Matchbook Ambassador Donn McClean attempts to break down the puzzle that is the Ultima Handicap Chase.
It’s a special day, Day One of the Cheltenham Festival.
The 361-day wait is over – be thankful, it used to be a 362-day wait – and you are on the brink.
The week still bursts with potential.
You have spent plenty of time over the course of the last 361 days trying to figure out the outcomes of 28 puzzles. You may have spent more time on some than on others, and you may have stayed up late on one or two nights struggling with a few of them, and you may have changed your mind on a couple of them, and you may have filed one or two in the too-difficult file and one or two others in the too-easy file. But now, very soon, the answers will be revealed. Therein lies a huge part of the excitement.
You probably didn’t file the Ultima Handicap Chase in the too-easy file anyway. It’s a real puzzle with plenty of plausible solutions. Coo Star Sivola, for example, is only 3lb higher than he was when he won the race last year. Minella Rocco is a Gold Cup runner-up who is racing off a mark of 152. Noble Endeavor is 4lb lower than he was when he finished third in the race two years ago. The vibes about Give Me A Copper have been strong, and Up For Review is a progressive 10-year-old who ran a cracking race in the Thyestes Chase last time.
That said, Mister Whitaker could be the value of the race.
Mick Channon’s horse won the Close Brothers Chase at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, so we know that he can operate under Cheltenham Festival conditions. Actually, he is two from three at Cheltenham, he won the Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase at the January meeting last year. Cheltenham is his track.
He looked set to step forward significantly this season when he won the Colin Parker Memorial Chase at Carlisle on his debut, but he was a little disappointing next time in the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham’s November meeting. In mitigation, he raced out the back that day in a race in which the front-runners were dominant. Baron Alco and Frodon raced prominently from early, and they had it between them from a long way out.
In that race, and again next time when he finished fourth behind Cyrname in a handicap chase at Ascot in a race in which nothing was able to close on the winner, Mister Whitaker shaped as if he would probably appreciate a step up to three miles.
He is still only seven, he has raced just eight times over fences, and he still has the potential to go beyond the handicap rating of 151 off which he races today, especially now that he is stepping up in trip. We know that he goes well at Cheltenham, and he will appreciate the easy ground. Brian Hughes, who rode him to victory at Cheltenham last year, is back on board for the first time since and, in a hugely competitive race, he could run well.
Klassical Dream could also run well in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Willie Mullins’ horse had the option of running instead on the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle on Wednesday over two miles and five furlongs, so it is significant that Mullins is allowing him take his chance in the curtain-raiser, given that he already has a big player in the race in Aramon. It is also obviously significant that Ruby Walsh will ride Klassical Dream.
The Dream Well gelding won his maiden at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival on his debut for Willie Mullins, and he stepped forward from that next time to land a Grade 1 contest back at Leopardstown, at the Dublin Racing Festival in early February. He battled back well to get the better of his stable companion Aramon that day, and the pair of them came six lengths clear of Vision D’Honneur in third.
Vision D’Honneur should appreciate the softer ground that he will get today, and Gordon Elliott’s horse is interesting, racing in a tongue-tie for the first time today. But Klassical Dream should also appreciate the easier ground. He got to within four and a half lengths of the top-class Master Dino in a Grade 1 juvenile hurdle at Auteuil in November last season on ground that was described as very soft.
Fakir D’Oudairies is interesting, getting the 8lb juveniles’ allowance, but Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh have teamed up to land three of the last six renewals of this race, and they could further enhance that record today.
Your host Tom Stanley is joined by Donn McClean, Rory Delargy and Matchbook’s Micheál Deasy to preview the first two days of the Festival.