Although the original press briefing has been delayed until next Monday when we will hopefully get the chance to talk to the trainers and hear their gripes, the weights were announced by the Official Handicappers this morning with regard to the long awaited handicaps at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
Looking in brief race by race, and Sausalito Sunrise has to carry top weight if he turns out for the Ultima Handicap Chase where his new rating of 163 (up thirteen pounds for his last win) will see him forced to carry eleven stone twelve in a race limited to the top 24 in the handicap declared come race day, giving at least five pounds to the rest of the field.
With the Close Brothers Novices’ handicap Chase limited to an even lower twenty runners, it was interesting to see not one but five joint top weights, with Ballalton (Ian Williams), Aloomomo (Warren Greatrex), Bridgets Pet (Alan Fleming), Germany Calling (Charlie Longsdon) and Thomas Brown (Harry Fry) all rated 140 and set to carry the obligatory eleven stone ten. We suspect (rightly or wrongly) that the Greatrex yard will be least happy with their charge put up eleven pounds for winning at Ascot though it wasn’t any surprise, while we can second guess that Alan Fleming will not be happy with that mark for a horse who only won by a head at Fairyhouse at odds of 20/1 when rated a full ten pounds lower.
Nicky Henderson will be hoping that Different Gravey is exactly that if he lets the impressive ascot winner take in the Coral Cup where a rating of 160 awaits, eleven pounds higher than when last seen, but he could hardly have been any more impressive, and it will be interesting to see if he takes part carrying eleven twelve with the risk of the bounce factor? He would only have to give two pounds to Volnay De Thaix who is followed by Lil Rockerfeller who looks best in off 157 and may also be better than a handicapper. At present a massive one hundred and twenty-six entries won’t even get a run thank to the twenty six runner limit, and although we are confident at least two of those in the race won’t run, connections and owners must be biting their nails with worry.
Poor Gibralfaro is out on his own in the Fred Winter Juvenile and has to give three pounds away to Frodon and more to the rest, though in a race full of potential improvers that might not be so easy to do. He has been put down a possibly generous five pounds for below par effort at Kempton and may yet be reasonably treated if you ignore that run, though we will be looking through the weights between now and then looking to see if something else is better off at these weights and may have that bit more to offer.
Although the Irish are well known for insisting their horses are poorly handicapped at Cheltenham, they still win more than their fair share of races, and we think that off the record, Gordon Elliott will not be too upset over Taglietelle keeping the same rating of 154 as he carried in to third at Musselburgh. His profile really does look like a horse aiming at one solitary target, and although he has to give a couple of pounds to the consistent Uknowwhatimeanharry we are quite sure he will run a big race off his current mark assuming he sticks to the handicap route and avoids the World Hurdle.
Kerry Lee has certainly had a remarkably successful start to her training career but may not be too happy to see Top Gamble left with top weight ahead of the Brown Advisor Plate. Put up four pounds for beating an unfit Dodging Bullets, he is at least weighted to beat Village Vic on Cheltenham form, though if we had the choice we think a pound or two lower would have been more realistic. Connections of Champagne West may have also hoped for a little leniency – and didn’t get any, though Kings Palace has been dropped by four pounds and is undoubtedly well in at these weights if the David Pipe yard can only get him back to his best again.
Trainer Colin Tizzard is as down to earth as any trainer we have ever met with the possible exception of Nigel Twiston-Davies, though we suspect his words may be unprintable after Theatre Guide was put up eleven pounds for his win last weekend at Kempton. He is a decent sort and seems sure to run a big race if they send him to the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Chase, but weight stops them all in the end and the twelve stone three he would have to lump round here may just be enough to deter us from backing him. Doctor Harper looks well in off of 141 but seems more likely to head elsewhere from a list of entries, though as things stand this is about the tightest handicap of them all with just the four pounds covering the next eighteen in the weights after the Tizzard beast!
Irving ran a stinker last time out for no known reason but is still at the top of the handicap for the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle, all be it two pounds lower than his last tame effort. As things stand we can’t see him carrying top weight here and certainly not winning, though Signs Of Victory off of seven pounds less is a lot more tempting. Nicky Henderson is still seriously considering a shot at the Champion Hurdle with the son of Kayf Tara, but if he diverts the seven-year-old here he could yet be well in at the weights based on his homework if not his recent runs.
Of the four joint top weights in the Martin Pipe Hurdle, three are trained in Ireland and two by Willie Mullins, whose handicap record is not as good as many would think in the UK with just four winners from 107 runners in the last five years. Both Blood Cotil and Tennis Cap seem a little high on what they have actually achieved (as opposed to their promise), and others may well be better off at these weights. Harry Fry will be undecided how he feels about One For Harry who was left where he is after a good second to Top Notch at Kelso and as we felt he would be put up about three pounds, he sits in the possibly well handicapped list for now.
One more handicap to go with the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual and once again, Top Gamble heads the weights for Kerry Lee. Presumably, no final decisions will be made until a better idea of his opponents is known, but regardless we prefer the chances of two well handicapped alternatives for now. Somersby is a legend at the age of twelve for trainer Mick Channon and deserves to sign off with a win. His place form behind the likes of Sprinter Sacre, Sire De Grugy, and Dodging Bullets shows he is good but not quite up to the top level any more, but dropped six pounds and in to a handicap here, we could yet see a fairytale ending. Mr Mile is not as popular with the public, but if Paul Nicholls can get him back to form (and if anyone can, he can), then he is thrown in off of 155 having run off of 165 and win off of 155 in the past. He hasn’t had the best of times of late hence the drop in the weights (another five pounds lower here), though by definition he is the riskier option of the two mentioned.
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