Legend looks Classic bet to maintain purple patch for Bailey
Willie Mullins steps up to his early-season pledge of more frequent cross-channel forays with five live contenders spread across Warwick and Kempton this afternoon.
In Warwick's £60,000 Betfred Classic Chase, the champion trainer's insatiable Co Carlow-based firm is represented by Vesper Bell, a 6/1 shot that has been vying for favouritism with Shotgun Paddy and Boyfromnowhere.
Still relatively unexposed, the dour Beneficial gelding will relish the three-mile-five-furlong test in deep ground.
He certainly wasn't beaten for stamina when chinned by Goonyella in similar conditions at Punchestown in April, so he is far from a forlorn hope here off a 4lb higher mark. Still, without the benefit of a run, having fallen at the first on his Aintree return, this is a stiff enough task for David Casey's mount under 11st 4lb.
The Emma Lavelle-trained Shotgun Paddy is a progressive novice, but he also has plenty of weight to carry and his iffy fencing will be tested to the hilt in this competitive affair. Loch Ba is another that isn't the cleanest of jumpers.
Still, he is more experienced, and a staying-on Tommy Whittle Chase second to Dream Alliance was encouraging. Dominic Elsworth's mount is an each-way prospect at 12/1, while the eight-year-old has the potential to be an emotional winner given Mick Channon's close association with the recently deceased Terry Biddlecome.
Of the 16 runners, Noble Legend stands out as the best value option at up to 14/1. Coming from Caroline Bailey's school of old-fashioned chasers that has produced the likes of Gunner Welburn, Castle Mane and Arnold Layne in the past, this seven-year-old has only ever run over fences in 14 starts on the track.
A six-time winner under veteran rider Andrew Thornton in the space of a year to last March, he has taken a couple of outings to find his feet this term. However, at Wetherby on St Stephen's Day, he won off a career-high mark of 129, absolutely pinging the last under his long-legged pilot to quicken clear over two-and-a-half miles.
Noble Legend is 6lb higher now, but the suspicion is that he is only coming to himself, while the step-up to this trip is expected to bring about further improvement.
With just 10st 11lb to carry, then, he is fancied to continue the resurgent form of Bailey's Northampton stable that has yielded three winners from five runners in 2014.
Mullins' other two runners at the Midland venue are expected to deliver for Casey. Glens Melody tackles the opening Listed hurdle after walking up the Cheltenham hill behind More Of That and Salubrious in the Relkeel Hurdle.
The way she folded that day was alarming, but it may simply have been the she had the life run out of her legs by two very decent horses, with the runner-up second in a Grade One next time.
Given the way that she tired, the drop to two-miles-three-furlongs might suit Glens Melody, although there is a chance that that none of her six rivals will have the quality to test her anyway.
Mullins' smart Rathvinden bids to stretch his unbeaten record to four in the Grade Two novices' hurdle over two-miles-five-furlongs.
In winning two bumpers and a maiden hurdle at home, the relentless Ronnie Bartlett-owned six-year-old has looked an out-and-out stayer. He pulverised some fair horses at Cork last time and this test against less precocious rivals looks tailor-made.
Ruby Walsh's decision to opt for Kempton instead is noteworthy, but Twinlight doesn't appeal over two-and-a-half miles in the Listed chase there, and Upazo faces The Liquidator in the rescheduled Tolworth Hurdle. David Pipe's Punchestown Champion Bumper hero is a formidable prospect that looks overpriced at 5/2.
Best Bet: The Liquidator
LAST INSTALMENT'S forecast comeback will be the strand of most interest at Thurles on Thursday, but it is a card that promises plenty else as well.
Among other eye-catching entries, Jimmy Mangan's Oscar Delta -- gallingly denied Cheltenham glory when depositing the trainer's daughter Jane halfway up the run-in last March -- is pencilled for a return in the hunters' chase.
Also of note are two mares that Nicky Henderson has entered. The British champion trainer has the game Kempton Christmas winner Ma Filleule in the Kinloch Brae Chase and his 2012 Cheltenham Festival heroine Une Artiste in the mares' Grade Two novice chase.
Henderson will be concerned only with the aggregate €90,000 that is up for grabs, but it would be some boon for the North Tipperary venue if he opts to run one or both.