The weather is continuing to cause havoc with the National Hunt Racing calendar but there is still plenty of top class action on the bill this weekend. The Cheltenham Festival is now just over five weeks away and a number of horses will be making their final appearance of the season over the next few days, before they head to Prestbury Park in March. There is some great action to look forward to at Sandown in particular although they have had to go to an all chase card after the hurdle course was deemed unfit to race on Friday morning.
As always on a Friday, we have picked out the key horses on show this weekend with the Festival right in the front of our minds. As well as the UK, we can look forward to Punchestown on Sunday with the Tied Cottage Chase the clear highlight over two miles.
As already mentioned, it is Sandown* on Saturday that will take the lion share of the attention this weekend in the UK. The Contenders Hurdle was due to see Un De Sceaux and Melodic Rendezvous clash in an interesting Champion Hurdle trial, but that has fallen victim to the weather. The same can be said of the Heroes Hurdle on the same card where we were due to see the return of the classy Fingal bay for Philip Hobbs.
The abandonment of all races on the hurdle course ensures that it is the Scilly Isles Novices Chase over 2m4f that will take centre stage. The star attraction in this one is likely to be Oscar Whisky who will be looking to have another good run out over fences before heading to Cheltenham. The Nicky Henderson trained nine-year-old has won his last two chases and is currently towards the head of the betting for the JLT Novices Chase in March. His main threat on Saturday is likely to come from Benvolio who will most likely take his chance for Paul Nicholls and Daryl Jacob.
There is a decent card at Wetherby on Saturday with the Totepool Novices Chase over 3m1f the feature race of the day. The likely favourite for this one is the exciting Shutthefrontdoor who will take his chance for Jonjo O'Neill and AP McCoy. The seven-year-old is available at 33/1 for the RSA Chase currently but a good run here in testing conditions, could well see those odds contract considerably.
The Saturday card at Ffos Las* is also under threat due to the weather but if it does go ahead, it will be the Welsh Champion Hurdle that will attract the most attention. The Paul Nicholls trained Saphir Du Rheu will be the top weight while Medinas could well bid to win the race for the second year on the bounce for Alan King. Medinas went onto win the Coral Cup last season which indicates that the Welsh Champion Hurdle is always a race worth watching with half an eye on Cheltenham.
As is normal on a Sunday, we turn our attention to Ireland with Punchestown playing host to classy card this weekend. The highlight of the day will be the Tied Cottage Chase over two miles which in the past has proven to be an excellent trial for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Previous winners include Moscow Flyer, Big Zeb and Sizing Europe which is a very impressive roll of honour indeed.
It remains to be seen if we see a winner of that class on Sunday but Arvika Ligeonniere is the likely favourite for trainer Willie Mullins. The nine-year-old was last seen finishing a below par third in the Dial-a-Bet Chase over Christmas and he will need to be better here if he is to take the win. Potential opponents for him on Sunday include Rathlin and Special Tiara, who could take his chance for Henry De Bromhead in a potentially excellent renewal.
Willie Mullins will be hoping for more success at Punchestown in the EBF Fund novice Hurdle taking place over two miles. At this stage, Mullins has Wicklow Brave entered in the race and he is currently towards the ahead of the betting for the Supreme Novices Hurdle. The five-year-old has won his last four races and another good run from him on Sunday could see him harden up in the betting for the opening race of the Festival.
Musselbugh play host to their Festival trials day on Sunday with punters getting to run the rule over a number of the Festival contenders from the north. There are trials races for the Albert Bartlett, the Champion Chase, the Triumph Hurdle and the County Hurdle on what is likely to be an excellent day out in Scotland.
This will be a great opportunity to run the rule over some different horses who perhaps have been overshadowed so far this season. One that could run in the Scottish Triumph Hurdle Trial is Broughton who will be well fancied for John Ferguson. He is towards the head of the betting for the Triumph Hurdle at the moment and it will be fascinating to follow him north or the border on Sunday afternoon.
Ferguson is likely to be mob-handed on Sunday as he looks to get a run into some of his better horses at a crucial time of the season. Other trainers likely to feature at Musselburgh include Grand National winner Sue Smith and Lucinda Russell, who is always right in the mix north of the border tends to have a decent Festival horse or two in her care each season.
*Inspections to be held at Sandown and Ffos Las on Saturday morning