This is the beginning of a series of closer looks at the handicaps at the Festival, and I will start with the Grand Annual. There are obvious reasons why this is the right place to start:
- There are only 58 entries, the lowest of any handicap;
- Only 20 horses can run this year, which makes bookies offering 4 places each way (as the majority do at this stage) acceptable;
- No race at Cheltenham has a clearer profile for winners, so it’s easy to come up with a plausible shortlist.
That third point is worth making clearer, because many people incorrectly (in my view) simply look for ‘trends’ to guide their choice in handicaps. These ‘trends’ are often simply statistical quirks from a relatively small sample size; the crucial thing is to use them to see if the profile of winners the trends offer makes sense given the type of race.
The Grand Annual is a ferociously run race, usually run on genuinely good ground: it is a test of heart, courage and speed where the smallest margins can make all the difference. So, given that, the profile that the trends provide does make perfect sense:
- 7/8/9 years old and fewer than 12 chase career starts – i.e. still with enthusiasm for the battle;
- Hasn’t won a handicap or graded chase this season, so the handicap mark is intact – i.e. every pound counts;
- If not a novice, competed in a previous festival chase, ideally with distinction, and ideally in this race itself – i.e. unexposed, or proven to be up to the task.
Applying these criteria, plus limiting ourselves to horses with an official rating of between 139 and 152, leaves a very short list of horses to examine more closely. Of these, most have really questionable claims. De Plotting Shed and Tycoon Prince are lurking on suspiciously attractive marks…but they may just be on those marks because their form is on a permanent downward trend. Bun Doran is in terrific form this season, and absolutely loves Cheltenham, but his handicap win in November put him up 10lbs and his mark is likely bust as a result, although he seems likely to run with distinction.
Last year’s winner LE PREZIEN leaps off the page, because he will run this year off only 1lb higher than his 2018 winning mark. That proves he enjoys the race, and returners have an outstanding record. His trainer Paul Nicholls is in stunning form, so there are no worries on that front, and he is available at a scarcely believable 20/1 NRNB with Skybet. This would be his 14th run, failing one of our ‘trends’, but that is only one higher than the historic rate, so that’s not something to get hung up about.
The actual negative – and the probably reason for that generous price – is that he put in the worst run of his career last time out at Sandown. That is a concern, because he will need to be foot-perfect in March to make an impact. But he was poor in his prep run in 2018, only finishing a distant 8th out of 10, and so at the price, I’m willing to overlook the Sandown run as a bad day at the office, especially given how weak the opposition looks this year.
Recommended Bet (22/2/19):
Le Prezien – 1 pt e/w @ 20/1 (NRNB, Skybet)