Owner Tony Bloom will rely on Irish challenger Stratum to provide him with a second successive victory in the Betfair Exchange Northumberland Plate following the late withdrawal of last year’s winner Withhold.
Having landed a monster gamble in the Cesarewitch the previous October, Withhold produced a dominant display for Bloom in the 2018 renewal of the ‘Pitmen’s Derby’ – marking himself down as a serious contender for the Melbourne Cup.
However, those ambitions were dashed when he suffered a broken blood vessel on his Australian debut in the Geelong Cup last October – and trainer Roger Charlton has revealed his charge will not return as planned at Newcastle this weekend following a bad scope on Friday morning.
“Withhold has been declared a non runner in the Northumberland Plate. He has a low grade infection in his lungs,” Charlton posted on Twitter.
“It has been well documented that he broke a blood vessel in Melbourne and an infection increases the risk of it happening again.
“His welfare is hugely important to us.
Despite Withhold’s withdrawal, Brighton And Hove Albion chairman Bloom still has a major contender in the Willie Mullins-trained Stratum – who bids to become only the second Irish-trained winner of the Northumberland Plate after Tony Martin’s Arc Bleu in 2008.
The son of Dansili disappointed when well-fancied for the Ebor and the Cesarewitch last term, but has been in good form over hurdles this spring – finishing fourth behind his high-class stablemate Mr Adjudicator at Punchestown before justifying cramped odds at Ballinrobe.
Mullins’ assistant David Casey said: “He was obviously well-in at Ballinrobe – but he won well, and before that he ran well in a competitive handicap hurdle at Punchestown. That form has been franked, with Mr Adjudicator winning in France since.
“He was a bit disappointing a few times on the Flat last year. Whether that was just because it was the end of a long year, I don’t know.
“He seems in good form, and if he can get back to the form of his Newbury win last summer that would give him a good chance.”
The gamble of the race has been Roger Varian’s Gibbs Hill.
Despite having not seen on a racecourse since scoring by seven lengths at Kempton in July 2017, the six-year-old has been backed into outright favouritism in recent days – having been as big as 10-1 at the start of the week.
Owner Paul Smith told Sky Sports Racing: “He’s very well. He hasn’t run for two years, but he’s been working since the start of the year – and Roger’s delighted with him.
“He’s got great form on the synthetics, so we’re hopeful. He has been off for two years, but that was always the plan – to go there (Newcastle).
“There seems to be a plunge on him from somewhere. I know nothing about it, but he’s in good form, so we’ll see what happens.”
Another horse bidding to defy a lengthy absence is Karen McLintock’s dual course winner Dubawi Fifty, who has been sidelined since filling the runner-up spot at Royal Ascot 12 months ago.
“A few weeks ago I was a bit worried, because I wasn’t sure he’d be fit enough, but things have come together in the end,” said McLintock.
“He seems in good heart. In an ideal world, I’d have liked to get a run into him, but we didn’t have the time – and we are where we are.
“He’s not the only horse coming into the race off the back of a long break and he ticks a lot of the other boxes, in that we know he stays the trip and likes the track.”
Mark Johnston has a strong hand as he bids for his first Northumberland Plate success since scoring with Quick Ransom in 1994.
The Middleham trainer’s trio is headed by King’s Advice, who has won six consecutive races since arriving from France – rising 30lb in the weights in the process.
Charlie Johnston, assistant to his father, said: “I think it’s safe to say none of us expected him to end up here, but he’s been on an incredible run.
“I think the main reason for his improvement has been stepping up in trip. Just when it looked like the handicapper was getting to grips with him, we stepped him up in trip again – and he found a bit more.
“There is obviously no guarantee he’ll get the two miles, but we hope it might eke out a bit more improvement in him.”
Johnston also saddles Austrian School and Chester Cup winner Making Miracles, who were fourth and sixth respectively in the Grand Cup at York a fortnight ago.
“I think if you ran the York race again it could work out differently,” Johnston added.
“Ryan (Moore) tried to dictate it on Mekong, and both our horses chased a pace that was clearly very hot.
“I actually thought Austrian School ran very well to finish as close as he did, and he’s had excuses each time he’s run since his impressive win at Musselburgh in the spring. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him run a big race.”
Alan King’s Who Dares Wins has been saved for this race since filling the runner-up spot in the Chester Cup in early May.
Part-owner Henry Ponsonby said: “This race has been a target since the start of the year, and we said after Chester we’d miss (Royal) Ascot and come straight here.
“He’s won on the all-weather, Tom Marquand has won on him four times, and it looks like he’s got a nice draw – for a change.”