There was major disappointment earlier this week with the news that Sprinter Sacre will miss his intended engagement at Sandown on Saturday but even taking that into account, we are in for a thrilling weekend of sport. There are some top class races to take in on both sides of the Irish Sea over the next couple of days with Grade 1 action topping the bill. There are a number of excellent supporting races on the cards this weekend with Cheltenham clues likely to be flowing, as you would expect at this time of the season.
There is no doubt that the feature race of the day in the UK on Saturday comes at Sandown Park with the famous Tingle Creek Chase taking centre stage. Sprinter Sacre maybe missing from the field but that does mean we are set for a highly competitive renewal of the two mile chase. Sire De Grugy and Captain Conan are the two market leaders in the absence of the ante-post favourite and it should be a fascinating affair.
Master Minded, Moscow Flyer and Kauto Star are just three of the recent winners of the Tingle Creek and while we have nothing of that standard in the race this season, it can still be a crucial race on the road to Cheltenham. It is a key Champion Chase trial, as well as a massive race in its own right, and should be the centrepiece of a great afternoon on Saturday.
The main supporting race on the Sandown card this weekend is the intriguing Henry VII Novices Chase over two miles. This is a very classy Arkle trial and we have a high quality field engaged for the grade 1 contest with the betting likely to be extremely competitive. Taquin Du Seuil has already won two novice chases this season for Jonjo O'Neill and will be the mount of AP McCoy in the race.
Grandouet was a top quality hurdler for Nicky Henderson and he will be making his second start of fences for the Champion Trainer in the same race. He tipped up on his chasing debut recently but is a class animal on his day and has been backed in the ante-post Arkle betting for some time now ahead of this one. The same can also be said of both Hinterland and Balder Success who will also be running in what could well be one of the most informative novice chases of the season so far.
Elsewhere in the UK on Saturday, we can look forward to a top card up at Aintree where the Becher Chase is the clear highlight of the day. The Grand National trial is run over the National fences and we have one of the best fields in recent memory set to take their chance. Willie Mullins has sent over On His Own for the race and he will start favourite for connections as he heads towards another tilt at the big race in April.
Other potential National horses to run in the Becher Chase include Join Together for Paul Nicholls, Bostons Angel for David Pipe and Roberto Goldback for Nicky Henderson. Any race involving the National fences is always a highlight and with such a strong field assembled this season, the Becher Chase promises to be a pre-Christmas cracker.
Willie Mullins will also saddle a couple of potential Cheltenham Festival hopefuls at Navan on Saturday as he looks to have success on both sides of the Irish Sea. Hot novice hurdler Faugheen is set to run in the 2m4f Novice Hurdle at Navan while Felix Yonger will start well backed in EBF Novice Chase over 2m1f. Faugheen is already one of the ante-post favourites for the Neptune Investment Novices Hurdle at the Festival and a good run at Navan could enhance those claims further.
Mullins will be hoping for more success on Sunday afternoon at Punchestown with the John Durkan Chase set to be the highlight of the weekend. The 2m4f contest will see Mullins saddle both Sir Des Champs, who is having his first run of the season, and the classy Arvika Ligeonnaire who is the current favourite. They have both been declared as has Flemenstar, who remains a class act who will be having his second run of the season for his new trainer, Tony Martin.
Sir Des Champs was second in the Gold Cup last season and may want more of a stamina test than this while Flemenstar's favourite trip remains a subject of debate. How he performs at Punchestown will go a long way to deciding his potential Festival target, with the eight-year-old currently featuring towards the head of all three chasing Cheltenham markets.
Meanwhile back in the UK on Sunday, punters may want to keep a close eye on the two mile novice chase taking place at Warwick. Harry Fry is set to unleash Vukovar for his British debut with plenty of strong vibes coming from the yard about the talented four-year-old. It could be that two miles is slightly on the sharp side for the horse and he does take on a nice type in Mr Mole for Paul Nicholls. There is however no doubt that Vukovar does have some cracking French form on his record and while he is hugely inexperienced, he could well be one to keep an eye on going forward.