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1.00 - Virgin Bet Silver Bowl Handicap Chase (2m4½f)
There was nothing of the sort at Cheltenham this week for British trainers, but this is a walkover for MARRACUDJA. This is a consolation race for horses balloted out of handicap chases at this week's Cheltenham Festival, and unfortunately, Dan Skelton's charge emerged as the only eligible runner, ensuring the prizemoney is his.
1.30 - Virgin Bet Novices' Hurdle (2m)
The Paul Nicholls-trained Flic Ou Voyou really began this season in fine fettle. After posting form figures of 23222 in his first season over hurdles and earning a tag of 'nearly-man', he romped to victory at Chepstow (2m, good) on his return from a wind operation in the autumn.
Further successes at Newton Abbot and Wincanton soon followed before he disappointed somewhat on soft ground at Haydock in November. He was no match for Third Time Lucki over C&D on Boxing Day (that rival is set to contest the County Hurdle at Cheltenham on Friday) but that was a fair effort.
He has been turned over as odds-on favourite in a jumpers' bumper here last month. Drying ground now looks in his favour and he'll be helped by Angus Cheleda claiming 7lb from his back.
STRAW FAN JACK is likely to edge the Ditcheat runner for favouritism. He's making admirable progress over timber, winning at Hereford (2m3f, good to firm) and Aintree (2m1f, soft) either side of what was a gallant second to promising rival Fifty Ball (also County Hurdle-bound) at Ascot.
He does have an odd quirk, having proved reluctant to line-up ahead of that Aintree success in December, but he came home miles clear of a pair of next-time-out winners that afternoon on soft ground and promises to thrive on this drying surface. That powerful display at Aintree holds in the mind and, coming here fresh, Sheila Lewis' charge is the one to beat.
Pasvolsky is not without a chance for Chris Gordon. After success in a good-ground Wincanton bumper in November, he took a Fakenham maiden hurdle (2m, soft) at the first time of asking in November. He gave best to a Dan Skelton-trained rival with plenty of experience in Marada when second at Huntingdon 13 days ago and there's more progress in him. Royaume Uni won an all-weather bumper last time out and Gary Moore's charge is worth monitoring in the betting.
2.05 - Virgin Bet Novices' Limited Handicap Chase (2m)
Seven runners go in this and it looks tough to rule any of them out. ONTHEFRONTFOOT might be the answer for Donald McCain. He won his maiden/novice hurdles on good ground and should be suited here by drying conditions.
He ran sound races at Ludlow (2m) and Sedgefield (2m3½f) earlier in the season and was put away for the depths of winter. He's fit after a trio of starts in all-weather bumpers up at Newcastle and both those hurdles wins came in the spring time, so this could be the right time to side with him in an open event.
The big danger could be Doukarov, winner of 2-3 starts since going chasing this season. He scored at Taunton on debut in this sphere in November and again last month at Leicester where he made every yard. His Wetherby setback came in a race won by progressive Funambule Sivola and while he's been put up 10lb for that win at the start of the month, this mark should be within his range.
Peterborough's three-race winning sequence over fences was snapped when disappointing in that Taunton race won by Doukarov in November. He's been off since and enjoys a nice turnaround at the weights in his bid to avenge that defeat. He did win off a similar break last time but will again be subjected to the attentions of his old foe if wanting to make the running.
Havana Hermano can be an in-and-out character but a repeat of the level of form shown when second to Amoola Gold at Wetherby in October would have him going close. After a short break, he ran well in third in a jumpers' bumper here last month.
2.40 - Virgin Bet Silver Plate Handicap Hurdle (2m5f)
Nightboattoclyro arrives here seeking a four-timer and must be respected. He's a strong-travelling sort and is not certain to be halted by the 6lb rise for last month's Wetherby win. He's been doing his best work on slower surfaces than he might get today and is opposable in a competitive field.
Vive Le Roi is now 9lb lower in the ratings than when he finished second in the 2020 Lanzarote Hurdle over this course and distance. He's not really looked like winning this season but has run in some good company and, clearly, has slipped to the sort of mark he can exploit soon.
Paul Nicholls saddles a pair of runners in Diese Des Bieffes and SWITCH HITTER, the latter being partnered by Bryony Frost. They won a C&D novice hurdle in November (good), form that was boosted by the winner scoring readily next time.
Switch Hitter contested a hot enough handicap back here on Boxing Day and was eventually a well held eighth, that race coming straight after Frost's heroics on Frodon in the King George. It's still early days over hurdles for this former point-to-point winner and it's probable there's plenty more to come from him.
Debestyman is also short-listed. He might well have won the Lanzarote Hurdle in which Vive Le Roi finished second had he not departed when leading late on. His Cheltenham second over this trip in October was promising and he moved well back there in December over three-miles before fading late on soft ground in a race won by On The Blind Side from this week's Cheltenham Festival winner Mrs Milner. Debestyman has had a short break since but certainly rates a danger back down in trip from a reduced mark.
3.15 - Virgin Bet Handicap Chase (2m4½f)
Last-time-out C&D scorer My Way and Smarty Wild (winner here in January) are likely to feature prominently in the betting. First-time blinkers really appeared to assist Bryony Frost's mount here three weeks ago and there could be further progress for their partnership - albeit a 9lb ratings-rise demands just that.
Smarty Wild was gutsy for his win here earlier in the year and has since run well enough from 7lb higher in a hot contest at Warwick where he finished fifth. The handicapper concedes him a pound for that defeat and it won't come as a surprise if he's in the mix late on.
FALCO BLITZ just about edges the verdict. His C&D second on Boxing Day reads well with the winner Killer Clown going close in the Greatwood Gold Cup this month at Newbury under a 15lb penalty and the likes of Alnadam and Galahad Quest subsequent winners. Nico de Boinville's mount meanwhile was a scorer at Southwell over this trip on soft ground last month.
He was set to win that contest with any amount in hand until mistake two out saw him nearly shoot his rider out the side door. He was cajoled home from there and the winning margin was less than three-lengths from the rallying Samarquand. The Seven Barrows inmate is 9lb higher but may still be ahead of the assessor given how easily he was going to win last time.
Oliver Sherwood's runner Vinnie The Hoodie can be a danger. He enjoyed a good time of it in the autumn, including a win at Uttoxeter on good ground and he ran well in decent company in two starts afterwards. His jumping does have room for improvement but he's on a tempting mark and has proven himself capable fresh before.
3.50 - Virgin Bet Free Bets For Winners Novices' Hurdle (2m5f)
Champagne Mystery reverts to hurdling after a fairly disastrous few months over fences. An Aintree win in November 2019 was promising and subsequent seconds behind Dashel Drasher and Greaneteen certainly did not lack positives either before he was pulled up at Cheltenham last March in the Novices' Chase won by Imperial Aura.
This season has been a different tale. He's not completed in any of three starts, including a fall and an unseat, that most recent mishap just this month when he was starting to retreat at Ludlow. Nicky Henderson turns to hurdles to boost that shattered confidence and if at his best, he's got fine claims but that's a leap of faith to take.
JEREMY PASS and Press Your Luck are better positioned. Chris Gordon's charge came up shy in a Grade 2 Ascot novice in December but had earlier won at Newton Abbot and Uttoxeter. His sights are lowered but he has a double penalty to carry.
November's Wincanton winner (2m5½f, good to soft) Jeremy Pass can strike for Paul Nicholls. Ascot in January proved too testing in soft ground but he has since finished a close third in a good Doncaster event over just shy of this trip. The front trio were a long way clear and Bryony Frost's mount can make the most of the 6lb he's getting from Press Your Luck.
4.25 - Virgin Bet Free Bets For Winners Handicap Chase (3m)
EBONY GALE recorded a first success over these obstacles at Taunton (3m, soft) at the beginning of the month for trainer Philip Hobbs. That victory came on the back of a wind operation and he travelled through the race like the best horse.
He'd have won a shade more cosily bar a couple of mistakes at his fences. He's been nudged up just 4lb for that win and won't have any worries on the slightly quicker surface forecast here. He has plenty of scope for better on this code and can defy the assessor as his jumping should continue to get better.
Big Difference has already finished second three times this season and is high on the dangers-list alongside What A Moment, David Pipe's charge having only been narrowly foiled in a three-way dive for the line at Plumpton (3m1½f, good, good to firm in places). He appeared to have his rivals cooked turning for home but was caught at the last, whereupon he rallied determinedly, just losing out in that Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Chase.
5.05 - Virgin Bet Maiden Open NH Flat Race (2m)
Not much to rely on form-wise with those that have run making little enough appeal. Having seen Wonderwall run with credit in the Champion Bumper on Wednesday, the same connections continue that Oasis-theme here and debutant ROLL WITH IT should have a say for a Richard Spencer team in form.
Wonderwall made a winning start at Ascot in November and this Sholokhov gelding makes plenty of appeal on paper. Walking On Air and Shallwehaveonemore are other notable newcomers but Sean Bowen's mount may be the headliner.