Let me start this column, the first of the new jumping season, with a question. What does aestivation mean? I’ll give you 2 minutes to think of it, dear reader, before coming back with an answer. Stumped? Aestivation is a state of animal dormancy, similar to hibernation, characterized by inactivity and a lowered metabolic rate, that is entered in response to high temperatures and arid conditions. It takes place during times of heat and dryness, the hot dry season, which are often the summer months.
Many of you may have spent the winter Aestivating, as you wait for fashion segments to leave our screens and long for the return of Guinness even if in plastic cups along with the brush of hurdles, epic finishes and the thrilling return of our favourites for all manner of reasons. Today’s fixture at Chepstow, the first of two consecutive days of racing, for many will mark the return of proper jumping and it’s hard to disagree looking at the card.
We will start with the first difficult handicap hurdle of the season, totepool Silver Trophy Handicap Hurdle (4.25). We also have a returning star quality early in the shape of Ballyoptic, who stayed on and fought relentlessly to beat Bellshill in the Sefton at Aintree last year, building on two impressive wins, one with a penalty. On a basis of that, a mark of 148 is fair and Ryan Hatch takes 3lbs off, although it should be said that this is the quickest ground he’ll have raced on and that he drops back in trip too. Nigel Twiston-Davies has also made explicit references to this in the lead up as well and it will be no surprise if he managed to better this effort significantly in the upcoming months.
Dan Skelton’s record in these races is quickly becoming the stuff of legend and his Debdebdeb has had only three runs for his stable, the last of them when a good second (and a clear one) in a valuable mares handicap at Cheltenham. Up only 4lbs for that, it would be a surprise if that was the limit of her ability. It’s been a long time since the classy chaser Taquin De Seuil was seen over hurdles – it was in the Neptune – but it’s interesting that he has been bought here by Jonjo O’Neill and even on fences for below his best, he’s well in over hurdles.
A similar plot, although much longer in the making, is that for Caid Du Berlais, off for over 500 days (514 to be exact). He is very well handicapped, sitting on a mark 2lbs lower than the one has ran off when second to Clondaw Warrior, and its clear this has been the plan for some time. With his table firing in the winners left right and centre as they chase yet another Championship he makes appeal, more than his stablemate Mr Mix who was labouring when falling at the Cheltenham Festival.
Sometimes form links can be tenuous but it would be interesting to see what price Betfair Hurdle and Aintree Festival runner up Starchitect would be here. My guess is shorter than the 12/1 that Braavos, second to him in a good race at Newton Abbott in May. It’s notable that career best came on good to firm ground and that he was a winner on good ground before and impressively so. With Thomas Cheeseman now on board he’s technically taken a drop in handicapping terms and that makes him of great interest.
Lil Rockefeller ran a very fair race in the Champion Hurdle when seventh and before that he posted yet another fantastic effort when he was a nine length winner of the National Spirit. He has to be respected off just 3lbs higher in handicap terms here and has a fair chance of battling off the unexposed types if he’s ready for the test.
The last two runnings have been taken by horses who had the benefit of a recent run and it could be very important as an advantage today. Nicky Henderson’s Forever Field has been in fine form and has to be respected here with good runs under his belt and a yard that has made a decent start to the season.
Who Dares Wins was a disappointment in the Triumph Hurdle but he had looked to be a very promising juvenile beforehand when winning a Grade 2 by a wide margin and finishing close up under a penalty at Cheltenham he has since had a relatively productive flat campaign. This step up in trip could bring about more improvement (although it’s probably needed on this ground) and he’s high on the shortlist with a nice mark. A winner on this card last year, Tea in Transvaal has a fine mark based on the best of that form and has had a recent tune up.
Crimson Ark may not have been treated so nicely by the handicapper, who has given him a mark efficient 12lbs higher and a rise in class from Fontwell.
The toteexacta Handicap Chase (5.00) is no easier with several entitled to hold serious chances. Southfield Vic gives the Champion trainer a fine chance after two wins and he looks fairly handicapped although bookmakers have cottoned on to that likelihood at 9/2. Stablemate Unioniste could need it and also wants more cut in the ground on the best of his form. Henryville was set to be placed at least before being brought down in the Summer Plate and is on the shortlist, as is the quickly progressive Indian Stream.
Kruzhlinin looked a stayer pf promise last season but his jumping went to pot in the spring and he would have to put in a good round and cope with a stiff looking mark. Audacious Plan is one of two for Rebecca Curtis, who wouldn’t need to do much to improve on the awful time she had last season. Audacious Plan was one of those to suffer but the handicapper has not been kind and stablemate Potters Cross. However he seemed to flunk his biggest test. One might like the appeal of Fox Appeal, who should be happier at this distance, but it may be best to side with two born stayers.
Barry Geraghty only just made his comeback this week but one of the perks of the job for JP is having big Saturday chances and if Upswing is in the same form as he was at the beginning of last season then he’s very well handicapped off just 137 (only a 1lb higher than when second in valuable Cheltenham Handicap last year) and he is worth chancing on that basis. Another Hero, who runs for the same connections for the first time since falling in the Irish National, ought to be respected too.
So too is the Kim Muir second A Good Skin, who did well to get second behind the widely impressive winner Cause of Causes despite a very poor round of jumping especially by Festival standards. His first time out record isn’t brilliant but he is well handicapped and he can go well if straight up.
The Weatherbys Hamilton Novice Hurdle (3.50) is an interesting race. Ballyoptic isn’t the only returning Cheltenham winner tomorrow as Paul Nicholls brings Diego Du Charmil, who is only 5lbs higher than when winning the Fred Winter, having been slightly fortunate through the race with his stablemate Romain de Senam receiving a questionable judged ride and two Irish challenger who were going well falling at the last. That said, he is only 5lbs higher here and travelled like a horse who is at least as good as his current mark, so if ready to go he can take the beating. He might be better handicapped than Gibralfaro, who disappointed twice towards the end of last season but still retains potential here.
The gamble has been El Terremoto, who showed plenty of ability on his starts at Cagnes Sur-Mer in France and the support at the time of writing has to be taken very seriously indeed. Cobra De Mai has been beaten in both of his handicap starts and will need to improve along with Jabolitski (behind him the last time the two met). Seven Kingdoms went off the rails after a good start last year but he also is of interest and Borak has been struggling since winning a weak maiden.
The race of the day may well be the totequadpot Novices’ Chase (3.15)…
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