Tom Lee's All-Weather Championships Blog & Friday's Best Bets

The National Hunt season may be up to something approaching full speed as we head merrily into the depths of winter but, for hardened Flat racing aficionados, so too is the qualifying campaign staged on the all-weather for March's Championships.

Five months of fantastic sport on the nation's five all-weather courses, supplemented by action from further afield venues in Ireland and France.

It's a concept which is gaining traction with each passing week, supported by leading trainers, sponsored by betting giants such as Unibet, and boosted by the array of huge prize money on offer.

Evidence of the progress being made in this, the third renewal of the Championships, has been scattered around over the last few days, beginning last Saturday at Lingfield Park.

The Surrey track played host to two 'fast-track qualifiers' for March 25th's Good Friday climax, with Unibet the backer of the listed six furlong Golden Rose Stakes, a race unlikely to be forgotten by North Yorkshire trainer Kevin Ryan in a hurry.

Ryan, enjoying his 73rd winner of a productive 2015, hadn't had Goken too long, taking delivery of the three-year-old colt from French trainer Henri-Alex Pantall.

A four-time winner including two Group 3's in his native France, Goken clearly isn't feeling homesick, giving Graham Lee an armchair ride to run out a comfortable length and a half winner - very pleasant viewing for anyone who'd picked him out at odds of 8/1.

Lee was clearly impressed, remarking afterwards:

"I spoke to Kevin on the way down and he said that he was very, very fond of Goken and he has obviously been showing the right signals at home

"It's the first time I have ridden him but the horse is very professional and all went well.

"He was drawn to attack but missed the break a fraction and then there was enough pace that I could slot into the box seat. It all worked out well - he was very professional and very likeable."

Goken not only won a nice prize on his first start for his new stable, but is now also qualified for the £150,000 Unibet All-Weather Sprint Championship.

Also celebrating and perhaps daring to dream of a repeat are the Royal Blue brigade of Godolphin, who after winning the Easter Classic (also known as the Middle Distance Championship) with Tryster last spring, now have another qualifier thanks to a taking performance from Let's Go.

Saeed bin Suroor's Street Cry gelding was making only his fifth career outing on Saturday afternoon, but made sure he sent favourite backers home with a winner after getting the job done in the listed 1m 2f Churchill Stakes.

An SP of 5/4 was returned about James Doyle's amount, who might be set to see the sunshine before the rest of us, as the winning rider told reporters:

"I thought that Let's Go was the best horse going into the race but the start here is tricky - if you miss the break, it can all go to pieces. He got a little bit worked up in the gates but actually hit them really well.

 "A good start gives you options. They went a decent pace all the way through and I was actually a touch handier than I wanted to be, which is why it looks like he hasn't won as well as he has.

"We were looking for a decent pace and that's the way it worked out. I jumped so well that I ended up sitting a bit closer.

"He is qualified for Finals Day now and everyone will sit down and have a chat whether he will go to Dubai to see how he takes to the dirt out there. He is certainly one to look forward to.

"He is still learning. He got a little bit lonely when he got in front because Metropol was away from him. He is learning all of the time and is exciting."

Just 48 hours later, another possible type for a big winter campaign threw his hat into the ring at Wolverhampton, as lighting up the Midlands venue was an easy win for the William Haggas-trained Afjaan.

Racing in the colours of Al Shaqab, it may only have been a Class 4 Handicap worth £4,690 to the winner, but the way he went about his business in striding out a four length winner suggests he could soon be climbing the ladder.

At Lingfield on Tuesday some shrewd placing by Newmarket trainer Michael Bell was rewarded, as the avid Manchester City fan saw his Medaglia D'Oro colt Franklin D run out a well-backed 5/2 winner.

Held up in the early stages by Willie Twiston-Davies, he was produced late with a strong finish to grab the £7,813 winner's cheque, making use of his three-year-old allowance as the only representative of his age group.

It must have been something of a culture shock for Franklin D, who on his previous outing lined up in the 34-runner Cambridgeshire!

The other really significant moment on the all-weather this week arrived at Kempton Park on Wednesday evening, as William Muir's Big Baz sparkled under the London track's floodlights, taking the listed Hyde Stakes in some style.

Astutely positioned by winning jockey Graham Lee, he ran out a deserved length and a quarter winner at a price of 8/1, meaning that Lee is a currently a perfect three from three on the Pivotal gelding.

He is now the recipient of a spot in the field for the Mile on All-Weather Championships Finals Day, something his Muir was quick to refer to post race:

"I've said right from the start that he's a Group horse, and he'll be aimed now at the Ladbrokes Mile at Lingfield Park on Good Friday. Dubai is a possibility first.

"He's a lovely horse, and it was my fault entirely that he ran those three poor races before he bounced back at Newmarket last time.

"Big Baz has improved from his Newmarket win last time out and ever since he won his first race at Lingfield Park on Polytrack I have thought he would make up into a Group race horse.

"He won a handicap nicely at Nottingham earlier this year and was put up to 104 and everything seemed to be going very well.

"He raced next in the Royal Hunt Cup and then twice more and ended up at Goodwood, where he was very disappointing. I blame myself for running him those three times as he had been on the go a long time and just needed a break.

"I gave him six weeks in the field, brought him back and he worked the best he had ever done. He went to Newmarket where I expected him to run well.

"He won there and has continued to work well so I was confident he would run a big race tonight even though he was meeting a decent field. He is an uncomplicated horse and Graham (Lee) rode him well.

"Big Baz loves Polytrack, at Lingfield Park and here, and the All-Weather Championships Final will be strong on our radar now he is qualified.”

Looking ahead, there could be more interest than usual generated by Friday's card at Wolverhampton, featuring as it does a Class 5 Handicap for horses rated 0-75, but one with a twist...

Due off at 5.15pm, the runners include the returning La Estrella for Newmarket handler Don Cantillon, a familiar name as he is none other than the joint winning-most horse in UK all-weather history, alongside the now retired Stand Guard.

With 26 wins to his name (not counting one on the turf plus one over hurdles), the 12-year-old knows a thing or two about winning all-weather races, and he reappears here after a 252-day absence, trying to make the record his own.

A total of eight wins at the track means Wolverhampton's Dunstall Park is familiar territory, but trying to concede weight to race-fit rivals after an absence is going to be tough.

Lying in wait are Duchess Of Marmite, notable for giving jockey-turned-trainer Richard Hughes his breakthrough strike, and also fellow three-year-old All For The Best.

It could very well be worth siding with the latter, on the back of his easy course and distance victory last time out, on for which he escapes a penalty as it came before November 7th.

All For The Best had been banging on the door with some excellent runs during the summer months, and saw them off with plenty to spare here last time out.

This race demands more, but his three-year-old allowance and the retention of the excellent Luke Morris in the saddle can only help.

Back him to win.

Also trying to generate a slice of the Friday Feeling will be Hughie Morrison's hat-trick seeker Manolito, as the in-form three-year-old lines up in the extended Ladbrokes Mile Handicap (7.50pm).

Raised a total of 10 pounds for wins at Chelmsford and Wolverhampton under Oisin Murphy, he is in effect just three pounds higher here due to Charlie Bennett's seven pound claim.

Given a 52 day break after a busy spell in September, he can resume winning ways.


Good luck!

Friday's best bets at Wolverhampton:

5.15 - 32Red Handicap - 6 All For The Best (win)

7.50 - Ladbrokes Handicap - 3 Manolito (win)