Tony Keenan has been through the graded races day-by-day last week but now gets to his beloved handicaps to conclude his series of Festival previews...
"North Hill Harvey was one of the unlucky horses in last year’s Supreme, making a jolting mistake when starting to get involved two out, but he built on that promise in the Greatwood, a race that was run in a good time and where the form is working out."
Betfair ambassador Gordon Elliott has been the story of the Cheltenham handicaps for a while now, his apparent spat with Phil Smith playing its part, and the trainer himself hasn't been shy about fanning those flames on the preview night circuit! Even in the absence of The Storyteller, it is notable that Elliott has the first or second choice in the market in five of the Festival handicaps on the eve of the meeting.
Elliott has trained four handicap winners since 2010 and possesses the best strikerate and level-stakes profit of the big operations in those races over that period. It is the other Betfair ambassador Paul Nicholls who does best in raw winner totals with eight along with David Pipe. There have been six handicap winners for both Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson while Elliott is joined on four by Philip Hobbs and Jonjo O'Neill.
Ultima Handicap Chase
Singlefarmpayment is simply a horse with a lot to recommend him in the first handicap of the meeting, a race populated with exposed and/or out-of-form horses. He clearly benefitted for the switch to Tom George last summer, a trainer who has suffered some bad luck at the Festival and is due some positive regression, and his form is working out well. That is backed up by some good figures on the clock and excellent course form while his being brought down last time could be a blessing in disguise.
It was too early in the race to say how he would have done but he was certainly travelling well and the result is his mark has been left untouched. Furthermore, it was an incompletion, not a nasty fall. Of the rest, Ibis De Rheu has a chance with his previous Festival form and the step up in trip will suit while The Druids Nephew is on a good mark if retaining ability.
One of Elliott's many favourites is Tombstone but he looks one to oppose despite his strong form from the Supreme last year. It is his form of this season that can be questioned as we just don't know what Jezki is after his time off and the ground would not have suited that one last time. There's also a doubt about Tombstone at this trip as he didn't finish off his race in the 2016 Deloitte, the best race he's ran in over further than two miles.
In general, you won't go wrong backing progressive, last-time-out winners in the Coral Cup ahead of the oft-underpriced perceived plot horses and Air Horse One looks that type in 2017; he would surely be much shorter if this race were run anywhere else having won his last three starts. He beat a pair of in-form types at Ascot last time, shaping like a step up in trip would suit, and while it could be argued that Cheltenham is not his track after two early season defeats here I prefer to concentrate on his upward-moving trajectory.
Last year's Supreme is clearly a key race at this year's Festival; not only did the odds-on Arkle favourite win that race but a few of leading fancies for the Champion Hurdle came from down the field. North Hill Harvey was one of the unlucky horses in last year's Supreme, making a jolting mistake when starting to get involved two out, but he built on that promise in the Greatwood, a race that was run in a good time and where the form is working out. Two from three at the track, he has followed the same path to this race as last season's winner Superb Story and for all that he is short in the betting seems sure to go well.
I realise I have put up three UK-based horses (unheard of for an Irish person at Cheltenham, I know!) but I quite like that as I've obviously found a few holes in the Irish horses in those races. Given some of the carnage that has ensued with non-runners and switchers at the meeting already, it makes sense to back both Singlefarmpayment and Air Horse One with the non-runner, no-bet concession on the Sportsbook as both still have other entries while you can stick with the Exchange for North Hill Harvey who is going to the County barring injury.
Back Singlefarmpayment @ 7/1 for the Ultima Handicap Chase with the Sportsbook
Back Air Horse One @ 16/1 for the Coral Cup with the Sportsbook
Back North Hill Harvey @ 9.417/2 for the County Hurdle
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