Cheltenham feature can go to Astracad
A month after being undone by a superlative Al Ferof performance, Walkon returns to Cheltenham for a tilt at the Paul Stewart IronSpine Charity Challenge Gold Cup.
This corner rowed in behind Robert Thornton's mount last time and, when you consider that he pulled 12 lengths clear of the third – the reopposing Nadiya De La Vega – he would certainly be a worthy winner here.
However, at a general 9/2, Walkon is probably short enough for this two-mile-five-furlong showpiece.
He is now 5lbs higher on 148, a mark that he finished second off over hurdles at Ascot last year. That obviously makes the task tougher, though the easing of the going to heavy, soft in places should be to his advantage.
The main thing that made Walkon so attractive last time was that it was his seasonal debut. Alan King's seven-year-old goes especially well fresh, so that is the best time to catch him.
Unfortunately, he simply ran into a better horse in Al Ferof. Thus, notwithstanding that this is a lesser race, it's hard to argue that Walkon represents great value at his current odds, though it's equally hard to see him finishing out of the first four.
With Ruby Walsh up, Paul Nicholls' recent Down Royal scorer Cristal Bonus will be popular, but three previous runs around Prestbury Park's unique circuit were not encouraging.
At the bottom of the page, Nicholls' Unioniste lacks experience, for all that he may be well treated. Off the same rating as last time, Nadiya De La Vega has some each-way appeal at up to 10/1 for AP McCoy and Nicky Henderson, but a chance is taken on Astracad for the win.
Still relatively unexposed, the six-year-old goes well here, boasting two wins and a second to Al Ferof off level weights at the 2011 November fixture. When second to Edgardo Sol off 145 at Aintree in April, he had last week's Tingle Creek runner-up Kumbeshwar back in fourth off levels and he subsequently signed off with a ready win in the mud at Perth.
On his return to action here last month, Astracad hardly jumped a fence early on en route to keeping on for an admirable fourth behind Shooters Wood.
Like most of his recent runs, that was over two miles, but he has three wins to his name over two and a half miles or further.
With that in mind, the return to this distance and a slight ratings drop to 144 could prove key. At around 8/1, then, Astracad is worth backing to provide the bang in-form Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies partnership with another Saturday triumph to remember.
The Stanjames.com International Hurdle is an intriguing affair that will doubtless be looked back on as a crucial Champion Hurdle pointer come March.
Course specialist and reigning champion Rock On Ruby has its first formal start for Harry Fry under Noel Fehily, while Zarkandar, successful in the Elite Hurdle last time, has a chance in receipt of 4lbs.
Both, though, are priced accordingly, and Grandouet could be the one to keep on side. Having looked a weak finisher when third to Zarkandar in the 2011 Triumph Hurdle, Nicky Henderson's French-bred might be unbeaten since, but for bad luck.
Brought down at the second-last at Aintree that year, he then hacked up at Punchestown and would have probably won on his seasonal bow in last year's Elite had he not crashed two-out.
Grandouet went on to sluice up at Haydock before taking this very race from the subsequent Champion Hurdle runner-up Overturn.
While Barry Geraghty's mount has been off since, that is no great concern if he is allowed run on the ground, so odds of 5/2 have plenty appeal.
In the three-mile novices' chase, Michael Hourigan's Best Served Cold is up against it. Our Father and Court In Motion are two with obvious chances, but slight preference is for the latter's Emma Lavelle-trained stablemate Highland Lodge under Geraghty.
Best Bet: Highland Lodge