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Bayan the dark horse for a Festival Handicap

Irish trainer Gordon Elliott is never a man to be underestimated when it comes to the big handicaps, and he looks to have several contenders to go to war with at the Cheltenham Festival.

The most interesting of those could be Bayan who holds entries in the Coral Cup and the County Hurdle.

The five-year-old has won four of his eight starts over hurdles, showing progressive form on each occasion.

He arguably put up his best performance in defeat last time out over hurdles in a 2m1f contest at Cheltenham when going down by just a 1/4 of a length to Sametegal in a driving finish off a handicap mark of 148.

The gelding cruised into contention three from home, but then made a bad mistake at the second last which cost him ground at a vital stage.

However, he quickly recovered and after being 2 lengths down jumping the last produced a strong challenge before being unable to find any extra in the shadow of the post.

Since then he has won a 2m charity race at Fairyhouse as his final “prep run” ahead of the Festival, and looks to have been given a big chance by the handicapper who has dropped him 3lb to a mark of 135.

He is now set to meet Sametegal on 8lb better terms in the choice of his engagements, and is likely to creep in at the foot of the weights as he is currently 54th in the entries for the Coral Cup and 48th in the County Hurdle.

With his best run at Cheltenham coming over 2m 1f, the County Hurdle over the same distance would seem the more obvious target and he is currently a 25/1 shot for that race with Coral.

However, Elliott’s first Festival success came with Carlito Brigante in the 2m 5f Coral Cup in 2011 so he clearly knows what is required to win that contest.

Bayan is with 12/1 with the sponsors for the Coral Cup, and with connections still keeping their options open you can back him in both races safe in the knowledge that your will get your money back for the one he doesn’t run in as Coral are now Non Runner No Bet on all races at the Festival.

Elliott’s other main contenders for the handicaps are Flaxen Flare and Cause Of Causes.

The former won the Fred Winter at last year’s Festival and hold entries in the same two races as Bayan.

The five-year-old, who is 20/1 with the sponsors for the Coral Cup and 16/1 for the County Hurdle, has been in good form this season.

He ran really well to finish fourth in the Greatwood at Cheltenham behind Dell’ Arca and posted a solid effort last time out when runner-up to the progressive Gilgamboa in a valuable ultra-competitive handicap hurdle at Leopardstown.

The gelding now has a career-high mark of 149 to contend with, but his solid form at Prestbury Park makes him worthy of the utmost respect.

Cause Of Causes is owned by JP McManus and holds no less than seven entries at the Festival.

His most likely targets would appear to be the Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase on the opening day, Tuesday, March 11th, or the Kim Muir on Thursday, March 13th, for which he is 12/1 and 10/1 respectively with Coral.

The gelding has been narrowly denied in his last two runs in competitive handicaps, and is potentially well-treated off his current chase mark of 140 given that he was rated as high as 152 over hurdles.