Our first big Cheltenham Festival betting handicap race is the Ultima, staged over 3 miles, 1 furlong of the Old Course.
Our final shortlist of six contains a mix of those very well fancied going into the big meeting, and some who to our eyes look particularly overpriced which make them great each-way options. Here’s our dirty half-dozen:
Dan Skelton’s French-bred gelding is inexperienced, both in terms of Cheltenham visits and in chase races overall.
This will be just his fifth start over fences, but he was fairly impressive when winning last time out at Sandown and may prove to be well-handicapped.
He remains of great interest, however both of his chase wins have been at Sandown Park while all of his best form is on softer ground than he is likely to encounter here.
One who is way overpriced for this is Ben Pauling’s Delire D’Estruval. True, he was pulled-up last time out, but that was to be expected of a 40/1 shot running on ground quicker than he’d like.
The rest of his profile marks him out as a horse with a serious chance. In 12 chase starts, he’s won three, been runner-up in three and finished third twice more.
He’s been improving overall over the past 18 months, his best run being his Silver Bowl win a year ago at Kempton. If he’s fit enough then he can go very well, though he still has to prove he can handle the track at Cheltenham.
Trainer Kim Bailey knows exactly what is needed to win here, and once again he has an outstanding chance with Happygolucky.
Shortening up significantly in the last few days, this seven-year-old gelding looks particularly well handicapped and he’s already proven himself around Cheltenham.
His last trip here, indeed his last trip anywhere, was in December when he was impressive in victory in a 3m1f novice chase in which he easily took care of Hold The Note among others, who has gone on to frank the form himself.
Happygolucky was also a strong fourth in last year’s Martin Pipe at the Festival, the only niggling doubt being his time off the track which is something done deliberately by more and more trainers now heading into this meeting and not always to great effect.
One of three lively outsiders in this list is Brian Ellison’s Nietzsche. Still just an eight-year-old with plenty more to come, this four-time flat and six-time jumps winner has plenty going for him.
His two chase wins have both come at Perth, which isn’t terribly encouraging in the context of this race, although he ran well enough when third last time out around Cheltenham in December.
We can expect him to have improved since that outing and so they’ve rather looked after his handicap mark, while he’s done fairly well in the past when coming back from a break.
One For The Team
Despite being on a losing run which has now extended to five runs and 13 months, One For The Team has attracted plenty of support in recent days and is rather a short price now at around the 6/1 mark.
He’s been comfortably beaten the last twice over three miles as well and hasn’t landed a win in four attempts over fences, yet still his consistency draws you in as he always appears likely to run to at least his official handicap mark.
That mark stands at 140 now, and while he doesn’t scream winner he has been on this rating since winning at Newbury last February over hurdles and you’d have to believe that he’s improved a bit since.
Olly Murphy’s The Wolf is another overpriced contender given that he’s properly race fit and looks sure to appreciate this extra distance.
He’s been OK in his four chase runs to date, winning on debut and finishing third to Chantry House last time at Wetherby, while his efforts at Cheltenham over hurdles didn’t bring about improvement, but didn’t show him up to be a horse who couldn’t handle the track either.
The bigger-priced runners here; Delire D’Estruval, Nietzsche and The Wolf are fair each-way propositions, but of the more fancied runners the solid one is clearly HAPPYGOLUCKY.
While his price is a little short and we’d love to have seen him have a more recent prep, Kim Bailey’s contender is the one to be on at these weights and he can get our Festival off to the perfect start.