Friday 9 December 2016

Mixed bag for Irish handlers in the 10 Festival handicaps

Published 03/03/2016 | 02:30

Barry Connell (PA)
Barry Connell (PA)

Gordon Elliott and Alan Fleming both have horses heading the betting for Cheltenham Festival handicaps, but they might have had mixed emotions yesterday after their entries were apparently singled out for some special treatment.

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Each year, the seemingly arbitrary treatment of the Irish raiders bound for the Cotswolds is a source of some puzzlement. This year is no different.

Just three of the 11 Festival handicaps have come this way each of the past two years.

There will be one less handicap this time round due to the cross-country race switching to a conditions event.

The Irish-trained delegation will doubtless hold their own, and they head or have a share of the market lead in seven of the scheduled handicaps.

However, the random nature of the hikes at the behest of chief British handicapper Phil Smith is as hard as ever to fathom. The majority of Irish horses will have to race off marks up to five pounds higher than they would on home soil, which is almost an accepted discrepancy by now.

However, in general, Elliott and Fleming have fared worse than most.

Fleming, who has been making a big impression training from his Curragh base for owner Barry Connell, has just six individual handicap entries. Of the six, Bridgets Pet has been given a 10lb hurdles penalty for crossing the water, Blue Hell is up nine pounds and Tully East will have to race off an eight-pound higher rating.

Blue Hell heads the betting for the Vincent O'Brien County Hurdle at 10/1, having beaten subsequent winners Diamond King, Keppols Queen, Henry Higgins and Good As Gold when last seen at Fairyhouse in November.

His new rating of 146 sees him in off 10st 12lb at the moment, which at least guarantees him a place in the field.

Of Fleming's recent Fairyhouse winner Bridgets Pet's three options, the nine-year-old would only be sure of a berth in the opening day's novices' handicap chase, for which he has just a pound higher rating than he would at home, 140 for joint top-weight of 11st 10lb.

Higher

For the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Hurdle, though, he would have to race off a 10lb higher mark than he would here at 137, despite not racing over flights since 2013. Even at that, Bridgets Pet wouldn't be sure of making the cut.

The smart novice Tully East is in the County and the conditional jockeys' race, but he has a better chance of getting into the latter two-mile-five-furlong event, needing just two above him to come out to get in off a mark of 140, currently for 11st 5lb.

Space Cadet is the horse that has been dealt with most harshly, but a 13lb hike probably won't be enough to get Elliott's consistent but frustrating novice into either the conditional jockeys' race or the Coral Cup.

Likewise, Elliott's Vercingetorix will need luck to get a run in either of those or the County, despite being given an 11lb higher mark of 134, which is down a pound on when he was beaten 13 lengths at Ascot in December.

A raft of Elliott-trained horses are in a similar boat, but his 12/1 Coral Cup favourite Diamond King is sure of a run, with a five-pound hike leaving the January Punchestown winner in off 11st 6lb for 154.

Also on day two of the Festival, the stable's JP McManus-owned Campeador will get a place in the Fred Winter, but an eight-pound hike to 141 for 11st 5lb saw him drift a little in the betting yesterday from 6/1 market leader to as big as 8/1.

Our Father could make its debut for Elliott in the Kim Muir Chase, and is 7/1 favourite to make it a winning start after being given a rating of 139 for 11st 6lb, though he needs 12 to come out.

Of the Co Meath maestro's many conditional jockeys' race contenders, McManus's Squouateur continues to shorten, now as low as 6/1 market leader. The grey will likely strive for a third win on the trot and a fourth in five starts after a four-pound rise to 141 assures him a run off 11st 6lb or more.

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