Tony Calvin: An early look at the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup and International Hurdle
An exciting weekend awaits at Cheltenham and Doncaster with some big races and key trials, and our resident tipster Tony Calvin is here to take an early look at a couple of contests at Prestbury Park...
"They have a chaser who is now 13lb lower than at the start of last season. His very best form may have come over 2m, but he has two excellent efforts over this 2m5f trip on this New Course."
Having to declare preferred targets would help us all
One of the reasons why ante-post betting is not as popular as it once was - and there are many - is that running plans are so hard to come by, it seems.
This clearly isn't conducive to punters having a bet, or indeed the bookmakers pricing up races.
In truth, the books probably shouldn't bother a lot of the time, as it is often little more than guesswork for them, and they have to, understandably, protect themselves by offering reduced place terms on occasions (which will often be re-instated, and then some, come Friday afternoon) and betting to a defensive margin.
I start looking at the weekend racing as soon as the declarations start to filter out on Monday afternoon, and a fair percentage of the possible runners tend to have at least two entries lined up.
And that got me wondering whether the BHA could ask trainers to declare their preferred targets on their racing admin site upon declaring multiple entries.
Yes, I know this is far from perfect - and it will be open to manipulation, too - and last-minute changes to the ground and the opposition will continue to dictate where horses go, but at least it will give punters a better idea than is currently the case.
Uncertainty and change of plans would probably be rife, but I would have thought most trainers would have a fair preference or inkling come Tuesday afternoon, and it may be worth a go.
And it is in the BHA's interest to try and generate greater betting turnover, after all.
Gamble has a Top chance if the rain comes
Saying all that, the big betting race of the weekend, Cheltenham's Caspian Caviar Gold Cup is not a particularly good example.
Fourteen of the 18 entries have no other immediate alternatives, though Rather Be and Full Glass are in the Silver Cup at Ascot a week on Saturday.
Of the four that could go elsewhere this week (and obviously the other 14 could be held back for later engagements, for whatever reason), Top Gamble and Foxtail Hill are in the 2m handicap chase on the same Cheltenham card (which has just 11 entries, so that race must be tempting them), and Casablanca Minx and Marienstar have three options.
Sods law then, that Top Gamble is the one that interests me most in the 2m5f contest, so I have to keep my powder dry for now.
In truth, that may be a blessing in disguise as the ground at Cheltenham is currently good to soft and no rain is forecast until Friday night/Saturday morning (when a fair amount is due, admittedly), and that would not necessarily be ideal for the mud-loving Top Gamble.
He does have form on decent ground, notably a Grade 2 win at Ayr and a fourth in a Champion Chase on good to soft, but the majority of his form is in more testing conditions.
There is no doubt that he is a very well-handicapped horse though, even if he is getting on a bit now as a 10yo and this race often falls to the younger type (Paul Nicholls has won the race with two 4yos in recent seasons and there hasn't even been a 9yo winner since 1993 or a 10yo scorer since 1974 - which is some stat, admittedly).
Top Gamble has needed his first run of the season very badly in recent years so, in that context, his fourth at Newbury on his return 10 days ago was very encouraging.
The handicapper dropped him 3lb for it, though, and that will surely have delighted connections.
They have a chaser who is now 13lb lower than at the start of last season. His very best form may have come over 2m, but he has two excellent efforts over this 2m5f trip on this New Course.
He is 13lb lower than when a good third to Shantou Flyer on New Year's Day in 2017, a race in which he also finished in the money the year before.
He has a big chance wherever and whenever he rocks up next, and the more rain the better.
Market would Rather Be with last-time-out casualty
The betting suggests the BetVictor Gold Cup is the key trial for this race, and it certainly has been down the years. That contest saw Baron Alco beat Frodon and Guitar Pete, with Rather Be yet to play his hand when being brought down four out (he was trading at [3.5] in running).
All four have obvious chances, not least Guitar Pete, who is just 3lb higher than when winning this race convincingly last season.
The market loves Rather Be though, and last year's runner-up in the Close Brothers at the Festival is 11/4 favourite, and [4.1] on the exchange. That looks plenty short enough to me.
Splash Of Ginge ran well below-par in the BetVictor but at least he has been dropped 2lb and he makes most appeal of the outsiders along with Romain De Senam, who is gradually slipping down the weights.
However, I have to leave the race alone for the time being. On a side note, if Frodon doesn't run for any reason, then the weights will go up 12lb.
Laurina set to be a short price if turning up
The International Hurdle was re-opened on Monday afternoon, as was Doncaster's Grade 2 Summit juvenile hurdle.
Before we get on to the International, it is worth noting that eight of the 10 horses in the Summit are also entered in the 11-runner Triumph Hurdle trial at Cheltenham, which pretty much underlines what I have said above.
In fact, it is a pretty similar scenario in the novices' chases at Doncaster and Cheltenham on Friday and Saturday, too. It's a crowded marketplace out there.
Incidentally, the Doncaster ground is currently good (good to firm in places) with very little rain forecast, so that could affect field sizes there. They are watering, though.
The International has attracted 11 entries after being re-opened on Monday, and the problem for bookmakers pricing it up is the presence of Laurina.
Willie Mulllins' 5yo mare is the second favourite at [8.0] on Betfair's exchange Champion Hurdle market and is set to receive weight all round here, and a hefty 10lb from Call Me Lord, Old Guard and The New One.
Clearly, she will be a short-priced favourite if rocking up, even if she is currently rated only 152 after her Mares' Novices' Hurdle win at Cheltenham and a subsequent Grade 1 stroll at Fairyhouse.
But Mullins would want that rain to arrive for her to take her chance here and we know the master trainer picks his battles very carefully.
We saw that with no runners from seven entries in the Ladbrokes Trophy (granted, Kemboy would have run had the weather obliged on the ferry front) and Un De Sceaux being his sole representative from three five-day possibles in the Betfair Tingle Creek (Min and Great Field stayed at home).
Laurina will be a shade of odds-on if she runs - obviously more than a shade if she scares off a lot of the opposition - but it is a devilishly hard race to price up and bet in at the moment (see the above yet again).
Best of luck punting all week. I'll be back here on Thursday afternoon previewing the ITV races at Cheltenham and Bangor on Friday.