The first few weeks of 2018 has been a whirlwind of action, ups, downs, preparations and finishing touches for the looming Spring Festivals.
On the back of Cheltenham Trials Day and the brilliant Dublin Racing Festival, this weekend will provide further clues and more puzzle pieces for us to process and make senses of, with a few key races well worth paying close attention to. The feature action will be at Newbury, where the brilliant but recently under the weather Altior is set to make his eagerly anticipated return to action in the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase at 3.00pm, where jumps fans will be treated to a nail biting four minutes or so of high end steeplechasing.
Standing in the way of the Arkle winning Queen Mother Champion Chase favourite is an improving, in-form and confident grey called Politologue, the latest in a long line of top two mile chasers trained by Paul Nicholls to make their presence firmly felt in the two mile division approaching March.
This fella was a very good novice, but failed to make an impression in the JLT Chase at Cheltenham in 2017. But the bulk of evidence this season suggests he is very much a different proposition now. Victories in the Haldon Gold Cup in November, followed by the Grade 1 Tingle Creek and the Desert Orchid Chase over the Festive season has seen the 7yo catapult himself toward the head of the Champion Chase market and although the chief target is the Queen Mother, Politologue can be expected to strip a fitter horse than Altior, with three wins from as many runs in top company under his belt this season.
However, there is little getting away from how special a talent Altior is when operating at his best. An improved and second season Politologue beat Fox Norton by half a length to land the Grade 1 Tingle Creek in December with an admirable and classy effort, but Altior beat that same good horse by a leisurely 13 lengths in this race last year…when Altior was still only a novice – which is rather frightening. Politologue is a worthy adversary to Altior under the circumstances though, with the latter having to prove his well-being after a spell on the sidelines whilst correcting a breathing issue.
Nicky Henderson has assured us this week his stable star is ready to run, which is all we need to hear for the most part. As much as fitness and resilience for a battle at the business end of a gruelling race is a worry on the back of his time off, Henderson possesses a real finesse getting his best horses to produce the goods when it matters, and I reckon Altior will be plenty sharp enough to put on a performance first time out.
He’ll be a shade of odds-on and perhaps better suited for inclusion in your multiple bets over a singles on the nose, but however you cut it, Altior is the horse we all want and need to make a statement this weekend. The Queen Mother Champion Chase picture has been a little stale in colour of late, but a dominant victory for Altior on Saturday will certainly rectify that.
The Game Spirit Chase at 3.00pm is the meat in a big race sandwich at Newbury. At 2.25pm, two Gold Cup contenders are set to face off as Native River (3rd in 2017 Gold Cup) once again bumps into the enigmatic Saphir Du Rheu in the Denman Chase, who hasn’t been seen since falling at the 11th fence in the Grand National back in April. Before that, Paul Nicholls’ talented 9yo ran a cracker to finish 5th in the Gold Cup, three and a half lengths behind Native River, who is entitled to be the warm favourite here. At the likely prices, Saphir Du Rheu can be backed to spring a minor surprise. He receives 6lb from the penalised Native River, who has been beaten on all three of his starts first time out and could just be vulnerable having his first run since the Gold Cup last March.
The elephant in the room is the unexposed and North Yorkshire trained Cloudy Dream, a gorgeous and consistent young chaser with lots of potential. He is however yet to find the net in three attempts this season and may just find one or two a little too hot once again. Mind you, he did finish 2nd to Definitely Red last time out, who went on the win the BetBright Cotswold Chase in fine style on Festival Trials Day.
Paul Nicholls is the Saturday man though, so here’s hoping Saphir Du Rheu is on a going day in the 2.25pm.
At 3.35pm, the Handicap Hurdle at Newbury takes place with a cool pot of £155,000 on offer for this fiercely competitive and top notch handicap hurdle. The Kayley Woollacott trained Lalor is an unexposed and very interesting contender here, who is yet to achieve a great depth of comparable form at this level, but for all the world has looked as though a fast-paced, big field handicap over this trip is just what he needs. If Lalor wins, there won’t be a dry eye in Newbury, after the passing of his trainer Richard Woollacott 2 weeks ago. Wife and now license holder Kayley and her late husband’s team have done a wonderful job to keep the stable going during such a sad and trying time, so it would be some story if they could pull off this big race victory with their lightly-raced hurdler, who is yet to win over hurdles in three attempts, but has been targeted at this race for some time and has left the impression that the conditions of the 2m Grade 3 Handicap contest will suit.
Opposition will be stiff and in abundance. Jenkins and the brilliant James Bowen are a match made in heaven of late and could well continue their upward curve with success here, while Nicky Henderson is also strongly represented by Kayf Grace and the Champion Hurdle bound mare Verdana Blue, both of whom boast excellent form claims for the grade.
At 14/1, it could pay to have a look at the Evan Williams Silver Streak, particularly if the ground continues to dry out. This grey 5yo by Dark Angel has taken to hurdling very well and travels very strongly through his races. The handicapper saw fit to nudge him up another 3lb after his 2nd to Hunter’s Call at Ascot in December, but he has a handy racing weight of 10st 11lb, negated significantly by the excellent Mitchell Bastyan claiming 5lb and if the horse can build on his recent progress, it’d be little surprise to see him go very well again. At bigger prices, you could do worse than the slick jumping William H Bonney (20/1) to run into the places, while Project Bluebook would also be interesting at 33/1 if the ground became any quicker.
You can read more from Kevin O’Malley and find the latest form, racecards, free tips & news on GG.CO.UK.
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.