If one of the higher rated horses in this line up can claim victory, then quotes will be shortened for the Champion Hurdle back around Cheltenham in four months’ time.
However, with the ground the way it is the handicap system comes into full effect and that has been reflected in the betting which has proven to be wide open. This is our dirty half-dozen with the ultimate selection set to go off at a nice price.
While not proven yet on heavy ground, the locally-trained Benny’s Bridge loves it round here and he should be well used to whatever conditions Cheltenham can throw at him.
Following a major gamble at the Showcase Meeting over this course and distance, Fergal O’Brien’s 6-year-old went second at the last despite being hampered and, even though he only hit the front with a half-furlong to go, romped away to win by eight lengths which shows not only his class, but also how well he sees out this course.
As long as he handles the more testing going, we should see further improvement from him and he’ll be hard to keep out of the first three.
While she finished last season on a low note and is 8lbs higher than when being held – albeit running well – in the County Hurdle, Nicky Henderson’s mare has shown a liking for softer ground and so it may be hoped that today’s conditions can bring out the best from her.
Having won two of her 6 hurdle races to date and having not been able to hide from the handicapper given her Cheltenham Festival form, it’s debatable whether she has anything in hand here but she’s a solid contender nonetheless.
Dame De Compagnie
While we like Countister, another thing that goes against her chances is the fact that JP McManus’ top rider Barry Geraghty has chosen to ride this one, and so she too has to make the shortlist.
Another mare trained by Nicky Henderson; they are close in the betting but given her Listed novice hurdle win round here back in the spring it’s felt Dame De Compagnie may just have a little more potential.
It’s always good to see horses going the right way and that’s certainly the case with Philip Hobbs’ Gumball after his Listed handicap hurdle success at Ascot.
The ground is somewhat of a mystery, but the grey is a great age for the Greatwood and clearly has potential, though whether after raising him 8lbs for his latest win means the handicapper has his measure has to also enter calculations.
Only a 4-year-old and with plenty still to learn, Paul Nicholls’ French import at least already has some experience having run twelve times over hurdles for the Ditcheat team.
Having won over this track and trip last month, and on heavy ground of course, his skillset clearly suits this race on paper with only his handicap mark (149) and his Grade 3-class opposition being potential blockers to him reaching his potential early.
Whatever happens today he is a very lively contender for the Festival in March, so keep an eye on his performance regardless of the result.
Quoi De Neuf
In terms of making his way up the ranks, Evan Williams’ horse’s progression is fine and he carries little weight here meaning he has a place chance.
While improvement is evident though, he is climbing the ladder while being beaten and so it’s easier for the handicapper to see exactly what level he is at and it has be believed that while he could run well, he probably doesn’t have enough in hand to take care of a classy field.
All of the above-mentioned contenders have some sort of chance, at least when it comes to running into a place but it is hard to get a handle on all of them and there may be some surprises.
The two solid options in the line-up however are the Paul Nicholls 4-year-old Quel Destin, and indeed his destiny may be to come back here in the spring when he’s more mature and grab one of the season’s biggest races, and Fergal O’Brien’s BENNY’S BRIDGE who may be just a little further along.
Priced more than fairly and probably having covered every blade of grass around Prestbury Park already, this won’t feel like too big a deal to Benny’s Bridge but he can provide us with a great value shout to win this.