Timeform's Matt Gardner turns his attention to the weekend's action and attempts to find a bet in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster...
"The Druids Nephew remains fairly lightly-raced for a seven-year-old, boasts plenty of strong form and is clearly though capable of winning a competitive handicap..."
Eras of dominance come and go in any sport and sadly it is in our nature to anticipate the demise of a team or individual. It says something about society when, rather than delight in Phil Taylor powering his way to title after title, gasping at Ronnie O'Sullivan's genius or watching on in awe as Tiger Woods sinks yet another winning putt, we question just how long they can keep it up.
Two seasons ago Paul Nicholls was arguably fortunate to cling on to his Champion Trainers' crown, Neptune Collonges' grey nose snatching the title away from Nicky Henderson and granting his trainer a seventh consecutive championship. Henderson emerged victorious last term, and rumblings in the National Hunt world were that Nicholls' reign had come to an end in line with the retirement of the majority of his leading lights, and that Ditcheat was to be replaced by Seven Barrows as the premier jumps establishment.
Those dissenting noises have proven to be wide of the mark however, with Nicholls roaring into the championship lead courtesy of countless "Super Saturday's", and he could well enjoy another this coming weekend. Potential Gold Cup contender Rocky Creek heads the market for the Argento Chase whilst the outstanding Big Buck's, the sole remaining member of the "Old Guard" at Ditcheat, makes his eagerly awaited comeback in the Cleeve Hurdle.
Will Nicholls manage to secure a big-race, across-the-card treble in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster? He's well represented at this stage with three entries and, of the trio, Unioniste is the most likely candidate. An impressive winner of the December Gold Cup last season when just a four-year-old, the now six-year-old has acquitted himself well this season, finishing third in the Charlie Hall and then taking a decent listed event at Aintree, though that race admittedly fall to pieces somewhat.
Unioniste's finishing position on his latest outing in the Lexus Chase ought not to be held against him, as he wasn't beaten all that far and actually ran close to his best, whilst still giving the impression that he may have more to offer when stamina is at more of a premium. It's difficult to discount him from calculations in the Sky Bet, even from a mark of 153, though this is a competitive event and there isn't an abundance of value in his current price.
Dr Richard Newland is enjoying a fine season so far, recording his best tally from September through to December, capped off by Mart Lane's success over this C&D at the end of last month. That was just his fourth outing for Newland, having previously been trained in Ireland by Shark Hanlon, and it represented a career-best, benefitting from a positive ride, in re-fitted blinkers, in a race where he wasn't challenged for the lead. He should still be competitive after a 10 lb rise, though won't be overlooked in the market with a "1/CD" next to his name.
One that does appear to have been swerved by punters at this very early stage of the market is Attaglance, who didn't make the transition to fences as well as many expected last season, though it may be too soon to be giving up on him completely. His hurdling form gives him plenty of scope from a handicapping perspective over fences, successful off a mark of 144 over timber at Aintree in 2012 and allowed to run here off a mark of 137. It's also interesting that this race will represent his first crack at three miles over the larger obstacles, which may be just what he needs to take advantage of that lower mark.
There have to be slight reservations about Attaglance's attitude however after his latest display at Cheltenham, off the bridle a long way out and losing touch with the field, so whilst he's one to keep firmly on side, he isn't one to rely upon solely.
A perfect accompaniment to Attaglance looks to be The Druids Nephew, another to be trading slightly bigger than anticipated. There are obvious negatives, the winner of just one race over fences and his jumping can let him down but he remains fairly lightly-raced for a seven-year-old, boasts plenty of strong form and is clearly though capable of winning a competitive handicap, having been well backed on his penultimate start at Newbury only to fall at the first.
The Druids Nephew's 10 length beating of Grandioso 12 months ago and his latest second to De La Bech, with Welsh National 1-2 Mountainous and Hawkes Point in behind, read particularly well and, for all that he has proved expensive to follow, he has definite claims off this mark, especially if the recently fitted cheekpieces continue to have the desired effect.
It's easy to make a case for Court By Surprise, who has put last season's patchy profile behind him with three solid efforts in defeat this term. He won't be unsuited by this drop back in trip and probably remains on a fair mark, whilst stablemate Gullinbursti may be able to bounce back now returned to handicap company having contested a strong graduation chase at Newbury last time.
Paul Nicholls looks a good bet to win this season's National Hunt trainer's championship, though whether the £42,000 that goes to the winner of the Sky Bet Chase is yet to be decided. Unioniste is his best chance of taking that prize but, as an ante-post punt, there are better options, namely The Druids Nephew and Attaglance, both of whom make appeal at the prices and seem likely to go well in what is an admittedly competitive heat.