One For Arthur gave Scottish racing fans a day to remember when winning the Grand National at Aintree less than two weeks ago, and Saturday should provide another for those living north of the border, with the Scottish Grand National taking centre stage at Ayr.
However, there is plenty more for the native punters to get their teeth stuck into this weekend – haggis and deep-fried Mars Bars apart – and the Scottish Champion Hurdle is a top quality contest in its own right. The race has been won by equine heroes such as Alderbrook and Overturn over the years and the 2017 renewal looks typically competitive.
Winter Escape is the current market leader for trainer Alan King, who won the race with Raya Star back in 2012. Raya Star had finished down the field on his previous start in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham, but Winter Escape would arrive here on the back of a far more encouraging effort in that same event, having been beaten just two and a half lengths when fifth at the Festival. The six-year-old ought to be fresher than most at this stage of the season after just two starts and certainly deserves his place in the betting, with the potential to prove much better than a BHA mark of 141 in time.
The ill-fated Raya Star was owned by Simon Munir, and he shares ownership (with Isaac Souede) of another Alan King-trained runner this time round, namely Sceau Royal. He has enjoyed a highly productive campaign, winning a minor event at Cheltenham and the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton on his first two starts. The five-year-old has acquitted himself with credit in better company of late – including when sixth in the Champion Hurdle last time – without suggesting he is obviously well-treated from an official rating of 155.
Munir and Souede employ Daryl Jacob as their retained jockey and he looks set to face a difficult choice here, with the owners also potentially responsible for a pair of Nicky Henderson-trained horses in the shape of L’Ami Serge and Peace And Co. The former finished three places in front of Winter Escape in the County last time, seemingly relishing the strong pace and big field and staying on strongly to snatch second close home. He has not appeared the most resolute at times this season, however, and looks opposable for win purposes from 3 lb higher in the weights than last time.
Meanwhile, Peace And Co has a 13-month absence from the track to contend with if lining up on Saturday, having been on the sidelines with physical problems since being pulled-up in last year’s Champion Hurdle. Nevertheless, he has been the subject of positive bulletins from Nicky Henderson at various stages this spring and caught the eye in a racecourse gallop at Kempton towards the end of February. Henderson reports him to be settling far better in his work than when a very smart juvenile in 2014/15 and, with that in mind, Peace And Co does look potentially very well-treated from a mark of 144 here.
Paul Nicholls has conceded defeat in his battle with Henderson for the trainers’ championship, but he will still be doing his best to land as many big prizes between now and the end of the season as possible, and is responsible for four of the 20 entries at the five-day stage. Tommy Silver is perhaps his best chance following a dominant victory at Plumpton last Sunday. That represented by far the best effort of the five-year-old’s career to date and he would have to be respected if taking his chance under a penalty, although the quick turnaround would be an obvious concern.
Chesterfield and London Prize arrive here on the back of similarly impressive wins at Aintree and Sandown, respectively, and can’t be discounted in their follow up bids. Chesterfield makes most appeal of that pair, having progressed with each start since returning from two years off the track for the Seamus Mullins yard at Ascot in December. He is now 9 lb higher in the weights than when winning at Aintree, but further improvement can’t be ruled out given his overall profile.
Interestingly, the aforementioned Raya Star is the only horse since Blowing Wind in 1998 to carry more than 11-1 to victory here – which puts the size of the task facing L’Ami Serge and Sceau Royal into some context – and the advice is to side with one carrying a much lesser burden in the shape of the Dan Skelton-trained Mohaayed.
The five-year-old was having only his fourth start over obstacles and making his handicap debut when shaping extremely well for one so inexperienced in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham. Indeed, he might have finished even closer than the three lengths he was beaten but for being short of room two out, and he certainly showed enough to suggest he is up to winning a nice prize from this mark. He actually comes into this race on the same mark as last year’s winner Ch’tibello, incidentally also trained by Skelton, and with the possibility of more to come at a track that should suit this formerly useful performer on the Flat, Mohaayed looks worth a small bet at 8/1.
Back Mohaayed at 8/1 in the Scottish Champion Hurdle