AFTER weeks of praying for rain, National Hunt trainers around the land have had their prayers answered and the umbrellas have been up around Newbury for most of the week.
The two-day Ladbrokes Winter Carnival gets underway this afternoon with the feature race being the Long Distance Hurdle (3.00pm) over three miles.
There isn’t much between the top three at the head of the market with the softening of the ground ideal for all of them.
Wholestone looks the obvious one on paper having returned to action at Aintree with a win.
The step up in trip on worse ground should play to his strengths, but the fact he has to carry a 6lb penalty is a slight negative.
He was also very disappointing in this race last season, which is always disconcerting when you are being asked to take a short price.
Sam Spinner burst onto the hurdling scene at Haydock this time last year, and after winning his Grade One at Ascot he was then disappointing at Cheltenham and Aintree.
He may bounce back here, but is another one burdened with a penalty and hasn’t had a run yet this season so may just need it.
Therefore, it could pay to give UNOWHATIMEANHARRY, who was a beaten favourite in this 12 months ago, one last chance.
He isn’t getting any younger at the grand old age of 10, but he sneaks in here without a penalty and the conditions look ideal for him to roll back the years at 7/2 with Fitzdares.
He stuck to the task pretty well last time over an inadequate trip at Aintree and some wind surgery over the summer may just see him bounce back to form here.
Little-known permit trainer Nicky Martin has a terrific chance of landing the opening maiden hurdle (12.10pm) with BANG ON FRANKIE.
The six-year-old was having his first run for the yard since leaving Colin Tizzard at Cheltenham last month and ran with real credit to finish third on ground that may have been livelier than ideal.
Thomas Darby, the winner that day, has since gone on to run a cracker at Ascot when only just beaten last week, while the runner-up Elixir De Nutz won a valuable novice hurdle back at Cheltenham a fortnight ago.
That form looks rock solid in the context of a race like this and with the ground now on the soft side, he can win his first race under rules.
It is a shame there are only four runners in the Ladbrokes Novices’ Chase (1.50pm), but it should be a great rematch between La Bague Au Roi and LOSTINTRANSLATION.
The pair finished first and second in a novice chase here earlier in the month and there shouldn’t be a lot between them again this afternoon.
La Bague Au Roi is a hugely exciting mare who goes well at the track and on the ground, but there may be a little value taking her on.
She goes particularly well fresh which may just have swung things in her favour last time and it won’t be easy repelling Lostintranslation now he has a run under his belt.
He looks a bet at 7/4 with Fitzdares in what looks a mouth-watering duel.
The Ladbrokes Handicap Hurdle (3.35pm) may just be the best betting race of the afternoon with Dragon D’Estruval, De Name Evades Me and Aux Ptits Soins all making plenty of appeal.
If I had to pick one it would be Dragon D’Estruval as Nicky Henderson’s runner looks potentially well ahead of the handicapper, but it may be safer to watch.
The two-day Betfair Tingle Creek Festival at Sandown Park, which kicks off next Friday, is a real highlight of the National Hunt racing calendar and tickets are selling fast.
Saturday’s Grade 1 Tingle Creek is shaping up to be a fantastic renewal, with Henderson set to take the wrappers of Champion Chaser Altior for his seasonal bow, and the course will also be showing the Becher Chase at Aintree on the big screen.
Racegoers can enjoy Sandown’s Bavarian Beer Hall and Oompah Band, while family favourite Teddy the Shetland and an appearance from two-time Tingle Creek winner Sire De Grugy ensures there’s a bit of something for everyone.
It looks set to be a cracking day out in the build up to the festive period.
Bang On Frankie 12.10pm Newbury
Lostintranslation 1.50pm Newbury
Unowhatimeanharry 3.00pm Newbury