Ideal chance for Fergie's friend to assume command
Come mid-March, we will know more about Manchester United's prospects of adding more silverware to Alex Ferguson's groaning mantlepiece.
But whatever happens, there's a fair chance of Fergie striking personal gold with What A Friend, which he part-owns and which has the Cheltenham Gold Cup as his ultimate objective.
What A Friend is a rising force on the chasing scene, and he can take a major step forward by beating Imperial Commander in the Betfair Chase (3.25) at Haydock today. The seven-year-old, skilfully handled by Paul Nicholls, looks ready to come of age.
At first glance everything is in Imperial Commander's favour. He will handle the ground, he is best when fresh, and he showed his liking for Haydock during his titanic scrap with Kauto Star in this race last year. Even Ruby Walsh, who rode Kauto Star, looked surprised to get the verdict on the nod.
Yet other facets of Imperial Commander's make-up beg for caution. The Cheltenham Gold Cup was his sole success in four outings last term. His jumping is prone to fall apart, as it did at Kempton and Aintree. And six of his seven career triumphs have been gained at Cheltenham, the exception coming when he landed a novices' hurdle at Newcastle 26 months ago.
It's also fair to say that jockey Paddy Brennan will not relish the role reversal. Imperial Commander was an underdog until his Gold Cup triumph, but all that has changed. Rather than heading the chasing pack, he is now the one to ambush. And What A Friend leads the posse in pursuit.
Nicholls has long maintained the horse is destined for the very top. And despite an awkward head carriage, What A Friend has gone from strength to strength.
He had Nacarat a long way back in third when winning at Aintree in April, and Sam Thomas, who rode Nacarat to win last time out, had no hesitation in siding with What A Friend here.
Imperial Commander was beaten when unseating Brennan six fences out in that Aintree race.
He also ruined his King George chance with an early blunder and looks a shaky odds-on favourite. The selection, by contrast, is an economical jumper, and Nicholls is sure to have him properly tuned for his seasonal reappearance. Even in this select company, he makes plenty of appeal.
Amlin may not answer Master Minded questions
Is Master Minded a spent force at the tender age of seven? The question receives an airing in the Amlin 1965 Chase (2.05) on an attractive card at Ascot. But unless the dual Champion Chase winner obliges, the definitive answer may have to wait for another day.
That's because Master Minded's only attempt beyond two miles saw him fail to get home around Aintree's easy circuit two seasons back. He is asked to go beyond his optimum here, which is not encouraging, and his comeback has already been put back a week, which suggests he might need the run. In the circumstances, Albertas Run should be backed to repeat his victory in this race last year.
The Carey Group Handicap Chase (3.10) is a fascinating contest featuring a cluster of improvers. Noble Alan has the makings of a smart chaser, Cockney Trucker is in bloom and the form figures of Woolcombe Folly, from the all-powerful Nicholls stable, demand respect. However, a chance is taken with King Edmund.
A course-and-distance winner, King Edmund really stuck to his guns when headed on his comeback run in a competitive race here three weeks ago. This natural front-runner could easily induce mistakes from less experienced rivals.
Zaynar is expected to be all the rage in his bid to win the Coral Hurdle (2.35) in successive years.
Yet, while he bolted up 12 months ago, he closed his campaign with little conviction when wearing cheekpieces that conjured improvement from him in the Champion Hurdle.
With the aids left off today, he should be opposed with Silviniaco Conti.
This French recruit has blitzed lesser fields on his two English runs to date and it looks significant that Nicholls elects to loose him here rather than in a softer option at Haydock.