Let’s admit it; it was a quiet weekend, news wise and in terms of the racing. It felt somewhat like the weekend before Cheltenham, but at the same time there was enough for fans to get stuck into – mainly at Sandown and Naas. ITV had their second outing and we also saw their version of The Morning Line debuted, with Oli Bell, Tom Scudamore and Luke Harvey combining well. On the whole the production and presentation was much smoother and felt more natural this week, as certain pundits appeared calmer and less excitable. The potential is undoubtedly there; however viewing numbers are only going to decrease on ITV 4. Whilst it seems this is a done deal and already decided for the months ahead, hopefully in the not too distant future they can get racing back on their main channel where it has to be to increase the popularity of the sport as promised. The Opening Show was also encouraging, as they covered a broader range of topical issues rather than a tiresome race by race preview as became the norm on Channel 4. The paper review was particularly good, and if built on could become a must watch for any fan.
The Rule 4 episode that dragged into the weekend – and still continues in various places on social media – has certainly been over exaggerated by the slow news week. Bookmakers were quick to be criticised, when in reality nothing new has happened and unfortunately there is no proof for either side of the argument that anything malicious was intended. The R4 is on the side of the punter anyhow (most of the time), and although certain aspects need updating to move with the times in the bookmaking world no wholesale changes are feasible the way things stand, nor do they need to be changed. There are much bigger issues needing attention between the biggest bookmakers, the BHA and punters and the constant bickering amongst the hierarchies will not see anything resolved as per.
Sandown and Wincanton held the better cards on Saturday afternoon. Whilst the fog once again made any analysis of the races from Wincanton near impossible, there were some noteworthy performances at Sandown, especially amongst the younger horses. There is only one place to start, with yet another Colin Tizzard class act emerging. Finian’s Oscar was a cosy winner of the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle and whilst many were quick to bemoan the form due to times and sectionals (which admittedly were average at best), on the eye he looks a star in the making. A race such as the Tolworth can’t always be judged on the time. It was a tactical race run on tacky ground, which younger horses would find especially challenging. When the Tizzard horse breezed clear at the penultimate hurdle it looked as he could take the race even more strikingly than was the case, yet he idled and allowed the others a sniff. With some more experience he would have destroyed the field; yes it wasn’t the hottest G1 but he beat what he could easily. While he could run at Cheltenham in a variety of top novice races, this won’t be the be all and end all for connections who forked out hundreds of thousands for a future star chaser, not a one season star hurdler. Garde La Victoire cemented his position as stuck between a grade horse and a top handicapper, when winning gamely under another top Dicky Johnson ride. It was another youngster, Don Bersy, who was arguably the other notable winner on the day. The 4YO comfortably beat the well fancied Coeur De Lion in the opener. Connections were quick to play down the significance of the win however, and perhaps Coeur De Lion simply isn’t what he was cracked up to be a couple of months back.
Naas held a good card through Sunday afternoon and a pair of Willie Mullins fallers allowed rivals Henry De Bromhead and Gordon Elliot to swoop for the top races. The novice chase that had some real depth to it despite the small field, went to Some Plan at 7/1. The fact that this horse went in as the outsider shows just how competitive a race it was but also that he was very much over priced after falling late on when in with a serious shout at Cheltenham previously. The fall of American Tom in this race was the main news however, despite being tired and out of the race when it occurred. It quickly emerged he had a lung infection, but the festival fancy who was really well regarded by trainer and Rich Ricci now faces an uphill battle to head to Cheltenham with a shot come March. Death Duty was labelled the best Elliot has ever had at this stage of his career after winning the valuable G1 Novice Hurdle. He ran in a cosy 9L winner, but may have been stretched much further had the impressive Augusta Kate not fallen at the last after travelling well throughout. He continues his winning run over hurdles, improving with each outing and right now must be one of the bankers for the festival looking ahead. He’ll go straight to Cheltenham and the Albert Bartlett looks the likely race. Bookmakers reacted by cutting him again, with a best price of around 9/4 most common.