Friday, March 25, 2016

Cheltenham aftermath

Cheltenham's 2016 Festival has certainly left its mark on the layers.

David Williams of Ladbrokes is on record saying 'It's been the most expensive week here we can remember' while in Thursday's edition of The Times William Hill chief executive James Henderson bemoaned the fact that '55% of races had been won by favourites or second-favourites' going on to add: 'I've never known four losing days at Cheltenham in my 30-year career in bookmaking.'

In this week's Weekender Alistair Whitehouse-Jones has penned a paean to D N Russell, diplomat and jockey. Davy's TV interview minutes after being unseated from Zabana at the start of the JLT Novices' Chase stands as testimony to his diplomatic skills whilst his ride on Diamond King to collect the Coral Cup speaks for itself.

That article reminded me of a comment from Radio 5 Live's coverage during the week; to paraphrase - if you want to make money at the Festival, back Davy Russell. This year from a total of 13 rides D N Russell won on Diamond King (12/1) and Mall Dini (14/1), showing a profit of 15 points. I'll try to keep that in mind for next year.

Undecided on the highlight of the week? Watching the replays may help...

Annie Power in the Champion Hurdle
Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother Champion Chase
Don Cossack in the Gold Cup

The official handicapper seems suitably impressed with Thistlecrack's performance in winning the World Hurdle; allocated a rating of 174, Colin Tizzard's stable star is on an equal footing with the legendary Big Buck's.

Killer Crow, widely touted on the Festival preview circuit, failed to make the cut for his race. Last time out he finished second in a Grade A Handicap Chase at Leopardstown, two and a quarter lengths behind Empire Of Dirt who won the snappily-named Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate on Thursday. At the time of writing Gordon Elliott's charge holds an entry in Monday's Irish Grand National for which he is quoted at 16/1 by both Coral and bet365.  

Footballers behaving badly was a story reported in several media outlets on the Wednesday morning; obviously no one condones such behaviour. That said, even I, with a mere smattering of knowledge, know the history of the turf to be littered with examples of profligacy and dissipation.

Nicholas Clee in his book Eclipse tells the tale of a meat salesman who owns the horse and 'an adventurer who made his money through roguery and gambling. He is also the companion of the madam of one of London's most notorious brothels' while Nicholas Foulkes' Gentlemen And Blackguards depicts early Victorian society at a time of 'frenzied speculation, high stakes and low morals'.

In a letter to The Times published Wednesday 22.03.16 reader Richard Warnock picks up the theme, quoting the rector of Cheltenham from 1827:

"If you wish your child to plunge into the world's vain pleasures, to acquire a taste for dissipation, send him to Cheltenham races. Every species of profligacy - adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, envying, drunkenness, revellings and such like are promoted by a race week."

Good Lord! I don't recall the racecourse mentioning any of this in the promotional literature sent out back in October...

From Cheltenham to Newton Abbot - tomorrow's two mile Class 2 Handicap Chase at 3.15 has caught my attention; in last year's renewal Another Flutter comfortably beat Starkie and Ulck Du Lin.

From three five-day entries, Paul Nicholls lets Ulck Du Lin take his chance once again, this time off a mark eight pounds higher - the gelding has done most of his racing (and winning) on right-handed tracks.

Ut Majeur Aulmes beat Starkie a neck and four lengths last time out; taking into account David Pritchard's claim, they look closely matched here.

The two course and distance winners, Miss Tenacious and Easily Pleased, return following lengthy lay-offs which leads me to Keel Haul. Back in November this one beat Minella Present at Cheltenham but appears to have lost his way a little since. He was an intended runner in the 4.15 at Ludlow yesterday but was withdrawn and I don't know why. The declaration here suggests it wasn't too serious - Minella Present held five day entries for this and the Ludlow race but connections have taken up neither option.

On the back of that Cheltenham run in November and now sporting a visor for the first time, I'll chance Keel Haul at around 13/2.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Cheltenham Festival 2016 - the betting debrief

Just a fortnight or so away from the tenth anniversary of the first blog post and I'm happy to report this year's Festival has proved the most profitable on record.

Shown below a record of the highlighted selections to the registered starting price, each-way wagers calculated to one fifth the odds.

Altior win 4/1, win - returns 5 points;

Carole's Destrier each-way 14/1, pulled up;

Polly Peachum win 6/1, tenth.

Blaklion each-way 8/1, win - returns 5.8 points;

Special Tiara each-way 16/1, third - returns 2.1 points;

Ballyandy win 5/1, win - returns 6 points.

Garde La Victoire win 4/1, fell;

Whisper each-way 9/1, eighth;

Smart Talk win 6/1, thirteenth.

Don Cossack win 9/4f, win - returns 3.25 points;

Sceau Royal win 8/1, twelfth.

Total outlay: 11 points
Total return: 22.15 points
Profit: 11.15 points
Win strike rate: 36.36%
Profit as % of turnover: 101.36%

A good day Wednesday, a dry day Thursday, book-ended with a winner on the first day and the last day. Two of the four winners were available at bigger prices on the morning of the race - Blaklion (12/1) and Ballyandy (6/1).

For many the highlight of the week was Sprinter Sacre's victory in the Queen Mother Chase but, for me, Annie Power's all-the-way win in the Champion Hurdle just pinches it.

I'm sure we'll come back and do it all over again next year... 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Cheltenham Festival 2016 - Friday

The Gold Cup (3.30) is the highlight of the meeting.
The picture has changed markedly during the week with the Mullins camp deciding to re-route Vautour to the Ryanair (which he wins today, even money favourite) and Bryan Cooper opting to ride Don Cossack rather than Don Poli for owners Gigginstown House Stud.

The principals all come with reservations...
There won't be a dry eye in the house should Cue Card win; connections will collect a £1 million bonus following his victories in Haydock's Betfair Chase and the King George at Kempton. A breathing operation has revitalised Colin Tizzard's charge but there's still a question in my mind whether he'll come up the hill and stay this extended three and a quarter mile trip.

At the age of ten, he's not getting any younger either - the last ten-year-old to win the Gold Cup was Cool Dawn in 1998.

Don Cossack's Cheltenham record doesn't inspire confidence. He fell in the 2014 running of the RSA Chase and then finished a disappointing third in last year's Ryanair when sent off the 5/2 favourite. In a full and frank post-race debrief connections admitted that ride wasn't Bryan Cooper's finest hour; this race offers a chance of redemption. He also fell in Cue Card's King George, coming to grief two from home when about to make his challenge - the suspicion is his jumping suffers when the chips are really down.  

That said, Don Cossack's seven length defeat of Djakadam in the 2015 Punchestown Gold Cup looks a key piece of form. 

Djakadam finished second, one and a half lengths behind Coneygree in last year's Gold Cup, but he comes to this on the back of a fall in the BetBright Trial here seven weeks ago. That day he sustained an injury that required a number of stitches and, although connections maintain he hasn't missed any work, it's hardly an ideal preparation.

Don Poli is a big old-fashioned chasing type who looks hard work, lazy almost, but who can get the job done; he'll certainly stay the trip! He won the RSA Chase last year but on official ratings has 12 pounds to find with Cue Card so looks short enough in the market. Although Bryan Cooper prefers Don Cossack, his chance is respected but would increase with ease underfoot.

Smad Place has to come into reckonings on the back of his front running display here in the BetBright Trial. Alan King's grey likes Cheltenham and jumped for fun that day; I'd imagine connections would be keen to use similar tactics again. He won the Hennessy that way in November but finished some 16 lengths behind Cue Card in the King George.

Don Cossack is the selection.

In my initial preview last Friday I indicated I'd given up betting in Festival handicaps and generally my wallet had felt the benefit. I strayed from the straight and narrow on Tuesday, supporting Carole's Destrier in the Ultima Handicap Chase; that one pulled up.

With fingers burned, I'm not tempted to follow up the two County Hurdle (2.10) 'whispers' mentioned -  Superb Story (second in the Greatwood last time) and Wait For Me (third in last year's bumper); both have crept in at the bottom of the handicap.

Apparently the former was touted on The Morning Line soon after that post so counts more as a 'shouting-from-the-rooftops' rather than a 'whisper' (and is now as low as 7/1 in places). For those interested Sky Bet stand out offering 14/1 about the latter who is talented but isn't the best at the hurdles.

The form for the Triumph (1.30) has been all over the place this season; Nicholls saddles five, Mullins and King three apiece.

Zubayr shot to the head of the market after collaring runaway leader Azzuri in the Adonis with previously unbeaten Gibralfaro fourth; beforehand Gibralfaro had beaten Connetable yet the former is now 25/1, the latter 10/1. Both runners sport first time cheekpieces.

Ivanovich Gorbatov was beaten ten lengths by Footpad at Leopardstown last month; Ivanovich is currently 9/2, Footpad 10/1.

I was prepared to forgive Gibralfaro his run in the Adonis and the 25/1 quoted looks big but reading Alan King's column in the Weekender, the gelding is hardly given a mention whereas of course and distance winner Sceau Royal the handler says:

"Sceau Royal schooled under Daryl Jacob last week and we were thrilled with him, he's right at the top of his game."

 Sceau Royal (7/1) gets the nod.

That's it, I'm afraid; time has caught up with me. Good luck for Gold Cup day!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Cheltenham Festival 2016 - Thursday

The World Hurdle (3.30) is Thursday's feature and on official ratings even money favourite Thistlecrack has four pounds and upwards in hand over his opponents.

Tom Scudamore rides Colin Tizzard's charge who has been something of a revelation this season having won Newbury's Long Distance Hurdle, the Long Walk at Ascot and the Cleeve.

A 'Festival Fact' plucked from The Sun's Festival pullout on Monday:

"Tom Scudamore has NEVER ridden a hurdle winner at the Festival. He is 0 from 94 rides."

Stop Press update: That's now 0 from 96; Tom Scu finished fourth on Pass The Time in the Mares' Hurdle yesterday and down the field in twelfth on Harley Rebel in the Fred Winter earlier today. 

Thistlecrack looks his standout chance to put the record straight.

That said, I still think this is more competitive than market prices indicate.

Cole Harden saved my bacon when winning last year's renewal; he hasn't really fired in two runs on soft / heavy ground this term and connections are hoping the better ground will bring about the required improvement. This has been the target all year but we haven't yet seen evidence that he's as good as he was - here's the acid test.

Saphir Du Rheu, second to Cole Harden last year, was sent off favourite for the Hennessy but couldn't lay a finger on Smad Place, eventually finishing fifth. After weakening two out behind Thistlecrack in December he has undergone a breathing operation; Cole Harden underwent a similar procedure before winning last year.

Whisper's chance disappeared with a sloppy jump four from home in that very same race. The following month he went to Aintree and turned the tables on Cole Harden in no uncertain terms, beating his Cheltenham conqueror three and a half lengths.

Nicky Henderson said recently:
"This time last year he had to run in it to get him right for Aintree, but this time he's where he was for Aintree last year."

Kilcooley isn't lightly dismissed but he hasn't been seen since winning Wetherby's West Yorkshire Hurdle at the end of October and, to date, has shown his best form with cut underfoot.

At odds of 14/1 Whisper rates a value each-way wager.
According to the market there's little to choose between Bristol De Mai, Outlander and Garde La Victoire in the opener, the JLT Novices' Chase.

Course and distance winner Garde La Victoire beat Bristol De Mai seven lengths at Uttoxeter in the autumn and is the only one of the three named with winning form on good ground. Bristol De Mai has probably looked the more impressive since that meeting; Garde La Victoire isn't always the neatest at his obstacles.
Black Hercules stays further, jumping really well at Warwick on his penultimate start, and he appeared to have the spoils in the bag the next time before coming to grief at the last. His chance is respected.

I'm going to chance Garde La Victoire with Sky Bet who offer money back as a free bet if a selection in this opening race loses.

Vautour's switch from Friday's Gold Cup has upset a lot of punters and given the Ryanair (2.50) a totally different complexion. Owner Rich Ricci told At The Races:

"The Gold Cup has been the plan all season - I know I've said that - and my feeling was that if he was working well enough to run in a Ryanair, why wouldn't he be working well enough to run in a Gold Cup?

"It turns out he's not been doing cartwheels, I've been very clear about that in the run up to the race, but we felt we'd take our chance in the Ryanair.

"It's not like he's pulled a plough around the fields at home but he's not doing cartwheels like he was last year and the Gold Cup is a very hard race.

"We thought about it, we talked about it a lot. If he was 100 per cent fit, the conditions are all coming his way, the ground is drying out, but at 90 per cent, you take the chance of ruining the horse.

"It's (Ryanair) his best chance of win."

I wouldn't be tempted to take 8/11 about a horse who is '...not doing cartwheels like he was last year...'

In the Mares' Novices' Hurdle (4.50) I'll play Smart Talk against favourite Limini.

This one is top-rated and trained by Brian Ellison - those with long memories may recall his Latalomne (purchased for £8,000) who came to grief at the second last in two consecutive Champion Chases when in the lead.

I remember the second occasion particularly well; I'd bet him at 25/1.      

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Cheltenham Festival 2016 - Wednesday

Ten declared for the feature Queen Mother Champion Chase (3.30) with Un De Sceaux installed the odds-on favourite.

Mullins' hotpot beat God's Own six lengths in last year's Arkle and has won five of his seven chase starts, falling at Thurles when still a novice and at Leopardstown last December.

Connections were pleased with his subsequent win in Ascot's Clarence House Chase where he appeared to adopt a more measured approach at some of the obstacles. I've wanted to watch that race again but haven't managed it - my recollection is that Sire De Grugy made ground at some fences with more fluid jumping.

I was surprised to see both Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy officially rated higher; Dodging Bullets and Special Tiara share the same mark. Racing from the front, Un De Sceaux isn't a wager for those with a delicate / fragile constitution...

Sprinter Sacre is now rated 18 pounds lower than after his phenomenal win in the 2013 running of this race. He isn't the horse he once was but you can argue, even at the age of ten, he wouldn't necessarily have to be in order to win - Moscow Flyer (2005) was the last horse older than nine to collect the spoils.

Sire De Grugy also falls into the ten-year-old category and has been beaten by Sprinter Sacre and Un De Sceaux on his last two runs.
Following injury the 2015 champion Dodging Bullets made his seasonal debut in Newbury's Game Spirit Chase last month. Beaten ten lengths by Top Gamble, he looked a little ring-rusty that day and there's the suspicion this year's preparation has been a race against the clock.

Special Tiara was beaten three lengths into third by Dodging Bullets last year and then went on to collect Sandown's Celebration Chase beating Sprinter Sacre six lengths. He looked a trifle unfortunate the last day when hampered by eventual winner Sire De Grugy in the Tingle Creek. Special Tiara is likely to challenge Un De Sceaux for the lead; the danger is the pair will start racing early on and thereby ruin their chance.

On the back of last year's Arkle run God's Own isn't totally dismissed; previously that season he'd won the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter but I've never found him easy to catch right.

Special Tiara (14/1) is the each-way selection.

In the Neptune (1.30) Yanworth was impressive beating Shantou Village last time out and is expected to improve for better ground. He's my idea of the winner but I won't be backing him at around 11/10. Mullins saddles four of the eleven; Yorkhill's defeat of O O Seven and Agrapart in the Tolworth reads well as the latter-named went on to win Newbury's Betfair Hurdle eleven lengths.

Of the two market leaders for the RSA Chase (2.10) course and distance winner More Of That is short enough with just two chase runs under his belt - the last eight-year-old to win was Rule Supreme in 2004. The yard has been quiet of late but has just bagged the amateur four mile race with Minella Rocco. 

No More Heroes is the best horse on official ratings yet at the time of writing his price is drifting out to 5/2; he's starting to look like a value play. 

I like Blaklion who isn't the biggest of animals but certainly a battler; my worry is he had a hard enough race in the Towton last time.

With just eight declared, Blaklion (10/1 Bet Victor and Paddy Power) is an each-way chance.

I've enough tales of woe about the concluding bumper to fill a wheelbarrow, including missing both Hairy Molly at 33/1 (2006) and Dunguib at 9/2 (2009) whilst at the track, and Cue Card at 40/1 in 2010.

The Irish challenge is traditionally strong; in most lists Willie Mullins' Augusta Kate shares favouritism with Ballyandy. Augusta Kate, the only mare in the race, is owned by a syndicate that includes Graham Wylie, Ant and Dec, Alan Shearer, Lee Westwood and sports agent Chubby Chandler.

Ballyandy is a course and distance winner who suffered his only defeat when attempting to concede four pounds to Coeur Blimey on soft ground at Ascot last December.

Ballyandy (13/2) is the selection. Those looking for an each-way chance at a bigger price may want to consider High Bridge (12/1) who hails from a yard that in general has done well with its bumper runners this season. On a line through Aurillac High Bridge has less than four lengths to find with the selection and better ground may help.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Cheltenham Festival 2016 - Tuesday

Beware the Ides of March. Julius Caesar was assassinated on 15th March - a pointer to Band Of Blood in the 2.50 perhaps - but tomorrow it's the bookies who will be keen to make a killing.

Traditionally I've adopted a cautious approach on the first day of the Festival; this year it's unlikely to prove too much of an imposition as tempting propositions look rather thin on the ground.

Faugheen misses the feature, the Champion Hurdle (3.30), through injury; with her seven pounds allowance Annie Power, re-routed from the Mares' Hurdle (4.10), is the form selection but the price makes little appeal.

Nichols Canyon beat Identity Thief fair and square in the Ryanair Hurdle.

I tipped The New One as a play against Faugheen in last year's renewal but he was disappointing in fifth and may be better over further these days.

In 2014 I supported My Tent Or Yours - he ran a fine race and was pipped a neck by Jezki but hasn't seen a racecourse in 703 days.

Camping Ground is top-rated but probably needs further and is unlikely to be suited by drying round.

Old Guard misses the race but you can't blame connections for supplementing ultra-consistent Lil Rockerfeller at a cost of £20,000; on official ratings he has as good a chance as several in the field.

I'm not going to play in a tricky-looking Champion.

In the opener I'll support course and distance winner Altior against Min. On ratings Henderson's other runner Buveur D'Air is closely matched with his stablemate but doesn't come into this with the same level of experience over hurdles. Sky Bet offer money back as a free bet (up to maximum £25) if your horse loses in this race.

With just seven in the field and Douvan a long odds-on chance, the Arkle makes no appeal as a betting medium; Garde La Victoire goes in Thursday's JLT Novices' Chase.

Carole's Destrier has his share of weight in the Ultima Handicap Chase (2.50) and tends to make one or two mistakes in a race but last time out he won the London National with something in hand and comes to this fresher than most with the stable bang in form. I'll take an each-way interest -  at the time of writing both Sky Bet and Bet Victor offer 12/1 and pay five places.

Polly Peachum, my favourite mare in training, is a play against Vroom Vroom Mag in the Mares' Hurdle (4.10).

In John Gay's The Beggar's Opera Polly Peachum marries highwayman Captain Macheath, much to the dismay of her parents who predict she will not be able to keep him in funds for gambling and philandering. All rather apposite...

Anyway, I digress.

Polly (equine variety) probably missed her best chance last year when pipped by Glens Melody. This is her last race before retiring to the breeding paddocks; she will appreciate the drying ground.

Finally regular readers will know Johnny Og obliged at a nice price for the blog recently. He wants two to two and a half miles, likes to race out in front on his own and has been known to sulk if he can't dominate. Declared for the amateurs' four miler tomorrow (4.50), he has been given quotes of 100/1 which, from where I'm standing, appear rather frugal - a wager is not advised.

Johnny, Polly, Carole - it's becoming a bit like a dating agency in here...

Friday, March 11, 2016

Cheltenham Festival 2016 - initial thoughts

This time last year Alan Lee had written several pieces on the Festival build-up and pointed out the value in the 7/2 Coral were quoting about Ireland to win the Prestbury Cup. This week The Times coverage has been pitiful.

The old adage 'Money talks' is particularly pertinent at Cheltenham - it just hasn't had an awful lot to say to me in recent years. Thankfully, Cole Harden broke that worrying trend when winning the 2015 running of the World Hurdle.

If money talks, then comparing current prices about the Mullins hotpots with those quoted at the beginning of the month might just indicate those that are vulnerable; they are Min (was 5/4, now 2/1) and Annie Power (was 6/4, now 2/1).

I intend to oppose Min in the opener with one of the Henderson runners, depending on the ground. If it comes up soft Buveur D'air (7/1) will get the vote, otherwise Altior (4/1) will be the selection. Sky Bet currently offer a free bet if you lose on the first race of the day and also give a best odds guarantee.

Most observers seem to think Douvan a shoo-in in the Arkle. Garde La Victoire isn't always the neatest at the obstacles but his seven length defeat of Bristol De Mai at Uttoxeter while conceding that opponent nine pounds reads well. He rates an each-way chance at 14/1.

The Champion Hurdle looks very tricky; at this point I don't intend to have a bet but I will have a wager on Polly Peachum in the mares' hurdle.

Two years ago I backed her at 3/1 and watched her win a Warwick mares' handicap hurdle by an astonishing fourteen lengths off a mark of 117; I've followed her since. Ideally she needs good ground to show her best and probably missed her chance last year when beaten a head by Glens Melody after Annie Power fell at the last with the spoils seemingly at her mercy. This is Polly's last race before being retired to the breeding paddocks.

I'm not inclined to oppose Yanworth in the opener and I like Blaklion in the RSA (an each-way shot at 10/1 with William Hill) although I'm worried he had a hard enough race on heavy ground in the Towton at Wetherby the last day.

Ballyandy brings strong form into the concluding bumper.

Thistlecrack is the form selection for the World Hurdle but this looks far more competitive than the market would have us believe.

Last year's winner Cole Harden (8/1) hasn't fired this season but better ground could make all the difference; Saphir Du Rheu (10/1) was second behind Cole Harden and has since had a wind operation; Kilcooley (20/1) is returning from injury but is certainly no mug while Henderson says of Whisper (14/1): 'This time last year he had to run in it to get him right for Aintree, but this time he's where he was for Aintree last year.'

If I had to bet now, Whisper 14/1 each-way looks value.

In the mares' novices' hurdle, Smart Talk (7/1) represents a play against favourite Limini.

I gave up betting in Festival handicaps a long time ago and my wallet has certainly felt the benefit.

This year I have been tempted to stray having heard a whisper for locally-trained Superb Story in the County Hurdle. This one hasn't been seen since finishing second behind Old Guard in the Greatwood in November; Old Guard is set to take his chance in the Champion on Tuesday. Wait For Me is entered in the same race and is another of interest; both have 50 odd entries above them in the handicap so aren't guaranteed to make the cut.

A quick handicap digression here - in the Ultima on Tuesday Carole's Destrier is a chaser I like and is trained by Neil Mulholland who saddled last year's winner The Druids Nephew.

In the Gold Cup, the last ten-year-old to win was Cool Dawn in 1998 which puts me off Cue Card.

Last year's second Djakadam fell here at the end of January and required a number of stiches to his chest afterwards; handler Willie Mullins tells Weekender readers his charge hardly missed any work - nonetheless it's disconcerting.

For me, the race is between Don Cossack, Vautour and Don Poli. I'll make my selection nearer the time but in his comments to the press Mullins is fairly convinced Vautour will stay and improve between ten and fourteen pounds from his running in Kempton's King George.

That's where I am - I hope that's helpful rather than confusing. I stopped going to Festival preview evenings some time ago as you end up coming away with more tips than you can shake a stick at.

It just remains for me to say that, as usual for the Festival, I'll post a blog with selections each evening before the following day's racing.

The racing gods - are they going to look on favourably this year, I wonder?

Friday, March 04, 2016

Distractions and diversions

Cheltenham is less than a fortnight away, I've just purchased my Weekender Cheltenham The Ultimate Guide (£3.25 from all good newsagents) and new Gold Cup sponsors Timico are running a free-to-enter competition with a first prize of £250,000 - all you have to do is predict the correct finishing order of the runners.

All of which has distracted me from tomorrow's cards. Still, a couple of Newbury runners have caught my eye...

Both regular readers will know that six weeks ago Johnny Og caused me a considerable amount of anguish when winning Ascot's Thames Materials Amateur Riders' Handicap Chase at odds of 14/1;  I'd picked him out as a bet at Newbury three days earlier but that meeting was frosted off and I didn't have a penny on at Ascot...

Unplaced at Cheltenham seven days later, Johnny returns to action tomorrow (Newbury 4.35) after a short break which should have freshened him up nicely. According to Martin Keighley's comments in the Weekender at the turn of the year, the key factor with this horse is he likes to race from the front - on his own:

"He has plenty of ability but needs to be left out in front with no company. He won at Stratford... but then things have gone against him at Newbury and Ascot as he couldn't get his own way..."

Of tomorrow's nine opponents, the potential challengers for the early lead are Royal Guardsman, Lucky Jim and So Oscar; Royal Guardsman looks the biggest threat to my cunning Baldrick-like plan, having won the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle on this card last year. 

Three of the field - Take A Break, So Oscar and Florida Calling - are trying fences for the first time while another two opponents - Hughesie and Lucky Jim - have just the one chase outing under their belt.

I'll take an each-way interest in Johnny Og, 14/1 at the time of writing; given his style of racing, I think I'll know my fate soon enough.

David Pipe appears particularly upbeat about Gabrial The Great in the Weekender. This one has next week's Imperial Cup at Sandown as his target but it looks as though connections want to blow away the cobwebs with a run in Newbury's 2.50.

In August 2014 he raced off a mark of 140 but he was subsequently off the track for more than a year before finishing third at Wincanton in December. Tomorrow he starts off 126 and wears a tongue-tie for the first time; 12/1 is the current price if you're tempted.

Pure Vision has had the Newbury finale as a target since the autumn. Owned by J P McManus, he was beaten a head over course and distance in November. Alan King won last year's renewal with The Unit and saddles Sir Anthony Browne and Tara View.

Tom Segal has set a hare running with the suggestion that, on the eve of Cheltenham, the King stable may be going out of form. This follows a couple of high-profile disappointments last weekend (Gibralfaro and Criq Rock at Kempton and Grumeti and Medinas at Fontwell - both Grumeti and Medinas have since been retired). Graham Cunningham spent this morning at Barbury Castle - and reports no obvious cause for concerns.