Paul Nicholls expects to have a clearer idea of Cyrname’s potential targets for the rest of this season after he makes his reappearance in the bet365 Charlie Hall Chase.
The eight-year-old made a flying start to the last campaign when inflicting a first defeat over jumps on Altior at Ascot in November.
However, he was a disappointing favourite when stepped up to three miles for the first time in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, and was already back-pedalling when suffering a heavy final-fence fall in defence of his crown in February’s Ascot Chase.
With coronavirus-related travel problems putting paid to a planned trip to Down Royal this weekend, connections had the option of either heading to Wetherby for Saturday’s Charlie Hall or allowing Cyrname to concede lumps of weight to his rivals in the Sodexo Gold Cup at his beloved Ascot.
After deliberations during the week, Nicholls gave the green light for his charge to run in West Yorkshire – where both his stamina and his ability to race left-handed will be tested in a race his trainer won twice with See More Business and once with Silviniaco Conti.
Nicholls said: of Cyrname “He has never won left-handed, but I don’t see it being a problem now.
“He has gone three miles before, because he was second in the King George, but I don’t think he was right that day.
“He seems fine now. One thing he hasn’t done is have a racecourse gallop, which he did last year before Ascot. I had three pencilled in, but I’ve not been able to go anywhere because the ground has been so firm up until now.
“Whatever he does, he will improve a little bit because he has not quite had the prep he did before Ascot last year, when we knew he had to be ready to take on Altior.”
Considering plans beyond this weekend, Nicholls added: “It’s a long season.
“Last year we had him ready to win first time out – and then it fell apart. If he runs a big, tidy race and gets the three miles then we know we will be heading off to the King George – and if he doesn’t, we will find a different route.
“He does have to put in a big performance to justify his position (as the highest-rated horse in Britain). But he wasn’t quite right at Christmas in the King George, and the Ascot race came off the back of a hard race at Kempton, and it was very heavy ground.
“Hopefully we can get back on track on Saturday.”
Kim Bailey views the race as a “pivotal moment” in the career of his stable star Vinndication.
He was last seen finishing fourth in the Ultima Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, and his trainer is dreaming of a tilt at Gold Cup glory next March – but admits those ambitions hinge on his performance this weekend.
“He’s fit, the horses in the yard are running well – and if he’s ever going to be good enough to take on the top-class horses, it has to be on Saturday,” said Bailey.
“He won’t lack for fitness. His work has been very good this season, and he’s a stronger horse than he’s ever been before – I go there with confidence that the horse is in the best form he’s been in and it’s really a question now of whether he’s good enough.
“The Gold Cup is our number one aim. Saturday is a very big day for us because if he does fall flat on his face, we’ll have to look back towards handicaps, rather than Grade Ones – it’s a pivotal moment in the horse’s career.”
Jedd O’Keeffe’s Sam Spinner won his first three starts over fences last season, with two over course and distance followed by a wide-margin success in the December Novices’ Chase at Doncaster.
A pelvic injury meant he missed the rest of the season, but O’Keeffe could not be happier with his stable star as he prepares for his comeback.
“I’m very much looking forward to it, (but) I’m obviously slightly anxious because I want it all to go well,” said the Leyburn trainer.
“His preparation couldn’t have gone better – everything has gone absolutely perfectly and just how we wanted.
“The competition is obviously very stiff, but there’s no point hiding – we’ve got to get on with it and find out what he’s capable of.”
Last year’s Charlie Hall hero Ballyoptic returns to defend his crown for Nigel Twiston-Davies, while Brian Ellison’s 2018 winner Definitly Red is also in contention.
Twiston-Davies said: “He’s good. It’s probably a bit hotter race than it was last year, but never mind – we’ll have a go.
“He won the race last year, so we know he likes the track and he’s ready to go. The ground should be fine.”
The Warren Greatrex-trained La Bague Au Roi was a disappointing favourite for last year’s race and will line up as an outsider this time around, after finishing fourth on her return from a break at Perth last month.
Greatrex said: “La Bague Au Roi has had a run this year, which helps, and we’ve subsequently tinkered with her wind.
“Whatever that did, it seems to have ignited a flame somewhere – because she seems to be back to her best.
“She gets all the allowances and plenty of weight from others. I’m not saying she’s going to win, but I think she’ll put up a huge performance on Saturday from what I’m seeing at home.”
Greatrex also saddles Keeper Hill, of whom he added: “He seems in good shape. Mine have been needing the run a little bit, but he’s been trained to be as ready as he can for this.
“I wouldn’t expect him to win, but he’ll be dropped in and if they go too quick or something happens in front, he’ll be there to pick up the pieces.”