Catching Pigeons: Strong Whisper
Our Catching Pigeons column returns with Saturday selections and news of high hopes for Whisper at Cheltenham on New Year's Day.
Davy Russell and Whisper can deliver once more at Cheltenham
Cultivator can reverse Sandown running with Messire Des Obeaux in the Grade One Betfred Challow Hurdle (1.50) at Newbury on Saturday.
Nicky Henderson's charge made a great start to the autumn when landing a novice at Ascot in good style and was well fancied to follow up in a Grade Two at the Esher course. Although looking the likely winner at the second last, he made a mistake and was found for a turn of foot on the run-in. The experience will have taught the lightly raced five-year-old plenty, and he may have more scope for improvement than most of his rivals in what looks an open race.
As predicted, Henderson unleashed a potentially high-class three-year-old in Charli Parcs at Kempton on Tuesday, and he will be looking for another good performance from another promising debutant Percy Street in the opening Betfred Juvenile Hurdle (12.10).
Unlike his former French-trained stablemate, Percy Street has plenty of experience to call on from the Flat, having reached a very acceptable level in middle-distance handicaps for Karl Burke. He has taken well to timber on the schooling grounds and is fit and ready to do himself justice.
Ben Pauling, another of the bold young trainers of 2016, can score with Treaty Girl in the Betred Mandarin Handicap Chase (1.15). A winning point-to-pointer, she produced a cracking effort on only her second attempt over fences when chasing home Still Believing in a handicap at Cheltenham 22 days ago, and she should be much more effective on this return to a more demanding trip.
Alcala showed some solid form over hurdles for Paul Nicholls last season and he can build on his debut effort over fences in the Robert Baskerville Novices' Limited Handicap Chase (2.15) at Uttoxeter. He looks on a very workable mark.
Matt Chapman made an unusually low-key appearance on the Heath in Newmarket on Friday morning and though the low sun and frosty conditions made it a little difficult to get around and decipher exactly who he was there to visit, one string of horses the new ITV Racing man is likely to have been impressed by is that of Marco Botti.
The amiable Italian has enjoyed a couple of recent winners and his best chance of success at Lingfield on Saturday is without question the lightly-raced Burcan in the Betway Middle Distance Handicap (2.40).
He moved across town after winning one of his three starts for Jeremy Noseda earlier in the year and made a perfect start at Prestige Place when landing a 10-furlong Chelmsford handicap at the start of November and his disappointing first attempt at a mile and a half last time is well worth forgiving.
Sent off the 2/1 favourite at Wolverhampton, Luke Morris was denied a clear run two furlongs out but his mount finished off the race well enough to suggest the new trip wasn't an issue.
With Morris not back from his Christmas break until Monday, Daniel Muscutt – who rode the four-year-old to victory at Chelmsford – is back in the saddle and a bold bid is anticipated from a draw which should allow the partnership to sit handy.
Stablemate Grey Mirage appears to have lost his way and is worth opposing in the Sunbets Bet £10 Get £20 Free Handicap (2.05) with Michael Wigham's My Target, who has barely raised a leg in a couple of starts at Chelmsford since winning here in November but returns just 3lb higher than for that victory as a consequence and can defy potentially rewarding odds.
Another Botti representative well worth monitoring in the coming days is Regarde Moi, who has an entry in Monday's Sunbets.co.uk Top Price On All Favourites Claiming Stakes at Southwell.
Those within the stable hope that this eight-year-old, making his debut for the yard having joined from Botti's cousin Stefano, for whom he won 21 races in Italy, can provide young Jacob Mitchell with a first winner.
Back to Lingfield and another stable switcher, namely Bee Case, takes the eye.
She's obviously been considered surplus to requirements at Hugo Palmer's, whose huge string of yearlings stretching their legs on the Railway Land this week further demonstrated the competition for places at Kremlin Cottage Stables, but rates a more than useful recruit for Simon Dow.
The trainer could not be in better form and stepping up to seven furlongs for the 32red.com Nursery Handicap (1.30) may unlock some untapped potential in the Showcasing filly.
Robert Cowell's runners have been a little more miss than hit in recent weeks but the tide could start to turn with Jumeirah Star in the Betway App Handicap (3.15).
She's making her first appearance at the Surrey venue since scoring here over this distance in the summer (albeit on the turf track) and returns on exactly the same handicap mark having failed to fire in four subsequent outings.
There was a hint of promise in her latest Kempton fifth to suggest she may be ready to spring back to life and looks a fair play in a wide-open heat.
Onto Sunday and Superb Story can add the totepool Hogmaneigh Handicap Hurdle (2.50) to his big Cheltenham Festival win at Musselburgh.
Young Skelton pulled off a fine training performance to bring him back from a lengthy lay-off to prevail in the ultra competitive County Hurdle at the big meeting, but suffered the reverse side of the coin when the gelding had to be pulled up in the Galway Hurdle in the summer.
Given plenty to of time again to recover from those exertions, Superb Story is back in great heart and connections have long targeted this valuable objective. He still looks well handicapped despite a big weight and he's the type to continue to improve in readiness for a return trip to Prestbury Park in March.
Vyta Du Roc was not beaten that far in the Hennessy on his return to fences five weeks ago and he looks to have found a good opportunity in the Watch Live Racing On BetBright.com Handicap Chase (12.50) at Cheltenham.
Henderson opted to give the Welsh National and a return bout with Hennessy hero Native River a miss with the eight-year-old in favour of this less demanding test and the move should pay dividends. A smart novice last season, he is back in A1 nick at home.
Whisper is a difficult horse to read at times, but he seems on great terms with himself at the moment and should maintain his unbeaten record this season in the BetBright Dipper Novices Chase (1.25).
Henderson has had plenty of problems with this high-class staying hurdler over the past 12 months, and he was only hopeful he might prevail on his chasing bow at Exeter on this day 12 months ago. However, Whisper never fired at all. Once again, expectations were not that high on his return here last month, but that was only down to a lack of peak fitness.
Under a fine ride from Davy Russell, he jumped nicely and overcame the pre-race fears by galloping on strongly up the hill to notch his first win over larger obstacles. He took some useful scalps along the way and the Seven Barrows shrewdies are now looking for him to step up another level, especially after an accomplished schooling session under Noel Fehily on Mandown in Upper Lambourn on Friday morning.
Stablemate O O Seven will also go well but the Nicholls-trained Clan des Obeaux should be the toughest nut to crack.
Lough Derg Leader can emulate former stablemate Singlefarmpayment and win the Betbright Casino Handicap Hurdle (2.35) for Tom Lacey.
The six-year-old has made great strides north in the ratings so far this season and should be more than able to overcome a lumpy 11lb hike in his assessment for an impressive win at Doncaster last month.
The concluding EBF Stallions & Cheltenham Pony Club NH Flat Race looks a fascinating renewal, with some of the top trainers around represented, but perhaps Newmarket mayor John Berry will be able to strike a blow with White Valiant.
The son of Youmzain overcame odds of 80/1 to win on his racecourse bow at Huntingdon, scoring in great style under Daryl Jacob.
Jacob is required to ride Daphne Du Clos for Henderson and Potensis Bloodstock on Sunday but Davy Russell is an eyecatching booking for Berry, who looks to have a very useful tool to go to war with.
The very much in-form Fehily forsakes Cheltenham for the delights of Haldon Hill and Exeter, and he should kick the afternoon off on the right note with the highly-rated and impressive bumper winner Neon Hill in the opening Passage House Inn Topsham 'National Hunt' Novices' Hurdle (12.40).
All of the action from Newbury and Warwick on New Year's Eve will be free to view on Racing UK, following Channel 4's decision to withdraw the fixture from its schedule. The Newbury card, which is headlined by the Grade One Betfred Challow Hurdle, plus seven competitive races from Warwick, will be free to watch in over 13 million homes on Sky 432 and Virgin 536. In addition, Racing UK will stream the live coverage on www.racinguk.com at no cost. Coverage gets under way at 10.30am with the Mark Your Card preview programme, with live racing from 11.30am.