INVITATION ONLY (NAP) (best price 6-4) fluffed his lines on his first start over the larger obstacles, but he dusted himself down to make no mistake second time around at Navan last time out and he has the class to make his presence felt in this much stiffer test. Considering he’d hit the deck on his opening salvo, Willie Mullins’ inmate jumped immaculately at the Co Kildare track and in stretching right away in the closing stages, he beat two horses in the shape of Any Second Now and Moulin A Vent who are both well above-average. Moreover, his effort on the clock was not to be sniffed at either and if he’s ridden in a similarly aggressive fashion this afternoon, it will take a very smart horse to lower his colours with a clear round. Either way, his performance will give connections some idea or where stand regards Cheltenham plans.
MORTENS LEAM (best price 4-1) has already dipped his bread against a smart sort over fences at today’s track and he’s fancied to go close again at the Yorkshire venue despite the official figures suggesting he has a bit to find. Taken out of a hot handicap at Leicester two days ago, it’s interesting that connections would rather come here and defy conventional wisdom in taking on a horse in the shape of De Dollar Man off level weights, but one suspects that they believe their charge has more natural ability than his current mark indicates. Indeed, the way he travels through his races points heavily in favour of that theory and having gained a proper confidence-booster with an easy success at Fakenham last time out, he comes into this contest with the bit firmly between his teeth. Whatever the end outcome, he’s bound to trade shorter in the run for the exchange players, which is another avenue that can be exploited.
RECKLESS ENDEAVOUR (best price 11-4) has shaped really well for current connections since leaving his Irish base and given that his latest eye-catching performance came over today’s C&D, there’s good reason to be confident of another bold display 14 days on. A real improver on the all-weather over in Dundalk when in the care of Ger Lyons (clocked many fast times), the son of Kodiac has continued to run to a pretty high standard since switching stables and his latest effort when a never-nearer third in a hot handicap on the figures at the Surrey venue indicates he’s coming to the boil nicely. Prior to that useful display, the five-year-old had previously shaped well in a similar contest at Kempton when keeping on well to claim a creditable third behind two top-class performers in the shape of Double Up and Intisaab and providing he gets a reasonable pace to shoot at, the Kodiac gelding has the turn of foot to play a significant factor late on.
Very aptly named considering what happened to him at Cheltenham last time out, DUEL AT DAWN (best price 5-2) gets his chance to resurrect himself as a proper staying novice chaser and put himself firmly in the shop window for something like the National Hunt Chase at the Festival in March. A useful hurdler, Alex Hales’ inmate has soon established himself as a much better chaser and following a proper grinding victory at Exeter over Flintham two starts ago, he was fully entitled to have a pop at a better race last time out. Despite there being only four runners at Prestbury Park 29 days ago, there was certainly no hiding place from the start and although the son of Presenting came out second best of a proper slog-fest with the eventual winner, Sizing Tennessee, he had to be carried out on his shield (Tintern Theatre also won out of same race since). Given what the winner has gone on to achieved against the top—class Yanworth subsequently, the eight-year-old was clearly up against it on that occasion and if he can get into a nice rhythm over these fences that reward fast, accurate jumping, he should prove difficult to beat.
As ever, one has to tread carefully in a race where the final of this qualifier is the ultimate target for many, but providing SYKES (best price 12-1) runs on his merits, he looks to have a perfectly reasonable chance of being in the shake-up. A game winner on bottomless ground at Ffos Las two starts ago, Nicky Martin’s inmate improved on that run in terms of actual achievement despite being beaten at Cheltenham last time out and a repeat of the same level of form makes him quite a tempting each-way proposition at the morning odds.
PAISLEY PARK (best price 9-1) has yet to achieve the same sort of numbers as some of his main market rivals rating-wise, but he clocked a decent speed figure when winning at Hereford last time out and he could be open to any amount of improvement so he gets the vote. Off the track a while after finishing a promising second in a bumper over today’s track last year, Emma Lavelle’s inmate proved fully effective on his first try over hurdles 28 days ago and even though his main market rival, Vision Des Flos, made a telling mistake at the last, he may have still won anyway given how strongly he was going on at the finish. Although he jumped a bit novicey in the early stages at the Midland track, he gradually warmed to the task as the race developed and if he can improve in that department, he could end up being a real dangerous floater here over a trip that should suit.