Matt Tombs / Friday 24th January 2014 / 16:10
With January being a quiet month for racing these days, it’s a shame that the two best meetings, (Cheltenham’s Trials Day and Leopardstown’s Irish Champion Hurdle,) are on the same weekend. Perhaps the timing compared with the big Christmas races and the Festival dictate that – anyway, the result is a cracking weekend’s racing.
Star of the show in Britain is the mighty Big Buck’s. He provides the classic conundrum of a great horse near the end of his career, with major question marks hanging over him. Do you just enjoy the race and cheer him on, or do you take a hard-headed view that he shouldn’t be odds-on and look for something to oppose him with?
If you’re in the latter camp, I think ground will be key. Like all great horses, Big Buck’s (10/11) goes on any ground, but in the circumstances a slog through the mud isn’t what he wants. Whatever jobs I may have in the future, it’s a safe bet being a weather forecaster won’t be one of them. Just about every time there’s been the possibility of rain between Friday lunchtime and a weekend card this season, I’ve called the resulting ground wrong.
The ground at Cheltenham is officially soft with more rain forecast today and, to a lesser extent, tomorrow. I’m assuming it’ll be genuinely soft ground and perhaps even more testing. Not only would that make it harder for Big Buck’s on his comeback from 15 months off, his main opponents are all mudlarks. It’s going to be a slog and with Paul Nicholls understandably saying he’ll come on a fair bit for the run, he must be vulnerable here.
With an injury cloud hanging over him and Rebecca Curtis’ yard out of form, At Fishers Cross (7/1) is easy to oppose. Reve De Sivola (7/2) is the solid alternative. He’s run moderately in the Grade 2 at the Hennessy meeting for the last 2 years before winning the Long Walk, and last season he then edged out Oscar Whisky in this. The fact he was miles behind Big Buck’s at Newbury last season shouldn’t matter too much - he was well beaten off behind At Fishers Cross in that race this season when At Fishers Cross all but came down 2 out – but was well clear of him when At Fishers Cross came down at the last at Ascot.
Preference though is for Boston Bob (4/1) who was described by Willie Mullins two seasons ago as the best novice he’d ever brought to the Festival. He never looked happy on the good ground though and was turned over by the ill-fated Brindisi Breeze. He was apparently never right last season but still might have won the RSA, (proving the track wasn’t the issue in the Albert Bartlett,) but for falling at the last. He returned over hurdles recently and bolted up in an ordinary conditions event at Punchestown, (Un Beau Matin did that form no harm in the Galmoy yesterday). 3m and soft ground should suit him ideally and the vibes are that he’s back to his best. He’s good value to turn Big Buck’s over, getting 4lb.
1pt Boston Bob to win the Cleeve Hurdle @ 4/1
The Argento Chase doesn’t seem to attract Gold Cup horses any more, despite being the only trial at Prestbury Park during the season. In the last 5 years, Carruthers distant 4th to Imperial Commander is the best Gold Cup finish of a horse running in the Argento. Other aspects of the ‘Trials Day’ concept have worked well – At Fishers Cross beat The New One last season in the Grade 2 novice hurdle. However, as long as the flagship race is a damp squib, the overall concept will struggle to gain traction. Given the ground is often very testing, bringing the distance back 1½f to 3m might be an option, so connections don’t feel their horses will have too hard a race.
Rocky Creek (13/8) will go on the ground and the trip won’t be an issue, but there’s always been a concern about the track since he bombed in the Albert Bartlett. His 2nd in the Hennessy off 151 was a good effort but that was his principle target of the season and he needs to improve again. He’s short enough in an open race. Houblon Des Obeaux (7/2) was about 15l behind Rocky Creek when 6th in the Hennessy and is 2lb worse off. He’s won a much weaker handicap off 152 at Ascot since, and probably isn’t up to this level. Champion Court (15/2) is tough and consistent but has never shaped like this sort of stamina test will suit.
That means there must be some value. The test of stamina will very much suit Harry Topper (6/1) and at level weights I’d have fancied him, but he has the full 10lb penalty to carry. I’m giving a chance to course specialist The Giant Bolster (7/1) who won on this card in 2011 and 2012 and was then 2nd in a poor Gold Cup. He was well beaten in all 5 runs last season other than the Gold Cup, where he was right there 2 out before fading up the hill in what was an extreme test of stamina. You couldn’t fancy him on this season’s 3 runs, although he was right there when unseating at the 12th at Aintree when going off joint favourite with winner Unioniste.
Whilst he’d ideally like quicker ground, The Giant Bolster is unpenalised and his 4th in the Gold Cup (RPR 168, on bad ground) would win this easily. I got the feeling last season he was trained with just the Gold Cup in mind. It may be that David Bridgewater thinks this is his best chance of a big pot this season. He might have gone at the game, but this is an ordinary contest for the grade and if the new headgear works, one he’s well capable of winning at the weights, on a course where he runs miles better than anywhere else.
1pt The Giant Bolster to win the Argento Chase @ 7/1
At Doncaster the highlight is the Sky Bet Great Yorkshire Chase. This isn’t a race I’d often have a bet in, but with the capable Harry Derham taking 5lb off, Unioniste (9/2) is getting in here effectively off 148. He was beaten 11l in the Lexus having gone off an incredibly short 9/2 against Bob’s Worth and co.
This is a world away from the Lexus and he has a great chance to outclass what’s just an ordinary bunch of handicappers. I thought he’d be a fair bit shorter than 9/2, and with Paul Nicholls trying to fire lots of bullets in the championship race at this stage, I suspect Unioniste will be primed for this.
1pt Unioniste to win the Sky Bet Chase @ 9/2
The Grade 2 Lightning novices’ chase looks fascinating. There aren’t any prices yet but I’m keen to take on likely favourite Rock On Ruby who has just had a hack round over fences so far. Valdez is interesting as it’s hard to know what he achieved with his demolition job at Newbury. However, you’d want to see how Alan King’s horses run, post shut down, before backing one. Fox Appeal has the full 7lb penalty and has never run over less than 2m3f in 12 races over jumps. A link to the Irish form will be provided by Arnaud, who looked a real natural at his fences when winning 2 in Ireland last summer. Caid Du Berlais looked an exciting recruit to chasing when bolting up in a weak novice at Exeter over an extended 2m3f. He’s taking a big step up in class here but might well be up to it.
Over at Leopardstown the ground is currently yielding to soft, good to yielding in the last two furlongs on the hurdle course, and soft, yielding in places on the chase course. More rain is forecast. If it doesn’t materialise, the drainage is so good at Leopardstown it’ll probably be yielding ground on Sunday.
In that case I’d have Felix Yonger in at odds-on rather than 5/2 for the Irish Arkle. Similarly I’d fancy Jezki at 4/1 against Hurricane Fly and Our Conor. However, if the forecast rain does arrive, Jezki won’t win on soft ground and Defy Logic would have a good chance of beating Felix Yonger on it. Given my weather forecasting skills, I’m holding fire until Sunday.