Timeform's Andrew Asquith previews Saturday's Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham and picks out his best bet.
"He should be able to get into a nice rhythm in this smaller field and shouldn't be underestimated..."
This year's renewal revolves around Bristol de Mai, who sets a clear standard on the form of his Betfair Chase win at Haydock earlier this season, and at the time of writing is a short-priced favourite. The question is: can he run to a similar level of form at Cheltenham?
Bristol de Mai ran to a Timeform rating of 167 when winning the Charlie Hall, just 3 lb shy of his peak rating which he achieved in the Betfair Chase. However, the track at Wetherby is similar to Haydock, a relatively flat, galloping course, where Cheltenham is a more undulating and ultimately stiffer track. His best effort at Cheltenham came in 2015 when he finished runner-up in the JLT Chase, though he did run better than his finishing position suggests when beaten nearly 20 lengths in last year's Gold Cup. The ground is also important to Bristol de Mai, the softer the better for him, and with the weather remaining unsettled in the next few days, he could potentially get his favoured conditions. Despite this, he still has some questions to answer, and at a top price of 11/8, it's hard to get excited.
The Harry Fry-trained American made up into a very smart novice last season, winning all three of his starts. With that in mind, it wasn't surprising to see him well backed for his return in the Ladbroke Trophy at Newbury in December, but his lack of experience was telling in the biggest field he'd encountered. All of his form has come on soft ground, so the livelier conditions there also counted against him, jumping sketchily and ultimately pulled up in the straight (reportedly suffered an overreach and lost a shoe). American almost certainly has more to offer over fences, and it is encouraging that Harry Fry has been in no rush to get him back following that experience. He should be able to get into a nice rhythm in this smaller field and shouldn't be underestimated.
Definitly Red put up a high-class effort to win the Grimthorpe Handicap Chase at Doncaster last year, and shaped as though his reappearance run behind Bristol de Mai at Wetherby would bring him on somewhat. He showed that to be the case when winning the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree last time, looking better than ever, outstaying his rivals and looking well suited by the testing conditions; he's an extremely tough and likeable sort who seems sure to run his race. Connections have suggested that he is more likely to run here than in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster.
Like Definitly Red, the Grand National will likely be The Last Samuri's main target again this season given he ran another cracker over the National fences when finishing second in the Becher Chase last month for the second year running. He also finished runner-up in the 2016 Grand National and clearly goes well at Aintree, but that's not to say he can't play a part here. The last time he contested a race over conventional fences was when finishing 14 lengths second to Definitly Red in the Grimthorpe last season. However, The Last Samuri was giving Definitely Red 12 lb that day, so expect them to be much closer on Saturday if both take their chance.
Tea For Two was right back to his best when finishing third to Might Bite in the King George at Kempton last time, though he was ridden to pick up the pieces, letting others try and land a blow at the winner before coming through to claim minor honours. Still, from a form perspective, that run stands up well in this line-up and he has to be considered despite a poor course record.
The 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Coneygree has pulled up the last twice, but has had excuses, suffering an overreach in the Charlie Hall and hindered by a recurrence of a wind problem in the Ladbroke Trophy last time. He has since undergone a wind operation and has reportedly been aimed at this race. Coneygree is now an eleven-year-old, but remains with relatively few miles on the clock, and his half-brother Carruthers maintained enthusiasm well into his veteran stage.
Bristol de Mai is 4 lb clear of his nearest rival on Timeform weight-adjusted ratings and rightly heads the market judged on the pick of his form. However, with slight doubts over whether he can run to his best away from Haydock, he is passed over here. The lightly-raced American, whose lack of experience shone through on his return in the Ladbroke, makes more appeal. The return to a smaller field will allow this strong-travelling, bold-jumping type to get into a better rhythm and, granted the ground stays on the soft side, he will have a better chance than his current odds of 7/1 imply.
Back American to win the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday