The continuing dry spell may well play havoc with this weekend’s action, as several trainers have second thoughts over targets for their stable stars.
The Grade 2 Charlie Hall Chase is the highlight of Wetherby’s card on Saturday, but several of the runners are likely to swerve the northern track in search of softer ground. The much-anticipated return of 2015 Gold Cup winner Coneygree will be put on hold. He is now likely to head to Haydock for next month’s Betfair Chase, and a crack at the £1m Jockey Club Triple Crown Bonus prize, awarded to those winning the Betfair Chase, the King George and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Saphir Du Rheu is another that will look elsewhere for his seasonal return. He may yet run at Wetherby in the West Yorkshire Hurdle, though Nicholls appeared to be favouring a trip to Ascot for the Sodexo Gold Cup, for which he is currently 5-1 favourite.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Nicholls’ young chaser now races off 152 over fences, compared to 163 this time last year. His failure to win the Hennessy at Newbury caused a rethink by both trainer and connections. But that Newbury effort off top weight was a mighty one for such a young chaser, and may well have put paid to the rest of his season. If the Ditcheat handler has him back to something like his best, he will prove hard to beat at Ascot.
Cue Card is the odds-on favourite for the Charlie Hall, and Colin Tizzard believes he is every bit as well as last year. He swept all aside during a stunning campaign, before a ‘gutting’ slip-up in the ‘big one’ at Cheltenham. Menorah and Our Vic have carried top-weight to victory in the past 10 years, and there’s every chance that Tizzard’s star will do the same. Track, trip and ground are all in his favour, and it would come as a surprise if he wasn’t to land the spoils.
The RSA winner Blaklion, is second best in the market. His victory at Cheltenham was something of a surprise, and though he’s undoubtedly a talented stayer, I’d be stunned if he gets the better of Cue Card, despite being in receipt of 5lbs from the favourite. He’s rated some 20lbs inferior on official figures.
One that could give the favourite a run for his money is the David Pipe trained Dynaste. He was second to Cue Card in this 12 months ago, when beaten just under four lengths. That was at level weights, and he is 10lb better off this time around. Chances are that his best days are behind him, but he’s another that will appreciate the track and trip, and I think he’ll go close. He’s priced up at 10s, and that’s awfully tempting.
The Bet365 Hurdle, otherwise known as the West Yorkshire Hurdle, plays a strong supporting role on the Wetherby card. First run in 1990, the three-mile hurdle is a common starting point for those with World Hurdle aspirations. The wonderful Inglis Drever took the event in 2005 during a period of complete dominance over the staying hurdle division. A three-time winner of the World Hurdle, he was a terrier on the track, and did much to raise the profile of the event.
Last year’s renewal went to the Charlie Longsdon trained Kilcooley. The six-year-old was mightily impressive, but sadly spent much of the winter on the sidelines with niggling health issues. A year earlier, five-year-old Cole Harden had also romped to victory, a win that set him on the road to World Hurdle glory. Don’t be fooled into believing that success for these relative youngster’s points to something of a trend. Prior to their wins, Tidal Bay had landed the event in 2012 and 2013 at the age of 11 and 12. Redemption was also 11 when winning the race back in 2006.
Ballyoptic looks set to be sent off favourite tomorrow. The six-year-old is trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, and was a gutsy winner of the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at the end of last season. He won what looked a poor renewal of the Silver Trophy at Chepstow earlier in the month, which will ensure that he arrives at Wetherby ‘match-fit’. Yet to be beaten over hurdles, he’s clearly a progressive sort, though this will clearly be his most severe test to date.
Unowhatimeanharry is next best in the betting, and was another leading novice, having won the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham in March. Harry Fry had hoped for rain, and his eight-year-old is far from certain to make the start. If he does, he’s a very similar sort to Ballyoptic. Both are tough, no nonsense types, who should make into quality staying chasers in time. He’s clearly a player if he turns up, and the same can be said for Saphir Du Rheu.
Paul Nicholls has other options for the 2015 World Hurdle runner-up, and he may well end up at Ascot. Should he take his chance here, he will be receiving weight from many of his main challengers, and if back near his best will take all the beating. The ground should suit, as should the track and the trip. If a summer break has revitalised this fella, he ought to have the class to win.
Colin Tizzard has decided to keep Native River over hurdles, with Cue Card and Thistlecrack flying the flag over fences. Runner-up in the marathon National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham, he went on to win the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree, showing his liking for a sounder surface. He’s far from flashy, and is likely to get a forceful ride from Richard Johnson.
Lil Rockerfeller steps up in trip having last appeared in the Champion Hurdle behind Annie Power. He won the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell in February, looking a class act in the process. He’s a powerful traveller, and may well look the winner as they turn for home. If he sees out the trip, he’s sure to go close. He’s a horse I like a lot, but he pulled up quickly after the line at Fontwell, and I’m far from certain that this is his trip.
I also want to give Oscar Rock a mention. Trained by Malcolm Jefferson, this eight-year-old reverts to hurdles, but has the Scottish National as an end of season target. He’ll love the ground, and was a decent novice hurdler a couple of years back. He’s far from being a no-hoper, and odds of 25s are more than fair.
Much will depend on who takes to the start. I fancy Saphir Du Rheu will have the class to win, should connections come here instead of Ascot. I’ll also have a few pennies on Oscar Rock.