A competitive little card run on ground just on the soft side of good, the hurdles track officially the quicker of the two.
I had a good angle into this mares novice as I'd seen Apache Song at Doncaster last season and thought she had plenty of substance on that pleasing debut behind Soldier In Action. That form alone was just about the best on offer here and it was great to see her return from a summer off looking very fit. She should have been favourite and so odds of 5/1 were snapped up. Her Flat speed would have been handy round this track even without the slow early pace, which played into her hands. The one horse it definitely did not suit was Molly Childers, a stoutly bred mare that I thought would improve for the outing. She lacked the pace to win a bumper but her form was decent and this was another pleasing effort. I like her, and she should build on this over longer trips. Runner-up David's Phoebe was the surprise package as she looked light-framed and immature, but she traveled nicely into the race and clearly has ability. Trainer Tom Lacey really is one to watch this term. Thelunarschooner looked a backward sort and that was borne out by the market drift, and she may need time. Mountain Path is an okay sort but her form had been let down and this slow gallop was of little help.
I thought Better Days should have been a clear favourite in this handicap chase even though the trip was too short. I simply couldn't have Highbury High (too high in the weights) or The Doorman (winner of some weak races), while the money for Hepijeu was surprising as his form had tailed right off. The late cash for Irish raider I'm An Izz Wizz should have rung some bells and he looked the best physical specimen beforehand. His form has an in-and-out look but which Irish horse doesn't. Better Days is a very tall, light framed individual and you can see why he doesn't act on soft or perhaps take his races too well. I'm sure he'll win in turn but this is his grade.
A competitive handicap hurdle over the minimum trip, and of the Skelton trio it was surprising the way they bet as the outsiders Listen To The Man and Late Night Lily were far more appealing than the favourite Red Tornado, who didn't look right in his coat and got quite warm. There's clearly an engine but there's not much about him. One that did look the part was I'm A Game Changer, who looked like he should be running in the next. A good looking chase type, they have to bide their time with this five-year-old but he's some prospect and not seen to any effect here off what wasn't a very strong pace for the type of race. Stable companions Cloonacool and Land League look more like chasers and the latter will find his feet over the bigger obstacles in time. The same comment applies to the fourth placed Limited Reserve, who was fit for this return but has plenty of scope for improvement.
The big handicap chase with loads of potential front runners and, not always the case, they took each other on and every single one of them paid the price. It played into the hands of the hold-up horses and it was perfect for Ballybolley, who always travels with particular zest. He's improved again to win off a career high mark but he'll rarely get this sort of pace to come off and I strongly suspect that's him done winning until the spring now - he cannot produce his turn of foot on soft ground. Guitar Pete was all the rage and he came second yet again, but he has a problem in that he lacks size for fences, and loses ground at every fence. He was hard at it from the get-go and simply stayed on through beaten horses. He's not one for me and there are reasons why he keeps getting beat. The moral winner was surely Master Dee, a robust animal who once again ran his heart out. Unable to go the early dash, he lost his pitch before battling back into it, leaving him empty on the run-in. The handicapper knows all about him, but I'm sure connections can find a small-field affair over three miles which will suit him perfectly. Catamaran Du Seuil was another mover in the market but he's really light framed still and although they must feel he's on a good mark, he faded pretty rapidly in the straight. Poker School was bitterly disappointing as this should have suited ideally. Given a lot to do, he didn't really find much in the straight and it's plausible I suppose that just keeping up with this frenetic pace drained his reserves. By Gold Well, he should relish 3m and maybe a steadier rhythm is what he needs now. Of the rest, only Its'Afreebee came here looking as though he needed the run, and this soft ground horse will find easier opportunities in the coming weeks as he has some decent form in the book.
This handicap hurdle was another tricky puzzle especially with tearaway Marju's Quest in the field. He paid for going far too fast again while Captain Felix and Mahlerdramatic were left flagging after trying to keep tabs, so Get Home Now earns rave reviews for being the only one of those on the front end to keep going in the straight, fending off Handsome Dan who got a stellar hold-up ride from B Hughes. Another feather in the cap though for J Bowen with winning horse and rider improving at a rate of knots. Mahlerdramatic had reportedly undergone knee surgery last winter but came here looking fresh and well, and pretty straight. The trip concerned me as he has the look of a staying chaser, and he was simply exhausted after going flat out for a circuit and a half. This probably wasn't what the vet ordered on his first run back, and providing the injury hasn't resurfaced I'd put a line through this and hopefully connections will send him straight over fences at 2m4f+.
The market had spoken ahead of the bumper as H Whittington's Simply The Betts had been supported from an early 5/1 into 7/4 by the off, and paddock watchers could see why. He's a very nice prospect indeed, with loads of size and a professional demeanour. He's a snip at 18k and it is rare to see such a nice horse this early in the season. Twister's Ballymoy was typical of the yard, a handy athletic type and quite buzzy. Runner-up Theclockisticking has size but looked weak in front so this was a really pleasing debut in what was probably a fair bumper. Snapdragon Fire is a tall backward animal that will need time, but he's got talent. Siannes Star is well related but is very light framed at present and he didn't have the strength to go with the front rank late in the piece despite some market support. He'll need plenty of time.