Well we certainly aren't having snow this Christmas which is a relief for the racecourses.
But the rain continues to wash out many of our jumps fixtures and at the time of writing Newcastle's meeting on Saturday has been abandoned, Haydock is subject to an inspection and the ground at Kempton, like many other venues, is going to be testing for the King George on Boxing Day.
Let's start off with our Christmas build up meeting at Ascot on Saturday where the Ladbroke Hurdle is the feature. Balder Succes is 5/1 favourite for Alan King. The four-year-old comes here off the back of a win at Haydock on heavy ground and prior to that he finished third in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton behind Zarkandar. He is still unexposed with five wins from eight starts (all over hurdles) and is a class act. He likes this track and has plenty in his favour, despite having 11st 4lb to carry.
So, to conclude, Cash and Go ran well last time out and although this is a tough race to call I'm going to give him a chance to go one better than last time out.
Quotes of the week
Cash and Go is next best at 7/1 for Nicky Henderson, who has four runners including top-weight Petit Robin (20/1), Lyvius (8/1) and First in the Queue (25s). Cash and Go is the pick of Barry Geraghty and Lyvius is interesting with a light weight. This is a race Henderson will be keen to win again with a valuable prize on offer as he is currently trailing Paul Nicholls in the trainers' championship. Olofi (12/1) beat Cash and Go in the Racing Post Hurdle (Greatwood) at Cheltenham last time out. The latter was having his first run for Henderson having formerly been trained by Edward O'Grady in Ireland and the Tom George trained Olofi was having his first run since being well beaten in the County Hurdle in March.
The latter has a tougher task off an 8lb higher mark as there were some decent efforts from some of the other horses in behind him that day. One of those was Cause of Causes (14/1) who is trained in Ireland by Gordon Elliott. He was staying on up the Cheltenham hill that day and finished third. The horse which finished sixth there, Rattan, is interesting too in Saturday's contest. He is trained by Willie Mullins and relishes the testing conditions. He is more exposed than some of these but is the sort of horse I'd be interested in each way.
Ranjaan is 8/1 for Nicholls and Ruby Walsh. He has his first run since January here and has been well supported in the run up to this race but I'm a bit concerned that he prefers better ground that he will encounter here. So, to conclude, Cash and Go ran well last time out and although this is a tough race to call I'm going to give him a chance to go one better than last time out. Nicholls could do with some Christmas cheer after a week that saw Big Bucks and Al Ferof ruled out for the rest of the season with similar tendon injuries.
So for the first time in a few years the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday is without its star but it makes for a more competitive betting race. Nicholls has a chance to win it though with 5/1 shot Prospect Wells, which comes here having been touched off by stablemate Zarkandar in the Elite Hurdle two starts ago. That form looks strong with the winner going in again in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham. This horse was subsequently well beaten in the Racing Post Hurdle, although that run came just a week after the Wincanton run so he could bounce back here. Smad Place is the 9/4 favourite for Alan King.
He deserves his position at the top of the market despite some sketchy jumping at Wetherby on his reappearance behind Tidal Bay. His third to Big Buck's and Voler la Vedette in the World Hurdle in March gives him very good claims here. He is unproven on this ground which is a concern but I hope he'll handle it and win here. The Tim Easterby trained Trustan Times is his main danger.Onto Boxing Day then and the King George which has been dominated by the Nicholls trained Kauto Star for many years. This time he is represented by his half-brother Kauto Stone, which is an 8/1 shot behind 5/2 favourite Long Run. Long Run won this race two seasons ago but had to settle for second behind Kauto Star last term. He ran an encouraging race in the Betfair Chase last time out behind Silvinaco Conti and a return to this track with a run under his belt should give him a great chance. He is yet to finish out of the frame over fences and his stamina could be put to good use here. I'm not sure what it is about this horse but he doesn't grab me and at the available prices I'd be happy to take him on.
Last season there were some smart novice chasers around and it will be interesting to see if they step up to the plate against the established chasers. Cue Card is one such horse and he is Sky Bet's 9/2 second favourite. I love this horse and his novice form looks excellent, particularly his second to Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle. He tries this three-mile trip for the first time, but hopefully the configuration of the Surrey track will help him see out the trip. He reappeared in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter where he jumped proficiently and won impressively. It could be that his Cheltenham target is the Ryanair Chase over two-and-a-half miles but I hope he can stretch his stamina and win this en-route. Riverside Theatre runs well fresh and he was second to stable-mate Long Run a couple of seasons ago.
He hasn't had too many chances to prove himself at this trip and the suspicion is that two-and-a-half suits best. 10/1 shot Grands Crus isn't a certain runner and his trainer David Pipe supplemented Junior for the race this week. Grands Crus has undergone a breathing operation since his defeat in the Paddy Power for which he was being talked up as virtually unbeatable that day. Pipe will make a late decision about his participation but if he does line up he can run very well and his win in last season's Feltham shows the track suits him well. I really like Cue Card in this but would have a saver on Grands Crus if he is declared for the Christmas showpiece.
The Christmas Hurdle is the next stepping stone to the Champion Hurdle but once again these horses will be tackling conditions that are likely to be very different from Cheltenham in March. I hope Darlan can show us what he is made of as he begins his season against impressive Fighting Fifth winner Countrywide Flame. Again the ground is the worry for him as he hasn't encountered conditions this testing before whereas Countrywide Flame relished them at Newcastle. He is held in high regard at the Henderson stable though and I'm going to take a chance that he copes with it. At Leopardstown on the 26th the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase looks to be a match between Arvika Ligeonniere and Oscars Well. I'm with the former here after the Willie Mullins trained horse won on his reappearance (and second start over fences) in the Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse. A drop back in trip won't inconvenience the selection who has taken well to fences.
The day after Boxing day the highlight at Chepstow is the Welsh National and this will be a real war of attrition over three miles and five-and-a-half furlongs on testing ground. There has to be some threat that the meeting could be abandoned given the forecast and already saturated ground, so if it does go ahead it will be a proper test. I really fancy Teaforthree in this and I fancy him here despite his price of 7/2 favourite. He won the four-miler at the Cheltenham festival and has been geared towards this race this season. He won his novice chase at this track on heavy ground so hopefully the conditions shouldn't phase him. If he does win this for Rebecca Curtis he would become the first Welsh trained horse to win the Welsh National since 1965.
What a result it would be for Victor Dartnall if his Giles Cross (12/1) could finally get his head in front in this race. He has finished second for the past two seasons and would be a boost for the stable if he could win. The yard had been forced to shut down after an outbreak of equine herpes which claimed the lives of several horses but they are back in business now and need some good luck. The horse certainly won't mind a slog in this ground and he should run well once again. Nicholls has three in the race: top weight Tidal Bay (12/1), Michel le Bon (8/1) and 20/1 shot Royal Charm. If Tidal Bay does run he will keep the majority of these out the handicap. However, Nicholls has said recently that the Lexus Chase is a more likely destination as he wouldn't appreciate a slog on this ground at this stage of the season.
Michel le Bon ran an encouraging race in the Badger Ales at Wincanton last time out but he is unproven on ground like this. He has a handy weight though. He has only had 4 starts over fences and his trainer has said in the past he wouldn't mind soft ground, but this is likely to be an exception. I could go through several of these, but to be honest, it's Teaforthree all the way and he'll do for me. AP McCoy will be hoping Tidal Bay comes out of the race otherwise he will be forced to do 10.4 on the favourite, which is getting down to his lightest weight.
There is of course some superb action in Ireland over the festive period too and there are a few horses I'll be keeping an eye on. Also on the 27th I'll be hoping Waaheb can continue his hurdle career as he began with a win in the Grade 1 Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown. Problems delayed his hurdles career last season and he didn't make his debut over obstacles until October when he won easily at Fairyhouse. That was his first start for 538 days and his trainer Dermot Weld has given him plenty of time to get over it.
Staying at Leopardstown there is another puzzle to unravel for punters, the Paddy Power Chase, over an extended three miles. Henderson's Prince of Pirates (14/1) is one of four entries from the UK which also includes Cannington Brook for Colin Tizzard (25s) and the Jonjo O'Neill pair of Alfie Sherrin (16/1) and Valley View (20s). It's hard to take a view until the field is whittled down at declaration stage but Sky Bet have 10/1 joint favourites in Glam Gerry and Like Your Style for Colm Murphy and Edward Harty respectively. On the same card the Grade 1 Dial a Bet Chase has attracted some of chasing's power players; Sizing Europe looks set to go off odds on in the two-mile one-furlong contest if he runs here in preference to the Lexus Chase the following day.
Onto the Lexus Chase then which takes place on the 28th and sees the clash of the two Irish trained heavyweights Flemenstar and Sir des Champs. This will be a first try at three miles for Flemenstar after he beat Sir des Champs over two-and-a-half in the John Durkan last time out. I think the step up in trip will suit the runner up and this is a good chance for him to reverse those placings. Flemenstar also had the benefit of a run when they met earlier this month and although he is an outstanding horse, in these conditions his stamina may be put to the test. I think this race could be one of the match ups of the whole Christmas period and I can't wait to see them take each other on again. I backed Sir des Champs for the Gold Cup nine months ago and hope he can show his superiority over this sort of trip.
Cash and Go in the Ladbroke Hurdle @ 7/1 with Sky Bet
Smad Place in the Long Walk Hurdle @ 9/4 with Sky Bet
Cue Card in the King George @ 9/2 with Sky Bet
Darlan in the Christmas Hurdle
Arvika Ligeonniere in the Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown
Teaforthree in the Welsh National @ 7/2 with Sky Bet
Waaheb in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown
Sir des Champs in the Lexus Chase