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


Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup 3m2f Chase (Grade1) Cheltenham March 16

With racing prospects looking extremely doubtful for the weekend due to the Arctic weather, it is an opportune time to look forward to Cheltenham’s Blue Riband in just sixteen days time.

Nicky Henderson, who trained the 2011 winner, Long Run, and the 2013 Victor, Bobsworth, is hoping to bring up the treble with current market leader, Might Bite, and following a highly satisfactory racecourse workout at Kempton Park last Saturday, the master of Seven Barrows expressed himself highly delighted with the condition of his challenger. Currently available at around the 4/1 mark he has won his last five races, three of them at Grade1 level, culminating with victory in the 3m King George V1 Chase last time. However his win at Kempton, again raised some doubts about his stamina, as his seven lengths advantage over the 50/1 runner up, Double Shuffle, turning into the straight, was reduced to a length at the post. Pilot, De Boinville, is convinced that the horse wasn’t tiring, only idling in front, a view I’m inclined to agree with, remembering the courageous way he fought back in last year’s 3m 1/2f RSA Chase at The Cheltenham Festival, where having got the last wrong, and hanging violently right, he still found the reserves to get back up in the shadow of the post. However the fact remains that the furthest he has won over is 3m1f and that was over the flat Mildmay course at Aintree, and despite his stamina laden pedigree, ( By the stayer Scorpion out of the Presenting mare, Knotted Midge, whose own dam, Bula Beag, got that strong staying chaser Drombeag ) the jury remains out, and its anyone’s guess how he will cope with the demands of a Gold Cup, invariably run at an attritional pace.

The record of Irish stables in the first twelve renewals of the new millennium, with only two wins, Kicking King 2005, and War Of Attrition 2006, was hardly impressive, but the last four years has seen a dramatic improvement in the fortunes of The Emerald Isle runners, with three of the last four Gold Cups going across the Irish Sea, and with messers Harrington, Mullins and Meade, fielding strong challenges, it wouldn’t be long odds against the trend continuing this year.

Jessica Harrington runs both last year’s winner, Sizing John (pictured), and her impressive Irish Grand National winner, Our Duke. The former marked himself down as a really exceptional performer last term when becoming the first horse to achieve the amazing treble of winning the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February, The Cheltenham Gold Cup the following month, and The Punchestown Gold Cup in April. He carried on the good work on his reappearance seven months later in December, beating Djakadam by seven lengths at Punchestown, but was a bitter disappointment eighteen days later in The Christmas Chase at Leopardstown, trailing in 32L behind the winner, Road To Respect, in seventh place, at the cramped odds of 9/10. As well as the race coming “too soon” and some other non specific illness being blamed, no one really knows what caused the upset, but given a complete rest, he is reported to have put his problems behind him, and delighted Jessica with a scintillating workout last Tuesday. If he is indeed fully recovered, he will make them all go on the 16th.

Mrs Harrington’s other contender, Our Duke, was a hugely impressive winner of last year’s Irish Grand National, winning the 3m5f contest by 14L from Bless The Wings. He let his supporters down badly when trailing in 51L behind Outlander, when sent off the 5/6 fav for a Grade1 Chase at Down Royal, on his reappearance, seven months later. However a back problem was diagnosed and the 8yo subsequently underwent corrective surgery. He was less than convincing again with his jumping, three months later in The Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, making a real howler at the penultimate fence when in contention. However he did show what an engine he has, by getting going again, and running on to finish fourth. Obviously short of match practice, Jessica ran him again two weeks later over an inadequate 2m4f at Gowran Park, where despite some sticky jumping he got the better of the evens favourite, the talented Presenting Percy. Our Duke was foot perfect in the Irish National, a race run at a good even clip throughout, and outstanding trainer Harrington, feels that given the pace at which The Gold Cup is invariably run the son of Oscar, wont have any trouble at the obstacles, and if she proves to be correct, it will take a good one to beat him.

The one glaring omission from the Mullins C.V. Is The Cheltenham Gold Cup, and Willie would dearly love to emulate father, Paddy, who won with the great mare, Dawn Run, in 1986. His two likeliest candidates look like being Djakadam and Killultagh Vic and as the former, despite some brave efforts, runner up twice, and fourth last year, doesn’t seem to quite get up the famous hill, his best chance of correcting the deficiency in the C.V. would seem to lie with the lightly raced Killultagh Vic. Considering it was only his third race over fences, Killultagh Vic was in the process of running a super race when coming down at the last in The Irish Gold Cup, when travelling like the winner. He has gone well over Prestbury Park’s undulations in the past, finishing 5L behind Silver Concorde in The Champion Bumper in 2014 and winning over hurdles at the 2015 Festival. A strong stayer, (outstayed Thistlecrack to win the Grade1 3m Hurdle at the 2015 Punchestown Festival) if fully over his fall at Leopardstown, could be the one to end the Mullins “Drought”.

The Noel Meade trained Road To Respect beat Baron Alco by 6L in a Grade3 Handicap Chase (2m5f) at last year’s Cheltenham festival off a mark of 145, and four weeks later, took the step up to Grade1 level in his stride, winning by a neck from Yorkhill at Fairyhouse ( 2m4f) earning a rating twelve pounds higher. He made a highly satisfactory return six months later, winning comfortably at Punchestown, (3m1f) and two weeks later, was sent off at 7/2 for a Down Royal Grade1. Clearly uncomfortable on the right hand track, and never jumping fluently, I thought he put up an excellent effort to only go down by 1/2 L to the enigmatic Outlander, earning a mark of 163. Further progress was made when he won the Grade1 Christmas Chase at Leopardstown comfortably from Galway Plate Victor, Balko Des Flos, and he is now rated 22lbs higher than he was for that Cheltenham victory. Clearly an improving animal, shrewd trainer, Noel Meade has kept him away from the exhausting winter ground, and he will be one of the freshest animals lining up at the start on the 16th.

Selection : Road To Respect

E.W. : Sizing John

John Gray

Oddsguru Preview Betfred Eider Handicap Chase 4miles Newcastle Saturday

Unfortunately, our selection in the Grand National Trial at Haydock, The Dutchman, broke a blood vessel, and had to be pulled up after jumping the tenth. However trainer Tizzard, reports him still to be “very much on course for Aintree” so bear him in mind come April. Happily our Second suggestion, Mysteree, plugged on at odds of 9/1 to finish third and save the E.W. cash.

First run in 1952, The Gosforth Park marathon hasn’t been a great heat for young chasers with only seven 7yo’s prevailing in the entire history of the contest and we still await a win by anything younger. That said, not many have tried, and if David Pipe runs his very progressive young chaser, Daklondike, we might just see this particular stat consigned to the history books.

A late withdrawal from last Saturday’s Grand National Trial, the son of Goldwell, (An unraced half brother to super stallion, Montjeu) is a winner of three of his five starts over fences, and was particularly impressive last time, when, racing off a mark of 133 in Newbury’s Mandarin Chase (3m2f Heavy Dec 30) he put Grand Vision, and last year’s Eider Chase runner up, Knockanrawley, firmly in their place, staying on strongly from the last. As Grand Vision won easily at Wincanton next time out, (now rated on 141), and the fifth horse home in the Mandarin, Tanit River, won at Sandown on Friday, the form looks pretty strong. A full brother to the classy Great Endeavour, (rated155) there is surely plenty more to come from Daklondike and he looks well treated on just a 7lbs higher mark at the weekend. His excellent trainer, David Pipe, who won the race with subsequent Grand National Hero, Comply Or Die in 2008, must fancy his chances of taking the prize home to Nicholashayne for a second time.

newlandThe Dr Richard Newland trained 10yo, West Of The Edge was beaten 3 1/2L by Saturday’s opponent, Emperor’s Choice (Haydock 3m3 1/2f Heavy Dec30) but reopposes on 7lbs better terms at the weekend. A winner over Warwick’s tricky fences, (3m5f soft) his sound jumping will certainly be a considerable asset, and with the Newland Yard firing in the winners, the son of Westerner is worth considering.

Trainer, Neil King, will be hoping to again secure the services of Jockey of the moment, Bryony Frost, for his 11yo, Milansbar. The veteran beat Cogry by 11L to take a valuable Grade3 Warwick Handicap, ( 3m5f soft ) under a superb ride by Ms Frost six weeks ago. He is 9lbs higher on Saturday, but this runner up in the 2016 Midland Grand National (4m1 1/2f Soft) will get every yard of the trip, and with the benefit of Bryony’s superb skill from the saddle, and of course her valuable claim, Milansbar can again go close.

The Harry Whittington trained Vinnie Lewis (pictured)has only had four races over fences but he has looked most progressive in the last two. The 7yo won a modest Class4 Sedgefield Handicap off a mark of 113 (3m2 1/2f soft) at the end of November, and followed up forty days later, when taking the valuable, Class3 Sussex National (3m4 1/2f Heavy) off a fourteen pounds higher mark, winning by a comfortable looking six lengths. This rapidly improving young horse is raised another 9lbs on Saturday, but it wouldn’t surprise if he was up to it.

For a horse that won a Wetherby Grade2 Novices Chase by 22L from The now rated 145 Callet Mad, this time last year, the 9yo Baywing, looks well treated on a mark of 140 for Saturday. Things haven’t gone his way in his five subsequent starts, but his third to Smooth Stepper over the course last time (2m7 1/2F Soft) was a little more encouraging, and with improvement expected for the step up to a marathon trip, Nicky Richards charge is worth a second look.

The Henry Daly trained, Back To The Thatch, is another 6yo attempting to defy that long standing stat stretching back to 1952. Last time out, on only his fourth run over fences, he won like an animal with plenty still in the tank (Chepstow 3m Heavy). This very stoutly bred son of Westerner, ( his dam is by the stayer Phardante) could well finish the campaign on a considerably higher mark than Saturday’s 129. Worth a second look with his nice racing weight of 10-6 !

Selection : Vinnie Lewis

E.W. : Daklondike

John Gray

Oddsguru Tips: Betfred Grand National Trial Handicap Chase 3m4 1/2f Haydock Saturday

First run in 1947, the race was suspended between 1985 and 1990 but was reintroduced in 1991. The contest hasn’t been the greatest guide to success in the big one at Aintree, as Sundew in 1956, remains the only winner to bring off the double in the same year. Weight has proved no barrier to success, with two winners carrying top weight of 11-12 in the last decade, ten defying 11-0 or higher since 1991, and indeed five of the last ten to pass the post in front, (including Oddsguru’s E.W. selection last year, Vieux Lion Rouge) carried 11-6 or more to victory.

The David Pipe trained Vieux Lion Rouge won last years renewal by 3L from Blaklion, and meets him on 5lbs better terms at the weekend, but in his three subsequent races he has been well beaten, and has finished behind Blaklion on all three occasions. However, what does bode well for both animals, is that horses who go well in this contest, often do so again, as instanced by Rigadin De Beauchene, who was runner up in 2013 and went one better the following year, and Lucinda Russell’s Silver By Nature who won back to back renewals in 2010 and 2011.

The tough, and Uber genuine Blaklion, went on to finish an excellent fourth in The Grand National (looked the most likely winner at the second last) and put up another impressive performance on his reappearance in November, getting to within 1/2L of his top class stable mate Bristol De Mai at Wetherby. He topped that with a most taking performance five weeks later, when running away with the Beecher Chase (3m2f Heavy) at Aintree. He has been hit with a 9lbs rise for his impressive victory, leaving him with 11-12 to carry on Saturday, and he will need to be nearly up to Gold Cup standard to succeed. With one eye on Aintree, his shrewd trainer will surely have left plenty to work on.

Trainer Colin Tizzard

The Colin Tizzard trained 8yo, The Dutchman, put up an eye catching performance over the course, (3m1 1/2f Heavy) four weeks ago when tackling a trip beyond three miles for the first time. He took it up at the14th, and despite getting the second last wrong, drew clear on the run in, to beat the useful stayer, Captain Redbeard by 13 lengths. He has paid the price for his facile win by being raised 13lbs to a mark of 148, giving him a racing weight of 10-13 at the weekend, but as a full brother to the talented duo, The Pirates Queen and Katie Too I’m sure there is plenty more to come from the Tizzard horse, particularly over staying trips.

The 10yo Mysteree was transferred from Linda Russell’s (triple winner of the contest) yard, north of the border, to the training operation of Michael Scudamore, her partner Peter’s son, before Christmas, and was quietly fancied for the Welsh Grand National. However he was never going well in that rescheduled event, and was pulled up at the 12th. Every cloud has a silver lining, and having avoided a slog in the Chepstow mud, we should see a fresh animal line up on Saturday. As a course and distance winner on heavy ground, with only 10-3 on his back he has plenty to recommend him.

One that did complete the Chepstow marathon is the Paul Nicholls trained 9yo Silsol, who kept on well over the final two furlongs to finish fifth racing off a mark of 147. That was only his fifth race over fences, and for a horse that was good enough to beat Native River and L’il Rockefeller in the Grade2 Great Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby last season, he looks well treated on Saturday off a mark of 144, giving him a racing weight of 10-9. Silsol has clearly been difficult to train, but as a winner of a Chase over the course, who handles heavy ground, and will stay the trip, has to be considered.

If David Pipe’s Vieux Lion Rouge doesn’t come up to scratch, he has a strong looking second string to his bow, with the progressive 6yo, Daklondike. A winner of three of his five chases, he impressed last time off a mark of 133. Stepped up to 3m2f (Newbury Heavy Dec30), he put Grand Vision, and the 133 rated knockanrawley firmly in their place. He has been raised 7lbs to a mark of 140 giving him a nice racing weight of 10-5 which looks quite generous, and I doubt if we have yet seen the best of this full brother to the classy Great Endeavour (rated155). Despite the poor recent record of younger horses in the contest, (no winner younger than eight in the last ten renewals) the 12/1 available at the time of writing looks tempting!

The Philip Hobbs trained, Three Faces West, has won twice over the course, including a Chase on heavy ground, and he was travelling nicely in the lead over the track before Christmas when tipping up at the 12th. The yard was in the doldrums at the time, but is going much better now, and the 10yo doesn’t look badly treated on 144. A serious concern however would be the trip, as he was well beaten on his only foray beyond three miles.

Selection : The Dutchman

E.W. : Mysteree (if abs) Silsol

John Gray

Oddsguru Preview Betfair Hurdle (Handicap) 2m 1/2f Newbury Saturday

This high class Handicap was first run in 1963 and two winners, Persian King (1968) and Make A Stand (1997) went on to victory in hurdling’s Blue Riband at the Cheltenham Festival the following month. Significantly, they are two of only three horses, (the third being the Martin Pipe trained Copeland in 2002) to have carried more than 11-6 to victory in the entire history of the contest. Weight continues to be a very significant factor, with twenty of the last thirty one winners, crossing the finishing line with less than 11stones on their back. However, with seventeen of this year’s contenders set to carry more than eleven stone, that particular stat may not be quite so significant this time round, but certainly, the seven contenders, set to carry more than 11-7 seem up against it. Nicky Henderson, with five previous winners is the most successful handler, and at the time of writing has five entries. However, with three of them carrying 11-9 or more, the two to concentrate on would seem to be, Kayf Grace 11-4, and Lough Derg Spirit 11-2 .

A lightly raced 8yo mare, Kayf Grace has won four of her eight races, two of her five Bumpers, including the Grade2 at the Aintree Festival in 2016, and two of her three Hurdle races. Last time, on her first venture into Handicap company, she readily won a Kempton Class3 off a mark of 132. Despite the form not working out, she has been raised to a stiff enough looking mark of 140 for Saturday, so perhaps Henderson’s best chance of bringing a sixth trophy home to Seven Barrows, lies with the two years younger, Lough Derg Spirit.

A winner of two of his five starts over timber, the son of Westerner has only had the one run this term but that was a more than credible effort, finishing second to the ill fated London Prize, to whom he was conceding 3lbs, in Wincanton’s Elite Hurdle last November. Only raised a pound he looks well treated and is worth considering.

With his superb record of three wins in the last ten renewals, anything Garry Moore fields has to be of interest, and his contender this year, knocknanuss has plenty to recommend him. Having won a Maiden Point To Point and a Bumper in Ireland, the 8yo joined the Moore yard two years ago. Taken along very steadily by his astute trainer, the lightly raced 8yo has won two of his four starts over timber, including last time, when winning quite impressively from Notre Ami off a mark of 124 at the end of December. The runner up hasn’t done much for the form in the meantime but Knocknanuss could only beat what was put in front of him and, although raised a severe looking 11lbs for Saturday, he still gets to race with 10-13 on his back and could give Garry a fourth success.

The Donald McCain trained 7yo Novice, Waterlord, (six of the last eight winners of The Betfair have been Novices) was a tad disappointing when only finishing fourth in The Rossington Main on very holding ground at Haydock three weeks ago, but had looked an animal going places in his two previous races. He beat a horse who had won last time out, by fifteen lengths at Haydock (2m Hvy Dec30 17) and a fortnight earlier, beat Linksman (Bangor Hvy) by eleven lengths, and that horse went on to win next time out by twenty six lengths. The son of Cape Cross was a triple bumper winner for previous handler, John Ferguson, all on good ground so doesn’t need heavy, and indeed will probably improve further for a return to a decent surface. Racing off a mark of 135, (five of the last six winning Novices won The Betfair, off a mark between 134 and 137 ) giving him a racing weight of 10-13, he looks well treated for this his handicap debut.

Peter Atkinson’s tough mare, Irish Roe, has won seven of her eleven starts under rules, four of them over hurdles, but she put in her best performance to date a fortnight ago, when she ran the 152 rated Maria’s Benefit to 3/4L in a Doncaster Grade2 Mares only Hurdle. The handicapper has raised her to 145 but she is able to race on Saturday off her old mark of 134, in this early closing event. The one concern would be her ability to reproduce that Doncaster performance, just two weeks later, but she has won back to back races a fortnight apart in the past.

The Alan King trained 7yo, William H Bonney, has only won three of his eleven starts over timber, none of them at Class1 level, but his top trainer remains optimistic, that one of these valuable handicaps can be landed by this son of Midnight Legend. He certainly looked the most likely winner of the Class1 Grade3 Greatwood Hurdle at the second last (Cheltenham Nov19), but faded after the final flight to finish sixth. He was disappointing three weeks later at Sandown but has had a nice nine weeks break, (Mr King feels he goes best fresh) and with 10-12 on his back could get involved.

Despite taking a strong hold for most of the contest, the Evan Williams trained Silver Streak put up an excellent effort for a 4yo to finish second in the Class1 Grade3 Ladbroke in December off a mark of 130. He had plenty of Saturday’s opponents behind him that day, and if settling better, must have a very solid chance off a mark only 3lbs higher. He will also have the benefit of the talented Michael Bastyan’s 5lbs claim giving him a lovely racing weight of 10-6.

Selection : Waterlord

E.W. : William H Bonney Silver Streak

John Gray

Oddsguru’s guide to Sunday’s, Unibet Irish Gold Cup, 3 Miles Leopardstown

First run in 1987, The Irish Gold Cup, proved a pretty solid guide to success in it’s English counterpart in the nineteen nineties, with both Jodami (pictured, 1993) and Imperial Call, (1996) both bringing off the double in the same season. However it has taken another twenty years for the feat to be repeated, when last year’s Hero, Sizing John collected both prizes. With this year’s renewal of The Cheltenham Gold Cup having such an open look, it is by no means impossible, that Sunday’s winner might just become the fourth to bag the elusive double. Having trained an amazing nine previous winners, the master of Closutton, Willie Mullins, is leagues ahead of the opposition, and with two very viable candidates for this year’s renewal, Killultagh Vic and Djakadam, he must be harbouring serious hopes of getting into double figures.

A 9yo son of Old Vic, Killultagh Vic has only had the two outings over fences, both of which he won, but he was sidelined after the second of them, a Grade2 Leopardstown contest, two years ago. Following a 714 days break, he made a highly satisfactory reappearance over hurdles at Punchestown five weeks ago, winning by 2 3/4L from Ex Patriot. This previous high class staying hurdler, a winner at The Cheltenham Festival, and conqueror of the outstanding Thistlecrack in a Punchestown Grade1, achieved a rating of 157 in that discipline, and promises to be at least as good over fences. If overcoming his inexperience on Sunday, he can be involved at the business end.

Twice a winner at Grade1 level and twice runner up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the 9yo, Djakadam has clearly been a great servant to connections. He followed last year’s fourth to Sizing John in The Gold Cup at Cheltenham by beating the same animal by a short head at The Punchestown Festival the following month, another excellent performance! He probably needed the race when beaten 7L by Sizing John over an in adequate 2 1/2m on his reappearance, following a seven month break, but his dismal performance eighteen days later at Leopardstown, when pulled up behind Road To Respect, is harder to explain. Perhaps the race came too soon. However connections” report him in good shape for Sunday, and it has been this pundits experience, that it often pays to forgive an animal the one bad run, and odds around the 10/1 mark at the time of writing look tempting.

The Jessica Harrington (pictured above) trained Our Duke won the Irish Grand National by 14L from Bless The Wings, conceding 16lbs, with his head in his chest, last April, and looked an animal destined for the very top. However the wheels seemed to come off on his reappearance at Down Royal six months later, when he trailed in seventh of eight, 51L behind the winner, Outlander. There were excuses, as he scoped dirty, and a back problem was also discovered as a contributory factor. His back has been successfully operated on, and all is now reported well with the 8yo. Prior to his National win, Our Duke had already shown himself to be out of the top drawer, when winning a three mile Leopardstown Grade1 from the very useful Coney Island, (won next time out at Ascot, a year later, giving Adrienne Du Pont eleven pounds, and a nine lengths beating) in December 2016. A slight reservation would be that he didn’t have the speed to cope with Disko over 2m5 1/2f last February, and went down by 1 3/4L to that top class performer in another Leopardstown Grade1. He will need a truly run three miles on Sunday which he should get. If Our Duke arrives at the top of his game at the weekend he will be hard to beat and might just put himself in line for that Gold Cup double.

The Tony Martin trained Anibale Fly looks interesting. Mostly campaigned at shorter than three miles, the 8yo looked an improved performer when winning a valuable 3m 1/2f Handicap Chase easily by 7L from the useful Ucello Conti, to whom he was giving 10lbs, over the course, at the end of December. Now rated on the 159 mark he doesn’t need to find that much more to be competitive on Sunday, and coming from this yard, and owned by JP Mc Manus it wouldn’t come as the greatest surprise if he did.

Beaten under three lengths when finishing second in last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Jonjo O’Neill trained Minella Rocco ran reasonably well when finishing fourth behind Road To Respect over course and distance at the Christmas meeting. It was too early In last year’s renewal when he unseated Aidan Coleman at the seventh, to draw any conclusions, but he was sent off a 7/1 shot, so if he does run, (also engaged Newbury Saturday) would be worth a second look.

The 10yo Outlander, trained by the hugely talented Gordon Elliot, who continues in such good form, is a rather enigmatic type, rarely running two consecutive races alike, but he does have a great record at the track. He won on all of his first four appearances at the south Dublin track, and last time, in his fifth race at the course, he was a good third to Road To Respect. One never knows quite what to expect from Outlander but he clearly enjoys the Leopardstown air and is hard to ignore.

Selection : Our Duke

E.W. : Killultagh Vic

John Gray

Sky Bet Handicap Chase Tips 3m Doncaster Saturday

Historically known as The Great Yorkshire Chase, it was first run in 1948, and was won by Cool Customer, carrying the eye watering weight of 12-7. However, heavy burdens have been a serious bar to success in recent renewals, with the Henrietta Knight trained Calgary Bay (11-11) in 2012, being the only animal to carry more than 11-02 to victory since Speaker Weatherill in 1998. Older horses have a poor record in the race with only five in double figures obliging in the entire history of the contest. Proven stamina at three miles has proved essential, as Doncaster with it’s long strait, is a track where they tend to start racing in earnest early, and it takes a true stayer to get home. Another couple of significant relevant stats are that all of the last ten winners had winning form going left handed, and there hasn’t been a winning Northern trainer since Richard Guest won with Tyneandthyneagain fourteen years ago.

One horse that fits plenty of the above criteria is the Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Bigbadjohn. The 9yo was sent off favourite for last years renewal when trained by Rebecca Curtis, but never travelled after a bad mistake at the sixth, and slipped up on the following bend. He put up an excellent performance next time out winning a Grade2 Ascot Novices Chase over three miles but alas, his next five races have been very disappointing. However he can be excused as the Curtis yard has been hopelessly out of form all season. He recently joined the Naunton powerhouse, and it wouldn’t come as the biggest surprise, if Nigel, who has won the race on two previous occasions, ( The Young Hustler 1993 and Beau 2000) didn’t effect a Renaissance in the horse, who is 3lbs better in than last year, and has only the featherweight of 10-00 to carry.

Paul Nicholls has also trained the winner twice, (Colourful Life 2005 and Big Fella Thanks 2009) and of his two contenders, the 9yo, Warriors Tale (pictured) has the more taking profile. He was only beaten a neck by the talented Gold Present (Newbury 2m6 1/2f Dec9) where he was staying on stoutly. warriors taleHe has only been raised 4lbs for Saturday and as his Newbury conqueror, having won at Ascot since, is now on a mark 13lbs higher, the Nicholls animal looks very well treated. He has won over three miles and had the pace to win over shorter. With a nice racing weight of 11-0 he looks one for the shortlist.

The Emma Lavelle trained Vibrato Valtat has been rated as high as 162 in the past, but having failed to catch the judges eye since November 2015, had dropped to a mark of 145 last time out. He showed then that there was still plenty of petrol in the tank when putting in an excellent performance he ran Mustmeetalady to a neck over Saturday’s course and distance. He meets his conqueror on 2lbs better terms on Saturday, and only raised four pounds to 149 giving him 11-02 to carry, has to be worth considering.

Despite jumping badly out to the left, the Neil Mulholland trained, The Young Master put in one of his better efforts for some time when finishing third behind Fountains Windfall and Ballykan at Kempton two weeks ago. He has been dropped to a mark of 139, nine pounds lower than his highest winning mark, giving him a nice racing weight of 10-6 with a further 3lbs to come from his talented owner/Jockey, Mr S Walley-Cohen. Back on a left handed track worth a second look!

The Kim Bailey trained 8yo, Thumb Stone Blues, has only had the three outings over fences, and put up a very creditable effort on his handicap debut last time out,

(Catterick 3m1f Nov27). Jumping soundly he finished second off a mark of 132. Racing off the same mark at the weekend, there could be more to come over the larger obstacles from this very genuine and consistent animal, (has won three and been placed ten times from his fourteen races under rules).

We have to rewind ten races to the last time the Nicky Henderson trained, L’Ami Rouge (pictured), jumped a fence in public. In the meantime he has been making hay over the smaller obstacles, winning twice, including at the highest level, and as a result is now rated 7lbs lower over fences. Mind you, he was no slouch steeplechasing, winning twice at distances of 2m1f and 2m4f. Judging by his strong staying performances over hurdles, he seems sure to be well suited by Saturday’s trip, and will undoubtedly have been well schooled at the Seven Barrows Academy and deserves his place at the top of the market.

Selection : L’Ami Rouge

E.W. : Warriors Tale

John Gray