Turf Talk: Open Ba? Crabbies, Port and tea for me

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WHILE Cheltenham is currently on everyone’s minds, this week it was Aintree’s chance to hog a little of the limelight as the weights for the Grand National were released on Tuesday morning and the fallout has been substantial.

For starters there were a considerable amount of winners of the day; the old rogue Tidal Bay, burdened with top weight at the tender age of 13 was given a mark of 161, that’s 7lbs lower than his official mark, giving him more than a sporting chance of achieving the impossible.

The biggest winner for me was the horse I’ve fancied for National glory since he bolted up in the festival four-miler two years ago, Teaforthree. His aggressive racing style always looked custom made for the Aintree fences and that was proved right to an extent last year when he finished third. That was a huge run, looking all the better when you consider that he was the only horse out of the first eleven home to carry more than eleven stone. This year though, off a 2lbs lower mark and carrying 5lbs less than last year (assuming Tidal Bay lines up) I’m convinced he can do even better.

The bookmakers have reacted to the handicapper’s benevolence, most cutting him to 16/1 favourite. There is still 20/1 out there though and I wouldn’t put anyone off backing him for the Aintree spectacular.

Onto this Saturday and it’s a continuation of the theme as we take in the Grand National trial at Haydock. This year’s race looks a hugely competitive encounter, with very little between the top four in the market Hawkes Point, Our Father, Monbeg Dude and last years winner Well Refreshed. Of the four I’d immediately put a big line through the latter two as they do appear exposed to me.

Well Refreshed goes off 13lbs higher than twelve months ago and, off his new mark of 141, he has appeared to struggle. Monbeg Dude has certainly done well to graft through the ranks after winning a Welsh National off 128 and most recently a hot handicap at Cheltenham off 10lbs higher. He did well to win that day, in the process flattening the Hennessy third up the hill, but his new mark of 146 looks to be right at the top end of the spectrum for him. Further improvement would seem unlikely.

David Pipe’s runner Our Father has clearly always been highly regarded. He is fairly unexposed but for me only has one piece of form in the book and that dates all the way back to the end of 2012. That day he put a field of novice chasers to the sword, a field that has since failed however to cover itself in glory. His seventh in the Hennessy was commendable without being spectacular and to me he’s always seemed a bit of a talking horse. I’m not his biggest fan and I’ll be keeping him at arm’s length.

Paul Nicholls saddles Hawkes Point, another interesting runner from Ditcheat. His Welsh National second off a featherweight appeared out of the blue but with hindsight really shouldn’t have been such a surprise. He has form from as recently as last season in which he beat Emma Lavelle’s Gullinbursti and a second place finish behind recent Denman Chase winner Harry Topper. He’s up a not unfair 6lbs for his Chepstow near-miss which isn’t overly harsh. My only concern with him this time out would be that those around him in the handicap are real seasoned warriors. He did appear to have plenty of stomach for the battle in South Wales over Christmas, but off a bigger weight he might just come across one or two better handicapped.

There are a couple in the race I’d expect or at least hope to see decent showings from. Burton Port’s slide down the ratings has seen him dip to an impossibly low 145. Good old Jonjo’s been at it again and his seismic shift of almost a stone in just under four months has him back to a workable position. Following the publication of the weights for the National (in which he was allotted a fairly charitable 10st 8lbs) it’d be no surprise to see him run back to form here. Although it’s been a while since he’s encountered ground like this he does have form on it, winning as a novice chaser at Lingfield way back in 2009. He is however also engaged at Ascot on the same day so where he goes only Jonjo knows. Wherever he ends up he could be worth backing to return to form and is another who makes decent each-way appeal for April. Neptune Collonges finished second in this before going onto to win the big one at Aintree two years ago, could Burton Port be another crack staying chaser to follow the pattern?

One who I’d like to look at more closely for this however is one who has had a big race in him for a while, the young renegade Loch Ba. I say young, he’s actually now eight, although I probably still consider him young after a career of untapped potential and failed promises. His jumping is often awkward but he’s all heart – a good quality to have in a street fight such as this. On Saturday he races off a featherweight with Harry Bannister taking off 7lbs. This ‘lightening of the load’ along with his mark that’s slipped like Arsene Wenger in a Liverpool train station could be the key for this lad to finally fulfil his promise and go and get the big one he and his team deserves.

At Ascot Saturday we’ll also see the imaginatively named Ascot Chase, won last year by Cue Card on his way to Cheltenham glory. He’s not there this time around, but the horse that would have given him a race last year, Captain Chris, does line up in a bid to redeem himself. I remember a much respected analyst once stated that if the Cheltenham festival were moved to a right-handed track one year then this lad could win the Gold Cup, and I’d be inclined to agree. Despite somehow winning an Arkle, defeating the following years Champion Chaser Finian’s Rainbow in the process, all of his best work has been done going clockwise. It was a crying shame that he missed ‘his Gold Cup’, the King George over Christmas after suffering a setback. That would make you believe however that this and maybe the Punchestown Gold Cup may be the remaining seasonal targets. Anything odds against for him in this looks like buying money to me.

Our final look at the weekend action takes us to Wincanton for the Kingwell Hurdle. I was extremely disappointed when I heard my long-term Champion Hurdle fancy My Tent Or Yours would be skipping this and Kelso and instead going straight to the festival. I’m not a fan of sending a horse to Cheltenham without a prep. There does appear to be the occasional sort that’ll need the rest to regain their freshness, but the son of Desert Prince doesn’t appear to be one of those. I can only hope I’m proved wrong on March 11th.

Without him in the line-up, we’re left with a bit of a stale field for this one, led by the two protagonists Zarkandar and Melodic Rendezvous. It seems a bit of a dead race to me and not much of a betting heat. With little value knocking about I’d be inclined to leave this alone, although it might add some more zip to the Cheltenham picture (if more were needed) if Zarkandar were to bolt up. It’d surely give the Riccis an even more interesting decision to make on where to send star mare Annie Power. All fascinating stuff, roll on Cheltenham in March and Aintree in ApriI say!

SATURDAY SELECTIONS

Haydock 2.55 - Loch Ba

Ascot 3.50 - Captain Chris

ANTE-POST SELECTIONS

Crabbie’s Grand National - Teaforthree, Burton Port (each-way)