Saturday promises to unveil plenty of Cheltenham Festival contenders when some key trials are raced at the home of National Hunt racing, and Tony Calvin likes the look of a big-price outsider in the Cleeve Hurdle...
“But the time of that Cheltenham run was very good and it was a career-best, and I just think these staying hurdles are open to shocks this season. And the 11yo Knockara Beau did win this race at 66/1 in 2014.”
Cheltenham Festival Trials day on Saturday, and the flagship race of the meeting - namely the Grade 2 Cotswold Chase - has attracted eight entries after the contest was re-opened on Monday afternoon (mind you, none were added subsequently, which is very disappointing for a £100k race).
As has been the case in recent weeks, it looks like the Cheltenham card will be run on good ground - there is very little rain knocking about in the forecast I use, though the BHA site is saying the outlook is "unsettled" - and hopefully the field sizes will stand up.
Who will emerge from the Cotswold?
Frodon is the one to beat in the Cotswold on official figures, his remarkable progression continuing with a win off a mark of 164 in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup here in December.
I would have been tempted to have a crack at the King George after that performance, but connections have kept him fresh for a Cheltenham campaign.
The question marks for him are a 6lb penalty and his stamina over 3m1f56yd - he stays 3m but his best form is clearly over shorter so far - but the trip is no concern for the Welsh National winner Elegant Escape, who could firmly put himself in the Gold Cup picture with a success here.
The joker in this pack is Valtor, who caught everyone unawares it seems when bolting up off a mark of 148 on his English debut at Ascot in December.
Whether he is as good as he looked there is open to debate, but a strict reading of the form gives him strong claims here, that's for sure, even though he and Elegant Escape are carrying 4lb penalties.
What to make of the unpenalised Minella Rocco these days?
We know that the 2017 Gold Cup runner-up has the talent and he is unpenalised here, but he clearly has been very tricky to train and he has had a wind op since we last saw him. And he also has an entry in the SkyBet Chase on Saturday (more of that race shortly).
No opinion on Triumph Hurdle trial at this stage
We are still looking for a dominant display from a juvenile on either side of the Irish Channel, and Gordon Elliott and Joseph O'Brien each have three entries in the Triumph Hurdle Trial.
It is interesting that Elliott has put his Surin in the race, as he seemed pretty adamant that his filly would go for the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown next month following her narrow Fairyhouse win.
The Irish sextet look to have a bit to find form-wise with the Munir-Souede duo of Torpillo and Adjali, on official ratings at least - and that pair head the market, though there must be a fair chance only one of them will run - but I wouldn't put too much store into those given the unexposed nature of many of these.
Paul Nicholls has Dogon, a 90,000 euros French recruit, among the entries, and Jonjo O'Neill has another from that sphere in the shape of JP McManus' Pagero, and that one actually cost 190,000euros at the same Arqana Sales in November.
It is difficult to have an opinion with running plans hard to ascertain, but of course Our Power and Nelson River are leading players at this stage.
Champ fancied for the Ballymore x2
The Grade 2 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle promises to be some race, with Festival favourite Champ among the entries, accompanied by his stablemate Birchdale and other exciting prospects like Jarveys Plate, Emitom and Brewin'Upastorm (pictured below; note that he is also entered at Doncaster) to name just four others.
The Challow winner Champ, around 4/1 favourite for the March and most important version of the Ballymore, was the early ante-post favourite at around 2/1 for Saturday's challenge but he could have a fair bit on his plate, as some of the other entries above underline.
He also carries a 5lb penalty along with Jarveys Plate, which is maybe why he was overtaken for favouritism by Birchdale (who is the same ownership) early on Tuesday afternoon, or maybe some think they are privy to likely running plans.
Of course, the drying ground could see some of those mentioned above swerve the race, so having a betting opinion is pretty difficult at this stage.
Unconvincing profiles leads me to a big-price bet in the Cleeve
The Stayers' Hurdle is another race holding out for a hero this season.
Maybe Paisley Park is that horse after his Long Walk win from West Approach, and possibly Midnight Shadow after his defeat of Wholestone over an extended 2m4f here last time.
But I am not particularly sold on either, and last year's Ballymore runner-up, and subsequent Aintree Grade 1 winner, Black Op (pictured below) adds a bit of spice reverting to hurdles after two unconvincing runs over fences.
In truth, none of these have overly-convincing or dominant profiles - and that trio predictably head the early betting, too - so I am intrigued that Nicky Martin, operating at a 19% strike-rate this season, has put the 143-rated Sykes in here.
He is unpenalised though, and I quite like the move. And, more importantly, I love his price.
Regular readers of this column will know that we were with him when he was just touched off by The Mighty Don over course and distance in October (BSP of 44.95, and hit 1.03 in running), and quite clearly the 10yo faces a lot harder task here.
But the time of that Cheltenham run was very good and it was a career-best, and I just think these staying hurdles are open to shocks this season. And the 11yo Knockara Beau did win this race at 66/1 in 2014...
I know the race has some depth - we have the last two winners of this race, Agrapart and Unknowhatimeanharry, in here as well as impressive recent course winner Aux Ptits Soins, and Lil Rockerfeller and Sam Spinner (said to have schooled as well as he ever done on Tuesday morning) - but there is clearly no stand-out and there will be far worse bets this weekend than Sykes each-way at 40/1 with the Betfair Sportsbook.
His absence since October is a slight concern (though he goes well fresh) and he could maybe do with some more ease in the ground, but that's all built into the price.
Glen can be quite a Forsa if lining up
The Betfair Sportsbook have priced up the Timeform Novices' Handicap Chase and they currently make impressive Kempton scorer Glen Forsa their 5/2 favourite.
They actually installed him as an 8/1 chance when they first priced the race up on Monday and that was quickly cut to 4/1, and he has been trimmed again.
He originally went up 9lb for that Kempton success, but the handicapper has now given him an extra 4lb to carry, as that win has been further franked by victories by the second and fourth, as well as the third running well in defeat subsequently.
His early supporters will be hoping he doesn't take up his entry in the Grade 2 novices' chase at Doncaster on Saturday instead, though he would be bang up against it there if the likes of Lalor, Dynamite Dollars and Knocknanuss stood their ground.
The Betfair Sportsbook have also priced up the Grade 3 2m4f127yd handicap chase at Cheltenham, and make Janika their 9/2 favourite.
Federici the one of interest in Donny feature
Dingo Dollar is the clear favourite at around the 5/2 mark and, while that looks on the short side, it is entirely understandable that he heads the market. He does have an alternative engagement at Cheltenham on Saturday but apparently Doncaster is the plan.
The 3m2f on soft ground probably stretched his stamina when a distant third in the Ladbrokes Trophy, and we know that 3m on good going suits him well. He is also a course-and-distance winner with relatively few miles on the clock, so he is the one to beat for a stable that won this race in 2016 and 2017 with Ziga Boy.
Many expected Gold Present to run here but he was a no-show on Monday and Nicky Henderson relies on O O Seven, who had a wind op prior to beating Co Conquer here last month.
There are plenty of other interesting runners in here, but Federici interests me most at 22/1 with the Betfair Sportsbook. The early 33/1 unfortunately disappeared on Monday.
The problem is that he is entered at Fakenham on Thursday, so obviously that is an option (though he is not jocked up at the time of writing), and that Donald McCain said on Twitter that his participation at Doncaster was "ground dependent."
His best recent form has come on soft - and it promises to be good or maybe quicker at Doncaster at the weekend if the forecast is correct - but he is perfectably at home on decent ground, so I would chance it if I were McCain.
And Doncaster are already watering, rightly or wrongly, so they are doing their bit for him.
Federici was beaten under 3 lengths, off a 1lb higher mark, when a 25-1 fifth to Wakanda in this race last season - he was only run out of the places on the run-in after leading at the second-last, trading at a low of 5/2 - and he shaped really well when 4lb out of the handicap when fifth in the Becher on his return.
He is no 20/1+ poke given his form credentials, but you may want to wait until Wednesday morning before backing him - they obviously have to enter him for Fakenham then - or indeed until he is confirmed for Doncaster later in the week.
Indeed, that is probably the wisest course of action given his trainer's comments, and the fact that that early 33s has gone, too. I see Brian Hughes has just been jocked up for Saturday, though.