Colin Tizzard bids to end a fantastic year on a high as Elegant Escape shoots for Grade One glory in the Betfred Challow Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury.
The Dorset handler has long since established himself as one of National Hunt racing’s leading trainers, but in 2016 he has joined the elite.
Cue Card, Native River and Thistlecrack were all big-race winners at the spring festivals and that formidable trio have spearheaded a spectacular start to the current campaign that has seen Tizzard emerge as a genuine contender to be crowned this season’s champion trainer.
The festive period has proven particularly fruitful, with Thistlecrack a scintillating winner of the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day before Native River confirmed himself as a genuine Gold Cup contender with a tremendous weight-carrying performance in the Welsh Grand National the following afternoon.
Elegant Escape’s career is very much in its infancy, but the 150,000-euro purchase looks another exciting addition to the team judged by victories at Chepstow and Ascot this autumn.
Tizzard said: “He’s a very nice young horse. He’s stepping up all the time and you forget he’s only a four-year-old as he’s done so much already.
“We’ve had this race in mind since his last one and we’re looking forward to it.”
Robin Roe is a major contender for the increasingly formidable combination of Dan and Harry Skelton.
Like Elegant Escape, the five-year-old was recruited from the Irish point-to-point scene.
He looked the part when winning a Warwick bumper in March and could not have been more impressive when making a victorious debut over hurdles at Aintree in October, beating subsequent dual winner No Comment by 12 lengths.
Connections immediately confirmed this prize as his next objective, and Dan Skelton has been thrilled with his preparation.
“We’re very excited about running him,” said the Alcester-based trainer.
“He’s obviously only had the one run over hurdles, but he’s done everything we’ve asked of him at home since. It’s a big day and we’re looking forward to it.”
Setting the standard is the Alan King-trained Messire Des Obeaux.
The French recruit bolted up on his seasonal reappearance in a Bangor handicap before seeing off Champion Bumper winner Ballyandy in a Grade Two at Sandown at the start of this month.
“It looks a proper Grade One,” said King.
“We’re very happy with our horse at home and this was obvious place to come after Sandown.
“The ground is on the slow side, which will suit him, so we’ll see what happens.”
Anthony Bromley, racing manager to owners Simon Munir & Isaac Souede, added: “Alan seems pleased with Messire Des Obeaux. This looks the natural progression after winning the Grade Two at Sandown.
“There was the option of a Listed race at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day but we felt the ground would be softer at Newbury, which suits him better.
“It looks a very competitive race and it is interesting that there is an Irish horse coming over as well. We go there with a fighting chance but it is a tough contest as you would expect.”
Nicky Henderson’s Cultivator has just under three lengths to make up on Messire Des Obeaux on Sandown form, having finished third.
Part-owner Malcolm Kimmins said: “I think we’re probably up against it as it looks a very strong field, but we’ll be doing our best.
“I think our horse ran well enough at Sandown to qualify for a run in this race. He has a bit of talent and if he can get it all together on one day there could be a nice race in him.”
Baltazar D’Allier is a fascinating Irish raider for Gordon Elliott after impressing on his Naas introduction.
Frank Berry, racing manager for owner JP McManus, said: “He won his maiden hurdle nicely at Naas.
“It’s a step up for him, but we’ll learn a bit more about him on Saturday.”
Elliott said today: “Baltazar D’Allier has travelled over and seems in good form. It is obviously a very competitive race but it is a Grade One and that is to be expected.
“All these races are stepping stones and the racing is so competitive at this time of year with everybody going that you have to split the horses up a bit.
“We think Baltazar D’Allier is a nice horse for the future and we are looking forward to running him.”
Graeme McPherson’s Ami Desbois, Major Mac from Hughie Morrison’s yard and Fontwell winner Peak To Peak, trained by Paul Nicholls, complete the line-up.