Tony Calvin casts his eye over the ITV races on Saturday where there's good news for his antepost picks at both Sandown and Wincanton...
"A mark of 106 could underestimate this lightly-raced French-bred, who finished a close third in deep ground in France on his debut in April 2019."
Unsurprisingly perhaps, given the time of year, we are looking at very testing ground on Saturday, and that is especially so at Wincanton, as the forecast there from Friday morning onwards is pretty brutal.
So, while it is good to soft (soft in places) at the time of filing, I would be working on the basis of heavy ground if I were you.
And I would be leaning towards those type of conditions at Sandown too, as the rain looks set to sweep in there on Saturday, too (9mm is forecast).
Up The Straight remains a contender
Let's start with Esher then, as it is a Grade 1 meeting with loads of prize money.
You wouldn't have thought so, as it attracted just 79 entries at the five-day stage - as I said in my ante-post piece on Tuesday, you would have been hoping for those numbers at the overnight stage in an ideal world - but the fields have thankfully stood up to a decent degree, with 52 the revised figure after Thursday's declarations.
It was actually a touch disappointing to see three that front-runners were among those to decline the invitation of a run, as the selection ideally needs a strong pace to aim at given he is stepping down to the minimum trip (and this is actually 1m7f119yd) for the first time, but Numitor always goes from the front, and Moonlighter and Paddy's Poem have done so too, so he should be fine.
And the step down in trip is a move that has surely been coming for a while, as he just seems to empty out when tried over 2m3f+, his Plumpton 2m3f win in a three-runner race (the odds-on favourite fell) on good ground in October notwithstanding.
That was firmly in evidence when he traded at 1.031/33 in running over 2m4f in soft ground here last March, only to come to a standstill on the run-in, and also when he was second to Umbrigado off levels at Fontwell last January.
He traded at evens that day before being outstayed by a horse who went on to win his next two, including the Greatwood Gold Cup at Newbury, after which he was rated 151.
Up The Straight races off a career-low mark of 132 here, having been dropped another 3lb for his Ascot third over 2m3f last time - he tried to put it up to the favourite and paid for it badly late on - and I reckon that leniency, allied to the drop in trip on testing ground off a decent pace, could see him home in front here.
It's a very tricky race though, and Gunsight Ridge could take a lot of stopping, so I will decline the invitation to press up, especially now we have just seven runners and he is just 6/1 with the Betfair Sportsbook. He is a fair win-only price at around 8s on the exchange, though.
One to watch in the Tolworth Hurdle
In the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at 14:25, I'd be a touch more concerned than most for Constitution Hill if the ground got very deep on the Sandown hurdles track (as it tends to do), as I refuse to believe that any horse who showed as much pace on the run-in as he did when winning so explosively here last month wants it too testing.
That would be my only real worry, as he really did look something out of the ordinary in beating Might I on his hurdling debut, and I imagine the Without Favourite market will be of interest to more people than the 2/5 or so about the favourite, who will hopefully cement his Supreme Hurdle credentials here.
This without market only tends to materialise/firm up later on Friday, or on Saturday morning itself, but I'll be looking for a price - certainly 5/2 and bigger - about Shallwehaveonemore.
He beat a fancied Nicky Henderson newcomer in a Kempton bumper on his racecourse bow and then did remarkably well to finish second on his hurdling debut at Ascot considering how hard he tugged all the way round, hitting 1.21/5 in running before being collared late on.
The form is strong enough, with the third and sixth winning since, and this is a good prospect if they can keep the lid on him.
I will tweet something about him in the W/O Constitution Hill market once we get a full suite of prices. I can hardly stick him up as a bet now when we don't have any odds or market to go at.
Jolly-up in the Veterans'
Aso is by far the most likely winner of the Veterans' Chase at 15:00 - even giving away upwards of 9lb all round, it is not hard to see the 2019 Ryanair second outclassing this field - but I just cannot get with him at around 3s in a 13-runner handicap.
He has the best credentials but is just too short for me - if you are being picky, there are perhaps still slight doubts about his stamina and his preference for going left-handed.
That comment also applies to my "next best" Final Nudge, who unfortunately just happens to be the second favourite. and understandably so as a 3lb rise for what I thought was a cosy-enough Warwick win last time ensures this 13yo should remain competitive. He should have gone close to winning the Midlands National last March.
If you fancy the top two in the market, then the best advice is probably to walk away if you deem them too short, and this approach was made even easier when I realised Red Infantry, another I liked at the five-day stage, wasn't even confirmed for the race.
Keen but the good price is History
Natural History has been a horse on my punting radar ever since a confidence-boosting sixth, shall we say, at Doncaster and I stuck him up in this column on the abandoned Leicester card last week (was backed from 7/1 to 10/3). He also missed an intended run at Ffos Las on Wednesday because of travel problems.
Immediately after he was pulled out of Ffos Las I tweeted that the ante-post 10s and 11s for him about this race at 15:35 was instantly, badly out-of-date (and bizarrely some bookmakers left him at double figures for ages) and we are now asked to take half the price about him.
As has just been pointed out to me on here, Natural History has just been declared a NR at Ffos Las. Not in anyone's interest to be backing (punters, for long term account purposes) or laying (books, in general) that horse at the general 10s for Saturday at Sandown. https://t.co/HiyIndt4P5-- Tony Calvin (@tony_calvin) January 5, 2022
Followers of this horse will know the score with him, in that he is rated 101 on the Flat and just 118 over hurdles now - so he is going to hose up at some point. But this is a competitive handicap (it actually could be very hot, so that 1lb out of the weights may count, I suppose), he does have a patchy recent profile and the price is no bargain now.
In fact, Zambezi Fix, back in trip and returning to hurdles, is arguably more enticing from a betting point of view at twice the price, so this is another race I will leave alone. I make no apologies for doing so, either.
A French fancy at Wincanton
Over to Wincanton then, where I am working on the basis of heavy ground, looking at the forecast, as I said earlier.
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I am little bit worried that this race comes relatively quickly after his Newbury 15-length sixth last month, given that was his first start since November 2019, but not enough to put me off backing him off a mark of just 106 here.
He has just squeezed into this 0-105 then after the three starts and I thought he shaped pretty well in a decent novices' hurdle at Newbury - in the context of this lowly handicap, anyway - travelling kindly for a long way as a 33/1 outsider (Betfair SP of 73.5).
The winner ran well in defeat in Listed company at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, and the fifth home also finished second to a fair sort at Plumpton on Monday.
A mark of 106 could underestimate this lightly-raced French-bred, who finished a close third in deep ground in France on his debut in April 2019.
Belle De Menech is a favourite with plenty going for her in the 14:05, as she comes here in winning form, is a dual course scorer, her stable are in great nick and heavy ground will not be an issue.
And she may even get an uncontested lead if connections want to revert to the more aggressive tactics employed to winning effect here in 2020.
But she is 10lb higher for the win last time I guess, and this is a competitive handicap, so I can let her go unbacked at 7/2 or so I'd not wanting to be losing on the race if she won, though.
Apple still a tasty bet
I put up Apple Rock win-only at 8/1 ante-post on Tuesday, so I was very happy to see him confirmed for the 2m5f handicap hurdle at 14:40.
And I think he remains a bet at 7.06/1 or bigger on the exchange, for those new to the party. He is also 6/1 with the Betfair Sportsbook, and that is where I will recommend him. Either option will suffice, though.
The case I made for him in the ante-post column on Tuesday stands, so I will pretty much re-state that here. I do not think this handicap will take much winning, so I am happy to go in again at 6s. I see him as more of a 4s chance myself.
Ground, trip and weight are all in his favour, as he has slipped back down to the same mark as when winning convincingly on heavy ground at Carlisle last February.
And he could just be in a lot better form than it appears at first glance.
Sent off at 4/1 at Leicester last time, he went round the unfavoured inner all the way that day, and he is weighted to win again now he has been dropped another 2lb.
I don't know what Luca Morgan was thinking at Leicester, but the 5lb claimer has the chance to right that wrong here, and a more patient ride in a strongly-run race (four or five of these have gone forward in recent starts) could be the order of the day.
If the expected deluge doesn't materialise, he has won on good too, and indeed you can argue his fifth at Cheltenham over 3m in April on that ground (off a 5lb higher mark than this) was his best effort to date.
If he reproduces that Cheltenham run or the Carlisle win, he has a massive chance for his in-form yard. The 14/1 chance Straight Swap won a grueller at Chepstow on Thursday afternoon, so it will be a touch surprising if he comes out again so quickly under a 7lb penalty.
The six-runner 2m4f handicap chase at 15:15 makes zero appeal so I will love you and leave you.
Tony Calvin P/L (from April 14 2021)
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Antepost bets (Tuesday)
Back Up The Straight each way, three places in the 13:50 at Sandown at 12/1
Back Apple Rock in the 14:40 at Wincanton at 9/1