Not Haaf bad
Our man Jack Nicol previews the main action on Saturday and has selections at each of Ascot, Haydock and Lingfield.
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Philip Hobbs has begun 2014 in good fashion having saddled nine winners from just the 29 runners so far this year, and he can continue that red-hot form at Ascot with the rapidly improving THE SKYFARMER in the Keltbray Holloway's Hurdle (1425).
The Presenting gelding is unbeaten so far over timber and was impressive when winning last time out at Cheltenham in mid-December. Both he and Nicky Henderson's Lyvius - who has subsequently won off a mark of 132 and now rated 140 - pulled 27 lengths clear of the field that day with Hobbs' charge forging clear inside the final furlong to come home four lengths in front of his game rival.
The Skyfarmer has been raised 17lb to a mark of 140 for that success but it doesn't look to be the ceiling of his ability and remains open to further improvement. Yes, it will be the first time that he encounters heavy ground here, but that looks the only question-mark surrounding his chances.
The six-year-old was just denied by Red Sherlock on bumper debut here at Ascot last February and with that run coming in going officially rated 'soft', I'm confident he'll be able to handle the testing conditions and can continue on an upward curve with a tilt at The Betfair Hurdle possibly on the agenda after this if he maintains his unbeaten record over hurdles.
There's top-class jumping action over at Haydock too and the Racing Post Novices' Chase (1330) looks a really competitive contest with O'FAOLAINS BOY getting the vote.
Rebecca Curtis' charge made an encouraging chasing debut over this trip at Ascot last month when he made the 144-rated Easter Day work for victory on soft ground, and can showcase his RSA Chase credentials once again here against some very good fellow novice chasers including Taquin Du Seuil.
O'Faolains Boy was a useful hurdler last season, with his only defeat coming in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival where he ran well for a long way before tiring into fourth up the hill. The seven-year-old has reportedly schooled very nicely over fences and will undoubtedly have improved for his first run over the larger obstacles 28 days ago.
Taquin Du Seuil gives 7lb to the selection, a penalty for scoring at Cheltenham earlier this season, but clearly sets a stiff standard for the selection to meet.
However O'Faolains Boy is the pick, having shown on several previous occasions that heavy grounds holds no fears, and may just have the edge over his rival if this develops into a stamina test in the prevailing testing conditions.
The best bet of the day comes over on the all-weather, where HAAF A SIXPENCE looks the one to beat in the Ladbrokes Handicap (1545) at Lingfield.
Ralph Beckett's charge was a very good third behind Solar Deity and Galician - both of whom have considerably franked the form since - last time out and must have a huge chance of winning if replicating that level of form off the same handicap mark of 95 here.
The Haafhd gelding needs two more runs to qualify for the lucrative Mile Championship Final here at Lingfield on Good Friday and this looks an ideal race for the five-year-old whose all-weather record reads '2113143' including a victory over seven furlongs here on his only previous run at the Surrey track.
The only negative about Haaf A Sixpence's chance is that he has been posted widest of all in stall 12 but that shouldn't be too much of a hindrance considering the gelding seems as effective coming from off the pace as when making the early running.
Simon Holt is on holiday.