Five Key Questions ahead of the Ascot Chase

Cyrname is aiming for back-to-back wins in the Ascot Chase.
Cyrname is aiming for back-to-back wins in the Ascot Chase.

After flagging up the winner of the Kingmaker in last week’s column, Alex Stearn has picked out five key talking points ahead of a busy weekend of racing action - including a potential four-timer for Paul Nicholls at Wincanton…

Which Storm will pose the biggest question to Cyrname? 

Thanks to Storm Ciara, the weather has been battering Jumps racing over the last few days, with a number of abandonments, and the oncoming Storm Dennis means we could see some more meetings cancelled this weekend. The brunt of the storm is due on Saturday, and with Ascot already firing a warning pistol to a precautionary inspection due to wind speeds and Haydock bordering on heavy ground all over, Saturday’s feature meetings could well add their names to an ever-growing list of casualties. However, Storm Dennis may not be the biggest threat to Cyrname extending his Ascot win record to four in the Ascot Chase… 

Nigel Twiston-Davies saddles one of three opponents, namely Riders Onthe Storm, who is a rapidly progressive type that could pose a bigger threat than some people are expecting. He has course and distance form to his name - on similar ground to what he will face on Saturday - having produced an impressive performance to win a graduation chase in December, prevailing by seven lengths. His only other start for Nigel Twiston-Davies saw him run out an easy winner of a handicap at Aintree that has turned into strong form, too, with the second and third from that race winning since. His previous handler Tom Taaffe made no secret of the regard that he held this son of Scorpion in, and there could be more to come with him still being relatively lightly-raced. He would need a swing of over a stone on official ratings to get the better of Cyrname, but bearing in mind that we haven’t yet seen the best of Riders Onthe Storm, and the fact that Cyrname has never raced on heavy ground, means that it isn’t entirely out the question. 

Will course form come to the fore?

Haydock hosts its Grand National Trial on Saturday, and connections of the seven horses in the field that have Aintree aspirations will be hoping that the rain stays away. 

Lord Du Mesnil heads the market for Richard Hobson and Paul O’Brien, and is looking to bring up a four-timer. He’s been a revelation since returning this campaign, and his upturn in form must have coincided with something that they are doing with him at home, with no obvious change to his tactics on the track. He looks a relentless galloper that has improved over two-stone in the handicap since his return in October 2019, and now competing off a mark of 147 after going up 10 lb for his latest success over course and distance on heavy ground, he must surely be in the grasp of the handicapper now. 

Lucinda Russell’s One For Arthur was successful in the Grand National in 2017, and after having to miss the whole of 2018 and having a far from ideal prep in 2019, he produced a gallant effort to finish sixth in the Aintree spectacular. Having had practice over the fences in the Becher Chase in December, he heads to Haydock with the aim of putting him spot on to regain his crown. Cheekpieces are applied here - possibly to sharpen him up during the race - and the aim will be to have him spot on for April after having a wind operation.

However, the horse who is of most interest is the 2018 winner of this race, Yala Enki. Paul Nicholls has only had this gelding in his care for this campaign, but it certainly looks as though he’s worked backwards from Aintree. The son of Nickname started his season reasonably late, before finishing a fine third in the Welsh National. Last seen winning at Taunton, his mark was left alone by the handicapper and with a run in the Grand National guaranteed - which is a test that is guaranteed to suit - he looks to be the likeliest to enhance his National claims and regain his crown. 


Grand National Trial
Yala Enki silk

Yala Enki


Anyone for Pym(s)? 

The Reynoldstown Novices’ Chase at Ascot is shaping up into an excellent contest that will provide us with plenty of Festival clues, with the four main protagonists all holding entries in either the RSA Chase or National Hunt Chase in March. 

Currently heading the market is Pym for the Nicky Henderson team, who has looked a different horse since being upped to three miles. His hurdling form never really got the pulse racing to the point that he didn't really look an obvious star in the making, but since being upped in trip and switched to fences, he's been able to display the clearly sizeable engine that he possesses. He has course and distance form to his name and within that, he really pinged the last couple of fences to come away from his rivals on his penultimate start. Donning the now infamous colours of Patricia Pugh, he then went to Cheltenham where he relished every yard of the near three-and-a-quarter mile trip to, again, come home in splendid isolation - and it would be a surprise if he wasn’t able to make his mark at this level, meaning the RSA must surely be on the agenda after this. 

Of the remainder, Sam Brown is of high interest in conditions that he’s proven to relish. Anthony Honeyball is proving extremely effective with his string this year, and he has had to be patient with this particular horse. Sam Brown was off for a mammoth 750 days before a bloodless return at Lingfield, which saw him win by 22 lengths, and when upped to this level at Haydock he was expected him to ‘bounce’ - but he readily quashed that theory and ran out a convincing winner at Grade 2 level. He has obvious claims but carries a penalty for that success, which could be decisive. Two For Gold is another interesting contender and he, along with Colin Tizzard’s Copperhead, look a pair of stayers with real potential for the top-end of the staying chasing division. The former has shown he has the heart of lion when grinding out success at Warwick last time, whilst the latter is making his step up from handicap company. Both come with a string of 1’s next to their name, but look like falling just short of the standard-setter Pym here, and we can drink to his success. Cheers! 

Can Emitom get back on track? 

Warren Greatrex has plenty of useful horses in his care, and none could have filled him with more excitement heading into this season than Emitom, who'd suffered just the one defeat to the point. That defeat came when upped to the highest level at Aintree in the Sefton Novices' Hurdle, finishing second behind a certain Champ, and he pulled comfortably clear of the rest of the field, too. 

His return saw him start a well-backed 5/2 shot for the Relkeel Hurdle on New Years’ Day, but he didn’t seem to travel with the usual zest that we are accustomed to seeing. The soft ground that day may have been a contributing factor on his first run after 271 days, and better can be expected in the Rendlesham at Haydock on Saturday. It looks as if this year's renewal is on the weaker side, and given that he is in receipt of 6 lb from The Worlds End, it would be disappointing should he not get close to that rival. Take nothing away from Tom George’s charge, he has been an improved horse this campaign, but the penalty for his success at Ascot in the Marsh Hurdle levels the playing field somewhat. Many had high hopes for Emitom stepping out of novice company ,and it may be a little harsh to judge him off the back of just one run, but hopefully he can improve on his reappearance and become the latest challenger to attempt to dethrone Paisley Park next month. 

A fabulous four for Nicholls?

Paul Nicholls is rarely shy from running his class horses at his local track Wincanton, which goes some way to explaining his remarkable 34% strike rate there over the last five seasons. Within that, you could turn a profit just by backing his runners blind, and he could well be in for another handful on winners on Saturday.

Solo can kick off the card in the best possible way on his first start since arriving from France. A winner on the other side of the Channel, he was subsequently purchased by Johnny de la Hey and given that the BHA have wasted no time in giving him a mark of 146, it would be a shock to see him beaten on his British debut - especially given he is around the 16/1 mark for the Triumph Hurdle.

Nicholls could also take the feature contest with Quel Destin, who currently heads the market for the Kingwell Hurdle at 14:45. The soft ground meant that Fusil Raffles misses this engagement, but he may have struggled to cope with Nicholls’ charge. Quel Destin was successful at Sandown at listed level on his previous outing, and given he stays further, his excess stamina will be no bad thing on Saturday.

Promising conditional Lorcan Williams offsets Storm Arising’s latest rise in the weights, and he can make a bold bid to win for the first time in handicap company at 15:23. Last seen on Boxing Day in similar conditions, he was an excellent third - possibly hitting the front too soon on that occasion - and with the front-runner West To The Bridge lining up against him that won’t be an issue today, giving him every chance. 

Lastly, Worthy Farm can prove his fondness for a real stamina test in Wincanton’s penultimate contest at 16:32. He is unbeaten over track and trip, coinciding with the addition of blinkers, and given he isn’t one that will put plenty of distance between himself and his rivals, he can still prove well-treated off a mark of 137 and round off the card in the same way it started for his trainer – with a winner!

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