Handicappers' Corner: Everything falls right for Chris!

Captain Chris won well at Ascot on Saturday
Captain Chris won well at Ascot on Saturday

Ambidexterity can be a huge advantage in sport. For example, Ronnie O'Sullivan's tendency to drift into left-handed play is often dismissed as "showboating" in order to goad his opponents, but it is clearly a skill which has helped propel him to five snooker world championships.

"What isn’t in doubt is that Captain Chris is absolutely at the top of his game at present, this second successive wide-margin win making him full value for his lofty rating."

The similarly controversial Kevin Pietersen isn't averse to switch-hitting either. His trademark surprise left-handed boundaries have become a fixture of limited-over cricket in recent years, so much so that his former England teammate Eoin Morgan has predicted batsman in the future will alternate between left- and right-handed guards depending on the bowler they're facing.
Such versatility has also helped Japanese tennis player Kimiko Date-Krumm, whose ability to regularly turn a right-handed backhand reply into a left-handed forehand winner has compensated for her lack of stature and seen her notch up twenty-two career titles, plus be ranked as high as fourth in the world.

By contrast, horse-racing is one of the few sports in which most of its participants (equine ones at least) are ambidextrous, despite what some pundits might say! Indeed, a perceived left- or right-handed bias affects a vastly smaller percentage of the racehorse population than plenty would have you believe, with statistical evidence suggesting such a theory is usually well down any list of possible excuses as to why a horse has run badly.

There is always an exception to a rule, however, and Captain Chris (Timeform rating c175) certainly fits that role here. Philip Hobbs' stable star might have won twice at left-handed Cheltenham (including the 2011 Arkle), but there can be little doubt he's ideally suited by going the other way round, having long since shown a tendency to both hang and jump right. The latter traits have contributed to him running 16lb and 27lb below that peak Timeform rating at each of the last two Cheltenham Festivals. 

It is hard to overlook those last two visits to Cheltenham should Captain Chris be sent for another tilt at the Gold Cup by his sporting connections, which largely explains why he's a currently trading at 25/1 despite being rated only 4lb inferior to reigning title-holder Bobs Worth (c179). What isn't in doubt, though, is that Captain Chris is absolutely at the top of his game at present, this second successive wide-margin win making him full value for his lofty rating.

Admittedly, Saturday's renewal of the Betfair Ascot Chase wasn't a strong one by Grade 1 standards, but runner-up Cloudy Too (c158) brought some very smart handicap form to the table, so it reflects very well on Captain Chris that he could pull nineteen lengths clear of that rival off a strong pace. Third-placed Hunt Ball (c149+) shaped as if retaining much of his ability having joined Nicky Henderson after an unsuccessful spell in the US - he could well come on for the run, which is more than can be said for his stable-companion Riverside Theatre (c162§), who has been awarded a Timeform squiggle following this latest unsatisfactory display.

There was never a danger of a squiggle being meted out to either Restless Harry (c150) or Teaforthree (c157) after they'd staged a grandstand finish to the listed staying handicap chase earlier on Ascot's Saturday card, both digging deep in typically game fashion. Restless Harry is now clearly back in the same sort of form he showed over hurdles a few seasons back but, if anything, it is the runner-up who makes most appeal looking forward - Teaforthree was Timeform's top-rated runner for the 2014 Grand National following the announcement of the weights last week, and his encouraging Ascot second has merely consolidated that status.

Teaforthree, of course, won the four-mile National Hunt Chase during his novice days and stable-companion O'Faolains Boy (c146p) would be a very interesting contender for that content this year. As things stand, however, the mile shorter RSA Chase appeals as his most likely Cheltenham Festival target following Saturday's win in the Grade 2 Reynoldstown Novices' Chase at Ascot. Runner-up Many Clouds (c147+) was conceding 4 lb to the winner and emerged as the best at the weights on the day, whilst Gevrey Chambertin (-P) is also worth a mention after shaping well for a long way under an overly aggressive ride.

In truth, it wasn't the best day at the office for Tom Scudamore - he was also arguably guilty of going for home too soon on Heath Hunter (h128p) later on the card - but at least the afternoon had begun on a very high note, with big-priced recent recruit Un Temps Pour Tout (h151) running right up to the pick of his French form in claiming a wide-margin win in the opening novice hurdle. 

That makes Un Temps Pour Tout the joint highest British-trained novice hurdler on Timeform ratings, an honour he shares with stable-companions Kings Palace (h151p) and Red Sherlock (h151p), plus one with far less fashionable connections - the Scottish-trained gelding Seeyouatmidnight (h151). Sandy Thomson's small Scottish Borders yard has sent out just two winners in each of the last four campaigns, but it has already trebled that tally this term, with the cheaply-bought winning Irish pointer Seeyouatmidnight responsible for 50% of the haul.

Having lowered the colours of the highly-regarded pair Regal Encore and Racing Pulse on his previous two starts, Seeyouatmidnight made the step-up into open Grade 2 company with a battling victory in the Rendlesham Hurdle at Haydock on Saturday, beating the mare Mickie (h141) by a length and a quarter, with the below-par Celestial Halo (h163) a distant third. Cheltenham is not on the agenda for Seeyouatmidnight, with Thomson favouring a tilt at the Grade 1 Sefton Novices' Hurdle at Aintree before embarking on a chasing career with the likeable six-year-old.

Melodic Rendezvous (h164) also sat out the Cheltenham Festival last year, though that wasn't through choice - an eleventh-hour training setback forced him to miss the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Unless the ground dries out dramatically (which seems unlikely at present!), Melodic Rendezvous will make his Festival debut this time around and rounded off his preparations with yet another win on Saturday. An ultimately cosy defeat of Zarkandar (h163) in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton means that Melodic Rendezvous can now boast an impressive record of six wins from eight starts over hurdles. Indeed, the fact he is still largely ignored (25/1) in the Champion Hurdle ante-post market says more about the quality of opposition in what promises to be a vintage renewal than any deficiencies on the part of Melodic Rendezvous.

Whether his rivals on March 11th will include Un de Sceaux (h168p) is still open to debate, though, as Willie Mullins mulls over how many (if any) of his yard's three other entries will join its double champion Hurricane Fly (h173) in the line-up. The hugely exciting French import maintained his 100% record with a bloodless sixteen-length defeat of stable-companion Midnight Game (h146) in the Grade 2 Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park on Saturday and remains very much open to improvement. Unlike Captain Chris, it's unlikely there will be any issues with the track should Un de Sceaux turn up at Cheltenham - he's won on both right- and left-handed tracks, whilst he even briefly hung left on the stands bend a circuit out on Saturday!  

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