With Cheltenham just a month away trainers will be desperate to get runs into some of their festival hopefuls around this time.
Unfortunately, if they choose to run over obstacles at the moment the ground is desperate at most tracks. It's interesting this weekend to see that some smart candidates are entered to run at Kempton on their Jumpers Bumpers card on Sunday.
One such horse is Irving, who is a leading contender for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle. He missed the Betfair Hurdle last weekend as the ground was too testing, so trainer Paul Nicholls has pencilled a race in on the all weather, although he has other options. Ideally, Nicholls would like to run him in the Dovecote at Kempton next weekend, but what is the hope that the ground will have dried out by then? He also has the possibility of giving him a racecourse gallop.
Nicky Henderson has entered My Tent or Yours for one of the races on Sunday too. Last year's Supreme runner up is currently Sky Bet's 9/2 joint third favourite for the Champion Hurdle. He had the option of the Kingwell at Wincanton on Saturday, but the ground will be testing there and hence he swerves that contest. His last run came in the Christmas Hurdle where he got the better of The New One in an exciting contest.
So, this weekend we are keeping everything crossed that racing goes ahead from Ascot, Haydock and Wincanton and at the time of writing there is only the one inspection planned on raceday morning at the latter. Let's start at Ascot then where the Ascot Chase is the feature, it's a Grade 1 over 2 miles 5 ½ furlongs.
Captain Chris represents Philip Hobbs and the horse goes well at this track. His record here reads one win and one second, with the win coming in the Amlin Chase and his second came in this race last year when beaten by Cue Card. Basically, it's the right handed track that suits and he comes here in good form having won a decent listed race at Kempton. He is an incredibly consistent performer and this ground doesn't seem to worry him nowadays.Riverside Theatre is one of two in this for Nicky Henderson, he also runs Hunt Ball who has his first start for the champion trainer having returned from a disappointing spell in the States. Riverside Theatre is another horse that enjoys running here, in fact he has never tasted defeat at the course with three wins - twice in this race.
He unseated his jockey on his most recent start in the King George when Henderson tried headgear on him for the first time (he wore a hood coupled with blinkers). It's fair to say that last season he had started to look like his best days were behind him, but a wind operation in the summer seems to have done the trick and he won the Peterborough Chase on his penultimate start back in December. He wears the blinkers again on Saturday and it looks like they should help the jockey as he gets older and wiser.
Rolling Aces could be the value bet for me. The Paul Nicholls trained 8 year old has only had six starts over fences, winning half of them and he has his first run in Grade 1 company. He won a Grade 2 on his penultimate start at Down Royal where he beat Toner D'Oudairies and Texas Jack. He was beaten when stepped up to three miles last time out and whilst I don't think it was the trip that beat him in the small field that day, the drop back won't hurt. He's an 8/1 shot and with eight runners in the field he has a decent each way chance.
Monbeg Dude misses the National Trial at Haydock due to an unsatisfactory scope. He was given a weight of 10 stone 9 for the Aintree contest and is currently 20/1 with Sky Bet for the big race in April. Tidal Bay, who is 7lbs 'well in' on official ratings is favourite at 14s and Teaforthree a 16/1 chance. Mossey Joe is one to keep an eye on and at 33/1 could be a fun bet at this stage. Trained in Ireland by Enda Bolger, he has been allotted 11.1.
Handicapper Phil Smith admitted he could have got him too high, or too low! He's hard to assess as his last five starts have come in Hunter Chases. He was bought in January by Barry Connell for a huge sum when you consider he's an 11 year old (not so expensive if he wins the National!). Connell forked out £160,000 for the horse and sent him to a man who knows how to teach his horses to jump a variety of obstacles.
I remember hearing a tale about a visit to Bolger's yard where the guest in question was given the chance to ride out, he jumped at the chance and then ended up jumping whatever got in his way! The Aintree fences may not seem quite so daunting for Mossey Joe who is an interesting proposition for his new connections.
Teaforthree is another horse who catches my eye as he is 5lbs lower than when he finished third in last year's race. At this stage those are the two for me. Let's see who could stake a claim for National glory at Haydock this Saturday then in their Grand National Trial run over three miles, five furlongs.
Well Refreshed is bidding to follow up his win in this race last year for Gary Moore, but has a 12lbs higher mark to overcome. It may not be the mark that stops him though as he is susceptible to making serious jumping errors as he did before pulling up in the Welsh National last time out. Hawkes Point ran a very good second in the Chepstow marathon, beaten just by a head, and he is Sky Bet's 5/1 favourite for this for Paul Nicholls and Ryan Mahon. He is 6lbs higher for that as he bids to win his first handicap.
Our Father is another horse that is strong is the market. David Pipe's charge has only run once this season when beaten 20 lengths into 7th in the Hennessy - he's now 2lbs lower for that effort. He was very well fancied that day and backed accordingly and I think he could repay those that stay loyal to him here. He has only had four starts over fences and this is his first try over this trip, but that shouldn't be a problem. He has 10.8 to carry at Aintree. Saturday's ground shouldn't be a problem.
Venetia Williams continues to win with almost everything she runs and she has both Emperor's Choice and Rigadin de Beauchene, the former carries a 5lbs penalty for winning the West Wales National at Ffos Las last time out whilst the latter hasn't run since pulling up in the Scottish National back in April, he was second in this last year though and is off the same mark he runs off again here.
Nuts n Bolts is an interesting runner for Lucinda Russell as he is tailor made for this track. The fences suit and the ground is ideal and if he can bounce back from a disappointing run in the Rowland Meyrick at Wetherby over Christmas he could run very well.
The Jonjo O'Neill trained Merry King looks like he will be suited by the step back up to this trip as he was staying on over 3m 1f in the Peter Marsh here on his last start. Prior to that, he was fifth in the Welsh National. He has plenty of ability, but doesn't look entirely straightforward. Wychwoods Brook won that Peter Marsh and he looks a progressive staying chaser. He hasn't run over this trip before, but his trainer Evan Williams hopes he can make into a Welsh National horse next season, so I'd expect he will stay no problem. I like Our Father in this, but I think Wychwoods Brook could be a big danger.
Wincanton has to pass that morning inspection and if it does the ground will be testing. The Kingwell Hurdle is the big race and it should be a cracker. Given the prevailing conditions it looks hard to oppose Melodic Rendezvous who excels on heavy ground. He put muscle problems, which resulted in a below par run in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, behind him when winning impressively at Haydock last time despite not being fully tuned up. His trainer Jeremy Scott had a quandary over his final festival prep run and decided to bypass the Betfair Hurdle last weekend to avoid a slog with top weight. He could have sent him up to Kelso for the Morebattle Hurdle on Thursday, but has decided to run closer to home at Wincanton instead. I hope he is rewarded and the meeting gets the green light.
Zarkandar is an interesting opponent, but his target at the Cheltenham festival is the World Hurdle rather than the Champion, so this 2m trip is very much a minimum nowadays even on testing ground. He is the highest rated by some margin though and has a 100% record at Wincanton having won this race 12 months ago. This season he has seen the back of Annie Power twice and The New One on his other run but he can't be discounted. Grumeti represents a resurgent Alan King.
King has been rewarded for his patience during a tough mid season blip when his horses were suffering from a virus. They are bang in form again now, but this horse probably has to find a bit more to beat the protagonists. He is a Grade 1 winning juvenile hurdler, but I'd be worried about testing ground as I don't think it suits him. So it should be a tight little race, but I'm going with Melodic Rendezvous.
There's a class card at Navan on Sunday too and I'd be interested to see Bog Warrior in action if he reappears over the weekend. He is entered over fences at Gowran on Saturday and in the Boyne Hurdle at Navan on Sunday and testing ground won't be a worry for him.
His last start saw him finish 5th in the World Hurdle back in March. Champagne Fever could also run at Navan, he is entered in the Flying Bolt Novice Chase over 2m 1f having missed the Dr PJ Moriarty last weekend as trainer Willie Mullins wasn't entirely happy with him.
Finally, it was good to see Long Run get back to winning ways at Kelso on Thursday. That was his first win since the King George in 2012 and a good confidence booster, it shows he's on track for the National for which he's a 20/1 shot with Sky Bet.
He really looked to have lost his way this season and looked like a typical French horse that had peaked early and not held his form as an older horse and sadly, I thought it was possible we had seen the best of him. Whilst he still looks fallible, his rider has an excellent record round Aintree and some recent outings hunting may just have helped sharpen him up.
Rolling Aces in the Ascot Chase @ 8/1 with Sky Bet
Our Father in the National Trial @ 6/1 with Sky Bet
Melodic Rendezvous in the Kingwell Hurdle
Teaforthree in the Grand National @ 16/1 with Sky Bet
Mossey Joe in the Grand National @ 33/1 with Sky Bet