Timeform take an early look at the Betfair Exchange Trophy at Ascot on Saturday...
"...She runs off a mark just 4 lb higher than the one she competed off in the County Hurdle..."
Nicky Henderson has won three of the last ten renewals of the Betfair Exchange Trophy and he is responsible for a couple of leading fancies this time in French Crusader and Countister.
French Crusader is at the head of the market after making a pleasing return to action in the Gerry Feilden at Newbury last month, going through that contest like a well-handicapped horse but simply bumping into a rival in Epatante who had a load in hand. He is up 4 lb here but that looks justified and he has a solid chance.
However, Countister, who like Epatante is owned by J.P. McManus, has an even more appealing profile and should be spot on for this having shaped with clear promise on her return in the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham last month.
She was lightly raced last season but looked like she had a big handicap in her when finishing third, beaten less than two lengths, in the County Hurdle at the Festival on her belated reappearance. The fact she was so competitive, in the face of such a demanding examination, bodes extremely well and the lightly-raced mare is surely capable of better. She runs off a mark just 4 lb higher than the one she competed off in the County Hurdle, while the forecast testing ground is not a problem, so she makes plenty of appeal.
Willow's Saviour provided Dan Skelton with his first big success when landing this contest in 2013 and the trainer also struck last year with Mohaayed. Mohaayed will bid to retain his title but a more interesting contender for Skelton is Sofia's Rock, who was useful on the Flat and has fared well since sent hurdling, producing his best effort last time when runner-up at Huntingdon. He can race off the same mark and is potentially well treated.
Others who could be open to plenty of progress, and therefore worthy of closer consideration, include Sir Valentine, Tamaroc du Mathan and Umbrigado.
Sir Valentine, a useful performer on the Flat, got off the mark over hurdles at Newbury and then ran to a similar level under a penalty at Wetherby, bumping into an exciting prospect who looks set to make a mark in graded company. He looks to have been handed a fair opening mark but may need a longer trip to reveal the full extent of his ability.
The trip is no concern for Tamaroc du Mathan, who caught the eye on his first start for Paul Nicholls when finishing runner-up over this C&D last month, keeping on well close home. He looks sure to progress from that effort but has not been handed a lenient mark.
It's difficult to weight up exactly what Umbrigado wants. He shaped like a well-handicapped horse on his reappearance in a valuable three-mile handicap hurdle at Haydock last month, but weakened tamely and could finish only fifth. That effort suggested he will prove best at short of three miles, but whether he wants such a severe drop in trip is up for debate.
Harambe won the Greatwood Hurdle (in which Countister finished seventh) and remains relatively unexposed, but he has been hit by a 6 lb rise in the weights, which makes life more difficult, while a late injury setback (he pulled up lame on Tuesday) is a further negative.
Quoi de Neuf, who was beaten less than two lengths by Harambe, appeals as a bigger threat to Countister. His Greatwood effort could perhaps be marked up as he raced closer to the inside - which is often a disadvantage - than the other principals, while it was also just his second start in handicap company. He remains open to more improvement with that in mind, though there isn't much mileage in his mark having gone up 4 lb.
However, a strongly-run two miles on testing ground looks perfect for Countister and she ought to be at the top of her game following an encouraging return at Cheltenham last month. She gets the verdict.
Back Countister to win the Betfair Exchange Trophy at Ascot on Saturday