2021 Cheltenham Festival – Lieutenant To Make Arresting Sight Up Cheltenham Hill
2021 Ultima Chase Tips
The Ultima Chase is the first handicap of the meeting, taking place just after the Arkle on Day 1 of the Cheltenham Festival. Lewis Tomlinson takes us through the key contenders for the race.
Ultima Chase Overview
The Ultima is the first handicap of the meeting, a competitive three mile chase around Cheltenham’s old course on Tuesday. The race is often used as a stepping stone to the Grand National, with Rough Quest, Seagram and West Tip all having taken the Ultima en route to success at Aintree.
Key Contenders – Escaria Ten
British trainers have established a real stranglehold on the Ultima, with Tony Martin’s 2006 winner Dun Doire being the last Irish raider to successfully plunder this prize. However, the markets currently suggests favourite Escaria Ten may well be capable of putting an end to the Irish drought.
Gordon Elliott’s seven-year-old was down the field in the Martin Pipe last season, but looks capable of far better over fences and made a stern impression on his second start over fences when bolting clear of a fairly useful group at Thurles. That was bettered again when running Brown Advisory hope Eklat De Rire to under two lengths in a Naas Grade 3 last month, and his overall claims look solid. I wouldn’t be wanting the British handicapper to make life too much harder for him than his current Irish mark of 147, though.
Last year’s winner The Conditional also looks to be taking the Ultima-Aintree path and he’s enjoyed a fine campaign, finishing third in the Ladbrokes Trophy and a close second in Ascot’s Silver Cup. He’s 10lb higher in the weights, but should be competitive again.
Fourth behind The Conditional last season, he’ll almost certainly carry top weight in the race once again if having a second crack at it. His only completed start this campaign, a second in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby, was a positive showing, albeit in a race that hasn’t worked out particularly well.
I don’t think he’ll represent much value here – he’s been seen off favourite for nine of his last ten starts, and he’s always been a horse I’ve generally struggled to understand the often strong market support for. I think the handicapper knows exactly where he is, and that may leave him vulnerable for win purposes to some less exposed rivals.
I was excited to see Lieutenant Rocco over a fence this season, and at this stage, he’s my idea of the winner of this race. He won twice as a novice hurdler on bad ground for Colin Tizzard last season before being pitched in the Albert Bartlett at the Festival. Though he pulled up, I’d be willing to completely put a line through run- being asked to sustain a strong gallop from the front was never going to play the strengths of this big, physical ex-point-to-pointer and he left me with the impression he was always going to be at his best in staying chases.
Now with Nick Mitchell, who resumed training this season after a year out, Lieutenant Rocco shaped rather well in his first three runs in this sphere, all over trips I’d have considered inadequate for him. Those showings would lead to me admit he’s probably half a yard pacier than I gave him credit for last season, but I still think staying is his game and produced his best performance to date when stepped back up to three miles at Ffos Las last time out, storming clear to beat some useful rivals by ten lengths. The handicapper has given him an 8lb rise for that victory, but given how much more ability could be unlocked from him in this trip, I think it’s still workable and I’d be confident this race will play to his strengths.
Coko Beach & Dickie Diver
Dickie Diver (14/1) is going to be a nice staying chaser, but Nicky Henderson has already appointed the National Hunt Chase as Plan A for this lightly-raced eight-year-old. Gordon Elliott has also discussed the same target for Thyestes winner Coko Beach, but I could see the logic in keeping his six-year-old in handicap company, as I think he’d still be competitive from his Irish mark of 150.
Ultima Chase Big-Race Verdict
The distinctive white-faced chestnut LIEUTENANT ROCCO is more than just a good looker, and he’s a horse whose drum I’ve been banging for a while now. We saw exactly how devastating he could be given his optimum circumstances at Ffos Las on his last start, and I think he’s got enough ability to produce the same in better company again here.