Plenty of rain is forecast for the early hours so conditions at both Ascot and Wetherby could well be on the soft side by the time of racing. Never the easiest of races to fathom with little or no chase form to go on. Copain De Classe is a five year old of some potential over fences, is clear on Quickened Clear’s ratings and could well take the beating for Paul Nicholls and Sam Twiston-Davies. Space Oddity has to be respected after running in what looked a fairly hot novice chase last time behind Shantou Rock, he is improving and Benatar, who should improve when jumping a fence, has some good looking novice hurdle form and also looks a threat. Cobrai De Mai, fifth at Cheltenham last weekend will likely encounter tougher conditions here and it may be a big ask to reproduce that run on slower ground after suffering from a fibrillating heart in the past while recent Cesarewitch eighth, Duke Street, also makes the shortlist and is open to improvement.
There has to be doubts about Le Bague Au Roi on ground which will be on the soft side. She had some fair novice form last season before finding graded races at Cheltenham and Aintree a little too much and though she stays two and a half miles her only attempt on soft ground was at Aintree in a bumper where she faded as a 2/1 favourite. The likes of Lady Buttons, Late Night Lily, Giveaway Glance, Miss Night Owl and Graceful Legend are all closely matched in the search for black type with Lady Buttons possibly the one to side with if she continues her improvement from last season. Intense Tango would go close at a big price if returning to her 2015 form.
With heavy rain forecast for Saturday conditions could well go in favour Venetia Williams’ Calipto who has a liking for softer ground. This son of Califet ran notably well at Cheltenham in March on a good surface, having changed yards form Paul Nicholls to his current trainer and looks well treated, but does need to improve his jumping. If the rain does not arrive three who have to be worthy of consideration are Max Ward, Marracuda and Theinval, though Marracudja and Theinval really should have won more races. 2016 first and third Quite By Chance and Festive Affair should be respected but both are much higher in the weights this time while Somchine could go well at a price with the more rain the better for Seamus Mullins’ gelding.
Lil Rockerfeller just gets better and better with age producing a career best when running a cracker in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham only for Nichols Canyon to spoil the party and coming late to steal the honours. The likelihood is that the Ascot Hurdle and Long Walk Hurdle are the main targets this year so fitness is a concern as Lil Rockerfeller does not have a great record when fresh. Arguably his best efforts have come on good to soft or good and that coupled with a fitness concern makes him vulnerable. Ptit Zig, if producing one of his better performances is serious contender, he will like the ground, goes well fresh and stays but he can be inconsistent. Wholestone will relish stepping back up to three miles after a fair return at Chepstow with soft ground in his favour and could go close. Fergal O’Brien has been in fine form of late and saddles Colin’s Sister who loves soft ground and improved throughout last season before finding conditions too quick at Fairyhouse in April. Her dam stayed three miles so the trip should be no problem and with a little improvement over the summer could be worth a small punt @ 16/1. Outsiders Gayebury and Fountains Windfall are also open to improvement and cannot be totally ruled out.
A competitive early season handicap hurdle in which Nicky Henderson admitted that Jenkins has been hard to train and has a lofty mark for what he has achieved, though his trainer clearly thinks he is talented but on all available form should not be a 4/1 favourite. Stablemate Verdana Blue improved throughout 2017 culminating in a good effort, travelling notably well in a listed race at Cheltenham in April and should be doing her best work at the finish. Elgin defeated Jenkins at Kempton and produced some solid novice form last season though his best two performances came at sharper tracks so has a little to prove at this galloping course. Air Horse One has performed well in top handicaps after learning to settle and with course form has to be respected but does shoulder top weight. Midnight Maestro is a potential improver who will relish the heavy rain forecast and could be a bit of value @ 12/1 while High Bridge and High Secret should also be considered though Limited Reserve has the look of needing more of a test than the two miles here.
The Charlie Hall Chase has attracted two big guns in the form of multiple grade one winner Cue Card and former Gold Cup victor Coneygree. Both are having their first runs of the season so some caution is urged in terms of betting, especially with Cue Card who carries a penalty and faded into third in this race last season. Coneygree’s fitness as described by the words of Sara Bradstock, "He'll come on for the race, he wouldn't be at peak fitness, but he's in good nick”, suggesting he won’t be cherry ripe but he will do himself justice and without the penalty has to be favourite. Blaklion, fourth in the Gran National will need a stamina test so the soft ground could bring him into play and Nigel Twiston-Davies other runner, Bristol De Mai is talented but his jumping can go awry and he needs to get into a good rhythm to be seen at his best. The value clearly lies with Brian Ellison’s Definitly Red @ 8/1 who has a good record fresh and improved with every completed run last season. He goes very well at Wetherby and given more improvement could challenge the big two at the head of the market especially if they are not at their best.
Antony looks to be primed for a defence of his crown after winning this in 2016 and could be worth a bet @ 14/1. Gary Moore’s seven year old goes well at this time of year, warmed up with a third behind Go Conquer at Fontwell and should enjoy rain softened ground. Antony’s victor last time Go Conquer has to come under serious consideration but would not want the ground too soft. Second and fourth in 2016, Junction Fourteen and Fourth Act should go well again with, the latter looking well handicapped if his jumping holds up. Thomas Brown goes well fresh and should enjoy tackling three miles for Harry Fry and Niall Madden. Braqueur D’Or has a bit more on his plate here than what he has encountered throughout the summer with the galloping, stiffer course very different to the likes of Stratford, Newton Abbot and Ludlow. Ballycross and Bigbadjohn can go well at prices but are prone to mistakes at their fences.
Quickened Clear’s Best Bets:
Colin’s Sister – 2.40 Wetherby – 1pt win @ 16/1
Definitly Red – 3.15 Wetherby – 1pt win @ 8/1
Antony – 3.35 Ascot – 1pt win @ 14/1