Tony Calvin looks ahead to this Saturday's Sandown card, as well as Cheltenham and the talked about market on if the festival will go ahead...
"Indeed, his best two runs have been on that ground, when placed over 2m1f at Cheltenham and at Ascot."
'Twas the weekend before Cheltenham
The weekend before Cheltenham - and more of that very shortly - is always all about the Imperial Cup and that is where this piece will centre its betting guns.
I have got this far without addressing the Festival ante-post markets, so I am not going to start now, - much to the chagrin of those higher up the betting.betfair food chain, I can tell you - but let's just hope the meeting goes ahead.
And the Betfair market on whether Tuesday's card gets the green light gives the participants and followers of the sport every reason to be fearful on that front.
Obviously, the market is basically about whether the Government shuts down all big-gatherings and sporting events because of the Coronavirus - and apparently the Football bodies are meeting in Holland on Monday afternoon to discuss this, too - but to a far, far lesser degree backers and layers also have to factor in the weather and other unforeseen events.
And there are always unforeseen events in racing.
It has to be said that there has been a lot of nonsense spoken about this market, though, which has seen £1.2m+ matched at the time of filing.
I have heard countless times in the media that the meeting is surely "1-100" to go ahead, without any explanation why.
I have been getting a lot of abuse for even mentioning the current odds on Twitter, being accused of scaremongering and all sorts.
Markets aren't always fool-proof
That doesn't bother me at all, and a price is a price, so you can't bury your head in the sand.
Sure, I get the fact that everyone betting into the market is guessing - this is a decision that will be taken by the Government, and not the BHA, and they could pull the plug at any stage in the next week if the confirmed cases escalate dramatically - and recent political markets have hardly been totems of accuracy, so the wisdom of heavily-traded lines are certainly not fool-proof.
But I am a punter and I love these rapidly-changing quirky, "feel" markets, which have several trading elements to them - many have speculated "No" is so short because people are hedging into the market, hoping to lose, for example - and money talks in betting.
Anyway, let's see what happens.
If we get nothing definitive from the Government on, or in the coming days - and the Monday morning COBRA meeting doesn't appear to have yielded anything definitive, other than seeing the price of Tuesday going ahead immediately shortening from 4/6 to 4/11 as I write (though the proposals from the COBRA meeting won't be published until Tuesday) - then I suspect "racing" will still be on tenterhooks next Monday.
Any decision to shut down large non-essential gatherings and sporting events - and the leisure pursuits will go first - will be made swiftly and be immediately implemented.
Back to the Cup
Anyway, let's get back to the Imperial Cup, especially as the Betfair Sportsbook are dangling a very nice ante-post carrot in the shape of five places for each-way backers, along with the sponsors, instead of the usual four.
There are 27 entries at the five-day stage, so a maximum field of 22 on Saturday for the 42k+-prize-to-the-winner contest is not totally out of the question (and the £100k Sandown-Cheltenham bonus is back, too).
So, with that in mind, perhaps punters shouldn't be in too much of a rush to take a short price about any horse now.
Return of the Mack
The temptation to back Mack The Man at an industry-best 5/1, each way with five places, takes a fair bit of resisting, though, it has to be said.
The opening 11/2 did go early on Monday afternoon, though.
I tipped and backed him when he beat two subsequent winners over course and distance in December and I went in again on him in the Betfair Hurdle last time, only to see him brought down at the last.
To be perfectly honest, I didn't clock just how big a chance he had at the time until a mate texted me to point it out, but he was right and I suspect the progressive 6yo would have gone pretty close to obliging had he not suffered his misfortune at the final obstacle, when not far behind the eventual winner.
The handicapper has only raised him 1lb since, which is very generous considering the above observations and how well his previous course win has worked out, so no way would I deter you from backing him at 5/1, with the each-way option an attractive element (and that fixed-odds price is very competitive when compared to the win-only exchange market).
But I can just about resist myself, especially as we don't know he has come out of that Newbury tumble and it wouldn't surprise me if he was a similar price (perhaps with six places on offer) come the weekend, if the field size stands up.
And, of course, he has to make it to the race on Saturday as well - not a given, as I have found to my cost when tipping in day-of-week ante-post markets of late - while trainer Evan Williams wouldn't be in the best form either.
Look for a mud-lark
Last year's winner Malaya shaped well when second behind runaway winner Nordano over an extended 2m3f at Ascot last time, her first run for over two months, and she is only 2lb higher than when beating Monsieur Le Coq and Call Me Lord in the contest last season.
I suspect Paul Nicholls has had this race in mind for her since she ran badly when well beaten, when strongly fancied, behind Mack The Man here in December.
Indeed, she took in that very Ascot race before taking this prize last year, and she is definitely another credible betting proposition at 9/1 with the Sportsbook and the current [11.5] win-only on the exchange.
This looks a pretty deep race though, jam-packed with last-time-out winners and progressive sorts - and Main Fact threw his hat into the ring when winning at Wetherby on Monday - and it is a devilish puzzle to solve at this stage.
One thing is for certain, and it is that the ground will be pretty bottomless.
Clerk of the course, Andrew Cooper, tweeted on Sunday that Sandown was waterlogged on both courses, and there is an unsettled forecast throughout the week, so it will be gruelling conditions this weekend once again, particularly as they race on Friday, too.
So, stating the bleedin' obvious, look for a proper mud-lark who stays further than 2m, particular on the Esher track where horses can often stop to a walk in a matter of strides.
I loved the way Northofthewall powered home to win over 2m3f at Taunton in a fair time and he is heavy ground-winner too, and if he didn't have any alternative entries this weekend then I would have been all over him at 25/1.
But he is also in at Hereford (where he won on heavy in December) on Saturday and Warwick on Sunday, so you can hardly tip him at this stage, and the 40/1 course winner Man Of Plenty, now on a very attractive mark, also has two other options this week, too.
The prospect of heavy ground does worry me a little for him, as his worst performance over hurdles came here on that going in November 2018.
But that was his hurdling debut, so it may not be right to read too much into that run, and he has certainly seemed suited by soft ground this season.
Indeed, his best two runs have been on that ground, when placed over 2m1f at Cheltenham and at Ascot.
Those runs suggest he doesn't have many secrets from the handicapper just yet, but I liked the way he stayed on from off the pace to finish seventh on good ground in the Betfair Hurdle last time (having to swerve the fallers at the last), and the handicapper has dropped him 1lb for it.
This is only his ninth start over hurdles, and there could well be more to come from him, and I can certainly see this test of stamina suiting this half-brother to a 2m7f scorer.
I won't be going mad stakes-wise, but he rates a bet at 20/1 each way, five places. That is the general price in the marketplace.
Good luck all.