Criticism of Pentland Hills 'wide of the mark'
There was not a lot of love for Pentland Hills on my Twitter timeline after his savage second in Haydock's Champion Hurdle Trial on Saturday, but it doesn't surprise me in the least that the betting markets pretty much collectively shrugged their shoulders at the performance.
How you view his effort is entirely based on your pre-race expectations.
I, for one, was surprised that the Triumph Hurdle winner was even running in the race, given it was the softest ground he has ever (officially, at least, as the time boys reckon it was nearer soft) faced, in a small field, conditions that were never likely to play to his strengths.
And the stable also had the mud-loving Call Me Lord in the race at the five-day stage, too, and he looked a far better fit for the contest.
But Pentland Hills ran and very nearly got away it too, despite the five-year-old proving very keen and doing far too much throughout the contest.
In fact, he actually ran far better than I thought he would in finishing a nose second to Ballyandy - and most people thought he had held on as well, as the last-traded-price about him in the photo finish was 1.141/7 - and, if anything, he probably enhanced his Cheltenham claims.
Not by much admittedly.
Of course, a nose second to the 155-rated Ballyandy (who was getting 3lb) is hardly the stuff of a Champion Hurdle winner - and the third, Cornerstone Lad, came out best at the weights - but, as everyone knows, this is not a usual/vintage year in the 2m hurdling division and I don't have any issue with him being 8.27/1 second favourite for the race on the Exchange.
This is a five-year-old with just five hurdle runs under his belt, and one who breezed to victory on the New Course in the Triumph Hurdle last season and who went on to tough it out in the rain at Aintree afterwards.
He ran perfectly well on his return when fifth in the International (trading at 1.618/13 in the run), travelling like comfortably the best horse in the race before tiring after the last, and of course he hit the minimum price when mugged on the line on Saturday.
I get the strong suspicion that a big field and a strong pace - and everyone with a hat will be throwing it into the Champion Hurdle ring this year - is what he needs, as that set-up will surely help him to settle a lot better.
Connections could well be looking to put headgear on him - he was a bit of a monkey on the Flat, too, before knuckling down - and I imagine they will take good to soft (soft in places) for him on the opening Tuesday (it will never be quicker on Day One) right now.
I am not suggesting backing him at this stage at 7/1+ by any means - what little money I have thrown at the race so far has been targeted at Silver Streak, Sharjah and Not So Sleepy (all at much bigger prices than they are now, mind you) - but I am just saying criticism of the horse is well wide of the mark, even though I readily accept that as a 153-rated hurdler he has to improve, and improve fast.
But the potential is certainly there, especially as I think the speed-test of the Champion Hurdle on the Old Course will also be an additional positive for the strong-traveller.
If you disagree, then you know where the lay button is.
The back button is getting my sole attention on the ante-post front for this weekend's racing, when we have Cheltenham Trials Day on Saturday.
The ground at Cheltenham is currently soft but, unless the forecast is wildly inaccurate (not a big price admittedly), we have a dry week in store and it seems fair to proceed on the basis of good to soft going at the weekend.
All eyes on Doncaster
The same is pretty much true of the racing up at Doncaster, too, and that is the home of the race that I am focusing on for this column.
So let's take a good look at the SkyBet Chase, which is priced up both on the Betfair Sportsbook and the Exchange.
Alan King won this race in 2016 and 2017 with Ziga Boy, and he looks to have a strong hand at the five-day stage with Dingo Dollar, Azzerti and Good Man Pat.
All three have very plausible claims though it is no surprise to see Dingo Dollar as the shortest-priced of the trio.
Connections blamed the change of tactics when he was a disappointing sixth when a 3/1 favourite for this race last season but normal forcing rides have been resumed since and he comes here after a creditable fifth in the Ladbrokes Trophy last time.
But he doesn't have many secrets from the handicapper off a mark of 146, and Mister Whitaker would have be the one I liked most at the top of the market were it not for the fact that he also has a Cotswold Chase entry at his beloved Cheltenham on Saturday.
Again, he wouldn't appear to have anything in hand ratings-wise but he was eased 1lb for his promising reappearance fifth on New Year's Day and he would have to be of interest if heading oop North instead on the drying ground.
It's a highly-competitive renewal though, with a healthy 21 entries at this stage, and I liked two bigger-priced horses.
Looksnowtlikebrian has had a wind op since disappointing on heavy ground at Bangor last time, and he looks a fair old price at an industry-best 40/1 with the Sportsbook. He had earlier run well at Carlisle on his return and he is well-handicapped on his 2018-winning form in the autumn on decent ground.
Cobra can strike down rivals
But the Tim Vaughan stable isn't in the best of nick and the one that I am putting up here is Cobra De Mai (pictured). And I rather like his chances.
He is currently 19.018/1 on the Exchange at the time of writing, but the recommendation is to have to the places onside and back him at 16/1 each way, four places, with the Sportsbook.
Now, the Skelton stable could hardly be accused of pulling up any trees at the moment too, and they are only three from 36 in January, which is a very poor return from a yard of this calibre.
But perhaps Skelton takes a leaf out of his old boss Paul Nicholls' playbook and flu-jabs his horses at the turn of the year, hence a quiet spell ensues for a while, and there are signs that his string is beginning to simmer once again, notably with Marracudja in the Clarence House on Saturday (and Benny's King was just touched off on the Ascot card, too).
And he certainly has a lot of horses entered up this week, too.
Another potential negative is the fact that he has three entries in here, so he has options over which will run, but Cobra De Mai has no other weekend engagements and I reckon this test could be tailor-made for him.
In fact, I hope this has been the long-term plan.
It was very interesting to do a trawl of the stable tours online and to read, in his Attheraces.com interview, Skelton say in October: "I think he can compete at a high level but there is a difference between competing off a 145 than 153."
He duly started the season rated 153 after running away with a 3m2f Cheltenham handicap by 13 lengths off a mark of 142 back in April, but he is now down to a very exploitable 144 after four runs this season.
He showed very little in his opening three starts, but there was considerable improvement in his fifth under 7lb claimer William Marshall at Kempton last time, where he shaped like a horse ready to strike winning form, and on ground that was probably plenty soft enough for him, too.
Dropped another 1lb for that run, he comes here a very well handicapped beast.
In the same ATR interview, Skelton said he wasn't sure about the depth of the Cheltenham field he beat in the spring (and it wasn't the best time performance either) but you aren't simply judging the horse as well-treated solely on that victory.
Indeed, he finished a one-and=three-quarter length-second to the then-149-rated Bigmartre off levels in a Grade 2 at Ayr in April 2018, and three of his best performances have come on left-handed tracks on good ground (the other being a Stratford defeat of Activial in a pretty quick time).
He has 2m4f pace too, which is often a big asset around Doncaster, and I think he is primed to run a big race.
So please run him, Dan. Especially if this has indeed been the target for while...