Matt Tombs / Tuesday 25th February 2014 / 14:40
The current conditions of the 4 miler, (a level weights novice chase), have applied for 4 renewals and the last 3 have fallen to the favourite, all of which had contested Grade 1s. Given there are only 2 Grade 1s during the season over 3m+ before the Festival, (at Kempton and Leopardstown over Christmas,) that shows just how classy a race the 4 miler has become. 3 entries contested those two grade 1s this season – Foxrock, Just A Par and Morning Assembly.
Foxrock (6/1) is a solid favourite at this stage. He was a fair 9l 3rd in that Leopardstown Grade 1 and has won two Grade 2s since. Trained by Ted Walsh he’ll presumably have the assistance of tactically astute daughter Katie, (who won the race 4 years ago,) and jockey bookings are crucial in the amateur races. He’s had 5 chases so has plenty of experience.
Two doubts stop me backing him now. Firstly, Ted Walsh questioned whether he’d go to the Festival this season after his recent win in the Ten Up. Secondly, whilst he won a beginners chase on good to yielding, the rest of his races have been on testing ground and both connections comments and his breeding suggests he might need it. If he runs on softish ground I can see myself backing him on the day, but he’s not an ante-post proposition now and at 9/2 NRNB he may not be much shorter on the day, especially if the ground goes against him.
Paul Nicholls thought Just A Par (20/1) might be his best novice chaser at the start of the season. He did beat the enigmatic Third Intention easily at Newbury, but in his other runs he’s been well beaten by Shotgun Paddy at Chepstow, (might have needed the run,) and when 29l 4th to Annacotty in the Feltham. With the stable’s Sam Winner now seemingly diverted to the RSA, it means he’s more likely to run here, though I think Nicholls may see him as a longer term prospect.
There are 15 others at 25/1 or shorter and plenty are unlikely runners. Corrin Wood (12/1), Ballycasey (20/1), Morning Assembly (20/1) and O’Faolains Boy (20/1) are very likely to go for the RSA and Don Cossack (25/1) will either go for the JLT or RSA. Benvolio (25/1) was very disappointing at the weekend and is impossible to fancy after that.
Given that most of the field have been professionally ridden during the season, it’s generally a case of working out what impact the switch to the amateur will have. In Mendip Express’s (14/1) case that doesn’t apply as he’s been ridden by champion point-to-point jockey Will Biddick. He looked just the type for this when winning a decent open handicap at Cheltenham off 139. However he then took on smart types in Smad Place and Sam Winner at Newbury, and bled. He was backed into favourtism for that race and if he has recovered then he has every chance here – but I don’t like backing horses with that sort of question mark over them.
Holywell (14/1) has plenty of experience after 5 chases but has looked a tricky ride, (cheekpieces on instead of the blinkers in which he won the Pertemps Final last season off 140.) He’s won his last 2 under AP McCoy but its taken all the champion’s skill and strength and he doesn’t look an amateur’s ride. Connections will be doubtless waiting to see what sort of mark he gets on Thursday, (rated 157 over hurdles but his form over fences is at least a stone below that.)
Given I’ve backed Corrin Wood for the RSA, I’d have to fancy Black Thunder (16/1) on bare form. The problem is that I don’t see him as an out and out stayer – he was running in the Coral Cup last season and I think he’s a 3m not 4m horse. It wouldn’t surprise me if Paul Nicholls came to that conclusion as well and he bypassed the race.
Midnight Prayer (16/1) was beaten 2l by Benvolio, (who gave 3lb,) at Newbury before hacking up at Warwick. The vibes from Alan King’s yard are that he’s seen more as a handicapper and the suspicion is that he probably doesn’t quite have the class for the race the 4 miler has become.
Shutthefrontdoor (16/1) hails from the O’Neill / McManus team that have a good record in this. Shutthefrontdoor was a close 4th off 144 in the Pertemps Final as a novice last season and has largely taken well to fences, winning once and then just edged out by the useful Le Bec at Cheltenham, (extended 3m, good). He bombed last time out but has apparently had a breathing operation since and looks to have each-way claims.
Suntiep (20/1) can’t have been an easy horse to train, as Willie Mullins’ 8 year old has only made the racecourse 5 times. He was put up earlier in the season by son Patrick as his likely mount in the 4 miler and stamina certainly looks his strong point. He disappointed on his chasing debut and then was staying on to challenge Si C’Etait Vrai when left clear at the last at Fairyhouse (3m1f, heavy.) 20/1 is a tempting price given connections, but I just can’t bring myself to back such an inexperienced horse in this race.
Mullins has a much more experienced campaigner in Balnaslow (25/1) who has run 21 times including 5 chases and 5 points. He was a decent 4th in the Thyestes off 133 last time on his first try beyond 3m, but didn’t shape as a horse who wanted a further step up in trip.
Edmund Keen (25/1) won his first 2 over fences - a novices handicap off 132 and then a novice under a penalty. He hasn’t shaped so far like an out and out stayer and was a disappointment when turned over at odds-on at Newcastle on Saturday, so is easy to oppose.
Gigginstown have Rogue Angel (25/1) and Si C’etait Vrai. Rogue Angel was impressive when thrashing Touch The Eden at Punchestown, (3m, heavy). He’d kept good company when chasing home the likes off Champagne Fever and Sizing Rio earlier in the season, but was disappointing when miles behind Foxrock last time. I prefer Si C’etait Vrai (25/1) who had also been chasing home leading novices like Morning Assembly and Djakadam. He bolted up in a beginners last time and might well have held on from Suntiep the previous time had he not fallen at the last. Dessie Hughes is keen to run him and if he stays the trip he’s got an each-way chance.
Shotgun Paddy (8/1) thrashed Just A Par in October when both were making their fencing debuts. He was then beaten twice by Black Thunder, before seeming to improve for a step up in trip when winning the Classic at Warwick off 145, (3m5f, soft.) On that form he has strong claims. Emma Lavelle has booked the top amateur Derek O’Connor to ride, which is a major plus. However, he looks to really need plenty of cut and Lavelle is “assuming he’ll get the soft ground he loves.” I think that’s a bold assumption – its more likely to be spring good to soft, or even good ground, on which he’s nothing like as effective.
The strategic play at this stage is to back her potential substitute Gullinbursti (40/1). He was a classy staying novice hurdler 2 seasons ago when a close 2nd to Rocky Creek, (who received 4lb,) in a Grade 2 over an extended 3m at Doncaster. Lavelle’s yard was badly out of form last season when he tried novice chasing but that means he’s got plenty of experience with 7 chase runs, (the average of the 4 winners of this in its current format.)
He bolted up by 27l off 134 on his seasonal debut from a horse now rated 4lb higher. He was raised to 148 and whilst his last 3 runs haven’t been spectacular, 2 have been good and he’s yet to get his ideal conditions of a sound surface and a real stamina test. After a fair 9¼l 5th to Gevrey Chambertin in the fixed brush hurdle off 143 only 13 days later, he was a close 3rd to Hadrian’s Approach and Super Duty in a graduation chase, (unsuited by slowly run race). He was disappointing in the Great Yorkshire but he doesn’t like the bad ground he got there. It’s noteworthy he’s been heavily backed in all 4 races this season suggesting there’s plenty more to come. He jumps well and is an uncomplicated ride, so looks ideal for an amateur.
If the ground does dry out to “nearer good” (than soft) then Lavelle says Gullinbursti will run rather than Shotgun Paddy. The bold punters will take the 40/1 ante-post, but whilst it’s pretty likely the ground will be “nearer good” I wouldn’t want to rely on Lavelle not changing her mind and running Shotgun Paddy anyway, so the 33/1 NRNB is the right play. They might both run, but if Gullinbursti is the stable’s only runner then we might have the bonus of O’Connor switching to him.
On form its between Foxrock and Shotgun Paddy, (of the likely runners). However, with the ground drying out neither are certain runners and even if they do line up conditions may not suit. By contrast, if it were to come up genuinely soft because there was material rain in the last few days before the Festival – we want a situation where we can back one of them without a loser on the books.
It’s therefore a good strategic play at this stage to back Gullinbursti at 33/1 NRNB. If there’s a sound surface he’ll have a good chance and probably be less than half that price. If it’s soft he won’t run, so we’ll have lost nothing and, with Foxrock and Shotgun Paddy having their ideal conditions, we can back one of them on the day.
1pt Gullinbursti to win the National Hunt Chase @ 33/1 NRNB