We are still a bit in the dark about which horses (and stables) are eligible to run this weekend, due to the new six-month vaccination rule brought in on Monday night, but the Ascot field sizes look very healthy at Monday's five-day stage, so hopefully they can withstand a fair few withdrawals.
A race to wait on
The Betfair Hurdle and the Betfair Denman Chase have been transferred from Newbury last weekend to create a nine-race card - it's a bit of a monster session from 12:30 to 17:00 so drink and bet responsibly, one and all - and the highlight remains the £150,000 Grade 1 2m5f Betfair Ascot Chase.
Top Notch isn't qualified as he had to have a flu jab this week - Nicky Henderson also reports that the RSA favourite Santini and Countister will also be no-shows on the card - but we still have the appetising thought of Waiting Patiently taking on the Paul Nicholls pair of Politologue and Cyrname, to name just two.
The Betfair Sportsbook - there could be quite a lot of Betfair namechecks in this piece, by the way - currently make Waiting Patiently their 13/8 favourite, with Cyrname (pictured below) at 5/2 and Politologue at 11/4. That then brings in Fox Norton at 11/2, Charbel at 10/1 and Aso at 11/1, and 20s and bigger the rest.
We have not seen Waiting Patiently since he was basically brought down in the King George on Boxing Day, and the previously unbeaten chaser will be looking to follow up his win in this race last season, when he saw off Cue Card in a mini-classic.
There is no rain currently forecast at Ascot all week (or at Wincanton or Haydock), which is not ideal for him, but it is good to soft (soft in places) there at the moment, so fingers crossed it will be fine for him to be given the green light.
The Nicholls pair are confirmed for the race and, as the betting suggests, it is hard to split the pair.
Politologue gave Charbel 6lb and 1/2-length beating over course and distance in November before his stamina ran out in the King George, and his stablemate Cyrname posted a hugely impressive form and time figure when making all off a mark of 150 over track and trip last month.
Cyrname is clearly a very useful tool when allowed an easy lead, and it remains to be seen whether he can be so effective if worried on the front end by the likes of Aso, Abolitionist, Charbel and Janika, should any of those stand their ground at the overnight stage.
It's probably a race to leave alone until we see the final make-up of the field, especially in terms of the aforementioned pace angle. It promises to be a cracker, though.
Fox Norton was by no means disgraced behind Altior on his comeback from a long absence over 2m1f here last month, and Aso put himself on the coat-tails of the bigger names in here from a form point of view when beating subsequent scorer Happy Diva off a mark of 158 at Cheltenham last time.
Looking at the five-day declarations for the Ascot card, it is class from start to finish, from the opening novices' hurdle to the mares' bumper in the gathering gloom at 5pm.
No Native River, no party
There are seven entries in the Betfair Denman Chase, and the clear stand-out is King George winner Clan Des Obeaux (pictured below). He doesn't have Native River to contend with this weekend, and he will clearly take the world of stopping, even under a 6lb penalty. He will be heavy odds-on, though, as you would expect.
New ground, new problems
The re-staged Betfair Hurdle has attracted 18 entries and the big two in the ante-post betting from Newbury, Al Dancer and Getaway Trump, remain in the hunt for the valuable pot, though the latter is also in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton, a race which could well cut up badly.
Both continue to have leading claims but the switch of venue and drying ground is not ideal for the horse I originally put up each-way for Newbury, Ballyandy (pictured below).
His best efforts have come going left-handed (and he is also two from two at Newbury) and he would have been more at home in the heavy ground of last week, so I have gone off him a bit, for all that I think he remains on a very fair mark under a 5lb penalty for that impressive Uttoxeter win.
He also has an entry in the 2m3f handicap hurdle on the card, but he is jocked up for the Betfair Hurdle, and I assume he will go for the two-miler.
Perhaps I will regret deserting the 2017 winner at 12/1 - and he has won going right-handed, and run well here and at Sandown in defeat - but I can always change my mind after the declarations on Friday morning!
I am not sure if all of Harry Fry's horses are eligible to run this weekend, but I am working on the basis that Jolly's Cracked It is, and he interested me on the drying ground at Ascot.
He found the ground far too testing in the Betfair Exchange Trophy at the course last time - I told you those Betfair mentions would mount up - and the handicapper has played fair in dropping him 2lb for it.
That leaves him just 7lb higher than when bolting up in a good time over course and distance previously in November - he clearly loves this place when it gets suitable conditions - but it does concern me that he is only one of five entries not jocked up at this stage, and he has that Wincanton alternative.
I half-liked the look of Nicholls' Grand Sancy too, but he is also in the bloody Kingwell as well!
There no such concerns for Lisp, who has run crackers in defeat here and at Newbury, though he has paid for those efforts by going up 8lb in the weights and maybe he could do with some rain this week.
He looks pretty solid, and is a probably a fair price at 10.09/1 or bigger for a guaranteed and progressive runner.
But powder dry for now, sorry.
Away from Ascot
There is also ITV action at Haydock and Wincanton, which also boast good-class cards.
I have been banging on about Rockpoint for the Albert Bartlett for a while now so, flu-jab permitting, hopefully he will get a chance to strut his stuff in the trial at 16:10 at Haydock, though I am a bit alarmed that he is also in the Pertemps qualifier off 136 earlier in the card.
Colin Tizzard has stressed that he puts on a lot of weight between races (the horse, that is, not Col) and is very keen to get a run into him before Cheltenham.
I was not at all downbeat after his fourth at Warwick last time, as stepping down to 2m5f on quicker under a 5lb penalty was never going to see him at his best that day (and the market spoke accordingly), and the step back up to 3m (in either contest) is very much in his favour.
However, the ground is currently good to soft at Haydock with no rain due - and he would also carry a 5lb penalty in the Albert Bartlett trial - so that probably wouldn't be ideal.
The two Red Mills' Graded races at Gowran Park on Saturday have attracted small fields, but quite clearly all eyes will be on the 2m4f chase, where Presenting Percy is set to have his first start over fences since sauntering away with the RSA by 7 lengths at last year's Festival.
He is around 10/3 on the exchange for the Gold Cup after an impressive return to action in the Galmoy Hurdle at the course last month, and the Betfair Sportsbook originally quoted him at an industry-best 5/6 to win at the weekend before cutting him to 4/6.
It won't be easy with the likes of Monalee, second favourite at 2/1 in Betfair's list, and last year's Gold Cup third Anibale Fly in opposition (and the latter gets 7lb), but Presenting Percy's Cheltenham supporters will be sad souls indeed if he doesn't oblige here, even if the 2m4f trip is shy of his best.
Mind you, he finished second to Our Duke in this race last year, in receipt of 7lb, so perhaps defeat wouldn't be all doom and gloom.
Or maybe it would....