2m4f Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase (Listed) – Tuesday 10th March 2020
The Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase is always an intriguing race, aimed at Novice Chasers who aren’t quite yet up to Grade 1 standard. The rating band was changed in 2018 from a 0-140 to a 0-145, attracting a highly competitive field with just 7lbs between the top and bottom weights in 2019, and 8lbs in 2018 (excluding any claims). The race was extremely kind to my selections twelve months ago, with leading fancy A Plus Tard bolting up, and my second selection Tower Bridge following him home. The performance of A Plus Tard from a rating of 144 was that of an incredibly well Handicapped Horse, which has since been proven by him landing a Grade 1 at Leopardstown and earning a mark of 165. A similar story applies to 2018 winner Mister Whitaker, who won the Grade 2 Silver Trophy Handicap in April from a mark of 149 (12lbs higher than when winning this contest). This highlights the type of Horse required to win the race however, as essentially the weights are now irrelevant; Horses who wish to participate will need a mark of 140 to guarantee themselves a run, but obviously cannot be rated higher than 145. Whilst it is no longer an issue winning the race off top-weight, it will inevitably require a Horse who is ahead of the assessor.
Trends for the Close Brothers will need to be taken with a pinch of salt after the recent rating band changes, but since the inception of the race in 2005, only the late Ferdy Murphy has won this prize more than once. Of the fifteen renewals to date, Irish trainers have claimed six successful raids, with British trainers taking the other nine.
It’s a similar story regarding Jockeys, with only two landing the spoils more than once; Graham Lee (on both occasions for Ferdy Murphy), and more recently Brian Hughes – who won on both Ballyalton (2016) and Mister Whitaker (2018).
All winners since 2010 have carried at least 11-01, but as stated above, this is more likely than not going forward. The first five home in the race twelve months ago were rated 144, 141, 141, 141, 141. Seven-year-olds have the best record in the race since the first running in 2005 with seven victories, followed by six-year-olds with four wins.
My first selection for the Close Brothers is one I’ve had my eye on since writing the 2019/20 ‘National Hunt Horses to Follow’ guide during the Summer, in the form of Hold The Note. This talented Son of Jeremy started his career for Mick Channon in the best possible way, landing a Heavy ground Newton Abbot Bumper by an impressive six-lengths, before running a very credible fourth behind Master Debonair (now rated 151) and Thyme Hill (150) in the Listed Bumper at Cheltenham’s 2018 November meeting. His third to subsequent Listed winner I Can’t Explain (142) and Phoenix Way (133) was no disappointment on Hurdles debut over two-miles, and stepped up to 2m3½f on his next start at Doncaster just over a year ago saw him to even better effect – getting off the mark under Aidan Coleman. Although just failing to give 11lbs to Breaking Waves on his next start at Huntingdon, Hold The Note still showed he truly stays an extended two-and-a-half mile trip.
Connections have wasted no time getting this big Horse over fences, and Hold The Note made his debut in that sphere at Ludlow back in November. A well backed 13/8 favourite that day, Hold The Note shaped extremely well on his seasonal reappearance, but just looked like he needed the run having been upsides the winner at the second last. Despite fading into third by the time they crossed the line, the winner Western Ryder (140) is still a nice Horse, and Hold The Note certainly came on for that run. His next assignment was the Novices’ Handicap Chase on Boxing Day at Kempton, won twelve-months prior by stablemate Glen Forsa, with Mister Whitaker second the year before that. In a race that connections clearly target, a mark of 133 looked extremely appealing. Hold The Note settled nicely in a prominent position and was travelling powerfully that day, but his race was brought to an extremely unlucky end when Roll Again fell at the 10th flight – forcing him to a stand-still.
Connections kept the faith with Hold The Note however, and this slick Jumper showed just how good he can be at Warwick, when contesting the Grade 2 Hampton Novices’ Chase on his first start over three-miles. Travelling with his usual exuberance, Hold The Note jumped boldly to slowly creep his way through the field. After a slightly slow jump at the third last Jockey Adrian Heskin briefly shook the reigns for a few strides as if to wake his mount up, and Hold The Note duly obliged to his riders urgings, cruising into the lead after the second last. Despite looking the likely winner over the final flight, Hold The Note was eventually out-stayed by the gallant Two For Gold (146) – who looks like a very useful Staying Chaser in the making. The way this six-year-old shaped at Warwick suggests that a drop back in trip to a fastly-run two-and-a-half miles with the stiff Cheltenham Hill would be right up his street. I also have a slight feeling Hold The Note is better going left handed, with his record anti-clockwise reading 1412.
Hold The Note fits in with a fair few trends outlined above, being trained in England and running in the race as a six-year-old. Trainer Mick Channon would be aiming to be the first trainer to win multiple Close Brothers prizes since Ferdy Murphy achieved the feat in 2011, but importantly Hold The Note has been given a rating of 145 after Warwick – meaning his current rating would guarantee a run in the race. The only issue with achieving a mark at the top of the ratings band in January however is that one form boost from a Horse in behind at Warwick could cause his mark to be raised despite standing in his box – so it is going to be a nervous wait between now and the confirmation stage to ensure that Hold The Note is eligible to run. Connections history in the race would suggest that this will be the target now however, and he will be considerably shorter than the 16/1 available if turning up. It’s worth noting that should Adrian Heskin have to ride another Horse due to arrangements such as for the McNeill Family, Brian Hughes could step in for the Channon team once more.
Hold The Note 1pt Each/Way (5 Places) @ 16/1
My second selection for the race hails from the Joseph O’Brien team, who of course finished second last year with an extremely similar type in Tower Bridge. This season however it looks as if Early Doors is the subject of a Handicap plot, in the same green and gold hoops of JP McManus. This talented seven-year-old finished behind Vision Des Flos and Hollowgraphic in a great renewal of the Goffs Land Rover Bumper at Punchestown in 2017, and was subsequently a good Novice Hurdler; finishing second to Mengli Khan in the 2017 Grade 1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle before a third-placed effort in the 2018 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival – behind impressive winner Blow By Blow and the useful Discorama. That effort came off a mark of 142, and connections were extremely mindful last season to preserve that kind of rating – with just two distant runs behind Apple’s Jade in the Grade 1 Hattons Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse and Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown before returning to the very same race twelve months later. The Handicapper had fairly generously only raised him 3lbs since his third-place finish, and Early Doors was able to make full use of this 145 rating to win the Martin Pipe under a great Jonjo O’Neill Jr ride, seeing off hot favourite Dallas Des Pictons on the run in.
That poignant Cheltenham Festival victory for connections turned out to be Early Doors last start of the season, and you would assume he went straight on his holidays afterwards as he was back on the track come the Galway Festival on 1st August! Running in a 2m6½f Beginners Chase, Early Doors made a slight mistake at the third fence but jumped and travelled well for the most part. He never really threatened to get into the race however, dropping back into fourth place at one point before staying on strongly in the home straight to take second. Not seen again for another 152 days, Early Doors continued his Handicap project over fences by once more finishing second, this time in a 3m1f Beginners Chase at Punchestown. Once more making a few scruffy jumps, Early Doors still showed enough to suggest that he retains ability over the larger obstacles. Mark Walsh had this favourite far enough back at the half-way stage, but the Horse made steady progress thereafter to get much closer. Just as Early Doors was tracking in behind the leaders ready to make his challenge however, he was extremely badly hampered at the second last by the falls of both Discordantly and Small Farm – with Mark doing a great job to steer around the Horses and avoid being brought down. In truth this ended all chances Early Doors may have had at winning the race, but he showed a good attitude to run on and claim second behind stablemate Smoking Gun.
Early Doors will still need one more run over fences to qualify for the Close Brothers and get a Handicap mark over fences, but his two efforts so far have come behind Dandy Mag (135) and Smoking Gun (136) off level weights, so it’s not unfeasible that his mark could drop back down to his Festival winning rating of 145 (currently rated 152 over Hurdles). This will largely depend on where connections decide to run him on his next start, but he has encouragingly been given an entry in the Grade 1 Flogas Novice Chase back down to 2m5f – so a midfield finish (nowhere near the winners please!) in this race would give him a good chance of sneaking into the Close Brothers. Whilst his Jumping over fences has certainly not been perfect so far to date, I feel he could be very similar to Tower Bridge in the sense that he jumped a lot better at Cheltenham than he did whilst they were ensuring he’d be Handicapped for the Close Brothers.
Early Doors is another Horse to fit in with trends outlined above, starting off with Joseph O’Brien not having won the race yet (despite last year’s placed effort). Although overall British runners have had the advantage since the race began in 2005, two of the last three winners have been Irish. Early Doors is a seven-year-old so fits in with the winning-most age category, and will likely have to run off 145 if getting in (especially if the British Handicapper adds a few lbs to his Irish mark…). There’s no guarantee that this is the target for Early Doors, but considering he is already a Cheltenham Festival winner over this trip, it seems a logical target if achieving a mark of 145 or less.
Early Doors 1pt Each/Way (5 Places) @ 20/1
Good luck! – Jake Price