THERE are just under eight weeks to go until the tapes go up for the Betway Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival and thankfully the star of the show is set to hit the Ascot stage tomorrow.
Sprinter Sacre, Betway’s 2/1 favourite for the two mile chasing crown, had been a major doubt to make his eagerly awaited reappearance in tomorrow’s Clarence House Chase (3.00pm) with the rain bucketing it down all week.
However, his trainer Nicky Henderson walked the course yesterday and gave the green light for his stable star to have his first start since being pulled up in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton with a heart condition over 13 months ago.
Sprinter Sacre is one of five declared for tomorrow’s £125,000 contest and if he is on his A-game he is surely going to take all the beating. But this wouldn’t have been an easy decision for Henderson to make.
He will have had to weigh up the merits of giving his stable star the essential prep he needs, against the dangers of what could be a heavy ground slog.
Along with everyone else, I genuinely hope he returns to his very best, but I want to see him in a race before taking the even money available with Betway for tomorrow’s race.
The difficult question is who we back against him. Paul Nicholls’ Dodging Bullets is next in it at 5/2 and, on the back of his Tingle Creek win, he is the obvious alternative, but I’m happy to take him on.
He’s been beaten in all four starts of 2m1f or further and his form figures from January to April under Nicholls read 24697245, compared with 11311131 between October and December.
The one I will be siding with is my old friend SOMERSBY, seemingly in the form of his life even though he is now 11-years-old.
A former winner of this race back in 2012 when trained by Henrietta Knight, the son of Second Empire boasts impressive form figures around Ascot of 32214U2.
He unseated in this contest last year, but I expect him to run really well and he is a fair each-way price at 7/1 with Betway.
Venetia Williams has an excellent record at the Berkshire track, especially when the mud is flying, and I strongly fancy her BARADARI to land the handicap hurdle (2.25pm).
This Andrew Brooks-owned five-year-old ran a cracker to finish fifth in last year’s Fred Winter and was then third behind Sign Of A Victory here in November.
He will relish tomorrow’s conditions, the step up in trip will suit perfectly and he will have a lovely racing weight if Garde La Victoire lines up.
There has to be a doubt that Haydock will be on with all the rain about, but if it is, don’t miss CLOSE TOUCH in the 2m5f novices’ chase (12.55pm). He jumped brilliantly on his chase debut at Wincanton on Boxing Day and is expected to take all the beating here.
The main betting race at the Lancashire track is the Peter Marsh Chase (3.15pm) and I’m hoping last year’s runner-up VINTAGE STAR can go one place better.
He was a decent third behind Hey Big Spender two starts back at Newcastle, but gets a huge 14lb pull in the weights for that 8½ length defeat. The reason for that is that he was bitterly disappointing last time at Wetherby, but I’m always willing to forgive a horse one bad run.
Sue Smith is in great form and Brian Hughes’ mount is 4lb lower than when just touched off in this race 12 months ago.
There’s some excellent action at Leopardstown on Sunday and snap up the 14/1 about BYERLEY BABE ante-post in the BoyleSports Handicap Chase (2.20pm).
Robert Tyner’s eight-year-old looks to be hitting peak form at the right time and there’s a good chance there will be less than 16 runners so you could get an extra place.
CLOSE TOUCH 12.55pm Haydock (tomorrow)
BARADARI e/w 2.25pm Ascot (tomorrow)
SOMERSBY e/w 3.00pm Ascot (tomorrow)
VINTAGE STAR e/w 3.15pm Haydock (tomorrow)
BYERLEY BABE e/w 2.20pm Leopardstown (Sunday)