Cheltenham stages Festival Trials Day this Saturday, January 27, with a superb seven-race programme worth a record £354,000 in prize money.
Festival Trials Day offers the last chance to catch action at the Home of Jump Racing before The Festival (Tuesday, March 13 to Friday, March 16 inclusive).
The richest race and highlight of Festival Trials Day is the £100,000 G2 BetBright Cotswold Trial Chase (2.25pm, 10 entries), staged over an extended three miles and a furlong and a leading trial for the G1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup on March 16.
A fascinating contest looks guaranteed, with the entries including the 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Coneygree (Mark Bradstock), who has disappointed in two outings so far this season, and Bristol De Mai (Nigel Twiston-Davies), who recorded impressive victories in the G2 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby and the G1 Betfair Chase at Haydock Park before finishing sixth to Might Bite in the G1 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.
More possible starters include Definitly Red (Brian Ellison), impressive winner of the G2 Many Clouds Chase at Aintree in December, and last season's G1 Aintree Bowl scorer Tea For Two (Nick Williams).
American (Harry Fry) was unbeaten as a novice last season, but disappointed on his comeback at Newbury, while other contenders include the 2016 Randox Health Grand National runner-up The Last Samuri (Kim Bailey) and Singlefarmpayment (Tom George), the short-head second last season in the G3 Ultima Handicap Chase at The Festival.
There is an Irish-trained entry in Alpha Des Obeaux (Mouse Morris), a G2 scorer at Clonmel in November and sixth in the G1 Christmas Chase at Leopardstown on December 28.
Local hander Fergal O'Brien, based near Guiting Power, has entered Perfect Candidate. The 11-year-old was the neck winner under top-weight of the G3 BetVictor.com Handicap Chase over an extended three miles and three furlongs at Cheltenham in November, but could only finish a well-beaten 10th on his latest start at Sandown earlier this month.
O'Brien commented today: "It's up in the air at the moment as to whether Perfect Candidate runs at Cheltenham.
"We might wait another week and then head to Exeter, but I will discuss what we potentially do with Paddy [Brennan - jockey] and the owners [ISL Recruitment] before making a final decision as to whether he heads to Cheltenham later on in the week.
"I was very disappointed with his run last time at Sandown. He never really seemed to be travelling that day and didn't jump as well as we know he can.
"He just didn't seem to act on the track at Sandown on that day for some reason, but we'll draw a line through that and hopefully if he does go to Cheltenham on Saturday, he'll bounce back to form as we were disappointed with that performance.
"He was pulled up in this race last year, but he was never really travelling throughout and we know he is better than that, particularly at Cheltenham which suits him."
The big hurdle race on Festival Trials Day is the £60,000 G2 galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle (3.35pm, 11 entries) over three miles.
O'Brien is set to be represented in this contest by Colin's Sister. The seven-year-old mare was third behind Wholestone (Nigel Twiston-Davies) and Agrapart (Nick Williams) in the G2 Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle over two and a half miles at Cheltenham on New Year's Day.
Earlier in the season, she defeated Wholestone by two lengths when taking the three-mile G2 West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby on November 4.
O'Brien remarked: "Colin's Sister has been in really good form since her run at Cheltenham last time.
"I was really pleased with her performance behind Wholestone and I thought coming down the hill, she had a great chance of winning, but it was still a great effort to finish third.
"Paddy was pleased with her and if the ground is on the soft side, that will help her chances as she enjoys those conditions.
"The step back up to three miles will also help her as that does seem to be her trip now. Looking back at her run last time, it probably highlighted that two and a half-miles is on the short side for her, so three miles will suit on Saturday.
"At the moment, depending on her run this week, I think we would be leaning towards running her in the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle at The Festival as three miles is her trip, but we'll see how she runs on Saturday first and what Paddy and the owners think."
Nicky Henderson has two entries in L'Ami Serge, runner-up to Sam Spinner in the G1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in December, and Thomas Campbell, who finished fifth in the same race but is a three-time winner at Cheltenham.
Also engaged are Beer Goggles (Richard Woollacott), victorious in the G2 Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in December, dual G1 winner Finian's Oscar (Colin Tizzard), who could revert to hurdles having been running in novices' chases, and The Worlds End (Tom George), successful in G1 company at Aintree in April.
A potential Irish challenger is Ex Patriot (Ellmarie Holden), who was fourth in the G1 JCB Triumph Hurdle at The Festival last season.
There is also valuable handicap action on Festival Trials Day, with the £75,000 Crest Nicholson Handicap Chase (1.50pm, 24 entries) over an extended two and a half miles, plus the £27,500 Timeform Novices' Handicap Chase (1.15pm, 19 entries) over the same distance, and the extended two-mile Steel Plate & Sections Handicap Hurdle (4.10pm, 15 entries).
Festival Trials Day begins with the £32,000 G2 JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle (12.40pm), which has been re-opened for entries until 11.00am tomorrow.
Many Clouds, who enjoyed his finest hour when winning the 2015 Grand National, will be remembered at Cheltenham on Festival Trials Day with the screening of the film Many Clouds - The People's Horse.
Many Clouds - The People's Horse was produced by Equine Productions and directed by Nathan Horrocks, who rode Many Clouds in his work at home.
The film remembers the courageous Trevor Hemmings-owned gelding, who sadly passed away following his head victory over Thistlecrack in the BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase on Festival Trials Day in 2017. He also won the race in 2015 and finished second in 2016.
The performance of Many Clouds at Cheltenham last year saw the horse, who was ridden by Leighton Aspell throughout his career, subsequently announced as the leading staying chaser in the 2016/17 Anglo Irish Jump Classifications.
Horrocks, who picked up award for best director at the prestigious EQUUS Film Festival in New York, will feature in Q&A sessions alongside Oliver Sherwood, trainer of Many Clouds. The two Q&A sessions will take place in the winner's enclosure at 12.05pm and 2.05pm. Racegoers will be able to submit questions to Horrocks and Sherwood via Cheltenham's Twitter account @CheltenhamRaces.
Following the running of the last race at 4.10pm, Many Clouds - The People's Horse will be shown on TV screens across the racecourse.
Total prize money on Festival Trials Day has been boosted to £354,000 this year - an increase of £24,000 (seven per cent) on the 2017 level.
Accompanied children, aged under 18, are admitted FREE on Festival Trials Day, when the gates open at 10am.
The going at Cheltenham is currently: Soft
The forecast for this week is for unsettled conditions, with temperatures remaining mild