Inside racing: Go with Al
Having given it away at Cheltenham, bookmakers are determined to claw it all back over the next seven days. All those best-price guarantees and special offers drew big hitters like moths to a flame, and for payback, layers have targeted the legion of lemming-like punters ahead of the Spring Double.
For evidence, look no further than the first decent race of the nascent Flat season in Britain. Today's William Hill Lincoln (3.10) features the maximum 22 runners charging down the straight mile at Doncaster. Past renewals suggest the field will split into two groups, but even though there's no way of knowing how the draw will play, bookmakers price up the favourite Taqleed at a miserly 9/2.
But that's not all. Bookmakers have already started to squeeze the life out of the Grand National market. On the flimsy pretext that Ruby Walsh has chosen to ride him, The Midnight Club's odds have all but halved into 8/1 this week. It's a dilemma for anyone who fancies the inexperienced Willie Mullins-trained chaser -- especially as those odds are expected to contract further between now and next Saturday.
Punters should be wary of getting sucked into the hype. The Midnight Club's prospects are no better or worse than they were a week ago, so why accept half the odds? In reality, there is no choice. While on-course odds at Cheltenham regularly eclipsed those in the build-up, the Grand National is an annual opportunity for bookmakers to bleed once-a-year punters dry. Don't expect them to forsake it -- particularly after those Cheltenham losses.
So what to make of Taqleed today? Yes, he might be a Group horse in disguise. And yes, he comes from the John Gosden stable that likes to target this race. At 9/2, however, he makes no appeal. His central draw in stall 11 gives jockey Richard Hills all the options, but with just four career starts behind him, his inexperience is a concern.
Of Richard Fahey's six runners, stable jockey Paul Hanagan has chosen Irish Heartbeat, winner of the Spring Mile over the course and distance 12 months ago.
As this one goes best with cut in the ground, any overnight rain would assist him. But I prefer Al Muheer, from the Dandy Nicholls stable that saddles four runners of its own.
Al Muheer joined Nicholls from Clive Brittain's stable in July last year. He then ran two promising races and was put away in August after a poor subsequent effort. The formerly useful six-year-old is sure to be well primed and is just the type with which his trainer excels. He is worth a small interest.
ONLY ON KALK BAY
It's unfortunate for Kalk Bay, which missed the Lincoln cut, that he has drawn stall 1 in the opening Spring Mile (2.05) at Doncaster. William Haggas' horse would otherwise have been a confident selection, but only small stakes can be advised.
By contrast, Iver Bridge Lad starts the Cammidge Trophy (2.35) from the middle of the field, and that gives him sound prospects. This consistent sprinter acquitted himself well in Dubai over the winter and showed he remains fresh enough when winning at Kempton last Saturday. With the most dangerous of his opponents unraced for some time, his fitness advantage is an asset.
Channel 4's cameras are also at Kempton, where the Gosden-trained Lunar Victory appeals in the competitive williamhill.com Roseberry Handicap (3.25). The colt showed progressive form in a light campaign on turf last season, and Gosden gave him one spin on the all-weather before putting him away for the winter.
On that occasion, Lunar Victory finished well in the runner-up berth and looks capable of stepping up here.
Gosden is also represented by Fun Affair in the Snowdrop Fillies' Stakes (4.35). This one is hard to weigh up after just two outings to date, yet no such caveats surround Mosqueras Romance. Marco Botti's runner has plenty of previous at this level, including when runner-up in this race 12 months ago, and the booking of Frankie Dettori lends further encouragement.
Also at Kempton, Pink Symphony can take the 10-furlong Magnolia Stakes (2.20), which features last year's Lincoln winner Penitent. However, Penitent has yet to prove he stays this far, and with Bikini Babe better served by longer trips, Pink Symphony can extend trainer Paul Cole's fine start to the new campaign.
UPSET ON CARDS
FOR LONG RUN
It's a quiet weekend for jumps fans ahead of the Grand National meeting, which opens at Aintree on Thursday.
Gold Cup winner Long Run may again cross swords with Denman, which chased him home at Cheltenham. Long Run looks a special young horse, but he is still prone to making mistakes. The sharp, park circuit at Aintree hardly looks ideal, and with Denman also below his best there in the past, an upset is on the cards after a Gold Cup run in record time.
Although there's nothing remotely of Long Run's calibre at Uttoxeter today, Extra Bold should go well in the Jenkinsons Handicap Chase (5.45).
The nine-year-old is best on a sound surface, as he showed when winning at Taunton three starts ago, since when ground conditions have not been in his favour.
Also at Uttoxeter, it's worth taking a chance on Five Out Of Five in the Hoops and Jenkinsons Novices' Chase (3.30) over the minimum trip.
Dan Breen seems sure to start a hot favourite, but he got revved up in first-time blinkers when out of his depth in the Irish Independent Arkle Chase at Cheltenham.
The headgear is left off today, but Dan Breen, which is prone to jumping errors, looks vulnerable. Although Five Out Of Five has not run for eight months, his forcing style could pay dividends at attractive odds.
Meanwhile, the best bet on an uninspiring card at Chepstow is Phardessa in the Mecca Handicap Hurdle (4.25).
This consistent mare reverts to timber after falling over fences last time, but she showed her aptitude for the smaller obstacles when just touched off at Ffos Las on her first run after a long absence in January.
A previous course winner, she will be comfortable on the anticipated soft surface.