(Published 15.45, June 12) – The “Pitmen’s Derby”, as it has been known through the ages, the £150,000 Stobart Rail & Civils Northumberland Plate Handicap is the annual highlight of racing in the north east of England. Staged over the extended two miles and run since 2016 on the new Tapeta All-Weather surface at the Gosforth Park track, it attracts smart staying handicappers, some of whom are already borderline or even proven pattern race performers.
Over the last decade the race has been the source of a few successful major ante-post gambles, none more so than the 2012 win of Donald McCain’s heavily backed Ile De Re, who scored at odds of just 5/2f in the 20-runner field. There have also been a few surprises during the same period, the biggest being the 25/1 success of Reg Hollinshead’s Tominator, a feat he reprised two years later at odds of 8/1. At the time of writing there are still 118 horses entered for this year’s race, but only the top 20 final acceptors will get a run.
Scenery Looks Natural Northumberland Plate Choice
Last year saw a second success in the race for Newmarket handler James Fanshawe who saddled Higher Power (11/2) to a well backed triumph under Tom Queally. The six-year-old is again among the market principals at a top price of 11/1 with Betfair, and is set to race off just a 1lb higher mark than 12 months ago when he stayed on bravely to deny Saeed bin Suroor’s Natural Scenery by half a length (see below). The Rip Van Winkle gelding disappointed in four subsequent starts in pattern race company but signalled he may be returning to his best when an eyecatching runner-up at Chelmsford over an inadequate 1m6f in mid-May.
Fanshawe also saddled the consistent and progressive Lord George to finish a close fourth behind Higher Power and he will arrive at Newcastle having been only narrowly defeated in the All Weather Marathon Championship at Lingfield on March 30, where he lost out by just a nose to Funny Kid. He will have to race off a 9lb higher mark than last year however, and that makes life much tougher.
NATURAL SCENERY holds an Ascot Gold Cup entry but this looks a more realistic target for this likeable five-year-old mare. She ran a great race in this event last year, and again showed her liking for a fast run race when an excellent third behind Nakeeta in the Ebor Handicap at York later in the summer. She was busy during the winter in Dubai and did little wrong on her final start there finishing just over six lengths behind the high-class Vazirabad in the Group 2 Dubai Gold Cup.
Back at a track that suits her well and running off a 2lb lower mark than 12 months ago, the Godolphin mare must have a good chance assuming she gets a decent draw and isn’t posted out wide all the way. At 14/1 each-way with Bet365 Natural Scenery looks good value.
The aforementioned Nakeeta followed his York win with a superb fifth place in the Melbourne Cup last November. He never managed to get involved in the Chester Cup last month on his first start since his Australian heroics but is only 4lb higher than his Ebor win and is respected. The runaway Chester Cup winner was Ian Williams’ Magic Circle who heads the weights for the Northumberland Plate having followed up in tremendous fashion at Sandown last month in the Group 3 Henry II Stakes. He looks likely to go to Ascot for the Gold Cup but would be a danger to all if he was rerouted for this race, despite the steadier of a massive 10st2lb.
Magic Circle runs riot to win the Chester Cup in style under @Franmberry, securing a quick-fire double for @ianwilliamsraci. This is a fourth Chester Cup win for owner, @drmarwanK pic.twitter.com/6aVBT1jKy4
— Chester Racecourse (@ChesterRaces) May 11, 2018
The current market leader – and seemingly the one the bookies really fear – is Roger Charlton’s Withhold, a horse owned by Tony Bloom, who reportedly landed a massive gamble on this five-year-old Champs Elysees gelding at Newmarket last autumn when he won the Cesarewitch Handicap with plenty to spare having been sent off the 5/1 favourite in the 34-runner field.
It’s no wonder then that despite the 118 current entries he is no bigger than a top priced 6/1 with Totesport to complete what would be a famous major staying handicap double within the calendar year. Such was his authority in winning at HQ that Witthold has subsequently been raised 12lb to a career high of 99, but that may still underestimate his ability as he does seem to be getting better with age. He is very much respected and could prove hard to repel.
The aforementioned Saeed bin Suroor not only has Natural Scenery entered in this with a proper chance, but also the four-year-olds Gold Star and Game Starter. The former was a good fifth behind Vazirabad in Meydan in March when last seen in action, while the latter is relatively unexposed but has still achieved a mark of 108 having progressed very well last term. He won all three starts in 2017, concluding at Doncaster in September where he scored easily over a mile-and-a-half. His ability to stay the extra four furlong has to be taken on trust (as does his fitness), but Game Starter could be anything.
The Charlie Fellowes-trained Prince of Arran was our selection for the Chester Cup and ran a good race, staying on strongly to finish sixth behind Magic Circle having been way back two furlongs out. He went on to run a nother fine race in the US recently, finishing a close third behind The Queen’s Call To Mind in the Grade 2 Belmont Gold Cup, and another bold show could be in store.
Third in the Chester Cup, a race that often is a good pointer for this event, was Alan King’s Who Dares Wins, a horse who is equally adept on the Flat or over hurdles. He holds an entry in the Ascot Gold Cup next week but that might be flying a little too high, and his down to earth handler would surely prefer him to go to Newcastle where he would have a decent chance running off the same mark as at Chester. He is 1-2 on the All Weather, so unlike many jumpers he should be able to handle this surface without too much trouble.
There are so many other horses you could make a case for, but among those who are certainly worth a second glance when considering an investment in the ante-post market for this terrific staying handicap, are Karen McLintock’s previous course and distance winner Dubawi Fifty, who ran a fine race to be fourth behind Magic Circle in the Chester Cup and appears to have been saved with this event very much in mind. Lurking lower down the list is Sir Michael Stoute’s Dannyday, currently No.41 in the handicap and who needs 21 above him to come out to get a run. That is by no means an impossibility, and this Evelyn de Rothschild-owned Dansili gelding remains relatively unexposed despite being six years old.
He won over course and distance in 2016, taking the Northumberland Vase Handicap having failed to make the cut for the Northumberland Plate, then was absent for 700 days due to training setbacks. He reappeared at Goodwood recently having been gelded, and went into a lot of notebooks considering his long absence when running very well to be fourth to Platitude (who received 7lb) over 1m6f. The 14/1 on offer with Betfred could well prove a decent each-way investment, but backers will have to sweat on Dannyday making it into the final 20 this time around.
ADVICE: NATURAL SCENERY (14/1 each-way with Bet365)
Written by Paul Alster
Paul Alster has been part of the British and international racing media for more than three decades working as a race commentator, TV/radio presenter, journalist, betting correspondent, SP returner, and form analyst. He’s always sought out overpriced runners in handicap races, a quest that excites him as much now as it did at the start of his career.