A maximum of 28 runners will face the starter in Thursday's Randox Foxhunter Chase at Aintree, the second leg of the three valuable foxhunter races for amateur riders only in the season. Included among them is an intoxicating mix of veteran chasers and new blood, hoping to carry off a lifetime achievement and set themselves up for a tilt at the following year's Grand National.
This is a race where it pays to follow trainers and riders with form. Ulster-based David Christie is resolutely focused on the Point-to-Point and Hunter chase division, and in Winged Leader he has a horse with impeccable credentials. A winner of 12 of his 18 Point-to-Points, his last outing not in the Winner's berth was a neck second to Billaway in the 2022 Cheltenham Foxhunter. He swerved that race this Spring to focus on Aintree, and has convincing wins at Cragmore, Farmaclaffley and Portrush to serve as an ideal preparation. He is deservedly the 4/1 favourite.
However, this is not a race that regularly falls to the Irish, unlike the National itself in recent years. Last year's winner, fifth and seventh all renew rivalry. Latenightpass was a thrilling 1 1/4l victor last April from Cat Tiger. It's difficult to fault Tom Ellis's charge in his preparation this year. Three races include two wins at Alnwick and Charm Park, plus a neck second to Shantou Flyer at Chaddesley's Harkaway meeting, which has already produced a Foxhunter winner in Premier Magic. With Gina Andrews in the plate, punters are sure of a good ride.
Shantou Flyer (right) catches Latenightpass at the last at Chaddesley's harkaway fixture in December
Cousin Pascal was fifth in that race, and has been trained specifically toward this race. It hasn't been an ideal preparation; in soft ground at Hereford in January, he failed to finish, whilst most recently, he came off second best to Espoir de Teillee at Leicester. He may have shot his bolt in this race, especially given the weather forecast.
The seventh horse in the 2022 renewal was Reikers Island from Alan Hill's yard, a distant 39l behind. He was well beaten in his last outing at Brafield and looks an improbable winner.
The Bradley Gibbs - trained Fier Jaguen looks yet another from this successful stable to follow. He's another to have begun his campaign at the Harkaway fixture with a distance victory in an Open. He hasn't put a foot wrong in subsequent outings at Revesby Park and Ston Easton and merits his 6/1 price if he takes to the Aintree fences.
Fier Jaguen was one of Bradley Gibbs' three winners at the Harkaway in December
Predictably, it's another virtually professional rider who challenges for favouritism in the naps table. Famous Clermont ran a 10l sixth to Premier Magic at Cheltenham on the back of a quartet of victories in Points and hunter chases. With Will Biddick in the plate, you are guaranteed a run for your money, even at 11/2.
James King has picked up a ride for Keiran Burke on the Penny Bunter - owned Envoye Special. They have some ground to make up on the main contenders.
Among the other notables, you can never rule out a horse with P Nicholls against its name. Magic Saint will carry Olive Nicholls in the race for the first time, and whilst rated just 137 now, has been rated 9lbs higher, which would put him bang there if stepping back up to that standard. Contemporary, Fern O'Brien also has her first ride over the National fences but Sir Jack Yeats looks outclassed in this company.
Once again, the race looks set to produce a dream result for one trainer-rider combination.