Matt Tombs / Friday 6th February 2015 / 17:19
This weekend has the feel of the last feast before the famine of the final month before the Festival. There is plenty to gorge on though with top class action at Newbury and Leopardstown. Newbury has been under covers and it’s likely the ground will be holding, (officially soft). The ground at Leopardstown is likely to be better – its officially yielding and I’m anticipating it just being on the slow side of good.
The Betfair Hurdle is a changing race. It used to be a helter-skelter affair in which the lack of experience of novices tended to get found out. Until 2010, only 3 had won in the previous 30 years, and they included Make A Stand who won the Champion Hurdle that season and Large Action who was 3rd in the Champion the season he won this. These days they seem to go much more steadily and young inexperienced horses that are ahead of the handicapper have developed a formidable record, with 4 of the last 5 winners being novices, and the other having his first race out of novice company.
I’m keen to take the two market leaders Calipto and Activial as the 2014 Triumph Hurdle is looking like the worst in recent memory and the overall juvenile division last season looks weak. The only horses in the Triumph to have won a hurdle race since outside their own age group are Plinth, (3 wins in minor events over the summer and early autumn,) and Adriana Des Mottes, who won a mares novice. Calipto (11/2) was beaten by Tiger Roll when getting 8lb at Cheltenham in October on his last run and looks to have a stiff mark of 143. Activial (7/1) has at least put in a good performance on his only run this season when 2l 3rd to Bayan in the Ladbroke off 137 – he’s also runs off 143 here, which hardly looks a generous mark.
None of the novices jumped out at me but some of last season’s older novices look much better handicapped. Faustino Rustico (14/1) was well thought of when with Paul Nicholls last season but everything seemed to go wrong. He was far too keen when 2nd to Amore Alato at Kempton, (Sgt Reckless and Vaniteux behind.) He subsequently had two falls, (might well have won either race.) That left him a novice for this season and he’s won both novices easily, beating the useful Zip Top easily the other day to get a penalty and make the cut for this. He therefore gets in off a lenient looking mark of 135. He has to put it all together on the big day, but if he does, he has the talent to give Dan Skelton another big Saturday winner.
However, at the prices I have to back Wicklow Brave (25/1,) who went off 8/1 for the Supreme and was a solid 9½l 6th to Vautour. He’s lost his way completely since in 4 runs, but has been given a break and if he’s back to his form of a year ago when easily beating Lieutenant Colonel, then he has a strong chance. Ruby Walsh could have ridden Vroum Vroum Mag and Blood Cotil at Naas or Glens Melody and Arbre De Vie at Warwick, but apparently comes to Newbury for just one ride. I’ve no idea whether he’s back to his best but if he is he could easily win this, and at 20/1 I’m prepared to chance it.
1pt Wicklow Brave to win the Betfair Hurdle @ 20/1
Sire De Grugy looks a vulnerable odds-on favourite in the Game Spirit as the vibes are he’ll really come on for the run. I’d been expecting to put Uxizandre up, but to my surprise AP McCoy has opted for Mr Mole instead. That might be a tip in itself, but equally it might be that he has a better idea how good Uxizandre is, and wants to get a handle on Mr Mole in a good race, before choosing what to ride in the Champion Chase. I’m sitting this one out.
The Grade 2 Denman Chase is a fascinating affair, albeit one without an obvious Gold Cup contender. Mark Bradstock has taken a very bold route by running Coneygree (7/2) here, after just 2 chase runs. His form is hard to weigh up – on his chasing debut he edged out Dell’ Arca, who has gone back to hurdles. He then won the Grade 1 Kauto Star at Kempton at Christmas by 40l, but the race totally fell apart. He could be anything over fences, but will need to be a star novice to win this carrying a 5lb penalty and my gut feel is he’s not at that level. (Given that he’s got to win this to run in the Gold Cup rather than RSA, and he’ll be much shorter than 33/1 if he does, it’s a bet to nothing to back him NRNB for the Gold Cup at 33/1 now.)
Unioniste (100/30) bounced back to form when dotting up in a handicap at Sandown last time off 148. That looked a weak event for the money though and he faces a stiff task with the full 10lb penalty here. Taquin Du Seuil (9/2) and Harry Topper (7/1) have both been out of sorts this season but would have chances if returning to their best.
The more solid option is Houblon Des Obeaux (10/3). Houblon Des Obeaux has looked an improved horse this season. He was giving Many Clouds 6lb in the Hennessy when beaten only 3¼l, (Unioniste over 20l further back, now 10lb worse off). That form has worked out really well and he then just failed to give leading RSA contender The Young Master 17lb at Ascot when running off 161, with Le Reve, who won a valuable handicap at Sandown next time, in 3rd.
Houblon Des Obeaux’s form this season is good enough to win this, carrying a 6lb penalty. He hasn’t always carried his form into the spring, but he did record his best RPR last season in February and I think he ought to be much shorter.
1pt Houblon Des Obeaux to win the Denman Chase @ 10/3
At Leopardstown on Sunday, Willie Mullins searches for an incredible tenth Irish Hennessy. Mullins always says his horses improve about 10lb from the Lexus, (which he’s never won,) to this. Ruby Walsh has chosen On His Own (7/2) over Boston Bob and he’s very much the one to be on.
On His Own was an unlucky loser in the Gold Cup last year, and he was only a supplementary entry, not having been trained for the race. Willie said afterwards that this season he’d be trained as a Gold Cup horse and brought along slowly, so you can forget his flop at Down Royal. He’ll have been well short of his peak in the Lexus too, but still finished in front of Boston Bob (7/2), Carlingford Lough (4/1) and Lord Windermere (6/1) there.
Carlingford Lough was making his seasonal debut in the Lexus and if he improves he might be the main threat, but I think On His Own will be a fair bit shorter on Sunday and he’s a must bet at 7/2.
1pt On His Own to win the Irish Hennessy @ 7/2
Arguably the race of the day is the Grade 1 Flogas Novice Chase over 2m5f. I’m a fan of Valseur Lido but he’s very short at 5/4 in a race of this quality. It looked a vintage field he thrashed in the Drinmore but the reality is that the five who chased him home have all been beaten since.
Watching the race again, he really got the run of things, as runner-up Apache Stronghold looked to be put off by Real Steel jumping miles to his left and followed suit. Without that to trouble him and on better ground that should suit him more than Valseur Lido, Apache Stronghold has a real chance of turning the tables. 5/1 looks much too big.
It’s far from a two horse race. Le Vent D’Antan (8/1) is a horse I’ve long been an admirer of and I can’t wait to see him in a good race. I’d thought he might be a double figure price for this but it seems I’m not his only fan. With an official mark of 140, I’d thought Jarry D’Honneur (9/1) might be kept for the novices handicap on the first day of the Festival, but Willie must think he’s better than that as he’s pitching him in here. The vibes are that he’s improving at a rapid rate having been sick last year, and he could be anything.
Another horse I like is Shanahan’s Turn and 16/1 is tempting as he looked too keen and didn’t get home when well behind Apache Stronghold at Christmas over 3m. This trip ought to be much more to his liking as will the sounder surface and it’d be no surprise to see him bounce back. I wouldn’t rule out The Tullow Tank (16/1) either as he seems to have become a forgotten horse after flopping in Grade 1s the last twice. He was apparently sick in the Drinmore and 3m looked much too far last time. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was best at 2m though and I can see him getting outstayed here.
This has been a fantastic guide to the pecking order of the Irish novice chasers over the years. In another cracking looking renewal, a clear run on better ground can see Apache Stronghold turn the tables on Valseur Lido.
1pt Apache Stronghold to win the Flogas Novice Chase @ 5/1