Proper heavyweight Saturday showdowns to set the heart racing in the build-up to Cheltenham have become less regular with the festival now the all-dominant force.
But there is an old-fashioned, big-race dust-up between two star-name two-mile chasers at Ascot on Saturday which will have jump-racing enthusiasts the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland on the edge of their seats.
The Grade 1 Matchbook Clarence House Chase has a list of illustrious winners to fill a book. Desert Orchid, Viking Flagship, Master Minded, Sprinter Sacre and Altior are just a handful which roll off the tongue.
Yet no horse has a better record in the £150,000 Ascot feature than Un De Sceaux, who goes into battle with Defi Du Seuil – five years younger and a coming force in the division.
In addition to a quite extraordinary record when sent to Britain by Willie Mullins – in 12 visits he has won six, finished runner-up five times and only once been out of the frame – Un De Sceaux landed the Clarence House in 2016, 2017 (when run at Cheltenham) and 2018.
The 12-year-old veteran is still as sprightly as ever, illustrated by a Punchestown Grade 1 triumph in May, and keeps coming back to Britain for more.
His narrow Tingle Creek second to Defi Du Seuil at Sandown last month also showed that all his wonderful enthusiasm for the game remained.
The pair fought out a thrilling, protracted duel from the second-last, and it needed all of Defi Du Seuil’s class to keep the old warrior’s renewed challenge at bay after the last.
Although Waiting Patiently was closing rapidly towards the finish, Defi Du Seuil and Un De Sceaux took a top-class field – which included Politologue and Janika – apart from the Pond Fence, and it was beautiful to see.
Separated by a neck at the line that day, the pair reoppose on identical terms, and it’s almost certain that Defi Du Seuil will start hot favourite to confirm the placings.
Defi Du Seuil’s relative youth and a fantastic strike-rate of 13 wins from 19 starts – racegoers love a horse with a string of 1s next to its name – mean he could be a crowd favourite for years to come.
However, Un De Sceaux’s record at Ascot entitles him to maximum respect and few would be genuinely surprised if he managed to turn the tables.
What a race to look forward to. May the best horse on the day win.
Ascot’s meeting, which also sees Gary Moore’s talented four-year-old Goshen put his unbeaten record on the line in the Ascot IJF Ambassador Programme Juvenile Hurdle, is not the only Saturday card rich in quality. Haydock’s four Grade 2 events, two over hurdles and two over fences, can certainly rival it in terms of interest.
The Champion Hurdle waters remain murky at this stage, but they could become clearer if Pentland Hills puts up the performance many believe him to be capable of in The New One Unibet Hurdle.
Last year’s Triumph Hurdle hero lost his unbeaten record when only fifth to Call Me Lord in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham before Christmas.
Subsequent noises from the Nicky Henderson stable, though, suggest a leaner and meaner Pentland Hills will be on show at the Merseyside venue and the fact he is as short as 6-1 for ultimate Cheltenham glory in March shows the bookmakers want to keep him firmly on side.
There are only four runners, but it’s an intriguing race, one which the father-son team of Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies would love to win as it honours their fabulous former star The New One, who made this race his own, landing it four times from 2015-18. They are represented by stable stalwart Ballyandy.
The Peter Marsh Chase is no longer the Cheltenham Gold Cup trial it once was when a conditions chase.
Subsequent Gold Cup winners The Thinker, Little Owl, Bregawn and Jodami all graduated from this race.
Now a £75,000 handicap, it still attracts Gold Cup types – Bristol De Mai landed it in 2017 – but the winner is more likely to be a progressive handicapper with an affinity for deep mud.
Midnight Tune, representing the resurgent Anthony Honeyball stable, fits the bill, and competes off an eyecatching low weight of 10st 4lb.
The nine-year-old mare, winner at Uttoxeter and Exeter this winter, has hardly been missed in the market, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Taunton also merits more than a passing glance, with the £50,000 Weatherbys Portman Cup Chase taking centre stage at the Somerset track, while RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase 6-1 shot Minella Indo runs in the beginners’ chase at Navan.
The jumps season is not all about four days at Cheltenham in the middle of March – Saturday’s programme is the perfect illustration.
bet365 Mares' Hurdle
Grade 2 2m7½f
Papagana remains firmly on an upward curve and is likely to prove a popular selection in this small but select field of six. Irish raider Magic Of Light reverts to hurdles after landing a Newbury Listed chase last month.
Sky Bet Supreme Trial Rossington Main Novices' Hurdle
Grade 2 1m7½f
The Alan King-trained Edwardstone attempts to make it three wins from three starts this season. His Aintree form has been franked by the runner-up Harry Senior. Thebannerkingrebel provides stern opposition.
Matchbook Holloway's Handicap Hurdle
Grade 3 2m3½f
A wide-open handicap. It's good to see the 11-year-old Jolly's Cracked It back at his beloved Ascot – he's a four-time winner there – but Paul Nicholls' Pic D'Orhy has long been held in high regard and this could be his chance to make a breakthrough off a mark of 146.
Peter Marsh Handicap Chase
Grade 2 3m1½f
Unlikely there's a Gold Cup winner on view, but some good-class handicappers have been attracted by this valuable prize. Definitly Red has dropped to an eyecatching mark, but market signals this week seem to favour Acting Lass and Midnight Tune. It's a cracker of a handicap chase.
bet365 Handicap Chase
Espoire De Guye, who ran riot over 2m3f at the course before Christmas, has been given a thumping rise of 14lb by the handicapper, but it would be sheer folly to dismiss the fast-improving six-year-old on that basis. Sean Curran, who landed the Scottish National with Iris De Balme in 2008, has another useful chaser in Domaine de L'Isle to target at valuable staying handicaps.
The New One Unibet Hurdle
Grade 2 1m7½f
Pentland Hills shaped okay at Cheltenham last month despite losing his unbeaten record over hurdles. His position as second favourite for the Champion Hurdle will be consolidated if he sees off Cornerstone Lad, Darasso and Ballyandy in this fascinating four-runner clash.
Matchbook Clarence House Chase
Grade 1 2m1f
The big one. A mouthwatering duel is in prospect between the Tingle Creek first and second, Defi Du Seuil and Un De Sceaux, who fought out a thriller up the Sandown hill. They renew rivalry on identical terms, with the 12-year-old Un De Sceaux attempting a remarkable fourth success in this race. Defi Du Seuil is a win-machine capable of further improvement at the age of seven. Bring it on.