As the February days count down, we are getting to that time of year when the National Hunt season reaches a crescendo. Not long now until those fabulous four days in March of the Cheltenham Festival, with the Aintree extravaganza of the Grand National meeting coming soon after.
However, it would be wrong to wish our lives away dreaming of Cheltenham and Aintree. There is plenty of racing to enjoy before that springtime double act, and it’s not all about the jumping either. This coming Saturday sees the ITV cameras provide a mixed menu of Flat and National Hunt fare, as the team divides their resources between Lingfield, Kempton, and Newcastle.
Highlights amongst the seven races on offer include the Winter Derby Stakes from Lingfield, the marathon Eider Chase from Newcastle, and Kempton’s Grade 2 double act of the Adonis Hurdle and Pendil Novices’ Chase. As usual, seven races, here’s hoping for some winners.
1:30 BetUK Hever Sprint Stakes
We have some fast and furious action from Lingfield to get things underway, in what looks a fiendishly tight contest on paper. However, if recent editions are anything to go by, the draw may be the pivotal factor here, with eight of the past 10 editions of this minimum-distance sprint having fallen to a runner emerging from stall five or below.
Applying that trend cuts this year’s field in half, and of the quintet who remain, the one we like best is Karl Burke’s Exalted Angel. This one went down by only ¾l in a Listed contest at this track last time out despite lugging badly right-handed at times. Connections reach for the first-time visor here, which should hopefully straighten him out, and he’s taken to go very close under Clifford Lee.
1:50 Coral Adonis Juvenile Hurdle
Grade 2, 2m
The Milton Harris-trained Scriptwriter sets the form standard having already won one and been narrowly beaten in another Grade 2 contest already this season. However, he will be shouldered with a 5lb penalty here, which won’t make life easy in a field crammed with potential.
The one we fancy may lower his colours is the Paul Nicholls representative, Rare Middleton. Nicholls has won this three times in the past 10 years, with similarly lightly raced sorts, and may have another likely candidate on his hands with this son of Aclaim. Having shown a decent level of form on the Flat over in Ireland, Rare Middleton looked in need of the run on hurdling debut at Taunton but still won with something up his sleeve. Seemingly held in high regard by his astute handler, he looks to possess the ability to handle this step up in class.
2:05 BetUK Winter Derby Stakes
Group 3, 1m2f
Purely on ratings, John Gosden’s Lord North should be up to taking this – being fully 13lb clear of his nearest rival. On the downside, he was beaten by 2½l in this race 12 months ago and, as a seven-year-old, also has the age trend against him – with nine of the last 10 editions falling to a runner aged six or younger. Priced at the odds-on price of just 8/11, he may well win, but doesn’t rate an attractive betting proposition to our eyes.
Take a chance instead on the Roger Varian-trained five-year-old, Tyrrhenian Sea. Three from five on the all-weather overall, his only previous effort over this trip on Polytrack resulted in an unlucky-in-running fourth at Kempton at around this time last year. He may need the jolly to underperform if he is to win but looks solid value to at least hit the frame.
2:25 Coral Pendil Novices’ Chase
Grade 2, 2m4½f
Just the 5 go to post in the first of the graded class events from Kempton, but anything the race lacks in numbers is made up for in quality and potential. Solo will be popular with many, with his trainer Paul Nicholls having landed six of the past 10 editions of this, whilst Nicky Henderson’s mare, Tweed Skirt, already boasts an emphatic course and distance success to her name.
Overall though, we fancy the market may have this just about right in favouring the Harry Fry-trained, Boothill. This one’s only two defeats over fences this season have come at the hands of the talented duo of Jonbon and Tommy’s Oscar, whilst the pick of his efforts came when landing the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase at this track in December. With the runner-up that day having since won the hugely competitive Betfair Hurdle, the form looks solid, and he rates the most likely winner.
3:00 Coral Trophy Handicap Chase
Premier Handicap, 3m
The Christian Williams-trained, Cap Du Nord, bids to land this event for the second year in succession. If he’s in anything like the same form as when scoring at Ascot last time out, he may take some stopping. He is tempting, but there are a few factors which just sway us elsewhere.
Firstly he is 8lbs higher than 12 months ago, secondly, that most recent win came only seven days ago and that is a quick turnaround for any horse. Thirdly, he is 10 years old now, which is older than each of the past 10 winners of this, so not only does that recent last race look a question mark, he also has age trends against him.
The admirable, and no doubt well-backed Frodon is another for the shortlist and seems likely to make his usual bold bid from the front, but the one to just get the vote is the Evan Williams-trained, Annsam. This one fluffed his lines in the race last year when his jumping let him down, but he showed he could handle these fences with aplomb when hacking up by 17l over course and distance last time out. He’s up 7lbs for that, but as a relatively lightly raced eight-year-old is a good fit on the trends and can go close under Adam Wedge.
3:25 Vertem Eider Handicap Chase
Class 2, 4m1½f
We head off to the North East for the penultimate contest of the day as Newcastle plays host to the marathon handicap that is the Eider Chase. 4m1½f is the trip, but the track does at least look set to avoid the bog-like conditions which have become this race’s hallmark over the years. Having dropped fully 17lb below his career-high rating, the Christian Williams-trained, Kitty’s Light could be potentially thrown in here if any of the yard’s solid recent form has rubbed off on him. That’s always a possibility, but having been beaten a combined 74l in his three most recent starts, he looks short enough at around the 5/2 mark.
Take a chance instead on 2021 winner Sam’s Adventure. Nothing went right for this Brian Ellison runner following that big success, but on the plus side, his mark has now dropped from 139 to 125. That would look to give him plenty of room to work with, particularly as he bounced right back to form with a 9½l success in a Veterans Handicap at Catterick last time out. That should have teed him up nicely, ahead of what is likely his big target for the season, and in a competitive event, he looks worth an each-way punt.
3:40 Sky Bet Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle
Grade 2, 2m
The up-and-coming hurdlers round off the day’s TV action in a cracking renewal of this Grade 2 affair. The Paul Nicholls-trained Rubaud would be high up on the shortlist here but for a seriously underwhelming effort in the Betfair Hurdle last time out. He will need to settle better, but perhaps the first-time headgear will do the trick.
Similar comments apply to the Olly Murphy runner, Ukantango, who had been ticking along nicely before being pulled up in the Tolworth Hurdle. With question marks about those two, the most solid option is the Gary Moore-trained, Hansard. Having shown useful bumper form over in Ireland, this son of The Gurkha has made a perfect start to life over hurdles, winning a pair of novice events at Plumpton and Huntingdon with the minimum of fuss. This demands more, but the suspicion is we haven’t seen the best of this one yet, and he may well be up to the task at a price that looks to offer more than a sliver of value.