2021 Cheltenham Festival – Embittered Can Capture Grand Annual Chase

Runners stream over a fence at the Cheltenham FestivalRunners stream over a fence at the Cheltenham Festival

2021 Grand Annual Chase Tips

This race used to be the closing event on Gold Cup Day but has now been moved to Day 2 of the Cheltenham Festival. Lewis Tomlinson tackles this fiendishly difficult handicap for his latest ante-post preview.

Grand Annual Chase Overview

Fast and furious. The Festival’s two-mile handicap chase has switched position from the Friday to the Wednesday, and course from the New to the Old, but the shape of the race should look very similar. Speed, accurate jumping and enough stamina reserves to get up the hill are all vital attributes needed for a horse to go well in the Grand Annual.

Key contenders – Sky Pirate

Current favourite Sky Pirate has undergone a transformation this season. Always an impressive traveller, Sky Pirate’s major flaw had always been how little he had found off the bridle, and his poor finishing efforts went to major way to explaining why he remained winless over fences into his third season as a chaser.

Generally campaigned between 2m4f-3m in the past, Sky Pirate has benefited immensely from dropping down to the minimum trip and has finally been able to unlock the ability that he has long looked to possess. Two wins this season over two miles have been stylish, and he’s risen 20lb in the handicap as a result, but the reinvented Sky Pirate is clearly thriving and he’s respected at the top of the betting

Ibleo

Runner-up to Sky Pirate at Cheltenham earlier in the season, he is an immensely likeable gelding. Never out of the first two over fences, Ibleo has continued to be progressive and consistent throughout this campaign.

He’s improved his rating this year by 22lb, and produced another career-best last time out when battling bravely to win at Doncaster last month. Whilst perhaps not quite as smooth a traveller as Sky Pirate, Ibleo is blessed with a first-class attitude and that should stand him in good stead here, as he’ll have to produce another career-best to take this.

JP McManus Runners

JP McManus has several novices who could potentially carry his colours in this race, including Entoucas (14-1) and Unexcepted (14-1). The duo met on their chasing debuts at Tipperary back in October, with Unexcepted running out an eight-length winner. Unexpected has only been seen once since, when disappointing after a break in the Irish Arkle last month, but Entoucas has been busier. He’s built on some reasonable efforts behind smart horses in beginners’ chases to finish front rank in two of Ireland’s strongest two-mile handicaps this season.

McManus also could be represented by A Wave Of The Sea (12-1), a Grade 1 winning juvenile last season who won the Matheson Handicap at the Dublin Racing Festival last month, a race in which Entoucas finished fourth.

Blackbow

Irish Arkle third Blackbow  also has form against Entoucas this season, having beaten him by four-and-a-half lengths on his chasing debut at Navan back in November. His next two runs were fairly lacklustre, but I think his latest outing at Leopardstown was a career-best. That being said, 153 looks a stiff enough opening mark for a horse with a generally patchy profile – his novice hurdling spell last campaign was dreadful compared to his smart bumper form, and I’m still not entirely convinced he’s the most robust of animals.

Embittered

A place behind Blackbow at Leopardstown was Embittered, who acquitted himself well when third in the County Hurdle at last season’s Festival. The County was a good race last year – the winner, Saint Roi, was around a stone ahead of his mark, and the runner-up, Aramon, won the Galway Hurdle from a 6lb higher mark later in the year.

Embittered only finished a head behind Aramon that day, and his previous form in strong novice hurdles that season – he wasn’t far behind Abacadabras or Darver Star in the Royal Bond – suggested to me he was a horse who had more in hand than his rating of 146.

Sent novice chasing this season, Embittered has acquitted himself reasonably well. He’s winless from four starts over fences, but I don’t think he’s ever particularly underperformed, consistently running in good races against Graded quality horses. His current OR in Ireland is 144, and I think that should be workable enough for Embittered to run at Cheltenham once again.

Grand Annual Chase Big-Race Verdict

I’ve always had a lot of time for EMBITTERED, who has held his form well against some smart types in novice chases this season. He’s previously ran well in a good race at the Festival and I think he’s operated at a similar level over fences this season, which his opening mark in this discipline could be lenient.