From Paul Nicholls' perspective, Ruby Walsh's imminent return to the saddle cannot come soon enough. It will certainly fortify Nicholls in advance of Cheltenham, where they have excelled in recent years.
The English champion will need Walsh at his very best for the combination to repel a powerful challenge from the Nicky Henderson/Barry Geragthy axis.
Walsh has endured 16 weeks of mental anguish since he broke his leg at Down Royal in November. The landscape has certainly changed in his absence. Kauto Star was roundly beaten in the King George, and although Master Minded is enjoying something of a revival, these ageing warhorses have questions to answer.
Before that, however, the jockey must sit out one last Saturday. It could be painful, too, because Nicholls has excellent prospects of winning the Racing Post Chase (3.0) at Kempton this afternoon. Tony McCoy has been booked for Fistral Beach, which bids to atone for his second-fence fall when favourite for the race last year.
That lapse was the selection's only mishap in six starts over fences, which started as he had signed off over hurdles. A series of near-misses undermined confidence in the eight-year-old -- until his winning comeback at Wincanton last month.
On that day he looked an entirely different proposition, which Nicholls ascribes to a wind operation in the summer. As a consequence, Fistral Beach looks ready to realise his potential.
Nacarat, the winner two years ago and runner-up last season, has sound claims, even though he continues to pay for some sterling efforts. Although the bold- jumping grey should reverse last year's defeat by the inconsistent Razor Royale, he looks vulnerable to younger improvers.
Bakbenscher and Quinz are two of those. However, the former tends to excel when the mud is flying, while Quinz was unable to win off this mark at Cheltenham after a pair of bloodless victories. He now looks in the grip of the handicapper.
Colin Tizzard is adamant Hey Big Spender will run a big race, which is plausible enough on the best of his inconsistent form. Although he gained a verdict over Fistral Beach last season, the Nicholls horse is entitled to revenge on these revised terms -- and that's without factoring in his all-important wind operation.
Fistral Beach makes plenty of appeal at 11/2, which should be secured this morning.
Simon Munir is relatively new to the upper echelons of racehorse ownership. Having reaped rich reward when Soldatino won last year's Triumph Hurdle on only his second start in Britain, Munir unleashes three more high-class French recruits at Kempton today.
Sparks could well fly.
Soldatino prefaced his Cheltenham triumph by winning the Adonis Hurdle (1.55), in which Munir is doubly represented by Tonic Mellysse, trained by Nicholls, and Molotof, from the Henderson yard. The opposition looks ordinary enough but it's impossible to split the pair on their unconnected French form.
Munir also has another promising four-year-old with Henderson in Celtus, a multiple winner in France which contests the Dovecote Novices' Hurdle (3.35). But Celtus encounters a formidable opponent in Toulab, which chased Soldatino home on this card 12 months ago. Toulab got stuck in the mud last time and will appreciate this better ground.
By contrast, Henderson has bright prospects of winning the Pendil Novices' Chase (2.25) with Kerada. This bold-jumping mare has taken well to fences and is more than capable of upsetting Captain Chris, which boasts sound form but remains without a win over birch to date.
Philip Hobbs, who trains Captain Chris, returns Nicene Creed to his own class after using the novice as a pacemaker for Menorah last time out. The six-year-old is useful in his own right, and he can underline the point by winning the Racing & Football Outlook Handicap Hurdle (4.10).
Forget It should be backed in the Android App Handicap Chase (4.45). This one has been a revelation in two starts over fences and looks well up defying an 8lb rise for his recent Wincanton victory.