Turf Talk: Finish the flat with a Highland fling

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As seamlessly as our glorious summer has faded into a dull, storm-fuelled winter, the National Hunt season has swung straight into action.

And we’ve already seen some of the stars of the game experiencing the odd bump in the road.

Long Run, Sizing Europe and, most recently, Cue Card have all been turned over, making it a difficult start for those punters all across the land who like to follow their old favourites.

This weekend’s action may not quite live up to the glamorous feel of those that have immediately preceded it, but with a smashing little card from Wincanton headed by the feature race, the Badger Ales Trophy, along with our final goodbye to the lingering memory of summer with the final day of the flat at Doncaster, there’s still plenty to capture the imagination with the promise of brighter things to come.

It’s at Donny we start in a bid to solve the Rubik’s cube of a race that is the November Handicap. Trainer John Gosden is bidding for his sixth win in the race and he has two key pieces of the puzzle. At the time of writing Lahaag is the ante-post favourite for this but the four year old has proven frustrating at times this season, including when finishing down the field when favourite for the season’s perennial curtain-raiser, the Lincoln Handicap on this course. The race was run on soft ground that day and, although the trip may have proved inadequate, his disliking for any give may prove decisive as more than likely Saturday’s race will be run in similar conditions.

His second runner, and the one I find more intriguing, is Thomas Hobson. The progressive three year old has had a busy old time of it this season but to good effect, getting his nose in front four times, including over course and distance last time out in a decent handicap. That race was run on soft and so the going shouldn’t inconvenience him. He’s sure to put up a bold show and is currently vying for favouritism with his stable mate.

One whose form ties neatly in with him is Highland Castle from the David Elsworth yard. He was third behind Thomas Hobson that day, beaten just three quarters of a length despite hanging badly right inside the final furlong. He’s up just 2lbs in the weights for that however, with the winner getting a 4lb hike. Despite there being an argument that the Gosden horse could be open to more improvement, on form alone I’d feel more comfortable sticking my hard-earned on the latter, so he gets the nod from me.

Travelling further south, the Badger Ales Trophy at Wincanton is one of the early season staying handicap chases to get your teeth into. This race has been farmed by Paul Nicholls in recent years and the Ditcheat handler bids for his eighth winner in the race in fourteen years. He saddles two this year, with the apparent first pick of the yard being Poungach.

The French-bred endured a difficult first season over fences last term, often being undone by his sticky jumping and finding it just too difficult at the head of the novice chasing’s elite. He finished a 25 length fifth behind Dynaste in the Feltham on Boxing Day, not awful form by any means but just an indicator as to where he was on the scale of last year’s novice chasers. His final run of the season saw him make all in a three runner event at Kempton. Despite winning, his jumping was again patchy that day and I can’t say I have that much faith it’ll hold up in a decent event such as this.

Nicholls’ other runner in the race is the once highly thought of Aiteen Thirtythree. This well-bred son of Old Vic was so well regarded that he was sent off 9/2 favourite for the Hennessy just under two years ago, but disappointed when finishing in midfield. He’s only run once since and that was at the start of last year, when again flopping in the Sky Bet Chase at Donny. Consequently his mark has dropped to a workable 144, but with little form in the book, almost two years off the course and the stable’s number one jockey seemingly deserting him, he’s hardly an attractive betting prospect.

One who started last season like a house on fire but failed to translate that form over to the spring is Loch Ba. Mick Channon’s seven year old scooted up at Kempton first time out, slamming his rivals in a 19 length demolition job, before just getting headed at Ascot in his next outing. He followed that up with an 8 length success at Newbury, leading the handicapper to tighten his grip and raise him 12lbs. Sent off 8/1 for the JLT Speciality Handicap on day one of the Cheltenham festival, he never looked comfortable at his obstacles and unseated Dominic Elsworth at the ninth. He ended the season with a moderate fifth in a hot handicap at Aintree and it’s believed there’s plenty of improvement to come from the horse this year. He should run creditably here.

Another trainer with a fine record in the race is David Pipe. Following his father’s success in the race in 2005, Pipe junior went on to claim the prize himself in 2007 and as recently as last season with The Package. This year he looks to build on that record with a horse I’ve been following keenly, Standing Ovation. This progressive son of Presenting has done nothing but improve in his six chase starts. It’s hard to believe that as recently as June this likeable sort was seen finishing fourth off a mark of 93. The penny seems to have dropped since however and this was in full evidence when he ground out a gutsy win against the classy Highland Lodge at the same course just two weeks ago. This represents another step up in class and he’ll be racing from outside the handicap, but from what I’ve seen of this lad I reckon he ticks all the right boxes to get the Pipes’ name on the trophy once again.

Wincanton also plays host to the Elite Hurdle this weekend, a race that often attracts future Champion Hurdle contenders. This is another that has been dominated by Paul Nicholls in the past, the yard winning three of the last four renewals and numbering six victories overall. His challenge is led by Far West, second behind Our Conor in last season’s Triumph Hurdle. Another of Nicholls’ many French imports, Far West’s form before the festival was impeccable, landing his first four races under the Ditcheat handler before succumbing to Dessie Hughes’ charge at the festival. Although potentially well-handicapped here, it’s always been my opinion that he may need a little further to be seen at his best and would probably want the ground quite deep, conditions that aren’t a given for Saturday.

One who had high aspirations for Cheltenham last year was Jeremy Scott’s Melodic Rendezvous. The seven year old was prominent in the betting for the Supreme Novice Hurdle before being withdrawn at the eleventh hour following a bad scope. Last year’s Tolworth winner was impressive last season, routing some highly regarded types such as Puffin Billy and Pendra in a campaign that promised so much. Scott was always adamant he’d be better on good ground, something he never encountered last term, and that bodes well for Saturday. Missing Cheltenham could be a blessing in disguise for us punters as it keeps him on 150, a mark he could make light work of if he returns this year in the same sort of shape.

SATURDAY SELECTIONS

2.05 Melodic Rendezvous

2.40 Standing Ovation

3.35 Highland Castle