Winter Million runner guide: Sovereign Handicap Hurdle

On the opening day of the inaugural Winter Million festival on Friday at Lingfield Park, live on Sky Sports Racing, the Sovereign Handicap Hurdle over two miles looks a suitably wide-open contest with all sorts of angles to take into the race.

Columnist Kate Tracey takes an in-depth look at each of the 12 declared runners and have assessed their chances…

1 – Gowel Road

Trainer: Nigel Twiston-Davies; Jockey: Sam Twiston-Davies

The top weight in the race, he really burst onto the scene last season when winning back-to-back at Newbury. The first of which came on handicap debut before easily taking a novices’ hurdle under a penalty in impressive style.

He ran well despite being keen and gassy on his reappearance this season in the Chepstow Silver Trophy Handicap Hurdle where he simply blew up and was outpaced by quicker horses.

Gowel Road then won at Cheltenham over two miles and five furlongs when he was given an optimal ride and got first run on many of his rivals.

He was dropped back in trip for a Listed Intermediate Hurdle at Newbury last time out which I wasn’t sure would suit and he didn’t jump well throughout the contest before becoming outpaced.

He’s again running over two miles here which will beg the same question against quicker types. However, that lack of two-mile pace may be compensated by the slow ground conditions which will certainly bring his stamina into play.

Image: Gowel Road carries top weight in the Sovereign Handicap Hurdle

2 – Metier

Harry Fry; Sean Bowen

Plenty of people will be looking for horses who will appreciate the testing ground. The going description at the time of writing is heavy and the track has also been covered to prevent any frost risk. The ground is likely to be a gluepot and there might even be some ‘heavy ground specialists’ who don’t take to the conditions.

This is when it’s worth siding with a very specific type of horse who can plough through extreme holding ground. That horse may well be Metier who is a big, rounded type and has proven how well he can churn his way through deep ground.

He brought up a hat-trick last season in the Grade One Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown where he powered through the heavy ground to run out an impressive winner by 12 lengths.

The ground was too quick for him back at the scene of his Tolworth success when sent off as favourite for a Listed Handicap Hurdle on his reappearance and he was pulled up after weakening out of contention quickly.

He bounced back to post an improved effort last time out at Ascot in a Grade Three Handicap Hurdle when finishing fourth where the ground again wasn’t suitable for him so he can be marked up for that effort. He’s been given 3lb back by the handicapper which sees him very feasibly treated with conditions, finally, to suit.

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An essential guide to racing’s newest festival, the Winter Million, which features £1m in prize money and action over jumps and Flat at Lingfield Park, all live on Sky Sports Racing, January 21-23.

3 – Lucky Max

Sean Doyle; Jack Foley

The first of the Irish raiders to discuss is Lucky Max who is bidding to bring up a four-timer in handicap hurdles.

He was comfortably beaten in three maiden hurdles and on his handicap debut off a lowly mark of 98, but the money came for him on his second handicap outing and he readily justified that support when winning by a neck at Clonmel.

A 7lb rise didn’t prevent him following up at Cork when he was a heavily eased winner by four lengths.

The handicapper certainly didn’t miss him on the back of that easy victory and hit him with a 15lb rise yet he still made light work of the hike. He won that and in his latest start won well by two-and-three-quarter-lengths after asserting on the run-in.

It’s difficult to know when this horse’s improvement will stop and this may not be beyond him. He’s also proven himself in testing conditions so looks a fascinating runner.

Image: Lucky Max and Jack Foley win the Fermoy Handicap Hurdle at Cork

4 – Hudson De Grugy

Gary Moore; Jamie Moore

Gary Moore’s record around Lingfield speaks for itself. This current jump season, Gary Moore is the leading jump trainer at Lingfield with nine winners from 30 runners. That means he has a 30 per cent strike-rate.

Those stats paint a clear picture of the type of horse the Moore yard bring to Lingfield and how well they cope with conditions.

Hudson De Grugy certainly looks another likeable type back at the same course and distance he won over last time out. That was also in heavy ground where he kept on well to defeat the 11/4 favourite, Calico back in second. That was a likeable 0-145 Handicap Hurdle for all the top weight was only rated 133.

He faces better opposition here but the 3lb rise for his win last time out looks very fair. Back at a track and trip he’s already won over and with conditions to suit, he looks a big player.

5 – Antunes

Dan Skelton; Harry Skelton

Antunes’s chances will be pinned on the success of a wind operation and a return to hurdles. He’s only had the two starts so far this season where he finished last of eight on his reappearance at Aintree when paying for early exertions.

He was then sighted at a Class Three Handicap Chase at Exeter last time out where he was sent off at a big price where again and didn’t convince in the jumping department.

The lack of any real showing from Antunes this season has to be off-putting even if he’s happier back over hurdles here.

It’s difficult to tell whether or not the wind operation will have a positive impact on this horse as he’s had this procedure previously in July 2018. The surgery didn’t make a difference on his first run back on that occasion but he did win his next start.

I’m inclined not to side with a horse who may still have wind issues in these testing conditions.

Image: Antunes returns to hurdles after two poor efforts over fences this season

6 – Hacker Des Places

Paul Nicholls; Harry Cobden

Paul Nicholls is solely represented by Hacker Des Places in this race who could yet be anything. He began life in France where he ran in two three-year-old hurdles, winning the latter well.

He was subsequently switched to join Nicholls and was overturned at 4/9 on his stable and British debut at Wincanton in October 2020 but quickly made amends when winning unchallenged at Wetherby in a Juvenile Hurdle.

He wasn’t seen again for exactly a year when returning from that long absence to post a respectable but well enough beaten sixth of 10 in a strong 0-140 Handicap Hurdle at Kempton.

He looked in need of that run so should improve for it and has been given 4lb back by the handicapper to a more realistic mark of 132 now.

He’s won on soft and heavy ground, but this is a dramatically different test to anything he’s faced before against some true, soft ground specialists.

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Lingfield clerk of the course George Hill reports a positive forecast ahead of the inaugural Winter Million festival, live on Sky Sports Racing, January 21-23.

7 – Chti Balko

Donald McCain; Theo Gillard

The oldest horse in this line-up is Chti Balko as a 10-year-old. He’s finished in the first three in all three starts this season but last time out was a much lesser effort when third at Haydock.

He weakened out of things after being headed two out and soon dropped away to be beaten by 28 lengths in the heavy ground. He’s been given 2lb back for that run but it’s difficult to know whether or not that will see him post an improved performance.

He ran off this mark of 129 on his penultimate start where he was well beaten behind Green Book who was then unfortunate to unseat when hampered in the Lanzarote Hurdle on Saturday.

Chti Balko certainly bumped into a well-handicapped horse on that occasion and a revert to that form would see him go well enough, but the jury remains out as to whether he’s feasibly treated off this mark nowadays.

Image: Chti Balko is without a win since December 2020

8 – Mack The Man

Evan Williams; Adam Wedge

Evan Williams could hardly have hoped for a better season so far with big Saturday winners including, Prime Venture, Coole Cody, Dans Le Vent and Annsam. He bids for another big prize here with a horse who has certainly proved a bit of an enigma.

Mack The Man looked to have the world at his feet in the handicap hurdle division in 2019 where he gained back-to-back wins at Warwick and Sandown. The latter occasion was in heavy ground in a Listed Handicap Hurdle over just short of two miles.

He was then mounting a strong challenge in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury but for being caught up in the melee that ensued at the final flight where he was brought down. He was lucky to escape unscathed from that incident and wasn’t seen again that season.

The feeling has always been that he hasn’t looked the same horse since that fall, despite winning two races since – at Wincanton, where he should have won much easier than the three-quarters-of-a-length winning margin, and a weak race Exeter, where he only pulled out to win by a neck.

He had all conditions in his favour at Sandown last time out where he appeared to be going well before plugging on to finish fifth. Conditions should suit him to a tee if he was back to his best but I’m yet to see the old Mack The Man since that fall so he’s tentatively omitted as a fancy.

Image: Mack The Man, left, has won at Listed level over hurdles

9 – Carrarea

Emmet Mullins; Paul Townend

Of course, ears will prick up instantly when it’s heard that Emmet Mullins is bringing over a runner to Britain and certainly when that horse is in a handicap hurdle. He saddles Carrarea in this race who is having just his second start in a handicap and has Paul Townend booked to ride.

He was a winner of his first two career starts in two bumper runs in May and June 2021 before being overturned as the 4/9 favourite on hurdles debut the following month where he was beaten half a length by a horse now rated 111.

Carrarea was again well supported for a tilt at the Guinness Novice Hurdle at Galway where he underperformed according to the market. Once again, he let down favourite backers on his reappearance start at Punchestown where he could only manage fifth in a Maiden Hurdle.

He made his handicap debut at Fairyhouse last time out where he finished second, only beaten a head behind a consistent yardstick in Broomfield Jeremy. The concern is that latest run was over two-and-a-half-miles where Carrarea was keeping on well on the good ground.

He’s dropping back in trip here in much more testing conditions and the conditions will certainly bring his extra stamina into play, however he’s never raced on ground worse than yielding which begs a significant question of him.

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Emmet Mullins is hoping to make full use of Paul Townend on board Carrerea in Friday’s Sovereign Handicap Hurdle at the Lingfield Winter Million, before the Irish rider potentially heads to Ascot with Energumene in the Clarence House.

10 – Sevenna Star

Emmet Mullins; Mike O’Connor

The second of Emmet Mullins’s runners is Sevenna Star, who is yet to win over hurdles. He was previously a smart Flat horse, hitting a career high mark of 107 in 2018.

That was earnt after he won the Group Three Classic Trial at Sandown when trained by John Gosden and he went on to finish 0th in the Derby behind Masar before his form dropped away.

He was picked up for just 4,000 guineas at the Newmarket October Sale in 2020 following eight runs for John Ryan and jumping didn’t go to plan initially before faring better on the Flat last summer. He was then sent back over hurdles in the Autumn where he placed twice.

He was sent off at a big price when chucked into a Grade A Handicap Hurdle at Fairyhouse last time out where he ran accordingly and finished down the field.

He was rated 119 in Ireland, but the British handicapper has given him a mark of 123 which looks beyond him on anything we’ve seen of him over hurdles.

11 – Thibault

Adam West; Richard Patrick

The consistent Thibault looks likely to run his race again back over hurdles where he’s built up a solid profile for Adam West. He’s placed on his last four hurdle starts and has proved an admirable performer running 12 times in the last year.

His last hurdle outing came in the same Listed Handicap Hurdle at Sandown that the reopposing, Hudson De Grugy and Metier contested. He finished ahead of both of those rivals, perhaps aided by his customary hold-up tactics and he was able to pick up the pieces and stay on well.

He was sighted at a two-mile handicap on the Flat last time out at Newcastle where he was never a threat but that run shouldn’t have much of a baring on how he’s going to fair back over hurdles here.

It’s tricky to know which ground conditions Thibault acts best on, such is his versatility. He rarely runs on softer ground but when he has, he’s shown up well. He has a heavy ground win to his name from December 2020 as well as fair soft ground place form.

Thibault is a horse who is consistently underestimated yet is more likely to run his race than not and shouldn’t be dismissed.

Image: Thibault on his way to victory at Hereford in December 2020

12 – Destrier

Dan Skelton; Tristan Durrell

Dan Skelton is further represented in this race by Destrier, who looks the second-string on jockey bookings with Harry Skelton electing to ride Antunes. It is therefore, 7lb claimer Tristan Durrell who gets the leg-up on the second oldest horse in the race at nine years old.

Destrier has worked his way down to a career-low mark of 117 for this race following poor efforts on both runs so far this season where he’s not beaten a rival.

He is clearly a better horse over a fence and has proven that in his lightly-raced career so far. He reached a career-high mark of 151 over fences in February 2020 following a third in the Grade One two-mile Novices’ Chase at the Aintree Festival and filling that same position in the Grade Two Haldon Gold Cup.

However, he’s yet to have shown any of that form again in what has proven to be a stop-start career since. Clearly, he is a well-treated horse off this mark of 117 and has the extra help of his jockey’s 7lb claim off his back. However, it’s difficult to know what to expect of him nowadays.

Kate Tracey’s verdict

There are many doubts and questions that must be answered by these runners in what looks sure to be testing conditions. However, the most solid bet in this race for me for the win is METIER who should relish the ground and remains well handicapped to get back to winning ways.

The each-way play in the race is THIBAULT who is regularly underestimated and is such a consistent performer.

Source : Sky Sports