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Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle preview

Finding a winner at Cheltenham is hard enough as it is, but the Fred Winter steps it up another level. First-season hurdlers, largely unexposed, running in a Festival handicap, from a plethora of big stables who revel in plotting a course to a race like this without revealing everything their horses have to offer. Good luck!

The wise chaps at Cheltenhamzone have most races covered this week and they've chipped in to cover this juvenile raffle for me, written by James Norris. Note this was initially published on March 7, I have edited it slightly to be in line with the final field.

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2014 Fred Winter Preview

As perhaps the most difficult puzzle to solve of the whole week, Wednesday’s Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle can take its toll on punters. The lack of racecourse evidence, trainers’ endeavours to maintain a “nice mark” and the ominous prospect of horses already having the obligatory three runs under their belt in France being pinched to make their British debuts in this, thereby giving us almost no chance to gauge how good, well-handicapped or otherwise they are, can make finding the winner a test of luck more than judgement.

Paul Nicholls has no qualms about testing the waters with his French imports in the Fred Winter and this year, KATGARY, owned by Graham Wylie, follows that well-trodden path. Winner of his two most recent starts, he appears to stay well and has won on good-to-soft but the Ballingarry gelding’s ability relative to his likely opponents at Cheltenham and his handicap mark of 130 is hard to asses, even for his trainer. Following a good piece of work aboard Katgary, Daryl Jacob confirmed he wanted to ride him whatever Paul Nicholls runs in the race and such signs are naturally encouraging. I am still reluctant to get involved though as there are so many unknowns. The same sentiments apply to Tim Vaughan’s latest Gallic recruit LE FIN BOIS whose mark of 137 makes him even less appealing.

GOODWOOD MIRAGE is a different sort in that he has an admirable flat career behind him. Bought by Jonjo O’Neill “to win the the Triumph” for the race sponsors he has failed to live up to expectations since impressively overcoming juddering errors at the last two obstacles on hurdling debut at Kempton. Unsuitably slow ground and physical problems have contributed to heavy defeats on his last two starts at Cheltenham and back at Kempton in the Adonis but neither display has been replete with redeeming features. He is not a natural jumper, pulls too hard, has already failed to handle Cheltenham once and remains an entire horse. He does not deserve to be second in the market for a race like this and even accounting for faster ground he is impossible to recommend.

Willie Mullins is likely to be represented by probable top weight NOBLE INN and former Triumph Hurdle favourite IVAN GROZNY. Noble Inn has been a model of consistency. Since making his first start under rules a winning one he has finished second three times to his trainer’s best two juveniles, the sadly injured Analifet twice and Abbyssial. The suspicion is this form will only look stronger in time and he will appreciate the quicker surface at Cheltenham, however his consistency may prove his downfall as he has been set a stiff task by the handicapper. Ivan Grozny, also a Graham Wylie owned contender, proved a bitter disappointment to many on his latest start in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile at Leopardstown. He had be highly touted, his high class flat form in France combined with an easy victory at Naas saw him start odds on for the key ‘Triumph trial’ in Ireland, yet he was readily brushed aside. Ivan Grozny has largely been overrated all season and this potential tilt at the Fred Winter has more than a hint of desperation about it.

Gordon Elliott is no stranger to targeting Cheltenham handicaps and last year he took this race in style with Flaxen Flare. This year he is to be represented by CLARCAM who having taken on all the best Irish four-year-olds, as well as some of the British, looks exposed and ARZEMBOUY PREMIER. The latter is far more interesting and the English Handicapper clearly agrees having added ten pounds onto his official Irish rating. He was bought out of Guillaume Macaire’s yard by Simon Munir, successful in this race two years ago with Une Artiste, after a taking success in a three-year-old hurdle at Chateaubriant. His first start for Gordon Elliott was disastrous as he tailed off in a race won by subsequent Spring Juvenile winner Guitar Pete. His next and most recent start was far more encouraging when behind the aforementioned pair of Noble Inn and Abbyssial at Gowran Park. He will be four pounds better off with Noble Inn for a three-and-a-half length deficit and that display certainly didn’t indicate the limit of his ability.

To compete in the Fred Winter this tall son of Lavirco will need to jump fluently as he threw away his chance with two clueless efforts last time but if he does he may prove an appreciably greater threat at Cheltenham than his price suggests. Arzembouy Premier travelled with menace in behind Abbyssial until the second last, appearing the biggest threat to the eventual winner. An awkward leap and flat footed landing, followed by a ponderous attempt at the last gave him no hope in this slowly run affair. He also took a false step on the run-in yet only finished five lengths off, arguably, Ireland’s most talented four-year-old hurdler. Without the calamitous closing furlongs Gordon Elliott’s charge could have posed a stern question to the giant Beneficial gelding (rated 143 in Britain) and that form would be among the best around heading into the Fred Winter, thus his somewhat inflated rating of 135 may still underestimate him.

LINDENHURST’s defeat of Guitar Pete in October is a far more compelling piece of form in the light of recent events, namely his Grade 1 success at Leopardstown, and he may well be ahead of the handicapper as a result. That did occur all the way back on October 5th though and he has not set foot on a racecourse since. A break of that nature is often difficult to overcome at Cheltenham and taking that form literally is dangerous as Guitar Pete has improved enormously throughout the season. There is a case to be made for Lindenhurst but that absence, albeit intended, fails to sit comfortably.

As alluded to in my Triumph Hurdle preview the strongest single piece of form in the juvenile hurdling sphere potentially came during Newbury’s Hennessy meeting. Calipto won the race from Activial and both should have a say in the Triumph, while further back we find two of the Fred Winter’s leading players. DAWALAN needed the run that day and as a result shaped encouragingly in fourth. He duly stepped up on that performance with a convincing success back over course and distance next time where, despite the ease of victory, Cheltenham’s juvenile handicap on day two of the Festival was confirmed as his target. Nicky Henderson found his charge another simple task at the track a month later but he found the task more difficult than necessary. His hurdling could not be questioned, it was quick and accurate, his attitude could be, however, as he wandered around from the penultimate flight, losing concentration having been in front from the off, before slowing right down into the last hurdle. Under pressure to see off two challengers from the last he hung left, away from the stands, holding on by less than two lengths from Carry On Sydney (receiving seven pounds). Oliver Sherwood’s gelding is also being aimed at the Fred Winter and if he gets in he won’t be good enough (he didn't). The underwhelming nature of this performance did mean he was allotted a mark of just 133, with which Nicky Henderson was especially content.

Dawalan is by all accounts an exceptional work horse, as a half brother to Dalakhani he is beautifully bred for the job, his jumping is notably accomplished and connections believe him to be attractively handicapped. This combination has seen him heavily backed and he is now strong favourite for one of the trickiest races of the Festival. Given the quirks he has shown at Newbury, and then in a jumpers’ bumper at Kempton where a reluctance to go through with his effort saw him lose out by a nose, he is a worrisome proposition and the intended application of cheek-pieces will have to have a major impact for him to be successful at Cheltenham. A strong pace, cover and a lead for as long as possible will do much to aid his cause yet any price available will be too short considering the risks and I prefer the chances of another from “that race” at Newbury.

Two places behind Dawalan was the Venetia Williams trained, BARADARI. A €230,000 purchase off the flat in France, where he acquitted himself well in Listed contests, Baradari was a disappointment to connections on his British debut behind the aforementioned Dawalan, Activial and Calipto. In retrospect that was far from a bad run and like Nicky Henderson’s gelding he too needed the race both physically and mentally. He has the looks to match his price tag, a grand individual in the flesh, and a return to Newbury on Challow Hurdle day saw him outclass a reasonable field, including two possible rivals at Cheltenham (Cadoudoff and Ronaldinho), in tiring conditions.

The manner in which he travelled and extended clear at Newbury suggested he could legitimately hold Triumph Hurdle claims. He was then sent to Huntingdon to test their validity in the Chatteris Fen Trophy. The race was a farce and in defeat, Triumph hopes were dashed but as that door closed another opened with a resulting handicap mark that underestimates his talent.

At the start he was kicked in the head by an unruly rival and then found himself in the position of making the running with nothing else willing to pass him. He is the type to travel strongly from off the pace and pick up tiring rivals before stretching clear. Here Aidan Coleman set a sedate gallop in bottomless ground and as the field approached the straight they queued up behind ready to challenge. All bar the winner, Imperial Cup bound Harristown, were then in trouble as Baradari quickened the pace and he then looked in command as the final flight approached. An error at the last then saw Aidan Coleman lucky not to exit leaving Baradari unbalanced, causing him to hang his chance away on the run-in and hand the race to Harristown (in receipt of four pounds). Any number of factors contributed to unlikely defeat there and in a different scenario he would have come through that test successfully with a rating far in excess of 133.

This son of Manduro has the physique to keep progressing and, having previously shaped like a high class juvenile, would not have found himself out of place in a Triumph. As it is, events at Huntingdon have led to the Fred Winter becoming too tempting to resist. His best form has come on soft ground but I am not convinced he needs it to perform and off the same mark as Dawalan, with similar ability, arguably greater scope for improvement and without the questionable attitude, Baradari at 20/1 is taken to add Cheltenham Festival glory to Venetia Williams’ already stellar season.

Advice: 1pt win Baradari 20/1

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