A late setback has ruled out Gold Cup favourite Bobs Worth, but Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham this Saturday has still drawn a host of star jumpers headed by the exhilarating Sprinter Sacre. No-one will get rich backing Nicky Henderson's gelding, but Graham Cunningham has unearthed a handful of bigger priced options in his first in-play blog of 2013.
Crus and Cape look the Argento toasts
What do you do when the complexion of a race changes markedly at a relatively late stage?
It was a case of start all over again when Gold Cup favourite Bobs Worth was withdrawn from the Argento Chase picture in midweek and there might be another significant re-jig if Tidal Bay fails to recover from a late setback outlined here by his handler Paul Nicholls.
I'm really hoping Tidal Bay runs, partly because the race will be richer for his presence but more because as a punter I'm keen to take him on.
It isn't because of his so-called quirks, They seem in check now Nicholls has got to grips with him, but Tidal Bay now has a 10lb penalty for winning a Lexus Chase in which he may well have been slightly flattered in picking off rivals late having been markedly outpaced on the final bend.
It's tough to know what to make of former Gold Cup hero Imperial Commander after a 680-day absence. He's undeniably well treated if the fire still burns and his reappearance record in five seasons of racing reads four wins and a nose defeat behind Kauto Star in that epic Betfair Chase at Haydock in 2009.
However, all things considered I'm happy to split stakes between one major fancy and one outsider here.
Grands Crus and Cape Tribulation are the pair in question.
The case for Grands Crus rests largely on the way he powered clear of subsequent Grade 1 winners Silviniaco Conti and Bobs Worth in last year's Feltham Chase at Kempton.
Three defeats have followed, but a breathing treatment looked to have had the desired effect for a long way in the King George last time and I have to make him the main choice here even allowing for slight concerns about how he will cope if the ground is very testing.
Cape Tribulation looks a pure value play at double figure odds. Granted, he doesn't line up with a proven Grade 1 record, but he took on a new lease of life winning two major handicap hurdles last spring and the way he cruised clear off a BHA mark of 142 at Wetherby on Boxing Day gives him clear back to lay potential.
Sanctuaire can make Sprinter work harder than expected
There is little point in complicating things in the VC Chase.
Put simply, if Sprinter Sacre replicates the Timeform figure (183) he recorded when swaggering clear of Kumbeshwar and Sanctuaire in Sandown's Tingle Creek Chase then he will make it seven from seven over fences by daylight.
Anyone who opposes him is effectively betting on something going wrong, but on Burns weekend it might just worth recalling that "the best- laid plans o' mice an men gang aft agley."
And, even if the Black Jet lives up to his name again, there is still ample scope for Sanctuaire's odds to shorten appreciably in the run.
Don't be surprised if you hear it said that this fiery front runner went off much too fast for his own good when a tired third in Sprinter Sacre's Tingle Creek.
Im not a fan of that theory given that he clocked very similar splits when thrashing smart rivals including Somersby at Sandown last April, but Sanctuaire got right back on track at Kempton over Christmas and showed a new and rather more controlled side to his character when rallying powerfully to give 4lb and a 13-length beating to old rival Kumbeshwar.
Sanctuaire looks the lone speed here. Sprinter Sacre gunned him down mercilessly at Sandown and logic suggests he will do so again. All the same, I wouldn't put anyone off having a small bet on Sanctuaire at double figure odds with a view to laying off at 5.04/1 in running.
New One and Katenko offer plenty of back to lay upside
The New One and Katenko are the other two who make most appeal on the Cheltenham card.
In truth, there is no complicated story with this pair other than that they line up in tremendous form with very solid form claims.
The New One will have to run down the freewheeling Coneygree and the highly progressive At Fishers Cross in order to land the Neptune Hurdle at 15.00.
It won't be easy, but The New One left a striking impression when cruising home in Grade 2 company at Warwick two weeks ago and might just be better suited to this trip than his two main market rivals.
The Murphy Group Handicap looks one of the hottest races of its type run all season, but I marked Katenko as one to follow when he made his British debut over hurdles at Haydock in November and nothing I saw at Sandown three weeks ago put me off that view.
That Sandown chase over three miles featured a posse of useful chasers, but Katenko jumped and galloped them bow legged to win in terrific style.
Venetia Williams seldom wastes entries and the fact that she has made a Gold Cup entry for Katenko is eyecatching.
Only time will tell whether that ambitious plan is justified, but Katenko looks the sort to be fully effective at this shorter trip and his bold jumping style looks bound to draw in plenty of in-running players if he finds the same rhythm round the ups and downs of Cheltenham.
Jury remains out on whether Oscar can do the three mile foxtrot
How do you bet on whether Nicky Henderson will do a bit of BHA-style "recalibration" when he addresses Oscar Whisky's prospects of staying three miles in the Cleeve Hurdle at 15.35?
It's true we all shift positions granted time and changed circumstance and recent vibes suggest Hendo isn't inclined to blame lack of stamina for the fact that Oscar faltered on his sole previous try over three miles in last year's World Hurdle.
But he most certainly was at the time given that he told the Racing Post: "I suspect I ran him in the wrong race and it nearly bottomed him. It was obvious he didn't stay."
My own view is that one run at three miles isn't quite enough evidence to dismiss Oscar Whisky as a three miler.
I'm not confident enough to take a short price about him, especially given that Reve de Sivola looked right back on song when ridden more aggressively in the Long walk at Ascot, so all in all this looks a case of watch and learn.
Festival Trials Day recommendations
Back Katenko in the 13.15 and lay off at 3.02/1 in running
Back Sanctuaire in the 13.35 and lay off at 5.04/1 in running
Back Grands Crus in the 14.25 and lay off at 1.68/13 in running
Back Cape Tribulation in the 14.25 and lay off at 4.03/1 in running
Back The New One in the 15.00 and lay off at 1.51/2 in running