I’m not sure what’s more boring – the guessing games surrounding Willie Mullins’ festival runners or the monotonous drumming of heavy rain on my rooftop.
We’ll side with the latter momentarily, as this biblical weather really has left us summing up the last couple of months in one depressingly self-explanatory word – washout!
Several significant pieces from key festival jigsaw puzzles have been absent through conditions, leaving the overall picture unfinished.
Some have embraced conditions. The recent form of Venetia Williams on big Saturdays in particular has been nothing short of sensational. She’s reaped the rewards as a result. Others however, have shied away from the mud, leaving more questions than answers ahead of another blockbuster four days in March.
Cheltenham, though, is still a over fortnight away and there are still top prizes to be won in the meantime, none more so than this Saturdays BetBright Chase. Familiar with the format but not with the name, most will remember this best as the Racing Post Chase or, more recently, the Racing Plus Chase. Call it what you like, it’s always been one of my favourite pre-festival events and this year promises to be no different.
Since the early declaration stages, Paul Nicholls’ Bury Parade has proved popular in the betting and now holds clear favouritism. It’s not hard to see why – his masterful trainer is back in white hot form after a Taunton treble on Tuesday. Align that with the fact that he has a fast improving chaser on his hands that is proven going right-handed and you have the key ingredients for a Ditcheat big race special. That’s the theory anyway.
I am just a little concerned that the handicapper may have caught up with him by now though. His victory last time out was, although aesthetically pleasing, against a much weaker field than he’ll encounter here (apart from the second who re-opposes). That runner-up was Grandioso and, for one reason or another, he’s another from the yard I just can’t take to and feel may well find himself handicapped out of it. They’re both short enough in price and I’m quite happy taking them both on in this.
The top weight here, Rajdhani Express, was one I expected big things from this season. His progression last term saw him climb a considerable 26lbs following his first victory. That win came at this very course on Boxing Day in extremely impressive fashion. He went on to prove that was no fluke by adding the Novices’ Handicap Chase to his tally at last year’s festival. Although still open to improvement, I can’t help but feel that he might need the run here after not being seen since November. That was in the Paddy Power, where he finished a credible fifth, although a little bit of ring rust might catch up with him here.
There is one I’ve had my beady eye on since the entries were released for this and that’s the old boy Planet Of Sound. Fortune favours the brave in this world and that notion spilled on to me this week as I took the 25/1, despite Philip Hobbs having a fistful of entries early doors. Thankfully he’s the only one of his left in this now and, in a race that Hobbs himself has won three times since 2002 and had six of his last twelve runners make the frame, he’d have to be taken seriously. Don’t let the fact that he’s the grand old age of twelve put you off, as he showed he’s got plenty of the old gusto left when winning over course and distance last time out. He’s up a not unreasonable 4lbs that and I’m personally of the opinion that he’s potentially well treated here. He’s 10lbs lower than when finishing third in this just two years ago and I’m sure he’s in line to go even better this time around. He ticks just about every box for me and, for an in-form jockey-trainer team who both have excellent records in this race I reckon he’s the one for your money.
It’s not just the BetBright Chase on Saturday to grab our attention with. A trip up north towards Newcastle will see the marathon that is the Betfred Eider Chase ground out in the deepest conditions imaginable. This really will be a slog and you can bet your bottom dollar that those who finish will be crawling over the line. With it being 4 miles 1 furlong in the mud is does take one who’ll stay longer than the mother in law to get it and, in my opinion, that’d mean looking towards an older horse with bottomless stamina reserves.
Enter Junior. The likeable veteran has ran some decent races without much reward this season. His recent fourth in the West Wales National has since been franked with the winner and third home that day occupying the places in the Grand National trial at Haydock. Although he’s due to go off top weight here, a drain on anyone in these conditions, he is down to a mark of 145 – that’s 8lbs lower than he was at the turn of the year. He should find conditions to his liking and shouldn’t find the trip a bother. He’s used to lugging 11st 12lbs nowadays so if he gets into a nice rhythm he could make his current price of 20/1 look laughable. So long as Tom Segal doesn’t get there first he should be a nice each-way price on the day.
Newcastle (2.55) Junior
Kempton (3.50) Planet Of Sound