Weekend Review: Hill top?
Ben Linfoot, Michael Shinners and Will Hayler answer the key questions from the weekend's racing.
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Briar Hill - 'Flat-track bully' or a genuine Cheltenham Festival contender that you'd consider backing?
Michael Shinners: Briar Hill has done nothing wrong in winning some small field races. His performances haven't been scintillating, but on very testing conditions that's far from surprising. It looks as though the Albert Bartlett is going to be his race and with better ground and an end-to-end gallop we could see a better horse. He looks short enough at the moment and in my opinion would need to improve what we have seen so far over hurdles.
Ben Linfoot: It's looking like he'll be going to Cheltenham an unbeaten, Willie Mullins-trained hotpot with winning Festival form so I would think he will come into every punter's calculations. The Albert Bartlett looks his race as he looks a pure stayer on breeding and running style with stablemate Faugheen looking the likelier candidate for the Neptune. He'll obviously have a winning chance in the three-miler, but Kings Palace could be a formidable opponent.
Will Hayler: I guess it depends how much you buy into this idea that Briar Hill does nothing at home and only really comes alive on the track. His Cheltenham performance last season - when unfancied - does give weight to that theory, but he's not the sort of horse I'd consider backing at this stage.
It's been a bad week for possible Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup contenders in Ireland while Silviniaco Conti, possibly Cue Card and others will head straight to Cheltenham. That means the picture won't change a great deal between now and March so your idea of the winner please and, if it differs, your best bet.
MS: For me Bobs Worth is the one to beat after his performance in the Lexus. The way he picked up in Ireland showed he's back to his best and with his loving for the Cheltenham hill, he looks the one to beat.
BL: I thought Silviniaco Conti's win in the King George was the standout staying performance from any chaser either side of the Irish Sea this season and he'd be the most likely winner for me at this stage. It was great to see Bobs Worth win in Ireland, but that was an easier task than Silviniaco Conti had and I would rather be with the Paul Nicholls horse in the big one, despite the former's Cheltenham record.
WH: Not much has come out of the woodwork to challenge the elite steeplechasers so far this season, except perhaps Sire De Grugy in the two-mile division. Indeed when First Lieutenant, a likeable and reliable top-level performer but simply not good enough to win a Gold Cup is the fourth favourite, you know where you are with the race. Dynaste might turn out to be a decent bet at 33s if David Pipe and Mary Bromiley can iron out his creases, but, to me, everything points to Bobs Worth defending his title.
The increased prize money has persuaded some of the bigger yards and jockeys to remain in action over the winter and the racing's competitive (they were betting 4/1 the field in the feature at Lingfield on Saturday) but is it floating your boat?
MS: It's certainly helping turnover with the quality that is on show. All-weather racing isn't everyone's cup of tea but when the bad weather kicks in, it's essential that punters have something to bet on and with the quality improved it is certainly a step in the right direction.
BL: It's clearly good for the betting industry, good for the yards and good for most punters too so what's there to be negative about? From a personal point of view I very rarely bet on the all weather, but that's purely because you can't be a specialist in everything and (my betting) history shows I'm not very good at it.
WH: Decent horses, decent prize money, decent racing. What's not to like? (other than the ride Paolo Sirigu gave Grendisar on Saturday - ugh).
Adam Kirby was on the mark at Lingfield with the remarkable Perfect Pasture. He's clear in the jockeys' table and riding at a strike rate of better than 20%. Has it got what it takes to break into the top five Flat jockeys?
MS: Adam Kirby is an excellent all-weather jockey, but it will take a further step forward for him to break into the top five. To break into the top five you need a very strong yard behind you and unless he finds one, I think he will improve on last year but struggle to get into the big league.
BL: He's an up-and-coming jockey who seems to thrive on the all-weather, but, like Michael says, without the backing of a big yard he'll find it very difficult to replicate his winter strike-rate in the summer.
WH: To some extent, he's become pigeonholed as a bit of a one-trick pony with the way he has grasped that races can be stolen on the all-weather tracks with an injection of pace from the front at the right time. But it was a trick that also worked incredibly well on turf with Lethal Force last season and there's absolutely no reason why he can't be just as prolific a winner on that surface. He possesses a useful combination of physical strength with a tactical mind. Luke Morris managed to sneak into the top five last season without any one trainer dominating his supply of winners and I can see Adam Kirby doing the same, especially if his recent link with Mark Johnston continues to produce winners.
Can you give us an eyecatcher from the weekend please?
MS: I was very impressed with Coozan George of Malcolm Jefferson's in the Bumper at Musselburgh on Friday. He looked a strong imposing type who could be very useful when he gets the opportunity to jump a hurdle.
BL: Treat Yourself was second to Luke's Benefit in the Joe Byrne Memorial Handicap Chase at Naas on Sunday and he should be winning soon. Beaten just over a length, he was a little outpaced at a crucial stage and would be of major interest if tried over a bit further next time.
WH: I'll be writing more about it in the Notebook later this week but Indian Voyage ran like a horse on his way back to form at Newcastle on Saturday.
If your kindly fairy bookmaker were to give you one free bet for 2014 what would it be?
MS: Vautour for Willie Mullins looked a classy individual when winning at Navan on his hurdling debut. The form has been franked and he could be a serious challenger in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
BL: I'm a believer in the hype surrounding Faugheen so I'll have him for the Neptune in an each-way Trixie with The New One for the Champion Hurdle and Silviniaco Conti for the Gold Cup. I can have a free bet as a Trixie, right?
WH: My beloved Goldan Jess to make a full recovery from his aches and pains and return in the summer to win the same race at Cartmel as last year. At the same odds as last year. With all of the winnings to be spent on sticky toffee pudding.