Champ looks poised to provide some post-Christmas cheer
The week between Christmas and the New Year is always a strange one, and in Norway, they have a name for it: Romjul.
Apparently, that word comes from the Old Norse, and means something like 'part-holy'. It's considered a relaxed time where people visit friends and family and eat plenty of food - but it's not quite as intense as Christmas or New Year.
In Ireland, we've become a bit commercialised this week and a lot of people I've spoken to have been back to work, especially in retail, with the traditional January sales now beginning on St Stephen's Day.
It's a little bit sad that people can't always take the 'Romjul' period to themselves anymore in Ireland, but some great traditions live on in here and in Britain, including going racing during this week.
While I'll be up at my local track Leopardstown today, my biggest wager will be on a race at Newbury where I reckon the 6/4 about Champ in the Grade One Betway Challow Hurdle (3.0) is the stand-out bet of the day.
Trained by Nicky Henderson, Champ's dam was a half-sister to the Gold Cup winner Best Mate, and this race has been won by a few decent sorts down through the years including Denman.
Although on a less positive note, the latest Henderson horse to win the Challow Hurdle, Captain Cutter (2013), was pulled up in his subsequent outing and died soon after.
As for Champ, he's progressing really nicely and has now won three of his last four hurdle races, including a reasonably good handicap here in which he proved far better than his opening mark of 139.
He looked in control of the race fairly early, and while the step up to Grade One level is a big one, he's highly likely to progress further and has plenty on hand over his rivals here on all known form.
All that said, there are a few others which could make it a tricky race for the favourite including the Fergal O'Brien-trained Coolanly, which has a certain amount of big-race experience having won a Grade Two Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham in November.
It's taken the six-year-old a little longer to progress than the favourite, and that was his first win since taking a bumper in October 2017, although he's been keeping good company and wasn't disgraced when finishing mid-division in Grade Ones at Cheltenham and Aintree at the end of last season. His trainer won this last year with Poetic Rhythm, so he commands a lot of respect.
Olly Murphy's former point-to-pointer Brewin'upastorm is another interesting entry, having won his debut hurdle race under rules at Huntingdon earlier this month, justifying his market support at odds of 5/6.
Back home at Leopardstown, a tentative vote goes to Willie Mullins' Melon around 2/1 in the Grade One Ryanair Hurdle (2.30) under Ruby Walsh, although I do admit that this looks quite open with stablemate Sharjah, and Gordon Elliott's Samcro, also set to line up.
It's hard to know what to make of Samcro. I was a huge fan and believed he was going to be the next superstar but it's not quite turned out that way, and he's been beaten at 4/9 and 6/5 in his two races this season, the latter some eight lengths behind Buveur D'Air in the Fighting Fifth.
That Buveur D'Air was beaten in the Kempton Christmas Hurdle priced 1/4 muddies the water further, although the best piece of form on offer here is surely Melon's second place to Buveur D'Air in the Champion Hurdle in March.
He later fell alongside Samcro before being asked for an effort in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle in April, and the main downside here is that he hasn't been seen since then.
I'll be interested to read what my Irish Independent colleague Patrick Mullins has to say about his mount Sharjah.
He won a Grade One at Punchestown last time, beating Faugheen, but on my own ratings he still has a few pounds to make up to take a race like this. Overall, it's a fascinating contest and I'm going to keep my stakes quite small on Melon so I can enjoy the race without too much stress.
At Doncaster, I'm very keen on Lady Buttons, which has been chalked up at 15/8 in the early markets for the Listed MansionBet Yorkshire Silver Vase Mares' Chase (2.05).
She's useful over hurdles and fences, and really caught the eye when winning a handicap chase at Newbury on December 1, which was arguably a career best.
That came on the back of a victory in a Listed hurdle race in November, and Philip Kirby's eight-year-old is clearly thriving at the moment. One to keep onside for now.