Nicky Henderson will be hoping to win the Elite Hurdle for a third time
Few destinations exude national hunt racing more than Wincanton in November and that means this weekends card is expected to be a cracker with thousands of punters set to descend on the Somerset venue.
Racegoers will be wrapping up warm as the elements arrive but the sport should be more than enough to keep us warm with plenty of top class action expected. The Elite Hurdle takes centre stage once again as we get to see one or two fringe Champion Hurdle contenders stake their early season claims in a race which has proven to be an informative contest in recent years.
A Grade Two affair run over a trip of two miles, we have seen some excellent winners of the Elite Hurdle in recent years with Azertyuiop, Well Chief, Celestial Halo and Zarkandar the four stand-out names on the roll of honour. Last year we saw Verdana Blue claim the win for Nicky Henderson before she enjoyed a fabulous season which included a Christmas Hurdle success and a fifth placed finish in the Champion Hurdle itself at Cheltenham meaning it will be fascinating to see if another star emerges out of the Wincanton cold on Saturday.
The Seven Barrows handler picked up his second win in the race last year and there is every chance he can go for the hat-trick this weekend with Fusil Raffles the headline entry. It is always difficult to predict the future for a young horse but if there is a star in the field then it is likely to be the four-year-old.
The Simon Munir and Isaac Souede owned star made a major impression following his arrival from France to the UK with a debut success in the Adonis Hurdle followed up by a Grade One win at Punchestown to mark himself out as a talented animal. On both occasions we saw the horse display an excellent engine and the taste for a battle which is a winning combination and the vibes from the yard ahead of his seasonal debut have been positive.
It can be tough for four-year-old horses to step up into open company but the same owners won this race with Sceau Royal at the same age and with that in mind it is easy to make a case for the favourite this weekend.
Punters will often follow Paul Nicholls at Wincanton and it is easy to see why given the success he has tasted at his local track.
The Ditcheat handler loves nothing more than mopping up big races at the Somerset course and that has certainly been the case with the Elite Hurdle down the years. Nicholls has tasted glory in the Grade Two race on no less than seven occasions during his career with Irving the last of those back in 2015.
The Champion Trainer has two major contenders this season in the form of Grand Sancy and Quel Destin but only one will run given they both carry the same colours. Both horses have the ideal profile for an improving Nicholls horse to run well in the Elite Hurdle but of the two it would be the hardy Grand Sancy who would be preferred as long as the ground wasn't too soft with the five-year-old an excellent winner of the Kingwell Hurdle over the same course and distance as recently as February.
Christopher Wood has to be respected if he turns up form Nicholls but isn't a certain runner, while Beat The Judge and Brandon Castle are unlikely to be good enough on all known form despite the fact they could enter the frame if they take a step forward.
This looks likely to be another Paul Nicholls v Nicky Henderson clash as the two old rivals both look to pick up a race they have tasted success in before. On this occasion it could be Henderson that has the trump card with Fusil Raffles an intriguing prospect both in the Elite Hurdle and also in the longer term. The unexposed animal will need to be high class to win a race like this first time out but the early signs are good and a strong performance this weekend could see the horse enter the outskirts of the Champion Hurdle picture for 2020.