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We've teamed up once again with Weatherbys' expert tipster Paul Jones to bring you his thoughts on the big TV races of the day. With the big meeting just weeks away, you might also like to read Paul's weekly Cheltenham Festival previews.
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Given it is heavy ground, I think the first question we have to ask is who will act on this surface?
I am not convinced Stan will appreciate this testing ground or Reveillez who would have to be super fit in this ground on his first run in 637 days and reckon they are working towards the Cheltenham Festival with him.
Mister McGoldrick surely can not repeat his shock Racing Plate win again off top weight, Turko has not looked a happy bunny this year, Battlecry represents the Twiston-Davies yard that has not proved they are out of a slump for me, Too Forward is 13 years of age, The Sawyer and Lidjo De Rouge are up against it from out of the weights and it would take a leap of faith to back Foreman or Bring Me Sunshine.
That leaves Moon Over Miami, Pablo Du Charmil, Private Be and Akilak.
Moon Over Miami ran very well in the Castleford Chase as the starter let them go just as he was turning in whilst the front runners were already galloping towards the tape so he lost a good 15 lengths at the start and could never get into it eventually finishing second. This step up in trip is interesting and he has recorded two Grade 2 wins at the track when the ground was testing so he is a player but he has broken blood vessels twice in his last five starts which is an obvious concern. He certainly has the potential to win if all goes well but given those problems and maybe saver material.
Private Be is honest but just a little too exposed for me but I can see Pablo Du Charmil running very well on his third in the Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase last time out and previous run when winning at this course. I just would like to see the Pipe yard in better form.
Akilak may have gone up 10lbs for winning last time but he won with plenty in hand and is a big player and will be an even bigger player if Kilcrea Asla runs well in the previous race as he dished out a 5l beating to that novice last time out with plenty in hand. He handles soft ground and has winning form on the track so he just gets my vote.
The race conditions greatly favour Star De Mohaison and Halcon Genelardais who are totally unpenalised as haven’t won for over two years so it is no surprise to see them head the market receiving as much as 10lbs from some rivals.
Halcon Genelardais will love the ground but ran terribly in this race two years ago after winning the Welsh National and I recall King saying the race came too soon but here he is again after another big run at Chepstow. I do also feel he is better giving weight away in handicaps than running in conditions races and especially over this trip where he could get tapped for mid-race speed. I am sure he will be running on strongest but would be worried he will leave himself too much to do.
So I would be a Star De Mohaison fan for this race. The common view and reiterated by Nicholls is he doesn’t like soft ground but that didn’t stop him putting up a career-best performance on his seasonal debut which was on soft ground (called g/s but race times that day suggested much softer) off top weight in a hot handicap where the front pair pulled 19 lengths clear at a time Nicholls’ horses were still running flat and his trainer commented last week he has come on a ton for that.
Don’t be put off if Walsh rides Nozic as I figure that is Nicholls’ decision so Geraghty can continue his association on Star De Mohaison on whom he won the SunAlliance, Mildmay Chase and was second on him last time out. Getting the weight, he is my idea of the most likely winner.
I can see Roll Along, running far better than at Sandown last time as this is more his track as he is a galloper and all those fences in quick succession at Esher would just not have suited him. The heavy ground will suit his stamina but he ideally wants much better ground so one could offset the other.
I just don’t think Tidal Bay has been singing this season but the Rowland Meyrick form was franked by the third Cloudy Lane, so Nozic and Tidal Bay have to come into this but I thought it was interesting Howard Johnson stated he has not had the chance to school Tidal Bay properly since his last run due to the weather so has been restricted to jumping poles indoors and was worried the soft ground may not help his jumping. Joe Lively is an each-way price and runs the track very well indeed (3 wins from 6 starts) and is proven in soft ground as he showed when beating Halcon Genelardais by 14 lengths here in November.
The runner-up is a whacking 29lbs better off for those 14 lengths so should have his measure but we have had some strange results in this race, last season being an obvious example. I just think it may set up for him today to run a big race being a front runner on heavy ground on his favourite track and, providing all eight stand their ground, he is of each-way interest.
One of the strongest novice hurdles in the north but I think this will go south to Alan King’s yard courtesy of either Junior or Midnight Sail.
Jockey bookings would suggest Junior is the stable number one but I was really taken with Midnight Sail at Ascot and think he can develop into a live Albert Bartlett Spa Hurdle contender at the Festival and provide the better value of the pair here. I am not sure how much we should read into these kind of things but reading a stable feature on the King yard around a month ago, he nominated Midnight Sail as his horse to follow for the second half of the season feeling he could be a top-class novice over three miles which is today’s trip.
Junior is the form horse having beaten On Raglan Road all ends up at Sandown and then was no match for Diamond Harry but if it came to a scrap I am not sure I would want him on my side at a shortish price.
This used to be a terrible Triumph Hurdle trial but Katchit put that straight two years ago and another Alan King horse, Franchoek, easily justified favouritism last season so am not surprised at all the yard are aiming Walkon at this who is going for a hat-trick of victories. He is unquestionably the one to beat with Zaynar franking the Newbury form in which he finished second and Pepite De Soleil endorsing the Chepstow form which he won so it is all a question of what price you are comfortable with.
I can see Reve De Sivola running on into a place in the Triumph Hurdle if it comes up soft at the Festival so he makes most appeal of the others on heavy ground. He showed his improvement by reversing previous form with Simarian at Chepstow last time where he finished 5 lengths adrift of Walkon but Alan King reports the winner has improved since so I don’t think he will reverse with the current third favourite for the Triumph Hurdle. With seven runners, each-way betting does not appeal so it’s either back Walkon or walk away.
I think Higgy’s Boy runs here to give Henderson an idea as to where he stands with Zaynar and just don’t get the vibes they think he is anyway near the class of their main Triumph Hurdle hope.
A lowish-weighted mudlark could be the way to go so can see why Verasi has been supported but he does have three poor runs on the spin to overcome.
Alexanderthegreat has been in great heart this season at Cheltenham and has each-way claims for sure if he can translate that form elsewhere as is nicely weighted and handles soft ground but I would just prefer a horse not so exposed which brings in Montgermont. I fancied him for the Peter Marsh Chase last week as felt he was well handicapped, would improve for the step up to 3m and love the soft ground so I have to fancy him again as nothing has altered in those respects but this time he is a double-figure price.
Caroline Bailey blamed his first-fence exit on his being too fresh and if that element of his game can be sorted out, he could easily win this.
Big Fella Thanks, Laskari and According To Pete are all novices that don’t appear to be thrown in so would that worry me and Possol was well beaten last time suggesting the handicapper may have got him so I fear Fier Normand most. I had him marked down as an O’Neill-McManus plot horse for one of the handicaps at last season’s Festival but he never got there but there was a lot to like about his staying-on second last time over 2m5f at Cheltenham behind Stan so this easy 3m could be ideal.
Featuring four of the first five in the betting for the World Hurdle line up, each-way thieves who don’t fancy the odds-on about Punchestowns will be out in force.
I do think it is hard to get away from Punchestown on his easy Long Walk Hurdle win which puts him 10lbs clear of his rivals on official figures but that will be reflected in his price but I won’t be looking to oppose him. Blazing Bailey with the blinkers back on for the first time this season that made such a big difference when applied at Aintree and Punchestown is interesting as he always runs well at Cheltenham and beat Inglis Drever in this contest two years ago. He is being trained to improve with each race this season leading up to the World Hurdle so I expect him to progress again on his Long Walk Hurdle fourth where he ran well for a long way and confirm placings with Pettifour and Lough Derg but having to give weight to Big Buck’s and Fair Along (8lbs in the former’s case) tempers enthusiasm.
The heavier the ground the better his chance as he stays for forever and a day.
Fair Along is admirable and also runs the track well so reckon he will run his race but I can’t help thinking of him as being below top class. If you asked me which of the three could improve sufficiently to have a chance of beating an in-form Punchestowns I would nominate Big Buck’s even though he is lowest rated but the fact Nicholls has always held him in the very highest regard should not be lost on anyone and he has a few good ones to know.