After previewing the main Grade 1 events of the Cheltenham Festival, David Cleary turns his attention to the novices making the case made for four selections all at big odds...
"The Henry VIII has worked out well, a high view of the form supported by a really good time. Hitman leaves the impression he will be suited by the longer trip of the Marsh and there is ample stamina on the dam's side of his pedigree."
The best route into finding a value bet is often to find a reason for opposing the favourite at the prices. Which makes finding bets in the Grade 1 novice chases at this season's Cheltenham Festival a fairly thankless task. Monkfish put himself a class apart from his likely rivals in the Brown Advisory when winning so impressively at Leopardstown last month; Shishkin against Energumene in the Arkle is potentially the most mouth-watering head-to-head of the week; and then who would want to bet against Envoi Allen in the Marsh?
Case for opposing Envoi Allen despite his perfect record
Like Monkfish and Shishkin, Envoi Allen won at the meeting last March and he also triumphed there the year before. He's still unbeaten, having won a point, four bumpers, four novice hurdles and three novice chases, only very briefly looking likely to have a fight on his hands in any of those races.
That said, there isn't much substance to his form over fences this winter. The fact he had a breathing operation over the summer and has been fitted with a tongue strap might hint at greater frailty than previously.
Envoi Allen has been sent off at odds-on for all but one of his races and seems sure to be so again. Perhaps he is too short, for once.
For an option against the hotpot, Hitman makes appeal. He is full of untapped potential after just six runs. He was seen three times over hurdles in France, impressive when scoring at Pau on his third start. He was then transferred to Paul Nicholls' yard and won by 30 lengths at Ffos Las on his chasing debut.
Hitman was then fast-tracked into Grade 1 company. He acquitted himself well in chasing home the much more experienced Allmankind in the Henry VIII at Sandown, but then fell before he'd been asked for his effort in the Scilly Isles at the same track.
The Henry VIII has worked out well, a high view of the form supported by a really good time. Hitman leaves the impression he will be suited by the longer trip of the Marsh and there is ample stamina on the dam's side of his pedigree - she is by Martaline out of a Snurge mare who was half-sister to the high-class French chaser Urga, who was placed in the 3m5f Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris.
Hitman wouldn't have to improve much to be involved for the places in the Marsh and if Envoi Allen were vulnerable or failed to give his running, then odds of 28.027/1 would look very acceptable.
NH Chase: The best option for Happygolucky?
The fourth novice chase at the meeting, the Grade 2 National Hunt Chase, has a more open look to it than the Grade 1 events. This year's running has the novel element of the horses being ridden by professionals rather than amateurs, the unpaid ranks not yet allowed to ride in Britain under the elite sport guidelines.
That could be a factor in favour of Happygolucky, given that David Bass, who gets on so well with this type of horse, will be available to ride. Happygolucky has entries in the Brown Advisory and the Ultima, but the NH Chase looks the best option. He's had seven races since finishing runner-up in a point on debut. He won the first of four starts over hurdles and ended up finishing fourth in the Martin Pipe at last year's Festival.
Happygolucky looks much more a chaser and he's won twice from three starts. He found Fakenham too sharp when beaten second time out, but was much better than the winning margin, tried at three miles plus for the first time, when successful at Cheltenham before Christmas.
Happygolucky, given his other entries, is probably best backed with the Sportsbook on non runner money back terms, available at [16-1]. He has a handicap mark of 147 and is among the market leaders for the Ultima, so a small interest on the same basis at [10-1] might cover the options.
No es sexy pero Es Perfecto
Among the novice hurdlers, a more speculative option in the Albert Bartlett: Es Perfecto at 67.066/1 again non runner, money back. This looks the most open of the Grade 1 novices, as is so often the case, and it is a race with a history of surprise winners that turn out not to be such a surprise in the longer term.
Es Perfecto has had four runs over hurdles. He won at Warwick on debut, looked set to show some improvement in defeat when falling at Exeter and then chased home Bravemansgame at Newbury. That last race had just the five runners, but the form has worked out well, with the winner scoring at Grade 1 level next time.
Es Perfecto went on to run a cracker on his handicap debut at Newbury on Betfair Hurdle day. Stepping up to three miles for the first time, he cruised into contention in the straight and looked the likely winner two from home, but he was racing apart from the other principals. Once ridden he also showed signs of inexperience and ended up only fourth. That still represented marked improvement off a stiff opening mark.
Es Perfecto doesn't have the sexy profile of some at much shorter odds in the Albert Bartlett, but his form isn't that far behind the pick of the bunch, certainly not so far as the odds might indicate, and he's essentially very progressive. He's so far been kept away from the mud, so soft or heavy ground would be an unknown; Newbury suggested he was fully effective at the trip while not a plodder, so such conditions may not be ideal, but he's clearly worth chancing at the prices.
Riviere to break Mullins' Dawn Run monopoly
Finally, the entries were released last week for the Dawn Run, the Grade 2 novice for mares. Willie Mullins has won all five previous runnings of the race, though not always with the stable first string. Only in the inaugural year did he sent out just the one runner.
Mullins dominates the entries and may yet train the winner again, though the market factors that in and this looks wide open on form. The one that appeals as overpriced is Riviere d'Etel, at 25.024/1 on the Betfair Exchange.
Riviere d'Etel is clearly quite headstrong. She has worn a hood on her two starts in Ireland, winning a juvenile maiden impressively at Punchestown and then stepping up on that effort, despite defeat at short odds in a novice at Navan. She did a lot wrong in a small field at Navan, but a larger field and a better gallop out to show her to much better advantage.
Riviere d'Etel also holds an entry in the Boodles, the juvenile handicap, though the Dawn Run looks the more obvious option.