Aintree is without doubt the main focus this week, and Tony Calvin has picked out two ante post selections he likes the look of, including an outsider in the 14:20...
"With the Dan Skelton stable still relentlessly piling in the winners, I am very tempted to stick him up at 33s here win-only, especially as he charts an identical path to the stable's Bedrock."
Aintree are all set to continue watering this week despite a tricky-looking forecast, which includes frost, rain and snow, so I think it is safe to proceed on the basis of good to soft, and it may even a bit more testing on the National course on Saturday.
That won't please connections of horses who like the going a touch more rapid, but that's the way of the world these days. And erring on the side of caution when it comes to horse welfare at this meeting is always a 1.01 poke.
Hopefully, all being well, it will pretty much be "no excuses" ground, as they say, and nature doesn't dump unexpected amounts of rain on watered going.
Locke looks like a great price
Let's hope the field sizes hold up, as the five-day entries for Thursday weren't exactly plentiful, with only nine in the Grade 1 juvenile hurdle (14:20pm), a race in which John Locke interests me at a price against much higher-rated rivals.
The formbook informs you he was beaten 21 lengths into fourth behind Tritonic on his hurdling at debut in the Adonis at Kempton, and the betting tells you he has little chance on that run, with the Betfair Sportsbook putting him in at 33/1.
But I think that most observers would acknowledge he shaped far, far better than the beaten distance would suggest, as he travelled powerfully into the race, going every bit as well as the winner turning in (the 11/1 chance hit 2.4 in running) before emptying soon after.
The pre-race betting suggested he would need the outing, as he went off a very weak 13.5 at Betfair SP, and the decision to miss Cheltenham means he comes here a fresh horse.
And that is a comment you will be reading and hearing a lot this week.
He is definitely one of the horses who could have done without any watering, as he was a progressive sort on good and quick ground on the Flat (rated 85 after just the five starts), while disappointing on the one occasion he encountered soft. Mind you, they were kicking it up a bit when he won at Goodwood in September.
With the Dan Skelton stable still relentlessly piling in the winners, I am very tempted to stick him up at 33s here win-only (the Sportsbook are, understandably, offering only two places for each way purposes given the nine entries), especially as he charts an identical path to the stable's Bedrock.
That horse was beaten 23 lengths in the same Kempton race on his debut but came on a ton when a 25/1 third to Defi Du Seuil in this contest in 2017, and was rated 144 after hosing up on his next start (and he beat Samcro and Sharjah in a Grade 2 at Down Royal following year).
It was just a matter of whether John Locke was a probable runner.
Skelton also has Carlos Felix in here, and this could be a very warm renewal with the likes of Monmiral, Triumph runners Adagio and Tritonic, and Fred Winter fourth Houx Gris potentially in opposition, and to further muddy the waters, John Locke's owners Chris Giles and Jared Sullivan also own shares in Houx Gris.
But I gather this is the plan for John Locke, so I am going to have a small win-only bet on him at 33/1 with the Sportsbook.
It wouldn't be a massive surprise if Skelton used some headgear on John Locke, as his very talented half-brother Crossed Baton won in first-time cheekpieces on the Flat.
Skelton to continue fine form
Skelton is firing some serious ammo at this meeting if the five-day entries are to be believed, and I have a feeling he could owe the handicapper a drink after Destrier runs in the Red Rum Handicap Chase on Thursday (16:40pm).
This looks a proper plot job. Or I hope it is, anyway.
I know he has hardly been missed in the market, but the Betfair Sportsbook are going best industry price at 8/1 and four places (he is as short as 5/1 elsewhere) so, with no other entries, I am happy to stick him up here each way.
Now, he hasn't got within 16 ½ lengths of the winner in three starts this season, and was beaten nearly twice by that distance when last of the five finishers at Chepstow last time, but he hasn't been unduly persevered with on any occasion (and the ground has probably been far too testing for him anyway).
I know he finished a 3-length third in a soft-ground Haldon Gold Cup in 2019 but he looks a more potent force on better ground to my eye.
And a measure of how much slack the assessor has cut him of late is evidenced by the fact he is now 15lb lower than for that Exeter run just six starts ago, having been dropped 10lb for his three outings in 2021.
And go back just one more outing beyond Exeter and you have the cherry on the cake, as he finished third in a Grade 1 novices' chase here in April 2019, and a reproduction of that run - and speed figure - would just about see him win this.
I know there are doubts, and this wouldn't be a selection for those who put a premium on recent form, as he could well have simply lost his form.
But I think 8s is very fair myself.
The owners are also no strangers to a winner at this track (Ferrobin won for them here in 2019) and I reckon they could well be celebrating again.
I don't take too much notice of stable tours but back in November Skelton said "he's had a niggle and won't be out until the new year. He'll definitely win a good race", so hopefully his season and fitness levels have been geared towards this prize.
Please note the ante-post market will close at 10am on Tuesday morning, so apologies if you are reading this column after that time.
More Aintree chat to follow this week...
The latest declaration stage for the Grand National is just in, so I will leave the other Aintree races alone for now - I prefer a relatively clean betting slate going into the big meetings anyway - and have another spin at the big one. There are 68 runners still in the race.
Of course, Cloth Cap dominates the market after his Kelso win, and he is into 5.85/1 on the exchange, having traded at a low of 5.24/1. He is 7/2 with the Betfair Sportsbook, who are non-runner money back, five places.
I backed him at 7/1 each way, NRMB, immediately after that win the Premier Chase last month, on which he is officially 14lb well-in, and he is quite clearly the most likely winner.
I am sure many will baulk at his current price, as you still need luck in this race for all it is a high-class handicap these days (the presence of the 167-rated Bristol De Mai dictates that Cloth Cap can race off 10st 5lb), but the improvement he has made since cheekpieces have been fitted, in conjunction with more aggressive tactics and decent ground, really makes him a huge player.
And the fact that he will presumably be ridden prominently again means he will hopefully miss most of the trouble going.
So, granted Lady Luck - and the stamina box was pretty well ticked by his Scottish National third in 2019 - you'd probably be wise to at least make sure you don't lose on the race if he wins. He wouldn't want it to get too soft, though, and I suppose he may drift nearer the race if it does.
My long-range fancy and tip for the race is Kimberlite Candy, who I recommended at 20.019/1 when the weights came out.
I haven't gone off him at all.
I know he didn't really see out his race as well as he could have in the Eider two years ago but he is a different horse these days and I don't' have any stamina doubts myself given the manner in which he won the Classic at Warwick last season.
And the promise of his second over these fences in the Becher in December, for all his was beaten 24 lengths into second, was there for all to see.
He jumped brilliantly throughout before getting tired late on, as the pre-race market predicted he would. He was a single-figure price in the morning but he went off at a Betfair SP of 22.9.
He hit 2.8 in running though and, quite obviously, connections have had their eyes on one prize and one prize since, eschewing a couple of opportunities to get another run into him because of the deep ground.
Ideally, I would have liked to have seen him have another race but he clearly is a horse who goes well when fresh (he won first time out in 2016 and 2018 and also finished second in the Becher on his return in 2019) and you have to trust the trainer, who has had a recent winner and a good second. to have him A1.
Fingers crossed. Back tomorrow afternoon probably with an assessment of Thursday's racing.
Tony Calvin P/L - Jumps Season 20/21
2020 Flat Season (June 1-November): +20.8
Previous P/L (April 14 2017 to April 1 2020): +303.4
*All recommended Exchange bets are settled at Betfair SP, not at prices available at time of publishin