Festival fancies and frozen Folkestone's farce book-ended the weekend's limited action, dear reader, and I've cast my scrutinous beady over the proceedings to sort the genuine Cheltenham contenders from the fish in red clothing...
Given the severity of this ludicrously premature cold snap, Newbury performed some sort of minor miracle in staging both Friday's and Saturday's race cards (as well as Thursday's) as much of Berkshire shivered and shuddered through the first covering of the winter.
But in amongst all the hype around the Hennessy and the newbies noted in novices, were there Festival candidates on display? And, if there were, which ones were they? Read on, and see what I reckon...
Casting our minds back to last Thursday, Nicky Henderson unleashed high class hurdler Finian's Rainbow for his chasing debut in a warm looking novice event. Despite being up against just two rivals, the outsider Hell's Bay was already rated 143 over fences. Finian's cruised through the race and won on the bridle as he liked. However, he did make a couple of pretty shabby errors on the way round and his trainer will be at pains to improve the Rainbow's fencing prior to his next start.
Finian's Rainbow's long-term target is the Arkle, a race which perennially comprises a small field. 12/1 seems reasonable enough about a horse which is likely to be Henderson's first choice in the race, and about whom he said, "It's almost certain we will stay at two miles, the Arkle is there. I hope he's top class."
Although we haven't seen nearly enough of Finian's Rainbow to know whether he's the best horse for the Arkle, I'd be very confident that he'll be much shorter on the day should he line up. He's already just 8/1 with Ladbrokes (always the firm I look to first), and that tells me they're running scared of Henderson's hotpot.
In the Grade 2 Worcester Novices' Chase later on the Thursday card, the terrible news that high class novice Tell Massini was fatally injured cast a cloud over both the form and the story of the race. Objectively looking beyond that sad event, the winner Aiteen Thirtythree was always going to be a better fencer than hurdler, and perhaps had the best of his duel with the ill-fated Massini when that one came down in any case.
Aiteen Thirtythree was way too good by the line for next best, Voramar Two, with decent stick (137-rated) Swincombe Rock miles behind. A typical Nicholls / Barber massive-engined grinder with a touch of class, Aiteen Thirtythree is quoted as low as 12/1, and a general 16/1 for the RSA Chase.
Whilst he looks tailor made for that contest, Nicholls said afterwards that they'd be concerned about the 'hustle and bustle' of such a race, and wanted to bring him on more slowly, perhaps with a tilt at next year's Hennessy in mind. With two more chase runs under his belt between now and Cheltenham, I suspect that connections might change their minds, but at the price I'd be inclined to leave him alone from an ante-post perspective. (I like my ante-post bets to be specifically targeted at the races I'm wagering them in, where possible!)
For those brave enough to wager in the Champion Bumper before Christmas, more fool you! On a more empirical note, Balding Banker was a mightily impressive winner of the flat race on Thursday, coming far away from the rest of a fancied field and, with big margins between each finisher, the merit of the performance looks extremely robust. Of course, it remains to be seen what the horses in behind do next time out, but Henderson had two well backed beasties (one of them odds on), and Alan King had a nice looking recruit in second.
As I say, it's waaaay too early to be thinking about the Champion Bumper, but this must have been the smartest run seen so far this season in that sphere.
Friday's card opened with the unmistakable aroma of singed digits all across the Berkshire expanses as 1-4 favourite, Dolatolu, turned a 23 length winning margin at Sandown into a 27 length losing margin here. In truth, there was zero pace in the Sandown race the jolly had won and, with a quicker tempo here, he was found wanting plain and simple.
I'd be loathe to back the runner up at 33/1, and the winner, Smad Place, looks too short at 10/1. True, he won easily. True, his vanquisher on his final run in France, Taikanous, has gone on to win a nice pot in a chase race and looks a horse of real class (will we see him here in a year or two?).
But 10/1 is too short in a race that rarely has a favourite shorter than 4/1, or a field shorter than sixteen runners. Alan King has an exemplary Triumph Hurdle record and this may be his best prospect after the ill-advised (by me!) plunge on the stable's Franklino (0 from 2 so far...).
It's possible that the Triumph Hurdle winner hasn't even been bought out of a French paddock yet!
The Grade 2 Berkshire Novices' Chase over 2m4f featured another odds on favourite, and again the odds were rolled over, this time literally as well as metaphorically, when Spirit River came down at the eleventh of sixteen fences.
Sent off a 10/11 shot, Nicky Henderson's Coral Cup-winning hurdler from last year's Festival was doing things nicely enough until getting one line hopelessly wrong and giving Barry Geraghty no chance of hanging in there.
The winner was Cois Farraig, who toughed it out from Celestial Halo, the former Champion Hurdle second and fourth. The Halo is a classy enough beast, but his resolution generally fails close inspection and he'd definitely not be a wagering proposition for me in top company.
Whilst I have to salute the steel of the winner, I don't for a moment see him as a credible contender for novice chase honours and, at this stage, there'd have to be a big question mark about which race he'd run in. (I believe they're introducing a new intermediate distance novice chase between the Arkle's two miles and the RSA's three plus).
Onto Saturday, and a card whose jewels shimmered as much as the Newbury ground staff shivered in the early morning frosts. Newcastle's luckless abandonment saw the prompt re-routing of their prized asset, the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, down to Reading way to add further sheen to an already impressive afternoon's sport.
As it turned out, the Champion Hurdler, Binocular, gave best for the second consecutive year in this contest, going down fairly tamely and under only mild urging from Tony McCoy. This was not his best, and he will of course improve for the run. That he is now a bigger price for Cheltenham should make Binocular more appealing to punters, not less, as this stop-start gallop on dead ground will hardly have played to his strengths.
Be all that as it may, we can take nothing away from the winner, who will also not have been favoured by the totality of conditions here. Peddlers Cross is now unbeaten in all six of his starts, the last four of which have been in Grade 2 or higher company. He looked to have a lot to do in order to repel the waited with Starluck, who has strengthened up since last year and traveled beautifully through the race.
But, when push came to shove as it inevitably does, Peddlers was always holding the runner-up. In fact, watch the replay, and you might notice that on three or four occasions when Peddlers Cross saw Starluck get within half a length, he just accelerated away a little more.
Despite the moderate gallop, I'd say the form is strong, and I think Peddlers Cross now represents a serious challenge to Binocular's Cheltenham crown. With a best price of 6/1 now on Peddlers, and as big as 5/1 offered on Binocular, if you're not already on the former, the smart play may be to side with the latter.
As things stand in the Champion Hurdle market, the race is shaping up in rather magnificent fashion. We've got unbeaten 'could be anything' types like Peddlers Cross and potentially Cue Card, next to proven winners like Solwhit, Hurricane Fly and Binocular, with further spice added from the likes of Menorah and Silvianaco Conti. Bring it on! 🙂
The next of the Cheltenham winners to step up to the plate was long-standing champion staying hurdler, Big Buck's. He had a new pilot this day, with A P McCoy taking over from the injured Ruby, and the recalcitrant old monkey (BB, not AP!) was extremely well behaved for his first time baby-sitter. For all that he could do no more than win, and win well enough, I have a niggling doubt that old Big Buck's is not quite the horse he appears to be...
If there was just some sort of credible challenger in the staying hurdle ranks. Alas, each year, horses who are too slow for the Champion Hurdle tend to favour a chasing route to glory.
Let me put it this way: quotes of 4/6 for the World Hurdle are hardly exciting from an ante-post play perspective (I'd want that on the day if he remained unbeaten this season and there were few likely dangers!). If any of Long Run, Quevega or possibly Grands Crus turned up in the race, I'd be inclined to take them at a price over the Big Buck's. Whether they'll instead go for the Gold Cup / Ryanair, Mares Hurdle, and something else respectively, remains to be seen.
Onwards, and upwards. A Hennessy of vast interest. Not just the usual exciting array of second season chasers bidding to bridge the battle-scarred no man's land between novice and top class ranks, but also the presence of a certain lovable, venerable, belligerent, doughty old boy in Denman. Is there a grander stamp of chaser in training right now?
I mean, forget the class of Binocular or Kauto Star, forget the speed of Big Zeb and Master Minded. Look at the raw power and will to win that the senior citizen, the veritable Chelsea pensioner, Denman exudes.
Of course, the race record shows Denman finished third. It also shows he gave the best part of two stone to both Diamond Harry and Burton Port when beaten around fifteen lengths here. Denman was his usual robust, honest, reliable self, and - forgive the sentimentalist bluster momentarily - cemented his place in my mind as my favourite chaser of the current generation.
I just much prefer his Gennaro Gattuso mentality over Kauto Star's Francesco Totti-esque
demeanour. I love his never say die attitude. He reminds me of me in some small way, and I salute all triers everywhere! 😀
Parking my affection for one of racing's waning stars, what of the aspirant waxers? Diamond Harry headed the charge at the business end, but there were many fancied in the pre-race market.
Perishers included Pandorama, who was hampered early but still should have shown more; Neptune Collonges, whose long-awaited return was terminated prematurely as he was brought down by the bungling Madison du Berlais; and Weird Al, who finished eighth of the ten completers, a mile back from the sharp end of the race.
Just as one swallow a summer does not make, nor does a single blip equate to a winter of discontent for these under-performers. However, the proverbial leap of faith is required before parting with readies on their respective next top drawer outings. Neptune was unlucky, in fairness, but the others have it to prove if they're to raise their game sufficiently to get serious with the big boys.
Up at the vanguard, and as predicted, the Gold Cup market had a little shake with Messrs Harry and Port (Diamond and Burton to give them their forenames) elevating their market positions as a result of their 1-2 here.
The winner, Diamond Harry, jumped brilliantly and I suspect couldn't have done more than he did here. He may have looked like there was something left at the end, but my suspicion is that he was all out.
When Burton Port learns to go over fences, rather than through them, he's going to be a phenomenal staying chaser. And indeed he's the one horse in this race that I'd consider has any kind of serious chance of challenging in the Blue Riband on Cheltenham Friday in March. He just bungles and clouts and otherwise disregards the impediments in his way.
By rights, Burton Port should have come down at least twice in the Hennessy. Stiff fences they are at Newbury, but they are no more lenient at Cheltenham and he's got to sort that out. If / when he does, he's got a serious engine and - unlike many pretenders to the Gold Cup crown - Burton Port stays (and stays and stays). Another fifty yards and he might have won on Saturday.
Funnily enough, as a consequence of the to'ing and fro'ing at Newbury in the Hennessy, our hope - Sizing Europe - has now been cut by a few more firms. The 33's I tipped the wink for was no more than 25's by lunchtime on Friday and, whilst there's still plenty of that price around, it's interesting (and possibly instructive) to note that Ladbrokes have now sliced him into a 16/1 chance.
Oh, the joys of an ante-post portfolio! Paper profits aplenty, but which - if any - ticket can we cash?!
A fine card at Fairyhouse was snowed off on Sunday and, with it still coming down outside here now, it looks like it might be a while before we see any more National Hunt action.
In the meantime, Geegeez Racing Club favourite, Always De One, gets a start this afternoon at Lingfield (12.45). It's a two miler, which is a lot further that Always has run so far, and Shelly - trainer Julia Feilden's daughter - has just her fifth public ride (having been a champion pony racer previously).
The truth is the partnership has a lot to do, but in a weak race with very little recent form to go on, she might sneak a place at an each way price with the stable in form.
Finally, the ten nominees for BBC Sports Personality of the Year have been announced and, unsurprisingly, Tony McCoy is one of the ten. I'm doing my bit to try to help Tony win, by starting a facebook fan page on the subject.
Now I don't really understand very well how facebook works, but if you're on that social networking site, do please 'Like' the Tony McCoy page. The more 'Likes' we get, the more 'Likes' we will get, such is the manner of facebook (as I understand it).
That's all for today. If you have a view on the weekend action, or on how to use Facebook (!!!), please leave a comment below.