Bad weather invariably means running plans are cast in protean mud rather than solid stone and Nicky Henderson, trainer of the Hennessy Gold Cup favourite Bobs Worth, will inspect ground conditions at Newbury today ahead of his charge's much-anticipated seasonal debut in Saturday's prestigious £150,000 handicap.
The classy seven-year-old, one of the best of last season's apparently vintage crop of staying novice chasers, has not run since his defeat of First Lieutenant in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in March, but has been solidly supported into a general 3-1 at the top of the market. "I want to get a run into him this weekend," Henderson said yesterday. "Things have been geared towards it but plans are changing left, right and centre at the moment.
"The Hennessy was always where we were going to start – the horse stays well and we have a preference to go left-handed – and we'll have a look. I think he'll handle soft ground and I'm sure those at the course are doing everything they can."
The ground at the Berkshire track yesterday was described as soft, heavy in places and, although the weather is forecast to get drier and colder through the week, the contest, run over an extended three and a quarter miles, promises to be a demanding test.
Henderson may also field Roberto Goldback, an easy winner at Ascot last month on his debut for the Seven Barrows team. Likewise, Paul Nicholls could be two-handed with Tidal Bay, top-weighted of yesterday's 22 declarations, and Harry The Viking.
Tidal Bay is set to shoulder 11st 12lb, which means to win he would have to match the weight-carrying performances of one of his Manor Farm yard's previous winners, Denman (in 2007 and 2009) and of Henderson's only success, Trabolgan in 2005. The 11-year-old, revitalised since his switch to the champion trainer a year ago, was the best-backed horse yesterday, vying for second favouritism at 8-1 in some lists with Hold On Julio and The Package. "He's a definite runner," Nicholls said, "and we'll keep an eye on the weather for Harry The Viking."
First Lieutenant is perceived as the best hope to bring a first victory for Ireland since Bright Highway in 1980 (their compatriot Be My Royal, the winner 10 years ago, was subsequently disqualified), though his presence will not be confirmed until tomorrow. "We'll keep our options open," said his trainer, Mouse Morris. "The choice will be to run on soft ground in England or bottomless ground in Ireland. By Wednesday night we'll know if we're travelling or not."
Henderson's smart hurdler Darlan is pencilled in for Saturday's Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle, with Cinders And Ashes, from the Donald McCain stable, and the reigning two-mile champion Rock On Ruby, having his first run under Nicholls' former assistant Harry Fry's name, the other big guns among six entries. The ground at Newcastle, though, is currently saturated.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Cantlow (2.00 Lingfield)
Put up his best performances as a hurdler over further but today's testing conditions will put a premium on stamina and he can get off the mark over the larger obstacles second time up.
Next Best: Hollow Penny (1.30 Lingfield)
Looks capable of progressing from his debut hurdles victory, even under his penalty.
One To Watch: Terre Du Vent (Tom George), highly tried over hurdles after smart Flat form in France, is certain to make her mark in mares' contests.
Where The Money's Going: Punters yesterday latched on to Trifolium for Saturday's Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, backing him from 20-1 outsider of six into 12-1 with the sponsors Stan James.