With drying conditions and no rainfall all week the ground was generally soft at all three meetings but considered dead and holding.
Sedgefield - Tuesday 15th
Some extremely uncompetitive stuff and small fields making for really unappetizing fare. Trainer Ken Slack continued his fantastic season with three winners from four runners, Azure Glamour getting off the mark in first time blinkers when outbattling a dreadful rogue in Home For Tea. Both horses had their chances on the run-in after the market leaders had wiped each other out at the second last, but for me Home For Tea had no excuses for not going past the front runner here and is one to oppose every time. Normandy King was heavily supported but seemed to flounder on the soft ground and he'll surely be better than this on good. The fact that Nicki's Nipper was so close in third sums up the form.
Home for Tea's connections did not leave empty handed though when Away For Slates turned up looking full of beans ahead of the three-runner handicap hurdle, and he made light of a drop in trip to win as he liked from Roxyfet, who was done for toe back over timber. The winner can improve again for another summer on his back. Third placed Lexi's Boy continues his regression.
Runswick Relax jumped a moderate field silly having got his own way up front before Generous Pet completed the Slack treble by easily supplementing his Newcastle win. With Bladoun failing miserably to run to form this wasn't strenuous for the hot favourite.
Discoverie was attempting to give Slack a foursome and was odds-on to do so but unlike at Catterick this cussed animal didn't get his own way in the lead and soon dropped the bridle. In another weak affair where few ran to their best it was Duhallowcountry who finally got off the mark under Amy Waugh, who gets on really well with the horse. Better ground should suit the winner and he may yet defy a slightly higher mark this spring.
The bumper was interesting as the favourites Tara Time and Mount Mizooka didn't act on the chewed up terrain and were big flops. Newcomer It's All About Me went to post with a very scratchy action and Paper Roses didn't appeal, looking a moderate sort. M Jefferson has his team of youngsters in terrific shape and Only Orvieto gave the yard another bumper winner as she stayed on well to beat Paper Roses, who clearly has ability and proved her debut to be no fluke. Of Tara Time, she looked really well but is still on the small side and it looks as though the ground is key to her.
Hexham - Thursday 17th
Brilliant sunshine masked the fact that conditions were pretty testing, and the old Hexham hill soon did for Roja Dove in the opener who, having cruised to the front before the last, promptly found the effort to much allowing Beyondtempation to fight back and land a hat-trick. Fair play to the winner who was defying a 10lb higher mark.
Flemensfirthleader had flopped at 2/11 at Catterick after going far too keenly but despite being more tractable this time still found nothing under pressure and the previously disappointing My Little Cracker enjoyed a cakewalk under B Harding. What to make of these kind of races is anyone's guess, although looking at the winner you'd think she could go on from here.
Irish raider Maz Majecc sweated up badly prior to the staying chase for novices where The Bishop put his best foot forward to beat the reluctant Trouble In Paris, whom it seems is destined never to win another race. Spring Over ran well over fences for a small horse but again I wouldn't get excited about this form with Moscow Presents running no sort of race on chase debut and Cheat The Cheater unable to land a serious blow.
Beer Goggles has long been followed by this column and after winning at Sedgefield having been off the bridle for much of the journey, in-running layers were less keen to get involved with the Hammond horse, who barely traded above his SP before finishing with a rattle to win cosily. I was taken by the way the youngster has strengthened up since the autumn and with bottomless reserves of stamina can land the hat-trick providing they find some soft ground this spring.
The four-miler fell to Itstimeforapint for the Russell yard that has finally turned the corner. This was another horse who I looked at twice because he's often looked light framed but to these eyes had gained some strength this winter. I suspected the extreme trip may suit and put less strain on his suspect jumping, while his mark remained fair. He was a big price owing to the support for Son Of Suzie, who I was really keen to be against as his profile is not a progressive one. He's not taken to fences and for me doesn't really have enough scope, while his odds were absurdly short. Jonny Eager was a viable proposition having been the recipient of an overly aggressive ride last time out. He may not have jumped quite so well here, but these staying events will be his bread and butter over the coming years and he has room to strengthen yet. Longueville Flyer will become well handicapped in time, when flatter tracks than this will suit.
Leney Cottage was hard to oppose over 2m 4f but I hadn't been entirely convinced by his victory at Carlisle in a race that fell apart somewhat. He didn't pull hard so much here but still couldn't muster a challenge at the business end after Flaming Thistle pushed on again after an enterprising ride from G Cockburn. A double course winner over 3m, it made plenty of sense to make good use of the stayer who won well in the end with Suprise Vendor not looking likely to threaten. He's not very big for chasing and I'm surprised he racked up so many wins in this sphere back in the day.
The finale was headed by market leader Huehuecoytle but those who forced his price into 6/4 were banking on first time visors working the oracle. Sadly for them, this lovely strapping horse again showed little appetite for the fight, going down tamely under pressure. The Pierre Lark doesn't look much size-wise and once again a morning move for a horse proved a complete red herring. Too Many Chiefs hadn't taken the eye at Carlisle but somehow he looked a bit better just a week later - that said it was hard to predict victory, runner-up Milan Dancer being a more likely type on looks.
Newcastle - Saturday 19th
Quite a fair card all told, with one or two weak spots! The opener wasn't great but Always Resolute seemed to under perform and he's not gone on since that fall at the last at Catterick when well clear. That said Eastview Boy has caught the eye a couple of times and did this well, easily recording a PB. I always felt better ground would suit him so although his initial mark will be higher than the trainer might like, he is likely to be competitive off it. Frightened Rabbit is a pony and didn't build on Market Rasen. The slow early pace didn't help though so maybe she should be given another chance to prove that debut was no fluke.
Notonebuttwo looked in good nick ahead of the stayers handicap but was run out of things by Veroce, who has revealed himself to be a dour stayer. He jumped stickily on occasions and if he can brush up that side of his game maybe with another summer behind him he could be useful.Big Sound looked fit enough, albeit not great in his coat, and top weight for this little horse is always going to be a struggle.
I've discussed Nuts Well here before and I like him a lot. A break of 12 weeks would have done him a world of good and he looked a bit stronger than at Christmas time. Still only five, he could be anything and confidence was high that he could defy at perch of 122, with only the exposed Heath Hunter a perceived threat. He was very green having hit the front but found well enough for pressure to suggest he has plenty in hand of his mark, even after a 7lb rise.
The staying hurdle was very hard although I didn't want to be with either of the front two - Pinnacle Panda, who looked a tricky sort at Doncaster - and Seldom Inn, who has for some time looked to have a very questionable attitude. Neither showed up towards the business end but I couldn't have the eventual winner either, Touch Back. He 'found' for pressure for the first time in ages to deny those happy to support Another Mattie at what looked to be generous odds. 'Mattie' doesn't necessarily stay three miles and it was as if the eventual winner could sense he was stopping in front.
Clan Chief was supported into favouritism in the 2m chase and I thought a clear round would suffice. That wasn't a foregone conclusion however, as the trainer had enlisted the dubious talents of A Thornton. His calamitous demise in the first third of the race means that patient backers of the chestnut must wait a little longer before finally getting a return on the horse, who looks exceptionally well handicapped if only he can put it all together. The form is of little note and Stilo Blue Native should be hanging his head in shame after failing to get past Ascuncion from two out.
Burnt fingers were soothed by the performance of Imperial Prince, the day's good thing in the next. The only disappointment was the price as they had found a weak race for a decent looking horse who was very well in on the promise he had shown on numerous occasions. Only pushed out to win handily, this horse still has time to fill out and he'll move through the handicap given some luck. Karisma King and Frankie's Promise are both fractious sorts and not worth following currently, although Redkalani showed a bit more back over timber but this trip was too short and time will show they all had no chance against the winner.
The closing handicap hurdle was a ghastly affair with the vast majority of runners exposed as rogues or villains. The notable exception was the Ken Slack-trained Columbanus, but I suspect we've reached 'peak Slack' as it were and that punters are backing his horses blind. Odds of 7/4 certainly didn't reflect the horse's form chance and alot was taken on trust that the trainer has improved the beast. However, I wasn't taken by the small, somewhat mis-shapen animal, and one suspects this one may simply be no good. Time will tell, and every horse has it's mark after all, as Ascuncion proved earlier in the day.