'Beach' can make waves for Nicholls
On a rare Saturday that lacks a marquee event on either the Flat or Nation Hunt programmes, the feature race at Haydock, the Betfred Daffodil Vase, looks the most intriguing contest of the day.
The 10-runner handicap is made up of largely progressive and in-form chasers, while the two seasoned campaigners in the field, Montgermont and Mister McGoldrick, have also been in good heart of late.
Tim Easterby's Lease Lend, massively improved this season, lines out on the back of a hat-trick, having collected over course and distance last month. With a 6lb hike now bringing his official rating to a full 23lbs higher than the one he collected off at Newcastle back in November, this is by far his toughest assignment to date.
It is a similar story with Stormin Exit, which has won or been second on its last three starts. The son of Exit To Nowhere has been hit with a total of 8lbs for his two latest runner-up finishes, so may struggle now, despite squeezing in off 10st 1lb.
All told, this could come down to two of the southern raiders. Paul Nicholls is represented by Fistral Beach, a horse that was heavily backed before unseating in the Racing Post Chase, while David Pipe saddles the facile Doncaster winner Salut Flo.
The latter five-year-old was having his first start for Pipe at Doncaster. Soulard, runner-up to the French import that day, has since defied a 2lb penalty to win -- albeit with help from the stewards -- giving the form a solid appearance.
Unsurprisingly, Salut Flo now has an extra stone for his troubles. That shouldn't entirely curb him, but the handicapper's reassessment of Fistral Beach is favourable.
A runner-up on five consecutive occasions before impressing over today's trip in soft ground at Kempton in December, there was real confidence behind Ruby Walsh's mount last time in what is one of the most competitive handicaps of the season. Ultimately, his early spill left everyone guessing, yet the handicapper has since opted to shave 4lbs off his rating.
That means Fistral Beach gets in now with just a 7lb penalty for his Kempton win. Being Walsh's only mount on the card, the general 4/1 is attractive.
In the three-and-a-half-mile chase at 4.05, Blazing Diva bids for her third successive win after grinding out two resolute triumphs in testing ground at Newcastle. With an extra half mile and 8lbs more here, the grey mare may prove vulnerable.
Quiet Bob is the one to oppose her with. Phillip Hobbs' gelding will love the trip, having stayed on well to collect over a furlong further at Warwick last time. Taking a dim view of that race, the handicapper has raised him a mere 4lbs, despite the fact that it was only Quiet Bob's third start over fences.
It is also worth noting that because Hever Road, which he beat three parts of a length then, is out of the handicap today, Quiet Bob is 9lbs better off with that one now. With a negligible 10st to carry, he is strongly fancied under Tom O'Brien.
At a track at which both men top their respective trainer and jockey lists, Donald McCain and Jason Maguire have a solid chance in the subsequent novices' handicap hurdle. Maguire goes into one of the busiest weekends of the year just seven short of a maiden century, and Glenwood Knight should get him a bit closer to that target.
Second to the smart Lie Forrit in a bumper two years ago, Glenwood Knight went on to score on its hurdling debut, only to lose the race in the stewards' room.
After two years off with a leg injury, he was an eye-catching third over course and distance on his return in January. Since then, the son of Presenting hacked up at Exeter. He could be thrown in here off 10st 9lb on his first start in a handicap.
Any market move for McCain's newcomer in the bumper would also be significant. Ballinasloe is a brother to the once classy Kings Castle, a first-time bumper winner himself, and this five-runner event may not take much winning.
Best bet: Fistral Beach