Progressive Conti looks right for Ruby
There is a touch of 'Hamlet' without the prince about today's Betfair Chase.
Kauto Star will parade at Haydock this afternoon and a statue will be unveiled in his honour at the Liverpool venue this morning – but still, it won't be quite the same without him.
Since 2006, the iconic dual Gold Cup hero has missed the first English Grade One of the season just once, bringing the house down by crushing Long Run from the front for a stirring fourth victory last year.
Both return now, but, regardless of the outcome of the race, you can be certain that it is the 12-year-old retiree that will receive the loudest ovation of the day.
Generally considered the natural heir to Kauto Star's crown following two sensational victories in the King George VI Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup the season before last, Long Run now has lots to prove. In short, he looked woefully sluggish throughout last term.
Until Best Mate, Kauto Star and Denman came along, this corner always held the view that winning a Gold Cup came at a cost. Long Run's subsequent performances seemed to reaffirm that theory, as he laboured badly even when Nicky Henderson's team carried all before it.
Most notably, in March, despite displaying a determined attitude, he failed to retain his title in the worst edition of the Prestbury Park showpiece since Cool Dawn clambered home in 1998.
Third in the end, today he is re-opposed by the shock runner-up The Giant Bolster. While that one isn't feared, at skinny odds, Long Run is opposable in heavy going that may not suit.
At around 9/4, Silviniaco Conti is the best option with which to take him on. Weird Al is a live threat, with a fantastic record first time out, not to mention a confirmed preference for the sort of testing ground he will encounter here. Nonetheless, at nine years of age, he may be vulnerable to a more progressive rival and Paul Nicholls' runner is that.
Disappointing at times as novice, the Dom Alco six-year-old came good in style at Aintree in April. He backed that up with a comprehensive victory over this three-mile trip on his reappearance in the Charlie Hall Chase, a 21-length margin over Time For Rupert comparing favourably to Weird Al's three-and-a-half length verdict over the same horse a year earlier.
Whether or not Silviniaco Conti can develop into a genuine Gold Cup prospect remains to be seen, but, as a race-fit improver that is in-form, uncomplicated and proven at the trip, he has matured into a viable alternative to Long Run here.
The one concern is that he has never encountered such heavy going before, but his sire's progeny tend to handle it perfectly well. Moreover, with Ruby Walsh up, he has the right man aboard to navigate a way through it.
At Ascot, Henderson's Finian's Rainbow looks a more solid market leader in the Amlin Chase under Barry Geraghty. On a line through Wishfull Thinking, though, he doesn't have as much in hand with For Non Stop as that one's price of around 7/2 would suggest.
When hosing up in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree on his reappearance, For Non Stop slammed Wishfull Thinking by 23 lengths. Granted, he was receiving weight, but it was as comprehensive a beating as any Finian's Rainbow has doled out to the same horse.
With Wishfull Thinking doing as much as he could for the form by justifying short odds at Cheltenham last week, the race-fit For Non Stop isn't without a chance of toppling the Champion Chase victor. Nick William's seven-year-old is still on an upward curve, he goes on soft ground and has the assistance of the excellent Noel Fehily to boot.
Toubab also appeals in the two-mile handicap chase. Champion Court, second to Sir Des Champs at Cheltenham and Silviniaco Conti at Aintree, is the one to beat, but may have its work cut out to concede 12lbs to Nicholls' potentially well-handicapped horse.
A Sandown winner in February, Toubab finished second to Sprinter Sacre at Aintree last time.
Best Bet: Silviniaco Conti