The runners at Ascot on Saturday will face some of the most testing ground of their careers, says Tony Calvin as he selects his bets for the Betfair Exchange Trophy and more...
"All his best performances have come in deep ground, so in Top Wood we have an in-form horse who will handle the trip and the ground, and who also has a heavy-ground course win to his name."
Every horse will know they have had a race at Ascot on Saturday (if the meeting goes ahead, as there is an 8am inspection), with bottomless ground the order of the day, so it is possibly a touch surprising that Emma Lavelle is running Paisley Park in the 3m Grade 1 Marsh Hurdle at Ascot at 14:25.
She'll be wary of bottoming her superstar ahead of bigger assignments down the line, although on reflection I'm probably arguing against myself here.
Paisley Park could be pushed closer than you think
I am not a big fan of this premature Cheltenham Festival obsession from November onwards and connections should run their horses when they are fit and well. And this race is worth just £50 shy of 57k and Paisley Park is a 1.271/4 chance on the Exchange, so they would mad not to run.
Of course, that doesn't mean that he deserves to be so short in the prevailing ground, for all he has a stone in hand of this field on official ratings and it was impossible to fault his Newbury re-appearance win, where he gave Thistlecrack 6lb and a length beating.
However, the fact is that he has been beaten in three of his five starts on soft ground, and these will be the deepest conditions he has ever faced (though he did win this race on soft last season).
This could be a lot closer than the betting and ratings suggest - the 2017 runner-up L'Ami Serge could be troublesome if fully tuned up after his 19-month absence following a tendon injury in the French Champion Hurdle - but we are all struggling if there aren't more attractive betting races than this on Saturday.
Well-weighted mare to back in Betfair Exchange Trophy
Even though it is a massively valuable £150,000 pot, I wasn't expecting the Betfair Exchange Trophy at 15:35 to get 16 runners on Thursday morning.
Or, perhaps more honestly, I was hoping it wouldn't attract so many considering that I wanted it to cut up significantly given I put up Not So Sleepy ante-post at 12/1 each way (four places) on Monday.
Of course, my case for him still stands. His light racing weight of 10st 3lb could come in very handy in these extreme conditions and his official mark could still prove to be very workable, too.
He went up 5lb for his all-the-way win over course and distance here last month, but that looks very fair given the dominance of the win, and the fact that the third-placed Oakley was only just touched off at Cheltenham last week and is now 5lb higher himself.
The Cesarewitch fourth (and that 2m2f stamina bodes well for his chances here) has form on heavy ground on the Flat this summer and his mark of 94 on the level - and he was rated 107 in his pomp when winning the 2015 Dee Stakes - strongly hints that his current revised hurdles mark of 127 gives him plenty of wriggle room, and this is just his fifth start over obstacles, remember.
I haven't cooled on his chances at all and he remains a viable bet at 10/1+, but I fully acknowledge this is a touch more competitive than I was expecting and I am going to go in again with a rival. And it was very nearly two of them.
You can make a case for a good few in here, but the handicapper must have been full of Christmas cheer when dropping Countister 4lb in one hit for her Greatwood seventh on her return.
That seems remarkably generous to me and she is now just 4lb higher than for her close County Hurdle third to Ch'tibello and We Have A Dream (two well handicapped horses) in March, and that makes her a very well-weighted mare to my eye. It is well worth nothing that the fourth was four-and-a-half lengths away that day.
I wouldn't say that her seventh in the Greatwood was particularly brimful of promise but - like her owner-mate in fifth, last week's Cheltenham winner Dame De Compagnie - she shaped as if needing the run there, and the betting very much suggested that, too.
She went off at 16/1 that day, and fully eight points bigger at Betfair SP. And that obvious weakness was perhaps surprising given that Nicky Henderson had earlier said she had looked "spectacular" after a summer at JP McManus's Martinstown's Stud.
Perhaps she had done too well there.
This will be the heaviest ground she has faced, but I am happy to take my chances on any horse in this ground who has won on soft around Sandown - often the most gruelling of tests, even if she was helped by a last-flight faller there - and remains relatively unexposed after just seven hurdle starts.
Back her at 10/1 each way, five places, with the Betfair Sportsbook (though she is a couple of points bigger, win-only, on the exchange if you want to go down that route).
I have also personally had a nibble on Turnpike Trip at 20s, but I won't put him up as a bet, too.
He has been handed an extra 4lb by the UK handicapper but he could still be a factor here with a 3lb claimer on board.
He was value for far more than the winning margin suggests when winning a Grade 3 at Tipperary in October - he was dotting up before making a very bad error at the last - and he did even better on easier ground when fourth to Envoi Allen in the Grade 1 Royal Bond at Fairyhouse last time.
This is another level of testing ground, but he is another very plausible contender if handling it.
Take a chance on War Sound
The ITV4 action at Ascot starts with the 13-runner 2m2f175yd handicap chase at 13:50 and Venetia Williams' Espoir De Guye is an obvious candidate after his Exeter win, along with main market rival First Flow.
You are going to hear and read a lot about the red-hot form of the Williams yard on Saturday but this is a very competitive race and I looked towards the bigger-priced horses, toying with Got Away and the 2017 winner Mr Medic before settling on War Sound.
Take a chance on him at 17.016/1 or bigger.
Philip Hobbs never got to the bottom of why his charge's form fell away so badly after an impressive Aintree success on his reappearance last season and his two runs this term haven't immediately screamed "back to form", either.
But he shaped a bit better at the Merseyside track last time, travelling well in rear when making a momentum-stopping mistake at halfway, and overall I thought he ran better than a 26-length seventh suggests.
The upside of his downturn in form is that he has been eased 10lb since that Aintree win and his two career chase starts on heavy ground have yielded close seconds.
And it is interesting to see Hobbs try a combination of a first-time tongue-tie and cheekpieces on War Sound. Hopefully, they can provide the spark that has been missing.
I was tempted to give Azzerti a chance at the trip in the 3m handicap chase at 15:00 as he handles soft ground well enough and he shapes as if well worth a shot at a longer trip.
But the combination of 3m in ground this deep has to be a big worry and this is a race I can leave alone, though I wouldn't be at all surprised if Mister Malarky came out on top and Yalltari - apparently the Williams yard is in great form - goes well when fresh and appears to revel in heavy ground.
And finally, an old man to support at Haydock...
Hopefully, Ascot will be on as Haydock stage just two terrestrial races and one of those is a five-runner handicap hurdle, in which I agree with the fact that Chti Balko and Poetic Rhythm dominate the market in the 2m3f contest at 15:15.
So nothing doing there. I narrowed the Tommy Whittle at 14:40 down to Top Wood and Late Romantic at the prices, and the guaranteed stamina and well-being of the former just swung it for me at 9.08/1 or bigger.
Tabitha Worsley has struck up a great recent relationship with Top Wood, finishing third at Cheltenham and then going on to win the Aintree Foxhunters'.
The 5lb claimer then guided the horse to a promising second on his return at Ascot last month, and he looks reasonably weighted off a 2lb higher mark here, for all he is the old man of the party by some distance as a 12yo.
All the horse's best performances have come in deep ground, with his form figures on heavy ground reading 21242, so in Top Wood we have an in-form horse who will handle the trip and the ground, and who also has a heavy-ground course win to his name.
In truth, it is not a day for big stakes given the prevailing ground, but good luck all the same.
War Sound at 17.016/1 or bigger in 13:50 at Ascot
Top Wood at 9.08/1 or bigger in 14:40 at Haydock
Countister at 10/1 each way, five places, with the Betfair Sportsbook in 15:35 at Ascot
Not So Sleepy ante-post at 12/1 each way (four places) in 15:35 at Ascot