It doesn’t get any easier. Indeed, I would nominate Friday’s Randox Health-sponsored County Hurdle as the toughest handicap of the week to preview.
There are 26 runners declared, and they include a mix of possibly unexposed types, potentially well-treated established performers, and only a handful of “make weights”. The bookies are betting 7/1 the field, but it could easily be 10/1.
So-called “trends” can help, either by their presence, or by their absence. Where trends from recent runnings of the same race do not exist it suggests that a straightforward form-based and time-based approach is best. Let’s look at what those trends say for the County Hurdle.
Five-year-olds have a good record, winning roughly twice as often and placing nearly one and a half times as often as by chance (those impact values) and beating over 56% of their rivals in the process. There are just six horses of that age in the race.
Conversely, horses older than seven have performed poorly, and there are six of those in the County Hurdle.
There is not a lot to be gleaned from BHA marks, though that could be considered to be informative in itself. Horses with a good chance on Timeform weight-adjusted ratings have fared well, as is usually the case.
Those figures for last-time position are interesting, for last-time winners are usually in the mid-to-high 50s by % of rivals beaten but dip below par in this instance. Neither a long nor a short absence should be seen as advantageous, though the effect is not especially large.
I also looked at trainer form, as judged by % of rivals beaten in handicaps since January, but there were no stand-outs by that measure, and at the likely pace scenario.
The latter reveals that this year’s County Hurdle may not be the cut-throat cavalry charge that might be expected. Only four horses have Timeform Early Position Figures of 2.2 or less (indicating a pace-forcing style) and I would regard three of those as unlikely winners and possibly unlikely contenders beyond the first half of the race.
The exception is the lightly-weighted Dominada, a five-year-old who most definitely is in form. On his most recent start he finished second to Diego du Charmil in the Scottish County Hurdle at Musselburgh, and the latter is understandably among the better-fancied horses for this.
Not only was the Scottish County Hurdle run in a good time – comfortably fastest of three races over the trip on the card – but it was run at a notably strong pace, and Dominada was one of those to force it. He led before three out that day and did well to hold on for second.
Dominada is 5 lb better with Diego du Charmil for the same number of lengths, but sectionals suggest there might not have been much in it that day had Dominada run more efficiently.
The Brian Ellison-trained gelding has not been out of the first three this term, despite going up in the handicap, but can be backed at 33/1 for this in the early exchanges.
I have made no secret of my regard for North Hill Harvey, who looked a possible Champion Hurdle contender after his win in the Greatwood Hurdle here off a break in November, and his absence since is probably not a negative. He looks just about the likeliest winner, but he is the one who is trading at 7/1 early on, and those odds make limited appeal.
There is also the question about how the ground will affect events. It is not as testing as many of these have been encountering through the winter, but it is still nudging the soft side of good judged on times on day three (the first of two days’ racing on the New Course) after unexpected watering.
Natural good ground – as prevailed at Musselburgh – might have been to Dominada’s benefit in that it would have counted against some of the others, but he coped fine with borderline good and good to soft when winning easily at Carlisle in October. There is no need (or justification) for watering further between Thursday and Friday.
As with past previews, an each-way bet is favoured. The win book at early prices is 135%, while the place book, with five places on offer, comes in at 91% per-place. Backing each-way on such terms is better than backing win only, all other things being equal. Dominada at a big price is the one to be with.
Recommendation: 1 pt e/w DOMINADA at 33/1, ¼ odds first FIVE places