Tom Stanley "Nicholls At It Again And One For The County"

11 min

Tom assess some of the highlights from the weekend and puts up a recent winner who can double up in the County Hurdle.

Paul Nicholls winning a big Saturday handicap, who’d have thunk it?

The team at Ditcheat has been in fine form of late and they threw three arrows at a race they boast a ridiculously good record in. San Benedeto, favourite Dolos and Warriors Tale filled three of the first ten places. Interesting that the Greatwood Gold Cup falls so close to the festival but Nicholls targets it each and every year. A mark of the trainer’s approach.

A superb record at Cheltenham over the years but by no means blinded by it. He has the strength in depth too. Nicholls did have to deal with the disappointments of Black Corton and Getaway Trump running well below form at Kelso though. Not everything wins, however bang in form a yard may be.

Paul Nicholls Ditcheat team are in sensational form as we head towards the festival.

What of Trump?

Getaway Trump is still one to keep on side and I’d have to be interested in him if turning up at Aintree. He may go for one of the Graded races over two or two and a half but he really does look fairly treated if rocking up in a handicap. I’d had him in mind for the County Hurdle, for all the Coral Cup was being touted as a likely target. If that’s the case, the two-and-a-half-mile handicap which opens day two at Aintree could be just his thing. More on the County Hurdle imminently.

Oh, incidentally, it looks as though Paul Nicholls’s Frodon is again being considered for the Ryanair. He was put up here in December for that race at 15.0 and can now be backed at 9.5. Given the shape of that race, with Frodon’s front running style at one stage taken out of the equation, I put up Monalee at 12 (now 7.4). But both of them lining up would be interesting given their respective running styles.

Imagine if they took each other on, saw each other off and set it up for a closer!? How funny would that be?? HA! I’m laughing already.

If there was an emoji to sum this up it would be the scrunchy face one.

Frodon ridden by Matchbook Ambassador Bryony Frost during day two of the November Meeting at Cheltenham Racecourse.

Hobbs to Peak?

Talking of trainer form, Phillip Hobbs is a man having a different build-up to Cheltenham than this time last year. True, he may have gone a little quieter in early February than the rest of his season to date but good to see the yard land an across the card Saturday double. February 2018 yielded just two winners from thirty-six runners and March didn’t provide much more to shout about. At last year’s festival Hobbs sent out eleven runners. Not even a place was returned, though it’s worth noting that the shortest of those in the betting was No Comment at 10.0.

Crooks Peak ran in the bumper last year having won at the track previously but returned unplaced at 26.0. He was on my list for the County earlier in the year but, rated 133, had very little chance of getting in. He’d have scraped into the 2014 renewal and last year’s ‘heavy ground, run for the hills’ festival would have meant a place too. Realistically, taking ground extremes out of the equation, high 130s is a must.

Despite a quiet February, Philip Hobbs is a trainer to watch at Cheltenham.

All hail a handicap run

Crooks Peak win at the weekend means a five pounds penalty and a very likely run in a race which should suit him. His mark at the lower end of the handicap has been no bad thing for recent winners either. Twelve of the last thirteen winners won off a mark in the 130s. And his win on Saturday may have been needed in more ways than one. Handicap debutants, which he was at Newbury, have a terrible record in the County Hurdle. In the last twenty-five years, all seventy-two handicap debutants have been beaten.

The hurly-burly of a County means those without relevant handicap experience can find this all too much.

Plenty of said handicap debutants have been market leaders too, including the Hobbs-trained Wait For Me back in 2016 (joint favourite with another handicap debutant, Great Field). Wait For Me was fourth that year, and Hobbs has a good record of horses running well in the race. He won it with subsequent Champion Hurdle winner Rooster Booster and has had five others placed including Cockney Trucker twice.

Crooks Peak

I imagine Crooks Peak has been in the trainer’s mind for this and, for all he gets a rise for his win, that can only be a positive meaning we know he’s in good form and now very likely to get a place. There has been a trend in recent years of fresh horses winning the race, Dan Skelton keeping back Superb Story and Mohaayed (another beaten handicap debutant the previous year). Artic Fire won on his first start for over a year. Go back to the turn of the century though and you’ll find the first nine winners all having run within the previous thirty-six days*. I’d welcome a reversion to that trend with Crooks Peak.

He was keen for this return having had over three months off but fairly tanked his way through the race and looked the winner a way out. He then wasn’t helping Barry Geraghty in front, for all I think he had a bit left under the bonnet. I imagine he’ll come on a fair bit for this, for all his trainer is notoriously capable of getting them fit and firing off an absence. Tucked away off a strong pace in a race like the County should suit and I think he’s a live one at 28.0.

*this stat, as with most here, is lifted from the excellent (I’m not biased) Racing TV Cheltenham Betting Preview by the equally excellent Matt Tombs.

Recommendation: Back Crooks Peak for the County Hurdle at 28.0

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Each week Tom is joined by guests such as Rory Delargy, Donn McClean, Sam Turner and Brendan Powell on Matchbook’s Horse Racing Podcast. Subscribe now to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, SoundCloud, or on your preferred Podcast app by searching for ‘Matchbook Betting Podcast’.