I didn't hold out much hope for this card during the week. The ground was already heavy on Wednesday with up to 42mm battering the Lancashire track in the build-up to Saturday. If the meeting passes its 8am inspection, it won't make for pretty viewing. Seems to be the way lately with the weather. But we crack on.
With seven ITV4 races, let's start with the Grade 2 Rossington Main before working our way to a decent betting card at Ascot.
Trainer Donald McCain might have a good one for this in Waterlord - and the race was mentioned as his target after winning over course and distance three weeks ago. He won that very easily from the front by 15 lengths to go alongside his Bangor romp - and both came in heavy ground. He was a really talented bumper horse for John Ferguson who won a few races on a decent surface with a turn of foot - so it's surprising how well he has been going in testing conditions.
He looks a resolute galloper with a big engine nowadays, and with a rating now of 135 he is firmly in the mix. McCain has landed the Rossington Main in the past with Peddlers Cross and Cinders And Ashes, unfortunately he is 2/1 on the Sportsbook - so no play.
Likewise Kim Bailey's First Flow at 5/2, a big type who loved the mud at Newbury last time in winning by 20 lengths.
One that does look completely overpriced here at 16/1 is McGowan's Pass. He has two qualities that will stand him in good stead for this - he looks a stayer and he likes heavy terrain. He takes a big step up in class here, and he might not be good enough, but this bad ground can really sort them out.
McGowan's Pass really powered clear at the end his three-and-a-half length victory in the heavy at Ayr when last seen, and jockey Henry Brooke clearly liked what he rode there. That was only his second run over hurdles but his jumping had improved leaps and bounds from his debut at Newcastle. He clearly has plenty of stamina (and is related to a 3m2f Hunter Chase winner), as he stayed on well to a land a bumper at Newcastle in testing conditions.
He is priced-up almost as a no-hoper. I don't think he is, and might go better than his odds.
I was very much with Agrapart earlier in the week because of the ground, but he came out on declaration time, and like most editions of this Grade 2 Champion Hurdle Trial - we are left with a small field.
Racing millionaire The New One rocks up to win this for the fourth time, and the holder of this crown since 2015 has seen off fields of seven, six and five down the years. His old rival Clyne finished runner-up last term to once again confirm he likes the track and stays a bit further (watch The New One defeat Clyne in the video below ). But then so does The New One - who also holds Dan Skelton's Ch'Tibello on Cheltenham form in the Grade 2 International.
The seven-year-old Ch'Tibello is the likely improver considering his age, and he would have a half chance from last term's form in the Christmas and Kingwell Hurdle behind Yanworth - and he travelled quite stylishly in the Wincanton fixture. But with such a small field and outsider Unison about 30lb inferior - we are unlikely to get a price.
In fact, the best way to explore this could be the in-running way. The New One traded at 6.86/1 from a BSP of 2.59 last term. Whilst in 2015 he was sent of at the ultra-short BSP of 1.182/11 - but hit a high of 4.03/1 in the race. He's won this twice with heavy in the description, and has made it look hard work (which is unsurprising in the atrocious conditions).
I would rather throw in something around 7.06/1 as an order in the hope of getting matched on The New One, as a bit more of an appealing bet than Ch'Tibello to win.
For those that earmarked Fine Rightly as a staying chaser for the big races, you'd be in the club with me. I'm happy to take a chance on him at decent odds for the feature Peter Marsh - and he'll like the heavy conditions, in fact I nearly fell of my chair with one book offering him as a 25/1 chance for this on Thursday on the ante-post market. He isn't a complete rag.
Fine Rightly has been running over hurdles coming into this - in fact his last two runs over the smaller obstacles have both come over inadequate trips, Although on that theme he did remarkably well to finish just over two lengths away in the Grade 2 Fortria earlier in the season. Over 2m!
He's an out-and-out galloper with a bit of graded form as a novice - just what I like for these big handicaps. He could have one of these in him from a mark of 143 - and he's well treated from days gone by of 150-plus. He should stay too as a Scottish National runner (although the ground went against him last term at Ayr) and he likes going left-handed. He ticks a lot of boxes for an outsider, the hood returns for today.
The other interesting one is Hainan - who won by a big margin over Haydock's 3m5f last time - and he was backed from 9s into 7s on the Sportsbook early on Friday. The track plays host to course specialists in the mud - as demonstrated by the Peter Marsh winner of last year Bristol De Mai, and he likes it here too.
There is a rattling good chaser progressing at a rate of knots here, though - and that's Lucinda Russell's Forest des Aigles. This is his first preference but is also entered in Ascot's 15:00. Back him at 10/1, and he beat Hainan as my second bet.
Forest des Aigles landed a chase at Kelso last term in impressive fashion, and was subsequently pitched into a race at the Scottish Grand National meeting at Ayr last April - although that was a bit too much of a speed test at a shorter trip than ideal.
This term he is flying, winning races in the north by 6L, 6L and 4L. The seven-year-old dotted up at Carlisle under Derek Fox in December, and he jumped very well at Bangor last time. He loves soft and heavy conditions, and he has won over 2m4f around Hexham - so he'll stay this stiff finish.
Running from 133 today, this ex-Guillaume Macaire runner was called quite exciting by Russell, and I like those double-figure odds. We'll find out if he is good enough on Saturday.
With a couple of great betting races on the Ascot card, the first ITV4 offering from the Berkshire venue is less appealing from a punting point of view. Or so I thought until I saw the price of an outsider.
The standard-setter is Warren Greatrex's La Bague Au Roi - and she has won a couple of Listed races coming into this, a real tough galloping type. In fact she's a similar sort to Midnight Tune - who landed a race from the front at Kempton last time out over 3m. Midnight Tune's trainer Anthony Honeyball is in great nick at the moment, and he mentioned this race as the target if the ground rides heavy. She is 10/1 compared to even money on the Greatrex horse.
Whether the going will be testing enough for Midnight Tune might be a question, but these mares' races aren't particularly strong, and I would recommend a small bet on her at the odds - which looks too big considering she is improving fast and likes a test. Having Le Bague Au Roi in the field might just play to her strengths.
She just about made the list as a bet.
The sexy horse here is Jenkins - and I expect him to be backed on the day. He's always been talked about as a quality horse, and with the booking of James Bowen for this - it looks as though connections mean business. He won at Kempton last week by five lengths, and the positive tactics worked a treat with the first time blinkers. The young jockey has won big Saturday races recently with the Welsh Grand National and the Lanzarote (just seven days ago) - and he is the man in demand. I wouldn't mind being his agent!
However, I am going to play two here, at the top and bottom-end of the market.
Step forward something at a big price, and a horse who hasn't won since flares were in fashion. Well, 2014 at least. It's Man Of Plenty at 14/1. The 20s disappeared quickly on Friday morning.
He's an old character that needs playing late, but he loves these big fields and ran a stormer in the Hunters Call Ascot win last time out - and Man Of Plenty was a huge BSP of 60.059/1. He was only beaten seven lengths and looked to have a half-chance two out.
I quite like the angle of him stepping up to 2m4f here, and coming from off the pace really suits in these competitive fields. He's a remarkably durable nine-year-old who has finished runner-up on six occasions since his last victory. And don't forget, he posted a marvellous effort at the Betfair Chase meeting at Haydock in bottomless ground - finishing second in a real old test.
The other is more obvious, but clearly a horse to keep onside. Step forward the lightly-raced Crossed My Mind at 11/2.
He's a rare runner for trainer Arthur Moore - but he looks well-treated for just his fourth handicap start from 124. He's another with a claiming jockey booked in Jonjo O'Neill junior, and these claimers are vital in these big Saturday races.
In his three handicap outings to date, he has shown a bit of everything. At Sandown in December he travelled very well behind A Hare Breath but got outpaced in the closing stages. That came after an unlucky run at Down Royal in a 0-150 Grade B, quite a test for a young horse. He was done at 1.51/2 in-running and was messed around two from home in a race he might well have won if not for that interference.
The form I am taking however is the Punchestown 2m5f run last April - and he kept on strongly there to suggest Ascot's stiff finish over 2m4f in a big field should really suit. He also travels well in soft ground. Hugely unexposed, he can go well.
This looks a really competitive race and a cracking betting one. I probably fancy too many here!
I know Tony Calvin mentioned Shantou Flyer last time out, and he ran really well over a more suitable trip in testing conditions. I like Minella Daddy - who looked a horse going places when winning a 3m Ascot chase last winter from a mark of 131. He scored by seven lengths and decent staying handicaps were in his sights after that - but he hasn't been seen for 390 days since running in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices at Kempton.
He is best going right-handed and had a fine run behind Final Nudge as a novice hurdler in heavy ground a while back. So we know he stays and acts in tough conditions. He was priced-up with a couple of books at 16/1 on the Thursday, but for a big imposing sort, it's a slight worry about making a comeback against race-fit rivals. It's the nagging doubt, but he's at a big enough number to compensate.
Take him at 16/1 on the Sportsbook.
If Haydock is off, see earlier comments regarding Forest des Aigles who holds this as a second preference.
15:35 Ascot - Lock in the each-way on Lough
The Grade 1 Clarence House Chase was priced-up on the Thursday with the Sportsbook, with Un De Sceaux at 8/15. He's won the race twice before in beating six rivals last year (when re-routed to Cheltenham), and four opponents in 2016. His trainer Willie Mullins has said he is very good on soft ground, and he's got the marvellous wins-to-runs ratio of 19-25. With a Timeform rating of 168 - there isn't a lot to add from me, and there isn't much point in putting him up as a bet.
Players of a short price will compare his odds for Saturday to last term's Ryanair winning SP of 7/4 and claim it doesn't look too bad, but we'll leave that argument for someone else.
Talk of the 'gamble' has continued all week on Brain Power, but I would want bigger than the 3/1 on offer in taking on a proper champion on his ground. I like Brain Power, and fancied him for the Champion Hurdle last term. However, he is still only a novice with just one victory over fences to his name. Taking on UDS is a different ball game altogether.
BP (if we are going down that route) is a bit of underachiever and probably is not worth his current rating of 157. He made the running to slam a field at Kempton, but the same tactics didn't work when unseating last time in the Grade 1 Henry VIII. He's clearly a horse with plenty of ability, but he needs to put it altogether.
The 12/1 on offer for Kylemore Lough with the five runners represented an each-way angle on Thursday. But the big 'if' needs to be addressed after disappointing on his seasonal reappearance when sent off favourite in a big Cheltenham handicap.
There were excuses in that. He did too much too soon in the race, and having been lit up, a bad blunder at the water must have caused a bad reaction after. That was his first start for trainer Harry Fry since his switch from Kerry Lee - and the Dorset handler said he was fine afterwards. Indeed, he held an entry for the Grade 2 Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon last month - but that was cancelled and he didn't appear in the re-arranged version at Taunton - presumably because of the ground.
He's a strapping horse who was a brilliant jumper of fences under previous trainer Lee. He loves the mud and beat Outlander in a Grade 1 Novice.
Do I think he can beat Un De Sceaux? No. But I'd fancy his chances against Brain Power.