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Canny jumps trainer Phillip Hobbs has a strong hand in Saturday’s Skybet Chase at Doncaster Racecourse, and his Royal Player looks like a cracking each-way bet to take the Class One Listed Handicap Chase.
The Skybet Chase was formerly known as The Great Yorkshire Chase, and has been contested at the Town Moor track since 1948. The race is run over three miles and has a total prize fund of £75,000, which has enticed a strong field of potential Cheltenham Festival and Grand National runners. The ground is reported as ‘Soft, Good to Soft in places’, and the fifteen runners will ensure a good gallop a real test of stamina. Champion trainer, Paul Nicholls, has had an excellent start to the season, and he saddles the favourite Easter Day. Phillip Hobbs’ two representatives – Royal Player and If in Doubt, are next in the betting and it’s the mount of stable jockey Richard Johnson that catches the eye.
Easter Day – 5/1 6.00 +500 5.00 5.00 -0.20 with 888Sport
Easter Day is one of the least exposed horses in the line-up and could easily prove better than his current mark of 142. This will be just his fifth start over the larger obstacles, and there should be plenty more to come from him. One worry is that he’s not won (in two attempts) over three miles, and this will be a strongly-run race that will really put his stamina to the test. However, if Paul Nicholls thinks he’ll get the trip, then it’s difficult to rule him out on that basis, and connections are surely expecting a big run. He’s Nicholls’ only runner in the race and will be partnered for just the second time by Nick Scholfield. He’ll also strip fitter for a pipe-opener in December at Newbury, where he finished 3rd in a class two over three miles.
If in Doubt will be taken over the jumps by Champion Jockey Tony McCoy, and wears the famous J P McManus colours. He’ll have his supporters on that basis alone and goes into the race with every chance. He has had just the three runs over fences, and initial problems with jumping appeared to have been ironed out when he romped home in a three mile one furlong race at Catterick in December. He took that race very easily, and should have plenty more improvement to come as he progresses over the large obstacles. That was a class three at Catterick, but he’s worthy of the step-up in class, having competed well in some high-class hurdles races earlier in his career.
Royal Player looks the one to be on in this race though, and he’s another who is relatively unexposed and primed for a big run. He’s a very lightly-raced horse with just seven runs under rules to his name in his career so far. He made his chasing bow over the same trip of three miles in October last year, but finished 5th of 6 in a novices event at Ffos Las. He left that form well behind when winning gamely on his second start over fences at Ludlow, before following up impressively, again over the three miles, at Musselburgh. That was a class 3 race, and this represents another step up to Class 1 company, but he is feasibly very well handicapped and should make a bold bid. He looks a certain stayer, and will love the ground. A big run is expected.
Merdermit is the horse with the most class in the race, at least in terms of the form he’s shown on the racecourse, but he has to shoulder top-weight here and may find it tough against some up-and-coming and improving runners. He’s previously won in graded company, and has a good chance if he can carry the burden, but it’s three years since his last victory, and he does look vulnerable here with the weight factor and the number of unexposed horses in the line-up.
Next in the betting is Night in Milan, an interesting contender for trainer Keith Reveley. The first thing in his favour is that he’s one of only two course and distance winners in the line-up, so it’s reassuring to know he’ll act on the track and will last the distance. He had two poor runs earlier in the season in October and November at Sedgefield and Haydock, but looked to be coming back to form with an eye-catching second at this track when he was beaten by a head by another of Saturdays runners, Grandads Horse. He finished very strongly that day and has also won over 3 miles 2 furlongs, so he should be doing his best work near the finish. If the race is run at a good pace, which seems likely, he could be picking them off at the end, but there is still a nagging doubt that one or two in this field may improve past him.
Of the other runners in the race, an each-way betting case can be made for most, while question marks can also be set against most. A couple that catch the eye at much longer odds are the Venetia Williams’ trained Renard, and Gary Moore’s 10 year-old runner, Vino Griego. The aforementioned finished 6th in Aintree’s Becher Chase in December, and 2nd over an inadequate 2 miles 3 furlongs at Chepstow later in the month. He travelled and jumped well for a long way in that race, and if he comes here a bit fitter he could be a lively outsider at a big price. It has to be taken on trust that those two races haven’t taken too much out of him though. Trust is something you’d also need to back Vino Griego who has been pulled up in his last two runs, but if those can be forgiven he has a chance based on good runs at Aintree at the National meeting last season, and on his seasonal bow at Ascot this season.
To win the Skybet Chase, 3.15 Doncaster Saturday 24th January