There is just so much going on behind the scenes in the world of racing that I just do not know where to start.
Firstly, word is that Hugo Palmer is in negotiations to take over from Tom Dascombe at Manor House stables, but is it really such a good career move, leaving Newmarket for deepest darkest Cheshire, and for a setup where it appears you either tow the line – or walk? Admittedly it is an outstanding facility (I doubt I will ever get invited to look around after writing this but hey ho), but Newmarket is not called Headquarters without good reason and if it was me, I would stay where I was.
Meanwhile, as we gear up toward Cheltenham either am I looking through rose-tinted spectacles, or are we looking at one of the best bunch of novice hurdlers in recent years? Constitution Hill, Jonbon, Dysart Dynamo, Sir Gerhard et al had already laid down their strong credentials, but I had heard from inside the Nicky Henderson stable that some (not all) felt that Walk On Air may be the best of theirs, which takes some doing. He appeared for his hurdling debut at Newbury on Wednesday afternoon and despite looking a little green and novicey at some of his obstacles, cruised a long way clear of his field over a frankly inadequate two miles, and it will be interesting to see where he goes next, with the Ballymore Hurdle seemingly top of the agenda.
On the brighter side what a story for the Gary Moore stable and owner Steve Fisher with the win of Mark Of Gold at Plumpton Wednesday, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, myself included, as his owner has “locked-in syndrome” after a stroke, something I suffered myself in 2013 and not a laughing matter. I was far luckier and there is no comparison, but someone like Steve is an inspiration to us all, and a timely reminder to be grateful for all the good things we have instead of whinging about the bad - social media – I am talking to you. Hopefully the five-year-old can win again, and bring him some more good news over the months ahead.
Anyway, on to the racing this weekend
Trainer Alan King has won three of the last five renewals of this juvenile novice event and he relies on Twilight Twist and Restitution this afternoon who are not easily discounted. A winner first time out over hurdles, the first named was last seen finishing fourth at Cheltenham and has a solid chance of winning here as well. Restitution was a disappointing third at Kempton and needs to find plenty of improvement, However, they do not look bulletproof to me, and I prefer to take him on with the Paul Nicholls trained Irish Hill. A winner over hurdles at Taunton on his debut, he did not exactly impress when coming home a couple of lengths clear, so connections have added first-time cheekpieces to wake him up. If they work, he should improve in a race that may not take as much winning as in previous years and at least be the value alternative.
Irish raiders do particularly well here and with close to three miles and soft ground to cope with, stamina will be the order of the day which should suit My Sister Sarah, the Willie Mullins challenger who has won five times over hurdles including over even further than this. Rated a couple of pounds inferior to the top two, but since when has that ever stopped a Mullins beast from coming home in front. With her yard in excellent form and the likelihood that she is the best suited by this distance, she looks worthy of consideration.
As billed elsewhere this does look like a straight fight between Shishkin and Energumene, and whoever comes home in front here will be a very short price for the Champion Chase at Cheltenham in March, and rightly so. England v Ireland two months before the Festival and I cannot decide between the pair. Both arrive here unbeaten over fences, with six and five wins respectively, and this is a race to sit back and savour. If I had to call it, I do wonder if the Irish raider may be the one today with Shishkin more likely to be peaking in March.
We have not seen a favourite win this since 2018, though with only the one winner bigger than 8/1 in the last ten renewals the bookmakers must be running scared. Papa Tango Charley ticks a lot of boxes for me having won both starts over fences, cruising up to the lead last time out and then battling well to hold off the runner-up and score by half a length. I felt he might have hit the front too early that day and I am hoping he will be held up that little bit longer here, and if that is the case, win number three over the larger obstacles could well be just around the corner.
At the early stage this had an awesome looking field and one that may well give us more clues as all roads lead to Cheltenham. Jonbon will go off heavily odds on I am afraid to say, but he has looked a machine so far with very easy wins at Newbury and Ascot and he needs to win this and do it well if he is as good as they think he is. Danny Boy intrigues for a 16/1 chance and also arrives unbeaten, and although this is a step up in class the truth is we still do not know how good he is.
How this gets registered as a Champion Hurdle trial is beyond me I’m afraid, though The New One did come home in front every time from 2015 to 2018 inclusive which takes some doing, I rather doubt there is anything with his ability in this line-up, but something has to win it, and Tommy’s Oscar is odds on to do so. Successful at Haydock, Doncaster, and Musselburgh on his last three starts, he is certainly a very good handicapper, and to be fair, who beats him now? Rated 11lb better than any of his rivals, he ought to win with a clear round, though again, he is prohibitively priced to do so.
This is one of my rare sojourns in to a Saturday handicap, but with household names such as Cloudy Too and Bristol De Mai engraved on the trophy, it does have a touch of class about it. A quick stats breakdown tells us that in the last 21 runnings (the database I have access to), we have only ever seen one winner bigger than 20/1. Only one has been younger than seven, none older than 12, and none who completed last time without finishing in the first eight home, but where exactly does that leave us?
None the wiser personally, but if the rain keeps falling then I will be backing Royal Pagaille, who does not buck any of those trends. He is a class act, some would say better than a handicapper, and loves the softer underfoot conditions, while one run this season when second in the Betfair Chase which is nothing to be ashamed of and if he improves for that, he could be good enough to give weight away all round here.
Papa Tango Charley 12.50pm Haydock