Should Ascot, or Haydock, or even both, survive inspections this morning, there will be no shortage of Cheltenham-bound talent splashing about in the mud. The favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, Twist Magic, is due to put his swimming skills to the test in Berkshire, Champion Hurdle contenders Straw Bear and Afsoun are taking their flippers north and a host of well regarded novices have their armbands ready.
Twist Magic will face six in the Victor Chandler Chase – which has Grade One status for the first time – including two mudlarks from Ireland, Mansony and Schindlers Hunt. The ex-French six-year-old has not raced on ground as heavy as that he will face this afternoon since joining Paul Nicholls, but did win on a bog at Auteuil as a three-year-old and his trainer is confident he will cope.
"I'm not so worried about the ground as I might have been when he was a novice," he said. "He's bigger and stronger this year, and I can do more with him and get him that much fitter. It will be testing, but I think he'll be fine. He's well and fresh and there'll be no excuses."
Twist Magic, who will start odds-on today, looked the real deal when he beat the reigning two-mile Cheltenham king, Voy Por Ustedes, a winner since, at Sandown last month, but that has not deterred the two Irish raiders from travelling to take him on. The pair have met twice this season and Mansony has come out better on each occasion, but if there is to be an upset today, it may be worth chancing Schindlers Hunt (1.45) to provide it.
The eight-year-old was one of Ireland's best novices last term, with two top-level victories at Leopardstown, and was one of the market leaders for the Arkle Chase at the Festival before a clerical error ruled him out. On his seasonal debut last month a bad mistake four out, while close up, put paid to his chances behind The Listener at Punchestown.
The more experienced Mansony was second that day, and in front again, by two and a half lengths, 23 days ago when the pair were first and third at Leopardstown. Today's test over a stiff track and on properly soft going, though, will play more to Schindlers Hunt's strengths.
"Twist Magic is going to be hard to beat," admitted Schindlers Hunt's trainer, Dessie Hughes, yesterday, "but I'm sure ours will run a good race. The ground was a bit quick for him in Leopardstown. He's been good since then and he's travelled over well."
The Grade Two novices' chase over the same two miles one furlong should be a match between Twist Magic's stablemate Marodima and Mahogany Blaze, from Nigel Twiston-Davies's yard. It is certainly a rematch; they met at Sandown last month, when Marodima, getting 6lb, prevailed by three and a half lengths. Mahogany Blaze dented his chances that day with a couple of errors but was foot-perfect next time when he routed Pur De Sivola – a task accomplished with equal facility by Marodima earlier in the campaign – at Kempton.
The weight difference is halved today, but the formerly headstrong Marodima (2.20) is learning to settle in front, showing the benefit of his transfer to the Manor Farm academy after his owner, David Johnson, gave 145,000gns for him at auction eight months ago. He can strengthen claims for the Arkle Trophy.
Graded races confined to mares are often criticised as not being up to scratch for their status, but it is early days in the elite programme being constructed to encourage the racing of the female of the species and the situation will only improve. There is little to carp about the standard of today's contest, however; most of the runners have held their own in prestige open-sex competition.
Labelthou is never happier than when presented with three miles and mud up to her oxters, and if she is none the worse for a crashing fall over fences at Haydock, is the pick. But look out for progressive Hendre Hotshot (2.55), who may repay each-way support against the bigger guns.
In Haydock's Champion Hurdle Trial, Afsoun (1.25) and Straw Bear are miles clear of their rivals on all known form. Neither is particularly consistent but on this season's form being outbattled narrowly by Hardy Eustace (Afsoun at Ascot) probably has more merit to it than outbattling Harchibald even more narrowly (Straw Bear at Kempton) and Nicky Henderson's charge, winner of this contest in similar conditions 12 months ago, is preferred.
Our Vic, runner-up in the King George VI Chase, is the class act in the Peter Marsh Chase but no horse has carried top weight to victory since Jodami 10 years ago. It may be prudent to look further down the handicap, particularly at his stablemate Madison Du Berlais (2.00). And in the novices' chase Pancake (2.30) can show the experience of his debut third over fences, behind Marodima and Mahogany Blaze, was not lost on him.