The stars are out on show on Saturday for Festival Trials Day, with all roads leading to Cheltenham for the likes of Bristol De Mai, Santini and Paisley Park. Mike Norman looks ahead...
"While Saturday's race looks wide open between the leading contenders, it is Santini who is fancied most to win the Gold Cup in March, being available to back at 12.011/1 on the Betfair Exchange behind 5.14/1 favourite Al Boum Photo."
Saturday's Trials day is the last chance for this year's Cheltenham Festival prospects to stretch their legs around the unique undulations of Prestbury Park before the big meeting itself gets underway in just under seven weeks' time.
The seven-race card will offer clues aplenty for races such as the Triumph Hurdle and the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase, and it may even throw up a lively outsider for the Ryanair Chase, but most eyes will be on the three Grade 2 races on the afternoon, in which Gold Cup, Stayers' Hurdle and Ballymore Novices' Hurdle contenders will undoubtedly emerge.
Santini returns to defend Cotswold crown
The feature race on Saturday is the Grade 2 Cotswold Chase, a leading trial for the blue riband contest of the Festival, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
It's been more than 20 years since Looks Like Trouble (2000), following in the footsteps of Master Oats (1995) and Little Owl (1981), won this race before going on to win the Gold Cup, but plenty of others have gone close including last year's Cotswold Chase winner Santini.
The Nicky Henderson-trained 9yo beat Bristol De Mai (Nigel Twiston-Davies) 12 months ago before finding only Al Boum Photo a neck too good in the Gold Cup, and he'll be back to defend his crown on Saturday.
Santini will face stern opposition in the face of Native River (Colin Tizzard) and the horse he beat in this race last year, Bristol De Mai, who has since added a third Betfair Chase victory to his CV. Last season's Ryanair Chase runner-up Saint Calvados is another fascinating entry having never raced beyond three miles in his career to date.
While Saturday's race looks wide open between the leading contenders, it is Santini who is fancied most to win the Gold Cup in March, being available to back at 12.011/1 on the Betfair Exchange behind 5.14/1 favourite Al Boum Photo.
Native River - winner of the Gold Cup in 2018 - can be backed at 40.039/1 while Bristol De Mai is trading at 55.054/1.
Huge prospect for low-profile yard
Sporstbook Odds: Bear Ghylls 7/4, Lecale's Article 9/4, Annual Invictus 6/1, Wilde About Oscar 6/1, BAR 12/1
One of the big reasons why national hunt racing is loved is because of the sometimes unique stories it throws up. It's hard to imagine anyone not wanting to cheer Bear Ghylls home in Saturday's Ballymore Novices' Hurdle before tackling the race of the same name at the Festival in March.
Trained by low-profile handler Nicky Martin up on Exmoor, a permit holder who has saddled just 21 winners in the last five years, Bear Ghylls was bought for just £22,000 before creating a huge impression as a 33/1 outsider in a Warwick bumper 10 months ago.
The 6yo has since gone through the grades in hurdles company, winning a maiden, a novice, and a handicap with the minimum of fuss, elevating him to a 140-rated horse and one of the leading novice hurdlers in the country.
On Saturday Bear Ghylls will face his stiffest task to date, likely to be taking on rivals from powerful stables such as Nicky Henderson (Lecale's Article and Emir Sacree), Dan Skelton (Wilde About Oscar and Ashtown Lad) and Chris Gordon (Annual Invictus)
Should he win on Saturday then you can be sure that his current odds of 18.017/1 for the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle at the Festival will shorten, while a win for Lecale's Article - an impressive winner on stable debut before Christmas and considered a more speedier type - could see his odds shorten in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
Another stroll in the Park for popular Paisley?
One of racing's most popular horses, Paisley Park, returns to Cheltenham on Saturday in search of his third consecutive victory in the Cleeve Hurdle for perhaps his even more popular owner Andrew Gemmell.
Born blind, Gemmell's passion is listening to commentaries on football and horse racing, and in recent years, the roars of the crowds as his own horse Paisley Park storms up the run-in to win Grade 1 staying hurdle races.
Sadly there'll be no crowd at Cheltenham on Saturday or at the Festival, but that won't stop Gemmell and Paisley Park's trainer Emma Lavelle cheering on their stable star to more glory.
Fresh from returning to winning ways in the Long Walk Hurdle just before Christmas, Paisley Park is a strong favourite to land Saturday's prize before returning to Cheltenham in March for another crack at the Stayers' Hurdle, a race he won in 2019, and for which he is currently the 4.216/5 favourite ahead of Thyme Hill at 5.39/2.
Victory on Saturday won't be easy however, especially if the highly-talented Itchy Feet - representing Betfair Ambassador Olly Murphy - turns up for a return to hurdles and a step up to three miles.
And with the Henry Daly-trained Honest Vic, and David Pipe's prolific winner Main Fact also in opposition, Saturday's race is sure to tell us whether or not Paisley Park is back to his peak 2019 form and whet the appetite for what is shaping up to be a fantastic 2021 Cheltenham Festival.
*All odds correct at the time of publication