The Fighting Fifth Hurdle (2.20pm, Newcastle, Saturday) is the first Grade 1 of the season over the smaller obstacles and, as such, offers the first chance for Champion Hurdle contenders to test their mettle.
However, although Newcastle and Cheltenham are both left-handed, galloping, testing tracks, very few horses complete the Fighting Fifth Hurdle/Champion Hurdle double. In fact, Punjabi, who won both races during the 2008/09 season, is the only horse to have done so in the last 20 years.
The favourite in this four-runner field is Donald McCain’s Cinders And Ashes (8/11), who won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham when last seen in March. That form entitles him, once again, to beat Irish raider Trifolium, who finished 1½ lengths behind him atCheltenham and reopposes on the same terms.
Cinders And Ashes was certainly progressive last season and acts on heavy going which he will encounter here. However he has an absence of nearly nine months to overcome and it is possible the bookmakers have overreacted to the Cheltenham form by making him such a short-priced favourite. Strictly on official BHA ratings, he’s 1lb inferior to Countrywide Flame, so he appears to represent poor value at the betting odds on offer.
John Quinn’s four-year-old Countrywide Flame (9/2) belied his starting price of 33/1 when winning the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham last March, but has continued in good form since. He subsequently finished second, beaten just a length, in the Matalan Anniversary 4-y-o Juvenile Hurdle at Aintree in April. He won on the Flat at Chester in September and finished second, beaten three-quarters of a length, in the Cesarewitch at Newmarket in October.
John Quinn voiced his concerns about testing conditions earlier in the week, but Countrywide Flame has won on soft going. He ran well on heavy going when second, beaten 2½ lengths, in the Grade 1 Future Champions Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow last December. That’s enough to suggest that he shouldn’t be inconvenienced by underfoot conditions and, as there’s little between him and Cinders And Ashes, according to the BHA, his current odds appear generous.
Charles Byrnes’ Trifolium (5/1) has had a minor wind operation since being beaten 36 lengths, at odds-on, on his seasonal reappearance at Punchestown six weeks ago. He may improve as a result, but has 1½ lengths to find with Cinders And Ashes on their running at Cheltenham in March is best watched until he demonstrates that whatever was ailing him at Punchestown is firmly in the past.
Brian Ellison’s Bothy (10/1) is a useful handicapper on his day, but is another with plenty to find if he’s to trouble the two principals. He has 9lb to find with Cinders And Ashes and 10lb to find with Countrywide Flame on official BHA ratings and, despite running well on both starts this season, he’s probably a little out of his depth here.
With the bookmakers apparently taking a stance on Cinders And Ashes, our advice is to back Countrywide Flame to win Newcastle’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle at 9/2 with Bet365. Our betting tip has done nothing but improve since being sent over hurdles last autumn and may yet have more improvement to come.