Ante-post favourite Metier heads 26 contenders in the hunt for Betfair Hurdle gold at Newbury.
Harry Fry’s charge was last seen when winning the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown at the start of January, extending his unbeaten record over obstacles to three in the process.
He has dominated the market for Saturday’s big handicap ever since, although he is set to shoulder 11st 9lb – behind top weight Buzz on 11st 12lb.
Fry has another string to his bow in Lightly Squeeze – while Dan Skelton’s Cadzand, the Alan King-trained Edwardstone and Jonjo O’Neill’s Soaring Glory are others prominent in the betting.
O’Neill has also left in Sky Pirate, who has alternative weekend engagements over fences in both the Game Spirit Chase on the same card and the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick.
Nicky Henderson has Mister Coffey in contention along with Buzz, while Chris Gordon is another who could be double-handed via Highway One O Two and Annual Invictus.
Paul Nicholls has three to pick from in Friend Or For, Thyme White and Wild Max – as does Evan Williams, leaving in Ballinsker, Dans Le Vent and Mack The Man, who still held every chance when brought down by the fall of Lightly Squeeze at the final flight last year.
Ben Pauling’s Shakem Up’Arry, owned by Harry Redknapp, chased home Metier in the Tolworth but has a 13lb pull at the weights.
“He’s in really good form, he’s been in good form all this season,” said Pauling, in a call hosted by Great British Racing.
“Harry was good enough to let me go over to Ireland and find him a good horse. He’s by Flemensfirth and has a proper jumping pedigree. He’s a big, raw horse – and it’s really been a patient game with this lad.
“We’re still having to be patient, we’ve kept him as a second-season novice. He probably would have won an egg-and-spoon race at Leicester but for tipping up – which for the way he jumps, is hard to believe.
“Obviously Metier came past us and won a shade cosily, but he had the rest of the field well beaten. It might not have been a vintage Tolworth – but looking back, it might not be as bad as people thought at the time.
“The likelihood is Daryl (Jacob) will ride again. He’s had a few different jockeys but we like to keep as consistent as we can. Daryl gets on well with him.
“I think this horse could be absolutely out of the top drawer next season. I think fences are what he wants and I really do think he’s got everything you need.”