Peace to prove best of British contenders for Champion
It's a reasonably quiet day with no Grade One contests scheduled for either side of the Irish Sea. Nevertheless, there are a few very interesting Group Twos, none more so than the StanJames.com International Hurdle (3.0 Cheltenham) in which Peace And Co will attempt to prove he's the best of the British challengers for Cheltenham's Champion Hurdle.
Although he suffered a shock defeat in the Morgiana Hurdle last month, Faugheen remains the solid favourite at 6/4 for the big one on 15th March, pushed out in the betting from even money.
Any brave souls who backed Faugheen at 1/6 at Punchestown, in an attempt to buy some easy cash, were given a stark reminder that four-legged animals can never be 100pc reliable - although the Champion Hurdle ante-post market remains dominated by the Irish, with Peace And Co the only non-Willie-Mullins-trained horse trading in single figures at 8/1.
For his part, Peace And Co has barely put a hoof wrong, winning all four starts to date including a good renewal of the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham last time. Nicky Henderson's gelding hasn't been seen since so we have to take it on trust that he's fit and well, but he'd no problem destroying the field on his British debut after a six-month break this time last year.
Old Guard has won two handicaps since well beaten into ninth place in the Triumph Hurdle and looks the best of the remaining five runners - but it's hard to see past Peace And Co this afternoon and, all considered, a price of even-money or thereabouts is not a bad deal.
Earlier on the same card, a chance is taken on Unowhatimeanharry in the Bristol Novices' Hurdle (2.25), available around 13/8 at the time of writing. Paul Nicholls' former understudy Harry Fry has really made a name for himself over the last couple of years thanks in no small part to Rock On Ruby - but he must be given loads of credit for his other horses too, and he's one of those trainers who seems to have the canny knack of picking exactly the right races for his growing team.
It's easy enough to win races with good horses but the real test comes with the middle-of-the-road animals, and Fry has already excelled on both fronts meaning his strike rate since 2012 is a very healthy 26pc. If you could get a DeLorean up to 88mph and go back and have a punt on each, you'd show a profit of 81pts.
Unowhatimeanharry is a prime example of how he gets the best out of his horses. Formerly with Helen Nelmesk, the seven-year-old had gone 12 races without a win and, on most occasions, wasn't even close.
He made his debut for Fry in a handicap here in November wearing a tongue-tie, and, having been the subject of a heavy gamble, he made a mockery of his mark of 123 by winning with any amount in hand.
Fry then found another handicap at Newbury for the gelding just two days before he was due to go up a stone in the weights, although the bookmakers and punters had him well-sussed that time, and he won at the very short price of 1/2.
He'll have to up his game even more to win a Grade Two but his trainer can be trusted to have him right and the horse, which once seemed like a mediocre handicapper, has now become a very interesting prospect.
Of the rest, Kim Bailey's Net Work Rouge deserves a mention having clocked up two convincing wins over hurdles recently following a brief but unsuccessful stint over fences.
At Doncaster, I like the look of Coologue at around 6/1 in the six-runner December Novices' Chase (2.40) for the Charlie Longsdon yard. Paul Nicholls' It's A Close Call is highly likely to go off as favourite here around 9/4 but that price seems a little short in a race where a case could be made for pretty much every runner.
The selection made a winning debut over fences at Bangor in October, and seemed to jump with relish when finishing a good third in novice handicap at Doncaster last time.
Irish Cavalier is vying for favouritism with Buywise in the Grade Three Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at Cheltenham (1.50) but Rebecca Curtis' horses have been in poor order lately due to a batch of bad hay. She had a couple of runners yesterday after a two-week break (two second places and a faller) but still I feel it's best to take a cautious approach with her yard for now.
Second in the Paddy Power Gold Cup here last time, Buywise is progressing and has strong claims, although his mark looks a little high at 152 considering he hasn't won since February.
At 10/1, Art Mauresque might be the one to side with each-way. I backed Paul Nicholls' gelding last time on his first start out of novice company in the aforementioned Paddy Power Gold Cup and he traded as low as 11/10 in-running - although he wasn't very fluent three out, which cost him a couple of lengths.
Overall, he wasn't disgraced in sixth and he's in with every chance off the same mark of 147 today.
1.50 Cheltenham: Art Mauresque (e/w)
2.05 Doncaster: Sir Chauvelin
2.25 Cheltenham: Unowhatimeanharry
2.40 Doncaster: Coologue
3.0 Cheltenham: Peace And Co
8.45 Wolverhampton: Famous Kid
Do the double
New manager Sam Allardyce has given Sunderland a reasonable boost although, alongside Villa, they’re still odds-on to be relegated. The Black Cats were beaten 3-1 away to Arsenal last week but the scoreline belies what was a good display. Today’s opponents, Watford, are sitting mid-table but the 9/5 about a home win for Sunderland looks a couple of ticks too high.
Famous Kid, trained by Saeed bin Suroor, was really bolting up to win a handicap at Chelmsford recently and definitely sets the standard in the 32Red Conditions Stakes at Wolverhampton (8.45), with Oisin Murphy on board.
Rated 8lbs clear of nearest rival Anglophile, odds of 15/8 in the early markets look significantly out of line.