Only Riverside Boy, runner-up in the race last year, is a definite starter, but Pipe's pre-eminence in the contest means that the gelding is ante-post favourite at 9-4 with the race's sponsor, Coral. Rolling Ball, likely to run instead in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Monday, is 3-1 with a run, while Chatam, the 1991 Hennessy Gold Cup winner who will be making his seasonal debut, is 14-1.
The same firm offers 9-2 about Party Politics and Cool Ground, with Indian Tonic on 11-2 and Merry Master at 10-1. Mr Boston, not quoted by Coral but 7-1 'with a run' with William Hill, is more likely to go for the Rowland Meyrick Chase at Wetherby the previous day.
Party Politics, who beat Riverside Boy by five lengths in the Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow earlier this month, will attempt to confirm his superiority, but a significant reverse in the weights, which would be increased if Chatam were a non-runner, explains the pair's relative positions in the betting. Nick Gaselee, Party Politics's trainer, is convinced that his gelding has every chance of becoming the first Grand National winner since Rag Trade to also win the Welsh equivalent.
'We meet Riverside Boy on worse terms but we were conceding him plenty of weight when we won the Greenalls Gold Cup at Haydock last season,' Gaselee said yesterday. 'Three and a half miles plus is a long way to be confident about, but the horse has won the Greenalls and the Grand National and I wouldn't swap him for anyone.'
Cool Ground, winner of the race for Reg Akehurst in 1990, is also reported in excellent health after the deliberately light build-up organised by his new trainer, David Elsworth. 'Mr Elsworth never wanted to overexpose the horse,' Suzanne Roberts, the trainer's assistant, said yesterday. 'He has had plenty of hard races and he wanted to keep him fresh. He ran creditably over too short a trip at Newbury and will come on a lot for it.'
Young Hustler would be baffled by such a campaign. He will be having his 12th race of the year, and his 19th in a season and a half, in the King George on Monday, but backers do not expect any signs of exhaustion. He is 7-2 from 4-1 with Coral after support yesterday, closing in on the market leader, The Fellow, who is a 9- 4 chance. Barton Bank is also 7-2, with 8-1 about Bradbury Star and Black Humour, 14-1 bar.
With 14 five-day entries, the Welsh National has one more than the two Grade One races on 28 December combined. There are just five challengers for the Christmas Hurdle, with pounds 55,000 in added prize-money, at Kempton, while the Castleford Chase at Wetherby has eight entries.
The leading contender at Kempton is King Credo, who has recovered quickly from a leg injury sustained when he fell in the Bula Hurdle at Cheltenham earlier this month. His main rivals are likely to be Halkopous, second in the Bula, and Absalom's Lady, a winner at Ascot on Saturday.
David Nicholson mounts a strong challenge for the pounds 60,000 Castleford Chase at Wetherby, with Viking Flagship, Waterloo Boy and Wonder Man among the entries. A spokeswoman for the trainer said yesterday: 'He will probably run two of the three but it hasn't been decided yet which ones.'
With Travado entered in the race only as a precaution - he will run in the King George unless the ground at Kempton is heavy - a maximum field of six is expected.
FIVE-DAY DECLARATIONS: Wetherby, 27 December, Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase (3m 110yd): Another Coral (Trainer: D Nicholson), Cogent (A Turnell), Young Benz (M H Easterby), General Pershing (G Richards), Merry Master (R Armytage), Mr Boston (Mrs M Reveley), Carbisdale (Mrs M Reveley), Kildimo (Mrs S Smith).
Wetherby, 28 December, Castleford Chase (2m): Clay County (Trainer: R Allan), Deep Sensation (J Gifford), Dr Rocket (R Dickin), Sybillin (J FitzGerald), Travado (N Henderson), Viking Flagship (D Nicholson), Waterloo Boy (D Nicholson) Wonder Man (D Nicholson).
Kempton, 28 Dec, Christmas Hurdle (2m): Absalom's Lady (D Elsworth), Halkopous (M Tompkins), High Baron (R H Alner), King Credo (S Woodman), Muse (D Elsworth).
Today's meeting at Hexham has been abandoned. Charles Enderby, the clerk of the course, said: 'There is frost in the ground, with a further freeze forecast.' The track's fixtures on 24 November and 10 December were also called off and the course was last able to stage racing on 5 November.
(Photograph and Table omitted)Reuse content