There is plenty to look forward to now the cold snap has finally abated with the added bonus of Newbury's rescheduled Super Saturday taking place this Friday.
With less than a month to the Cheltenham festival trainers were running out of time to get final prep runs into their big race hopefuls, so it's great that the meeting has been saved. Here's a run through a classy weekend of action.
The Betfair Hurdle is the big betting race and we will finally get to see Zarkandar (11/4 fav with Sky Bet) who makes his seasonal reappearance in this handicap. Paul Nicholls trains the horse who had an outstanding juvenile campaign with wins at Cheltenham and Aintree and as a result is one of the leading contenders for the Champion Hurdle next month (7/1 third favourite). He has had a breathing operation since we last saw him in action which is something Nicholls has had a great deal of success with in the past with a number of his inmates.
I think at a more reasonable price his stable-mate Empire Levant is worth an each way wager at 14/1. He only has 10.4 to carry and was 2nd to stable-mate Rock on Ruby at Newbury in November but hasn't run since. Darlan is a horse I really like and Nicky Henderson's novice takes on some more experienced horses here. He is unbeaten in three runs over hurdles and is a leading contender for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle for which he is 11/1. He's 8/1 for Friday's race along with Raya Star.
Choc Thornton returned from injury at Southwell on Wednesday and he is one of the only jockeys that has benefitted from the recent abandonments as he waited for his broken arm to repair. He rides Raya Star for Alan King. The horse won the Ladbroke on his last start and was raised just 5lbs for that win and he should get the strong pace he needs to settle in the race. I would love to see Zarakandar advertise his Champion Hurdle claims here, but I'm with his stable-mate Empire Levant in a classy renewal of this tricky handicap.
Staying at Newbury and you won't get rich by backing reigning Gold Cup champion Long Run who is likely to be odds on for the Betfair Denman Chase. He is currently 2/1 favourite to retain his crown at Cheltenham next month.
It will pay to find some each-way value here and Sir Alex Ferguson's What A Friend is another Paul Nicholls runner that could make his mark this weekend. He hasn't been seen since finishing third over hurdles at Wetherby in October but was fourth in the Gold Cup last year before pulling up in the National. Nicholls also trains the enigmatic Tidal Bay, but he isn't to be trusted although that doesn't rule him out of the equation.
Alan King has Medermit entered. He is an admirable horse who keeps knocking on the door in top class races and will pop up in one at some point (he is also entered to run at Ascot on Saturday). The Giant Bolster could progress if his jumping holds up and may run into a place and Burton Port is interesting on his first run since November 2010 although you would expect he will come on for the run. Prior to his injury he looked like a serious Gold Cup contender and if he retains his ability he is one to watch. This isn't Long Run's Gold Cup and as he has proven before he can be prone to the odd jumping error, I don't want to see him beaten, but at the likely prices I'll go with What a Friend.
So not just leading contenders for the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup in action at Newbury but the ante-post favourite for the Arkle is also set to run in the Grade 2 Super Saturday Chase (better known as the Game Spirit). Nicky Henderson's Sprinter Sacre is Sky Bet's 2/1 favourite for the Cheltenham contest and will be odds on for Friday's contest. The two-mile novice division is incredibly strong this year and Cue Card is another leading festival contender. Sadly, he won't meet his Arkle rival on Friday as he misses the race due to a slight knock on his fetlock joint so he goes straight to the festival. That will mean that Sprinter Sacre is very short in the market.
Barry Geraghty said after his win over Peddlers Cross at Kemton that he was one of the best he has ever sat on and that's good enough for me. Sometimes you try hard to find an alternative winner when the favourite is very short, but I don't see the point here! Paul Nicholls, who has won five of the last seven runnings of the race, saddles second favourite Hold Fast, whilst a rejuvenated Zaynar is also in with a shout. The well regarded Vulcanite is one to watch whether he runs at Sandown or Newbury on Friday. Trainer Charlie Longsdon is keen to run him where jockey Paddy Brennan is free to ride him and he rides at Newbury so we could see him show up there. He is planning to run the horse in the Fred Winter at the Cheltenham festival.
Moving onto Saturday and focus moves to Ascot, Haydock and Wincanton...
The feature at Ascot is the Grade 1 Ascot Chase (2m 5 1/2f). Kauto Stone is vying for favouritism with Riverside Theatre with the former having the benefit of a couple of runs this term. Nicky Henderson is keen to get a run into Riverside Theatre before the Ryanair Chase and he may be worth taking on in this race despite winning it last year.
Medermit is entered at Newbury on Friday, but is a leading contender in this race too and it will be interesting to see where he runs. Gauvain's form figures this season read 1F1F, so what can we expect on Saturday? He was second to Riverside Theatre in this race 12 months ago. It has to be Kauto Stone for me in this, his second to Sizing Europe in the Tingle Creek looks solid. Also at Ascot Nicky Henderson looks set to run Bobs Worth in the Reynoldstown Novices' Chase which he feels is the ideal stepping stone to the RSA Chase for which he is 4/1 second favourite with Sky Bet. So, at the moment it looks like Henderson and Nicholls are set to dominate the big races this weekend and I'm sure that won't be the case!
The weights for the Grand National were announced on Tuesday and Junior is Sky Bet's 12/1 favourite, he has a handy weight of 11 stone 2lbs for the Aintree marathon. He is set to run this weekend and has a few options including Haydock's Grand National Trial. There is the opportunity to find a bit of value here so let's start digging. Le Beau Bai is the clear favourite with Sky Bet at 7/1. I'm a big fan of his trainer Richard Lee who always seems to get the best out of his horses and keeps them fresh. This horse has won his last two including the Welsh National where he showed guts to beat Giles Cross on ground he didn't enjoy.
I felt for Giles Cross there as he was being beaten in that race for the second year running. I think he can go well here for Victor Dartnall. Giles Cross is 10/1 if you fancy him to turn those places around. He will enjoy the testing conditions at Haydock on Saturday and he was in front for an awfully long way at Chepstow and I fancy him to pick a well-deserved big prize. He has won four of his 15 starts and is hardly over raced for a 10 year-old.
Junior is also 10s if he runs here. All roads lead to Aintree for David Pipe's horse and I won't mind not being on him if he runs here. He was last seen at Royal Ascot and his chase mark has been protected by staying at home since then.
Start Me Up comes over from Ireland for Charlie Swan and he has a very nice racing weight. He was in the process of running a decent race at Punchestown in their National Trial when stumbling and unseating his rider approaching 3 out, Sky Bet have him priced up as a 10/1 shot. Always Right is another lightly raced type for trainer John Wade (10/1). He was favourite for the Rowland Meyrick, but pulled up and deserves another chance. He was third in the Scottish National last spring but has never run on ground described as heavy.
Fredo still looks well handicapped for Ian Williams and will relish this stamina sapping slog (he's 12/1). He was 2nd to West End Rocker in the Classic Chase at Warwick on his last outing and has another light weight here. Willie Mullins has his team flying as usual and it will be interesting to see if he sends Some Target over for the race, he's 12/1 also. He will also enjoy conditions and has been contesting some ultra-competitive races at home. He is one to be wary of.
Mohayer is untried at this trip but will enjoy heavy ground, the surface he won a handicap chase on at Ffos Las last time out. He is another of those at 12s. I like Giles Cross and Start Me Up in this and think the former really deserves to win a decent race sometime soon.
The Kingwell Hurdle looks like a battle between Nicholls and Henderson again! Binocular maybe entered but we are assured he won't be running as Henderson relies on Grandouet instead. His only blip this season came in the Elite Hurdle at this track when he fell. The horse who benefitted from that error was Celestial Halo and the admirable horse has been having a smashing season. Positive tactics have been the making of him this season, but he wouldn't have beaten Grandouet had he stood up here in November and the younger horse has been impressive since then. He has really improved and has an impressive turn of foot and should be tough to beat again. Maybe we should have a bet on which stable comes out on top this weekend - Henderson v Nicholls! Keep an eye on special bets at www.skybet.com as there are plenty of options away from your regular win/place market.
Empire Levant in the Betfair Hurdle @ 14/1 with Sky Bet (each way)
What A Friend in the Betfair Denman Chase
Sprinter Sacre in the Super Saturday Chase
SATURDAY - ASCOT
Kauto Stone in the Grade 1 Ascot Chase
Bobs Worth in the Reynoldstown Novices' Chase
SATURDAY - HAYDOCK
Giles Cross and Start Me Up in the Grand National Trial
SATURDAY - WINCANTON
Grandouet in the Kingwell Hurdle