Newbury's Super Saturday meeting finally took place on Friday and it was great to see some really smart horses on the track.
The place to start has to be with Long Run who won the Denman Chase for his first victory since last year's Gold Cup. I don't know what it was about the win, but I wasn't bowled over. He jumped adequately, but doesn't really bend his back in the way you would like.
Nicky Henderson, Sam Waley Cohen and Yogi Breisner have done plenty of show-jumping schooling to try and improve his technique, but he isn't a natural. With a rejuvenated Kauto Star he may not have things his way at Cheltenham in March. Sky Bet have him priced at 9/4 for the Blue Riband whilst Kauto is now 3/1.
Burton Port ran a blinder at Newbury on his first run since the Hennessy in November 2010 and he has been shortened into 10/1 for the Gold Cup. He will come on for that 2nd place, but let's hope he doesn't 'bounce'.
Zarkandar became the first horse for 40 years to win the Betfair Hurdle on its seasonal reappearance. He looked well handicapped after a superb juvenile campaign which saw him win the Triumph Hurdle amongst other races. He is now unbeaten in four starts over hurdles and has been shortened into 11/2 for the Champion Hurdle. He may have been a touch fortunate as Get Me Out Of Here was hampered by the fall of Darlan, but trainer Paul Nicholls was adamant he will come on tons for the outing.
I don't think winning jockey Ruby Walsh will be wishing he could get off Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle after what he experienced in Friday's race, but the horse has a great chance of making the frame. Speaking of Darlan, I seriously though AP McCoy had suffered a serious injury when they fell. However, the man is made of iron and not only did he get back to his feet shortly after he went on to ride the final winner on the card.
Sprinter Sacre looks the real deal after his annihilation of his more experienced rivals in the Game Spirit Chase. He was already favourite for the Arkle but is now shortened into Evs. I bet Nicky Henderson wishes he had entered him in the Champion Chase because this horse has it all. He is a lovely old fashioned chasing type, he jumps for fun and has a huge engine. The only criticism is that he was fairly keen, but the two-mile chasers go flat out at Cheltenham and that will aid his cause.
The two-mile division has looked very strong this year, but the wheat is being sorted from the chaff now and he looks top of the heap. I think he can be mentioned in the same breath as the mighty Remittance Man and Moscow Flyer and Barry Geraghty (who rode the latter) and Nicky Henderson (who trained the former) rate him as one of the best they have been involved with - exciting times.
For Non Stop finally got a win to his name this season after a string of second places to smart opposition this season (he has met Arkle candidates Al Ferof and Cue Card on his two most recent runs). He won the rescheduled Grade 1 Scily Isles Novices' Chase (from Sandown).
The race had a very open look to it with Walkon 5/2 fav, but it was Nick Williams' seven-year-old who prevailed to advertise his Jewson claims. He's 7/1 with Sky Bet for that race but he doesn't always take his races well so it may be worth holding on before backing him for that.
There were RSA Chase clues in the Reynoldstown Novices' Chase at Ascot on Saturday. Alan King saddled the winner Invictus which caused a bit of a shock (although not to King and jockey Choc Thornton) and he will now take on Grands Crus at Cheltenham after his impressive display at Ascot. He is 10/1 for the RSA Chase and should improve again for that win.
Silviniaco Conti disappointed in the race, but it transpired at the beginning of the week that Paul Nicholls has a few horses coughing and that could explain the poor runs of a few of his fancied runners over the weekend. It couldn't have come at a worse time with the festival just three weeks away and they will be doing everything in their power to make sure the big guns don't get affected.
Also at Ascot and Ryanair pointers in the Grade 1 Ascot Chase with Riverside Theatre bidding to win the race for the second successive year on his first run since that win 12 months ago having suffered a hairline fracture of the pelvis. He was heavily backed before this reappearance and justified his market support by winning well from Medermit.
Kauto Stone was another disappointment from the Nicholls' stable but now at least there seems to be an excuse. Riverside Theatre is 11/2 for the Ryanair now.
The Grand National trial was run on testing ground at Haydock and I was delighted to see my tip Giles Cross win a big one at last. Victor Dartnall's horse has been second twice in the Welsh National and really deserved this win. I would hold hard with regards the Grand National though (for which he is 20/1) because he is unlikely to get testing ground at Aintree and the Irish National looks more his race.
There was no Grandouet in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton so Binocular was free to strut his stuff despite Nicky Henderson saying he would go straight to Cheltenham. It was a good decision as we saw the old Binocular back as he won comfortably under AP McCoy (now we know why he was keen to ride the day after that crunching fall). By all accounts he had undergone a minor breathing operation since his win at Kempton in the Christmas Hurdle and that has clearly helped. There was a mixed response to the win from the bookies, but Sky Bet are now 6/1 for the Champion Hurdle. Speaking of Grandouet, he underwent a minor operation this week due to a problem with one of his back joints and no longer takes his place in the Champion Hurdle.
Onto this weekend's action now and the feature is the Racing Plus Chase (formerly the Racing Post Chase) at Kempton. The Grade 3 three-mile handicap is super competitive as usual and we should get a few pointers ahead of the Grand National.
Planet Of Sound has been installed as 7/2 favourite by Sky Bet. The Philip Hobbs-trained horse takes this race in en-route to the Grand National and comes here with just the one run under his belt this season when finishing second in the Hennessy in November after having a successful breathing operation.
Hobbs is having a very quiet month though which is a slight concern but he has sent out three of the last 10 winners of this race. Nacarat (4/1) won this is 2009, was second in 2010 and third last year. He is a couple of pounds lower in the weights than he was 12 months ago. Michel Le Bon (also 5/1) is from another stable battling horse health. Paul Nicholls trains the nine-year-old who is another who hasn't run since the Hennessy where he was well beaten but showed promise.
Richard Lee trains Hector's Choice, a 15/2 shot. He keeps being raised by the handicapper for his consistent efforts. Evan Williams is allowing Deep Purple (9/1) to take his chance. He hasn't run since winning the London National on his first start in handicap company back in December and he is 5lbs higher now. Stamina seemed to be running out for David Pipe's Consigliere (10/1) in the Peter Marsh on testing ground at Haydock last time out but he deserves another chance to stay this three miles on better ground.
Fiendish Flame is one of three at 14/1. He is likely to set the pace as he likes his own way up front. The track will suit him and he did well on his return to chasing at Musselburgh last time out for which he has been raised 10lbs by the handicapper. Royal Charm is also priced at 14s, he is Paul Nicholls' second string and Noel Fehily rides. Finally, Sarando completes the field (14/1). Paul Webber's charge ran over hurdles last time after failing to complete on his previous two starts, he needs blinkers to revitalise him. I think it may be worth giving Consigliere another chance at three miles on the better ground he will encounter at Kempton.
Staying at Kempton and the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle looks a strong race and should give us some Triumph Hurdle clues. There are 13 entries including leading Cheltenham contenders Grumeti (Alan King), the Philip Hobbs-trained Sadler's Risk, Paul Nicholls' Dildar and Lyvius who won at Kelso last week for Nicky Henderson who was keen to get more hurdling experience into the horse before Cheltenham (that was his debut over hurdles). Grumeti was awarded his latest Cheltenham win when he was touched off by Paul Nicholls' Pearl Swan who leaned on him in the run in. He will enjoy the decent ground at Kempton. Sadler's Risk is also after more experience before Cheltenham and is 1/1 over hurdles so far. It would be dangerous to discount Paul Nicholls runners due to some of his horses coughing as he will only be running horses who have been given the OK by the vets. Dildar is his runner here who will be bidding to emulate the win on stablemate Zarkandar in this race 12 months ago. He didn't impress the bookies on his hurdle debut at Taunton though. Baby Mix needs to reproduce the form of his penultimate win where he looked impressive. I think it's Grumeti for me if he is declared for the race. There are some smart novice hurdlers entered in the Dovecote including some of the horses entered in the Adonis so we will have to wait until declaration time to see who goes where. Grumeti and Dildar are in both. The 2½-mile Pendil Novices' Chase also takes place at Kempton. If he is turned out again quickly Zaynar will enjoy the good ground for Nick Williams, whereas Cristal Bonus is unproven on it. The latter made an impressive debut over fences at Chepstow last month for Paul Nicholls and is a leading fancy for the Jewson Novices' Chase. Michael Flips was second in the Scilly Isles last weekend. Again it's just a case of waiting to see who is declared for the contest.
The Eider Chase is the feature at Newcastle and Morgan Be deserves to get his head in front in this race for Middleham trainer Kate Walton. He has finished second and a distant third in this four mile, one furlong stamina-sapping contest and he comes here having won over three miles at this track last time out. Whether the current ground will suit is another matter - at the time of writing it was described as good to soft, good in places.
Mister Marker can run well for Nicky Richards. He won over a mile shorter than he will tackle on Saturday but has run well over 4 miles in the past and Richards says five miles wouldn't be far enough! He is another horse that likes give in the ground and it may not be soft enough but he has won on good to soft before. Peter Niven's Posh Bird can't be called a prolific winner but she will suit conditions and gets in with a light weight. This could be a great opportunity for Lucy Alexander to ride a big Saturday winner. She is on board Negus de Beaumont for Ferdy Murphy who is without his stable jockey Graham Lee after he suffered a nasty hip injury at Southwell last week. Murphy is taking advantage of Alexander's 5lb conditional jockey's allowance and I hope he runs a big race for her. He won a Beginners Chase on his 11th start over fences at this track last time out and he stays very well. I fancy him to win with Mister Marker his main danger.
Watch out for the hurdling debut of highly regarded Minsk in in the Juvenile Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Saturday. He is already a leading contender for the Triumph (11/2 fav with Sky Bet) without jumping a hurdle in public. He was trained on the flat by John Oxx for whom he won the Irish Cesarewitch on his final start. He is now with Dessie Hughes and will need to win to cement his position at the top of the market for Cheltenham.
Another horse I'm looking forward to seeing this weekend is Seabass. He has a couple of entries and Ted Walsh's nine-year-old is progressive and is on a roll.
Consigliere in the Racing Plus Chase @ 10/1 with Sky Bet
Grumeti in the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle
Negus de Beaumont in the Eider Chase
Minsk in the Juvenile Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Saturday