Even an event like Haydock's Peter Marsh Chase, which rarely attracts a field of more than half a dozen, found itself with 21 prospective runners, and the vital Festival preliminaries may at last be allowed to begin. With trainers desperate to run their best horses, caution is a luxury which few can afford, and Jodami, Belmont King, Paul Nicholls's Rehearsal Chase winner, and Unguided Missile are all intended runners.
The card at Haydock also includes the Champion Hurdle trial, with 16 entries including Collier Bay, the current champion and ante-post favourite to remain so come March, Right Win, Dato Star and Relkeel, who would be running for the first time in two years.
Collier Bay, however, may yet be diverted to Leopardstown for the Irish Champion Hurdle on Sunday, a race he won last year.
At Kempton, the Lanzarote Hurdle will be displaced as the feature event by the Victor Chandler Chase, re-routed from Ascot last Saturday. Eleven runners were declared yesterday, and Ladbrokes immediately installed Ask Tom as their 3-1 favourite, with Storm Alert and Big Matt (both of whom might have been happier at Ascot) next in the market at 4-1 and 5-1 respectively. Viking Flagship, who will carry top weight, is also a 5-1 chance, and the firm then bet: 9-1 Kibreet and Time Won't Wait, 10-1 Dancing Paddy and Lord Dorcet, 16-1 bar.
"Viking Flagship has got a hard task," David Nicholson, his trainer, said yesterday, "but he's got to run somewhere." Adrian Maguire will ride the former two-mile champion, while Richard Johnson will partner Nicholson's second runner, Storm Alert.
Several of the Victor Chandler field also also feature in betting released by the Tote yesterday on the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham, for which 18 names were put forward.
Viking Flagship is rated the 4-1 joint second-favourite along with Sound Man, behind the 3-1 favourite and defending champion, Klairon Davis, with Ask Tom next in the list at 7-1, Martha's Son on 10-1, and 12-1 bar.
The most interesting entry for the race, however, is One Man, the King George VI Chase winner. Gordon Richards's chaser is not quoted by the Tote, who consider him a doubtful runner, but his presence in the entries is further evidence that Richards is unconvinced about his Gold Cup credentials.
"The thinking is that I've got to wait until he's run in the Piller Chase [over the Gold Cup course] on Saturday week," Richards said yesterday. "If he didn't win that, I'd have to think twice about the Gold Cup, and then if I think he doesn't like Cheltenham, he won't go for either race and I'll transfer him to Aintree. He's a very good horse, we all know that, but the times he's been to Cheltenham, it just hasn't been him.
The Piller Chase will thus be one of the most significant Festival trials of all, and if One Man fails the test, it is unlikely to be for lack of fitness. "He's in good form," Richards said, "it's been difficult to keep him going but it shouldn't matter because he was race-fit just over three weeks ago for the King George so it will take nothing to bring him back."
Even if One Man fails to make it to the start at Cheltenham in March, Richards is in the happy position of being able to field some able deputies, since Addington Boy, Unguided Missile and The Grey Monk are all intended runners in the Gold Cup. Unguided Missile, the subject of steady support in recent days, was backed again with William Hill yesterday and is now 20-1 (from 25-1) for the Festival's most important prize.