1pt win Beg To Differ @12/1, 0.5pt EW Morning Assembly @14/1, 0.5pt EW Southfield Theatre @20/1, 14:50 Cheltenham

The market for each of the Grade 1’s on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival all look fairly familiar. Nobody is going to get rich by placing single bets on the Willie Mullins’ favourites, and I for one would rather get stuck in to the exciting big-field handicaps where there’s plenty of value about.

It might comes as a bit of shock to know that in five of the last six years, more than 50% of all non-juvenile/novice handicap races have been won by a horse that either fell, pulled up, or lost by greater than three lengths on its last run, as pointed out by James Pyman in a recent Racing Post article. So much for following in-form horses.

We all know stats are there to be broken, but we should remain open-minded about those horses whose numbers do not quite stack up on recent showings. The handicaps at The Festival are more compressed nowadays anyway, and, by association, they are more difficult to get into, so it may pay dividends to be alert to this trend as the week unfolds.

One that fits this profile is the Paul Nicholls entrant SOUTHFIELD THEATRE. As an aside, I have a sneaky suspicion that the champion trainer’s best prospects for winners this week may come with ‘well-in’ horses in the handicaps. This horse would be a good start, and has an exceptional record at Cheltenham that reads 413422.

Those last two performances came on decent ground, including a nose second in the Pertemps in 2014, followed by a six-length defeat by Don Poli in the 2015 RSA, when there was no disgrace in being outstayed by the Gold Cup hopeful. Southfield Theatre has dropped 4lb off the back of his two defeats this season, where he finished miles behind Don Poli, and Gold Cup champ’ Coneygree before that, so he does need to bounce back in preferred conditions.

His novice chase form would give him a great chance and, with time to bring him back to form – off 101 days – I wouldn’t be surprised if Nicholls has managed to get him to somewhere near his peak. He is currently priced at 20/1, and represents strong each-way value to carry on his fine record at The Festival.

Jonjo O’Neill has a dab hand in this race with three wins in the last seven years. Another falling in the handicap ratings is course favourite Holywell. He was fourth in the Gold Cup last year, but appears to have lost his way for some reason this season. Two of his starts could be forgiven having raced on less than ideal conditions, but his last run is harder to excuse. He looked very poor at Doncaster despite racing on a sounder surface, and that places a big question mark against him.

There is no argument that Holywell saves his best form for Cheltenham, indeed he won this race as a novice off 6lb lower, so I am sure he will have plenty of supporters. But at a best priced 8/1 you are taking a risk if you back him, with not much value in return.

His stablemate BEG TO DIFFER might be a better one to side with as this talented novice remains very unexposed, where a mark of 143 probably still underestimates him despite the 10lb hike. He looked an impressive stayer in the making, when he won going away up the Sandown hill on his last start with something in hand. The first time visor will be worn again and that seemed to improve his level of performance.

His penultimate run at Cheltenham behind Perfect Candidate demonstrated that he will handle the hill, and he finally got the hang of things at Esher, and remains very backable at current prices. Aidan Coleman is also an able deputy with Dicky Johnson taking the ride on Kruzhlinin.

Lastly, I am drawn to Pat Fahy’s runner, MORNING ASSEMBLY. The 2014 RSA chase third finished behind O’Faolains Boy and Smad Place that day, and has got some cracking form in the book. Not least that run of two years ago where, in the same campaign, he defeated Gold Cup favourite, Don Cossack.

He has basically been off the track ever since, with only three runs to his name. The last of which saw him finish 11 lengths behind leading Ryanair fancy, Smashing. He jumped pretty well – as he always does – and looked to be in decent form with Ballycasey 4 lengths behind him in third in heavy ground.

Morning Assembly’s two runs this season have been over 2m 4f, but his best form is when his stamina comes in-to-play, so the step back up 3m 1f should play nicely to his strengths. He remains very lightly raced for a nine-year-old with this just his eighth career chase start, and this represents a material step-down in class as he historically been tried at Grade 1 and Grade 2 level.

His main aim for the season may ultimately be the Grand National, but he could be racing off a decent mark at 150 – 4lb below his highest chase mark of 154 – and his trainer may have snuck him in to this contest with the weights already published. Davy Russell is a superb jockey, and with it due to stay on the easy side of gd-sft, I think he is worth a final saver to round-off your shortlist in the ultra-competitive Ultima Handicap.

1pt win Beg To Differ @12/1, 14:50 Cheltenham
0.5pt EW Morning Assembly @14/1, 14:50 Cheltenham
0.5pt EW Southfield Theatre @20/1, 14:50 Cheltenham

Several bookmakers pay 1/4 odds, five places.

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