The Cheltenham festival is looming (that's what it feels like to me as I'll be riding there!), but this weekend we could be looking slightly further ahead after the National Trial at Haydock.
If any trainer deserved a change of luck it is Victor Dartnall after a torrid winter that has seen him lose several horses through illness and to add insult to injury he was temporarily barred from galloping his horses on the picturesque Woolacombe beach.
Thankfully both of those issues are behind him and the latter is a particular relief for one of his stable stars, Giles Cross. This horse thrives on his trips to the seaside and he has been freshened up by a recent trip to the vast expanse of sand.
Sky Bet have this horse at 15/2 for this race as he bids to win it for the second consecutive season. He beat subsequent National winner Neptune Collonges 12 months ago, but looked like he had gone wrong in the Welsh National last time out when he was pulled up. Thankfully that proved not to be the case and he has conditions in his favour as he bids for the repeat win. For an 11-year-old he isn't over raced and I quite like his chances here again.
The horse who won the Welsh National, Monbeg Dude, turns out again. He is 11/2 to repeat his Chepstow win. He was given an outstanding ride by Paul Carberry in that race and he was the difference between winning and losing that day.
A bold show from Teaforthree would see him shorten in the market for the Grand National. Nick Scholfield rides him for Rebecca Curtis for the first time. He was just beaten by Monbeg Dude in the Chepstow marathon and looks the perfect horse for Aintree (he is currently 16/1 for the National).
He is 9/2 joint favourite with Rigadin de Beauchene for this weekend's race. The latter has a handy weight for Venetia Williams - just 10 stone 5 lbs. He will be partnered by Robbie Dunne again after he won the Classic Chase at Warwick on him last time out and he takes a further 5lbs off his back thanks to his conditional jockey's allowance.
Well Refreshed is 8/1 and has been supported this week for trainer Gary Moore. He beat Venetia's horse at Lingfield on his penultimate start, but has since won the Sussex National at Plumpton and is worse off at the weights with his rival and his jumping hasn't always convinced which puts me off.
Tommy Whittle winner Cannington Brook will enjoy conditions and has a good chance of kicking off a top Saturday for trainer Colin Tizzard. He is also an 8/1 shot. With Joe Tizzard in action at Ascot, Tom O'Brien has come in for the ride on this horse once again and he has a good record on this out and out stayer. He has been in good form but is creeping up the ratings.
Silver by Nature hasn't run since pulling up in the National in 2011, he has top weight and is 14s for this race which he won in 2010 and 2011. It's a tough ask to win this again after such a long layoff and the handicapper hasn't made any allowances for his time on the sidelines. Giles Cross was entitled to come on for the run at Chepstow and now he has been freshened up with a trip or two to the beach he has a great chance of defending his crown, he'll do for me.
There is Grade 1 action at Ascot for their feature race, the Ascot Chase.
Six horses have been declared for the 2 mile 5 ½ furlong contest including last year's Champion Chase winner, Finian's Rainbow, who needs to bounce back after a disappointing effort behind another of Saturday's rivals Captain Chris at this track last time out in the Amlin Chase in November.
His trainer Nicky Henderson blamed that effort on the ground (it was described as heavy) and said he wasn't keen to run him on it again. At the time of writing the ground at the Berkshire track is described as soft, heavy in places. However, it's worth noting his has had a breathing operation since then so he may handle it better this time.
Captain Chris has run since that win, he ran a cracker in the King George, only finding winner Long Run too strong.
Followers of this blog will know he's a horse I've always had plenty of time for and this is his final run before heading to Cheltenham for the Gold Cup. He is Sky Bet's 5/2 favourite for this weekend's race.
Cue Card is 11/4 (the same price as Finian's Rainbow). Trainer Colin Tizzard stepped him up to three miles for the first time in the King George, but he didn't stay and this drop in trip will benefit him. This race will determine whether he goes for the Ryanair or Champion Chase at the festival, I hope it's the former for which he is 5/1 with Sky Bet.
Somersby ran well on his reappearance in the rescheduled Victor Chandler Chase last month, finishing third behind Sprinter Sacre on his first start since suffering from a splint problem (bony growth in the front leg). That run should have put the edge on him and he goes well at Ascot, he is 9/2 for Ascot's race. There may only be a small field, but it's a quality line up as befits the status of this race. I love Captain Chris, but I think Cue Card may just edge it for the Tizzard team.
The Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton will sadly be without one of its stars as Grandouet bypasses the contest. The Nicky Henderson trained gelding suffered some filling in his leg earlier in the week, but his trainer has said that has now improved and it was the prospect of a slog on testing ground that is the reason for his absence rather than a physical problem.
So, he will head straight to the festival now without a further outing. He is currently 6/1 for the Champion Hurdle with Sky Bet behind Hurricane Fly who is 6/4 favourite after the tragic loss of Darlan. Incidentally, an interesting possibility for the Champion is novice My Tent or Yours, who won the Betfair Hurdle last weekend in impressive fashion. He has been introduced at 9/2 for the Champion and is 7/4 favourite for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
Zarkandar would have to be my strong fancy now in the absence of the Henderson runner. He won the Elite Hurdle over this course and distance back in November and has followed that up with a win over Grandouet in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December. I was worried about the heavy ground at Cheltenham there, but he dealt with it well and seems a better horse this season.
Khyber Kim is an interesting runner on his first start back for Nicky Henderson. He began his jumping career with Henderson, before switching to Nigel Twiston-Davies for whom he won three graded races including the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle back in 2010. If he runs it will be his first start since April 2011 and the fact he is being persevered with at the age of 11 is a positive sign.
I hope you managed to catch the video of my trip up to Richard Fahey's Yorkshire stables earlier this week. Richard is hopefully happy with his 'jockey' for the St Patrick's Derby at the Cheltenham festival after I rode several bits of work on Tuesday morning. I felt good for the workout and I know that Richard is as competitive as me and we'll be giving this race a good shot on 14 March.
Giles Cross in the National Trial @ 15/2 with Sky Bet
Cue Card in the Ascot Chase @ 11/4 with Sky Bet
Zarkandar in the Kingwell Hurdle