Matt Tombs / Friday 15th February 2013 / 17:45
The Grade 1 Ascot Chase (extended 2m5f, soft, heavy in places) has an unusual feel about it. There are 3 top horses (all Grade 1 winners at some point) in this in Captain Chris, Finian’s Rainbow and Cue Card. Normally you’d be confident that the winner would come from these 3 and you could ignore the rest but they all line up with big question marks over them here.
Finian’s Rainbow (7/2) has the best form, having won the Champion Chase last season and then followed up by winning the Melling over 4f further at Aintree (both on good ground). If this was being run at the end of last season he’d have been odds-on, but he’s only raced once so far this term, when trying to concede Captain Chris 10lb here over 2f shorter in November (heavy). He was beaten a long way that day and connections blamed the ground - it was the first decent race he’s run in over fences without ‘good’ in the going description, though he ran creditably on his only other try on heavy when only beaten 1l by Reve De Sivola in the Challow 3 seasons ago.
He’s had a wind operation since his last run and faces pretty testing going again (albeit likely not as bad as in November). This will be much the biggest test of stamina he’s faced and he just doesn’t shape like a stayer to me. Additionally, he’s been the sort of horse Nicky hasn’t trained hard in his prep run for the Festival (found little when beaten by Somersby over 2m1f here last season before winning the Champion Chase). Everything looks against him here and I want to take him on this time.
There are no such stamina worries about Captain Chris (5/2) who loves a right handed track and put up a career best effort when just edged out in the King George (3m, heavy). He has plenty of pace too so this trip is probably ideal and whilst he’s probably at his best on good ground in the spring, he’s run 2 cracking races on heavy this season so he’ll clearly go through it.
The big problem with him is that he had a really hard race in the King George. He was being driven half way down the back straight and kept finding and finding only to be outstayed by Long Run, going down by ¼l in a desperate finish. Races run at Championship pace in that sort of ground take plenty of getting over. Of those to have run in the King George - Grands Crus bombed in the Argento, Champion Court missed a penalty kick at 4/9 in a graduation chase, The Giant Bolster and Junior were thrashed by Silviniaco Conti in the Denman (which Long Run missed after such a hard race at Kempton) and Kauto Stone was beaten 48l in the Cleeve.
You can’t tell how horses will take such hard races – I was concerned last season that Sizing Europe had had a real slog over 3m at Down Royal but he bounced back to win the Tingle Creek a few weeks later. If Captain Chris can repeat his Kempton form here he should take all the beating, but at the prices the call is to assume he’ll be another the King George has taken its toll on.
Cue Card (11/4) also ran in the King George and after a couple of early mistakes was always on the back foot. He was travelling well enough down the back but quickly got tired in the straight. I doubt he had as hard a race as Captain Chris so he may be closer to his peak here but he still had a hard enough race for it to be a concern. He’s bred to stay but hasn’t yet proved he gets this trip on testing ground and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him aimed at the Champion Chase after this.
If it was just the 3 of them I’d side with Cue Card but there’s a horse with less ability than any of that trio in the field, but who comes to the race with a much better prep - Somersby (5/1). He made a belated seasonal debut in the Victor Chandler at Cheltenham (2m1f, heavy) and whilst he was no match for Sprinter Sacre he shaped like the 2nd best horse in the race until a lack of match practice told close home. Connections can’t have imagined he had a realistic chance there and I’m guessing that was designed to put him spot on for this.
As Henrietta Knight put it, Mick Channon ‘gets horses so fit’ that, when combined with her expertise at schooling, it’s not a surprise quite a few of her old horses have improved this season. Somersby could be another and the other big plus is that he loves Ascot having run his best 3 races over fences here. He twice bustled up Master Minded and then beat Finian’s Rainbow in last season’s Victor Chandler. Importantly, this is surely his best chance of a big prize this season, (unlike the others,) and so he should be at his peak tomorrow.
It’s unusual to want to back a 5/1 shot that you think is the least good horse of the 4 main protagonists but the others all have big question marks and this looks the classic type of race the best horse doesn’t win.
1pt Somersby to win the Ascot Chase @ 5/1
The Kingwell has cut up with Grandouet and Binocular both missing the race. It looks a match and the Champion Hurdle market (Zarkandar is 6/1 and Raya Star 50/1), suggests this should be a penalty kick for Zarkandar (4/9) giving only 4lb. I’m not sure it’ll be as simple as that though as Raya Star (5/1) is suffering from innate prejudice against top 2m handicap hurdlers when they switch to conditions events.
His run behind Darlan at Kempton (2m, heavy) reads really well – they crawled round and he was first off the bridle but kept finding to be beaten 4½l, ahead of Cinders And Ashes and Countrywide Flame. Zarkandar won’t be suited by a crawl either so this should be less tactical than most of these Champion Hurdle trials. I’m not sure how close Zarkandar would have got to Darlan had he run at Kempton and whilst he’ll probably win, he has nothing like as much in hand as the betting suggests and Raya Star is too big a price.
1pt Raya Star to win the Kingwell Hurdle @ 5/1
Having put Rocky Creek up at 25/1 for the RSA he needs to win the Reynoldstown if he’s going to book his ticket for that. He faces some good horses here, notably the underrated Houblon Des Obeaux, but I’ll be disappointed if he gets turned over and I expected him to be odds-on so he needs backing too.
1pt Rocky Creek to win the Reynoldstown Chase @ 6/5