Friday, January 26, 2018

Cheltenham Trials Day 2018

Tomorrow's Cheltenham Festival Trials Day should provide punters with plenty of pointers for the main event which is now less than seven weeks away.

Connections of runners in the Cotswold Chase (2.25) will also be looking for some insights from a race that looks far more open than a cursory glance at the market might initially indicate.

Favourite Bristol De Mai trounced his field in Haydock's Betfair Chase back in November but his price for this has drifted noticeably during the week. After he failed to fire in the King George over Christmas, he was diagnosed to be suffering from ulcers and has received the appropriate treatment.

From a trends perspective, Bristol looks one to take on. The last time the favourite obliged was in 1999 (Cyfor Malta) while Exotic Dancer's victory in 2007 was the last time a horse younger than nine years of age came home in front.

Unlike several in the field Bristol De Mai has shown he can act at this track - he finished 20 lengths seventh behind Sizing John in the Gold Cup last March - but his very best form has come on soft or heavy ground; I just wonder to what extent the ground at Cheltenham has dried out over the past couple of days.

At the time of writing Stan James offer 15/8.

Of course, identifying an opposable favourite is barely half the battle. The next four in the market have no noteworthy form over the Cheltenham fences.

Both The Last Samuri and American have their first run here. The former has victories at Doncaster and Kempton on the cv and receives weight from all his opponents except Singlefarmpayment; the latter is known to be fragile with connections openly admitting this is a retrieval mission after a poor display in the Hennessy. Sent off favourite that day American was done no favours by the standing start (my tip, Label Des Obeaux, suffered similarly) but had looked impressive last season when winning at Warwick and then giving Rock The Kasbah six pounds and an eight length beating at Uttoxeter.

Definitly Red was pulled up in the 2015 Albert Bartlett Hurdle and then the 2016 Festival four miler. He beat The Last Samuri 14 lengths in last year's Grimthorpe at Doncaster but Kim Bailey's charge was out of sorts at the time.

Tea For Two, third in the King George, got no further than the second fence in last year's Gold Cup but three weeks later went out and beat Cue Card a neck in the Aintree Bowl, recording his first win on a left-handed track in the process.

Nick Williams' charge was over-excited by the preliminaries in the Gold Cup; connections will be doing their utmost to ensure Tea For Two reaches the start without any mishaps tomorrow so they can watch their horse run on its merits and then make a decision about participation in this year's renewal.

The horses with form over the Cheltenham fences are those the punters appear to have rejected; Perfect Candidate, Singlefarmpayment and Theatre Guide are course and distance winners.

Perfect Candidate tries blinkers for the first time but the yard is going through a quiet spell while Theatre Guide has some decent efforts to his name and has undergone a wind operation since finishing a well-beaten third behind Present Man in the Badger Ales Trophy at Wincanton.

Singlefarmpayment took a crunching fall when making ground up the home straight in the Hennessy and connections have indicated their charge will be ridden more positively tomorrow; he's the lowest- rated in the field on official ratings and has enough to find to be competitive.

A rather trappy affair; a bit of a fudge, I know, but I'm going to take an each-way interest in Tea For Two at 9/1. If he runs his race and takes to the track he holds a chance of coming home in front. On the other hand...

Like many, I'll be watching the Cleeve (3.35) - as well as all the other races - notebook in hand. With due respect to those concerned, it seems a number of handlers have identified this year's Stayers' Hurdle as a weaker affair than normal.

Sam Spinner currently heads the market on the back of an impressive win in Ascot's Long Walk Hurdle last month but Jedd O'Keefe's charge has never run on anything quicker than good to soft and there's a fair chance the ground will ride quicker than that in six and a half weeks' time.

A decent showing tomorrow is likely to see a contraction in the best prices currently shown below for the Stayers' Hurdle:

Finian's Oscar 12/1
Wholestone 16/1
Beer Goggles 20/1
The Worlds End 25/1
Thomas Campbell 25/1
Colin's Sister 33/1
Ex Patriot 66/1

In particular Finian's Oscar may not have taken to fences this season but Team Tizzard have maintained their charge still retains a 'massive engine'.

Mulchays Hill brings the best form into the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (3.00). Tikkanbar faces a tough task conceding weight to the majority of his opponents; he's a decent prospect but his hurdling remains a work in progress.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Another one of those...

The other day I was debating an incident in a televised football match with a friend of mine; he took a particular point of view and I put the opposite case. He could see where I was coming from but quite clearly didn't agree and, by way of conclusion, said, 'Well, it's just one of those, isn't it?'

Fatigued, I agreed, it was one of those but I don't really know what I agreed to when I agreed it was one of those.

I've heard jockeys use the same phrase when discussing races and race-riding incidents. I recall Sam Twiston-Davies in a TV interview saying 'It's one of those,' accompanying the utterance with an ever-so-slight shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, yes, it is one of those and...

ITV Racing has recently developed a penchant for sticking a microphone in the face of a mud-splattered jock who has just trailed in last on a 14/1 shot beaten over 74 lengths - the sort of tip I put up on a regular basis - and as he makes his beleaguered way back to the sanctuary of the weighing room, out pops a reporter and simply says 'Well?' in a presumptive, inquisitive sort of a manner.

The unfortunate jock, door-stepped, bewildered and now mighty keen to weigh in, might well reply 'It's one of those.'

I was impressed the other day when I think it was Aidan Coleman who said 'It's a bit of a mystery,' although obviously not in the sense that Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case, for example, is a bit of a mystery.

Now I liked that reply. It struck a chord. Here I am, backing these horses with my very own money and a jock who has just dismounted from a beast that's been beaten a distance and a half doesn't have much of a clue as to why it ran such a stinker.

Clearly, it's just one of those.

For those who have made it this far, here's one of these which, on the balance of probabilities, is more likely to end up another one of those.

Several usual suspects are amongst the fourteen declared for the Ascot Spring Garden Show Holloway's Handicap Hurdle (Ascot 2.25). In recent weeks I've tipped Air Horse One and Whatmore and they've disappointed me and, no doubt, you if you went and backed them.

Air Horse One didn't take off at the fourth flight over a two mile trip here last month and that was the end of his chance. Subsequently handler Harry Fry told the Weekender:

'But let's not kid ourselves, he's a badly handicapped horse.'

Whatmore ruined his chance in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year's Day by refusing to settle. Connections fit a hood for the first time; Henry Daly isn't one to overface his charges.

Jenkins came good in first-time blinkers last week, making all to win at Kempton. After the event the handicapper raised him from a mark of 132 to 143; James Bowen claims five tomorrow but Nicky Henderson's charge is short enough in the market and tries this trip for the first time.

At Sandown last month A Hare Breath, trained by Ben Pauling, beat Caid Du Lin (second), Crossed My Mind (third), Man Of Plenty (fifth) and Jenkins (seventh).

On that same day the Pauling-trained Le Breuil conceded nineteen pounds to Black Ivory at Aintree and was beaten six lengths; Black Ivory went in again at Warwick last weekend. In the Weekender 25-29.10.17 the handler says:

'...I'd like to think his current mark of 139 is very fair and he could be top drawer.'

The market doesn't seem to agree but on Sandown running there wouldn't be a lot between Crossed My Mind, Caid Du Lin and Man Of Plenty; on a line through Magic Dancer, Oxwich Bay and Man Of Plenty look closely matched.

The Racing Welfare Handicap Hurdle over two miles here in December throws up form lines. Hunters Call won that day with Man Of Plenty fifth, Caid Du Lin twelfth and Air Horse One fifteenth following that howler at the fourth referenced above.

At the age of nine Man Of Plenty is the oldest runner in the field but he boasts form behind Misterton and Limited Reserve who was beaten into second by Elgin in the William Hill Handicap Hurdle at Ascot in November with High Bridge third and Air Horse One fourth.

Night Of Sin merits a mention on two counts. Firstly I haven't had one in a while and secondly Nick Williams has sent out four winners from nine runners in the past week.

Nicky Henderson's second string Burbank has been out of form - connections try cheekpieces for the first time.

14/1 Air Horse One is quite tempting but I'm put off by top weight. At an each-way price Caid du Lin and Man Of Plenty are considered; on Uttoxeter form Vivas is closely matched with the latter but Charlie Longsdon's horse doesn't want it too soft.

Many Of Plenty is the each-way selection; at the time of writing he's 20/1 with Coral who pay one fifth the odds four places.

Two points to conclude.

As of today racecards will notify the first time a horse runs after undergoing wind surgery, signified by a  'W' after the beast's name. I happen to know a few people who'd benefit from a wind operation but I'm not so certain they'd be chuffed with a 'W' appearing after their moniker.

Secondly, I haven't yet forgiven myself for failing to back Mirsaale at Kelso last Sunday. Third in the Persian War Hurdle in 2016 and then beaten by Moon Racer at Cheltenham, Keith Dalgleish's charge bounced back to form with a bang, winning at odds of 33/1.

It's another one of those.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Warwick whims

Earlier this week, unusually, the stentorian Matt Chapman found himself dancing on rather thin ice while in a YouGov poll published on Wednesday, 52% of those questioned rated horse racing either quite or very boring - have these people never placed a bet?

Tomorrow's meeting at Warwick - my local track - is the biggest of the year but there's a certain anti-climax in the air with some fancied runners either opting to race at Kempton or to stay at home in their boxes on account of the ground.

The official going is now described as soft; it has been heavy, is likely to be holding and will prove very hard work.

The Betfred Classic Chase (3.35) is the highlight; the weights have risen some fourteen pounds with Missed Approach (139) now at the top of the handicap.

Three in the field came to grief in last week's Welsh National at Chepstow: Emperor's Choice fell at the first; On The Road unseated Mitchell Bastyan at the fourth; and Milansbar unseated Trevor Whelan at the twelfth.

Nigel Twiston-Davies saddles two; Cogry is often let down by his jumping while Ballycross sports first time cheekpieces but has yet to win a chase.

Kerry Lee saddles three and appears to hold a stronger hand with Krackatoa King, Goodtoknow and Russe Blanc.

Richard Patrick gave Alfie Spinner a superb ride in the Welsh National last week; his five pound claim will come in handy here aboard Krackatoa King who boasts a decent record since moving to the yard.

Goodtoknow has been out of sorts since winning at Hereford last February but he ran a stormer in this last year at odds of 25/1, beaten six lengths into second by subsequent Grand National winner One For Arthur (Russe Blanc ninth, with Emperor's Choice, Milansbar and Ballycross all pulled up).

Despite the price Russe Blanc (127) isn't readily written off, having won the 2016 running off exactly the same handicap mark; Charlie Poste was in the plate that day and he rides again tomorrow.

Cresswell Breeze has run well this season, I've noted money for the Ian Williams trained Indian Castle in a first-time visor but On The Road and Crosspark have never won a chase over three miles or further.

I'm drawn to the Kerry Lee trio and Krackatoa King gets the each-way vote; he's currently quoted a 9/1 chance - Hills and Coral are advertising one fifth the odds four places.

I usually like to take an interest in the Leamington Hurdle (won by subsequent Neptune winner Willoughby Court last year) but to my mind the layers have it about right.

Evan Williams names Chooseyourweapon as his pick in this week's Weekender Stable Tour but qualifies it with 'I'm not getting carried away at this early stage of his career'.

Paisley Park did me a favour at Hereford just before Christmas, turning over 1/4 chance Vision Des Flos, but the favourite fluffed his lines at the last - it ranks as the one piece of luck I've had in the past eight weeks.

The Hampton Novices' Chase (1.50) has cut up with just five left in. Duel At Dawn beat Flintham 16 lengths at Exeter before finishing second to Sizing Tennessee at Cheltenham. I haven't completely given up on Big River who is the one to beat on official ratings but was pulled up with an irregular heartbeat at Haydock last time.

Finally, a historical note on which to finish - a (rather out-of-focus) picture of a noticeboard outside the Fox & Vivian public house in Leamington Spa, detailing the first course of the Leamington steeplechases in 1834...


Friday, January 05, 2018

The rescheduled Coral Welsh Grand National 2017

Look, I know I'm getting older and that bit more forgetful - in the pub I am constantly being reminded to buy a round - but when I checked out tomorrow's Welsh Grand National preview in the Weekender, I was struck with a very distinct feeling of deja vu.

Ten days ago I tipped Wild West Wind for the Welsh National that was subsequently called off. The Weekender preview for that race discussed Wild West Wind's victory in the Welsh National Trial on December 9th and continued:

"The gap between that race and this one is just 18 days but Tom George's charge will be thereabouts if fully recovered."

Rather strangely, that's exactly what's printed in this week's Weekender...

Tom George's charge, together with Alfie Spinner (second) and Milansbar (third), has benefitted from an additional ten days to recover from those particular exertions. Unfortunately layers are no longer offering the 12/1 originally quoted; Wild West Wind is generally 8/1.

As in my original preview, given underfoot conditions (Chepstow heavy, 'brutal' to quote Evan Williams), I've concentrated my insubstantial efforts on runners who are weighted to carry less than 11-0 - eight of the last ten winners fall into this bracket - and who have also shown some form previously at the track.

Last year Native River became the first top-weight to come home in front since Carvill's Hill in 1991. Since the war there has been no thirteen-year-old winner and just one twelve-year-old - Gallery in 1960.

The shortlist comprises Raz De Maree, O'Faolains Boy, Buckhorn Timothy, Milansbar, Alfie Spinner, Firebird Flyer and Emperor's Choice.

Taking James Bowen's five pound claim into consideration, Raz De Maree (14/1) - second last year - tries on better terms this time and it's unlikely there's another Native River in the field. I saw him tipped up here and there over Christmas but he's looking a little long in the tooth now and I prefer to look elsewhere.

Alfie Spinner (25/1) is thirteen as well but his second in the Welsh National Trial reads well; on a strict interpretation of the form he has the beating of Wild West Wind. Prior to that run Alfie was pulled up in the Badger Ales at Wincanton behind Present Man (Final Nudge a head second).

The booking of Geraghty for O'Faolains Boy (25/1) catches the eye. This evening the Racing Post quotes handler Rebecca Curtis:

"We gave him a tie-forward operation coming into the winter, which seems to have really helped. He seems in really good form and is hopefully back to his old self."

O'Faolains Boy also holds an entry in the Veterans' Handicap Chase at Sandown (3.00).

When last seen over the larger obstacles in the 2016 Welsh National Trial, Buckhorn Timothy (25/1)  seemed to find the larger obstacles getting in the way. His two recent hurdle runs provide some grounds for optimism; Joe Tizzard has told the Racing Post:

"We've had this in mind for him all season... Like them all, he's got to handle the conditions but he has a good attitude and should be all right."

Earlier in the week Neil King issued a positive update about Milansbar (16/1).

I'm wary when the trainer tells us 'Milansbar has been quite hard work for Trevor [Whelan] on his last two starts...'; the first-time cheekpieces will need to work their magic but on Racing Post ratings he is the top one in the field.

2014 winner Emperor's Choice (20/1) may find this coming a little too quickly after winning on heavy at Haydock over three miles three and a half furlongs last Saturday while Firebird Flyer is one of three entries for Evan Williams.

Pobbles Bay looks the stable's best chance while On The Road is unexposed but not guaranteed to stay.

Firebird Flyer (40/1) finished second behind Mountainous in 2016 and then eighth last year but has generally been out of sorts (pulled up in the Midlands National and the Scottish National).

There was a faint flicker of hope on his comeback run over hurdles at Ffos Las in November; he races off a mark 11 pounds lower than last year, is the second best horse in the field on Racing Post ratings and jockey Conor Ring claims three pounds.

It's a wide open event.

On the back of Joe Tizzard's comments Buckhorn Timothy is the tentative each-way suggestion at 25/1, with Ladbrokes, Coral and Betfred amongst those paying one fifth the odds five places.