It is less than six weeks until the famous gates at Prestbury Park swing open to the public and the majority of horses are now wrapped in cotton wool before their big engagements.
This weekend presents us with our last opportunity to run the rule over some genuine Cheltenham Festival contenders.
All eyes will be firmly fixed on Newbury this Saturday afternoon as last season’s Queen Mother Champion Chase hero Sire De Grugy will be strutting his stuff for the first time this season after a lengthy absence due to muscular problems.
Trainer Gary Moore is hoping for a positive run from his stable star in order to set up a pulsating clash with the also returning Sprinter Sacre at Cheltenham in March, although he has warned he will not be at peak fitness on Saturday for the Betfair Price Rush Chase.
Moore said: “I’d be hopeful he was as good as he was. I would be very disappointed if he wasn’t. I don’t think he will go to Newbury as fit as he can be but it’s not all about Newbury is it?”
With doubts cast over Sire De Grugy’s fitness and with the race reopened on Monday due to a lack of entries, it may be worth siding with the only other confirmed runner, Mr Mole.
The quirky but talented Mr Mole has always had stacks of potential but it is only in his last two outings, when the Paul Nicholls-trained gelding has been ridden more positively, has he begun to show his true capabilities.
Nicholls said: “I’ve been tickled pink by the improved form of Mr Mole now that we have adopted more aggressive tactics with him over fences.
“I am looking forward to running Mr Mole on Saturday in the Betfair Price Rush Game Spirit Chase which has been chosen for the comeback of Sire De Grugy.”
Annually renowned as one of the toughest handicaps of the National Hunt season, this year’s renewal of the Betfair Hurdle seems very likely to live up to its reputation with a magnitude of top-class entries.
Nicky Henderson is a man on a mission in regards to winning this race as he sends out a likely four runners to try and win the race for the sixth time as a trainer.
Snake Eyes, Vasco du Ronceray and Dawalan should all head there with a sporting chance but it is his Sign Of Victory that I am very keen on.
Sign Of Victory is held in very high regard by his Seven Barrows handler and he still holds an entry in the Champion Hurdle.
How he runs on Saturday will determine which race he lines up at Cheltenham come March.
The key to this horse is decent ground which was clearly evident in his below- par performance when he was defeated by Champion Hurdle favourite Faugheen over Christmas on soft ground.
With the ground currently good to soft at Newbury and with the weather forecast not too bad for the coming week, Sign Of Victory should finally get his ground and show the racing public why Henderson holds such lofty ambitions for the six-year-old.
He said: “Sign Of A Victory is a better horse on good ground but we are pretty keen on running him in the Betfair Hurdle as there is nothing else before Cheltenham.
“He is still in the Champion Hurdle but we had funny issues, nothing to do with the horse, prior to Kempton and I cannot believe you saw him at his very best that day.
“The Betfair Hurdle is a great race with a great prize.
“Barry (Geraghty) was keen to come on to the Betfair Hurdle after he rode Sign Of A Victory at Kempton. If there was really bad ground, that would be a worry.”
The Paul Nicholls conveyor belt continues to churn out the big Saturday winners and with BetVictor this week already paying out on him to be crowned as champion trainer, he must be full of confidence heading into Saturday with the ante-post favourite Calipto.
David Pipe is doubly represented with Balgarry and Swing Bowler, as is local trainer John Quinn with Forced Family Fun and Chieftain’s Choice.
Willie Mullins is mob-handed with three entries and there are also entries from the Harry Fry, Dan Skelton, Tony Martin and Dr Richard Newland stables as the top trainers battle it out for one of the most competitive and valuable handicaps of the season.
Mr Mole, 3.00, Newbury, Saturday
Sign Of Victory, 3.35, Newbury, Saturday, 12-1