|Wednesday 1st January 2014|
Cheltenham's meeting on January 1 ushers in a strong start to the New Year's jumps programme with the Class 1 Dipper Novices' Chase occupying pride of place on a busy card. Nicky Henderson will be looking to claw back lost ground on Paul Nicholls in the trainers' championship courtesy of Oscar Whisky in the 2m 5f event.
If rookie handler Harry Fry decides upon sending potential stable star, Vukovar, for the beginners' chase at Exeter on New Year's Day then punters should expect an improved showing from the former French-trained gelding.
I was present at Warwick when the well-regarded Vukovar made his fencing bow over a clearly inadequate 2 mile trip, and while he had gotten warm beforehand and looked buzzy in the preliminaries, he was swept aside by Mr Mole's turn of speed and in reality this was the wrong trip for Vukovar, who wants 3m, the mud and a stiff track. Two and a half miles around Exeter should be a happy medium.
The end of January's first week sees Sandown stage their first card of 2014 on the 4th of the month, and Garde La Victoire could be the one to set punters on the path to profit should trainer Philip Hobbs send him for the Grade 2 Tolworth Hurdle. He lost no caste in defeat behind Ballyalton recently, and can resume winningways.
The following week's action on January 11th features a fine card from Warwick with the valuable Betfred Classic Chase occupying centre stage on a usually cracking afternoon. Two years ago Hey Big Spender landed the spoils and connections will be aiming to win that same race again while Alan King, who has sent out some stinkers in top handicaps of late, may give Godsmejudge the chance to redeem his tarnished reputation after a poor run last time.On the same card several of the stronger candidates for novice hurdle honours around the 2m 5f trip will be in action in the Leamington Novices Hurdle, a graded contest over the longer trip at the West Midlands track. John Ferguson took this prize with Cotton Mill two years ago, and any runner from his yard must be considered.
The best race of January takes place at Ascot on January 18 when the Sodexho Clarence House Chase (formerly the Victor Chandler chase) offers Sprinter Sacre another opportunity to show why he is the best jumps horse in training.
Nicky Henderson's 2m colossus is so far ahead of his rivals that the lack of opposition is sure to be embarrassing and all Grade 1 2m chase snow should suffer from a dearth of credible opposition.
Over at Haydock on the same day Grand National contenders will be plying their trade in the Peter Marsh Chase, and a tough and improving stayer is usually what punters should be looking for at the Lancashire track. The Sue Smith-trained Vintage Star fits this bill, and is my idea of the Peter Marsh winner. The Haydock card also includes the Champion Hurdle Trial though at the point of the race name is where any resemblance to a proper trial for the Cheltenham showpiece inevitably ends.
January's jumps action turns full circle on January 25 when Cheltenham stages a full-blown trial fixture for the Festival in March. The feature race is the Argento Chase followed by the Cleeve Hurdle and the Finesse Juvenile Hurdle Trial. Judging by past results, it is debatable how much bearing these races will exert upon the festival in March, and backers should be wary of reading too much into the outcome of these trials.
Still, Big Buck's will look like a good thing for the Cleeve Hurdle, and the multiple World Hurdle hero can maintain his unbeaten record at Prestbury Park though More Of That, a young pretender and unbeaten to boot, might well have something to say about the champ's return.
Over at Doncaster on the same day the course stages the River Don Novices' Hurdle for would-be young stayers while the Skybet Chase is the feature handicap of Doncaster's all-too brief National Hunt season. A good card also includes the Racing Post Lightning Novices' Chase, and this graded contest remains a mid-term aim for Harry Fry's former Champion Hurdle hero, Rock On Ruby.
Follow Malcolm Heyhoe's December selections with GG Alert.
[Archive December 2013]