Quarenta one to keep on side wherever he turns up
3.00 Ascot Saturday or 2.40 Haydock Saturday
Up to 30mm of rain could hit Ascot by Friday so it is going to be soft ground at best for the two-day Long Walk Hurdle meeting – the biggest sign yet that Christmas is coming for racing fans.
The Silver Cup Handicap Chase on Saturday is the race that most takes my fancy from a punting perspective as several of the market principals look worth taking on.
Favourite The Conditional brings some of the best form from last season but I’m not convinced by the strength of last month’s Ladbrokes Trophy, with the handicapper dropping him 1lb for finishing third, while Espoir De Guye clearly loves Ascot but has to prove he stays three miles and on potentially attritional ground that has to be a concern.
Itchy Feet has the ability but needs to improve his jumping to win in such company, but the redoubtable veteran Regal Encore is a dual winner of this race, boasts four wins and three other first three placings from ten starts at Ascot and will have no issues with testing ground.
The 12-year-old will no doubt run well but is off an 8lb higher mark than when successful last year and may find one or two rivals better handicapped.
The likely emphasis on stamina is no concern for my fancy as the versatile Quarenta, who also has the option of the Tommy Whittle Handicap Chase at Haydock on Saturday, has twice won over upwards of three miles and returned with a standout career-best performance when striking over course and distance last month.
Quarenta, trained by Jonjo O’Neill, has steadily climbed the ranks over fences rather than made giant strides but significant ease underfoot would have been a big concern for the eight-year-old prior to last season.
His sole win over hurdles came on good ground at Warwick and his first two chase successes at the same track were on good and good to soft.
The Martin, Jocelyn and Steve Broughton-owned chaser has become more versatile with age though as his best two efforts on Racing Post Ratings last term – and by some way – came on soft ground when winning a three-runner handicap chase at Fontwell and when a fast-finishing head second at Kempton.
He failed to figure when seventh in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster and was brought down early in the Ultima at the Cheltenham Festival, but it was his reappearance at the Berkshire track that gives me confidence he can run a big race.
Going into this season Quarenta had form figures of 3,7,2,7,4 on his first start of the campaign, improving to 1,7,1,4,1 on his second outing, so his victory at Ascot suggests he may just be the finished article.
Quarenta was fourth and making headway when jumping the last (usual two out), but by the time they bypassed the final fence he had his head in front and looked in pretty firm control. He idled in front, forcing Jonjo O’Neill Jr to pull out all the stops to secure a head victory, but appeared good value for the winning margin.
Two of his previous three wins over fences have been by a neck, so his trait of not winning by far may well prove a blessing with the handicapper raising him 5lb.
It is possible this step up in grade may prove too much again for Quarenta, but there is a better chance he could be one of the few improvers and warrants support wherever he lines up on Saturday.
Might I one to follow after win in Warwick bumper
Sometimes you sense an upcoming race is going to be informative and that was the feeling prior to the bumper at Warwick on Thursday. It did not disappoint.
The first line of the Racing Post’s analysis by Richard Lowther read: “Winners should come out of this bumper,” while Daryl Jacob, who rode the runner-up, remarked to the same effect on his way back to the weighing room.
Watching the race live on course it was striking just how quickly the pacesetting pair of Entre Deux and Exmoor Express went in ground described as soft and no doubt churned up by the time of this final contest on the seven-race card.
That pace was even mentioned in trainer Kim Bailey’s excellent blog the following day, revealing “the November ride of the month jockey David Bass said he had never been so fast in a bumper”, and it led to a winning time that reads extremely well.
You have to go back to January 2017 – and a rules debut success for Carlos Du Fruitier – to find a faster bumper time on soft ground at Warwick, with last week’s winning time quicker than the previous nine bumpers at the course where soft was the main going description, including three contests in the last 12 months won by the talented Bear Ghylls, Wilde About Oscar and Here Comes McCoy.
Even a stellar bumper at the track in March last year, in which the first four were Chantry House, Edwardstone, Shan Blue and Llandinabo Lad, was seven seconds slower, so last week’s Harry Fry-trained winning newcomer Might I has to be pretty smart.
This bumper was won by Barters Hill and Willoughby Court in 2014 and 2015 – both in considerably slower times on soft ground – so it was interesting trainer Ben Pauling pitched Fine Casting, who stepped up on his Newbury debut to the tune of 20lb on Racing Post Ratings, to finish second.
The Nicky Henderson-trained favourite Blairgowrie was a knockout in the paddock. The €150,000 purchase looked all class but appeared to be struggling on exiting the back straight before finishing to good effect for third. Lakota Warrior, trained by Dan Skelton, looked a chasing type and finished a promising fourth.
There was plenty of promise in behind the principals, including the Jeremy Scott-trained fifth Drash On Ruby, a sister to Dashel Drasher who travelled well for a long way, Mick Easterby’s Twist About who looked likely to finish right out the back before staying on really nicely for sixth and eighth Exmoor Express, whose front-running effort has to be marked up.
It is hard to envisage this race not throwing up a stack of winners, so it is worth following closely.
2.20 Fakenham, Sunday
This five-year-old, trained by Ben Pauling, was sent off joint favourite for a bumper on Scottish National day at Ayr on debut last year and finished second to Punchestown Champion Bumper sixth and subsequent talented Flat horse December Second. Three hurdle runs on, Chess Player has a handicap mark of 107 and there was lots to like about his most recent fourth at Ludlow.
3.35 Ascot, Saturday
This talented grey ultimately won well at Ascot last time but was not particularly fluent and looked in a bit of trouble before the approach to the home straight. Off an 11lb higher mark and top weight, he will need to produce a big career best and Third Time Lucki, Benson and Milkwood are among lightly raced opposition.
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