Good evening from the Major who writes, weary and happy, settling into the weekend, like a well worn glove. It is late, very late, the Worcestershire scene tonight is dank, driving home, orange streetlights in the distance flickered, seemingly to fizzing and humming in the wet like a live wire gently caressing the damp earth.
I have been out with colleagues and friends this evening eating a thoroughly average meal but in such damn fine raucous company that the cuisine was merely a distraction. Laughs so deep and primal, deep within, they are fine for the soul and in the company of good people, well… Ah, All is well in the world.
I remain on the cusp of exhaustion, as I write I hear the patter of rain against window glass and it sounds like tiny fingers tapping a rhythm. I know I am warm and I know out there in the darkness, there are things moving.
I love the winter and it is coming to us now. Even recently, while deep into Autumn, the late days of summer held on dearly but now, things are changing. The rain that kisses you now is cold and taking a morning walk, toes feel numb, fingers tingle. Summer has had its time at the front, running freely, wild times of chaos. Now is nearly the time for winter, climbing the hill relentlessly, coming home on a tight rein and the Major is pleased.
I have enjoyed the flat season immensely this summer. While the classic crop was an average bunch, there were some great memories of which my favourites were Dawn Approach and Toranado going to battle, Talent fighting for her head and still finishing like a train in the Oaks and… momentarily the triumphant victory of War Command in the Coventry, to name but a few.
Yet, todays racing at Cheltenham has reminded me that the flat season is always the poorer cousin to the Majors real passion, National Hunt. I think the reason I prefer it is the longevity of the horses. It allows for much greater stories to develop. Horses that start in bumpers, transcend to hurdling and become novice chasers before joining the staying chaser ranks and those glorious old servants that win ten years after their bumper dreams. They become like old friends.
Today’s cards offer the perfect handover from flat to the jumps season. Yes, we still have a few big days to come, particularly the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster but the Ascot Champions Day is a perfect climax to the summer contests and the first days of the Cheltenham season whet the appetite for the narrative untold. Be still my friends, it is our season. To the sports..
Ascot – Champions Day Card
There has been a real fuss over Champions Day and the prospect of moving key Newmarket races next year to create Future Champions Day. In all honestly, it strikes me that a lot of the antipathy is simple resistance to change. After all, why not try it and if it does not work, we can go back! This is a superb card, FIVE group ones, we are spoilt.
One criticism of the timing of the card is that it is likely to have high-profile defections due to winterish ground. That is true of tomorrow but you either have an end of season finale of you do not. We definitely need some soft ground horses tomorrow…
In the opener, the horses that I think will go well on the going are Estimate, Harris Tweed, Biographer, Aiken, Pale Mimosa and Eye of the Storm.
Aiken ran well in this last year and likes it soft under foot but I am not convinced he is good enough. The Queens horse Estimate must rate a huge danger to all having won all of her Ascot starts but I just fancy the chances of Eye of the Storm, 7/1, who won a listed contest latest and has a valuable weight-for-age allowance. He is a smart colt who needs to up his game again but well could do that with plenty progressive profile and the Ballydoyle machine is purring again. Pale Mimosa is no 14/1 shot either and I also like the favourite a lot so it shall be small stakes.
The Champion Sprint Stake is one of these top class races that could typically go to any of the protagonists. Maarek was good when winning the Prix Abbaye and loves it soft but the home team has such a candidate too in Jack Dexter who the dogs have been barking for all week down from 12s into 4s overnight. I have to say that it is hugely attractive, Jack Dexter has won 6 from 6 on soft or worse. Yet I am loathed to support either at the prices and instead opt for 13/2 shot Viztoria who also has an unblemished record on soft ground (although only 2 races). It is a concern that man of the moment Johnny Murtagh is not aboard the girl but I think this is his inability to do the weight rather than him feeling he has a better shot with Belmont Mast.
Regular readers will know what is coming next.
At 2.55, in a corner of Berkshire…. TALENT WILL WIN THE CHAMPIONS FILLIES AND MARES STAKES. Get stuck in at 7/2 and thank me later. She should have won the Leger (OK a bit stretched) and I would have like to have seen her in the Arc (next year) and she has nothing to fear here, I shall pray that she settles. The Lark and the German horse Nymphea may be the closest to looking at Talents glorious behind at the finish.
The QEII is a cracking race and while it is a shame Toronado did not make the line up, we have plenty of quality to give Dawn Approach something to consider. The one I think could completely outrun his price is Kingsbarns at 16/1. This time last year, he had the world at his feet, was favourite for classics but his day in the sun has yet to come this year, missing most through injury. His return was very poor but it is perfectly reasonable to think he may have needed that both physically and mentally. We also get Joseph on board, the comfort that we know he has been in top hands (O’Brien is a master at getting these sorts to fire again) and he won both his juvenile starts on soft. What is not to like?
In the Champion Stakes, Derby winner Ruler of the World is of key interest but is unproven on the ground, although he is a Galileo so perhaps we should not worry too much, of interest. Mukhadram and Farhh are both classy sorts but all of them should really be paying homage to Cirrus Des Aigles. We all remember him giving Frankel a good run last year and you may remember Cirrus winning the race in the previous year, he was 12/1 that day, tomorrow I can only advise you to be on at 5/4.
Poor old @limerickjfk – He tweeted me on Thursday night for some Friday Cheltenham tips and even promised me the benefit of a big drink should they come in. I gave him a non runner and one that finished down the field. I am the sort of friend you do not need. Still, we shall try again and I shall stick a drink on the ledger the other way regardless, because it was nice to be asked!
There are some lovely sorts in the opener at Cheltenham, it is a tasty opening to proceedings. Minella Fiveo is an interesting runner being an Irish raider with Noel Fehily up but the form is uncertain and despite a tempting price, I shall steer to more settled waters. IT is the last time winners which I want to stick with and of them, Kings Palace stands out. The Pipe trained horse won his last race at Fontwell very nicely indeed and I think may be better for further. Oscar Magic rates a real danger as the stable has always been positive about him. Others stand their chance too but I like my selection well enough.
Skipping a race and looking at the 3.10, I cannot get away from Samtegal, 9/4, who was placed in a Scottish Champion Hurdle (a poorer handicap imitation of the Cheltenham masterpiece) which is good enough but he was also placed in a Triumph. I am normally a bit hesitant about Paul Nicholls at this stage of the season, knowing he likes to leave a bit to work on but he had two winners here yesterday and I am in.
Finally in the 5.00, Balder Success is going to be a hot ticket after winning a Chepstow race latest, proving jumping and fitness. I see those benefits but thought it a slightly odd race. At the finish he appeared either idling or more likely running flat and I am not sure stiff tracks are what this horse needs. Turned out again quickly, we will find out. I shall back my argument with a stake on another. Dark Lover, 2/1, was a better hurdler than Balder Success and gets 8lbs here. He also comes with the benefit of winning at Cheltenham before. If you are feeling brace, Mr Watson could beat the lot if he decides to apply himself, a big if!
In football, one bet. West Brom (my own team, I do declare an interest!) have a great chance of winning at Stoke – The team are brimming with talent and confidence, it is a good time to be a baggie.
May your dinner be as well as @limerickjfk who shall eat at Queens Hotel, in excellent company and with good wine, having solved several of the large Cheltenham handicaps.
He will be joined by Martin Hill should the Major break a string of bad losing advices to him with this suggested each way trixie: Talent, Kings Palace and Kingsbarns.
Courage, roll those dice.