Bookmakers run for cover as Plate gamble on Gibbs Hill gathers pace

For the second Saturday in succession, UK bookmakers are fearing a Roger Varian-trained handicap hotpot after a flood of money for Gibbs Hill in the Betfair-backed Northumberland Plate has prompted the six-year-old's odds to plummet from 20-1 in a place on Saturday to just 6-1 with the sponsors on Monday evening.

The gamble has taken many by surprise, as Gibbs Hill has been off the track almost two years due to injury since a seven-length handicap win at Kempton in July 2017. However, it comes at a time when the Varian team are in red-hot form.

Cape Byron's impressive Wokingham Stakes success on Saturday, for which he was backed into 7-2 favourite (from 9) on the day of the race, was the stable's third winner in two days at the royal meeting.

Varian is taking a short break and was unaware of the gamble when contacted on Monday, but confirmed Gibbs Hill, who carries the Kingston Hill colours of Paul Smith, son of Coolmore's Derrick Smith, is showing all the right signs ahead of his belated return at Newcastle on Saturday.

He said: "It's a long time since Gibbs Hill last ran and he had all of last year off due to injury, but his recent work has been pleasing. 

"He's been back in training since the turn of the year and this has always been the plan so long as he stood up to the pressures of training."

Varian added: "His form on the synthetic surfaces has always been very good. He's off [a handicap mark of] 105 now, but he looked very good when we last saw him at Kempton just under two years ago. 

"I'm looking forward to getting him back on the track and hopefully we will have another clear week."

Betfair, who earlier this month announced a new deal with Newcastle that also takes in the track's Fighting Fifth Hurdle, have tried to keep on the right side of Gibbs Hill, about whom there have been positive reports.

Spokesman Barry Orr said: "Although he's been off the track nearly two years we heard bullish reports about his wellbeing, and so we decided to stay under the market where he was concerned."

Also returning from a setback and prominent in the markets is last year's winner Withhold, who was landing a second significant gamble when beating Prince Of Arran, having bolted up in the previous year's Cesarewitch.

The six-year-old, whose owner Tony Bloom has a second key acceptor in the Willie Mullins-trained Stratum, has not been seen in public since bursting a blood vessel in the Geelong Cup in October, when having a prep race for an intended crack at the Melbourne Cup.

Charlton said: "It's obviously been quite a long road since he had a bad bleed in Australia, but he's an intended runner.

"He stayed over there for a month or so afterwards and he's had further time out here, but we've been gradually getting him back to full fitness and he seems healthy and in good form."

Charlton added: "It looks a pretty solid renewal to me and while he's hopefully still an improving horse it's a big ask after a long time off and you have to factor in that you never know when the ice might break again.

"He hasn't bled at home, and we've done what we can in terms of preparation, but training and racing are two different things."

Withhold is a 10-1 chance with the sponsor, as is Stratum (from 14), who was last seen winning over hurdles at Ballinrobe last month.

There were 42 acceptors on Monday for the £150,000 contest, which has a maximum field of 20. The Betfair Exchange Northumberland Vase will be run as a consolation race earlier in the afternoon for those who fail to make the cut.

Five major triumphs after long layoffs

766 days

More than two years off the track, testing ground and a stiff uphill finish was not enough to stop Taranis in the 2010 Argento Chase as he brushed aside Carruthers and Joe Lively.

Well Chief 
658 days

Injury robbed the top-class Well Chief of some of his best years but he showed plenty of ability remained when easily winning the 2007 Game Spirit Chase after nearly two years off.

Laddies Poker Two 
610 days

The Jeremy Noseda-trained mare had been off the track 20 months before the 2010 Wokingham but she carried plenty of confidence and was sent off the 9-2 favourite. She absolutely bolted up on what would prove to be her final start.

Rite Of Passage 
510 days

Ascot Gold Cup winner Rite Of Passage had been off the track for 17 months before making a glorious return to win the Long Distance Cup on Champions Day in 2012.

491 days

Joe Tuite had outsider Litigant perfectly primed on his first start for the yard, overcoming a long layoff to win the ultra-competitive Ebor handicap in 2015 from Wicklow Brave.