Balthazar King wins Cross Country 2014.

Day One @ The Open

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Balthazar King wins Cross Country 2014.
Balthazar King (R Johnson) wins the 2014 Cross Country Chase much to the delight of the crowd.

Once again we are back at the scene of the greatest show on turf as Cheltenham Racecourse welcomes racegoers to their Open Meeting this weekend. There are three days of top quality National Hunt action which will see some fiercely contested handicaps, mixed in with some graded races and also we’ll be seeing the novices go head to head.

The main race of this meeting is without doubt the Paddy Power Gold Cup, a Grade 3 handicap run over two and a half miles on Saturday, but looking ahead to tomorrow and we seem to have an ideal mix of both Novices’ and handicaps to whet the appetite, along with foray into the Cross Country sphere where the brilliant Balthazar King will be looking to defend his crown.

The opening race on the card is the Opus Energy Amateur Riders Handicap Chase at (1:15), and it see’s last year’s winner Handy Andy returning to try to do it all again off a 5lb higher mark. Oscar Time has been unbeaten in hunter chases since a gallant fourth in the Grand National, and returns into handicap company off 136 some 9lb lower than for that Aintree effort. He isn’t getting any younger at the age of 13, and is likely to run his race but with a campaign geared around another crack at the big one in April, he probably won’t be knocked about here. Charingworth is going to be well fancied here after a gallant effort behind The Young Master last time up, the third Balbriggan had won two previous and has since won a novice hurdle for Gordon Elliott, so this form looks rock solid – especially when you consider the Neil Mulholland trained Echo Of Light gelding did in the Badger Ales Trophy last weekend. Ballyoliver returned with a career best effort at Carlisle a couple of weeks ago, and is partnered once again by Will Biddick who last rode him to victory in December 2012. The Nephew returned to chasing is another capable of having a say in this race but wouldn’t want the ground to get any softer overnight, but the most likely winner to my eye is the Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Benbens who is unexposed over fences with just 5 chase starts to his name. Of those starts 3 yielded victory’s and a narrow defeat on his chasing bow. His most recent effort came at a time when the yard weren’t firing on all cylinders back in October, and there could be more to come from him here.

The second race on the card is the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at (1:50) where a field of 20 look set to do battle over two miles. Karinga Dancer and Next Sensation head the weights off marks of 145 and both ought to be competitive from that sort of rating. Next Sensation ran a remarkable race in last season’s Grand Annual at the Cheltenham Festival and a repeat of that effort sees him go very close here. Below-par on seasonal return at Ascot two weeks ago, he’ll need to have come on plenty from that effort to enthuse any confidence. Karinga Dancer looked really good at Exeter the last day but got in quite low at a few round here the start prior. He didn’t look a natural around this circuit but could have just had an off day, that said off a mark of 145 he wouldn’t get away with making many mistakes. Anay Turge won this last year but hasn’t looked the same horse since. Astracad promises to land one of these types of events the way he goes through his races, and will be cherry ripe after a couple of efforts so far this season – gradually inching down the weights and dropping back in trip could see that promise realised. Festive Affair travelled well for a long way at the Cheltenham Festival before dropping away like a non-stayer over two miles four furlongs, and he too could have more improvement in him with this big field to get settled in, he is one worth keeping an eye on – as is De Faoithesdream who has returned a better horse over hurdles this season than we’ve seen previous, and should he continue that improvement back over fences he is a major player in this contest.

The third race on the card is the Steel Plate And Sections Novices’ Chase due off at (2:25) and has attracted a top-notch field of novices’ in what looks the most exciting contest of the day. Bullet Street and Splash Of Ginge both already winners over fences head the weights, and are both looking to give away 8lbs to some top class rivals. Splash Of Ginge was below par on his chasing debut at Perth but quickly made up for that with an exemplary round over C&D at The Showcase meeting – he has a tough job on his hands though giving away weight to some very good types. Urban Hymn was a very good novice hurdler in the north last season and came very close to making a winning chasing debut at Carlisle when out-speeded by Duke Of Navan over the minimum trip, which would have been very much in favour of the Nicky Richards recruit. Time will tell this form is very good and with an extra half-mile to take aim at looks set to run a big race under Brian Hughes. Colour Squadron amazingly still a novice but comes with a wealth warning – small fields don’t suit him and he’ll be sure to travel up well in this race but will ultimately fail to deliver once more. Dell’ Arca makes his chasing debut for David Pipe, but jumped very low over his hurdles and I’m not sure he’ll be equipped enough for this assignment tomorrow first time up. Champagne West makes his chasing debut for Philip Hobbs and he too has to be respected on his novice hurdle form. All in all it makes for a very exciting clash and I couldn’t possibly recommend a bet at this stage.

Back over hurdles for race four the Grade 2 Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle at (3:00), which see’s Persian War Novices’ winner Blaklion bid to continue his winning run for the Twiston-Davies team. The step up in trip could bring about more improvement from Parlour Games, but I don’t really like backing anything from the Ferguson yard as a lot of them don’t seem to finish their races. Minella Present has taken well to hurdling and is sure to run his race once again under Richard Johnson, as is Champagne Present who probably should have won last time out at Aintree. Port Melon would be one I’d be interested in – looked a shell of a horse last season with plenty of filling out to do, but came with a big reputation to Ditcheat. Had that horrible freakish incident at the Cheltenham Festival when sticking Daryl Jacob through the rails, and didn’t look happy on his latest effort at Aintree. The break will hopefully have sweetened him up and getting weight down the bottom would be my idea of the one to serve it up to Blaklion.

Next up the penultimate race on the card at (3:35) is the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, where Balthazar King is looking to make it another victory over these fences. A winner of this race last year his record over this course reads (F1211) and returns to his favourite conditions after a winning tune-up at Craon when winning the Grand Cross Country De Craon for the second year running. Uncle Junior won this contest two years running in 2011-12 but was put in his place last year by Balthazar King and I see no reason that form will be turned around. Sire Collonges could improve for the first time application of blinkers (won with first time cheek-pieces last year over these fences), although liable to come up short even accounting for that. One fly in the ointment might be Carruthers who has his first run around the cross-country course, and although he isn’t overly big jumps well and this could reignite his fires in the engine room.

The final race on the card the Michael Scudamore Intermediate Handicap Hurdle finishes things off at (4:05) and is another competitive handicap to try to solve. Morito Du Berlais created a good impression on his return at Exeter just over 3 weeks ago when expected to need the run, so he can be expected to improve again on that effort which would put him in with bold claims here from this sort of rating. Knight Of Noir tops the weights and would have a real shout based on his Wincanton form, but hasn’t done much around that to warrant much attention – if he returns to that level then he goes very close, but the ground might be a bit lively for him. Cassells Rock looks well handicapped in the hands of Ruby Walsh and would have gone a lot closer the last day were he positioned better when the action developed. Buster Dan Dan is another from across the Irish sea with bold claims and he too has to be respected, but the claims of the Nicky Henderson trained Cup Final are all too apparent to my eye. Twice placed behind Irving as a novice last season, he was supported on the show for the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and he was just too inexperienced on the day. That run will have done him the world of good, and a return to handicap company looks a good move by Nicky Henderson, as a mark of 125 is surely workable given what he’d shown prior to Cheltenham.

The first day of The Open meeting looks to be more about taking notes with a view to the future than a punting haven. The trappy novices’ chase is an impossible betting medium as far as I’m concerned, although if you fancy one of the newcomers to fences you’ll get a relatively decent price thanks to the inclusion of straitjacket material Colour Squadron into things.

The Graded novices’ hurdle looks set to head the way of the Twiston-Davies team with the impressive Blaklion, but he is priced about right having to give weight to his rivals and could face a sterner challenge than expected from Port Melon, who may well have come on plenty over the summer.

The dogs already appear to be barking about Cup Final in the last according to Betfair, with money matched already as low as 2/1 – despite his seemingly low handicap mark and general profile this is too short for me to be getting excited about, especially with one or two potential spoilers in the field capable of landing a blow.

Balthazar King can be expected to get another win over this course and distance, he is currently priced up at 5/4 with Betfred and Totesport, and that looks fair price given how well he goes round here and the opposition in which he faces.

The race which gets my attention most on the day is the second race on the card, and probably the most competitive field of the day with 20 going to post at the time of writing. Festive Affair as alluded to above is likely well in back to this trip, and has already seen a ripple of early interest on the exchanges for him. If you fancy him then I’d recommend getting involved at the 15/2 currently available as that isn’t going to last long. Shangani is capable of running well for a team in great form, and he is overpriced at 25/1 providing he is spot on for this assignment. Astracad is another who gains respect back down to this trip but doesn’t win as often as he promises too, which is why I’m going to chance a small bet on De Faoithesdream who has returned in cracking shape this term over hurdles, bumping into an in-form type at Fakenham the last day. If he can carry that hurdles improvement over fences then he is dangerous off a mark of 130, and at 20/1 has to be nibbled at.

4pts win Balthazar King @ 5-4 with Bet365, Betfred, Totesport
0.5pt each-way De Faiothesdream @ 20-1 with Paddy Power (5 places)

One of many racing enthusiasts around the globe, love both flat and national hunt racing. Part-own a racehorse, and used to be involved in a couple of slow greyhounds around the Romford circuit. Favourite NH horses would be; Kauto Star, Denman, Challenger Du Luc, Monsignor, Guitar Pete, Harchibald, Istabraq - the list is effectively endless.... @OHRacing Google+

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