Rouge Vif will bid to provide Harry Whittington with back-to-back victories in the Bentley Flying Spur Handicap Chase at Cheltenham.
The Wantage trainer saddled stable star Saint Calvados to land the feature event on day one of the season at Prestbury Park 12 months ago, and Rouge Vif lines up with similarly strong claims on Friday.
The six-year-old kept good company as a novice over fences last season, enjoying big-race success in the Kingmaker at Warwick in February before finishing third in the Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival on his most recent outing.
Whittington said: “Rouge Vif has done very well during the summer. He’s only a six-year-old, so he was entitled to improve physically, and I think he has – he’s in really fantastic shape.
“I think he’s going into the race in great form. He’s rated 156 – so he has plenty of weight, and there are one or two unexposed horses in there, so it will take a very good performance to win.
“But I don’t think I could have him in better form, and we’re very much looking forward to running him.”
Rouge Vif is one of 13 runners declared for the £48,000 contest, with the weights headed by the Paul Nicholls-trained Dolos.
On The Slopes rounded off last season with successive wins at Kempton – and trainer Chris Gordon is looking forward to seeing him return to action in the Cotswolds, ground permitting.
He said: “I’m going to walk the track on Friday morning and just make sure the ground is on the easy side of good. If the ground isn’t suitable, we’ll wait for the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter.
“He seems very well at home. What I would say is he’s a horse who looks like a three-mile chaser at home, but on the track we’ve had to keep going back in trip – and I can’t really believe he’s ended up running over two miles.
“He’s a very different horse on the racetrack to what he is at home – it’s like he gets to the racecourse, spins round in a phone box and puts his ‘superhorse’ outfit on!
“Fingers crossed he runs a good race.”
Other contenders include Neil Mulholland’s Scardura, Dan Skelton’s pair of Hatcher and Azzuri and the Gary Moore-trained Beat The Judge.
Proceedings get under way with the Ballymore Novices Hurdle, for which Ask For Glory is likely to be the hot favourite – representing the formidable combination of Nicholls and Harry Cobden.
Solider Of Love bids for a fifth successive win for the same team in the Matchbook Better Way To Bet Novices’ Chase, but he is unlikely to have things all his own way, with two Irish raiders in the Charles Byrnes-trained Doctor Duffy and Gordon Elliott’s Galvin in opposition.
Mossy Fen, who was last seen finishing fifth behind Envoi Allen in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival, makes his chasing debut in the same race for Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies.
Part owner Carl Hinchy said: “Mossy Fen is in fine form. He’s a point-to-point winner and he has schooled very well.
“We are excited about getting his season under way.”
Fergal O’Brien’s Ask Dillon and Ruth Jefferson’s mare Clondaw Caitlin complete a six-strong field.
Nicky Henderson’s pair of Fix Sun and Hijack and Dr Richard Newland’s Captain Tom Cat are among those worth considering in a fiercely competitive squareintheair.com Handicap Hurdle.
The Catesby Estates Maiden Hurdle is another intriguing affair, with Henderson’s Pipesmoker – who showed high-class form over obstacles last season – taken on by Olly Murphy’s bumper graduate Champagnesuperover.
“He was a smart bumper horse last season, and any more rain they get will definitely be in his favour,” said Murphy.
“He’s going to be a nice horse in time, and we’re hoping he’ll take high rank in the novice-hurdling division this year.
“This looks a nice starting point for him.”
The Two Farmers Crisps Novices’ Chase sees Henderson’s Fusil Raffles lock horns with Nicholls’ Getaway Trump, while the card comes to a close with the Back And Lay At Matchbook Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle.