By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)
The Rowland Meyrick at Wetherby has been a Christmas highlight for sixty-five years. With its trip of three miles, this premier handicap saw its heyday in the 1980s when both Forgive N’ Forget and The Thinker won the race en route to Cheltenham Gold Cup glory. Even though the field has decreased by over half since declarations, the quality has remained.
It would perhaps be a surprise for one of these twelve runners to win the coveted prize in March, but Chantry House was widely considered a potential Gold Cup contender after his almost-perfect campaign as a novice chaser. Nicky Henderson used Wetherby as a confidence-boosting outing in preparation for the spring festivals and it was extremely effective as Chantry House won at both Cheltenham and Aintree. It appeared as though he would continue on that upward trajectory into open company when he demolished The Big Breakaway in the listed intermediate chase at Sandown. However, after this, arguably, he has not put in a good performance. He was never comfortable in the King George and pulled up. Next time, he did win the Cotswold Chase, but he travelled poorly and kept clipping the top of his obstacles. Luckily, he remained on his feet but finished exhausted. He couldn’t keep jockey James Bowen on board when taking a long stride at the fourth obstacle in the Many Clouds Chase earlier this month and he is vulnerable to a silly mistake, as seen in his first point-to-point. At Aintree, he was having his first start since a wind operation after being pulled up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It is fair to assume connections have been underwhelmed with his last two starts, especially as Henderson reportedly said that they had him spot-on for the Many Clouds Chase. It is only the second time Robbie Dunne will have ridden for Nicky Henderson after Queens Rock earlier on the card and this will be Chantry House’s first experience of a handicap. The horse has immense amounts of class, but the fact he has not finished three of his last four races has to be a concern.
JP McManus is double handed in the race with Chantry House and Sporting John. Trained by Phillip Hobbs, Sporting John was a surprise winner of the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase in 2021 after being beaten thirty-three lengths in a beginners chase behind Fiddlerontheroof and Silver Hallmark. It could be argued that the trip of two miles three was too short for Sporting John, but the first two made it a good test of stamina, something that Sporting John has proven himself to have. Fiddlerontheroof finished fifth in the Grand National last season so he had less right to be winning over that trip. The good to soft ground shouldn’t have been a problem for Sporting John; he just didn’t find anything off the bridle. He trailed behind the pack in the Scilly Isles on very heavy ground and it was masterful from Richard Johnson to give the horse time and he was produced perfectly. He fell in the 2021 Brown Advisory when detached and a mistake knocked his confidence at Aintree, when he was pulled up. Connections chose to send him over hurdles after that and he hasn’t been seen over fences since. He has run just once this term and he was beaten convincingly enough by Proschema. Like Chantry House, he has a lot of class, but it remains to be seen whether Sporting John is up to a chasing task like this.
On the other hand, there is no doubt Top Ville Ben is tailor-made for this race. He won it back in 2019, carrying the largest weight (11st11lbs) to victory since Merrymen carried 12st6lbs in 1960, and finished third in 2021. Like Sporting John, he mixes between running over hurdles and fences, mainly to protect his handicap mark for the Grand National. He pulled up after three out in 2022’s renewal and, on seasonal reappearance, he finished a very tired third in a class three handicap hurdle at Lingfield, carrying 12st1lbs. He has had nearly fifty days off the track and is 7lbs lower than when he won this and 3lbs lower than last year’s renewal. Philip Kirby has had only one runner over obstacles in the last fortnight, which raises a slight concern about his horses’ form, but he has sent out two winners on the flat. However, Top Ville Ben is admirably consistent and loves Wetherby.
Lostintranslation and Windsor Avenue, like Top Ville Ben, are ten-year-olds. Lostintranslation has been superb horse for the Tizzard team over the last five years. The racing community will, no doubt, be wishing him and the other runners from the yard lots of success during the Christmas period with the loss of Cue Card recently and the Welsh Grand National being ran in the memory of Kim Gingell, Joe Tizzard’s late sister. Lostintranslation has his own emotional story with his colours resembling the Minions, a film loved by the owners’ late son. Kielan Woods rides the horse for the first time and it could be his first time riding for the yard, too. Lostintranslation finished third in the 2020 Cheltenham Gold Cup and pulled up in the 2021 renewal. He only made his handicap debut in the Ultima Handicap Chase in 2022 and he got round in the Grand National next time out. His seasonal reappearance for the 2022/23 season was in the Coral Gold Cup, where he did not get a particularly good start, meaning he was on the back foot throughout and was last of the finishers.
Fanion D’Estruval had a similarly poor start to the Coral Gold Cup and, jumping occasionally right, he was never in touch with the back markers of the main group, even when turning for home. However, he did stay on through beaten horses under a persistent Lucy Turner, who rides him again here. He has run in the last two Ryanair Chases and the Coral Gold Cup trip was by far the furthest he had ever raced, but he seemed to stay so this three mile trip should be in his capabilities. Considering he has never won a graded race, his consistency has hampered him as he finds himself with top weight against some classy rivals. Turner’s 5lbs claim will be useful and Venetia Williams has placed her graded performers in handicaps with much success this season, including L’Homme Presse in the Rehearsal Chase on the same day as the Coral Gold Cup.
The Rehearsal Chase from Newcastle offers hints for this contest as three runners reappear here – Into Overdrive, Windsor Avenue and Aye Right. Into Overdrive had an excellent end to last season when connections put cheekpieces on him and it worked brilliantly. He won three races with the first of which off 112 and his reappearance for this season came in a premier handicap at Wetherby over two miles three and a half furlongs. He was clearly the leader when stumbling at three out and asserted with impressive ease. He earned his place in the Rehearsal Chase field and shared the lead with L’Homme Presse throughout. He got lit up occasionally after making some slight errors and did get slightly close to the last, but he stayed on with a brilliant attitude. He went up 10lbs for that success but finds himself at the bottom of the handicap here and he is an exciting horse for the Mark Walford team.
Windsor Avenue had to be pushed along in the early stages to keep his position, but, where it mattered, he stayed on well into fourth in the Rehearsal Chase. Connections took off the blinkers he had been wearing for his previous four starts. They had worked wonders for the first outing when he won the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster bravely. After that, the ground for the Premier Chase at Kelso went against him and he did not seem to enjoy the Topham over Grand National fences. His jumping was poor on his reappearance in a veterans’ chase at Aintree, so much so Nathan Moscrop pulled him up. The headgear is kept off for this race after he ran much better at Newcastle.
Aye Right put in an uncharacteristically poor performance in the Rehearsal Chase. It was the first time he had ever been pulled up and he was well-beaten by the last fence down the back straight. Normally, he likes to lead so, as there was nothing physically wrong with him, he perhaps just did not enjoy being boxed in on the rail. Typically, he travels very well as was seen in the Cotswold Chase when he didn’t quite last home against Chantry House and he led the Gold Cup field for the middle part of the race before weakening out of it. He was out-classed on those two occasions, but he is typically comfortable at this level, shown when he won the Rehearsal Chase in 2021 and placed in the Ultima earlier that year. Similar to Fanion D’Estruval, Aye Right has been admirably consistent without winning and his handicap mark reflects this, which makes him vulnerable to some of his younger, less exposed rivals.
For example, Shan Blue has a handicap mark of 148, which appears to be underestimating his ability. He started his chasing career at Wetherby with two successes, including a course and distance win. He won the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase two Christmases ago and he followed in Sporting John in the Scilly Isles. He perhaps hit the front too soon after taking on Paint The Dream for the lead, meaning Sporting John was able to catch him. He followed in Chantry House at both the Cheltenham and Aintree festivals, so there is ground to be made up with this rival. Last season, Shan Blue was 2/1 favourite for the Charlie Hall Chase and would have romped in as he was twenty lengths ahead before falling at three out. He met a setback in between that race and his next start in the Ryanair where he was sixth of seven. He probably needed the run at that trip as he ran much better next time at the Aintree festival. He had 11st5lbs in a handicap over three miles and he was second to Sam Brown. This is Shan Blue’s first trip and, if he is fit after over two hundred and sixty days off, he will be a player.
Kalashnikov has been off the track for six hundred and forty-eight days and his last win came in a grade one novice chase at Aintree in April 2019. Since then, he has only run eight times and he is far from straight forward, but Amy Murphy and her team know him so well. He has ran consistently in good races, including finishing fourth to Allaho in the 2021 Ryanair when he was last seen. He had cheekpieces and a tongue tie on that day, but connections have removed the cheekpieces for this race. Even though he has been off the track for almost two years, he is still only nine years old and can be competitive in future good handicaps. This is a tough ask off such a long break, however.
Amy Murphy trains Kalashnikov for her father and Ruth Jefferson is looking to emulate her own father, Malcolm, by winning this race. The late trainer saddled the winner in both 2011 and 2012 with According To Pete and Cape Tribulation. Cape Tribulation finished fifth in the West Yorkshire Hurdle as his preparation for the race, which Sporting John came fourth in. Ruth has Sounds Russian, who has only had ten starts, in this year’s renewal. It appears chasing would always be his game and he won his second, third and fourth starts over the bigger obstacles. He ran a blinder in the Novices’ Champion Handicap Chase at Ayr when getting to within half a length of Dusart. His step into open company started flawlessly in the Edinburgh Gin Handicap Chase at Kelso on 22nd October. He beat Aye Right, who was carrying 6lbs more, but, two months later, Sounds Russian is rated 1lbs higher than his rival and, with Aye Right’s claimer taking off 5lbs, they meet on numerically unfavourable terms. However, when comparing their most recent races, Sounds Russian comes out on top. He ran in the Many Clouds Chase, which Chantry House unseated in, and he was only beaten four and a quarter lengths in fourth place. To get so close to Grand National winner Noble Yeats, Dashel Drasher and Ahoy Senor is the standout piece of form on offer. If he replicates that, he has a sensational chance.
Last but not least is the second of the two Phillip Hobbs runners, Zanza. This son of Arcadia has already had three starts this season. His reappearance effort in October over hurdles was poor, but he went to Wetherby next time with blinkers on, which seemed to invigorate him. The trip was two miles, three and a half furlongs so he was occasionally out-paced. A poor jump at the last didn’t help his chances and he had to give 6lbs to a horse who was rated 1lbs higher than him. The winning margin was less than two lengths and that race probably put him spot on for the Sir Peter O’Sullevan memorial race at Newbury. He was emphatic; he asserted as they jumped two out and streaked twelve lengths clear. He was put up 10lbs by the handicapper for that to 144, but his highest career mark has been 148 so, with hindsight, he was probably extremely well-handicapped for the Newbury race. Even still, if he is feeling up for it again, he is a contender.
This is a fascinating race because the race contains seasoned handicappers and classy graded performers, who have some question marks about them. Chantry House’s jumping is a concern and he has not finished a race in a while, but this contest, whilst competitive, is much easier than he is used to. Sporting John has not had a run over fences since April 2021. Shan Blue has the break to overcome, but, judging by the performance he was going to put in before falling in the 2021 Charlie Hall, he could be well-handicapped. The value in the race could be Top Ville Ben at 25/1. He has won and placed in the race before and has been rated as high as 164 in his pomp. The only horse to have been rated higher is Lostintranslation, who achieved a career high mark of 173 but won off 161, and he is not ‘gone at the game’. Sounds Russian’s run last time was very straightforward and he proved himself to not be out-of-place in grade two company. However, carrying 11st12lbs could make him vulnerable here. As a result, INTO OVERDRIVE looks an appealing option. He showed all the desirable characteristics of a contender for this kind of race and he also showed he still had improvement to come with some moments of keenness after a mistake. Mark Walford is an underrated trainer and Into Overdrive should be able to put in a bold show here and fly the flag for the yard.
1st Choice – Into Overdrive
2nd Choice – Sounds Russian
EW – Top Ville Ben