Given the relative paucity of National Hunt action over the past few weeks, and wanting to avoid treading on the toes of 'Sandstormer Matt Gardner', this week's Timeform Notebook will concentrate on Cheltenham's high-class Trials Day fixture, highlighting three horses that will be of interest at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Having disputed the lead for much of the way, Our Mick was still firmly in contention when jumping badly left at the third-last fence in Katenko's race on Saturday, cannoning into the eventual winner and unseating Jason Maguire. Though failing to complete, Donald McCain's grey showed enough to enhance his Festival claims and a return to the JLT Handicap Chase, the three-mile contest in which he finished third last year, looks to be on the cards. In fact, Saturday's race was Our Mick's first start since he posted that career-best effort behind Alfie Sherrin at Cheltenham and, given his largely progressive profile, he could still be fairly treated.
The novice hurdle could have provided the biggest pointer to the Cheltenham Festival, the finish fought out between two promising young horses in At Fishers Cross and The New One. The latter was sent off as a well-supported odds-on favourite, but, having made a striking move to hit the front, couldn't repel the late challenge of Tony McCoy and At Fishers Cross. It is worth pointing out that the pair, separated by a neck, drew 12 lengths clear of third-placed Coneygree, himself a dual Grade 2 winner, with a further eight lengths back to the previously-unbeaten Whisper. The form looks very strong and, despite the gallop being no more than fair, there is little reason to doubt it. In fact, it was probably the strongest novice hurdle run so far this season.
Concentrating on the winner, At Fishers Cross summoned up a further chunk of improvement as he made the switch to graded company in seamless fashion. He had looked like an ultra-progressive sort, coming into the race on the back of three handicap hurdle victories, but Saturday's effort registers as a career best by some way, the bare form more or less up to the standard required to win the Albert Bartlett. The step back up to three miles looks sure to be in his favour and, with the promise of further improvement to come, he has marked himself down as a leading contender, for all he has to prove himself under less testing conditions.
The New One may have lost his unbeaten hurdles record but he still deserves to be one of the market principals for the Neptune, running to the same level as when he ran out a wide-margin winner at Warwick a fortnight earlier. A strong-travelling type, The New One made a sweeping move to hit the front on the long run to the final flight and looked to be in control, holding an advantage of a couple of lengths over his rivals as he cleared the last. However, he perhaps paid the price for that striking move, overhauled close home by a stronger stayer in At Fishers Cross. The New One should benefit from less-testing ground at the Festival and remains one of the most exciting novice prospects around.