IN SUMMARY: As always this contest is hugely competitive and promises to be a cracker, with preference for Nicky Henderson’s CHARLI PARCS. He was sixth in the Triumph Hurdle last season and made his handicap debut at Newbury on his return, shaping well to finish second. He’s entitled to come on for that run and he’s only a pound higher here, so he’s touted to land the spoils under Aidan Coleman. Divin Bere heads up the dangers on his handicap/stable debut for Paul Nicholls, with Caid du Lin another who could run a big race at a price much bigger than what it should be.
1 ELGIN – Arrives on a hat-trick after a course and distance success was followed up with a Grade 3 win in the Greatwood Hurdle last time. He’s now six pounds higher and faces his toughest test yet, but his limitations are yet to be exposed and he’s a strong contender despite top weight of 11st 12lb.
2 DIVIN BERE – Ran three times last season for Seven Barrows, finishing second in both the Fred Winter and the Grade 1 4-Y-O Hurdle at Aintree. He now makes his debut for Paul Nicholls off a mark of 148, which isn’t particularly harsh. There is likely far more to come from this promising four year old and he’s respected.
3 AIR HORSE ONE – Admirable six year old who completed a hat-trick last season and has run with credit on both his starts this campaign. He was raised a further two pounds for his latest third though and that leaves him potentially vulnerable. He’s looks to be handicapped near his best and others look far better treated.
4 CHESTERFIELD – Won the Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr in April, returning this campaign with a lacklustre run in the Greatwood behind Elgin. He may have needed the run but he shaped with little immediate promise and this mark is certainly stiff enough.
5 CHARLI PARCS – Held a lofty reputation last season and capped it off when finishing sixth in the Triumph Hurdle at the Festival. He returned this season with a very respectable second at Newbury and he’s entitled to come on for that. He’s still unexposed and off only one pound higher, he should be very tough to beat.
6 BLEU ET ROUGE – Irish raider for Willie Mullins who has been below par on all three of his runs in 2017. He returned this season when well beaten in a Grade A Handicap at Fairyhouse, but he was a Grade 1 winning novice and he may build on that reappearance run. Market support would be highly interesting and he’s respected.
7 VERDANA BLUE – Got her head back in front when scoring at over course and distance last month, winning comfortably after travelling much the best throughout. She’s now eight pounds higher though which does look harsh and this race is tougher. She’s still lightly raced, but can only be given each way claims.
8 FERGALL – Hasn’t been since since August where he finished a fair seventh in the Galway Hurdle, keeping on well but never in the hunt. He finished third in this race twelve months ago off four pounds lower, so he does need to improve to be threatening this time around. At the age of ten, the percentage call is to look elsewhere.
9 TOP OTHE RA – Took two game victories in November for Thomas Mullins before falling short on his hat-trick bid latest at Fairyhouse. He was behind a few of these on that occasion and it looks as though the handicapper has caught up to him, so others are readily preferred.
10 CAID DU LIN – Has finished second the last twice, posting a career best when only beaten half a length at Sandown two weeks ago in a Listed race. The front pair were clear of the remainder and a five pound rise is fair. He’s progressive and very consistent, so can out-run his odds and is a strong each way contender.
11 NIETZSCHE – Won three times over timber last season, third in the Fred Winter behind Divin Bere. He was fit from a run on the flat when finishing a well beaten sixth in the Greatwood, which made that run all the more disappointing. This isn’t much easier and off only two pounds lower, he looks set to miss out.
12 SILVER STREAK – Arrives here on the back of three wins from his last four starts, winning with authority at Chepstow on his latest outing. That was a strong race and although he’s been raised eight pounds, he’s clearly progressive and holds leading claims for in form connections.
13 VEINARD – Has had plenty of chances to take another victory since his last win in November 2016, last seen finishing eighth at Fairyhouse off a pound higher. With a record of 1/21 it’s hard to be confident and although his current mark is fair, he should find at least a few of these too strong on the day.
14 HUNTERS CALL – Hasn’t won since November 2015 on hurdling debut in Ireland, last seen making his final start for John Neilan at Sligo where he finished third. He makes his British debut off eight pounds higher and although this yard does well with recruits like this, he’s best watched off this mark.
15 EVENING HUSH – Listed winner at Aintree back in December 2016 but she’s found it mainly tough going in 2017, well beaten on three of her four runs. She was beaten out of sight behind Caid du Lin at Sandown last time and makes no appeal off five pounds lower.
16 MAGIC DANCER – Another who arrives on a hat-trick, winning as he pleased at Cheltenham last month to complete a double. He’s now eleven pounds higher and upped in grade which demands a career best by quite some margin. He’s clearly progressive but this may be a bridge too far and others are preferred.
17 MAN OF PLENTY – Losing run now stretches all the way back to September 2014 and that was in Novice company. He didn’t run badly at Sandown on his latest outing, but he was well behind Caid du Lin and with his overall record in mind, he couldn’t be recommended.