With two major jumps meetings unfolding before Channel 4 Racing's cameras, we are finally rid of the snow. And with Leopardstown's double-header thrown in for good measure, the countdown to Cheltenham starts in earnest this weekend.
t does so with one notable exception. In normal circumstances Master Minded would have been headline news in the Victor Chandler Chase (2.40) at Ascot. But his injured absence affords his stablemate, Twist Magic, another chance to shake off shackles that render him the enigma of the winter game.
At face value Twist Magic's recent demolition of a similar cast at Sandown defines him as a good thing, yet the same was true when he turned out for this race two years ago. An odds-on shot then, he was well beaten by Tamarinbleu on ground similar to what he encounters today.
So has Twist Magic changed his spots? Has this mercurial character somehow added consistency to his intermittent flashes of brilliance? To this eye, seeing is believing where the eight-year-old is concerned. Until he delivers away from his beloved Sandown, the jury remains out.
Besides, rival jockeys will surely not allow Ruby Walsh the rope with which he hung them all out to dry at Sandown. Walsh established an easy lead to control the race from flagfall, yet Fix The Rib's front-running presence here negates that option. Even if Fix The Rib is a late withdrawal on ground considerations, Tony McCoy, who rides Petit Robin, will keep Walsh in his sights.
This scenario should prove too searching a test for the rest of the field. Well Chief is now cast as a notch below this level, while Oh Crick has yet to prove he has attained it. And Cornas, though progressive, is comfortably held by Fix The Rib on their course-and-distance meeting in November.
It was by an aggressive Barry Geraghty ride that Petit Robin comfortably prevailed over Well Chief at Kempton last month. Petit Robin is an improving seven-year-old with the requisite pace to serve it up to Twist Magic, and in that respect, he appeals as a horse which complements McCoy's strengths in the saddle. They have the look of a winning combination.
Will Be Done looks on the right track
McCoy has assembled a fine collection of spare rides at Ascot today and the champion has good prospects of a double, courtesy of Will Be Done in the VC.com Handicap Chase (3.45).
In a confidence-boosting campaign last term, Donald McCain's lightly raced chaser jumped markedly to his right at Haydock and Wetherby, which are both left-handed tracks. He has always looked likely to thrive at right-handed venues, an impression he confirmed when winning with ease on his comeback over hurdles at Leicester. Further progress is on the cards in this competitive heat.
The champion jockey also has prospects aboard Strawberry, trained by Nicky Henderson, in the Mares' Hurdle (2.05). But this fast-improving type may have to yield to Whiteoak, which showed she stayed this trip with an authoritative success at Kempton in November.
Henderson's Stravinsky Dance is sure to attract significant support when she makes her long-awaited English debut in the VC Handicap Hurdle (3.10). However, the mare's form in France, initially gilt-edged, increasingly tapered off. Paul Nicholls withdrew Special Occasion yesterday and switched Ruby Walsh to Qozak instead. The move looks well worth heeding, since Qozak hacked up at Taunton only on Thursday and will be reassessed much more harshly than the 5lb penalty he shoulders here.
Radium can light up Haydock Novices
Predictably, the sportingbet.com Champion Hurdle Trial (2.55) at Haydock is rendered worthless in the context of its name by the small field. It also means that Punjabi, the reigning champion, could end up pulling hard for his head in a slowly run race. Whatever Punjabi's fate, his stable-mate, Radium, should take plenty of catching in the opening Novices' Hurdle (1.10). Of his opponents, Peddlers Cross is raw, while Charlie Tipple's stamina -- he was a miler on the Flat -- is vulnerable in the testing ground he will encounter here.
The Altcar Novices' Chase (2.20) allows Diamond Harry to commence his chasing career in receipt of weight from both Knockara Beau and Bensalem. That should swing things his way at a venue where he impressed over the smaller obstacles.
And the Haydock feature, the Peter Marsh Chase (3.30), gives Fortification a good chance to continue his rapid ascent of the chasing ladder. A thorough stayer and proven in the mud, he has optimum conditions here.