Alex Hammond reflects on Cheltenham and previews the action at Lingfield
Alex Hammond shares her Cheltenham hits and misses and previews the action at Lingfield.
By Alex Hammond
Last Updated: 20/03/14 5:53pm
What am I talking about? Well, it's that crossover time of year where we have just enjoyed another fantastic Cheltenham festival, the National is just around the corner, but at the same time the flat season is about to get into gear.
The Irish flat season starts this weekend with the British season the following week. I always find it takes a bit of time to switch those hats.
I love the jumping and get so into it I can't imagine being captured in the same way by the blue bloods of the flat turf. That doesn't last long, though, as pretty much as soon as the Brocklesby is over I'm into it and looking forward to the classics.
This flat season has plenty to offer as usual, and I think it could be an awesome year for Richard Hannon (no longer Junior!) and Richard Hughes has started his year as he means to go on in a bid for his third consecutive championship.
I've been busy tapping up my flat racing contacts for a few horses to follow for this flat season and you will be able to follow them on Sky Sports News and here in this blog too over the coming months.
Reflecting on the festival then and there was triumph and tragedy, highs and some awful lows, with some horrific injuries to a handful of jockeys.
Our Conor's untimely end was a real blow for Dessie Hughes and owner Barry Connell, he looked like a horse we would be cheering on for many years to come and sadly he paid the ultimate price.
The New One was badly hampered by Our Conor's fall and whilst I'm not keen on backing horses this far in advance, as even getting to the 2015 festival is a long shot, he stood out as a possible unlucky loser in that Champion Hurdle (5/1 with Sky Bet for 2015 Champion Hurdle).
Jezki was a horse I put up to follow this season and I was delighted to see him win the Champion Hurdle, albeit without any of my hard earned! The hood seems to have worked the oracle and having followed him over a cliff this season I hope some of you stuck with him.
My Tent or Yours has to learn to settle and if he does he will be a machine. I thought it was interesting to hear Nicky Henderson say he could run him in a group race on the flat this summer - that's how talented he knows he is with so much speed. Maybe we need to dust off those trilbies for Royal Ascot!
I thought it was sad to see Big Buck's fail to recapture his old form, but at the same time I was pleased to see him retired in one piece.
On reflection Annie Power may have been better in the Champion Hurdle as she was much too keen in that World Hurdle, the Mares' Hurdle would have been the perfect race this year, but while ever Quevega was in the line-up it wasn't going to happen.
Hopefully with time and experience she will settle better and I'm looking forward to seeing her over a fence as she looks like an out-and-out chaser - but her trainer Willie Mullins was leading trainer despite suffering one or two reverses.
Vautour wasn't one of them and this exciting horse got Mullins' festival off to a great start; he looks like a superstar in the making. His win in the Supreme was impressive and much of the talk after the win was that he will excel when he is sent chasing. He could be one for the Arkle next season.
Mullins also has Faugheen to look forward to next season after his authoritative win in the Neptune. He doesn't jump as slickly as the Supreme winner, but has plenty of scope and should be an awesome chaser; maybe one for the Gold Cup in a couple of years' time.
I could not have been more pleased for the Moore family with the win of Sire de Grugy in the Champion Chase. I can understand how his owners felt that people didn't want the horse to win. I don't think that's right, as I'm sure, like me, most people wanted to see him win, it's maybe that they thought he wouldn't win.
His record at Cheltenham prior to this victory was sketchy, but he put those fears to bed in the style of a horse to be reckoned with for a few more seasons yet. Gary and Jamie Moore have done a brilliant job with him and I couldn't be happier for them.
Racing needs stories like this as there have been a few negative stories recently which don't necessarily reflect well on our sport and hopefully these first-time owners can inspire others to see it as an accessible sport and not one just for kings.
It was marvellous to see the joy surrounding the narrow win of Lord Windermere in the Gold Cup. I'm delighted for Davy Russell who seemed stunned in the aftermath of his triumph.
Jim Culloty says he is going to have a better preparation for next year's Gold Cup, but I'm not sure what he could have done any better! I wouldn't be rushing to back him to follow up though as we saw with Bobs Worth it's incredibly difficult to win back to back Gold Cups.
Jonjo O'Neill enjoyed an excellent festival with three winners with More of That retaining his unbeaten record in the World Hurdle. Jonjo is a class trainer and a top bloke and could be one to back as a future champion trainer... any prices on that Sky Bet?
So, onto this weekend and there is a decent card on the all-weather at Lingfield with a few fast track qualifiers ahead of the valuable meeting at the track on Good Friday which will ensure some competitive racing.
The highlight is the Winter Derby but favourite backers will be disappointed to see that Grandeur has been handed a wide draw in 14 of 14. Trainer Jeremy Noseda is putting cheek-pieces on for the first time and he also has the assistance of Ryan Moore.
But he's going to need all of Ryan's skills to win from the outside draw and he looks opposable at the prices. He is the highest-rated horse in the race, but has a few obstacles to overcome if you're going to back him.
The Roger Varian-trained Farraaj won this last year beating another of Saturday's rivals Robin Hoods Bay (Ed Vaughan) - both those runners are drawn in the middle. Farraaj hasn't run since August, but won this after a few months off last year and apparently goes well fresh. He's not the most straightforward though, but is trained by a top handler. Robin Hoods Bay has plenty of speed and was fourth in the Trial behind Grandeur last time out.
Whilst the race may not have been run to suit on that occasion he wouldn't have beaten the winner and connections will be hoping his more favourable draw helps their cause on Saturday.
Godolphin have their first runner in the UK this year in this contest with Windhoek who had the one run (and won) at Meydan in January. You tend to find that the Godolphin horses don't win in the UK in March and they take a while to acclimatise so I'll be overlooking him in this.
Premio Loco won this race two years ago but despite that I feel he isn't at his best over a mile and a quarter. He is 10 years old now so he won't be getting any faster, but he seems better suited a furlong or two shorter. He ran well enough on his reappearance at Kempton so I wouldn't completely write him off from the inside draw.
Given the draw of the favourite and the likely prices, I'm going to go with Farraaj for the inform Roger Varian. Andrea Atzeni takes the ride thanks to a successful appeal against a 10-day riding ban and that'll do for me.
Another horse to watch out for on the card is Ladies Are Forever in the Hever Sprint Stakes (a fast track qualifier). Geoff Oldroyd's six year old won this race last year and whilst she hasn't had such a smooth run to this year's race there were excuses for her defeat at Lingfield last month.
She was drawn wide there and had to race too early and weakened in the closing stages. She is a class act who finished seventh in the Abbaye in October and also won a Group 3 at York in the summer.
In the seven-furlong Spring Cup (another of these fast track qualifiers) likely favourite Ertijaal is drawn badly for William Haggas and Paul Hanagan, although he's obviously classy. He looks a worthy favourite and is clearly well regarded; he is still in the Guineas and is a lightly-raced colt.
Richard Hannon's Expert makes his debut on the all-weather but could be worth a punt. This looks like a good starting point for this colt with the trip and possibly a bit further suiting him this term.
Alutiq is interesting stepped up to seven furlongs. She ran in the Queen Mary at last year's Royal Ascot and looks like a decent sprinter in the making, but whether this trip is what she wants remains to be seen. Eve Johnson Houghton's filly has form on an all-weather surface though and finals day is her early season target.
It's hard to overlook Mark Johnston's horses at the moment as he's operating at a strike rate in the mid-30s this month and has been in great form all winter. He runs Bow Creek who hasn't run yet this year and is another who looks like a bit further will suit in time.
Marco Botti is without his stable jockey Martin Harley after an horrific fall at Lingfield on Wednesday this week. Botti has booked the excellent Adam Kirby for Sir Robert Cheval in this and the horse has a proven record on this polytrack. The Hannon stable haven't had many runners yet this term, but their last runner was a winner and I'm with Expert here.
I almost feel the tweed being shoved to the back of the wardrobe for another few months...until Aintree that is!
Farraaj in the Winter Derby @ 9/2 with Sky Bet
Ladies Are Forever in the Hever Sprint Stakes
Expert in the Spring Cup