The County Hurdle is run on Friday the 14th of March this year. Normally a very competitive race there is no reason to think this year will be any different. The weights for all the Cheltenham Handicaps came out yesterday, and on first look the horse that stands out the most at the prices, is Cheltenian in the County.
Cheltenian has a weight of 10-9, and while a few of the top horses may come out, and he could end up with a little more on his back, it’s the rating the horse runs off that matters anyway. His rating is 137, and there are plenty of reasons for thinking that he can rate much higher.
Back in March 2011, Cheltenian won the bumper at the Festival. He was a very impressive 5l winner, and about 7 of the last 10 Cheltenham Festival Bumper winners went on to rate higher than 137 over hurdles, a few of them much higher. Cheltenian was off injured after that race until February 2013, when he came 2nd to Minella Forfitness at Newbury over hurdles. He looked all over the winner that day when he went clear, but seemed to blow up and got nailed late.
Minella For Fitness won a big handicap at Aintree on his next start off a mark of 135, and then came 2nd in an 18 runner race at Sandown off 144. Cheltenian was getting 6lb from the winner that day, but not many who watched that race would have backed him to confirm the form, even if they met off levels next time. The 3rd horse was Valdez who is now rated 153 over fences, and you can’t escape the fact the bare form made Cheltenian’s opening handicap mark of 134 look generous, with the scope for plenty of improvement.
Cheltenian’s next start was in the Supreme Novice Hurdle just 3 weeks later. He didn’t run great then, but he had a hard race, when finishing tired at Newbury and may have bounced. This season he easily won a maiden hurdle before trying to exploit that 134 mark at Newbury, in the Betfair Hurdle. The ground was heavy which wouldn’t have suited, yet after travelling well, he was bang there the whole way up the straight, before finishing a 4l, 4th.
For a horse having only his 4th hurdle start that was a great run, and again he left the imression he can do much better. There seemed to be a strong wind that day, and I thought he wasn’t entirely comfortable with it in the straight, when he didn’t have any cover. It was the same for the others but Cheltenian carried his head akwardly at times, and he appeals as a horse that will be at his best kept on the bridle for longer, with cover.
The ground that day was heavy, which is very unlikley to see him at his best. Good to Soft ground is odds on favourite to be the official ground come the Tuesday of Cheltenham, so it would be around the same price to be good to soft on the Friday. That would be a huge help. It was good ground when Cheltenian won the bumper here, and in truth it can’t be any worse than Newbury, and any improvment is a plus. Up just 3lb for that run, Cheltenian should be favourite in my book.
The top price currently is 16/1, and