While much of the focus is on the Cheltenham Festival’s 14 Grade 1 contests across the course of the four days — or more specifically the five feature races; the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, Ryanair Chase, Stayers’ Hurdle and Gold Cup — the best value Cheltenham Festival odds are often found in the nine handicaps.
Via allocated weights distributed by a handicapper on ability, these races are considered fairer with better horses carrying more weight than their lesser counterparts. That, albeit not always the case, should mean a more even playing field — which is why you will often find longer odds for the Ultima Handicap Chase or the Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, for example.
That being said, read on as we take a look at some of the horses to watch from the 2023 Festival’s nine thrilling Handicaps.
Into Overdrive – Ultima Handicap Chase
Since we’ve already mentioned the Ultima, let’s zone in on the maiden handicap of the Festival and the first of two on Champions Day. Contested over three miles and a furlong, Into Overdrive looks like one of the standout entries at the time of writing.
The Mark Walford-trained horse boasts five wins in eight starts over fences and all of those victories have come in his last six handicap chases. The eight-year-old last appeared on Boxing Day, beating Sounds Russian in a Premier Handicap at Wetherby over three miles and he’s now second favourite for the Ultima at 8/1.
Tekao – Juvenile Handicap Hurdle
Moving on to the second handicap of the opening day and another we have already mentioned, it’s impossible not to reference Willie Mullins — who is once again the heavy favourite in the Cheltenham Festival top trainer latest odds — when talking about Cheltenham and while the top-level races dominate the majority of his 88 Festival winners, he has won his fair share of the handicaps too.
The Juvenile Hurdle is one he has not added to his CV yet despite boasting the last two favourites. However, it might be third time lucky as Tekao is as short as 9/2 to win the two-mile, half-a-furlong contest. The four-year-old joined Mullins from France in the summer and has placed in his three hurdles to date, winning a maiden over two miles at Leopardstown.
He was best of the rest behind stablemates Gala Marceau and Lossiemouth in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle last month from 16/1 and a step back down in class should suit Tekao.
Shoot First – Pertemps Network Final
Skipping Wednesday’s two handicaps and moving on Thursday, there’s another short-priced favourite for the three-mile Pertemps Network Final — where the Charles Byrnes-trained Shoot First (7/2) heads a market dominated by Irish runners, including Gavin Cromwell’s Perceval Legallois and three from Gordon Elliott’s yard; Maxxum, The Bosses Oscar and Salvador Ziggy.
Shoot First has appeared twice this season, finishing eighth of 12 in a Handicap Hurdle at Listowel in September but qualified for the Pertemps Network Final after winning a series qualifier by two lengths clear of Botox Has over course and distance in October. He hasn’t been seen since, but that’s likely because his connections want him primed for this race.
Hunters Yarn – County Handicap Hurdle
While Mr Incredible is another favourite for Mullins in the Challenge Cup Amateur Jockeys’ Handicap Chase in the closing race on Thursday at 5/1, we’re going to turn our attention to fellow Closutton runner Hunters Yarn in the County Handicap Hurdle.
Mullins has won this race six times, more than any other of the handicaps and most recently with Champion Hurdle contender State Man last year, and Hunters Yarn is a tempting price at 8/1 — making him the third favourite.
The six-year-old has won his last two outings, including a Listed Novice Hurdle at Navan last month, and arguably stands out more than the more favoured Filey Bay and Pembroke — who were both beaten favourites last time out.
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