There’s no better way to bring in the new year than quality racing from Cheltenham and as such we have four races from the home of jumps racing live today.
Our first race to tackle could easily be seen as a glorified match race between both Nicholls and Hobbs charges.
Although I agree to an extent and my selection comes from the top two I think it’d be unfair and unwise to totally discount Ned Stark. The horse, despite being seven, has only graced a racecourse five times but has never finished out of the top two. It reigns from a top yard in Alan King’s stable. My only concern is whether or not the horse can make the marked step up in class. With such a question mark over its head I am unfortunately going to side with one of the two proven performers.
Champagne West has a course and distance win to its name which, nine times out of ten, I would side with when we’re talking about Cheltenham however with the form Paul Nicholls has his horses in I just have to side with Ptit Zig. It had a decent enough career as a hurdler but it seems to have absolutely relished jumping the bigger obstacles. At the age of six it may still have some improvement left and after beating Joses Hill last time out it’s the one that will get the nod in this.
Ptit Zig (WIN)
For our second race today we head up to Scotland and to Musselburgh as we take in two races north of the boarder.
The third race on the card is a very tricky and open one with horses that have an abundance of middling form.
Dan Skelton’s Workbench is the current favourite and it has been pretty consistent but surely after having ten races since August it has little to no improvement left in it this jumps season and has to be opposed.
Both Shadrack and course and distance winner Viva Colonia have good chances but at the ripe ages of eleven and ten respectively surely they are open to be beat by younger rivals.
One of those younger rivals that will be my selection is course winner Swing Hard. At the age of seven it has more scope for improvement than most of the nine runners and carries a lower weight than most as well. It won at Musselburgh this time last year and comes from local connections. It is six pounds higher than its last winning mark but with quality apprentice Jonathan England taking three pounds off it should be there or thereabouts at a decent enough price.
SWING HARD (E/W if 4/1+)
What a cracking little race this is with some old decent level chasers and some up and coming talents. I may be a sucker for a fairytale but it’d be fantastic to see Hunt Ball return to see its former glories and it’s love of Cheltenham may help bring about a better turn in fortune after a promising run and great jumping display over Aintree’s big fances last time. The horse is, along with Champion Court, one of the oldest in the race and there is no doubt it is exposed and up against likely improvers but I was that taken with its jumping last time out I am going for it. It is currently priced at around 12/1 and that seems very generous.
The two big dangers have to be Caid Du Berlais who went off favourite last time out and Tenor Nivernais who reigns from the in form Venetia Williams stable. However the Nicholls horse disappointed last time out and couldn’t be relied upon.
Another mention would have to go to Darna who ran relatively well when finishing fifth last time out and went unnoticed under AP McCoy, it now has Tom Scudamore in the saddle and may surprise a few at a decent price.
HUNT BALL (E/W)
Off back to Scotland and their reasonably competitive Hogmaneigh Hurdle. It seems a very open contest according to the betting with the first six in the betting ranging by just two points from 7/1 to 9/1.
Lightening Rod has done nothing wrong in winning its last two outings but the horse it was beaten by on its seasonal reappearance, Goodwood Mirage hardly franked the form with a very disappointing run in the Ladbroke Handicap a few weeks ago and now at the age of ten is likely to find a few too good although should be there or thereabouts.
The main threat to my selection comes in the form of Gold Futures who comes from Nicky Richards yard who has a decent strike rate at this course. The horse has done well to win three of its four starts this season and will pose a decent threat to its rivals today.
All this being said however I cannot look past the top weight. Hawk High is a Cheltenham Festival winner and takes a huge drop in class to race here. The fact it has top weight is a slight concern but considering the horse is only five years old it should have some room to grow. The horse loves good ground and should be enough for this lot.
Hawk High (E/W if 4/1+)
Back to jumps HQ for our penultimate live race of the day and as with a few other races at Cheltenham a Paul Nicholls runner heads the betting.
Southfield Vic obviously has to be respected especially with the fine form the yard’s in but I fear this is quite a step up in class for the six year old. Although I feel it certainly has the potential to beat this calibre of opposition, from a betting perspective, I am certainly of the idea there is value to be had away from the favourite.
The Alan King trained Ulzana’s Raid has done brilliantly winning its last four starts and considering it has course and distance winning form it is a huge threat.
Of the remaining runners you have to take note of fellow course winner Sybarite who maybe sparked into life with a return to this course and may do well at a bigger price.
Despite being lumbered with top weight I have to think that Ulzana’s Raid represents fantastic each way value in a race it is certainly going to have a hand in.
ULZANA’S RAID (E/W if 4/1+)
Our last race of the day is another good level contest that even includes a former Champion Hurdle winner.
It’s such a tough one to call and in all honesty is the one I’m finding the trickiest to call. Rock On Ruby is clearly the class horse and this is a huge drop in class compared to the level of opposition it’s been running in. Its foray into chasing was less than successful and a return to hurdling is a much better fit. However now at the age of ten can it compete with these up and coming types?
Vaniteux is another interesting runner for the Henderson yard but I have to question the horses attitude. It always puts in a good performance and has only been beaten by good opposition but it really should’ve won its penultimate start and I feat the horse maybe the proverbial bridesmaid. There’s no doubt the horse will finish in the top three but at a reasonably short price I just don’t know if it’s worth taking on.
We then cannot forget about the lesser known horses from both Henderson and Nicholls yards. Beat That and Silsol take on their first serious test and if either of them come out on top they have to be taken seriously going to Cheltenham but they have a fair few question marks to answer and the fact Geraghty sticks with Vaniteux probably tells you all you need to know about Beat That’s chances.
I’m going with the proven horse and going to plump for Rock On Ruby, I’m not a massive fan of the horse but it won well last time out and any Champion Hurdle winner has to be respected. Now the horse is about 3/1 it seems decent value and with Noel Fehily flying high after his King George success I’m hoping the ten year olds class prevails.
ROCK ON RUBY (WIN)
by Rory Paddock