Five key questions ahead of the Tolworth Hurdle

Envoi Allen is a short-priced favourite to extend his unbeaten run at Naas on Sunday.
Envoi Allen is a short-priced favourite to extend his unbeaten run at Naas on Sunday.

With the festive period now behind us, Alex Stearn looks ahead to the weekend, and picks out five key talking points from the action on both sides of the Irish Sea...

Why isn’t the Grade 2 winner at the head of the Tolworth market?

The Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle headlines Saturday’s racing, and the contest looks to be between three main protagonists – Fiddlerontheroof, Son Of Camas and Hang In There. All three hail from different yards, and that is where an interesting discrepancy in the prices seems to be evident - why is the horse with the strongest form in the book not favourite? 

The horse that currently sits at the top of the market is Colin Tizzards’ Fiddlerontheroof after success in minor company over this course and distance. That came on heavy ground, and given the stamina in his pedigree, it was no surprise that he was victorious in a race that ended up being wholly about seeing out the trip in testing conditions. However, that was his third attempt to get off the mark after his first start saw him beaten by Thyme Hill in the Persian War at Chepstow, before dropping in grade into minor company and being touched off by Edwardstone last time out. The market at Wincanton that day suggested that it should have been a formality, so to see him beaten was disappointing. He has improved again from that, but he didn’t appear to have excuses in either of his defeats and the form of his two starts is mixed.

The joint-second favourite comes from the all-conquering stable of Nicky Henderson in the form of Son of Camas, who won a maiden hurdle at Newbury on his only attempt over obstacles so far. Son Of Camas had a highly thought of rival in behind who has since hosed up at Exeter on New Year’s Day, and that form looks strong on the surface as a consequence, but his inexperience could well leave him vulnerable to a more streetwise rival having only had the three starts under Rules and just the one over obstacles.

They both currently sit above Hang In There in the market, who represents the up-and-coming Emma Lavelle, who has shown over the last three seasons that she is no slouch when it comes to training. Owners Tim Syder and Andrew Gemmell are big supporters of hers, and teamed up to fork out £60,000 for this son of Yeats; which is turning out to be a good investment considering that nearly half the fee has already been paid back in prize money. He was unlucky on his hurdling debut when carried wide and unseating Adam Wedge at the first hurdle at Exeter in October, but he made no mistake at the second time of asking at the same track 12 days later, scoring by seven lengths. That performance warranted connections to roll the dice and pitch him into Grade 2 company at Cheltenham, which again saw him post an authoritative display to win by five lengths. That came on ground similar to what he will face here, and considering that he had a listed winner trailing in his wake on a similar-natured track with a stiff finish, it’s difficult to work out why he isn’t favourite. 

The form of Hang In There’s Grade 2 win is the strongest in the book and in my opinion, the only reason that he isn’t at the top of the market is because he isn’t trained by one of Tizzard , Nicholls or Henderson. The top trainers deservedly have their reputation for what they can get out of horses, but in the races with unexposed sorts, the trainer’s names are often looked at more than the form itself and can shape the market. Emma Lavelle has shown she knows how to handle a smart one, just look at Paisley Park, and I know I’ll be siding with her charge in the Tolworth and taking full advantage of the 3/1 on offer, when really, he shouldn’t be any bigger than 2/1… 

Surely connections must be considering the Champion Hurdle? 

Envoi Allen has catapulted himself to the top of the novice hurdling division in his short career over obstacles, with connections throwing him straight into Grade 1 company after a win in a maiden to see whether he’d sink or win - and probably as all of us expected, he swam. The Cheveley Park-owned superstar contested the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse at the beginning of December, and beat old rival Abacadabras by a length and a half. The early season Grade 1s can often throw up some strange results, with some stables choosing to start the season later with their stars, but this definitely wasn’t one of them. Abacadabras reappeared over the hectic festive period and had his turn in the spotlight when running out an eight-length winner of the Future Champions Novice Hurdle, a Grade 1 in its own right. 

Now stepping up half a mile in trip, Gordon Elliott has often thought that Envoi Allen be as good, if not better at the longer trip given he is a point-to-point winner and Sunday’s outing will test that theory. He will start as a short-priced favourite, with the biggest challenge likely to come from Elixir D’ainay. This French recruit has strong form to his name, defeating fellow rival Longhouse Poet at Naas in November, and he has the scope to progress into a smart sort in his own right. However, he looks likely to fall short of the level required here, and after Envoi Allen wins this on Sunday, connections must be considering the Champion Hurdle as a viable option.  

Will there be a poignant success for Venetia Williams? 

The loss of Houblon Des Obeaux in last month’s London National tugged on the heart strings of plenty of racing fans that have followed his successful career. It was one that included 11 successes, the best of which was a Grade 2 success in the Denman Chase in 2016. His last success was as recent as November 2019 when taking a leg of this Veteran Series, something that he was very much the headline act of, so it is fitting that the Saturday’s finale is being run in his memory. He was a legend of the sport, and to still be competing off marks in and around the 140s at the age of 13 is a testament to how much he loved the game, and I’m sure is sorely missed by everyone with Venetia Williams’ yard.

Venetia Williams will therefore be hoping that she can pay him the ultimate tribute by winning the race with Burtons Well. He ran in a veteran’s chase himself at Aintree back in October and put up a smart performance to win, but he’s since performed below that at Haydock in November - where it was reported that he was never travelling. He will have to leave that behind, and the return to the veteran’s sphere will help him in that endeavour, but lining up here only 2 lb below his career-high mark could mean he’s vulnerable for win purposes. 

The most interesting contenders of the rest of the field have form tied in together from their latest start. King’s Odyssey and Smooth Stepper finished first and second respectively at Warwick on similar underfoot conditions to what they’ll face here back in November. Whilst Evan Williams’ horse had the upper hand that day, it would be no surprise to see the tables turned at Sandown. Indeed, Smooth Stepper has a 2 lb swing with his Warwick conqueror, and the stiffer nature of Sandown will suit him more, which gives him a strong chance of reversing the form and in the process putting a spanner in the works of Venetia Williams’ attempt at a fitting tribute.  

Can Gunnery follow up?

Nicky Henderson isn’t often one for turning his horses out quickly, but given the way that Gunnery won at Doncaster last Sunday, he hasn’t given him much choice. He won that race off a mark of 115, skipping 12 lengths clear, and connections are trying to strike whilst the iron is still hot with him now, running again just six days later. He will have to carry a 6 lb penalty as a consequence, stepping up in class for the final race of the card at Sandown on Saturday, but that penalty for winning has allowed him to creep into this at the bottom of the weights. The handicapper will reassess him this Tuesday coming, and with a performance like he produced, his official rating will surely rise to at least 125 - meaning he can technically run at least 4 lb well-in at the weights this weekend, with the 6 lb penalty taking his competing mark to 121. The race at Doncaster on Sunday won’t have taken much out of him, and I definitely won’t be opposing him despite a number of in-form rivals in opposition. I’m a bit a mathematician-type punter that loves handicapping horses, and given how much he will still have in hand over the rest of the field with only the 6 lb extra, it makes him a very attractive proposition, my only fear is whether his jumping can hold up.

Can Olly Murphy successfully raid the north? 

Olly Murphy for once has a quiet Saturday on his hands, and with his horses now firing on all cylinders, it may be worth following the trio of runners he sends up to Newcastle from his Warwickshire base. He’s relatively new to the training ranks, but he has quickly established himself as a bit of a force in the National Hunt game, hitting the frame in plenty of big races - with a few smart horses in his care.

Whether we see a future star up at Newcastle or not is unknown as they all are have had very few starts, if any, under Rules. Opening the card and making her debut under rules is Alpha Carinae – a £62,000 purchase from the pointing sphere. It looks a relatively weak contest on paper, and with the all-weather track that it will be run on riding slow, her proven stamina will be an asset to get her up the stiff finish. She must be capable of playing a leading role if her lack of experience doesn’t hold her back. 

Secondly, Overthetop drops markedly in grade in the third race on the card, after coming up short at a higher level last time out. Before that, he had looked a horse to follow when winning impressively at Carlisle in novice company on his first start over hurdles. He quickened clear whilst hard on the bridle that day and found the stiff track no problem. Now back in a minor contest, he will have to defy a penalty for that success, but that should be well within his capabilities. The main challenge looks to come from Prince Kayf,  whose form lines were given a controversial boost on New Years Day, when the horse he defeated here in November, Imperial Alcazar, was promoted to first in a listed race at Cheltenham to frank his form. He has to prove that was no fluke, and given the form of Murphy’s horses, Overthetop just shades it for me.

Those two have strong claims of bringing up an early double, but the treble may come up just short. The most experienced of the trio, Adjutant has to shoulder a double penalty for his two successes over hurdles in the summer, and whilst he was beaten in handicap company last time, the 12-03 he has to carry looks to be a worry for his trainer - as he’s employed the services of a 7 lb conditional to help offset that. He is up against some less-exposed rivals and whilst he sets the standard, the likes of Billy Ray and Dusty’s Choice could progress past him. 

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