The season of plenty continues across the nation today, when Ascot, Haydock and Warwick each stage cards which could normally stand on their own as Saturday features. It is like forcing down the last of the mince pies.
The prize-money is sloshing around, not least in Berkshire, where the Victor Chandler Chase has an attractive appearance but a lopsided shape with just three of the 13 runners in the handicap proper.
That is down to the inclusion of Azertyuiop, who continues his education among the big boys in the Grade Two contest. Last year's Arkle Chase winner was at least made to look equine on his reappearance in the Tingle Creek Chase, pulling too hard and having his bottom smacked by Moscow Flyer.
There is nothing of the Irish horse's calibre in today's field, but there are some tricky customers, opponents picking their teeth with a glinting blade on the street corner.
Paul Nicholls, Azertyuiop's trainer, recognises that his seven-year-old must learn to deal with such company if he is to graduate to the greatest prize of them all, the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Nicholls fears them, he fears even more the terrain at Ascot.
"I just wouldn't want the ground to get too heavy for Azertyuiop and I may just have a look at it on Saturday," he said. "Obviously, his main aim is the Champion Chase and he'll be a lot better in at the weights and in the Game Spirit, but I just feel he wants some racing experience and if the ground is not too bad he'll run."
Nicholls also saddles Young Devereaux, who won this race 12 months ago when it was transferred to Kempton after Ascot was called off. The horse is something of a misnomer as he is now 11. However, he has had only seven races over fences, four of them successes.
"If the ground comes up soft he's got a nice weight," the trainer said. "He's a very good horse. He won it last year, won at Ascot first time out. He's very well and the softer it gets the more his chances would improve."
There are other considerations. Ireland's Native Scout is 7lb out of the handicap but connections have already organised the party, while Isio represents the big-race gladiators Nick Henderson and Mick Fitzgerald.
There could be a slot here though for Redemption (nap 1.55), a course-and-distance winner, who is a decent price because of his penchant for occasionally finding a racecourse banana skin. As they are out of season it is worth taking a chance on a horse who was given a confidence-builder over hurdles last time out.
There is more intrigue at Haydock, where the outrageously expensive Royal Rosa tries to do to a Grade Two field what he did to a field of dray horses at Hexham last time. Sh Boom (1.10) looks more reliable.
That, though, is just the start in Lancashire, as there should be dramatic pointers to both the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup. The title holder for the former, Rooster Booster (2.10), is now on a losing streak of three and suddenly unbelievers have begun stepping out of the shadows. A retreat should be prompted this afternoon if Copeland generates the sort of pace which will bring Rooster Booster's kick off a strong lead into play.
There is dangerous exotica here though in the shape of Specular, the Australian champion who is attempting to broaden his realm to the Commonwealth. Now with Jonjo O'Neill after his purchase by JP McManus, the eight-year-old was further cut in the Champion Hurdle list yesterday. From a starting point of 100-1 Specular is now 7-1 for the Festival, and market activity suggests he will be a formidable rival this afternoon.
The Peter Marsh Chase is yet another elevated stage for Kingscliff (next best 1.40), another beast in which JP has expressed an interest. The Foxhunters Chase victor from last March now finds himself as low as 5-1 second favourite for the Gold Cup following successes at Ascot and Cheltenham. He is up 30lb as a result of those two performances, but needs to go in again if he is going to get Terry and Hen's knees knocking.
Among the likely defections from the Peter Marsh is the star of Henry Daly's stable. That decision should prove most prescient when Behrajan (3.05) collects the Tote Classic Chase at Warwick.Reuse content