By Andy Stephens
The scheduled National Hunt meetings at Carlisle, Fakenham and Ludlow on Wednesday have all been claimed by the cold snap and let’s hope temperatures pick up and that a great card at Newbury on Saturday goes ahead without any hitches.
I was lucky enough to be among the media who visited champion trainer Nicky Henderson yesterday to find out the latest about many of his intended runners at the card.
We were greeted with sausage sandwiches and hot soup. After both had been gobbled up the trainer said there may be some hidden ingredients but assured us the latter was not laced with arsenic - “Altiorgate” evidently having left a lingering scar.
He initially said he “could not promise” Altior would make his belated return in the Betfair Exchange Chase, formerly the Game Spirit, but everything he subsequently uttered suggested the outstanding eight-year-old will be strutting his stuff after more than nine months off.
Henderson must have used the word “fantastic” a dozen times or more when describing the virtues of Altior and he painted an image of him using stablemates as punch bags on the gallops at Seven Barrows.Henderson and Betfair Hurdle candidate Jenkins at Seven Barrows on Tuesday (PA)
He told us Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig, who would gallop together in their pomp, were exceptional in their homework but that he has never had a horse work better than Altior. “Everything comes frighteningly easy to him” he said.
He spoke with respect about such as Politologue and Fox Norton, both possible rivals on Saturday, but left the impression that Altior’s biggest danger would be Altior himself - because of his freshness and eagerness to get the job done.
It will be great to see him back in action but, more immediately, there are some all-weather races to solve. Here are four for today but it’s not an afternoon/evening to smashing up piggy banks and investing heavily.
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4.00 Chelmsford: Tavener at a general 9-1
This six-runner sprint is trappy but Tavener is too big to ignore having drifted out to a general 9-1 this morning.
The David Griffiths-trained six-year-old was as short as 11-2 first thing but has been friendless with the horses for money being Excellent George and Bernies Boy.
If you don’t like backing horses who drift badly then Taverner will not be for you but sometimes going against the tide can be most rewarding and I can see Taverner, the only habitual front-runner in the line-up, being unhassled at the head of affairs and making all.
He did too much too soon over 7f at Kempton last time but before that had won in commanding style over today’s trip of 6f at Wolverhampton.
5.25 Wolverhampton: Fairy Flute at a general 8-1
Willyegolassiego seeks a hat-trick of wins over course and distance but she’s gone up an aggregate of 11lb and, no bigger than 6-4, may be worth taking on.
Inn The Bull has attracted support, despite looking in the grip of the handicapper on the Flat and over jumps, and one who makes more appeal is Fairy Flute.
This 56-rated mare is clearly one of the lesser lights at the yard of Gordon Elliott but she’s not been with him that long and ran a lot better than the bare form indicates at Dundalk last time when given a lot to do and racing extremely wide under a very inexperienced rider.
It was still a run not without promise and she’s unexposed over staying distances. With Joe Fanning booked to ride, the 15-2 is worth a dabble.
7.25 Wolverhampton: Critical Thinking at a general 3-1
It has been a year and 13 races since Critical Thinking last got his head in front but he’s been knocking at the door and this looks a great opportunity for the general 3-1 chance to resume winning ways.
His past two starts, four days apart at Lingfield and Wolverhampton, have both hinted his turn is close and the handicapper has turned a blind eye by allowing him to race off the same mark this evening.
Last time he shot clear after hitting the front two out but was worn down late on, leaving the impression he would have won had he been held onto a bit longer. This race is no deeper.
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7.55 Wolverhampton: Now Children at a general 3-1
Now Children has a near 17-month absence to overcome but is really interesting on his first start for Clive Cox, with his form as a two-year-old for Iain Jardine having worked out well and suggesting his mark of 87 is favourable.
On his penultimate start he was a commanding winner of a maiden at Hamilton and the horses who chased him home, at some distance, were Euro Nightmare (now rated 90) and Sofia’s Rock (now 100).
Now Children subsequently won a handicap at Ayr off a mark of 85, with the two that chased him home now operating off marks that are significantly higher.
Clearly, he has had a problem or two but getting horses to peak fitness at home is not a problem these days and if he picks up from where he left off he will take some stopping under Adam Kirby. He is generally 3-1.
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