Cheltenham Gold Cup contender Champ is set to face five rivals in the Betfair Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on Sunday.
Having been off the track since claiming a last-gasp victory in what is now the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, Nicky Henderson’s charge was originally due to make his long-awaited return in the three-mile Betfair Denman Chase.
However, with Newbury’s Betfair Super Saturday card pushed back eight days after the original fixture was frozen off, Henderson has decided to instead run Champ over an extended two miles in the Game Spirit, due to the meeting’s proximity to the Festival.
Henderson said: “Champ is absolutely flying at home, his prep has all gone to plan. Obviously, we changed the races and are going for the two-mile Betfair Game Spirit instead of the three-mile Betfair Denman, but we think it’s the right thing to do.
“He hasn’t run for nearly a year so it will be a less tough race over two miles than it would be over three. With less than four weeks until the Gold Cup, it’s getting a bit tight for him to have a hard race.
“It’s really great to have moved the meeting – I must say a huge well done to Newbury, Betfair, ITV and the BHA. These races are important.”
The likely favourite for the Grade Two contest is the Paul Nicholls-trained Greaneteen, who was last seen filling the runner-up spot behind stable companion Politologue in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December.
The Ditcheat handler also runs Dolos and Magic Saint, while Alan King is represented by the high-class Sceau Royal.
Fanion d’Estruval, trained by Venetia Williams, completes the sextet.
In Champ’s absence, Nicholls’ dual King George hero Clan Des Obeaux will be a warm order for the Denman Chase.
The nine-year-old could finish only third when bidding for a hat-trick at Kempton on Boxing Day, but is odds-on to win this prize for the second time, having struck gold two years ago when the race was run at Ascot.
Nicholls has a second string to his bow in Secret Investor.
Colin Tizzard’s Lostintranslation disappointed in the King George, just as he did last season, but undoubtedly has the talent to give Clan Des Obeaux a run for his money if he can bounce back to the form that saw him finish third in last year’s Gold Cup.
Amy Murphy steps stable star Kalashnikov up to three miles for the first time over fences, while David Bridgwater runs The Conditional in a bid to find out whether he deserves a tilt at Gold Cup glory.
Jeremy Scott has declared Dashel Drasher, but has confirmed he is set to take his chance in Saturday’s Betfair Ascot Chase.
Cepage (Venetia Williams) and Terrefort (Henderson) are the other hopefuls.
The most valuable race on the card is the £125,000 Betfair Hurdle, for which a maximum field of 24 runners are set to go to post.
Henderson, who has already won the race on five occasions, launches a three-pronged assault, with top-weight Buzz joined by Fred and Mister Coffey.
He said: “All three for the Betfair Hurdle are in great form at home. With the ground drying up, it was a slightly last-minute decision to declare Fred, but this has been the plan for Buzz and Mister Coffey all along.
“Kevin Brogan will ride Buzz and came down to sit on him last week, it’s great to have a top-class conditional on board, especially with Buzz being top-weight. I couldn’t pick between them – they’re all debating in the yard who will run best!”
Nicholls also has a trio of runners in Wild Max, Friend Or Foe and Thyme White.
Other leading fancies include Dan Skelton’s Cadzand, the Jonjo O’Neill-trained Soaring Glory and Edwardstone from Alan King’s yard.
Cadzand is on a hat-trick after wins at Warwick and Kempton, and Skelton said: “It’s great news the meeting has been rearranged, a huge well done to everyone at the BHA and Newbury for making sure these important races go ahead.
“Cadzand is ante-post favourite for the Betfair Hurdle, and we have had this race in mind for him for a while now. He looks well, I am happy with him, he jumped well this morning and is all set and ready to go.
“There will be no excuses for him on the day.”