Nicky Henderson has a very strong hand as he attempts to win the Coral Cup for the fourth time in 11 years, while Willie Mullins in typical style brings a veritable battalion to challenge for this £56,000 first prize.
It’s competitive of course, but just six live ones have made our shortlist and all have chances of sorts.
While his fifth on return to hurdling at Ascot in January didn’t show him to be of quite the same quality as in the past, he is bound to have improved from that run in this sphere so he cannot be ruled out in conditions that should suit him well.
Nigel Twiston-Davies’ gelding was on a mark of 152 going into this time of year in 2019, so off 149 and with his peak form probably not having been found yet at age seven with just 14 rules races under his belt he makes the shortlist.
A fascinating contender for the Henderson yard and one that was always held in high regard. An easy winner around Cheltenham last January in a novice hurdle, he has since tried chasing but will suit this much better.
He seems to possess the tactical speed needed in this event and could easily have been laid out for this race, but his 110 days off the track and the fact that Barry Geraghty goes for the yard’s mare instead just tempers enthusiasm for him a tad.
Consistent with three runner-up efforts after beginning the season with a course and distance novice win, there is more to be unlocked from Fergal O’Brien’s lightweight and it could happen here given that it’s a fast-paced handicap which we think will suit.
As well as winning he has also just about kept pace with Thyme Hill and Redford Road this term with any further improvement giving him a solid each-way chance.
Dame De Compagnie
Barry Geraghty’s choice despite the presence of Birchdale, Dame De Compagnie is another one with a big reputation and her form does largely back it up.
A Cheltenham winner twice over in minor meetings, she took care of Indefatigable last time out in a competitive mares’ hurdle who has gone on to win a Listed race since then, but while the race conditions look fine for her she’s not without her downsides.
Her last three races have come over a 23-month period which tends to show not all is right with her always, while despite the 16-runner field her race last time against mares won’t have been as competitive as this.
Franco De Port
Willie Mullins runs seven in this race with this one the choice of jockey Paul Townend and we can see why in all fairness.
Lightly raced and generally on the improve, the five-year-old could pull out more in these tough handicap conditions but he has to prove he can do it over this sort of trip for the first time and that is never guaranteed, no matter the trainer.
Another big improver, Dan Skelton’s runner is probably 20lbs better than he was when he last ran in a handicap, a second-place finish in a Listed race at Sandown in December.
Since then he’s won a 2½-mile Listed novice race around here and finished a 4½-length third to Harry Senior in a Grade 2, so while he has of course gone up in the handicap he looks very much as though he can pull out more than what we’ve seen before in this faster-paced race.
He’s getting quicker all the time in these race conditions, something that on the Old Course will be very much needed, so it’s easy to see him saving energy before getting into a good position on the turn and showing a decisive finishing kick under Harry Skelton.
Frightfully competitive as always, but contrary to popular belief it’s not the sort of race that go to just anything in the line-up.
Some speed is needed at the business end of the race to get into contention, class is required to see it out and a reasonable handicap mark is of course the final nail.
The one who we think has everything needed is PROTEKTORAT and his solid profile tips the scale here, while the JP McManus pair of Birchdale and Dame De Compagnie are of course still of interest. Champagne Well is the one at a bigger price who could run into a place.