A very tight novices’ handicap chase with just 6lbs separating the field and there is no way in reality that they are this close to each other ability-wise.
So, it’s up to us to attempt to second-guess which horses are badly off at the weights and which look set to show that extra improvement so often forthcoming with peaking novices, leaving us with this shortlist of six who can all give a good account of themselves:
This horse may yet prove to have been very well named as he certainly has a chance at a very backable price in this event.
Not disgraced on his only start at Cheltenham in a bumper back in 2018, he has since improved very nicely and looks the type to keep doing so over fences as time goes on.
Nigel Twiston-Davies’ gelding comes into the race having run a good third at Ascot in November before winning next time out at Exeter, the only doubt being the penchant British trainers have for resting horses so long before the festival which has been the case here.
The trip and ground should be fine for him and if he had raced more recently, we’d be even keener but nonetheless he stands a decent chance at around 25/1.
Espoir De Guye
On a hat-trick now after successes at Exeter and Ascot, Venetia Williams’ runner was a very comfortable winner last time out on heavy ground although given that he has been booted up a stone in the weights for that, he may just struggle a tad in such a competitive heat.
He does seem to possess the ability though so if his last run wasn’t a season high, he’d be certainly in with a shout.
Hold The Note
Fourth around here in a bumper, it can be argued that he’s already proven himself at the track but tackling the fences is another thing entirely for Mick Channon’s horse.
His form took a major upswing when he was second at Warwick in January, but that was over three miles and it may just be that he wants a more extreme trip than what he gets today to show his best form.
Inexperience abounds in this race, naturally, so as handicappers we must decide whether we think the race is likely to go to one who produces much improved form or whether it should pay to stick with proven ability.
There isn’t much of the latter, but in Kim Bailey’s Imperial Aura we do have one horse who has won one and finished second twice in chases, the second runner-up effort being over the course and distance on soft ground a month-and-a-half ago.
He’s fit, proven in the conditions, experienced enough to cope with the situation and not too high in the handicap giving him that very solid look we’ve been searching for.
The last two on our list both come from the Fergal O’Brien yard, a trainer who knows what it takes to do well at this venue and both are huge prices.
In the case of Jarveys Plate he was a good winner at Chepstow first time up over fences, but has somewhat regressed since. While regression is never a good thing, we cannot ignore the fact that he’s done this before over hurdles before being reinvigorated and so if he should come back to himself again when it counts, 40/1 could look very silly.
Paint The Dream
The other O’Brien horse, this time one with more recent good form and over this course and distance too having been second in the Dipper on New Year’s Day.
He was given a 10lb hike for that performance which won’t have helped, but the quicker pace of this competitive handicap should bring out the best in him giving him a sound each-way chance.
Both Jarveys Plate and definitely Paint The Dream are overpriced for Fergal O’Brien, while Earlofthecotswolds has a sound chance if not a little undercooked, but the one who ticks most boxes is definitely IMPERIAL AURA and he is the selection.
He has gone up in the weights for finishing second and we don’t ignore that, but it is only in line with his general progression at this stage and with the horse behind him last time having since gone on to beat Not That Fuisse easily, the form looks solid too.