Tony Calvin returns with a look ahead to the Betfair Ascot Chase on Saturday with Cue Card aiming to win back-to-back renewals of the race...
"It could be that the tremendously strong opposition scares the trainer off, but I hope not, as I loved the way he saw off the improved (and subsequent winner) Gino Trail at Sandown last month"
Tony Calvin on Speredek
Of course, it is always disappointing when a £150k race only attracts seven entries at the five-day stage but, somewhat ironically, this year's Betfair Ascot Chase, promises to be the best renewal yet in terms of class and depth.
I am not suggesting for one moment we have a budding Kauto Star among the septet but at least five of the horses are 163+ - and in fact, it wasn't that long ago that the outsider and lowest-rated, Traffic Fluide, was rated 162 - and I wouldn't be in a rush to rule out the other contender, either.
But more of him later, as I am inclined to discuss the seven in price order.
Top Notch a worthy favourite
At the time of writing, Top Notch currently heads the Betfair Sportsbook betting at 2/1 and I think he deserves to be favourite, even if I thought he was a little below-par when beating his 150-rated stablemate Josses Hill in the rescheduled Peterborough Chase at Taunton last time.
However, his earlier defeat of Double Shuffle and Frodon over course and distance in November could hardly have worked out much better and, not only did he beat the subsequent King George runner-up by eight lengths, he was also giving him 3lb.
I would like to have been a fly on the wall when his owners watched the Kempton race on Boxing Day. Their £1m-chasing Bristol De Mai blew out in the race but they must have been wondering what might have been when they saw Double Shuffle run Might Bite to a length.
Top Notch is three from three around Ascot and, if he is as good as he looked here in November, then he could take some stopping en route to a crack at the Ryanair. But he is only one of three horses in here rated 164, two below Cue Card, so let's not too get carried away.
Don't write off Frodon
Mind you, some people were with Waiting Patiently after the North's great white hope made it five from five over fences in style at Kempton last month.
To be honest, I thought it was more style than substance originally, given that his main market rival God's Own apparently needed the run more than that was thought pre-race, but the second isn't a bad horse and the clock doesn't lie. It was a good time and this powerful traveller and big improver will love the ground at the weekend.
He is rated alongside Top Notch on 164, and that mark also brings in Frodon after his runaway win at Cheltenham last time.
It is hard to know what to make of his 17-length win there, given it was such a marked step up on his earlier two efforts here, but don't forget that he is only a 6yo and he was trying to give weight to a progressive horse in Gold Present on his previous start. And, again, the time of the race strongly suggests that we shouldn't downplay the victory.
Famous last words and all that, but that is what exactly I have done when assessing Coney Island's course and distance win here in December.
I know that could be a dangerous assumption to make given his Grade 1-winning form at the start of last season, but the three-runner race here last time fell apart and told us very little other than he was back to full fitness after his lay-off.
I think he has plenty to prove in this grade, for all that many in Ireland seem to view him as a serious player for the Ryanair/Gold Cup.
Step up in trip could see Speredek bridge gap
Cue Card has been there and done it in this race, winning it in 2013 and again last year, and in fact he is the highest-rated horse in the line-up on 166.
Connections have said that this is the first of two runs before he is retired, but I am not ruling out a big show, though odds of around 8/1 are no more than fair given his two efforts this season.
It takes a leap of faith to get with Traffic Fluide, even at 50/1+, given his recent efforts - he sidestepped two engagements at Newbury last Saturday - but I wouldn't be at all surprised if Speredek beat the lot of these if taking his chance.
The Betfair Sportsbook are top price about him at 25/1, a price mirrored on the Exchange, and that would be too tempting if I knew he was definitely going for the race. I don't.
It could be that the tremendously strong opposition scares the trainer off, but I hope not, as I loved the way he saw off the improved (and subsequent winner) Gino Trail at Sandown last month, and that determination was again in evidence when he was second to Un De Sceaux in the Clarence House here last time.
He stuck to his task well against that Grade 1 performer over 2m1f that day - he didn't drop away, as you feared he might - and those qualities will stand him in good stead as he steps up in trip.
But don't forget he won over 2m7f around Exeter two years ago, and it could be that the step up in trip allows him to bridge the 10lb+ gap between him and the opposition.
Of course, it may prove against him, given his attacking run-style, but he promises to get the run of the race from the front here - all six of his rivals ideally like to take a lead - and I strongly suspect I will be backing and tipping him at 25/1 if he lines up on Saturday. If the 25/1 is still there obviously.
But I will sit on my hands and wait until he is confirmed later in the week. It promises to be some race if all seven stand their ground, though.