Read Cheltenham Festival-winning jockey Paddy Aspell's top 3 betting tips for the Cheltenham handicaps, and his thoughts on Presenting Percy's bizarre Galway gallop.
It is business as usual for Cheltenham in the build-up to this year's Festival, but the Cheltenham betting has been skewed by a very strange winter of odd weather, and, of course, the Equine Influenza scare last month.
How has that affected horses? How will it affect Cheltenham? We're going to discuss that below, but first, let's go through my three best bets for the Cheltenham handicaps.
The weights have finally been published for the Cheltenham Festival's 11 handicaps, and not everyone is happy!
Owner JP McManus has ruled out previous Festival winners Jezki and Ivanovich Gorbatov, as well as five-time winner De Name Escapes Me, who holds entries in four races, due to his view that their British handicap ratings are too high, compared with other Irish-trained runners.
There are always discrepancies between the way horses are assessed by British and Irish handicappers, but Cheltenham's loss will be one of the later racing festival's gains.
Back to what is running: There are that took my eye, none of them completely thrown in, but they most definitely have realistic chances. They've all got plenty of entries, but I'm tipping them for the races I want to see them run in.
I really do like Tout Est Permis; he jumps, stays and his Troytown Handicap Chase win at Navan in November is strong form.
Gardens Of Babylon's trainer Joseph O'Brien said he would be able to stay 2m4f after his creditable second behind stablemate, and Triumph Hurdle favourite, Sir Eric at Leopardstown last time. So a fast run 2m on a stiff track like Cheltenham, with a handicap rating 139 looks ideal.
Camelia De Cotte's last three runs were wins in Listed, Grade 3 and Grade 2 chases, each time winning from the front. If she gets in to the Grand Annual off her handicap mark of 143, the seven-year-old will have a lovely racing weight of 11st 2lb for he handicap and Cheltenham debut.
Trainers are creatures of habit with regards to preparing their horses for the Cheltenham Festival. Tried-and-trusted methods, paths and theories are followed each year, to have each horse finely-tuned to perform at their absolute best.
Unfortunately for many trainers in Britain and Ireland, these plans have been derailed this season. Talented horses competing at the highest level are extremely hard to find races for, through a lack of suitable opportunities and race conditions not being suitable.
This has lead to many entrants taking an unorthodox route to their targeted races at Cheltenham. Galway racecourse groundstaff turned the track's chase fences around in order to re-create a left-handed track - the same direction as Cheltenham - so that the Gold Cup favourite Presenting Percy could use the course for a gallop and schooling session.
I rate his trainer Pat Kelly very highly, as he has shown he can produce his small but talented string to perfection for Cheltenham, as he has proven with Presenting Percy, winning his last two Festival outings, and also with Mall Dini, who won the 2016 Pertemps Final Handicap Hurdle.
However, not since Easter Hero back in 1929, has a Gold Cup winner gone to Cheltenham without a running in a race over fences in the season leading up to their famous win.
In my opinion, a school around Galway isn’t an ideal prep for any horse competing over fences at the Cheltenham Festival, let alone the favourite for the highlight.
This has led to a slight drift in the market (7/2 from 5/2 Paddy Power), with King George VI Chase hero Clan Des Obeaux joining him at the head of the Cheltenham Gold Cup betting (7/2from 5/1 Paddy Power).
Throughout the season, and especially from January onwards, certainly trials for horses to go through that are being aimed at the bigger Cheltenham Festival targets in March. These are huge factors in what races, trip, ground and level trainers should aim their horses for.
I would like my horse to have run on a left-handed track, and on an undulating track, and to have shown they can jump at speed with fluency, as there really is no hiding places at Cheltenham.
For the trainer, finding the balance can be difficult, as you want to get enough experience into a novice chaser or hurdler to be competitive, but you also don't want to over-race or over-work them, and risk having them race tired and flat at Cheltenham.
A jockey would be far happier and confident if his Cheltenham mount has come through their trials well, even if not winning, but still showing the right signs and giving the indications that all the pieces of the puzzle are slowly coming together, ready to fall into place come mid-March.
Punters should look at all that too, and also take into account that stable form at this point of the season is a massive factor - win and place ratios, the volume of runners, all these statistics are vital to consider. Previous course form is also a massive tip when betting at Cheltenham.
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