Tony Keenan has been up and down the formbook for the Cheltenham handicaps and has found a host of big-priced horses to keep onside over the next four days...
"In a field largely populated with exposed runners, Velvet Maker has upside and is the sort of lightly-raced novice that does well in this while his second to Douvan reads well."
I love Cheltenham handicaps. They present a true test to punters with maximum fields filled with in-form, progressive types and if you find a winner you can rightly feel pleased with yourself. Even on the eve of the meeting, you have a chance of getting on a real handicap springer whereas the markets in the Grade 1s are largely static.
Diamond King has been a victim of the cold war between Gordon Elliott and Phil Smith this season and now finds himself 17lbs than when second in a hot Fairyhouse race; even allowing for that form working out, he looks too high. The other big Irish chance according to the market is Arbre De Vie and he is on fair mark judging on his Punchestown second but his preparation has been less than ideal and good ground is a worry.
Shelford hadn't been seen in nearly a year before reappearing in France last week but proved his wellbeing in winning at Enghien last week. His last run before that came when fifth in last season's Martin Pipe, a race that has worked out very well, and he was an eye-catcher on the day, racing too freely but still bang there until the last. I also like Baron Alco. He's thrived this season and was second in a strong race last time when Lil Rockerfeller was third and could well reverse form with Rock The Kasbah on better ground.
One of the joys of Festival handicaps is they allow you to back improving, in-form types at double-figure prices. The competitiveness of the races is part of that but so too is the presence of plot horses and no race is more known for plots than the Pertemps.
Arpege D'Alene disappointed over fences this season but it's not unusual for failed chasers to win this race and he showed the full benefit of a wind op when winning a Chepstow qualifier, better than the bare form too as a mistake at the last masked his superiority. Not only that but he has some good form as a novice when beating Tea For Two on that one's favoured right-handed track. Keep Saddlers Encore on side too. A good horse in his youth, his Sandown win looks strong form with Yala Enki in third.
Paul Nicholls is the only UK trainer to have won this race since 2005 but the prize might stay at home this season as the handicapper has really had the hammer out with the Irish horses. Blue Hell and Desoto County are respectively 22lbs and 11lbs higher than their last Irish run and even allowing for them running well/winning, it looks too much. Furthermore, Irish horses haven't done that well in the better English handicap hurdles this season like the Greatwood and Betfair.
Starchitect looks a good bet here with a lot in his favour. He shaped well in last year's Fred Winter judging on sectionals and the same was true in the Betfair where he was making his seasonal debut and running on ground softer than ideal. That form worked out well in the Imperial Cup too. Superb Story is solid while I like Townshend if he gets in. Last time, he was fourth in what was likely the best handicap hurdle run over middle distances in Ireland this season and the way he went through the race screamed he would be better over the minimum trip.
Squouateur won the same race as Townshend last time and in comfortable fashion, travelling much the best and only had to be pushed out to win. That form looks strong with the sixth having won since and he is one of the few Gordon Elliott horses to escape the wrath of Phil Smith with only a 4lb rise from his Irish mark. He's a good favourite and will likely go off shorter. Childrens List is worth having on side too. He looks ripe for a drop in trip having travelled well over three miles last time and the better ground will suit.
The Festival closer is about the only handicap chase where Irish horses have a good record but surprisingly it's also the race where they've been let in the lightest, at least judging by an average raise per horse by race. In a field largely populated with exposed runners, Velvet Maker has upside and is the sort of lightly-raced novice that does well in this while his second to Douvan reads well.
I can't resist backing 2014 winner Savello off a 3lbs higher mark either. He showed he retains all of his old ability on his first three starts for Dan Skelton before having everything against him last time in the Ascot Chase; the ground was too soft, the trip was too far and he was out of his depth. His price looks an overreaction to one explainable bad run and he can go well.
Back Killer Crow @ 13.012/1 in the Close Brothers Novice Handicap Chase
Back Shelford @ 27.026/1 and Baron Alco @ 28.027/1 in the Coral Cup
Back Arpege D'Alene @ 14.5 and Sadlers Encore @ 20.019/1 in the Pertemps Final
Back Starchitect @ 16.015/1 and Townshend @ 20.019/1 in the County Hurdle
Back Squouateur @ 7.06/1 and Childrens List @ 20.019/1 in the Martin Pipe
Back Velvet Maker @ 14.013/1 and Savello @ 34.033/1 in the Grand Annual
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