Friday of the Betfair Chase weekend produced what you might call a typical Haydock card, with generally small but quality fields.
The opening staying hurdle was of huge interest, not least because it comprised the biggest field of 11. There were at least four to be considered and although he didn't carry my money in the end Island Heights ran out a worthy winner from the front.
This horse struggled over fences last season and it's easy to see why - he just lacks that extra bit of size and scope. It was therefore unsurprising that connections were aiming him at the big race over the brush hurdles on Saturday before re-routing here.
The tip should have been taken but instead I preferred the chances of Oscar Blue, who on reflection was asked too much after a couple of wins in the lower leagues. He plugged on and initially it was disappointed he couldn't offer more, but as I said this probably came too soon.
Major Ivan had finished behind him at Kelso and turned the tables in first time blinkers. He's a really lovely chaser in the making and you would say typical of the trainer's. I'm not entirely sure that's he's as quirky as the jockey has made him look. Perhaps if Hughes had pressed the button after jumping two out there may have been a different result - as it was I felt the horse was given every chance to duck it and he did.
Shades of Midnight stayed on dourly for third and he is not straightforward. Still a five-year-old, he has some growing up to do mentally but physically he's strong as an ox and was much fitter here than for his reappearance. A big run was expected judging by the market and each-way backers were rewarded.
I really wanted to be against the well-backed Optimistic Bias at the odds, not that there was anything wrong with him physically. Just that the Aintree form may not be as strong as is generally believed, while the deep ground was an unknown. Also, the lad seemed to find all the trouble in the world in the race, and the horse is undoubtedly better than this.
Charlie Cook is worthy of a mention after running a big race at huge odds. He has enough about him to suggest he can win a run-of-the-mill 0-110 and will jump a fence in time.
Doctor Phoenix dwarfed his two rivals in the graduation chase and again jumped like an old hand. This win won't do his mark any favours and he may find things a bit harder from now on. But he's a gorgeous chaser.
Welsh Shadow looked really well before hacking up in the novice hurdle despite weakness in the market in the face of a plunge on Viens Chercher. The Ellison horse is a real chase type who wants further, and in coming clear of the rest showed improved form. He's a very decent four-year-old.
All eyes were on Minella Rocco in the novice chase and what a looker he is. However, he clearly doesn't do much in a hurry and he spends a lot of time in the air at the canter. The way he stayed on suggested he already wants three miles, while I would be looking to oppose him on anything other than soft/heavy.
He needed to come up with the goods on this chase debut with Silsol in opposition, a nailing good handicapper at 150+ who arrived bang in form. In fact, the run almost certainly came too soon after Carlisle and he was very brave to win under a sensational ride from STD.
Private Malone was just denied and he clearly stepped up hugely on his hurdles form, jumping soundly in the main, and may even improve on this fitness-wise.
Vintage Clouds was all the rage in the brush hurdle and this strong sort had his trip and ground after coming up short on his reappearance when he didn't look fully wound up. His task was made easier by the fall of Wade Harper, who is only workmanlike in appearance. That said, his sibling Cole Harden isn't much to look at either.
Baratineur ran a mighty race in second and once he matures mentally can leave this form way behind. He's very fizzy but is moving in the right direction. Celldomfed was in need of the run and filled third place some way back. I Just Know had tightened up since Wetherby but was undone by a dreadful error down the back where he may have hurt himself.
The junior bumper was easily narrowed down to the front two in the market - Ellison's Crackdeloust looking the strongest while Venetia's Du Soleil was the nicest - a well made sort who will come on for the run. Renaissance Red was carrying plenty of condition, while Sir Albie was one of the smallest horses I've seen in some time.
Betfair Chase day didn't appeal much at all from a betting point of view although I did back Baby King with some degree of confidence in the opener, purely on the basis that he was the only one in the race with scope for improvement under prevailing conditions.
The horse cost six figures after winning a hurdle race in Ireland and didn't really progress last year, but this quite small horse looked on great terms with himself for this reappearance and won I thought with something in hand.
Zaidiyn is a lovely big chase type who chased him all the way to the line, but looks very quirky and it's been well documented by various people that he only has one run and needs to be held up. With that in mind it was perhaps surprising that his jockey sat with a double handful going to the last rather than kicking on.
They decided to run New Street in this despite it being withdrawn on several occasions because of the soft ground. He's a nice rangy grey who will undoubtedly do well in the spring.
In previous years I might have been drawn into backing No Deal in the staying handicap chase, apparently having plenty of potential despite advancing years. However, any horse that has had as many problems as he has MUST be treated with caution, and sure enough this 7/2 favourite was pulled up having reportedly suffered a breathing problem.
They all finished in a heap after King Of The Wolds jumped them to sleep down the far side. He has a great cruising speed but has never found anything off the bridle, and will continue to be a great source of income to in-running layers.
Emperor's Choice didn't look straight for this race last year, when he finished second, but was much fitter on this occasion and duly obliged after being ridden from some way out. He has bottomless reserves of stamina.
I wanted to get against another horse that has clearly had problems in Gunner Fifteen, who went off an extremely well-backed jolly in the handicap hurdle despite what looked to me like a strong contest.
Loads of them looked great, Stilleto a big chaser for the future and Oscarteea who also looks like a chaser standing out. The latter ran a similar race to the one he ran at this meeting last year and may be crying out for three miles.
There's a race in Vendor if they stop riding it so aggressively, while the eventual winner Rock The Kasbah is a very dependable sort who looks tougher than granite. Soft ground is a must.
The two big races will be covered in great detail elsewhere and largely all the horses looked in great nick for their early season assignments. I wasn't that taken by Top Notch, who looked quite dull in his coat, so I'll be interested in his progress this season. He looks like he needs a step up in trip at some stage.
In the big fixed brush race Tea For Two stood out a mile but the way he jumped you'd have thought they would have gone over fences with him by now. He's huge and there seems little point now in persevering over timber.
Definitely Red is as solid a performer as they come and once again ran his race in second. I can't wait to see him over fences, while Alcala will continue to be of interest although's he's rather leggy at present and we won't see the best of him until this time next year.
There was no play in the closing handicap chase with most of the 10 in with some sort of chance. Indian Castle looked big and should come on for it, while Firebird Flyer didn't look great in his coat. Sun Cloud was was finally fit after a couple of runs this term, but he couldn't quite get to the lean looking Vieux Lion Rouge, who overcame an early blunder to win with a little in hand.