The middle day of three, Ladies' Day, and the spectacle is easy on the eye, both on course and on track, writes Rory Delargy.
1.40 - Alder Hey Children's Charity Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m4f)
There is no dyed-in-the-wool front runner here (Bigmartre has led on a couple of recent starts over two miles, but isn't certain to be ridden aggressively now stepped up in trip), leaving Crystal Lad just about the most likely pacesetter. But plenty of the field tend to race prominently, and hopefully that means a solid pace is likely. That alone doesn't make the race much easier to solve, but it should mean the hold-up horses aren't especially disadvantaged, and there are one or two at big odds who appeal.
A Hare Breath didn't cope with the fences in the Arkle, but he ran a fine race in the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham in November, and could well bounce back now switched to hurdles again, with the step up in trip giving hope for a bit more improvement given that he's a point winner, and has won over 2m5f under rules, albeit in a weak race.
Marginal preference in terms of a bet is for Sky Khan, however. Lucinda Russell's gelding is taken to put some uninspiring efforts behind him now that he's back on the big stage. His best efforts over hurdles came at the big festival meetings last spring when placed in the Martin Pipe at Cheltenham and in this corresponding race. He then went on to be fifth of 25 at Punchestown, and is clearly well suited to the demands of big-field handicaps at around this trip. Rated 140 when fourth to Party Rock in this 12 months ago, he has slipped to 130 now, and would have finished closer at Uttoxeter last time but for some interference. That suggested he was beginning to find form, and while more is required, he looks worth risking at a general 16/1.
2.20 - Crabbie's Top Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m103y)
River Wylde ran well when third in the Supreme, and that is just about the best recent form on offer; but it's not outstanding, and there isn't a great deal between the market leaders in terms of achievement, with Mount Mews impressing in quieter waters and possibly helped by missing Cheltenham. Moon Racer's desperate run in the Champion Hurdle merely serves to muddy the waters rather than narrow the field. The former Champion Bumper winner is clearly much better than he showed, and the decision to pull him up means he was spared a hard race, but it's very difficult to gauge where he stands in relation to the others, and that makes the race an unappealing betting medium.
2.50 - Betway Mildmay Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 3m210y)
The Mildmay promises to be a fascinating rematch between Might Bite and Whisper. The former is the bigger talent, but Whisper is the more honest battler, and has stepped up to the plate here in the past. Given Might Bite always gives the impression that he's capable of throwing it all away, it would take a brave man to back him at 4/7, and if there had to be a bet here, it would be on the wily Davy Russell to get the better of the mercurial favourite as he so nearly did in the RSA. It's possible that one or both of the market leaders will underperform, but that's what the others are hoping for if there is to be a surprise.
3.25 - JLT Melling Chase (Grade 1, 2m3f200y)
I was keen to back Sub Lieutenant when the market opened for the Melling Chase, and this superb jumper ought to find the nature of the Mildmay Course right up his street. That said, he's now found his way to favouritism, and the value angle is slightly harder to justify. Still, I'm not inclined to jump ship, and just hope that support for one or two others on the day will make him a backable price again.
He's undeniably an improved performer since joining Henry de Bromhead, and his second to Sizing John at Thurles in January was both a highly creditable effort in light of the winner's subsequent wins at the top level, but also better than it looks given that the selection was probably not helped by having to bypass the last fence, on a day when he generally gained ground over the winner at their obstacles. He certainly pushed Sizing John all the way there, and was merely underlining the worth of that form when second to Un de Sceaux in the Ryanair last month.
God's Own was almost seven lengths adrift of Fox Norton in the Champion Chase, but looked like throwing down a big challenge until badly misjudging the second last, and that pair are harder to separate than the form lines suggest. God's Own has also gone well here in the past, even if he was somewhat fortunate to win this a year ago, and seconds to Sizing Granite and Third Intention do not represent the acme of achievement, meritorious thought they are. Fox Norton kept on strongly in the Queen Mother, but previous connections didn't peg him as in need of further than two miles, so the jury is out on whether he will find extra for the step up in trip.
4.05 - Randox Health Topham Chase (Grade 3 handicap, 2m5f19y)
One of my favourite races in the calendar, the Topham suits bold-jumping horses with the early speed to keep out of trouble, and there can be plenty of hard luck stories. The race tests stamina from the second-last fence, but doesn't particularly suit out-and-out stayers. Last year's winner Eastlake gained his other 11 wins under rules at 17 furlongs or less, for example, and the ability to have been effective in decent races over shorter is not to be underestimated. Go Conquer fits the bill as a progressive chaser who ran well from the front at Cheltenham (Ultima) last month until his stamina ebbed away, and it's clear enough he ought to do better if jumping as well as he did there. He has had problems in that department, however, falling at Ascot in December, and making mistakes next time, so makes only limited appeal at the top of the market.
Gold Present has looked quirky, but he's jumped well for a novice this season, and it's hard to knock his second in the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap at Cheltenham. Nicky Henderson has an excellent record in this race, winning it with the relatively inexperienced Ma Filleule and Triolo D'Alene in recent years, and five times in all, with the other trio all owned by Robert Waley-Cohen.
He'd be near the top of my shortlist, as would Mr Diablo, who is trained in County Kildare by Philip Dempsey. The 8-y-o picked up an injury in the summer, and was presumably not right when ridden against type at Cork in October, but he bounced back with a tongue tie fitted at Leopardstown a month ago, jumping well, and in control when eased after jumping the last. He looks fairly treated still, and with the tongue tie retained, can be expected to put up another bold show. Gowanauthat is a rank outsider who could be underrated, especially if getting the early lead.
1.40 - Sky Khan e/w 16/1 general
3.25 - Sub Lieutenant 10/3 Boyle, 3/1 general
4.05 - Gold Present e/w 11/1 (1/4 FIVE places, BetVictor)
4.05 - Mr Diablo e/w 20/1 (1/5 SIX places, SkyBet)