Tony Calvin discusses the heavy ground before making the case for A Toi Phil to thrive at Sandown and Bob Mahler to hit the right notes at Musselburgh this Saturday...
"The falling handicap mark could hardly be classed as a gift given his recent form and profile, but off 138 – he was 159 at his peak across the water – he promises to be very competitive."
I have been reining it in a touch on the betting and tipping front of late because of the blasted heavy ground.
I know that is a very racing-type moan when thousands continue to die every week - and, to that end, can racecourses and owners please stop talking about getting crowds back as it comes across as distasteful - but this is a punting column and we have to deal with the betting matters in our little bubble.
The problem with heavy ground, which will surely be much in evidence at Sandown if it gets the green light on Saturday (and Musselburgh could end up similarly testing if some of the midweek forecasts of up to 30mm of rain are correct, even if it is only good to soft there at the moment) is that description covers a multitude of sins.
Some horses can operate in bottomless ground at some tracks and not at others - it isn't as straightforward and uniform as fast ground on the Flat, it seems - while you also get officially soft (good to soft in places) which appears even harder work to get through to this naked eye.
That looked the case at Doncaster on Saturday, where the churned-up surface made it look like a ploughed field in parts - the jockeys all called it dead ground, with grass at a premium - and some of the novice hurdlers in the 3m River Don looked like they had to been asked to gallop a marathon in quicksand.
Yes, I guess that is a roundabout way of saying my form and judgement has been somewhat lacking over the past few weeks.
Still, I think it is prudent to keep stakes small in the current ground conditions, and it doesn't get any deeper than heavy on the Sandown hurdles track, where they may race this weekend.
That is probably why the course is looking at an all-chase card for the weekend (there is a midday inspection on Tuesday to see what the hurdles line is looking like, and indeed the course in general with a very wet midweek forecast ahead), and one featuring a rescheduled Cotswold Chase (the Cleeve Hurdle is also being re-routed to Wetherby this weekend).
Mind you, the fact that Sandown are entertaining that prospect (and inspecting on Tuesday) is a hardly a "come and race" call to connections of chasers that like a semblance of common decency in their ground - a joke before anyone gets upset - even if that part of the track always seems to ride better than its hurdles counterpart.
I will deal with the priced-up ITV races at Sandown, Musselburgh and Wetherby races in this column here, and set what promises to be a superb weekend of racing at the Dublin Festival of Racing (DRF) at Leopardstown (also set to be broadcast from ITV) to one side for the moment.
Heavy ground no problem for A Toi Phil
With the negative vibes and doubts, there doesn't seem to be in any point in looking at the hurdles races at this stage.
That is a shame as the Heroes Handicap Hurdle (at 14:55, which has attracted 26 entries) is always a good betting heat, and of course the seven-strong (or more accurately seven-weak) Listed Contenders Hurdle (13:50) has been won by Champion Hurdlers likes Buveur D'Air and Binocular in recent years, although it is a contest that rarely lends itself to a punting medium given the field sizes.
The 23-runner 3m handicap chase (15:30) does and I am very happy to give A Toi Phil another spin at 20/1 each way, five places, with the Betfair Sportsbook.
I stuck him up at a price at Kempton on his seasonal return last month, and I was pretty happy with what I saw there, even though I did my money on the win-only front.
He just found things happening a touch too quickly for him around there over 2m4f trip on good to soft ground, but he stayed on well to be never nearer at the line in finishing a 10-and-a-half length fourth, suggesting a longer trip and deeper ground could suit him now in advancing years (11 and counting).
Don't get me wrong, his best form in Ireland came at around the 2m4f mark in his younger years but he did run well with fifth in a Kerry National over 3m in heavy ground back in 2017, and he also shaped well over an extended 2m7f when fourth at 40/1 on his stable debut in the Betfair Denman Chase this time last year.
And even the merest glance at his record in Ireland shows the expected heavy ground here will be no problem, and maybe Gary Moore will be tempted to put some headgear on him for the first time in his care. He always raced in a tongue-tie in Ireland, and won in cheekpieces too.
The falling handicap mark could hardly be classed as a gift given his recent form and profile, but off 138 - he was 159 at his peak across the water - he promises to be very competitive.
A slight worry is that a lot of best form has come in single-digit fields but there were 17 runners in that Listowel National and he did also fourth in a 22-runner Galway Plate. And it sounds like his jumping always underpinned his best efforts in Ireland, so maybe this fencing test around here could really spark him into life.
I don't know if he is an intended runner but he is the trainer's only entry in the race and this is a 17k-pot-to-the-winner, so it would be disappointing if he is a no-show.
I will take that risk at 20/1.
I am also inclined to give Hold The Note one more chance off his mark of 138 in the future, and maybe this is a good opportunity for him after his wind op.
But I am not convinced that he wants 3m in heavy ground myself, for all he finished second in a Grade 2 over that trip at Warwick last season and was plugging on again at the finish at Kempton last time, however much he is weighted to win races.
And, more pertinently, I would be looking for bigger than 12/1 about him, too.
A Toi Phil is the only one that interests me at Sandown for the moment, so over to Musselburgh and Wetherby.
Risk a few Bob at Musselburgh
There are two ITV races at Musselburgh and both are priced up, including the 4m1f Edinburgh National at 14:05pm. Let's hope the rain and snow they are forecast this week is not too bad.
I have mixed memories of my tip Bob Mahler getting up in the final stride to win this race last season. Good in that it is always pleasing to tip a winner, and I had a good go on him too. Bad in that I watched the race in the Owners and Trainers Bar at the Dublin Racing Festival and let fly with all sorts of expletives, including a few C-bombs, as Adrian Heskin was hauling him home. Once I calmed down, I realised the place was packed full of children, some of them crayoning right in front of me.
Well, who said racing isn't a great grounding and an education for kids? I'd like to think they'll hear worse in racecourse bars in the future and I have stood them in good stead.
Perhaps not, though.
I obviously won't be in Leopardstown this weekend for a repeat and it must be doubtful if Bob Mahler is in the form to get anywhere near the winner's enclosure again either after three pulled-up efforts this season.
He really did appear to run like a drain at Kelso last time and the handicapper has only dropped him a mere 5lb for his dismal three runs this term. Hardly generous.
But I did some asking around and what I heard interested me.
His form last season obviously gives him an excellent chance. He is only 2lb higher than when winning this race last season and he went on to finish third in the Kim Muir after going up 5lb.
What to make of these three pulled-up efforts this season though?
Well, he had a wind op after his Cheltenham return and then his saddle slipped at Haydock next time, though he looked cooked when that happened anyway.
On the face of it, he ran even worse at Kelso last time, but it transpired his saddle slipped again, which would explain why he dropped out so quickly after travelling okay for much of the race.
Mind you, he was a monumental drifter there - he was as low as 6/1 in the morning and went off at Betfair SP of 29.42, having hit bigger pre-race - so someone didn't fancy him.
If you back him, there is obviously a lot of risk attached - and I wouldn't want the ground too testing for him, despite that Kim Muir third coming in the soft - but I am told he is a "definite runner" and this race could cut up a fair bit.
Gordon Elliott is responsible for four of the 22 runners. You'll be able to read his thoughts on this site later this week but I imagine he is just feeling out the UK handicapper and that they probably won't travel over - I am assuming that anyway, right or wrong - and I am going to take a chance on Bob Mahler at 16/1 each way, four places.
I better end this piece there, although Wetherby is on the box too - though we won't be seeing Paisley Park in the rescheduled Cleeve Hurdle - and hopefully it will be a very busy weekend, weather permitting, without even factoring in the DRF.