Grand Annual Chase Tips: Classy Irish raider to hand O'Brien Cheltenham glory
A hugely competitive field will line up for the Grand Annual Handicap Chase, which is the penultimate race on day two of the Cheltenham Festival, and our man Steve Chambers previews the event here and picks out his best bet for the contest...
Gordon Elliott trained Chosen Mate to glory in this event two years ago, and the Cullentra House handler will have a superb chance of landing the two-mile handicap chase prize again on Wednesday, as he saddles a classy duo in the 16:50 event. Spearheading the Elliott team will be market leader Buddy Rich, who has had a promising campaign over fences, which has seen him bag one win and four seconds, before a disappointing run at Fairyhouse back in November saw his excellent form taper off a little. However, he's been kept off the track since then, and having run well at Cheltenham earlier in the season, he could be a major player if producing his best off a mark of 144.
Not out of the frame in his five chase starts, Andy Dufresne will be the other Elliott-trained raider, and he warmed up for this event with a second placed finish behind Captain Guinness in a Grade 3 at Naas. Dropping back to handicap company for this event, the JP McManus-owned raider will have near top weight to carry here, but he is one of the classy performers lining up, so has to be respected around the 9/1 mark.
There's some eye-catching Irish-trained raiders towards the head of the market and the Joseph O'Brien-trained EMBITTERED has to come into calculations, if he can bring his A game to the contest. Sent off favourite for this race 12 months ago (fell at ninth fence), Embittered has been a regular on the track this season, but in recent times has struggled to land any sort of blow in Graded company. Last seen contesting the Grade 1 Irish Arkle at Leopardstown, the 8/1 chance could only finish fifth to Blue Lord in that event, so a drop to handicap company here should see him fare much better.
He contests this year's renewal of the Grand Annual off a 1lb lower mark than last season's contest, and 145 looks completely feasible if he can recapture the form that saw him a Grade 3 event at Punchestown back in October. Vastly experienced, Embittered looks to set the standard here, and could just prove to be a cut above his rivals.
Last year's winner Sky Pirate will be one of the premier British-trained runners taking their chance here, but the Jonjo O'Neill-trained will have to deal with a 4lbs higher mark in this year's contest, and he was last seen being well beaten in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury. Colin Tizzard's Amarillo Sky is certainly won of the home stars that could challenge the Irish, and he was last seen winning a novices' handicap chase emphatically by ten lengths. Still open to improvement, the 8/1 shot will need to continue on an upward curve, as he has been given a whopping 8lbs rise for that win, and taking his chance in a tougher race here he will have it all to do.
Paul Nicholls has trained two of the last six winners of this race and he will be doubly represented here with Thyme White and Il Ridoto. The former was an impressive winner at Doncaster last time out, and is entitled to come on for that effort, and has to be respected at 10/1, but at double that raider's odds Il Ridoto at 20/1 looks a possible each-way player. He was held in high regard at the start of the season having romped to a fine Newbury win, and was then sent to the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown, but was no match for Edwardstone. He wasn't beaten far at Lingfield last time out, and a mark of 143 looks workable for the Ditcheat inmate, who has to be capable of making the frame.
Of the others, Gary Moore's Editeur De Gite is going in search of a hat-trick of wins, but this is a lot more of a test than he's been facing of late, while the likes of the consistent pair of Frero Banbou and Before Midnight add more depth to what should be a thrilling contest on Wednesday afternoon.