Tony Calvin: Nicholls must think big to make Old Guard a Champion

Will Paul Nicholls point Old Guard at the Champion Hurdle?
Will Paul Nicholls point Old Guard at the Champion Hurdle?

Tony Calvin digests the market moves after a very big weekend of racing and puts up bets for the Betfair Price Rush Hurdle and a long range fancy for the 2016 Cheltenham Festival

"Old Guard is a seriously progressive horse who beat a string of well-handicapped horses on Sunday, and his two wins on the Old Course this season prove his effectiveness on the track. And Paul Nicholls simply put the improvement down to the four-year-old being a much stronger model this season after a summer at grass."

You wonder what tracks have to do to get a double-figure entry for Grade 1 contests, as even Jockey Club Racecourses dangling a £1m carrot for any horse that can win the Betfair Chase on Saturday and go on to land the King George and Gold Cup has seen only seven acceptors at the five-day stage.

And it is especially disappointing that the likes of Don Cossack or any of Willie Mullins' crack team of staying chasers haven't come over from Ireland.

But, with Ascot also having to re-open two of their big races on Saturday after they attracted less than 10 entries, it appears that money simply isn't a consideration for many of the top owners.

The Betfair Chase has always attracted a small field though, and it certainly hasn't done it any harm, with an impressive list of winners since 2005, headed of course by four-time winner Kauto Star. It's always a great race, and this year promises more of the same.

Saturday's contest sees two past winners locking horns, Silviniaco Conti (2012 and 2014) and Cue Card (2013), and it is no surprise to see this pair dominate the market at 2.265/4 and 3.9 respectively.

However, with Dynaste, Ballynagour, Holywell, Menorah and O'Faolains Boy completing the septet - and that list includes two runners-up in this race - it certainly doesn't lack for quality once again.

Whether it is a race that I want to get involved in at this stage betting-wise is another matter. One thing is for sure and that is the race will be run in very testing ground, and that probably favours Silviniaco Conti most.

* * *

Melodic looks a sound investment for the Betfair Price Rush hurdle

Running plans appear up in the air for more than a few in The Betfair Price Rush Hurdle and a decision will be made on whether 7-4 chance Irving will take his chance later in the week. Like all of these in here, he is also entered in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle on November 28 and he may be kept back for that.

Triumph Hurdle runner-up Top Notch is the worthy favourite at 6-4 with the Betfair Sportsbook but I can't be tipping at those prices in an ante-post column and I think Melodic Rendezvous is a cracking bet at 6-1 each way, 1/5 the odds 1,2,3.

Melodic Rendezvous loves the heavy ground and looks decent value at Haydock

Not just cracking, but must-bet material.

I think a few of these are likely non-runners if the ground is, as expected, soft, or even worse. Sea Lord, Purple Bay, Commissioned and Sign Of A Victory are effectively all good-ground horses, and this race could really cut up. With all having Newcastle as options just a week later, they could all wait in the expectation of more suitable ground down the line.

Now, I don't know if he is an intended runner but the deeper the ground the better for Melodic Rendezvous and I can't believe that they will pass up a shot at a very winnable 100k race.

He didn't enjoy his chasing campaign last season but he ran a pleasing enough race back over the smaller obstacles when beaten seven lengths by Irving in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton, and hopefully he will be all the better for that run.

He wasn't that far off the best hurdlers a couple of seasons ago, when his victories included a defeat of Zarkandar in the Kingwell Hurdle - he was rated 163 at his peak - and he can boast six heavy-ground wins.

It wouldn't surprise me if only three or four lined up on Saturday, so 6-1 each way and three places looks a gift. And any 7.06/1 or better on the exchange is also well worth a poke.

Let's hope he runs! And this from the Jeremy Scott website is encouraging on that score. "We're very happy with Melodic Rendezvous after finishing second in Wincanton's Elite Hurdle on Saturday. We knew he was in good form going into the race and he was beaten by a better horse on the day. He's entered at Haydock in the Betfair Price Rush Hurdle and Newcastle Fighting Fifth. We just have to see where the ground is best for him."

The Betfair Fixed Brush Hurdle will certainly attract a lot more runners and I think the layers have it right in making Shantou Bob and Tea For Two their market-leaders. And they are the only two horses jocked up at the five day stage, so presumably they are likely runners, too, which helps with ante-post punting!

Shantou Bob likes testing ground and is on a fair mark off 143, while Tea For Two should be all the better for his reappearance run at Chepstow, won't mind a mud-bath, and represents a stable coming into form and that have won this race twice in recent seasons.

David Pipe has won it three times, so respect his entries, while Baradari would be interesting on his first start for Dan Skelton if taking his chance.

But I am not getting involved at this stage, with the likely make-up of the field such a guessing game.

* * *

Sprinter layers will be very nervous now

There were ante-post moves galore after the weekend, and pride of place has to go to Sprinter Sacre, now into 5.04/1, from a pre-race 29.028/1, for the Champion Chase after beating Somersby by 14 lengths in the Shloer Chase on Sunday.

He was rated 192 by Timeform in his 2013 pomp and, while his weekend stroll was nowhere approaching that level, it was clearly a performance that would have got favourite Un De Sceaux's connections looking over their shoulders.

Is Sprinter back to his best?

My initial reaction immediately after the race was that he would be around a 3-1 chance to reclaim his 2m chasing crown, so I wasn't in the least surprised that 6-1 quotes soon disappeared. The punters who have laid Sprinter Sacre as high as 75.074/1 on Betfair's market have every reason to feel a touch nervous.

* * *

Faugheen makes the headlines but Old Guard catches the eye

The other big news from Sunday was Faugheen's defeat by stablemate Nichols Canyon in the Morgiana and that has at least breathed some life into the Champion Hurdle market, with the winner - who has been matched at 70.069/1 - into 6.86/1, with Faugheen out to 2.77/4 from around the 11-10 mark pre-race.

One performance that I was very taken with was Old Guard's win in the Greatwood Hurdle off a mark of 145, and I reckon he could make up into a Champion Hurdle contender.

I clicked on the market on Monday morning to see what price he was, but he wasn't in there, so I got him added.

Yes, Sunday's win was light years away from the Champion Hurdle.

But that race lacks depth at the moment and this is a seriously progressive horse who beat a string of well-handicapped horses on Sunday, and his two wins on the Old Course this season prove his effectiveness on the track. And Paul Nicholls simply put the improvement down to the four-year-old being a much stronger model this season after a summer at grass.

And the Greatwood has been won by plenty of Grade 1 horses in the past (the likes of Sizing Europe and Khyber Kim) and proved a Cheltenham Hurdle-winning stepping stone with Rooster Booster going on to land the big one that season after winning it off a mark of 155 in 2002.

It will be interesting to see where Nicholls runs him next - the International and the Ladbroke were mentioned in the aftermath of Sunday's win - but he surely has to think big now.

Betfair Sportsbook's 33-1 is fair enough each way and I think he would rate a bet at 40.039/1 or bigger win only too on the exchange when his price beefs up a bit there.

Elsewhere, 2014 World Hurdle winner More Of That has halved in price to 7.26/1 for the RSA after a fluent start to his fencing career. But that looks short enough at the moment.

Given the three 2m to 3m Cheltenham options for the novice hurdlers, there has to be a pretty convincing case for getting involved there at the moment - often, we are still guessing at the five day stage where they will run - so as good as the likes of Bellshill and Shantou Village were at the weekend, I can easily pass on backing them.

Douvan dominates the Arkle betting at 3.412/5 but Sizing John 14.5 and Garde La Victoire 15.5 threw their hats into the ring with weekend wins.

Recommended Bets
Back Melodic Rendezvous at 6-1 each way 1/5 1,2,3 for the Betfair Price Rush Hurdle with Betfair Sportsbook
Back Old Guard at 33-1 each way for the Champion Hurdle with Betfair Sportsbook


We headed down to Ditcheat this week to get Paul Nicholls' thoughts on Silviniaco Conti's chances at Haydock...

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