1:45 SBK Holloway’s Handicap Hurdle 2m 3f 58y
The three at the head of the market all have something to recommend them, but whether they represent a 4/6 shot combined I’m not sure, as there is a case of sorts to be made for the majority of the runners, and that includes 40/1 rag Skandiburg, who can win a handicap off his current mark granted a decent test.
I suspect the drop back to two miles and three furlongs won’t help Charlotte Fuller’s charge, but stranger things have happened.
At a drifting 16/1, another outsider I definitely want to have on side is N’Golo, who ran a cracker behind Stellar Magic at Haydock last month, and would have been on that rival’s heels at least had he not made a race-ending error two out when travelling strongly.
That was his debut for Ann Duffield, and the question is whether he can build on that or not, but it was better run than it looked, and he’s been dropped in the weights for it.
Most of his hurdle runs for Willie Mullins came in Grade 1 company, and he won all three completed starts over timber at a lower level, so he’s not one to knock for a seemingly inconsistent record.
2:20 SBK Mares’ Hurdle (Grade 2) 2m 7f 118y
Emmpressive Lady has plenty to find on the figures, but Sue Gardner’s mare is thriving, and will appreciate this test of stamina having won at Kempton last time.
On that occasion, she was never travelling quite as well as the runner-up, but she kept pulling out more when asked to by her rider, and her ability to cope with attritional ground at staying trips means she is likely to run above expectations here.
My Sister Sarah is one I’d be very wary of in soft ground, as she seems much better on a sounder surface, winning on good ground at Kempton in November, while Molly Ollys Wishes beat the selection at Kempton last season, but was all out to do so, and the stiffer test here is not in the favour of a mare who is effective at two miles.
Emmpressive was ridden by Lucy Gardner there, and with all respect to her, the mare is likely to be more effective with Jamie Moore in the plate.
2:55 Bet365 Handicap Chase 2m 5f 8y
Golden Whisky is the only one in this field who looks like he will go forward early, and with so many of his rivals preferring to be held up, I think he can take charge of the pace under Adam Wedge.
He was quite an impressive winner of a competitive handicap chase at Chepstow on Welsh Grand National day, and a 4lb rise for that success seems very fair. If he jumps as well here as he did at Chepstow, then he is likely to take plenty of catching.
3:35 SBK Clarence House Chase (Grade 1) 2m 167y
The Clarence House promises to be the race of the season so far, despite the small field, and the act that last year’s impressive winner First Flow has grabbed none of the headlines shows how polarising this contest has been.
There was a lot of talk about the Energumene v Shishkin clash which failed to happen at Cheltenham in the Arkle, but round two seems guaranteed to reignite all those passions and more.
The main protagonists have a remarkably similar record to date, both winning a brace of Grade 1 events at the big festivals (Dublin and Punchestown for one, Cheltenham and Aintree for the other), and both have added a Grade 2 success in open company this term. Energumene had to survive a tear-up with Notebook in the Hilly Way, while Shishkin had things set up for him when getting weight and a nice tow into the race from Greaneteen at Kempton in the Desert Orchid.
The latter was more impressive visually, but Energumene’s humbling of Janidil in the spring looks better in hindsight with the runner-up running a fine second in the John Durkan Memorial last month.
For me, and digging through all the form lines, there is literally nothing to choose between the big rivals, and that means that Energumene gets the vote given he’s around 13/8, but this feels very much like betting on a coin-toss.
Let’s hope that the clash lives up to all expectations, which would be a win for the vast majority who appreciate top-class sport, with or without a bet.
2:00 New One Unibet Hurdle (Grade 2) 1m 7f 144y
A potential fairytale in the making here, as Ann Hamilton’s Tommy’s Oscar looks hard to oppose here given recent form, and he could end up the highest rated British runner in the Champion Hurdle should Hamilton go down that path.
That’s not only remarkable since Hamilton has been operating under a permit, and largely under the radar, for four decades, but also because this gelding took fully eight starts to get his head in front in the pointing field.
His progress since has been remarkable, and he can take this contest in his stride on the way to meeting Honeysuckle, et al, in March.
2:35 Peter Marsh Handicap Chase (Grade 2) 3m 1f 125y
I was with Empire Steel in the Rowland Meyrick Chase at Wetherby on St Stephen’s Day, and a few choice words were uttered when he crumpled on landing at the fourth-last fence that day, having just moved fairly effortlessly into the lead at the time.
In-running punters clearly believed he would have won as he was trading odds-on at the time of his departure despite having the whole of the straight to negotiate in heavy ground.
Empire Steel would have gone up a few pounds in the handicap if he’d stayed on his feet, but he’s only a couple of pounds higher here, and that’s because he’s out of the weights in this limited handicap.
The handicapper was unable to punish him for his latest run as he fell too far out, but first impressions are useful, and this mud-lover remains on a lenient mark.
He will need to be if he’s to beat Royal Pagaille, but the top-weight finds himself in a tougher spot that when winning this 12 months ago, and he may struggle to concede lumps of weight to Sandy Thomson’s runner here.
3:00 Fleur de Lys Chase
2m 6f 10y
Lieutenant Rocco is the rank outsider in the feature chase, but he was an enormously likeable novice last year for Nick Mitchell, and if he’s fit for this belated return – which must be a slight concern given he missed the spring and autumn with injury – he could make a mockery of his odds.
Lieutenant Rocco remains in the ownership of Dorset businessman Syd Hosie, but the new trainer in charge of Hosie’s horses is Harriet Brown, and she sent out her first winner for her new boss when Trump Lady landed a quiet gamble at Exeter on Wednesday.
That is a sign that things are finally falling into place, and Lieutenant Rocco will relish the deep ground having jumped some useful rivals into submission at Ffos Las in February last year. That absence is a nagging concern, but this is the yard’s flagship horse, and he’s likely to be ready to do himself justice.
Surrey National Handicap Chase 3m4f178y
Pemberley is hard to oppose in the Surrey National for the in-form Emma Lavelle.
He was an excellent second to Go Whatever in the Sussex National three weeks ago, and while that looked a pretty strong race of its type, few could have imagined it would have worked out so well already, with El Paso Wood and Eragon De Chanay both winning subsequently, while a couple of those among the non-finishers have made the frame since too.
Lavelle has had 17 runners over fences since the start of December, with six wins, and a further seven in the frame from those. No UK trainer is in better form right now, and it seems churlish not to side with the obvious contender here, especially at 8/1, which looks a very big price.
Emmpressive Lady 2:20 Ascot - 1pt win @ 20/1 (general)
Golden Whisky 2:55 Ascot – 1pt win @ 9/1 (BetVictor, Ladbrokes, Coral)
Empire Steel 2:35 Haydock – 2pts win @ 5/1 (Bet365, 9/2 general)
Lieutenant Rocco 3:00 Lingfield – 1pt win @ 22/1 (general)
Pemberley 3:35 Lingfield – 2pts win @ 8/1 (Bet365, 15/2 SkyBet)