Nicky Henderson reported on Friday morning that his mare Epatante – the antepost favourite for next month’s Champion Hurdle – had coughed a number of times this week although he suggested she was well in herself and it had not interrupted her preparation for the feature race on the opening day of the Festival in 10 days’ time.

Benie Des Dieux is the new market leader at 5/2 with BetVictor – Non Runner No Bet – although trainer Willie Mullins and owner Rich Ricci will need to supplement their mare if they wish to go down the Champion Hurdle route and not the Mares’ event later on Tuesday week.

Soft ground is the order of the day at Newbury on Saturday and I am convinced that Ashutor remains well handicapped despite being penalised 7lbs for winning a moderate race at Catterick earlier in the week. Paul Nicholls’ grey carries 12st 8lbs this afternoon – less Katie O’Farrell’s 5lbs claim – and marginal preference is for David Pipe’s Yaa Salaam (12.55) who finished a good third at Kempton last time in his first-time blinkers and a 4lbs rise looks fair.

Nine go to post for the 3m Veterans’ Chase and I hope to see Richard Johnson get another one back on Brian Hughes at the top of the Jockey’s Championship table courtesy of Strong Pursuit (2.05). Johnson returned to the saddle at Musselburgh on Thursday and the ride he gave Made For You was outstanding – perhaps the break has done him good? The selection has little mileage for one of his years and this will be the first Veterans’ event he has contested. I hope Johnson can get the fractions right if he decides to lead on the Philip Hobbs’ trained 10-year-old.

Faustinovic drops back to the minimum trip in the novices’ handicap hurdle and he is certainly considered better than his current mark of 122 by the Colin Tizzard stable. A market move would be worth noting but I feel the drop back to two miles will also suit Captain Blackpearl (3.50) who receives 7lbs from the Tizzard-runner and has also hinted that a fast-run two miles would be his optimum conditions – at least until he goes over fences next term.

Only five go to post for the Novices’ Handicap Chase but it is a cracker and perhaps this will be the day that Master Tommytucker gets his jumping together having looked to be running all over his rivals when coming down four out at Kempton in the Grade 2 Pendil Chase last weekend. Paul Nicholls brings him out quickly, but he has now fallen in three of his four chase starts and Tidal Bay (4.25) made his bid for glory too soon when last seen here over an additional quarter mile two months ago and can go one better in this race. 

At Doncaster I hope to see Blackjack Kentucky (1.50) follow up his facile Chepstow success as he makes the transition into handicaps for Paul Nicholls. The trainer reports his seven-year-old – 3/1 at BetVictor – will go chasing next season and is considered a potential Welsh National type going forward. This afternoon’s soft ground should hold no terrors.

There is plenty of pace in the 2m Handicap Chase and, from the foot of the weights, I hope to see Katpoli (2.25) take advantage of the weight he receives from the principles. The selection did not get home over an additional half-mile at Warwick on his last start and I hope leading conditional Charlie Hammond can get the five-year-old into a nice jumping rhythm.

At Lingfield Park I’m looking forward to the reappearance of Sun Power (3.10) in the listed Spring Cup which seems a bit premature in this cold and wet leap year. The selection disappointed on his last start at Kempton back in the autumn but he finished fourth in the Chesham Stakes behind the unbeaten Guineas favourite Pinatubo at Royal Ascot and represents the inform Richard Hannon yard. I hope jockey Silvestre De Sousa can get his mount off the rail from stall one as you don’t want to race down the far side at Lingfield in recent meetings. 

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