Grimthorpe’s Battle Of The Ages

Snow threatens action at Doncaster today, though by tomorrow conditions are expected to have improved. The BetBright Grimthorpe Handicap Chase is Saturday’s feature and is run over a trip of 3m2f. It often attracts those with an eye on the Aintree or Scottish National.

The timing of the race is pretty favourable with around a month separating this from the Aintree showpiece. The event often takes place on decent ground (the last 15 on good to soft or better), which is a huge draw for trainers wanting a prep for their horse without running the guts out of them so near the main target. The ground conditions often mirror those at both Liverpool and Ayr in April.

As in many staying chases the Grimthorpe has a history of favouring those from the lower end of the handicap. In the last 15 renewals only two horses have prevailed off a mark of more than 140. Cloudy Lane off a handicap of 152 lumped top weight to victory in 2008 and Grey Abbey did the same off 142 in 2004. In the same period eight horses have taken the race carrying 10st 5lbs or less.

The aforementioned Grey Abbey had finished third in the Grimthorpe of 2002 and then travelled to Ayr where he finished fourth in the Scottish National. After his 2004 Doncaster success he was again sent to Scotland and this time carried top-weight to a sensational victory.

Since 2002 no horse under the age of eight has been successful. A level of maturity and experience over fences has proven to be an important part of a winner’s profile.

Wayward Prince romped to victory last year as an 11-year-old carrying just 10st 2lbs, and was a relatively overlooked contender being sent off at 25/1. He followed up at the same price in the Scottish National some six weeks later. His success at both Doncaster and Ayr became one of the heart-warming stories of last spring.

Hilary Parrott was the owner-trainer with just a handful of horses at Chapel Farm, Redmarley in Gloucestershire. Wayward Prince was very much the star of the yard, having been a classy youngster with previous trainer Ian Williams. The horse had lost his way and plummeted down the handicap, yet was still showing no sign of a return to form.

Parrott believed that treating stomach ulcers proved the key to success, and instead of retiring from the sport the 11-year-old had one of his most successful periods in racing. The duo finished their careers on a high when Parrott made the decision to call ‘time’ after the success in Scotland and duly put the farm up for sale.

This year’s renewal may not deliver quite such a stirring tale, but age, experience and a favourable handicap mark are more than likely to play a key part in the outcome.

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The Paul Nicholls trained Wonderful Charm is tasked with carrying top weight. There’s no doubting he’s a classy type, but we’ve already covered just how difficult a task he faces from the top of the handicap, and he’s therefore hard to fancy for this, despite his prominence in the betting.

His inclusion means that Nicholls’ bet365 Gold Cup winner Just A Par carries 11st 1lb. That remains a hefty amount and he has failed to spark on his two outings so far this winter. There’s a chance that he sits plenty high enough in the handicap and he’s not for me.

Drop Out Joe was runner-up in this last year behind Wayward Prince. He’s two from two this season though his handicap has suffered accordingly. He’s a fast improver but has plenty to do off a mark of 151. Nevertheless it would come as no surprise if he was to finish in the first three.

Charlie Longsdon also has the promising novice Coologue in the field. He’s been placed on all three starts at the track including the Sky Bet Chase in January. His handicap mark looks fair, and he carries just 10st 9lbs, though as a novice he does lack experience having only had four chase starts. He’s only a seven-year-old, and though I fancy he’ll go close, he again fails to score on those crucial trends.

Alan King has had a terrific winter and he is set to run Sego Success, who was last seen falling at Warwick in the Betfred Classic Chase. He won at Doncaster in December off a handicap mark of 139 and his current mark of 146 is probably fair enough for the improving eight-year-old. He was behind Drop Out Joe on his seasonal return at Chepstow, and though he’s a fair bit better off at the weights, I’d fancy he’ll need plenty of rain to have a chance of turning that form around.

One old warrior that interests me is the Peter Bowen trained Al Co. He won the Scottish National in 2014 when on a mark of 140 and is now down to 132. He had a spin at the track in February over hurdles and carries a feather weight of 10 stone. He’s now an 11-year-old, but that didn’t stop Wayward Prince last year, and at 20/1 he is an attractive each-way proposition.

I fear both of Charlie Longsdon’s runners, but if trends are to be followed we could see another old campaigner taking tomorrow’s Grimthorpe Chase.

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