Ladbrokes Trophy Chase (Grade 3) | 3m2f | 4yo+ | ITV/RUK
Ireland's champion trainer Willie Mullins has never won the race formerly known as the Hennessy Gold Cup, with 15 years having passed since his Be My Royal passed the post in front before subsequently being disqualified after testing positive for a prohibited substance.
He returns with Total Recall and Pleasant Company as he bids to land both his first victory and the first running of the big race under its new title of the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase.
Total Recall joined Mullins after Sandra Hughes's decision to retire from training and the eight-year-old impressed on his first start for the yard when landing the Munster National by seven lengths under Ruby Walsh at Limerick in October. He races off an 18lb higher mark but Mullins reports Paul Townend's mount to be in great form.
"His preparation has gone very well and we're very happy with him," said Mulllins. He added: "Pleasant Company was going well in the Grand National until making a bad mistake. He hasn't run since but he's in good order and the dry week they've had should be a help."
Harry Fry has brilliantly managed the delicate American to win all three of his starts over fences.
Recurring knee problems mean he has been raced sparingly and so comes into the Ladbrokes Trophy without having run since March when he ran out a comfortable winner of a novice handicap chase at Uttoxeter.
Fry said: "We have to pick and choose our targets. It's a big ask in a hugely competitive handicap of this nature but I am very happy with him at home. He's had a couple of away days and he goes there with every chance.
"I don't want to sound too dramatic but we don't have the luxury of getting a prep run into him because we never know which race might be his last – he is that fragile. Rather than run him before we were keen to target a good one and go from there. He has done all the work we have wanted at home and we are happy with him."
Singlefarmpayment has won only once over fences but is riding high in the betting on the strength of what he has done in defeat.
He was beaten a short head in the Ultima Handicap Chase at last season's Cheltenham Festival and went close again on his return at Cheltenham when beaten four lengths by Cogry.
His last four runs have all been at Cheltenham but he meets Cogry on 5lb better terms at Newbury.
Trainer Tom George: "I hope the Cheltenham race will have put him right for this. He had a nice comeback run and has had a good build-up to this race."
Nicky Henderson has won the race three times and Whisper, one of two challengers, has similar credentials to two of those winners in Bobs Worth and Trabolgan.
They both won the RSA Chase while Whisper was beaten a nose by stablemate Might Bite at Cheltenham last season. He made a satisfactory comeback by beating Clan Des Obeaux at Kempton.
Henderson said: "Whisper had a nice little spin round Kempton in a two-horse race. The second has come out and won since, but the only stupid thing I did was get him a 4lb penalty – they didn’t used to have penalties in the old days of this race. He’s in good form."
Of his second runner Vyta Du Roc, he said: "He is at the other end of the handicap, and is also in good shape. He ran a great race last season in the bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown, and finished sixth in this last year."
The Noel Meade-trained six-year-old A Genie In Abottle has won both his starts this season and had Mala Beach, winner of the Troytown Chase last weekend, two and a half lengths behind in second place when scoring at Galway in October.
Meade said of the Gigginstown House Stud-owned chaser, who arrives on the back of a win at Wexford: "A Genie In Abottle is in very good form and I was very happy with how he exercised during the week.
"He handles testing conditions well but he has run well on goodish ground and good to soft should be fine for him. Hopefully, he'll have enough gears for it. It will be important that he jumps the first few fences well and gets into a good rhythm. He stays well."
Coneygree has success in this race in the blood as a half-brother to 2011 winner Carruthers. He also brings class to the event.
The horse who became the first novice to win the Gold Cup since 1974 when he triumphed at the 2015 festival has raced only four times since but showed he retained his ability when beaten only a length and half by Sizing John at Punchestown in April.
Connections have suggested the bright sun may have been a reason for a disappointing comeback effort at Wetherby in which he suffered an overreach.
"I am not quite sure what happened but it was very, very unlike him to jump like that," said trainer Mark Bradstock. "There were certainly three jockeys who said the sun was a problem and the horse struck into himself quite nastily. Wetherby was his only real blip and I think we can give him benefit of the doubt.
"Top weight doesn't really worry me. I am happy to see the race run on better ground than heavy ground with a big weight like that. I am sure he will run a big race on Saturday. I am quietly confident."
Bryony Frost has made an impressive transition from amateur to conditional jockey and after guiding Present Man to victory in the Badger Ales Trophy at Wincanton has the chance to become the first woman to ride the winner of this historic race.
Present Man proved he could handle the hurly-burly of a big field, is 4lb 'well in' and Frost can claim 5lb but trainer Paul Nicholls, who also saddles Braqueur D'Or, believes this a stronger race.
"This is a stiffer task but he seems to keep running with plenty of credit," said Nicholls. "You could say he is well in on what his future mark will be but this is a tough race. Rather than being a classic renewal of this race, I think it is open and he is improving.
"Braqueur D'Or has done nothing but improve and he is at the right end of the weights but must improve massively on what he has done so far."
Royal Vacation is another to bring RSA Chase form into the race. He was a 12-1 shot for the festival prize but pulled up, reportedly with sore shins.
Joe Tizzard, assistant to his father Colin, said: "He's a second-season chaser and ticks a lot of the boxes. Although he got lucky in the Feltham it was still a good performance, and he was impressive in a handicap at Cheltenham afterwards. He needed his first run, as he always does, and he's not just here for a day out."
It has been very hard to keep Nigel Twiston-Davies out of the winner's enclosure on Saturdays lately and the trainer who has produced the winners of the BetVictor Gold Cup and the Betfair Chase fancies his chances of keeping up the run with one of Cogry or Double Ross.
Cogry was another to shine at the November meeting when he beat Singlefarmpayment, for which he has been raised 6lb, on his first start since going down by a neck in the Scottish Grand National at the end of last season.
"Cogry has done absolutely nothing wrong and won well last time at Cheltenham," said the trainer. "I don't think the handicapper has ruined his mark. I think he has a very good chance. The horse is as tough as nails and I'd be very surprised if he wasn't in there fighting at the end. I think he is a big player.
"Double Ross was third last year and unfortunately unseated my son [Sam] three weeks ago and then went on to win the race without a jockey. We probably made too much use of him at Newbury last year and will ride him with more restraint this time round."
What they say
Neil Mulholland, trainer of Carole's Destrier, Southfield Royale and Pilgrims Bay
Carole's Destrier ran a huge race last year. He pulled muscles behind in the Welsh National and we couldn't get him right so gave him the rest of the season off. He has been away a couple of times and is ready for this. Southfield Royale wasn't quite in his best form last season but we have put blinkers on and he has jumped well in them. If he takes to them in the race he could run a big one. Pilgrims Bay won the BetBright Chase last season and hopefully the Badger Ales Trophy will have put him right.
Alan King, trainer of Label Des Obeaux
He showed he had come on for his first run back when performing creditably against the King George favourite Might Bite at Sandown, but he needs to improve again so we schooled him in cheekpieces recently and they seemed to sharpen him up. My fear is that Label Des Obeaux has too much weight.
Warren Greatrex, trainer of Missed Approach
He will love the track where he has course form. He stays very well, has a nice weight and having run in competitive fields ticks a lot of boxes. I would put a line through the Wetherby run where he wasn't as fit as I thought and it was over hurdles. Blinkers seemed to have the effect we wanted when he schooled in them at home.
Lucy Wadham, trainer of Potters Legend
I hope the fitting of blinkers will be a positive. We just felt he hadn't quite hit his stride in his first two runs. Hopefully the blinkers will help him and the jockey. I am hoping this will be the day he hits form.