The Betfair Ascot Chase spearheads Saturday’s action at the Berkshire venue and it’s a tightly-knit Grade One contest that should tell us plenty.
The first glaringly obvious observation to make is that the name of R Walsh sits on the racecard next to Ballycasey’s name.
Given that Queen Mother Champion Chase third-favourite Champagne Fever has his final prep for next month’s Festival at Gowran Park on the same afternoon, it’s clear connections are very keen to test Ballycasey’s Ryanair Chase credentials and Walsh will be hoping for a better feel from the grey after his disappointing top-class assignment over Christmas.
Dropping back to two miles, one furlong at Leopardstown following a reappearance win over two and a half at Gowran, Willie Mullins’ charge was pressured into an early mistake and never looked comfortable before trailing in seventh of eight behind stablemate Twinlight.
Ballycasey fans have plenty to cling to, though, not least the recent Hennessy success of his 2014 Punchestown conqueror Carlingford Lough.
A sounder racing surface also promises to suit the son of Presenting, whose Grade One novice win over Don Cossack last February is also worth remembering with the Ryanair in mind.
But the official assessor has him joint-fourth highest rated of the sextet and this looks a race in which to trust the figures.
A glance at the role of honour, featuring Our Vic, Monet’s Garden, Kauto Star and Cue Card, makes it quite clear that the cream rises to the top in this pre-Festival showpiece and although only marginally the top dog this year, BALDER SUCCES does have plenty going for him aside from a BHA mark of 162.
Alan King’s seven-year-old never really got going until the turn of the year last term and his season has followed a similar pattern this time.
It’s not like he disgraced himself earlier on; a Haldon Gold Cup second was a perfectly reasonable starting point for a second-season chaser and his next two efforts, without being exceptionally bad, proved that a step back up in distance (beat God’s Own over the extended two miles, four furlongs at Kempton last February) was required.
And that move paid off handsomely when he gained a confidence-boosting win back at Kempton last month, where his 10-length verdict over the solid and consistent Fox Appeal (second off a mark of 149 in an Ascot handicap since) was just what was required.
There’s more to come from Balder Succes as conditions become a touch more spring-like and it’s hoped connections aren’t swayed from a trip to Prestbury Park this year.
He makes a good deal of appeal at 12/1 for the Ryanair in light of the non-runner, money-back concession, and should be backed to get the better of Paul Nicholls’ exciting six-year-old novice Ptit Zig on Saturday.
The champion trainer has saddled three Kingwell winners in the past and Irving looks up to conceding weight all round here based purely on his Fighting Fifth defeat of Aurore D’Estruval and Arctic Fire.
The runner-up has since scooted home in a Listed race at Sandown and the Mullins-trained third has been placed behind Hurricane Fly on a couple of occasions at Leopardstown.
Kempton was a non-event for Irving, but it’s extremely rare for a Nicholls runner to be pulled-up in a Grade One and the performance can be excused with an infection in his hoof discovered the following day.
His main rival is Sign Of A Victory, who finished a well-held fourth in the Christmas Hurdle prior to being pulled out of last weekend’s Betfair Hurdle on account of lameness.
Like the selection, he’s also clinging to a potential Champion Hurdle place, but a tilt at the County Hurdle could look a more realistic target barring an emphatic victory here.
The best bet at Haydock comes in the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle qualifier, where STONEBROOK has his first outing since last April.
He was a beaten-favourite at Aintree when last seen in public but returns at a time when his yard is starting to go through the gears.
He always looked a smart staying prospect and will handle the ground better than most. His owner already has the likes of Regal Encore, Cup Final and Join The Clan qualified for the big one at Cheltenham and this lightly-raced Flemensfirth gelding can produce a bold show here to put himself firmly into the picture.