The big betting race on the final day of the November Meeting at Cheltenham this Sunday is the 2m Grade 3 Greatwood Handicap Hurdle (15:00).
At the odds on offer, Countister makes plenty of each-way appeal. This seven-year-old mare had some smart to her name when trained in France and winning three of her six starts.
She was then purchased by leading Irish owner JP McManus and, after being sent to join Nicky Henderson, ran a race full of promise when runner-up to Cap Soleil in a Newbury novice hurdle.
Countister then duly built on that to run out an easy seven-length winner at Doncaster, before following-up in good style at Sandown.
Those successes earned her a crack at the Grade 2 Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival here.
The daughter of Smadoun ran as well as could be expected when weakening late on to finish a 28-length fifth of 14 to Laurina.
Countister than ran a stormer following 365 days on the sidelines when a 1 3/4 lengths third of 23 to Ch’tibello in the County Hurdle at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
She had the re-opposing Mohaayed and Monsieur Lecoq in-behind in seventh and 10th respectively.
Countister now meets the latter, who is a top-price 9/2 favourite for this, on 4lb better terms yet can be backed at almost three times the odds of that rival.
It’s fair to say she then failed to fire when well-beaten at the Aintree Grand National Festival, but she had gone well fresh in the past and hails from a yard in fine form.
So, at 12/1 with sponsors Unibet who are paying four places, Countister looks the value punt in a typically wide-open renewal of the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle.
Benny’s Bridge a big player for in-form Fergal
Given that he is unbeaten in two starts at the venue, and hails from a yard in red-hot form, Benny’s Bridge looks sure to go well for local handler Fergal O’Brien.
This six-year-old shaped with plenty of promise in three novice hurdles before opening his account in emphatic fashion here back in January in a decent 12-runner class 2 affair where he was given a sublime ride by Paddy Brennan to beat Flash Of Steel by two lengths.
After being held-up at the rear, the son of Beneficial made some headway two from home, but still looked to have a mountain to climb if he was to land a blow.
However, Brennan oozed confidence and Benny’s Bridge was a closing fourth and going well approaching the last.
He was then switched left on the run-in and showed a smart turn of foot to readily assert and be well on top at the finish.
Benny’s Bridge then finished a decent seventh of 13 to Malaya in the Imperial Cup at Sandown, before resuming winning ways when dropped back into novice company at Market Rasen.
The son of Beneficial then ran a bit below par when ninth of 15 to Getaway Trump, but looked better than ever on seasonal reappearance at The Showcase Meeting her last month when bolting up by eight lengths from Falcon Sun.
He won in the same manner as when previously successful here and now has to race off a 10lb higher mark and a career-high rating of 137 as a result.
However, that may not be enough to stop Benny’s Bridge going in again at a track which clearly brings out the best in him and he can be backed at a best-price 13/2 with Paddy Power to follow-up.
Zanza the pick of Hobbs pair in Greatwood Handicap Hurdle
Trainer Philip Hobbs has a fine record in this race, having won it four times since 2002 – including with subsequent Champion Hurdle hero Rooster Booster.
He saddles Zanza and Gumball in this year’s renewal, and the former is a progressive sort who looks the pick of the duo.
This five-year-old is a lightly-raced sort who has won four of his seven starts over the obstacles and has shown that he can handle soft ground.
He put a disappointing return to action when pulled-up at Chepstow, after which there were found to be excuses, well behind him when landing an eight-runner conditional jockeys’ handicap hurdle at Newbury 10 days ago by 2 1/4 lengths from Westbrook Bertie off 136.
After being held-up at the rear, Zanza made stealthy headway three from home to throw down a strong challenge at the last.
He then found plenty under Sean Houlihan to forge clear on the run-in and win going away at the line.
It was a most taking performance. Zanza was value for more than the winning margin and had some decent yardsticks in behind.
As that was a conditional jockeys’ contest, the son of Arcado is able to race in this off an unchanged mark.
It makes Zanza 4lb well-in at the weights as he is due to race off a revised rating of 140 in future assignments, so he is one of the best handicapped horses in the 15-runner line-up.
Champion jockey Richard Johnspn also now takes over in the saddle, so there is nothing not to like about the profile of Zanza for this.
At 10/1 with BetVictor, who are also paying four places, he thus looks another to consider each-way and completes our Greatwood Handicap Hurdle preview.