The first edition of handicap tips for the Cheltenham Festival this year features the Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase on Champion Day.
Last year’s winner Mister Whitaker runs in the Ultima earlier on the card and he came into this carrying bottom-weight of 11st 2lbs last season. Clearly he was a horse on the upgrade and there isn’t more than half a stone separating these young progressive chasers in the weights this year.
There has been no shortage of horses towards the top of the handicap at shorter priced odds winning this in recent years and the typical winner generally hasn’t shown their best performances to date and are more unexposed over fences. Hence, those with career chase starts of three to six runs, where the handicapper has yet to get a grip on their ability usually come to the fore.
One such horse that ticks most of the criteria and has received plenty of support in recent weeks is Tom Taafe’s entrant, RIDERS ONTHE STORM. It’s been a decade since this trainer picked up his last success at the Festival. But Taafe hasn’t tried too many over at Prestbury Park, and those that he has brought over have generally gone close.
This trainer won this back in 2008 with Fingeronthepulse and although Riders Onthe Storm has yet to win over a longer trip, he hasn’t had too many attempts over it and there is plenty of stamina in his pedigree so he should see this out.
Riders Onthe Storm has progressed steadily over fences having been given time to mature as stated by the yard recently. The son of Scorpion put in an improved effort when going down in third by a fair distance in a Grade 1 at Limerick in December over two miles behind top novice chasers Getabird and Hardline.
That represented a decent run despite the extent of the losing margin with subsequent winners in behind him, and he duly picked up his first win over fences back over two miles at Punchestown a month ago. That showed continued progression to beat Impact Factor, taking up the running from a long way out, and he looks the type to do well with a good gallop over 2m 4f miles.
Brian Hughes is an interesting jockey booking and there could be plenty more to come from this unexposed chaser who currently sits at a best price of 8/1.
The other horse that catches the eye coming in to this off top-weight is the straightforward HIGHWAY ONE O ONE, who has been competing at the highest level this season over two miles and doesn’t ever put in a bad race.
He’s not quite up to the level of being a Grade 1 winner and has been firmly put in his place by Dynamite Dollars on the three occasions he has tried it this season. But he proved that he could be extremely dangerous in handicap company when just being beaten by current JLT fancy Kildisart – when conceding 2lbs – here at Cheltenham and it feels like he is one of the better priced contenders at the top of the market.
Highway One O One put in a solid round of jumping on his first try over 2m 4f in an attempt to lead from pillar-to-post and he almost managed to win as he looked to stay the trip well up the Cheltenham hill having been competing over two miles for all of his career. That race has often been a good pointer for this contest and I expect him to run really well.
It will be more difficult to dominate in a big-field like this, but it can certainly be done and he has shown a great attitude in his races so you can envisage him being bang in there at the business end.
Both horses should have no issue with the weather outlook for Tuesday with both registering victories during their career on the forecast soft going.
Tower Bridge and A Plus Tard are near the top of the betting and are feared most in an open looking renewal.
1pt each-way Riders Onthe Storm @8/1, 16:50 Cheltenham, Tuesday (1,2,3,4,5 places, 1/5 odds various bookmakers)
1pt each-way Highway One O One @12/1, 16:50 Cheltenham, Tuesday (1,2,3,4,5 places, 1/5 odds various bookmakers)