By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)
Haydock and, especially, Ascot’s cards this Saturday are littered with small field races. Ascot holds two grade twos, which have attracted four and three runners apiece, and Haydock’s feature is the first grade one of the season, the Betfair Chase, where five high-class horses head to post.
It is slightly disappointing to see that these graded races end up with only a handful of runners taking their chance. So, why is this? Surely trainers and owners want to win these coveted graded races, so why aren’t they running their horses?
The National Hunt season is a long old season. It takes a strong and durable horse to keep running regularly and successfully from October to April. During the current time of the year, the weather takes a turn, which leads to strenuous going conditions. The ground looks like it will be soft at Ascot and the same at Haydock. This weekend comes at a slightly awkward time. There is only a month (roughly) to go until the post-Christmas big races (where has this year gone??) so many of the horses who are targeting those races won’t be seen until then.
It appears to be quite a controversial thing but, whether we like it or not (I do), all roads lead to March and the pinnacle four-days of National Hunt Racing – the Cheltenham Festival.
I saw a lot of people grumbling that Santini was having a racecourse gallop instead of a race. He strutted his stuff at the Ladbrokes Trophy Gallops Morning earlier this week along with a host of other talented horses. Santini ran twice last season before his brilliant second in the Gold Cup. He comes across as a horse that doesn’t need to be ran every other week to get and stay fit. Al Boum Photo, who won the Gold Cup, only ran once in a season before both of his wins in the prestigious race.
But, is this really good for the sport? Obviously, as a racing fan, I would love to see these horses out more than two or three times a season. However, that just isn’t practical. The trainers know way more about what is best for their horses than we do so, if what they judge to be the best way to get the horses to their peak fitness is less actual racing, then so be it – just appreciate it when they do grace the turf.
I personally love a small field event when the it is full of so much quality as the grade one Betfair Chase (3:00 Haydock) is. Five horses go to post for the first leg of the National Hunt Triple Crown. The runners are Bellshill, Bristol De Mai, Clan Des Obeaux, Keeper Hill and Lostintranslation. In my opinion, the only horse capable of winning the ‘Triple Crown’ from this line-up is Lostintrnslation. He won this twelve months ago and finished third in the Gold Cup. Between those races, he pulled up in the King George at Kempton and required a wind-op. He is only eight years old coming into his third season chasing. As he has gained experience, he has got better and he was such a lovely story connected to him. ‘Minions’ was one of the owners’ son’s favourite films. He sadly passed away a few years ago and this horse runs in the colours of the ‘Minions’ (yellow with blue braces) in memory of him.
I would’ve said Clan Des Obeaux as a ‘Triple Crown’ contender but I doubt we’ll be seeing the dual King George winner at Cheltenham anymore as he plainly doesn’t like the track. Two years ago, this horse started out in this race, before taking top honours at Kempton. He followed that up with a win at Ascot and came fifth at Cheltenham in the Gold Cup. Last season, he went over to Down Royal and came second so it appears he’s one of those horses who need their first run. That is probably why Lostintranslation and Bristol De Mai are ahead of him in the market. On achievements, he’s the best horse in the race.
However, Bristol De Mai, without a doubt, the best horse at Haydock. He has won four times and his only defeat over this course and distance was in this race twelve months ago. Joint favourite with Lostintranslation, he was beaten one and a half lengths and his jumping was a little chancey at a few. He ran twice after this: at Cheltenham in the Cotswold Chase when he finished second and then he came ninth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He seemed to hit fences when push came to shove last season. I think jumping will be really important in this race as there is very little between the top three in the market.
You can’t fully discount the other two, though. Bellshill was a very good horse for Willie Mullins and had his last run for them, second in grade three, in February. Dave Armstrong now owns this eleven-time winner and he runs for Sandy Thomson. He’s an exciting ride for Ryan Mania and, if this horse has retained any of the form from when he won a grade one at Leopardstown in February 2019, beating top horses Road To Respect, The Storyteller and Outlander, he has to be bang there. He may just need his first run of the year. Keeper Hill ran a blinder to be fourth in a really strong Charlie Hall Chase. He steps up fractionally in trip for this. He’s a grade two novice chase winner and has earned some good form over both types of obstacles. He might not quite be up to the standard of some of these but he has had the benefit of a run. Best wishes to Adrian Heskin, who should’ve been riding this horse but has sadly broken his arm!
This race always looks an exciting treat and I’m going to side with LOSTINTRANSLATION to try and make it back-to-back wins.
Over at Ascot, Real Steel makes his highly anticipated (by me) debut for Paul Nicholls in the Chanelle Pharma 1965 Chase (Grade Two) (2:05 Ascot). I’ve been so excited to see him back on the racetrack. He’s got some really strong form in Ireland. Last season alone, he won two grade twos, by fourteen lengths each time. His run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup was brilliant, way better than the 6th place number suggests. He drops down five furlongs in trip to two miles five for this race, which is a trip he has won over twice before. Hopefully he is fit enough for first time out to win this competitive race.
Real Steel’s biggest rival is Imperial Aura. This horse has had just ten starts to date but has made a huge impact. He began chasing with just five starts under his belt and it started ideally in what turned out to be a walkover. He was second in two good chases before he won impressively in the Northern Trust at the Cheltenham Festival. I was there and the elation on his groom’s face was just wonderful. He made a perfect start this season in the Colin Parker Memorial Intermediate Chase at Carlisle. His yard is in absolute brilliant form and I think he’ll be very hard to beat and an exciting horse going forward.
Itchy Feet had his first chase start at Leicester in last December, which he won by twenty-six lengths. Then, in February, he won the grade one Scilly Isles by three lengths. In the Marsh Novices Chase, he unseated at the sixth fence when a 7/2 shot. He came third in the Old Roan on his reappearance, which he seemed to need because, on form, he should’ve won. The yard’s form is still a little bit of a concern.
Black Corton is Real Steel’s stablemate. He has made a lovely partnership with Bryony Frost over the past few years. He hasn’t won since last April and his return start in a handicap wasn’t amazing. He’s dropping back to a more appropriate trip that may show him in a better light.
The last race I’m going to look at is the Coral Hurdle (Grade Two) (2:40 Ascot). A tiny field of three runners (Call Me Lord, Laurina and Song For Someone) go to post but it is fascinating little contest. Literally any of this trio could win. Laurina is an interesting runner. She is part of the cohort of Sullivan Bloodstock horses that moved to Paul Nicholls from Willie Mullins. She started her career as a bit of winning machine and, after coming fourth in the Champion Hurdle, she went chasing, upped in trip. Her first start over fences was awesome but she pulled up on her next two outings, a shadow of the horse she once was. She bled badly on the first occasion and showed signs of discomfort next time. In February, she reverted back to hurdles and came third in a race she should’ve won, if she was in tip-top form. She has had a wind-op and hopefully the change of scenery has done her the world of good.
Call Me Lord won the International Hurdle last season after coming second in this race on his seasonal reappearance. He has already had one run so far this year, which was at Aintree when he was beaten four and three quarter lengths. He always seems to benefit from his first run of the campaign. I don’t think he’s quite as good as Laurina when she is at peak fitness and Song For Someone is a really exciting five year old, who was brilliant over hurdles last season. He won first time out at Fontwell before finishing third off top weight, even though he was only four, in a listed handicap. Next time, he was beaten a length by Thomas Derby, who was a place ahead of Call Me Lord last time out, and Song For Someone boosted that form with a grade two win at Kempton.
I’m going to side with the progressive SONG FOR SOMEONE.
Betfair Chase – Lostintranslation
1965 Chase – Real Steel
Coral Hurdle – Song For Someone