Thursday 14 December 2017

Novice duo to stay ahead of handicapper

Marufo and Richard Johnson (right) on their way to victory at Newbury yesterday
Marufo and Richard Johnson (right) on their way to victory at Newbury yesterday

Ian McClean

The Grand Annual is a race filled with Festival promise, says Ian McClean

With all the public angst over Kauto Star's participation in the Gold Cup, the unveiling of weights this week for the 11 handicaps at the Festival passed largely unnoticed. However, with the majority of firms now offering "Non Runner No Bet" for all races, and full running plans undecided, it is the perfect time to try to unearth the right horse at the right price.

One of my favourite races of the Festival saves itself till last. The fact it is now called the "Johnny Henderson" Grand Annual is significant in that you can be certain Nicky Henderson will be giving it his all to win the race. The trainer has gone on record as saying it's the obvious race for French Opera -- which is curious considering the weakness of the Queen Mother where he would have decent place claims, and the fact he'll have to hump top weight in the finale.

However, by anchoring the weights it means that some other very talented stable-mates can enter the equation off some seriously attractive marks in the handicap. Bellvano and Anquetta both get in off 10-2, while Kid Cassidy races off 10-9.

Traditionally, the Grand Annual has been a bit of a Klondyke for novices, and this year appears no exception with first-season chasers occupying six of the first eight slots in the ante-post market. However, it is always a race run at a breakneck gallop where there is no hiding place. And while youth often invites an attractive handicap mark, it isn't always necessarily man enough for the mission.

The "Not Man Enough" label definitely applies to Bellvano which shunned a winning opportunity on that very criterion two runs ago at Newbury. AP McCoy has already said he doesn't imagine him coming up the hill at Cheltenham, a course where he's already been beaten out of sight once this year. Kid Cassidy simply doesn't jump well enough -- his round in a three-runner affair at Doncaster was hair-raising at best.

I was tempted by Kumbeshwar as they intend fitting him with blinkers for the first time, and as he ran so well under top-weight in the Fred Winter last year, but I suspect he's more of a two-and-a-half-miler. So for me it's a straight fight between novices Astracad and Toubab. The pair have been trained with the race in mind, and the weights fall favourably for both -- with 10-9 and 10-7 respectively. Astracad is a course-and-distance winner as well as running close against Arkle fancy Al Ferof, but the Twiston-Davies horses have been very quiet of late and that just shades me in favour of Toubab.

A fast pace on fast ground is precisely what Toubab needs and he is almost certain to get both by the last race on Friday. A classy hurdler, he ran too free over course and distance on his chase debut and ultimately got mugged on the line for his trouble. A soft fall when he looked to have affairs under control at Haydock followed by a restorative win at Sandown means his handicap mark almost certainly understates his ability by some way. I can see him pouncing late here en route to the Maghull at Aintree.

The old Ritz Club (now JLT Speciality) Chase was often seen as a consolation Gold Cup and I'm sure Paul Webber can eke out some solace for Time For Rupert's disappointing season by acknowledging that 153 is a handicap mark he never dreamed he'd have over fences (166 over hurdles).

In spite of that, the eight-year-old has seemed a pale shadow of himself this season and it may be that the ghost of last year's RSA Chase is still somehow haunting him. There are two horses that stand out at the weights for me -- Lie Forrit and The Package -- but for very opposing reasons.

Lie Forrit is a novice with just three starts, facing a total of only 10 rivals over fences to date. So far, so not very inspiring. Novices don't have a great record in the JLT either -- although Fork Lightning did strike for them in recent seasons. However, what makes Lie Forrit so compelling is both his handicap mark and his previous course form. Confined to just 15 runs in his career, he missed 20 months through injury before embarking on a chasing career this term. Before that, he was seriously upwardly mobile (started favourite for the Cleeve Hurdle) and reached a mark of 155.

Still just eight, he runs off only 138 in the JLT by dint of two defeats in three-runner affairs up north following an opening win at Kelso. The old cliché "Outsider of Three" is there for a reason as three-runner races tend to become falsely-run tactical affairs -- a feature which totally plays against the strengths of a horse with the abundance of stamina that characterises Lie Forrit.

A winner over three miles plus at Cheltenham already which handles good ground, he jumps very safely for a novice and has almost certainly been mapped out for the race.

The same scheme has certainly been devised for The Package which just failed in this same race two years ago when favourite. Raced just three times since, he gets into this year's contest off a mark 2lbs lower (139) in spite of being raised to 147 on the back of that run.

For the handicapper, it is pure guesswork but three things mitigate massively in The Package's favour. He runs very well fresh; he is still only nine years old with limited mileage; and (most significantly) is trained by David Pipe. He has to be worth an interest.

The Kim Muir is typically a bit of a lottery but I have been very taken by the progress of Helpston this season. A giant-framed horse that stands 17.3, he has twice cracked a pelvis during his career, but is rapidly making up for lost time. His run in the Rowland Meyrick at Christmas was outstanding for a horse so inexperienced and his win since at Newcastle was in a race he had put to bed by halfway. A rating of 140 still under-rates him and I expect him to go well for a small but very shrewd yard.

Finally, I understand Philip Hobbs can't believe his luck that Snap Tie has been given a rating of 137 in the County Hurdle.

He's been off the track for two and a half years but apparently is showing as much at home as he ever has. He was due to line up in last year's County, only to be scratched at the eleventh hour. Twelve months ago, he was rated 152. By not showing his face for 12 months he's been dropped 15lbs. If Hobbs could leave him off for just one more year, he'd be a certainty in 2013.


Toubab 2pts win 10/1 (Grand Annual)

Astracad 1pt win 10/1 (Grand Annual)

Lie Forrit 1pt win 16/1 (JLT)

The Package 1pt win 10/1 (JLT)

Helpston 1pt win (Kim Muir) 16/1

Snap Tie 1pt win (County Hurdle) 16/1

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