Cheltenham stages its Open meeting this weekend so the jumps season really feels like its hitting top gear now.
On Friday there is a quality card. Crack Away Jack makes his debut for Paul Nicholls in the two mile Handicap Chase. He has his first run for the in-form trainer and if a change of scenery reignited his spark he can go very well.
The Grade 2 Novices' Hurdle is the feature and Jessica Harrington send a very smart Novice over for the race. Steps to Freedom has won both his starts over hurdles and already his trainer has a Grade 1 contest in her sights - I hope he continues his progression over hurdles here.
There is also a fascinating two-and-a half-mile Novices' Chase. Grand Crus, Cue Card and Champion Court are the protagonists in this contest and it looks a cracker. Of the trio only Grand Crus hasn't had chasing experience and he takes a drop in trip.
I think Champion Court will be better when stepped up to three miles and for that reason I'm overlooking him in this. Cue Card can go far over fences if his slick chasing display at Chepstow is anything to go by and I think he can win this race for the Tizzards.
More than Wishfull Thinking for Hobbs star to make Power strike
The feature on Saturday is the Paddy Power Gold Cup - a handicap Chase over 2½ miles and 20 horses face the starter in this competitive race although only 12 of them are in the handicap due to the presence of Poquelin.
I'm looking forward to seeing Wishfull Thinking back in action - a 7/1 chance with Sky Bet. He had the option of starting his season in the Hennessy at Newbury, but Philip Hobbs has chosen this race as his starting point. He doesn't want to see any quickness in the ground, though, and hopefully the ground will be fine for him.
You need to search for horses with an improving profile in this race and he fits that bill and the trip looks ideal too. Nigel Twiston-Davies has won this race with some smart horses and Billie Magern and Swincombe Rock and both are at the right end of that handicap although both are out of the handicap here. Paul Nicholls has a great chance of winning the race with the well backed ante-post favourite Mon Parrain (3/1 favourite). The five-year-old was an impressive winner on his UK debut at Sandown over three miles last season and then finished second in the Topham Chase at Aintree in April.
He's a very exciting horse and he will be tough to beat and the trainer had seven winners last Saturday no less. Great Endeavour was sixth in this race last year and is fancied by trainer David Pipe to put up another bold show - he is 11/1. Mon Parrain is potentially very smart and looks hard to take on, but at the prices I'm hoping Wishfull Thinking can start his campaign with a win for the Hobbs team.
The meeting concludes on Sunday and the highlight is the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle - it is wide open! Pateese is Sky Bet's 6/1 favourite, the horse is trained by Philip Hobbs who sent him out to win a handicap hurdle at Sandown last weekend and the 5lb penalty he gets for that has ensures he will get a run here - he looked very impressive there.
At a much bigger price (33/1) Palawi could be capable of running into a place. John Quinn's four-year-old was running well in the Grade 1 four-year-old Hurdle at Aintree in the spring when falling two out (race won by Zarakandar). He has since had a spin on the flat and a confidence boosting run here over hurdles. He shouldn't be written off at that price.
A Media Luz was a horse that caught my eye on her latest start. She was third to Brampour in a decent Listed Handicap Hurdle at Ascot and she should improve for that outing - she is 12/1 on Sunday.
She will have to take on the winner again that day as Paul Nicholls has three entries, Sanctuaire, Brampour and Domtaline.
Brampour has been raised 10lbs for that win and Nicholl's Nephew Harry Derham keeps the ride (he is 10/1 to follow that win up). Charles Byrnes runs Jack Cool, a 14/1 chance. A recent spin over hurdles should have sharpened him up and he looks capable of winning a decent race before going chasing. Gary Moore has a good record in handicaps of this nature and Harry Tricker is slipping to a dangerous looking mark. It has to be said he needs to re-find his form after chasing last season but he is well capable if he gets his confidence back (he is 33/1).
He also runs the shorter priced Via Galilei who was second to Brampour at Ascot and has been raised 8lbs for his trouble. I fancied Kumbeshwar in the race won by Brampour and Alan King's horse takes him on again. I think that outing will have put him spot on for this run and he has been dropped 3lbs by the handicapper (bonus!). I'm sticking with him and hope I get rewarded for my loyalty. Sky Bet have him as a 14/1 chance and that'll do for me.
Alex's dozen to follow over jumps sure to pay their way
Incidentally, I have a few horses I think you should watch out for this season. Waaheb, Darlan, Wishfull Thinking, Zarkandar, Cue Card, Peddlers Cross, Joncol, Bobs Worth, Menorah, First Lieutenant, Oscar Time and Broke Fast Bob are all horses that will pay their way - don't say you weren't warned! Good luck.
Steps to Freedom, Grade 2 Novices' Hurdle, Cheltenham
Cue Card, Novices' Chase, Cheltenham
Wishfull Thinking, Paddy Power Gold Cup, Cheltenham @ 7/1 with Sky Bet
Kumbeshwar, Greatwood Hurdle, Cheltenham @ 14/1 with Sky Bet