The start of the flat season on the Roodee beckons with the Chester May Meeting getting underway on Wednesday. The showcase feature race on the opening day being the Stanjames.com Chester Cup where 16 runners this year will hustle and bustle their way around the track over a 2m 2f 147yd trip.
Ground conditions for this years renewal look set to be worse than recent years with good to soft ground expected. Over the past 20 years, only in 1997, 2004 and 2005 have conditions been similar, meaning the trends gurus will need to be very careful indeed when tackling this race from a betting perspective.
History suggests that an inside draw is more manageable, but stalls in the middle and outside can hold claims if they are positioned well in the early part of the race, or are held up and find suitable gaps for a charging late burst in the final 2f.
The most recent clever ride came in 2010 when Tastihil ridden by Richard Hills, despite being drawn out wide in stall 16, was able to rush up to the leaders and gain a perfect early position against the rail. Further hope can be given more to outside draws this year, given the conditions, as two of the first three home in both 2004 and 2005 raced from middle to high starting stalls.
Whatever you do, do not just limit your focus to stalls 1-8, or you may come unstuck! 2m 2f 147yds is a fair distance, and despite there often being very little room for horses to manoeuvre during the race, there is no doubting that a well timed late run can be rewarded at the finish.
Overturn last year had several things fall in his favour. Drawn 1 he had the perfect opportunity to get himself in front early without wasting valuable energy, and he was unchallenged for the lead throughout the race. On a mark of just 99 he was still fairly handicapped and was able to run out a ready winner. Now facing a mark of 106 for a repeat bid of glory, he faces a tougher task, with competition for the lead more likely this time around.
Another factor that may halt his repeat bid is the softer going as there is little doubt that he would have preferred quick ground, back on the flat once again. Some may suggest that 106 is still not too bad a mark considering he has improved in the last year over hurdles. My thoughts are exactly just that, he has improved his hurdling and aged 8 he is hardly going to have increased his speed. The latter is what will be required in this race and I feel he may find it a tough battle to retain the cup.
Some of his main rivals in the market do have negatives about them, and not just one or two. Gulf Of Naples has been given a starting position in stall 19, but bear in mind with only 16 runners he will only be the 16th widest of all participants, and that did not stop Tastahil two years ago getting to the lead early. As a probable Group horse masquerading as a handicapper in typical fashion, he could pose a threat, despite a lack of overall race experience and knowledge of this unique track.
Other runners prominent in the betting include the well drawn Shubaat in stall 3. Two things would worry me though besides his short price, and they include having only had five career runs prior to this race. Also his young jockey on board claiming 3lb is Dominic Fox, who has only negated the Chester layout 3 times before in his career. Experience matters around here!
Another well fancied runner with a young jockey on board is Tominator who needs to be held up in order to win. This could prove a difficult proposition for his young rider Paul Pickard from stall 2, and this undoubtedly will prove a much sterner challenge, than when he was victorious in the Northumberland Plate, from a 10lb lower mark last season.
Never Can Tell has the luxury of having Frankie Dettori aboard her, a useful match, having won aboard the mare in last years Cesarewitch at Newmarket. She received a 7lb hike in the ratings for that victory when she had looked suspiciously at an advantage, by choosing an alternative approach down the centre of the track, on route to victory. Having said that she already has two course victories to her name at Chester and quite clearly loves the track. Can she win? It is not impossible, but her sole bad performance at this venue came in similar rain softened conditions and as a result she is not great value.
One for money in recent days has been the Aiden O'Brien trained Harrison's Cave. This half brother of 2009 Irish Derby runner up Golden Sword has conditions to suit, but clearly stamina to prove, having only tasted victory at no further than 1m 5f so far. His trainer though will no doubt have some idea of what this colt is capable of and having travelled to the Breeders Cup for the Marathon race last season, he obviously believes this horse can achieve a fair bit. An outside draw in stall 15 may prove a burden, but with tactical speed in his armoury and jockey Ryan Moore aboard, he has huge claims.
A few of interest at bigger prices include Ile De Re for trainer Donald McCain, who should also relish the conditions given the recent rainfall. He has experience of the track having finished 4th in a Listed handicap here on quick ground last year. A quite progressive hurdler of late, he still looks feasibly handicapped on the flat, with a rating only 2lb higher than when he won a 2m handicap at Ascot last August.
Kazbow will not have liked the recent ground description alteration adjudged by his previous record. However he will clearly appreciate Kieran Fallon retaining the partnership with career form figures of 22111020 when together. The setback is that the two zero's in those form figures came over trips 2m or further in competitive races and this ex Luca Cumani trained stayer may not be open to as much improvement on the flat as some others now aged 6.
Possibly the most interesting though of all the outsiders is ETERNAL HEART for trainer Mark Johnston. This colt did not race until he was a 3yo and comes from a late developing family. He was considered good enough for Group 3 competition on just his fifth career outing, when proving strong enough for a third place finish at Ascot. Rain softened ground may not be too much of a problem considering his Group 1 winning half brother Yavana's Pace showed some of his best form on poor ground. Another half brother Littlepacepaddocks also provided his career best form when he met good to soft ground for the first time, when finishing 2nd in a Group 3.
Given a useful starting position in stall 5 and with jockey Joe Fanning aboard, who has a 6-23 (26%) strike rate on older horses at the track, statistically he looks a useful proposition too. Admittedly he did finish behind both Tominator and Ile De Re over shorter here last season, but that was hardly a sufficient test of stamina, on ground far too quick. A more mature and likely better horse this season, he has a chance to win here, before moving forward into Group company once more. Entries in the Yorkshire Cup and Ascot Gold Cup illustrate the high regard in which he is held and the obvious likelihood that he can only improve.
Hopefully softer ground can assist him well and Joe Fanning is able make use of a decent draw to get a prominent early position. A four week break will have kept him fresh after two runs, only ten days apart previously in this campaign, this should have put him in peak physical shape and in my eyes makes him a player at big odds.
1st - Eternal Heart
2nd - Harrison's Cave
3rd - Ile De Re
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