Keep On Track ready for the long haul
The defections of Home Farm and Noble Prince mean that there will be no Irish-trained representative in tomorrow's big handicap chase at Cheltenham, but the raiders are expected to get the December fixture off to a flying start today.
As ever, the Glenfarclas Cross-country Chase is the afternoon's novelty centrepiece.
Since Enda Bolger's Spot Thedifference scored under the stricken JT McNamara in 2004, it is a race that has failed to come this way just once, though that winner, Ivor De Beaulieu in 2005, was trained by Wexford's own Ferdy Murphy.
Bolger has won the three-mile-seven-furlong handicap five times, with the peerless McNamara missing only Garde Champetre's first under Nina Carberry, when he finished second on L'Ami. This time, the Co Limerick wizard again saddles two.
Carberry is pencilled in for the inexperienced Keep On Track over the exposed Zest For Life. The six-year-old son of Rudimentary is a serious prospect off 10st 1lb.
In just over a year, Keep On Track has won a point-to-point, a hunter chase and a handicap chase.
Having stayed on well to score off a mark of 100 at Punchestown in October, he looked set to record a smooth victory over banks at the same venue last month when he travelled smoothly in front on the turn for home.
Keep On Track then slipped up on the bend, but he had done enough to leave a very positive impression. While he is 16lb higher now and unproven at the trip, there is no reason to believe that such a progressive individual cannot overcome both concerns.
Gordon Elliott, who saddles Chicago Grey in the cross-country, should have a big say in the earlier conditional jockeys' chase with Hit The Headlines.
This 17-runner handicap is wide open, with a variety of unknown quantities pitched in against more open books.
Hit The Headlines falls somewhere in between.
In three starts over fences since joining Elliott, he has been placed in two fair beginners' chases and was fourth to the potentially high-class Ballycasey in the third.
Each of those outings was over two miles, and it is the switch to a five-furlong longer trip on good ground that makes him so interesting on his handicap bow here.
Hit The Headlines won in similar conditions over hurdles at Huntingdon in 2011, so this could be exactly what he wants.
If his hitherto sound jumping stands up to this stiffer test, he should go very close for Keith Donoghue.
Oscar Whisky and Barry Geraghty tackle the novices' chase. Geraghty does little wrong, but the sedate pace he set on Nicky Henderson's charge last time might have contributed to his getting collared by Taquin Du Seuil in a sprint finish to a four-horse race.
In Geraghty's defence, it was Oscar Whisky's fencing bow and he was only making the running under duress.
Once committed, though, he would have been better served to go an honest pace, as one of the surest ways to get the best horse beaten is to go a bad horse's gallop, and the close proximity of the outsider The Cockney Mackem as they crossed two-out confirmed that it hadn't been a proper test up until then.
A five-runner field means this could again prove frustratingly tactical, but Paul Nicholls' triple chase winner Wonderful Charm will be even more desperate for a solid early gallop.
If he goes on, Geraghty's job should be more straightforward.
In the Grade Three handicap chase, George Charlton's course regular Knockara Beau has a squeak under a big weight.
Theatre Guide is the one to beat on form, but he had a hard race in the Hennessy and the selection is overdue a result at Prestbury Park.