The Betfair Hurdle looks highly competitive and, with such a strong field set to run at Newbury on Saturday afternoon, Tony Calvin is just the man to make sense of the betting and pick one horse to back ahead of all others...
"If Spiritofthegames gets towed into the race on back of a true pace, he could well be on the premises come the winning line."
The first thing to say about the Betfair Hurdle at 15:35 is that it is nigh on impossible to solve. That's why,I guess, all 24 runners are available to back at double-figure odds on the exchange.
Indeed, that is also the case if you shop around in the fixed-odds environment and the market has a Grand National feel to it.
Basically, I could make a case for any of the 24 on ground that is likely to ride testing (the covers may have been down all week, but there looks to be plenty of rain around tomorrow once they come off in the morning).
Some are easier to fancy than others...
Irish Roe is likely to attract plenty of attention, being 11lb well-in after her much-improved second to Maria's Benefit at Doncaster a fortnight ago, but I just wonder if she has the hardy attitude and qualities often needed to win this valuable prize.
The only one I don't fancy towards the top of the market is Lalor (wind op or not) who was unbelievably as short as 7/1 on Tuesday - you know what happens next - but Nicky Henderson has an enviable, five-strong, hand and I can particularly see the case for the mares Kayf Grace and Verdana Blue.
The latter gave the outside to no-one when third in the old Ladbroke last time and is still weighted to shine off a 1lb higher mark, but better ground would be preferable for her - the frost covers are down but Saturday's forecast looks wet - and Kayf Grace has also strong claims.
And they got stronger when the horse that she beat soundly into third at Kempton last time, Azzerti, won well at Huntingdon on Thursday. Given her strong bumper form last season, an 8lb rise may not stop her going very close here.
But live dangers are everywhere, and the fact that we have a couple in here on the back of breathing operations (Lalor and Moon Racer), and several are wearing first time headgear - Blue Et Rouge is now tried in a tongue-tie, too - means this race really is a minefield.
So we need every help we can get, and the Betfair Sportsbook offering six places is a welcome concession in that regard.
Getting off the fence and getting Spiritofthegames
I suppose I have to get off the fence at some stage, so I am going for Spiritofthegames at 22/1 each way. If you are an exchange player then look to back him at [27.0] or bigger, win-only on the exchange.
The most obvious negative about the horse's chance is that he has never raced over 2m before. After winning his only point, he started off his hurdling career over 2m4f and has been campaigned at and around that trip since.
But plenty of horses who have stayed a lot further have won this race - most recently Ballyandy, who was stepping down from 2m4f, last year - and the way he travels through his races gives me plenty of hope that a fiercely-run 2m will really suit him.
He again didn't appear to lack gears when second in the Lanzarote last time, where he switched to the inner rounding the bend but ended up making his effort alone on the stands'-side rail.
He was only beaten three-quarters-of-a_length by a back to form/hurdles William Henry there, and the form looks very strong, so a 5lb rise could be bridgeable.
The third finished a good second at Towcester on Thursday (to a horse having his first start after a wind op) and the fourth, Topofthegame, made light of his 3lb rise to win a 100k handicap hurdle at Sandown last Saturday. The Lanzarote was run in a really good time, too.
Hopefully, the icing on the cake is the first-time cheekpieces that the highly-progressive Spiritofthegames wears here.
Trainer Dan Skelton knows how to win a valuable 2m handicap hurdle all right - a County Hurdle, a Greatwood, a Ladbroke etc - and he is 3 from 13 when using this headgear for the first time since 2016, including with a 16/1 scorer.
Furthermore, four of the 13 came second (two at double-figure odds) and he also threw in a 12/1 third, as well. So eight of the 13 finished in the money.
If Spiritofthegames gets towed into the race on back of a true pace - and with the likes of Jenkins, High Bridge, Waterlord, Misterton, Remiluc and Lough Derg Spirit in here, it should be run at a proper gallop - then I think he could well be on the premises come the winning line. (I was going to say lollipop but few would probably know what I am on about).
Thoughts on the rest of the card at Newbury
It's an excellent card, but you probably don't need me to tell you that the Betfair Denman Chase at 14:25 and the Betfair Exchange Chase at 15:00 are watch-but-no-bet races after attracting just three runners.
They are actually very similar in shape, given that both Native River and Altior won these races last year, and you would think that both have outstanding claims if fit enough on their reappearances.
Native River arguably has the harder task with his 6lb penalty, but then again the mighty Altior, who laughed at Fox Norton (who probably wasn't fit, admittedly) here last year, has that rival and Politologue to contend with. And they are 168 and 166-rated chasers respectively.
Let's just hope both come back safe and sound, and leave it there.
The 3m handicap hurdle at 13:50 has a more attractive betting shape to it, but I still couldn't find a recommendation.
I originally though Barters Hill could well be worth chancing to small stakes but, as you would expect with the field cutting down to eight runners, the 10/1 about him earlier in the week is a distant memory. He is by far the most interesting rival, though.
Ben Pauling had a winnerless December and January when his stable was clearly not right, but he has already had five winners this month and that has to be a positive for Barters Hill.
He has apparently been ready to run for three weeks but Pauling didn't want to wheel him out with the stable under a cloud, but the 2016 Albert Bartlett fourth is unleashed here.
He does so after being dropped 8lb since his injury absence - he injured a tendon at Cheltenham in November 2016 - and his trainer will surely have him straight for this.
He could well outclass these, and his record of 2 from 2 at this course makes for impressive reading, He beat a certain Buveur D'Air in his bumper, while he beat Politologue 12 lengths in the 2015 Challow.
Why wise punters will swerve Warwick
Over at Warwick, I won't beat around the bush. The Mares Hurdle and the four-runner Kingmaker make zero betting appeal, and the 2m4f handicap chase at 15:15 has cut up a bit from the 11 entries at the five-say stage to just seven runners.
The horse I am interested most in Casse Tete, who the handicapper has dropped a very hasty 8lb for two runs this season. I thought he didn't run at all badly in a better race at Cheltenham last time, and he could prove the one to beat off a mark of just 133 now.
But the handicapper has also given Kylemore Lough a chance, and the race features last year's winner Templehills too, so I can give that contest a swerve, too.
So just the one play on Saturday, in the most competitive handicap I can recall!
Nov 4 to Feb 9 inclusive: -8.39
Back Spiritofthegames at 22/1 each-way with Betfair Sportsbook (6 places)
Back Spiritofthegames [27.0] or bigger win-only on exchange in the 15:35 at Newbury