There are potentially three NH fixtures for jumps-starved punters to get stuck into this weekend, and one of them happens to be just about the best card you're likely to see all year outside of the Festival. We take a look ahead to the action at Cheltenham and elsewhere...
It may only hold Grade 2 status, but the nineteen-furlong International Hurdle (15:05) may well be the best race run over timber so far this season, with three of the top six in the Champion Hurdle betting set to locks horns.
The Supreme Novice and Greatwood winner Menorah just about sets the standard on the strength of his victory in the latter contest here last month, and currently trades at 2.92. However, Menorah probably isn't open to the same amount of improvement as either of his main rivals, namely Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti.
The former is without a doubt the most exciting novice hurdler in training, and his trainer Colin Tizzard clearly has no reservations about pitching him in at the deep end on just his third start over timber. Betfair punters certainly think Cue Card is up to the job as he just about shades favouritism at 2.90. Silviniaco Conti is certainly not to be underestimated, having produced a high-class effort when winning the Ascot Hurdle last time, and he looks a big price in relation to the front two at 3.9.
A field of sixteen will face the starter in the Vote AP Gold Cup (14:30), a two-mile-five-furlong handicap chase. Timeform ratings point to it being an extremely competitive heat, the top- and bottom-rated horses separated by just 8lb.
The market certainly reflects this view as seven of the runners currently available to back at 12.5 or shorter. A couple of recent course winners head the market, namely Dave's Dream 6.2 and Little Josh 6.8, the former coming out just top on Timeform ratings 1 lb ahead of Irish raider Psycho.
The sole Grade 1 event on the card is the two-mile Tingle Creek Chase (13:55), salvaged from Sandown's abandoned meeting last weekend. The race appears to be at the mercy of the top two-miler in training Master Minded, who looked back to his brilliant best when making a winning reappearance at Ascot last month. He has plenty in hand on Timeform ratings and currently trades at a shade of odds on 1.91 ahead of last season's Arkle runner-up Somersby 9.8 and the seemingly rejuvenated Gauvain 10.0.
There is plenty of quality on the rest of the card, with three further Grade 2 events scheduled, namely the Triumph Hurdle Trial (12:10), Relkeel Hurdle (13:20) and the Albert Bartlett (Bristol) Novices' Hurdle (15:40).
Cheltenham stages Saturday's only jumps meeting, both Doncaster and Lingfield having been abandoned. However, the all-weather action rolls on as the latter course stages a replacement fixture on the polytrack to go with meetings at Southwell and Wolverhampton.
Huntingdon's Peterborough Chase meeting was originally scheduled to take place on Thursday, and though that wasn't possible, there is a good chance that it will still take place in a new slot on Sunday, given that temperatures are reportedly set to remain above freezing over the weekend. The Grade 2 Peterborough Chase (14:05) over two and a half miles is the highlight of the season at Huntingdon and this year's renewal certainly looks up to scratch with the likes of Twist Magic, Riverside Theatre and Kalahari King all featuring among the entries.
Fakenham's Sunday card has already been abandoned, but there is hope of further jumping at Cork where there are three Graded events on the card, the best of which is the Grade 2 Hilly Way Chase (13:45) over two miles.
The day's only all-weather card take places in the afternoon at Southwell, but further afield there is top quality action in the Far East as the Hong Kong International meeting takes place at Sha Tin. The first of four Grade 1 events on the card is the Vase (06:00), followed by the Sprint (06:40), Mile (07:50), and rounding off with the Cup (08:30). There is plenty of European interest across the card, with perhaps the two most interesting contenders from these shores being Paco Boy in the Mile and Snow Fairy in the Cup.