Just the one winning favourite in the last ten years must send alarm bells ringing among those who rely on the jolly but this is invariably a very competitive chase and one that goes to a decent horse with Colin Tizzard’s Theatre Guide (8/1) scoring last season, and he is all booked to try and follow up for the same stable in 2017 at the age of ten though the handicapper may yet have his measure. The stable are busy having their best ever season thanks to the exploits of Thistlecrack, Native River, Cue Card, and so on but this gelding has also added to the tally already with a win at Cheltenham over three and a quarter miles two races ago. Last time out he finished seventh to well handicapped stable companion Native River in the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow when weakening badly three out under eleven stone ten but back at this three miles he still seems likely to be pretty competitive, though he will have to carry exactly a stone more this year than last which may prove too much for him.
At these weights it looks as if Three Musketeers (15/2 Each Way) has a great chance for trianer Dan Skelton who is back in winnng form with six wins for his last thirty-eight runners and a 16% strike rate. He scored last time out at Market Rasen by three lengths from Kilcrea Vale last month and has been put up just two pounds for that easy victory which seems pretty generous. Jockey Harry Skelton said after that victory “Three Musketeers ran well first time up at Aintree but then ran like something wasn’t right before unseating me at Newbury last time. It’s nice to get him back on track and there’s a good race to be won with him. The step up in trip and soft ground has suited him” which makes his first run over three miles all the more interesting, and at a price he screams value and is well worth a bet this afternoon.
Champion trainer Paul Nichols last won this race with Rocky Creek in 2015 and has a live-wire chance this season with Irish Saint (11/2) who looks to be slowly coming back to his peak after a long time off the track. Absent between April 2015 and November 2016, he returned over hurdles at Cheltenham which blew away a few cobwebs and followed that with a sixth over fences at Ascot but it was his last race that showed something to be encouraged about. Sent to Sandown over this three miles, he travelled well before weakening close home to finish third to Otago Trail but that run may well have still been needed to put him spot on though there is a question mark over whether he stays this trip. Yet to win over further than two miles five, the distance does have to be a doubt this afternoon but his stable are hitting a very respectable 27% winners in the last two weeks and he deserves his place in any serious race preview.
Tom George is another trainer firing on all cylinders of late with an above expectation 35% strike rate and a level stakes profit of twenty-four points plus in the last fourteen days and he has recent course and distance winner Double Shuffle (11/2) entered here as he looks to follow up that three and a half length success. Good as that seems it was more workmanlike than impressive and he has been put up six pounds which will make like a lot more difficult here, but his trainer did explain after the race. “Double Shuffle was very progressive last season, being placed in the novice handicap chase at the Cheltenham Festival. He disappointed in the Paddy Power, but I probably made a major mistake of overworking him ahead of that…… As he is highly strung I wouldn’t run him back quickly” which explains his absence since December, and suggests he might keep a little back for himself, and that he may be better than we have actually seen so far.
Hopefully the in-form Neil Mulholland stable will send Gouvanes to Newcastle and leave Fingerontheswitch (12/1) in here as the seven-year-old looks to follow up a recent victory at Wetherby over this three mile trip. Put up an over the top thirteen pounds for that nine length win he will clearly find this an awful lot tougher off his new rating in this much stronger field but jockey Tom Scudamore said after his last effort “The drop in grade helped Fingerontheswitch and he jumped a lot better. That will do his confidence the world of good” which is encouraging at the very least, and he will get in here off close to bottom weight assuming the main protagonists all hold their ground come race day.
Lastly, trainer Nicky Henderson continues among the winners as he has all season and he has entered Cocktails At Dawn (16/1) here as he looks for his first win since October 2015. Put up eight pounds for scoring at Chepstow over two and a half miles or so, he has really struggled in four races since with a seventy-eight lengths fourth of five to Many Clouds when last seen at Aintree. Dropped five pounds for that dismal effort he is now back to a winning mark if his master trainer can get him back to his best, and is undoubtedly well handicapped if that is the case.