Newbury’s mid-February meeting has long been a focal point of the National Hunt season and the Betfair Hurdle – formerly known as the ‘Schweppes’ and the Tote Gold Trophy – is the betting highlight of Saturday’s card.
A total of 16 have been declared for the 2m handicap and the pair at the head of the market, namely Ballyandy and Movewiththetimes, look short enough for me.
The former looks more of a galloper and the latter is an untested novice who doesn’t appear to have been aimed at this race until recently.
As ever with these big Saturday handicaps you could give chances to many, with Clyne high on the shortlist after he ran The New One close at Haydock last time.
Evan Williams’s youngster is improving at a rate of knots and his mark of 143 in no way flatters him. The problem for both he and Ballyandy is that there appears to be plenty of pace on so nabbing a good position is no guarantee.
As such I want a couple of hold-up horses on my side and the Gordon Elliott-trained Veinard fits the bill.
Formerly trained in the North of England, Veinard looked very quirky but has quickly turned over a new leaf for the master Irish handler, improving for the application of a tongue-tie.
He may still not be the easiest to win with but a fast run, big field handicap should be right up his street and young Jack Kennedy has the cojones to deliver him as late as possible.
The other to have on our side is Kayf Blanco, who has become a solid performer in these races. With trainer Graeme McPherson in grand form the eight-year-old is fancied to at least fill one of the four places at rewarding odds.
The Betfair Denman Chase sees Gold Cup possibles Bristol De Mai and Native River go up against each other in what looks likely to be a match.
They both won good handicaps last time out from similar handicap marks but I much prefer the chance of Bristol De Mai, whose slick jumping will make him hard to catch over this 3m trip. Native River may be outpaced here but defeat wouldn’t dent his chances at Cheltenham where the stiffer test would suit much more.
Altior takes an unorthodox route to the Arkle at Cheltenham by taking on more experienced rivals in the Game Spirit Chase. With opposition scarce in the 2m novice division trainer Nicky Henderson is happy to pit his exciting youngster against seasoned campaigners, but is still hard to oppose.
Sunday’s meeting at Leopardstown in Ireland features a few Cheltenham trials of its own, none more so than the Irish Gold Cup.
Last year’s Cheltenham runner-up Don Poli is likely to go off favourite but he isn’t getting any quicker and far more interesting is stablemate Empire Of Dirt.
The 10-year-old has been slow to get his jumping together but he now looks assured in that department and he can throw his hat into the ring for the Blue Riband event at the Festival on March 17 by winning this.