The North Yorkshire venue stages “The Charlie Hall” on Saturday, the first big chase of the season and if the lack of rainfall in the Wetherby area doesn’t discourage any of the current 11 entries from participating, we could be in for a vintage renewal. The ground at the time of writing is described as Good and the Clerk of the course assures that watering will continue so Saturday’s ground shouldn’t have Firm anywhere in the description, which will be welcome news to Colin Tizzard, the trainer of the current favourite, Thistlecrack. Colin won with the marvellous Cue Card three years ago and he will be hoping that the 10yo Thistlecrack can bring the prize back to Milborne Port for a second time.
A winner of 4 Grade1s over hurdles, (including The World Hurdle at Cheltenham 2016) he was a latecomer to chasing, winning at the first time of asking in October 2016 as an 8yo, and then demonstrating 2 months later, when winning Kempton’s
King George V1 Chase, that he was just as potent a force over the larger obstacles. Following a titanic battle with the late lamented, Many Clouds for Cheltenham’s Cotswold Chase 32 days later, he was beaten a Head, and was put on the easy list for 307 days. A disappointing reappearance at Newbury at the beginning of December was followed by a moderate 4th in The King George. He sustained a stress fracture in training and hasn’t been seen since, but trainer Tizzard reports him in great form for Saturday, and if back to his best will be hard to beat. However it has to be said that his odds of around 2/1 for an animal with plenty of question marks hanging over him, not least his liking for plenty of give, look decidedly skinny.
Nigel Twiston-Davies has won the race 3 times, twice with Ollie Magern and last year with Bristol De Mai and he will be hoping that the latter can put his last three disappointing efforts behind him and bring up win number 4 for the Naunton Handler. The popular grey won last year’s renewal from his stable companion, Blaklion, (rec6lbs) on his seasonal debut, and went on to beat Cue Card by an astonishing 57L 3 week’s later in Haydock’s Betfair Chase. The wheels appeared to have come off in his next two races, The King George and The Cotswold, but following wind surgery, and a 75 day break, he put up a better performance when finishing 2nd (Btn 7L) to Might Bite in an Aintree Grade1. Reports from Naunton are positive and if back to his best this still young chaser, (despite seeming to have been around for ages is only 7) will make them all go.
Connections of the 8yo, Double Shuffle will be hoping the rain stays away as 3m1f around Wetherby on good ground is probably as far as he wants to go. A son of that good National Hunt Stallion, Milan, he hasn’t won for nearly 2 years but ran a blinder when finishing 2nd, 1L behind Might Bite in last year’s King George. Both his 2 subsequent efforts were disappointing but trainer Tom George reports him in great form and as one who can go well after a break, (hasn’t raced for over 6 months) needs considering.
Paul Nicholls (pictured) has won the heat 3 times, twice with the Gold Cup winner,
See More Business in 1999 and 2000, and with Silviniaco Conti in 2012 so certainly knows what is required. His two representatives this time are the highly promising 6yo, Clan Des Obeaux, and the very consistent Black Corton. The former has won 3 of his 10 races over fences, and his penultimate effort, finishing 2nd to the useful
Guitar Pete, to whom he was conceding 22lbs in Cheltenham’s Caviar Gold Cup last December was particularly praiseworthy. Following a 117 day break he again ran well finishing 3rd, 10 1/4L behind Might Bite at Aintree. He is another who can go well fresh and won’t mind the ground. He is the type to continue to improve and with the yard going well is one for the shortlist.
The second Ditcheat contender,the wonderfully consistent 7yo, Black Corton is 8/13 over fences and 7 of these have been achieved with the talented Bryony Frost in the plate. The combination looked particularly good when winning the Grade1 Kauto Star
Novices Chase at Kempton last Christmas and he may have been feeling the effects of a long season when well beaten in his last two races both Grade 1s at the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals. Following a well deserved 6 months break we could well see a rejuvenated Black Corton resume his upwardly mobile trajectory.
Selection: Clan Des Obeaux (if abs Black Corton)
E.W. : Double Shuffle