No hiding place for Winter Escape
Views from connections ahead of Sunday's stanjames.com Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham, including Winter Escape.
Winter Escape: Returns to action in Sunday' Greatwood
Alan King accepts Winter Escape faces "a big test" when he puts his unbeaten record on the line in the StanJames.com Greatwood Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham on Sunday.
The five-year-old looked an exciting prospect last season, winning all his three starts which culminated with victory in the Grade Two Dovecote Novices' Hurdle at Kempton in February.
King has always had the Greatwood as the starting point for the JP McManus-owned gelding and just hopes there is not too much rainfall ahead of this competitive contest.
"The Greatwood has been his target all autumn. I'm very happy with him," said the Barbury Castle trainer.
"I would love it to stay dry for him, so we'll have to see. I don't think he'd be at his best if it turned soft.
"He's done everything right so far but obviously it's a big test for him and it has been his target."
The weights are headed by another McManus-owned horse, Hargam, whose winning reappearance at Kempton last month was unimpressive.
His trainer Nicky Henderson persuaded the handicapper to lower Hargam in the ratings on the back of that success.
"He is in that impossible place and after a little pushing and pleading he actually got dropped two pounds for winning at Kempton," said the Seven Barrows trainer.
"As everyone knew, the performance itself warranted him coming down rather than going up. He is not a Grade One horse. A Listed race like the one he won last time is where he might be.
"In a handicap he could be very competitive, but he is not the biggest and it will be hard work with that sort of weight, but he has got to go somewhere."
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A third McManus representative is the Paul Nicholls-trained Modus, who made an encouraging return to action when third to Sternrubin at Ascot two weeks ago.
"He was a touch unlucky at Ascot on his return. He came back in late so it was very encouraging to see him run as he did, said Nicholls' assistant Harry Derham.
"He is a very talented horse and I don't think we have seen the best of him yet."
Trainer Philip Hobbs admits it was not his decision to run Sternrubin at Ascot, but is happy to let his take his chance despite the Terry Warner-owned five-year-old having gone up 3lb for his success in the William Hill Handicap Hurdle.
"I probably wouldn't have run him at Ascot. We got the win under our belt, but we've gone up in the handicap for that," Hobbs told At The Races.
"It's a bit quick maybe to be running again, but he's in good nick and we're going to have a go. He's very genuine and keeps doing his best.
"He needs to go up another stone at least to be running in conditions races."
Ben Pauling throws three of his string into the ring, with A Hare Breath leading the charge and supported by Leoncavello and Cyrius Moriviere.
"I still think A Hare Breath is the best-handicapped horse in the yard," said the Gloucestershire handler.
"He's in very good form and, in fact, I don't think I've ever had him better. He's training better than he ever has done and if he's ever going to win a big pot I think this will be it and then the plan is to go chasing.
"Leoncavallo has gone up 5lb just for being stood in his box after Sceau Royal won again the other day. I think it's a bit harsh because he (Sceau Royal) absolutely sluiced up, it wasn't like we were just behind him. Thankfully, he'll be running off his old mark anyway so it doesn't matter this time, it's in the future.
"Cyrus blew the cobwebs away the other week and we've put the tongue-tie back on which will help him but he's got to improve."
The sole Irish raider is bottom weight Jack The Wire, trained by Denis Hogan, who will also ride the horse.
Jack The Wire won over hurdles at both Galway and Listowel Festivals, only to disappoint at Down Royal last weekend, but Hogan has put a line through that performance.
"Last week didn't go to plan. The ground was a bit fast and slippy and the race turned into a bit of a sprint," said the County Tipperary handler.
"That didn't suit him, but he didn't have a hard race. He's in great nick. I brought him over here and sat on him Friday morning and he has no weight on his back on Sunday.
"I wouldn't mind a bit more rain to slow things down a bit.
"Rain would be ideal. He has a light weight and with some juice in the ground he should run a big race."
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