Have you ever heard of Solix? Me neither. It seemed like an April's Fool's prank played early when bookmakers reported that a horse by that name had cornered the ante-post market for the totesport Trophy Hurdle (3.35) at Newbury.
But no: it turns out Solix is very real indeed. Despite never having set foot on an English racecourse, the five-year-old is burdened with top-weight this afternoon. And he has been backed down to favourite for probably the most competitive handicap hurdle of them all.
Closer inspection reveals that Solix was one of France's best young hurdlers before his recent transfer to Nicky Henderson's powerful stable. The advance money for him suggests that his work has since been first-rate, but can Solix really defy 11st 12lbs against 22 opponents on his first sighting of English hurdles?
To pull it off, Solix would have to be verging on Champion Hurdle class. Only two horses have successfully carried that sort of weight: Persian War in 1969 and Make A Stand in 1997 -- and both went on to land the blue riband at Cheltenham. I just can't see it, especially since stable jockey Barry Geraghty is aboard Soldatino. Geraghty would surely have ridden Solix if the horse was a live Champion Hurdle candidate.
Perhaps Geraghty provides the solution to this complex puzzle. After all, Soldatino shaped with immense promise when reappearing at Ascot last month. Despite a less-than-ideal preparation, he travelled strongly into the straight before yielding in the last two furlongs of that two-mile-four-furlong test. He looked the certain winner after two miles, which he reverts to here.
Again, however, we must ask the key question: is Soldatino, which carries 11st 8lbs, of Champion Hurdle calibre? That is most unlikely. He won a sub-standard Triumph Hurdle last March, yet he must carry an identical weight to Walkon, which finished ahead of Mourad and Starluck when just failing to land a more competitive renewal of that Cheltenham prize in 2009.
Robert Thornton prefers Walkon to stablemate Salden Licht, which disputes favouritism with Solix. But the chances are that the winner lurks lower down the handicap, from where so many previous winners have emerged. Get Me Out Of Here was a typical example last year, when he carried 10st 6lbs. Yet he, like runner-up Ronaldo Des Mottes, is far higher up the scale this time.
Although Willie Mullins will be at Leopardstown on a pivotal day for some of his stars, his Final Approach catches the eye. This one sliced through a competitive field before quickening away to win on just his second start for the stable last month. Further improvement seems assured, but at the quoted odds, narrow preference is for Iolith.
Alan King, who also trains Walkon and Salden Licht, unlocked the potential within Iolith by removing his wedding tackle in the summer. The transformation has been startling in a horse which was Group-placed on the Flat in Germany. Iolith left a pair of poor efforts well behind on his seasonal comeback, and subsequently followed up in decent novice company at Taunton. He carries just 10st 4lbs and King has declared his intent by booking Richard Johnson. At 14/1, Iolith is also attractively priced.
I'MSINGINGTHEBLUES can hit right note
While disappointing for his many supporters, Woolcombe Folly's withdrawal from Newbury's Game Spirit Chase (3.0) opens up the race from a betting perspective. And his absence gives his former stablemate, I'msingingtheblues, a good opportunity to regain the winning thread.
Now with David Pipe, I'msingingtheblues has been in the doldrums for much of the campaign. He offered precious little at Sandown most recently but his previous effort at Cheltenham, where he travelled strongly for much of the journey, suggested he may be on the way back. He is best on flat tracks around left-handed turns; the decent surface expected at Newbury is another plus.
Earlier on the same card, Cappagh merits support in the totescoop6 Handicap Hurdle (1.55). After two wins in novice chases, the selection reverted to hurdles to run an encouraging fifth behind Grands Crus in November. He stayed on strongly in the closing stages and should thrive over this longer trip.
Philip Hobbs, who trains Cappagh, also has prospects with Chance Du Roy in the totesport.com Handicap Chase (2.10) at Warwick. The seven-year-old is improving, having won three of his five starts over fences, and seems ahead of the handicapper. An 8lb rise for his recent Chepstow triumph looks lenient.
Staying with Warwick, readers who backed Finian's Rainbow, my Irish Independent Arkle Trophy selection at 12/1 in December, will be looking to see him win the Kingmaker Novices' Chase (2.40). It is important that Finian's Rainbow gets further chasing experience ahead of his Cheltenham assignment, for which he is now clear favourite at 4/1. However, there is no sense in backing him at prohibitive odds today.
the listener to make fans shout with joy
Plenty of channel-hopping is required to keep abreast of some scintillating action at Leopardstown, after which Willie Mullins' Cheltenham plans should become a lot clearer. A personal wish is that Mikael D'Haguenet rediscovers himself in the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase -- although no bet is advised. Despite his well-documented leg problems, it is not too late for the seven-year-old to climb the chasing ladder.
The Hennessy Gold Cup (3.15) has drawn two English raiders in Money Trix and The Listener, both regular travellers across the Irish Sea. They look up against it with the likes of Joncol, Kempes and China Rock in opposition, but with conditions sure to be testing, The Listener represents excellent value at 8/1. The veteran will revel in the ground and should strip fitter than when leading Money Trix and Joncol to the final fence over the course and distance in December.