Paul Nicholls is considering sending Denman back on to the racecourse earlier than expected for an outing over hurdles as the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner continues to please in his recovery from an irregular heartbeat.
The eight-year-old is unbeaten in nine races over fences but has not raced since his demolition of stablemate Kauto Star at the Festival in March. Nicholls has long had the Aon Chase at Newbury on 7 February as his likely restarting point, with the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock in January mentioned by the champion's part-owner Paul Barber as an alternative.
However, a spin over hurdles has emerged as a possibility. "I've still got in my mind the Aon as a target," Nicholls said yesterday, "but I've even suggested to Paul Barber giving him a run over hurdles to sharpen him up a bit before then.
"He wouldn't have been ready for the Lexus [at Leopardstown over Christmas] but he's working along nicely and I'm very, very happy with him. Without a doubt he is showing me that he retains all his old ability.
"I've got no doubt whatsoever and if we didn't know he'd had a problem we wouldn't even be questioning it. But he has to do it on the track or there'll always be a doubt in people's minds."
Nicholls confirmed that Neptune Collonges will be his Lexus Chase representative. He ran the race of his life in the Gold Cup when beaten only a short-head by Kauto Star, but his trainer still thinks he has some way to go before he can be mentioned in the same breath as Denman.
"To beat a fully fit Denman he would have to improve on what he has done so far, but that is quite possible," he added. "Until Denman runs it will all be speculation, but Neptune Collonges is in good order and we are looking forward to running him next week.
"He's never one that impresses at home, he's very workmanlike, and sometimes you'd think he's achieved as much as he's ever likely to but until he runs you never know with him."
Denman's full-brother Silverburn did not gild the family's reputation at Exeter yesterday, trailing in fourth behind Private Be in a race that was expected to be a head-to-head between the pair rerouted from Cheltenham's abandoned Boylesports Gold Cup.
Sarah Hobbs, wife of the winning trainer, Philip, said: "We really did fancy him for the Boylesports but in case that was off, or in case he fell at the first, we entered him here. He's finished in the frame in a couple of good races and deserved to win a big one."
The stable's Belcantista has crept in one from bottom of the weights for tomorrow's Ladbroke Handicap Hurdle at Ascot, much to the relief of those that have plunged on the gelding. From odds of 20-1 at the start of the week, he is now 7-1 co-second favourite with the sponsors behind 5-1 shot Aigle D'Or, who also carries the colours of JP McManus. A victory on his only British start at Exeter after arriving from France is the only public form for punters to work from.
"He is in very good form, but we don't know yet how good he is," Sarah Hobbs said. "He is a bit of a wild card and we will see just how good he is on Saturday. We had been in touch with JP before he last ran, and he bought him after he won.
"The gamble this week is nothing to do with JP and I don't know where the money has come from – it has surprised us."
Tom O'Brien partners Belcantista with Richard Johnson booked to ride Hobbs's other runner, Prince Taime, who is also saddled with 10st 6lb.
LADBROKE HANDICAP HURDLE (Ascot, Saturday), Ladbrokes: 5-1 Aigle D'Or, 7-1 Ashkazar, Belcantista, Numide, 8-1 Sentry Duty, 14-1 Khyber Kim, 16-1 Five Dream, Prince Taime, Take The Breeze, 20-1 Cuan Na Grai, Mamlook, Noble Alan, 25-1 Alsaada, Mourne Rambler, Sky Hall, 33-1 European Dream, Group Captain, Squadron, 40-1 others.
Nap: Something Wells
NB: Golan Way