Sandown opens the month on February 4 with an excellent card and another set of possible Cheltenham clues. In recent seasons the Agfa Diamond Chase has suffered through small and uncompetitive fields but that worrying trend has started to change of late and this year’s renewal is sure to be a competitive one.
Alan King’s tough stayer Fork Lightning may well be among the entries for the ‘Agfa’, and given his preference for racing right-handed and his fine run behind Joaaci in a strong heat last time, he is likely to be among the more fancied runners.
Some of the season’s smarter novice chasers will be in action in Sandown’s Grade 1 Scilly Isles Chase, a contest that was won last year by Henrietta Knight’s El Vaquero and it’ll be interesting to see whether Ms Knight decides to let her rising chase star Racing Demon take his place in the select field.
Over at Wetherby on the same day the staying novices strut their stuff in the Grade 2 Totty Construction Towton Novices’ Chase where the accent is firmly upon stamina in what is always a gruelling contest. Northern trainer Sue Smith won this race a couple of years ago with smart stayer Royal Emperor and may have another similar candidate in Rebel Rhythm, who has already won a novices’ event around the West Yorkshire track.
A week later sees Newbury stage the totesport Trophy Handicap Hurdle, Europe’s richest handicap over timber, on February 11. On a day of cracking action the pulsating two-mile contest takes pride of place and is always won by a good horse.
Finding the winner is never easy but the bookmakers seems to think that Martin Pipe’s talented novice Acambo is the one to beat and he heads the ante-post market with most firms. Pipe has won the race a couple of times in recent years courtesy of Copeland (2002) and Make A Stand (1997) and Acambo is sure to figure highly in Pipe’s plans for Newbury.
Local handler, Nicky Henderson, has also been a trainer to watch out for in this valuable event, saddling no less than four of the last ten winners and the stable’s main hope in 2006 looks to be Grand Jete, a one-time Champion Hurdle hope who looked like winning at Aintree last April until he went lame approaching the last.
Twelve months ago Ireland’s Essex justified favouritism to give the Emerald Isle its second winner in three seasons. One year later there’s a strong Irish challenge once again with the Jessica Harrington-trained Studmaster bidding to follow Essex’s footsteps by winning at Newbury after landing Ireland’s prestigious Pierse Hurdle one month earlier. Significantly, Mrs Harrington landed this valuable pot with Spirit Leader in 2003.
Top weights boast a good record too and Irish trainer John Queally believes his stable star Al Eile will go close to winning the totesport Trophy off 11st 12lb. Queally’s gelding didn’t hurt his Newbury chances by winning at Haydock the other day because he incurs no penalty for that success and has to be on any one’s short-list.
The same is true of the Venetia Williams-trained Chief Yeoman, who looks terrific value at 14-1 with most bookmakers. Connections have been pleased with his two runs so far and he has been aimed at this race since returning to action behind Acambo at Windsor before Christmas. Expect hi to step up on what he’s done so far this season.
The main attraction on Newbury’s supporting card is the Game Spirit Chase, a two mile and a furlong conditions chase that is often used as a final preparatory race by trainers for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
This year’s race is likely to be won by the current Queen Mother favourite Kauto Star, who will be using the Newbury event as a stepping-stone to Festival glory. Over at Warwick course specialist Voy Por Ustedes will be treading a similar path as he bids to earn a place in the Arkle Trophy line-up at the Festival by running well in the coralpoker.com Kingmaker Chase at Warwick on the same day.
On the following weekend February 18 all eyes will be on Champion Hurdle aspirants in the Axminster Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. Trainer Alan King may well let Penzance, his Triumph Hurdle hero of 2005, take his place in the line-up at the West Country venue after a series of disappointing efforts so far this season.
Who knows, maybe even the elusive Lingo will return to action for Jonjo O’Neill. He won easier than most horses do at Cheltenham in November and following good support for the Champion Hurdle in March would be a fascinating runner.
Up at Haydock on the same day Grand National hopefuls will go on trial in the Red Square Vodka Gold Cup, a punishing test of stamina over Haydock’s big drop fences in a contest that has sometimes exerted a strong influence upon the outcome of the world’s most famous race at Aintree in April.
Trainer Ginger McCain, a four-time winner of the Grand National courtesy of Red Rum and Amberleigh House, looks to have another leading Grand National candidate in the guise of Ebony Light, a surprise winner of January’s Peter Marsh Chase from the joint Gold Cup favourite, Kingscliff. McCain plans to run Ebony Light in the Red Square Vodka Gold Cup before going to Aintree for a crack at the Grand National.
The best of February’s action closes on the weekend of February 25 with Racing Post Handicap Chase day at Sandown Park. The betting is often a strong guide to the outcome of this classiest of chases and well-fancied runners boast a good record.
Take note too of the winner and placed horses because this influential contest has frequently yielded a winner or two at next month’s Cheltenham Festival. Among the more potent contenders this season are likely to be the well treated Ladalko, who has been talked about as a possible for this prize by his trainer, Paul Nicholls, and Lacdoudal from the Philip Hobbs stable that has sent out three winners of this race in recent years.
On the same day at Newcastle there’s the four mile and a furlong Tote Northern National, a marathon chase in which shock winners are a rarity. Stamina is of the essence here and the locally-trained Ossmoses, who relishes racing over long-distances and has long looked a natural for this race and will be a name to note among the entries later in the month.