What's on this week: Imperial Cup takes centre stage as Cheltenham edges closer
We move a step closer to the Cheltenham Festival, which is now just eight days away, with competitive jumps meetings in Britain and Ireland.
The potentially class horse could come in the 2m1f beginners' chase at Leopardstown (4.00), in which the Joe and Marie Donnelly-owned Breaken bids to get off the mark over fences. The seven-year-old has not run since a fall in December 2019, but may prove hard to beat if back to the form of his maiden hurdle win earlier that year.
Wetherby stages a 0-135 handicap hurdle (4.20) in which Pay The Piper bids to make it a perfect three from three, while there is also a jumps card from Southwell before evening action at Wolverhampton.
The feature race of the day comes at Newcastle where Grade 1 winner Blaklion aims for a first victory since his Becher Chase success in December 2017. He faces useful handicapper Dingo Dollar, who makes his first start for trainer Sandy Thomson, in the 2m7½f handicap chase (3.20).
Afternoon fixtures at Exeter and Clonmel complement the action from Newcastle, before Southwell's all-weather card in the evening.
Dickie Diver, who holds two entries at the Cheltenham Festival next week and is quietly fancied at 16-1 for the National Hunt Chase, could have a late prep run and bid for a first success over fences in the 3m1f novice chase at Catterick (3.40).
Chris Gordon's happy hunting ground is Fontwell, where he has had 87 winners, and the trainer could bid for more success at the course with the four-timer-seeking Mount Windsor (1.30).
The jumps card in Ireland is at Wexford, while there is action on the all-weather at Lingfield in the afternoon and Kempton in the evening in Britain.
Kim Bailey is two victories away from 50 for the season and could aim to add to his fortunes with two runners entered at Carlisle, where he would have a leading chance with recent Hereford winner Equus Dreamer in the 3m1f novice hurdle (2.05).
A seven-race card from Wincanton complements Carlisle on the jumps front in Britain, while Thurles stages its regular Thursday card. There are also all-weather fixtures at Southwell (afternoon) and Newcastle (evening).
Sandown stages day one of its Imperial Cup meeting, where some former festival winners could be on the comeback trail, including 2017 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle winner Kilbricken Storm (4.15) and 2016 Grand Annual hero Solar Impulse (3.40).
There could be an interesting clash in the 2m beginners' chase at Leicester (2.55), where the smart Fidelio Vallis faces useful handicapper Monsieur Lecoq, while there is an afternoon all-weather card at Lingfield before evening meetings at Wolverhampton and Dundalk.
The highlight is the Imperial Cup at Sandown, with the feature race (2.25) headlining an intriguing card. The last horse to scoop the £50,000 Imperial Cup bonus on offer if the winner follows up in any race at the Cheltenham Festival was Gaspara in 2007 – will this year's winner end that 14-year hoodoo?
The Grade 3 novice handicap hurdle final (1.50) was won last year by McFabulous, when restaged at Kempton, and the roll of honour also includes dual Ryanair Chase hero Albertas Run.
Also keep an eye out for the 2m4f Listed novice handicap chase (3.35), which will be staged at the Surrey track for the first time having been scrapped from the Cheltenham Festival.
Flat fans will be itching for the start of the turf season with the Lincoln at the end of the month and the ITV cameras also make a trip to Wolverhampton for the trial for that race (2.40). The Listed Lady Wulfruna Stakes (2.05) is the other feature race on the all-weather track's biggest day of the year.
There are also jumps cards at Ayr and Hereford as well as two meetings in Ireland at Gowran Park and Navan, while the twilight fixture at Chelmsford features a 2m fast-track qualifier (6.50) for all-weather finals day at Lingfield.
The nerves and excitement for Cheltenham will be building to fever pitch, but there is some quality action to finish the week, with Limerick staging two Graded contests, including the Dawn Run Mares Novice Chase, as well as the Leinster National at Naas (3.05).
The action in Britain comes from two jumps fixtures at Bangor and Warwick.
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