Welcome back! Must admit I've never been much of a fan of summer jumps but after three blank months and more it'll be great to see the twig-hoppers back in action.
Should this burst of enthusiasm last I'll be putting down some thoughts on these pages in the coming weeks and months, focusing on the handicap chases.These are not 'tipping' pieces, although I'll make it clear whether or not I intend to bet.
The first two races at Southwell today are the subject of today's focus with all eyes on the P Nicholls-trained Nineohtwooneoh in the opening 12.00, a 0-105 novice handicap. After showing little in novice hurdles, he came good at the second time of asking off a mark of 94, dotting up at Musselburgh when well-backed.
He looked a big, staying chase type and a natural jumper, and I doubt if a 10lb higher mark would stop him today. The main problem with him is that he has been reported to have a breathing problem on at least three occasions, and presumably the lockdown has prevented the trainer from sending him for surgery.
He looks like he might have to do everything on the bridle, as he looked one paced on his next outing at Taunton, when he again showed a propensity to hang badly right under pressure. Today's better ground will surely suit in that regard, and he sneaks into a race that won't take much winning.
Here's a look at some of the opposition;
Glengar; Looked a safe conveyance when last seen on Boxing Day but faded very tamely after travelling well into the straight.
Short Flight; Trainer can ready one after a break but it's almost two years since he was last seen, and goes without the visor that seemed to bring about improvement.
Oxwich Bay; A thoroughly disappointing individual, runner-up six times over timber usually finding very little for pressure, whether held up or ridden prominently. Chase form is of a higher standard but has failed to complete 3/7 starts.
Zen Master; Another flawed individual who is 1/23 under rules, not usually finding a great deal and often goes freely.
Tazka; Decent juvenile filly but struggled in handicaps as a result, on a more realistic mark now starting out over fences.
The Last Bar; Winless mare for these connections in 10 hurdles starts, a 10lb drop for this first outing in two years at least gives her some leeway. More of a stayer.
Elle Est Grande; A big weak chasing type in the first half of last season, looking all over the winner two out only to lose three places from the last on penultimate start. That was over 3m, this trip and better ground, in addition to the switch to fences, means she is of interest.
Conclusion; With very little to make the market I thought the Nicholls horse would be around 11/8, 6/4 early doors as you're essentially betting he jumps a clear round and doesn't come off the bridle. Neither of those is guaranteed however, and while surprised by initial quotes of 5/2 and bigger, I won't be going in any shorter. Glengar and Oxwich Bay could travel furthest into the race but neither is expected to find enough off the bridle although the big weight concession may help the former. I made the note that Elle Est Grande would be 'much better in time' back in October and she is one I'll be watching keenly, it will be interesting if she is given a positive ride. The trainer has had a quiet month on the Flat which tempers enthusiasm somewhat and she has been very weak in the market so far, but a quote of 14/1 or bigger will tempt me to play very small each-way.
A Class 3 0-135 over 2m headed by the Skelton-trained Azzuri.
Azzuri; 5/16 over fences, however at around 2m on good ground his form is 1131141. Was being targeted at the spring festivals after getting re-handicapped on bad ground and is just 2lb higher than when hosing up at Ayr. Will face rivals for the lead but he's very quick and a fast, fluent jumper.
Tonto's Spirit; Paying for consistency on a stiff enough mark.
Tidal Watch; Set to win last summer when coming down at the last, 7lb higher now but that didn't look a particularly strong race. Flat bred.
Cracking Destiny; Improved for new yard and held off this mark when last seen over fences, travels strongly so should be suited by a strong run race.
Goldencard; With a new yard and likely to need the run and he looks high in the weights in this company.
Capital Force; Modest strike rate and not the type to find much off the bridle, although finally back to winning mark and would benefit from a pace burn-up.
Ballyvic Boru; Largely disappointing, popping up last autumn but unable to back that up off higher marks, and has now had two wind ops this year.
Ontopoftheworld; Front runner, well placed to win a handful of small field contests in 2018, off a year when below that form in February. Enough to prove from a yard that had just two winners in the September-March period.
Isaac Wonder; Not bred for fences but ok first season and does look the part, mark is a shade high on balance but likely to improve and had a very decent pipe opener on the Flat recently.
Atlantic Storm; Won over C&D for D Skelton two years ago but seems to save his best for Stratford, jockey doesn't have a great record on him and he might be one for smaller fields later in the year.
Conclusion; This looks tailor-made for Azzuri and providing he's away smartly from the gate should take the world of beating, especially if in the same form as when winning at Ayr over a year ago. Early quotes of 3/1 and bigger were too big, he was a well-backed 5/2 shot when landing that strong Ayr race and this Class 3 event is easier, so I see him going off shorter than that. Second favourite Cracking Destiny is capable of further improvement after progressing well last season, but does have a higher mark to overcome. The race should be run to suit his strong travelling style but wouldn't want to give Azzuri too much rope. If the likes of Tonto's Spirit and Ontopoftheworld help set a furious pace that could set things up for Cracking Destiny, or even Capital Force if he's on song, while Isaac Wonder is worth keeping an eye on but is a bit too inexperienced at this stage of his career.