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JLT Specialty Handicap Chase preview

Several more races on the card on Tuesday but I'm out of guest bloggers for Day 1 so the good fellas at Cheltenhamfestivalinfo.com have let me publish some of their impressive work. They're covering the lot this week, visit the site to read their opening day previews.

JLT Specialty Handicap Chase

A 3 mile race where no horse has defied an official rating of 150+ for 29 years and the last 12 winners have all been rated less than 144 (although the last four winner were rated 142 or 143, so close to that mark). Seven of the last 14 winners had been at least placed at a previous Festival.

Horses aged 11+ are 0-36 to even place since 1997, whilst three of the last eight renewals have gone to novice chasers. Nine of the last eleven winners came from the top 4 in the betting, relatively unusual for a Festival handicap. Six of the last nine winners were last time out winners. Paul Nicholls’ record reads is 0-15 in this race.

Note this was written before final declarations, so there will be a few horses not in the final field

Hold On Juilo, OR 145 (6/1) – Unbeaten chaser who has risen 28lbs in the weights this season. Has won his last two races, both at Sandown, despite his jumping rather than because of it and it is his jumping that could be the key to his performance here. If he jumps well and fluently then his last 12lb rise may not be enough to stop his winning run but unlikely to get away with the jumping errors seen recently and still win a competitive Festival handicap. Does not lack for stamina and finishes his races well.

Quantitativeeasing, OR 155 (7/1) – Went up 10lb for a Cheltenham success in December, leaving him at the top end of the weights for this. Five of the runners won (2) or placed in their next race following that one, franking the form. He additionally has two second places at Cheltenham, including at the Festival last year, so clearly handles the track. It will be a tough task giving weight to most if not all rivals in this.

The Package, OR 139 (8/1) – Second in this race two years ago, he is now rated 2lbs lower than at that time due to a 493 day lay off. In addition to his Festival second, he has had a win (Class 1) and two other placed efforts at Cheltenham. Should go close if fully fit after such a long lay off but that will not be easy for David Pipe to achieve.

Zarrafakt, OR 145 (16/1) – Second season chaser who has won or placed every time he has finished over fences (2 wins, 1 second and twice pulled up from 5 races, 4 as favourite). Will race off of a career high mark by 12lbs following his last victory (a race that has produced just one place from 7 runners since) but seems flexible to ground conditions. Finishes his races strongly and comfortable over this distance but probably best watched and backed in running if travelling well, given his lack of consistency. Making his debut at Cheltenham.

Baile Anrai, OR 133 (16/1) – Another Cheltenham debutant and another novice chaser. He has won twice and fallen twice from four chases. Will be racing from the bottom of the weights and his second to Fingal Bay over hurdles last October may be about the best of his form. However, his two falls have both come when tested against better opposition and may well find his jumping is put under pressure again here.

Time For Rupert, OR 153 (16/1) – How the mighty fall. This time last year you would have struggled to get 16/1 on this, then unbeaten, chaser to win the 2012 Gold Cup. However after breaking a blood vessel in last year’s RSA and a disappointing campaign this season, here he is at that price for the opening handicap of the Festival. Won a four runner graduation chase in December but has struggled every time he has faced anything like top class horses this season, including at Cheltenham in January when finishing 14 lengths behind Midnight Chase. Fortunately he doesn’t have to face top horses in this one and despite his handicap mark dropping all season to this chasing low, I have doubts whether he is good enough to defy the 29 year record of 150+ horses failing to win this.

Our Mick, OR 144 (20/1) – A novice who was not in the top ranks as a hurdler but has improved with every race over fences, rising 22lbs over the season. Has had some jumping problems despite never falling over fences and faces a step up in trip here. Despite winning three chases this season I believe this mark will prove too stiff for this Cheltenham debutant and I believe there are others at similar marks with better form.

Walkon, OR 151 (20/1) – An exciting novice hurdler who finished second in the 2009 Triumph Hurdle. The form of that race has not worked out particularly well though (Zaynar, Mourad and Starluck completing the frame) compared with some Triumph’s and subsequent injury set this horse back, missing 18 months of action. Started this season with a win but two novice chase defeats as favourite since, have left him looking vulnerable off this big weight. The step up in distance might make a difference but is not guaranteed to suit.

Tullamore Dew, OR 143 (14/1) – Placed at the last two Festivals (Coral Cup and Centenary Novice Handicap Chase), he now races off 1lb lower than the start of the season following a winless campaign to date. Ran his best race of the season last time out, losing by a head to Massini’s Maguire and may be competitive if everything clicks but a tough one to trust given inconsistent jumping this season.

Cappa Bleu, OR 147 (20/1) – A relatively inexperienced chaser having missed the whole of the 2010/11 season but returned in November last year with a win after 18 months out and has placed in both races since. Finished third behind Massini’s Maguire and Tullamore Dew last time out but 4lbs better off this time. Won the Foxhunters Chase at the 2009 Festival, before pulling up the following year in the Albert Bartlett. Not well weighted by the trends but could be less exposed than many in this race.

Mossley, OR142 (25/1) – A novice chaser who still runs off a 7lb lower mark chasing than his hurdle rating, where he was amongst the best long distance novices last year finishing second in the Albert Bartlett to Bobs Worth. His jumping has not always been fluent this year but if this has been resolved by Nicky Henderson, he could be very competitive off this mark on a course that seems to suit (1, 2, 2 at Cheltenham).

Fruity O’Rooney, OR 140 (25/1) – This second season chaser was somewhat below the best as a novice last year but since his disappointing first run this season has become a consistent handicapper winning once and placing twice from 3 starts (always at double figure prices), only rising 6lbs in the process. Has never appeared at a Festival and is yet to place in two runs at Cheltenham but could be underrated. May run a big race, off a nice weight at a big price.

Conclusion:
This does not look the best of races and it is easier to find reasons why each horse won’t win rather than why they will. As such I am looking to a couple of horses that have very good reasons why their handicap marks could be too low.

The Package clearly has ability, it is just a question of whether he retains it following almost 18 months out. If it hadn’t been for the injury I suspect he would be carrying top weight in a race of this quality and I will take a chance on David Pipe getting him ready for this, all be it a selection without a lot of confidence.

For similar reasons Cappa Bleu may still be ahead of the handicapper having missed 18 months of racing. Has returned well this season and this previous Festival winner should give punters a run for their money at 16/1 in a weak race.

Other horses that could run well at bigger prices are Mossley and Fruity O’Rooney. If Time For Rupert won there could be a lot of people kicking themselves saying “Why didn’t we see that at that price?” but he has not been too trustworthy in the past 12 months.

I will be opposing Quantitativeeasing. Even in a potentially weak race it is a big ask to win a Festival handicap from the top (or near top) of the weights whilst also stepping up in trip, despite being relatively young and progressive.

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