The two mile Betfair Hurdle is the most valuable handicap hurdle race of the season with a prize fund of £155,000 (3.35pm, Saturday, Newbury).
Favourites have won two of the past three renewals but we haven’t seen Paul Nicholls’ (pictured) 6/1 market leader Calipto since his seasonal debut at Cheltenham in October when he was beaten half a length by Tiger Roll.
This five-year-old French-bred was wearing a tongue tie for the first time but reportedly choked in the closing stages. He was sent to the vets for a wind operation immediately afterwards. Last season he posted two wins and was very unlucky in the Triumph Hurdle. He was fancied to win but suffered tack failure and finished fourth beaten nine lengths on unsuitably good going.
Nicholls reported that he was delighted by Calipto’s work at home on Wednesday. He is relatively unexposed and looks well-handicapped. The track should pose no problems for him. Calipto won both his starts at Newbury – in November 2012 he beat Activial on good to soft by more than three lengths. He should not be troubled by give in the ground and looks a worthy favourite. He will be wearing a hood for the first time.
Harry Fry, a former assistant to Nicholls, will be delighted with testing ground in prospect for Activial (7/1). He scored on soft in the Grade 2 Adonis Juvenile Hurdle at Kempton in February last year, beating John Ferguson’s Commissioned by over three lengths.
This grey gelding is another five-year-old French-bred. He finished a creditable third in the Ladbroke in December, beaten two lengths by Elliott’s Bayan. His mark has been raised 6lb as a result. He now shares a rating of 143 with the favourite. This will be his fifth start over hurdles so there could well be more improvement to come, especially on his preferred soft ground. He has the assistance of his regular partner, Noel Fehily. He has to be one for the shortlist.
Fry also sends out the very talented six-year-old, Jolly’s Cracked It (14/1). He won his first two starts over hurdles in November despite some dodgy jumping late on in both races. We last saw him in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown in January. He finished 14 lengths behind Henderson’s L’Ami Serge in second, gaining a rating of 140.
Fry is not unhappy with his mark and is confident that he handles cut in the ground. Handling a field of this size (he has not encountered more than seven rivals over obstacles) is unknown territory though. Nick Scholfield was on board for his two wins and takes the ride here.
Fascino Rustico (14/1) has won both his starts since moving to Dan Skelton from his former boss, Paul Nicholls. His best result for Nicholls was at Kempton on Boxing Day in 2013 when he finished second to Nick Williams’ Amore Alato.
Owner John Hales believes Fascino Rustico is well-handicapped and looks to be on an upward curve. We last saw this seven-year-old son of Milan staying on strongly to beat John Ferguson’s Zip Top by nine lengths at Newcastle at the end of January. He starts off a 5lb higher mark here. Hales is hoping that he will finish well up the field. He could be right.
Another seven-year-old with decent claims is the shrewd Evan Williams’ On Tour (14/1). He has won his last three starts, most recently in November when he beat Tim Easterby’s Run Ructions Run at Haydock by a couple of lengths over two and a half miles on soft. His other two victories were also over greater distances than he will encounter here but he had sufficient pace to win a couple of moderate looking bumpers on decent ground. It looks as if his trainer has targeted this race and protected his handicap mark. If only the yard were in better form I would strongly fancy him.
No horse older than six has won this race for over a decade but David Pipe’s eight-year-old Balgarry has missed a couple of seasons and is having only his seventh start. He won here over this distance in March 2012 and started as the joint favourite in the Coral Cup at the Cheltenham Festival a few weeks later. He ran well but didn’t seem to get the distance (two miles five furlongs) and subsequently vanished for nearly two years.
He was next racing prominently but getting tired and finishing midfield in the Ladbroke. In early January he finished three lengths second to Oliver Sherwood’s Rayvin Black in a handicap hurdle at Sandown, giving the winner over a stone. His mark has been raised since but he looks to be well-in. He might well strike a blow for the older horses.
A less fancied five-year-old is Venetia Williams’ Aso (25/1). He has won his last two starts, taking a Grade 2 novice hurdle at Haydock in mid January on heavy ground. He previously won at Taunton over two miles three furlongs at the end of December. His mark has been raised 5lb but his ability to get a longer distance could be handy in what is likely to be a fast run race. He carries the colours of The Bellamy Partnership who also own Emperor’s Choice. Williams’ horses often come to the fore when the mud is flying and Aso offers decent value each-way.
Nicky Henderson has an awe-inspiring record in this race, saddling five winners, including My Tent Or Yours in 2013. This time he sends out a pair of useful six-year-olds. Sign Of A Victory (12/1) has to shoulder top weight and is the choice of stable jockey Barry Geraghty. He scored three times last season and started this one with an impressive win at Ascot in November, beating his stablemate Dawalan by half a length on good ground.
We last saw him on Boxing Day in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, finishing over 30 lengths behind Willie Mullins’ hurdling sensation Faugheen, in fourth. Sign Of A Victory did himself no favours by pulling early on and didn’t get home on the good to soft ground. Henderson believes that he was not at his best and that he has strengthened up since but admits that he is a better horse on good ground. With soft ground a certainty others have stronger claims.
Henderson’s other contender, Vasco Du Ronceray (28/1) looks better suited to conditions. He won cosily on his only outing this season at Haydock in November on soft ground for his deep-pocketed owners, Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. It was his first victory since November 2012. Unfortunately the handicapper took note and upped his mark by 8lb.
This grey has always been considered potentially useful by connections but had a few training issues last season. He finished a close second to Nicholls’ Irish Saint in the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle at Cheltenham two years ago. There could be more to come from this hood-wearing grey and, despite Geraghty’s defection, he looks a possible each-way prospect.
Amore Alato is another interesting each-way proposition at 25/1. His trainer, the former accountant Nick Williams has to be respected, achieving a 20% strike rate over hurdles this season with limited ammunition. Amore Alato hasn’t won since Boxing Day 2013 when he beat Fascino Rustico. Most recently Amore Alato was a well beaten (17 lengths) favourite when ridden by AP McCoy at Sandown in January. He previously finished second by half a length to Henderson’s Snake Eyes at the same track in December. That was off a mark of 137. He’s rated 140 here but Williams’ step-daughter Lizzie Kelly takes 7lb off his back for the first time.
Racing prominently seems to suit this six-year-old and Lizzie doesn’t mind giving the pros a lead. She won a valuable hurdle race on her mother’s Aubusson from the front in November. A slight concern is that there may be too much pace on in a field of this size, suiting a late challenger.
One that falls into that category could be Lightentertainment (20/1), who came from a long way back to win at Cheltenham a fortnight ago and sneaks into this race at the bottom of the weights courtesy of his 5lb penalty. If the anticipated fast pace does materialise then it could play to this one’s strengths.
Dr Richard Newland’s Ebony Express (25/1) is also worth a second look. Newland bought him cheaply (£27,500) in November. This six-year-old was rated 78 after 23 runs on the flat for Alan Swinbank. Strong-travelling Ebony Express won his first two starts for Newland, both were fairly weak novice hurdles over two miles one furlong at Carlisle on testing ground.
In early January he had to shoulder 12 stone 4lb over two miles three furlongs at Catterick. He started as the 3/1 favourite but didn’t relish the extra distance or weight. He finished 25 lengths behind the winner in sixth and didn’t jump fluently. He was never travelling with the ease he did in his first two starts and was certainly below par that day. He is capable of far better and starts off a 2lb lower mark here. Newland has sprung surprises before.
Betfair Hurdle Betting Tips Verdict
This race is quite a puzzle for punters. Do we trust Nicholls to succeed with the favourite Calipto as he did with Zarkandar in 2012 or look to his former assistants to beat him? Activial will love the mud but Fry’s yard has hit a bit of a sticky patch recently. Aso and Amore Alato are very tempting each-way prospects at 25/1 but long shots have mostly proved to be exactly that in this race.
Unlike the majority of runners, Calipto has decent form in the very highest company but still looks well handicapped. We have to trust big-race specialist Nicholls and back CALIPTO each-way at a current best price of 6/1 with Betfred, William Hill and Betfair Sportsbook. The advantage of betting with those firms is that they go 1/4 the odds the first FIVE places for this race.