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Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase (Grade 3)
The Festival Handicap Chase, also known as the Festival Trophy, is a three mile Grade 3 steeplechase contested on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival (Tuesday 14th March).
Each entrant will face 19 fences. Its full sponsored name is the Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase.
Our tip for the Festival Handicap Chase was the winner of this same race in 2015: The Druids Nephew for Neil Mulholland and The Stonehenge Druids. He has been slowly dropping down the ratings and is well weighted this year for another big run for connections.
Running out a comfortable winner of the race two years ago, Neil Mulholland’s ten year old has only raced once this season, finishing ninth in the Silver Cup at Ascot in December. Let down by his jumping that day, he struggled to get into the race. He was entitled to need that run and the handicapper has now dropped him to a mark of 146, putting him back on the same mark as his last victory. He ran well in the bet365 Gold Cup Chase at Sandown at the end of last season off a mark of 153, and his last two starts at Cheltenham have seen him finish first and second.
He’s already been well backed for this race with a number of bookmakers and he’ll be suited by the better ground.
Often run under the names of its sponsors, the Festival Handicap has been part of the Cheltenham Festival since 1946. At just over three miles, this Grade 3 is one of the longest races of the week, with a good performance leaving trainers with one eye on a Grand National appearance in April. Only one horse weighing over 11 stone has won the race in the last decade and the race generally favours horses with more experience – the most common winning age is between seven and nine years old. That weight trend could well be one which is broken this year, with just eight of the 24 runners weighing in at under 11 stone.
The Druids Nephew has been seen just once this season, when struggling with his jumping in December over three miles at Ascot. Winner of this race in 2015, he travelled well throughout before being ridden clear after two out to settle the race. He is now back down to the mark which saw him a comfortable winner of that renewal following leniency from the handicapper: it was only three runs ago he finished a good second at Doncaster off a mark of 155. Ground versatile and a strong stayer at this trip, he looks to be in the perfect position to be the first horse to recapture the race having lost their title. Neil Mulholland is having an excellent season so far with a 20% strike rate across all races, and it would be fitting if he could win his second Festival race.
Tom George’s Singlefarmpayment has been having a stellar season, improving run by run before taking a well deserved victory in December at Cheltenham when keeping on dourly to land a competitive race. That run was his second win over course and distance here at Cheltenham, and he may well have kept his 100% record intact at the venue if it were not for being brought down in January by the fall of another rival. He was creeping ominously closer at the time and gets to run off the same mark of 142 here, which on his penultimate start could well be lenient. He was well backed on his last start here but he is a quirky type and will need to remain relaxed despite the buzz of the crowd.
Winner of the Grade B Paddy Power Chase on his latest start, Noble Endeavour delivered on the promise he had shown throughout his career to land the spoils with a great performance. He travelled well throughout under a great ride by Davy Russell and jumped exceptionally, looking the winner from some way out. Consequently, he has been raised 11lb but he remains with scope for progress over fences. H was a close second in the 2015 Martin Pipe over hurdles and fell when still in with a small chance in the National Hunt Chase last year, suggesting that the Cheltenham track will suit, and Gordon Elliott has suggested he will target the Irish Grand National after this race so he clearly thinks he has stamina in abundance.
With two wins from four starts at Prestbury Park, Holywell isn’t one to discount, despite his dismal record this season for Jonjo O’Neill. A gallant second in the race last year, he is now five pounds below that mark following his poor form this season. He was last seen when finishing eleventh in a listed race at Doncaster in January, setting off prominently before receiving reminders after the third and dropping to the rear. Clearly, on bare form alone, it is impossible to put him forward as a legitimate contender in this. However, a mark of 148 does make him interesting, being just three pounds above the mark off which he won the Festival Handicap Chase here in 2014. Given connections and the fact he bounced back last season to finish second, he is sure to attract interest in the betting, but he has plenty to prove.
Now down to a mark of 142 over fences, Henri Parry Morgan is another who cannot be discounted. Last seen when understandably no match for the Gold Cup bound Tea For Two at Exeter in February off level weights, he’ll be much happier back into handicap company now after that preparation run. Second to Native River in the Mildmay Chase at Aintree in April 2016, he clearly is useful on his day and his ground versatility is another plus. He does however have something to prove at Cheltenham, with two unplaced efforts to his name, falling in a Grade 3 contest when in contention on his latest attempt. He looks to have viable each way claims if at his best for Peter Bowen, so deserves a second look.
A creditable third in the race last year after staying on too late in the day, The Young Master does have claims on the best of his form. Snatching the Bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown last April on the final stride off a 2lb lower mark, he has had an understated season with just two runs. A fall in the Becher Handicap Chase was followed by an understandably poor effort in the Cleeve Hurdle, competing with some of the best staying hurdlers despite his mark of just 138. A pound higher than when third in this race last season, he does have work to do and something to prove at present, but at the age of eight it’s possible he still has improvement left in the locker. With Sam Waley-Cohen taking off three pounds, Neil Mulholland suggested earlier in the season that his charge would go for the Grand National Trial at Haydock before going to Aintree, but clearly thinks he can be competitive here.
Along with our in-depth analysis of the Festival Handicap Chase, we have all our other Cheltenham Festival tips and previews online to view now!
A massive field of 24 runners go to post for the first handicap of the Festival, the Ultima Handicap Chase:
- UN TEMPS POUR TOUT
- NOBLE ENDEAVOUR
- THEATRE GUIDE
- VICONTE DU NOYER
- THE YOUNG MASTER
- LABEL DES OBEAUX
- JUNCITON FOURTEEN
- THE DRUIDS NEPHEW
- IBIS DE RHEU
- CAID DU BERLAIS
- HENRI PARRY MORGAN
- PILGRIMS BAY
- GO CONQUER
- A GOOD SKIN
- VINTAGE CLOUDS
- VIC DE TOUZAINE