The handicaps are undoubtedly the hardest races to predict at the Cheltenham Festival, as the challenge of working out which horses are still on lenient marks based on future potential and which have dropped to attractive ratings after underachieving in tough races on unsuitable ground is as difficult as any jigsaw.
Three handicaps feature on the final day of the Festival and here is how we see the trio panning out:
The County Hurdle has been a race dominated by the largely inexperienced in recent years that are open to untapped levels of improvement. Seven of the last eight winners have been aged either five or six.
Each of the last seven winners have also been sent off at a double-figure starting price between 10/1 and 25/1, which could help to narrow down the field.
Great Field heads the market and was impressive on his sole British start to date. However, the form of that race hasn’t been greatly advertised since and he was very keen that day.
Blue Hell hasn’t been seen since winning in November when having this week’s Coral Cup winner Diamond King back in third. However, he has been heavily hiked by the handicapper and is not guaranteed to relish this quicker surface.
Superb Story should like the ground and his second to Old Guard last time in the Greatwood Hurdle gives him solid claims from the bottom of the weights.
However, preference is for Wait For Me, who was third in the Champion Bumper last year, ahead of the likes of Yanworth, Supersundae and Bellshill.
Although his jumping could be improved, Wait For Me looks capable of running to a higher mark than 139 and his only defeat in three hurdles starts came against Supreme Novices’ Hurdle third Buveur D’Air.
Squouateur may have been raised 13lb by the handicapper for winning at Fairyhouse last month, but that has not stopped him from becoming well supported for this.
However, he is plenty short enough in the betting for a race so competitive and the value is now clearly elsewhere.
Imperial Cup winner Flying Angel is another for the shortlist despite his 5lb penalty, as is last year’s Festival winner Qualando and Childrens List from the stable of Willie Mullins.
Sir Des Champs and Don Poli are among the previous winners of this and another potentially star chaser for the future is Mr Mix, who may have only triumphed in one of his five hurdles starts, but has some strong form in the book.
Having dominated at Taunton, he was a good second behind the more battle-hardened Yala Enki last time and a rise of just 3lb seems plenty fair.
Having won last year and finished fourth in 2014, Next Sensation is back for another crack at the Grand Annual, running from a mark just 1lb higher than 12 months ago.
His form this season has been moderate at best, but a wind operation could bring about a return to his previous best.
But Rock The World has seemingly been laid out for this, having been kept off the track to retain what seems a workable handicap mark. He has already beaten The Game Changer this season, who appeared set to take second in the Arkle to Douvan earlier this week until getting bumped in the late stages.
Cheltenham’s good ground should suit too and he looks the one to beat.
The big threat may come from Sizing Codelco, who chased home RSA Chase runner-up Shaneshill off level weights on his last start. But the main concern is whether he has the outright speed to win this.
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All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.