Small fields for big pre-Festival races have become the norm in recent years, but there is one constant. The name of Paul Nicholls alongside at least one of the horses.
He is always on the ball when it comes to money-making opportunities for his owners, from a top Grade 1 contest all the way to a prize much further down the racing ladder (he won a match at Huntingdon last week, for example), so it is no surprise that he is responsible for one of the five entries in the Betfair Chase and half of the four-strong field for Saturday’s 2m5f Grade 2 Chase at Ascot.
And one of the six in the Grade 2 hurdle on the Ascot card, too.
Of course, it helps if you have the necessary numbers and firepower, but he wouldn’t be alone in having the powerful string to make these savvy entries.
Lostintranslation is worthy favourite for Betfair Chase
It doesn’t mean Nicholls will win any of those three races but he has given himself every chance, even if his Clan Des Obeaux is only a 3/1 chance with the Betfair Sportsbook for the Betfair Chase, and just a touch bigger on the Exchange.
It is a surprisingly long time since Nicholls has actually won the race he largely farmed with the likes of Kauto Star and Silviniaco Conti, as the latter won the last of his brace in 2014.
And his charge has to get the better of the winners of the last three runnings, Bristol De Mai and Lostintranslation.
Lostintranslation’s season didn’t go entirely to plan after his one-and-a-half-length defeat of course specialist Bristol De Mai in the race last season, pulling up behind Clan Des Obeaux in the King George, but he did get right back on track with his third in the Gold Cup.
He looks the justifiable favourite here at 5/4 with the Betfair Sportsbook, especially with this stable beginning to strike form, and you’d be a contrary soul to really quibble with the way this race has been priced up at the five-day stage.
The three star names alone should make for a cracking set-to but let’s hope all five stand their ground – and you would hope they would given the handsome prize money for fourth and fifth – and we can revisit the race on Friday, with perhaps an each-way angle.
Betfair Exchange Stayers’ Handicap Hurdle attracts high-class field again
The betting races at this stage are clearly the ITV-aired handicaps either side of the big one (though the Sportsbook have priced up all four ITV races at Haydock, including the Graduation race where Itchy Feet is the early 7/4 jolly), and the Betfair Exchange Stayers’ Handicap Hurdle (formerly the Fixed Brush) has always attracted a high-class field, with Sam Spinner and Paisley Park the winners in 2017 and 2018 respectively.
The problem when assessing this race – as well as the old-age problem of finding out running plans, as we again came a cropper with Oakley’s bizarre no-show last week (I am assuming it was due to injury), so sorry for that – is that it is almost too classy, with a raft of plausible winners.
We should get the going housekeeping out of the way first, though, as it is currently soft at Haydock with a wet week in store from Wednesday, so it is probably safe to proceed on the basis of at least heavy in places come Saturday.
Imperial Alcazar is the early favourite with the Sportsbook (who are paying five places) and on the Exchange, and this well-regarded and lightly-raced six-year-old will have no problem with the ground, even if the 3m is an unknown for him.
Improvers could upset favourite
I do think Imperial Alcazar has more to prove than his current odds suggest though, especially locking horns with rapid improvers such as The Jam Man (a ridiculously easy winner of the Troytown last time, albeit off a chase mark some 19lb lower than this) and Main Fact, who sidestepped the 2m Greatwood Hurdle to come here.
When looking at this race though, there is one line of form that stood out to me, and that was the Pertemps Final at Cheltenham in March.
However, unfortunately, the layers agreed far more than I thought they would, with Relegate and Third Wind priced up at 7/1 and 10/1 respectively, though the latter is currently a couple of points bigger on the Exchange.
Third Wind finished a short-head in front of Relegate when fourth in the Pertemps in March, and they meet on the same terms here after promising reappearance runs.
The Cheltenham form is just so strong with the first three home – Sire Du Berlais, The Storyteller and Tour Est Permis – all excelling this season.
Third Wind, as he tends to do, travelled powerfully into his race at Newbury on his comeback, before finding less than expected, and I now just wonder whether he finds 3m in very testing ground just that little bit beyond him.
I suppose you could also level that comment at the 2018 Cheltenham Bumper winner Relegate too, but he did shape like a horse being teed up for a handicap prize such as this when fourth in the Grade 2 Lismullen Hurdle over 2m4f last time and surely a mark of 137 under-estimates his raw ability.
Keep an eye on Silva Eclipse’s plans
I will leave this race alone for now but if I knew Silva Eclipse was running here instead of Uttoxeter on Sunday then I would definitely chance him at 46.045/1 and bigger on the Exchange.
But that Uttoxeter option unfortunately looks a real possibility.
I would not get too worked up over his below-par run over 2m4f behind West To The Bridge and Mount Mews at Carlisle last time, as this horse needs 3m or deep ground, or a combination of both.
And he normally gets that when he comes here, and runs accordingly. His form figures at this track read a handsome 222312, and if you dig into his profile the better it gets for his chances this weekend. Just where he runs is the big issue, though.
This is his third start of the campaign and he ran in exactly the same opening two races last season before going to Uttoxeter and winning by six lengths, so he could easily side-step Haydock once again.
So I have to wait until connections choose his target – he ran in that Uttoxeter race in 2018, too – before tipping and backing him, while I also accept the Sue Smith yard could be in much better overall form (they are winnerless in November, and were only 1 from 35 in October).
Caution advised for Irish double entries
One last word on this race. If you are thinking about backing of the any Irish runners, like Relegate or The Jam Man, please keep an eye out for the Irish weekend entries from midday onwards on Tuesday. They could be given alternative options there.
The fact that there are extended 3m1f and 3m4f handicap chases on Haydock’s Saturday card is a curious piece of race planning, and that makes ante-post punting troublesome in the My Odds Boost On Betfair Stayers’ Handicap Chase (15:35).
Eight of the 17 entries in this longer race are entered in both (Fortified Bay, Ice Cool Champs, Kings Monarch, Midnight Tune, Pobbles Bay, Pookie Pekan, Secret Reprieve and Sheneededtherun), so that pretty much rules them out for ante-post purposes, however much you fancy them.
And I actually do like a couple, but clearly you can’t back any of the double-entered horses, unless you have knowledge of intended running plans (and I don’t). And those intended running plans change pretty often too, anyway. It should also be noted the 3m1f Betfair-sponsored race is worth nearly twice as much as the longer contest.
Cloudy Glen has an obvious chance if backing up from his wide-margin at Fontwell on Sunday, as he is well-in here under his 7lb penalty (well, he will be once his mark is re-assessed) and has plenty of other positives. He is unbeaten in two starts at Haydock and he has a history of successfully backing up quickly in the past (winning after breaks after just four and nine days).
However, I don’t care how easily you win, slogging round 3m3f+ in heavy ground at Fontwell last Sunday must have taken something out of him, and of course in the final analysis everything comes down to price, and he is a 9/4 chance, not a 9/2 poke.
And his outstanding claims could actually work in punters’ favour, scaring off plenty of the entries, and possibly a fair few of those eight doubly-declared horses.
Happy to back teenager in closing race at Haydock
Famous last words and all that, but there is surely no doubt that Perfect Candidate will come here if he is fit and healthy and he is a tempting bet at 12/1 each way, three places and a quarter of the odds with the Sportsbook.
Now, he clearly does not have a progressive profile as a 13-year-old and will probably be available at bigger odds win-only on the Exchange on Saturday if this race doesn’t cut up, but it is not hard to see him running a big race after blowing away the cobwebs at Aintree on his reappearance last month.
He tends to need his first run pretty badly, but he won second time out at Cheltenham in 2017 after being chinned 27 lengths on his comeback run, and hopefully it will be the same here.
On the face of it, there wasn’t a great deal of promise at Aintree, when beaten 48 lengths, but he never got to the front after ballooning the first fence and most of this horse’s better runs have come when he is given an attacking ride.
He certainly was when winning this race by seven lengths in tremendously game style last season, and he remains fairly handicapped on a 5lb higher mark.
The assessor could have been a touch kinder by dropping him more than 1lb for his three defeats since – though to be fair, two of those runs saw him finished second to a pair of improvers, including here – and we know a marathon test in soft/heavy ground is what he wants.
Maybe a win is beyond him as a teenager, but the ante-post each-way shape of this race is appealing, and I am happy to put up Perfect Candidate each way at 12/1 to small stakes, though 10s is the lowest I would go.