There are few pastimes in the world, dear reader, that give the everyday working class Joe (or Matt) the same chance to meet with sporting royalty than horse racing.
I mean, imagine trying to have a quick chat with David Beckham. Or hitting a few balls with Tiger Woods or Andy Murray. It's just not going to happen, unless you're a multi-millionaire offering to sponsor one of those overpaid icons.
But, in our little equestrian microcosm, dreams can become reality. Today, I will fulfill a minor sporting ambition of mine, when I meet the great jumps jockey of all time, Mr Anthony Peter McCoy.
McCoy, champion jockey for fourteen straight years, and holder of virtually every NH record worth holding, continues his quest for the 'elusive' fifteenth title with a book of rides at Fontwell this afternoon. And in the feature race on the card, the 3.20, he will ride none other than Night Orbit, the horse in which I own a piece.
It's not the case that you can ring AP's agent and ask for him to ride (unless you're David Johnston or the Queen or some such). Rather, AP's agent rings up your trainer and demands that you put the greatest jockey (sorry, Mr Francome, but that accolade is no longer yours) on your horse. And who in their right mind would refuse. Sure, it's a bit tough on an honest and hard-working jockey like Mattie Bachelor, who misses out today. But, really, it's a no-brainer and the sort of thing that happens frequently enough.
So, my personal borderline-pant-wetting-anticipation aside, what chance Night Orbit? Cue the caveats...
It is as ferociously competitive a heat as I've seen for many a long Monday. Eleven runners go to post, and the complete outsider finished second in a Cheltenham Festival race on his penultimate start!
Let me lay out some facts:
- 'Olly' (as we call Night Orbit) has been racing on the front over hurdles. There are four or five who like to make the pace, so ideally we'll sit in behind the early speed.
- The going is likely to be on the soft side of soft, if that makes sense, meaning it will be a fierce test of stamina.
- 'Olly' is moving up two furlongs in trip, having never raced beyond two and a half mile before. Personally, I think the trip should suit, but there's no evidence in the formbook to support that perception.
- Aside from the Grade 2 race in which Orbit finished behind Zaynar (!) last time out, this is the toughest assignment to date. It is certainly the toughest race he's had a legitimate chance of winning.
- This is bound to be the quickest race 'Olly' has encountered, and there is a niggle in my mind that he might just be found out by that.
- Against that, 'Olly' has more improvement likely than virtually every other runner, and his rating increments from race to race bear that out.
- Moreover, AP McCoy could have picked any horse bar Over The Creek, favourite Aldertune, and Fruity O'Rooney, and the regular pilot would have been 'jocked off' for him. He (or his agent) chose Night Orbit. So, he'll get every chance (and then some) from the plate.
My verdict? Honestly, I've got no idea! I've gone through the form, and he's a bit to find. I've gone through the likely pace in the race, and this is the key I think. If Olly can go with them at a strong pace, and stay the extra quarter mile, he's in there with a great shout. The first of those two 'ifs' is significant though, and I hope my nagging concern is unfounded.
Obviously, as I'm wont to do, I've invested fairly robustly win and place. I'd be disappointed if he's out of the first four, which means a place wager has a decent chance of paying off.
Staying with the wonderful world of hurdling, and there were two significant (perhaps?) Champion Hurdle trials this weekend.
Punjabi, the reigning champ, was usurped by upstart Medermit at Haydock on Saturday. Despite there being only four runners, it looked a reasonable gallop in the claggy underfoot conditions, and there was no fluke about Medermit's victory. Although I wouldn't be sure he'd confirm placings with the Champ in March, I do expect him to be a player, given both the horse's and the trainer's (Alan King) record at the Festival. Indeed, Medermit was one of just a handful I gave a chance to in that preview back at the start of December, along with Punjabi, Celestial Halo and Go Native. I wouldn't want to change that quartet for any other now.
Solwhit won pretty much unchallenged yesterday in the Irish Champion Hurdle, prompting many clueless money-grubbing bookies to make him favourite for THE Champion Hurdle in March. In my opinion, that Leopardstown race was as far from a Champion Hurdle trial as is possible to be, with two strong candidates only, and a wearying 'quag-slog' ensuing.
That Celestial Halo was only fourth was a little disappointing, but I think he'll prove far better on good ground at the Festival. Solwhit's lack of Festival form and apparent preference for flat tracks leads me to an inclination to lay this one at around 4/1.
One more thing. If you thought Solwhit's was a high class performance, consider this. The maiden hurdle earlier on the card over the same distance was won in a time just 1.2 seconds (or around five lengths) slower than Solwhit, and the winner carried two pounds MORE than Solwhit. Would you want single figure odds about Rite Of Passage in the Champion Hurdle?
I think you'd need to be a half-whit to want to back Solwhit at 3/1 or 7/2. I'll leave the last word to Ladbrokes' Mike Dillon, on why his firm left Solwhit unchanged at 6/1:
â€œSolwhit went off at 5-6 and won like an odds-on shot should, in conditions heâ€™ll probably not face at Cheltenham.
â€œBy our reckoning it remains a wide-open Champion Hurdle, and nothing we saw on Saturday or today has convinced us otherwise. Weâ€™re happy to lay the field at 5-1."
Spot on Mike!
Right, I'm off to Fontwell for what is sure to be a slightly surreal experience...