Weatherbys' weekend racing preview
Paul Jones of Weatherbys previews this weekend's televised races. Read his thoughts below.
If you are a big trainer with a big horse in terms of talent, it makes sense to warn everyone else days in advance you plan to run one of the stable stars in a certain race as that therefore frightens off meaningful opposition meaning he gets an easy ride of it and, disappointingly, that is what has occurred with Binocular here who is going to start at very cramped odds.
Disappointing at Newcastle on his return, he ran better at Kempton next time after a bad mistake (his jumping is usually his strong point) and a reproduction of either of those runs will see him win this on the bridle and his trainer expects him to improve for this stiffer track as he now believes Kempton is on the sharp side for him.
We are going to learn nothing new about his Champion Hurdle credentials here but Nicky Henderson used to like to run See You Then in what was the equivalent of this race in the 1980s and Celtic Shot was second in this race before winning the Champion Hurdle in 1988. For forecast purposes, as Marodima can be a headcase then Dee Ee Williams, who was a pattern-race winner over hurdles during his novice season, is a more safe option so I make him the one to follow Binocular home.
Sue Smith has trained the last two winners of this race and is represented by the bottom weight Flake who came good here on his last start two months ago in heavy ground over 3m1f so this 2m4f on better ground could catch him out.
There are some disappointing types in this race as Bible Lord continues to blow it with his jumping, Donaldson has two ways of running, Battlecry is essentially disappointing now and Yes Sir is unpredictable and prefers better ground. Therefore I think that Frankie Figg may be able to take advantage.
Impressive at Aintree on his seasonal debut, he was still in front and going well when falling over the Grand National fences last time and has been given plenty of time to get over that experience. Flat, left-handed tracks with long home straights such as this look his bag.
The horse I would throw in at possibly a big price is Regal Heights who was being trained for a valuable handicap last week and attracted some interest at huge odds before the race was abandoned. This wouldn't be anywhere near as competitive and he could make a mockery of his recent appalling form figures now he is with Tom George (for whom he has only had one run). Sa Suffit has his chance if we can forgive his last run. In short, if Frankie Figg gets into a rhythm he could prove hard to peg back.
Not quite a walkover for Punchestowns, far from it in fact, but he will start at very short odds with Tchico Polos and Pocket Aces likely to test him at some point. Jumping is all-important for novices over this course and, as Punchestowns has just the one chase start under his belt, that would be the slight worry and I imagine McCoy on the sound-jumping, front runner Tchico Polos, who has more experience, will try and test that part of his game.
Not beaten far by Somersby and Crack Away Jack over 2m here in December, he failed to stay in the Feltham but shaped like the second best horse in the race over 3m so this 2m4f looks ideal for him. Pocket Aces won his last two starts before being pulled up in that Feltham and he can be thereabouts on this layout that can lend itself to tighter finishers if they have found a reason for that poor effort. Around here, it wouldn't totally shock me if Tchico Polos can really serve it up to Punchestowns in a tactical affair with his sound jumping under an aggressive McCoy so it will be interesting to watch.
Knockara Beau versus Weird Al part two but this time over 3m1f. When they first met at Cheltenham in November, it was Weird Al that had the edge by a neck over 2m5f but he was receiving 8lbs and some felt that Jan Faltejsek had let him get first run on the runner-up but, then again, he was giving away race fitness having his first start for a year whereas Knockara Beau was race-fit so it's pretty much a toss-up job.
Both have given the impression the step up to 3m1f will not inconvenience them, in fact, I would say that Knockara Beau is crying out for it so, on that basis, I would just give him a very narrow edge. On the face of it, Knockara Beau should have run better when behind Diamond Harry last time when beaten 16 lengths and that is the concern but, I rate him the better of the pair long term, so will stick with him here if pressed to choose between the two.
This race has thrown up a good number of Cheltenham Festival winners down the years so is worth watching very closely with a view to the future. I can easily find reasons not to back plenty of these; Lough Derg is best at Ascot, Arcalis wants good ground, Ashkazar has lost his enthusiasm, Strawberry, Chief Yeoman and Alderluck ran shockers last time out and Magic Sky is 13lbs out of the handicap. Erzen ran a cracker at Kempton on Boxing Day but he couldn't quite get the job done after getting to the winner's hocks on the run-in after being ridden vigorously by McCoy for half a mile but he can't do 10st so Killoran takes the ride and also takes off another 3lbs so this could be his day as I reckon this stiffer, uphill finish will suit him better.
Beshabar is interesting as he looked potentially top class winning the EBF Final here two years ago for Nick Williams and was then bought by Harry Findlay and sent to Paul Nicholls but has had injury problems since then and, although it would be no surprise to see him bounce back, I would rate Silk Affair as the big threat to Erzen.
Last season's 'Fred Winter' winner at the Cheltenham Festival has had the look of a mare that has been lined up for something and the shrewd Mick Quinlan wouldn't be running her from 5lbs wrong if he didn't fancy her and she has course winning form to boot which I like.
Kalahari King is the most significant runner in terms of the Festival but I can't see this being his day on his seasonal debut as he is meaning trained with the Champion Chase in my mind and the defection of Oh Crick has also meant seeing this small, ex-Flat horse move to the top of the handicap.
If he finishes within ten lengths of the winner, I am sure Ferdy Murphy will feel that is just fine with Cheltenham looming. The Nicholls pair of I'msingingtheblues and Free World are next in the weights and the former runs the track well and won this race last season so I prefer him of the pair even though Walsh is on Free World who is a bit of a monkey and he gave him a good waiting ride last time when second at Cheltenham but he strikes me as a hard horse to win on.
Christian Williams won this race on I'msingingtheblues last season so I imagine it was a straightforward decision who rode which horse but I do feel this is a better running and he is 7lbs higher so reckon there are others better handicapped.
Lennon could go way at a double-figure price. He is 4lbs lower than when nabbed on the line in this race two years ago, is lightly-raced since, loves flat tracks and the canny and in-form Howard Johnson may have had this very valuable handicap in mind for him for a long time.
If the ground hasn't turned soft then Leo's Lucky Star off a low weight is another big player as I suspect his yard have also had this race in mind for some time as they know he wants a decent surface and they know Doncaster drains so well.
He won on New Year's Eve on his seasonal debut in style and, given he was taking on top novice hurdlers, he could be nicely treated here running off 135. Oiseau De Nuit would concern me but I don't think Tartak will jump sufficiently well enough, Pepsyrock has plenty to prove after a poor run on his only start this season and Tarotino wants 2m4f.
Killyglen is re-routed here after missing a valuable prize that was abandoned last weekend and this is a front runners' track over fences so it could all fall right for him but I do feel he may be best bossing small fields on smaller tracks.
Exmoor Ranger probably deserves favouritism as he is in-form and progressive but his jumping can be iffy and that worry counts for double around here so I will look elsewhere. Others not for me are Psychomodo who is better at Ascot, Gone To Lunch wants better ground, Monkerhostin who is having his seasonal debut at the age of 13 and Oedipe who has needed his first run for the last two seasons and this is his first run of this campaign.
Massasoit is more interesting being a last-time-out winning novice from the Nicholls yard but he was far from fluent and these fences could catch out that element of his game. Lacdoudal who loves it here having won what was the Whitbread Gold Cup and he was only beaten just over a length in the same race last year. He may now be 11 but that doesn't tend to stop them in Sandown staying handicap chases and I would hope a return to this course aided by Rhys Flint's handy 3lbs claim can see Lacdoudal stage a return to form and he looks the most interesting each-way angle.