The main supporting race on a superb eight-race card on Scottish Grand National Day at Ayr on Saturday in the Grade 2 Scottish Champion Hurdle (14:25), an ultra-competitive 2m handicap in which 15 are set to go to post.
Dan Skelton trained Nube Negra heads the betting and looks a worthy 4/1 favourite with Ladbrokes to bag the valuable prize. This five-year-old progressed throughout last season when winning two of his five starts.
He scored in terrific style on debut at Market Rasen when beating Knight Destroyer by nine lengths and, after a solid second at Cheltenham, got back to winnings ways when scoring hard held by eight lengths at Doncaster
Nube Negra then ran a cracker to finish third of 22 to Veneer of Charm in the Grade 3 Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap at the Cheltenham Festival off a rating of 135. He is able to race in this off just 2lb higher.
It gives him major claims at the weights and Nube Negra has looked unlucky to not win in his last two starts.
In the first of those, he was on the bridle and yet to be asked any sport of a question when getting brought down two from home at Taunton.
Nube Negra was then given an ill-judged ride and far too much to do when flying home finish a never nearer 1 3/4 lengths third to Zanza at Newbury.
Judged on those displays he looks primed to go in again at any time and this has clearly been his long-term target. With his stable in-form and underfoot conditions to suit, he looks the one they all have to beat.
Mister Fisher a major player
Five-year-olds have won three of the last five renewals. Mister Fisher falls into that age bracket and looks weighted to go well now dropped in class on handicap debut.
This Nicky Henderson trained son of Jeremy has always been held in the highest regard and has won two of his four starts over the obstacles.
In the first of those at Kempton, he jumped and travelled well throughout before running on strongly after the last to readily beat Rouge Vif by 2 3/4 lengths.
The runner-up has won twice since, including at Grade 2 level at Kelso, and finished third in a Grade 1 at the Aintree Grand National Festival to be rated 143, so that gives the form a rock solid look.
Mister Fisher then followed-up in a Grade 2 at Haydock when keeping on strongly to beat Bright Forecast by 2 1/2 lengths.
Although only eighth of 16 to Klassical Dream in the Grade 1 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last time out at the Cheltenham Festival off an official rating of 145, he was far from disgraced as the soft ground was totally against him.
The return to a sounder surface is sure to see him in a far better light and an opening handicap mark of 145 looks exploitable – especially on his aforementioned victory over Rouge Vif.
Mister Fisher is also a strong travelling sort with a smart turn of foot and those are the ideal attributes for this test.
Everything points to a huge run; so, at 6/1 with William Hill who are paying a fifth of the odds for four places, Mister Fisher looks a solid each-way betting proposition and the one most likely to give Nube Negra most to think about.
Leoncavallo another with claims
The Dr Richard Newland trained Leoncavallo is another who holds claims at the weights on the pick of his form and can be backed at 8/1 with Coral.
This seven-year-old has won six of his 17 starts over hurdles, and ran a stormer in last year’s Galway Hurdle when leading at the last and keeping on once headed to finish a 3 1/2 lengths third of 20 to Sharjah off a mark of 144.
He then got turned over when sent off odds-on for a beginners chase at Worcester and has had just one outing this season.
That came in the County Hurdle at last month’s Cheltenham Festival where he pulled hard and made a mistake two from home before weakening to finish a decent 13 1/2 length 14th of 24 to Ch’tibello.
Leoncavallo looks sure to strip much fitter for that spin and is able to race in this off an unchanged mark of 144. That entitles him to be very competitive on his Galway Hurdle run and he has also been rated higher in the past.
His handler is also a shrewd cookie who does well in this type of contest. Another plus is that Leoncavallo goes well for jockey Sam Twiston-Davies, who has a 40 per cent strike rate on him having won twice and been placed twice in five rides.
Pearl Of The West appeals each-way
Irish raider Pearl Of the West looks a lively outsider and can be backed at a tasty 16/1 with BetVictor, who also pay a fifth of outright odds for four places.
This John McConnell trained five-year-old mare is a lightly-raced and unexposed sort over hurdles. She has had just seven outings in this sphere, winning four times and making the frame once.
The daughter of Teofilo was ultra impressive in the last of those successes at Cheltenham back in October, when making virtually all under Sean Bowen and only having to be ridden out to easily beat Redicean by 3 1/4 lengths off a mark of 130.
Given the authority with which Pearl Of The West got the job done, a 4lb rise in the weights looks extremely lenient, especially when you consider her progressive profile.
She has had just one run since and that came on the level at Dundalk last month where she finished a solid 1 1/4 lengths second of 11 to Sheisdiesel.
That looks the perfect pipe opener for this and the way in which she has been campaigned suggests that Pearl Of The West has been laid out for this.
Top weight Verdana Blue faces mammoth task
The last horse to shoulder top weight to victory was Alderbrook way back in 1996. He carried 11st 7lb having won the Champion Hurdle the year before.
That puts into perspective the huge task that Verdana Blue faces under a welter burden of 11st 10lb. Like Mister Fisher, this mare hails from the yard of Seven Barrows handler Henderson.
She is a likeable sort who has a fine strike rate of 40 per cent over hurdles having won six of her 15 starts.
The daughter of Getaway enjoyed her finest hour in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day, where she sprang a short-head shock when lowering the colours of stablemate and dual Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air.
It was a blinding success and Verdana Blue was far from disgraced last time out when a 24-length fifth of 10 to Espoir D’Allen in the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival when the ground turned soft and against her.
She now has underfoot conditions to suit and connections have also booked Connor Brace to do the steering. He takes off 7lb with his claim, but lacks experience in a big race like this which often turns into a messy and tactical affair.
So, taking everything into account, Verdana Blue looks worth taking on and makes little appeal at a top price of just 7/1 with William Hill.