Cheltenham is the focus of our attention this weekend and there are some cracking races to look forward to.
The feature and most competitive race is the December Gold Cup (known this year as the Stewart Family Thank You Gold Cup), a Grade 3 Handicap Chase over 2m 5f. Top weight is allotted to Champion Court, but he ran an excellent race to be second in the Peterborough Chase on Thursday and it seems unlikely he will be turned out again quickly with a welter burden even though this race is run at his favourite track.
So, 14 horses have been declared and AP McCoy has given Colour Squadron his vote of confidence as the champ has picked the Philip Hobbs-trained horse over Cantlow (Paul Webber) and Tap Night (Lucinda Russell), all owned by JP McManus. If Colour Squadron is to win this he will have to reverse the Paddy Power Gold Cup placings with winner Johns Spirit (Attaglance was 4th there).
Johns Spirit will be one of the few horses to win both the Paddy Power and this race if he wins on Saturday off a 9lbs higher mark.
Quotes of the week
Johns Spirit will be one of the few horses to win both the Paddy Power and this race if he wins on Saturday off a 9lbs higher mark, although that is a difficult ask, it's not impossible, his trainer Jonjo O'Neill saddled Exotic Dancer land the same double in 2006.
That horse defied a 10lbs rise in the weights when he achieved the double, but it's worth remembering that only Pegwell Bay and Senor El Betrutti had achieved the elusive double in the 20 years before then. Johns Spirit looked like a chaser on the upgrade when he won the Paddy Power and he's still only six years old so has youth on his side.
Colour Squadron is one of two in the race for Philip Hobbs who also has outsider Gauvin, the mount of Richard Johnson. Colour Squadron was only beaten by three-quarters of a length in the Paddy Power and as it was his first race of the new campaign he's entitled to strip fitter for the outing.
More significantly though, he can be counted a bit unlucky as he had to sidestep Easter Meteor who fell two from home. For a horse of his ability he hasn't won much so far, just a Chepstow bumper and a Newbury Maiden Hurdle, but his overall profile looks good with some consistent performances behind some smart horses.
Having said that I think I still prefer Johns Spirit to Colour Squadron. Paul Nicholls will be trying to spoil the party with Gradioso who comes here after a promising reappearance behind Cantlow and Easter Meteor in a Handicap Chase at Newbury a couple of weeks ago. He has a progressive profile and has won three of his five starts over fences and hopefully he can continue to progress.
His final start of last season was a win in the Pendil Novices' Chase and he will enjoy the decent ground at Cheltenham this weekend. He looked to need the run last time out and should run a big race. As previously mentioned Attaglance was fourth in the Paddy Power last time out; he is another of these runners that began the season as a novice.
He's had seven chances already to get off the mark over fences but that doesn't put me off as he looks like he could be well-handicapped. Malcolm Jefferson did a great job with him over hurdles and the horse improved to win off a mark of 144 at Aintree on his final start over timber.
He runs off 137 here, the same mark he ran off in the Paddy Power and off that rating he could be dangerous. So, AP has discarded Cantlow, he won on him at Newbury last time out beating Easter Meteor and Gradioso.
Choc Thornton has picked up the 'spare' on Paul Webber's horse who has to overcome an 8lbs rise for that win at the end of last month. His jumping isn't always the cleanest which is a concern and he's not the most consistent, but that was a return to form last time out which was pleasing to see.
The Emma Lavelle-trained Easter Meteor is now 3lbs better off with the winner for a 1¾ length beating last time out and after his fall at Cheltenham it was good to see him getting a confidence boosting clear round there.
It's always a bit harsh when horses are raised when they fall and he was put up 3lbs for his fall in the Paddy Power, but who knows how he would have fared had that not happened as he was in the lead at the time. He's a consistent performer and is on my shortlist in this.
Salut Flo is an interesting runner as he returns to the track from a significant layoff. He was last seen in action at the 2012 Cheltenham festival where he won the Byrne Group Plate, but injury appears to have blighted him once again and he hasn't been seen since. He is only 7lbs higher in the weights and can go well fresh.
Double Ross has a handy weight for Nigel Twiston-Davies, he ran well off the same mark to be second at Ascot last time out and beat Attaglance at Perth in September. I'd love to see Silver Roque run well for in form trainer Fergal O'Brien. This is a gorgeous horse that I've been lucky enough to ride a few times and he proved he stayed 2½ miles at Sedgefield last time out.
This is obviously more of a test of his stamina, but that doesn't worry me and he will like the decent ground. He goes well fresh, but his last run shouldn't have taken a great deal out of him so I hope he runs a decent race and it would be great of he ran into a place. So, it's a red hot handicap and you can make a case for several of these. I like Grandioso and Easter Meteor, but I'm going to go with the Malcolm Jefferson trained Attaglance as he looks to be at the right end of the handicap.
In contrast, The International Hurdle doesn't look quite as open! The New One will be odds on in a small field as he continues his route to the Champion Hurdle in March. He was beaten by Zarkandar on his first try against the established hurdlers at Aintree in April, but emerged with credit there. That was over 2m 4f and the step back in trip is definitely in The New One's favour as Zarkandar looks like he will be seen to better effect over further this season.
After having the opportunity to pick something out in the ultra-competitive December Gold Cup I'm afraid it's The New One here and it will be a shame if he is turned over, even against a horse as useful as Zarkandar. The New One is currently 7/2 favourite with Sky Bet for the Champion Hurdle at the festival.
Away from the two big races I'm hoping for a bold show from one of my horses to follow, Shutthefrontdoor, in the 3m 1 ½f Novices' Chase. The Jonjo O'Neill trained six-year-old won on his chase debut at Aintree and lost little in defeat when second to Le Bec at this track last time out. He's currently 16/1 with Sky Bet for the RSA Chase and this race should tell us a bit more.
The Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham has attracted some smart entries although the race can sometimes end up with just a handful of runners. Ptit Zig was beaten by Diakali in Grade 1 company in France this summer, but the former has since won a Grade 1 back at Auteuil for Paul Nicholls and he is an interesting runner in this 2m 4f Grade 2.
At Doncaster I expect Royal Irish Hussar to run well in the Summit Juvenile Hurdle. Nicky Henderson's 3 year old is 8/1 joint favourite with Sky Bet at this stage for the Triumph Hurdle and he has done little wrong in three starts over hurdles to date winning all three including a decent Grade 2 at Cheltenham last time out.
There are some nice horses entered at Navan on Sunday, none more so than Briar Hill, who could take his chance in the Grade 1 Novice Hurdle. His trainer Willie Mullins has three of the seven entries in the race including another unbeaten horse Moyle Park. Briar Hill is unbeaten under rules - he unseated on his first start in an Irish Point.
He won the Cheltenham Champion Bumper in March and landed the odds in a Maiden Hurdle at Wexford last month. He wouldn't have found Wexford playing to his strength so you'd hope there is more to come. Moyle Park needs to brush up his jumping if his win on his hurdle debut at this track is anything to go by, but in better company and given a stronger pace he should jump more proficiently.
Briar Hill is the current 12/1 favourite with Sky Bet for the race they sponsor at the festival, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. He is also 8/1 fav for the Neptune Novices' Hurdle and 10/1 co-fav of three for the Albert Bartlett.
A word on Friday's card at Cheltenham where Oscar Whisky bids to get a first win over fences. He runs in the opening 2m 5f Novices' Chase. He didn't convince me with his jumping behind Taquin de Seuil at this track last month and I'd be happy to take him on with the Paul Nicholls-trained Wonderful Charm. The feature on Friday is the 3m 1 1/2f Grade 3 Handicap Chase. Ten horses have been declared and I like the look of Hennessy 3rd Theatre Guide for Colin and Joe Tizzard. He is still lightly raced over fences and if the Newbury race hasn't taken too much out of him he should run a big race.
Wonderful Charm in the Novices' Chase
Theatre Guide in the 3m 1 1/2f Grade 3 Handicap Chase
Attaglance in the December Gold Cup @ 8/1 with Sky Bet
The New One in the International Hurdle @ 4/9 with Sky Bet
Shutthefrontdoor in the Novices' Chase
Ptit Zig in the Relkeel Hurdle
Royal Irish Hussar in the Summit Juvenile Hurdle (Doncaster)
Briar Hill in the Grade 1 Novice Hurdle at Navan