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Matthew Sutcliffe’s Cheltenham Festival Lucky 15 – Our Man Provides Each-Way Plays for Every Day of the 2024 Cheltenham Festival

We have reached the calm before the storm, with the greatest four days of the year just round the corner at the 2024 Cheltenham Festival. Matthew Sutcliffe has four selections for your each-way Lucky 15 for the week, to try and land you a significant prize.

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Day One: Ultima Handicap Chase – Eldorado Allen 20/1 5 places (Festival NAP) 

The Ultima has tended to favour those toward the head of the market in the last ten seasons, with the only winning SP higher than 11/1 coming in 2021 with Vintage Clouds. However, given the arguably weak looking nature of this contest combined with the trends, the one I can’t get away from is top-weight ELDORADO ALLEN. There’s been just one winner off top-weight in the last ten renewals (so it can be done) which was Un Temps Pour Tout in 2017. David Pipe’s horse took the race off 155, and was tenth in the Coral Gold Cup en route, recording an RPR of 154 (sixth best in the race) despite being beaten nineteen lengths. Eldorado Allen posted an RPR of 156 when beaten twelve lengths  in fourth in this season’s Coral Gold Cup (third best), so despite his seemingly mammoth task at the weights, it’s certainly no forlorn hope. 

The Gold Cup at Newbury has a habit of throwing up Ultima winners; Corach Rambler was a staying on fourth in 2022 (151 RPR) before winning the Ultima, The Conditional was second in 2019 (145 RPR) en route to winning at Cheltenham, Beware The Bear was beaten 32 lengths in the 2018 renewal (RPR 134) before taking the Ultima, Un Temps Pour Tout we touched on earlier and was also 2nd in a Grade 2 Novice Chase the season before on his way to winning the race in 2016, and finally The Druids Nephew was beaten 24 lengths in seventh in 2014 (RPR 133) before taking the Ultima that season. Given 50% of the last ten Ultima winners had contested the Coral Gold Cup earlier that season, Eldorado Allen has to be strongly considered particularly given he recorded the highest RPR of all those (156) in his respective race. That run was particularly eyecatching considering he kept on having initially dropped out of things when the pace lifted turning for home. He blundered at the fourth last which massively hindered his chances considering how well he was originally travelling, and he fared second best of those racing in rear given the second, third, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth were all noted to have either been ‘prominent’ or ‘in touch with leaders’. The only other to fare well from off the pace was the winner Datsalrightgino. 

His run at Ascot at the start of the season suggests this formally smart Grade 1 chaser is ready to strike in handicaps, as despite jumping badly left and racing keenly throughout, he was travelling sweetly turning for home before being headed. While he could’ve backpedalled and finished well beaten, he regained his stride and kept on strongly, clocking the second quickest final furlong, despite being over a second slower than the winner two out. The only slight concern I have is that it was a similar scenario at Newbury, where he hit a flat spot once the pace lifted before staying on strongly, however if he was to return to prominent tactics in the Ultima and is able to get in a rhythm out in front, I’d struggle to see many classy enough to pass him providing he avoids that flat spot. 

Previous course form is crucial in finding the Ultima winner, and Eldorado Allen was seventh in last year’s Gold Cup, third in the 2022 Ryanair, and second to Shishkin in the 2021 Arkle. Given he’s also won a Grade 2 Novice Chase on the Old Course, you’ll struggle to see a classier horse than him running in a handicap all week and at 20/1, I think he’s the best each-way bet of the Festival.

Day Two: Grand Annual Handicap Chase – Solness 14/1 5 places 

The angle I want to explore into this year’s Grand Annual is one that stays further than two miles but has the proven speed for the test. The ground is somewhat of a grey area at the moment with it drying out, but with further rain predicted and given how heavy it may be, we’ll possibly have that tacky going where you’ll need to jump fluently, travel and stay well. 

In the last ten renewals, there’s been just one winner of the Grand Annual who, prior to winning the race (UK races only), hadn’t either won or placed over 2m3f+ or recorded an RPR of 142+ over a 2m3f distance, which was Savello in 2014, though he had won over 2m1f. The trends therefore suggest you want something to fit the angle I’m exploring. That trend would be against four of the top ten in the market in My Mate Mozzie, Madara, Path D’oroux, and In Excelsis Deo. Winning SPs can also be noted here, as there’s been just two winners returning an SP lower than 10/1 in the last ten years, with odds of 14/1, 16/1 (x2), 22/1, 28/1 (x2) and 66/1 all winning. Dancing On My Own, Saint Roi and last year’s winner Maskada would also be vulnerable as there’s been just one winner numbered 4 or less in the cloth, though Le Prezien carried 11st 8lb (highest in last ten renewals) to win in 2018. 

I think it’s fair to say there appears to be a gulf in class between some of these in this year’s renewal so I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those horses towards the top of the weights came up trumps, and SOLNESS for Joseph O’Brien is one who ticks the box of being speedy enough to win over 2m but stays further. The son of Konig Turf has some smart Novice Chase form to his name, beaten two lengths by the classy hurdler Saldier on chase debut, before making all to win two chases with relative ease, latterly recording an RPR of 142, He then bumped into Hercule Du Seuil twice, beaten 13 lengths the first time when giving him 5lb, then just six lengths next time out off level weights in a Grade 3 Novice Chase at Galway. Hercule Du Seuil is now rated 150 having won two further G3’s, so Solness’ mark of 148 doesn’t look too high on that evidence. Those aforementioned bits of form came on a range of tracks/conditions, whether it be left/right handed, or on sharp/undulating/galloping tracks, so the Cheltenham test is unlikely to faze him. 

Solness improved on that novice form when taking a Listed race at Fairyhouse by six lengths, finishing well ahead of the likes of Pats Choice, Path D’Oroux, The Folks Tiara and Dancing On My Own, who he’ll likely all meet again next Wednesday. His jumping was particularly impressive there, and he fared the best of those who were held up in midfield early on. Despite taking a keen hold, he was still able to find a second gear despite using up plenty of energy, putting in an excellent leap at the last and staying on strongly through the line. He was put up 9lb for that effort but effectively ran off a 14lb higher mark next time out in a 52K chase a Leopardstown, where he raced widest of all throughout, covering far more ground than the two in front of him who he was giving 14lb and 11lb to respectively. He now has an 8lb swing with Madara and a 6lb swing with Path D’Oroux, so I’d be confident enough he’ll reverse that form. It’ll be interesting to see who Joseph O’Brien jocks up next week as although claimer ridden horses don’t have a good record in the Grand Annual, if Conor Stone-Walsh was given the reigns to take 5lb off, that wouldn’t put me off at all. 

I’d expect this big field/strong gallop to play into his strengths as he can take a hold, and those two previous efforts in similar handicaps will have put him straight for this. I’d say he’s overpriced at a general 14/1 and if getting a nice prominent enough ride up the inner, he’ll be staying on strongly on tacky ground. 

Thursday: Ryanair Chase – Protektorat 10/1 3 places 

It was largely wishful thinking when backing Seddon in my ante-post series, though I was assuming he’d have had a run beforehand so once he didn’t turn up at the DRF my fate was sealed. I said back then that the race was average enough, and after confirmations today that thought still applies. However, it is largely a wide open renewal (though it probably wouldn’t be out of place as a premier handicap!). 

The market is headed by last year’s winner Envoi Allen in a renewal that isn’t too dissimilar in class as to what it was last year. However, Shishkin was anything but foot-perfect there, taking several fences with him including that shuddering error three out, and with a clearer passage he’d likely have won. The third, Hitman, re-opposes, but PROTEKTORAT was only 1/2l behind him in the Denman chase last time out giving him 6lb, so on a strict line through that form, Protektorat wouldn’t have to improve much to topple Envoi Allen and is certainly still value at 10/1, despite a recent surge of money after the previews. 

Banbridge is the other obvious type, but it’s been well documented how he ‘needs’ some good in the description to be seen to best effect as we saw at Kempton when beating Pic D’Orhy. Obviously the form of that race has worked out well with Pic D’Orhy winning the Grade 1 Ascot Chase next time out, but Banbridge was in receipt of 3lb that day and it’s worth noting that Protektorat gave L’Homme Presse 4lb for a two-length defeat in there Fleur De Lys Chase, who was then beaten five lengths by Pic D’Orhy in unfavourable conditions (right handed, 2m5f). So not only does Protektorat hold Envoi Allen on form, but he won’t have to find much to beat Banbridge even if that one is given his conditions, which given the forecast and the typical Thursday ground, would seem unlikely. 

Ryanair winners have often come in the form of those previously beaten at the Festival, Envoi Allen in the Turners then Champion Chase, Allaho in the RSA, Min in the Champion Chase, Frodon in the Ryanair the year before, Balko Des Flos in the Golden Miller, etc. The list goes on. Ideally, you want something that’s not quick enough for a champion two miler, and perhaps not quite classy enough for a Gold Cup. Protektorat is the perfect candidate, as he was a credible fifth in last year’s Gold Cup, running to an RPR of 168, only 1lb than when third in the 2022 renewal behind the devastating winner A Plus Tard. He’s posted RPRs between 167-169 on the New Course and was a C&D winner over hurdles in 2020 so these conditions will suit him to a tee. He’s shown good form over 3m this season, running to an RPR of 169 twice (only Banbridge has matched that this season), first when staying on behind subsequent Swinley winner Threeunderthrufive, giving some 15lb to him and a further 21lb to the winner Broadway Boy. He was only beaten three lengths there under a keen hold, but it was a classy performance in terms of the weight he gave, then he backed that up with the aforementioned effort to L’Homme Presse giving him 4lb, a performance that I personally would have him made him 5/1 for this race. 

I can only imagine that the Skeltons will set out to make this a test of stamina given we know he stays. Tactically, I wouldn’t want him held up under a keen hold in rear as I’d be slightly unsure whether he’d have the toe to catch the leaders. However, if he was to pop out and turn it into a test then I don’t think any horse in this field could outstay him, particularly once jumping into a rhythm, so at 10/1 I think he represents excellent value and even if they were to bungle the tactics and hold him up, he’ll likely run into a place regardless. 

Friday: County Hurdle – Westport Cove 14/1 5 places 

I’ve made it this far in the Cheltenham Ante-Post series without tipping up a Willie Mullins horse, but it’d be folly not to at some point, particularly given his record in the County Hurdle. WESTPORT COVE finished last when a 33/1 shot for the Champion Bumper last season, but the occasion evidently got to him as he was beyond keen under Danny Mullins in front. His keenness remained an issue in his first two runs this season, though he got the job done in rather workmanlike fashion first time up this season. He was again too free in the Grade 1 Future Champions Novice at Leopardstown from the front, but he was one of four to pull up in attritional conditions, with the third beaten 44 lengths and the two ahead both looking like stayers. 

Under a change of tactics and a first time tongue-tie equipped to his hood won on debut, Westport Cove settled much better held up in a four-runner affair where he was beaten 1/2L on heavy ground at Clonmel by the strong favourite Quai De Bourbon, who currently stands at 4/1 favourite for the Martin Pipe, given a mark of 140. Given Westport Cove has been given a mark of 139, a pound lower, he looks overpriced at 16s considering the market position of Quai De Bourbon. 

After State Man won the County Hurdle in 2022 off 141, the rules changed for the race as a novice now has to have at least four runs to qualify for the race, and the performance of Westport Cove in a Listed contest behind the now Supreme favourite Tullyhill absolutely smacked of minding his mark/qualifying for a run in the County. For all he won easily, Tullyhill was given a freebie in front. Westport Cove again settled perfectly well and the headgear combination, but was held up well in rear. He jumped and travelled well, making a good move two out but one Tullyhill had flown, the three in behind were given a tender ride to say the least. 

Now he’s learnt how to settle, coming off the pace in a strongly run, packed County will play perfectly into his strengths. He has copious amounts of speed, a turn of foot and jumps fluently, the ideal mould of a County winner. I’d imagine he’s much better than a mark of 139 and hopefully I’ve landed on the ‘right’ Mullins horse for the race, with 14/1 likely to look big enough come Friday.

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