Report To Base looks ready for step up in class
Rated 170, which is 9lbs superior to nearest rival Taquin Du Seuil, it's certainly no surprise to see Cue Card head the betting for the Grade One Ascot Chase (3.35) in what is effectively a prep-race for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham next month.
As short as 2/5 yesterday, it's a race best watched without a bet although it's interesting to note that chasers rated 170 or higher have broken even if blindly backed to level stakes since 2008, with 73 winners from 193 bets.
Colin Tizzard's 11-year-old is a general 8/1 chance for the big one on St Patrick's Day with stablemate Thistlecrack still heading the betting at 7/4, out from 8/13 following defeat to the ill-fated Many Clouds.
An eight-time Grade One winner, Cue Card hasn't raced at a distance as short as today's 2m5f in almost two years so at first glance it may seem a little on the sharp side. But, as Tizzard pointed out, he's been effective over those shorter distances for most of his life and the trainer said he doesn't hold any fears.
Some believe Cue Card's Gold Cup chance passed when falling three out last year, and it will be a tall order for an 11-year-old to make amends - although he really is a remarkable horse and we now know that Thistlecrack is not invincible.
So with the Ascot Chase not much of a betting race, attention turns to Haydock where a chance is taken on Report To Base in the Grade Two Albert Bartlett Prestige Novices' Hurdle (3.50) under Sam Twiston-Davies.
Evan Williams' gelding has raced three times, winning his first and finishing second in the other two - including a Listed novices' hurdle at Cheltenham last time. That latest race was particularly promising and the five-year-old actually hit 4/11 in-running on the exchanges having led most of the way.
It showed that the step up in distance was not really a problem and I'd give a good guess that he'll enjoy the 2m6f trip here, priced around 10/3.
Williams will send him to the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle at the Festival all going well for which he's available at 20/1 in the ante-post markets, and while this is a significant step up in class, Williams is keen to get a handle on where he's at right now:
"With these novices you don't know if they've beaten good horses or bad horses. There's only one way to find out and that is to step them up."
No Hassle Hoff is the one I'm most worried about from trainer Dan Skelton. Bridget Andrews gets the ride on the progressive five-year-old, which is also Cheltenham-bound, and was unlucky not to win a Grade Two at Doncaster last time having traded at 1/3 in-running.
He was beaten late on by Nicky Henderson's Constantine Bay and it won't be long before he gets his head in front again, but his early odds of 9/4 are not overly generous. Tom George's The Worlds End is another one to watch having won three of his four races including a novice hurdle at Chepstow last time under a penalty.
Earlier on the same card, a chance is taken on Agrapart at 7/4 or thereabouts in the Grade Two Betfred Rendlesham Hurdle (2.05) for Nick Williams under Lizzie Kelly. The 2016 Betfair Hurdle winner hadn't been seen in Britain since April, but had run quite well when fourth at Auteuil in a Grade Two in November.
He later beat L'Ami Serge in the Grade Two Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year's Day in a race where his stamina really shone through. Because of that win, he's been given an 8lb penalty, meaning he'll be conceding weight all-round today, but he certainly has plenty of talent and was third to Yorkhill in the Grade One Tolworth at Sandown last year. He goes best when given a prominent ride so I hope to see Kelly get him out early enough and help dictate the pace.
Paul Nicholls' Aux Ptits Soins reverts back to hurdles here having disappointed when last in a novices' chase at Doncaster last time out. Nicholls is keeping an open mind about the 2015 Coral Cup winner and may look at that race again or perhaps something at Aintree, and feels that this is the kind of contest that could sharpen him up.
I reckon Kerry Lee is a very shrewd trainer and that's especially true in handicaps. In 2016, she had 21 handicap winners from 96 runners and showed a profit of 51pts if blindly backed.
That's continued in 2017 with six winners from 21 runners and a profit of 10pts, so clearly the betting markets have not yet adjusted to take in this information and there still could be some value in her handicap horses for the time being.
Her handicap place strike-rate in 2017 is very healthy at 58pc, and Goodtoknow looks a cracking each-way bet around 7/1 in this afternoon's Grade Three Betfred Grand National Trial Handicap Chase (3.15 Haydock).
Lee won this with Bishops Road last year so she knows the sort it takes to land the prize and Goodtoknow is improving all the time, putting in a career best last time to beat stablemate Mountainous in a really tough handicap chase on bottomless ground at Hereford. Priced 66/1 for the big one at Aintree, the selection looks well-in under a 5lb penalty here and I'll be very disappointed if he doesn't go close under jockey Jake Greenall.
Blaklion is another one to watch although he looks a little short in the betting around 4/1. Nigel Twiston-Davies' gelding will carry top-weight of 11st 12lbs with a mark of 152, and the 2016 RSA Chase winner is expected to enjoy the step up in trip.
* Last week's each-way selection, Song Light, was placed at 14/1
1.50 Ascot: Fletchers Flyer
2.05 Haydock: Agrapart
3.15 Haydock: Goodtoknow (e/w)
3.50 Haydock: Report To Base
4.05 Lingfield: Mercers