LEADING Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy hopeful Kalashnikov is set to warm up for his date at the Cheltenham Festival at Warwick on Saturday when he heads an entry of eight for the day’s feature Agetur UK Kingmaker Chase, writes David Hucker.
Whilst not likely to match last month’s Classic Chase Day, which was the biggest crowd for the mid-winter fixture in 25 years, there should be another good turnout on Saturday, as Warwick continues to buck the trend in racecourse attendances.
Whilst the Racecourse Association reported total attendances dipping for the third running with 5.77 million going racing in 2018 compared to 5.95m in 2017, Warwick set a modern day record of 45,000 last year, continuing to go from strength to strength since focusing on jump racing.
The Kingmaker has been won by some high-class horses in the past, including Flagship Uberalles in 1999, Long Run, who took the 2010 contest before going on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup a year later, and another champion chaser in Finian’s Rainbow in 2011.
Also on the roll of honour is Voy Por Ustedes, but his triumph in 2006 came at Wincanton when the race was switched after Warwick’s scheduled meeting fell victim to frost.
Runner-up over hurdles at last year’s Festival, Kalashnikov, who is very much the star of Amy Murphy’s Newmarket stable, overcame a mistake at the first open ditch to make a winning start to his chasing career over the course in November.
He learnt from the experience, jumping flawlessly when following up at Plumpton, a victory that set him up to earn connections a £60,000 bonus if he goes on to land his Festival target.
However, Kalashnikov met defeat in his next race when, starting odds-on favourite, he was beaten one and a quarter lengths by another Arkle contender Dynamite Dollars at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, a disappointing run given that was receiving 5lb in weight.
But, the winner scored again at Doncaster two weeks ago to underline his credentials and Kalashnikov should bounce back to form on Saturday with Dan Skelton’s Destrier looking the main danger.
Most valuable race of the afternoon is the £50,000 McCoy Contractors Warwick Castle Handicap Chase over two and a half miles.
With 33 entries, it is very much a guessing game as to which horses will line up on the day, but a couple to note are Scorpion Sid, a wide-margin winner of an eventful beginners’ chase at Haydock Park for trainer Jamie Snowdon, and Rather Be, who takes a drop in class after finishing behind Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup hopeful Frodon on his most recent run.
Warwickshire trainer Skelton has nine entries in all across the card, including four in this race.
His best chance could come with Cobra De Mai, beaten one and three-quarter lengths at level weights by Bigmartre over the trip at Ayr in April, but now 5lb better off.
Twice a course winner over fences, Cobra De Mai has done most of his running on good ground, so he may not want too much rain ahead of the weekend.
Also on the card is the £25,000 OLBG.com Mares’ Hurdle (Listed Race -registered as the Warwick Mares’ Hurdle) over two miles and five furlongs and last year’s runner-up Jester Jet could try to go one better this time.
Odds-on favourite when runner-up in a novices’ chase here in December, Jester Jet reverted to hurdles at Ascot last month, but couldn’t peg back Magic Of Light on the run-in.
Back in third place was If You Say Run, who holds an entry in the Grade One OLBG Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, but needs to step up on what we have seen so far if she is to be a contender there.
Sensulano, a course winner last year, won well at Cheltenham in December before finding leading Champion Hurdle hope Laurina much too good at Sandown Park last time.
Irish trainer Gordon Elliott has entered the 143-rated Missy Tata, not seen out since completing a five-timer at Limerick in December 2016.
She also holds an entry at the Cheltenham Festival and, if making the trip, would be one for the shortlist.
Racing gets underway at 12.55pm with the David ‘Digger’ Aldred Memorial Novices’ Hurdle and gates open two hours before.
There is ample free parking in the centre of the course.