Alex Hammond: Irving to stake claim

  • Last Updated: February 20 2014, 19:48 GMT

I've just sat down to put pen to paper (in the shoffice again!) to talk to you about the upcoming racing this weekend amongst other things, and I read on news on the QIPCO 1000 Guineas!

Irving: Can prove too good for First Mohican in the Dovecote
Irving: Can prove too good for First Mohican in the Dovecote

With Cheltenham less than three weeks away I can't quite get my head around the fact that the Flat season is just around the corner.

Before we get stuck into the jumping, I saw in the press this week that Richard Hannon (Junior) has one of the largest strings to run this season and he just about tops the market to be champion trainer in his rookie campaign.

It will take a brave punter to oppose him and his team at Herridge and Everleigh, who will be raring to go in a few weeks time.

However one race he won't be as confident about winning is the London Marathon. He is part of a team running it for the very worthy cause of Racing Welfare. As you may well know I'm also training for my first marathon in London and trying to raise as much money as possible for my own worthy cause ( ).

This marathon lark is harder than I imagined and at the risk of sounding a bit soft, I'm battling a foot injury as the big day on April 13 looms ever closer. A neuroma isn't something I'd wish on any runner as it's mighty painful and is hampering preparations considerably.

My competitive nature means I'm determined to get round by any means possible though and even if I have to walk it I'll be there on the big day. I think it's fair to say that both Hannon junior and myself will be lagging a fair way behind the mighty Mo Farah, but I wonder who would be the shortest in the betting in a match to complete in the quickest time... over to the compilers at Sky Bet!

Now, at the moment we are in the middle of the numerous press days that many of the leading trainers participate in as Cheltenham approaches. One trainer playing his cards very close to his chest is Ireland's champion Willie Mullins. He isn't giving much away about targets for his top class mare Annie Power who is entered in the Stan James Champion Hurdle, OLBG Mares' Hurdle and the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.

I may be wrong, but I feel reading between the lines that the World Hurdle is where she will go. I don't have any insider info on this one, but Mullins said he feels Hurricane Fly deserves the chance to win the Champion Hurdle again and that Annie Power had always delivered when stepped up in trip and that she is a much more settled horse nowadays. He also said she would have four or five horses to beat in the Champion, but just one or two in the World Hurdle and just the one in the Mares' Hurdle in Quevega.

So, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think she is most likely to run in the longer race to take on the mighty Big Buck's who showed he is fallible when being turned over on his reappearance in the Cleeve. She is currently 5/2 with Sky Bet to win that race.

I also just wanted to give a quick mention to the Cheltenham Festival preview night that I'm taking part in at Elland Road on March 5th.

There is a stellar cast coming along to pass on their thoughts on the Festival including top jockey Jason Maguire, Racing UK experts Niall Hannity and Mark Howard are your form students with the Irish info coming from Donn McLean and betting info will be provided by Sky Bet's Michael Shinners... the stand-up comes from funny man Dave Ord and I'll be there to keep everyone in check.

If that doesn't tickle your fancy, there is a £5 free bet and a pie and peas! Forget the pie though; there are a host of other incentives and prizes that should all make for a fantastic night - all for just £10. Just click on this link and all the info you need is right there.

Moving onto this weekend's action now and the Sky Bet Dovecote Novices' Hurdle at Kempton is the first race I want to take a look at. The race will be a significant guide to the curtainraiser at the festival, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, because Paul Nicholls is planning to run leading hope Irving.

His unbeaten hurdler is 7/1 second-favourite for the Cheltenham race behind Irish hotpot (nothing to do with that pie!) Vautour. Irving doesn't want ground too testing, but you get the impression Nicholls thinks this horse is a machine and he needs to get a run into him.

There was talk he was going to run him last weekend on the all-weather Jumpers Bumpers card at Kempton, but he decided to give that a swerve. He could also have run in the Betfair Hurdle a couple of weeks ago, but that would have meant a hard race in bad ground.

Although the ground won't be perfect at the weekend, the competition doesn't look fierce and he should take all the beating.

Alan King's First Mohican is his main market rival and he is currently 12/1 for the Supreme. He was a very useful performer on the level for Sir Henry and then Lady Cecil and he wasn't opposed to testing ground in that sphere.

He won on hurdles debut at Doncaster earlier this month for his new trainer and there is no doubt he will have improved for the run and experience. He has yet to prove he has the class of the favourite and he didn't look completely straightforward at Doncaster with a slightly awkward head carriage, but he has lots of ability.

At this stage I don't know the final runners, but regardless I think Irving will take plenty of beating if he runs.

So whilst that race doesn't look incredibly competitive, the BetBright Chase certainly does. Bury Parade is one of three in this for Paul Nicholls and he has top weight to carry.

The trainer has also declared Grandioso and Jump City. Bury Parade has worn a hood since refusing to race on his penultimate start. It worked last time out when he won at Ascot beating Grandioso and he has been raised 9lbs for his trouble. He steps up to three miles here for the first time, but that trip should be well within his compass. If you back him, you have to accept that he has a quirk, but plenty of ability too.

Planet of Sound is a horse that I think can run well. He was a course and distance winner last time out beating Jump City. That was his first run of the season and a 4lbs rise for that may not be too harsh - again he wouldn't want a bog.

Standing Ovation looked hugely progressive until disappointing in an amateur riders' Chase at Cheltenham in November and he has been given a break by trainer David Pipe since that run. He is by a stallion called Presenting and as a rule they tend not to like ground too testing. This horse seems to fall into that category and I'm worried about the prevailing conditions at Kempton. If he handles the ground he will run a huge race I'm sure, but that's a big if!

I wonder if it might be worth backing Tour Des Champs each-way. Nigel Twiston-Davies has fitted a visor on the bottom weight in this handicap for the first time.

Unlike some of his rivals, he won't mind the ground and can be excused his recent performance when pulling up in the Welsh National. He doesn't look badly handicapped and if the visor brings about the necessary improvement he could be dangerously well weighted. He is still only seven years old with just 13 runs over fences and he could be a progressive staying chaser. He is likely to be one of the outsiders but may just run a big race.

At Newcastle the ground is set to be testing for their Eider Chase which will be a gruelling test of stamina over four miles and a furlong. I'm not sure what the figures are, but if you backed all of Venetia Williams' staying chasers in testing ground you would probably have made more money than if you had left your hard earned in a bank.

Her horses have been running consistently well in these big weekend chases and she could run Relax here. He stays and loves testing ground, but whether this sort of a test suits, who knows? The only time he tried this sort of trip was in the Scottish National on good ground and he pulled up on that occasion.

Malcolm Jefferson's Sun Cloud is a progressive young staying chaser, but he will have to be as he has been raised a total of 22lb for his last two wins, one of which came in the North Yorkshire Grand National at Catterick over 3m 6f. He loves testing ground though and a horse that stays well on this ground is hard to ignore in this war of attrition.

Tutchec also comes here on a roll for Nicky Richards and is another improving staying chaser. He hasn't run beyond 3m 2f as yet though and on heavy ground at this stage of his career it may find him out.

Royale Knight definitely stays; he won over four miles at Kelso on his penultimate start. He is trained by Dr Richard Newland and he's a trainer I like to follow in this type of race.

Although he was beaten in the Classic Chase at Warwick last time out, he still looks to be progressing. My reservation is this ground though as he hasn't shown he really relishes it, although he has run well on it in point to points.

Safran De Cotte is another that catches the eye. The eight-year-old is trained by Henry Daly who specialises with this type of horse. He has never run over this sort of trip, but ran a better race in that Classic Chase at Warwick last time out. He likes testing ground though and has a decent strike rate too.

The horse that gets my vote though is Tim Vaughan's Our Island, who was due to run in this race last year until snow put paid to the meeting. He is lowly weighted (currently 2lb out of the handicap, but if Junior isn't declared the weights will go up). He stays all day and heavy ground is right up his street, two qualities that are absolutely necessary to win an Eider.

I'm not sure what is happening with the runners from Philip Fenton's yard at Cheltenham given the latest news we have been given on the legal proceedings the trainer is facing.

His court case has been adjourned until after the Festival and we know that the owner of one of the horses he trains, The Tullow Tank, has decided against running his horse at the meeting. I was impressed with Dunguib's first win for three years in Grade Two company last weekend and fancied him for either the Coral Cup or County Hurdle as he may not be badly handicapped, but given the current uncertainty I'll wait until nearer the time to see what is running and where. Speaking of running, I'm off!

Irving in the Dovecote Novices' Hurdle @ 5/4 with Sky Bet
Tour des Champs in the BetBright Chase @ 16/1 with Sky Bet (each way)
Our Island in the Eider Chase @ 8/1 with Sky Bet