Tony Calvin takes his place in the Saturday hotseat and he has four to back across the meetings at Cheltenham and Doncaster
"Rocket Lad's trainer Emmet Mullins is operating at a 24 per cent strike rate in Ireland, as well as being four from eight in the UK in the last two years, with Da Dou Ron Ron the most recent victory for him at Uttoxeter last July, alongside his three-times scorer Yeats Baby."
I do like the occasional, light-hearted dig at racing podcasts from time to time and, before I retired to the sack on Thursday night, I lobbed a gentle Twitter grenade about the strange trend of such weekend previews being aired before the final National Hunt fields are known at 10am on Friday morning.
Given the ease/speed with which these podcasts can be knocked up, I'm amazed how many are done before the overnight decs at 10am Friday. I really don't get how you can do any meaningful, definitive analysis without the final fields. Why not wait until midday onwards on a Friday?? Tony Calvin (@tony_calvin) January 23, 2020
I understand why they are done prematurely - it appears time and availability on Friday afternoons of guests are the major factors - but anyone who went early this week could well have been chatting a lot about (but hopefully not tipping) non-runners in what were then ante-post markets.
Ante-post favourites Cerberus and Sporting John are surprise no-shows in the Triumph Hurdle and Ballymore Trials respectively at Cheltenham, while none of Gordon Elliott's ten entries, which included Delta Work in the Cotswold Chase, are getting the ferry.
Anyway, I'll shut up and crack on with discussing the chances of horses who have been confirmed.
A 19/1 shot to get us started
Let's start in chronological order with the ITV races at Cheltenham, with the 2m4f127yd handicap chase at 13:50 first up on the box.
This looks a very tight betting heat but I think the market has got it spot on (at the time of writing anyway) in making Highway One O One around the 9/2 favourite, and I seriously toyed with tipping him.
He finished a good second to Kildisart in the novices' handicap chase on this card last year and he shaped like a horse who would benefit from a step down in trip when third over 3m at Kempton, albeit he ran a cracker there to beaten just a length in what I feel was a strong handicap.
I couldn't put you off him but Militarian isn't a 16/1+ poke in my book, so he gets the betting and tipping vote at 20.019/1 or bigger.
He will have to jump better than he did over an extended 3m2f here last time but he did well to finish a nine-length fourth there in the circumstances, and a 1lb ease in the weights and the step down in trip are positives here.
He is just 4lb higher than when winning by four lengths at Ascot in November and he should have the pace to stay handy here, as he was a 2m winner at Leicester (albeit a three-runner race) last season, when he also finished a good fourth on good ground over 2m4f at Sandown in April.
He does lack the solidity of Highway One O One but he is edging towards four times the price, so I will take my chances.
Santini not for me on return
The Cotswold Chase at 14:25 sees the return of Santini after his wind op, but he is not a horse I would be rushing to back at around 7/4, even though the RSA runner-up is said to have done plenty of work in preparation for this contest.
But you can make a case of sorts for all his five rivals, chief among them the 170-rated Bristol De Mai, and it is not a race that I can find any significant angle into, although the top two in the betting are opposable at the prices.
I wouldn't rule out the outsider of the party Mister Whitaker, who loves it around here and takes in this race instead of racing off a workable mark of 152 in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster, at 16/1+ but it's no betting heat for me.
This Lad is likely to be backed in
Sporting John's absence has seen King Roland promoted to favouritism in the Ballymore Trial at 15:00 and I can live with that, without the slightest inclination to back him around 2/1 in a pretty deep race.
I don't tend to get involved in these types of races, as they tend to be full of unexposed improvers, but Rocket Lad still looks over-priced to me, so I am playing.
The early 16s, 14s and 12s in the marketplace on Friday afternoon predictably didn't last, but back him at 11.010/1 or bigger.
He returned lame when a disappointing favourite at Cork last time out in November, so that is easily forgiven, and he had earlier proved himself a very promising prospect in bumpers (his Punchestown third in May reads very well) and when winning his maiden hurdle by 5½ lengths over 2m4f at Gowran Park.
He was really strong at the line that day, too, though admittedly the time there doesn't look to be any great shakes.
That Gowran win has worked out very well too, as the runner-up has won her last two by wide margins, the third scored next time out, and the fourth Silver Sheen won his three subsequent starts too, including when doing us a favour at Warwick.
He likes to go forward but he doesn't have to lead if doesn't get his own way out in front here, and he doesn't strike me as a double-digit poke at all.
In fact, I can see him going off nearer 6s than 10s.
His trainer Emmet Mullins is operating at a 24 per cent strike rate in Ireland, as well as being four from eight in the UK in the last two years, with Da Dou Ron Ron the most recent victory for him at Uttoxeter last July, alongside his three-times scorer Yeats Baby.
Paisley Park very hard to oppose
The Cleeve Hurdle at 15:35 has a nice betting shape to it if all eight stand their ground.
But the only problem is that one of the eight is the mighty Paisley Park, and he is probably a very worthy favourite at around the 8/11 mark on the exchange.
I am sure many will be tempted to try If The Caps Fits each way at 7/2, and take a small loss if he is only placed, but it's a watching race for me, with the favourite a bit of a beast on the evidence of last year's Stayers' Hurdle win.
Cobra ready to strike
We washed our face with last week's two ante-post recommendations, with 16-1 each way selection Jolly's Cracked It hitting the frame, and I am obviously happy with the same position on Cobra De Mai in Doncaster's Sky Bet Chase at 15:15.
Being honest, I would have liked to see Bridget Andrews on him, rather than stablemate Solomon Grey (who was interestingly something of a mover from 20s early on Friday morning), but William Marshall takes 7lb off and he has looked fairly tidy over hurdles (he had a recent easy winner for the yard but he was seen to better effect when getting Mr Love up at Newcastle in November) and knows the horse after riding him at Kempton last time.
Before we get on to that run, I should add that, while Marshall has ridden predominantly over hurdles in his career, he is a very able three from 13 over fences.
I thought the selection shaped incredibly well at Kempton last time, considering he was ridden very patiently in the rear, more so than usual - he was already last by about four lengths by the second fence and stayed detached until finally making a move down on the outside the far side on the final circuit - and it looked like a confidence-restoring run to me after three very moderate efforts this season.
The handicapper eased him a further 1lb for it too, so he is now just 2lb higher than when winning by 13 lengths over 3m2f at Cheltenham in April.
There is no doubt that he is handicapped to go very close, and the switch to a left-handed track on drying ground - it was plenty soft enough for him at Kempton, too - is very much in his favour.
Now, there is a lot of pace in this - Dingo Dollar, Burbank, Monbeg River, Solomon Grey and Ravenhill Road have all forced it in recent runs - so maybe Marshall will look to repeat those creeping Kempton tactics, though hopefully sitting nearer than he did that day because Cobra De Mai's best efforts have been when lying very handy.
Someone mentioned to me on Twitter that maybe the Cheltenham Festival could be the ultimate aim for this horse but, with the thick end of 57k to the winner, this prize is not to be sniffed at.
And I expect the Dan Skelton string to hit form now after enduring a quiet spell this month after their winter flu jabs, so I think you have to have him onside at 8/1+.
So please do back him if you are coming to this race afresh, but I have no need to go in again myself or on the tipping front.
If there had been less pace on in this race, then I may have even put up Dingo Dollar as a saver at around 13/2 as I do think he has a very solid chance and probably the most likely winner, but I am going to look elsewhere for my second play in the race.
If you want a 33/1+ poke, then Looksnowtlikebrian, who very nearly lured me in at 40/1 when I wrote my ante-post piece on Monday, is your man.
He is well handicapped, and the drying ground and a wind op since his last disappointment could easily see him outrun his huge odds.
I may regret not tipping him - though it's a 1.011/100 poke I will chuck a score or so at him on the exchange at some point - but I can see Fingerontheswitch going really well again even though he has been raised 10lb for his 10-length Kempton win in a good time (for which I also wimped out tipping him at the last moment) and he is worth a bet at 13.012/1 or bigger.
He has been rated higher over hurdles in the past, he is a course winner and the ground is coming right for him, too. And the pace in the race could really suit his hold-up, run-style.
Millie Wonnacott is getting a fair old tune out of this tricky customer - she was again seen to great effect when winning on Runasimi River at Chepstow last week - and her 7lb claim is clearly very handy, as is the fact that the Neil Mulholland stable is in great nick, too.
Other Donny thoughts
The two other ITV races at Donny are small-field, Grade 2 races - and the other Grade 2 novices' chase earlier on the card has attracted just four runners, too - and as such they don't make any betting appeal for me.
That said, the six-runner mares' hurdle does look a little cracker of a race, though, with the five-year-old Floressa taking on Lady Buttons, who is twice her age, as well as four other promising sorts.
Best of luck punting this weekend.
Militarian at 20.019/1 or bigger in 13:50 at Cheltenham
Rocket Lad at 11.010/1 or bigger in 15:00 at Cheltenham
Fingerontheswitch at 13.012/1 or bigger in 15:15 at Doncaster
ALREADY RECOMMENDED ANTE-POST
Cobra De Mai at 16/1 each way, four places, with Betfair Sportsbook in 15:15 at Doncaster