Saturday sees the first Grade2 action over fences of the season, and with 12 contenders, nearly all for whom a credible case can be made, it promises to be a real cracker. The Naunton yard of Nigel Twiston-Davies has sent out the winner on 5 previous occasions, (the first time with Tipping Tim 27 years ago) and the stable will be hoping their talented 9yo, Ballyoptic, can bring home the bacon for a 6th time.
A son of the top class jumps sire, Old Vic, he has won 3 of his 11 starts over fences, including a Grade2 heat over Saturday’s course and distance, (The Towton Novices Chase on Heavy ground) in February 2018. His fortunes have certainly been of the mixed variety since, losing out by the minimum distance in the 4 mile Scottish Grand National in April 2018, and falling twice over the Big Aintree fences including in this year’s Grand National (came to grief 4 out). However he made a bright start to this year’s campaign, making all, and jumping with aplomb he came home 9L clear of
Lil Rockefeller in a 3m Class2 Chepstow Handicap three weeks ago. Relatively lightly raced for his age there may be further improvement in him and coming from this yard is one to keep on the right side of.
Paul Nicholls has won this 3 times, twice with the 1999 Gold Cup Hero, See More Business, and with Silviniaco Conti seven years ago. He relies on the tough and consistent runner up in last year’s renewal, Black Corton, and the 8yo certainly did his prospects no harm with an excellent effort in the Uber competitive, Galway Plate last time out. Carrying top weight in the 22 runner handicap, he finished 2nd but may have been a little unlucky, as he was going really well when hampered by a loose horse and carried right on the run in. Beaten 2L by Definitely Red in last year’s renewal, he didn’t seem to quite get home, but he looks a stronger and improved animal this year, and it could be close between them.
Last year’s victor, now 10, is trained close to the course in North Yorkshire by the talented Brian Ellison, (trains last week’s Oddsguru selection, Forest Bihan, who didn’t take up his Cheltenham engagement but went for the more valuable Old Roan Chase at Aintree the following day, a race he won very comfortably) and Brian is currently operating at an amazing 50% win to runners ratio (8 wins from last 16 runners).
Following his win in The Charlie Hall, Definitely Red won again, an Aintree Grade2, 5 weeks later, but finished his season well beaten in the Punchestown Gold Cup at the beginning of May. However, following the same pattern as last year, he is making his seasonal debut, and following a recent workout on the course, Mr Ellison reports him in rude health. With a course record of 2 wins and 2 places from 4 starts, and meeting Black Corton on 3 lbs better terms, his prospects of joining the elite band of Celtic Shot, 90 91, One Man, 96 97, and See More Business, 2000 2001, as the only consecutive winners of The Charlie Hall are hard to ignore.
The exciting mare, La Bague Au Roi won 4 of her 5 starts over fences, (including 2 at the top level) and didn’t look suited by the drop to 20f last time, when despite running on strongly, she was beaten 1 1/2L by Kalashnikov in an Aintree Grade1 in April. The apple of trainer Warren Greatrex’s eye, she can go well after a break, and back up in trip, with her nice Mares allowance a bonus, is well worth considering.
Having only been beaten 1 1/2L by the seriously upwardly mobile Frodon in Cheltenham’s Ryan Air Chase last time out, the Venetia Williams trained 9yo Aso, is top rated for Saturday’s heat, and if the race was run over 4f shorter, would probably be at the head of the market. However, he has only run beyond 21f twice in his 30 race career, and didn’t seem to get home on either occasion. However, that said, his shrewd trainer certainly knows the time of day, and may be hoping the undemanding Wetherby track will suit, and her talented 9yo is another who can go well after a break.
Colin Tizzard won with the outstanding Cue Card four years ago and will be hoping his progressive 7yo, Elegant Escape can bring the prize back to Milborne Port for a second time. One thing is for sure the son of Dubai Destination won’t fail for a lack of stamina as he certainly wasn’t stopping when winning last year’s 3m5 1/2f Welsh Grand National. He ran another excellent race in the 3m 1 1/2f Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham in January finishing a staying on 2nd to Frodon who was conceding 2lbs. He failed to make any impression in the Gold Cup or in an Aintree Grade1 20 days later and hasn’t been seen since. I just wonder if he has the pace for a race like Saturday’s and unless the heavens open he may find them going a little too quick.
Selection : La Bague Au Roi
EW. : Ballyoptic