Talking Horses: why Gordon Elliott was the Festival handicap king

Blow By Blow, the winner of last week’s Martin Pipe, is one of many improving young horses at Gordon Elliott’s yard.
Blow By Blow, the winner of last week’s Martin Pipe, is one of many improving young horses at Gordon Elliott’s yard. Photograph: Steve Davies/

Tuesday’s best bets, by Chris Cook

Here’s one more thought to add to the pile of post-Cheltenham musings: Gordon Elliott managed to win four of the 10 handicaps, which may be unprecedented. Willie Mullins has never won that many at a single Festival and nor have Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls, Jonjo O’Neill or Martin Pipe.

Elliott has to be regarded as the handicap king of good-quality jumps racing. And lest you should imagine he is simply flooding those races with runners, I should note he had just 17 runners in Festival handicaps last week, giving him a strike-rate of 24%.

The great depth of talent at his stable is key. Thanks in large measure to all those glorious animals provided by Gigginstown, Elliott is running horses in handicaps who would be able to hold their ground in a Graded race. Were they the outstanding talent in another yard, they might be pitched into that Graded race. At Longwood, however, they have stronger candidates and they know it, so why not try and pick up a handicap with him?

Among his novice hurdlers, Elliott has Samcro, who can win a Grade One without breaking sweat, and Blow By Blow, who can bag a handicap at the same distance. Among novice chasers, he has Shattered Love, who won the JLT, and The Storyteller, who ran to a similar level in winning a handicap at the same distance (OK, a furlong further). Among juvenile hurdlers, Elliott has Farclas, good enough to win the Triumph, and Veneer Of Charm, who bagged the Fred Winter.

One way to win a handicap at a major festival is to run a horse who may only be passing through on the way to higher things. The Storyteller ran in a Grade One at the Dublin racing festival last month. Blow By Blow won a Grade One bumper in 2016 and tried a Grade One over hurdles in January.

Delta Work, Elliott’s Pertemps winner, might never make it in a higher class but he was at least tried in Graded races for his first three starts of this season and was second in a Grade Two at Christmas when stepped up to three miles. These are young, unexposed and improving horses, very dangerous in handicaps. Elliott has plenty and will surely have others when he returns to Cheltenham next March.

Wetherby’s card today had a tricky look even before two of my selections became non-runners, so I’ll confine myself to 5-1 shot Quest For Life (3.05), who is trying to get trainer Mark Walford off the cold list. This is his handicap debut and he is by no means chucked in on his rating of 120 but he has been running well when kept to two miles and appeals against a bunch of horses who, for sundry reasons, cannot be relied upon.

Ben Haslam is in form for the first time since November and his Musbaq (8.15) seems popular at 5-2 at Newcastle. A mile on Fibresand wasn’t for him when he made his handicap debut a fortnight ago but he steps back to the distance at which he was running in maidens and his form in those suggests his mark is beatable. Oisin Murphy replaces Cam Hardie.

Ruth Carr hit form at about this time last year and it looks like she’s got her team in good order for the start of the Flat season, having had three winners from her last four runners, including one who’d been off since October. At 16-1, I’ll take a chance on Zebulon (8.45), who was gelded soon after joining from Richard Hannon’s yard in the autumn.

He ran poorly when last seen at Goodwood in September, circumstances which offer excuses, but had turned in the best efforts of his career in his previous two starts. If Carr has him ready to go, he should be competitive.

Newcastle 5.35 Dubawi Fifty 6.05 Bobby K 6.40 VJ Day 7.15 Mujassam 7.45 Taifbalady (nb) 8.15 Musbaq 8.45 Zebulon (nap)

Wetherby 2.00 Saucysioux 2.30 Progress Drive 3.05 Quest For Life 3.40 Dedigout 4.10 Doctor Glaz 4.45 Wig Wam Wiggle 5.15 Good Boy Bobby

Tips by Chris Cook.