Amidst the tempestuous, soggy and altogether dull start to 2014 comes a much needed Saturday in Lanzarote.
Well, it’s 16 miles outside of Central London actually at Kempton for the Lanzarote Hurdle, so if it’s warmth you have in mind watching this one I’m guessing you’ll have your central heating on full blast.
All the same it’s a none too shabby weekend of action with a couple of competitive handicaps to sift through and, with that Cheltenham clock counting down all the while, talent spotting is of the essence!
We’ll start with a race guaranteed to get people reaching for the holiday brochures like no other at this time of year, it’s the Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton. Never one for a ‘star’ but always a nice race to get stuck into, this fixture of the January calendar has been relatively kind to punters for the last few years, with winners of the last five renewals returning single-figure odds (including two favourites). With the head of the market seeming the fairly obvious place to start we’ll start by looking at the ante-post favourite, Junction Fourteen.
After a far from compelling 2012-13 season where just about everything that could have gone wrong did, it’s been happier times for Emma Lavelle’s stable this term and her yard is swinging along nicely. Her well-bred son of King’s Theatre was a course and distance winner last time out on Boxing Day, brushing aside a moderate field but creating a decent impression in doing so. He does look to have improvement in him and could still be competitive off 16lbs higher, although this is a much tougher assignment that the one he faced last time and I believe he may just be short enough to take on.
Despite a relatively slow start to a season the Nicholls team are now firing and it’s one of his, Saphir Du Rheu, who finds himself next in the market here. The French-bred five year old was sent off a well-fancied 6/1 favourite for the Fred Winter at last year’s festival, only to sum up the Ditcheat handler’s week by finishing nearer last than first. He kicked off this season with a couple of slightly better although none too impressive runs before being given a bit more of a trip last time out at Sandown. There, over two miles six furlongs, he travelled well under Daryl Jacob before kicking clear up the straight and absolutely bolting up, leaving the impression of a horse that Nicholls had always seemed confident was in there somewhere. If he wants to back that win up he’ll have to do it the hard way, running off top weight after a 15lb rise, although such was the emphatic style of his last win, defying such a rise may not be beyond him. Since crossing over from France though he has been a fairly in and out character and is another I’d rather watch here, even if he does have the talent.
A ‘good-guy’ trainer I’ve been happy to see the rise of in recent times is Charlie Longsdon. This year really does seem to have been the year he’s stamped his authority on the game and it’s great to see him being given the ammunition with which to do so. Although successful, big Saturday races have, for one reason or another, often eluded him, but I believe his runner Spirit Of Shankly could be the one to bring home the bacon to a much deserving yard. His form from this season tells me he’s a better horse than his mark suggests; a narrow defeat when giving weight to the well-regarded Royal Regatta followed by a smooth five length success when again giving weight to another highly thought-of type in Urban Hymn last time out, that’s the form of a proper horse. I’m just praying he runs in this as at the time of writing he is engaged in two other races on the Saturday, although at this stage Kempton for this would look the more likely appointment. The handicapper does seem to have been lenient and, going off 136 I’d have to give him a massive chance for a stable that’s once again banging in the winners.
Our second big handicap sees us head to Warwick for the Betfred Classic Chase. The field has a very competitive look to it with plenty of battle-hardened characters from down the years engaged to once again go toe-to-toe in what could end up being a bit of a Midlands mud wrestle. A quick glance at the head of the market here sees Martin Keighley’s Merlin’s Wish hold favouritism, although with him expected to take his place at Catterick on Thursday that could present an opportunity to Vesper Bell. The Willie Mullins raider was all the rage in the betting for the Becher before taking an unfortunate tumble at the first. However, his Irish form is (to me) questionable and his Punchestown festival run was hardly franked by Goonyella’s no show in the Welsh National, especially when you consider that the old war horse Silver By Nature was not that far away in fourth giving away lumps of weight. I could be wrong but I personally can’t take to him and he’s not my idea of the winner here.
If this does turn into a real war of attrition it could bring David Pipe’s long term absentee Master Overseer into it. He is a bit of a character as you really never know what he’s going to give you – the form of his last seven runs reads P1P1P1P – although I suppose if you want to read that literally you’d say he should win on his next outing! Technically, there is plenty going against him. He is going off 146, just 1lb below a career high mark at the age of eleven and he is returning to the track after a 301 day absence so there are plenty that would dismiss his chances. Such an approach just has David Pipe written all over it though! There is no way he’d would send out the old warrior unless he knew there would be a big run due and I can see just that, especially with the official going currently described as heavy. It may all be a bit cloak and dagger but that’s the master of Pond House at his best. The 20/1 currently available for this lad looks too big to me and, if Pipey can work his magic he looks well worth a punt.
One other horse I’d like to draw attention to in this is Victors Serenade from the Anthony Honeyball team. He’s one who’s been on the upgrade for some time now for a small-time yard that’s going places. Last time out he was given a spin over hurdles over 3 miles to try and spruce him up. He battled back well that day to reclaim second and is crying out for a trip. He’s another who’ll appreciate conditions and if his jumping holds out then he could get involved at a big price.
Kempton (2.40) Spirit Of Shankly
Warwick (3.35) Master Overseer, Victors Serenade (each-way)