The phoney war is almost over. While the Festival does not start until Tuesday, its first big prize will be contested at Sandown this afternoon, when the Paddy Power Imperial Cup winner will become eligible for a £75,000 bonus if following up in any race at Cheltenham. The result is a suitably indigestible aperitif for punters preparing for next week's banquet.
Martin and then David Pipe are the only trainers to have won the bonus to date, and their stable had the carpet taken from under its feet when Hunterview missed the cut. He is replaced as favourite by Qaspal, who himself only crept into the race on 10st 3lb. Tony McCoy, whose lowest riding weight over the past year has been 10st 5lb, will presumably do without that second raisin for breakfast.
Since qualifying for a modest rating in novice hurdles, Qaspal has not come off the bridle in two handicap starts and it is impossible to know how much more he might have in hand. But he has been raised 14lb to meet better horses, while dropping back in distance on better ground. So while he could easily bolt up, his true odds must be pure guesswork.
Aather also remains unexposed but hinted at Cheltenham last time that he might prefer a sharper test, while Tocca Ferro needs to brush up his jumping to capitalise on a mark he will surely exceed in time. For all the more progressive types in the field, the veteran Tender Falcon (3.05) seems unfairly neglected at 33-1. The fact is that he remains pretty lightly raced over jumps, and posted a career best when only beaten a neck at Ascot last time, his furious finish suggesting he will be at home on the hill at Sandown.
Some lovely prospects tend to convene for the opener, among which Aberdale (2.0) will surely make giant strides after receiving a pretty indulgent education on his way to a first handicap rating.
Up at Wolverhampton, meanwhile, some decent sport reminds us that Flat racing on turf resumes very soon after the Festival. This weekend, moreover, both those outstanding American females, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, make their reappearance with that big showdown in mind, in Arkansas on 9 April. The unbeaten Zenyatta will be conceding plenty of weight to her rivals at Santa Anita; Rachel Alexandra is opposed by just four in New Orleans.
Over here all eyes remain fixed upon Cheltenham. Binocular completed his remarkable resurrection yesterday when pleasing McCoy sufficiently in his work to be confirmed an intended runner in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle on Tuesday. With the choice of Nicky Henderson's other two runners, Barry Geraghty has stayed loyal to last year's winner, Punjabi, leaving Zaynar to Andrew Tinkler.
"He's a horse that's done it on the big stage," Geraghty reasoned. "More important still, he just gave me the most unbelievable feel at Kempton. I'm sure he is simply a spring horse. My decision should not reflect at all on Zaynar, as I'm sure he'll run a big race. And it's great Andrew rides; he deserves the chance on a well-fancied ride in a championship race."
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Stormin Exit (2.40 Ayr)
Looks an improved horse for his new stable, a fluent winner switched to fences at Newcastle before losing momentum when hampered two out here last time – in the process looking ripe for a return to this longer trip.
Redford (2.15 Wolverhampton)
Has promised more than he has delivered so far but his new trainer sets him a test, switched to this surface round a bend, that looks sure to play to his strengths.
*One To Watch
Miss Saffron (Mrs S Gardner) had no chance against a thriving rival at Wincanton on Thursday but showed why she was well backed for her handicap debut by beating the rest readily.
*Where The Money's Going
William Hill halved Tocca Ferro from 16-1 to 8-1 for the Paddy Power Imperial Cup today.