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Fighting Fifth Hurdle preview

The jewel of northern National Hunt racing is the Fighting Fifth Hurdle. And for the first time in years, the track might not be on the swamp side of heavy!

Time to welcome back northern racing expert Mark Rowntree, @uptheirons007. And you can read more of his work on his blog.

--------------------------- Fighting Fifth Hurdle
Grade 1 £105,000
2m 98y
1405 local 0105 AEDST

The weather gods have shined on Newcastle for once with the Grade 1 2015 Fighting Fifth Hurdle set to be the most enthralling renewal for a number of years.

The 'A-Listers' Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins are all represented in a race which has attracted a field of seven. Ground conditions will be soft, but a strong covering of grass and the lure of a racecourse which hasn't witnessed National Hunt racing since March has proved a strong one.

Last year’s winner Irving forms the most logical starting point. A return to Tyneside was initially on the agenda following his comeback success in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton. However, his participation in the Fighting Fifth appeared much less certain when it was announced he’d take his chance in the Betfair Price Rush Hurdle at Haydock.

Nevertheless, a workmanlike Haydock success (on soft ground) did provide further evidence of his wellbeing. This bearing relevance following the ongoing foot problems which had hindered his previous campaign. It's also important to note that Irving was also the beneficiary of a summer wind operation prior to his comeback victories at Wincanton and Haydock.

However, asking a horse to race three times in a calendar month at this level (including on successive weekends) is a massive risk. Sidestepping Haydock- as he did in 2014 after a fall in the Elite Hurdle- he’d have been the likeliest winner, but I fear he could well have left his race in the Lancashire mud.

Nicky Henderson saddled My Tent or Yours to victory in 2013. This year he relies upon Top Notch. Top Notch was beaten one and a quarter lengths by Irving on his seasonal reappearance at Haydock last weekend.

Prior to that, the Munir and Souede owned gelding was unbeaten in three starts as a juvenile at Newbury, Ascot and Haydock before concluding his previous campaign in the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham.

In the Triumph, Top Notch split stablemates Peace and Co and Hargam (both held initial entries for this race), going under by a neck to the former named who is bound for The International Hurdle at Cheltenham next month.

On balance, there is every reason to believe that Top Notch will reverse the Haydock placings with Irving. A third quick race for Irving, will surely see his finishing kick tested to the absolute limits by a much wiser Daryl Jacob and stronger Top Notch with the benefit of Haydock now under their belts.

As was the case in 2012 (with Countrywide Flame), the Triumph Hurdle holds a good clue to the race. This year, in addition to runner up Top Notch, the sixth placed Beltor represents Robert Stephens. Beltor will be a first runner at Newcastle for Stephens. Many would believe with justification that we're still to see the best of Beltor.

Beltor was probably the surprise package the juvenile ranks last season, and is more lightly raced than Top Notch over hurdles, although he does sport extensive Flat experience. Despite hailing from one of the less fashionable yards, he is respected. However, he'll need to be at the very top of his game to come straight off a break and beat six fully race fit rivals in a Grade 1 contest. He sports a similar profile to another couple of horses in the race, but at only fraction of the odds.

John Ferguson held a strong hand at the initial entry stage, but is left to solely rely upon Purple Bay.

The 6yo gelding was a bitter disappointment when trailing in last of four at Aintree earlier this month behind Bobs Worth and Simonsig. However, in his defence, the race was over a new trip (2m4f) and his trainer had indicated he’d benefit considerably for the reappearance.

Dropping back to 2m is the key for Purple Bay, and Newcastle looks sure to suit. However, soft ground certainly doesn't suit, and time will tell whether Purple Bay actually runs or not.

Supplementary entry Wicklow Brave is as tough as teak and a talented dual purpose performer. He leads the Irish charge, and his inclusion in the race is a massive coup for the Newcastle Executive.

Whilst Hatton's Grace bound Arctic Fire finished third in the Fighting Fifth for Mullins in 2014, neither Mullins or Walsh made the trip to Newcastle on that afternoon. However, both are scheduled to be in attendance on Saturday which adds markedly to the race.

Despite being a scintillating eight-length winner of the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March, Wicklow Brave has arguably scaled even greater heights on the level this summer.

He firstly chased home Litigant in the Ebor at York, and then finished third in the Irish St Leger to Order of St George. His campaign concluded in the Long Distance Cup at Ascot on Champions Day in October where he was arguably an unlucky two lengths third to Flying Officer and Clever Cookie.

A 152 rated hurdler (106 on the Flat), the bulk of Wicklow Brave’s winning form has come on either a soft or heavy surface.

Whilst he has improved during the course of 2015, his eleventh of 20 in the Galway Hurdle wouldn’t normally be good enough to take the Fighting Fifth. However, the proximity to stablemates Nichols Canyon and Faugheen in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown suggests he’s translated his summer Flat improvement back to Hurdling. On the basis alone he's more than a worthy favourite, but equally he's highly likely to be over bet simply because of the Mullins/Walsh combination.

The inclusion of Henry De Bromhead's 5yo Kayf Tara gelding Identity Thief also further boosts the Irish hand.

Identity Thief is three from six under National Hunt rules. Making all and staying on strongly, he took the Grade 2 Down Royal WKD Hurdle by three and a half lengths from the Willie Mullins trained Whiteout. The 4yo filly Whiteout being as short as 25/1 for the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham in March (which is likely to be headed by her stablemate Annie Power).

Identity Thief is versatile with regards trip having also won over 2m4f in soft ground in a Leopardstown Maiden Hurdle (December 2014). However, his revised Irish mark of 144 suggests he has a little to find with the principals. Furthermore, he was found out on his only try at Grade 1 level when pulled up behind Nichols Canyon in the 2m2f Leopardstown Deloitte Novices Hurdle. Read literally this assumes Identity Thief is unlikely to trouble the Willie Mullins-trained Wicklow Brave.

Taking a reasoned leap of faith in seeking greater value, the selection for the race is Intense Tango (25/1).

The Karl Burke trained filly is the sole female representative in the line up, and truthfully, after seeing the initial entries a few weeks back, Intense Tango didn’t figure on my radar as a likely bet. From a mark of just 138, she clearly has plenty to find.

However, her odds reflect this fact (unlike with Beltor and Identity Thief) and so she rates as a reasonable value ‘outside’ bet. Being a filly, she will receive 7lbs from all of her six rivals which does at least go a small way to reducing such a disparity in official ratings.

Intense Tango is owned by Cosy Seal Racing Limited which represents a business interest of Paul Gaffney. Gaffney’s ill-fated but talented mare Cockney Sparrow finished runner up in the 2013 Fighting Fifth to My Tent or Yours. This bears relevance to Intense Tango who has charted a massively similar path to the race as Cockney Sparrow.

Both Intense Tango and Cockney Sparrow raced in the same events at Catterick, Doncaster and Aintree before a summer campaign on the Flat. Crucially, both horses also reappeared in the Mares Hurdle at Wetherby as their pipe-opener before a crack at Newcastle's Grade 1 event.

Intense Tango has raced six times over hurdles, scoring in a 2m Catterick Juvenile Hurdle in January, before following up in a Mares Grade 2 at Doncaster later in the month. On the latter occasion she made the most of a sizeable 4yo allowance.

She then faced a tough task as a younger horse (off 140) in the Morebattle Hurdle at Kelso, but shaped well, a fair eight lengths third to the progressive Glingerburn and the scopey Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Bristol De Mai.

Intense Tango concluded her 2014/15 National Hunt season at Aintree in the Betfred 4yo Juvenile Hurdle finishing fifth to All Yours. From a mark of 139 she conceded 7lbs to the winner who was also initially entered for this race.

Like Cockney Sparrow, Intense Tango made steady improvement on the level during the summer months. Her official Flat handicap mark rose from 78 to 87 on the back of just four runs. Although this leaves her 19lbs behind the 106 (Flat) rated Wicklow Brave, her best effort came when a three and three quarter lengths third to the ill-fated Saeed Bin Suroor trained Wadi Al Hattawi in a £45,000 added 1m5f Newmarket handicap. She has registered a sole victory from twelve starts on the Flat (at Haydock in August 2014).

Whilst Cockney Sparrow plundered the Mares Hurdle at Wetherby’s Charlie Hall meeting en route to the Fighting Fifth, Intense Tango could only manage second best two years later. Nevertheless, she lost little in defeat giving 8lbs to the Harry Fry trained Blue Buttons in soft and tiring ground. Beaten by just five lengths, she’s likely to find the fresher and less testing soft ground at Gosforth Park to her liking.

Intense Tango would not only need to improve, but also buck the trend of four year olds generally not winning the Fighting Fifth. Countrywide Flame in 2012 was the first 4yo to take the prize since Out of The Gloom in 1985. Additionally, Fillies have a particularly poor record in the race, but this is more understandable with only a small number competing each year. However, Cockney Sparrow has demonstrated that fillies can compete if well prepared by their trainers.

Without doubt, the late supplementary entry of Wicklow Brave tempers confidence, but at odds of 25/1 Intense Tango is more than a sporting selection in a thoroughly intriguing contest.


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