It looked a funny little card with few betting angles, despite doubling down on the prep in the wake of the Newcastle debacle.
But it's these type of meetings that can surprise you and the more I looked at the opening 8-runner novice the more I knew I had to make an early move.
Grove Silver came second at Carlisle last time, and I was one of very few to see it up close that bleak mid-winter Sunday. As mentioned here previously that was the day that the J Candlish yard sparked their form revival and the young grey was marked down as one to be interested in moving forward.
I liked the shape of the race as while Istimraar was a worthy favourite he was very short and had to step up on what he achieved in winning on Boxing Day. He looked in great heart beforehand but so did Grove Silver, with the market speaking strongly in the latter's favour.
|The likeable Grove Silver lands a touch|
Dean's Walk took third and he's a slowly progressing although won't be seen to best effect until he tackles fences, hopefully this time next year. I wasn't taken by Tommy O'Dwyer, and loping, leggy sort, while Never Never is not progressing and you can see why from a physical perspective.
The mares hurdle, as so often the case, made little betting appeal with the hot favourite Knocklayde Express literally head and shoulders above her rivals in the prelims. She's a sturdy mare who can only improve and should be a force over fences sooner rather than later.
Clearly green in front, she did well to fend off Lucky Buttons, while a fairly nice type in Western Goose came in third after making much of the running. The Crawford mare Knocklayde Sno Cat was fit but is on the small side, while the rest did not look much.
I took a strong opinion in the 2m 4f handicap chase as Tweedo Paradiso was surprisingly backed into 9/4 in early trading. I couldn't have it on my mind as he'd shown no form whatsoever on soft ground, wasn't sure to stay and is never one that takes the eye.
To be fair he looked in good health but far more impressive was Zazamix, another from the A Crook yard to take the eye of late. I kicked myself when 'Zaza' won here earlier in the season and was determined not to let another opportunity pass, as he looked on real good terms with himself and has done little wrong in defeat the last twice.
Prince Blackthorn is a decent looking chaser but generally one to take on, while Pistol Basc looked fine but has looked sharper and needs some help from the assessor. The pace angle was a concern but I was delighted when J Kington gave 'Zaza' a prominent posi from the get-go, putting his sound jumping to good use.
I think he would still have won had Prince Blackthorn not stumbled at the last, and hopefully today will have proved his doubters wrong once and for all.
Tweedo Paradiso ran a mighty race in fairness, jumping proficiently, and while not one to follow implicitly may be found a small race back on decent ground, perhaps at Kelso over 2m 2f if there is such a race.
|The lovely 'Zaza' - doubters be damned!|
She had to be opposed and Just Cameron was an easy selection to make, looking really well on his second start for M Hammond, whose runners have been looking in good health only for them to be hitting the crossbar. The horse looked light at Haydock but seemed a lot stronger here and after being sent off in front was not for catching.
I have to admit I also backed Dark Dune, who also looked in great heart but may just be struggling a bit on this tacky winter ground. If the handicapper relents a little a race can be found for him in the spring, when maybe the Easterby yard is firing a little better.
The staying chase centred around Volo Mio, who has been mentioned previously as one to watch, and had his first chance to shine off 113, which looked a very reasonable mark. He had been hammered in the betting but drifted quite sharply late on despite looking in high spirits.
We had to go in but his jumping remains novicey and it stood out like the proverbial wart against these seasoned chasers, and he was never able to get into it. On reflection he may need more time as he's a bit gassy, but the promise remains and it's surely a workable mark.
The winner Master Rajeem is a lovely big chaser who I backed at Leicester last time after seeing him run well here earlier in the season. He seemed to enjoy getting into a better rhythm here after an early blunder and proved well ahead of these - Basford Ben I couldn't have as he's so one-paced while Urban Gale looked in rude health but simply isn't the force of old.
As regulars will know I'm no fan of bumpers and while the finale didn't interest me financially it was easy to oppose the front two in the betting - Crawford's Legacy Phoenix another small, hard fit horse from the yard and the T Vaughan-trained Lawless Island, who could only be described as workmanlike at best.
Sakhee's City by contrast really caught the eye being a huge animal, and well put together. At four he's got plenty of time to strengthen up and it's tohis credit that he is able to rate this high at this stage of his career. He's one to watch.
Honours, however, went to Libby Mae, another for M Hammond. I marked her down as a nice, tall mare who looked in pretty good fettle on her toes. It took a leap of faith to think she was up to winning on her debut but she did just that, and the form should not be knocked.
It's worth making a note here of the Crawford outfit. They're having the odd winner but not firing them in as often as they were a year ago, particularly with the bumpers. I must say I've not seen a single one of theirs with an ounce of surplus flesh on them. Where Izzini was concerned you'd find more meat on a butcher's apron.
Far be it from me to tell a trainer where he's going wrong but the stable's horses look very hard trained and you wonder if some of them are leaving their races at home. It could just be that he's sold the best of his crop, but either way I'd be wary of taking a short price about any of his in the short term.