Jump racing, that most loveable but idiosyncratic of sports, is often scrutinised for not providing quantity or quality, outside of its major festivals. Thankfully, today’s card at Newbury manages to provide both, with the Betfair Hurdle sure to be a helter skelter and high-class affair, surrounded by fascinating and important Cheltenham Festival 2018 trials.
The main event has the looks of a much better contest than last year’s renewal, and it’s no surprise that the betting is 10/1 the field.
This has been the week in which girls have rightly had the spotlight – it was the 100th anniversary of enfranchisement being extended to *some* women – and in what seems a twist of fate many of the leading contenders for the feature race are of the fairer sex. Indeed, fair is what it would be if Verdana Blue were to take this well deserved big prize, having put together three fine runs this season in strong handicap company. On her reappearance, she was a fine fifth in one of the strongest handicaps run this season at Ascot (and a key form race for this), before then making plenty of progress to take a decent handicap over the same course and distance when she comfortable beat Speredek, who would go onto win a handicap chase at Sandown by eight lengths before finishing second in the Clarence House Chase over fences.
In the Racing Welfare Handicap Hurdle, she was last early and perhaps not suited by a pace which was not as quick as it looked, whilst also going widest of all, so it was to her credit that she finished third having made a large amount of ground during the straight. That form looks rock solid (Bleu Et Rouge just behind and also expected to go well), and it is unlikely that she won’t get a proper pace to run at once again here, so she makes most appeal.
Silver Streak was second then, following on from his fine reappearance win in a 4-year-old handicap hurdle, and has to be respected to go well once again here for all that he was more advantageously placed there.
Irish Roe is 11lbs well in following her fine second in the Yorkshire Rose Mares’ Hurdle, where she gave a real shakeup to the extremely progressive Maria’s Benefit. That form reads very well, although she did perhaps benefit from a restrained ride whilst the eventual winner pushed on very early down the far side; However, she’s got good handicap form and she will relish this test, so looks a fair favourite.
Jenkins has begun to fulfill his potential for the application of blinkers and was super strong at the end of the Holloway’s Handicap Hurdle which is very encouraging for this test. With that in mind a rise of 5lbs is very reasonable but a mark of 148 does not leave much room for manoeuvre from the handicapper and he will need to improve once again.
Kalashnikov, so impressive in novice hurdles at Wetherby and Doncaster, ought to enjoy ground that is less testing than the surface he raced on when second in the Tolworth, and also the big field test too (won in fields of 13, 16). With that in mind, an opening mark of 148 demands him to be as good as his mark and more, so this is no easy test.
Fellow novice Lalor has finished ahead of Sommerville Boy (Tolworth winner) and Kayf Grace (admittedly not fit) this season and surely is going to be better suited to this test than the stop start run-around he got when second at Cheltenham before Christmas. He’s had a wind op since and still retains potential for such circumstances
Kayf Grace won in super fashion at Kempton over Christmas and as a Grade 2 bumper winner in the past, has the speed and talent required. However, the 8lbs rise she received for that win is a hefty one indeed here – for all that a big field might well light her up once again. The form of that received a boost when Azzerti won a good handicap hurdle at Huntingdon this week.
Never out of the first two in seven career runs, Knockanuss has to be respected for a combination that knows this race inside out although this is on a different planet to the Fontwell handicap that he landed off a mark of 124. More progress is certainly coming but if it’s enough to take a big hand here remains to be seen. He’ll surely settle better here.
In the last 10 years we’ve had winners at 16/1, 20/1 and 33/1 along with a 50/1 winner in 2007 who beat 16/1 and 14/1 shots, so don’t let the price put you off backing any contenders here.
It is a mark of how deep this race is that you can get 22/1 about Misteron, last seen going down by a neck in the Greatwoood Hurdle at Cheltenham. He was four and a half lengths infront of Old Guard, who would go onto win a valuable handicap hurdle which has worked out well on his next start off 149, and a length behind him was The New One, second to the 1-2 in last year’s Champion Hurdle before winning another Grade 2. He’s gone up just 5lbs for that, has presumably been targeted at this, and also gets further, a very handy trait to have onside here.
High Bridge is technically the most exposed in this field, but the form of his third to Elgin at Ascot back in November is as good a run as any in the field and he had a bit in hand when taking the Gerry Fielden in December. Alex Ferguson’s 7lbs helps a lot here and whilst this is a deeper contest, it’s not as if he hasn’t been exposed to top company and perhaps having a lead to aim at might improve him.
Elsewhere on the card, the return of Altior in the Game Sprit (3.00) is the most exciting moment of the season for many – because of his pure brilliance. Last season’s winner of this race, when he put 13 lengths between him and dual Grade 1 winner Fox Norton before going onto win the Arkle and then Celebration Chase (beat Champion Chase winner Special Tiara by eight lengths), leading many, yours truly included, to mark him down as the best chaser in training.
Since then he has had a wind operation in November – after all the handbags about where he would and wouldn’t be running – and presumably has been working towards this very target since. If at his best, he can be expected to light up Newbury, but thinking with the heart is now how most money is made and he will need to be sharp if he’s going to get the better of Politologue.
Paul Nicholls’ charge – going well when falling in the Maghull last season – has rapidly become a very smart 2 miler, the highlight of his season coming with a gutsy win over Fox Norton in the Tingle Creek when he managed to outjump the favourite. A solid, uncomplicated and progressive horse, he’d have something to find against Altior, but the advantage of a full season ought to even this playing field a lot and he is the choice at 13/8.
Valdez, off for 1204 days, was a very smart novice chaser but it is impossible to know what shape he might be in on his first appearance in such a long time.
In the Denman Chase (2.25), Native River has the chance to make a big impression on what’s a wide-open Gold Cup market when he returns to defend his title, having taken this before finishing third in the Gold Cup. He was three lengths ahead of Saphir Du Rheu, who is weighted to reverse those placings (6lbs better off), although the pair have been off for over 308 days. Saphir was injured in his fall whilst Native River has had ligament problems, although he has been in some sort of training since the summer.
Cloudy Dream is the race fit horse of the three, and his second to Definitely Red last time out doesn’t look shabby after he took apart the field in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham, although the suspicion is that he’s not the strongest stayer or finisher, and is reliant on the stayers needing the run quite badly.
The closing bumper (4.40) is one of the best bumpers of the season, and a must watch for the future, and at Warwick Saint Calvados gets a chance to earn what might be an Arkle slot in the Kingmaker (2.40), getting a handy amount of weight – 7lbs – from North Hill Harvey, who has proven himself very useful over fences already. The 3/1 about North Hill Harvey, who has to give 5lbs to Diego Du Charmil and Crumcliff, is tempting.
3.00 Newbury – 2.5 pts win Politologue (13/8 general)
3.35 Newbury – 1 pt each/way Verdana Blue (12/1 Betfair*, 12/1 Bet365)
3.35 Newbury – 1 pt each/way Misterton (20/1 Betfair, SkyBet)
3.35 Newbury – 1 pt each/way High Bridge (20/1 Betfair)