Star names pave the way to a weekend full of last-minute Cheltenham clues
The week kicks off with a decent card at Carlisle and there are some smart performers on display, including in the 2m3½f novice hurdle (1.00), where last-time-out winner Theme Tune takes on the consistent Ulverston and bumper scorer Lanty Slea. The Class 3 handicap chase (2.40) is also competitive and features Thomas Patrick.
Southwell will be similarly interesting as Nicky Henderson runs Ballingers Corner in the 2m4½f novice hurdle (2.20), while Harry Fry runs Fortunes Melody in the maiden hurdle (2.50) later on in the card. It is the four-year-old's first run in Britain having left David Cottin's yard and she will look to justify her Triumph Hurdle entry.
There are five maiden hurdles at Fairyhouse, while Wolverhampton takes over in the evening.
The racing and betting industries will be watching with interest as prime minister Boris Johnson is due to announce his plan to start lifting the coronavirus lockdown to the House of Commons at 3.30pm before leading a Downing Street news conference at 7pm.
Last year's Betfair Hurdle hero Pic D'Orhy will bid to get his career back on track at Taunton, where he is the star name in a well-contested 2m handicap hurdle (2.30). It is his first start following a wind operation.
The mares' handicap hurdle (3.55) at Wetherby will be an interesting contest as in-form types clash. Fontaine Collonges and Baby Ticker won last time, while Runasimi River and Sexy Lot look progressive. Last year's Cheltenham Hunter Chase fourth Road To Rome won a point-to-point last time and returns at 4.30.
The Grade 3 Quevega Mares Hurdle (2.10) is the day's highlight and it could feature red-hot Mares' Hurdle favourite Concertista. Willie Mullins also has Great White Shark entered, while Gordon Elliott could rely on last year's Coral Cup second Black Tears.
The Pertemps qualifier (3.55) could see Kilfenora, Column Of Fire, Rhinestone, Some Neck and Dallas Des Pictons fight for a position in the final at Cheltenham.
Triumph Hurdle dark horse Heross Du Seuil has two entries this week, one of which is at Doncaster (1.45). The veterans' handicap chase (3.30) could be a cracker with old favourites Guitar Pete, West Approach, On Tour and Vintage Clouds all entered. Golan Fortune, Flash Collonges and Joe Farrell are other smart horses with options at the meeting.
The best race is likely to be the Grade 3 Michael Purcell Memorial Novice Hurdle (3.50). Serial winner Streets Of Doyen, Brazos and Percy Warner could take on the imposing Gentlemansgame, who finished second in Grade 1 company at the Dublin Racing Festival. Last season's Cheltenham Hunter Chase winner It Came To Pass also holds an entry at 3.20.
There's good prize-money on offer at Huntingdon and the novice handicap chase (1.30) could be a good spectacle.
Last-time-out winners Gustavian, Witness Protection, Grumpy Charley and Golden Taipan could run in the 2m handicap hurdle (1.55) at Chepstow, while there is another Pertemps qualifier (2.57) which could feature talented staying chasers Spiritofthegames, Copperhead and Kimberlite Candy.
Southwell, Sedgefield and Dundalk also host fixtures.
The 2m4f handicap chase (3.53) at Warwick could see some fine horses return with former RSA winner Blaklion and Graded winners Claimantakinforgan and Benatar entered.
Elsewhere, Exeter hosts the Devon National (3.10) and there is all-weather action at Lingfield and Wolverhampton.
There are four Graded contests at Kempton and last-minute Cheltenham clues could be on offer in the Pendil Novices' Chase, Adonis Juvenile Hurdle, Dovecote Novices' Hurdle and Close Brothers Handicap Chase (3.35). Cloth Cap is favourite for the latter, which could also include Al Dancer, Southfield Stone, Two For Gold and Top Notch.
The Vertem Eider Handicap Chase (3.15) at Newcastle will represent a typically tough test. One horse who won't mind conditions will be 2019 winner and this year's market principal Crosspark.
There is top action on the Flat as Lingfield stages the Group 3 Winter Derby (2.40), while Fairyhouse and Chelmsford also host evening action.
Fontwell, Hereford and Naas provide the last of the weekend's fare.
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