What finer return to racing on turf than to have as the centre of attraction Master Oats and Viking Flagship, the two most exhilarating chasers of last season. But before becoming overwhelmed with the prospect of seeing, or even backing, the Gold Cup winner with the massive frame and talent or the tough two-mile champion, remember that the key phrase in referring to their attributes is "last season".
Neither horse has won this term and neither has raced with the zest that characterised their golden year. Things may be different today for Viking Flagship in Newbury's Game Spirit Chase now that this notoriously stuffy horse has had a couple of warm-up races and, similarly, Master Oats may again look like a viable alternative to this year's Gold Cup favourite, One Man, after tomorrow's rescheduled Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown.
An even more important factor may be the men in the saddle, as Adrian Maguire and Norman Williamson have not been fit to partner their mounts this season. The driving force of Maguire may be just what Viking Flagship needs, while Williamson's motionless stance and tactical awareness may coax the best from Master Oats.
For those that do not retain belief in the big two, there are plenty of alternatives. Valfinet, a top novice last season, receives 7lb from Viking Flagship, but needs to show a great deal of improvement all the same. Preferable is Dancing Paddy (1.40), who put in a very solid performance when third to, and giving weight to, Big Matt last time and will be better suited by the cut in the ground than talented but brittle Travado.
In Ireland, Monsieur Le Cure is the obvious one to topple Master Oats, but neither of them are certain to be suited by Leopardstown's tight track and Imperial Call (3.45), who has crept unheralded on to the scene, will be just as able to cope with the easy ground.
At Newbury the big betting race is the Tote Gold Trophy and the big gamble of the race is Warm Spell. Standing at 40-1 with the sponsors on the morning of 20 January, he was down to 9-1 after an impressive victory in the Lanzarore Hurdle that day and is now down to 7-2. He is not the only horse to have been backed though and Express Gift (2.15) looks like a horse that has been waited with in order to pick up a substantial prize.
The opening televised event gives a chance to find a flaw in the Grand National weights, but Clever Shepherd (1.10) may outspeed five Aintree entrants.
For the ecologically unsound who choose to bypass Newbury, Ayr offers an opportunity for McGregor The Third (3.00), deemed unqualified for the National, and Champion Hurdle hope Celestial Choir (1.00).
Jacques Wertheimer obituary, page 18Reuse content