Although a winner is a winner – even if it is picked out at Ffos Las on a Tuesday – there is a greater sense of achievement in backing the winner of a big handicap. In the early part of the National Hunt season there are three notable handicaps that everyone is trying to find an angle on; the BetVictor Gold Cup, the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle and the Ladbrokes Trophy. Whilst the latter contest isn’t until the 1st December at Newbury, the BetVictor and Greatwood are coming up this weekend at the Cheltenham November meeting, so I thought I’d take this chance to share my selections for the duo of Grade 3 races. I’m in a lucky position this year where I will be in attendance of both the Greatwood and the Ladbrokes Trophy, so I will also be able to provide live updates from the respective tracks. Let’s get right into it…
Saturday 17th November
14:25 – BetVictor Gold Cup Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 2m4f
We start off with Saturday’s feature race at Cheltenham’s November Meeting, in the form of the two-and-a-half-mile Handicap Chase. Won in previous renewals by the likes of Imperial Commander and Al Ferof, this competitive Handicap looks a stronger contest than last year’s victory for Splash Of Ginge. Before even looking at the betting this race revolves around one horse in my eyes, and that’s Mister Whitaker. The Mick Channon trained Gelding looks ready-made for this contest having won the 2m4½f Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase (0-145) from a mark of 137 at the Cheltenham Festival in March. This wasn’t the first time that he had won at Cheltenham either, having landed a Class 2 Novices’ Handicap Chase on Festival Trials day in January. This regular Adrian Heskin ride is clearly a great jumper of a fence, and he travels through his races powerfully. His last start came in the Listed Intermediate Chase at Carlisle at the beginning of the month, where to my surprise he stuck on very strongly to beat a good field. Winning by two-and-a-quarter lengths has caused an issue with his rating however, as he was put up 7lbs for the victory to a mark of 152.
Due to this rise, two key opponents will receive a significant weight swing on previous form; Rather Be and Happy Diva. Nicky Henderson’s Rather Be was nailed close to home by Mister Whitaker at the Cheltenham Festival when beaten by a head, and he will receive a 9lbs swing in the weights for this prestigious prize. It is interesting that he goes here fresh, but his record after a break of 200+ days has returned three wins from three attempts. From a mark of 149 Rather Be looks very well handicapped, and he won twice last season as a novice chaser – including when beating last weekend’s Aintree winner War Sound by nineteen-lengths at Towcester. Having ran well over a similar course and distance, this Nicky Henderson charge looks to be the deserving favourite, especially when you consider the difference in weight.
Another horse who gets a sizeable weight swing is Happy Diva, who finished second to Mister Whitaker in that aforementioned Intermediate Chase at Carlisle. The talented Mare won three times over fences last season and placed in some good Listed races behind the likes of Ms Parfois and Rene’s Girl. The Kerry Lee seven-year-old relishes two-and-a-half mile trips and has recently performed well outside of Mares company with that second at Carlisle and when beating Adrian Du Pont (144) at Ascot in March. Regular rider Richard Patrick takes the ride and another 3lbs off her back, which means that for a two-and-a-half length defeat, Happy Diva will be 4lbs better off with Mister Whitaker. Considering the weight swing, her price of 20/1 looks very enticing even if the winnner wasn’t at peak fitness that day.
Considering how I feel the race revolves around Mister Whitaker, it makes for a very hard decision in who to back out of him and Rather Be. Both clearly have a brilliant chance in the race, so I’ll go with the Mick Channon charge at a bigger price – but I really couldn’t put you off either horse. Happy Diva is a price which is too hard to resist.
Happy Diva Each/Way in the BetVictor Gold Cup @ 20/1 [Brought Down]
Mister Whitaker Each/Way in the BetVictor Gold Cup @ 7/1 [Placed 4th]
Sunday 18th November
15:00 – Greatwood Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3) 2m½f
It was unfortunate to learn that my main fancy for the Greatwood Hurdle in Ballymoy wasn’t declared this morning, however I do have a suitable replacement in the form of Western Ryder. Novices’ in Handicaps is a trend which is becoming ever profitable due to their un-exposed marks, and it is an angle I love to take – especially in these big Hurdles races. Trained by Warren Greatrex, Western Ryder ran in top company during his Novice Hurdle campaign last season. A winner on his second start over hurdles having unseated Richard Johnson on his first attempt, this six-year-old made it two wins in a row at the Cheltenham International meeting last December, beating a high-class field which included Grade 1 winners Lalor (Top Novices’ Hurdle) and Summerville Boy (Supreme Novices’ Hurdle). His next assignment saw him sent off 7/4fav for the Grade 1 Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown in January, however the Heavy ground really didn’t suit, and he weakened to only finish fourth of the five runners. A second to the high-class Vinndication at Huntingdon in a Listed event a month later was no bad performance, and he ran with credit at the Cheltenham Festival when sixth in the Supreme. Upped to two-and-a-half-miles at Aintree when last seen on the track, he ran well to finish fifth behind Black Op and showed he can stay over further – which makes even more appeal for this unique two-mile test. Awarded a mark of 145 for his efforts last season, connections will feel there is more to come over Hurdles considering they could easily have chosen to go Novice Chasing this year. As a horse who has good Cheltenham form at both the Festival and the International Meeting he clearly handles the track, which is a huge positive. The Champion Jockey in Richard Johnson takes the ride as usual, and the pair look set to run a big race despite it being Western Ryder’s first start of the season.
Western Ryder Each/Way in the Greatwood Hurdle @ 7/1