Cheltenham Festival Preview: 2 Agree, 2 Disagree with Dan Overall

When it comes to the Cheltenham Festival everyone is bound to have various opinions, and it’s often healthy to bounce those ideas off of someone else. In this article myself and Dan Overall thought it would be interesting to share two Horses that we both agree on at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, as well as two Horses that we disagree on – and at the same time we will state our cases. Hopefully you will find our different reasons interesting – especially when we start to rip into each others selections! The one rule we had when starting this process however was to not pick any obvious Horses, because there’s no point in us both telling you why we agree that Bob Olinger is a certainty in the Ballymore. Instead we’ve got 4 Horses for the Handicaps which you may find interesting – especially as they are currently best priced at 20/1, 25/1, 11/1 and 8/1 respectively!

We’ll ease our way in with two Horses that we agree on…

Jake Price:
If you had seen the messages that myself and Dan have been sending back and forth over the past couple of weeks then then you’d know that we’ve both really been trying to nail one down in the Coral Cup – with countless entries being ruled out by their trainers along the way. Before even mentioning it to each other this time however, we both come down on Birchdale as a selection, and when you look through his profile then you can really start to build a case for him.

When approaching the Coral Cup this year I wanted to take an even more vigorous approach with the trends than normal, as it is a very rewarding puzzle to solve. The key trends I came down on were that a Horse needs to have raced over 2m4f+ in their career, they need to have raced at Cheltenham before, they should not have won a Handicap Hurdle that season, but they should have won a race, although not last time out. You then wanted to look for Horses ideally aged 7 (5-8 is fine), who are a second season hurdler (third is fine), who have had 9 Hurdles starts (6-10 is fine), and are rated 145 (139-153 is fine). That might sound like a bit of a mouthful when typed out, but what’s important is that Birchdale only fails on two of those trends; the fact that he hasn’t won a race this season, and the fact that he has (somehow!) only had 4 starts over Hurdles so far in his career.

You can quickly alleviate any concerns about experience however as Birchdale has also had 3 Chase runs – but the fact that he hasn’t shown himself to be in winning form is a slight concern. In a race where none of these Horses tick the trends completely however, Birchdale must have a solid chance now he’s proven to connections that he just hates fences. As a Novice this JP McManus charge won a Grade 2 Novice Hurdle over this course and distance when upsides final flight faller Brewin’upastorm (158), but he then pulled up in the Albert Bartlett when not staying the 3m trip. Connections were understandably keen to get him straight over fences last season, but he very much disappointed when 32 lengths 3rd at Ascot – so Nicky Henderson aborted that mission, and instead aimed him at the Coral Cup. Running off a mark of 146, Birchdale ran on strongly from an unpromising position to take 8th place, beaten 9.75 lengths by stablemate Dame De Compagnie (148), but finishing around the likes of Bachasson (150), Alfa Mix (142) and Coko Beach (141) – a promising effort in what looks on paper to be a better race than the 2021 renewal.

Connections tried Birchdale over fences once more this season, and he couldn’t have been given a better opportunity when sent off 3/10f for a Beginners Chase at Catterick in November – but he unseated Aidan Coleman that day, before finishing stone last in a Novices’ Handicap Chase at Newbury off 145 in January. I think it’s safe to say that his Chasing career is now over, and Nicky Henderson is once more resorting back to ‘plan B’ of running him in the Coral Cup. Rather than going there beaten 30+ lengths in a Chase like last season however, he wisely decided to give Birchdale a spin in a Jumpers Bumper last month at Kempton – where he shaped with much more purpose thanks to not having those big fences in his way. Considering Birchdale comes into the Coral Cup this year with a much more encouraging run under his belt, I think he has a good chance of at least hitting the frame as the Handicapper has dropped him 2lb to a mark of 144 – and the Good-to-Soft ground at Cheltenham next week should further increase his chances. I’ll probably wait for the extra places on the day now, mind.

Dan Overall:
I would encourage those reading to rewatch last year’s renewal of the Coral Cup in which Birchdale finished eighth. Held up throughout, he found himself extremely wide and trapped behind a wall of horses as they made the run to the second last. By the time they swung for home, he was about fourteenth and over ten lengths adrift of the leaders but he made great progress to trail by little over three lengths upon jumping the last. He tired after that leap, which wasn’t surprising given the effort he made to close the gap while it was also his first run for nearly four months. It was also his first run in a big handicap and the form of that race has worked out well; the front two are Graded-level mares, the fifth is now rated ten pounds higher while the likes of Bachasson (sixth) and Coko Beach (ninth) have enjoyed superb seasons. All in all, Birchdale’s run was very encouraging.

Chasing has not worked out this term (it didn’t last season either) but it’s too soon to write him off while he enjoyed a nice spin round in a Jumpers’ Bumper on the 11th February, meaning he will come into this year’s renewal sharper and also more experienced, while he has still only had four starts over hurdles. He’s also two pounds lower this time around; every little helps.

It’s also worth noting that nine of the twenty to finish in the first four in the previous five renewals had been chasing earlier in the season, so switching back to hurdles is seemingly not a negative.

He’s always been a highly regarded type; 6/1 for an Albert Bartlett which he was not ready for, he was engaged in a good duel with Brewin’Upastorm when that rival fell at the last in the Classic Novices’ Hurdle and we know that horse to be a very useful performer. Nicky Henderson has had four winners of this race in the past eleven years; all four of his winners had winning form at Cheltenham, something only 41% of his runners had.

Nicky said in a recent stable tour that “This is what we’ve been aiming for… he’s the prime candidate”.

All in all, he looks to have outstanding claims for connections that know what it takes to win this race and he’s still an appealing price.

Dan Overall:
Joseph O’Brien’s runners are all the rage for this race at present and to an extent I understand why. However, On the Slopes looks overpriced at present.

Now run on the Old Course as opposed to the New Course, that will favour those that prefer to race prominently.

One such runner is On The Slopes, who was the ante-post favourite for this race last year but his mark of 136 was not high enough for him to make the cut. As a result, he went to Kempton instead where he comfortably dispatched on Return Ticket who has improved a fair bit since then.

Plenty was expected of him this term, with many thinking that we would land a big handicap at some stage of the season but things have not yet gone to plan. He shaped as if in need of the run on his seasonal reappearance behind Rouge Vif which led to him being very well supported next time out. However, he was slightly disappointing but Richard Johnson reported that he heard a noise and he had a wind operation just two days later. Interestingly, four of the last ten Grand Annual winners ran in either of the two Cheltenham handicaps that he contested earlier in the season.

He had a run in a Jumpers’ Bumper back in February to shake off the rust and get a run under his belt while this is his only entry, so it may well have been the target for some time. Off a mark of 140, he should be guaranteed a run and while he is not yet fully exposed.

Chris Gordon said in a recent stable tour that “On The Slopes is the horse I’m really looking forward to running at the festival. He’s had a wind operation and a good blow on the all-weather, which hopefully would have brought him on… he’s a better-ground horse”.

Just a seven-year-old with nine starts over fences to his name, he has an attractive mixture of experience while still retaining some scope for improvement. Given that he’s usually a sound jumper that races prominently, that should hold him in good stead and he stands out at an attractive price.

Jake Price:
That infamous 2m4f Novices’ Handicap Chase run on Trials Day at Cheltenham always throws up a bunch of future winners, and last season it was an exceptional renewal – with Simply The Betts beating Imperial Aura, in a race which also saw On The Slopes not stay the trip in 3rd place. Imperial Aura was smashed in the betting for the Novices’ Handicap when his mark of 143 was revealed the following Tuesday, but to connections initial disappointment Simply The Betts was handed 149. The punters didn’t seem to mind though, as they just smashed him up for the Plate instead! That left a lot of money going onto On The Slopes when he was entered for the Grand Annual, and it was understandable considering the drop back in trip looked sure to suit. By the time Imperial Aura had bolted up in the Novice Handicap On The Slopes was a strong fancy for many, and he was actually Ante-Post favourite for the race – but his mark of 136 meant he just missed the cut, and was forced to run at Kempton on the Saturday instead. He easily won that consolation race by 3.5 lengths over Return Ticket (138), and although the season was obviously cut short, many had a lot of optimism that he would be able to build on that this year.

Making his return in a 2m Handicap Chase at Cheltenham in October however, On The Slopes ran well for a long way before just shaping as if he needed the run – fading late on for 5th place behind Rouge Vif (163), who of course got his ideal conditions and absolutely bolted up. With that run under his belt then On The Slopes was well fancied when running back over the same course and distance in November off a mark of 142, but again he faded tamely having shaped well – filling the 5th spot once again behind Magic Saint (157). Thankfully connections decided to send him for a wind operation shortly after that run, and after an 88 day break he returned to action at Kempton last month when blowing the cobwebs away in a Jumpers Bumper – where he ran much better when finishing 3rd. The form of those races are useless so there is no point discussing it, but On The Slopes definitely looks worth chancing in the Grand Annual now he is able to breathe again – especially as he has had two course and distance runs on the old course, so he will know what to expect. A mark of 140 doesn’t look beyond him considering It’s just 4lbs higher than his last win where he won with plenty in hand, and his tendency to race prominently is another big advantage.

Now for the fun part… Here are two Horses we disagree on!

Jake Price (Against):
The Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle is a race I really like to get stuck in to, and I’ve had quite a bit of success in the past when putting up Band Of Outlaws and Aramax Ante-Post. Perhaps those wins are making me overconfident on the chances of Busselton, but I definitely think Riviere D’etel is opposable. She joined Cullentra House from France after finishing 2nd at Auteuil in a Listed race for 3yo Fillies in September, but reports are that they were having plenty of trouble with her at home – because she is just so keen. When she finally made the track on New Year’s Eve then it was no surprise to see a Hood go on, but despite that she still ran very keenly. It didn’t matter that day of course as she beat a bunch of trees at odds of 8/15, but the way she raced would be of huge concern in a Cheltenham Handicap. Now clearly after a break of 113 days you could just put that down to freshness, but she didn’t do much to alleviate those concerns on her next start at Navan either – as once again she pulled herself into the lead and carried her head high the whole way around. It was hardly a surprise to see her find little off the bridle when asked for an effort by Jack Kennedy then, and although she did keep on it was very much at the one pace. You can easily make an argument that the winner Thedevilscoachman (142) is a good Horse considering he’s since gone on to win a Listed Novice Hurdle, but the worry is Riviere D’etel was receiving 11lbs from him and also finished behind Visionarian (123) – who’s since bombed out in a Handicap Hurdle when a short-priced favourite. I think a mark of 134 is very much on the harsh side, and it will make it tough for her to win if she hasn’t learnt to settle. Another thing to consider is that no Filly has won the Boodles since Une Artiste back in 2012.  

Dan Overall (For):
All season, there has been one major force in the Juvenile division – Gordon Elliott. While we all know the situation regarding that yard, there is no denying that Cullentra House is home the deepest pool of four-year-old talent even in the absence of Quilixios. With that in mind, it can often pay to follow the top yard in the division when assessing the Boodles as they are likely to know where each horse stands with a view to Cheltenham; and while Riviere D’etel would not be the best, I believe she’s well above average and would not be out of place in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle. 

Second in a listed race in France with the pair pulling twenty-lengths clear of the remainder, she duly bolted up on her Irish debut at a time when many of the yards runners were underperforming. Favourite for a rated novice hurdle on her most recent outing where she was taking on older geldings, many were quick to crab her when she could only finish third but I took a lot of positives from that run. Firsty, it is tough for any four-year-old to compete against their elders, let alone a filly in January, but she was far from disgraced and the winner, Thedevilscoachman, would go on to win a listed race cosily next time out while many considered him to be a lively outsider for the Supreme. If you watch that race back, you’ll see that she was challenged for the lead by an experienced rival rated 131, yet she fended him off with ease but that duel set the race up perfectly for the winner, while the runner-up is a very well handicapped horse over two miles. Once Riviere was headed, she kept on well and while some knocked her jumping, it straightened up significantly towards the end with her best jumps coming when she was under pressure; a promising sign moving forward. It’s also worth noting that seven of the past sixteen winners of the Boodles had raced against their elders.

A rating of 134 would not be glaringly lenient but the fact that she’s ran so well despite doing so much wrong is indicative of her ability while there is every possibility that a big field will help her to settle. Also, Keith Donoghue was asked if thought she was well handicapped; he responded with “I think she is… I’d like her myself were she to go for the Boodles”

This term, she has raced in the exact same two races as the 2018 Boodles winner, Veneer of Charm, trained by Gordon Elliott. He could only finish seventh in that rated novice hurdle and won the Boodles off 129; Riviere has achieved far more than he has at this stage and I believe she has more scope for improvement.

Fillies have won four of the past fourteen renewals while she would not be far off the standard required for the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle given the weight allowance. Better ground should be no worries considering her half-brother won on good while her full sister was third in a listed race on quick ground. 

For the stats fans amongst you: nine of the past sixteen winners began their career in France, eleven of the past sixteen winners had not won more than once over hurdles while ten of the past sixteen winners had exactly three starts over hurdles. Riviere ticks all of those respective boxes and given her yards superb recent record in the race, she holds leading claims. 

Dan Overall (Against):
The Kim Muir… some of you may know that this race holds a special place in my heart; but this year is different. Coko Beach broke my heart while Run Wild Fred trampled on the soul of his backers. With that pair out, and in the absence of amateur jockeys, this year’s renewal looks a weak one and it’s indicative of its weakness that Hold the Note finds himself at such prohibitive odds. 

He was one of my horses to follow for the season but I cannot have him for this race. While the Kim Muir is often won by a horse yet to win this season, Hold the Note is yet to win over fences despite numerous attempts to coax a win out of him. Small fields, handicaps, cheekpieces, a visor, different trips; no combination of the aforementioned has succeeded, while a wind operation is the latest attempt to get him a victory over fences. There were more encouraging signs on his first start following that procedure when second to the enigmatic Enrilo, but that was not a great race in my mind and the 3m2f trip at Cheltenham will be a thorough test of stamina; a test I don’t believe he will pass. He faded tamely behind Happygolucky over a trip similar to this one back in December despite being able to dictate the pace so you’d be pinning your hopes on the wind operation helping him stay the trip. I couldn’t be backing a horse with major stamina concerns in a handicap of this nature, especially at his skinny odds of 8/1.

Jake Price (For):
Like Dan I have also been burnt by the Kim Muir on numerous occasions this season, with the whole Escaria Ten debacle followed by a no show from School Boy Hours. With Run Wild Fred the latest significant withdrawal from the race however it seems that the Irish just aren’t bothering this season, but that’s understandable with no Amateur Jockeys, and only a measly £52,500 pot on offer. One Horse who does have a lovely profile for the race however is Hold The Note, and he really does remind me of Any Second Now – who won this race in 2019 off a mark of 143, 2lbs lower than when I was all over him in the Novices’ Handicap Chase the prior year. Last season I was very keen on the chances of Hold The Note in that Novices’ Handicap, and in fairness he ran a perfectly respectable race when finishing 3rd behind Imperial Aura (163) and Galvin (151) – especially as he had to give weight away! What I have learnt since however is the fact that he needs 3m these days, as even his best performance last season came when finishing 0.5 lengths 2nd behind Two For Gold (154) in the Grade 2 Hampton Novices’ Chase at Warwick.

Just like Any Second Now however, Hold The Note has failed to win the following season – and admittedly at one point he looked almost gone at the game. Some disappointing efforts behind exciting Novices’ such as Shan Blue (152) and Next Destination (153) were then followed by what I thought was quite an encouraging run at Cheltenham in December – where he looked booked for a close 2nd behind Ultima favourite Happygolucky (147) before fading very tamely after the last. Another poor effort then followed at Kempton back to 2m4f, but connections sent him straight off for a wind operation afterwards. Following a break of 57 days, that procedure really seemed to do the trick in a 3m Novices’ Handicap Chase at Newbury last month, where he stayed on all the way to the line to only be beaten 0.5 lengths by Paul Nicholls’ talented Enrilo (143) – and the 3rd Ballymoy (138) has since hacked up at Catterick by 18 lengths. With a very encouraging performance behind him then, his new mark of 140 means he is an attractive 5lbs lower than when contesting the Novice Handicap last season – and the fact that professionals are riding will ensure there is no advantage to his rivals in terms of Jockey bookings. He will clearly need to prove his stamina again here over this extended 3m2f trip, but the wind-op definitely seemed to work on his latest start. Hold The Note also matches quite a few trends; as he is a 7yo, a second season novice, he wears headgear, and his rating of 140 is just 1lb above the average winning mark since 2011. It’s also interesting that the past two Kim Muir winners were also winning their first Chase when landing the Kim Muir.

Be sure to check out Dan Overall on Twitter @Overandclear if you haven’t already!

Good luck! – Jake Price

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