Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up Minella Rocco has his sights lowered in the opening race at Prestbury Park on Saturday.
Jonjo O’Neill’s charge found only Sizing John too strong in the 2017 renewal of the blue riband. He is also a previous Festival winner having won the 2016 National Hunt Chase.
His last two runs have been in Grade One company at Leopardstown, finishing a fine fourth in the Christmas Chase before falling at the final fence in the Irish Gold Cup in February.
The eight-year-old makes his first appearance since, having undergone a wind operation in the meantime, in the “Matchbook Betting Exchange” Handicap Chase and must concede weight to each of his 16 rivals.
Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus, said: “He’s in great form, Jonjo is delighted with him.
“He’s coming down a gear and he’s very forward.
“I know Jonjo is hoping he’ll run a good race.”
Minella Rocco is one of three McManus-owned runners in the three-mile-one-furlong contest, with O’Neill also saddling Above Board and Philip Hobbs sending For Good Measure.
Berry added: “For Good Measure is having his first run back after a break (last ran in February). He’s in good form and hopefully he’ll run well.
“Above Board has been running well and it will be interesting to see how he goes at this level.”
Neil Mulholland fires a formidable twin assault with Shantou Village and Doing Fine both declared.
Shantou Village was last seen finishing fifth in last month’s Kerry National, while Doing Fine has been off the track since placing fourth in the Scottish Grand National in April.
Mulholland said: “Both horses have won around Cheltenham and both are in good form, thankfully. It’s not ideal that they’re taking each other on, but what can you do?
“Shantou Village ran a cracker in Listowel on ground that was softer than ideal and we’ve been happy with him since.
“Doing Fine hasn’t run since the spring, but he’s well and in good form.
“It would be tough to split them. Hopefully they’ll both run well.”
Other contenders include Fergal O’Brien’s Perfect Candidate, the Nicky Henderson-trained Laurium, Dell’ Arca from David Pipe’s yard and Gordon Elliott’s pair of Rightdownthemiddle and Swingbridge.
Despite the absence of We Have A Dream, the Masterson Holdings Hurdle is an interesting contest, with two of last season’s leading juveniles doing battle in Redicean and Gumball.
Alan King’s Redicean, who carries the colours of Cheveley Park Stud, was seriously impressive in his first three starts over jumps at Kempton before finishing sixth in the Triumph Hurdle here in March.
King said: “He’s in very good form, I’m really pleased with him.
“I think he’s got it all to do at the weights, though. He has to give 8lb to Gumball, which won’t be easy, but I’ve got to start him somewhere and this looked a logical place.”
The Philip Hobbs-trained Gumball was favourite for the Triumph Hurdle this time last year and although he lost his way in the middle of the season, he rounded off his campaign with a dominant victory at Ludlow.
John McConnell’s Irish raider Pearl Of The West also features.
Harry Whittington is looking forward to seeing Bigmartre make his seasonal reappearance in the two-mile Randox Health Handicap Chase.
The seven-year-old disappointed in the JLT Novices’ Chase at the Festival in March, but bounced back to win the Future Champion Novices’ Chase at Ayr the following month.
“He doesn’t mind a bit of top of the ground. He’s got some good form on it and good winning form first time out. I think he’s won on his first start for us every season we’ve had him,” Whittington told At The Racing.
“He’s a helluva jumper and loves his racing.
“A stiff two miles or a sharp two and a half is his trip.
“Off his mark of 148 we thought we’d have a crack at this, see how he gets on and feel our way from there.”
Paul Nicholls runs Tommy Silver and Modus in the £60,000 contest.
He said: “Tommy Silver loves quick ground. I’m not convinced big fields will suit him. He sort of seemed to be suited by small fields last year when he was novice chasing and then he disappointed us.
“Modus is ready to go and although he’s won over further, dropping back to two miles might just suit him.
“He must have good ground.”
Elsewhere on the card the Elliott-trained Dinons bids for a fifth successive win in the Randox Health Novices’ Hurdle.
The Cullentra handler will be hoping Cubomania can rediscover the winning trail in the Move Over To Matchbook Novices’ Chase after finishing third in the Buck House at Punchestown less than a fortnight ago.
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