Timeform preview Saturday's Badger Ales Trophy at Wincanton and pick out their best bet...
"...he has the physique to progress further in this sphere..."
Timeform on El Bandit
Defending champion Present Man is one of three potential runners for Nicholls at the five-day stage, and he isn't badly treated, either, just 2 lb higher than when successful last year. Admittedly, he found life harder after his win here last season, but he finished off with a respectable effort in the bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown in April, just not quite getting home over the marathon trip. The return to this trip will suit, and given both his record fresh and at this track, he shouldn't be underestimated despite carrying top weight.
Perhaps more interesting, though, is El Bandit, who hasn't been seen since winning a novice chase at Warwick in May 2017. Prolific over hurdles, El Bandit made the most of a good opportunity to get off the mark over fences at the first attempt, jumping well in the main and ultimately winning with plenty in hand. His absence since is an obvious concern, but he has the physique to progress further in this sphere, and is potentially well handicapped, having won a handicap hurdle from this mark in early-2017.
Captain Buck's completes Nicholls' trio, but is more exposed than his two stablemates, and is yet to win a race over fences. However, he deserved plenty of credit for finishing as close as he did over C&D last month, beaten one and a half lengths in third after meeting trouble. Still, he didn't look the easiest of rides, taking time to organise himself before finishing well without making any further impression late on, and this represents a much stiffer task.
There is rain forecast at Wincanton this week, but with the ground currently firm, good to firm in places, it is welcome, and should prove ideal for recent Wetherby winner Fingerontheswitch. He was well backed from what looked an attractive mark - 2 lb lower than when winning over hurdles in the spring - when duly obliging in a handicap chase at Wetherby on Saturday. That was his first win over fences for nearly two years, and he left the impression he still had a bit up his sleeve, too, travelling well and staying on strongly to overhaul the runner-up on the run in. A 7 lb rise in a stronger race makes life more difficult now, but he is the type to pull out more when needed, and his strong-travelling run style will be well suited to the demands of this race.
One who will need a deluge of rain to take his chance is the relatively lightly-raced Ramses de Teillee, who has missed a couple of engagements in recent weeks on account of quick ground. He managed to win twice as a novice last season (both on heavy ground), and kept some good company afterwards. The six-year-old rates the type to win more races this term from this sort of mark, but more so when having conditions in his favour.
As the graph below shows, Jonjo O'Neill has enjoyed a better autumn than last year, and his Allelu Alleluia proved himself a much better chaser than hurdler when running away with a novices' handicap at Worcester last month in first-time blinkers. His weakness in the market was noticeable once more, but that didn't detract from his performance, winning with plenty in hand, and a subsequent 10 lb rise could well underestimate him if the headgear continues to have the desired effect.
The Trainers' Championship is still in its infancy as far as this season is concerned, but Dan Skelton is the man to catch, having recorded the quickest 100 winners in a season last month, breaking Martin Pipe's long-term record. Skelton has three entries, the pick possibly being Sam Red, who won an amateur riders' handicap at Cheltenham last month. He was fortunate to do so, however, rallying strongly from the home turn to lead close home after the clear leader ran out on the run-in. Cabaret Queen is open to most improvement, showing improved form since switched to fences. She didn't get a chance to prove herself at Fontwell last time, yet to be asked for an effort when walking through the fifth fence from home, and was pulled up before the next. There could be more to come from her, granted that hasn't left its mark.
Belmount and Bigbadjohn arrive with recent winning form for trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, but both also come with risks attached. The former isn't the most reliable jumper, and whilst he did jump better than is usually the case at Ludlow last time, he is yet to win off a mark this high and looks vulnerable in a race of this nature. Bigbadjohn justified good support to resume winning ways here last time under a good ride from the front, but isn't the most consistent and he's not sure to be in the same form now.
Others who need a mention include Rocklander and Forever Field, the first-named potentially well handicapped but with a bit to prove after a below-par reappearance last month. The yard were successful in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter on Tuesday, though, and Rocklander can be expected to strip fitter here. Forever Field, on the other hand, is a relatively consistent sort, who ran right up to his best when beaten three quarters of a length in second by Belmount last time. He should give his running once more, but is hard to recommend from a win perspective.
In summary, this looks a wide-open renewal, with several who can be put forward with solid claims. However, in terms of potential, none have as much as El Bandit, who could have been let in lightly by the handicapper, and Paul Nicholls has stated on his website that this is the horse's intended return. His fitness has to be taken on trust, but he hails from an in-form yard that can get their horses ready after a lay-off, and have a good record in the race, so the positives outweigh the negatives.
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Back El Bandit to win the Badger Ales Trophy at Wincanton on Saturday