There's only one Winner
Channel 4 commentator Simon Holt previews Saturday's feature action from both Ayr and Newbury.
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The presence of the highly-rated top weight Tidal Bay in Saturday's Coral Scottish Grand National at Ayr has had a significant influence on the race with only 11 of the 30 runners set to run off their correct weights, and stable-companion SAM WINNER could be the chief beneficiary.
A smart juvenile hurdler three seasons ago (finishing fourth to Zarkandar in the Triumph Hurdle), the now seven-year-old has increasingly looked a horse for longer distances.
Progressive this season over fences, Sam Winner was not disgraced in fifth behind O'Faolains Boy in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham last time having earlier failed by two lengths (conceding 3lb) to contain the RSA runner-up Smad Place at Newbury. If the last-named was in this race set to carry just 10st 7lb, I believe he would be strongly-fancied by many.
A solid jumper now, the selection won over three-and-a-quarter miles at Cheltenham earlier in the season and promises to see out marathon distances.
Best of the opposition could be Green Flag and Trustan Times who both put in eyecatching displays at the Festival.
The Scottish-trained Green Flag is bound to have a strong local following and has developed into a useful staying chaser this season winning three novice chases before Christmas and then producing a career-best last month when running-on into fourth behind subsequent Aintree winners Holywell and Ma Filleule.
The seven-year-old looked all about stamina that day offering hope that he can get home over this four-mile trip while his jumping has always been sound. One of the youngest horses in the field (the same age as Sam Winner), Green Flag looks open to further improvement and his trainer Lucinda Russell is enjoying a fine season.
Trustan Times is 6lb out of the handicap here but his chase mark is 13lb lower than his hurdle rating. Tim Easterby's gelding ran his best race of the campaign to finish fourth behind Fingal Bay in the Pertemps Hurdle Final at the Festival and that form has been amply boosted by third-placed Pineau De Re, the winner of last week's Grand National.
Clearly this is a horse returning to his best and, if he transfers that effort to the bigger obstacles here, then he looks the one to beat. However, there is a slight question mark as, so far, Trustan Times has won only one of his five chase starts and his handicap mark in this sphere is lower for a reason.
Tidal Bay adds a great deal of interest to the race and connections clearly feel he has recovered from a somewhat unfortunate experience at Aintree last weekend when hampered at the Canal Turn and unseating Sam Twiston-Davies.
The old horse carried on loose and was involved in the race's most dramatic incident when forcing the front-running Across The Bay off the course right in front of the stands as he veered right handed towards the paddock exit.
Tidal Bay is well able to carry this sort of weight (11st12lb) in a big handicap as he showed when third in the Welsh National in December after which a fine second in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown confirmed he retains all his ability despite being 13-years-old.
Whether he can stay in touch on this fast track remains to be seen but few are likely to be staying-on better at the finish.
Last year's winner Godsmejudge has been out-of-sorts in his last two runs but trainer Alan King has his team in good form and feels the horse is coming back to himself.
If so, the eight-year-old could well be thereabouts off a 6lb higher mark than last year. Mister Marker, third 12 months ago, shouldn't really turn those tables but comes into the race this time in better shape and, while one of those out of the handicap, I could see him running well again.
Others disadvantaged by the weights, but still capable of a good show, include Lie Forrit, Roalco De Farges and the National Hunt (4m) Chase fourth Adrenalin Flight but, of course, they all need to prove that the handicapper has got his sums wrong.
The rest of the Ayr card has received a magnificent boost by the appearance of Champion Hurdle runner-up My Tent Or Yours in the Scottish version and this headstrong but hugely talented gelding will be fitted with a hood and earplugs for the first time to encourage him to relax.
Despite top weight, he could easily prove too classy though last year's winner Court Minstrel has recently returned to form and, even with a 5lb penalty for winning at Aintree last week, is only 1lb higher now. Evan Williams' quicker-ground, spring specialist may just ensure that 'My Tent' doesn't have everything his own way.
Meanwhile, Newbury stages an intriguing renewal of the Aon Greenham Stakes which features the eagerly awaited return of Kingman, the horse who headed ante-post classic lists after winning both his starts last season.
Off the track since late August, it will be fascinating to see is John Gosden's colt can confirm that promise and reports from the Newmarket gallops have been very positive.
However, from a betting angle, this is probably a race to watch given the strength of the opposition which includes Middle Park and Royal Lodge winners Astaire and Berkshire, the hugely promising Lat Hawill (an eight-length winner at Newcastle on his only start so far) and the highly regarded Night Of Thunder, the mount of Ryan Moore.