Mullins considers Newbury options
Irish representation will be thin on the ground for Saturday's lucrative Betfair Handicap Hurdle at Newbury, with connections appearing to focus their attention on Leopardstown's big Hennessy Gold Cup card.
While Willie Mullins is keeping his options open with three entries - Lucky Bridle, Wicklow Brave and Daneking - in the Newbury heat, Tony Martin has taken out talented novice Blair Perrone, which was prominent in the betting at around 14/1.
Paul Nicholls is responsible for ante-post favourite Calipto, which is as low as 9/2 in a couple of places, and carries plenty of confidence despite being absent since suffering a defeat behind Gordon Elliott's Tiger Roll at Cheltenham in October.
Nicholls, who struck with Zarkandar in 2012, believes he has the five-year-old in fine shape after being given plenty of time to recover from a breathing operation.
"I am delighted by the way Calipto has been working recently, he's quite unexposed and I'm expecting a big run on Saturday," said England's reigning champion trainer.
Former assistant to Nicholls, Harry Fry, has two of the 32 horses left in at the confirmation stage, with Activial likely to be his representative as stablemate Jolly's Cracked It has an alternative entry at the weekend.
"Activial is very much on target and Jolly's Cracked It has also been given engagement on Sunday at Exeter in a listed novice," he explained.
Another Nicholls ex-assistant, Dan Skelton, has left in Fascino Rustico, but the highly-promising novice is not guaranteed a place in the maximum 24-horse field. However, the progressive novice only needs one to come out.
The weights are headed by Sign Of A Victory. Nicky Henderson's charge was last seen finishing a distant fourth to Champion Hurdle favourite Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton but had previously won a handicap hurdle at Ascot in good style from stablemate Dawalan.
Henderson - who boasts six wins in the Newbury contest - has three other possibles that include Dawalan, a winner at Musselburgh on Sunday. Vasco du Ronceray and Snake Eyes - beaten favourite in Leopardstown's BoyleSports Hurdle - complete the Henderson party.
Small fields will be the order of the day for Saturday's two other high-profile races at Newbury after the races were reopened for 24 hours after failing to attract enough entries.
Potential Cheltenham Gold Cup aspirants will get a chance to stake a claim for the blue riband in the Denman Chase at Newbury, while Queen Mother Champion Chase hero Sire De Grugy is set to make his comeback in the Betfair Price Rush Chase in Berkshire, better known as the Game Spirit.
Sire De Grugy does at least have one confirmed rival in the shape of Nicholls' improving Mr Mole.
"Mr Mole is another I am looking forward to running on Saturday in the Betfair Price Rush Game Spirit Chase which has been chosen for the comeback of Sire De Grugy," said the Ditcheat handler.
"I've been tickled pink by the improved form of Mr Mole now that we have adopted more aggressive tactics with him over fences."
Meanwhile, there will be no jumps racing in Britain for the second day running today after scheduled meetings at Market Rasen and Sedgefield both fell victim to the cold snap.
Yesterday's sole surviving national hunt fixture at Musselburgh was lost to frost, and tomorrow's card at Ludlow is also under threat with an inspection called for today. Temperatures dipped below freezing overnight and officials are "not optimistic" about the prospects of racing.