Catching Pigeons: Dan's the man
Our Catching Pigeons column previews the Saturday cards and will be cheering for a trainer looking for his first winner.
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At least Oliver Sherwood has next year to look forward to with stable star Puffin Billy because for a good part of the Christmas period it was touch and go as to whether the horse would even be alive.
Within a couple of hours of being struck down with an attack of colic, vets at Valley Equine in Lambourn operated to remove a knot in his intestines and Puffin Billy is now on his way back to full health and a novice chasing campaign next season.
In his absence, Deputy Dan, who races in the same colours, ought to give trainer and owner Tim Syder something to cheer about at Warwick on Saturday.
He lines up against a host of higher-rated rivals in the Neptune Investement Management Hurdle and looks to have something to find on the formbook, but Sherwood is quietly hopeful that this progressive six-year-old, who has learnt something from each of his three starts over hurdles, can carry on improving past at least some of these rivals.
Despite clerk of the course Sulekha Varma's cheery optimism earlier in the week, conditions are sure to be very testing at Warwick. It's not a quick-draining track and there are still showers forecast for the run-up to racing on the back of sustained rain almost all week in the area.
Deputy Dan has however already won in heavy ground at Chepstow and Uttoxeter and if you can handle bottomless ground at those two tracks, you can go through anything.
Don't miss out on Sherwood's other runner, Mischievous Milly, either.
The trainer was hoping this Mares' Listed race - run now as the Levy Board Warwick Mares' Hurdle - would be salvaged from last weekend's abandonments and his wish has been granted with the replacement tacked on to the front of Warwick's card.
Again it looks as if this mare has plenty on her plate against higher-rated rivals, but a valid excuse came to light for her disappointing run when a well-backed favourite for a competitive handicap hurdle at Newbury last time out - she injured her back in the race and has needed time and physiotherapy for things to come right again since.
The trainer rates this mare highly and she wasn't at full fitness when behind Prima Porta at Wetherby first time out this season. This is tough, but we don't know yet quite how good she could be.
Emma Lavelle's Shotgun Paddy has been the subject of a good number of whispers for the main event on Warwick's card, the Betfred Classic Chase, and he certainly looks as if the trip and conditions will bring the best out in him.
However with a mark of 145, the handicapper could hardly be said to have let him slip through the net and with at least three potential frontrunners in the line-up, this could become seriously, seriously attritional - there could easily be just four or five finishers.
A better bet at the prices might just be Aboyfromnowhere, trained by Rebecca Curtis and kept for this race since winning the Southern National at Fontwell in similar conditions.
Goodwood Mirage might have been the pick in the opening William Hill Juvenile Hurdle at Kempton, but for the fact that his stable are struggling for winners at present.
Instead the selection goes to Grey Blue, who didn't find winning easy on the Flat, but is reported by the Lambourn pigeon to have schooled particularly well over hurdles.
The williamhill.com Levy Board Tolworth Hurdle does not always quite live up to its Grade One label, but there can be no argument that this year's salvaged race lives up to its billing with the final field actually looking stronger than the orginal scheduled for last weekend's abandoned Sandown meeting.
Upazo gives Willie Mullins a sighter at some of the domestic opposition as the build up to the Festival gathers pace.
Nicky Henderson was only going to run Josses Hill at Sandown, but his hopes of victory are boosted by second entry Royal Boy, who will be hoping to improve on his third in last year's race. Both Seven Barrows runners are in great nick and both are in with a big shout.
Junction Fourteen is the market pick after his easy course and distance win on Boxing Day, but he faces a much tougher task in what looks a more competitive race for the William Hill Lanzarote Handicap Hurdle.
It will surprise no one if he can follow up, but Henderson's River Maigue - in the same ownership as River Boy - could be a better value option and deserves another chance after his unlucky comeback run at Sandown.
Whilst it would be optimistic to think he could have won that day, he did not get the run of the race, and he did stick on to good effect on the run from the last. The performance suggested that he will appreciate the step up in trip and he will be a lot sharper for the run. His recent work has been of a very high order and he certainly has the ability to win a good race off this mark, even if he might just prefer a quicker racing surface.
Native Gallery should go well at a decent price in the William Hill Bet On The Move Handicap Chase. Ben De Haan's gelding is only lightly-raced and is still a little unexposed, despite the fact he is now a nine year old. He has form in the mud, and an improved performance from a below-par last run is anticipated by his affable and capable trainer.
Things tend to be fairly quiet on the Newmarket gallops at this time of the year, but Grey Mirage was one of a quartet who worked well for Marco Botti on the Cambridge Road Polytrack in midweek and he could go well in the Ladbrokes Conditions Stakes at Lingfield.
Also noted supervising a proper workout on the Al Bahathri all-weather gallop was William Jarvis, who hit a bit of form at this time last year and whose last two runners have both been successful.
Bishan Bedi will need to have improved a lot for his first start to take the 32Red Casino Median Auction Maiden Stakes, but he showed up well enough with a couple of smart stablemates to suggest that he has some ability.
The best of luck to Andi Brown, a relative newcomer to life as a licensed trainer the Hamilton Road, who bids for his first winner under his own licence with Red Shuttle in the Coral Mobile Handicap.
Formerly trained by his former guv'nor Jeremy Noseda before a spell with Noel Quinlan, Red Shuttle has definite talent if Brown - a well-known face throughout the town from his time with John Gosden and as the operator of a BHA-licensed equine swimming pool open for the use of other trainers - can unlock it.