Glorious blanket-wide coverage for the jumpers on Saturday as ITV showcases the winter game
Cheltenham champ Minella makes seasonal return
Betfred TV’s Matt Hulmes marks our card
Three venues provide top-class jumping, with graded action at Down Royal featuring the return of last season’s Gold Cup hero Minella Indo, while earlier on the card we will witness the seasonal debut of talking horse Envoi Allen.
Wetherby hosts its feature of the season, the Charlie Hall Chase, with Cyrname looking to repair his reputation and retain his title. Ascot meanwhile hosts its first jumps fixture of the season with a trio of competitive handicaps to solve.
1.20 WETHERBY – REVELS HILL
A very competitive opener in West Yorkshire this afternoon.
Some of these lost their way over hurdles while other seem to be in the grip of the handicapper, but neither of those statements apply to Gericault Roque or REVELS HILL.
Gericault Roque signed off last season with an easy win at Sandown in March on just his fourth rules start. The David Pipe yard are not wasting time getting him over fences and he is respected, but preference is for the Harry Fry-trained REVELS HILL.
A winning point-to-pointer, he made an eye-catching debut at Leicester before finding two miles too sharp at Chepstow next time. He didn’t stay at Ascot in February before finally delivering the goods at Warwick in April, before being put away for the summer.
He is another with which connections are not persevering over timber and he can continue the good form of the Harry Fry (below) team.
Tanarpino must give weight all around after winning at Bangor two months ago while Road Warrior’s winning run came to an end in the Bobby Renton over track and trip last time, but may be able to get involved at this lower level, at a price.
1.35 ASCOT – SAM BARTON
A brilliant way to get Ascot’s jumps season underway and I like a couple of these to pay their way over this season and the next few.
SAM BARTON is a typical stamp of a horse you associate with the late Trevor Hemmings. Whatever he did over hurdles was always going to be a bonus and he proved very useful in that sphere, winning a novice hurdle at Doncaster that worked out nicely before a staying-on fourth in a big series final at Sandown the weekend before Cheltenham.
He will appreciate the rain that is forecast and is a horse I think that will prove to be very able over the coming months, so I made him one of my ten to follow this season.
Another who just missed the cut for that list was Sizable Sam, a horse in a similar mould to the selection. After a couple of wins at Wincanton, a track that didn’t look to play to his strengths, he was a decent fifth stepped up to handicap company at Newbury before being thrown in at the deep end at Aintree in April when he found the Grade 1 staying contest too warm.
Back in trip on chasing debut and on soft ground, he also has decent claims and is another I expect to be winning races this campaign.
Nassalam went off favourite for the G1 Finale Hurdle last season, but his form gradually regressed despite being in decent company. He will have been well schooled in France by Guillaume Macaire and is respected, while Kid Commando is a point to-point winner with course-winning form to consider, too.
1.55 WETHERBY – MARIE’S ROCK
A cracking mares’ hurdle is next up at Wetherby.
This looks like a starting point for the season for the progressive Molly Ollys Wishes over the minimum trip, as her best form came over further last year. She was last seen finishing third in the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell after rattling off a hat-trick of wins against her own sex.
This may lie between MARIE’S ROCK and Miranda. They clashed at Doncaster in January when Miranda ran out a very cosy winner, finishing some twenty-two lengths ahead of the selection, but that was on soft ground.
There is rain around in Yorkshire this weekend, but I expect it to ride a bit better than Town Moor in January and with MARIE’S ROCK having another wind op in the summer, she can reverse that form.
She will be having just her sixth start for Nicky Henderson and can deliver on the early promise that saw her impress at Haydock and Taunton at the end of 2019. She only had the two runs last year and clearly had her problems, but the trainer was positive about her in a recent stable tour, and she can finally realise that evident potential.
Miranda went on to finish fifth in the Imperial Cup but could be vulnerable first time up under a penalty.
2.10 ASCOT – BOOTHILL & MEGAN
Fourteen runners are set to go to post for this race, and a case can be made for every single one of them.
Soaring Glory took the Betfair Hurdle field apart in February before finishing fourth in the Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham. He is back in handicap company here and represents the red-hot Jonjo O’Neill (above) team.
He has huge claims, as does Leoncavallo on the back of his third place in the Welsh Champion Hurdle, while Global Citizen will be interesting if strong in the market as a former Dovecote Hurdle winner who lost his way slightly last season but could have benefitted from a summer break.
My two against the field though are BOOTHILL & MEGAN.
BOOTHILL was the subject of ante post investment from these quarters for the Supreme Novices, after an easy win at Taunton in December. That though was the end of his season sadly, but it means he could be very well handicapped on his return.
He gave 7lb and a nine-length beating to the 123-rated Lilly Pedlar, while the 131-rated Bothwell Bridge couldn’t get within four lengths in a bumper.
With this just his second hurdle run too, there is so much scope for improvement that I expect him to go very close here and could easily be in graded company after the turn of the year.
I also must have a saver on MEGAN. She was travelling like a dream when overjumping three out at Chepstow and buckled on landing. I have no doubt she would have won that race as the winner, Progressive, scrambled over the line and now has 6lb worse terms to contend with.
MEGAN won’t mind any of the rainfall forecast for the track and off a lightweight of 10-1, she should be making her presence felt at the business end.
2.30 WETHERBY – THOMAS DARBY
The G2 West Yorkshire Hurdle sees the return of 2019 Stayers’ Hurdle hero Paisley Park who makes his earliest seasonal reappearance for three years.
Emma Lavelle’s star (above) did have some issues after finishing a well-beaten seventh in his title defence in 2020 but bounced back last year, beating Thyme Hill in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot before a fine third in the Stayers’ once again.
However, that race may have taken its toll when pulled up at Aintree three weeks later, and if raring to go after his break, he is the one to beat ….. but it is a big ‘if’.
The one to take advantage is THOMAS DARBY. He stayed on to finish third in that Aintree contest and was a close third to McFabulous at Kempton in January.
He was well beaten under top weight in the Coral Cup in March, the only time he has finished out of the first three. With the Olly Murphy stable going well and THOMAS DARBY having a good record when fresh, he can step forward and throw his hat into the ring for the big staying hurdle races this season.
Run For Oscar is an intriguing Irish contender for Charles Byrne. He is on a hat-trick after handicap wins at home, and raiders from this yard are always respected – while this looks like a steppingstone for Master Tommytucker, despite being unbeaten in two hurdle starts, ahead of a return to fences next month for Paul Nicholls.
2.45 ASCOT – FRERO BANBOU
A competitive two miles handicap chase with a key piece of form coming from Aintree in April, where Editeur Du Gite beat Sully D’Oc AA and FRERO BANBOU, with Grey Diamond back in fifth.
Editeur Du Gite and Sully D’Oc AA also met on this card a year ago in the novices’ handicap chase that opens the card, with the latter coming out on top. Editeur Du Gite is now better at the weights for both of those meetings, a victory and a defeat after Sully D’Oc AA’s win at the Punchestown festival, but there is a chance the former sets the race up for the latter with his free-going style from the front.
I’m taking FRERO BANBOU to turn the Aintree form around with both. He is 10lb better off with the winner and 13lb better off with the runner up for nine lengths and as a 6yo should still be improving, having had less chasing starts.
Venetia Williams (above) has won this race twice in the last eight years so her runners are always of interest, and ‘Frero’ wont mind any rain, having been a two-time chase winner in France.
Amoola Gold won this race last season but is now a stone higher and needs to improve again to retain his title.
Grey Diamond is the main danger for the bang-in-form Sam Thomas. He was only a length behind in the Aintree race in April and has kept his form well in four starts for the yard since switching from Nigel Twiston-Davies. He has only been dropped 1lb over the summer though, so preference is for Venetia’s 6yo.
2.50 DOWN ROYAL – GALVIN
We welcome back last year’s Gold Cup hero at Down Royal this afternoon in a Champion Chase where only the 149-rated outsider Ravenhill would be regarded as a shock winner.
Minella Indo had his finest moment in the Blue Riband at Prestbury Park in March (above) to take his Festival figures to 121, after an Albert Bartlett success and an RSA Chase runner-up effort.
He bounced back from a disappointing effort as favourite in the Irish Hennessy when one place behind Delta Work to land the biggest race of all, and all roads will lead back to Cheltenham in the Spring.
Delta Work won on this card in 2018 but hasn’t been at his best in this race the last two years, and arguably this is a stronger renewal than both of those. There have been some headlines written over the jockey bookings with Jack Kennedy ordered to ride Delta Work instead of renewing his partnership with Minella Indo, and the pair have enjoyed top level success with victories in the 2019 Lexus Chase and 2020 Irish Hennessy.
Last year’s King George VI Chase winner Frodon adds another exciting element to the contest for Paul Nicholls, who has won this race on four occasions previously. He signed off for the season when winning at Sandown in April but was firmly put in his place in the Gold Cup, and needs to find a bit more.
They may all though have to settle for places behind the race-fit GALVIN. Unbeaten in his last six starts over fences, he won the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham on his final outing last season, and started this campaign giving weight and fitness away to the 152-rated Annamix and 157-rated Brahma Bull.
While that is still some way below Grade 1 class, it was huge performance and he will certainly come on for it, having found plenty for pressure despite a couple of inadequate leaps. I think he could line up as a lively outsider for the Gold Cup in March and could very well shorten from his current price of 33/1 should he win this contest this weekend.
3.05 WETHERBY – CLONDAW CASTLE
Cyrname is the Arsenal of the Horse Racing world ….. we never quite know what performance we are going to get. On his day, he is brilliant, as we saw when lowering the colours of the great Altior a couple of seasons ago to become the highest-rated horse in training.
That rating never sat right with me and he was well-beaten by his stablemate Clan Des Obeaux in the King George of that year. Just four starts subsequently have yielded victory in this very race twelve months ago, but his recent failures to finish at Kempton and Ascot means he does carry a wealth warning.
His record after a break is indifferent, but he has his ideal conditions this weekend and is clear on the figures. However, I’m not interested at around 5/4.
Shan Blue put in two exemplary rounds of jumping at this course last season before winning the Kauto Star Novices Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. He kept his form well and signed off a busy season seeing the rear end of Chantry House some 32 length in the distance at Aintree.
He will have benefitted from a break more than most, but I think three miles is the limit and he may be vulnerable to a stronger stayer.
Step forward CLONDAW CASTLE. He is relative latecomer to the top end of graded action and after some solid placed efforts in novice company, impressively landed the big three-mile handicap chase (formerly Racing Post Chase) at Kempton in February.
Cheltenham has never been his track so he was kept for Aintree, where he found only an on-song Clan Des Obeaux too good in the G1 Bowl. He is best on a flat track, won’t mind which way the ground goes, and has a good record first time out.
3.20 ASCOT – JOHNBB
A cracking renewal of the London Gold Cup Handicap Chase with the last two winners of the race, Vinndicaton and Regal Encore, in the line-up.
Vinndication won this in 2019 and there was talk of a Gold Cup campaign, but injury issues raised their ugly head again and he wasn’t seen until appearing at the Festival, finishing a good fourth in the Ultima Handicap Chase.
Last year he started off in the Charlie Hall, finishing second, before unseating in the Ladbrokes Trophy, jumping issues sadly coming to the fore.
HIs last two starts were over hurdles, a fair sixth in the Stayers’ before underwhelming at Aintree. He is still 7lb higher than two years ago and the yard have only had a trickle of horses run well so far this season.
Regal Encore is a standing dish in these Ascot races, in fact he is having his twelfth start over track and trip this afternoon. His record here reads P10P13213132 and that can be reduced to 021 in this race for the last three years.
He is rising fourteen years old now and still 4lb higher than his win twelve months ago. A bigger threat may be his stablemate Sojourn. He has only had nine starts and has had a wind operation since pulling up in the Grand National Trial at Haydock last February. I am not pigeonholing him as a mudlark, and he could still have some improvement to come.
One More Fleurie has won four of his last five starts and probably would have had a nap-hand but for tipping up at Fakenham. He was last seen at Ayr’s Scottish Grand National meeting when winning by over six lengths and returns 10lb higher, but the yard has been amongst the winners this week.
Mister Malarkey and Captain Chaos love it at Ascot while Glen Forsa is intriguing on a first start for Charlie Longsden, looking very favourably handicapped on his 2019 form and tongue-tied for the first time to aid his breathing.
The one for me though Is JOHNBB. The consistent 7yo has only had ten runs and on his first start over three miles found only the progressive Happygolucky too strong at Aintree in April. He may have just been giving second best when falling at Wetherby in the Rowland Meyrick on Boxing Day previously but showed no ill effects from that, and can only build on his latest start.
He won on reappearance last year and won’t mind whether the forecast rain arrives or not.
3.40 WETHERBY – HAAFAPIECE
A tough race on which to end the ITV coverage, with a fourteen-runner handicap hurdle puzzle to solve.
Donald McCain (above) has started the season very well so many will focus on his Mackenberg, who makes a handicap debut after winning at Kempton in April.
That wasn’t much of a contest though and the jury is out on his opening mark, while Our Surprise was a well-beaten short-price favourite at Fontwell four weeks ago and needs to improve for that outing to have a say.
Jonjo O’Neill could win with the stable cat at present so his topweight Pajero enters calculations, as does Rattle Owl, whose Sedgefield victory was franked when the third home won next time off a mark of 115, suggesting his figure of 120 could be quite lenient.
HAAFAPIECE has course form figures of 423 and bumped into very progressive rivals last season in Albert’s Back and Pay The Piper.
He has fair form fresh so the six-month break is of no concern, and trainer Pam Sly has a 25% strike rate over the last five seasons at the track, with seven winners from twenty eight runners.
Jack Andrews’ valuable 5lb claim is the icing on this cake and he will be hard to keep out of the frame in our finale.
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