Five well-handicapped National Hunt horses you need on your side…

Image result for ben pauling

Pauling’s smiling because he knows he’s got a live one…

One of the many benefits of my meticulous approach to updating my private notes for the forthcoming season is that I also come across a plentiful supply of horses that I would consider to be ‘well-handicapped’. In other words a horse that is sitting on a mark that I think is below his or her true ability/potential.

They may be sitting on their current mark due to a light novice campaign last season or they may well have dropped to the mark after a string of below par runs, most likely running on conditions or from a mark that stops them performing to their optimum.

In these very early stages of the season it’s more likely to be the second season chasers/hurdlers that slide up to the top of my list as they have the most potential and room for manoeuvre, there’s a good chance the handicapper hasn’t had enough of a chance to hammer their marks yet and anchor their winning opportunities.

Spotting these types can, and will, lead to some juicy profits throughout the season.

Last season DEFINITLY RED (Dee red lad as I prefer to call him, dunno why!?) was the undoubted star of my list, winning 3 of his 6 starts (1 hurdle – 2 chase) including the Rowland Meyrick and the Grimthorpe and seeing his chase rating move from an opening OR 140 to a closing 159.

Today I want to share with you five horses that I consider to have scope to improve on their current marks (well-handicapped in other words) and in the process can hopefully land a handicap or two along the way before the handicapper catches up with them and anchors them on a stopping mark.

Starting with…

VINTAGE CLOUDS (S Smith) 7yo

Current Handicap Mark – OR 137

This lad should really come with a health warning!

Last season (his first over the larger obstacles) he generally struggled to come to terms with the notion that ALL fences need to be jumped cleanly and accurately and that you couldn’t just jump some, belt a few others, walk through the odd one here and there and then finish as strongly and as quickly as possible and hope to win…because that’s pretty much what he did each time he set foot on the race track last season!

The net result? He’s still a maiden over fences after seven starts.

But I’m still happy to have him firmly on the radar this term. He may again prove bad for my health (and wealth!) but a rating off OR 137 is probably at least 10lbs below what his chase ceiling will prove to be and a rating that’s just too tempting for me to ignore.

The thing with last season is that there was always plenty of promise from his runs, none more so than when he fell two out at the Cheltenham Festival in the Ultima Handicap Chase on day 1 of the meeting. He was 4 lengths down in 6th as they approached the 2nd last fence when one error too many cost him and he crashed out of the race, just when a place looked firmly in his grasp, given how strongly he finishes his races off.

I actually noted him no less than five times in my NTF members Weekend Notes last season, and here are those notes…

Ayr 22nd April

7th – VINTAGE CLOUDS

Turning into a frustrating beast. They had clearly decided to be forceful on him from the off but he pretty much walked through the first fence and he barely jumped a fence cleanly thereafter. As per normal he stuck on strongly once the race was over but his jumping really needs to be fixed so he can fulfil his potential.

Cheltenham Festival (Tuesday)

Fell – VINTAGE CLOUDS (*one to follow)

Keeps hitting flat spots at vital times in his races before coming back into it with a full head of steam and that’s exactly what he was doing again here. He could well have grabbed a place spot had he not come down 2 out and there’s still every chance he’ll snatch a decent pot before this season is out. He is on a mark that with a clear round and no flat spot hitting he could absolutely hose up from.

Haydock 18th Feb

3rd – VINTAGE CLOUDS

They held him up here which was a change from the normal on the pace tactics and I wouldn’t be convinced he enjoyed those tactics all that much as he didn’t look all that happy in the early stages. He did creep into it mid-race but a mistake 5 out seemed to stunt that progress although he did fly home from some way back to grab third late on once he recovered from that mistake, far enough back from the second to make sure his handicap mark remains intact. He could, in theory, be an interesting one for something like the Scottish National and hopefully they will have him closer to the pace in future runs. He still rates as an interesting type on an eye-catching handicap mark.

Haydock 22nd Jan

Fell – VINTAGE CLOUDS

Was running a solid race when coming down 3 out and he may well have placed had he stayed on his feet. He was running here from 6lbs out of the handicap and was only starting to feel the pinch when falling. He’s still very much unexposed over fences after only 4 starts and if they can find him a handicap off his proper mark (OR 136) I could certainly see him doing a job.

Haydock 18th Nov

2nd – VINTAGE CLOUDS

A shade disappointing that he hasn’t manage to convert any of his two chase starts yet albeit he hasn’t run poorly on either start. It’s noticeable, at this stage, that he’s yet to win over further than 2m3f (0/5 over 2m4f) although stamina may come more as he matures and he still remains a horse of interest.

Now it’s pretty damn clear that he needs to sharpen up his jumping, that is patently obvious for all to see. But I have faith in Sue Smith. I have complete faith she’ll get him jumping like a stage (maybe pushing it a touch but you know what I mean!!). They clearly think very highly of him given the races he was pitched into last season and it may just be that the baptism of fire he faced as a novice will see him be a much more furnished individual in his second season over fences.

He is only a 7yo and there is still time for the penny to drop. It may just be that he hasn’t quite fully strengthened up and reached his physical peak yet and once that comes he’ll hopefully find his jumping technique and concentration levels improving significantly. It may be that he needs some form of headgear to keep his mind on the job. It may just be that they need to lower their sights ever so slightly. Whatever the answer is it’s not for us to concern ourselves with, that’s Sue Smith and her teams job, and I have the utmost belief that they will get this lad jumping and concentrating in the manner he needs to be to fulfill his potential.

Make this a Vintage season Clouds…

VINTAGE CLOUDS Ideal Conditions – Handicap Chase | 3m+ | Possible best with cut underfoot

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BUN DORAN (T George) 6yo

Current Handicap Mark – OR 139

Another ‘maiden chaser’ for the list here as Tom George’s 6yo failed to score on any of his 4 chase starts last term. He was, however, set some pretty stiff tasks after his pipe-opener at Uttoxeter in November and he certainly emerged with plenty of credit off the back of his 6th at the Cheltenham Festival and 3rd at the Aintree Festival.

Both those final two runs were possibly on ground that was just a shade too quick for him so he’s worth marking up a pound or two on the bare form for those efforts and I reckon he’s nailed on for a handicap victory when the ground has plenty of juice in it…

Form of Soft/Heavy – 1431P1 (3/6)

Form on Good to Soft or quicker – 3536 (0/4)

That’s not to say he doesn’t handle the quicker ground, but the evidence to date does suggest he more likely to get in the winners circle when there is juice underfoot.

I also have an inkling that he’s maybe just not quite up to Listed level+…

Form at Listed level+ – 63P (0/3)

Form at C3 level & below – 4531131 (3/7)

A class 2 handicap should be within range for him without any bother but I’d be a little wary as to whether or not he has a race at Listed level+ in the locker, albeit I’m open on that as he is only a 6yo.

To date his winning form has come in the November to January period (form of P13141 – P coming in a G2 where he was probably outclassed) and that would fit in with his liking for ground on the soft side and I’d be disappointed if he hasn’t picked up a Handicap Chase before we reach into February 2018.

BUN DORAN Ideal Conditions – Class 2 or below Handicap Chase | Soft or Heavy ground probably ideal | November – January could prove peak months

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BURTONS WELL (V Williams) 8yo

Current Handicap Mark – OR 137 

This 8yo has been in the periphery of my notebook since he won on racecourse debut at Newton Abbot back in October 2014, where my instant impression was ‘Venetia Handicap chaser of the future‘!

He’s been remarkably lightly raced since then with only six further appearances, four of them coming over fences.

He made the biggest impression on me when running fourth at Cheltenham’s January meeting behind the Colin Tizzard trained Royal Vacation, where I entered the following note in my notebook…

4th – BURTONS WELL

First try over such a trip (2m5f) and it certainly looked like he was (at this stage of his career) a non-stayer. He’s still extremely lightly raced and he should have no problem defying OR 137 before the season is out. If he doesn’t win before seasons end he could well have a decent pot in him next season (2017-18) off a mark like this.

He did run once after that, when falling mid-race in the Novice Handicap chase on day 1 of the Cheltenham Festival and was then wrapped up for the remainder of the season, probably due to the fact the ground was likely to become too fast for him for the remainder of the year (he’s been a non-runner 3 times in his career on Good to Soft, Good & Good to Firm).

With only seven starts on his CV he’s not a really a horse I can pinpoint any strong conditions for yet but I suspect we are looking at soft or heavy ground (stretching to Good to Soft if in the deep mid-winter) and 2m4f Handicaps. Whether he’s got a proper valuable pot in him (something like the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham in November?) I’m not entirely sure but it’s not difficult to see Venetia getting at least a couple wins out of him from his season starting mark of OR 137.

Venetia is sure to have a plan and when she has a plan we need to follow…

BURTONS WELL Ideal Conditions – Class 2 or below Handicap Chase | Soft or Heavy ground probably ideal | 2m4f-2m5f 

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ROMAIN DE SENAM (P Nicholls) 5yo

Current Handicap Mark – OR 133

Nicholls went over fences early with this one and although he only won one of his seven chase starts last season I reckon he was a shade unlucky on at least a couple of his other starts and with that novice season now in his back pocket he could very well laugh at his current mark of OR 133.

He was running to marks in the high 130’s/low 140’s a lot of the time and with standard progression likely as a 5yo going on 6 we could be looking at a horse that’s at least 10-15lbs below his ceiling.

I made the following notes on him after his final start at Ayr in April…

Another likable effort from the 5yo and he was travelling and jumping smoothly and starting to make serious headway before being serious hampered by a faller 5 out. That took him out of his stride and he was just always chasing his tail after that, but credit to the horse he stuck in there and absolutely flew the last and dug in deep to snatch second near the line. He looks absolutely nailed on to land a handicap off OR 133 and is probably a fair bit ahead of the handicapper at present. 

Which followed on from the notes I made against him after his run at Aintree…

Was running an eye-catching race until making a mess of 4 out and although he plugged on well he never really fully recovered from that error. He still young and unexposed and is well-worth keeping on the radar, he should definitely have races in him off OR 134.

He is a horse that travels well through his races and with Nicholls sure to have worked on his jumping in the off season I’d expect to see a significantly more polished and professional animal this term. His current mark surely makes him a certainty to score a handicap this season although as already mentioned he should have more than enough wiggle room to pick up two or more handicaps before the handicapper catches up with him, providing he doesn’t win the first one by 30 lengths of course!

ROMAIN DE SENAM Ideal Conditions – Handicap Chases | May not want to be going too far past 2m2f at present (although open on that) | Probably doesn’t want things too testing underfoot

 

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LE BREUIL (B Pauling) 5yo

Current Handicap Mark – OR 139

This 5yo went into the G1 Mersey Novice Hurdle at Aintree off the back of two facile victories in novice company and simply found things a bit too hot for him, ending up pulled-up after trying to keep tabs with the leaders early doors.

There was no disgrace in that effort, however, and he enters this season on the most attractive handicap mark of OR 139. Given how impressive he was in winning on racecourse debut (10L in a Warwick bumper) and on his first two hurdle starts (9L at Sedgefield & 9L at Newbury) it's not a great stretch of the imagination to think that he'll easy prove up to defying his current mark when stepping into handicap company.

His jumping has been described as 'electric' by Ben Pauling on a couple of occasions and it would be hard to argue with that assessment and it's only likely to get better as he matures and gains experience.

The obvious early season target for him would look to be the Fixed Brush Hurdle at Haydock (run on Betfair Chase day) and he's likely to be a strong fit on the race trends for that race. His jumping could have plenty of the others in trouble turning for home in that contest and off his current mark he would be a serious danger to all.

As for the long term I wouldn't be fully convinced he'd make up into a chaser but that's not something to worry about just now, we only need to be concerned with making sure we're in a position to take advantage of him making full use of his handicap mark.

LE BREUIL Ideal Conditions – Handicap Hurdle | 2m4f+

 

I’m extremely hopeful that these five can pick up handicap pots at some stage during the 2017/18 campaign and prove to be some way better than their current marks in the process.

 

Ben (NTF)

p.s. I’ve all but finalized my ‘Alternative 20 to follow’ list for the season. Trainer comments have been collected and the list will shortly be with all members of the FREE NTF service.

Remember this is the ‘to follow’ list that BANS any Mullins, Nicholls or Henderson horses and even steers clear of Hobbs, Pipe and Elliott!

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