Celebrating the true spirit of track changes, here is an unvarnished, rambling verdict on yesterday's runners - marked up in red!

blog My 40 To Follow stable has, by and large, been tucked up in cosy boxes during January, snuffling warm hay and ignoring the sodden countryside. Today it feels like the dam has burst. Not only because Haywards Heath and Tewkesbury are under water, but also because I've got eight, EIGHT, of my lads out today. That's 20% of the whole project. I suspect there are more waders and snorkels declared amongst this lot than cheekpieces and hoods.

In fact Ascot, which drains well except for the damp patch down by Swinley Bottom, rode well. Horses were getting through smoothly enough and at a sensible pace. The turf didn't appear too loose or sloppy. Even Haydock which was forecast to sit under hammering showers blown in by a moody jet stream seemed to escape the worst of it. Heavy - yes, but raceable - absolutely.  

Cheltenham is round the corner and the representatives out today will all have Festival aspirations to one extent or another.

Today has the feel of a make or break day and I could be at any point on the whooping-weeping continuum come 4.15pm.

Trustan Times - 12.55 Haydock
Has underwhelmed so far over hurdles and last season's form may have flattered him. Back to fences here (novice chase form is sound enough), he might be able to exploit the lower mark in the graduation chase. This is where he should be. Benvolio is serious opposition but I'll take some of the 3-1.

TT's performance lacked any sparkle and featured some indifferent jumping. No evidence of progression from last season and whilst Easterby will no doubt look for a decent handicap opening, the sense is that they turned to chasing because they had nowhere else to go over hurdles. Frustration rather than strategy. 

I watched this one in the Coral's on the high street and had a chinwag with Eddie, an Irish builder, a regular in these parts. He once delayed repairing my garden wall mid-brick-line to spend the day in the bookies. It was during the Oaks meeting at Epsom and I was there. He said at the time "Sure, I thought it would be fine if my boss was at the races too!" Eddie's always worked solo. I don't think he could ever find a partner to handle the pace...  

O'Faolain's Boy - 1.30 Haydock
Had the beating of the smart Easter Day on his fencing debut before he ran out of gas. He made a lovely shape over the obstacles and I like him. Four runners here. The money will be for Taquin Du Seuil on his favoured deep ground and at a more suitable trip. His jumping is not without wrinkles though and I fancy Rebecca Curtis's charge to be competitive at 2-1.

I'd nipped out to Gregg's to buy a cheese slice between races. This branch is closing down in March because the lease is up and the landlord has got greedy. No doubt we'll get another coffee shop or nail bar. Big need for those in Berko, obviously. So I'm getting my yearly quota of pastry products in while I can. 

I'd been looking forward to this race and was inevitably disappointed with the run. As the RP pointed, out Rebecca Curtis is in woeful form right now. As soon as Geraghty looked for a decent jump down the back straight, O'Faolains emptied immediately. A dirty scope was identified after racing. Plans on hold for him and a cloud settling over me. Not a great start to the action.

Carole's Spirit - 1.50 Ascot
Robert Walford's novice mare has been a star this year and has progressed smoothly with barely a false step. However this listed mares event is serious stuff. I'll be playing at 100-30 or so and I'm sure there's more to come. Ground and trip seem fine. But both Mickie and Highland Retreat look quality though, and this is a tougher assignment.

0-3 after this, but the gloom inside and out was lifted a fraction by this excellent race. Carole's Spirit came off the bridle for the first time in any of her races and I was fearing the worst. She found plenty though and coming to the last flight I thought she was the likeliest winner. I had assumed my usual position crouched over the telly screaming helpful advice to the jockey in machine-gun delivery. It didn't deliver the results on this occasion. 

Highland Retreat stayed on in determined fashion and was a creditable winner. Carole's Spirit comes out of the race well and slightly better ground will help this smooth travelling horse next time.  

The Skyfarmer - 2.25 Ascot
Rates one of the classiest novices in the project this season. Hobbs is taking him down the handicap route. Very impressive handicap win at HQ last time sees him shoved up to 140 (17lb) against tough opposition like Thomas Crapper and Irish Saint. Can't be overly confident, especially in the mud. 9-2 is probably fair. We'll know where he stands after today.

"You're in then!" said Mrs A sarcastically from the dining room. I thought I had the house to myself when urging Carole's Spirit onwards. Her return had gone unnoticed as I became wrapped in the race. My screaming at the telly is not rare on a Saturday afternoon. 

No screaming to be done in The Skyfarmer's race. Before the race I'd have said this lad was the better of the two Hobbs' novice hurdlers on show during the day. But this event was too much for him, despite being sent off one of the market leaders. Cutting out the fractions early, he soon folded and the ground must take some of the blame. But maybe a little too much too soon with the big weight rise he was carrying. Still a decent horse.

Melodic Rendezvous - 2.40 Haydock
Haydock's Champion Hurdle trial isn't overly endowed with graduates who claim the big one. Rooster Booster was the last in 2004. I still cling to the notion that Melodic Rendezvous might be another. Bitterly disappointing in the Fighting Fifth, he comes here with questions to answer. Possibly he didn't like the ground, although that would surprise the trainer, who has said good ground would be better for him. Nick Scolfield thought he just wasn't right that day. Whatever, we do know he likes this ground and I expect to see a bold showing. Don't. Let. Me. Down.

0-4 so far and the pain-pleasure continuum counter had moved smoothly to convulsions and sweats. Melodic Rendezvous was my biggest stake of the day. Palms stroking thighs, snatched breathing, dilated pupils. But time to turn off the dodgy porn movie and focus on the racing... Joke. Obviously. 

And it was never in doubt. I happily accepted trainer Jeremy Scott's explanation of the torn hind-quarter muscles in the Fighting Fifth. Rendezvous won this with authority. Mostly. Booting down the 2nd last hurdle meant Scholfield had to get busy on top. But this was a comfortable enough win. He's good enough to line up in the Champion Hurdle, though hard to see him denting the frame. I'm still not convinced by the argument he needs it hock deep ground either. A planned outing before the festival may shed more light on that. 

Off and running.

Katenko - 3.15 Haydock
Katenko is exciting to watch and has good form in big chases last season. Going well when coming down 4 out in the Hennessy, Venetia turned him out a week or so later at Aintree. That was a lacklustre performance. Given a break since and with the mud flying, he has to have a strong chance today in the historic Peter Marsh Chase. Just than nagging doubt that the Summer colic operation might have left its mark.

Katenko is clearly not where he was last season, although this was a much better run. Despite not travelling smoothly or jumping with style, he rallied well in the home straight and finished a close up 4th. I was never confident at any point during the race. I'm an optimist though, and maybe there are signs here of a return to some form. 

Sire De Grugy - 3.35 Ascot
Lovely horse. Picking up some very valuable pieces in the absence/illness of Sprinter Sacre. SDG is remarkably consistent, but there were signs at Sandown that he wasn't at his absolute best. He may need to dig deep to win this. Hidden Cyclone is beginning to show the form this season that I hoped would be there last when he was one of my 40 picks. It could be exacta time.

Wow. I mean wow. The Grugy didn't need to dig deep at all. This was a thrilling round of jumping. The best since he won the Celebration Chase at Sandown in April. I landed the exacta. Somersby departing early helped. I had a straight win bet too. Finally, following the success of the lads' Butts Mott/Sire De Grugy whip investments, I was encouraged to do the same with the remnants of a Berko Dads drink kitty on Thursday night.

Champagne West - 4.05 Ascot
Another impressive novice from that nice Mr Hobbs. Champagne West has been a bit of a slow learner and looks awkward over hurdles, despite recording a double - last time in a competitive handicap. He's got a penalty for that and though I'd like to see him go left handed because of his jumping, he should still have enough in hand over his rivals here.

The other Hobbs novice was deeply convincing. Jumped like an arrow this time. Clearly improving quickly. Where The Skyfarmer floundered in the ground, Champagne West seemed to relish it. He's a good 'un. I hadn't been very confident and was left ruing my conservative stake. Hindsight, etc. 

I was back in the bookies for this one, collecting the inflated whip money on behalf of the Dads. Eddie was still there, jaw protruding slightly further, mouth stretching into a grimace rather than a smile as I nodded goodbye. He'd had a poor day. 

I'm also getting in behind Grandioso in the Sodexo Handicap at Cheltenham (3pm). I think there's a touch of quality there. I backed him in the December Gold Cup at Cheltenham where something was obviously amiss as he was pulled up early. Ground a slight concern, but 8-1 is a value price.

Grandioso ran well enough, but Fehily got a splendid tune out of Bury Parade. 

This could be a bank-breaker. Batten the hatches...

So 3/8 for the project and I scraped home with a little profit, thanks in spades to Melodic Rendezvous and Sire De Grugy. I have to be grateful for that. Yet with so many of these runners holding strong chances, the bottom line seems a fraction below par. Never happy. 


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