Great Britain-Ireland Preview: Spot Plays Dec. 31-Jan. 1

December 30th, 2022

After a series of thrilling races in Britain and Ireland, the jumps season continues to hot up over the New Year weekend.

Several good contests are being held, the most notable being a Grade 1 novice hurdle at Newbury on Saturday and a pair of Grade 2 events at Cheltenham on Sunday. Here are some spot plays for the biggest races.

Saturday, Dec. 31

Punchestown, Race 5, 9:32 a.m. ET, Tara Hurdle (Hcp), 2 7/16 miles, open hurdlers

A good collection of handicap hurdlers faces the starter here. However, the one that takes my fancy most is #11 Hgranca De Thaix. A relative youngster at five, he put in a much-improved performance to win for the first time at Galway Oct. 22. Though it took him eight starts to break his maiden, he did so by some 17 lengths in an excellent performance.

Two horses that fought out the finish at Cork Nov. 20 are back here. On that day, #8 Riaan beat #9 San Salvador while in receipt of three pounds; this time Riaan has to concede a pound, and given that San Salvador made a mistake two hurdles from home at Cork, he could turn the tables here. Both should be included in exotics.

The graded stakes performer #2 Captain Conby should go a decent race, while others to watch for include #3 Clifton Warrior and #14 Pike County.

  • $10 win/$20 show: #11 Hgranca De Thaix
  • $1 trifecta: 8, 11 with 8, 9, 11 with 2, 3, 8, 9, 11, 14

Newbury, Race 6, 10 a.m. ET, Challow Novices Hurdle (G1), 2 9/16 miles, novice hurdlers

A good field of 14 novice hurdlers is present here, but it’s likely they will all be chasing #4 Hermes Allen. In his only two hurdle races, he’s demolished his opponents, the most recent over a similar trip in the Hyde Novices’ Hurdle (G2) at Cheltenham Nov. 11. He looks one of Britain’s best prospects for novice staying hurdle races back at Cheltenham in March, and should confirm that form here.

Hermes Allen will probably be too tough, but there are still some other fine prospects in this race. #13 Vicki Vale won her hurdling debut by 17 lengths at Hereford Nov. 15; this is a much tougher field, but she will get a seven-pound mares allowance and should be included. #3 Crambo is unbeaten over hurdles and should run well, while #6 Joyeux Machin was a nice winner at Fairyhouse Dec. 3.

  • $30 win: #4 Hermes Allen
  • $2 trifecta: 4 with 3, 6, 13 with 3, 6, 13

Sunday, Jan. 1

Cheltenham, Race 3, 8:20 a.m. ET, The Dipper Novices Chase (G2), 2 9/16 miles, novice chasers

A good collection of novice staying chasers here. The market, however, suggests it’s a two-horse race between #6 Thunder Rock, unbeaten in two steeplechases, and #4 Monmiral, whose only start over big fences produced a second to the highly-rated Jonbon.

The formline for Monmiral is certainly a good one, and he has the benefit of Paul Nicholls’ tutelage. But I’m going to go with Thunder Rock, who couldn’t have been more impressive at Ascot last start.

  • $10 win/$30 show: #6 Thunder Rock

Cheltenham, Race 4, 8:55 a.m. ET, New Year’s Day Chase (Hcp), 2 9/16 miles, open chasers

This is a solid-looking handicap chase. A number of horses were here Nov. 12 for the Gold Cup Handicap Chase (G3), including #8 Midnight River (third that day), #12 Il Ridoto (fourth), #10 Nassalam (sixth), and #4 Simply The Betts (seventh). The market in Britain is favoring Midnight River, but Il Ridoto probably would have finished ahead Nov. 12 had he not blundered at the last, and I’ll be sticking with him.

I also have a lot of time for #2 Happygolucky, a Grade 3 winner at Aintree last season who then finished third to the highly-talented L’Homme Presse at Newcastle Nov. 26. This is much easier.

Of the horses coming from other lead-ups, #1 Brave Seasca and #13 Shakem Up’Arry look the best.

  • $10 win/$20 show: #12 Il Ridoto
  • $1 trifecta: 2, 12 with 2, 8, 12 with 1, 2, 8, 12, 13

Tramore, Race 5, 9:15 a.m. ET, New Year’s Day Chase (G3), 2 3/4 miles, open chasers

It’s a little unusual to see this race being run without Al Boum Photo, the dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner who’s won the last four runnings of this event. But with the rising 11-year-old now retired, a new name will finally be added to the trophy, and some decent horses are giving it a go.

#5 Minella Indo, winner of the 2021 Grand National at Aintree, is the highest-rated horse here; he has not raced yet this season, however, and may be better for the run.

The horse to beat might well be #1 Stattler, from the hot Willie Mullins stable. He’s also been absent from the track for some time, but he is unbeaten over big fences and at his last start won the Challenge Cup (G2) at the Cheltenham Festival. This distance could be a little sharp for him, but he still looks a huge chance.

  • $20 win: #1 Stattler

Cheltenham, Race 5, 9:30 a.m. ET, Relkeel Hurdle (G2), 2 1/2 miles, open hurdlers

This looks a very competitive renewal of the Relkeel. Much of the interest comes from the outstanding jumping mare #9 Marie’s Rock taking on the males. She’s mostly stuck to her own sex, and hasn’t always done so well against the boys. However, she’s in superlative form and has the in-form Nico de Boinville in the saddle.

Marie’s Rock is undoubtedly a leading chance, but I have a fancy for a companion of hers from the Nicky Henderson stable. #3 First Street put up an excellent performance to finish second in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham in March behind State Man, a Grade 1 hurdle winner in Ireland this week, and at his return was a comfortable winner of the Gerry Fielden Handicap (G3) at Newbury Nov. 26. If he’s in his best form, I have a lot of time for him.

#2 Knappers Hill and #4 I Like To Move It are both obvious chances, as is topweight #1 Botox Has.

  • $10 win/$30 show: #3 First Street

Fairyhouse, Race 5, 9:35 a.m. ET, Fowler Memorial Mares Chase (G3), 2 5/8 miles, female chasers

Some of the best female steeplechasers in training are set to run here. #2 Scarlet And Dove last season won the Lady Francis Flood Mares’ Chase (G2) at Punchestown and was third in the Mares’ Chase (G2) at Cheltenham, but was surprisingly well beaten by #3 Dolcita when resuming at Clonmel Nov. 17. Dolcita returns to oppose her again, though this time Scarlet And Dove concedes just two pounds, compared to the 11-pound concession she gave at Clonmel.

Dolcita does come from the prepotent Willie Mullins stable, but Scarlet And Dove should have improved from her first-up effort and can turn the tables here.

  • $20 win: #2 Scarlet And Dove