WITH just over four weeks to go until the start of this year’s Cheltenham Festival, there aren’t too many opportunities to boost the coffers ahead of those fabulous four days in the Cotswolds.
However, tomorrow’s big betting race, the Betfair Hurdle (3.35pm) at Newbury, will have punters dreaming of landing one of the most competitive handicaps of the entire season.
It’s no surprise that a full field of 24 is set to line-up for this, considering it is Britain’s most valuable handicap hurdle, and finding the winner certainly isn’t going to be easy.
Nicky Henderson has won this five times over the years and is responsible for five of this year’s field.
A genuine case can be made for all of his runners, but perhaps the most likely is joint top-weight JENKINS.
He is finally starting to live up to the lofty reputation he had as a novice last season, repaying his followers with recent wins at Kempton and Ascot.
Well beaten on both starts off handicap marks in the mid-130s at the backend of last year, he impressively landed two races last month with a pair of blinkers clearly doing the trick.
With James Bowen taking a valuable 3lbs off his back, I’m sure he will go close again, even from his lofty revised mark of 148.
There is rain forecast for Newbury on Saturday, but if it doesn’t materialise then Jenkins’ stablemate Lough Derg Spirit is one to closely consider.
He looks dangerously well-handicapped on the back of a great reappearance in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton nearly three months ago.
Henderson has kept him back for this, yet he certainly wouldn’t want the ground to get too soft if he is to be seen at his best.
The other three from Seven Barrows all have claims.
Verdana Blue ran really well to be third in the Racing Welfare Handicap Hurdle at Ascot just before Christmas.
He has been earmarked for the Champion Hurdle, so connections will be hoping he’s competitive off a mark of 145 tomorrow.
Any softening of the ground would be a worry, though, so if conditions deteriorate badly Kayf Grace will be a big threat.
Nico De Boinville’s mount has won all four of her starts on soft ground, although this is easily the stiffest test of her career so far.
Charli Parcs is talented, but is another who would prefer a sounder surface.
A pair of novices fought out last year’s finish and I’m expecting more of the same this time around with the likes of Lalor and KALASHNIKOV in the field.
It would be incredible if the former, trained up until recently by the late Richard Woollacott, could win for his widow Kayley.
This has long been the plan and it would be no surprise to see the six-year-old go well following a wind operation.
However, Kalashnikov looked a potential star when winning all three starts last year and probably just found the ground too heavy when thrown into a Grade One at Sandown last month.
The five-year-old ran brilliantly under the circumstances to finish second to Summerville Boy and will appreciate slightly better ground tomorrow.
This should be run at a furious gallop which will suit this horse and, at 12/1 with Coral, he looks a cracking bet to give young trainer Amy Murphy the biggest win of her career to date.
Ben Pauling has had a terrible time of it over the past couple of months with a bug in the yard, but things have turned around this week.
Henderson’s former assistant has been banging in the winners and his HIGH BRIDGE has to be respected.
The other joint top-weight is unbeaten in three starts at Newbury and even though he has risen in the weights, he should still go well.
Alex Ferguson’s 7lb claim could be absolutely vital in this compressed handicap and he’s going to be hard to keep out of the frame.
No trainer has a better recent record in this contest than Gary Moore, so you simply cannot ignore his KNOCKNANUSS.
He has won this three times since 2007 and his 2018 contender was impressive at Fontwell last time.
The ground won’t be a problem, so he’s another one for the shortlist.
BILL ESDAILE’S BETFAIR HURDLE 1-2-3-4