First run in 1957 under the sponsorship of the Whitbread Brewery, the race is now sponsored by the Stoke Bookmakers, bet365, and this valuable, always competitive Chase, which has been won by some of the greats of The Winter Game, brings the curtain down on what has been another terrific National Hunt season.
Nigel Twiston-Davies won this back in 2000 with the 7yo, beau, and will be hoping that his tough and talented Blaklion might achieve some compensation for his early departure in The Grand National a fortnight ago. Unluckily brought down at the first at Aintree, the son of Kayf Tara had made a good start to his season, finishing 1/2L second to his stable companion, Bristol De Mai, in The Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in November, and then putting up a career best performance the following month, when winning The 3m2f Beecher Chase at Aintree by 9L from The Last Samurai. Raised a severe looking 9lbs, he finished a distant second at Haydock on ground that was bordering on the unraceable in February to Yala Enki. His current rating of 161 leaves him with top weight of 11-12 to carry but his performances before Christmas showed him to be an improved animal this term, and it will come as no surprise to see this tough character involved at the business end on Saturday.
If Blaklion fails to do the business the Naunton yard has a strong looking second string with the 9yo Bigbadjohn. A winner of the Grade2 Reynoldstown Chase for Novices at Ascot in 2017 the future looked bright for the son of Vinnie Roe, but alas, his next five runs were most disappointing. However he got back into the winning groove at Kempton in February where, jumping soundly, he stayed on strongly over the three miles trip to beat the useful Brandon Hill by a length. He can be forgiven his fall at The Chair in The Topham Trophy at Aintree fifteen days ago and back on a more conventional track he doesn’t look badly treated on his mark of 138 giving him a lovely racing weight of 10-3.
A winner of his only PTP and Bumper, Missed Approach went on to win his first race over hurdles and indeed his first handicap over the smaller obstacles, (3m Soft) but his future was always going to be as a staying chaser and so it has proved. He has to date put up some sterling performances in that discipline, including a second to subsequent Grand National Hero, Tiger Roll in the 4mile National Hunt Chase at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival and a superb win over Mall Dini in the 3m2f Kim Muir at this year’s Cheltenham Jamboree. He has been raised 8lbs for that victory but still doesn’t look overburdened with 10-11 at the weekend, and I suspect we have still to see the best of Warren Greatrex’s 8yo.
The Philip Hobbs trained Rock The Kasbah, having got behind, stayed on strongly from the second last to claim 6th place, only 2 1/4L behind the winner Henllan Harry, in last year’s renewal when racing off a mark of 142. He made his seasonal reappearance a winning one off the same mark at Chepstow nearly six months later, and was then pulled up on unsuitable heavy ground in his only other race at Haydock in January. A year older, and a stronger animal this time, who will enjoy the likely good ground, he looks well treated on his mark of 149, giving him a racing weight of 11-0, and is well worth considering.
The David Pipe trained 6yo, Daklondike, has looked a seriously progressive young chaser. He won over fences for the first time at Wetherby in November off a mark of 114, and only eight weeks later saw him winning The Mandarin Chase at Newbury (3m2f Heavy) in facile fashion from that good yardstick Grand Vision off a 19lbs higher mark. He looks very well handicapped on Saturday racing off a mark of 140, giving him the featherweight of 10-5 to carry and the only reservation I have is the ground. He has done all his winning with plenty of give underneath and it remains to be seen how he will cope with conditions at the weekend. However in his favour his very talented half brother, Great Endeavour had no problem with good ground and neither had the grand dam, Ross Gale.
One who will cope if the going is on top on Saturday is the Nicky Henderson trained Sugar Baron. A winner on Good/ Firm, the 8yo was 7th in last year’s race, only 2 1/2L behind the winner Henlland Harry despite some sticky jumping and a weak finish. Jumping better and finishing strongly over course and distance in December he just failed to catch Benbens off a mark of 135. He is easily excused his last run behind Missed Approach at the Festival on unsuitable soft ground and should have his optimum conditions at the weekend. Again racing off 135, giving him a lowly 10-2 to carry he has to be worth considering.
Selection: Rock The Kasbah
E.W. : Sugar Baron