Barizan to leave rivals in his wake
With the three market leaders in this afternoon's Totescoop6 Elite Hurdle all established front-runners, the Wincanton hurdling feature will make for compelling viewing.
Australia Day, Ashkazar and Barizan are the principals in question and the tactics employed by their respective riders on a track that might normally suit an exuberant front-runner is going to be key. If none of Dominic Elsworth, Timmy Murphy or Paul Moloney desist, there is a real chance that the trio will cut each other's throats.
Australia Day, probably the only one of the three that leads out of a refusal to settle, looks most vulnerable. In winning two of his last four races, the improved seven-year-old has enjoyed an uncontested lead, but this is the best race he has ever run in.
While he beat Katchit last time, the former Champion Hurdle winner is essentially a three-miler these days, so the bare form of that Kempton race is not as strong as it might first appear. Ultimately, this is the first time since Australia Day won at Market Rasen in July that he will be tested off a 22lb higher mark, and conceding weight all round won't be so easily done in such a competitive environment.
With Ashkazar coming back to something close to his best at the end of last season, the dual course and distance winner holds some appeal. However, on the back of two wins last spring, the first in a handicap off 135, he now competes off 155. Such an inflated rating has found Ashkazar out before, so he may not be the best option either.
In the hope that Paul Moloney won't get drawn into an early skirmish on Barizan, the Punchestown Grade One winner gets the nod to put a disappointing reappearance behind him. At Cheltenham last month, Tony McCoy was taken on early on Evan Williams' charge, and they paid the price under top weight by finishing a tired third.
Significantly, though, Barizan proved in his early days as a novice that he doesn't have to make the running, while he will also be a fitter proposition today. With just 10st 13lb to carry, this will be the first time since his hurdling debut that the four-year-old gets to compete off less than 11st, so he looks a solid pick at around 11/2.
The Badger Ales Trophy is the highlight of the Somerset track's chases. Topping the weights in the three-mile-one-furlong contest is David Pipe's 2008 Aintree Grand National hero Comply Or Die, while Niche Market, which landed the Irish equivalent last year, is also among the 14 runners.
Fancied to deny both is Pipe's second representative, The Package. Timmy Murphy's mount developed into a useful handicapper last term, winning at Cheltenham in December before taking third in the William Hill Chase at the Festival.
The Package subsequently failed to get beyond halfway in the Grand National, and ran as though his long season had taken its toll when a well-beaten favourite in the bet365 Chase at Sandown in April. Nonetheless, the seven-year-old remains a hugely promising prospect, and he can get back on track with a win in this.
Murphy and Pipe may also be worth a speculative foray in the opening novice hurdle. Paul Nicholls' The Reformer will be a short-priced favourite here, but Pipe's Sun Des Mottes isn't as bad as her poor finishing position on her hurdling debut suggests.
At Uttoxeter last week, the French import folded badly in heavy conditions on her first run in a year. On the face of it, that was a dispiriting start, but it's not beyond the realms of possibility that today's good ground will prompt a more robust effort from her now.
Elsewhere, Sirvino appeals at up to 16/1 to finish his luckless season on a high in the November Handicap at Doncaster, while Pandorama looks value at 11/4 in the Ladbrokes.com Chase at Down Royal. Unbeaten in three starts over fences last term, Noel Meade's representative should have too much class for his seven opponents.
Best bet: Pandorama