BetVictor Greatwood Gold Cup Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 2m4f | 5yo+ | ITV/RTV
The fact that Paul Nicholls has won nine of the 15 runnings of this handicap is normally enough to put whatever appears to be his first string top of the betting.
It is clear Nicholls targets this race while others are polishing their Cheltenham hopes. He decides what runs in the race, but the order of his runners in the betting is up to bookmakers and the betting public. They/we let the side down a bit more than Nicholls does.
Of the last four winners to be sent from Ditcheat, three of them had shorter-priced stablemates in behind and the other was Sound Investment, who was flying solo for his yard. This is not a trend, more an illustration of what you can and cannot infer from a trainer's record in the race.
The supposed chosen one from Nicholls' pair this year is Grand Sancy, who returns from a break having trailed in last of three when favourite for the Rising Stars at Wincanton.
In one sense, this first run in a handicap over fences is a big opportunity for Grand Sancy, who races like a horse who might well suit a big-field handicap more than the small-field races he normally runs in. The issue here could be the trip; he will need to settle if he is to see out 2m4f. He won a Listed novice chase at Chepstow over 2m3½f in October, but that day used his speed to bury Paint The Dream, who is much more of a stayer.
Many of Grand Sancy's rivals have also run in novice company this winter. Killer Clown has gone up 15lb for winning a traditionally strong novices' handicap on King George day, but is a generally unexposed horse. Umbrigado has also had less racing than you might think (11 runs under rules) and remains with some untapped potential for this longer trip over fences, having found loads to win over 1m7f last time.
The Big Bite has some attractive form, tying in with Caribean Boy and Ibleo. He was second to both and there is no disgrace in either, but he is by Scorpion and has duly shown some quirks, notably a high head carriage.
Senior Citizen also has form with The Big Bite and, perhaps more notably, gave Espoir De Romay a race at Huntingdon in November. His only run since was in the Grand Sefton and is easily excused, perhaps not just because of the fences given it was on soft going and his very best form has come on less testing ground.
All of those mentioned are at the bright end of the market. A couple worthy of mention from the shadier spots are Barton Knoll and Gala Ball. The latter makes quite an obvious case if you look back, and you need only go as far as his second to Clondaw Castle here in November.
Barton Knoll is a strapping sort who had long threatened something like what he produced at Doncaster in November. He is up 7lb, so must improve again, but a flat, galloping track (he has run well over course and distance) and being fresh seem to be the ingredients needed to bring out the best in him.
Mackie out to make his mark
John Mackie trains a small string of mostly Flat horses in Derbyshire and would not mind shaking up superpowers Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls in the Greatwood Gold Cup with Barton Knoll, who has a bona fide claim to jumping fame.
He was the last horse bred by the late Lady Hilda Clarke, whose husband Sir Stanley owned 1997 Grand National winner Lord Gyllene and formed Northern Racing, which is now part of the Arena Racing Company.
"I've 18 in and I'm very lucky Simon Clarke [son] sent him to me," said Mackie, whose imposing nine-year-old is rated 136 after winning three of his 12 starts over fences.
"We've had him a while and he's an absolute giant, but a gentle giant.
"He needs good ground, which is why he's been off since November. I think he's pretty mature now, but he's been a big, backward baby and hasn't had a lot of racing, especially as last year we were preparing him for the spring when lockdown came.
"He's a lovely, gorgeous horse."
Mackie, dreaming of a sweet win in front of the ITV cameras, added: "We'd love it and Newbury has been a happy hunting ground for us with our Flat horses.
"We're happy to go down there and take on those big guns and hopefully the horse is good enough."
What they say
Paul Nicholls, trainer of Capeland and Grand Sancy
Capeland is paying for his consistency with a tough mark, but he’ll like the better ground. Grand Sancy has been waiting for this ground. He loves to be fresh and enjoys going left-handed. There are lots of positives for him.
Brian Ellison, trainer of Windsor Avenue
We're putting on cheekpieces and a tongue strap to see if they help him. Last time out he made a mistake and didn't concentrate after that. He looks a picture and is absolutely bouncing.
Nicky Henderson, trainer of Gold Present and Pistol Whipped
I think Pistol Whipped has a great chance, but don't forget about Gold Present, who is in fine form and wants better ground. He hasn't had his ground all season so he'll enjoy this, while Pistol Whipped ran very well at Kempton on his seasonal reappearance in January.
David Pipe, trainer of Umbrigado
He's been doing really well of late but is encountering different ground here and it's drying out quickly. He should handle the track and trip and I think he'll handle the better ground, but most of his form is on softer ground. If he does handle it, he's got a chance. We'll find out about his mark after – it was a competitive enough race at Wetherby last time, but this is more competitive again. That said, he's a novice, so let's hope he's open to more improvement.
Dan Skelton, trainer of Born Survivor
We've always seen this race as the starting point for his spring campaign. We're delighted with the better ground and he's down to a good mark. He's got an each-way chance.