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Mark Howard best bets for the handicaps

The top analyst with five fancies for the Cheltenham Festival handicaps – including one in the final race of the week.

J.P.McManus has three Coral Cup wins on his decorated Cheltenham Festival CV, including Khayrawani twenty five years ago under a youthful Fran Berry. All eyes are likely to be on the lightly raced Sa Majeste who is expected to line up in the two miles five event in the famous green and gold silks off an attractive opening mark of 140.

The Willie Mullins-trained runner looked a Graded performer in the making when beating Grand National and subsequent Cleeve Hurdle winner Noble Yeats at Limerick over the Festive period. It would be folly to discount another McManus representative, BRAZIL (16/1 NRNB), who did the bookies a good turn when reeling in the short priced favourite Gaelic Warrior in the Boodles Juvenile Hurdle a couple of years ago.

A full brother to Irish Derby and St Leger winner Capri, the Padraig Roche trained six year old will be tackling the trip for the first time and, whilst he hasn’t shown much over timber during the last twelve months, he claimed a premier handicap on the Flat at last year’s Galway Festival.

A head winner off a mark of 82 in a seventeen strong field, the Galileo gelding is fully effective in big field handicaps – 21 runners in the Boodles when outstaying Rich Ricci’s subsequent dual Grade 1 winner. Five pounds higher than his victory two years ago, he had a spin over hurdles at the Dublin Racing Festival which ought to have blown away the cobwebs. Grade 1 placed, there could be significant improvement forthcoming over this longer trip.

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Novices have won half of the last ten renewals of the Ultima Handicap Chase on day one of the Festival. Amongst the roll of honour is Corach Rambler who claimed the prize on only his sixth run over fences off a rating of 140. The subsequent Grand National winner’s trainer Lucinda Russell will hopefully steer another novice GIOVINCO (12/1 Coral, William Hill NRNB) towards the three miles one event rather than the Grade 1 Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase twenty four hours later.

Rated 146, the Walk In The Park gelding has a similar profile to his more illustrious stable companion having begun his career in Irish points and has also raced a handful of times over the larger obstacles. Twice successful at Aintree and Newcastle this term, he forced Stay Away Fay to pull out all the stops in the Grade 2 Esher Novices’ Chase at Sandown in early December. Taken out of his comfort zone by the superstar Il Est Francais in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton eighteen days later, the race almost certainly came too soon in any case.

Given a confidence booster around Gosforth Park over two and a half miles, the return to this longer trip shouldn’t be a hindrance. The Irish challenge looks strong but it is eighteen years since the trophy headed across the water (and 38 runners). It could be heading up the M5, M6 and M74 instead for a third consecutive year.

When it comes to the County Hurdle, no trainer has a better recent record than Dan Skelton. Paul Nicholls’ former assistant has been responsible for four of the last eight winners and the Warwickshire based handler has been making all the right noises in recent weeks regarding his Betfair Hurdle runner-up L’EAU DU SUD (12/1 William Hill NRNB).

Only six, the grey won twice over obstacles for Arnaud Chaille-Chaille in his native France before being purchased by leading agent Anthony Bromley on behalf of the triumvirate of Sir Alex Ferguson, Ged Mason and John Hales. Placed in the Morebattle Hurdle at Kelso this time last year, he was fancied to go close in the Greatwood Hurdle over C&D in November but performed abysmally pulling up soon after the second last.

Found to be suffering from ulcers, the Skelton runner showed his true worth at Newbury last month. Racing off 129, he hit the front between the final two flights before being collared on the run-in by old rival Iberico Lord. Half a dozen lengths clear of the rest, the handicapper has raised him six pounds since but remains favourably treated and is set to carry 10st 7lb. A winner over two miles two in France, he ought to enjoy the stiff test on the New course and the likely strong early gallop.

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If Nurburgring and Kala Conti wait 48 hours and take up their entries in the Triumph Hurdle instead, the weights in the Boodles Juvenile Hurdle are expected to rise by five pounds with Liari and NDAAWI (10/1 William Hill NRNB) at the summit. Recent winners Flying Tiger (rated 134 in 2017), Band of Outlaws (139 in 2019), Aramax (138 in 2020) and Brazil (137 in 2022) were rated higher or equal to the latter who seeks to enhance Gordon Elliott’s impressive record in the contest.

The triple Grand National winning trainer has scooped the prize on four occasions and the Cracksman gelding appears to be the Cullentra number one. Similar to one of his previous winners Flaxen Flare (2013), Ndaawi started his racing career at Kingsclere winning twice as a two year old for Andrew Balding. Having lost his way on the level as a three year old, he changed hands for 62,000gns at the Tattersalls Horses in Training Sale last Autumn. Fifth on his jumping bow at Leopardstown’s prestigious Christmas Festival, he improved on that effort less than three weeks later at Fairyhouse finishing third behind the Willie Mullins trained pair Miss Manzor and Karia Des Blaises.

15 days later, he completed his preparation for the Boodles with a facile two and a half lengths win from stablemate Barrier. A 44 days break following three quick runs will have left him spot on for this and a bold showing is anticipated.

Click here for Sky Bet’s latest antepost Cheltenham odds

Gigginstown House Stud have enjoyed their fair share of success in the Festival finale, namely the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle with four wins since its inauguration in 2009. Eddie and Michael O’Leary may have the answer to the 2024 renewal, too, with the ex-French gelding QUAI DE BOURBON (13/2 Skybet, Bet365, Betfred, Paddy Power NRNB). He reminds me a lot of Don Poli who captured the prize ten years ago en route to establishing himself as a Grade 1 performer.

The five year old began his life in France under the tutelage of Yannick Fouin, and therefore comes from the same source as two other Willie Mullins Festival trained Festival winners Impaire Et Passe and Lossiemouth, looking raw and inexperienced when finishing fourth at Auteuil in November 2022. Acquired by the boss of Ryanair shortly afterwards, he headed to Closutton and underwent the customary twelve months bedding in period in County Carlow.

A half-brother to ill-fated former stablemate Quais De Paris, the Ivanhowe gelding is two from two for his current connections winning at Naas (2m 3f) in December before following up over an inadequate two miles at Clonmel early in the New Year. With four career starts over timber, it looks significant Quai De Bourbon skipped Grade 1 engagements over two and two miles six at the Dublin Racing Festival and arrives here fresh after an absence of 64 days.

The return to the intermediate trip will be very much in his favour and an official rating of 140 appears to underestimate his ability and potential. The type to keep on improving throughout his career, it is worth noting Irish trained novices have won the two and a half miles event six times in the last ten years. As far as Ireland’s champion trainer is concerned, he has collected the prize with Sir Des Champs (2011), Don Poli (2014), Killultagh Vic (2015) and Galopin Des Champs (2021). The Gigginstown runner may be cut from similar cloth.

Mark Howard’s One Jump Ahead Cheltenham Festival preview will be published on Sunday 10th March. Priced at £10, it is available to purchase via www.mhpublications.co.uk.

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