With the weights now published, David Cleary sifts through the nine Festival handicaps in search of value...
"The Betfair Hurdle form hasn't yet been tested but it looks potentially very strong. The first two were progressive novices, the race was run at a true gallop in a good time and there were no obvious hard-luck stories. Third home, running his best race, was Edwardstone, and he looks worth an interest in the County"
The final pieces are being slotted into the Festival jigsaw. The entries for the remaining races were unveiled on Wednesday, along with the weights for the nine handicaps at the meeting. Meanwhile Clerk of The Course Simon Claisse stated that he felt the meeting was likely to start on ground that was mainly good to soft.
The handicap weights got the most attention, but hopefully there is a stone or two there that is as yet unturned.
Homme Public the value in Boodles
There almost certainly are in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, the Fred Winter, a race in which the vast majority of the runners will be making their handicap debut and will be competing in a race vastly different from those they've run in previously. That has led to some big-priced winners over the years, though as with most of the handicaps, big stables have come to dominate in recent times.
Paul Nicholls and Gordon Elliott have won six of the last eleven runnings between them, while Nicky Henderson has won once and gone close on a few other occasions. Paul Nicholls certainly has an interesting contender in Houx Gris, who might be described as a dark horse, where it not for the fact that he's currently second favourite.
Houx Gris has run three times, twice at Auteuil in the autumn and then in the Grade 1 Finale Hurdle at Chepstow in January. He shaped a fair bit better than the 20-odd lengths he was beaten that day, behind two of the leading British juveniles. There's no doubt he's an interesting runner, but a horse he's closely matched with from France is available at rather longer odds.
Before he moved to Britain, Homme Public ran twice against Houx Gris at Auteuil. In the newcomers race in which both made their hurdling debut, Homme Public finished a place ahead of Houx Gris in second. A month later the placings were reversed, Homme Public going down by a neck after the pair had been nip and tuck up the straight.
Homme Public then switched to Oliver Greenall, having run in his father's colours in France, and has run twice, finishing second at Catterick and winning at Market Rasen. He might have done even better at Catterick (behind another Fred Winter entry Tinnahalla) had he not pecked two out and his rider accepted the situation in the last 100 yards, the margin flattering the winner.
Homme Public is a good jumper and he was strong at the finish at Market Rasen, both factors that encourage support, available for the Boodles at 21.020/1.
Spiritofthegames can add to Skelton's good Festival record
Another top stable which has proved adept at priming a horse for a Festival handicap is that of Dan Skelton, and his Spiritofthegames is the next suggestion, available at 17.016/1 in his bid to make it third time lucky in the Paddy Power Plate. There is no doubt he needs finessing, but he is undoubtedly on a good mark and has a fine record at the track.
Spiritofthegames was sixth in the Plate last year and third in 2019, having finished fifth in the County Hurdle in 2018. He has also run well in several of the other top Cheltenham handicaps over the years, most recently finishing second in the Paddy Power Gold Cup in November.
Spiritofthegames has had three runs since then. He didn't appear to stay three miles at Wetherby at Christmas, then never got involved in a race dominated by prominent racers at Warwick. He was much more competitive on a rare run over hurdles at Chepstow ten days later.
As a result of the two lesser chase runs, Spiritofthegames has been given a bit of relief by the handicapper, his mark the lowest he's ever had over fences. He hasn't worn cheekpieces on his last couple of starts, but it would be no surprise to see him back in headgear of some sort.
Hot Betfair Hurdle form points to Edwardstone in County
Talking of Dan Skelton, the stable's Third Time Lucki is currently market leader for the County Hurdle. There are plenty of other unexposed novices towards the head of the betting, bringing a profile similar to last season's winner Saint Roi and the recent Betfair Hurdle winner Soaring Glory (engaged here, as well as in the Supreme).
The Betfair Hurdle form hasn't yet been tested but it looks potentially very strong. The first two were progressive novices, the race was run at a true gallop in a good time and there were no obvious hard-luck stories. Third home, running his best race, was Edwardstone, and he looks worth an interest in the County at 21.020/1
Although he isn't a novice, Edwardstone has had just seven runs over hurdles and acquitted himself well each time, despite taking a long time to learn to settle. He was still overly keen when fifth in the Greatwood at Cheltenham on his return, but - after an early mishap on chasing debut - has been more settled in two runs since the turn of the year.
Edwardstone won a four-runner affair at Market Rasen then, came the Betfair Hurdle. He was clearly well served by the way the latter developed and there's every reason to think the County will suit him even better. It's a race over the years where it has been almost impossible for the leaders not to go too fast for their own good and winners tend to be strong travellers coming late from the second half of the field. Edwardstone ought to be perfect for that role.
Unexposed Lynwood Gold to make best of late Pertemps qualification
Finally to the Pertemps Final. The best starting point in recent years for finding the winner has been the Leopardstown qualifier, four of the last five winners having contested that event. Several possible contenders emerged from this season's renewal, but perhaps the other Irish qualifier, at Punchestown, is the one to concentrate on.
Unusually, this was run on Monday, over two weeks later than usual, after postponements due to the weather. Thus it took place after the entries had closed and didn't count so far as assessing a horse's mark was concerned, but it was a means of qualification. Neither of the first two home had been entered, while the third and fourth Milliner and Dalton Highway might struggle to get a run. However, the sixth home Lynwood Gold will and he looks worth backing at 12.011/1.
Lynwood Gold is a useful stayer on the Flat, who finished eighth in the Cesarewitch in the autumn. His run at Punchestown was his first outing since and he was certainly handled with an eye to the future, also patiently ridden on his first try at three miles.
In all, Lynwood Gold has had just five runs over hurdles, all of them on soft or heavy ground. His Flat record and the way he shaped at Punchestown suggests there will be more to come with his stamina fully tested and that he will be effective away from the mud.