THE highlight of Scotland’s jumps season has arrived and, after a fortnight basking in the glow of One For Arthur’s success at Aintree, focus north of the Border shifts to our very own edition at Ayr. The race in this part of the world has been run at Ayr since 1966 and tops the bill of two high class days of racing on the west coast.
Paul Nicholls is an all-but-beaten man in his bid to retain the Trainers’ Championship he so spectacularly claimed here last year. Twelve months ago, it was VICENTE’S victory in the Scottish National that had Nicholls dancing with delight in the Ayr paddock. But for my money, we won’t be seeing a repeat this time around. As much as Vicente is a likeable type (and he’s carried my cash on more than one occasion this season), his jumping has been on the sketchy side of average and he’s failed to trouble the judge in contests some way below this level. While he is more than capable off a mark of 146, others look more solid (especially with quotes as low as 8/1 about the defending champion).
Market leader PREMIER BOND represents Henderson, who is three-handed in a race he has never won before. Bond ran a perfectly acceptable race when third in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham, but it’s not exactly form to be thrilled about in this context – and I’m surprised it has propelled him to the head of affairs in this market. Whether we should read much into the fact Nico De Boinville rides the stable’s SUGAR BARON remains to be seen. But that one hasn’t been without his backers in this neck of the woods over the last few days and, off a mark of 134, he could prove to be the well handicapped plot of the Seven Barrows trio.
VINTAGE CLOUDS is sure to be a popular betting proposition, carrying as he does the famous Trevor Hemmings silks. He’s down 8lbs from just a few runs ago in January and will appreciate any cut in the ground (of which there should be enough). Each way punters will certainly get a run for their money backing him at 16/1 as he is a solid jumper and his stamina is not in question.
The veteran ALVARADO is an interesting proposition near the foot of the handicap at a big price. Narrowly beaten into second here last year, he returns on a retrieval mission and has a lovely racing weight of 10st7lbs with Brian Hughes on board. It would not be the biggest shock in the world if a horse like this, who stays all day, found himself staying into the places or even better at 33/1.
But when it comes to my idea of the winner, I see two horses to the head of affairs. And I am prepared to oppose plenty of the market leaders such as SOUTHFIELD ROYALE who look to have plenty on their plate. I can see the case being made for MISSED APPROACH but, off top weight, he will have it all to do.
My first selection is the douty stayer ARPEGE D’ALENE, who deserves to land a big pot like this following a number of very promising runs. He stayed on well in the four miler at Cheltenham and if he can string together a decent round of jumping, he is almost impossible to keep out of the frame here. The long finishing straight at Ayr can be stamina sapping in itself and Arpege will be passing weary horses for sure as they come home. Hopefully he’ll be doing it in front.
My other idea of value is Stuart Crawford’s Irish raider FINE RIGHTLY, a runner who has already been round Ayr seven times and only failed to place on one of those occasions. Course form here can be crucial because Ayr is a deceptively tricky track that isn’t the flattest in places and FINE RIGHTLY has clearly mastered it. He’s only been 3m2f once but he relished it and won easily, so this step up to 4m may just unlock extra improvement. He is value at 33/1.
As ever, a fiendishly difficult race and one to enjoy more than anything, but if playing then my selections are as follows:
ARPEGE D’ALENE 0.5PTS EACH WAY @ 10/1 (GENERAL)
FINE RIGHTLY 0.5PTS EACH WAY @ 33/1 (GENERAL)