The National Hunt season steps up another sizeable gear on Saturday with top class racing from Ascot, Wetherby and Down Royal on ITV. Tony Calvin goes through the televised races...
"His seasonal reappearance form figures read 11411, and that fourth was a 1 ½ length fourth in a Silver Trophy at Chepstow where Sam Spinner was just ¾ length ahead of him getting 9lb from the selection."
The field for the Charlie Hall Chase may have halved in numbers from 20 to 10 on Thursday morning, but the course must be cock-a-hoop (I googled the meaning of that phrase and was none the wiser, but I am still using it anyway) with the quality and quantity on show.
The star attraction, Cyrname, has headed north instead of to Ascot and a measure of how deep this year's renewal is - and there can't have been a better one for yonks - can be gauged by the fact that the 176-rated chaser is available to back at 3.55/2 and bigger on the exchange.
National Hunt's big boy does arrive with a few negatives, though.
He hasn't been seen since falling at Ascot back in February, he carries a 6llb penalty, he has yet to post a convincing effort over 3m, and he also has to prove he can shake his top-class ass going left-handed.
The similarly 176-rated Cue Card was beaten in this race at 8/11 first time up in 2016 before going on to win the Betfair Chase by 15 lengths three weeks later, so we shouldn't automatically assume these stars will be gunned and ready with bigger prizes down the line.
Aye, the time is Right to take on the front three
The percentage call has to be to take him on - by that I mean back something else, as opposed to laying him in isolation, especially at his lengthening price - and the first one off my list was Sam Spinner, who was a ludicrously short 3/1 on Wednesday (when the favourite wasn't sure to run, admittedly) and who still makes no appeal at 9/2+ on the exchange.
The obvious play in the race was Vinndication now that he, too, has chosen Wetherby over going for the valuable handicap chase he won at Ascot last season.
He is joint second-best in here on official ratings alongside last year's winner Ballyoptic (the 2018 winner Definitely Red is on their coat-tails), he hails from a yard going great guns, he has won first time out in each of his three racing seasons, and is still open to improvement after just 10 outings.
An each-way bet on him, with your money back if placed, would have been real peachy.
It was a little too obvious though, as all the 11/2, 5/1 and 9/2 in the marketplace soon disappeared by Thursday afternoon - followed by the 4/1 and 7/2 in the evening - so that ship has unfortunately long since sailed.
Even the 11/4 is under pressure, and he is set to go off favourite.
I do want an interest in the race though, as the top three in the betting are collectively taking out too much of the market, so I went looking for an outsider to back win and place.
Keeper Hill very nearly fitted the bill at 25/1+ but Aye Right is my port of call at 23.022/1 win and 4.57/2 place - the place market will be going up on Friday evening/Saturday morning - on the Exchange at 15:20.
Like Vinndication, his price has nearly halved in the last 24 hours but he is still worth an interest.
There was a bit of 40s still knocking around in the marketplace on Thursday, and that surprisingly lasted for fair while, before his price, rightly, came in across the board, with the 33s, 28s and 25s also disappearing.
On official ratings Aye Right has little chance, and only 100/1 outsider Saint Xavier has more to find with the principals according the handicapper, but I think you can make a very good case that his mark of 146 underestimates him somewhat.
A progressive staying handicap hurdler in 2018 and 2019, this is only his fifth start over fences and it is fair to say he has had a chequered chasing career so far.
He unseated on his fencing bow at Doncaster and won a match next time, after which connections very optimistically chanced their arm in the RSA.
Unsurprisingly for one with so little experience, he struggled there as a 100/1 chance but he looked a much-improved performer on his return when second at Kelso.
Firstly, he did remarkably well there considering this 3m winner was racing over a wholly inadequate 2m1f.
Secondly, the winner Nuts Well went on to defy a 3lb higher mark in the Old Roan at Aintree last weekend.
And, thirdly, that Kelso race was run in a very good time. On the clock he has a better chance than his price of 30/1 indicates.
He could easily run another career-best and finish sixth here, but he is a 7yo with very little mileage over fences and I reckon he is poised to outrun those odds, with his proven race-fitness, in a contest where all the big guns are making their reappearances, another obvious plus.
Sitting pretty on Fry's chillifili so time to bank some profit
Anyone who took the Tuesday ante-post advice to back Harry Fry's Whitehotchillifili at 12/1 each-way, three places, for the mares hurdle at 14:10 are sitting pretty as she is now around a 7/2 chance in a seven-runner field.
I am just praying this heavy-ground winner gets to the start on Saturday okay now, and hopefully it will be raining when she does.
Obviously, Verdana Blue will take the world of beating if anywhere near her best, and she did handle soft ground well enough to finish third in an Ebor in August. As regards proven class, she is on another level to these, as it stands, and her current price of 1.774/5 looks generous.
But Saturday looks set to bring a lot more rain and her preference for good ground over hurdles is well documented - and well-founded - and she was undeniably disappointing when a well-beaten second to Silver Streak (who was giving her 11lb) at Kempton on her return. She lacked her usual zip there.
And don't forget she was ruled out of the Cesarewitch before that as she was lame (though apparently it as not serious at all, just a stone bruise), so she may not be the good thing she looks at first glance.
It is game on if she isn't at her best on the ground, but I can't advise a fresh bet at the current prices and with just the seven runners for each-way purposes.
However, for those holding the 12/1 position, laying off your stake win and place is a sensible move, if you so desire.
I will personally look to lay off around 4.47/2 win and around 1.84/5 in the two places market on Saturday (so I would collect on both bets if she finishes third), as I think she is short enough now.
For those who are sitting tight on the ante-post bet, Fry's horses continue in good form with two winners and a second from three runners at Newton Abbot on Thursday.
Smitten by Sam England's runner
I was tempted by the 20/1 about Niven in the 13:35 but he does need to leave his run here earlier in the month a long way behind him and there are plenty of lurkers in this handicap, notably Well Smitten.
The Sam England stable is one shrewd outfit, and they won with three consecutive runners recently (Borodin landing a proper punt at Yarmouth) and Well Smitten gagged up over course and distance here in March.
The form of that race can be questioned, with the runner-up doing next to nothing in his subsequent starts, but the time was fair and he possesses a decent finishing kick when on song. So a 7lb rise was to be expected.
The more I looked into his chances the more I warmed to him and he could just make it three from five for the stable.
And there were apparently excuses for the two defeats. He knocked himself at Doncaster, and he was ridden too aggressively at the same track next time.
There is plenty of pace in here for him to aim at, and he clearly can go well when fresh.
Indeed, catching him after a break could be very important to him, for all he won after just a 15-day absence here in March. He won first time out in 2018 and did the same again on his debut for England in December.
He doesn't look straightforward, so it's only a small bet, but back him at 10/1 each-way, four places. I was going to recommend him win-only given his patchy profile but the extra place has lured me in.
Lots of ticks in right boxes for Wholestone
The bet365 hurdle at 14:45 looks a trappy little race to call, with the pace of the race hard to decipher, too.
Maybe Chapmanshype or The Dutchman will go forward, but it wouldn't surprise me if they adopted more aggressive tactics on Wholestone on his return to hurdles (or at least sat him very handy, as they did when he was second in the Relkeel in 2019), and he is a horse with an excellent record off a break and who loves testing ground.
Admittedly, he finished alone at Perth last season, but his seasonal reappearance form figures read 11411, and that fourth was a 1 ½ length fourth in a Silver Trophy at Chepstow where Sam Spinner was just ¾ length ahead of him getting 9lb from the selection.
Wholestone has the back hurdling class to beat these too, as he was third in the 2018 Stayers' Hurdle and was also second in this race in 2017 - he was rated 161 at his peak, which would make him the clear form horse at these weights - so you can certainly see him going close.
He has been trimmed into single figures from a high of 12/1 in the last 24 hours - and he was 25/1 on Monday, when he did have an alternative weekend engagement- but I still like his claims at 8/1 each-way with the Betfair Sportsbook.
And like them a fair bit.
Ground a big factor in how I play some of Ascot's races
I have zero betting interest in the Champion Chase from Down Royal at 14:25 so off to Ascot for the four ITV races there.
I thought too many horses were in with chances in the novices' handicap chase at 13:20 - Dr Sanderson, Falco Blitz and the curiously-named Sully D'Oc AA headed my long short-list, and it is only a 10-runner race - so nothing doing at the odds on offer.
The last-named ran in this race last season and is 2lb lower than a good second at Newbury next time, and has had a wind-op since we last saw him, but he hardly has the most consistent profile since coming over from France.
If he was a bigger price I may have entertained him, as his yard are going well, too, but this race wasn't for me.
If that race was tricky, then the eight-runner (watch out for non-runners with the ground set to get softer) handicap chase at 13:55 is no less so.
The pace could come from four, maybe five in here, and so could the winner. Amoola Gold and Caid Du Lin are the pair I liked most, for what it is worth (and it isn't worth a lot obviously, as I am not recommending a punt).
Byron Flyer has races in him off his mark but he wants decent ground, so I am loathe to put him up now in the handicap hurdle at 15:05 with more rain due at Ascot on Saturday (there is some disagreement about when it is set to start in earnest).
He will probably be pulled out if they get a lot more, but I would hate it if they ran him on soft regardless, as unlikely as that would be, as I wouldn't want to be with him.
Similar comments apply to Caius Maximus, who will be suited by the sub-2m trip (he ran over 2m4f over fences last time and that trip stretches him) and is on a fair hurdles mark. And he has a good 3lb claimer on as well to further lessen the burden.
He finished third in this race in 2018, he comes here fit, and I reckon he has a big chance at the weights. But, again, the potential of deep ground is off-putting as I type away, for all he hasn't run that badly when encountering testing conditions before.
I will be looking to back both if the ground is not too bad on Saturday afternoon.
Course and Distance winner can go well for small yard
Fear not, I do have a bet at Ascot though, and that is Militarian at 21.020/1 or bigger in the 15:40.
Again, he was a lot bigger on Thursday - indeed, he was a stand-out 33/1 with the Betfair Sportsbook - but I am happy enough with the current price. And I expect he will drift back out a bit, too.
Given it is such a valuable prize hopefully small-string trainer Andrew Martin will have put plenty of work into his stable star, presumably just like he did when the horse won by 4 lengths first time out over course and distance last November.
He is just 1lb higher here, despite running some creditable races afterwards, most notably when fourth over an extended 3m2f at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, where I thought his stamina ran out.
He was ridden handy when winning here last year and I hope his 5lb claimer is instructed to do so again, as I can't see much guaranteed pace in here, with maybe Black Corton or Mister Malarky possibly primed to go from the front.
It can't be a confident selection given the doubts - though it was very heartening to see Martin and 5lb claimer Shane Quinlan have the bumper winner Can You Call at Uttoxeter on Friday afternoon - bit it is a bet I am having.
Well Smitten at 10/1 each-way, four places, with the Betfair Sportsbook in 13:35 at Wetherby
Wholestone at 8/1 each-way with Betfair Sportsbook in 14:45 at Wetherby
Aye Right at 23.022/1 win and 4.57/2 place in 15:20 at Wetherby
Militarian at 21.020/1 or bigger in 15:40 at Ascot
Whitehotchillifili at 12/1 each-way, three places, in 14:10 at Wetherby