Matt Brocklebank rates the action following Cheltenham Trials Day and nominates horses to follow from each race.
JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle
Trial rating: ⭐️
Horse to follow: Rowland Ward, 5th
Not a strong race for the Grade, unfortunately, although the winner looks a nice long-term prospect for his patient connections.
The one to take from it could be Rowland Ward. He's bred to win Classics (Sea The Stars out of an Authorized mare) and didn't quite live up to that level on the Flat, but he was rated 85 in that sphere and can be marked up for this effort as he was cut off on the stands' rail between the final two flights.
He nearly slipped and can be excused the run, especially considering he was quite impressive when winning at Kempton on his second start.
His handicap mark will be interesting with a potential Fred Winter tilt in mind.
Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase
Trial rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Horse to follow: Imperial Aura, 2nd
Always a good pointer but with winner Simply The Betts now likely to be handicapped out of the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase (0-145) at the Festival, Imperial Aura looks the one to focus on.
He'll be nudged up a bit in the weights too for this effort but has clearly started life on a workable mark and backed up his December second to Pym with another improved showing here.
He's building nicely towards March and looks capable of holding his own against the posse of well-treated Irish rivals he'll no doubt be facing.
Paddy Power 45 Sleeps To Cheltenham Trophy Handicap Chase
Trial rating: ⭐️ ⭐️
Horse to follow: Garde La Victoire
A belting finish to the big handicap chase at Cheltenham and Lalor involved again with another close third. He's begging for spring ground and, being a Grade One winner, would have to be of interest if remaining down the handicap route at the Festival (Brown Advistory Plate).
Cepage and Spiritofthegames are going to find life tough off their revised marks, though the winner did show incredible guts and may have earned a crack at the Gold Cup.
Fourth home was Garde La Victoire, who is well treated on his old form and may enjoy something like the Grand Annual at the Festival if it's on the soft side of good.
He could also be aimed at the Plate but his stamina is likely to remain in question over this intermediate trip.
Paddy Power Cotswold Chase
Trial rating: ⭐️ ⭐️
Horse to follow: De Rasher Counter
The Cotswold Chase has yet to produce a Gold Cup winner, with Grand National horses having thrived in the race in recent years.
Perhaps Santini will buck the trend but drying conditions during Cheltenham week would count against this dour stayer, who still looks a shade novicey when asked to jump at speed.
Ladbrokes Trophy hero De Rasher Counter was plugging on up the hill after making a few jumping mistakes himself and wasn't disgraced in the circumstances as it's worth remembering he's still open to a bit more improvement.
Aintree could come into trainer Emma Lavelle's thinking on the back of this performance, for which he may be dropped a couple of pounds in the ratings - 158 going into the weekend. He'll get into the National with a nice weight if Tiger Roll stands his ground.
Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle
Trial rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Horse to follow: Harry Senior
A fascinating renewal of a traditionally strong trial and it looks bound to produce winners.
The fifth Time Flies By leaps off the page as a long-term handicap project who could really flourish in that scenario but we may have to wait until next season to see him come to fruition as it seems he's going to be kept in hot company to retain his novice status (or win a big one).
Third home Protektorak was cut across the board for the Coral Cup and makes significant appeal for the Festival handicap having now gained loads of experienced (second-season novice) and plenty of course form to boot. He was giving the front two 5lb and emerges with great credit.
Runner-up King Roland will surely be given his chance in the Ballymore now although connections could even consider dropping back for the Sky Bet Supreme given how well the lightly-raced six-year-old travelled here. He's a real prospect.
But Harry Senior took top spot in spite of the muddling gallop and briefly looking in a spot of trouble. His stamina is obviously a strong suit but it was a sparkling change of gear that allowed him to latch onto King Roland and he looks on a steep upward curve for the Tizzards, who know where they stand with the best novices in Britain this year.
He's unproven at three miles but was bought for staying chases further down the line and is expected to relish a thorough test. If he gets the Albert Bartlett trip, it will take a very good horse to beat him at the Festival.
galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle
Trial rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Horse to follow: If The Cap Fits
We didn't learn a great deal new about Paisley Park and he's generally now odds-on to retain his crown in the Paddy Powers Stayers' Hurdle after a commanding success.
It'll be interesting to see what takes him on in six weeks' time but, looking at the revised market, If The Cap Fits appears a fraction over-priced at 20/1 (as short as 7s in a place) having finished fifth.
This was disappointing on the face of it from Harry Fry's horse, who was sent off 11/4 and supposed to be the main challenger to the king of the division. But he suffered a troubled passage at the bottom of the hill before running on late after Sean Bowen had effectively dropped his hands and given up hope.
He should have learned a great deal from a first sighting of Prestbury Park.
It's almost impossible to suggest he can go and win a Stayers' Hurdle from here, but the antepost betting reaction seems exaggerated and the horse remains of interest going forward, perhaps back at Aintree in April.
Steel Plate And Sections Handicap Hurdle
Trial rating: ⭐️
Horse to follow: Lust For Glory
This race threw up the County Hurdle hero in 2014 with Lac Fontana doing the double for Paul Nicholls, before bringing up the hat-trick in a Grade One novice at Aintree the following month.
This year's edition doesn't look anything exceptional with Back On The Lash essentially outstaying Lust For Glory, who was reverting to hurdles having hated the experience on her recent chasing debut at Doncaster.
She made a really bright start to this season when second behind Not So Sleepy at Ascot - form which is working out well subsequently - so this was more like it from the Nicky Henderson-trained mare.
She's not blindingly well handicapped but is reportedly far more effective on good ground so hopes are high she can build on this effort in the spring.
She's unlikely to get into any of the big handicaps at the Festival but there will be plenty of opportunities for her to come good before the end of the campaign. She might be one for Ayr (ran there last term) or the final meeting of the Cheltenham season in April when conditions should be more to her liking.