Wetherby - December 27
Proper soft ground for day two of the Christmas meeting.
A decent novice hurdle won by Black Pirate after a lengthy absence, a market drifter after looking on the big side in the paddock, but he's a lovely chasing type that should also relish further, so this has to go down as a good performance.
The money came for the O Sherwood-trained Brummie Boys who looked a nice type for the future while being quite unfurnished at this time, and a staying-on second held plenty of merit for a horse requiring time to strengthen up.
Giovanni Change has plenty of the Flat in his breeding and he'd only just be big enough for this game, yet despite a couple of notable errors he stayed on well for third and will surely be able to add to his Irish bumper win, probably on better ground. He might be of interest on the level for his dual-purpose trainer.
Hasankey caught my eye when Laura Morgan went to £52k at Goffs in August to secure the Aga Khan-bred maiden, and he came good at the third time of asking in the juvenile hurdle, battling on to best the penalised Goobinator.
A decent looking individual, the grey had looked green and quirky on previous starts but he knuckled down well after the last and the canny trainer stated afterwards that a spring campaign on better ground is now the plan. I'd expect him to keep on improving.
Cawthorne Lad might have won with a better ride and this 57-rated miler on the Flat is typical of the type trainer T Easterby does well with in this sphere. The handicapper hasn't missed him though, with an opening mark of 119.
No each-way terms in the seven-runner Castleford with a few of them irregular winners, one of whom Hawk High was well found in the market but not the sort to reward backers at cramped odds.
Marracudja, however, looked trained to the minute by D Skelton having been edged out in the race 12 months ago from a similar mark, and this often reluctant hero seemed to enjoy the return to positive tactics and the result was never in doubt for much of the journey.
Hawk High gave vain chase but he simply looks held by the assessor, as does Tonto's Spirit who doesn't have the tools to handle this quality of opposition.
I know nothing of Whitchurch trainer Sam Allwood but his handling of Sheneededtherun this winter has been outstanding and the mare looked in fine form as she attempted a hat-trick in the mares handicap chase.
Formerly with M Scudamore and B Pauling, the nine-year-old has found a new level of form in recent weeks and her accurate jumping gave her a big advantage over her five rivals, only one of whom could go with her.
The formerly promising Black Tulip looks increasingly quirky and did not respond to cheekpieces, slipping to 0/9 in this sphere and is one to avoid.
Another young trainer quietly making a name for himself is Sam Drinkwater and there had been some early cash for his Pray For A Rainbow in the closing handicap hurdle, a horse with a good record when fresh.
Following a six month absence, this good, strong individual turned up in fine order and looked sure to take a hand from a mark of just 83 in a race where few others stood out.
It was just one of those days when things go your way as for some unknown reason the horse sprouted wings after jumping the last with a few lengths to find, getting up to beat Wind Of Hope and Hexham chase winner Dontdelay, who had looked the one to beat beforehand.
Doncaster, December 29
Going on the soft side of good but now the rain has subsided it provided some of the best ground in recent weeks.
Boss Man Fred is a big raw chaser with a fair engine, what he does do is stay very well and despite coming off the bridle a long way from home he defied short odds in good style.
Snow Leopardess ran an okay sort of race without ever looking like winning, running a bit in snatches as though some cheekpieces might be of assistance. This does prove she stays 3m, however, and she looked pretty straight.
Little Bruce out-ran his odds from a lower hurdles mark...he's such a diminutive horse it's hugely surprising that he's a better chaser, but he looks poised to return to that sphere after a very good pipe-opener, for which he looked like he'd come on a little.
A really good quality novices handicap chase and it looked a 'pick 'em' beforehand with recent Wincanton scorer Baddesley Knight taking on the equally impressive Maire Banrigh, the pair having jumped impeccably thus far in their careers.
The fact Maire Banrigh was sent off at inflated odds of 7/2 will have mystified many, while the former was strongly favoured at 13/8. The mare jumped and galloped them silly in the style of a very smart horse, she has plenty of size and strength to maintain this level.
Baddesley Knight matched her until the fourth last but was unable to go with her, it's hard to know whether the bleed was a serious impediment but it wouldn't have helped. He looked in very good order beforehand.
Grey Diamond ran a solid enough race in the face of a very stiff task on his chasing debut, plugging on at one pace in the manner of one ready to go up in trip. He has the size to do well in this sphere.
We'll reflect upon how Lust For Glory was sent off the same price as the winner considering she hadn't raced over fences and was coming off the back of a poor recent run. She was never going a yard and may want more juice in the ground.
A fillies juvenile hurdle with Sainte Doctor a warm order, but her jumping was very novicey even before a race ending mistake at the second last. She cost a lot and has some quality about her, a bit keen and ignorant at present, but should keep progressing.
Fantastic Ms Fox was one of a handful that appealed in the paddock, an athletic individual, and she really quickened in the style of one that could do even better yet. Cuban Sun is quite small but showed plenty of ability, while Yauthym was another that caught the eye and it was no surprise to see her take a hand.
Further back the sizeable Ravenscar caught the eye staying on after proving a little keen, she needs to settle down a bit but has the size to win races over timber.
A fine Listed chase for mares which requires little explanation here, Lady Buttons doing the business yet again and proving she can battle with the best of them.
A classy looking mare, she always takes the eye in the paddock and is a credit to connections. The way she travels and jumps suggests she can do even better than this, although I have strong doubts about her acting round Cheltenham.
It looked a race of real depth beforehand and the fact Casablanca Bay couldn't go with the principals from some way out surely suggests it was a good race of its type.
A novices hurdle and a short priced favourite in Corrany, from the family of Trabolgan who I didn't think would relish the drop back in trip - he already looks like he wants 3m.
I'd been keeping an eye on One Touch since his debut fourth behind McFabulous in a Chepstow bumper, and with trainer Ben Pauling starting to hit form the time was right for this son of Court Cave to step up to the plate.
Bounced out of the gate by D Bass, the decent-looking five-year-old showed a real desire for jumping and also appeared to thrive on the ground, worth noting as he's yet to prove he goes on soft. He never looked like getting beat and maintained a strong gallop to the line.
In a race worth revisiting, Vinnie Dev doesn't look capable of defying a penalty and is more of a handicapper, while there were signs of encouragement from Point winner Cremant, who was too keen and didn't get home.
The staying handicap chase looked open without necessarily being overly competitive and at this time of year it's best to side with the up-and-comers like Boldmere, who was solid at the head of the market and is developing into a very decent looking individual.
This first attempt at 3m proved no bar to success, and, under a lovely patient ride from S Bowen, came through to win with plenty in hand. He'll get at least 7lb for this, but his trainer in no stranger to success with her stayers and he's one to keep onside.
Bob Mahler kept plugging away over a trip on the short side, he looked very lean beforehand so I'd be concerned about him maintaining condition at this stage of the season. The dependable Slanelough ran his race without looking like winning anytime soon, while the rest seemed to have their excuses but were essentially well beaten off. First Drift can be expected to go much better next time, however.
Very few appealed in the closing handicap hurdle, the good looking Gunnery marmalising the apposition. Twin Star had very useful Flat form but lacks a bit of size and was pretty weak in the betting, his performance suggesting he's not especially in love with his new discipline.
Haydock, December 30
Officially soft ground but had been pretty dry for a good few days and it wasn't that bad considering the time of year.
A pretty modest 0-115 handicap to start proceedings but an epic conclusion as Buster Edwards, under the cosh a long way out and going knowhere in fifth or sixth jumping the last, suddenly saw the stables and flew home to leave some in-running layers with burnt fingers.
Donnie Brasco is a big unit and looks too slow to get out his own way, while Fifth Symphony came in for support but again showed precious little in first time headgear and didn't show enough to warrant support next time.
Longhousesignora was very much on her toes and this came plenty soon enough after a wide-margin victory over fences, and I remain of the opinion she is best on a right-handed track.
Cloudy Glen had started to raise questions over whether he would ever get his head in front again but he looked a speedier type than sole rival Secret Reprieve, and he simply had too much toe.
The runner-up has the appearance of an out and out three miler and this big rangy chaser should do better when upped in trip, but he may just require another summer on his back before I'd be interested in backing him.
Ebony Jewel was backed into a very short price to get off the mark over timber and while he clearly has a decent engine I'm not that taken by him physically and he doesn't make it look easy. What he did seem to do is knuckle down after the last and it will be interesting to see how he fares in a handicap.
First Lord De Cuet is a typical light-framed Pond House inmate but that doesn't stop them thriving and he ran close to his best in failing to concede the penalty. Those in behind weren't given the hardest of times and will do better once upped in trip.
Lord Du Mesnil has really turned a corner of late with front running tactics and he's a very nimble and accurate jumper which is perfect for this modern Haydock test.
Once again racing with zest, his cruising speed allowed him to pinch the early lead and he never really looked like relinquishing it, putting to bed any lingering stamina doubts by pulling clear in the final half mile.
Thomas Patrick looked on good terms with himself but remained rugged up and it was hard to tell how straight he was on this return, but having pulled up he still has questions to answer.
Quite a decent Class 3 handicap hurdle taken by Flinck, who was last with a circuit which is not the place to be round this tight circuit.
The fact he was able to mow down The Con Man after the last speaks volumes for his ability and stamina, the McCain horse having no excuses other than bumping into a better handicapped rival.
The Con Man will make a nice chaser as he has loads of scope but needs another year to fully strengthen. Further back Crixus's Escape ran a sound race considering it would have been a sharp enough test, and this good looking individual could be ready to strike. Informateur looks ready for fences.
A really weak handicap chase full of disappointing types, but those happy to give Ravenhill Road another chance were rewarded with a competent performance over a new distance that he saw out well under hands and heels.
Quite what he achieved I'm not so sure but at least it's a step back in the right direction for a horse that was so full of promise as a younger horse.
Gold Opera looked perky in the paddock and it came as no surprise to see him run better than of late, but there wasn't much to glean from the rest, with Lough Derg Jewel looking pretty straight after a break.
An interesting bumper with three previous winners, two under conditionals to alleviate the penalty. The highly touted Crypto was a warm order but the £200k purchase proved a complete flop, dropping tamely away despite looking very fit and strong.
It's perhaps a little surprising they haven't gone straight over obstacles with him after a 300-day absence.
Ask A Honey Bee looks a thoroughly honest and genuine animal on appearance and demeanour but he had only just scraped home on his bumper debut over a month ago.
Nonetheless, you need plenty of stamina to win these soft ground bumpers and they didn't mess about here, so he was seen in much better light this time as he strode away from his rivals under the capable Liam Harrison.
Runner-up Kiriglote looked a really keen type in the prelims and after being dropped out came home with a wet sail to grab second ahead of a moderate looking Fosters'Island.
Jayaaah was disappointing and Sue Smith's runner looks a strong staying type, with plenty of scope he should be winning a novice hurdle over 2m4f+ before the season is out.
The Twiston-Davies runner Onchan looked big and backward both mentally and physically and it was no surprise to see him lose touch with the principals on this occasion. He'll know more next time.