Carol singers were on a sticky wicket if they visited Alan King this Christmas - indeed, it is a safe bet to assume any rendition of Deck The Halls would have been met with a slammed door long before the "tis the season to be jolly" line!
"Smad Place’s jumping has looked pretty assured on both starts since an unlucky unseat on his chasing debut and he’s almost certainly open to further improvement..."
A bug at King's Barbury Castle yard was threatening to derail his season, with strike rate dropping to just 7% in December (compared to a seasonal average of 20%) and plenty of runners returning off-colour during that month. As a result, King took the brave step to shut up shop at one of the busiest periods of the campaign in order and didn't send out any runners between New Year's Day and January 24th.
The early signs suggest this move has been a successful one, with three winners for King this weekend indicating that his string is back in full health (ironically they may well benefit from being fresher than their rivals over the closing months of the season!). Fittingly, this trio of wins all came in the novice chasing ranks, which is an area of strength for King this season - indeed, he is responsible for five of the top thirty British-trained novice chasers if judged on Timeform ratings.
Smad Place (Timeform rating 145p) is the highest-profile of King's weekend winners and figures prominently in the ante-post betting for the RSA Chase on the back of his two-length defeat of Sam Winner (c146) at Newbury on Saturday. In truth, the grey has still got a bit to find on the ratings with plenty of other RSA contenders - after all, the runner-up was conceding him 3lb at Newbury - but he's almost certainly open to further improvement and the fact he's a proven Cheltenham Festival performer (third in the last two renewals of the World Hurdle) is clearly a positive too.
Smad Place's jumping has looked pretty assured on both starts since an unlucky unseat on his chasing debut, but it pales in comparison if judged against that of his stable-companion Balder Succes (c155), who got back on track with an impressive bold-jumping display to land the Grade 2 Kingmaker Novices' Chase at Warwick on Saturday. Ironically, Balder Succes also has a late exit on his CV - he fell two out at Cheltenham in October when certain to score - but his jumping looks very much an asset and he was again seen to particularly good effect over Warwick's tricky fences, beating in-form runner-up Brick Red (c147) by three-and-a-half lengths whilst conceding that rival 3lb.
The fact that pair were able to pull so far clear of a couple of rivals with useful handicap form to their name, Valco de Touzaine (c137) and Lord of House (c137), strongly suggests this is form to view positively, particularly as Balder Succes had looked well capable of putting up such a performance prior to flopping behind Hinterland (c148) in the Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown in December (he was Timeform's top-rated going into that race), which is when his stable was enduring its slump in form. In fact, Balder Succes is currently Timeform's top-rated British-trained novice chaser and it is a great shame that he is reported as "unlikely" to take his chance in next month's Arkle at Cheltenham, where he had been double the price of his, admittedly less-exposed, stable-companion Valdez (c147p).
Aintree and Punchestown have been cited as possible spring targets for Balder Succes. This may be due to the fact his owner is also represented by Arkle second favourite Dodging Bullets (c151+), who underlined his position as of the best home-trained two-mile novice chasers when a narrow second to the more experienced Module (c152) in the Grade 2 Betfair Cash Out Chase at Newbury on Saturday. It was certainly a good effort from a form viewpoint - he was conceding the winner 3lb and the race could be rated even higher - but, not for the first time, Dodging Bullets didn't entirely convince with his finishing effort having travelled best for most of the way.
In truth, the ground on Newbury's chase course was barely raceable (and that's being generous!), so it would probably be harsh to crab Dodging Bullets too much for being outbattled and/or outstayed on this occasion. When underfoot conditions are so bad, the percentage call is usually to take a cautious view of any results which threw up strung-out finishes, and that is certainly the case with the Betfair Denman Chase. The winner Harry Topper (c164x) was faced with his optimum conditions - small field, testing ground and several omitted fences! - and took full advantage in a race where he was the only one to give its running. Runner-up Al Ferof (c164+) was beaten twenty-five lengths in the end and clearly has a bit to prove now, though it's probably too soon to be writing off his prospects of staying trips at around three miles back under less extreme conditions.
Harry Topper now boasts five wins from seven completed starts over fences, but Last Instalment (c169) can better that strike rate, his win in Sunday's Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown taking his tally to five wins from just six starts - and there are no non-completions in there either. The latter fact isn't a surprise given that the lightly-raced Last Instalment is a superb jumper, who was unbeaten on all four starts as a novice in 2011/12 and clearly retains all of his ability despite having to sit out nearly two years through injury.
Whether he'll be able to add another win to his tally in the Cheltenham Gold Cup is another matter, though, particularly as there was a chance he enjoyed the run of things at Leopardstown, where neither runner-up Tidal Bay (c168) nor third-placed First Lieutenant (c161) were at their very best.
Another big-race winner to enjoy the run of the race last weekend was Splash of Ginge (h140), who made full use of a good tactical (plus Ryan Hatch's 7lb claim) to spring a surprise in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury, in the process becoming the fourth novice winner in the last five runnings of this very valuable race. Likeable gelding though he is, the chances are Splash of Ginge could find life much tougher in the short term, be it back in graded novice company or similarly valuable handicap hurdles.
The Betfair Hurdle should still throw up plenty of future winners, however, with the likes of runner-up Dell' Arca (h139p) and fourth-placed Cheltenian (h136p) almost certainly still open to further improvement. In addition, eighth-placed Vendor (h137+) shaped a good deal better than the result suggests, his usual waiting tactics very much counting against him given how things unfolded, and he's another from the resurgent Alan King yard worth looking out for over the coming weeks and months.