One of the positive aspects of ITV Racing’s coverage this year has been their willingness to showcase the so-called lesser tracks, and they include Bangor on Friday.
However, their handicap hurdle at 14:05 has attracted a mere four runners, featuring an odds-on favourite, which is about as unenticing as it gets for punters. And it isn’t even the most valuable contest on the card.
So I suggested on the good ship Twitter on Wednesday morning that they should consider liaising with the course to show the 14-runner conditional and amateur riders’ hands and heels race instead – it could also add an educational element to the programme, too – but, alas no, my free advice has been ignored (they have probably muted me, like everyone else).
So it is Cheltenham all the way on Friday for this column.
Recent winner Valdez has a lot going for her
We will deal with the five ITV races – though I may come back to the 17-runner handicap hurdle at 12:40 if prices are up in time (it is only on Racing TV) – starting with the 2m4f127yd mares’ handicap chase at 13:15.
I like two in the race, and the most obvious one is the favourite Agent Valdez.
Even with her 7lb penalty she is 2lb well-in here after her Leicester win last week, and whether or not you make her a bet at 4/1+ on the exchange here depends solely on how you assess that victory.
Some may take the view that a 28-length stroll (it was more of a grind) in a race where only two finished is not the most solid form-line you could wish for – especially as the runner-up had been hammered in all of his other starts this season – and the mare’s jumping had not been blemish-free on her previous two chase outings.
But I would be inclined to be pretty positive, which is most unlike me. Especially when it comes to assessing the chances of a favourite.
It could well be that this Irish point-to-point winner is now warming to her task over fences, and the time of the win at Leicester certainly gives plenty of substance to the form.
The official going description at Leicester says it was good to soft, but that is nonsense if you ask Timeform, as they made it heavy.
So if the rain arrives in Cheltenham with any great gusto from Thursday evening onwards (the amounts vary on different sites but we could get up to 8mm by racing, hopefully less with my Saturday ante-post bet in mind) that will be no concern for her at all.
No time to Stop Talking about this Jennie Candlish runner
When I said I liked two in the race I actually meant three – the other pair are Martila and Stop Talking – and you can make a convincing case for the trio at their prices.
Martila looked like a more prominent ride would see her in the winners’ enclosure for much of the way at Warwick last time – she traded at 1.528/15 in running – only for her to get picked up by a pair of hold-up performers in the straight.
A reproduction of that run gives her sound claims here but I would be worried about her on stamina grounds if this became a test in worsening ground over this extended 2m4f.
Stop Talking likes a decent surface ideally but she should have no problems with the trip if it does turn soft (it is good to soft at the time of publishing), and she ran a solid race over hurdles last time, having earlier shaped very well when second over fences in the soft at Ayr on her return from a long break on her return in October, a race in which she bumped into an improver and finished miles clear of the third.
She went up 5lb, but I can live with that, especially as the winner was only just touched off next time and the third was in the process of running a good race when coming down at the last at Newcastle recently.
I have a lot of time for the Jennie Candlish yard, and the first-time cheekpieces is an interesting angle for her, too. Very interesting in fact when you delve into the stats.
Candlish is five from 26 since 2016 with this headgear option, but an even more impressive three from nine since 2019, with Zolfo a very good example of how cheekpieces can markedly improve her horses. That will do for me, especially as Stop Talking has often looked like a horse that could do with some help up top.
All things considered, I am happy to side with Agent Valdez at 5.59/2 or bigger. Not my usual kind of price, but the play looks justified, and a decent saver on Stop Talking at 13.012/1 or above is recommended.
In fact, Stop Talking is the marginally the better bet at those prices.
Two tricky races with wide-open feels to them
The re-scheduled Peterborough Chase at 13:50 has seen Mister Fisher and Clondaw Castle enticed away from the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup on Saturday.
If you fancy Mister Fisher – and it is easy to on his fourth in the Marsh last season – then I would wait until near the off on Friday before backing him, as connections are convinced he needs decent ground, and they wouldn’t have been disabused from that opinion after his reappearance run.
Put simply though, I am happy to let this race pass by without a financial interest – I am also not sure where the pace will come from, perhaps Glen Forsa or Fanion D’Estruval – as this is a very closely-knit Grade 2 on official figures, and the betting reflects that.
It is 4/1+ the field on the exchange, and with good reason. Tres tricky.
The 3m2f handicap chase at 14:25 has cut up to just seven runners and this was another trappy small-field race to solve.
I think the Irish could land with this Court Maid, who races off a mark of 148 with her 5lb penalty, and that makes her 4lb well-in if you believe the Irish handicapper.
She ran away with the Porterstown over 3m5f at Fairyhouse last time and is unexposed over trips in excess of 3m – in that fact that run was her first beyond three miles – but, again, it all comes down to price.
And as I think five of her six rivals has a fair shot at her (and the one I discounted, Steely Addition, could yet bounce back in first-time headgear) I can leave her alone at around the 2/1 mark (the early 10/3 on Wednesday was hoovered up, and that cemented the no-bet).
Vivas a rare fancy in Cross Country Chase, but alas, no tip
There is probably more chance of me waking up with an Afro tomorrow morning than putting up a horse for the Cross Country Chase at 15:00 – there isn’t even a French runner to default to after Easysland’s withdrawal – but Festival third Out Sam could be an each-way player at around 8s, I guess.
Total guess would probably be more accurate though, and those are two very expensive words in betting parlance.
I will let you crack on, on your own, here, but I do have to admit that I would have seriously considered Vivas at 16/1+ had the ground been a touch better. Or if I knew it would not be too bad. One to revisit on Friday afternoon.
He travelled really well into the race when fifth to Kingswell Theatre over these fences last time before weakening late on, and a mark of 130 – he was 15lb out of the handicap and so effectively ran off 145 last time – gives him every chance of an upset.
If there is no appreciable rain by race-time, then I may well be tempted to take a pop at Vivas, and I was not at all surprised to see the 25s go with the Betfair Sportsbook on Wednesday night, and the 20s in the marketplace soon after.
Dancer can wave Goodbye to rivals in competitive finale
If the ground is riding soft or worse by the time it comes to the closing 3m handicap hurdle at 15:35 then I have seen worse 16/1+ chances than Agrapart.
His Cheltenham form figures on soft or heavy read 121 and he is back to a mark of 145, having finished a good fourth off 150 under today’s 5lb claimer Chester Williams in that valuable Heroes handicap at Sandown back in February,
And he does improve with his racing, so at least his run in the French Champion Hurdle in October (where he had little chance, and ran accordingly) would have hopefully served his purpose from a fitness perspective.
I was quite surprised to clock he was still only nine – it is getting on for nearly five years since he won his Betfair Hurdle in 2016 – and I will be backing him on Friday if the course gets a decent slurp of rain. But I am reluctant to tip him here and now.
Rain could also be the key to Goodbye Dancer returning to his best too, for all he has form on good and quick ground in the locker for previous trainers.
He has shown very little on good going in three runs this term and is 2lb out of the handicap here with the top two standing their ground.
But, even though he is 2lb wrong, he can still race off just a 1lb higher mark than when winning this contest last season (off 124) and my strong hunch is he would have followed up off 134 had he not fallen at the last here in the soft on New Year’s Day.
He may not always find as much as expected off the bridle but he was cantering when coming down there (he traded at a low of 1.331/3) and if he runs to that level of form then he could take a lot of whacking.
The fact that he carries just 10st could be important, as well. Paddy Brennan can do the weight and the horse isn’t the biggest, so the featherweight could be a big plus (he was carrying 10st and was 4lb out of the handicap when falling here on NYD).
Back him at 10.09/1 or bigger.
You may want to wait until seeing exactly what the going is like on Friday before punting both Agrapart and Goodbye Dancer, but I am happy to side with the latter now, and the former tomorrow if we get plenty of rain. I think Agrapart could be more ground-dependent of the two.
I am not going mad on the stakes front though as this is a very competitive race – I may even have a saver on Dell’ Arca if truth be told, for all I was slightly disappointed by his latest run at Newbury – but they are my two against the field.
Fascinating contest before ITV come on air
As for the aforementioned 2m1f handicap hurdle at 12:40 I have no argument with Greatwood Hurdle third Tegerek heading the market (the 13/2 in the marketplace was taken on Wednesday night). He is 3lb higher here but there should be more to come from him.
But there are any number of improvers in here, with Sarasota Star 5lb well-in after escaping a penalty for his win in a conditionals’ race at Carlisle last time, and some lurkers, too.
Torcello definitely fits the latter bill, as he is rated 93 on the Flat just 118 here (as well as being owned by a punter) and is 20/1+, but I decided this was another race in which I could walk on by.
So the three bets for me, but maybe Vivas or Agrapart tomorrow depending on what the weather does. I will update on Twitter on that front.