Ten days away from the Cheltenham Festival but there are still plenty of winners to be found with the ITV team showing nine races from three meetings at Kelso, Newbury and Doncaster. The ground is good at Newbury just slightly softer at Doncaster and softer still at Kelso with good to soft (soft in places) the call at the Borders track. Here are my thoughts on the nine races.
The afternoon’s bumper ITV schedule kicks off with a seven-runner class 3 2m 5F 133 yards novices handicap chase which has attracted seven runners. Dan Skelton takes a strong team of five to the Borders track and saddles the likely favourite here in top weight Sholokjack who was an impressive 12L winner at Lingfield 32 days ago. He should run well but is a short enough price for one that’s been raised 11lb for his latest victory.
Warren Greatrex’s Bill Baxter was still in contention when crashing out four from home at Hereford last time and is a possibility. However, my preference is for the Nicky Richards-trained Castle Rushen, who’s unseated his rider on two of his three fencing starts but was on the bridle and travelling well when dislodging his pilot at Newcastle 32 days ago. Sean Quinlan rides and he looks the value play against the favourite Sholokjack.
CASTLE RUSHEN 1 point each way @ 5/1 bet365 1/5th 123
A valuable six-runner 2M class 2 handicap chase is the first of two races shown by ITV at Doncaster. The likely favourite is the Skelton’s Calico who is the horse responsible for giving Arkle Hope Jonbon a scare at Warwick last month. Rushed up by Harry Skelton he looked likely to cause a major upset at one stage and with the handicapper reacting by just putting him up a pound can run well with Bridget Andrews taking over from her other half Harry Skelton who’s riding for the yard at Kelso.
Xcitations and Hasankey are closely matched on recent Wetherby form although may just be in the grip of the assessor currently. Top weight Pay The Piper may be the one to give Calico the most to do. Trained by Ann Hamilton he stepped his form up when winning at Musselburgh a month ago going up 6lb for that effort. He’ll run well but I’ll stick with Calico who may be a bit better than his current handicap mark of 137.
CALICO 1 point win @ 7/4 bet365
A bumper maximum field of sixteen assembles for the bet365 Moorebattle Hurdle, a two-mile handicap hurdle with a guaranteed £100k on offer in prize money. The likely favourite and the one they all have to beat is the Irish challenger McTigue trained by the maestro Emmet Mullins. Mullins took this very prize a couple of years ago with The Shunter who went on to win at the Cheltenham Festival a fortnight later winning a £100k bonus in the doing. His raider here, who is making his handicap debut and claims a valuable 10lb age allowance as the only four-year-old in the race, has four entries at Cheltenham and his trainer will no doubt have his eyes on landing the bonus again.
Top weight Colonel Mustard has dallied with fences this season but goes back over timber now and had some solid novice form last season for trainer Lorna Fowler. Last year’s winner was Brian Ellison’s Cormier and he too has had an unsuccessful stint over fences this season. He’s back on a mark only 2lb higher than last year’s gutsy win and is a player although he could ideally do with some rain. Teddy Blue ran a stormer to finish 3rd beaten 12L in the Betfair Handicap Hurdle at Newbury last month and off of a 3lb lower mark looks sure to be in the shake-up for Gary Moore and 5lb conditional jockey Caoilin Quinn who was in the saddle on that occasion. There are others with claims including an old friend of mine Lebowski who’s going in a first-time tongue tie here. It is a tough race but one thinks that the Mullins runner could have been laid out for this and although his short price is worth backing.
McTIGUE 2 points win @ 9/2 bet365
An open-looking class 3 2M 4 1/2F handicap hurdle for horses aged eight years and older with a healthy field of eleven declared. Plenty can be given chances none more so than last year’s winner Bold Plan trained by Evan Williams and ridden by his daughter Isobel Williams who can claim 3lb. He took this under Isobel off of 123 and returns today off of a 3lb higher mark and looks primed for a big run. Top weight Dargiannini is trained by rookie trainer Harry Derham and has claims although an 8lb rise for an emphatic Uttoxeter win will not make things easy for the gelded son of Fame And Glory.
Christian Williams was the trainer to follow last weekend and he saddles Pileon who is certainly a very well-handicapped horse nowadays some 18lb lower than when in his pomp. He showed fair form last time and it will be no shock were he to take this. In a competitive race I’ll take a chance on one at a big race in the Milton Harris-trained Stimulating Song who can race today off of a handicap mark 11lb lower than his last victory which came at Cheltenham in November 2020. Following a long layoff of 713 days he’s not beaten a horse in four starts coming down a stone in the weights. I’m relying on a wind operation getting him back to his old self and at a double-figure prize is worth chancing to small stakes each way with enhanced odds.
STIMULATING SONG 1 point each way @ 22/1 Betfred 1/5 1234
A decent renewal of the 2m 2F Premier Novices’ Hurdle with a strong field of 11 facing the starter. Emmet Mullins brings his useful bumper horse Feronily over with McTigue and The Shunter and on his smart Irish bumper form should be a player here if able to jump on his hurdling debut. Fergal O’Brien’s Accidental Rebel hasn’t been seen since winning the Persian War Novice Hurdle at Chepstow last October and as well as the layoff is the only runner in the field to carry a penalty (5lb).
Sandy Thomson is a trainer to take seriously at this track and he runs Carcari Castle who’s won twice at the track this season. His latest form has been boosted by the subsequent victory of the runner-up in his latest win and is an interesting runner. Nemean Lion had the re-opposing Colonel Harry 2 3/4L behind on the same terms as today’s when 3rd and 4th in the grade one Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown in January and can confirm that form and take this valuable contest for Kerry Lee who was among the winners on Thursday.
NEMEAN LION 2 points win @ 9/2 bet365
A small but select field of seven assembles for this year’s renewal of the Greatwood Gold Cup, a handicap chase run over 2M 4F. We have two course specialists here in joint top weights Zanza whose record at the Berkshire track is five wins from six starts whilst Paint The Dream is three wins from four starts. Zanza kept on well to beat Hitman last time out in the Betfair Denman Chase here over just short of three miles and drops in trip today. He has been clobbered by the handicapper though, who has shot him up some 15lb for that win. Philip Hobbs’ nine-year-old can run well but may be weighted out of it now.
Fergal O’Brien’s Paint The Dream won this race last year by 15L and although he’s 11lb higher won again here in November by 14L from a mark just 4lb lower than today’s. He may be better handicapped than his main rival Zanza and looks the bet here. Paul Nicholls has an amazing record in the race and relies upon the ex-Venetia Williams-trained Espoir De Guye who’s also had his wind tinkered with since we last saw him 106 days ago. He’s worth monitoring in the market. Gemirande is in good form and at the right end of the handicap and along with bottom weight Lord Baddesley can also play a part in the finish. A tough call with a preference for course specialist Paint The Dream.
PAINT THE DREAM 2 points win @ 3/1 bet365
A valuable class 2 handicap hurdle run over 2m 5F is up next and has attracted a fair-sized field of ten hurdlers. It has a very open look about it with several arriving in good form. None more so than the Harriet Graham & Gary Rutherford trained Dancewiththewind who’s chasing a hat trick following handicap successes at Wetherby and here this winter rising just 7lb in the handicap. He should be thereabouts today. Also likely to be thereabouts is the Skelton runner Santos Blue who is also chasing a hat trick of wins having won at Wetherby and Chepstow under 7lb conditional jockey Ben Sutton who keeps the ride today. He’s been raised 19lb for those two successes mind and will need to step up once more.
Donny Boy is an interesting outsider whom his trainer Nick Alexander has always rated highly but he’s blown out twice this season over fences and returns to timber having had his wind tinkered with. I can’t resist a saver on him but my main bet has to be Nicky Richards’ Nells Son who won the big novice hurdle on the card last season. He’s two from two at the Borders track and returned to hurdles last time following two goes over fences when 6th at Cheltenham. He’s down 2lb today and has had a wind operation since last seen. He looks sure to be thereabouts and is the selection.
NELLS SON 1 point each way 6/1 William Hill 1/5th 1234
DONNY BOY 1/2 point each way 14/1 William Hill 1/5th 1234
The Grimthorpe Handicap Chase is run over 3M 2F of Town Moor and we have eight chasers facing the starter this year. Last year’s well-backed winner Undersupervision is back to defend his title for trainer and son combo of Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies off of the same handicap mark and looks likely to go close. The one they all have to beat however is the Skybet Chase victor Coopers Cross who appeared to relish the step up to three miles for the first time when ridden out to beat Cap Du Nord (winner since) by a length. The extra two furlongs here shouldn’t be an issue as he certainly didn’t appear to be stopping at the end of that competitive handicap.
Stuart Coltherd’s flag bearer was raised 5lb for that success but remains at the right end of the handicap still. Undersupervision unseated his rider two from home when under pressure in the race but re-opposes on 7lb better terms here. Kim Bailey’s top weight Does He Know is the other probable who can take a hand in the finish. He was a winner at Cheltenham on his favoured good ground back in November and off of just a 5lb higher handicap mark can also be thereabouts. A tough call with a slight preference for Coopers Cross.
COOPERS CROSS 2 points win @ 5/2 William Hill
Only five have declared for the £60k guaranteed bet365 Premier Chase, a listed race run over 2M 7 1/2F. Zanza is also declared at his favourite track Newbury which is his first preference so can be considered doubtful. Joint top rated here is Emmet Mullins’ The Shunter who won the big handicap hurdle on this card a couple of years ago. He’s been a bit hit-and-miss since but has to be respected for such a warm combination of Mullins and JP McManus.
Wishing And Hoping is thirteen years old now and it’s hard to think he can back up his latest win in a valuable veterans handicap at Sandown. Empire Steel has it to do and surely the one to be with is the Dan Skelton-trained Le Milos who won at Bangor on his re-appearance before taking last year’s Coral Gold Cup (the Hennessy in old money) by 1/2L from Remastered. He’s been off for 98 days but has won after a break and can take this for team Skelton.
LE MILOS 2 points win @ 2/1 Bet365
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All odds correct at time of writing.