Nicholls Can End Festival On A High
Punters will be aware of the fact that Willie Mullins likes to target the penultimate race of the festival, the Martin Pipe Conditionals’ Handicap Hurdle (4.50pm), having won it three times during the last five years.
However, Mullins doesn’t appear to have the strongest line-up this time around, with Blazer (14/1) the shortest of his runners in the market, and that 5yo will need to bounce back from a disappointing effort in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury last month.
Elliott’s Pair Well Fancied
Instead, Gordon Elliott has aimed a couple of well fancied types for this year’s renewal in Squouateur (6/1) and Westend Star (16/1). The former arrives having won two decent handicaps the last twice, including at Fairyhouse in February (2m4f, heavy). This improving 5yo is also entered elsewhere, but seems to be well fancied for this particular event.
Westend Star meanwhile, impressed in landing his maiden by 14l on Boxing Day (2m4f, heavy), before landing a novice in the same manner (2m6f, soft). He bettered those efforts in defeat last month, though, when runner-up in a Grade 3 (2m6f), and has been raised just 4lb for that career best.
Better ground will be new to him, but he is improving and has stamina for the Cheltenham hill.
Fred Winter Winner Back For More
Paul Nicholls won this race three years ago, and has a decent chance with the 5yo, Qualando (10/1). Successful in the Fred Winter here 12 months ago (2m, good), he failed to shine in three runs following that, but did show more last month when runner-up in a handicap. He is a 2m2f novice winner, but still has it to prove over this 2m4f trip.
Nicholls also has a couple of 14/1 shots in Baoulet Delaroque (14/1) and Ibis Du Rheu (14/1). The former couldn’t arrive in better form having already recorded a hat-trick in 2016, including a decent handicap last month (2m3f, good to soft), though Ibis Du Rheu has yet to win in three outings this season.
Jonjo O’Neill’s 5yo, Box Office (14/1), also deserves a mention, and while he still has a bit to prove having been pulled up when tried over 2m7f last month, it will be interesting if money arrives for the JP McManus runner.
There have been just seven renewals of this handicap, but five of the winners avoided running into a handicap last time, boding well for Paul Nicholls’, Rock On Oscar. A change of tactics worked last time when dropped out of the pace, which he’ll be able to do on Friday, and his ability to handle good ground will be a bonus. At 16/1, he rates excellent each-way value.
*Prices correct at time of publication.