Racing over the festive period at Leopardstown gets underway on Saturday with an exciting seven race card. My first selection comes in the second race, the Thorntons Recycling Maiden hurdle over two miles. I like the Gordon Elliot trained Wide Receiver. He has had three runs over hurdles of late, just failing to get his head in front on each occasion. On his last outing he was bet by Ashdale Bob who has since franked the form, winning a Grade 2 at Navan last Friday by six lenghts. Wide Receiver was let down on that occasion when making too many mistakes at his obstacles and was only bet by a lenght. If he can jump more professionally and make less mistakes I think he will take a lot of beating and make it fourth time lucky over hurdles.
The Holden Plant Rentals Novice Handicap Hurdle off at 1:40 looks a very competitive race with lots of unexposed horses. One Cool Poets looks to have been primed for this race after some ok runs on the flat, if he can transfer his form on the flat to hurdles he will take plenty of beating. The one I like is Envious Editor for the Gordon Elliot team. He has had the four runs in Maidens this season finishing in the money each time. The form of his penultimate start looks very solid. The winner Gabynako, has since finished third to Ashdale Bob at Navan in the Grade two last week and the third has also came out and won a maiden hurdle comfortably in Down Royal. Even the fifth, Free Thought has since won a maiden hurdle. While his form last year in handicaps is nothing to get excited about, he seems a better horse this year. I think his mark of 118 is reasonable and I think he will run very well at 8/1.
The feature race on Day 1 of the Christmas Festival is the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase over two miles and one furlong. Felix Desjy is the favourite and a very worthy one in my opinion. The form of his last run is very strong, and he won despite jumping to his left early in the race. The second Sizing Pottsie has since bolted up in a competitive handicap at Fairyhouse. Darver Star was third on that day and looked to be outpaced and I would struggle to see him reversing the form. Felix Desjy will be suited by returning to a left handed track and I think he will take a lot of beating.
The penultimate race on the card is the Bet Through The Free Racing Post App Handicap Chase over two miles and one furlong. A Wave Of The Sea catches my eye off a mark of 133, and also gets the four year old allowance. He won his Beginners Chase at Kilbeggan in September beating an average field well. After that he went on to finish third in a Novice chase at Punchestown, with Popong back in fourth on that occasion. His jumping let him down the last day and was bet out of sight by Felix Desjy. I would put a line through that run and expect a lot better here. He is a few pounds well in on his hurdles form and if he can jump more fluently I think he can go close at 15/2.
Ladbrokes King George VI Chase (Grade 1) (GBB Race) (Class 1) (4yo+)
Since 1947, families have clustered around their radio or television with eager anticipation to watch the King George VI Chase. It is a Christmas Tradition for many.
The King George VI Chase has obtained a sensational role of honour – greats like Arkle, Pendil, Captain Christy, Silver Buck, Borough Hill Lad and Wayward Lad have passed the post in front. During the late 1980s, Desert Orchid won the race four times (1986,1988,1989 and 1990). The bold, exuberant grey held the record for twenty-one years until 2011 when Kauto Star gained his fifth win in this Boxing Day highlight.
Paul Nicholls has won eleven of the renewals since 1997. This has made him the most successful trainer in the history of the race. Kauto Star was responsible for five but, before that, See More Business gave Nicholls a first taste of King George success in 1997 and 1999. Silviniaco Conti won the 2013 and 2014 renewals and, in the past two years, it has been Clan Des Obeaux who has taken top honours. The first time was under Harry Cobden and then Sam Twiston-Davies hopped on board for last year’s race with Cobden partnering Cyrname.
Cast your minds back to twelve months ago, before all the Coronavirus craziness and when racecourses were full with National Hunt racing fans. (Feels like a long time ago – I know!) This was an extremely controversial decision. Everyone had an opinion: should Harry side with Clan Des Obeaux, who gave him a day in the sun on the previous Boxing Day? Or, should he stay on board Cyrname who had stamped himself as the highest rated chaser in Britain by beating the mighty Altior?
Harry Cobden chose Cyrname. Sam Twiston-Davies picked up the spare ride on Clan Des Obeaux. This proved the wrong decision with Clan Des Obeaux skipping to the lead at two fences from home and annihilating his opposition by a huge twenty-one lengths. Jockey bookings remain the same in 2020 and arguably the race is much stronger. Twenty-one lengths is a huge deficit to overcome so, can Cyrname do it?
Both sets of connections have said that the Altior Vs Cyrname clash took a lot out of both horses on soft Ascot ground. Cyrname obviously felt the pinch with the race just thirty-three days later. Clan Des Obeaux, on the other hand, had been over to Down Royal and finished second to Road To Respect on soft ground. It appeared to put him spot on for the King George.
During the rest of the 2019/20 season, we saw both horses just once. Cyrname reappeared first at Ascot for the grade one Ascot Chase. He had the most sickening fall and was down for quite a while. Thankfully, he got up safely. Paul Nicholls even said, remarkably, that he would’ve been ready to run again if Coronavirus hadn’t come along and put a stop to racing! Clan Des Obeaux went straight to the Gold Cup and ran below-par, finishing eighth. To be honest, it seems as though he hates Cheltenham so you may as well ignore that race entirely. Kempton is his happy hunting ground.
This season, Cyrname reappeared with an easy victory at Wetherby in the Charlie Hall. He silenced every single hater – queries on his ability to go left-handed were dismissed with a flick of his tail. Obviously, that isn’t a concern for this race as Kempton is right-handed. Cyrname seems to have miraculously grown up over lockdown so that his mind now matches his physical ability. It also helps that they seem to know how to ride him and how to stop him from getting too silly now.
Clan Des Obeaux tasted defeat yet again on his seasonal reappearance. He followed in Bristol De Mai in the Betfair Chase. Not many horses can get past Bristol De Mai at Haydock. The only horse to ever do so is Lostintranslation, but he was well-beaten Betfair Chase this year. (He was probably unsuited by the ground that day, but I’ll get to him later on). Clan Des Obeaux was reported to have endured a slight over-reach during the race. Full marks to Paul Nicholls for transparency but, not to worry, it won’t be damning for his chances in this race.
These two horses are being dubbed as the main two players for this and they are, which amuses me. Clan Des Obeaux seems ridiculously underrated – maybe because his best performances are at this track and he rarely wins anywhere else. So many people criticise Cyrname. The moment he makes a tiny mistake or shows any quirk, people are on to him like hawks. The handicappers were ridiculed when they handed him a handicap mark higher than Altior but they proved to be correct.
Despite this, I think Clan Des Obeaux will finish ahead of Cyrname. It is evident that the race is tailor made for him. He’ll enjoy the ground and will be spot on after the pipe-opener at Haydock. I think we’ll get more of a race between the two of them this year, which I can’t wait for.
This isn’t a two-horse race. Paul Nicholls has two other runners and there are five other talented individuals in the race too. None of those are Irish though. A rise in Coronavirus cases has caused Ireland to implement a travel restriction that has ruled out Monalee, like the crowds, from attending. It would’ve added an extra spice to this already hot race if he had taken his chance. Lets just hope he can take part in 2021!
Looking at the other runners, Real Steel, who is part of my 20 To Watch, has been my selection for this race since the Gold Cup so I am utterly delighted that he is taking his chance and that Daryl Jacob is booked. This lovely son of Loup Breton joined Paul Nicholls’ battalion over the summer, when the cohort of Sullivan horses were taken from Willie Mullins. He can be a little bit hit-and-miss in all honesty. Last season was his best to date with two grade two victories before Brian Hughes, the Champion Jockey, partnered him in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He was stone last on the first circuit but, when Hughes switched him out, he came there swinging on the bridle at the point when many were starting to feel the pinch. He seemed strangely novicey in the straight and faded to be sixth.
On his first start for Paul Nicholls, he finished a decent third out of four runners behind race-fit and very talented Imperial Aura. I wasn’t too disappointed with that run. Connections will know more about him and, reflecting this, he now wears a tongue-strap to aid his breathing. It appears he’s the fourth-string for the Ditcheat team but Daryl Jacob is a great booking and Aidan O’Brien’s fourth-string horses often win the big races so I’m not too concerned.
The last Paul Nicholls runner is Frodon. This gutsy eight-year-old is looking to put Bryony Frost into the history books as she would be the first female jockey to win this race. He has won an incredible fifteen of his thirty-seven starts and the Ryanair back in 2019. Last season, he won once here at Kempton and, in October, he put in an insane weight carrying performance to storm to a great success in a class two at Cheltenham.
Unfortunately, Frodon ran really poorly at Aintree next time. He was fourth of five and the only reason why he wasn’t classed as pulled up was because all of the fences down the home straight were emitted due to low sun. He would’ve appreciated it if the jumps were included but, even if they had been, I doubt he would’ve finished much closer. He was beaten eighty-two lengths in all! We all know he is better than that but he is difficult to fancy off the back of such a below-par performance.
In the same race, the sun won’t have helped Santini either. You can’t do anything to stop it – the sun isn’t going to move and the horses and jockeys can’t be expected to jump if they can’t see the fences! Santini went to Newbury for a racecourse gallop and then, at Aintree, looked like he needed the run, which he always does first time out. Last year, he only just held off Now McGinty first time out. Next time, he won the Cotswold Chase and came second in the Gold Cup. That was a really impressive run and he was staying on towards the finish. At Aintree earlier this month, he was headed by Lake View Lad and could never get passed him. No disrespect to Lake View Lad but he probably shouldn’t have beaten Santini, who is rated 18lbs higher, off equal weights. I just can’t seem to fancy Santini for this race, even though he has been supplemented.
Lostintranslation was expected to win last time as well. He never turned up in the Betfair Chase. He didn’t jump fluently or travel particularly well. The jockey reported it was down to the heavy going. If the rain doesn’t soften the ground too much, it will greatly help him. He won a nice listed race and the Betfair Chase before contesting this race. He pulled up worryingly but that was down to a breathing problem. One wind op and a tongue strap later, he was an exceptional third in the Gold Cup, jumping and travelling with fluency, just getting tired at the end. I think the ground is critical to how he runs but he has so much ability.
On the other hand, Saint Calvados would really appreciate softer ground. He was only beaten once in seven starts before he was fourth the Arkle, which Footpad (who was third in this race twelve months ago) won. He made all on his first start of the next season before following in Altior and Min. At the backend of last season, they changed tact with him and he very nearly won the Ryanair, only beaten a neck, seemingly appreciating the step up in trip. Whilst he is a very talented horse and interesting trying out three miles for the first time, the Harry Whittington yard has been very quiet lately. They had a seventeen-day break from racing with one runner on the 22nd December, who came third. Saint Calvados himself was, reported by Racing TV, very poorly with suspected blood poisoning. I don’t know the details of this though.
Waiting Patiently has been a very delicate horse. Connections have handled him brilliantly to win seven of his thirteen starts. Those seven victories came in quick succession between January 2016 and February 2018, when he won the grade one Ascot Chase. He was as short as 4/1 for the 2018 King George and agonisingly unseated. He found Cyrname and Min too good in early 2019 and we only saw him once last season, when third over two miles behind Defi Du Seuil. I think he’ll stay the three miles but we haven’t seen him on a racetrack for 398 days.
Last to mention is the outsider Black Op. This horse has always been well thought of. He was a very good novice hurdler and got to within a half-length of Santini back in January 2018. He beat Lostintranslation by a half-length in an Aintree Grade one. He got off the mark over fences in October 2019 but has struggled to land a blow ever since, even at short odds.
In conclusion, I think Paul Nicholls will make it twelve wins in this race with one of his four runners. I am going to stay loyal to REAL STEEL because I think he’ll run well. I am adamant he is tailor-made for this test. Three miles should be the ideal trip (I think) and I expect him to like Kempton. I do think Clan Des Obeaux is the one to beat and I’d love to see Sam Twiston-Davies win a second King George. Cyrname appears to be the finished article these days. Hopefully, the King George of 2020 will be a thrilling race!
We would like to wish all of our readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Enjoythe incredible racing we have in store and lets hope we can all be back on a racecourse soon!
2:25 Ascot – Porsche Long Walk Hurdle (Grade 1) (GBB Race) (Class 1) (4yo+)
This is the first “The Saturday Focus” article where I have focused on a hurdle race as I am, admittedly, slightly biased towards handicap chases. The Long Walk hurdle looks fascinating and I’m so excited to delve into it. This is the second grade one over hurdles so far this season and there is no three mile grade one until the Stayers Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Baracouda made this race his own in the early 2000s, winning four times (2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004). His trainer, François Doumen, is the winning-most trainer in the race’s history as he sent this horse out to all four of those victories. Richard Johnson holds the record for the most wins in this with four – Anzum in 1999, Mighty Man in 2006 and Reve De Sivola in 2012 and 2013.
Three previous winners line up in this renewal: Thistlecrack won in 2015; Paisley Park won in 2018, and the Stayers Hurdle in the following March, and, last year, The Worlds End passed the post first. This race has a lot of depth though – young pretender Thyme Hill is looking to back up his win last time; Main Fact is a winning machine; The Jam Man comes over from Ireland; Portrush Ted won impressively last time; Third Wind is only six and Younevercall put in a good run last time to be second off a huge absence.
I have to start with Paisley Park. He has lit up the staying division over the past few years. He started his great run of things in October 2018 and, two starts later, he was successful in this race at 8/1. Next, he won the Cleeve Hurdle and then gave connections an amazing day at the Cheltenham Festival in the Stayers’ Hurdle. Last season, he started out at Newbury but was a non-runner in this. He won a second Cleeve Hurdle but disaster struck at the Festival when he only managed seventh. They discovered he had a fibrillating heart. His return to action showed that he wasn’t worse for wear after the scare. Quite rightly, connections were over-the-moon with his return to racing as he finished second. He was giving 3lbs to Thyme Hill, who won the race by one and a half lengths.
It was possibly a career-best that day, I think, for Thyme Hill. He won the Persian War on his first ever start over hurdles and then won a grade two. Over Christmas last year, he won the grade one Challow Novices Hurdle, but it wasn’t a particularly strong grade one. We didn’t see him again until the Albert Bartlett, where he finished best of the English, in behind Monkfish, Latest Exhibition and Fury Road. He raced keenly on his reappearance run, where he finished ahead of Paisley Park. Of the two, I prefer PaisleyPark – I think the fact that they are now off equal weights could reverse the form between the two of them.
It is not a two-horse race!
As I mentioned earlier, Main Fact is a “winning machine” and I think that is the phrase that has summed him up in 2020. Connections involved in him have had a lot to smile about in this crazy year – all of the nine wins he has achieved! The first four (22nd January to 2nd March) were over two miles and bottomless ground. He was a very good winner on Midlands National Day in emphatic style (fifteen lengths!) and returned with three wins on the flat between October and November. Last time, at Haydock, he stepped all the way up in trip to three miles and looked beaten before staying on strongly to win by two and three quarter lengths, with Third Wind and The Jam Man in behind. The race at Haydock was won by Paisley Park on his way to victory in this race and the Stayers. Whilst he often looks completely out of contention at some points, you can, seemingly, always guarantee he will run on for you. I think it is a brilliant show of loyalty that connections are keeping faith in Fergus Gillard for this big race. He’s an extremely talented jockey and it would be great to see David Pipe have a big winner.
Tom Scudamore is normally seen riding David Pipe’s horses but he is reunited with his good friend Thistlecrack. Twelve now, Thistlecrack has been an incredible racehorse – grade one winning novice hurdler; winner of this in 2015; Stayers Hurdle winner in 2016; Aintree Liverpool Stayers Hurdle winner; grade two novice chase winner and, in his novice season, he defeated a classy line-up in the King George VI Chase. That was the last time he graced the Winners’ Enclosure. He came second in the Cotswold Chase and returned with a fifth for the 2017/18 season, he showed signs he was coming back to his best when second in the 2018 King George but pulled up in the Gold Cup. Then, he was seen once last season, in behind PaisleyPark, but, unfortunately, it is hard to know what to expect from him on his return. The Tizzard yard is having some mixed results lately. I really hope we see some of that old sparkle because what a legend he has been!
I think The Worlds End is going to be slightly forgotten about in this race. He won last year on heavy ground, when Paisley Park was pulled out because of it. He had won the West Yorkshire Hurdle before that and he absolutely adores soft ground. The softer the better, really. He pulled up in the Rendlesham and, on his only start this season, pulled up in a grade one at Auteuil. He never seemed comfortable and he has switched yards from Tom George to Olly Murphy. Murphy hasn’t had a winner for over a week but the move to the Warwickshire yard could revitalise him.
The Worlds End is one of the two runners for the McNeill Family. Their other runner is Portrush Ted, wearing the second-string colours. This eight-year-old has had just nine starts as he has had a whole host of issues. The Warren Greatrex yard have done a sensational job with him to prep him to win five outings. The first of those was in the grade two Aintree Grand National Festival bumper. Then, he won his first hurdle race over three miles. 519 days later, he won very well at Ayr before falling at Haydock. Last time out, on heavy ground, he won by half a length in wonderful style. He is an extremely talented individual and jumps, stays and will handle the ground well. I’d love to see him run a good race but, most importantly, come home safe.
Third Wind will absolutely love the ground. He won on Boxing Day at Wincanton and then finished fourth in the Pertemps Final, just less than nine lengths behind the winner. On seasonal reappearance, he was fifth, only beaten four and a half lengths, in a good race at Newbury. Next time, he was in the lead approaching the last but was collared by the fast-finishing Main Fact. Tom O’Brien is riding well but I’m not sure this horse is up to this level. There have been positive movements for him in the market.
There is one Irish runner in the race and that is The Jam Man. This horse comes from a very shrewd operation. He won well at York and then followed that up with a hugely impressive victory in the Troytown Chase, by eighteen lengths. He’s a very versatile horse but was a well-beaten sixth behind Main Fact and Third Wind at Haydock. He was never in contention. I struggle to decipher when this horse is on a going day.
Last to mention is the mare in the line-up – Roksana. This mare won the Mares’ Hurdle in 2019 and was beaten a head in the Aintree equivalent of the Stayers Hurdle next time out. She was very consistent without winning last season and got back to winning ways by skipping clear of her rivals in the grade two West Yorkshire Hurdle. The horse who came second that day has subsequently won well. She gets a handy 7lbs allowance from the boys. She shouldn’t mind the ground and Dan Skelton horses can do no wrong at the minute.
My selection for the Long Walk Hurdle is PAISLEY PARK. It was brilliant to see him return to racing with a strong performance. He is the classiest horse in the race and I really hope he can get back on track. I think Thyme Hill may struggle of equal weights with Emma Lavelle’s stable star. I would love to see Main Fact run well for his connections and Portrush Ted looks a huge price.
As always as part of ‘The Saturday Focus’, I encouraged my followers on Twitter to get involved a share with me who they thought will win this race!
Join in the conversation over on my page and enjoy the race!
The Caspian Caviar Gold Cup looks an early Christmas treat to savour with exactly a fortnight to go until the King George! First held in 1963, this race is over two miles, four furlongs and one hundred and twenty-seven yards around the ‘New Course’. The runners have seventeen fences to jump on good to soft ground. Seventeen runners go to post for this race, which is worth just short of £60,000 to the winner.
So, who will win?
Paul Nicholls knows exactly how to win this race as he is the winning-most trainer in the history of the race – courtesy of Poquelin in 2009 and 2010; Unioniste in 2012 and Frodon in 2016 and 2018. This year, Ditcheat send out three runners: Master Tommytucker,Southfield Stone and Saint Sonnet. Last season, Master Tommytucker was one of those horses that you watched from behind a cushion. So much so, that I think Harry Cobden could’ve rightly asked for double his riding fees if the horse had ran again in the 2019/20 season, after falling in the Kauto Star and Pendril Novice Chases. However, this season, after a wind-op, those jumping errors seem to have been rectified. Despite making errors on seasonal reappearance, when second to Al Dancer, he stayed on his feet. Since then, he has had two confidence-boosting runs when he won slickly by large margins but he has never faced a big-field task like this before and his jumping will be put to the test.
Last time, Master Tommytucker had Good Boy Bobby fifteen lengths behind and he, along with Al Dancer, are Nigel Twiston-Davies’ representatives in this. Good Boy Bobby won on his first start for new owners in good style at Bangor in October but was convincingly beaten by Master Tommytucker. There’s an 11lbs split between them in the handicap now. Sam Twiston-Davies rides the likeable grey, Al Dancer. He ran creditably in defeat on all three occasions after his first success over fences last October at Cheltenham. The win at Newton Abbot in October, over a few yards longer than this, was a welcomed one. Last time, he was third, beaten a little over four lengths, in the Paddy Power Gold Cup. He peeked on landing at the last and then plugged on, beaten by Coole Cody, who carried 1st3lbs less. He’ll like it if the ground doesn’t get too soft.
Coole Cody has been put up 6lbs for his front-running performance, where connections took home over £78,000. It is amazing that he even got round with some of the shocking jumps he put in. He ran boldly from the front, uncaring that he went through a few fences. He’s a really exciting nine-year-old from a yard who are starting to hit form again. He enjoys good ground and it was the first time out for Evan Williams when he won a novice chase by ten lengths in August. He was second over a trip too far in September before following Southfield Stone, beaten one and half lengths over a shorter trip. That was off equal weights but now Southfield Stone carries 2lbs more. This horse was beaten seventeen lengths next time out in class two novices’ chase and was dropped 1lbs for that. He has never raced in a big field like this before so Coole Cody’s experience could help to reverse the form.
Saint Sonnet, Southfield Stone’s stablemate, also took his chance in the Paddy Power Gold Cup. Unfortunately, he fell when quite well-fancied. Previous to this, he had only had two runs in the UK and, after a four-length win at Catterick, connections threw him in at the deep-end. He ran in the Marsh and finished seventh. Aidan Coleman is booked to ride, which suggests he is third-string from the yard, but he is a brilliant jockey to have on side. The horse wears a tongue-strap for the first time.
Cepage and Romain De Senam have ran in the past few renewals. Cepage was fourth last year and second in 2018. After the good run last season, he was down the field over course and distance on New Years Day but won a grade three in January in great style. Militarian was in behind him. Cepage only went up 1lbs for that but only manged seventh in the competitive Ultima Handicap Chase. He could need the run off of a break. Militarian is right at the bottom of the handicap off a mark of 137. After following in Cepage, he was twelfth in the Kim Muir. On seasonal reappearance, he was a good third, staying on over just short of three miles. He has won over three miles and over one mile seven furlongs. Aged ten now, he is not without a shot but he has a little bit to find. Romain De Senam was fifth in 2017 and pulled up in 2018. His last win was at Newton Abbot in May 2019, beating Tea For Two, believe it or not. He’s a really classy horse on his day and is 3lbs lower than that win for the Skelton team, who he has moved to in recent years.
Northern trainers Brian Ellison and Sue Smith send down Windsor Avenue and Midnight Shadow respectively. Champion jockey Brian Hughes rides WindsorAvenue. This horse is ridiculously consistent, winning six of his twelve starts. He was beaten thirty-eight lengths by Sam Spinner in a grade two after two smart wins at Sedgefield and Carlisle. He fell at Haydock and, when last seen, in November he was only beaten two and a half lengths by the very talented Imperial Aura. He was staying on so the extra 127 yards will do him good. Champagne Mystery has form in behind Imperial Aura as, when last seen, he pulled up in the Northern Trust Handicap. He’s prolific at finishing second. Before Cheltenham, he followed in Greaneteen, who looks like a nice horse. His only win under rules was at this trip and he has had a wind-op. Midnight Shadow won the Dipper Novices Chase, a grade two, on New Years Day. Subsequently, he was second in a grade one next time before coming sixth in the Marsh. On reappearance, he was a poor tenth in the Old Roan. He normally needs the reappearance effort.
Darragh O’Keeffe is a jockey who people might not know a lot about in England. This season, he has given some amazing rides like on Sayce Gold for Mick Winters last Sunday. He teams up with the same trainer to ride Chatham Street Lad here at Cheltenham in this race. I was delighted when I saw his name amongst the entries on Tuesday as I was keen on him last Saturday but he unfortunately sustained a stone bruise. At the start of the season, he got over a 463-day absence to win at Ballinrobe. A 7 day absence proved difficult and he was fifth next time out. Last time, he was an easy winner at Cork and I don’t think connections would send him over if he didn’t have a great chance. The yard has had just two runners at Cheltenham and one placed second. The other ‘Lad’ in the race is Drumconnor Lad, who’s jockey, Connor Brassil, will wear similar colours to that of the aforementioned ‘Lad’. He won on his second start of the campaign on heavy ground in good style. Last time, he was taken off his feet a little bit over two miles in a more competitive race. He’s a dual winner over this trip but I would be surprised of he featured.
It is good to see Benatar back after 693 days. His last win was in a grade two novices chase in December 2017. He was third in a JLT next time and put in some good runs before we last saw him coming seventh to Cyrname in January 2019. He may just need it on his return but the yard is going well. Huntsman Son won last time out. It was his first run since May 2019 when he won a listed chase with some smart horses behind him. For that, he has been put up 9lbs, which is slightly harsh, but he’s extremely unexposed for a ten-year-old. He should love the ground and Kielan Woods is a very good jockey.
Annie Mc, the mare, completes the line-up. She scores a hattrick of wins around the turn of the year over fences at this trip. She was thought good enough to go to the Marsh, where she finished ninth. On her seasonal return, she was seventh in the Old Roan, ahead of Midnight Shadow. Whilst she was left outpaced in that race, she is only six and I guess her target will be the new mares chase in March at the Festival.
I think I’m going to side with CHATHAM STREET LAD. I don’t think this horse would’ve been sent over here if he didn’t have a very good chance. Coole Cody will run well after the brilliant win last time and I hope the horse who came third that day, Al Dancer,goes well too. If Windsor Avenue builds on the second from last time out, he will feature. Huntsman Son can’t be ignored either.
I always like to ask my Twitter followers who they think will win each race I preview as part of ‘The Saturday Focus’. Here is what they told me and, as always, join in the conversation over at my Twitter page.
Punchestown and Cork host two very exciting cards with the Kerry Group Hilly Way Chase taking centre stage at Cork, while the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase is the feature at Punchestown.
The John Durkan looks a very strong race on paper and could very well be the most competitive field we will see this side of Christmas. Eight runner will head to post for 1:40, all eight of those have been previously placed in the top three of a Grade 1 over fences. The Willie Mullins trained, Min sets the standard. He won lasts years renewal of the race before going onto win the Ryanair chase at Cheltenham later in the season. He brings a rating of 169 into the race, and if running to that will take a lot of beating.
Chris’s Dream is next in the market behind Min, he ran a very good race at Down Royal, just getting edged out of it by an inform The Storyteller. I would have a slight concern with him dropping in trip albeit he won over the distance three starts back. He was work man like on that occasion when getting the better of Shattered Love, I think he is better over further and may struggle back in trip.
Allaho is a very interesting horse back in trip. He went toe to toe with Minella Indo in the RSA before tiring late on and being passed by Champ and Minella Indo. I think the drop in trip will be a major plus for him but may come on for the run and experience over fences. He has only has the three runs over fences to date and was not foot perfect at some of his fences last year. He was bet first time out last year and wouldn’t be surprised if he comes on plenty for the run.
I would be keen on the chances of Samcro and Battleoverdoyen, with slight preference for Samcro. Both of these met at Down Royal when Battleoverdoyen was a convincing winner and was strong in the market on the day. Samcro was relatively weak in the market and lost all chance of winning when making a mistake three fences from home. I think he will come on a lot for the run but he will have to. He showed his willing attitude to battle at Cheltenham that not many thought he had. He battled gamely to beat Melon who seems to always show his best at Cheltenham, with Faugheen back in third. He will have to improve from the Down Royal run but I think he will and can go very close with Jack Kennedy in the saddle.
The Gain Supporting Laois GAA Beginners Chase deserves a mention, this race over two miles catches the eye with some exciting horses declared, none more so than the Henry De Bromhead trained Captain Guinness. He returns to the track after a below par run last time out. Alpfa Mix, Jungle Junction and Midnight Run makes it a nice race to hopefully sit back and enjoy.
My only other selection on the card at Punchestown to go with Samcro runs in the Visit IrishracingYearbook.com For The Perfect Racing Gift Handicap Chase over an extended three miles and a furlong. I am siding with one of the outsiders of the field, Wishmoor. He ran a nice race for along way over course and distance last time out, before getting tired and pulling up before the last. He has fallen to a mark of 112 and I think he can be very competitive off this kind of mark. He notched up a couple of seconds towards the back end of last season off similar marks. I think he is overpriced at the 33/1 that is available and can outrun those odds.
The feature race at Cork is the Hilly Way Chase over two miles and 160 yards. The headline act is Chacun Pour Soi who makes his seasonal reappearance. He proved himself to be top class last season when winning at the Dublin Racing Festival beating Min. It was unfortunate he missed Cheltenham being a late withdrawel. This looks a nice opportunity to start off the season and should be a good race to sit back and enjoy.
The only horse I like at Cork runs in the penultimate race in the JP McManus colours, Pike County. He broke many peoples heart when coming to grieve at the last at Navan last time out. He looked to have the race at his mercy when coming down. He got a two pound rise for it but that should be no issue. Top conditional Simon Torrens gets the leg up and claims five pound. I think he will take a lot of beating and is my strongest selection of the day.
William Hill Becher Handicap Chase (Grade Three) (1:30 Aintree, Saturday 5th December)
Racing returns to the Grand National fences for two races this Saturday. My focus lies on the Becher Chase. The race is named after Martin Becher, who is one of the founders of the Grand National but is most famous for getting unseated from his horse Conrad and sheltering in one of the brooks, waiting for their soaring rivals to come past. He is immortalised in the name of the first ditch on the National course (‘Becher’s Brook’) and in this race’s title. Horses tackle twenty-one unique and challenging fences over the three mile one furlong trip. This race is always one of the highlights of this time of the year for me. We could be seeing a few of the fourteen runners contest the Grand National in April.
Since its inauguration, in 1992, two horses who have done the double between this race and the Grand National – but never in the same season. Amberleigh House won this in 2001 and won the greatest steeplechase of them all in 2004. Remarkably, Amberleigh House raced around the Grand National course on eleven occasions and he never fell. Silver Birch was the winner of this in 2004 and, in 2007, under top jockey Robbie Power for Irish maestro Gordon Elliott, he was victorious in the Grand National by three quarters of a length.
In recent years, the horse who has gone closest to winning both races is Walk In The Mill. He was a four and a half lengths winner of this in 2018 and followed it up with a fourth place finish in the 2019 Grand National, sixteen lengths behind Tiger Roll. Later in the year, he won the Becher Chase for the second time, equalling Hello Bud’s record, by two and a half lengths. In 2020, Walk In The Mill has thirteen rivals, with the absence of Give Me A Copper, between him and his third win in the race. You can never discount this horse over these obstacles. He goes on soft ground but may prefer it on the good side of soft – it isn’t something to worry about particularly though. He is off a mark of 149, 8lbs more than his win in this last year after a second placed finish over hurdles and seventh in competitive company over a trip too short. He only has 11st2 to carry, which isn’t a treacherous burden.
Four of the other runners followed in Walk In The Mill last year – KimberliteCandy, Le Breuil, Vieux Lion Rouge and Minellacelebration. Only two and a half lengths split Walk In The Mill and Kimberlite Candy. There, the dual winner was carrying 10st8 and Kimberlite Candy had 10st4 on his back. This year, the positions are reversed with Kimberlite Candy on 11st6 and Walk In The Mill on 11st2. From this, Walk In The Mill looks to have the beating of Kimberlite Candy but I really like this horse. He has shot up the handicap because, next time out, he was a brilliant winner of the Classic Chase over three miles five, 329 days ago. He has form on testing ground and he often runs well off a break. It was a shame that the Grand National was cancelled (obviously the reasoning was completely fair) because I said straight after the race that he would win the big race. Bold claims but I definitely think so. I am really looking forward to seeing him back in action. I’m sure the Grand National will be the target this year.
Le Breuil is a horse that connections are desperate to run in the Grand National because he would be very well-suited. He won the National Hunt Chase in 2019 over just short of four miles and he had a clear round over these obstacles twelve months ago, coming seventh. Since the Cheltenham Festival in, he has been well-beaten, which has done bad things for his handicap mark. He likes soft ground but is sort of hovering in the gap of never having a mark good enough to go in the races he’d run well in. As of 11th February 2020, the first stage entries for the Grand National, bottom weight (number 40) was off a mark of 151. (Admittedly, the race did contain Delta Work, Tiger Roll, Bristol De Mai and Native River, who were 169+ rated.) Le Breuil had no chance of getting in if the race had gone ahead and even Ramses De Teillee, Kimberlite Candy and Walk In The Mill were out of the top forty in the early stage. Connections are really going to want Le Breuil to win this to boost his mark which is currently 141. That aids him in this though as he only carried 10st8. Kielan Woods, my jockey to follow for the season, takes the ride.
Vieux Lion Rouge finished ninth in this last year; second, four and a half lengths behind Walk In The Mill, in 2018; seventh in 2017 and he won off 142 by a short head in 2016, remarkably. He is 2lbs lower than that gutsy win in this renewal. He won his first start last season over three miles under Connor O’Farrell off 142, but, since then he has been well-beaten. This horse is a seasoned professional over National fences and O’Farrell will have a great spin round. He came fifth last time behind Minellacelebration, with Joe Farrell fourth. That was the second leg of Minellacelebration’s recent double. The first start was a neck victory in July in a listed race at Uttoxeter. Next time, in October, he on by fourteen lengths. He led before the last and won convincingly. He has won ten of his thirty-four starts and thoroughly stays the trip. So does Joe Farrell. In April 2018, he won the Scottish Grand National on good ground off a mark of 135. When he pulled up behind Minellacelebration, he never travelled and lost his left fore shoe. He hasn’t won since Ayr.
If the 2020 Grand National had taken place and their individual training had gone well, Aso, Jett and Yala Enki were all, assured a run. Jett comes over from the Jessica Harrington yard and he is her only runner on the card. This horse won a grade three in October last year but has been well-beaten since, albeit in very good company. He hadn’t previously shown a liking for this trip before that success as his wins had come over two miles four furlongs or less. He is a very interesting runner and he is Sam Waley-Cohen’s only ride on the card. He has a sensational record over these fences. Aso had a crashing fall in the Virtual Grand National (which was brutal by the race’s creators) but thankfully he lives to fight another day. [Our own Lois Davis can’t fancy him after that though! Check out her tweet below] He is yet to experience the Grand National fences in real life and I hope the computer predictions don’t tell the story of this race! He is such a classy horse and was once even second in a Ryanair. On his seasonal reappearance, he was beaten just over fifteen lengths, off top weight, in the Paddy Power Gold Cup and he does occasionally need his reappearance. Venetia Williams’ horses are running very well at the minute.
Yala Enki and Ramses De Teillee had a thrilling, ding-dong battle up the Cheltenham Hill last time out. Ramses De Teillee, off 11st5, was the winner by a short head to Yala Enki, who carried 11st12. That was over three miles three furlongs. Last season, this horse was campaigned with the Grand National completely in mind. They utilised the fact that he was still a novice for him to win two good grade twos. He then finished thirteenth in the Albert Bartlett. He has only ever pulled up over these fences, which was in the 2019 Grand National. However, that is quite deceptive as he had a clear round but his rein broke after the last and the jockey pulled up. Overall, he is a good jumper and I would be surprised if he didn’t finish. Yala Enki carries top weight with 5lbs splitting him and the aforementioned horse. He won over three miles four at Taunton in January after coming third in the Welsh National. After the win, he was twenty lengths behind Smooth Stepper giving him 1st7lbs. It will be YalaEnki’s first experience of National fences and, with top weight, this could be a tough ask for him.
Smooth Stepper will carry 10st9 and runs for the in-form Alex Hales yard, who could have success in the following race with the lovely Hiconic. Smooth Stepper won the Haydock Grand National Trial by one and a half lengths over three miles four on heavy ground. He was put up 11lbs and finished fifth, only beaten ten lengths, at Sandown in November. I feel like he would be better suited to a longer trip but his stamina will be handy and he is very interesting over these fences at the age of eleven.
Callipso Collonges has his first run for 350 days. His last win was over two miles four in December 2018 and, when last seen, he was beaten thirteen lengths by Lord Du Mesnil over this trip on heavy ground. He has a tiny weight of 10st to carry with the talented Danny McMenamin on board, claiming 3lbs. Calett Mad hasn’t been seen for 693 days. Now eight, the last race he ran in was the Classic Chase in 2019 and he ran a blinder for second. His last win was a listed hurdle over three miles by thirty-one lengths. He stays extremely well. This could be tough for him off such a long absence but he is extremely exciting horse for the future. Coo Star Sivola was a good fifth on his reappearance a few weeks ago, after 610 days off. He won the Ultima in 2018 and, since then, he has dropped 5lbs. I look forward to seeing him over National fences.
Overall, the most important thing is that all horses and jockeys come home safe and sound from both races over the National fences – and all of the races round Britain and Ireland this weekend. For this race, I am going to side with KIMBERLITE CANDY – his brilliant Classic Chase win has been stuck in my mind all through lockdown and I can’t wait to see him back on a racetrack. Richie McLernon is riding brilliantly lately. I hope Walk In The Mill runs well because it would be amazing to see him make history. I’m sure Dido Harding, his owner, would love for him to win and end the year on a good note after the ‘Track and Trace’ catastrophe. At a bigger price, Aso and Smooth Stepper are interesting.
At this point, I like to showcase what my Twitter followers think because, after all, it is game of opinions and there are plenty in this.
As always, head over to my Twitter if you want to join in the conversation. Enjoy the racing and best of luck!!