Comeback kid Coneygree and big-race stalwart Cue Card headline what promises to be a fascinating Betfair Chase at Haydock today.
Coneygree has packed an awful lot into his career to date, winning nine of his 12 starts, but he has been seen only once since claiming the Cheltenham Gold Cup as a novice in 2015.
To say it has not been easy for Mark and Sara Bradstock would be an understatement, but despite all his setbacks the one glimpse racegoers did get of him last season suggested his huge engine remained intact.
The prevailing fast ground has hindered his preparation once more, but at least the rain has arrived in time for him to run.
Adding frustration was regular pilot Nico de Boinville breaking an arm last week. Richard Johnson is the pilot, after his initial ride Menorah was pulled out of the race yesterday.
Mark Bradstock said: “It is going to be quite an ask for him after having a year off, but we are looking forward to it.
“It has been frustrating and depressing, not just for us but for his owners, Nico and everybody.
“He is a pretty cool horse. Luckily, his owners are very patient. I have a wife who spends more time looking after Coneygree than she does me!
“He has done plenty of work and had a very good preparation because he did not have a complete holiday out in the field. Sure, one would have liked to gallop him more often on grass but apart from that he is in great nick. Hopefully, he will do himself justice.”
Bradstock’s wife, Coneygree’s regular rider at home, said: “We have been walking him three and a half hours a day as part of his recuperation. Here we are, miraculously he is back and he feels really good.
“I know that physically he feels back to his best, but there is always the worry with horses about whether their self-confidence has been knocked.
“I don’t think there is any sign that it has, but the frightening thing is that he has to come back into racing at such a high level.
“The instructions to the jockey will be to ride him to win but, if he does get tired, to look after him.”
Standing firmly in Coneygree’s way is Colin Tizzard’s Cue Card, twice a winner of the race already but surprisingly beaten on his return in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby.
Despite that reverse, Tizzard is in confident mood.
He said: “The ground looks perfect – it should be ideal for him.
“It’s a proper Grade One race, as you would expect, but we’re looking forward to it.
“He (Cue Card) had a good blow after the Charlie Hall and I think he ran equally as well at Wetherby as he did last year. He then went to Haydock and he was very good, so let’s hope we have him in the same form again.”
With that Wetherby run under his belt, jockey Paddy Brennan expects to see a different beast on softer ground.
Brennan wrote on his blog: “He loves Haydock and if there was one track made for him it is that course. When he is on song, he gives me so much control and he even blows me away at how good he is. One thing is for sure, and that is if Cue Card turns up on his A-game then Coneygree is going to have to be at his Gold Cup-winning best, if not better, if he is going to beat us. And that is some ask first time up in what will clearly be very testing ground.”
Another dual winner is Paul Nicholls’s Silviniaco Conti, but he has seemed a light of his former self of late, including when brushed aside by Valseur Lido at Down Royal on his return.
“He only ran in Down Royal the other day. He had to travel over, he had a race and came back,” said Nicholls. “He’s well but you don’t actually know until they run. He’s just been ticking over, he had a little pop over a couple of fences and cantered over five furlongs on Wednesday.”
Irish Cavalier beat Cue Card and Menorah at Wetherby but on 4lb worse terms, Rebecca Curtis is wary of conditions. “We’ll give it a go and see, I just think the ground might have gone against him,” she said.
“All his best form is usually in the Spring.”