Three meetings, nine races, Group action and competitive handicaps is pretty much the order of the day for ITV Racing on Saturday, and Tony Calvin is across it all...
"He is 5lb lower than when a massive eye-catcher at Kempton in December and 2lb lower than when sixth in the Ultima at the Festival in March, and he surely has a big run in him if his jumping stands up."
When you put up an ante-post recommendation, often the most stressful part of the week - those of us who don't really work for a living that is, and play at real life - is waiting for the final Saturday declarations to come in at 10am on Thursday morning.
It is ludicrous in this day and age that all punters don't immediately have access to the runners a few minutes afterwards - the BHA really should publish them for all and sundry, tout suite - so thank heavens that Andy Smith (or Festival Racing on Twitter) tends to tweet them out, especially for the big National Hunt meetings.
Antepost tip set to line-up
So it was with great relief that I saw the name of my Tuesday 14/1 each-way ante-post recommendation, Sirobbie, entered for the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle at 15:15.
My heart then sank a little bit when seeing that 18 of the 32 has stood their ground, but that is just me being greedy, and I will be content now if he just makes it to the start on Saturday and we get a run for our money.
I think we will, as I thought he was pretty impressive when winning on his return to hurdles at Uttoxeter last time - the second is a well handicapped horse, and the well-beaten third went into that race seeking a five-timer - and a 6lb rise was fair enough.
Apparently, the horse enjoyed being given plenty of room there, so that could be a concern in a 18-runner handicap here - and all his best form has come at Uttoxeter, too - but I am sure he will be ridden accordingly on the outside and he handles good and soft ground alike.
That could be just as well as the going is currently good at Cheltenham, but there is a band of nasty rain (if rain can be nasty) due in on Saturday evening, which could play a part if it arrives at the course earlier than expected.
There is no point on going in again on him here though, especially as a lot of the dangerous five-day entries rock up, too.
Dancer and Tobefair look dangerous
From a handicapping point of view Goodbye Dancer shouts out at you, as he is now 8lb lower (would have been 9lb but he is 1lb out of the handicap) than when falling at the last when in with a massive chance here on New Year's Day.
The potential issue with him though is that he wants soft ground and he didn't beat a horse home in two summer starts, but he is one well handicapped horse.
The 10yo Tobefair would be one of the most exposed in the line-up, but he is rock solid and the excellent (well, I am told he is, anyway as I am no judge of jockeys) Jack Tudor takes off 5lb.
He would prefer softer ground but he has won on good, and he has a brilliant course record which includes a reappearance win in this race last year off just a 3lb lower mark.
He is the each-way bet at 8/1+ in the race if you want one.
Improving Anna at the top of her game
I better start being snappier with my race summaries as there are nine races on ITV.
I am sure we all love novices' chases but they regularly attract small fields and are very easy to ignore for betting purposes as a result, and that is certainly true of the four-runner contest at 14:40.
It is arguable whether they should be given ITV coverage half the time.
Unfortunately, the opening hurdle at 14:05 has attracted just seven runners, and that usually lessens the punting attraction considerably.
I would have loved to have backed The Pink'n each way, three places, at 10/1 with the Betfair Sportsbook, and Anna Bunina as well, but alas no.
However, I did seriously consider putting both up win-only at The Pink'n comes here fit and well after a reappearance handicap second at Chepstow (the third looked set to win over fences at Ludlow on Thursday), posting a good time in the process. I couldn't put you off him at 12/1 or bigger on the exchange.
Anna Bunina is a much shorter price at around 11/2 but she deserves to be, and she has been well backed (or cut) in the last 24 hours. She is set to go shorter still, I feel.
You can fully see why as she hails from the stable that won this race with another 4yo filly in Pearl Of The West two years ago, and is getting fully 15lb from the top pair.
She comes here as an improving, ground-versatile filly at the top of her game too, as her second last time out on good ground is working out very well. The winner scored on the Flat on his next start, and the 13-length third won by a handicap by 5 lengths on his following outing.
She is the clear pick of the weights on the UK handicapper's assessment of her on 137 (though the Irish equivalent makes her 131), getting that 15lb.
It is a very trappy and competitive little contest - the 33/1 outsider Zurekin comes here after winning a handicap hurdle at Auteuil by 4 lengths earlier this month, and is no forlorn hope - and I would want the each-way play on my side with The Pink'n, and the safety net of the three places, while the Anna Bunina price has run away from me a touch, having initially been put in at 9/1 by the Sportsbook on Thursday morning.
However, you should always make a betting judgement on the current price, and not sulk about those you have missed _ I am often guilty of this - so I have to put her up at 6/1 win-only with the Betfair Sportsbook.
She is even set to be suited by the tempo of the race as Allmankind, Botox Has, Strategem and Nordano all like to go on, though you'd think the first-named will be winning that pace battle.
Cobra can snare his rivals in handicap chase
The four horses that I focused on in my ante-post article in the staying handicap chase at 15:50 have all turned up and little has changed.
Last year's second and third, West Approach and race specialist Cogry (winner in 2017), have obvious claims, as does the class act Frodon and the progressive Manofthemountain at the foot of the weights.
But they filled the first four spots in the betting on Tuesday and still do so now, so I can't see any angle into any of that quartet, but Cobra De Mai is still big enough to catch my eye and he is a bet at 13/2 with the Sportsbook.
Unfortunately, the general 12/1 in the marketplace went on Thursday afternoon, swiftly followed by the fixed-odds 10s - he was always going to shorten once the heavy rain missed the track on Wednesday and Thursday - but I am happy with a win-only bet given his profile.
As I said earlier, you have to block out the memory of those fanciful early prices sometimes.
It is true that I had a bit of hate-hate relationship with this horse last season, when he went through the campaign winless, and on the face of it he performed dreadfully on his comeback run on soft ground at Fontwell earlier in the month.
Actually, there is no "on the face of it" about it at all, as he ran a rank race, though perhaps predictably so given he wasn't wearing his usual cheek pieces there and the ground wouldn't have been ideal. They are back on now.
He looks to be taking a while to get fitter as he gets older and he has dropped to a mark of 140 now, and he is poised to get the better ground that he thrives on here if the forecast is correct (though he does have form on soft).
He is 5lb lower than when a massive eye-catcher at Kempton in December and 2lb lower than when sixth in the Ultima at the Festival in March, and he surely has a big run in him if his jumping stands up.
I want to see Harry Skelton ride him confidently and prominently here and try to get him into a good rhythm on the front end - well maybe just off the pace as there are plenty of front-runners in here, while the horse will think he is running free with just 10st 2lb on his back - just as he did when hosing up here in April 2019 off a 2lb higher mark.
I see in a recent interview that trainer Dan Skelton believes the horse is "back to somewhere near an optimistic mark", so let us hope that is the signal that today is finally the day.
Hopefully, the rain stays away until after the race, as he is a lot better on decent ground.
Some short-price - for me - fancies at Donny but no tips
Seven have become one for Aidan O'Brien in Doncaster's Group 1 Vertem Futurity at 14:55 as he relies on just Dewhurst runner-up Wembley from his septet of five-day entries.
That makes him the obvious one to beat but his price of around 2/1 on the exchange is no giveaway as One Ruler was impressive in the Autumn Stakes, and it seems there is a fair bit of confidence in the ante-post shortener King Vega, too.
Group 1 or not, it is a race that leaves me cold.
The same is pretty much true of the other televised race, the 6f Listed race at 13:45 though I must admit I thought Lipizzaner would be a touch shorter in the betting than he is.
He was available at 3/1 in a place on Thursday afternoon when I thought he would be clear favourite after his two most recent efforts in a higher grade.
He ran well in the face of a stiff task in the Middle Park and I suspect he bumped into a colt destined for much better things when second to A Case Of You in a Group 3 at the Curragh last time.
Just Frank could prove troublesome but I wouldn't be laying Lipizzaner at bigger than 2/1 myself, and I did nearly put him up as a bet.
I must be getting soft and defensive in my old age as I also thought the consistent Mighty Spirit was a fair 4/1 favourite in the 14:20.
But taking those kind of odds in a 12-runner sprint handicap in which all have a chance at the weights - we all know the score in these races - is probably not a wise long-term punting plan of action. Or short-term.
Let's hope Away He Goes can be away and gone
We also have two ITV races to fire into at Newbury, where heavy ground is the order of the day.
That fact alone makes the Group 3 Horris Hill at 15:35 easy enough to swerve as you would imagine a fair few of the youngsters will be all at sea in going that deep.
We do know that the 11/2 second favourite Existent handled Newmarket's version of heavy last time - though whether that is quite as deep as Newbury's, I am not so sure - and that is not the case for the short-priced favourite Laneqash, runner-up in the Flying Scotsman last time, a race that has worked out very well.
He is the clear form chance but good luck if you want to back him around evens on this much different ground. I'd rather be a layer at that price for a horse unproven on anything worse than good.
My eyes rolled in terror when I saw Kipps in the field for the Group 3 St Simon Stakes at 16:10 and then I relaxed when I saw he was the lowest rated by some way, some 20lb+ shy of Alounak and Raymond Tusk on official ratings.
No chance then.
But I do actually think he has better claims that his price of 20/1 suggests, and maybe a smaller field and a better class of race will suit this strong traveller.
However, the one to back in here is Away He Goes at 10.09/1 or bigger.
Jim Crowley reckons he liked the quicker ground when hacking up in a good time off a mark of 95 in a small-field handicap at Doncaster last time, but his previous run on heavy at Deauville was not too shabby either, and I reckon we are simply dealing with a fast-improver after just eight outings, the improvement possibly sparked by a gelding operation back in June.
That Deauville fifth to Skalleti and Sottsass was even more impressive given it came over an inadequate 1m2f.
The first two home obviously need no introduction as Group 1 performers after their recent exploits, and you had to love the way Away He Goes travelled into that race before getting out-speeded.
The course winner has a lot to find on the book - so it is a bit of a guess-up, and a small-stakes recommendation - but I think we are dealing with a big improver from a small yard having a good end to the season (eight winners since August) and I am going to pay to find out if he is up to this grade.
I can see him cruising along to 2f out once again, and hopefully finding if and when needed.
Anna Bunina at 6/1 win-only with the Betfair Sportsbook in 14:05 at Cheltenham
Cobra De Mai at 13/2 on Betfair Sportsbook in 15:50 at Cheltenham
Away He Goes at 10.09/1 or bigger in 16:10 at Newbury