Three mile handicaps are competitive at the best of times, but the first handicap of the Cheltenham is perhaps the toughest of the lot. You’ll need all the help you can get with this one, here’s our guide to the race.
What happened in 2013?
Bit of a turn up, that was met with stunned silence in the betting ring as 28/1 shot Golden Chieftain scooted clear in a snowstorm (yes, it was March) to win by 10 lengths under promising young rider Brendan Powell Jnr.
It looked a typical JLT Handicap with four fences to jump with 13 horses still going strong armed with realistic chances but one-by-one they fell by the wayside, but not the winner, who found a second wind over the last two fences to deny the gallant Our Mick, who finished placed in this race for the second year running.
The winner finally got his jumping together and confirmed himself a well-handicapped horse. Well positioned throughout by Powell, he appeared to relish the trip and it´s likely there´s more to come at the distance, but he isn’t the most reliable in the jumping department.
It was no surprise to see Our Mick go well. There´s clearly a big handicap in him, and trainer Donald McCain, if keeping his handicap mark down, will surely be aiming for this race again in 2014. Third place White Star Lane also had previous Festival form when finishing third in the 2012 in the Centenary while the fourth Tullamore Dew fared considerably better than his previous efforts around Prestbury Park.
2014 Major Players
Like all Festival handicaps, it almost impossible to have a confident prediction about who will line up on the day. Please feel free to return here nearer the race for a lowdown on all the big challengers.
Betting advice: strong race trends
This is a race that regularly delivers for trend followers. One of the strongest patterns is automatically eliminating any horse rated over 143 from your shortlist.
Top weights have a stinking record in this gruelling handicap where it pays significantly to carry as little weight as possible in the saddle. That theory would have only crossed off five of the 25 runners last year but one of those would have the well-backed 11/2 favourite Our Mick. The year before seven of the 19 horses were rated over 143, and only Our Mick again was good enough to finish in the first five.
Unguided Missile was the last horse to defy this stat in 1998 and no horse rated over 150 has won this race since Scot Lane all the way back in 1983. Golden Chieftain’s win was also the 12th time in the last 13 years that a horse carrying less than 11st has landed the spoils.
The same trainers come back year-after-year to send out well prepared horses for this lucrative handicap. Jonjo O’Neill is perhaps king of the JLT Handicap Chase, winning two of the last five renewals, both of whom were owned by JP McManus.
It’s best to keep an eye on the United House Gold Cup at Ascot, which is run in November, and the three mile handicap chase run at Cheltenham at their December meeting on the new course. The famous Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury is also well worth watching with this race in mind.
Bookmakers have yet to price up this market as there is little point in doing so as its nigh-on impossible to plan which horses will undertake this challenge. February will be the time to start plotting a punting angle on this race.
Rock On Ruby, who ran a gallant race to sustain a strong gallop to finish second, was sent on early by Noel Fehily and set a strong pace.
He was joined by the third Countrywide Flame and fourth Zarkandar with three to jump, but it was clear for all to see that Walsh was cruising on Hurricane Fly.
Cheltenham isn’t a track that suits him though as he was started to wilt as the line came but his advantage and class was too big for his rivals to peg back.
Life will be harder for him defending his crown, but he´ll likely arrive unbeaten again, unless something in Ireland improves beyond what is expected, and there are not many obvious contenders waiting in the wings in the UK.
If any horse can become the first 10-year-old winner since Sea Pigeon in 1980, it´s Hurricane Fly.
Although, he’s not the most straightforward to train and trainer Willie Mullins will have completed a very impressive job if he gets to Prestbury Park in one piece.