It may not feel like the National Hunt season just yet but that hasn’t stopped a decent field assembling for this valuable contest which will hopefully get to be run on good ground and with a good sized and competitive field. With our close contacts with the Nigel Twiston-Davies stable it would be remiss of us not to start with Ballykan (8/1 Each Way) who is looking for his hat trick this afternoon (though naturally we will be speaking to Nigel nearer the day for an update). Still only a six-year-old, he seems at his best when covered up until the very last minute and produced at or near the last hurdle which in turn means he never wins by far and is thus pretty difficult to handicap accurately. A win at Perth in July saw him put up seven pounds which he shrugged off at Southwell fairly comfortably for a four-pound weight rise and if he is ridden the same way again he arrives here with every chance.
Harry Fry is another trainer we really like and he seems sure to run Presenting Arms (11/1) here as the nine-year-old gelding looks for his seventh win but only his second over fences. Only just out of the novice ranks he was a length and a half behind Ballykan last time out at Southwell and is four pounds better off this afternoon so it ought to be pretty close between the pair though the Fry yard are yet to hit the kind of form we all know they are capable of.
Meanwhile, Rebecca Curtis is in form with one winner from one runner in the last two weeks and had two engaged here with Vintage Vinnie (15/2) the one that really catches the eye (and now the only runner). Lightly raced over fences with one win at Worcester and a few places, he was given a pipe opener over hurdles at Worcester last month when winning by a very easy sixteen lengths over two miles seven furlongs, though that was a novice event and he won’t find it quite as easy in handicaps over fences. That said, it was his first run in five months and it seems likely he will strip fitter this afternoon, in which case a rating of 129 could be pretty generous though the two miles five may could be a bit on the short side to see him at his best.
Top weight will be carried by Ben Case’s Croco Bay (14/1) who will be ridden by Richard Johnson for the first time this afternoon. He won last time out at Worcester by a head and has been put up a frankly silly five pounds which may well end his chances, though he does step back up in trip now and it will be interesting to see if it brings about any noticeable improvement.
Back to Dr Richard Newland now and Seefood (16/1) who was trained by Sandra Hughes in Ireland until last December. His only run to date for his new connections didn’t go too well when he fell at Kempton in the New Year but he has been rested ever since and is thought to be well handicapped off a mark of 136 based on his very best form and could yet be an interesting each way option at a big price for those who like that sort of thing.