Timeform's Adam Houghton previews the Sodexo Gold Cup Handicap Chase at Ascot on Saturday...
"He clearly goes well fresh having made a winning reappearance after seven months off at Sandown last season..."
Cracksman and Enable were the star performers during another epic season of Flat racing at Ascot, but their achievements have now been consigned to history, and it is the jumpers that once again take centre stage at the track on Saturday. There is some good prize money on offer, too, with a pair of handicaps worth over £34,000 to the winner, while the centrepiece Sodexo Gold Cup Handicap Chase looks set to feature several interesting types fighting it out for the £56,950 first prize.
The favourite at the time of writing is the Jonjo O'Neill-trained Go Conquer. The eight-year-old has dazzled over fences in the past and put in another superb display to resume winning ways after six months off at Fontwell recently, value for more than the official winning margin, too, having idled markedly after the last. He should continue to give a good account, for all that more is likely to be needed from his career-high mark. Antony was making his own seasonal debut when 14 lengths third to Go Conquer there, and is now 9 lb better off at the weights with that rival as he attempts to repeat his heroics in this race 12 months ago. Indeed, his winning effort last year is just about the best form on offer on these terms, with Gary Moore's charge trailing only one horse on Timeform's weight-adjusted ratings, and he looks sure to go well.
The one horse ahead of Antony on the aforementioned ratings is the Harry Whittington-trained Emerging Force, who won two of his first three starts as a novice chaser in 2016/17, and was not disgraced when fifth, albeit well held, to Sizing Codelco on his final outing at Aintree in April. That 16-runner handicap simply proved too much for Emerging Force at that stage of his career, stepping out of small-field novices after four months off, while the Whittington yard was also going through a quiet spell at the time. That experience is unlikely to have been lost on Emerging Force, and it would be a surprise if there were not a good staying handicap with his name on it this term.
Braqueur d'Or is another with less experience as a chaser than most in this line-up, though he looked a natural when defying a BHA mark of 129 on just his sixth start over fences at Newton Abbot last time. He showed much improved form to resume winning ways there, jumping superbly and cruising clear to score by seven lengths, and is one to keep making hay with before conditions turn soft in the winter months, having registered two of his three wins on good to firm going. Paul Nicholls is also responsible for Art Mauresque, who is similarly most effective on a sound surface, and can now race from the same mark as when making a winning return after five months off at Chepstow last season. He does still need to prove his effectiveness at this trip, however.
Others to mention include Thomas Brown, who has now dropped to a mark just 1 lb higher than when winning on return at Aintree 12 months ago. He went off the boil somewhat after that promising first effort, as he has done in seasons gone by, too, and this is almost certainly the time to catch him. It would also be folly to rule out Ballycross, who remains a maiden over the larger obstacles after seven starts, but has shown himself to be a useful chaser on several occasions, and would probably have justified strong market support but for two significant late errors at Warwick recently.
However, the one that makes most appeal at the current prices is Dark Flame, who shaped as if needing further when staying on to finish a length and three quarters second to the useful Present Man in a novice chase (21f) here in April, just tapped for toe at crucial stage. He clearly goes well fresh having made a winning reappearance after seven months off at Sandown last season, and sneaks in towards the bottom of the weights from a BHA mark of 133 here. That puts him right in the mix with Emerging Force and Antony on weight-adjusted figures and, with relatively few miles on the clock for an eight-year-old, there is every chance he has an even bigger effort in him. He looks worth a small bet at the current prices.
Win back Dark Flame in the Sodexo Gold Cup at Ascot on Saturday