Traditionally, the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby is a race for Gold Cup outsiders to show off their credentials. Three miles on a fair and flat track is usually a great place for the hopefuls to start their campaigns, although the conditions on Saturday meant that a different type of horse came to the fore.
Heavy rain the weekend before caused flooding on the track and although that cleared, rain on both Friday and Saturday caused the ground to turn heavy once again.
This change brought stamina to the fore, and it was two horses that will be aiming to land the Grand National in April at Aintree that battled it out at the finish. The race was won by Ballyoptic from the Nigel Twiston-Davies yard, a horse that had the benefit of a run over many of his rivals.
In second was Elegant Escape, trained by Colin Tizzard, a horse that won the Welsh Grand National last season to show his staying power. He was having his first run of the season and although he didn’t win the race, he will have certainly pleased his trainer. He stayed on strongly up the run-in after being outpaced as the race got going. And he definitely looked like he could go further than the three miles, which bodes well for the 2020 Grand National.
In a scene that resembled the middle of December rather than the start of a new season, Wetherby’s conditions proved to be prime for tough, staying chasers. This made the task on hand too much for the younger speedsters such as La Bague Au Roi and Top Ville Ben, who were both expected to go well.
Instead, Ballyoptic got the win and this is now his second win of the season after coming out on top by nine lengths at Chepstow in October. He ran and fell in the Grand National last season off a mark of 155 and carried 11-01. The solid start to this season means a higher mark and weight are on the cards for 2020 renewal of the race. Odds on Ballyoptic have already shortened from 50/1 to 33/1 ante-post.
As for Elegant Escape, though he was entered last season, he didn’t actually run in the Grand National. Connections opted to send him to Cheltenham for the Gold Cup where he finished in 6th place. However, if he does head to Aintree in April he is likely to run off a career-high mark. He won the Welsh Grand National off 151 in the mud last season but started this season off 160, so it is unlikely he will be able to get to the same kind of mark as that win.
The Grand National 2020 is, of course, months away from taking place and anything can happen between now and then. However, connections of these two horses and anyone that has placed an early ante-post wager on them will have been thrilled with what they saw at Wetherby on Saturday. With conditions prime for those who need a strong test, these two came to the fore and delivered a great finish to a great race.