With more and more firms going NRNB, and the handicap weights out today (Wednesday), these handicap previews barely qualify as ‘ante-post’ betting any more. Having said that, this is an excellent time to bet in the handicaps on the right horses: yes, all horses are priced defensively by the bookies, so 50/1 shots are priced at 33/1, but on the other hand there are plenty of horses which are likely to go off 10/1 or shorter available at 16s and 20s NRNB. It’s just about picking the right ones – easier said than done of course!
The Close Brothers is a race which very strongly fits this theory. Almost every horse is priced in the range of 12/1 to 33/1, yet a quick look at their form they have wildly different chances of winning. Furthermore, this handicap switched from 0-140 to 0-145 last year, and that makes it significantly easier to predict which horses will get a run. The lowest mark to race is consistently 137, so any horses rated below that can be discounted (taking into account any raises imposed on Irish horses by the English handicapper).
Given the nature of this race, the profile of the winners is logical:
- Finished in first 3 last time out (preferably in the first 2 unless it’s a top race) – i.e. they are proven to be in form;
- Have won a maximum of 2 races in the season – i.e. not overexposed, and had faced a setback along the way, meaning they ended up here but had the potential to be in the JLT instead.
And unlike some of the other handicaps, the market is good at identifying the best horses: 12/14 winners were from the front five in the market. Therefore a market check is advisable at this point: if the shortest five horses all have obvious claims, then actually there isn’t a lot of point in looking for value further down the list and we can wait for the day for a bet.
Some at the head of the market can be discounted from considerations immediately: Movewiththetimes‘ last three runs are PU/UR/F; Any Second Now was only 8th here last year so can’t be given a second chance; Whisperinthebreeze could only win an Irish handicap off a mark of 130 and is also entered by Jessie Harrington in the Kim Muir and 4-miler, suggesting she feels stamina is more of a strength than speed. Meanwhile the appealing mares Castafiore and Pravalaguna should go to the JLT to take advantage of their mares’ allowance, where both would be of major interest.
But there are three heavily-punted horses which merit a closer examination of their chances in the Close Brothers:
A Plus Tard – Has a good profile for this race, with one win from three starts, and ‘only’ up five pounds from his Irish mark, so still in with a shout. That win was a three-length success over Duc Des Genievres, but he was giving the older horse seven pounds that day, and showed real signs of greenness on the run-in. That inexperience is the big concern: he is only five years old and has run just eight times under rules. He is clearly very talented, but a 20+ runner handicap on the Old Course may not be for him.
Clondaw Castle – Again, the right profile with two wins from four this term and a win last time out. However to be so short in the betting (8/1 generally NRNB), he needs to be rock-solid, and the substance of his form leaves a fair amount to be desired to this observer. His only left-handed run saw him hammered at Newbury, and he has excelled on flat, quick tracks; also, his only visit to Prestbury Park (admittedly over hurdles) saw him post a dismal RPR of 106 last season. That’s too big a chance a take at the prices and he’s too short.
Campeador – Will no doubt be a warm order in the betting for this, with his prep run over hurdles screaming ‘JP McManus plot horse’, especially given that his hefty-seeming seven-pound rise in the weights still puts him below his official mark over hurdles. On paper, therefore, it’s all good…but Campeador’s jumping is iffy at best, and downright terrifying at its worst. I’d be very worried about him making one too many errors in the hurly-burly of this hot race, especially as he’s never jumped fences in a big field before.
In summary, then, none of those three can totally be ruled out – but there should still be some value elsewhere in horses whose equally obvious claims have yet to come to the attention of many. A thorough look through the list of the remaining entries brings me to the conclusion that this race isn’t as strong as some previous renewals, with the vast majority having fairly obvious weaknesses in their profile and/or form lines. That makes two British-trained seven-year-olds very appealing at the prices:
Highway One O One – Chris Gordon – OR 145
This tough campaigner has had six starts over fences already, which will stand him in good stead in the raucous surroundings of a Cheltenham handicap. He has only won twice, meaning his mark is low enough to get into this race, but the second of those wins is a serious bit of form, as he saw off Paul Nicholls’ Dolos in gutsy fashion at Carlisle. Since that victory, he has trailed behind horses right at the top of the Arkle betting, so lost nothing in defeat, and then ran a stormer at Cheltenham when narrowly denied by Kildisart, who has every chance in the JLT. That Cheltenham trial has produced three winners of this race already, and while he achieved a massive RPR of 151 for that run, the handicapper only put him up two pounds, allowing him to take his chance here. His trainer will have targeted at this, and smaller yards do very well in this race. In short, there’s nothing not to like, and 16/1 looks like almost double his true price.
Lough Derg Spirit – Nicky Henderson – OR 142
The Champion trainer has a good record in this race – 1 winner and 5 runners-up from 14 renewals – and this exciting Grech/Parkin-owned beast looks his best shout in 2019. He was awesome on chasing debut at Wetherby, but then couldn’t stay with Glen Forsa in an extremely strong race at Kempton on Boxing Day. The form of that race has worked out very well, and he never really got going – but in the Close Brothers, one below-par run is not a bad thing. Lough Derg Spirit bounced back to winning ways with a terrific spin around Ludlow and recorded an RPR of 145 in the process. That puts him right in the mix, and Nicky Henderson is sure to have him spot-on for his big day, as this is his only Cheltenham entry. It’s hard to see the market leaving him anywhere near 20/1 on the day.
Recommended Bets (27/2/19):
Highway One O One – 2pts win @ 16/1 (Bet365 NRNB, or Generally)
Lough Derg Spirit – 1pt win @ 20/1 (Bet365 NRNB, or Generally)