Long team aim for winning run
Long Run and Knockara Beau headline a field of just four runners for Thursday's Ivan Straker Memorial Chase at Kelso.
Long Run, winner of the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup, appears to have lost a little of his old dash recently and he last tasted victory in the 2012 King George VI Chase, his second success in the Christmas highlight.
As he failed to win in the last calendar year, he escapes a penalty and has some 17lb in hand of Kelso specialist Knockara Beau.
Whether Nicky Henderson's nine-year-old runs in the Gold Cup next month is up the air as he has the Grand National as his major aim this season, with owner Robert Waley-Cohen and his jockey son Sam keen on Aintree.
Henderson said: "We'll run him at Kelso and then we'll see about Cheltenham.
"Robert, Sam and myself are keen to have a go (at the National) and I think we've got to accept that his Gold Cup days are over, in which case we move on to the National."
Sam Waley-Cohen said: "Hopefully it will be a good race and the ground will not be too soft. It should be a good day.
"Long Run seems very well, so we go there looking to have a good run round and hopefully see him bounce back to somewhere near the form he showed at the end of last season.
"I think 11st 9lb is a competitive weight for him in the Grand National. If he can show the form he had last season then he's got a decent chance, but he clearly needs to show he's running at that level."
The 11-year-old Knockara Beau reverts to fences having pulled off a huge 66-1 shock when beating star stayer Big Buck's in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Five of his 11 career wins have come at the track and his Northumberland-based trainer George Charlton is unfazed by his illustrious challenger.
"Thankfully the weather hasn't held us up. We had half an inch of snow on Tuesday night, but it was nothing much," said Charlton.
"Long Run certainly makes it interesting and we're hoping the miracle can happen twice.
"You can get funny results in small field races like this and they've all got 10st 12lb which is nice as he just loves that low weight, he used to carry top weight normally.
"Its a big task ahead, but you never know what might happen. He loves Kelso so that is in his favour.
"Hopefully the weather stays fine as there's frost and snow about."
Completing the field are Nick Alexander's Isla Pearl Fisher and Jane Walton's Heez A Steel but both have plenty to find on the book.
The other feature event on the card is the Timeform Morebattle Hurdle, in which Nicky Richards' highly-rated Duke Of Navan faces a more realistic challenge than in the Fighting Fifth or Christmas Hurdles.
He is looking for back-to-back wins in the £20,000 race.
"He had a little break after Kempton and we are just bringing him back," said Richards.
"Hopefully there'll be a nice race in the spring, but we'll get the Morebattle out of the way first."
Keith Reveley's Special Catch has looked progressive this term and may give him most to do.
There may also be Cheltenham clues in the David Merry Farrier Novices' Hurdle where John Ferguson's Rainbow Peak, top-class on the Flat, aims to follow up his win at Doncaster while in the CGA Foxhunter Trial, Alan HIll's Harbour Court puts his credentials on the line.
Thwarted by the weather in point-to-points, Hill sends his stable star on the journey from Oxfordshire with next month firmly on his mind.
"This is his Cheltenham prep. We keep losing point-to-points and I felt this was a good opportunity to get a run into him on some decent ground," said Hill.
"I haven't wanted to run him on heavy ground and risk leaving Cheltenham behind, especially with it being his first run of the season.
"Decent ground is a factor for him, but not a major one.
"With the weather showing no signs of improving any time soon, I felt I had to get a run into him.
"My wife (trainer Lawney HIll) would certainly love to him in her her yard and an initial mark of 120 is very kind, but his owner Andrew West is a country man and at the moment is quite happy enjoying point-to-pointing.
"At present we're not looking beyond March 14."