Alex Hammond: Mixed emojis

Sky Sports News presenter Alex Hammond reflects on Thistlecrack's injury while also looking ahead to this weekend's action.

Blaklion could be the one for the National

The loss of Thistlecrack from the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup picture is a major blow to the Festival, as well as to the Tizzard and Snook families. But the Snooks' loss is going to be somebody else's gain and will his departure from the race simply hand victory to stablemates Native River and Cue Card?

Can you believe it? Annie Power, Faugheen, Don Cossack, Coneygree and now Thistlecrack. It's so disappointing for connections and those of us that held antepost vouchers on last year's World Hurdle winner (insert appropriate emoji here. I love an emoji, don't judge me!). (Editor's note: an emoji is a sort of cartoon face used to express an emotion; in this case, despair…)

Now those of you with good memories will recall that last week I couldn't have Cue Card on my mind for the Gold Cup no matter what he did at Ascot (maybe time for another emoji?) and I'm obviously not quite as adamant seven days later.

He showed no sign of age catching up with him on Saturday and maybe this is the year he gets the Gold Cup win he richly deserves after last season's mishap.

However, I gave Native River a positive mention a few weeks ago and if you took the price available at that time you will be feeling rather smug as he's now Sky Bet's 11/4 favourite – deservedly so.

Djakadam is a horse I've backed for the past two years and he's finished second twice, so I'd be somewhat tempted to go again with him after a positive update from owner Rich Ricci. Willie Mullins could do with a boost after a season below his usual high standard and it would be somewhat fitting if this 11/2 chance provided it.

As I've also mentioned before, I'd love to see Vroum Vroum Mag in the race, but I can't see that particular wish coming true and if Mullins is to win the 2017 Gold Cup, it'll surely be thanks to a horse who has run so well in the race twice already.

The positive to take out of the whole Thistlecrack setback is that this exciting horse will be back and possibly by the end of the year, so hopefully he will be able to defend his King George crown. Colin Tizzard was no doubt devastated on Tuesday when the vet scanned Thistlecrack's leg, but he can take some comfort from the fact that he still has two very good horses to go to war with and I think the up and coming Native River is the one to be on.

Did Yanworth's Wincanton victory do anything to clear up the picture for the Stan James Champion Hurdle? Were JP McManus to come on the phone and ask you to make a shock return to the saddle on the first day of the Festival, would you choose to ride Yanworth or Buveur D'Air?

Now wouldn't that be something?! If Sky Bet were to offer 1,000,000/1 about that phone call happening I wouldn't be tempted to get involved!

Lucky Barry Geraghty, he has that choice to make and if I were him I'd be opting for Buveur D'Air. Geraghty said after the battling Wincanton win for Yanworth that Alan King's charge is still in the Champion Hurdle mix, but to my mind he has to improve for a return to Cheltenham, admittedly a track that suits him better than the last two he's run on.

But Buveur D'Air is a natural hurdler with loads of class; I just love the way he skims over his obstacles and makes ground at them. When Nicky Henderson reverted to hurdles with this six-year-old I was mad keen to have him on my side in the Champion Hurdle whereas despite Yanworth's tenatious attitude, he has never really captured my heart.

I therefore hope that Barry goes with Buveur D'Air, my idea of the most likely winner and a 3/1 chance (NRNB) at the time of writing with Sky Bet.

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Vieux Lion Rouge and Blaklion fought out the finish to the National Trial at Haydock on Saturday. Do you think either of the pair are sufficiently equipped for the Aintree showpiece itself on April 8?

Yes, definitely. Winner Vieux Lion Rouge is now 10/1 favourite, with Blaklion at 16s, but I'm sticking with my Haydock choice Blaklion at Aintree – although I admit that Ucello Conti is on my shortlist again this year.

Blaklion was 33/1 for the National before last Saturday's race so I hope you got involved after my advice last week because he is a class act, the winner of the RSA Chase last season, and a horse who could still be improving.

This will be his first attempt over the National fences whereas Vieux Lion Rouge ran a cracker in last year's Aintree marathon, finishing seventh.

Both horses must have strong claims at Aintree, but from a value point of view I'd still be with Blaklion as he's slightly better off at the weights in the National and should have come on fitness-wise for his Haydock effort as that was his first run since Boxing Day.

He's a good, solid jumper and providing he takes to the fences will be the biggest threat to David Pipe's eight-year-old. Certainly, I can see the National Trial living up to its name with the Haydock one-two both going close at Aintree.

Can any of the entries for Saturday's Dovecote Novices' Hurdle at Kempton stake a claim for the Sky Bet Supreme?

The answer to that is yes, but it would have to be some performance at Kempton to depose Melon, Charli Parcs (odds on favourite to win the Adonis at Kempton on Saturday), Moon Racer et al from their positions at the head of the market.

Capitaine, Elgin, River Wylde, Captain Forez and Peter The Mayo Man are prominent in the betting for Saturday's race with Capitaine ans River Wylde the shortest of those (25/1) with the sponsors for the Sky Bet Supreme on the opening day of the Festival. That just about tells the tale, but I think Saturday's race could at least shape up to be a competitive betting heat.

The horse that I'll be backing is the aforementioned River Wylde. I tipped up Nicky Henderson's novice when he made a winning debut over hurdles at Ludlow in December and he has since picked up another little race at the Shropshire track. Henderson has crept away steadily with this horse who is now growing up and progressing and, while this is a more serious test for him, he should be up to the task.

River Wylde is 7/2 for the Dovecote and 25/1 for Cheltenham and how he performs in this will determine whether his trainer adds him to the Festival team.

Does anything else stand out as being worth a bet from among Saturday's big-race entries?

The BetBright Chase is the big race at Kempton and it looks as competitive as ever.

Tea For Two is Sky Bet's antepost favourite at 5/1 to give Lizzie Kelly another big-race win and he comes into the race with plenty to recommend him, not least his win at this track in the Grade One Feltham just over a year ago. He is in good heart having won at Exeter last time out and drops back into handicap company here – albeit with top weight.

Tenor Nivernais is next best in the market, but it will be some achievement to win two big Saturday handicaps in succession after his easy win at Ascot last Saturday and Three Musketeers more interesting, especially as Dan Skelton's horses are returning to form.

This horse won a Graduation Chase at Market Rasen in the murk last time out, beating a decent horse of Nicky Henderson's. Typically I was on the runner-up that day having abandoned Three Musketeers after a handful of below-par efforts, but cheekpieces seemed to help him and given soft ground on Saturday he will be a big player.

Roc D'Aspis isn't a certain runner for Tom George, but the trainer is still well represented with Double Shuffle, who will have the assistance of Adrian Heskin in the plate. This horse has been consistent enough over fences and won over course and distance at Christmas in a first-time hood.

He looks capable of further improvement over three miles and should go well.

On all known evidence Irish Saint doesn't stay the trip, but who am I to make that call when Paul Nicholls trains the horse, so maybe there have been other reasons he hasn't been finishing his races over three miles.

It's tough to decide between Three Musketeers and Double Shuffle but as I don't think there will be enough rain to change the ground to suit the former, the latter gets the call for the in-form George operation.

Also on Saturday it's the Eider Chase at Newcastle, a stamina-sapping four-mile handicap chase. One horse that will relish conditions, is starting to look dangerously well handicapped and hails from a stable in good heart is Shotgun Paddy.

Emma Lavelle's 10-year-old has run well in this race in the past, finishing second last year off a 7lb higher mark and unseating when sent off favourite the year before that. He ran well in the Classic Chase at Warwick last time out and Lavelle's horses have been worth following since she relocated to Peter Makin's former yard near Marlborough. He is an 8/1 shot with Sky Bet at the time of writing and looks sure to go well.

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