The unbeaten Altior returns to action in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on Saturday looking to maintain his air of invincibility following wind surgery.
Nicky Henderson’s would-be superstar has a question to answer perhaps for the first time over fences, having missed his intended comeback in the Tingle Creek and subsequently undergone a procedure to help his breathing.
Will he be as good as before, and, more pertinently for Newbury, can he produce his best stuff on his first run since Aintree in the spring? These are the questions being asked ahead of an eagerly anticipated reappearance.
Altior is 4/7 to maintain winning ways (he went off at 30/100 when winning the race as a novice last year) and will take some amount of stopping if anywhere near his best.
Just two rivals square up to him and, on paper at least, the Paul Nicholls-trained Politologue is the only one likely to serve it up to him.
In Altior’s absence, the Ditcheat inmate has been making hay. He won the Tingle Creek and followed up even more impressively at Kempton over Christmas.
If there is now a chink in Altior’s armour, or any hint of rustiness, the mount of Sam Twiston-Davies is sure to take advantage at odds of 6/4 and Nicholls is bullish in terms of how far his improved seven-year-old can climb this season in the two-mile chasing division.
Following that race is Britain’s most valuable handicap over hurdles, the Betfair Hurdle, which has attracted a maximum field of 24 and goes to post at 15:35.
Nicky Henderson has won this contest five times and the Seven Barrows handler aims five at the target here. Jenkins is a reformed character of late and finally living up to his reputation but must defy top-weight in this competitive contest. Verdana Blue, under the capable hands of Davy Russell, at 12/1 could be the one to go close for the champion trainer.
The money has come for Irish Roe, now the 8/1 clear favourite. Peter Atkinson’s mare advertised her credentials at Doncaster last month behind Maria’s Benefit in a Grade 2 and, with her handicap mark untouched, has seemingly strong claims of going one better at Newbury.
My idea of the winner is the Gary Moore-trained Knocknanuss, priced at 14/1 to win the Betfair Hurdle. He had any amount up his sleeve when landing a Fontwell handicap on Boxing Day and remains on a mark that ties in with six of the last nine winners of this race.
Adding to his appeal, his trainer is bidding to land the Betfair Hurdle for the fourth time in 11 renewals and he should go close with Moore’s son Jamie booked to do the steering.
Later on the Newbury card, Lovely Job is fancied to run a big race in the Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase (16:10) at an each-way price of 13/2.
Fergal O’Brien’s runner was progressive over fences through 2017, posting figures of 12121, and returns from a short break just 5lb higher than when winning at Taunton last time out.
With his trainer boasting a 38% strike rate (5-13) over the previous fortnight, another bold bid from Lovely Job is deemed likely and he should be in the first three.
The Dan Skelton-trained Value At Risk has been frustrating over fences with just one win from six attempts thus far. He’s been accused of a poor attitude on occasion but, sporting first-time blinkers, no one could suggest he was anything but game when winning over hurdles at Doncaster in December.
A replication of that attitude should make him hard to beat back over fences in the Warwick Castle Handicap Chase (15:15), where he is rated a 10/3 chance to score.
Adding to his prospects, he reverts to chasing rated 8lb lower than when winning last time out on Town Moor and he is worth a chance at Warwick on these terms.
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