Those reams of stable tours, ten to follows and the input of fans and professionals who like to wish their summers away mean that talk of the new jumps season has abounded for some time now.
We have also, gradually, been seeing a few of the better performers emerging from the confines of their stables over the past couple of weeks. There has even been a meeting at Cheltenham, after all.
Yet for those of us who cling doggedly to the last vestiges of tradition, this weekend’s BetVictor Gold Cup remains the first classic event to welcome the National Hunt season back.
Whether you are of the vintage to recognise the race under the guise of a brewery, a tailor, or another bookmaker, and cherish the memory of the tearaway Dunkirk, the spring-heeled Dublin Flyer or the slick Cyfor Malta, it remains at its soul the season’s unmissable two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase.
Saturday’s renewal will feature a maximum field of 20. It promises to be some spectacle.
Trainer: Paul Nicholls. General odds: 16-1
Watch analysis of Frodon's Old Roan win, in which Javert finished second
Very solid performer around here, having won the December Gold Cup two years ago. Revitalised by a wind-op and the help of Bryony Frost to take the Old Roan at Aintree but this requires a clear career-best to give weight away all-round.
2. MISTER WHITAKER
Trainer: Mick Channon. Odds: 6-1
Mister Whitaker beats Rather be at The Festival
Ideal credentials for a big run, having won over course and distance in the Close Brothers at the Festival, as well as on Trials Day. Warmed up in encouraging style at Carlisle last month and although his mark continues to rise, he is a young horse capable of further progress.
Trainer: Emma Lavelle. Odds: 20-1
Made a winning return from more than two years off to land a decent prize at Uttoxeter and commendable second from a 9lb higher mark to finish second behind Frodon at Aintree. Likes quicker ground and entitled to be in the shake-up.
5. RATHER BE
Trainer: Nicky Henderson. Odds: 9-2
Beaten only a head in a great battle with Mister Whitaker at the Festival and now meets him on 9lb better terms. Goes on all ground, will be primed and ready and ticks most of the boxes, so easy to see why he is favourite.
Trainer: Neil Mulholland. Odds: 7-1
Wasn’t out of proceedings when falling three out at Galway last time and has a good record on better ground. However, he has fallen a little short when tried in stiffer competition in the past and would seem to be short enough in the betting on what he has actually achieved.
7. BARON ALCO
Trainer: Gary Moore. Odds: 10-1
Progressive front-running novice the season before last – running a blinder to finish second in the Plate. Again anything but disgraced when seemingly well-fancied behind Charbel at Chepstow on his belated return but a further 4lb rise in the weights isn’t going to help his cause.
8. SHANTOU VILLAGE
Trainer: Neil Mulholland. Odds: 25-1
Grade Two winner over hurdles here three years ago and continues to hint at ability over fences without hitting such heights. Has looked to want more of a stamina test than he gets here.
9. WEST APPROACH
Trainer: Colin Tizzard. Odds: 16-1
Thistlecrack’s half-brother has hardly hit the heights of his sibling and has disappointed more times than not in better company. Although his stable is flying, he has often shown his best side when fresh and he has already finished third recently.
10. SPLASH OF GINGE
Trainer: Nigel Twiston-Davies. Odds: 33-1
Our experts study Splash Of Ginge's win last year
Last year’s winner and former Betfair Hurdle hero who has deservedly become one of the sport’s more popular characters. Needs a deluge to be at his best, so more likely to pop up later on in the winter.
11. HAPPY DIVA
Trainer: Kerry Lee. Odds: 20-1
Kept quite low-key last season but her form stacks up against some very useful mares, such as Ms Parfois and Rons Dream. Sure to come on for her second behind Mister Whitaker at Carlisle last month and ranks as an interesting contender from a good yard.
Trainer: Paul Nicholls. Odds: 12-1
Handsome horse who gives the impression that we have not seen the best of him yet, and his day is surely going to come. Unfortunately, his jumping has not always been fluent around Cheltenham and the percentage call is to give him a swerve.
13. KING’S SOCKS
Trainer: David Pipe. Odds: 11-1
[(full)Watch Replay] () King's Socks faded to finish fifth at The Festival
No surprise if he is to be popular in the betting given the Pipe family’s affection for this race and still looks well-handicapped. Seemed not to quite last home when appearing to be fancied at the Festival and only makes appeal as an optimistic each-way prospect if still in double-figures.
14. ROMAIN DE SENAM
Trainer: Paul Nicholls. Odds: 20-1
Progressive at this time last year and his fifth from a mark 7lb lower 12 months ago ought to give his supporters confidence. Although respected, there is a feeling that he had a golden chance to win at Aintree last weekend and was only a distant third, even if the reapplication of his hood can bring some improvement.
Trainer: Nigel Twiston-Davies. Odds: 20-1
Superb bumper and hurdles performer but is still to transmit that talent to fences, with only one triumph to show for it so far. Not much to say that he’s any better this term on the evidence of recent Wetherby return.
16. GEORDIE DES CHAMPS
Trainer: Rebecca Curtis. Odds: 40-1
17. GUITAR PETE
Trainer: Nicky Richards. Odds: 25-1
Seemingly took advantage of the depressing injury suffered by the ill-fated Starchitect in last year’s December Gold Cup but always gives his best and did so again at Wetherby lately. Probably needs a bit of respite from the handicapper now, though.
18. WILLIE BOY
Trainer: Charlie Longsdon. Odds: 33-1
Front-runner who has patches of form but hasn’t always been the soundest of jumpers. Changed stables and had a wind-op in the summer and the fact he couldn’t win a lesser event on return at Wetherby means that others make more appeal.
19. EAMON AN CNOIC
Trainer: David Pipe. Odds: 33-1
Sure to be better than hurdles comeback at Aintree lately but nothing to show in his efforts over fences to date that he has enough in his locker for this sort of contest.
Trainer: Dr Richard Newland. Odds: 50-1
Yet another good acquisition for his remarkable trainer, finding further improvement from a sound level of form over hurdles. Only scraped home from a 5lb lower mark at Uttoxeter in the summer and odds of doing better are not in his favour.
Racing UK verdict:
Rather Be and Mister Whitaker are bound to be of interest given their battle up the run-in at the Festival last March and they are up-and-coming sorts in position to take the next step. The former is preferred of the two, given he is now in a prime position at the weights to reverse the placings.
Supporters of the likely favourite would not be put off Nicky Henderson’s runner and he could easily be thrown in on the ratings. However, at a general 20-1, HAPPY DIVA is another with a plausible back story who is capable of rising further up the ranks. She has less of a swing with Mister Whitaker on recent form at Carlisle but can take a further step forward on her first start since late March.
1 HAPPY DIVA; 2 RATHER BE; 3 MISTER WHITAKER.