Champagne Classic claimed victory in last year’s Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, and despite Michael O’Leary’s seemingly ongoing assessment that English handicapper Phil Smith harshly treats Irish horses, he could have had no argument here. He went on to beat the Albert Bartlett winner Penhill on his next start in the Grade 1 Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival, which made his mark of 138 given to him by Smith for the Martin Pipe race look incredibly generous.

I tend to believe that when a trainer or owner has an annoyance about a mark that their horse receives, it’s usually because connections know that the handicapper has got it spot on.

Gordon Elliott and the powerful Gigginstown brigade may well have another one that has snuck under the nose of the handicapper and has a similarly progressive profile to that of Champagne Classic.
The Pertemps final is a race that 5-year-olds have an abysmal record in.

Only Pragada, back in 1988 won this race as a 5-year-old, but I’m quite hopeful that this trend will not be enough to stop my selection here.

Delta Work was pitched in to deep waters on his first start of the season in the Grade 3 Fishery Lane Hurdle at Naas, when he finished just over 6 lengths behind the Joseph O’Brien trained Early Doors. That was over 2 miles, and the fact that he was staying on again at the death proved that this son of Network would be seen in a much better light when he stepped up in trip. He then faced the daunting task of trying to lower the colours of Samcro at Navan in the Monksfield Novice Hurdle. He performed with credit on this occasion, but was ultimately no match for his stablemate, finishing a well beaten third.

It was at Limerick over Christmas when Delta Work first caught my eye. In his first try over 3 miles, he finished a good second to Willie Mullins’ Fabulous Saga in the Grade 2 Guinness Novice Hurdle, finishing ahead of some nice types including Burren Life and Minella Fair. It was a highly promising run from the then 4 year old against older and more experienced rivals, and it marked him down as one to keep an eye on going forward.

The Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown in February would be the next time we got to see him on a race track in the William Fry Handicap Hurdle, in which Gold Cup hopeful and Ladbrokes trophy winner Total Recall made a mockery of his hurdles mark of 125 (his chase mark was 156). Delta Work finished just under 4 lengths back in fourth, and given the fact he had to concede 8lbs to the winner, it was tremendous effort to get that close to him. It was however, a qualifier for the Cheltenham finale that was run at Punchestown two weeks ago that highlighted Elliott’s plans for his charge.

Presenting Percy came into last years Pertemps Final on the back of a comfortable success at Fairyhouse two weeks prior to Cheltenham, a victory that would prompt Phil Smith to raise
Patrick Kelly’s stable star a whopping 16lbs (which was still not enough to derail him). I wonder did Messrs Elliott and O’Leary have this in the back of their mind when Delta Work ran in his qualifier. Already on a handicap mark of 139, which would have been a high enough rating to get in to the race, he did well to finish a close third behind Kilfenora having made a total mess of the last hurdle.

It meant that he qualified for the final at Cheltenham, and his mark would not suffer to the extent it would have had he been victorious. He has not encountered ground with good in the description since he won his maiden hurdle at Punchestown at the backend of last season. While he has performed admirably on soft and heavy going all season, it may be the return to a better surface that will see him show his true colours. His future may well lie over fences, but I think his mark has been cleverly handled this season by connections, and after been allotted a lovely racing weight of 10-10 after the weights were revealed today, he must go to Cheltenham with a serious chance of giving Gordon Elliott his first victory in the race.

Article By @Roryfitz