Is this the horse to pay for your Cheltenham Festival expenses?

FIT FOR A KING -- Wetherby, where Diamond King was an impressive winner of his first races in Bumpers and novice hurdles.

FIT FOR A KING -- Wetherby, where Diamond King was an impressive winner of his first races in Bumpers and novice hurdles.

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OK, let’s have a bit of fun. Let’s try and brighten up the winter and plot up a long-range winner to claw back the cost of our expenses at the Cheltenham Festival.

We need something to occupy our minds at this time of year, don’t you think? The repetitive diet of slow-motion slogs in midwinter mud, which is what the Jumps season is so often reduced to in January, is beginning to grate.

The unedifying sight of horses labouring through bad ground has blighted the last three Saturdays in the UK. I spent the latest one at Warwick and had an enjoyable enough day. It’s a busy, bustling course that looks after its customers well amid a hotchpotch collection of bars, eateries and vantage points. But as at Chepstow and Kempton the previous weekend and Sandown the one before that, the fare was aesthetically dubious and not particularly punter friendly either.

If the rain and snow abates, there is the promise of better things to come at Ascot, Cheltenham and Newbury in the weeks ahead. But if we’re honest, we’re all just biding our time and fending off Festival Fever, so why not look ahead to the second week in March and concoct a clever punting project?

As we established last week, many of the big Cheltenham races and the most coveted prizes could well end up on the sideboard of Willie Mullins. So let’s go left field and target one of the shoulder events.

The contest I have in mind is the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle, run over almost 2m5f on the Friday, Gold Cup Day. As the penultimate race of the entire Festival and one of its newest creations, it’s not one of the week’s headline-makers, particularly as it is confined to conditional jockeys, many of whom have yet to ride out their claims. But that suits fine for our purposes of squeezing under the radar.

The horse I have in mind is DIAMOND KING. Trained by Gordon Elliott, probably Mullins’s most feared rival in Irish racing at the moment, and owned by Grahame and Diana Whateley, admirable stalwarts of the National Hunt game, whose familiar two-tone blue colours have been carried for many years, most notably by horses trained by Philip Hobbs. The Whateleys love little more than a Festival winner, and Diamond King is quietly developing the profile of a horse primed to fulfil long-held potential.

At eight, the son of crack sire King’s Theatre is older than the seven winners we have seen so far of the Martin Pipe since it was inaugurated in 2009. But for his age, he’s a lightly-raced sort, with victory at Punchestown earlier this month representing only the tenth outing of his career. In a race restricted to horses with an official rating of less than 140, he had every right to go close, especially with jockey Jack Kennedy taking 5lb off. But the impressive way he dismantled a competitive field augured well for the rest of the campaign.

Held up on the inner, he travelled strongly and jumped proficiently before making good progress from two out. Briefly, he was short of room and bumped along, but once they’d straightened up, he quickened up in grand style and forged clear.

Encouragingly, he appeared to improve for the step-up to the 2m4f trip, which his pedigree suggested he would, and Elliott immediately nominated the Martin Pipe as his primary aim, feeling sure he would appreciate the better ground he was likely to encounter at Cheltenham.

The victory recalled the the sparkling hat-trick of wins that launched the gelding’s career in 2013 when he was trained in the UK by Donald McCain after being bought by the Whateleys for 95,000 euros. There were few more taking Bumper winners all season than Diamond King at Wetherby in February that year, yet connections resisted the lure of Cheltenham and Aintree, which he also missed the following year because of a couple of minor niggles after landing two novice hurdles. Given how highly he rated him, McCain didn’t want to risk damage to the horse’s development, nor to his attractive handicap mark.

Curiously, that mark could not be exploited in two very disappointing runs last winter and, at the end of the campaign, Diamond King was switched from McCain to Elliott, where three outings, culminating in his Punchestown success, have lifted his mark to 142. When he was runner-up at Fairyhouse in November, seven lengths behind was Henry Higgins, winner of the big handicap hurdle in Ireland only last Sunday.

McCain had been preparing him for fences, even reporting that he had schooled well. But Elliott deliberately kept him to timber because he recognised he was so well handicapped. After a 12lb rise, Diamond King’s current rating is just about as high as the evidence of trends for the Martin Pipe would allow, which means Elliott not running him again before the Festival. That’s a risky proposition, but this is a canny trainer who knows all about preparing animals for tilts at big races. After all, his CV includes prizes ranging from the Grand National to the Ebor and little would please him more than to add the Martin Pipe, a race named after a legend he once worked for and always worships. Indeed he saddled the runner-up, Noble Endeavor, just 12 months ago.

The booking of Kennedy, one of the best up-and-coming jockeys in Ireland, is another significant factor in the planning process. And it is no concidence that even at this early stage, almost six weeks before the race has received its entries, the bookies are taking no chances, quoting odds of just 8/1. Whether you avail yourself now or wait for the non-runner-no-bet insurance to kick in, Diamond King bears all the hallmarks of a Cheltenham Festival winner in waiting.

HOT HORSES TO KEEP AN EYE ON

Here is a collection of horses well worth keeping an eye on after promising performances in the early weeks of January:

ALWAYS RESOLUTE -- 5yo novice/handicap hurdler, trained by Brian Ellison.

BLACK HERCULES -- 7yo novice chaser, trained by Willie Mullins.

BOUVREUIL --5yo novice chaser, trained by Paul Nicholls.

DESOTO COUNTY -- 7yo handicap hurdler, trained by Gordon Elliott.

DRUMACOO -- 7yo novice chaser, trained by Ben Pauling.

KALKIR -- 5yo handicap hurdler, trained by Willie Mullins.

LE PREZIEN -- 5yo novice/handicap hurdler, trained by Paul Nicholls.

LIFT THE LATCH -- 6yo novice hurdler, trained by Tony Martin.

ST SAVIOUR -- 4yo juvenile hurdler, trained by Philip Hobbs.

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