Tony McFadden takes an ante-post look at the ultra-competitive Ayr Gold Cup...
"Once viewed by connections as a contender for classic honours, The Cheka may not have realised those dreams, but he has gone on to establish himself as a smart, consistent and versatile performer, twice finishing placed in Group 1 company this year..."
Anyone wishing to attend the Ayr Gold Cup meeting, without wanting to get stuck in a convoy of horseboxes, will be well advised to arrive early, for it seems every sprint handicapper in the land will be making the journey to Ayr on Saturday to contest the Bronze, Silver or Gold Cup. I may be exaggerating somewhat, but there will be three six-furlong cavalry charges for patrons to try and unravel, a prospect not relished by everyone, notably people who enjoy keeping hold of their money!
Any bitterness detected in my tone can easily be explained by the fact that I have been entrusted with Saturday's betting.betfair Placepot column; I sense that people have faced the hangman more optimistic about their prospects than I am about cracking the 'pot' on Saturday. Fortunately, in this preview, we only have to concentrate on one race, Europe's richest sprint handicap, the Ayr Gold Cup.
I am not above trying to take the easy route; my first thought when asked to write this Ayr Gold Cup preview was to select a horse almost certain to be balloted out so that everyone would get their stake back and could go home happy. However, the presence of the two consolation races has cruelly deprived me of that option, as whatever horse I select will inevitably turn up in one of the events and, although the money will be safely secure in the pocket, I will not be spared the ignominy of watching my selection trail home in the consolation race's consolation race. So, with that in mind, I guess the only option is to dissect the likely contenders and try to pinpoint where the value may lie.
Much of the attention in the lead up to Scotland's most prestigious Flat prize will inevitably focus around the Jim Goldie-trained Hawkeyethenoo, hoping to become the first Scottish-based winner of their showpiece event since Roman Warrior back in 1975. Hawkeyethenoo has become something of a stalwart of the Jim Goldie yard, and is a regular feature in these ultra-competitive Heritage Handicaps, gaining reward for a string of good efforts when digging deep to land the Stewards' Cup at Glorious Goodwood.
Unsurprisingly, given his record in these type of events, Hawkeyethenoo sits at the head of the Betfair ante-post market, trading at 13.5. However, when you consider that he will be competing off a career-high mark, on ground possibly softer than ideal, against 26 other hardy veterans, he doesn't appeal as fantastic value at this stage.
A piece of crucial recent form could well be the Portland Handicap, where Doc Hay finished with a flourish to overhaul Face The Problem in the shadows of the post. As you might expect, Doc Hay had to produce a career-best effort to land such a competitive and valuable handicap, underlining the impression that he is thriving at present. The strong pace that invariably prevails in these cavalry charges is ideal for a strong-travelling sort such as Doc Hay and, if able to negotiate a clear passage, it would be little surprise to see him make another bold bid.
Jamie Osborne's Face The Problem needs eight to come out in order to guarantee his place, but, if he does make the cut, he will hold excellent claims, having also produced the best performance of his career at Doncaster last week. Consistency has not been an issue for Face The Problem since being placed under the care of Osborne, the Portland effort his fourth consecutive good run this year, and, providing he is not inconvenienced by the return to six furlongs, his form entitles him to close consideration.
Face The Problem runs in the colours of Dr Marwan Koukash, a man who has owned the last two winners of this prestigious contest, and he once again has a whole host of possible contenders. Last year's victor Our Jonathan is just one possible from the Koukash contingent, however, Gramercy may prove to be a lively outsider.
Three below Face The Problem in the pecking order, Gramercy cannot be considered the most consistent of individuals, but he is undoubtedly useful, certainly more so than his handicap mark would imply. His latest effort, when finishing second to Van Ellis, represented a resounding return to form and a 2 lb rise in the weights still leaves him well treated based on a couple of efforts at Ascot last season. Soft ground could pose problems, and it is likely he will have to settle for running in the Silver Cup, but he would be an intriguing contender should he sneak in and his current price of 26.025/1 makes some appeal.
Focussing on one guaranteed to get in, The Cheka possesses plenty of qualities that make him of interest on Saturday. Once viewed by connections as a contender for classic honours, The Cheka may not have realised those dreams, but he has gone on to establish himself as a smart, consistent and versatile performer, twice finishing placed in Group 1 company this year. This will be his first foray into handicaps and he is clearly hiding little from the assessor, but, unperturbed by underfoot conditions and in good form, Eve Johnson Houghton's stable star looks sure to run a solid race and could be overpriced at 2221/1.
It is difficult to be too dogmatic in a race such as this where luck and circumstance can be as decisive as ability, however, by selecting a consistent and reliable performer who enters the race in good heart you are at least giving yourself a chance, and The Cheka ticks those boxes.
Back The Cheka to win the Ayr Gold Cup at 22.021/1.