The combination of an apparently invincible rival and, tantalisingly, a great deal of prize-money has provoked an outbreak of pragmatism ahead of Saturday's Betfair Chase at Haydock. The three-mile chase offers a £225,000 purse which, if the formbook is right, the bulk of which will be heading, for the third successive year, in the direction of the connections of long odds-on favourite Kauto Star.
But with fiscal reward for the Grade One race going down to sixth place, the likelihood is that any horse who jumps round will get a share of the pot. Kauto Star and last year's half-length runner-up, Exotic Dancer, are regarded as the big two again, but on the next tier are a couple of horses who will be happily scrapping for the lucrative leftovers.
After third places in two Grade Two contests, Snoopy Loopy is the early leader in the points-based Order Of Merit. He is also the 50-1 outsider for the Betfair Chase, but that has not deterred his trainer, Peter Bowen. "Even if he finishes last on Saturday he'll get some money and he's in great form."
The tough 10-year-old, who has improved 49lb since winning at Chepstow in February, finished five and a half lengths behind State Of Play, with Ollie Magern intervening, in the Charlie Hall Chase earlier this month, just six days after running Knowhere to three and a half lengths in the Old Roan Chase, when Exotic Dancer, giving away lumps of weight, was second.
"I think Wetherby came a bit too soon after Aintree," said Bowen. "He hasn't done a tremendous amount since his last run and he's freshened up nicely again."
Ollie Magern, fourth and sixth in the last two runnings of the Betfair Chase, will be having another crack. "There is massive prize-money and there may only be five runners," said the 10-year-old's trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, "so even if he's fifth we'll be very happy. And racing is a peculiar game. Strange things can happen."
Snoopy Loopy and Ollie Magern are outclassed on the book, and Exotic Dancer has yet to beat Kauto Star in seven attempts, but apart from the possible immediate rewards there is also a longer view to be considered. Saturday's race is the first stage on the road to the bonus jackpot of the Betfair Million, famously taken by Kauto Star two years ago after adding the King George VI Chase and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
This year, though, the format for success is radically different. To take the monster prize a horse must finish in the first three on Saturday, the first three in any race at the Cheltenham Festival and then win the Grand National.
The nearest Kauto Star is likely to get to the spruce fences come April is cantering to the start for a race on the Mildmay course, but Jonjo O'Neill indicated yesterday that the National is on Exotic Dancer's radar. "I think it's a race that would suit him," he said. "He's normally a good jumper and he loves passing horses."
The exploits of the top chasers will be prefaced by two contests with a potentially significant bearing on the Champion Hurdle. At Haydock, the focus will be on Binocular, one of last year's top novices and the ante-post favourite for the senior crown, when he eases back into action against his contemporaries in the four-year-olds' hurdle.
And at Ascot, another of his age, Crack Away Jack, faces his toughest test yet against Binocular's stablemate at Nicky Henderson yard Chomba Womba in the Grade Two two-and-a-half miler. Emma Lavelle's charge burst on to the elite scene with a victory at Chepstow last month, having wound up his first season with success in the juvenile handicap at the Festival.
Jack Doyle, who rode him for the first time at Chepstow and will do again on Saturday, reported the gelding in sparkling form. "It was a very good run the last day," said the young jockey. "We were giving the second horse [Squadron] a lot of weight but we won easily and we still had a good bit left. He's improved a good bit at home and we're going to Ascot with plenty of confidence."
One rival who will not be there on Saturday is last year's winner, Hardy Eustace, who took the scalps of the young Irish pretenders Sizing Europe and Jered on Sunday and is scheduled to turn out in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Saturday week. So is another old stager, his long-time opponent Brave Inca, reappearing after an injury-induced 18-month absence.