Matt Tombs / Monday 25th February 2013 / 14:45
The 3m Racing Plus Chase at Kempton used to be one of the biggest races in the calendar. Handicaps aren’t fashionable for top chasers these days, nor is running just over a fortnight before the Festival, so it was great to see such a competitive renewal. It’s been a while since we’ve seen big races run on good ground and this served up a warning for the Festival with heavy ground form at Wincanton between Opening Batsman and Rolling Aces being comprehensively reversed. Opening Batsman (running off 140) was well on top at the finish and is entered in all the handicaps at the Festival, though the handicapper will obviously have his say before then. This may have been his day in the sun this season.
The Grade 2 Pendil Novice Chase (extended 2m4f) often produces a classy novice but this year’s renewal lacked depth, so it was disappointing Molotof couldn’t give 3lb to Grandioso (beaten 1l), even after Theatre Guide had fallen at the last when going best. The winner wasn’t entered at Cheltenham and presumably goes to Aintree or Punchestown instead. Sometimes you look at market movements and can’t fathom them – during the week Molotof looked a real Jewson prospect (then a seemingly overpriced 33/1). Having been mulish at the start and then beaten fair and square in a race you’d have thought he had to win if he was going to win the Jewson he’s now 20/1. Theatre Guide is rated 144 and is entered in the open 2½m handicap chase (25/1) at the Festival. It’s arguable he’s well handicapped on that sort of mark if none the worse for this.
The Grade 2 Dovecote novice hurdle (2m) featured several boasting classy flat form. As often happens in such events, one horse, Forgotten Voice, coped with the obstacles much the best. He’s in the County (14/1) and was rated 138 coming into this. It’ll be interesting to see what the handicapper does but there’s a bigger concern about whether he’d get up the hill at Cheltenham.
The Grade 2 National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell (2m4f, soft) is another race that has suffered in recent seasons – again partly from being too close to the Festival for current training methods. This was another ordinary renewal, which was won by Prospect Wells who was recording his first win since the start of last season. He’ll probably be in the low 150s now which would make the Coral Cup (25/1) a really hard task and he may wait for Aintree.
The Grade 2 novice hurdle as Naas on Sunday attracted a field worthy of a Grade 1 and an impressive winner in Annie Power who stretched her unbeaten run to 6. She’d been taking weak races but travelled like a really good mare here to beat Defy Logic (who gave 8lb) by 3¼l, (2m, soft to heavy.) On a line through Don Cossack she wouldn’t have much to find with Pont Alexandre in the Neptune and may have more toe than the favourite, but it looks like she’ll run in the new mares Grade 1 at Fairyhouse at Easter instead. Defy Logic still looked a bit green here and Tony McCoy didn’t want him to go too quickly in front. He’s another who’ll presumably be kept at home, with a chasing career in mind in the autumn.
The Grade 2 Newlands Chase on the same Naas card looked like producing a storming finish between Realt Dubh and Days Hotel (who received 2lb), but Realt Dubh blundered at the last handing the race to his rival. Realt Dubh is 40/1 for the Champion Chase and he could earn some good place money if running.
The Bobbyjo Chase (3m1f, soft) at Fairyhouse is more of a Grand National than Cheltenham trial but the winner Roi Du Mee shouldn’t be underestimated if turning up for the Ryanair Chase (33/1). He looks to need real cut in the ground, but if he gets it, he could shake up some higher profile rivals. Prince De Beauchene was disappointing considering how well he won this last year. 155 looks a stiff mark (would be 4lb worse off with the winner) and he was pushed out to 12/1 for the National. This looked to end any prospect of him running in the Gold Cup.
Another odds-on disappointment at Fairyhouse was Tammys Hill in the Hunters Chase, (extended 2m5f,) who was well beaten by Warne, (who’d been a long way behind Tammys Hill at Leopardstown.) Perhaps Warne didn’t get the 3m trip or had an off day at Leopardstown, or a busy time is catching up with Tammys Hill (7th run in 4 months here.) They’re both 12/1 for the Foxhunter – neither ought to beat Salsify but the race lacks depth this year. Warne might be better suited to the Aintree version at this trip than the extra 5f at Cheltenham.
Tuesday provided a feast for racegoers at Navan with 4 Grade 2s, but the ground was desperate and all 4 favourites were beaten (at 4/6, 1/2, 5/4 & 4/6) with only Tofino Bay running decently in a novice chase, (3m, heavy,) when 5½l 2nd to Terminal, (who received 5lb.) The winner is in all 4 level weights novice chases at the Festival and given Willie Mullins thinks he’ll like better ground he’s likely to travel. He’s 16/1 non runner, no bet for the 4 miler which is tempting.
Buckers Bridge bounced back after a dire effort in Drinmore, to take the Flyingbolt Novice’s Chase (2m1f). He was getting 6lb from Twinlight and beat him a head, staying on well. He’s the type who might benefit from being brought on slowly but is in the Jewson (33/1.) He’s one to consider nearer the time if he looks like lining up, (unproven on a sound surface.) Twinlight is 40/1 for the Arkle, which is a bit of an insult as on a line through Baily Green he doesn’t have much to find with Arvika Ligeonniere.
Having backed Chicago Grey at 40/1 for the National I was pleasantly surprised when he won the Red Mills Chase (2m4f) at 25/1. This became a war of attrition but Chicago Grey is clearly in good heart after a wind operation and is now 20/1 for the National. He looks really well in off 141 so he’ll go there with every chance.
With Thousand Stars not acting on the ground in the Boyne Hurdle (2m5f), On His Own made a successful seasonal debut by beating Si C’Etait Vrai 2¼l. The winner is now 10/1 favourite for the Grand National. The runner up may head for the Pertemps (20/1) and would be interesting in that if he gets in around his Irish mark of 137.
One horse who’ll presumably miss the Festival now is Fago who was turned over at 2/5 in a fair 3 runner 2m novice chase at Sandown on Friday. That looks to leave just Simonsig, Overturn and Arvika Ligeonniere as contenders for the Arkle, (33/1 bar the 3 on the exchanges). The winner Kapga De Cerisy is clearly progressing having taken a handicap off 128 last time. He was on 137 before this race and has entries in 3 handicaps at the Festival but may well have shown his hand here.
A potential wild card for the Festival is Broadway Buffalo who stretched his unbeaten record to 4 when bolting up in a decent looking novice hurdle at Warwick (2m3f, soft.) He jumped well until running green in the straight and probably would benefit from being brought on steadily but he’s got the sort of engine to make him competitive in the Neptune (50/1) or Albert Bartlett (40/1) if inexperience doesn’t get the better of him.
Finally, with 2 weeks to go, it’s time to start the annual Prestbury Park ground-watch. After 10 incredibly wet months, the water table is as high as it’s been for a long time. However, the drainage is so effective that the ground already has good in the description and we’re forecast a dry week ahead – Simon Claisse has refused to rule out watering in the run up to the Festival. Equally, almost regardless of what happens in the interim, if there is any material rain during Festival week that high water table could mean the going gets very soft, very quickly. If such rain is forecast, the weekend before the Festival would be well spent sorting out some heavy ground horses, (especially for the races late in the day when they’d be running on chewed up ground.) For now, take a look at old videos or written records of the 2000 Festival which had almost unique ground conditions in the years I’ve been going. Depending on the weather, I’ll be looking at that in more detail nearer the Festival.