With the Cheltenham bandwagon well and truly rolling, the big race trials are coming thick and fast.
There’s little doubt that were it not for a certain Sprinter Sacre showing that he is prone to the same frailties as the rest of the thoroughbred population then this weekend’s Clarence House Chase, and indeed the Champion Chase itself, would still look to be formalities for the Henderson ace.
As it is, with that cloud over Sprinter Sacre, several ‘wannabes’ are now sensing that the crown may be up for grabs, with Gary Moore’s classy Sire De Grugy first to stake a claim when landing the Tingle Creek and Desert Orchid Chase just last month.
These victories have elevated Sire De Grugy’s status and given him a deservedly lofty reputation, with many now considering him the best 2 mile chaser in training with the exception of Sprinter Sacre.
Saturday, however, is a new day and is time to extinguish any of the naysayers’ niggling doubts that this fella is in fact the real deal. My view is that he’s proved plenty in his recent starts, although Cheltenham in March will clearly provide the acid test. Saturday’s race is at Ascot, a track not too dissimilar to Sandown, which he clearly relishes. Conditions should suit also.
But he faces some decent rivals and Ascot, this race in particular, habitually seems to bring out the best out in Somersby.
The former Henrietta Knight trained stalwart, now under the supervision of Mick Channon, has participated in the last three renewals of this, with his form in the race reading 213. Although far from disgraced in the race last year, it was run at Cheltenham on that occasion after a postponement so it can pay to focus on the first two efforts. Both of those runs were deemed career best efforts by the handicapper, with Somersby having initially run the great Master Minded to a short head on his first attempt, and then following up with a hard fought victory over subsequent Champion Chase scorer Finian’s Rainbow in 2012.
He’s recently turned ten, which could be seen as a negative, but his two runs this season haven’t indicated that the years are catching up with him. He just touched off Module in a Haldon Gold Cup, with Cue Card back in third when attempting to give away lumps of weight. He then went on to finish second to Sire De Grugy in the Tingle Creek last month. He has four lengths to make up on his rival from that day but, given the tenacity we’ve seen of him time and time again on the Berkshire track, I’d take the chance that’s he’s got it in him to do so.
Our next delve into the best of the weekend’s action takes us to Haydock for the Peter Marsh Chase, a race that’s struggled to beat the weather in recent years, with only three renewals since 2008. Things look hopeful at this stage that one of the grittiest staying chases on the calendar will get the green light this year, and will more than likely see Donald McCain’s course and distance winner Sydney Paget sent off a warm order.
This won’t be for the faint-hearted, with the going already described as heavy with more rain expected. These aren’t conditions that should inconvenience McCain’s seven year old though, with wins to his name in pretty deep stuff already tallying up on his CV. A brief look at his race record will tell you what sort of regard this horse is held in. He’s been sent off at odds-on on numerous occasions, including when going off 1/7 last March at Chepstow, giving sheds of weight away and driving through the mud unchallenged to score in impressive fashion.
My one concern with him would be how quickly he threw in the towel when well fancied for the Roland Meyrick at Wetherby on Boxing Day. He seemed to have plenty in his favour that day but was highly disappointing, possibly due to inexperience in proper handicap company. On those grounds I’d say he may be better watched, although I’d certainly see it as no great surprise if he took advantage of his 3lb fall in the weights.
The relatively unheralded yard of Dr. Richard Newland has been performing minor miracles this season, operating at an incredible 25% strike rate with his chasers doing most of the damage going along at a spectacular 37%. Right at the bottom of the weights he saddles the highly progressive Night Alliance, who has himself been one of the reasons behind the roaring success of the yard.
His most recent run came at this course, a race in which he obliterated a decent field and had the useful Loch Ba eleven lengths back in second, despite being heavily eased down towards the line. His 30lb rise this season may have gone under the radar to many, but should he follow it up on Saturday he could be right in place for a tilt at a big festival handicap. The trainer’s also got him engaged in the SkyBet Chase in a week’s time at Doncaster, but has been quoted as saying that this is very much ‘plan A’.
There are certainly some ‘sexier’ horses towards the top end of the handicap. The likes of Katenko, who I don’t believe has looked the same horse since his bout of colic last season, carries a high weight but will surely love conditions. Paul Nicholls saddles The Minack after a hefty absence who, although he does go well fresh, may just find this one a bit hot on his return. Not a bad place to start back though with a stab at the Scottish National a possibility down the line.
Finally there’s Kim Bailey’s stable star Harry Topper who, in my humble opinion, was poorly placed last time. For a horse who can’t jump to be thrown into a decent chase at Sandown, as tough a place to jump a fence as you’ll find across the land, did seem somewhat unusual, and so it was proven when trailing home last of three. In effect that’s given him a chance off a mark of 153, but I personally couldn’t trust his jumping so wouldn’t back him with anyone’s money.
Aside from having the form in the book, hailing from a so-called ‘smaller stable’ could add a bit of value to the price of Night Alliance and he’ll be carrying my money, especially if there’s enough juice in there to get on each-way.
My final selection takes us back to Ascot and to a horse that seemingly gets targeted at this particular race year upon year, twice resulting in success. We’ve seen recently that there’s still enough life in the old dog that was once upon a time an Arkle favourite, Tatenen, to suggest that a hat trick bid isn’t out of the question. After returning a ready winner of a decent Newbury handicap in November, his mark has gone back up to 140 but is still 3lb lower than when taking this very same race in 2012. There is no real reason to suppose that a return to the race that he annually excels in won’t see him at his best, although it must be said that every drop of rain that falls will be making his trainer, Richard Rowe, wince. Even allowing for that he looks capable enough and even if it ends up softer than ideal he is another that could carry a bit of each-way value this weekend.
3.00 (ASC) Tatenen
3.15 (HAY) Night Alliance
3.35 (ASC) Somersby