Today the focus on next month's events at Cheltenham will briefly blur, sharpening instead on matters to come at Aintree in April. The Grand National is the one race where the handicapper, the British Horseracing Authority's Phil Smith, is allowed to combine art with science over the setting of the weights and the eagerly-awaited results of his discretionary judgement will be announced in London this morning.
In the lead-up to the moment, there is traditionally a degree of twinkly-eyed obfuscation by trainers as they try to keep their charges in racing trim without advancing their chasing ratings, the classic – and perfectly legitimate – ploy being a run over hurdles. But after today, lights can emerge from under bushels and tackle fences with impunity.
The earliest next opportunities for Aintree candidates to show their mettle will be on Saturday, both here and in Ireland. Teaforthree, one of the most prominent of the home side in the early betting, was among 18 entries yesterday for the Grand National Trial at Haydock, in which Neptune Collonges finished second 12 months ago before taking the real thing.
The current first three Aintree favourites – On His Own, Prince De Beauchene and Seabass – are among 12 entered in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park and last year's National fourth Cappa Bleu is set to reappear at Ascot for the first time since early November. "I'm desperate to run him somewhere," said trainer Evan Williams, "and although he's in the Haydock race, the three-mile handicap at Ascot is where we'd like to go, weather permitting."
The Grade One feature at the Berkshire track, the Ascot Chase, attracted six former Cheltenham Festival winners among yesterday's 11 entries, chief among them being Finian's Rainbow, Captain Chris and Cue Card. And if there is some significant Cheltenham i-dotting and t-crossing due to be carried out at the weekend, when a Champion Hurdle prep at Wincanton is also scheduled, a certain amount of punctuation was put in place yesterday ahead of the £3.8 million Festival that starts four weeks today.
Three high-profile Gold Cup defections were confirmed; Sizing Europe's target is now a 50-50 call between the Champion Chase, which he won two years ago, and the Ryanair Chase; Tidal Bay is to have the World Hurdle as his prime target and Grands Crus will either join him in that marathon title or go for the Ryanair.
Chris McGrath's Nap:Nuts N Bolts (4.30 Ayr)
His latest victim, Balding Banker, was running a big race when falling three out at Catterick yesterday on his handicap debut off the same mark.
Next best: Swatow Typhoon (2.20 Ayr)
Has given the impression in winning a point-to-point and a bumper that over hurdles he will need a test, which he will get today.
One to watch: After an absence of more than two years, Manyriverstocross (Alan King) faced a tough task in the Betfair Hurdle, but showed he retains much of his ability.
Where the money's going: Betfair cannot split Captain Chris and Cue Card for Saturday's Ascot Chase, heading the market at 3-1.