The modern way of preparing horses for the Cheltenham Festival is reflected in today's turnout for some valuable prizes on 'trials day'. None of jump racing's marquee names are in action at Prestbury Park.
Nevertheless, some intriguing races are in prospect. The Argento Chase (2.30) is the feature, for which the novice, Time For Rupert would have started a strong favourite but for a dirty scope. In his absence Punchestowns is the one to beat, and this one brings strong credentials to the three-mile test. He had recent Ascot winner Tatenen 40 lengths back in third when narrowly succumbing to Pride Of Dulcote at Newbury most recently.
Some pundits mark Punchestowns down as a suspect stayer, yet he made Big Buck's work hard to win the 2009 World Hurdle over an extended three miles. Against that, however, his subsequent exploits do not amount to much. A pair of bloodless victories in novice chases preceded two reverses, when he started favourite both times but failed to deliver. His inclination to take the odd liberty at his fences makes him worth opposing here.
Although many will look to Tidal Bay, the 10-year-old's attitude has never inspired confidence. The Tother One is another with prospects despite his occasionally shoddy jumping, but the way he has been finishing his races suggests he would be better served by a stronger stamina test.
Taranis hasn't progressed since he won this race last year, and with Madison Du Berlais out of form, the vote goes to Tony McCoy's mount Neptune Collonges. He must rebound from a disappointing run last time, when he was left at the start, but this small field presents him with an excellent opportunity to recapture past glories.
Spirit River to spoil the party for Grands Crus
Also at Cheltenham, there's no shortage of runners in the Cleeve Hurdle (3.35), for which the favourite mirrors Punchestowns' credentials in the feature race. Grands Crus is a young horse with a potentially golden future, especially after the way he won a valuable Haydock handicap with consummate ease in November.
The handicapper's reaction leaves Grands Crus with no option but to tackle the best, but whether he should start favourite against a cast of seasoned stayers is debatable. Bensalem, for instance, shaped most encouragingly when returned to hurdles at Punchestown in April, when he beat all bar Quevega.
Fair Along, Restless Harry, Organisateur and Mobaasher are others to consider, but Spirit River makes most appeal. Nicky Henderson's six-year-old was far superior to Grands Crus last term, which he closed with a decisive victory at the Cheltenham Festival. That Coral Cup triumph saw him dismiss some talented opponents, and he is worth an interest to regain that level over hurdles after two abortive fences efforts.
Some promising young horses come together in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle (3.05) over two and a half miles. The Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson stables are represented by Rock On Ruby and Bobs Worth respectively; they could not have made more promising starts over timber. But the same applies to Backspin, which hails from the Jonjo O'Neill stable.
O'Neill rarely mistakes geese for swans, and the fact that Backspin takes his chance rather speaks for itself. JP McManus was quick to purchase the gelding after he ran away with a Punchestown bumper in April, and the money looks well spent.
The suspicion that Bakbenscher is a well-handicapped horse will be tested in the Murphy Group Chase (2.0), where Noland returns to fences after a two-year absence through injury and concedes lumps of weight to the selection.
Bakbenscher made a fair transition to fences last term, but with the Alan King stable out of sorts for much of the campaign, the eight-year-old is almost certainly capable of better. He showed little on his Kempton comeback in November but will be better served by the easier surface he encounters here.
Another potentially well-treated individual is Diamond Brook in the Timeform Novices' Handicap Chase (1.30). The selection gained both his victories by slender margins, but has the profile of an improving horse.