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Cheltenham Festival Race Facts – Vincent O'Brien County Handicap Hurdle 31/01/11

Traditionally the Vincent O'Brien County Handicap Hurdle was run in the gathering gloom on the Thursday of the traditional three-day Festival. All that changed with the introduction of the fourth day when the County Hurdle was moved to be the middle leg of three hurdle races run before the Cheltenham Gold Cup and therefore protecting the ground for the Blue Riband chasers.

Last year's winner, Thousand Stars
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Thousand Stars

This was traditionally the "getting-out" race on the final day, not that its move has made the race any easier to crack. This race is probably the most competitive of all of the events run over the four days with the pace fast and furious from the off. Numerous winners have made up seemingly impossible amounts of ground after the turn into the straight to get their noses in front on the line. It's not always easy to find the winner, but anyone looking to bet on Cheltenham action can find some real value here.

The race is of course named after the legendary Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien who had plenty of success here at Cheltenham and was in the vanguard of Irish trainers who made their mark at the Festival.

Last year was a typical highly competitive renewal of the County, producing rock solid handicap form. The winner a Thousand Stars boasted a progressive profile held up two thirds of the way down the field he still had a dozen or so in front of him over two out but soon began to motor and, jumping to the front at the last, ran on powerfully, producing a performance reminiscent of many winners. The second Arcalis was another to come from off the pace and was still only seventh taking the final flight before staying on well up the hill. The places were completed by Dee E Wiliams and Zanir both of whom turned in creditable performances especially the third as he was more prominently ridden than those around him and it's tough to stay up with the pace in a race as strongly run as this.

Tito Bustillo
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Tito Bustillo
The favourite Tito Bustillo came here with a similar profile to American Trilogy, who won the race for Nicholls in 2009 but he never got beyond midfield and was held when badly hampered two by a faller.

In general, this is one race where it pays to have a couple of longer priced selections on your side and there have been some massive prices over the past decade that have hit the frame with one 200/1 chance and others at 100/1 and 66/1 making it a profitable race if you can find the big priced outsider. Last year saw Arcalis second at 33/1 and Zanir fourth at 50/1 so don't discount those at longer prices. On top of this, the race is a particularly good one for anyone who follows Paul Nicholls Cheltenham tips, as the trainer has a more than respectable record in the handicap.

As with plenty of the handicaps winners appear to be coming from a tight ratings band and this race is no exception, with the band between 128-135 providing the last six winners. The winner last year – Thousand Stars – running off a mark of 134, in fact the first four home all ran off very similar mark 134, 136, and 135 being the official being the marks of those coming in behind the winner.

Running styles of horses with in-running betting available are becoming more important and this is one race where it pays to avoid front-runners, all bar one of the last ten winners earning the formbook comment "held-up" – avoid out and out front runners.

Respect Irish runners and any runners from the stables of Paul Nicholls, Philip Hobbs and Gary Moore.

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