There was a super card up at Carlisle but the forecast looked dreadful there so the decision was made to head south for a shorter journey and change of scenery.
The ground was pretty soft from the get-go and when it's like that at the Midlands venue it tends to sort them out. You can often get exaggerated winning distances but there was no fluke about Aqua Dude's spreadeagling of his field in the NH novices hurdle over 2m.
Evan Williams' charge cost £150k out of a point field before clocking a decent rating when finishing down the list in a very decent Ascot bumper.
That run on its own surely put him only just behind the triple bumper winner Brave Richard, whose form figures naturally resulted in a very short starting price.
However, Aqua Dude is quite the specimen and caught the eye like no other so far this term. Big and rangy, he had that something about him you can't quite describe. He covered an enormous abount of ground going to post and was the bet of the day at 7/2.
He really seemed to relish jumping the brush hurdles and he simply jumped and galloped his way to the front at the end of the back straight, never looking like stopping.
Kerisper put a poor effort at Perth behind to give vain chase but this was all about Aqua Dude, and he must be followed.
Brave Richard is a nice horse who is sure to do better returned to decent ground, while the Skeltons' At The Top looked very big and backward and will be one for handicaps later on.
We were already on good terms with ourselves after Fresh By Nature had rallied to land the stayers hurdle. I'm a tad disappointed I didn't flag it up here after seeing it looking in good nick before running a decent race at 50/1 behind the promising Five In A Row at Hexham last month.
The Bethell horses are looking a lot fitter this season for whatever reason and that form looked smart in the context of this claimer. I'll admit though it was probably the last bet struck on the track as I launched in when it was apparent that Lamps wasn't on a going day. With a bit more prep I might have struck a big wager, as it was I was just happy to collect on a race I originally had no designs on.
This runner/non-runner rule has to change and it doesn't reflect well on the sport when punters literally don't get a run for their money. It shouldn't be left to opportune bookmaking firms to offer money back on an unofficial 'non-starter'.
It wasn't all one-way traffic though as Benefit Cut was a costly loser, this perennial front runner taken on for the lead first by Ladfromhighworth and then eventual winner Simply Wings.
I'm sure Benefit Cut - a really superb jumper - can win again off this mark, probably back at his favoured Market Rasen when the ground is not quite so soft. That said he does need things to fall into place.
They were all fit for this race, with only the ground seemingly an excuse for those well beaten in behind.
Miss Oscarose wasn't ready for her return in the mares chase. She didn't jump great but may able to pick up a small race somewhere.
There was another decent novices hurdle that went the way of the in-form K Bailey-trained Abbreviate. This smallish, yet athletic gelding jumped much better than previously and bolted up from Young Dillon, another compact sort who may yet do better on good ground.
The latter didn't find any sort of rhythm and put in many hesitant jumps, yet stayed on stoutly for minor honours. Perhaps conventional hurdles will also suit.
The 'disappointing' favourite was Braavos, but he's a very big unfurnished horse who is going to need plenty of time to fill out. My advice; steer clear for now.
The finale was all about Hurricane Vic, a lovely horse if still very much on the leggy side. He travelled down the churned up part of the track and looked to be climbing through it. He could probably do with fences and some better terrain.
Fair play to trainer Derek Shaw, who produced Polarbrook looking fit and well again after showing signs of a revival at Sedgefield. He was worth a few quid here at big odds against a largely poor bunch.
Surprisingly decent ground considering the rain in the area, with good to soft looking pretty close to the mark.
The two novice hurdles were weak affairs where the absence of a D McCain-trained horse was notably absent since the split with his chief owner.
Smart Talk was smashed into a very short price in the opener and this most likeable mare did it very well, beating what could be a fairly useful yardstick in Sunny West, who gave Oscar Blue a fright first time up.
Smart Talk goes about her business in a no-nonsense style and jumps particularly well. With plenty of size, she shouldn't be opposed lightly this season.
Sunny West is a rather small compact sort whose jumping was better here without being able to match his chief rival through the air. This thorough staying type should relish 3m in a handicap later on this term.
Summer Storm was the 'paper' favourite for the next but most punters cottoned on to the fact that the Henderson reject is no good, and it drifted all day long.
The market favoured the unfurnished grey Good Vibration but the Smith horse is but a baby and will surely need a trip once he grows up. He did settle better here and stayed on well, so they may up him next time.
The winner Poulanassy had plenty of friends in the ring and this strong sort was the paddock pick. Without much form in the book it was hard to be bullish, but he went about things well out front, jumping well and then sticking on nicely when push came to shove. This was moderate stuff, however.
Another Smith-trained horse was flavour of the day in the novices handicap chase in the shape of five to follow entrant Friendly Royal. I was happy take some 3/1 about the Hexham winner but was deeply concerned that both track and trip were against it and an SP of 15/8 was not a true reflection of his chance.
With Rear Admiral and Nautical Twilight readily opposable however there was only one plausible danger in the shape of the unexposed Hughsie, trained by Evan Williams.
Having shaped with promise over timber last term the six-year-old might have been thrown in off 119 and paddock inspection confirmed fears that this could be a decent tool. Lengthy looking, he nevertheless lacked for size and that prevented a saver as it was anyone's guess how he would jump.
Backers of Hughsie needn't have worried; I thought he jumped really well under a confident ride from A Wedge and won rather cosily, and can see him following up without any fuss at somewhere like Ludlow.
I try to price up the handicap chases if I can and often by doing this it helps to find some value even if there is no angle into the race.
My odds for the handicap chase over 2m4f differed greatly to those of the bookmakers and gave me a real chance to get involved in the race. I was keen to back Grate Fella in any case as everything looked in place for a big run.
But in pricing up Ever So Much at 10/1 and Saints And Sinners at 7s I was literally at odds with the professionals, who were something like 7/2 & 5. Instead, I had course winners Master Rajeem and Distime shorter at 5s and 8/1 respectively.
Yet while the former's improved form last season came when stepped up to long distances, I thought Distime was primed for another big run having won on the card last year on similarly soft terrain.
He's clearly had his problems and good ground does him no favours. He was spotted looking in good order at Wetherby on his return and trainer R Drake won a race here with fellow outsider Teochew last week.
At 20/1 the layers had made a ricket and while I was by no means confident he would land the spoils, at those odds he was well worth adding to the ledger alongside the big Smith horse. You could have played it another way, laying two or three in the race. Tomkevi was the subject of early support but this small horse has little scope for English fences and the yard is ice cold.
As you will know by now the selections came home first and second, so it would be easy to crow. But I wanted to make the point that this sort of discrepancy doesn't happen often, and when it does you simply must act. So have a go at pricing up some races - it may be worth your while!
The cash came for Aniknam in the next but he's a horse I always look to oppose. Very much on the small side, Aniknam looks tripless and paceless at present, and has not progressed since this time last year.
I could have backed three against him here particularly with both Turtle Cask and Pure Science looking fit and in great order.
I thought they missed a trick by not reapplying the headgear on Turtle Cask here and the result may well have been different had they been on. Leading two out, he was doing nothing in front and when bungling the last his race was gone.
I'm sure they'll stick the cheekies back on next time and with this run putting him spot on he will be a good bet.
That said, the winner Almost Gemini did it very well and has been revitalised since going the wrong way under the care of C Mann. The handicapper had been very kind to the big grey, who was opposed by some judges on appearance, but I quite liked him as something for the future. Not that I anticipated such a big run today.
The ground probably wasn't soft enough for Pure Science, who wants in bottomless, and it could be the case that Aniknam is also a mud rat with arguably his two best runs coming in the Hexham slop. He's stoutly bred so he's worth a go at 3m.