Get the champagne on ice and back Platinum for gold in Pertemps
THE Ultima is the first of the Cheltenham Festival handicaps and one in which I have enjoyed plenty of success on a personal level and tipping in this column. Unfortunately, Kildisart just failed by a neck to add to that record last season, but it is a race that has been kind over the years. One of the keys to finding the winner in recent years has been focusing solely on the British runners. You have to go back to 2006 to find the last Irish-trained winner (Dun Doire for Tony Martin) and, despite having numerous favourites in the interim, this is a race dominated by the British. There is no reason to change tack this time as, despite the Irish-trained Escaria Ten leading the market for some time, it is worth taking him on with the novice Lieutenant Rocco, who is clearly improving at a rate of knots. Novices have a superb record in the race, with three winners – Coo Star Sivola, Un Temps Pour Tout and Holywell – scoring in the last seven runnings and none of that trio was as good a jumper as Lieutenant Rocco. That is a huge asset to have in a competitive handicap like this – particularly as a novice – and I’d be shocked if he didn’t prove to have a good bit in hand of the handicapper off a mark of 147. He looks a Graded performer running in handicaps – he has an entry for the Brown Advisory – but surely has more chance of taking advantage of his mark in this. The handicaps have had a bit of a switcheroo this year, with the Boodles now taking place on Tuesday instead of Wednesday. While its slot may have changed, it remains no easier a puzzle to solve. This year’s juveniles appear to be a very good crop – particularly in Ireland – and with Quilixios and Zanahiyr likely to head to the Triumph, Saint Sam and Busselton are the pair who catch the eye having finished behind the aforementioned duo in Graded company. Preference is for Busselton, trained by 2019 winner Joseph O’brien, who has shown a very good attitude in defeat. His second to Zanahiyr was particularly impressive (Saint Sam fourth) and, although the form was reversed in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle last month, Saint Sam had the run of the race there and Busselton has a 4lb swing to overturn that form. It gets no easier on Wednesday with the Coral Cup the first of two handicaps and this is perhaps the most difficult to solve. This column struck with Dame De Compagnie last season who, despite being a much bigger price when this paper went to press, was incredibly well backed in the build-up to the race and was sent off favourite. I can see the same happening with Koshari – available at 12-1 at present – who defied a layoff of two and a half years to win at Cork in January before finishing an eyecatching sixth at Leopardstown on his last start. That race clearly didn’t pan out for him, as he was held up, but he picked through the field late on. That should have set him up perfectly for this and being trained by Willie Mullins in the colours of Susannah Ricci, I can see him going off considerably shorter on the day. The Pertemps Final is one of my favourite handicaps of the meeting and Champagne Platinum looks to have been primed for this after disappointing over fences last season. Sent off a warm order for the Kim Muir last season, the seven-year-old’s jumping errors proved costly. However, he has looked much more comfortable since returning to hurdles. He was very keen on his first start at Newbury, but was lobbing along approaching the last before his early exertions cost him at the finish. He then qualified for this race with a fast-finishing second at Haydock last month and has a huge chance off a mark of 139. Connections clearly think a lot of him, given how often the money seems to come for him, and I am pretty confident we have yet to see anything close to his best. He could definitely be contesting Grade 1s later in the spring. The Paddy Power Plate is the first of two handicap chases on the card on Thursday and the one who appears to have gone unnoticed in the betting is Midnight Shadow. Sue Smith’s eight-year-old finished sixth in the Marsh last season. Yes, winner Samcro has failed to show his true form since – but Samcro can be like that – and the third Faugheen hasn’t been seen since. But Melon ran a stormer to be third in the Savills Chase, Mister Fisher looks a live Ryanair player, Tornado Flyer ran Min close in the John Durkan and Annie Mc has had a terrific season. That form is rock-solid and Midnight Shadow looks to be off a very competitive mark of 149. Midnight Shadow was a distant second to Chatham Street Lad in the Caspian Caviar over course and distance in December and, while he was a long way behind the winner that day, often these races can fall apart. That’s not his only good form at the track. He won the Dipper – albeit in fortunate circumstances as Champ fell – and has the touch of class needed to win a race like this. The final handicap chase on Thursday is the Kim Muir, which is different this year as amateur riders will not be allowed to contest the race. The favourite is Time To Get Up for Jonjo O’neill and it is easy to see why given the ease with which he won his last start at Wincanton. He is a young, unexposed horse, but it may be worth taking a chance on Shantou Flyer rolling back the years. Yes, a seemingly exposed 12-year-old is hardly likely to be improving at this stage of his career, but his excellent course form means he has a huge chance and he clearly retains all of his enthusiasm if his last two runs are anything to go by. His form at Cheltenham reads 1F1422223, with festival form of F223. Just two years ago he was rated 157 and was beaten only a neck in the Ultima off 152. Of course, he is 12 so there is no way he is going to run anywhere near that figure, but despite remaining in hot form in hunter chases over the past few seasons, he runs here off 140. He was beaten 11 lengths by Time To Get Up on his penultimate start and many will argue there’s no way a veteran can overturn that form with an eight-year-old, but I am a huge advocate of horses for courses and I think Shantou Flyer has a big each-way chance at 16-1. The County Hurdle is the first handicap to kick off Gold Cup day and between Willie Mullins and Dan Skelton, they have won the last six runnings of this race. I don’t think there’s a Saint Roi in the race this year, but I do think Galopin Des Champs is one to keep on side for Mullins. He has been a little disappointing in his three runs this campaign, a twice beaten favourite on his first two outings but improving considerably last time when sixth in the Grade 1 Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown on his latest start. He has the Martin Pipe as an option too, but he looks to be crying out for a strongly run two miles and with bookies going NRNB, you can back him with the knowledge you’ll get your money back if he doesn’t contest the race. Another who will love the fast pace a County Hurdle presents is Skelton’s Third Time Lucki. He is another who has plenty of options – he is perhaps more likely to run in the Supreme on Tuesday – so he is to be backed NRNB, but I have long thought he was tailor-made for a race like the County Hurdle, where he will get plenty of pace and cover. The final race of the meeting is the Martin Pipe and Mullins has the unexposed Gentleman De Mee as the market leader. However, it might be worth taking him on with stablemate N’golo, who has struggled over the winter as he needs better ground, but providing the weather forecast is right he is a big player in this with the going likely to be in his favour. His last two runs in Grade 1 company have been disappointing but he has simply struggled to pick up on the ground. His mark of 142 is 5lb higher than his British mark, but low enough to run in the Martin Pipe and, if his summer/autumn exploits are anything to go by, he clearly has bags of talent.