Sadly we are in the death throes of the UK flat season now and after last week’s results on horrendous ground at Ascot many would say thanks for that, so it is almost time to move forward and focus on the jumpers ahead of what will no doubt be a long and arduous winter in the current circumstances.
Arguments continue over the newly published fixture list with the close to impossible balance of dividing the financial pie so everyone has enough to eat, though once again I can certainly see Mark Johnston’s argument that we are assuming we will remain THE eminent racing nation worldwide regardless of a drop in quality and numerous owners heading off abroad for richer pickings. Without looking in detail we did note in last week’s podcast (see below) how French racing is offering much better prize money, plus breeders’ premiums for French bred runners which dwarfed our local pots, and with cheaper training fees more and more cash savvy handlers are looking to plunder prizes over the Channel if only to keep their owners on side. Too many poor horses need races here which seems to be the issue, though with even the trainers seemingly split on the issue, it is crystal clear there is no easy answer and a solution that suits everyone seems as far off as it has been for too many years.
Negative thoughts aside and on to the racing this weekend – it is hard not to smile when one of the courses covered is Cheltenham – enjoy…
Proper jumping ground, rain forecast, Cheltenham – and just the seven runners, I really do despair. As you would expect at this time of the season, we have the usual mix of those with a recent run and others returning for the new campaign and gauging their fitness levels without the befit of a paddock inspection makes life that bit more tricky.
The official ratings certainly make this look a pretty decent and competitive affair with the 146 rated Allmankind (15/8) having to give eight pounds to the 140 rated Nordano (8/1) suggesting there may be a spot of value in the Neil King gelding who had a pipe opener on the flat earlier in the month at Pontefract and won’t be lacking in race fitness.
Sadly, this could be on the short side for him and his day may be elsewhere, and I am hoping that the Paul Nicholls trained Stratagem could go on to be something special this season. A win at Auteuil in France saw him sold on privately before a third at Bangor and an easy win at Kelso and although I accept he has to step up on that to get to the front when needed here, his stable are in great form and I suspect we are yet to see the best of the son of Sunday Break who is bred to be even better on this quicker going.
Four runners equally split between the higher rated coming back from their breaks, and the two lower-rated with the advantage of a recent run. I am not normally a massive believer in stats, but it is interesting to note just the one successful favourite in the last ten runnings and only the one winner over the age of six as well, and if those are repeated, we can only have the one winner.
Pileon is the only runner younger than seven and is currently the second favourite for the Philip Hobbs and Richard Johnson double act and he will do for me, though we take his jumping on trust as he is yet to take on a fence in public other than a couple of point to points in Ireland. His hurdling form is certainly decent enough with the latest a short head second here over hurdles in the Martin Pipe at the festival in March following novice wins at Catterick and Ffos Las.
Admittedly the stable are not firing at all just yet which has to be of some concern, but he is a son of the mighty Yeats whose progeny have a better than 50% strike rate over the larger obstacles, and there is every reason to believe he can do well in his new career, hopefully starting on Saturday afternoon. Southfield Stone is the obvious danger for the Nicholls yard and has already had five races over fences including a win at Musselburgh and is a worth form favourite, but I will still stick to my original choice and hope for the best.
Somehow Doncaster are predicting Good to Soft going and if that is the case, the form of this contest may actually work out in the long term, unlike most of the autumn events that have been run on ploughed fields by race time. Early betting suggests Wembley is the one they all have to beat after his second to stablemate St Mark’s Basilica in the Dewhurst Stakes, but I am yet to be convinced that was much of a contest on very soft ground and in a time close to three seconds slower than standard.
Six races as a juvenile still feels unusual for a top class two-year-old, though to be fair these are strange times we live in, and it does make you wonder whether this contest is an Aidan O’Brien afterthought. Baradari is an improving sort and catches the eye as a serious contender for Roger Varian, as does Cobh for Clive Cox who could try to lead them a merry dance from the front, but I narrowly prefer One Ruler on this occasion.
Charlie Appleby has set his sights on winning this with the son of Dubawi who has been brought along slowly in the Godolphin colours with a Group Three win in the Autumn Stakes last time out, but he obviously feels he deserves a shot at the big time. He does have a turn of foot if the ground lets him use it and could well buck the trend of O’Brien winners (he has had four of the last nine winners) today.
Good three mile novices are few and far between though three of the six entered here won last time out which makes life intriguing. Streets Of Doyen travels over from Ireland to pot hunt after wins at Roscommon, Gowran Park, and Cork, and seems sure to put up a bold bid, as will The Macon Lugnatic after two wins at Doncaster over shorter in the spring, and Minella Encore who stayed on well to win at Uttoxeter in a maiden hurdle on his first start for Dr Richard Newland.
If you think he has a good chance then you have to note that Sam Twiston-Davies, who regularly rides winners for the yard, is on his father Nigel’s Poppa Poutine instead and I wonder if that is a clue in itself. Very lightly raced with a point to point second at Tallow and a staying on at one pace third at Perth over a woefully inadequate two miles last month, he steps up in trip for the first time here and could well be a different animal. He gets weight all round here because of his age, and nine or six pounds from his main rivals as far as I can see, and as he cast a massive £100,000 at the February sales when knocked down to a very shrewd judge in Ian Ferguson, I fully expect a much better showing here even if his long term future lies over fences.
Two miles five and a half furlongs await the novices here in a race won last season by 2/1 favourite Dolphin Square. With only one of the last ten successful horses trading at a double figure price we need to focus nearer the head of the market and that suggests for trainer Paul Nicholls, who has won this four times in the last decade, most recently in 2016, will have a say.
If only he had declared a solitary entry all would be good in the world but naturally life is rarely that easy and with top-weight Celestial Force and maiden Golden Gift, we need to draw a conclusion. Bryan Carver takes a useful five pounds off the number one horse which will certainly help as the five-year-old looks to follow up an all the way win here nine days ago over slightly shorter but after a wind operation a risk is taken on the wellbeing of the long absent Golden Gift.
Even after the jockeys’ allowance he still gets seven pounds from the likely favourite and although we have seen very little from the son of Gold Well so far, he was bought for 100,000 Euros by his powerful connections, and surely has a lot more to offer over time. Bryony Frost rides and although there is a fitness question after close to a year off, he may well be a class apart in the long term and will carry a small bet of mine accordingly.
A very strange race on paper at least, and one without a single last time out winner in the line-up. All six of the declared runners will be rewarded for turning up with £350 a head for fourth fifth and sixth, though whether we can make anything at all by finding the winner is open to question.
With the Nicky Henderson string starting off in great form it may be worth taking the chance on Adjali who looked to be going backwards a little over hurdles but could well be rejuvenated by a switch to fences. Rated 137 here (and seven pounds clear of his nearest rival), he peaked off a mark of ten pounds higher back in December 2018 and was last seen finishing eighteenth to Champion Hurdle hope Saint Roi in the Country Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Still a mere baby at the age of five he has been found a fairly easy race for his fencing debut and may well be able to use this as a confidence booster before stepping up through the ranks, but the fact is we have no idea how he jumps his fences and is a bigger risk than normal accordingly. That said, Nicky sends the one horse all the way north which seems a sign in itself, though they may be dropping off Monte Cristo at Aintree on the way, and in a trappy little contest he will do for me with Forecast my idea of the horse for – well, the forecast.
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Pileon 2.40pm Cheltenham Saturday
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