Another weekend passes in the run up to Cheltenham, and below are my thoughts on those who pressed their Prestbury Park claims, as well as news on a sartorial storm in a teacup at Ascot...
But let's start with the racing.
Ascot staged the Victor Chandler Chase, a two mile one furlong Grade One, as the feature on their card. Finian's Rainbow had been favoured all week, but had to share market leadership with classy novice, Al Ferof, come post time.
In the event, the two joint favourites both ran creditably but gave best to a horse who has been called a few names (by me!) over the years, Somersby. There was no fluke about the result, Somersby traveling best and mostly flawless with his jumping (aside from one error a couple of fences from home).
A horse who has hitherto not seemed to have an optimum trip, Somersby battled on well to pass Finian's Rainbow on the run in and score by a length and a quarter. Just five lengths back from the winner was Al Ferof, having only his third start over fences, and coming under pressure before the other two.
The rest came in at fits and starts, with the regressive Forpadydeplasterer six lengths further back, and then I'm So Lucky another eight lengths behind that one. Wishfull Thinking ran a stinker, beaten another fifteen lengths and Gauvain took a tumble after leading early.
So what of this gang and their respective Cheltenham Festival 2012 targets? Well, let's start with the winner. Somersby was beaten by Gauvain in the Peterborough Chase earlier in the season, a race that his trainer - Hen Knight - has ruthlessly exploited down the years.
Facts about Somersby. He is a hard horse to catch right. Fact. He is very good on his day (second in the 2010 Queen Mother Champion Chase). Fact. There is speculation about which race he will go for at Cheltenham. Fact.
On balance, then, for me he's a swerve. There are some horses which, if they beat you, you just have to say I knew that was a possibility but I couldn't have him. Somersby for me is one and, even if there was a definite race earmarked for him, I'd still struggle to believe he could see off all-comers.
The second horse home, Finian's Rainbow, will definitely head for the Champion Chase. He's a high class beast, and fast too. But he was beaten at Cheltenham last year by Captain Chris in the Arkle, and he's failed to improve his form figures since then.
Certainly, it's difficult to see him outpointing both of Big Zeb and Sizing Europe, and the Irish look to hold the whip hand for the big two mile event on Festival Wednesday. 13/2 may be reasonable for each way ticklers, but I'll not be playing.
Al Ferof ran a blinder. I was surprised he was joint favourite, on the basis of two novice wins, and to my eye he should have been at best third or fourth choice on form. (Obviously, he had more improvement capacity than most of his rivals).
To finish five lengths behind the winner in a race that may not have been run to suit - he does tend to hit a flat spot and then barrel on, as he did when winning the Supreme last year - was a very, very good performance. If I was a connection (I wish!), I'd be absolutely delighted with that as a prep for the Arkle.
Unsurprisingly, Al Ferof has been cut for that two mile novice event, and I'd now make him favourite personally. That he is available at 13/2 with Coral is a pleasant surprise, and I've had some this morning. If you read my Arkle 2012 Preview, you'll know I'm not a fan of Sprinter Sacre, and I think being double handed with Al Ferof (13/2) and Peddlers Cross (5/1) is a very strong wagering position in the race.
At least, that's how I've played it... 😉
Elsewhere, there was plenty of interesting action across the Irish Sea. On Saturday, the highlight of Willie Mullins' treble was undoubtedly the continued resurgence of Mikael d'Haguenet. As mentioned here last year, he clearly hated chasing and is now unbeaten in his last three tries at the smaller obstacles.
Granted, those three wins have been in relatively modest company, culminating in Saturday's besting of three rivals in a Grade 3, the pick of whom was rated 150. That's a very far cry from either Champion- or World Hurdle-winning form and, whilst an easy win is an easy win, it doesn't necessarily set the horse up for the lickety-split of a championship event across Cleeve Hill.
I have a huge soft spot for the horse, but I couldn't back him for a Cheltenham race.
Sunday saw more Graded action over at Fairyhouse, and more wins for Willie Mullins. As if three notches on Saturday wasn't enough, Mullins bagged four pots on Sunday: the first three and then the closing bumper.
Vesper Bell won the opener at odds on, and is mooted for the Albert Bartlett. He's plenty to achieve before being mentioned in the same breath as Fingal Bay or Boston Bob, which is the main reason I put so many words into this sentence...! 25/1 is about right, and for speculators, he will improve. Whether it's even nearly enough to hit the board in Cheltenham's three mile novice race is another question entirely. Not for this scribbler.
The Normans Grove Chase, a Grade 2 over two miles and a furlong, was a belting little contest. Noble Prince, last year's Jewson winner at the Festival, was favoured over Blazing Tempo and Tranquil Sea, with a couple of others making up a classy enough quintet.
In the event, Blazing Tempo outgunned the Noble Prince by less than a length. But that tells only part of the story. Blazing Tempo cruised into this but was all out to hold the runner-up at the line. He, Noble Prince that is, was under the pump from the turn, and Davy Russell gave him an 'Irish ride' (as opposed to a 'British ride' under the new legislation) to galvanise his mount for a prolonged challenge.
That effort - conceding seven pounds as well to the winner - marks the runner up down as the one to be on in the Ryanair, a race whose extra three furlongs in trip plays strongly in favour of the Prince. As with Al Ferof, connections must have been mightily chuffed with this effort, and he's worthy of more than a second glance in the Ryanair wagering. Currently a best priced 15/2 with sportingbet, and that appeals considerably more than the 7/1 about Somersby in the same contest.
The bumper at the end of the day went to Willie and son Patrick Mullins, as Champagne Fever bolted up at interest rate odds of 1/4. He's now been made favourite for the Cheltenham Festival Bumper, and good luck to you if that's your idea of a robust Cheltenham wager..! In fairness, that is still 12/1 favourite, such is the impossible nature of that race, especially when the winner maybe hasn't even run yet.
Back at Haydock on Saturday, Donald McCain was lording it in a Mullins-esque fashion, with his very own four-timer, the greedy blighter.
Cinders And Ashes got the ball rolling with a win in line with his odds of 8/13, and McCain was very complimentary about the horse afterwards. He's bound for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival, and is a general 12/1 chance, though Coral and Boylesports go 14/1.
It's hard not to worry about his ability to see it out at Cheltenham though, given that all of his winning (bar his debut bumper success at Fontwell) has been on flat tracks, and that he did bomb out when traveling well in the bumper around Chelters last year.
True, as his trainer says, he has strengthened up this term, but so have his rivals. A nice horse, but probably more at home at Aintree than Cheltenham.
Celestial Halo continued his 'testimonial season' by rolling back the years with another Graded success in the Champion Hurdle Trial. In truth, it wasn't much of a trial for the Champion Hurdle, as the Halo's three rivals were all rated 16 pounds or more inferior to the winner. Odd then, that he was available at 6/5, which looks tasty with hindsight. (Things often look tasty, and more often look very stupid, with hindsight).
It's hard to make a case for Celestial Halo in the Champion Hurdle itself, that race shaping up to be an absolute corker, but Paul Nicholls will continue to place this excellent stable servant to good effect, allowing him to mop up more minor Graded contests. He's still only eight, though, so another tilt at the Champion is not out of the question.
He's 80/1 in a place for the Champion Hurdle and, if he goes for that race, there will be worse value offers. Still, I couldn't sensibly recommend him as a medallist there, alas. Very, very likeable beast all the same.
Whilst on the subject of the Champion Hurdle, the previous second favourite for the race, Spirit Son, has been declared a very doubtful runner. He's been removed from most lists, meaning that Hurrican Fly - another horse we've yet to see this term - has hardened to 6/4 with bet365. Paddy Power however are offering 2/1, which is the biggest price for some time on that one.
Hurricane Fly is due to run in the Irish Champion Hurdle next Sunday, and if he misses that engagement, he'd surely struggle to get to the Festival. Of course, a run and a win there would strengthen his position at the top of the market.
All of which means that I remain happy with my Champion Hurdle ante-post pick of Binocular at 16/1 (now best priced 10's), and I still hold out hope that Nicky Henderson might revert Oscar Whisky (33/1, now best 20's) to the shorter trip as Spirit Son, one of his main contenders, is unlikely to run.
Brampour still looks like a bit of a reckless wager for the race (25's, now out to 50's). Ahem.
And that was the weekend racing! Management summary as follows:
- Somersby deserved success but won't be on my Cheltenham betting slip.
- Al Ferof definitely one to be on in the Arkle.
- It's hard to see Finian's Rainbow scalping both Zeb and Sizing in the Queen Mum
- Noble Prince ran a fine Ryanair Chase prep and looks a bet.
- Cinders And Ashes more of interest at Aintree than Cheltenham for me.
Now then, following on from an interesting post, and some even more interesting comments on Ascot's new dress code, it seems the track is determined to unpick all the fine work it has done in recent years, and return to something close to the infamously despised 'bowler hat brigade' era of Stasi-like patrols.
For those who don't know, racegoers who 'fell foul' of the new dress restrictions on Saturday were given a little orange sticker to wear to identify them as such. Here's Ian's take on Ascot's 'Dress Dummies'.
The arrogance of the racecourse administration beggars belief, and this kind of 'outing' leads to alienation and accusations of classism/bullying. Whilst I may agree with the former (classism), I think the latter (bullying) is a tad far-fetched.
However, the underlying thoughtlessness - putting the track first and the paying punters nowhere (or surely they'd have realised how ostracising and offensive such a move would be) - is a serious concern from a racecourse administration that is heavy-handing its way to owning as many of the top flat races as it can; one which does little to control the more obvious issue of excessive drinking on race days; and one which is happy to pack the facilities to the rafters, rather than work on things like liaison with rail companies to ensure more trains on racing days..
We have a new Chief Exec of the BHA in Paul Bittar, and we're supposed to be ushering in a new dawn for racing along with the New Year. But yet again, it seems that those same old ugly legacy edifices insist on dragging the sport away from the necessary populism that will engage it with a new breed of racegoers and sustain it beyond the next ten years.
What a pity.
p.s. feel free to 'tweet', 'share', rate and/or comment on the above. Your thoughts are always welcome! 🙂