Matt Tombs / Wednesday 8th April 2015 / 17:58
After a dry and warm run up to the meeting, the hurdles and Mildmay tracks have been watered to keep them on the slow side of good. The National course, which usually rides a bit slower, is good to soft.
The decision last year to move the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle (2m4f) to the opening day, rather than have it overshadowed by the National, was an excellent one – and there’s a fascinating contest in store.
Pace is always important in assessing a race, but rarely more so than here, because the 2 form horses, Arctic Fire and Jezki, have both been best over a really strongly run 2m, (on good ground.) Arctic Fire in particular has been a strong finisher, which has led some to suggest that 2m4f round a sharp track will suit ideally.
I’m not convinced. Firstly, as a general principle, it’s lazy just to assume that horses who look to get outpaced and finish strongly, simply want a step up in trip. Often they will, but just like human athletes running over, say 5,000 metres, some are built for sprinting off a crawl, others are better quickening in a faster run race.
A good equine example was Rooster Booster, who regularly got outsprinted in steadily run, small field 2m conditions races – but demolished the Champion Hurdle field by 11l in a strongly run renewal. In his 44 hurdle races he only ran beyond 2m1f five times and was beaten on every occasion. 4 of those defeats were in this, often against markedly inferior horses.
Arctic Fire and Jezki also have another related issue – both are keen going types and have been running in hoods. Jezki has his left off here, and I’d be really concerned that both will be too keen going a 2m4f gallop. There isn’t a confirmed front-runner in the field, and I’d expect Rock On Ruby to make it if nothing else wants to – but I can see a steadily run race and that has to be a real concern for both.
I backed Arctic Fire (2/1) each-way in the Champion Hurdle. My initial thoughts were that he got blown away by a machine in Faugheen, but the more I look at the race, the more I think Ruby might have stolen it from the front by setting uneven fractions. Arctic Fire needs a really strong gallop, and finished like a train to take a closing 2nd. Given Willie Mullins said he didn’t think he had him fully fit at Cheltenham, he could easily improve again, but I’m going to take him on at a short price, with the major doubt about the trip. Jezki (11/4) is a similar type to Arctic Fire. He won his only race over 2m4f, (last season’s Hatton’s Grace,) but his main opponents there were unsuited by conditions and I’m doubtful he’ll settle well enough here without the hood on.
Rock On Ruby (3/1) has been a fantastic servant and has put in smart performances over similar trips the last twice. The problem is that he’s pretty short given that one of Arctic Fire and Jezki might be suited by the test, (in which case they’ll win), and he only has a couple of lengths in hand of up and coming 6 year olds Volnay De Thaix (16/1) and Vaniteux (20/1). I’d give both of Nicky Henderson’s horses a chance.
The right bet though is Blue Heron who looks much too big at 14/1. He’s only had 6 runs over hurdles, looks to be improving fast and deliberately missed Cheltenham to be at his peak for this. I don’t think he’s been given the credit he deserves for beating Fighting Fifth winner Irving and the hyped Sign Of A Victory in the Kingwell Hurdle.
The obvious conclusion is that neither Irving nor Sign Of A Victory ran their race, but Blue Heron looked a top notcher in the making there, on ground much softer than ideal. He also shaped as if he might prefer going left handed and that a step up in trip would suit well. He looks unexposed and on the up - given the doubts about Arctic Fire and Jezki, he rates a good bet.
1pt Blue Heron to win the Aintree Hurdle (15.25) @ 14/1
The other open Grade 1, the Bowl Chase over 3m1f, has an extraordinary market. Holywell (15/8) must be one of the worst favourites I can recall all season. Apart from winning an egg and spoon at 1/4 at Kelso, he’s been out of sorts this season. He did finish in front of Silviniaco Conti and Smad Place in the Gold Cup, but he was a well beaten 4th. Whilst he’s the type to keep a bit back, he certainly looked to have the hardest race of the 3 there. I had him as 6/1 3rd favourite, and it’s rare for my prices to be so far out of line with the market in a Grade 1.
In consequence, everything bar the rag, Vukovar, looks decent value compared to my tissue. I’ve been a big fan of Ma Filleule (4/1) and think she could win a staying Grade 1 chase. I think she was in the wrong race at Cheltenham, but even so I was slightly disappointed she was brushed aside so easily in the Ryanair. I don’t have her much shorter.
I’m tempted by both Menorah and Smad Place. Menorah (10/1) won the Charlie Hall on good ground and then, on unsuitably soft ground, got within 2l of Silviniaco Conti in the Betfair. He’s been off since flopping in the King George and, if his stamina lasts out, he has prospects. I’d backed Smad Place (14/1) each-way in the Gold Cup but the ground really went against him there. He could easily bounce back.
I’m sticking to the obvious though. Silviniaco Conti (3/1) has a fantastic record on flat tracks after his seasonal debut – unbeaten in 4 Grade 1 races over the last 2 seasons. He clearly doesn’t like Cheltenham, but despite the brutal gallop this year’s Gold Cup was run at, he was given a pretty easy time in the last half mile and hopefully shouldn’t have had too hard a race.
You can’t be sure, but last year he looked to have a hard race in the Gold Cup - and bounced back to win this. If he’s able to put his best foot forward here then he should be a short priced favourite and there’s more than enough juice in his price to take that risk.
1pt Silviniaco Conti to win the Bowl (14:50) @ 3/1
The Red Rum handicap chase over 2m looks as competitive as ever. With it’s sharp, flat track and fences that have been softened less than most of the leading British courses – 2m chases on a sound surface at this meeting provide a fantastic spectacle.
Despite an 8lb rise for winning the Grand Annual, Next Sensation (7/1) must have a decent chance of following up and emulating Oh Crick and Fota Island. The better ground will really suit him and he must go well despite carrying 11-10.
However, at a bigger price I’m backing Dresden (14/1) who was tanking along just behind the leader when crumpling and falling 4 from home. There were a few others going well too at that stage but he looked to be really relishing a big field handicap, and if that fall hasn’t left a mark, I think he can win one of these races.
He was running under a penalty in the Grand Annual and is 2lb higher off 137 here, but only carries 10-10 and the better ground and emphasis on speed should suit him ideally. Henry Oliver’s yard is in good form and I can see him running a big race.
1pt Dresden to win the Red Rum Chase (16:40) @ 14/1
The Fox Hunter looks a good renewal, with Cheltenham hero On The Fringe (4/1) looking likely to be just as effective back at 2m5f, and last year’s winner Warne (6/1) looking likely to provide strong opposition.
This was traditionally a race where it paid to stick to the market leaders but there have been 100/1 and 50/1 winners in the last 5 renewals and I’m taking a punt on 40/1 shot Neverownup. Like many horses, he was rejuvenated by a switch to Richard Newland last summer, rattling off a 4 timer and earning a rating of 128. He’s qualified for this by finishing 2nd and 3rd at Leicester and Wincanton, under an inexperienced 7lb claimer.
Tom O’Brien had previously said he’s much better going left handed, and he should love the decent ground. Whilst Big Fella Thanks (7/1) looked to brush him aside easily enough by 1¼l at Wincanton – I think Neverownup will be a different proposition here under Ollie Greenall. He’s well worth chancing at 33/1 in a race where it’s usually a big advantage to race prominently.
1pt Neverownup to win the Fox Hunter (16:05) @ 40/1