Becher Chase Preview
Last Updated: 23/11/17 4:59pm
Fergal O'Brien goes from strength to strength as a trainer and having ended last season in sparkling form he's now already surpassed his previous best in terms of winners during a single campaign.
Those victories include Colin's Sister in Wetherby's West Yorkshire Hurdle, Poetic Rhythm in the Persian War at Chepstow and Perfect Candidate's November Meeting success at Cheltenham.
So it's pretty clear that not only can we expect the shrewd O'Brien to keep sending out loads of winners, but punters should also be better prepared for him muscling in on the biggest days at the biggest fixtures throughout the National Hunt season.
Cue Randox Health Becher Chase day at Aintree on December 9, in which the trainer has three entries at this stage: the aforementioned Perfect Candidate, veteran performer Alvarado and the most intriguing of the trio, VIVA STEVE (25/1, Sky Bet).
He's not always been with O'Brien; having joined from Mick Channon's yard last October and he made an impeccable start for his new team when winning in a first-time tongue tie at Ayr 12 months ago.
With that taking victory over a trip just over three miles came a degree of expectation.
Viva Steve was sent off 8/1 for the Classic Chase at Warwick, won by Grand National hero One For Arthur, while he was the same price after being tipped by a few good judges ahead of the valuable BetBright Handicap Chase at Kempton in February.
Not a great deal went right for him in either of those races but the fact O'Brien drew stumps after Kempton suggests something may have been amiss and, more importantly, identified and corrected by the trainer.
And his only outing so far this season leaves the impression the horse is now back on an even keel, having jumped really well behind the pace and stayed on for fourth in the Kerry National at Listowel.
It's no great surprise he was aimed towards a 'National' as early as September as they were hoping he might make the cut for Aintree in the spring - he didn't actually miss out by many in the end - while the subsequent layoff is by no means a negative as his last two wins have arrived when fresh.
The eagle-eyed reader will have spotted that as well as the selection, Go Conquer, The Last Samuri and Three Faces West all race in the silks of Paul & Clare Rooney, and the big one in April probably represents the long-term target for just about every one of them in an ideal world.
Identifying how many - and which - of this quartet are in line for the Becher is not easy but there are reasons to think one of two of the others may head elsewhere and Viva Steve's Kerry National effort screamed Becher.
It was definitely a positive start to the year and one on which he can hopefully build, but the big question now is 'will he handle the unique challenge of the course?'
It's no great secret that experience over the Aintree fences is preferable - the last seven Becher winners had all had a previous look at the course - but having never fallen or unseated in his 23-race career over jumps he's generally a very safe conveyance.
And at the prices I'm willing to make an exception for a horse who possesses the no-nonsense attributes required to thrive in the atmosphere of a frantically-run race over the National fences.
Others on the radar include the returning duo Mendip Express and Bishops Road, along with Emerging Force, who runs for another trainer on a steep upward trajectory in Harry Whittington.
The seven-year-old doesn't look obviously well treated on what he's shown in handicaps so far but he came alive in staying novice events around this time last year and he's another horse of which more should be heard in the coming months.