1.15 BETFRED ‘KEEP IT FUN’ CONTENDERS HURDLE (2M½F)
This race was originally run as the Oteley Hurdle, and features among its roll of honour dual winners such as National Spirit, Fare Time, Lanzarote, Sea Pigeon and Binocular, all of whom were successful in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. The race has been missing from the schedule for the last few years, and of the declared runners, only Garde La Victoire actually holds an entry in the Champion. Such a modest entry suggests that the race lacks a star, but that’s not the case, albeit with this contest rather an unorthodox option for the exciting Bristol De Mai. It’s extremely rare to see a four-year-old appear in this contest, and only Kirriemuir in 1964 has posted a victory for the younger generation. It might well be taken as an omen that Fulke Walwyn’s charge went on to win the following season’s main event, and Nigel Twiston-Davies’ French import looks destined for major honours having landed a competitive Grade 1 on his British debut.
In beating Karezak by six lengths at Chepstow, Bristol De Mai has stamped himself as arguably the best of this season’s juveniles, although he’s still somewhat overshadowed in that competition by his owners’ Triumph favourite Peace And Co, who handed a similar beating to the consistent Karezak at Cheltenham last weekend. In my view, Peace And Co may be the speedier of the pair, but in terms of long-term potential, the handsome son of Saddler Maker has no peers amongst his age group. The one unanswered question with him is whether he will need testing ground to show his best over hurdles. That remains something to ponder in terms of the spring, but with underfoot conditions sure to ride softer than the advance description, he’ll be very hard to beat in receipt of weight from his elders.
1.50 BETFRED ‘GOALS GALORE’ HANDICAP CHASE (2M)
Festive Affair proved a disappointment when a selection for this column at Cheltenham in November, although it transpired that a lot of the stable’s runners were under a clouds at that time, and it’s safe to assume that he was sickening for something given how quickly he cut out that day. There’s a possibility that he’ll be in need of the run here after a break, but he appeals as the type to go well in either the Grand Annual or Festival Plate in March, and connections will not be looking for the handicapper to do them any favours given his current mark wouldn’t guarantee he’d make the cut for either of those races. It’s safe to assume that he’ll put up a much better showing here in any case, and he’s one to keep on side in subsequent runs this spring.
2.25 BETFRED TV SCILLY ISLES NOVICES’ CHASE (2M4½F)
A small field doesn’t mean a poor contest, and the quintet who line up all have the potential to take high order in the division. The likes of Splash Of Ginge and Gitane Du Berlais are respected, but the pair who make most appeal here, and in the longer term, are Champagne West and Irish Saint. The former was no match for Ptit Zig at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, but that was arguably the best novice chase we’ve witnessed in Britain this winter, and if anything, Philip Hobbs’ charge enhanced his reputation in defeat. The most pleasing aspect of his performance was how well he jumped under pressure, and his sloppy round at the same venue prior to that can be viewed as atypical. He’ll need to raise his game another notch to get back to winning ways, and Paul Nicholls ought to know where he stands on a line through the winner.
Irish Saint has also made a seamless transition to chasing, and would have beaten Puffin Billy comfortably at Ascot even if that rival hadn’t fallen late on. In the end he proved much too strong for Thomas Crapper, and Robin Dickin’s inmate is no slouch (keep an eye on him when Festival handicap entries come out). The Ascot form is of similar merit to that shown by Champagne West at Cheltenham, so there shouldn’t be a great deal to choose between the pair here.
3.35 BETFRED MASTERS HANDICAP CHASE (3M½F)
None of these can be described as progressive, with the possible exception of Le Reve, who is a course and distance winner, and has met Via Sundown twice this season, shaping better than him in the Hennessy and again at Ascot behind The Young Master, when he also had Ardkilly Witness in arrears. Lucy Wadham’s son of Milan may be close to his limit in handicapping terms, but he’s very reliable when given his conditions, and may well be able to win simply by running to his recent best in any case. He looks a solid each-way option in a race where a few are sure to disappoint.
It’s hard to be confident about a horse like Via Sundown given his propensity to clout more than the odds fence, but the upside of his patchy record of late is that he’s been given a chance by the handicapper, and he was still close up when eventually paying the price for his sloppy jumping at Kempton last time. That contest, won by Ardkilly Witness, was well contested, and sure to throw up winners, while fact he was soundly beaten in the Hennessy shouldn’t be held against him, as both Djakadam and Annacotty have shown in the last 10 days. Now 7lbs lower in the weights than when contesting the Newbury feature, he’s certainly on a winnable mark, and there is some hope that he’ll show a little more respect for Sandown’s fences, as can be the case with careless jumpers.
FFOS LAS SATURDAY
1.30 BETWAY HANDICAP CHASE (2M3½F)
Plenty will want to have Village Vic on side in this handicap after he shaped well returning from an absence at Ascot last month, but he’s rather a nervous sort, and never been one to hold his form for long, so I’m keen to take a contrary view here. Foxbridge is tempting, having scored in determined style here on his latest outing, and this lightly raced sort is almost certain to improve a fair bit further if standing training, but at forecast odds, I believe it’s worth taking an early price about As De Fer, who has been in the doldrums for a while, but is ideally suited by course and distance, and looks too well treated to ignore. It’s worth remembering that Anthony Honeyball has struggled with a virus for some time, but a recent double at Exeter suggests that a corner has been turned, and this is the time to be backing the stable’s runners.