight and not the 171 rated Energumene making the running.

This is not the first time he has been out-paced in the mid-section of the race, either. Notably, his Arkle win between flights eight and nine. He jumped boldly and struggled to maintain the deficit behind Allmankind and Captain Guinness before that pair eventually fell into a hole at the top of the hill after cutting each other's throats.

Assessing this Champion Chase over the weeks, we have already established that Energumene will likely get a soft lead in March, and nothing seems to have changed on that front.

The slight niggling doubt will come when Shishkin is asked to close and pick up Energumene, who will have first run on him and has proven to maintain a very high cruising speed that far surpasses that of Allmankind, Captain Guinness and Before Midnight.

All of Shishkin's best work, including over hurdles, has been in the latter part of his races, and I am not buying this rubbish talk of him hitting flat spots in his race - "flat spots" is a polite way of saying a horse is out-paced momentarily.

He will face his stiffest test to date in March, not just on form but on a tactical front also, and it will be a true acid test to see if this is a monster over 2m or 2 1/2m - either way, he is darn good!

Envoi is just not that good - get over it!

At Leopardstown, Envoi Allen won his first Grade 1 in open company, but he looked a shadow of his former self (although the level of his former self is up for debate) with this drop to 2m, not looking in his favour at all. This was not a performance to get excited about, with the once RSA favourite Battleoverdoyen matching him for speed until the final flight and the pair slower than Gentleman De Mee and Haut En Couleurs in the preceding contest.

Envoi Allen is now a 20/1 for the Champion Chase and 14/1 for the Ryanair, but it would take a braver man than me to back him for anything in March.

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Haut En Couleurs made a winning chase debut before Envoi Allen took to the turf, and he was impressive visually with the way he travelled, but the most potent part of the race was his finishing speed.

In comparison to Envoi Allen, he was 3.28 secs behind at four-out but 2.75 secs ahead at the finish line, and he prevailed with ease over the 135 rated Gentleman De Mee to throw his hat into the Arkle picture, for which he is now 12/1.

Haut En Couleurs' middle part of the race was run at a slower tempo than the comparative race won by Envoi Allen, but not enough to suggest Envoi Allen should have been folding up like an old deck chair and not slow enough to suggest the former should be underestimated.

Haut En Couleur's will surely improve for a step up in distance, and the Arkle may be a stretch given his mid-race sectionals, so the Turners Novices Chase would be a more suitable option for which he is not priced up.

A magical performance from potter

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The Future Champion Novices Hurdle has been a gold mine for Supreme Novice Hurdle hopes in the last ten years. Appreciate It won the contest before going onto Supreme glory in 2020, Abacadabras won in 2019 before a Supreme Novice second, Sizing John and Jezki are two other winners that also placed in the Supreme Novice Hurdle the same season.

This year's contest was won by Mighty Potter - our Ballymore selection - in good style despite a stumble early and suffering interference for much of the race as Largy Debut jumped violently out to the right across his pathway.

The race was run at a stop-start gallop set by the disappointing Largy Debut, but Mighty Potter was far superior to his rivals despite the lack of a truly run race.

Compared to the seven-length win of the 121 rated Brides Hill (should be given a mid 130's rating for the win), in the following handicap run over the same distance, Mighty Potter's circuit time was 15.75 lengths faster and 5.56 lengths slower from three out to the finish.

Mighty Potter carried 21 pounds more on his back, and negotiating the seven pounds he would give a mare usually would leave us with 14 pounds. If the handicapper rates Brides Hill's performance - which he should - in the 135 range, then Mighty Potter has run close to 149 on this performance, despite overcoming adversity.

There is plenty of talk about this horse going down the Supreme Novice Hurdle route, for which he is now a 14/1 chance. While a strongly run Supreme Novice would suit his strong finishing effort, he does lack tactical speed should he find himself buried away in a pocket, which would mean he would likely need a prominent ride.

He was notably strong at the finish, and connections will be pleased with how Jack Kennady struggled to pull him up after the race, suggesting plenty more to come. He is still learning, and I am delighted with our position on him for the Ballymore.

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On Tuesday at Leopardstown, a whole host of Cheltenham clues. An impressive display from Klassical Dream saw him shoot to the head of affairs at 5/2 for the Stayers Hurdle.

No doubt he stole a few lengths at the start over runner-up Flooring Porter in a race that the pair dominated from start to finish with few able to get in a blow, but he is a top-class horse that is unexposed at 3m and looks a huge player in March.

2020 Stayers Hurdle winner Flooring Porter is a 6/1 chance for a repeat victory and is another still firmly on the upgrade and proved surprisingly straightforward on this occasion.

Our ante-post selection Abacadabras was well behind, and I am afraid it's not looking good given he was a blatant non-stayer.

Galvin ticks all the boxes

Galvin landed the Savills Chase at Leopardstown, getting up late to win by a short-head over A Plus Tard. That was a career-best from the Gordon Elliott trained runner, and he has seen defeat just once since March 2020. There are very few negatives with his chances in the Gold Cup, and it would be no surprise to see him go off the favourite, especially with an excellent record at Cheltenham. A Plus Tard remains at the top of the Gold Cup market at 7/2 while Galvin is 6/1 and Minella Indo 8/1.

Galopin Des Champs stole the show on the final day of the Leopardstown Christmas Festival with an eye-popping display on chase debut to win by 22 lengths. It was as good a Novice Chase debut performance as I have seen, effortless, fluent, fast and very powerful, and he looks like a future festival winner in waiting. The Betfair Sportsbook seemed to agree by cutting him into 6/4 for the Festival Novices Chase - and even that looks big when looking down the list.

The time was very good for a debut performance compared to Galvin in the Savills Chase, and the Grade 1 winning hurdler looks far from ordinary for Willie Mullins.

Stage Star still needs more, but he may well have it

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Stage Star was an impressive winner of the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle at Newbury on Wednesday and followed in the footsteps of stablemate Bravemansgame, who won this race 12 months ago.

He travelled through the race strongly, but his finishing effort marks him down as a very useful horse, and there could be plenty more to come.

The Challow Hurdle field was 15.4 lengths behind handicap winner Dashel Drasher, jumping two-out, highlighting how strongly the comparative contest was run. Still, Stage Star was 16.40 lengths faster than Dashel Drasher from three out to the finish and on my figures, he has run up to around 145 here.

It's easy to say that the slower run circuit time had a good bit to do with the faster finishing effort, but you would be hard pushed to suggest that he cannot go a strong gallop. It would probably suit better, and he now has emerged in my book as a major player and at the very least the leading British contender in the Ballymore Novice Hurdle, for which he is an 8/1 chance.

Finally, on to Saturday at Cheltenham...

Hillcrest landed the Ballymore Novices Hurdle trial battling back to get the better of I Am Maximus with the pair elven lengths clear of the third. The winner, Hillcrest, looks like a future staying chaser, and it looks highly unlikely anything from the race will play a part in March, although Betfair went 25/1 for the Ballymore Novice Hurdle.

Le Homme Presse ran out a convincing winner of the Grade 2 Dipper Novices Chase, a race won by some notably future staying chasers, and that will likely be his bag in time. His best work came at the finish, and connections were thrilled with the way he hit the line.

He is very much on the upgrade, but stiffer tests await, especially if he heads to the Turners Novices Chase 9/1 to take on Bob Olinger.

It's risky, but Shan could be the man for Dan

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The one I wanted to put up this week was a requested price to the Betfair team on the back of a recently formed Ultima Handicap market, and that's Shan Blue 8/1.

The Dan Skelton trained horse was last seen falling when 20 lengths clear in the Grade 2 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby and was in the process of recording a career-best and, despite the departure, was still given an RPR rating of 172.

That form looks rock solid, and it's to my astonishment that the handicapper has left him on a handicap mark of 148 for the run.

That handicap mark is just two pounds higher than when scoring over fences in October 2020 as a Novice on just his second attempt. He beat the now 147 rated Snowleaopardess (rated 21 pounds higher), and he was giving her 13 pounds.

His Grade 1 Kauto Star win at Kempton when scoring over the 147 rated The Big Breakaway by three widening lengths is another solid piece of chase form despite the runner-ups jumping frailties.

Shan Blue has had just the seven chase starts and just four over three miles, for which he has won two. Connections expressed that he was fine after his fall but a little sore, so they were keen to give him time to get over the run.

Dan Skelton usually sends his handicap hopes to Cheltenham fresh, and they are rarely seen after Boxing Day, and while this is a little different, it makes sense.

I found it difficult to see where connections would go with him. Indeed not the Gold Cup rated this low, nor the Ryanair, so a handicap must be the sole option for them to bring him back in time for Cheltenham, which they expressed was the plan.

The Ultima Handicap seems the perfect opportunity. He has an excellent record when fresh. In fact, he is a horse to keep on side in the early part of the season usually. His form figures off a break read F (latest) 1, 1, 2, 3, and 1.

His two runs at Cheltenham on the face of it look as though he doesn't handle the track, and it may be the case that he is more of a flat track bully. However, his run in the Ballymore came at the end of a long season (best when fresh), and his Grade 1 Marsh run came after a grueling heavy ground test at Sandown - not the ideal prep - so it may be best forgiving those.

There won't be too many horses that have run in a handicap at this festival, having won a Grade 1 or recorded an RPR of 172 - none, I suspect.

He also fits plenty of trends.

He is a second season chaser for which they have won nine of the last 12. Seven of the previous eight winners were all rated above 142.
Eight-year-olds have won six for the last 13 renewals.
Eight of the last nine had run at the previous years festival.
All winners have recorded their best RPR rating over three miles.

So I want to get him on the board.

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Back Mr Incredible for the National Hunt Chase @ 17.016/1 1pt win NOW 26.025/1
Back My Mate Mozzie for the Supreme Novice Hurdle @ 15.014/1 1pt win NOW 15.014/1
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Back Gaillard Du Mesnil for the Festival Novices' Chase @ 26.025/1 1pt win NOW 34.033/1
Back Constitution Hill for the Supreme Novice Hurdle @ 7.06/1 1pt win NOW 4.03/1
Back Mighty Potter for the Ballymore Novice Hurdle @ 15.014/1 1pt win NOW 11.010/1
Back Ferny Hollow for the Arkle @ 4.57/2 2pt win NOW 2.89/5
Back Abacadabras for the Stayers Hurdle @ 21.020/1 1pt e/w NOW 34.033/1
Back Minella Indo for the Gold Cup @ 9.08/1 1pt win NOW 9.08/1
Back Shan Blue for the Ultima Handicap @ 9.08/1 1pt win

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