WITH just over six weeks to go until this year’s Cheltenham Festival, plenty of leading contenders are set to test their credentials at Saturday's Trials Day meeting.
The bumper nine-race card now features the rescheduled running of last week’s abandoned Clarence House Chase, as well as the next chapter in the Thistlecrack story.
Our new equine superstar returns to action in the BetBright Cotswold Chase (2.15pm), a month on from his scintillating King George VI Chase victory.
The nine-year-old is already odds-on favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself, and as short as 1/3 to remain unbeaten over fences on Saturday.
Don’t get me wrong, if the same horse that jumped them ragged at Kempton lines up on Saturday, he’ll win again.
It’s just there may actually be a bit of value in siding with Oliver Sherwood’s MANY CLOUDS each-way at 11/2 with Star Sports.
The only time Thistlecrack has looked slightly unconvincing over fences was at Cheltenham back in November, where he guessed at some of his fences.
His no nonsense approach to jumping is spectacular to watch, but leaves very little margin for error.
Many Clouds was second in this race last year having won it in 2015 and will be there to pick up the pieces should anything go wrong.
Either Defi Du Seuil or Charli Parcs will fly the flag for owner JP McManus in the opening Triumph Hurdle trial (12.00pm). Whichever of that pair line-up will surely win.
The forecast rain, if it materialises, will be music to the ears of the connections of Un De Sceaux who is a warm order to win the Clarence House (1.45pm).
Even though I’m not sure Cheltenham really suits him, it’s still hard to envisage him being beaten here.
Another potentially vulnerable Festival favourite is current Stayers’ Hurdle market leader Unowhatimeanharry, who tests his credentials in the Cleeve Hurdle (4.00pm).
Harry Fry’s nine-year-old has been a revelation since winning last season’s Albert Bartlett, landing both the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury and Ascot’s Long Walk.
BALLYOPTIC chased him home at Newbury and was then in the process of throwing down a serious challenge when crashing out at the final flight last month.
In-form Nigel Twiston-Davies’ seven-year-old meets the favourite on 4lbs better terms and looks decent each-way material at 4/1 with Paddy Power.
Those more speculative amongst you could do a lot worse than take the 12/1 Star Sports are offering about him for the Stayers’ Hurdle in March.
If he did upset the favourite on Saturday, that price would collapse.
There are plenty of intriguing handicaps that fill up the rest of the card and I will post my selections in those on Twitter @BillEsdaile.
Finally, while we are on the subject of the Cheltenham Festival, now is the time to book your place at this year’s City AM Cheltenham Festival Preview lunch at Smith & Wollensky on Friday 10th March, sponsored by Star Sports.
I will be joined by an expert panel that includes ITV’s Mick Fitzgerald and AtTheRaces’ Gina Harding, as we look to find you plenty of winners over your three-course lunch, and also raise money for Maggie’s Cancer Centre.
Tables of 10 are available for £1,490 and can be booked by calling Lilian Fantinatti on 020 7024 9703 or by email email@example.com.
Many Clouds e/w 2.15pm Cheltenham
Ballyoptic e/w 4.00pm Cheltenham