The curtain goes up at Prestbury Park on Friday afternoon as Cheltenham's two day Showcase Meeting signals the start of the 2013/2014 season at the Gloucester venue, providing an opportunity for trainers to get some all important course form in to their runners, particularly amongst those in the novice divisions, with one eye on next year's Festival.
The meeting kicks off with the Class Two, Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle, which was won 12 months ago by The New One en route to picking up the Class One, namesake equivalent, at the Festival in March and connections of the six up and coming hurdlers entered on Friday will be hoping that the race can act as a spring board to the similar successes enjoyed by last year's winner.
The New One is trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies and it is Pure Science who will represent the local trainer this time around as he looks to emulate his stablemate. The five year old won just once from four starts in Bumpers last season but his sixth place finish in the Champion Bumper at the Festival suggests that this son of Galileo posses ability and if taking to hurdles at the first time of asking, should be capable of making his presence felt.
The other five entries all have some experience over obstacles with the Paul Nicholls trained Saint Roque setting the standard based on his hat-trick of wins over the summer and whilst this is the seven year old's toughest assignment to date, he remains a leading player.
Donald McCain's Clondaw Draft and Jonjo O'Neil's Rum and Butter have also been running over the past few months with multiple wins to their name and will be race fit and boast solid claims. The Rebecca Curtis trained Cloud Brook is also worthy of mention having won a Point-to-Point in Ireland back in May before romping to a 10 length victory in a bumper at Banger a fortnight ago.
Clondaw Draft is the only one currently listed in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle antepost market for the 2014 Festival as a 25/1 chance but that could change come the conclusion of Friday's competitive opener.
The three horse Novices' Chase at 2:40 may be lacking in depth but could provide a pointer as to how good Irish Raider, Rebel Fitz, is as he looks to extend a five race winning streak in his first start outside of the Emerald Isle with either the Arkle or Jewson expected to be long term target. Jonjo O'Neil's Tarquin De Seuil will be making his first start over fences whilst Third Dimension from the Colin Tizzard yard completes the trio and will be looking to register his first win in eight attempts over bigger obstacles in what is another tough race to call.
The three mile Novices' Chase at 3:50 on Friday has been won by some familiar names down the years, including Festival winners Irisis's Gift, Ballyfitz and Chicago Grey. Looking to follow in those footsteps include According To Trev, Minella For Value and Pantxoa, who all come in to the race looking to extend their winning sequences whilst Irish runners, Raajih and Sizing Symphony are worth noting in the betting.
On Saturday, the Showcase Trophy takes centre stage as Balthazar King looks to win the three mile handicap chase for a third consecutive season for trainer Philip Hobbs and jockey Rochard Johnson. The nine year old is only two pounds worse off than his victory in this race 12 months ago and with a record of four wins and four seconds from 13 starts at Prestbury Park, it would be no surprise to see this course specialist complete the hat-trick following a return to winning ways with a victory in France last month.
It may not be until the Open Meeting in November that the leading yards start to show their hands of heavyweight runners on the road to Cheltenham Festival but this weekend shouldn't be overlooked in terms of potential clues on offer and if nothing else, it signals that racing is back at National Hunt's HQ for another year!