We are now less than four weeks away from the Cheltenham Festival but still there are some cracking races for punters to look forward to this weekend. The weather continues to play havoc with the sport at the moment but at the time of writing, the majority of the major fixtures across the UK and Ireland are set to go ahead as planned. All eyes will be on Ascot, Haydock, Wincanton and Gowran Park on Saturday with plenty of potential Festival horses set to strut their stuff for the final time before the big meeting in March.
As always on a Friday, we are previewing the best of the weekend action with a particular emphasis on those horses who are on target for a big run at Cheltenham.
Ascot on Saturday
The feature card in the UK this weekend is at Ascot with the Berkshire track set to play host to a soggy day of action. The big race of the day will be the Grade 1 Ascot Chase over two miles, five furlongs and we have a strong field entered this season. Past winners of the Ascot Chase include Kauto Star, Riverside Theatre and Cue Card who as we know, all tasted success in either the Ryanair Chase or the Gold Cup during their career's.
This could prove to be a nice trial for Cheltenham with Captain Chris expected to start as a warm favourite for Philip Hobbs. The ten year-old has been hugely consistent for a number of years now and was last seen winning the William Hill Chase over two miles four and-a-half furlongs at Kempton in impressive fashion. He will have no problem with the testing conditions at Ascot and should take the beating if he is anywhere near his best this weekend. He was sixth in the Gold Cup 12 months ago but struggled on the left-handed track which ensures that he is by no means certain to return to the Festival this season.
Other potential opponents for Captain Chris at Ascot his weekend include the already mentioned Riverside Theatre, Rolling Aces for Paul Nicholls and Hunt Ball who will be running for Nicky Henderson for the first time. Riverside Theatre is set for the Ryanair Chase next month and is top class but may want better ground this weekend in such hot company.
Elsewhere on the Ascot card we can look forward to some great action with the Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle the first race of the day. The likely favourite for this one is Un Temps Pour Tout who will take his chance for David Pipe with a massive reputation. He was an expensive recruit from France recently, will handle the ground ok and is already a 25/1 shot for the Neptune at the Festival before the run at Ascot.
The RSA Trial Novices Chase is the other feature on the card with plenty of potential festival horses set to take their chance. The three miles will take all the getting in these conditions and there are some potentially excellent horses entered. Ely Brown is the top one after a brilliant season and he is on target for the four miler at Cheltenham, while Many Clouds is likely to offer a strong test as he has a final run before heading to the RSA Chase.
Haydock on Saturday
There is a cracking card up at Haydock on Saturday afternoon as well with some excellent races set to be served up. One of the big races of the day will be the Rendlesham Hurdle over three miles and there are one or two interesting entries in this one. The likely favourite is the ever popular Celestial Halo who was last seen winning the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury and has been attracting plenty of each-way money in the World Hurdle market recently.
Haydock also play host to the Prestige Novices Hurdle over three miles on Saturday which is known as the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle. This does of course act as a nice trial for the Festival race of the same name and we have one or two exciting horses entered up for this race. Chief among those is Oscar Rock who started the season with a massive reputation and could still be a major player at Prestbury Park next month. Oscar Rock is currently a general 25/1 shot for the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham and a good run here could well see those odds tumble.
Grand National punters will also be keeping a close eye on Haydock this weekend with their trial race the highlight of the card. Any number of potential Aintree horses are on target for the race including Across The Bay and Well Refreshed among others.
Wincanton on Saturday
The Kingwell Hurdle is the feature race of the day at Wincanton on Saturday with the Somerset track set to play host to a rain sodden fixture. The Grade 2 contest is run over two miles and we can look forward to an interesting clash between Melodic Rendezvous and Zarkandar. Melodic Rendezvous loves the heavy ground and is an outside Champion Hurdle contender, while Zarkandar will be using the race as prep for a run in the World Hurdle next month, which ensures that stamina is on his side.
Gowran Park on Saturday
There could be more Champion Hurdle clues over in Ireland on Saturday with the Red Mills Trial Hurdle the feature renewal at Gowran Park. The Grade 2 contest will also be on heavy ground with Willie Mullins set to run the unexposed Un De Sceaux in the race. The six year-old remains unbeaten and could still be anything and another straight-forward win is expected here against the likes of Midnight Game and Chicago.
The main supporting race at Gowran Park is the Red Mills chase over two miles four furlongs and this looks like being a decent renewal. Current entries for that one include Rathlin, Bog Warrior and Aupcharlie who are all classy chasers on their day and all could head to Cheltenham next month to if they perform well in this company. It is worth noting that Bog Warrior does also still hold an entry for the Gold Cup next month.
Kempton Park on Sunday
The adverse weather around over the past few weeks has prompted Kempton Park to play host to one of their Bumpers for Jumpers cards on Sunday afternoon. Any number of potential Cheltenham horses are entered up for a spin on the flat this weekend with plenty of trainers looking to avoid the bad ground but still get a run into their horses as soon as possible.
The star name on the list of entries at this stage is that of My Tent Or Yours who is a leading contender for the Champion Hurdle. The Nicky Henderson horse was last seen on the turf at Kempton winning the Christmas Hurdle and it appears as if connections are eager top get a run into the horse this weekend. He is reported to be bouncing at home and a run over the two miles on the all-weather track on Sunday could be the ideal prep for his expected clash with the likes of Hurricane Fly and The New One next month.
Navan on Sunday
Navan is the feature fixture over in Ireland on Sunday with two Grade 2 races taking centre stage. The Ladbrokes Boyne Hurdle over two miles five is the first of them and it should be an interesting contest. Minsk was an impressive novice and could take his chance for Dessie Hughes, while Zaidpour and Bog Warrior could also offer a stern test on their way to potential runs at Cheltenham.
It had been expected that Arkle favourite Champagne Fever would run in the Flyingbolt Novice Chase but he has been scratched at the 48 hour stage by Willie Mullins. That leaves Bright New Dawn as the one to beat and another potential winner for Dessie Hughes on Sunday. A good run from him at Navan could well see his current JLT Novices Chase price of 20/1 tumble considerably ensuring that this is a race to watch very closely.