11.30 - British EBF 'National Hunt' Novices' Hurdle (2m1f)
A six-runner field for the opening contest as Cheltenham gets underway with an early start on Friday. A trio of these are very interesting and it will be something of a surprise should the winner not come from Any News, Make Me A Believer and LUCKY ONE.
The first-named won an Exeter bumper in October on his rules bow having undergone wind surgery following one point-to-point run last year. He supplemented that with a clear-cut hurdles success at Bangor (2m½f, soft) last month but there wasn't a great deal of substance to that race and his main market rival was let down by the jumping. There's clear potential for better but this test should be a good deal tougher for the likely market leader.
Make Me A Believer waited 376 days following a Chepstow bumper win last October to see a hurdle and duly finished second at Lingfield (2m3½f, good to soft) seven weeks ago for David Pipe. He split subsequent hurdles winners that afternoon and has undergone wind surgery since, though the drop in trip isn't an obvious plus for him.
Lucky One has been forced to wait for his time to come. The Authorised gelding twice went close for Guillaume Macaire in France before joining Willie Mullins. He'd only manage one run in Ireland, finishing fourth over 2m4f at Punchestown back in the spring after 464 days out, before his owners made the switch to Paul Nicholls - amongst a large number of Sullivan Bloodstock horses that moved to Ditcheat from Ireland's champion trainer this summer.
After seemingly needing the run at Hereford on return, he was a shade too keen at Uttoxeter (2m4f, good to soft) in finishing second to debutant What About Time last month but has since breezed up to win a Southwell maiden (2m, good to soft) without coming off the bridle. There may be plenty more to come now Nicholls has got him firing and he can land the Cheltenham opener on the back of that polished performance.
12.05 - International Decorative Surfaces Novices' Chase (3m1f)
The best of Hold The Note's form over fences would undoubtedly point to him having sound claims and he was placed at The Festival here in March over 2m4f behind the smart Imperial Aura. His two starts back at Wetherby and Newbury over this sort of trip have been a tad underwhelming however and more is demanded now in a first-time visor.
Fabulous Saga was a smart novice hurdler for Willie Mullins and now debuts over fences for new handler Paul Nicholls. He's worth a look but more than 1000 day have gone by since we last saw him on track and so a watching brief is advised on this return.
A winning start over fences at Stratford for Happygolucky was laced with promise in October but Kim Bailey's charge has been turned over since by Getaway Trump at Fakenham (2m5f, good). The winner didn't do the form any favours next time at Newbury, though perhaps this increased trip at a track where he twice performed well over hurdles will see David Bass' mount in a better light and he cannot be discounted.
L'AIR DU VENT had The Mighty Don back in third when opening his account over fences at the second time of asking at Exeter (3m, soft) 19 days ago. The latter is 5lb better off for a ten-length defeat but Colin Tizzard's charge might be about to start delivering on his potential.
After a good hurdles debut here last autumn he didn't exactly build on that in two further starts in good races. He may have needed the run on return at Chepstow (plenty of Tizzard's string have this season) but he well and truly turned the tables on winner The Wolf in that Exeter success and is capable of further progress in the hands of the excellent Robbie Power.
12.40 - Catesby Handicap Hurdle (2m1f)
Lots of chances in a big field of contenders. Tegerek was a winner at the Showcase Meeting in October here and showed himself to good effect from 8lb higher when taking third in last month's Greatwood Hurdle. Another 3lb rise over this marginally increased trip ought not to take him out of contention.
Benny's Bridge was behind him here in October but boasts C&D-winning form and should be sharper for that comeback run, while Nordic Combined is handed place claims.
Breffniboy and Sarasota Star have become accustomed to winning of late, the former rises another 6lb in the ratings, but Martin Keighley's improving youngster is unpunished for his latest Carlisle success and Rex Dingle can now utilise his claim. They are on shortlist and may seek to play their hand late in the day.
Crooks Peak is very interesting on first start for Dan Skelton going back over hurdles. He's had a wind op since last out and almost certainly can go well from his current mark - any market support must be noted.
A chance is handed to HAAFAPIECE in a wide open contest. He notched wins at Huntingdon and Fakenham to end last season and has twice been placed this season at Wetherby in decent races. He comes here from an unchanged mark of 130 and, if taking to this circuit, could have a say again with Gina Andrews back on board and taking a handy 3lb off.
1.15 - CF Roberts Electrical & Mechanical Services Mares' Handicap Chase (2m4½f)
BLACK TULIP has twice run well at this course in as many previous visits, including finishing second in this race in 2018, and may well be primed to go one better now.
Henry Daly's mare really appeared to benefit from an aggressive ride at Uttoxeter (2m6½f, soft) in October and it can only be hoped that Richard Patrick (takes over in the saddle now) will deploy similar tactics here. His mare has gone up 5lb for that last-time-out success but remains 4lb lower than when taking second in this two years ago and should give a good account.
Penalised Leicester winner Agent Valdez cannot be discounted for the reliable Fergal O'Brien/Paddy Brennan axis, while Arian has won both starts since joining Philip Hobbs and can remain a factor despite the 7lb rise she must overcome following last month's Warwick win.
Nigel Twiston-Davies' Bit On The Side ran well on chase debut at Fakenham (second). Her subsequent effort in a Market Rasen Listed affair over three-miles is best forgiven as she was never quite at ease following an early mistake and probably didn't relish the trip in any case. She might do better.
1.50 - Fitzdares Club Loves The Peterborough Chase (Grade 2, 2m4f)
FANION D'ESTRUVAL ran very well in second behind race-fit Magic Saint at this track over shorter last month and Venetia Williams' charge has the scope to relish this longer journey judged on his form in France. Magic Saint ran well since at Ascot behind some progressive rivals in a good race and there should be some improvement to come from Charlie Deutsch's mount now. He's the youngster in the line-up here but could take the measure of these older rivals.
Top Notch won this race last year (at Huntingdon) but Nicky Henderson's runner lacks a recent run this time around and that's a concern in what generally looks a stronger renewal.
Kalashnikov is interesting after a recent pipe-opener over hurdles while there are real questions to answer for his old foe Glen Forsa after a tired fall in the Haldon Gold Cup on this seasonal return.
Mister Fisher was pulled up in the Paddy Power Gold Cup here last month on his comeback but, if coming on for that, has the quality to be a factor as he gives the Henderson team a second string to their bow. Clondaw Castle won well at Newbury recently, though this is a tougher assignment on paper.
2.25 - Unibet Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 3m2f)
A smaller turnout than perhaps anticipated and a field that is fairly well exposed. Black Corton will run his race in all probability but whether he's got the Frodon-like quality to see off the challengers for Bryony Frost and Paul Nicholls is questionable under a welterweight.
The admirable West Approach is capable of going well if in the mood. He was third in this last year but chucked in the towel fairly readily here at the November Meeting and now finds himself on the 'naughty list' as a consequence.
Storm Control made all to win an amateur riders contest over a similar trip here last month and is entitled to fancy the job again from 6lb higher, but that form has been knocked around since.
This then can amount to some excellent placement for the raiding Irish mare COURT MAID. Trainer Tom Mullins wasn't in the least bit shocked when she took out a competitive Porterstown Handicap at Fairyhouse (3m5f, soft) in good style 12 days ago. That made it 3-4 over fences, with her only defeat coming when fourth behind the useful Pencilfulloflead at Punchestown last month.
This shorter trip poses no fears (2m5f winner on reappearance) and she has fairly solid credentials, having sampled this venue with a solid run at The Festival in 2019 when beaten 11-lengths as a 100-1 poke in the Mares' Novices' Hurdle. She can confirm her upwardly mobile profile with a victory here.
3.00 - Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase (3m6f)
Kingswell Theatre won over C&D last month making all the running and claiming, amongst others, the scalp of Festival winner Easysland. Sadly the French horse isn't coming for a rematch this time, trainer David Cottin aggrieved at the notion of conceding more weight to the horse that beat his charge four weeks ago.
There's no reason not to suggest the Scudamore's will have another good experience with Kingswell Theatre now and the race is rather denied some stardust with neither Easysland nor Tiger Roll present.
The dual Grand National winner is absent but there's a strong Irish presence in his stead. MY HOMETOWN was second in this two years ago off this mark and cannot be overlooked despite only a single run since. That came in a 2m hurdles contest at Tipperary after 676 days off and was surely a preparatory effort. Enda Bolger isn't quite able to farm these races as in days past, but he still knows the drill and his charge can go well.
Neverushacon was an easy scorer over the banks at Punchestown (heavy) on his return to action and will come here with strong claims. He ran well enough in this last year when fifth behind Easysland though could never land a blow as that rival won easily in March. He could yet improve his Cheltenham lot.
3.35 - Citipost Handicap Hurdle (3m)
Unowhatimeanharry rolled back the years to win at Aintree last month on his seasonal reappearance. That was a heart-warming success and a 3lb rise looks spot on, while his rider's claim continues to ensure he isn't lumping too much weight around the place.
His record here outside of graded company was very strong in bygone days but, as he reaches 13 next month, some degree of caution is almost certainly warranted.
Perhaps Mohaayed, second in that Aintree contest, is the one to take away. That was a first crack at this trip for Dan Skelton's charge and a mark of 141 sees him perfectly well treated, though he'll have to properly prove his stamina up this steep run-in.
Dell' Arca has traditionally been more miss than hit at this venue and so his recent revival may be halted here.
COME ON TEDDY makes an appeal for trainer Tom George after a comeback effort at Uttoxeter 19 days ago that should have helped his fitness no end. He won decisively at Market Rasen in February over just shy of three-miles and remains fairly low-mileage. A mark of 127 is within his reach and there could be plenty more to come at this trip.
Grade 2 course and distance winner Agrapart has scope for place money back into a handicap with Chester Williams' claim a help to him. Any rain that arrives before the off will only serve to benefit the mud-loving nine-year-old.