I am slightly surprised at the way that bookmakers have priced up Monday’s Paddy Power New Year’s Day Handicap Chase (Cheltenham 2.05 p.m.). Stage Star is a lovely young horse who has, with the exception of a flop at Aintree in April at the end of a long season, improved with every race over the past year. As a result, he is rightly vying for favouritism with Allaho for the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
However, the New Year’s Day contest is a handicap and he must give the best part of two stones to most of his rivals, some of them pretty decent in their own right. I can see why he might be edging favouritism in three days’ time but odds of evens or, in some cases, odds on seem far too short.
In any case, will Paul Nicholls really want to run him off 12 stone on bottomless ground, just two months ahead of the Festival, if the going deteriorates to ‘heavy’ as is likely if the weather forecast is correct?
There are currently eight horses declared for the race but the Willie Mullins gelding, Meetingofthewaters, has virtually no chance of running after his successful exertions in Ireland two days ago. So I am happy to take on Stage Star with a couple of rivals that are both in good form, that handle plenty of cut and that have rock solid course and distance performances in the bag.
The first is SHAKEM UP’ARRY representing the Ben Pauling yard. I thought this nine-year-old gelding ran a cracker when sixth at Newbury last time out in the Coral Gold Cup, despite making a bad mistake at the second fence and then clearly running like a ‘non-stayer’ over the trip of well over three miles.
This shorter distance of two and a half miles-plus will be just up his street as will the softer ground.