Catching Pigeons: Aye aye Captain
Our Catching Pigeons column has all the latest gossip from the gallops ahead of the weekend's action and Cheltenham.
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The Nicky Henderson team have been delighted to see the ground dry out both at Seven Barrows and at Cheltenham over the past week and hopes are high they can have a good Festival and put the troubles of the Autumn and Winter behind them.
Plenty are making ripples in the ante-post markets, but the name on everyone's lips in the famous Downland establishment is Captain Conan, who bids to follow stablemates Finian's Rainbow and Sprinter Sacre on the roll of honour for the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
He was found not to be right after his pretty comprehensive defeat by Sire de Grugy at Sandown in December, and his trainer has given him all the time he needs to comeback to himself.
It remains to be seen if he has enough improvement to see off Gary Moore's star this time, but his high quality work - including a very good gallop midweek - and a brilliant schooling session under Barry Geraghty, suggests he should prove a big threat.
In other Cheltenham-related news, Oliver Sherwood sends Carry On Sydney for the opening juvenile handicap hurdle at Sandown on Saturday and he should be up to conceding weight all round.
He is in the Fred Winter at the Festival on Wednesday and would be fancied, but may need the 5lb penalty for this race to get into the Festival feature.
Paul Nicholls' Vibrato Valtat was very leniently treated by the assessor after his comfortable win at Exeter and he looks the one they all have to beat in the William Hill Imperial Cup at Sandown on Saturday.
It took a while for connections to work the French import out, but he looked very good when the patient tactics were deployed on Haldon Moor and he should just have the edge over Henderson's Fourth Estate, who is also at the right end of the handicap.
Hughie Morrison is best known for his exploits on the Flat, but he has had big winners over jumps and has a sound chance with Brother Brian in the EBF William Hill National Hunt Novices Handicap Hurdle Final.
The six year old has taken a leap forward after showing promise in bumpers last season and produced his best effort to beat the highly-rated Tistory at Newbury in December. Although readily beaten by Cole Harden on the same course the following month, he may not have been quite at his best that day, and this race has been his target all season.
Alan King and Nicky Henderson both have fine records in the EBF Stallions Mares Bumper and they could well fight out the finish with Avispa and Side Step.
The Seven Barrows team rate Side Step highly and believe she has come on a good deal for her win at Doncaster six weeks ago.
However, Avispa has not stood still either since her cosy success over the highly rated Promanco at Huntingdon last month.
The pair dominated the market that day and both were nearly a hurdle clear of the third at the line. Avispa has been working particularly well since that success and her form looks just superior to her Lambourn rival.
Henderson can strike with another promising mare from his strong distaff team, Miss Ballantyne in the Mares Limited Novices Handicap Chase at Warwick on Sunday.
She showed plenty of ability last season and her schooling suggests she can do well over fences.She has only seen action the once so far this season, but she has been waiting for the ground to firm up a bit and this looks a very winnable opportunity.
Back to Saturday and switching to the all-weather action, it could pay to take a chance on Hasopop in the Listed Ladbrokes Lady Wulfruna Stakes at Wolverhampton.
Marco Botti's four year old is not that easy to place, but he looks to have been found a good opening here, and his promising comeback effort behind his better fancied stablemate Grey Mirage at Lingfield two weeks ago will have sharpened him up.
He wears first-time cheekpieces on Saturday and Botti won the race last year with Solar Deity too.
Meanwhile, the Newmarket handler worked plenty of his large team on the Cambridge Road polytrack on Wednesday with QIPCO 1000 Guineas hopeful Al Thakhira looking particularly well.
Going back to the Wolverhampton card, Michael Bell's Fashion Line looks the one to be on in the Ladbrokes Lincoln Trial Handicap.
She's been working well with a recent Lingfield winner and is expected to run another sound race after dead-heating with Sky Khan over track and trip last time.
Her trainer will have been pleased with the work of Raven Ridge on the Al Bahathri gallop and he's a horse that looks to have done well over the winter.
A winner of a Newcastle maiden in October, he looks to have developed into a nice three-year-old and he could have some lofty targets this summer.
Tom Queally also had a sit on an unnamed son of Fastnet Rock - a striking individual trained by Bell.
Meanwhile, Ryan Moore rode Hillstar on the Line Gallop this week. It wasn't the King Edward VII Stakes winner that impressed though, as stablemate Dank looked in great nick during the same piece of work.
The Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf winner looked on great terms with herself ahead of the upcoming campaign.