“Improved for a run” has been a common theme for Nicky Henderson’s winners in the last month or so and the phrase may be heard again after Countister (3.35) lines up in the Betfair Exchange Trophy, the valuable handicap hurdle that closes Ascot’s Christmas card. She was only seventh in the Greatwood last month but two places in front of her was her stablemate Dame De Compagnie, who improved by about a stone to score last weekend.
Countister, who also carries the colours of JP McManus, put up a remarkable effort to be third in the County Hurdle in March, her first run for a full year. This is a hot race but she should be able to get involved.
The progressive Quoi De Neuf is feared most. Whoshotthesheriff was given a very attacking ride and then tired into second last time. He can win a good prize but this softer ground may not help. It is also a worry for French Crusader, beaten by only the classy Epatante last time.
1.50 Ascot A 33-1 winner at this track on Friday is among the recent signs that Ben Pauling’s yard is on its way back. His Delire D’Estruval is on a very fair mark if ready for this on his seasonal return. He beat Midnight Shadow and Dynamite Dollars in a level-weights novice hurdle two years ago, showing potential to be worth a much higher rating than he has now.
2.25 Ascot It was a revelation when Paisley Park won this last year but there is no excuse for missing him this time. He is officially a stone better than each of his five rivals and only Papagana could be called unexposed, so this will very probably be his seventh success in a row.
2.40 Haydock Crosspark is the best of these and his yard is in form but whether he wants such testing ground is in doubt, especially with so much weight to carry. The veteran Top Wood put up a career best on his reappearance and a similar effort might be enough. Lord Du Mesnil is feared from the foot of the weights.
3.00 Ascot Though disappointing on returning to action, Jerrysback surely needed that run and can show something closer to his best with Barry Geraghty back aboard. He looks nicely weighted on a couple of his novice efforts and his bravery cannot be faulted in light of his tired third place in the attritional National Hunt Chase.
3.15 Haydock Nothing has gone right for Poetic Rhythm since he became Fergal O’Brien’s first Grade One winner in the Challow a couple of years back but this handicap hurdle might set him back on the right path. He was treated for a kissing spine after an abortive chasing campaign last winter.