Trainers have been complaining all winter about too much rain, but at least it has been mild. Change is in the air, however, and they could face far bigger problems if a freeze sets in during the coming weeks – during which critical window they must give their best horses a last spin before the Cheltenham Festival in March. It may yet be that they find themselves looking back with regret on a very low-key schedule this weekend.
One or two, however, are taking the opportunity to give smart young prospects more experience. Emma Lavelle, for instance, saddles Highland Lodge in the Betfred Novice Chase at Warwick. This is one horse who has enjoyed the heavy ground, impressing at Cheltenham last month, and his one defeat over fences came in a strange race at Newbury where the winner was left for dead only to run down the tiring leaders late. Highland Lodge (1.50) will need mud to proceed to the Festival, but would certainly be entitled to do so if seeing off Fill The Power, hard as nails after consecutive near misses in handicaps, and the unexposed Rocky Creek, who steps off that endless conveyor belt at the Paul Nicholls stable.
Like Lavelle, Nigel Twiston-Davies has his eggs in rather fewer baskets and the stakes are correspondingly high for The New One (3.0) in the Neptune Leamington Novice Hurdle. It is worth remembering how Highland Lodge's novice campaign over timber became derailed in this race last year, and The New One does face a progressive rival in Dursey Sound. But his only reverse in half a dozen starts to date was when an excellent sixth in the Festival Bumper last season, and Twiston-Davies would be most disappointed to see him beaten.
Pete The Feat has contributed to the growing reputation of his young trainer with five consecutive wins since joining Charlie Longsdon, and seeks a new high in the Betfred Classic Handicap Chase. But he has gone up 40lb in the process, and has only had a fortnight to absorb a generous effort at Newbury.
Restless Harry (3.35) remains well treated on his hurdles form and, lightly raced over fences, could be hard to reel in over this extra distance if getting into a rhythm over these staccato fences.
Pertemps Hurdle Qualifiers often feature horses building slowly towards a peak for the series final, at the Festival, but the one on this card features several who need to go up the weights to have any chance of getting a run in March. Storm Survivor (2.25) is one such, having relished a return to timber after a lean spell over fences at Doncaster last time.
His trainer, Jonjo O'Neill, has been going well and sends a promising novice to Kempton in Cloudy Copper. The new Channel 4 team takes in some of that card, too, notably the William Hill Lanzarote Hurdle. Buck Magic (2.40) made the perfect start for his new stable at Cheltenham, and remains sufficiently lightly raced to improve past his new mark.
Highlight of a treble for Nicky Henderson at Huntingdon yesterday was the leisurely success of My Tent Or Yours in a novice hurdle. He needed this run to qualify for the valuable Betfair Handicap Hurdle at Newbury next month – in which race, under different names, Henderson has a formidable record. Likewise owned by J P McManus, My Tent Or Yours is following in the footprints of Darlan who was on the bridle when falling two out at Newbury last year and is now among the favourites for the Champion Hurdle. My Tent Or Yours is a best price of 5-1 for the Betfair with William Hill.
Chris McGrath's Nap
My Own Way Home (1.25 Lingfield)
Storm Survivor (2.25 Warwick)