Less than two years after becoming Britainâ€™s first new turf racecourse to open in more than seventy years, Ffos Las hosts the inaugural William Hill Welsh Champion hurdle tomorrow.Â This represents the biggest day in the Carmarthenshire racecourseâ€™s short history, writes Paul Moon.
You will not find Ffos Las (blue ditch) on any map as there is no such place: it lies between the old mining villages of Trimsaran and Carway and was named after the farm that once occupied the site.Â Twelve years ago the course was the deepest coal mine in Europe!
The Welsh Champion Hurdle has been revived and given the kiss of life by Ffos Las Racecourse.Â Before its deterioration this was a listed event run at Chepstow, but for whatever reason the administration there allowed the race to wither then perish.Â It became an ordinary Class 2 handicap giving rise to greater quantity at the expense of quality!Â At its new venue, it is to be hoped that the raceâ€™s former eminence and lustre will be restored with added relevance and value, seeing as the timing will now render this a meaningful Cheltenham Champion Hurdle trial.
Ffos Las is ideally equipped to stage the Welsh Champion Hurdle, and has a determination to increase its appeal.Â Â After losing the race last year because of freezing weather conditions everything looks set fair for tomorrow at 2:40, when a select quintet of runners will take their chances.Â Belatedly and to add a bit of glamour, Channel 4 will make their first ever live visit to the track.
Speaking to Public Relations Manager, Kate Miller of William Hill, during the week, she told us: â€œWe are delighted with the entries for the inaugural running of the William Hill Welsh Champion Hurdle, which boasts contenders from England, Ireland, and the host Nation Wales.Â Previous winners read like a â€˜whoâ€™s whoâ€™ of elite Champion Hurdlers with Persian War, Night Nurse, and Bula all adorning the winnersâ€™ roll, and this year could prove no exceptionâ€.Â We hope she is right.
The race will now hold the responsibility of being one of the premier hurdle races in the calendar and the course and its sponsors will develop the occasion as a serious pre-Cheltenham trials day. By timing the race in late January or early February (six weeks before the Cheltenham Festival) it positions the two-miler as a major target to every top hurdler in Britain and Ireland especially in regards to the prestigious Champion Hurdle.
For locals, the most interesting horse in the race is the Nicky Henderson trained Oscar Whisky.Â Minutes after the horse had completed his last piece of work on Wednesday we spoke to the owner and developer of the course, Dai Walters.Â He was in a buoyant mood.
Dai Walters reminded us that the race had been targeted for some time and he desperately wants to win it!Â He confirmed his personal excitement and admitted that Saturday will be a very emotional day as he aims to fulfil one of his ambitions for Ffos Las.Â He told us that both he and the trainer were delighted with Oscar Whiskyâ€™s wellbeing and that the preparation had gone well.Â All he wanted now was for the horse to arrive at the course safe and sound.Â When I asked if he could beat Peddlers Cross he replied in the affirmative!
Originally Henderson was insistent that the next objective would be the Champion Hurdle but he has proved he has stamina as well as speed.Â Looking at his run in the Supreme Novices Hurdle behind Menorah the suggestion is he might be better suited to Cheltenhamâ€™s World Hurdle over three miles.Â Conversely he was only beaten four lengths by the winner and it was his first defeat in six races.Â Â At this moment he deserves to be taken very seriously for either race but his pretensions as a genuine two-mile Champion Hurdle horse will be revealed on Saturday.
Unfortunately for the Welsh track, Sandown stages its Contenders Hurdle on the same afternoon, and what should be a virtual walkover for Binocular there will see jockey Barry Geraghty ride at Ffos Las.Â AP McCoy stands by to deputise should the need arise.
Here is the full race schedule for tomorrow, along with a selection from the Geegeez writing team:
1.30pm: Williamhill.com Novices' Hurdle
Selection: Sprinter Sacre
2.05pm: William Hill - Home Of Betting - Novices' Chase
Selection: Joker's Legacy
2.40pm: William Hill Welsh Champion Hurdle
Selection: Oscar Whisky
3.10pm: Williamhill.com Handicap Chase
3.45pm: Land Rover Handicap Hurdle
Selection: Je Ne Sais Plus
4.15pm: Professional Security Management Maiden Hurdle
4.55pm: Lincwear Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race
Courtesy of Kate Miller and William Hill, we have been given a free Â£50 charity bet and after some deliberation we have decided to put it on Oscar Whisky at best price guaranteed, which should see us able to contribute to our chosen charity.Â Any winnings will go to the Wales Air Ambulance (This is an all Wales charity providing a vital service through emergency air cover for those who face life-threatening illness or injuries).
Over at Sandown, there are more Festival clues on offer, writes Matt Bisogno.
The opening juvenile novices' hurdle (why is the juvenile always first? Do these horses have to be home in time for tea or something?!) sees the jumping debut of smart flat performer, and latest errant Geegeez Cheltenham portfolio wager, Moose Moran. Rated as high as 104 on the flat, he'd blow these away if running to anything like that mark.
Of course, hurdles are a considerably different challenge, and the 25/1 I took is going now. A couple of firms are 16's this morning, though you'll still get the 'pony' from Tote, Fred and VC if you're quick. (You might get 40's after tomorrow's race though!! 😉
Kumbeshwar recently rattled up a hat-trick on the level and runs for Alan King in Mille Chief / Walkon / Franklino (!)'s colours. He'd be a danger if taking to the sticks.
In the 1.55, Contenders Hurdle, Binocular is scheduled to go off something like the 1/10 favourite, which really is utterly pointless in terms of a racing spectacle. Given the big gun (Oscar Whisky) racing west of Esher, surely the race planning committee need to pull rank here and do away with the Sandown event, which I believe was only instigated last year in order to get a run into Binocular.
Moving on, and at 2.25 we actually do get a decent event - the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase, formerly won by the likes of Punchestowns and Best Mate. If you're looking at it as an Arkle trial, you'd do well to bear in mind that no winner of this two and a half miler has won the Arkle. In fact, most of them have lined up in the RSA Chase.
Consider yourself warned if you're on Medermit or Captain Chris for the speed novices chase at the Festival. That aside, it does look an excellent renewal and picking a winner is tougher than tough. No more than a token selection is Rock Noir under AP McCoy. Depending on the price, I'd be tempted to lay Medermit as I'm not certain he especially likes the fences (refused once in his four chase starts).
An impossible Grade 3 handicap hurdle next, and if you find the winner you'll have done very well. Venetia's top weight, Quartz de Thaix should be watched with an eye to the Festival handicaps (runs off 148 over hurdles, only 125 over fences... oi oi?!), but I'll take a (big) chance with Philip Hobbs' County Zen. He does have a slight stamina doubt, despite a fifth place over three miles last time, but his balance of form mean he's well-weighted in this contest, and has a win at the track, albeit over shorter.Having been mostly raced over fences recently, he might surprise a few.
The 3.35 is filed under 'impossible' and I won't even offer a token selection. I will say that I'll be looking for late headway from both Theatrical Moment and Chief Yeoman with a further eye to the Festival handicaps. Moreover, I'm expecting Burren Legend to finish this time which, if he does, might see him competitive. No bet though.
More Venetia action in the 4.05, and I'm tempted to wager Zacharova each way, though this one may be running over a shorter than ideal trip deliberately, in order to shed a couple more pounds prior to the Festival. He's won off 125 and goes here from a mark of 119. His chase wins have all been at around three miles, so in this two-miler, expect late headway!
One for whom the trip is spot on is Nicky Henderson's Anquetta. He's taken a while to get it together, which is why he has such a lowly handicap mark, but I'm pretty sure he's better than he's shown so far, and even that level of form would see him competitive against some pretty exposed types.
In case you've got any money left at this point, the concluding race is a novices' handicap hurdle, and there's eighteen of them going to post! Three 25/1 winners in the last six years is hardly a shock in that context, so let's get speculative here, and take a couple of long shots against the field. First up then, Victor Dartnall's Henry Hook might run well.
The bang in form stable won this with 14/1 Exmoor Ranger two years ago, and Henry will stay every yard of these two and a half miles, a comment that is not universally applicable.
We'll supplement the Hook with Kim Bailey's Regal Approach, who was third in a similar race over three miles at Cheltenham last April (20 runners). This chap's been novice chasing, but he stays and comes here in good enough form to be competitive.
Best of luck as ever with your weekend wagers, and let's hope for some great action at both Ffos Las and Sandown, and a winner or two for the beer and chips on Saturday night.
Matt (and Paul)