The wait is finally over for the 2019 Cheltenham Festival and day one gives us a real puzzle to solve in the shape of the 3m1f Grade 3 Ultima Handicap Chase.
24 runners line up for what this time could be a brutal stamina test, the clerk of the course stating he believes the ground will be soft while strong winds look sure to batter the course too making every race that little bit harder for the horses.
As always we’ve managed to use what we know to whittle this field down, the below half-dozen arguably best placed to put their mark on this year’s festival with a day one win in this £110,000 event.
Beware The Bear
Having won here over 3m2½f on New Year’s Day we would have to be pretty sure Nicky Henderson’s representative should stay the course, though doing it on genuinely soft ground could cause problems.
He wasn’t quite at his best though ran on well late on to take fourth in this race last year and that was on heavy ground. On the balance of things he’d have a chance and must be considered a leading light.
Lucinda Russell’s nine-year-old could just be coming into this race a little underestimated, despite some less than exciting runs so far this season.
The good thing is he seems to be just coming to himself now and a look back at his previous form shows he is a chaser who was heading places and will not be found wanting for stamina in the tricky conditions. All of his wins over hurdles and fences have been gained when staying power has been the key ingredient and so he makes the list.
Give Me A Copper
Paul Nicholls has been in rip-roaring form of late and as such his Give Me A Copper has been well backed going into day one of the festival. Having only his fourth run over fences and having been soundly beaten in handicap company last time however leads one to believe he may not have very much in hand of the assessor.
Lake View Lad
His wins at Newcastle and Wetherby this term have shown Nick Alexander’s runner to have flourished for a three-mile trip and some softer going and this test may very well be in his wheelhouse.
True, after two wins on the bounce he’s gone up significantly in the weights but there’s no telling where the bottom of him is as he goes over further distances and so he is very much on the shortlist for this at an attractive each-way price.
Magic Of Light
Jessie Harrington’s admirable type had already won a good mares’ chase at Newbury over the winter when she was sent back over hurdles at Ascot, taking advantage of a low handicap mark to score again in Grade 2 company and in good style too.
She’d had the edge taken right off her when reappearing quickly over fences at Huntingdon before unseating when favourite for the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse and so her bad runs are chalked off. Assuming a clean round of jumping this time, she still looks capable of another step forward and will like these conditions. Her class shows her off to be a genuine contender here off a mark of 149.
Not the force of old of course when he ran second in the 2017 Gold Cup, but still Jonjo O’Neill’s gelding is only 9 and has more in the tank yet, coming into this off the back of two runs since having a wind operation with his best form of the season surely still to come.
It does seem for all the world that improvement is on the way and he will stand a chance off his current mark, though whether he really has it in him to win a handicap in these conditions is open to question off a rating of 152.
Plenty in this race have the right credentials to win it but perhaps aren’t the best handicapped at present, which at the likely odds means there is value in Beware The Bear and Big River to run into places.
The best of the bunch though in terms of liking the conditions, being well handicapped and having the class and the stamina to see this out is MAGIC OF LIGHT and it’s the 8-year-old mare who gets the nod for this one.