Thistlecrack, Buveur D'Air and Nichols Canyon among the stars ready for action
With Newbury, Newcastle and Fairyhouse all hosting top action this weekend, we take an early look at the points to be proved and the action to be discussed
Ladbrokes (Berkshire) Novices' Chase, Newbury, 1.50 Friday
Expectation is no zero-sum game: no scrutiny is lifted from Yanworth, last season's Champion Hurdle favourite, just because some don't fancy him to take to fences. He will face his greatest test yet in the Grade 2 Berkshire Novices' Chase, won by Denman, Bobs Worth and Coneygree in the last dozen or so years alone.
Although these things are subjective to a point, the perception would be Newbury's fences take more jumping than those at Exeter, where Yanworth was workmanlike and then fell faced with opposition below this level on his first two starts over fences. The questions will only get harder, so he had better have an answer on Friday.
The Long Distance Hurdle
Newbury, 3.00 Friday
Such has been the perceived success of attempts to increase the quality of the programme for stayers on the Flat that it may not be long before staying hurdlers, whose division has a similar image problem, get the same treatment.
If and when they do, the Long Distance Hurdle will likely be up against the Cleeve Hurdle for Grade 1 status. Both had fine renewals last season, and the presence of Thistlecrack and Unowhatimeanharry could put this race on course for the qualifying criteria, which it met last year but must do over three years.
Hopefully the presence of those two giants, long since targeted at the race, will not scare off the opposition and bring to bear the racecourse gallop Colin Tizzard once imagined this might be for the King George winner. Even if it is, up against last year's all-but-dominant stayer he will be set a stiffer test than might have been imagined a month ago.
Unibet Fighting Fifth Hurdle
Newcastle, 2.10 Saturday
The Fighting Fifth, despite being the first Grade 1 hurdle in the British season, has not attracted the reigning Champion Hurdler since 2010, when Binocular was beaten at 5-6.
That race was won by Peddlers Cross, who went on to be second in the following March's Champion Hurdle. Such an upwardly-mobile trajectory is much more typical of the race. The coal tends to come to Newcastle and only later transforms into diamond.
This year, the Champion Hurdler is set to come to town and he boasts the very same connections as his nearest forebear. The Nicky Henderson-trained, JP McManus-owned Buveur D'Air looks set to go off much shorter than Binocular did in the face of opposition from last year's first two. Dual winner Irving is probably a Grade 1½ horse on ability and Apple's Jade, though one of the best mares in training, is probably the same in open company over two miles.
The Fighting Fifth is due one of its regular shots of real glamour and hopefully it can deliver with the Champion Hurdle winner, now with a point to prove following Faugheen's ominous return, in the line-up.
The Slaneyville Syndicate
Ladbrokes Trophy, Newbury, 3.00 Saturday
An early fall in Sunday's Troytown meant viewers did not get the chance to find out if Acapella Bourgeois has made similar rapid progress on moving to Willie Mullins from Sandra Hughes, so it will be up to Munster National winner Total Recall to continue the experiment himself in the same colours of owners the Slaneyville Syndicate when he runs in the race hitherto known as the Hennessy on Saturday.
The money was quite emphatically behind Acapella Bourgeois at Navan on Sunday and it is easy to see why, given how much of a mockery Total Recall made of his mark at Limerick. A rise of 18lb and an even more competitive race has not been enough to dissuade punters, who might feel like recouping any Troytown losses without having to so much as learn a new set of silks.
Bar One Hatton's Grace Hurdle, Fairyhouse, 1.30 Sunday
Unowhatimeanharry's campaign last season had one blemish, which nonetheless stands out like a livid pimple on the nose. It was in the Stayers' Hurdle, won by a vintage Ruby Walsh ride aboard Nichols Canyon, who despite his talent and success has earned a reputation for being none too straightforward.
Nichols Canyon's first run of the season, without the injured Walsh, could be in Sunday's Hatton's Grace Hurdle. The opposition is likely to be thin, but of good quality, with Supasundae and Augusta Kate the likeliest challengers should Apple's Jade go to Newcastle.
The question of who was the supreme staying hurdler of last season is one of individual interpretation, but Nichols Canyon will need to keep churning out Grade 1s like this if he is to be remembered as a worthy champion and not just another exhibit for his jockey's place among the great big-race riders.
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