Timeform pick out four horses that can put their Cheltenham Festival credentials to the test this weekend.
"...he didn’t even have to come off the bridle to score by eight lengths under a penalty on his most recent start..."
Timeform on Sporting John
Santini (Cotswold Chase, 14:25 Cheltenham)
Santini was one of the best novice chasers around last season, winning only once but showing high-class form to hit the frame in the Kauto Star Novices' Chase at Kempton and the RSA Novices' Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. He finished a length and a half in front of Delta Work - who also holds an entry in the Cotswold Chase - in the RSA, and that form has a strong look to it given what Delta Work has achieved this season.
Santini didn't have to be at his best to make a winning return to action after eight months off in a listed race at Sandown, and was far from impressive in doing so. He raced lazily and was all out to hold off the challenge of one who ran disappointingly in the Welsh National on his next start, though Santini didn't do his rider any favours, idling markedly on the run-in. Yes, he will have to leave the form of that run well behind if he is going to follow up here, but the impression he created last season remains fresh in the memory, and he is expected to warm up nicely in the Cotswold ahead of a crack at the Gold Cup in March.
Sporting John (Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, 15:00 Cheltenham)
Envoi Allen is a strong favourite for the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle - he is as short as 11/10 in places for the race - but that does not mean that the race is a forgone conclusion, and there are almost certainly interesting opponents who have yet to play their hand.
One of those could be Sporting John, who has caught the eye in winning both of his starts over hurdles this season. Connections went to £160,000 at last year's Festival sale to purchase him after he won his sole start in points (form which worked out well), and has looked an exciting prospect on both starts under Rules at Exeter.
Sporting John is bred more for stamina than speed and, despite coping well enough with the minimum trip, he has been very strong at the business end of the race. His form is working out well, too, as he beat Harry Senior (who has subsequently won and is also entered in this race) with a bit in hand in November, and he didn't even have to come off the bridle to score by eight lengths under a penalty on his most recent start.
The step up to two and a half miles ought to bring about even more improvement - it is worth noting that Sporting John still has the Timeform Large P attached to his rating - and an impressive performance on Saturday could see him shoot him towards the head of the Ballymore ante-post market.
Imperial Aura (Timeform Novices' Chase 13:15 Cheltenham)
There are plenty of interesting entries in this year's Timeform Novices' Handicap Chase, including several from Gordon Elliott, with Samcro the standout. However, it is likely that Elliott is just testing the water, seeing how the British handicappers react, and there is a doubt about the participation of his runners, particularly Samcro.
One likely runner who is potentially ahead of his mark in the Kim Bailey-trained Imperial Aura. A useful novice hurdler, who won two of his three starts, he couldn't have been presented with an easier starting point over fences, sent off the 25/1-on favourite for a three-runner contest at Fakenham in which both of his rivals failed to complete. That was essentially a schooling session for Imperial Aura, but he caught the eye in much deeper waters in a novice chase over an extended three miles at this course last time. He shaped encouragingly given his lack of experience relative to the winner, and his stamina was possibly also stretched (he isn't that stoutly bred) as he travelled well but was unable to go with Pym between the last two fences.
The return to two and a half miles looks a good move for this strong-travelling sort, and connections will be looking to exploit a handicap mark of 136, with the Close Brothers Novices' Chase an obvious target for him at the Festival.
Maire Banrigh (Lightning Novices' Chase, 12:55 Doncaster)
Maire Banrigh has proved a totally different proposition since undergoing a breathing operation, winning all five of her starts over hurdles and fences, doing especially well since being sent chasing.
A winner on her sole start in Irish points, she was always going to make up into a chaser, and she has won her three starts over fences this season in impressive style, proving better than ever to easily win a novice handicap at Doncaster last time by 13 lengths.
She has only beaten 13 rivals this season, but she will again face a small field in the Lightning Novices' Chase at Doncaster on Saturday, and she will have an excellent chance in receipt of weight all round.
On each of her three starts over fences she has made the running, and her strong-travelling, bold-jumping style has really caught the eye. Another runaway win at the weekend will surely make connections look towards the Arkle at the Festival, a race that still has an open look to it at this stage.
Admittedly, the Arkle is usually run at a strong gallop, and getting to the front and staying there at Cheltenham will be a different ball game, but she is clearly a mare progressing all the time and would be no back number if taking her chance.