It's the first big meeting of the National Hunt season, hosted... at Cheltenham, where else?
Headlined by the Paddy Power Gold Cup on Saturday, the Open meeting runs over three days and offers trainers the chance to get some match practice in way ahead of the Festival next March. But which handlers have their team ready to go here, and which may be hanging fire for bigger battles down the line?
Looking at the handicaps at this meeting since 2010 - five years' worth of data - reveals some interesting performers... and under-performers. Let's start with those who command a second glance.
3 Open Meeting Trainers to Follow
David Pipe doesn't seem that much like his old man, Martin, who revolutionized the game a generation ago when he introduced interval training. He's more affable, more owner-focussed and, according to the record at least, less obsessed by winners. But not at Cheltenham and not in November.
Pipe Senior loved this meeting, and David is a chip off the old block in that regard at the very least. Indeed, since 2010, he's saddled ten handicap winners, from 52 runners, for a profit of 67.5 points at starting price. Moreover, he's peppered the target in that time, with 23 of his 52 runners making the frame.
One point to note is that the group included 40/1 hurdle winner, Home Run, which does rather skew the figures. Nevertheless, the overall profile demands focus.
Our Dave kicks the meeting off with La Vaticane, the favourite in the opening handicap chase, before saddling top weight, Baraka De Thaix (3rd in the G2 Triumph Hurdle Trial on this card a year ago) in the novices' handicap hurdle at 3.25, and latterly legging up the excellent value David Noonan in the amateurs' handicap chase that closes the card.
Noonan will be riding The Geegeez Geegee on Monday all other things being equal, and he's one of the best amateurs around.
Entries for later in the week are yet to be confirmed at this stage, so keep 'em peeled - a comment that applies to all entries in these lists if you're sufficiently moved to track their progress.
Just me? Philips Hobbs and Wallace...
Hobbs, the Minehead Maestro, has been in scintillating form in the early weeks of the season. In fact, he's been performing at a 25% clip over the past six months, which is phenomenal.
At this particular meeting, the perma-titfered Wallace lookalike has bagged a fairly unspectacular four handicap winners from 39 runners (10%), but has added another six placed horses to that tally (25%).
In profitability terms, Hobbsy (as he's almost certainly known to nobody) has snaffled 15 points at SP and something closer to 40 at Betfair SP, courtesy of three nicely priced winners in the last two years.
Friday sees Allthekingshorses test the oppo for stable mate, Balthazar King, in the Cross Country Handicap Chase; Ink Master attempt to harness the power of the O-pen (certainly not the power of the pun after that crowbarred effort!) in the novices' handicap hurdle; and Return Spring bid for a return to the winners' enclosure at a meeting where he scored two years ago.
Significantly lower profile than the first pair, Mulholland has had an affinity with Cheltenham since his Midnight Chase recorded a superb five wins at the track. Just five handicap starters since 2010 at this meeting have yielded form figures of 11002 and a profit of 12 units at SP.
He's represented by Minella Present, the type of progressive novice that does well here, in the opener; and may run Fingerontheswitch in the conditional jockeys' handicap hurdle on Sunday.
3 Open Meeting Trainers to Beware
The folly of nominating trainers with poor records off small sample sizes is franked repeatedly, so please don't go laying this trio for the mortgage. However, each has a far better record at the Festival in March than the Open Meeting in November, and that may be more than mere coincidence.
Venetia is in great form just now, with six winners in the last week. But her record in handicaps at this particular meeting is a lamentable zero from thirty. Or, as they say in the States, "o'fer" (as in O, or 0 more correctly, for x, where x is the number of losers!).
Worse still, La Williams has had just one horse from that score and ten hit the board, for a place lay profit of 25.05 units, according to horseracebase.com
8/1 chance, The Clock Leary, kicks V's 'cap team off in the opener, and she also saddles bottom weight, Eco Warrior, in the novices' handicap hurdle. Further possibles through the weekend include Rigadin de Beauchene and Bennys Mist on Saturday. Good luck if you like any of these - you may need it.
Everyone knows about Jackdaws Jonjo's record at the Festival. But maybe not everyone knows how limited his success has been at the November gathering. He has actually had a pair of winners, which is two more than VW. But they've come at a cost of 26 losers, 24 of which were unplaced.
That equates to a place lay profit of 14.22 if Horseracebase.com's calculations are to be believed.
JP's trusted lieutenant is as wily as they come despite a demeanour of innocence presumably acquired from his little known convent days (not really), and there is usually another day for most of his beaten runners, such is the trainer's talent.
He won't trouble us during the first of the three sessions, but may have any of Upswing, Johns Spirit, Milan Bound, Fort Worth and Hedley Lamarr entered on Saturday; and Mad Jack Mytton and Don Padeja on Sunday.
Alan King is another big gun who has hardly had the best of it in recent times at this particular fixture. Like Jonjo, he's managed to win two handicap races but, like Jonjo, they have come at the cost of fairly hefty collateral damage. Like Jonjo, he's managed but two further placed runners, this time from 26 saddled 'cappers since 2010.
The place lay kitty swelled by a satisfying 11.33 for those clairvoyant enough to envisage this half a decade ago. For the rest of us, there is a heavy note of caution in those data if tempted to side with a King runner, regardless of how things pan out this time around.
The Duke's apprentice (David Nicholson was his guv'nor when he was a mere best boy) has nothing for Chelters on day one, but a raft of possibles over the weekend, including Sego Success, Annacotty and Turn Over Sivola. Tread on eggshells. Eggshells I say...
So there you have it. A thousand words of trainer quack stats. Miniscule sample sizes mean the scope for looking daft seeps out of every one of the sextet. And yet it will come as no surprise whatsoever if the former group persistently trouble the judge, while the latter group trouble what's known affectionately in cycling as the broom wagon.
It's a deeply competitive three day affair, so good luck to all however you play. The season starts here!
p.s. If you're having a cut at the placepot there this afternoon, Mal Boyle's placepot pointers will surely assist...
p.p.s. I've just heard from the chaps at Cleeve Racing that they're offering a special discount for new subscribers this weekend. Cleeve has an unbroken six year record of National Hunt profit, and are already well in front this fledgling season (+£460 to £20 level stakes)
Use the below codes on the checkout page (where it says 'Have a coupon?') to claim your discount:
Full season membership - cleeve£40 (£199 reduced to £159)
One month trial - cleeve£15 (£40 to £25)
Here's the registration link - do take a look.