Open Meeting Preview (5 day stage) – Guest post by Paul Ferguson, author of Jumpers To Follow

The meeting kicks off with what could be a fascinating renewal of the Steel Plate And Sections Novices’ Chase, a race that has been won in the past by subsequent Gold Cup winners Denman and Imperial Commander, and a race that was won impressive fashion by Grands Crus 12 months ago. A winner at last year’s meeting and a winner at Chepstow on his chasing bow last month, Fingal Bay looks the obvious place to start among this year’s 15 entries, as he will more than likely head the market. Philip Hobbs’ stable-star remains the only horse to have beaten Simonsig under rules and he made a pleasing start to life over the larger obstacles, warming to his task and jumping well down the back side. It looked as though he would go away and win by a wide margin turning for home, but in the end only had 1½ lengths to spare over Tiger O’Toole, who was conceding 8lbs to the winner and has since been beaten out of sight off a mark of 131. A literal reading of that form would not be good enough here, but Fingal Bay isn’t a flashy individual and appeared to be doing just enough under Richard Johnson. This slightly longer trip will suit, as will the better class of race as I’m sure Johnson would relish a lead if possible. He remains a high-class prospect and will bid to cement his position towards the head of the RSA Chase market with success here.

Of the others with chasing experience Paul Nicholls’ Unioniste jumped well at Aintree and it was a clear disadvantage to him that several fences had to be omitted due to the low sun. John Hales’ grey had earlier jumped well when winning at Auteuil in May and he rates better than the bare form of his British debut.
Of those yet to jump a fence in public Dynaste and Broadbackbob stand out, with the former bidding to follow in the hoof prints of stable-mate Grands Crus. Having won the valuable fixed brush handicap hurdle at Haydock a year ago, comparisons can already be drawn between the David Pipe trained pair. He went on to see the backside of Big Buck’s on his next three outings, with the pick of his form his second to the champion stayer in the Cleeve Hurdle here in January. He ran well at this meeting two years ago when chasing home Aegean Dawn and the six-year-old, who has reportedly schooled well, is a cracking prospect for fences.

Nicky Henderson’s Broadbackbob was developing in to a Neptune Investment contender last winter, with successes over Supreme winner Cinders And Ashes at Ascot in November and an impressive victory at Newbury in December marking him down as a novice hurdler on the upgrade. Beaten here on Trials Day, he returned home with a chip in his hock and missed the remainder of the campaign. The lightly-raced seven year old is another who should make his mark over fences this term and can certainly make an impact at this level. He also holds an entry at Plumpton next Monday, should connections opt for an easier introduction.

The Grade 2 Sharp Novices’ Hurdle is the other race to stand out at entry stage on the opening day, in which Henderson has three entered.  Recent Ascot winner My Tent Or Yours would appreciate a more strongly run race and would appeal as the pick of his three at this stage (Close Touch looks promising but this would be a big step up, while this would be a very hot race in which to unleash Ayr bumper winner River Maigue). The more runners the better for My Tent Or Yours, as he raced with the choke out the whole way on debut and, in the end, probably did well to fend off Taquin De Seuil.  He will need to settle better, but he clearly has a massive engine. High-class Flat performer Tominator is another who falls in to the ‘big engine’ category, but he would need to jump much better than he did at Bangor on debut. Despite making a mess of several flights, he still had the class to saunter clear in the closing stages. The Cesarewitch third clearly has the ability to land a race of this quality, but a watching brief maybe best until he proves he can hurdle more fluently at this better level.

Irish raider Run With The Wind should not be underestimated if travelling over as he’ll relish the better ground and is a strong traveller. It could be that he’ll be slightly under-rated by the bookmakers, given he is only rated 135, but he ought to run a big race. The market is likely to revolve around Dodging Bullets and Court Minstrel (should My Tent Or Yours miss the gig), both of whom won at the opening meeting of the season at the track. Second season novice Dodging Bullets is officially rated 150, having travelled really well in last season’s Triumph, and he eventually got the job done on his return. He did run in snatches, however, and won’t be able to get away with that here, though he ought to appreciate a more strongly run contest.
Court Minstrel was very impressive in winning a maiden hurdle on his debut over timber, having travelled really powerfully for Paul Moloney. He was not far behind My Tent Or Yours in the Grade 2 bumper at Aintree on Grand National day and he readily pulled clear of The Romford Pele here last month. He looks sure to run his race and the form of that contest is working out reasonably well with the fourth, fifth and seventh all finishing second since, while sixth home Landscape won at Exeter last week.

A bold showing from Court Minstrel would point punters towards Titan De Sarti in the conditional jockeys’ handicap hurdle and Nicky Henderson’s five-year-old is the most interesting handicap entrant on day one for me. Always held in some regard, he has only run twice since his juvenile days and was significantly backed ahead of his return last month. He looked an absolute picture beforehand, but was off the bridle a fair way out, before staying on as though a step up in trip was what he requires. Henderson won this race in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and, with the 2m5f trip likely to suit, he is worth chancing off a mark of 123. Michael Buckley’s five-year-old also holds entries on the Saturday and the Sunday, but this would appeal as the easier contest.

For many punters the week will revolve around Grands Crus in the feature contest of the three-day meeting, the Paddy Power Gold Cup and, though it is far from original, he is clearly the most likely winner of the race.  Quite whether he represents value at 9/4 (best price at the time of writing) is another matter and it is very much hoped that a couple of the big firms try to take him on on Saturday morning. He looked as though he would go right to the top over fences in the first half of last season, with his hat-trick being racked up in impressive fashion in the Feltham at Kempton on Boxing Day and that form could hardly have worked out any better. Runner-up Silviniaco Conti went on to win at Aintree and was an easy winner of the Charlie Hall the weekend before last, while third home Bobs Worth landed the RSA Chase, for which Grands Crus was sent off the 6/5 favourite. He clearly failed to run his race that day and is a fair bit better than that, which makes a mark of 157 look attractive. Given the pace he has shown both over fences (won over this trip on his chase debut last year and also looked full of speed in the Feltham) and over hurdles, the drop back in trip is more of a positive than a negative and, as he has won at this meeting on his seasonal debut in each of the past two seasons, the seven-year-old has plenty going for him. He will, however, have to defy trends followers and it should be remembered that Long Run was beaten in this contest two years ago off a mark of 158, before going on to land the King George and Gold Cup. Grands Crus has more tactical speed than Long Run and I believe a clear round should make him difficult to beat.

Judged on the progression he made last season, it’s not hard to see why Hunt Ball has been popular in recent days, despite racing off a 15lb higher mark from which he won at the Festival.  He went on to finish third at Aintree, where he travelled strongly for a long way, and the drop back in trip is also viewed upon as a positive for Kieran Burke’s stable star.

The step up in trip ought to suit Al Ferof but he is a horse I rarely get right and he will have to have improved to give 2lbs to both Grands Crus and Hunt Ball. Course specialist Quantitativeeasing rarely runs a bad race over this course and distance and, though he looks plenty high enough in the weights, he could be of some interest in the place market for those looking for a bit more value.

Elsewhere on Saturday, rather like the Steel Plate And Sections, the Rewards4Racing Novices’ Chase could be another informative contest. First and second over course-and-distance at the last fixture, Sire Collonges and Irish-raider Sea Of Thunder probably set the standard. The winner stepped up massively on his Fontwell win and looks a smart staying novice, though he does have the option of waiting another week for Newbury’s Hennessy meeting. Ruby Walsh did well to gather him up after a stumble at the penultimate fence last time and still had 2 lengths to spare over the runner-up at the line. That is enough to suggest he can confirm form on 3lb worse terms, though Sea Of Thunder will appreciate any drying in the ground.  He remains a useful prospect, especially when facing genuinely good ground, and he could be one to keep in mind for one of the Festival handicaps.

Dynaste, who is more likely to run on Friday, and Our Father would be of interest on debut for David Pipe, with the latter a chaser on looks. He disappointed after landing a massive gamble at Ascot last December and, having won on his debut last January, first time out maybe the time to catch the son of Shantou, who has looked full of potential the twice he has won.

The final one to note here at this stage is Colin Tizzard’s Masters Hill who may have gone under the radar slightly when winning impressively at Chepstow last month. He jumped really well en route to running out a 6-length winner and his in-form trainer was very complimentary about him in his recent Racing Post stable tour.

Earlier on the card Paul Nicholls will bid for a third successive success in the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial, after the victories of Sam Winner and Hinterland, with Chepstow winner Far West. He did it really nicely on debut and pulled 12 lengths clear of Alan King’s Handazan, who came out and won at Aintree next time.  The son of Poliglote has raced exclusively on soft ground to date, so it will be interesting to see how he handles these quicker conditions. Dual winner Mcvicar may find life tough under a double penalty and the main threat is likely to come from Nicky Henderson’s Vasco Du Ronceray who beat nothing of note at Hereford on his British debut, but pulled 32-lengths clear of the 109-rated Cool Hand Luke in taking fashion. He has already proven he handles better ground than Far West and the son of Al Namix stayed on strongly to land an AQPS contest at Chateaubriant in August on his final start in France. Clearly well thought of, he can put himself right in the Triumph Hurdle picture with success here. Of the remainder Shelford was smart on the Flat in Ireland and is one to note, but this would be a very tall order on his debut over hurdles.

Sunday looks arguably the pick of the three days, with the return of Sprinter Sacre set to light up proceedings in the Shloer Chase. The brilliant Arkle winner has to concede upwards of 6lbs to his rivals on his return and, on official ratings, Wishfull Thinking actually comes out best (rated just 7lbs off Sprinter Sacre but receives 10lbs here). However, those ratings don’t tell the whole story and it will be bitterly disappointing if the six year old doesn’t pick up where he left off at Aintree in April.

It could be a big day for his trainer Nicky Henderson, who looks set to unleash Captain Conan over fences in the opening Racing Post Arkle Trophy Trial Novices’ Chase. It’s rather un-Henderson like to pitch one in to a Grade 2 on debut, which indicates schooling has gone to plan, and the giant five year old bids to end the run of Paul Nicholls in this contest, with the champion trainer having saddled the past four winners, as well as winning the race with Azertyuiop and Thisthatandtother in 2002 and 2003, respectively. He will be represented by the penalised Rebel Rebellion, who did it nicely at Exeter (form will be tested out by runner-up Bold Henry on Wednesday), but may find it tough to concede 4lbs all round.

Captain Conan won the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle on his British debut in January and, after flopping in Ireland and being beaten at Kelso in March, he bounced right back to form to chase home stablemate Darlan at Aintree. A strapping individual, he looks made for fences and, though this is by no means an easy place to start, he is fancied to make a winning chase debut. Others to note include His Excellency and Third Intention, who finished first and second here last month, and Sire De Grugy who won well on debut at Kempton, but he could well prove best racing right-handed.

The aforementioned Darlan heads both the weights and the market for the day’s feature, the Racing Post Hurdle, and he needs to be going close off a mark of 151 if he is to develop in to a Champion Hurdle contender. Rooster Booster, Rigmarole, Detroit City and Menorah have carried top-weight to success in this contest in the past decade so his supporters shouldn’t worry from a trends point of view and the five year old is sure to relish a strongly run race. He finished runner-up to Cinders And Ashes in the Supreme here in March, before winning at Aintree and he will be played late under AP McCoy.  He looks more than capable of taking a hand here, but lacks value at 3/1.

Henderson’s “second string” Cash And Go has been latched on to in the market and it’s not hard to see why, as he is a Grade 1 winner and rated just 141. Formerly trained by Edward O’Grady, he looks a viable each-way alternative to his new stable-companion in what looks a competitive affair. Others to note include Vendor who ran too badly to be true at Aintree just three weeks ago and remains of interest off his current mark, though he clearly needs to leave that disappointing reappearance behind.

Earlier on the card, Henderson’s Malt Master is one of several interesting second season hurdlers engaged in the 2m5f Paddy Power Intermediate Hurdle, a race that has been won by Punchestowns and Grands Crus in recent seasons. He is unexposed after just two runs over hurdles, while Persian Snow was an eye-catcher at the last meeting, running on behind Dark Lover (runs in the Racing Post Hurdle) over 2m½f indicating he’ll appreciate the step up in trip. The final one to note at this early stage is Jonjo O’Neill’s Well Sharp who was smart on the Flat and is two from two over hurdles. Rather like stablemate Tominator, who could run in the Grade 2 novice hurdle on Friday, he needs to jump better, but there is plenty of scope for improvement off an attractive opening mark of 125. The form of his two novice hurdle successes don’t amount to much, but he remains very interesting and cost his current connections no less than 250,000gns.

The penultimate contest, the Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle, went the way of Fingal Bay last year and Philip Hobbs will bid to strike again with Village Vic who ran a blinder on debut over hurdles, when runner-up to The New One here last month. Indeed, a rematch was expected here, so it is disappointing that the winner has not been entered, but Village Vic, who will appreciate any softening of the ground, pulled 21 lengths clear of the useful Thomas Crapper and it could be significant that connections opt for this, rather than trying to pick up a maiden or novice contest at one of the smaller tracks. The other one to stand out at entry stage in this is Paul Nicholls’ Fox Run who arrived at Ditcheat with a big reputation from the Irish point-to-point ranks and he made a most pleasing rules debut when winning by 14 lengths at Worcester last month. The four-year-old looked better the longer that contest went on and he bounded clear once Ruby Walsh asked him to go. This is a big step up in class, but he looked a horse of huge potential last time.
Nicholls will be hoping to round off the meeting in style with expensive purchase Fascino Rustico in the concluding Listed bumper. A hugely impressive winner at Carlisle for Ronnie O’Leary in April, he has joined John Hales for £310,000 and the form of his debut success has worked out well with the next two home winning three hurdle races between them. He is an exciting prospect and will hopefully maintain his 100% record, but faces several unexposed types here, with The Liquidator boasting strong form when splitting Clondaw Kaempfer and Snake Eyes at Fairyhouse; River Maigue won impressively at Ayr in April, while at a lesser level Hannibal The Great, Mister W K, Sgt Reckless and Westward Point all won with authority on debut.

Read my daily column and selections online at and follow me on Twitter @paulfergusonJTF.