The transition from Jumps to Flat is now well underway, and this weekend we are treated to quality racing from both codes.
Ayr host the Scottish National on Saturday, whilst at Newbury Expert Eye makes his eagerly anticipated seasonal bow in the Group Three Greenham Stakes.
Vicente returns to Ayr searching for a third-straight win in the Scottish Grand National. The Paul Nicholls-trained nine-year-old was set for a crack at Aintree but was withdrawn due to the testing conditions. With just three outings this winter, he should arrive fresh and ready for another huge performance. There’s no doubting the race suits, and he’s only 4lb higher in the handicap. He’s again partnered by Sam Twiston-Davies and it’s hard to imagine a finish without his involvement, though no horse has won with a rating higher than 146 in the past 10 years.
Vintage Clouds also missed out on an Aintree trip, missing the cut by one place. The eight-year-old has had a fine season, winning once and finishing in the top four from his five starts thus far. He was a gutsy fourth in the Welsh National, proving his ability to see-out these marathon trips. He was seventh here last year, though is a more mature and stronger horse this time around. His handicap mark has crept up to 141 (134 last year) and though he’s in off a nice race weight of 10-12 it would be wrong to say that he’s well-handicapped. I fancy he’ll go close, though he lacks gears and is always likely to find one or two with a little more zip at the business end.
Doing Fine is towards the head of the betting, and providing the rain stays away, looks to have a great chance at the weights. Trained by Neil Mulholland, this 10-year-old has twice finished in the top four of the London National at Sandown. He’s another that’s sure to arrive fit and well having not been sighted since December. Like Vintage Clouds, he’s likely to get a little outpaced at some stage, but I can see him finishing with a rare old rattle. He looks sure to go close.
It’s hard to ignore Gordon Elliott and Davy Russell. Fresh from a successful Cheltenham Festival and a famous victory in the Grand National at Aintree, the pair are reunited, with novice chaser Fagan taking his chance. The eight-year-old has clearly had his health issues, with just five runs since his Albert Bartlett runner-up spot in 2016. Four outings over fences is hardly ideal when faced with 27 obstacles over a marathon four-mile trip, and his last run was way back in October. Taking on Elliott and Russell is a dangerous business, but I can’t see this fella winning.
Ballyoptic is a talented novice who arrives here following a creditable fourth place finish in the RSA at Cheltenham. The eight-year-old is trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies and looks the sort that will thrive over this marathon trip. His race mark of 149 is plenty high enough for this, though looks fair on what he has produced thus far. He lacks a little experience with just five outings over fences, though his preparation for this, as opposed to Fagan’s, has been a smooth one. He looks a leading contender.
The Young Master is another Mulholland entrant with a realistic chance. His handicap mark has dropped like a stone, and it seems incredible that at the age of nine (far from past it), he’ll run here off 132. A year ago he ran in the Grand National at Aintree off a mark of 150, and his last run at Cheltenham, following a wind-op, suggested he has much more to offer. Sam Waley-Cohen takes the ride, claiming 3lbs and bringing his race weight down to 10-0. He reminds me of the classy Wayward Prince, who won the race in 2015 having been similarly dropped by the handicapper.
The Young Master last won a chase in April 2016, when landing the bet365 off a handicap of 148. I can’t resist taking him to win this off 132, especially at odds of around 20/1. It could prove quite a day for Mulholland as I also fancy Doing Fine to go very close. However, despite having to carry 11-7, Vicente must be other Keeling punt. Twice a winner of this, he’s sure to go close again, and his odds of 9/1 make him a cracking each-way proposition.
Whilst the stayers slug it out in Scotland, Newbury play host to potential Classic contenders. Arguably the most exciting of these is Expert Eye trained by Sir Michael Stoute and ridden by Ryan Moore. Simply stunning in the Vintage Stakes at Goodwood last year, he then failed to spark in the Dewhurst at Newmarket. That run was too bad to be true, and Flat racing fans will be hoping for a return to form on his seasonal debut.
Hey Gaman could prove his toughest challenger, having looked a more than useful juvenile, finishing runner-up in the Group Two Champagne Stakes. He’s beautifully bred, being by New Approach out of a Dubawi mare and looks a real danger to the favourite.
The Fred Darling also looks a tasty renewal, with plenty of fillies hoping to put themselves in the 1000 Guineas picture. Gavota looks as exciting as any, and like Expert Eye, will carry the famous Khalid Abdullah silks. She performed well as a juvenile despite looking jus a shell of a horse. One would anticipate plenty of improvement from two to three, and a big performance here would not be surprising.