It’s that time of year when racing doesn’t only entertain fans of the sport but also offers plenty of clues ahead of The Festival™, Presented by Magners, at Cheltenham in March. Saturday’s cards at both Warwick and Kempton promise to be no exception.
Warwick's Classic Chase (3pm) is traditionally a Randox Health Grand National trial and was won two years ago by the subsequent Aintree heroes One For Arthur and Derek Fox. The most valuable race of the day, the 2019 renewal is a wide-open affair in which most of the runners have claims. Sponsored by McCoy Contractors, it is also likely to be the biggest betting race of the day, but the supporting card is just as interesting.
Kempton Park's main betting race is the Unibet Lanzarote Hurdle, a race which remembers a great favourite who showed his class under huge weights in handicaps here and at Sandown Park before landing the 1974 Champion Hurdle. Plenty of Cheltenham candidates will be on trial, not only in the Lanzarote itself and the fixture's other handicaps, but also in the 32Red Casino Chase, won last year by the top class Waiting Patiently.
Last year's winner Milansbar is back for another go in the big race at Warwick, but this time he will be without Jockey Club Racecourses ambassador Bryony Frost, who enjoyed an unforgettable first ride on him in the National. Twelve months ago Milansbar romped home by 11 lengths and is such a strong stayer that a repeat cannot be ruled out. However, he is now 12 and racing on very different ground, besides which he has only run once since and many punters will prefer the claims of younger rivals such as Ibis Du Rheu and Callett Mad.
The Paul Nicholls-trained grey Ibis Du Rheu is already a Cheltenham Festival winner and has been earmarked for a crack at the meeting's 4m National Hunt Festival, followed by the Grand National. He looks particularly interesting over this longer trip.
McCoy Contractors also sponsor the Listed novices' chase (1.50pm), which was won last year by the excellent Ms Parfois and this year has attracted a really classy quartet, headed by Rocky's Treasure and Ok Corral.
The latter's trainer Nicky Henderson has a phenomenal team of novice hurdlers, and the Grade 2 Ballymore Leamington Novices Hurdle (2.25pm) provides another good opportunity for former Irish point-to-point winner Birchgrove, who made a winning debut over the same course and distance in a maiden which is working out. However, this is a quality novice from which the winner is likely to emerge a contender for the Ballymore at the Cheltenham Festival, and the Philip Hobbs-trained dual winner Tidal Flow and Colin Tizzard's Cheltenham winner Rockpoint are among the credible dangers.
Milansbar is understandably one of Bryony's favourite horses, and she would no doubt love to be able to ride him again, but will instead be on her “best mate” Black Corton, who is in action in the Listed chase at Kempton (2.05pm).
After all, it was her seven wins on the horse she calls “Blackie” as a novice last season, including her first ever Grade 1 win in Boxing Day's Kauto Star Chase, that helped establish her as a top-flight rider. Jockeys sometimes manage to ride at two meetings the same afternoon, but Warwick and Kempton are 90-odd miles apart and the timings are too close to do both, even in a helicopter.
The choice has been taken out of Bryony's hands, anyway, as she is obliged to ride Black Corton for her boss Paul Nicholls at Kempton, where she has also picked up a live outsider in the Lanzarote for Milansbar's trainer Neil King, for whom she rides Canyon City.
Black Corton would come right into this on his best form, but he was pulled up at Newbury last time and he meets higher-rated rivals who could be more effective at this distance, including Charbel and Top Notch, success for either of whom would see their odds shorten for Cheltenham's Ryanair Chase.
Unlike some in the Lanzarote, Canyon City is guaranteed to be at home on what will be unusually quick ground for January. He has been in good form, with two wins and a course and distance second already this season under similar conditions, but this looks another good opportunity for the ante-post gamble Kloud Gate.
Gary Moore has placed Kloud Gate well in much calmer waters, but don't let a steep rise in the handicap put you off as his second to gambled-on Stratum in a red-hot Flat handicap at Newbury on the summer suggests he is still be off a good mark. Kloud Gate is still technically a novice, so the Coral Cup and Martin Pipe Hurdles wouldn't be his only options at Cheltenham if he keeps progressing. The same applies to Erick Le Rouge, Darling Maltaix and Doux Pretender, who head the handicap.
With Kempton favourite Josses Hill among those on the supporting card racegoers are in for a fun day.