Sky Pirate and Nick Scholfield out to plunder another big Cheltenham prize
Saturday: 3.30 Cheltenham
888Sport Handicap Chase | Class 2 | 2m | 4yo+ | ITV4
Since this race started in 2015 three of the six winners have produced a winning performance above the 165 barrier on RPRs. That matches the Ladbrokes Trophy and tops the Grand National over the same timeframe. The Grand Annual does not come close.
If there is to be a monster performance this year it will surely come from the winner of the latest Grand Annual, Sky Pirate. He runs off 159, 7lb higher than when winning at the festival to cap a highly productive season which was triggered by dropping him to this trip.
Sky Pirate is a smooth traveller and it may well be that a strong pace will always suit him best, whatever the distance. He might not get that here.
Of the nine runners, only Voix Du Reve has recent history in cutting out the running. That horse runs off a 7lb lower mark than when beaten by less than four lengths in an admittedly poorly subscribed Listed handicap at the Scottish Grand National meeting in April.
Only the two mentioned and Hatcher will carry more than 10st 5lb. Many of the others are useful, unexposed sorts with the notable exception of 2016 Grand Annual winner Solar Impulse.
Leapaway and Bathiva are summer horses arriving after fruitful campaigns. Ashutor also did his best work for Paul Nicholls, on which he is well handicapped, in summer. That he has not run since April and been sold to Sophie Leech for £14,000 muddies the water, to say the least.
That leaves Sandown specialist Before Midnight, perhaps the most interesting horse in the race, having done a bit of a Sky Pirate himself by showing the immediate benefit of dropping to 2m when winning at Chepstow in April.
It feels as though Sam Thomas is on the verge of a breakthrough as a trainer and Before Midnight could be one of his flag bearers.
Keith Melrose, betting editor
Thomas out to build on breakthrough season
Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning jockey Sam Thomas enjoyed a breakthrough season as a trainer in 2020-21 with a career-best 26 winners from just 92 runners, an impressive strike-rate of 28 per cent.
Before Midnight played his part in the trainer's success story, winning a Kempton jumpers' bumper in February before landing a 2m handicap chase at Chepstow.
The handicapper put him up 7lb for that three-quarters-of-a-length victory over Court Royale, but Before Midnight always looked a horse with considerable potential during his days with Nicky Henderson and he should still prove highly competitive off his new mark.
Thomas, best known for his Gold Cup success on Denman in 2008, said: "Before Midnight proved to be a fantastic horse for us last season and a particularly versatile one.
"The drop to two miles paid off. He has earned his place in a race like this and has done plenty of work in preparation."
He added: "It's a lovely race to start off in – there aren't too many runners and the prize-money is good."
What they say
Nick Scholfield, rider of Sky Pirate
It's great to have him back. It's a tough race, particularly with all that weight [11st 12lb] off a handicap mark of 159, but he's got to start somewhere – there's a long season ahead. I'm excited to be back on him but, as I said, he'll need to produce a pretty high level of performance off of 159 to win.
Dan Skelton, trainer of Hatcher
Hatcher has been a brilliant horse, winning 13 races for us. The ground will be nice for him. He is certainly not hiding anything from the handicapper off 150 but we have to go where the ground is.
Iain Jardine, trainer of Voix Du Reve
Things didn't work out for him at Punchestown in April, but his run before that at Ayr was very good. He's in great nick, races off a nice weight, and could run a very big race.
Philip Hobbs, trainer of Leapaway
He's had a good summer, and won at Worcester twice, including last time out in September. We're keen to have another run. Two miles is probably his trip.
Reporting by Richard Birch
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