Ballabriggs can add to Maguire joy
The action in Britain today is a sure sign of things to come. It's a day of limited betting appeal, the calm before the storm, and it tells us that Cheltenham looms large on the horizon.
Jason Maguire can anticipate the Festival with relish after the suspension ruling him out of the Champion Hurdle was trimmed from seven to six days earlier this week. Maguire can therefore ride much-fancied Peddlers Cross in the big race, which is an appropriate conclusion to a messy business.
Racecourse stewards are on a hiding to nothing in the Festival build-up. They must apply rules, even though the ramifications of any suspension are totally out of proportion to the offence. The outcome to Maguire's successful appeal may have an aura of convenience, but to stand him down from a potential career highlight would have been morally unjust.
Maguire thus travels to Kelso today in high spirits, although his mood on the way home will be governed by how Ballabriggs fares in the totesport.com Premier Chase (3.40). The Aintree Grand National favourite goes back over fences for the first time since he landed the Kim Muir at last year's Cheltenham Festival, and should prove hard to beat.
Donald McCain has confined Ballabriggs to hurdles this term, reaping two victories from as many starts. The move ring-fenced the horse from the handicapper's clutches and illustrates why McCain has risen high up the training ranks.
Three seasons ago he made an error of judgment when winning a pair of handicap chases with Cloudy Lane before publication of the Aintree handicap. As a consequence, Cloudy Lane was overburdened with weight.
Ballabriggs can now show his true mettle over fences, since victory will come too late to incur any penalty for Aintree. And should the horse advertise his claims, McCain's descent on Aintree will add another compelling storyline to a race that habitually delivers fairytales. BBC Sports Personality of the Year Tony McCoy will vouch for that, and McCain's father, who trained the mighty Red Rum, needs no introduction.
Course specialist Cornish looks a tasty option
Even on an afternoon of few attractive opportunities, Ballabriggs makes no betting proposition. A spate of unfathomable handicaps renders it likely that the Tote's Scoop6 bet will be carried over for the fourth week running, but the day's best wager is Cornish Sett in the Blue Square Veterans Handicap Chase (2.25) at Newbury.
Top weight is carried by Eric's Charm, which won the corresponding race last season and runs today off an identical mark.
And the evergreen 13-year-old tuned up for a repeat by winning last time out at Sandown -- just as he did 12 months ago.
However, the difference this time is that Tony McCoy is absent from the saddle.
Eric's Charm habitually hangs to his right, which is why he goes best around right-handed turns, and McCoy needed every ounce of his formidable strength to get the horse home last year.
Others with prospects include The Sawyer and Far More Serious, both of which have excellent records at Newbury. Yet Cornish Sett lacks nothing on that score.
The selection, a former inmate of Paul Nicholls' stable, has been brought back to form by Caroline Keevil. The fact he has never been out of the first two in four previous visits to the Berkshire track offers further cause for optimism.
Another cluster of course specialists turn out in the Wiltshire Handicap Chase (3.0), so it's surprising to find Ikorodu Road, which unseated its rider at Newbury most recently, installed as favourite. Nor does it square that immediately beneath him in the market is Saphir Des Bois, a suspect jumper which returned to form against far lesser opposition at Hereford last time.
Although Ruby Walsh rides Grand National candidate Niche Market for the Nicholls stable, an each-way position on stablemate Take The Breeze is the call here.
The selection shaped encouragingly in hot company over the minimum trip last time after another fine effort at Sandown, where he ran out of steam over the extended three miles. This two-and-a-half-mile trip looks ideal and crack amateur Ryan Mahon claims a valuable 5lbs off his back.
Premier Des Marais can capitalise off fair mark
Doncaster's ability to deliver decent going in winter is a boon for trainers of horses with that ground requirement. Such conditions prevail today for the Coral Grimthorpe Chase (3.15), which means the race looks sure to unfold at a strong clip. And that looks unlikely to help Presenting Forever, which is forecast as favourite.
Presenting Forever is on the upgrade but his penchant for racing prominently, coupled with a 25lb rise in the handicap for his last two runs, leaves him looking vulnerable. It also remains to be seen how the fancied hunter Always Right copes with this relative test of speed.
By contrast, one likely to be comfortable within a strong gallop is Ogee, an ex-Flat racer which goes well on a sound surface and thoroughly stays this trip. The ground was against him on his Cheltenham reappearance, when some uncharacteristic mistakes also undermined his cause, and he merits support with so much in his favour.
Also at Doncaster, Premier Des Marais takes the eye in a wide-open Coral Handicap Hurdle (2.10) over three miles. Gary Moore's horse showed discernible improvement when stepping up in trip last time and remains on a fair mark.