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Cheltenham horse racing preview: Jake Russell's ante-post tips for handicap races on Day One at the Festival


Continuing his ante-post Cheltenham previews, horse racing pundit Jake Russell analyses where he believes the best early value lies in the handicap races on the opening day of the Festival.

By @ Jake Russell

2.50pm - Ultima Handicap Chase

Trainer Record (Last 20 years)

  • Jonjo O'Neill - 21 runners, 3 winners and 3 places
  • David Pipe - 21 runners, 3 winners and 4 places
  • Alan King - 14 runners, 2 winners and 1 place
  • Lucinda Russell - 6 runners, 2 winners and 2 places
  • Nicky Henderson - 25 runners, 1 winner and 7 places

Jockey Record (Last 20 years)

  • Richie McLernon - 7 rides, 2 winners and 1 place
  • Brendan Powell - 5 rides with 2 winners
  • Derek Fox - 4 rides, 2 winners and 1 place
  • Ryan Mania - 2 rides with 1 winner
  • Sam Twiston-Davies - 11 rides with 0 winners or places

Last 10 winner of the Ultima Handicap Chase

  1. Holywell - Jonjo O'Neill & Richie McLernon (2014)
  2. The Druids Nephew - Neil Mulholland & Barry Geraghty (2015)
  3. Un Temps Pour Tout - David Pipe & Tom Scudamore (2016)
  4. Un Temps Pour Tout - David Pipe & Tom Scudamore (2017)
  5. Coo Star Sivola - Nick Williams & Lizzie Kelly (2018)
  6. Beware The Bear - Nicky Henderson & Jeremiah McGrath (2019)
  7. The Conditional - David Bridgewater & Brendan Powell (2020)
  8. Vintage Clouds - Sue Smith & Ryan Mania (2021)
  9. Corach Rambler - Lucinda Russell & Derek Fox (2022)
  10. Corach Rambler - Lucinda Russell & Derek Fox (2023)

Britain vs Ireland

  • Britain - 17 winners, 47 places from 363 runners
  • Ireland - 2 winners, 2 places from 13 runners

Ante-post selection for the Ultima Handicap Chase:

It is notoriously difficult to decipher which runners will end up starting the handicaps at Cheltenham, as some might be re-routed for Aintree, or maybe test their hands in a better race at the Festival. 

However my selection Threeunderthrufive looks fairly certain to go for the Ultima once again, a race sponsored by his owners, who would no doubt love to see this horse get his head in front for them. 

The Paul Nicholls horse was quite a good novice chaser, landing two Grade 2 contests in his first two races over larger obstacles, and I feel they might have thought he was a better horse than shown when stepping out of novice company, but that hasn't quite materialised. 

He ran in Warwick's Classic Chase before heading for the Ultima last season, finishing 6th at Warwick and 8th at Cheltenham, and although he was pretty well beaten at Cheltenham last year, things didn't quite go his way at all. He didn't jump with much fluency on the way around, and was short of room and lost his position early on, which might have been a catalyst as to why he didn't jump very well all the way around, plus he looked slightly outpaced throughout. 

If he can get his preferred position early on up near the pace, I would imagine he will run and jump better than he has shown previously, as he is a horse that very much likes to be up there with the pace. And he has shown that on his two previous runs this season, two very good 2nd-placed efforts, and although beaten, he still ran very well in both races. 

A 3-length runner-up on his seasonal debut behind Blackjack Magic in the Badger Beer, he then went on to come a decent 2nd behind Broadway Boy at Cheltenham, where he was taken on at the front end by the winner, but to his credit he stayed on well in the closing stages, just getting outstayed. The fact he hung left up the Cheltenham Hill might not have helped him in any way also. 

He has since gone up another 2lbs from that Cheltenham run last time, which means he could run off the mark of 152, which would be a joint-highest career mark for him. 

Keep an eye on the start/early exchanges, as if he can get in a prominent position, then he is sure to run well, but if it goes like last season, then you can probably rip your ticket up there and then. 

Threeunderthroughfive runs well at Cheltenham, is clearly a dour stayer (Grand National entry) and connections will no doubt want to win this contest with one of their horses. He could be tailor-made for this and I fully expect him to go quite a few places better than last season. 

  • Selection - Threeunderthrufive (25/1 or 20/1 Generally)      

4.50pm - Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Registered as the Fred Winter)

Trainer Record (Last 20 years)

  • Gordon Elliott - 29 runners, 4 winners and 5 places
  • Paul Nicholls - 29 runners, 3 winners and 8 places
  • Nicky Henderson - 18 runners, 1 winner and 2 places
  • David Pipe - 14 runners, 1 winner and 5 places
  • Joseph O'Brien - 8 runners with 1 winner

Jockey Record (Last 20 years)

  • Mark Walsh - 5 rides with 2 winners
  • Sam Twiston-Davies - 10 rides with 1 winner
  • Paul Townend - 9 rides, with 1 winner and 2 places
  • Paddy Brennan - 8 rides, with 1 winner and 1 place
  • Jack Kennedy - 5 rides, with 1 winner and 1 place

Last 10 winners of the Boodles Juvenile Hurdle

  1. Hawk High - Tim Easterby & Brian Hughes (2014)
  2. Qualando - Paul Nicholls & Nick Scholfield (2015)
  3. Diego Fu Charmil - Paul Nicholls & Sam Twiston-Davies (2016)
  4. Flying Tiger - Nick Williams & Richard Johnson (2017)
  5. Veneer Of Charm - Gordon Elliott & Jack Kennedy (2018)
  6. Band Of Outlaws - Joseph O'Brien & J J Slevin (2019)
  7. Aramax - Gordon Elliott & Mark Walsh (2020)
  8. Jeff Kidder - Noel Meade & Sean Flanagan (2021)
  9. Brazil - Padraig Roche & Mark Walsh (2022)
  10. Jazzy Matty - Gordon Elliott & Jack Kennedy (2023)

Britain vs Ireland

  • Britain - 10 winners, 38 places from 290 runners
  • Ireland - 9 winners, 18 places from 135 runners

Ante-post selection for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle:

I do actually quite like this race, and the one I have picked out for my selection is a Gordon Elliott runner, who could also be the yard’s second string depending on what they do with Wodhooh, just like last year with Jazzy Matty who ended up winning at 18/1. 

Ndaawi is my selection, a very good Flat horse who was rated 96 at his peak on the level, and connections thought he was good enough to pitch him into a Group 1 over in France over 1m2f. 

Since then he has changed hands and gone to Gordon Elliott with the mind to go hurdling, and he has started off relatively well so far over obstacles, running three times already and winning once, which was a maiden hurdle effort last time out. 

Before that winning effort he was running in some pretty hot maiden races, beaten 13 lengths into 5th on hurdle debut, a race won by Intellotto of Willie Mullins, then a three-and-a-half-length 3rd behind Miss Manzor at Fairyhouse, before going on to put the experience to good use and win at Naas on the soft going. 

The winning margin was only just over two lengths that day, but the manner in which he won it was very easy in the end and quite pleasing to the eye, suggesting there is plenty more to come. I think he has been campaigned perfectly with the Boodles in mind, with a fairly lenient mark in mind for connections. 

Like Jazzy Matty, Gordon Elliott's winner last season, he might not arrive at this race with blistering form, but he could get a very handy mark that could be a little below his true colours. He was a very decent flat horse, rated almost 100, so the chances are he will be a 140+ rated horse in the near future. If he can get a mark of 118 to 125 ish for the Boodles (Jazzy Matty was 125 last season), I will firmly be on him heading into the race. 

However, no matter the mark he receives, he is the current selection for me. Hopefully connections do roll the dice and go for the Boodles at the Festival, a race in which Gordon Elliott does so very well.

  • Selection - Ndaawi (8/1 Generally) 

5.30pm - National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Jockeys Novice Chase

Trainer Record (Last 20 years)

  • Willie Mullins - 21 runners, 4 winners and 3 places
  • Gordon Elliott - 14 runners, 4 winners and 2 places
  • Jonjo O'Neill - 17 runners, 3 winners and 1 place
  • Alan King - 10 runners, 2 winners and 1 place
  • Nigel Twiston-Davies - 14 runners and 1 winner  

Jockey Record (Last 20 years)

  • Patrick Mullins - 12 rides, 4 winners and 2 places
  • J J Codd - 15 rides, 3 winners and 2 places
  • Derek O'Connor - 17 rides, 2 winners and 5 places
  • Joshua Newman - 6 rides with 1 winner
  • M J O'Hare - 4 rides with 1 winner

Last 10 winners of the National Hunt Challenge Cup

  1. Midnight Prayer - Alan King & Joshua Newman (2014)
  2. Cause Of Causes - Gordon Elliott & J J Codd (2015)
  3. Minella Rocco - Jonjo O'Neill & Derek O'Connor (2016)
  4. Tiger Roll - Gordon Elliott & Ms L O'Neill (2017)
  5. Rathvinden - Willie Mullins & Patrick Mullins (2018)
  6. Le Breuil - Ben Pauling & J J Codd (2019)
  7. Ravenhill - Gordon Elliott & J J Codd (2020)
  8. Galvin - Ian Ferguson & Jack Kennedy (2021)
  9. Stattler - Willie Mullins & Patrick Mullins (2022)
  10. Gaillard Du Mesnil - Willie Mullins & Patrick Mullins (2023)

Britain vs Ireland

  • Britain - 9 winners, 21 places from 236 runners
  • Ireland - 9 winners, 17 places from 95 runners
  • (France - 2 winners, 1 place from 6 runners)

Ante-post National Hunt Challenge Cup selection: 

Willie Mullins has an excellent record in this race, producing the last two winners of the race, and three of the last six. In recent years he has liked to send a horse that is the classy sort in a handicap, and I think Embassy Gardens is that sort for the yard this year. 

Two wins in two runs over fences so far in his short chasing career, he might lack a little bit of experience compared to the rest, but he has looked to be a good staying chaser in the making, and I think he could be the good thing of the day in the last race of Day 1. Patrick Mullins is sure to ride him, probably one of if not the best amateur jockey around, and he has been on board both of the last two winners of this. 

He fits a different bill to last year’s winner Gaillard Du Mesnil, in that Gaillard won a Grade 1 novice chase before heading to this contest, but to my eye Embassy Gardens could easily be a Grade 1 winner in waiting, something that I would imagine could very well happen later on in the season. 

His chase debut was an awesome watch, jumping really well and pulling clear to win by 13 lengths, before taking the step up in class in his stride when landing a Grade 3 by 10 lengths last time, again jumping like a seasoned professional all the way around. 

He will have to take a pretty big step up in trip here, a further 3 to 4 furlongs to be exact, but the manner in which he went clear and won so easily last time does suggest there was plenty more in the tank. His jumping is a real asset, and when a horse can jump so well all the way around, it always does save a little bit of petrol for the finish no matter the trip. 

Ruby Walsh and Lydia Hislop spoke in glowing terms about him after the Grade 3 win last time, and although he was double-figure prices earlier on in the season, I think even at his current price he is worth backing. 

I think Embassy Gardens has as good a chance of winning the National Hunt Chase as Constitution Hill does at winning the Champion Hurdle. Furthermore, I think it would be unwise for connections to not go down the National Hunt Chase route with Embassy Gardens as he is by far the most likely winner of the contest and looks tailor-made for it.    

  • Selection - Embassy Gardens (10/3 Generally)

Previews and tips provided by @ Jake Russell

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