Smarkets Challenger Staying Chase Series Final (Handicap) 3m1 1/2f Haydock Saturday

The main focus of attention for jumping enthusiasts this Saturday is Haydock Park, where the betting exchange company, Smarkets, host their finals day. They generously sponsor all seven races on a fascinating card but the heat that catches the eye is the final of the Smarkets Challenger Staying Chase Series.

When one considers the historically high strike rate of the Pond House Operation, one has to conclude that so far, it has been quite a disappointing season for David Pipe and his staff, but with two winners in the past fortnight, including that convincing victory of Rathlin Rose at Ascot, the corner may have been turned. If it does prove to be the case, the master of Pond House must have a serious chance of landing the valuable Challenger Staying Chase Final with his lightly weighted 8yo, Abracadabra Sivola. A veteran of 25 chases, he drew a blank in his seven starts since landing a Taunton Class3 Handicap last March off a mark of 129. However, dropped to a mark of 112 he showed that he was no back number when winning over Kempton’s tricky circuit 14 days ago. He made all, travelling well within himself, and put the result beyond doubt with his best jump of the round at the last. A course winner at Haydock over hurdles, his new mark of 117, gives him the featherweight of only 10-1 to shoulder, and he looks seriously well treated.

The Charlie Longsdon trained, Shanroe In Milan didn’t manage to catch the Judges eye in his two PTP’s or his seven races over hurdles but did get off the mark last time out in his third attempt over the larger obstacles. Racing off a mark of 117 in a Class4 Doncaster Handicap (3m Soft) he held on gamely to beat Bako De La Saulaie by 1/2L nine weeks ago. There is nothing special about the form but the Longsdon 6yo was always bred to be a chaser and having broken his duck could move on to greener pastures.

The Lucy Wadham trained Potters Legend looked a tad unlucky when coming down at the last at Fakenham 15 days ago. Having delivered a sustained challenge from two out, he had just taken it up when falling in the Class3 event, and off just a 2lbs higher mark, with the yard amongst the winners, the 8yo is certainly worth a second look.

After six attempts over fences, the one time winner over hurdles, Behind Time, got his head in front over the larger obstacles for the first time two weeks ago. The Harry Fry trained 7yo came home 4L clear of the useful Big River in a Class2 Uttoxeter Handicap (3mChase Heavy) off a mark of 120. He had been prone to making the odd mistake in his previous races and the fitting of cheek pieces may have helped. If they work the Oracle again, he doesn’t look badly treated on a mark of 127, giving him a racing weight of 10-13.

The Fergal O’Brien trained 10yo, Jenny’s Surprise is a pretty consistent mare who has won six times and been placed six times from her nineteen starts under National Hunt Rules. She battled on bravely to land a Class3 Ffos Las Handicap (3m Heavy) six weeks ago where she had Behind Time, 3L and a neck back in third. She meets Harry Fry’s charge on the same terms at the weekend so connections must be hopeful of landing this very nice pot.

The Nick William’s trained 10yo, Horatio Hornblower, a winner of three of his previous eighteen starts over fences, just failed to make it four, when going down by a neck to the redoubtable 14yo, Pete The Feat, in a Sandown Class3 (3m Soft) three weeks ago. With form over The Lancashire Track, (2nd brush Hurdle April 2014) and racing off his Sandown mark he could be interesting.

Wicked Willy is another contender with course form, (placed in both of his track appearances under NH rules). He put up a solid performance last time when finishing 4th in a Class2 Sandown Handicap (3m Soft) eight weeks ago. He was 6 3/4L behind the winner, the useful Ballydine, but would have been closer had he not made a costly mistake at the second last. 3rd in the Staying Hurdle Final of this series last April, he will enjoy Saturday’s likely better ground, and off the same mark as Sandown he looks to have a serious chance in what will only be his 6th race over fences.

The Sue Smith trained Delusionofgrandeur’s only course appearance was pretty inauspicious, finishing 4th of five runners, 30L behind the winner, politologue, in November 2016. However he has developed into a decent chaser winning four of his twelve starts. He may have found the 4m1f trip at Musselburgh last time beyond him, but prior to that was an excellent 3rd, only 1/2L behind the winner, Get On The Yeager, in a Class1 Grade3 Chase in December. As the class act in the field he has plenty of weight, (11-10), but will benefit from any drying of the ground, and coming from this yard I wouldn’t be surprised to see him involved.

Selection: Abracadabra Sivola

E.W. : Wicked Willy

John Gray

Preview 32Red Lincoln Handicap 1mile Doncaster Saturday

Three 6yo’s have won this in the past decade, two of them trained by master trainer, Richard Fahey, (Gabrial 2015, and Brae Hill 2012) and it’s not impossible that the Malton genius will bring up the treble with his son of Clodovil, Third Time Lucky. The 6yo showed that he stays beyond a mile, (always a useful attribute in The Lincoln) and can cope with the demands of a large field handicap, when winning the Cambridgeshire in 2015 (1m1f) Of a mark of 95, and indeed finishing 4th in the following years renewal. Since returning from a 218 days break last November, he has been campaigned exclusively on the All Weather, and put up a decent performance last time, when unsuited by the steadily run contest, he finished a respectable 3rd in Wolverhampton’s Lincoln Trial a fortnight ago, racing off a mark of 95. Arguably a better horse on turf, he will be much better suited by Saturday’s pillar to post gallop on ground that will suit, and off a mark only 2lbs higher than for that Cambridgeshire victory, has to be of interest. (25/1 available at the time of writing).

While experience counts for plenty in The Lincoln, the three times winning trainer (from only seven runners), Willie Haggas, has won on two of those occasions with animals that had raced fewer than six times. This has to make his sole entry, the lightly raced 4yo Addeybb, of interest. Unraced as a 2yo, he has won three of his five starts, winning his first Handicap, last July (Ascot 1m Good) off a mark of 88. Failing to see out the 1m2f trip next time (Goodwood Soft) he only finished 3rd, but dropped back to 9f for a Class2 Newmarket Handicap eight weeks later he won by 1/2L and a Short Head from Saturday’s opponents, Affak, and Fire brigade. He hasn’t been seen since, (176 days ago), but as seven of the last ten Lincoln Winners were making their seasonal debuts, it shouldn’t be a problem, and the vibes from Newmarket are all positive. The Haggas yard is in form and as a son of Pivotal whose offspring thrive in soft ground, Addeybb has plenty going for him.

The Michael Bell trained Fire Brigade meets his Newmarket conqueror on 2lbs worse terms at the weekend, but he did show improved form when taking a Class2 Leicester Handicap off a 4lbs higher mark a month after that Headquarters heat, and intriguingly, Ryan Moore has deserted Addeybb to take the ride on The Bell horse. Fire Brigade is much the more experienced of the two, and likes it soft (has won over Newmarket’s testing mile on soft), so perhaps Ryan has made the right choice, and might just add a first Lincoln Handicap victory to his C.V.

Top handler, David O’Meara won last year’s renewal with the 20/1 chance, Bravery, and his talented 5yo, Lord Glitters has the ability to go close for David again this year. A winner of four of his nine starts in France, he was purchased for €270,000, and came to the Upper Helmsley yard last October. He has collected nearly £200,000 pounds in prize money from his three starts in England ( a win, and runner up twice) since his arrival, and showed an impressive change of gear to get up in the final strides at Ascot on soft ground (1mile) to collect a monster £155,000 first prize. He is now on a 5lbs higher mark leaving him with top weight of 9-10 to shoulder, a burden last carried to victory by Babodana twenty years ago and obviously faces a stiff task, but I feel we have yet to see the best of this son of American sire, Whipper.

Another French import who has done well since leaving his homeland is the Henry Spiller trained 6yo Leader Writer. Transferred to the Spiller yard last July he won a Class2 Ascot Handicap last September (1 Mile Soft) off a mark of 92. Following a 133 day break he made a satisfactory reappearance on the All Weather at Lingfield, finishing two lengths behind the winner in fourth, off Saturday’s mark of 97. A son of Pivotal he thrives in soft conditions, and there is nothing, up and coming young trainer Henry Spiller, (took over from veteran trainer, Willie Musson at Saville House Stables in 2016) would enjoy more, than victory in such a high profile heat.

The last time a horse older than six prevailed in The Lincoln was when the 8yo Hunters Of Broara won twenty years ago, but if the Robert Eddery trained 7yo Donncha manages to get his head in front on Saturday, he won’t be winning out of turn. He was only beaten a neck in the Doncaster Mile in 2016, and he finished best of all in last years renewal of The Lincoln to come 3rd. He had to be switched at the furlong marker, and flew home, only to be denied by a couple of necks. He only ran four more times after Doncaster, and has been off the racecourse since last July. The handicapper has been generous and dropped him 3lbs, leaving him with a nice racing weight of 9-0. He suffered “the unkindest cut of all” last November, which hopefully has had a beneficial effect, and left the son of Captain Marvellous a more tractable animal, ready to strike a blow for the older horse.

Selection : Fire Brigade

E.W. : Third Time Lucky and Leader writer

John Gray

Preview: Matchbook Imperial Cup Handicap Hurdle 2m Sandown Saturday

There are some very strong trends for Saturday’s Imperial Cup, not least the poor record of the more mature contender, as only seven horses older than six have passed the winning post in front in the last thirty three years. In the same period the lighter weights have also dominated, with only five carrying 11-0 or more to victory. The most successful training establishment has been the Pond House Operation of the Pipes with dad, Martin, winning on six occasions, and son, David, collecting three times. They have also been terrifically successful at targeting the bonus, (£100,000 this year) for doubling up with the winner at next week’s Cheltenham’s Festival, landing it three times, with Olympian in 1993, Blowing Wind in 1998, and Gaspara in 2007, all of which makes David’s contender this time, Friday Night Light, Of particular interest.

A 5yo son of Air Chief Marshal, Friday Night Light, won just one of his ten starts, (12f Heavy) on the flat when trained by Elie Lellouche in France, but since joining the Pond House operation last August, he has proved progressive over hurdles. He was successful off a mark of 111 in his third race for the yard, a Newbury Class4 Handicap, (Jan 17 Soft), and put up a decent performance two weeks later to finish second in a Taunton Class3 off a 10lbs higher mark. Stepped up to Class2 level three weeks ago at Ascot, (2m3 1/2f Soft) he was only beaten 1L by Saturday’s opponent, Le Patriote, off a mark of 123. He meets the winner on 3lbs better at the weekend, and with one eye on that bonus, (has two entries at The Festival) it could be close between them.

Another French import is the Alan King trained Fidux, and he also did all his racing in France on the flat, winning two of his nine starts for handler, K.Borgel, before joining the Barbury Castle operation in November 2016. He won his first two races for Mr King, lboth Novice Hurdles. He has drawn a blank in his eight races since, but did seem a tad unlucky unseating his 10lbs claiming rider, Kevin Dowling, at the last when looking the most likely winner of a course and distance heat, (Good/Soft) last November. The winner that day, Maria’s Benefit, is now rated on a mark of 147 and was receiving 7lbs, (Not including Dowling’s 10lbs claim) which does make the King horse look well treated on a mark of 134 at the weekend. He again showed his liking for the track a month later finishing 4th in a Class1 Handicap and can be excused his last run at Taunton,( 2m3f Soft) where he pulled far too hard. He wouldn’t be suited by testing conditions but if the ground is reasonable is one for the shortlist.

One who won’t mind testing conditions is the Dr Newland trained Le Patriote, and as his talented handler trained the 2015 winner, Ebony Express, he will know exactly what is required. Yet another French import, the 6yo son of Poliglote never raced on the flat in his home country but did win two of his seven starts over hurdles, both over 2m2f on testing ground, before joining the Newland yard last November. Taking a very strong hold on his first run for the stable in January, he travelled well but faded before the last (2m5f Kempton Soft) and finished 7th. He was a respectable 4th at Cheltenham a fortnight later but looked much more the finished article when winning that Ascot race from Friday Night Light three weeks ago( 2m3 1/2f ). He is 8lbs higher on Saturday but we may not have seen the best of Le Patriote yet.

The John Quinn trained 6yo Master Of Irony, rated 81 on the flat, won two of his first three Hurdle races last winter, and was second in the other, to leading Stayers Hurdle hope, Sam Spinner. He won comfortably at Wetherby in October and put up his best performance to date two months later, when getting to within 2 1/4L of the very useful High Bridge in the Class1 Gerry Fielden at Newbury. Improved for the addition of cheek pieces he doesn’t look badly treated on a mark of 133 giving him a racing weight of 10-7 and is worth considering.

Assuming Nicky Henderson leaves top weight, Call Me Lord in the race, his other contender, Whatswrongwithyou, will be left with just his original burden of 10-13 to shoulder. The very lightly raced 7yo has only run three times over hurdles, winning the last twice and getting to within a length of the useful Ainchea over Saturday’s course and distance first time up. He was quite impressive when winning his second race from that good yardstick, Ok Corrall, under a largely hands and heels ride, and as the runner up won next time out by 7L, the Henderson horse looks well treated on a mark of 139. It does seem a big ask for such an inexperienced animal to tackle such a competitive heat, but bear in mind that thirteen of the last seventeen winners were Novices, and seven of the last ten had run only five times or fewer over hurdles. Additionally Whatswrongwithyou had no problem dealing with the demands of a sixteen runner point to point, a race he won easily.

Selection: Whatswrongwithyou

E.W. : Friday Night Light

John Gray