WE are now less than a month away from the start of the Cheltenham Festival and trainers are beginning to put the finishing touches to their charges.
The ground is going to be extremely testing all over the country again this weekend, highlighting the need to find horses that truly stay and handle conditions.
Ascot is a stiff course at the best of times, but it is going to be particularly demanding tomorrow and that is surely going to count against Champion Chase winner Finian’s Rainbow in the Betfair Ascot Chase at 3.50pm.
Nicky Henderson’s 10-year-old was bitterly disappointing at this track in November where connections blamed the ground for his abject showing. He has since had a breathing operation, but he won’t like it this soft and is passed over at 7/2 with Coral.
Somersby has been well backed all week, but he struggles for consistency, and although I respect Cue Card, it’s CAPTAIN CHRIS for me. He pulverised Finian’s Rainbow here in November and was only just touched off in the King George.
There aren’t many in the line-up who will appreciate the going, but he at least handles it and just looks a better horse this year. Although a former Arkle winner, he is a decent stayer and this 2m 5f trip on a right-handed course is just about ideal. Take the 11/4 available with Star Sports.
Cue Card is the biggest threat, but I just worry slightly about him getting home on this ground. He didn’t stay at Kempton and when conditions are like this at Ascot it’s pretty much a three mile race.
Haydock is going to be even more challenging for the runners in the Betfred Grand National Trial (2.55pm) and only the best stayers need apply.
When I normally analyse races like this I concentrate on those towards the foot of the weights. However, a number of these types of contests have gone to the classiest contenders in recent years and I can see the same happening tomorrow.
TEAFORTHREE ran an absolute stormer in the Coral Welsh National, only to be heartbreakingly reeled in by Monbeg Dude under an inspired Paul Carberry.
AP McCoy’s mount had jumped with all his customary zeal and he looked like being a comfortable winner three out. He had to play second best that day, but is a horse that thrives on his racing and I expect him to bounce back and land the prize tomorrow. Coral offer 5/1 and that is a fair price.
Rigadin De Beauchene is a danger, along with Monbeg Dude and Well Refreshed, but Teaforthree is a very classy animal and tomorrow’s conditions should play to his strengths.
The Rendlesham Hurdle is the warm-up to the Grand National Trial (2.20pm) and Cross Kennon will be primed to go one better than his second-place finish in this race 12 months ago. However, he has dropped 9lb in the weights since then and I think he’ll struggle against Tim Easterby’s TRUSTAN TIMES.
My selection won the competitive Fixed Brush Hurdle on Betfair Chase day here in November and although he was well beaten by Reve De Sivola in the Long Walk, he can bounce back dropped in grade.
Moving back to Ascot and ROCKY CREEK is a strong fancy to give Paul Nicholls his first Reynoldstown success since 2007 (2.05pm). The son of Dr Massini won really well at Warwick last time and he could be a genuine Gold Cup contender this time next year.
This race is normally a key trial for the RSA Chase, but it looks as though connections of Rocky Creek are going to wait for Aintree and follow the same path as Silviniaco Conti last year.
Kim Bailey has a few decent chasers on his hands at the moment and course and distance winner THE RAINBOW HUNTER should go very close in the 3m handicap chase (2.40pm), before an audacious tilt at the Grand National.
He won really well here two starts ago and can be forgiven a disappointing run at Chepstow in early December when the ground was absolutely horrible.
RIVER MAIGUE is one of the great white hopes in the novice hurdling department for Nicky Henderson and the Michael Buckley-owned six-year-old can book his ticket to the Supreme Novices’ by taking the 4.25pm.
He looked very good at Kempton last time and there may not be all that much between him and the hugely impressive My Tent Or Yours.
Finally, make sure you back ZARKANDAR to win the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton (3.35pm). Grandouet would have been hard to beat, but he has had a setback this week and Nicholls’ 2011 Triumph Hurdle winner can make it three out of three for the season.
You can follow me on Twitter @BillEsdaile.
ROCKY CREEK 2.05pm Ascot
TRUSTAN TIMES 2.20pm Haydock
THE RAINBOW HUNTER e/w 2.40pm Ascot
TEAFORTHREE 2.55pm Haydock
ZARKANDAR 3.35pm Wincanton
CAPTAIN CHRIS 3.50pm Ascot
RIVER MAIGUE 4.25pm Ascot