12.40 Ascot – Sodexo Juvenile Hurdle
Only four runners for our opening contest but that should not detract from the quality of the race. Philip Hobbs’ Golden Doyen has been one of the leading lights in this division since being narrowly beaten at Chepstow on his hurdling debut. Having bolted up on his next start at Warwick he went to Cheltenham where he rallied late on to land the Grade 2 JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial. He ran below par at Chepstow on his latest start so has something to prove but he sets the standard on his form to date. The marginal preference is for Nicky Henderson’s TOP NOTCH who made quite an impression when winning on his British debut at Newbury in December. He conceded weight all round that day on the back of his two French victories and yet it didn’t stop him as he won going away by four and a half lengths. The master of Seven Barrows has won this race with several smart prospects in recent years including Binocular, Zaynar and Grandouet and I fancy him to add another to the roll of honour here.
1.15 Ascot – Ascot Sponsors´ Club Novices´ Handicap Chase
Gary Moore’s €90,000 purchase TRAFFIC FLUIDE was sent straight into Grade 2 company for his British debut where he wasn’t disgraced, finishing fourth behind Ptit Zig. He was ridden patiently on that occasion and shaped as though he had some chance of developing into a nice prospect. Two five-year-olds (Rougham and Triolo D’Alene) have won this race in recent years and receiving weight all round, he looks to have a strong chance down in Grade. The one most likely to challenge him is probably Colin Tizzard’s Kings Lad who made up for his fall on debut by winning easily at Fontwell next time. He was much more professional on his second start over the bigger obstacles and could be open to further improvement despite the rise in the weights.
1.30 Haydock – Sky Bet Supreme Trial Novices´ Hurdle (Grade 2)
Kiama Bay looks likely to head the market having looked likely to collect a Listed prize over course and distance before coming to grief at the final flight. A pretty good performer on the flat, he seems to have taken really well to hurdling and it would be no surprise to see him make amends here. Of the dangers, John Ferguson’s QEWY looks the most interesting having joined from John Oxx’s yard. Purchased for 60,000 gns in October, he was a Listed winner over a mile at the beginning of April and with form in testing ground he has every chance of being successful in this sphere. The yard continue to produce winners and despite this being his debut, if his hurdling is up to it he must have a big chance.
1.50 Ascot – OLBG.com Mares´ Hurdle (Grade 2)
Robert Walford’s Carole’s Spirit made a winning return to action in November when landing a Listed Hurdle at Kempton. That was her first run since finishing second to Highland Retreat in this race last year and she looked to have retained all her ability as she won with plenty in hand. She sets the standard on form and although she concedes 5lb to all her rivals this afternoon, it would be no surprise to see her go close again. For me, the main danger to her is Harry Fry’s BITOFAPUZZLE who was well backed at Haydock last time but was narrowly turned over by The Pirate’s Queen. The form of that race has also been boosted with the third winning at Newbury this week. Harry Fry has made no secret of how much he thinks of this mare and the step up to three miles could bring further improvement. She is certainly a talented mare and has a good chance on adding a Grade 2 success to her resume.
1.55PM NAAS – WOODLANDS PARK 100 CLUB NOVICE CHASE
This looks a cracking race, with several classy horses taking each other on. The one I like is RULE THE WORLD who jumped superbly on his chase debut at Fairyhouse and was denied by just a nose when trying to concede 20lbs to the decent Adriana Des Mottes. That was a cracking run and off level weights today, he should be hard to beat. He was the best of these over hurdles, handles testing ground and loves Naas, having won all three starts at the track. The only concern is that he lacks experience, but with the yard returning to form, he has a lot going for him and is selected to win.
2.05 Haydock – StanJames.com Champion Hurdle Trial (Grade 2)
Much like the Clarence House Chase later on, this race seems to centre around one horse and in this case it is THE NEW ONE. Following Faugheen’s success at Kempton over Christmas, eyes will be on Britain’s main Champion Hurdle hope to deliver again although it is hard to see him coming off the bridle tomorrow afternoon. I suppose this will put him spot on for the big day in March and I expect him to win impressively although at odds of 1/7 I am hardly making a bold claim.
2.25 Ascot – Keltbray Holloway´s Hurdle (Grade 2)
Garde La Victoire is a very consistent performer who was last seen finishing fifth in the Ladbroke Hurdle just before Christmas. This came on the back of his victory in the Greatwood Hurdle although connections have been saying that they would like to step him up in trip at some stage. Tomorrow appears to be the day and he carries top weight on the back of his performances to date, although that didn’t stop him running well here last time. He looks the one that all of these lesser exposed horses have to beat. Of the remainder, the most intriguing is Paul Nicholls LE MERCUREY who was given an impossible task in the Gerry Feilden at Newbury, carrying top weight on his British debut. I’m pretty confident that his run that day was not a true reflection of his ability and it would be no surprise to see him improve for that run. He has form on soft ground in France which suggests the testing conditions tomorrow should not be a problem and overall he looks to have a fine chance.
2.40PM HAYDOCK – THE 888sport GRADUATION STEEPLE CHASE
CARRAIG MOR has always promised to be a better chaser than hurdler and really impressed when winning a decent race at Newbury in November. He then went for the Grade One Feltham Chase and was running a big race until unseating his rider. The testing ground should not be an issue for him and I can see him galloping his rivals into the ground. The trip of two miles five furlongs looks ideal for him and although he has a bit to find with Third Intention on ratings, the ground could have a big say in the outcome.
3.00 Ascot – Sodexo Clarence House Chase (Grade 1)
There is no getting away from it this race is all about SPRINTER SACRE answering the questions surrounding his wellbeing and whether he has retained all of his ability. There has been much talk all week about whether he will run and at the time of writing it looks as though that will be the case. When he was last seen over a year ago, he was in a different league to the horses he was taking on the highest level and it is hard to think that won’t be the case tomorrow. I think what we are all hoping for is to see him put in a clear round of jumping before heading to Cheltenham for the Champion Chase and I don’t see any appeal in opposing him here.
3.15 Haydock – Peter Marsh Chase (Grade 2)
The Peter Marsh Chase has been three times in recent years which makes it slightly more difficult race to analyse over a ten year period.
However the trends still hold their own when it comes to selecting winners of this race. In terms of age, the success of Wychwoods Brook last year meant that an eight or nine-year-old had been successful in seven of the last ten renewals. They make up three-quarters of this year’s field with Hey Big Spender, Wicklow Lad, Benbens and Broadway Buffalo all sitting outside the desired bracket. The first three mentioned can take some encouragement from the fact that two of the last three winners were aged eleven and twelve respectively. However, you have to go back to 1996 to find the last seven-year-old to land this prize, which doesn’t bode well for David Pipe’s Broadway Buffalo.
Eight of the last ten renewals have been run on ground described as no better than ‘soft’ and with eighteen fences to face over a 3m trip, ground conditions must be brought into consideration. Looking back to all of the past ten winners, every single one had previously showed winning ability on soft or heavy ground. This year’s renewal looks to be no different with conditions described as heavy at the time of writing but all of this year’s field appear to have shown a liking for these conditions in the past.
As I mentioned above the Peter March can often turn into a bit of a slog and therefore there is no point taking a chance on a horse’s stamina. In fact, six of the last ten winners had previous winning form over three miles or further. The trio of Shangani, Amigo and Toby Lerone are the only ones to fall at this hurdle however it is worth bearing in mind that the first mentioned was only beaten a short-head over three miles last time, whereas Amigo was successful over three miles when racing over hurdles.
The weight carried can often have a significant impact on the result especially in testing conditions as we saw last year when Wychwoods Brook carried a low weight to victory. The ceiling in this case looks to be 11st 1lb as only three recent winners have carried more than that to success. When applying that to this year’s field it spells trouble for supporters of Hey Big Spender (11st 10lb) and Corrin Wood (11st 2lb), No Planning sits on the right side of the divide thanks to the 5lb claim of his jockey Callum Bewley.
Our Vic was a previous Grade 1 winner when he battled to success here in 2010 and while that is a slight extreme, the race can now boast the fact that seven of the last ten winners had previously been successful at Class 2 level or better. Not a problem for most of Saturday’s runners although the sextet of Green Flag, Amigo, Benbens, Man With Van, Toby Lerone and Wicklow Lad all have something to find.
In terms of trials, the 3m1f Gr3 Rowland Meyrick has proved a useful guide in the past, which isn’t surprising given that Wetherby is another left handed track with stiff fences. Cloudy Lane, Lord Transcend, Artic Jack and Red Striker all used this race as a stepping stone to this contest. Of this year’s Boxing Day line-up, Corrin Wood (3rd), Broadway Buffalo (5th) and Vintage Star (8th) will try to get their head in front here.
When looking at trainers, Sue Smith and Venetia Williams have both won this race twice over the last ten renewals. The former saddles two runners this year in No Planning and Vintage Star whilst the Venetia Williams yard is represented by Shangani. Both trainers have a fine record in the race and will be hoping they can add to that this year.
The final factor worthy of consideration is the betting and with only one winning favourite in the last ten renewals it is fair to say that this is not a race in which following the market leader has proved successful. Recent winning SPs of 33/1, 20/1 and 16/1 also suggest that it shouldn’t put us off taking a chance on an outsider.
VINTAGE STAR – 8/8
No Planning – 7/8
Shangani – 6/8
For the second year in succession Sue Smith’s VINTAGE STAR tops the shortlist for this race. He was denied in the dying strides by Wychwoods Brook in last year’s renewal and races here off a 4lb lower mark this time around. There look to be very few chinks in his trends armour with a perfect eight from eight record on the stats. He was a little disappointing in the Rowland Meyrick over Christmas last time but if he bounces back to form he looks a big player.
As we discussed earlier the Sue Smith yard have two runners this year and her other running No Planning also makes the shortlist. The eight-year-old continues to progress and was successful over the smaller obstacles at Wetherby in December. His jockey Callum Bewley takes a useful 5lb off his back which means he sits on the right side of the weight trend and generally he looks to have a good chance of going close.
The final member of our shortlist is Shangani who was narrowly denied when stepped up to three miles for the first time in December. He had been out of sorts prior to this run and it seems the step up in trip brought some improvement from the nine-year-old. He has plenty of ability having won the Greatwood Gold Cup at Newbury last term and if his stamina holds out, it would be no surprise to see him right there at the finish.
3.35 Ascot – bet365 Handicap Chase
BOBCATBILLY ran away with proceedings at Wetherby on Boxing Day having hit the front four out. In the end he won by nine lengths for which the handicapper has raised him 10lb but he is still fairly lightly-raced over fences so further improvement is not beyond the realms of possibility. The booking of Barry Geraghty to ride is an eye-catching one and as long as the handicapper hasn’t caught up with him, he looks likely to go well again. At a big price it may be worth taking a chance on the ten-year-old Ackertac in the each-way market as he looks dangerously well-handicapped on his old form. He also has a visor on for the first time which may just spark some life into him as well as the return of Richard Johnson on his back. Admittedly it is a bit of a punt but he looks overpriced considering the racing he has been running in.
4.05 Ascot – EBF Stallions “National Hunt” Novices´ Hurdle (Qualifier)
Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Bally Beaufort found only one too good here in December having made the running for most of the contest. He rallied well once joined by Desilvano but couldn’t quite get to the winner. Nevertheless this was a good run and with Jamie Bargary taking a valuable 7lb off his back, he could just give the market leader something to think about. As I have already alluded to, the likely favourite OUT SAM has to be top of the shortlist having defeated subsequent winners Thomas Brown and Tea For Two at Newbury in November. He does have to concede weight all round here but if he performs to the level of his hurdling debut, I think the rest will find him hard to beat.