Monet's Garden Old Roan Limited Handicap Chase (Grade 2) | 2m4f, 4yo+ | RTV
Fingers crossed, we should get a run for our money – and more than the occasional jump.
The Old Roan Chase was spoiled as a spectacle last year by the low sun which forced the omission of all the fences in the home straight.
That ruined the bets of those who had based their calculations on it being the usual test of jumping. Aintree's Mildmay course rewards those who are quick and accurate at the fences and Frodon and Kalashnikov could not match the flat speed of Forest Bihan.
A change of running order should help prevent a repeat as should a weather forecast that suggests it will not be so sunny an afternoon – and that the ground is more likely to have softened than dried since declarations were made.
That is yet another factor to ponder in an early-season event in which fitness of reappearing levels can only be guessed at. The proven wellbeing of Nuts Well and Imperial Presence, winners already this month, makes them of serious interest even though their recent successes mean they arrive after a handicap rise.
Softening ground will certainly play to the strengths of Itchy Feet, who won the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices' Chase in the mud at Sandown in February and is better than he was able to show when departing early at Cheltenham the following month.
He certainly has the makings of a chaser who will prove better than his current mark but the question for punters is whether he is worth backing at shortish odds to prove it on his first run in a competitive handicap – or any handicap for that matter – against seasoned campaigners in what may prove more of a test of speed than is ideal.
It was stamina that won him the day at Sandown, outstaying Midnight Shadow who is 5lb better off now and comes with no doubts as to his effectiveness in a competitive field on a quick track, having won the Scottish Champion Hurdle and a decent handicap hurdle here in his younger days.
Paul Nicholls' good start to the season encourages the hope that Magic Saint, who won over 2m2f in France, will be in decent shape for another crack at 2m4f, while prolific mare Annie Mc is another whose hurdling form suggests she'll be suited by this test.
Everyone needs a star horse to get them noticed, which is why Itchy Feet will always be close to Olly Murphy's heart.
He finished third in the Supreme in just the trainer's second season and gave him a first Grade 1 victory when landing the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase at Sandown last term.
Murphy hopes the six-year-old can resume his upward progress, having unseated Gavin Sheehan at the sixth fence when sent off second favourite for the Marsh Novices' Chase in March.
"He never really got into a rhythm at Cheltenham and he paid the price but that's racing and his schooling has been good since," said Murphy. "He's worked wonders for my career at such an early stage and I hope he can take the step up and take on these seasoned, graded horses.
"I'm looking forward to getting him going. A clear round is the most important thing and it's going to be a long year, all of mine have taken a run first time. But if he's going to be a proper graded chaser this season he'll want to be running well."
Murphy has long had the Old Roan in mind for Itchy Feet's comeback and said: "I think two and a half miles will be his trip this season, he certainly won't be coming back in trip anyway and I'd love to see a bit of rain to make the ground nice and slow – his two best runs were in the Supreme and at Sandown on slow ground."
What they say
Ann Hamilton, trainer of Nuts Well
It's a big ask but he's worked his way up and we were chuffed with his win at Kelso on his return. I'm concerned about the ground because he likes good ground and he's not a very big horse to carry top weight on soft.
Paul Nicholls, trainer of Magic Saint
A flat track suits him very well, he's in good shape and I hope he'll run a big race. I've always thought he wanted two and a half miles – he's run over the trip at Cheltenham, which doesn't suit him.
Sue Smith, trainer of Midnight Shadow
He's schooled very well and this looks an appropriate place to start but he might go there needing the race a bit and he'll improve for it.
Tom George, trainer of Clondaw Castle
This is a good starting point but he'll probably come on for it. He won a good race at Warwick but he never really got his ground last season and I hope the ground stays as it is.
Colin Tizzard, trainer of Vision Des Flos
We've done his wind a couple of times as it messes him about a bit. On his day he can be quite good and if we get a nice run with him he could be all right over fences, but he's not easy to win with.
David Stevens of Coral Champions Club, owners of Annie Mc
The team at Jackdaws did a brilliant job with her last season. Although this looks a really competitive Old Roan, Jonjo's horses are in great form and the trip and ground should suit.