1.30 Ascot – Neptune Investment Management Novices´ Hurdle
Our opening contest looks likely to be between two exciting novices, the first of which is Paul Nicholls’ Arpege D’Alene. The five-year-old was an impressive winner over course and distance on his British debut in a race which has already produced a couple of subsequent winners. He was upped in Grade on his next start in the Challow Hurdle but failed to fire and finished only fifth. The return to this company looks more sensible and if he looks well placed to give a good account. The preference however is for his main rival TEA FOR TWO who was last seen running away with the Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton. He won by sixteen lengths from more experienced rivals and having never been outside the first three in eight starts it was no fluke. This race will likely guide connections towards his Festival target as he has entries in both the Neptune and Albert Bartlett. He continues to improve and it would take quite a performance to beat him on his best form.
2.05 Ascot – racinguk.com Reynoldstown Novices´ Chase (Grade 2)
Paul Nicholls’ VIRAK sets the standard here having won his first three starts over fences including the Grade 2 December Novices’ Chase at Doncaster. He was last seen when a distant third in the Feltham behind Coneygree in which he jumped well but seemed to get tired in the closing stages. That run came just two weeks after his Doncaster win and having had a short break, he looks likely to come back in better form. He sets a good standard and looks a big player for a yard that have won this with Gungadu and Rocky Creek in recent years. The one likely to give him most to think about is David Pipe’s Ainsi Fideles. The five-year-old enjoyed a summer jumping campaign in which he rattled off five victories over fences. He chased home Splash Of Ginge at Cheltenham in October and has been absent since, although the soft ground that we have had would not have been to his liking. Race fitness would not be too much of a concern coming from the Pipe yard and if the rain holds off, he could run a big race on his return.
2.20 Haydock – Betfred “Still Treble Odds On Lucky 15´s” Hurdle (Grade 2)
SEEYOUATMIDNIGHT returns to the racecourse tomorrow in search of back-to-back victories in this race. He was a revelation for the Sandy Thomson yard last season winning his first three starts over hurdles before finishing third in Grade 1 company at Aintree. His victory twelve months ago saw him beat the likes of Celestial Halo and he warrants plenty of respect on his return to action. It is possible that he may not be fully wound up on his return but his trainer is hoping he can stake his World Hurdle claims and despite conceding weight all round, he looks the one to beat. Last year’ s race saw Mickie finish second under a low weight and it is possible that Land Of Vic could repeat the trick this time around. The seven-year-old showed how well she stayed when chasing home the high-class Bitofapuzzle and Carole’s Spirit last time at Ascot. She receives a sizeable weight allowance here and given how well her stamina lasted on her latest outing, if her rivals struggle to finish their races off she may be the one to benefit.
2.40 Ascot – Weatherbys Hamilton Chase Limited Handicap (Listed Race)
It is interesting to see Evan Williams pitch Cappa Bleu into Listed company having seen the thirteen-year-old get beaten in a Hunter Chase at Kelso in January. That run came on the back of an absence of more than a year so he is entitled to have come on for that physically. On the best of his form, he is a high-class staying chaser and he sits 10lb lower in the handicap than when second in this race two years ago. It is possible that he is being aimed at another tilt at the Grand National although he would probably have to run well here to secure his place in the line-up. The main pick sits at the other end of the age spectrum and I am happy to side with the progressive seven-year-old CLONDAW KNIGHT. He has always been highly thought of by the Lucinda Russell team and turned in a career best on his first start over three miles in January. He has always jumped well but he travelled really well up in trip and drew clear to win by fourteen lengths from some useful rivals. The handicapper has tried his best to stop him raising him 13lb but there is surely more to come from this lightly-raced individual and he can give another good account here.
2.55 Haydock – Betfred Grand National Trial (Grade 3)
As only Silver By Nature and Rigadin De Beauchene won this race having finished outside the first three on his most recent start, it seems best to side with runners arriving here in form. This spells trouble for most of this year’s field who apart from the quintet of Benvolio, Samstown, Benbens, Lie Forrit and Harry The Viking all arrive here having finished outside the placings last time. It therefore seems imperative to side with a horse heading the right way rather than one looking to bounce back to form.
This level at which previous performances have come is also vitally important with seven of the last ten winners having recorded a victory in Class 2 company or higher prior to contesting this Grade 3 event. Gas Line Boy, Trustan Times, Benbens, Ballyoliver, Loch Ba and Harry The Viking all fail to make the cut in this year’s field and will be looking to emulate Well Refreshed, Giles Cross and Silver By Nature who all bucked this trend when winning their respective renewals.
In terms of official ratings, the benchmark for this contest looks to be set at 135 with six of the ten most recent winners having achieved this mark or higher before coming here. This is perhaps surprising given the extra weight these horses had to carry in conditions which are often on the testing side. This narrows the field to ten only the bottom three as they appear in the racecard missing out.
Having briefly alluded to the stamina-sapping conditions that participants often encounter, it is essential that potential winners of the race have the necessary stamina. This is supported by the fact that nine of the last ten winners had all recorded previous victories over three miles or further. However, there are no questions on that score in this year’s renewal as all of the runners fit the bill.
It could be said that the attribute which is taken for granted most often in National Hunt racing is the ability of a horse to jump the obstacles in front of it, which is especially important over longer distances where horses can get very tired and lose concentration. This can be quantified by noting that of the last ten winners; seven of them had fallen or unseated no more than twice during their careers. The only horse to come unstuck here is Rigadin De Beauchene who had the same blot against his name prior to last year’s victory, so perhaps he can be forgiven for his past misdemeanours.
When considering age, in recent years there has been a shift towards younger runners with six of the last ten winners being aged eight or nine. This includes four of the last five horses to be successful and they have five runners this time around. The quintet is made up of the two eight-year-olds Benvolio and Samstown as well the three nine-year-old runners Gas Line Boy, Trustan Times and Loch Ba.
Another factor worthy of mention is that nine of the last ten winners had run within the last sixty days prior to winning here. However, much like the stamina trend all of our field come out on the right side of it, with Broadway Buffalo’s 50 day absence the biggest in the field.
The final factor to be considered is the one looking at the betting and it does not make good reading for favourite backers as only two of the last ten has obliged. Whilst the market is still open to change between now and Saturday afternoon, Paul Nicholls Benvolio currently heads the market around 11/2 and therefore there would have to be question marks about his chances.
SAMSTOWN – 8/8
Benvolio – 7/8
Lie Forrit – 7/8
Alistair Whillans’ SAMSTOWN tops the shortlist having landed the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock last month. He bounced back well from his run at Cheltenham in December and has now won three of his last four starts over the bigger obstacles. In terms of his overall profile, he will need to turn in a career best here but there are no chinks in his trends armour having matched all eight of our trends and he looks well placed to go close again here.
Just missing out on the top spot is current ante-post favourite Benvolio who was last seen finishing second in the Welsh National to Emperor’s Choice. The eight-year-old was headed right on the line at Chepstow and his endless stamina reserves should be used to good effect here. He concedes weight all around here but with the Grand National at Aintree the long-term plan, he needs to be thereabouts to keep those hopes alive.
The final member of the shortlist is Lie Forrit who looks as good as ever at the age of eleven having won two of his three starts this season. He landed a valuable Veterans’ Chase last time at Kelso in which he made all, staying on strongly close home to land the spoils. The extra distance shouldn’t be a problem and he still looks fairly treated on a mark of 139 based on his hurdles. The stable won two renewals of this race with Silver By Nature and they look to have another strong candidate on their hands here.
3.15 Ascot – Les Ambassadeurs Casino Handicap Hurdle
This looks a tricky little contest with several horses in with a chance of victory. The first to interest is Minella Present who bolted up on his first two hurdling starts before running in Grade 2 company in November. In a steadily run race he pulled very hard and he wasn’t able to finish his race off as a result. He is much better than his showing that day and is respected in handicap company for the first time. The slight preference however is for David Pipe’s UNIQUE DE COTTE who won the Conditional Jockeys race on the final day of Cheltenham’s Paddy Power meeting. That race has worked out really well with no less than eight of the field having won since. The seven-year-old’s only subsequent start came over three miles at Newbury in which he didn’t seem to get home and this 2m4f trip should be more up his street. He also wears a tongue strap for the first time which should help him and sitting towards the bottom of the weights, he looks the one they all have to beat.
3.25 Haydock – Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle
This looks a very competitive race with several horses in here with chances and the first I want to mention is John Ferguson’s Aqalim who has been successful on two of his three starts over hurdles. The furthest he has run over to date in 2m6f at Wincanton where he was doing plenty of good work but lost ground jumping left throughout the race. It looks as though AP McCoy has been released by his retainer JP McManus to allow him to ride this horse and he looks a likely candidate for the frame. Also of interest is Sunnyhillboy who was last seen winning a handicap hurdle in December 2013 at Cheltenham. It looks as though the stable are looking to make further good use of Patrick Cowley’s 10lb claim and I imagine this is a prep run for the Grand National. Nevertheless he looks competitively handicapped and can still take advantage at the age of twelve. However, the marginal preference is for Tim Easterby’s RUN RUCTIONS RUN who has been very consistent all season apart from when trying to make the running two starts back. She ran well to finish third in a Pertemps Qualifier at Musselburgh a couple of weeks ago but she was outpaced on the tight turn for home and the longer straight at Haydock should suit her better. She races here off the same mark and with Richard Johnson doing the steering I fancy her to go close once again here.
3.35 Wincanton – Bathwick Tyres Kingwell Hurdle (Grade 2)
This race has been a popular Champion Hurdle prep over the years and this year’s field boasts a couple of runners who will be hoping to run on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival. Irving confirmed the promise of his novice form when landing the Fighting Fifth back in November. He was disappointing next time at Kempton but was lame afterwards, so perhaps he didn’t give his true running. Paul Nicholls still has plenty of faith in him and having won this with Zarkandar in 2013, he will be hoping to repeat the fate this time around. He could be up against it as Nicky Henderson’s SIGN OF A VICTORY also looks set to take part. The six-year-old was ultra-impressive when winning at Ascot in November as he barely came off the bridle under Barry Geraghty. He was a little disappointing in the Christmas Hurdle where the ground was probably softer than advertised and wouldn’t have been to his liking. He was withdrawn last weekend from the Betfair Hurdle because of lameness but there have been positive reports from Seven Barrows since and I am confident they wouldn’t be risking him unnecessarily. He travels like a horse of the highest order and I fancy him to book his place at Cheltenham with success here.
3.50 Ascot – Betfair Ascot Chase (Grade 1)
Ptit Zig currently heads the betting for this race and comes in on the back of victories in his first four starts over fences. This includes a convincing success over Josses Hill here in December as well as a Grade 2 victory at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. He steps out of novice company for the first time which is a concern but as we saw last weekend with Coneygree it is not an impossible task that he faces. He has towards the top of the novice chasing pecking order for much of the year and should give another good account here. However at the prices, I feel that BALLYCASEY may represent a better option. Willie Mullins’ eight-year-old has bobbed up and down in trip in the last year but I feel that this intermediate trip is his optimum. He beat Don Cossack by four lengths in Grade 1 company this time last year over 2m 5f and was an impressive winner on his seasonal reappearance over 2m4f in November. The two miles he tackled last time was definitely on the short side for him and it is interesting that connections decided to send him rather than Champagne Fever over for this assignment. This trip should be much more suitable for him and if he can give his best form, it would be no surprise to see him get his head in front.
4.20 Ascot – Racing UK Profits Returned To Racing “National Hunt” Novices´ Hurdle
Once again we have a small field but it isn’t short of quality with all five runners having won over hurdles already. Nicky Henderson’s Saint Charles was fourth behind Arpege D’Alene on his hurdling debut before winning nicely at Doncaster last time out. He travelled pretty keenly on both of those starts so it is easy to see why connections have dropped him back to two miles here. A £140,000 purchase in March, he seems to be getting the hang of things and looks to have a good chance of giving his stable a third win in the last six years. However, he could be on the short-side so it might be better to take a chance on Colin Tizzard’s THISTLECRACK who has been described in the past as an absolute machine by his trainer. He was fifth over course and distance in a bumper in December before bolting up at Wincanton on his hurdling debut. He was upped in trip and Grade last time but was always doing too much and ran out of petrol late on. He is worth forgiving that run and with Ruby Walsh an eye-catching jockey booking, he could provide some value in the race.
4.50 Ascot – Neptune Investment Management Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race
On form to date, there isn’t much to go on but John Ferguson’s Joe Farrell can boast just about the best form. Having won on debut at Huntingdon, he chased home Ben Pauling’s Barters Hill last time, who subsequently landed a Listed event at Newbury last weekend. The yard have a fine strike-rate in bumpers including this season and it would be no surprise to see him go close here. However, the marginal preference is for Emma Lavelle’s PAWN STAR who was second in an Irish point in November. He was subsequently bought for £50,000 but more interesting is how well this stable’s bumper horses have been running this season. From thirteen runners, Lavelle has saddled four winners as well as three thirds and one fourth-placed finisher. It is therefore interesting that they have decided to pitch this horse into a historically strong race which has been won by the likes of Sprinter Sacre and Red Sherlock in recent years. He is clearly highly-regarded by the yard and I fancy him to make his presence felt here.