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2016 Cheltenham Festival tips – five handicap hopefuls under the bookies’ radar

The Cheltenham handicaps are a minefield - or are they?

County Hurdle

Our racing guru has unearthed five horses who may have slipped under the bookies' radar for festival handicaps.

Bookmakers have been squeezing the prices for the Grade 1 events at the Cheltenham Festival for several months now and, unless you’re already on at fancy odds, it might be worth waiting until the day to open your wallet when the price war will begin (set your alarm for early!). But the handicaps are a different matter and the following five horses might just have sneaked under the bookies’ radar for their respective engagements – bet away!

KATENKO – ULTIMA HANDICAP CHASE @ 33/1 BETFAIR NRNB

A fancy of mine for the Peter Marsh Chase back in January, only to be withdrawn on the morning of the race, I’ve been waiting for him to reappear since and the opportunity to back him at 40/1 is not to be missed. Very lightly-raced in recent seasons due to various problems, he looked on the way back when running at Ascot in December as he was travelling as well as anything when making a terrible blunder at the 12th fence causing his rider to pull up. If his trainer Venetia Williams has got him back, he has to be a big player off his current mark of 147, which is the same as his last winning one, and it should be remembered he was considered good enough to run in the 2014 Cheltenham Gold Cup, having won a valuable handicap at the track a couple of months before. Williams has a habit of springing shocks in festival handicaps – three of her six winners were sent off at 33/1 or more – so don’t be surprised if this fellow pops up on the opening day, when he should get the cut in the ground he needs.

LE CURIEUX – FRED WINTER @ 33/1 BETFAIR NRNB

Never heard of him? Nor me until the other day when I read a piece about his trainer Francois Nicolle and his planned first raid on the festival with a couple of horses, with stablemate The Stomp a possible for the County Hurdle. This fellow interests me most, though, as he has some solid form in France, winning at Moulins on his debut and following up with three solid efforts at Auteuil, most recently finishing fourth in a 2m2f Listed event. That performance earned him a rating of 136, the same mark allotted to last year’s third, The Saint James, who carried 11st 5lb. Nicolle thinks he will be suited by how the race will be run – a flat-out two miles – and has schooled him over some British-style hurdles at Maisons-Lafitte in preparation. Having some digging through the form book (trust me on this), I can also confirm he has the beating of the current favourite, the Paul Nicholls-trained Diego Du Charmil, on collateral French form, so what are you waiting for?

GABRIAL THE GREAT – COUNTY HURDLE @ 50/1 BET365 NRNB

This David Pipe-trained hurdler could be in for a busy couple of weeks as he is a possible for next Saturday’s Imperial Cup at Sandown and holds an entry in the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, depending on how he gets on at Newbury this Saturday. It’s a competitive race but he is undoubtedly one of the better handicapped runners on a mark of 126, given he was a 135-rated hurdler when with Donald McCain, who won three novice hurdles in a row with him. He was decent on the flat too, winning thrice and running eighth (of 31) in the 2013 Cambridgeshire, and it’s clear from his form comments that he has a high cruising speed, which makes him ideally suited to fast-run, big-field handicaps where they go a fast pace – like the County. He’s a highly speculative wager, I know, but he’s with the right trainer and there is no way he will go off at 66/1 if he makes the gig.

DELL’ ARCA – MARTIN PIPE @ 40/1 BET365 NRNB

No apologies for putting up another Pipe-trained inmate and for a race the stable is desperate to win for obvious reasons. He’s likely to line up with several stablemates on the day but none will have his credentials, those being a well-handicapped hurdler, capable of classy form on his day who has gone well at Cheltenham in the past, winning the 2013 Greatwood Hurdle and finishing fifth (of 28) in that season’s Coral Cup won by Whisper. He was running off a mark of 141 that day and having not really taken to chasing this season, he’s set to return to the smaller obstacles off a perch of just 135, which should just about guarantee him a run. With the stable coming to the boil nicely at just the right time, it’s not hard to see him running a big race and at least rewarding each-way support.

ULCK DU LIN – GRAND ANNUAL @ 33/1 BETFAIR NRNB

This is now the ‘getting out’ stakes at the Festival and bookmakers must love it as just about anything can win it, with plenty of hard luck stories and what ifs. But if this Paul Nicholls-trained chaser lines up he must have a leading chance as his front-running, catch-me-if-you can style of running is perfectly suited to this race. A five-time winner over fences but out of sorts in the early part of this season, he returned to something like his best at Sandown last time when touched off by a nose in a driving finish by Arthur’s Oak, who has won again since. The handicapper has a little harshly raised him 3lb for that effort but his latest rating of 143 is on a par with last year’s winner Next Sensation and he will still carry less than 11 stone with plenty of potential rivals rated higher. Good ground suits him ideally and it were to come up soft, he’d likely swerve it and we will get our money back.

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