Festival Focus: Handicap Hurdles

Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle – 2m 5F – Premier Handicap

Another Irish dominated market is headed by Camprond. He’s a horse who likes Cheltenham and came fourth in last year’s Coral Cup off a mark of 140. This year he’s 2lbs lower, after a short and unsuccessful chasing campaign. Back over hurdles, he’s not been performing well in handicaps, but his mark should work wonders, and he’s back at a track he likes.

Run For Oscar has followed up his Cesarewitch win with two decent places in handicap hurdles. Not been seen since New Year’s Eve, he’s at an acceptable mark of 147. The only negative is he would probably want the ground a little firmer than it is expected to be, with the current weather in Cheltenham being rather damp.

American Mike was meant to be the next good thing over hurdles, at one point he was short-priced for the Ballymore. But that hasn’t come to fruition and has had a disappointing campaign. He’s still awaiting an official mark and weight, but given that he’s a graded horse coming into handicap company expect it to be high.

HMS Seahorse has had a great season after winning last time out at Navan. He has good festival form after finishing fourth in the Boodles last year. He’s off a mark of 143, which is high for him, and should be able to defy it, given the talent he possesses.

Langer Dan has been switched from the Martin Pipe to the Coral Cup this year. Brought down at the first hurdle in last year’s Martin Pipe, he hasn’t won this season. This can be a good thing and has brought his mark down to a playable 142. Should be interesting.

Verdict: HMS Seahorse; I can’t look past him. He matches the criteria (five of the last 10 won last time out) plus the Irish have won the previous two years, so expect another win for the Green team. Best price is 10/1 with bet365.

Each-way pick: No Ordinary Joe; Didn’t get the race he wanted in the Betfair Hurdle, and stepping up to two-and-a-half miles might just suit him. Keeps a good handicap mark too and a good price at 20/1 with bet365.

Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle – 2m 7F 213yds – Premier Handicap

Some people like this race as a betting heat, others hate this race and the whole series. It’s a marmite of a race, but it’s still part of the fabric of the Festival. And this year might be the most competitive renewal it’s had.

This could open the door for the two JP McManus runners Thanksforthehelp and Perceval Legallois. I saw Thanksforthehelp in person, and he won really well and really convincingly. The rise won’t be a problem for him, but the quick turnaround concerns me. Perceval Legallois won at the Dublin Racing Festival, and he’s been raised 15lbs by the British handicapper. He’s performed well this season, but such a steep rise may be his downfall.

Gordon Elliott has the next three runners in the market. Maxxum failed to defy an 18lb rise, even with seven taken off him, last time out. The British handicapper has raised him further to 145, which looks almost impossible for him to shake off. The Bosses Oscar, however, is at a fair mark of 145. A decent third at Musselburgh last time out raises him by 3lbs. He’s had a good season, and is way lower than his previous Festival mark last year. He should be the one that Gordon Elliott sends to win. Trouble is, any softer than the softer side of good to soft is a huge negative, and the weather looks likely to be that.

Walking On Air is some tipsters nap of the week. A good win last time out at Exeter, and only four runs over fences, the handicapper didn’t have a lot to go on. They’ve given her a mark of 138 which, in the grand schemes of the race, seems rather fair. If the going reads soft all over, be a little worried as she hasn’t been tested on that ground.

Verdict: Thanksforthehelp; Low mark, eye-catching performance and ground proven. You can’t look past him. David Pipe has had a solid season, and this is his best chance of a first Festival winner since Un Temps Pour Tout in the 2017 Ultima. Best price 13/2 with bet365.

Each-way pick: Hector Javilex; Two runs at Cheltenham, one win, plus a good place in his qualifier. He keeps the same mark of 134 and looks a solid each-way play at 16/1 with Betfair

McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle – 2m 179yds – Premier Handicap

The cavalry charge is always an entertaining race, with young horses making their handicap debuts, and often winning (see State Man for reference). Speed is the key on the stayers’ course.

Filey Bay should have won the Betfair Hurdle, but a mistake at the second-last hampered his chances against an all-conquering Acunrisque. But he ticks all the boxes and Emmet Mullins has placed this horse brilliantly. 141 is a great mark for the race.

The novice Pembroke is second in the market, after finishing second to Rock My Way in a Ballymore trial. The step down would suit better, plus softer ground will benefit his chances as well. A lower mark than the favourite also makes for big appeal for Dan Skelton’s novice.

Gin Coco is another that ticks all the boxes. An eye-catching run behind I Like To Move It in the Greatwood Hurdle, and the winner has franked the form really well. A 4lb rise is just fine for Gin Coco, but just be weary if the rain comes and the ground is soft.

Sharjah has had his run in Graded races and finally makes the switch to handicaps. He finished close to Fil Dor last time out at Gowran Park, on deep ground, off a penalty as well. A drop to 155, bringing Graded form seems good for Sharjah, but others make greater appeal.

Winter Fog had an extremely eye-catching run over Christmas. Winning a handicap hurdle by six-and-a-half-lengths is no mean feat, and for that, the British handicapper put him up from 136 to 152. Expect a claimer on board, and a good run at a good price too.

Verdict: Pembroke; Even though Winter Fog has something good going for her, Pembroke takes the eye. With a better handicap mark, dropping back in distance and softer ground, Pembroke makes the appeal at 9/1 with bet365.

Each-way pick: Colonel Mustard can’t be ignored. A good run up at Kelso, there is a question of will he turn out in time, but he should get past that. Best price is 16/1 with bet365.

Martin Pipe Conditional Jockey’s Handicap Hurdle – 2m 4F 56yds – Class 2

This has to be the handicap race of the week. The quality this possesses is deep and brilliant. The Cheltenham Festival looks to end with a bang.

Gordon Elliott has an army for the race, but Willie Mullins dictates the market with Spanish Harlem, who finished back in second behind Riaan at Thurles. He kept on well, and two-and-a-half miles is his perfect trip. He has been placed on heavy ground, but something tells me that he prefers the softer side of good to soft, and not heavy.

Elliott loves the chances of Imagine. A great run behind Hunters Yarn, who goes for the Supreme, and brings in a decent looking form book. Nicely weighted at 139, this should be the number one pick for Elliott and Caldwell Construction.

Cool Survivor brings in Grade One form to the race. Finishing fourth behind Good Land at the DRF, the form of the races has worked out well enough for him to come here. A mark of 140 is not something to dismiss him by, because he possesses good quality. It’s hard to say where he’ll fit in the pecking order, but should be second choice.

Three Card Brag was talked up as a Grade One horse, but that didn’t materialise and has come here into handicap company. He beat Spanish Harlem on his last start in January by 12 lengths, so has decent form behind him. He’s been put up 9lbs, but the ground should be good for him.

It gets trickier after that, but Landrake should come here after falling last time out. But he has some great form after beating Corbetts Cross on hurdle debut. He won’t mind deep ground either and if does get to that stage by race 28 on Friday, then his price should fall.

Verdict: Cool Survivor; A difficult race to dissect, but Cool Survivor with his Grade One form and performance over soft ground makes him appealing to take on Spanish Harlem at 8/1 with Coral.

Each-way pick: Iroko; He might be the only British runner in the race, as the sparsity shows throughout the current card. But he’s had two wins this season, beating Rafferty’s Return, who franked the form. 10lb rise for the five-year-old might look harsh, but he should defy it, after defying a 7lb rise before.

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