Fusil Raffles is the favourite for the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton this weekend
Ahead of a key weekend over the Jumps, Alex Stearn looks at the five key talking points surrounding the action...
Is Present Man the gift that keeps on giving for Bryony Frost?
Wincanton host their feature meeting of the winter and despite the quality that could be on show, the biggest story of the day could come in the feature, the Badger Ales handicap chase. Bryony Frost and her beloved Present Man are seeking a hat-trick of wins in the race having teamed up for success in both 2017 and 2018. Now having to compete off 4lb higher than his victory last year, he was fairly comprehensive in his performance and the new mark doesn’t look insurmountable off the back of that. However, his form somewhat tailed off after that success and he did look to be struggling to find any sort of worthwhile form in his subsequent three starts.
This will be his second start after a wind operation so the Present Man supporters can pin their hope for more improvement on that but at the age of nine, he wouldn’t be the most obvious candidate. The owners of Present Man have links to the sponsor of the race meaning that Paul Nicholls isn’t going to have left him short of work in his bid for history in becoming the first three-time winner of the race, but they will be hoping that the forecast Saturday morning rain doesn’t materialise, with his best form coming on a sound surface, leaving him vulnerable to the younger legs in opposition.
Is Reserve Tank vulnerable again?
Colin Tizzard’s novice chasers were headlined by Reserve Tank after two victories at the highest level at both Aintree and Punchestown over hurdles but the story had to be somewhat re-written after being turned over at Chepstow Races on his chasing debut. He failed to see off the 10lb inferior Jarvey’s Plate, on ground that his rival isn’t at his best on, leaving connections scratching their head to what went wrong and his reputation suffered a minor dent. He will have to improve on that, which is entirely possible, to break his duck over fences with a notable challenger in the six strong field coming from a yard that will have gained a gauge on the quality needed to have his measure.
Paul Nicholls saddled the third in Reserve Tank’s chasing debut and with him not being scared to run quality at his local Wincanton, he saddles a novice chaser with plenty of scope for owners Highclere Thoroughbreds, namely If You Say Run. She steps into graded company on just her second start over fences and her first performance was one of significant potential.
After looking in trouble from around two out, she rallied after pinging the last fence and ended up winning by a very cosy six lengths - she looks to be one that can continue to improve at a rate of knots now tackling fences.
At the time, Nicholls’ horses were lacking on sharpness and with improvement expected, especially for her second run after a wind operation, she can claim victory and continue her perfect sequence over fences, whilst aiming to add to her handlers 35% strike rate at the track in the last five years.
Has Henderson got another champion hurdle contender?
Nicky Henderson threw French recruit Fusil Raffles into graded company for his first start on these shores and to say he made a sizeable splash in the pool of last seasons’ novice hurdlers is an understatement. Simon Munir and Isaac Souede’s star four-year-old turned the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton into a procession before a cut on his hind leg sustained in that victory ruled him out of the Triumph Hurdle. He also got rerouted from Aintree as connections favoured a trip of Ireland and were rewarded for that decision with him then making light work of a Grade 1 to win by nearly three lengths.
Now reappearing in the Grade Two Elite Hurdle at Wincanton, he looks to only have one rival to worry about in the shape of Grand Sancy and an impressive performance can see his rather juicy looking 14/1 ante-post price for the Champion Hurdle soon dry up with him being the first real contender to throw his hat into the ring.
Cepage to have the right combination of fitness and class?
Venetia Williams has her string in fine fettle recently and she brings back the progressive and lightly-raced chaser Cepage back from a 329 day lay-off. Last seen chasing home Frodon at Cheltenham in the Grade Three Caspian Caviar Gold Cup which has worked out to be a remarkably strong piece of form, well-advertised by the winners subsequent performances. He did put in a sour jump at the second last that day with the definite possibility that he may have well gone past the winner with a sweeter leap, leaves the overhanging question that he could also be a horse destined for success in graded company.
The handicapper only raised him 4lb for that performance, which may have looked steep at the time, but that now looks lenient and given his record when fresh, he can continue to progress by taking this handicap before aiming at bigger targets if he can be kept sound. Cepage, meaning the variety of grapes in a blended wine, looks to have a strong change and success can allow Venetia Williams a toast to herself with his victory at Aintree being a training performance of real quality.
One of last seasons’ star novice chasers that is taking a big role in shaping the 2020 Gold Cup market returns to action to headline Sunday’s card at Sandown. Santini, who contributed to arguably the race of the festival when a close second to Topofthegame is the RSA chase, drops into listed company for his seasonal reappearance and looks to have only Talkischeap to beat of the four runner field. Despite carrying an extra 2lb than his rival and being far more at home over the three mile trip, he should have enough quality and speed in his locker to see off that rival despite having not been seen since the festival.
Victory would be the only thing in connections mind to start off their season, with such a result unlikely to have a big effect on the Gold Cup market, but defeat would see his price somewhat inflate and could raise the slight overhanging doubt of whether he truly is a contender for the Cheltenham centrepiece.