Fast-improving Bags Groove bids to complete a hat-trick in a fiercely competitive renewal of the 32Red Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton on Saturday.
Harry Fry’s charge finished down the field on his seasonal reappearance in the Silver Trophy at Chepstow in October, but has since raised his game to win at Aintree and over this course and distance.
The seven-year-old is almost a stone higher in the weights than when winning on Merseyside and will carry the burden of 11st 12lb in the £45,000 feature, but Fry remains hopeful of a big run.
He said: “There are three on joint-top weight. He has won his last two races, including over the course and distance last time out, and this has always been the plan for him.
“He is going to have to improve again but we are happy with him at home and he goes there to take his chance.
“The more the ground dries out the better it will suit him.”
Bags Groove is joined at the head of the weights by William Henry – one of two runners for Nicky Henderson along with Diese Des Bieffes – and the Alan King-trained River Frost.
Not far below them on 11st 9lb is Phil Kirby’s northern challenger Top Ville Ben, who received a hefty 12lb rise from the handicapper after bolting up at Haydock a fortnight ago.
The Ben Pauling-trained Red Indian has been aimed at this lucrative prize since finishing third on his seasonal reappearance at Cheltenham in November.
Pauling said: “It looks like a very hot race, but our horse is in good form and we said after he ran at Cheltenham this was the race we’d aim for. He’s coming into it nice and fresh and he’ll handle the ground.
“He should run a very nice race and should be well handicapped, but it is probably as competitive a renewal of the Lanzarote as I can remember.”
Le Patriote is a fascinating contender for Dr Richard Newland, making his British debut having contested some valuable races in France.
“He’s been with us a few weeks and seems to have acclimatised well since arriving from France. We’re hoping for a very good run,” said the Grand National-winning trainer.
“It looks a very competitive race to me and there is a question mark about him staying the trip. It might not be his optimum, but we’ll find out on the day.
“He’ll like the ground and has some pretty good form in France, but whether it’s good enough to beat this lot, I don’t know.”
Coeur Blimey mixed it at the very top level as a bumper horse, but has not yet fulfilled his potential over hurdles.
Sue Gardner’s stable star was last seen finishing fifth behind Claimantakinforgan in a Supreme Novices’ Hurdle trial at Ascot three weeks ago.
The trainer’s daughter Lucy Gardner, Coeur Blimey’s regular rider, said: “Hopefully he’ll run well. It looks an open race.
“He wasn’t beaten that far in a good novice at Ascot last time considering he didn’t jump that well.
“His jumping hasn’t been as good as we’d like. We have taken him away to school a couple of times since his last run and hopefully that has helped, but he has to go and do it on the track now.”
Wishfull Dreaming has some high-class form to his name, but lost his way in 2017 and was pulled up on his last start at Worcester in June.
Formerly trained by Philip Hobbs, he is fitted with a first-time tongue-tie as he makes his debut for fledgling trainer Olly Murphy.
Murphy said: “He seems in good form and I’m hoping he’ll run a nice race.
“Looking back through his form it looks like he’s at his best when he’s fresh rather than in the middle of a long season, so I decided we’d run him in a nice race first time out.
“Aidan Coleman came and had a sit on him on Thursday morning and was very happy with him.
“These big handicaps are hard to win and I’m more hopeful that confident, but fingers crossed he runs well.”