Conditions look ideal for Monet's Garden
As expected, today's Betfair Chase at Ascot, where the card is subject to a 6.30 morning inspection, has failed to attract a big-name chaser.
Following Monet's Garden in 2007, Kauto Star and Voy Por Ustedes have since gone on to be beaten favourites at Cheltenham in March having won the Ascot feature, so it's no surprise that the two-mile-five-furlong event has lost some of its appeal.
A Grade One event so close to Cheltenham is bound to suffer from time to time, and this year's renewal lacks real quality. Planet Of Sound, whose only graded win came in a handicap in November, will start favourite, but is readily opposed at 2/1 and less.
Herecomethetruth is the obvious alternative. Unbeaten in six completed chasing starts, the Paul Nicholls-trained gelding still has scope to improve. That said, he is a bit quirky, and was struggling when unseating in the Peterborough Chase in December. This race is of a similar standard so, at 3/1 generally, his price looks about right.
Monet's Garden, bidding for a second win in the race at 12 years of age, may represent a bit more value at a best price of 15/2. Having recorded a good win in the Peterborough Chase last season, Nicky Richards' horse didn't turn out again until Cheltenham in March, when he ran well enough to be sixth in the Ryanair Chase.
This term, he again started well by winning the Old Roan Chase at Aintree, but was a real disappointment when beaten a long way in a Grade Two at Ascot in December. While there is obviously a fear that age is starting to catch up with him, excuses can be made for that bad defeat.
Firstly, the race may have come a bit quick on the back of what was a hard-working Aintree win, and it was also over a trip short of his best. Two and a half miles-plus has brought out the best in Monet's Garden in recent years, but at Ascot last time he was conceding weight to most of the field over two miles and three furlongs.
This afternoon, the veteran returns to what is probably his optimum distance, and competes off level weights with all five opponents. Barry Geraghty will need to get at least as good a tune out of him as he did at Aintree -- the only previous time he has ridden the horse -- but conditions are in the partnership's favour.
One other to note at the Berkshire meeting is Lucy Wadham's El Dancer in the Betfair Handicap Hurdle. Fifth behind Khyber Kim off 11st 11lb in the Greatwood Hurdle in November, El Dancer went on to finish second on his first two starts over fences.
On his most recent outing at Doncaster, the six-year-old fell when held, and his confidence would receive a nice boost if he can salvage a win on his hurdling return. El Dancer's form behind Khyber Kim has since worked out particularly well, so he may not have to improve much to score off the same mark here.
In the day's major betting heat, the Blue Square Gold Cup at Haydock, Willie Mullins' Pomme Tiepy gets in bang on 10st under Katie Walsh. While conditions should be ideal for the French-bred mare, she has struggled to find her form this season.
Preferred at fancy prices of up to 20/1 is Our Vic. Rated 171 at his peak a couple of seasons ago, David Pipe's stalwart proved that he is no back number by running out a game winner of the Peter Marsh Chase off 152 at the Liverpool track last month.
Although Our Vic has top weight now, he carries just a six-pound penalty for his win, and he has run well under big weights before. A dour campaigner, both the handicapper and the bookmakers may be underestimating the 12-year-old.
Also at Haydock, Ernst Blofield is fancied to gain compensation for a recent tumble at Cheltenham. A progressive six-year-old, Jason Maguire's mount will be hard to beat if he puts in a clear round.
Best bet: Ernst Blofield