The jumps season ratchets up several notches as we head into the weekend. From tomorrow, it's three days of Cheltenham action for their Open meeting; and as an introduction to that, we've an excellent races at Clonmel this afternoon, the Clonmel Oil Chase.
2.25 Clonmel Oil Chase (Grade 2) 2m4f
Seven face the starter for this Grade 2 event, with the market headed by National Hunt superstar, Sizing Europe, and National Hunt superstar, Champagne Fever! Both have won twice at the Cheltenham Festival and, though there is a five year age gap, both arrive here with similar looking chances.
Sizing Europe won the race two years ago, then aged ten, and, now rising thirteen, he's still the one to beat with stamina assured. We keep waiting for the inevitable decline in form, but he keeps defying us. Sure, he's not the beast he was: the figures tell us he's now rated 165 having been 177 in his pomp.
But 165 gets the job done in plenty of Grade 2 races, and he'll have no fears on the score of track, trip, ground (which is very heavy, he's five from five on heavy), or class. A Grade 1 win at the Punchestown Festival two starts back and a Grade 2 over this trip at Gowran last time attest to his wellbeing.
But he's not the favourite. No, Sizing Europe is a 15/8 chance generally, with Champagne Fever 5/6 in most books. Champagne Fever has a bit to prove today: just one of his four chase runs thus far have culminated in victory, though the three defeats were in Grade 1 company, and one of them was an honourable effort (head second in the Arkle at Cheltenham).
There's also the question mark about the heavy ground for a horse whose fitness on his first run for 196 days is likely to be a peg short of some of these. Still, reservations aside, he receives a chunky eleven pound allowance from Sizing Europe and I suspect that will be material.
In truth, if they finish 1-2, we'll probably have watched a fine race, but I'm not tempted to back the favourite at the price, and I'm keen to find something to beat both he and Sizing. A pity then that there are only seven runners, and therefore two places for each way betting purposes.
The remaining quintet are rated - and weighted - on inferior terms to Champagne Fever, but there might be circumstantial evidence to justify a bet amongst them.
Let's start by discounting a couple if we can. Firstly, there's been no money for Alderwood, and he's yet to do anything noteworthy beyond two miles over fences. The combination of trip and deep ground might find him out.
Nor are the vibes at all strong about Rathlin, fourth in this race in 2012. He's been running his better races on quicker ground since then, and looks sure to improve for his first spin since early April. That leaves Rubi Light, Roi Du Mee and Realt Mor, all of whom are mildly interesting in a race with more R's than a pirate's elocution class.
There's a chance that Champagne Fever may not try to lead here, in which case Roi Du Mee could set the tempo. It's pretty hard to quicken out of heavy ground so if Gordon Elliott's charge goes get an easy time of it, this five time heavy ground winner could be hard to reel in, despite being a stone 'wrong' at the weights.
Stablemate Realt Mor has been nibbled at, and can also mix it on the front. He's more versatile pace wise, however, and I'd expect to see him let others dictate today. His heavy ground form - two heavy defeats, pun intended - is a niggle, but he does have Grade 1 winning form at the distance on soft. Two heavy ground runs cannot really be considered definitive, but I'd prefer an animal proven in the quag.
Rubi Light looked highly promising in the early part of his career, but he hasn't really gone on in the last two years. He does have three wins at the trip, two of them on heavy ground, though, so is well suited by conditions; and he shouldn't want for fitness having run in a couple of schooling races since last seen 'officially' in February.
It's a cracking little race, more one to watch than to bet on, and I think Sizing Europe is the most likely winner despite conceding plenty of weight to Champagne Fever (he's only two pounds 'wrong'). For those who like to tilt at windmills, Roi Du Mee could give you a run for small money at about 25/1.