The last weekend before Christmas has been one to savour for Nick Williams in recent years, with his recent trips to Ascot providing a perfect early present.
Reve De Sivola became only the second horse to win three straight Long Walk Hurdles 12 months ago for the yard and the horse’s love affair with the Berkshire track is clear for all to see.
The 10-year-old is back for a fourth straight win in the contest, but it could be that the 9/2 shot doesn’t have it all his own way in 2015.
While his sixth place in the Grande Course de Haies d’Auteuil might not be the most convincing form to take into the race, he was beaten even further in that particular contest before his 2014 victory and was 40 lengths back a year previous.
What could stop him though is the quality in this field compared to recent years.
Over the course of his last three victories in the race, only a trio of runners were rated 160 or higher.
This time round there could be that number in this renewal alone, as well as Dynaste (10/1) who while he’s rated 153 over hurdles is a 165-rated chaser.
The biggest threats to the defending champ are likely to come from the top of the market.
Saphir Du Rheu (7/4) was mooted as a potential Cheltenham Gold Cup candidate when sent off favourite for the Hennessy Gold Cup, but a shuddering error down the back straight and a lack of any finishing burst soon put paid to any chances.
Paul Nicholls has opted to return to the smaller obstacles and aims to go one better than the second place he achieved in the World Hurdle in March, and this weekend’s race will be the test as to how likely that is.
The soft ground will be right up his street, as will the return to hurdles, with his jumping of a fence called into question a number of times last season.
A return to a right-handed track could also suit with form reading 15111F1 going that way compared to 330414U1215 when going in the opposite direction, suggesting this is his preferred orientation.
Saphir Du Rheu’s career path has been a muddle oneHowever with the yard in the form it is, a cautious approach is best advised with Nicholls saddling just three winners from his last 50 runners.
The grey could overcome that and confirm the high regard in which he is held in by his trainer, but better value could lie with one who might yet have even more in his locker over these longer trips.
Thistlecrack (2/1) contested the two mile Imperial Cup in March, and while a fifth place finish is perfectly respectable in such a competitive race, connections opted to step him up a mile in trip next time out.
That decision proved an excellent one as Tom Scudamore began a profitable partnership with the seven-year-old to take the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle by 13 lengths.
His only likely rival in the latter stages that day, Alpha Des Obeaux, was a final flight faller and with that one going on to finish second behind Champion Hurdle contenders Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon, it looks strong form.
Three of the four Aintree finishers that day who have run since have scored over the larger obstacles, so the strength in depth can’t be called into question.
A second place finish at Punchestown followed, when denied a clear run, but it is his most recent start that will fill backers with most confidence.
As a big horse, one would have forgiven Colin Tizzard’s charge had he found himself wanting in the fitness department on the very soft ground at Newbury on Hennessy day.
But the give underfoot was not a problem as he powered clear of a good field including two Grade 1 winners and a revitalised Deputy Dan.
Plenty more could be on the cards from the seven-year-old who’ll be making only his fourth start over this staying trip.
Tizzard may have to find another jockey for his charge, with Scudamore likely to take the ride on Dynaste, but it might not matter if whoever in the saddle can eke out even more from the son of Kayf Tara at Ascot.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.
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