It's a stupendous nine-race card at Cheltenham tomorrow (Saturday), as the traditional Trials Day has inherited two races, most notably the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase from Ascot's abandoned fixture a fortnight ago.
Without wishing to belittle what is essentially a mini-Festival in its own right, this Trials Day card may offer pointers towards the chances of runners whose next engagement will be six weeks hence at the same venue. Here is how it has played out in recent seasons...
Finesse Juvenile Hurdle (Grade 2)
The Finesse Juvenile Hurdle kicked off a compelling afternoon last season, with 25/1 outsider Protek Des Flos outstaying his rivals on heavy ground. He led home a 123 for French-bred and -raced horses but did not take his chance at the Festival. However, the second and third, Clan Des Obeaux and Consul De Thaix both did run in the Triumph Hurdle, finishing sixth and tenth on much quicker ground.
A year earlier, Peace And Co had prevailed on soft ground on Trials Day and doubled up in a soft ground Triumph, albeit as the 2/1 favourite.
It came up heavy in 2013 and 2014 at this January meeting, so no real surprise that the Finesse winners, Rolling Star and Le Rocher respectively, failed to feature in the Triumph: Le Rocher didn't show while Rolling Star was beaten into sixth behind the brilliant but ill-fated Our Conor on good to soft ground.
In 2012, the ground was good to soft in January and good in March, and Trials Day victor, Grumeti, ran well in third on Festival Friday, again as favourite.
A year earlier, Steve Gollings' Local Hero claimed Finesse glory and, on similar ground, ran a reasonable ten-length eighth of 23 at 20/1.
Finesse Hurdle (Grade 2) Summary
Prior to Peace And Co, we have to go all the way back to 2007, and the loveable Katchit, for the previous Finesse/Triumph double winner. In the interim, Kempton's Adonis Hurdle and Leopardstown's Spring Juvenile Hurdle - both run in February - have emerged as the top trials for the Triumph Hurdle. However, when Trials Day has been run on decent ground, as it will be this year, the winner has tended to run very well on similar underfoot at the Festival.
Novices' Handicap Chase
This competitive handicap chase, run over an extended two and a half miles, has offered numerous Festival pointers, though typically not from the race winner. Such is the game of cat and mouse between connections and the handicapper in the run-up to middle March!
Last year, Un Temps Pour Tout could muster only fourth, beaten sixteen-plus lengths. But, come Festival Tuesday, he romped seven lengths clear of Holywell, and nine and more clear of the other 21, to bolt up in the Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase on a quicker surface, at 11/1.
The year before, Generous Ransom won the January contest by small margins from Astigos and Irish Cavalier. Two months later, in the novices' handicap chase at the Festival, the Cavalier reversed placings, also at 11/1.
Nothing much of note in 2014, but in 2013 Vino Griego won the January contest before running a gallant second in the Byrne Group Plate on Festival Thursday (at, you guessed it, 11/1), and managed to sneak in an Ascot win in between. The third placed horse, Battle Group, skipped Cheltenham but actually won TWO races at the Aintree meeting of that year!
Further back, in seventh, was Rajdhani Express, who came back to win the novices' handicap chase at the Festival on soft ground, having been beaten 151 lengths on heavy. There, he beat Ackertac a neck. That horse was fifth at 40/1 on Trials Day before getting chinned at 66/1 in Raj Express's Festival win.
Novices' Handicap Chase Summary
The message here seems pretty clear. Plenty are having a prep run, with three horses placed second to seventh in the Trials Day novices' handicap chase winning at the Festival six weeks later. Two more ran second. Watch out for the also ran's using Trials Day for an, erm, trial.
Grade 3 Handicap Chase
This has been won by some smart horses in recent times - Annacotty twice, Wishfull Thinking twice, and The Giant Bolster since 2011 - but how does it rank as a Festival prep?
Not very well is the short answer, and that makes sense when you think about it. Unlike the novices' race, where plenty are still able to mask their ability to some degree, here we are dealing with more established - and exposed - handicappers. The better ones have been aimed at the Ryanair, the poorer ones have not had enough in hand to get competitive against those campaigned more wilily (is that a word?!) in Festival handicaps.
Grade 3 Handicap Chase Summary
A betwixt and between sort of race in terms of a Festival trial, and one where the form may generally be downgraded in March.
Cotswold Chase (Grade 2)
This may be unfairly described as a plodders' paradise, but its bearing on the Gold Cup tends to support that unkind monicker. Last year, Smad Place was a good winner - after Djakadam departed mid-race - and I got suckered into an each way bet for the GC. Smad Place could do no better than sixth in the big race in March, continuing a run of beaten Cotswold Chase winners in the Gold Cup stretching back to Looks Like Trouble in 2000.
Djakadam however did run second in the Gold Cup, as he had done a year before, and a certain Thistlecrack - odds on favourite for the Gold Cup already - is scheduled to face the starter tomorrow.
Forgetting the future for a moment and focusing on this weekend's race, there look to be a couple who could take Thistlecrack on early - Smad Place and Silviniaco Conti - which could put the brilliant Colin Tizzard-trained horse under hitherto unasserted pressure. How he jumps in such circumstances will be fascinating.
This is also further than he's raced before, though he's never looked to have suspect stamina.
From a future form perspective, what may be more interesting is that two winners - Neptune Collonges and Many Clouds - have gone on to win the Grand National either the same, or the following, season.
Cotswold Chase (Grade 2) Summary
The balance of 21st century history suggests the Cotswold Chase is a poor trial for the Gold Cup. But rarely, if ever during that time, will it have been graced by a horse of such class and potential as Thistlecrack. He has to stand up this time to win, most likely, and perhaps the same again in March. It figures to be his sternest fencing examination to date given the battle-hardened stout-staying street fighters against which he'll line up. And I'm very much looking forward to it!
Classic Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2)
The extended two and a half mile novices hurdle has only been in inception since 2005, and there was no race in 2006, meaning just eleven renewals to date. But during that time, it has established itself as a top class portender of Festival credentials.
Last year, Yanworth was highly impressive on Trials Day before running a quarter mile further than anything else under an 'artisanal' ride (think, botched improvisation on the big stage) in the Neptune at the Festival. He finished second, beaten less than two lengths, making it hard to avoid the suspicion that he ought to have won.
Back in second in that heavy ground Trials Day slog was Shantou Village, and he was sent off favourite for the Albert Bartlett (known affectionately as 'the potato race'). But the exertions of his prep run seemed to take their toll as Neil Mulholland's charge was pulled up on Festival Friday.
In 2015, Ordo Ab Chao was a surprise winner on soft ground. He could fare no better than seventh in the Neptune on quicker turf. Nothing else from the top six has done anything of note since. But, in seventh, was a certain Thistlecrack, who skipped Cheltenham's Festival to embark upon his new superstar career by romping away with the Grade 1 Sefton Novices' Hurdle at Aintree.
Another footnote from the race was Colin Tizzard's other entry, Native River, who fell two out when holding every chance. Like the winner, he too was a 16/1 shot that day, but is now no better than ten points shorter for the Gold Cup itself. Between then and now he ran midfield in the Albert Bartlett before his conversion to fences heralded that rapid elevation in rating.
The 2014 field was thin and weak, Red Sherlock seeing off Rathvinden, the pair mustering just three subsequent runs between them. In fairness, one of the trio was Rathvinden's third place finish in the Neptune six weeks later.
2013 was At Fisher's Cross's year. Rebecca Curtis's star beat a small but select field, with the next three places filled by, in order, The New One, Coneygree and Whisper. At Fisher's Cross doubled up in the potato race, and subsequently made the first four in the next two World Hurdles in spite of some terrible back problems.
The New One has run commendably in Grade 1 hurdles since, amassing most of a million quid in prize money; and Coneygree showed his superb talent when not injured by barrelling to an all-the-way pillar to post victory in the 2015 Gold Cup.
Neither of the first two in 2012 were seen at the Festival, and a big field offered testimony to the lack of a standout performer.
Classic Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2) Summary
A touch hit and miss, when this race - registered as the Classic Novices' Hurdle - has been good, it has been very good. Without the aid of the proverbial crystal ball, it is hard to say which way this renewal will go; but I have the suspicion that Wholestone might be pretty smart. And, if he wins, it's worth having a pound each way on Peregrine Run - the only horse to beat Wholestone in his last four starts - for the Neptune. Nigel Twiston-Davies' charge would be more feasible for the Albert Bartlett, I suspect.
Cleeve Hurdle (Grade 2)
A trial for the World Hurdle. Or the Stayers' Hurdle, nomenclature to which it will revert under sunbets' stewardship this season. Thistlecrack waltzed away with this last year before waltzing away with the stayers' crown less than two months later.
Cole Harden was only fourth in the 2015 renewal before a wind operation helped bring about the requisite improvement to claim World Hurdle glory.
The year before that was More Of That's stayers' crown, though that fellow completed his track preparation a month earlier in Cheltenham's Relkeel Hurdle. The Cleeve that season (2013/14) was a 'changing of the guard' as Big Buck's finally relented and George Charlton and Jan Faltajsek had a well deserved moment in the sun with the titanium tough Knockara Beau.
Big Buck's won the Cleeve in 2009 and 2012, the only two years prior to 2014 that he entered, normally wrapping up his winter business in the Relkeel in December.
In the pre-BB era, it was Inglis Drever who prevailed for a third time in the Stayers' Hurdle as he notched the Cleeve-Stayers' double in 2008, having run second in the previous Cleeve en route to his middle Stayers' crown.
Cleeve Hurdle (Grade 2) Summary
This is a very good trial for the Stayers' Hurdle. Most Stayers' winners to contest the Cleeve won it, but both Inglis Drever (second time around) and Cole Harden were beaten in the trial before reversing form in the main March event. So it is certainly worth considering those within hailing distance of the winner for a possible spot of Festival value.
Trials Day Conclusions
Naturally we'll all be wiser after Saturday's mega card. In this post I've tried to flag a few under the radar runners who will emerge from the non-winners, and who might be expected to progress between now and the Cheltenham Festival itself.
I will be especially interested in the five or six behind the winner (who will succumb to an inevitable penalty) in the novices' handicap chase, though beware the dangers of trying to second guess in which heat they'll actually take part.
Elsewhere and we don't need history to tell us that strong performances from the likes of Unowhatimeanharry and, most notably, Thistlecrack give them big chances in the Championship events.
The Classic Novices' Hurdle looks hard to predict, while the Grade 3 handicap chase has not been a strong pointer to the Festival. And when the Finesse Juvenile Hurdle has been run on decent ground it has usually thrown up a solid contender for the Triumph Hurdle, though rarely at a value price.
I have not covered the Clarence House or the Cross Country race, both borrowed from other fixtures, though there will be strong Festival contenders emerging from the pair, perhaps particularly the Cross Country handicap chase.