The current favourites for the Gold Cup and World Hurdle are set to run at Trials Day at Cheltenham on Saturday, and neither Djakadam in the BetBright Trial nor Thistlecrack in the Cleeve Hurdle look opposable, even with their slim odds. With this the case, we venture north to Doncaster in search of a better ante-post betting race for this weekend. Thankfully, with 22 entries and 8/1 the field on offer at present, the Sky Bet Chase makes up for what the two Cheltenham Grade 2s lack in competitiveness.
A glance at the top of the market for this race further enhances our chance of finding a decent betting opportunity, with current joint-favourites Ziga Boy and Buywise both possessing fairly unenviable strike rates.
Ziga Boy ran a number of eye-catching races over the last two seasons for Alan King, but he regularly flattered to deceive, travelling into his races strongly but often finding less than looked likely. This trait was nowhere to be seen, admittedly, when Ziga Boy bolted up over C&D in December, in what had looked a competitive race on paper beforehand. That race looked an ideal prep run for this valuable handicap at the time, but a whopping 16 lb hike in the handicap - taking Ziga Boy from his lowest BHA mark, to his highest by some way - and being 1 lb out of the weights currently, tempers enthusiasm for him at the prices, especially remembering his previous tendencies.
Buywise can never be a horse accused of finishing weakly, but he seems to be summed up by his mark at present, after making the frame on all three of his starts this season, including when second in the Paddy Power Gold Cup and fourth in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup last month, both of which were right up there with his best efforts. He has place prospects if continuing his good run, but he could once again prove to be his own worst enemy in regard to his jumping, and he's certainly opposable at the prices.
Paul Nicholls won this race in 2005 and 2009, and shortest in the betting of his three entries at this stage is the lightly-raced Le Mercurey, who was last seen when below form in the Dipper at Cheltenham on New Year's Day. Before that, however, Le Mercurey had swiftly built on what he achieved during his brief hurdling campaign, winning at Plumpton on his chasing debut before being left in front when seemingly booked for second in a Grade 2 novice at Ascot. This step up in trip should suit him for his handicap debut, but he is not obviously well treated from an opening mark of 142 and will need to find plenty of improvement.
Instead, Nicholls' best hope of landing this race again could lie with Black Thunder, who has dropped to a more workable mark after a couple of below-par efforts this season. A quick scan of Black Thunder's form would indicate that he is best in small fields, but he has run well in this sort of scenario as well, namely when narrowly going down to What A Warrior in a valuable handicap at Ascot last season. He had excuses when trapped wide whilst shouldering top weight in a red-hot handicap at the Festival after that, and although an unseat in the Welsh National last time was not an ideal preparation for this, a further 3 lb drop in the weights means he looks well treated here. At double the price of the likes of Ziga Boy and Buywise, he looks worth a small bet, bearing in mind that connections had previously sited the Grand National as his main target for the season.
Of the others, Irish Cavalier would have a leading chance, now back in a handicap from 2 lbs lower than when shaping well in the Paddy Power, but with an entry at Cheltenham on the same day in a valuable handicap over his usual trip, he is far from certain to run here. Holywell is the class act, dipping back into a handicap for the first time since winning at the Festival in 2014, though he may well be being primed for something in the spring in more favourable conditions, whilst Nico de Boinville is an interesting early jockey booking on No Planning, who is back down to his last winning mark and hails from a yard in fine form at present.
Back Black Thunder in the Sky Bet Chase at 20.019/1 or bigger