Get that Loving feeling
Channel 4 Racing commentator Simon Holt previews Saturday's feature action at Ascot and Haydock.
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LOVING SPIRIT, a horse who relishes Ascot's straight seven furlongs, is fancied to finally get his head in front after a series of near-misses over the course and distance in the £7.5 Million Totescoop6 Victoria Cup on Saturday.
In his five previous visits to the Berkshire course, James Toller's gelding has finished second, eighth, sixth, third and third again in major, big-field handicaps but has put up his best performances on slightly softer ground and the forecast rain looks set to ensure another bold show.
On the two occasions he has run here on an easy surface, Loving Spirit was beaten just a head by Jack Dexter and, last October, was beaten two necks into third by the reopposing Heaven's Guest and Bertiewhittle and might well have won but for being slowly away as a result of his blindfold being removed too late.
It is easy to keep making excuses for a horse who is regularly placed and hardly ever wins - the six-year-old has won only one of his 22 races - but, after a pleasing reappearance over a mile at Kempton recently, Toller's charge looks set to run yet another big race and, unlucky on several occasions, the cards might just fall for him this time.
At the very least, he looks a decent each-way bet under Robert Tart at double-figure odds albeit in a ferociously competitive field.
Of the many others with chances, Purcell looks progressive after two victories on the all-weather at Lingfield and will again be partnered by rising apprentice Oisin Murphy while Ayaar, a winner at Newmarket last autumn, shaped well on a recent return and looks open to further improvement.
Excellent Guest, who beat Bertiewhittle (Redvers fourth, Loving Spirit eighth) in this race last year on good-to-firm ground, could go well again first time out but, although not disgraced on subsequent occasions last season, struggled to repeat the effort. However, he may well be best when fresh and, runner-up in a Buckingham Palace Handicap and a Hunt Cup at the Royal meeting here in the past, he is another who seems particularly well suited by Ascot's straight course.
At Haydock, the booking of AP McCoy for last year's winner Barizan is bound to attract plenty of attention in the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle.
Now 8lb higher in the ratings, the eight-year-old could still be a threat to all if in the mood; he had little chance from well out of the handicap when ninth behind Cockney Sparrow in the Scottish Champion Hurdle (Swing Bowler fourth, Ifandbutwhynot fifth, Montbazon seventh) last time and was not discredited previously in tenth place behind Lac Fontana (Montbazon, 9lb worse off, third) in the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Barizan is certainly best when ridden handy and is now partnered by a jockey guaranteed to get the best out of him but it remains to be seen if he still has enough willpower to deny the ultra-game front-running mare AS I AM.
This daughter of Old Vic has done nothing but improve in the last 12 months and was a fine second to the smart Carole's Spirit in a listed mares event over the course and distance in December.
After a three-month break, As I Am returned to win another listed event at Cheltenham in typically gutsy fashion last time and could be very hard to pass. Blind in one eye, left-handed courses seem to suit her best and, with the promising Conor Shoemark taking off 5lb, this terrific galloper and jumper can take the beating.
An obvious danger is Vibrato Valtat, successful at Ayr last time after finishing third in the Imperial Cup. Paul Nicholls' grey is a strong traveller who looks potentially smart but hasn't always delivered all he has promised off the bridle.