This weekend we are spoilt for choice in terms of racing action with excellent cards at both Cheltenham for Trials Day and Doncaster's Sky Bet Chase meeting.
There's a real star-studded line up on both Saturday and Sunday, with Big Buck's reappearance after almost 14 months on the sidelines in Cheltenham's Cleeve Hurdle and two Grade 1 races to look forward to in Ireland on Sunday as well.
Big Buck's has made plenty of column inches over recent weeks, mainly due to his change of jockey as Sam Twiston-Davies gets the call up for Paul Nicholls' star hurdler. Regular pilot Ruby Walsh is no longer stable jockey to the former handler and Daryl Jacob, who would have been the obvious replacement as he is in the Nicholls employ now and also rode the horse in a crucial racecourse gallop at Exeter, isn't riding either.
So, young Sam got the call up and he has been getting to know the four-time World Hurdle winner in recent work and schooling sessions.
There is a huge amount of pressure for all involved with this horse. The legendary hurdler has won his last 18 starts and although he is showing he is as good as ever at home, until they hit the track you never know.
Sam is a cool customer, he's young and talented and I don't suppose it will faze him a great deal. No one likes to see a champion beaten and I hope we see him charge up the Cheltenham hill in his usual customary manner.
Reve de Sivola won this race last year and he's entered again. It will be interesting to see if he is declared for the race as trainer Nick Williams' immediate reaction after his win at Ascot last time is that he wouldn't run here having had a hard race in it last year and he was then beaten in the World Hurdle.
At Fishers Cross has been a frustrating horse to follow this year as his physical problems have been holding him back. Rebecca Curtis must be happy they have been resolved and I hope we see more of what we expected from him in the early part of the season.
It's hard to get away from Big Buck's and I'm sure he'll be straight enough to do himself justice before another crack at the race he has made his own at the festival.
The Argento Chase
Paul Nicholls is planning to run Rocky Creek in the Argento Chase. This race can be a guide to the Gold Cup and although it doesn't look like there is anything in it to beat Bobs Worth, Silviniaco Conti et al, this horse could be a lively outsider for the Blue Riband after this contest. He is currently 33/1 with Sky Bet for the Gold Cup, but notably he has been bigger than that and has been supported. He was fancied for the Hennessy on his seasonal reappearance and he ran an excellent race to finish second to Triolo D'Alene who is also entered for Saturday's race.
He then suffered a little setback with colic after that run but is back on track now and could run in both the Gold Cup and Grand National if all goes well here. Rocky Creek has 'improver' stamped all over him and with that run under his belt I think he'll run a big race in this Grade 2. Incidentally, Triolo D'Alene (who is one of the 20/1 market leaders for the Grand National with Sky Bet) is also entered in the River Don Novices' Hurdle at Doncaster on Saturday.
Sky Bet Chase
On to Doncaster then: the feature is the Sky Bet Chase and this three-mile handicap has attracted a classy line up. Paul Nicholls runs Unioniste and has chosen to claim a valuable 5lbs off his back with the booking of his nephew Harry Derham. Derham has ridden some decent winners for the stable and is well worth his claim.
Unioniste ran in the Lexus last time out so this represents a drop in class, but the ground may not be as soft as he would really like it as Doncaster have produced decent ground and that could just count against him. He's an exciting young chaser, but looks short enough in a competitive race, there's no denying he has strong claims though.
You can make a case for a few of the runners though including Sky Bet's second-favourite Night In Milan who may not be too badly handicapped for Keith Reveley. My worry about him is that he enjoys an uncontested lead and it's unlikely that he'll get that here. Gullinbursti has an obvious chance for Emma Lavelle and would be on my shortlist. He is gaining experience over fences and although he was beaten favourite in a small field at Newbury last time out he ran well over the brush hurdles at Haydock on his penultimate start behind Gevrey Chambertin and conditions suit.
Kruzhlinin is trained by Donald McCain, another yard firing on all cylinders at the moment. He's a young improving horse and he stays this three-mile trip well now he is maturing. Mart Lane has been raised 10lbs for a win at this track last time out for Dr Richard Newland. The Druids Nephew is also in with a shout but I fear he is vulnerable off his current mark.
A horse that could run into a place and is an each way price is Niceonefrankie. He is trained by Venetia Williams who can do little wrong at the moment and his defeat of Double Ross at Ascot in November stacks up well. He can be excused a defeat just a week later when turned out under a penalty and although he was hiked up the handicap he looks a stronger horse this season and has been given plenty of time to get over those two quick runs. He's consistent, usually runs his race and is my each way selection at the current prices.
The Lightning Novices' Chase
This looks superb too and the decent ground at Doncaster has attracted a good entry.
The two-mile Grade 2 is a pointer for the Arkle at the festival and with Rock on Ruby, Fox Appeal, Grandouet, Raya Star and Valdez amongst them it should be a proper trial. The latter named pair are both trained by Alan King who has his first entries this weekend after a self-imposed period with no runners due to ill health among some of his horses. Let's hope that is behind him now because it can be a frustrating and infuriating time.
There's nothing you can do other than sit it out and I hope he is rewarded for his patience. I think I'd like to see how his first few runners get on though before backing them. As for Saturday's race, Rock on Ruby faces his first real test over fences having made his debut in an uncompetitive event at Plumpton last month. He jumped well for a chasing debutante with only one error of note, but he was also quite clever at some of his fences too. The ground here will be much more to his liking and Harry Fry has his horses in great form at the moment. Although he is a relatively late recruit to chasing, he took to it as well as you would have hoped and he must be a leading contender at the festival in March as he goes so well at Cheltenham. He is currently a 10/1 shot for the Arkle with Sky Bet having been supported for the race this month.
Fox Appeal represents another stable flying high. His trainer Emma Lavelle is having a great season, and although her horses aren't flying as high as they were at the beginning of the season they are still running well. It was great to see her win the Classic Chase at Warwick two weeks ago and another big Saturday winner would be just the job. This horse has a 7lb penalty to carry though for his win at Ascot just before Christmas (beating Raya Star) and that may make life tough against the 2012 Champion Hurdle winner.
Nicky Henderson's Grandouet has come up against a couple of smart Paul Nicholls-trained horses on his last two starts in Hinterland and Dodging Bullets and he has a bit to prove. Mr Mole finished well behind Fox Appeal at Ascot and appeared to lose confidence over his fences, let's hope he enjoys himself here as he clearly has a decent engine. It's Rock On Ruby for me. Fox Appeal, Grandouet and Raya Star won't be much of a betting proposition, but it's great that we will get to see Annie Power in action again in the UK as she lines up for the OLBG Doncaster Mares' Hurdle. There is a strong entry for the race with John Quinn's Cockney Sparrow amongst them and I'm sure the Yorkshire-based handler is disappointed to see Mullins sending his mare over for the race. Cockney Sparrow was second to My Tent Or Yours on her latest start in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle and she is quite rightly held in high regard by her connections. Will she be good enough to beat Annie Power? That's the question.
David Pipe's Legacy Gold is a nice prospect. She cost £210,000 in April last year and Pipe has been taking things steadily with her up to this point. I'm sure whatever lines up against Annie Power will have an uphill task, so it's the Mullins mare for me.
Irish Champion Hurdle
There are two Grade 1 races on Leopardstown's card on Sunday with the Irish Champion Hurdle and Arkle Novice Chase.
Hurricane Fly heads the market for the Irish Champion Hurdle where once again he faces two other leading lights in the two-mile hurdle division in Our Conor and Jezki. This looks a proper Champion Hurdle trial and Irish trained horses, in my view, hold the upper hand at the moment. I've been waiting for Jezki to get the better of The Fly all season, but judging on what the dual Champion Hurdler has shown so far this term his star doesn't appear to be on the wane and I'm not sure Jezki will beat him if the favourite turns up in his current form. Jezki has been improving for each run, but I'm not sure that will be enough.
Hurricane Fly won with authority in the Ryanair Hurdle over Christmas and despite Jezki not getting the clearest of runs there he wouldn't have beaten the winner, but probably just finished a bit closer.
Our Conor won the Triumph last March in devastating fashion, but he hasn't set the pulse racing yet this season and it can be hard for horses the first season after their juvenile campaigns. He shouldn't be written off yet and it's worth bearing in mind he had a slight injury after his reappearance on the flat, so there could be more to come from him now with that hurdles run under his belt.
I'd love to see Jezki win (he's in my ten-to-follow) but Hurricane Fly hasn't been beaten since the 2012 Champion Hurdle and it will be a surprise if he ends that winning run here.
The Arkle Novice Chase looks a little more open and Willie Mullins has three significant entries in Champagne Fever, Mozoltov and Felix Younger. All three hold entries at Leopardstown on Saturday over 2m 5f so it's hard to say who runs where at this stage.
So, a cracking weekend's racing to look forward to and we should get some pointers for the festival at all three meetings.
Niceonefrankie in the Sky Bet Chase @ 16/1 with Sky Bet (each way)
Rock On Ruby in the Lightning Novices' Chase
Rocky Creek in the Argento Chase @ 2/1 with Sky Bet
Big Buck's in the Cleeve Hurdle @ 8/11 with Sky Bet
Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle @ 8/15 with Sky Bet