A sensational day of racing on both sides of the Irish Sea but we begin our preview in Ireland where The Grade 1 Matheson Hurdle is the feature contest on the fourth and final day of Leopardstown’s brilliant Christmas Festival.
The shock defeat of Epatante at Kempton on Boxing Day in the Christmas Hurdle showed that the Champion Hurdler is beatable although I am not convinced it was a ride that Aidan Coleman – sorry Nico – will include in any greatest hits album he releases in his dotage. Trainer Nicky Henderson has suggested he will close his yard down for a couple of weeks following Altior’s poor scope at Kempton yet he has five runners today and the biggest price of the quintet is 9/2 at the time of posting.
Willie Mullins has saddled the winner of the corresponding race six times in the last eight years including the last twice with Sharjah who bids for a hat-trick this afternoon. The 7-y-old finished runner up in the Champion Hurdle back in March and ran well in two hot handicaps on the level back in the summer from marks in the mid-90s. He must go close, but I am a big fan of Saint Roi (2.25) and will be disappointed if he does not reverse last month’s Morgiana Hurdle form with Abacadabras and enhance his own Champion Hurdle claims.
The selection – 15/8 with William Hill – was a fluent winner of the County Hurdle at Cheltenham in March and almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong at Punchestown. Mark Walsh will be hoping for a better gallop to chase although he will need to hurdle better than was the case last time.
In the opener at Kelso, I am very sweet on the chances of Sirwilliamwallace (11.40) who ruined his chance by constantly jumping out to his left at Carlisle last time. The selection won on his only previous start at the Borders track and this extended 2m 6f trip on soft ground on a left-handed track is ideal. He does not need luck to win today – he just needs to avoid bad luck. He is well handicapped from a mark of 120. There was 2s available first thing but he is 13/8 with BetVictor at the time of posting.
Alminar (3.07) is visored for the first time in the finale and makes the long trek north from Nigel Hawke’s yard in Devon. The selection – 4s with 10bet – has a good record for today’s amateur pilot Kieran Buckley – 2 wins from four rides – and he looked to be travelling as well as anything at Haydock last time over 3m 4f on heavy ground before he ran out of petrol. Note the yard had a winner – ridden by Buckley – at Wincanton on Boxing Day.
Over to Doncaster and in the opener Dashing Perk won a point over three miles and steps up in distance today having finished runner up in two starts over 2m 4f so far this term. He has been raised 5lbs for his last start, however, and I am unconvinced that he is crying out for 3m on soft ground. He is overlooked.
The Late Legend has won four of his last five and is not out of it despite being 35lbs higher than when scoring at Sedgefield on good ground back in the autumn. He has shown that he can cope with soft ground and it would be no surprise if he defied another 10lbs hike for his latest success.
The vote, however, goes to Truckin Away (12.00) who finished runner up at Ludlow last time from a 2lbs lower mark when he gave every indication that a return to a left-handed track would suit. Trainer Philip Hobbs had a disappointing two-day Kempton meeting which tempers confidence but the 7/2 with Boylesports looks fair.
Dan Skelton had an outstanding couple of days at Kempton and I hope to see Get On The Yager (2.40) bounce back to form for the stable in the Mandarin Chase at Newbury. The selection is rising 11 but landed the Rowland Meyrick at Wetherby three years ago and ran well for a long time at Wincanton on his reappearance. The handicapper has certainly given him a chance and he gets the each way vote at a double figure price – 11s with Boylesports.
The G1 Challow Hurdle is the feature contest and five of the six novice hurdlers who go to post hold realistic claims. Bravemansgame improved for the step up to today’s 2m 4f trip when scoring over C&D last time but he does have to prove he can be as effective on soft ground despite winning his sole point on a similar terrain in his native Ireland.
Preference is for Star Gate (3.15) who turned a moderate Sandown Grade 2 into a procession last time and will certainly need to improve again to take this much deeper race. He has barely come off the bridle to win both hurdle starts, howsever, and is another exciting prospect for the Evan Williams stable. There was bigger available on Monday afternoon but he is 2s at Unibet at the time of posting.