Let’s be honest, Pertemps Hurdle qualifiers are not the most satisfactory of races – the series tends to reward questionable runs and rides – and there have already been some notable eye-catchers this season.
After that intro, I better not name any names as the lawyers may come calling, but I will put my cynicism to one side and get stuck into the latest series offering in the 15:00 at Sandown on Friday.
Surprising to see Flemcara at tempting price
There are some obvious improvers in here like the 6yo pair of Kilconny Bridge and Storm Arising (and Dream Berry is a runner back on softer ground), but when I looked at this race at the five-day stage another couple of horses interested me more, and they have stood their ground.
Step forward Flemcara and Espion.
I am definitely tipping the former, and still deciding as I write as whether to side with both of them against the field.
I was a little bit disappointed by the Emma Lavelle-Ben Jones combination with Hang In There at Newbury on Saturday – the horse should have been given his head early doors, instead of being allowed to pull in a slowly-run race before finally going on – but I am nothing if not forgiving, and I think they have another good shot at an ITV winner here.
I imagine I am not the only one who saw a lot of promise in Flemcara’s comeback run at Newbury – he seemed to be travelling powerfully under Aidan Coleman on the outside turning in, only to shuffle back to near-last and stay on again from the second-last – so I am quite surprised he is available at such a tempting double-figure price.
I certainly thought the handicapper was very generous in dropping him 3lb for the run.
Perhaps he simply blew up and got a second wind there on his first start since February, and his racing history certainly suggests he comes on appreciably for his opening outing of the season.
Last season was a write-off, but he warmed to his task as the 2018-19 season progressed and he won second time out in 2017 after being beaten 48 lengths on his reappearance.
He is now 3lb lower than when winning over this trip at Exeter in February 2019, by three-and-a-half lengths from a runaway, next-time-out winner – and that was a Pertemps qualifier, too – and his chances have not been diminished by Thursday’s rain.
He has won on heavy at Chepstow and he also has course-and-distance form too, having finished third in a very valuable handicap here two seasons ago.
He is vulnerable to an improver, but I will be disappointed if he can’t at least hit the board.
The opening 16s with the Betfair Sportsbook, and the 14/1 in two others places on Thursday afternoon, may have disappeared but back him at 11/1 each way, four places, with the Betfair Sportsbook.
Can Espion pass stamina test?
We know Flemcara should relish the conditions if he is on his A-game after his pipe-opener, but stamina is a question that Espion has to answer as he blew out on his only attempt at this trip at Uttoxeter in October.
But his stable were not going great guns at the time and he did make a complete howler just after midway there, so maybe we should forgive him that run, especially as he ran much better when third over 2m4f here last time, a race in which he stuck on well after the last, and he loves deep ground.
His pedigree certainly suggests this longer trip should suit. He is A Coastal Path half-brother to 3m2f winner Don Lami, and there is stamina galore on the distaff side of his pedigree.
All things considered – and that includes the Philip Hobbs stable going a bit better of late, as well as his unexposed profile – I am happy to have him as win-only back-up at 8.07/1 or bigger.
The 2m4f novices’ handicap chase at 13:50 may well revolve around if Funambule Sivola can reproduce his Wetherby win last week, on which he is 6lb well-in here even with a 7lb penalty.
He has an obvious chance then but, as quotes of around 5/2 on the Exchange suggest, this is not a straightforward task by any means, as the promise of Newbury winner Morning Vicar is there for all to see (though connections don’t want very soft ground for him) and there are a few others that have fair claims at the weights.
The one that interested me most at the prices was in-form Before Midnight, who finished one-and-a-half lengths behind Morning Vicar at Newbury last time (that race showed up well on the clock, too) and he is 6lb better off here, but the worsening ground would be a worry for him, too.
I’ll sit this one out, with bad ground a potential negative for the pair from that Newbury race, though the chase course normally rides much the better of the two, admittedly.
Star Gate put up one of the most taking performances of the season when winning at Chepstow in October, and I am not in the least surprised to see him head for the betting for the Grade 2 at 14:25.
I thought the Sportsbook’s opening 2/1 was fair enough actually – and so did plenty of others as he is now into 13/8.
I know he only won a maiden hurdle but the manner of the victory oozed class and the form of the race has been franked by three subsequent performances, albeit two of those came in defeat (the third won a handicap at Ascot next time). It was a fair time, too.
He would definitely be my pick of this quintet, but I find the best long-term option in races that involve unexposed horses with similar profiles and form – and all these five do have little to separate them on what they have done on the track to date – is to watch, and not bet, especially at the lower end of my price scale.
And the form of the Evan Williams stable will worry Star Gate’s backers at his short odds, too.
I can see the Lavelle-Jones axis having another squeak with Misty Bloom in the 15:35 off a falling handicap mark but I spent most of the time on this race deliberating as to whether it would be worth giving Whitehotchillifili another chance after a lamentable run on her return over 2m at Wetherby.
Lamentable is probably a touch strong – though I backed and tipped her each way at 12/1, so I am saying it anyway – but she didn’t travel at all there from flag fall, and that run was predicted by the market too, as she was very weak before the off.
Some of Harry Fry’s horses were running badly at the time, though he simply reckons the soft ground was simply not testing enough for her.
Given the way she travelled in the mares’ novice hurdle at the Festival, I cannot believe she isn’t better than her current mark of 130, and maybe this drop in class to a 0-130 handicap can see her outclass these.
Testing ground is clearly no issue and, while she has disappointed on her sole run over this sort of trip (it was an extended 2m5f), her pedigree says 2m4f should be easily within her compass. Her trainer is not entirely sure, though.
I was tempted to give her another chance at 7.06/1 or bigger, but I decided there will be far better 6/1 shots in the coming days. She could also be the sort who has to do it on the bridle, if at all, and the Sandown hurdles track is no place for the faint-hearted.
Up for a Lark at Exeter
There are also three races on the box from Exeter, but it is effectively two for punters as one of those is a four-runner novices’ chase featuring a 2/9 poke (someone do something about this continuing nonsense, please).
Dusky Lark was another to have me in a pickle at 20/1+ in the 2m3f handicap chase at 14:40.
He hasn’t been seen since March 2019 and has had a wind op since, so there are a couple of doubts to begin with, there and then. But there are positives too at the price.
Firstly, the handicapper has dropped him 5lb for his absence – he is definitely on a winning mark now – and he has gone well off a break in the past, though I accept his record in that area is mixed.
He won on his debut for Robert Walford back in 2017 and the stable are in fair nick at the moment, with a winner and three seconds from his last nine runners (he had one beaten by half-a-length at Ludlow on Wednesday).
And we know this trip in deep ground is probably near to his ideal conditions. Indeed, he finished a one-and-a-quarter-length second to a very well-handicapped Siruh Du Lac (won his next two, including the Plate at Cheltenham) on soft in this very race in 2018, off a 3lb higher mark. That was only three starts ago, in fact.
If he runs to that form, he just about wins this. He may bomb out, given the absence and presumably his recent troubles -and Sevarano could be very hard to be beat – but I think he is just about worth chancing at 21.020/1 or bigger to small stakes.
You will probably get a bigger price, too.
In the 3m6f+ handicap chase at 15:15 – and this could prove really grim viewing if they get the forecast rain from Thursday into Friday, with the ground already soft – you are going to need a very brave horse on your side.
Lithic has the talent to win this for sure, but he has the look of the Lion in the Wizard Of Oz about him (or maybe The Tin Man, as he didn’t have the heart either), and I think last year’s neck runner-up Petite Power better fits the bill, for all he doesn’t have the most consistent of profiles.
However, when conditions get as grueling as they promise to here over this marathon trip, not many horses do, in fairness. It is a matter of who handles it best on the day.
Petite Power and Devon National winner Dawson City would be my two against the field if pushed, but I am pulling out of any financial involvement myself.
Good luck, all.