13:45 Ascot This is an extremely competitive start to the live action at Ascot. The hat-trick seeking Vikekhal arrives in confident mood after a double success at Fontwell and the manner in in which the Gary Moore charge shook off a 10lb rise last time out, grants him the utmost respect in this field. The Paul Nicholls yard line up one of their latest French imports in Anatol. The five-year-old has a 588 day absence to overcome on his chasing bow, but fitness is never a problem for the juggernaut champion trainer’s yard. The horse won its last two completed starts by a combined 15 lengths in France and the opening mark may just be lenient enough to exploit. The most interesting contender, however, comes in the shape of the Harry Fry runner Voix D’eau who looked to have plenty up his sleeve when opening his account over the larger obstacles at Ffos Las a fortnight ago. This is a tougher test, but the 8lb rise in the weights has almost entirely been negated by the able rider’s 7lb claim meaning the horse looks ready to pounce here as the clear form pick. From the remainder, Tim Vaughan’s Le Fin Bois and Jonjo O’Neill’s Mont Royale may pose the biggest threat to the principals. The latter has the assistance of Barry Geraghty for the first time after a succession of placed efforts, while Tim Vaughan’s charge would need to smarten up his jumping to feature. Voix D’eau (E/W)

14:00 Wetherby It is strange to see Cheltenham hero The Druids Nephew lining up here back over the smaller obstacles giving his heroics over fences back in March. He did fall in the Grand National at Aintree in April so that may well have knocked his confidence, but the more likely reason is that this race is simply a tune up for the season to come over fences. If that is the case then it is best to look elsewhere in terms of the winner and perhaps Neil Mulholland’s charge would just be happy with place money today. Another eye catching entrant has to be Harry Fry’s 2012 Champion Hurdle hero Rock on Ruby. The ten-year-old gelding proved he still had some juice left in the tank when scoring back to back wins at Cheltenham around this time last year. He does have a good record when running fresh so his absence is no real concern, but he tries the longer trip for the first time and that may be telling of the stage he is at in his career. The one that really stands out is the John Ferguson horse Aqalim. The five-year-old hasn’t been seen since April, but he won three times at distance in and around today’s trip before he ended his campaign with his best effort to date when runner up in a Sandown listed contest. He looks likely to have a lot more to come this term and the way he has progressed since his fifth place in the Pertemps at the festival would suggest a world hurdle tilt might be on the cards this term for his in-form yard and he looks the stand out one to beat in this field at the likely prices with the each way value adding to his cause. Others to consider in the field are the classy Alan King horse Grumeti. Like Rock on Ruby, he tries the trip for the first time today, but his excellent run on the flat in the Cesarewitch certainly would suggest he will get the trip and he could play a part. Aqalim (E/W)

14:15 Ascot Paul Nicholls’ runner Ulck Du Lin took this race last year when co-favourite and well supported. Money again this afternoon would be significant, but the horse is 15lb higher today mainly thanks to an impressive victory at Wincanton back in April. The seven-year-old would need to produce his very best form here to repeat the feat this time around. Bellenos was the other co-favourite in last year’s race, but the Dan Skelton runner’s jumping cost it any chance of the race that day. That has been the frustrating story ever since after some big disappointments when looking to exploit his mark, but he does mean the Nicholls’ horse on 22lb better terms than last year. The horse may yet turn things around today off a favourable mark and with the yard in top shape at the minute, but still perhaps too many questions to answer at present. The JP McManus owned Strongly Suggested looked better than ever when completing his hat-trick in style back in July for the Jonjo O’Neill yard. The 8-year-old has unseated the rider and then disappointed on his last two starts since, but he still remains one to keep on the right side of. He has to prove he can cope off this higher mark, but the addition of Barry Geraghty in the saddle can be the key factor to help him eek out more improvement to land the spoils here. Baby mix ran well at Aintree back in April. The gelding’s hopes here are dependant on the return to 2m producing some improvement to help him cope with this higher mark, but he has very little room for error. Of the rest, Sgt Reckless looks to be on a nice mark following a comfortable success at Carlisle when last seen. The key for him that day seemed to be the more prominent tactics, but he may struggle to get things all his own way in this competitive field. Bullet Street is another who could feature after winning readily at Ludlow last time out, but the subsequent 7lb rise makes life tougher in this field. Strongly Suggested (E/W)

14:30 Wetherby The presence of the Nicky Henderson trained Ma filleule is a surprise to most. The classy chaser had a great season over the larger obstacles last term despite her not getting the head in front. The runner up in last year’s Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham steps back in trip as well for her return to hurdles. She does have a grade 2 hurdle to her name, but she looks very short in the market for a horse with so many doubts and so it is perhaps best to look for value elsewhere in the field, despite her obvious claims if she can run close to her chase mark. Harry Fry’s runner Blue Buttons looks like she could be one to give the Henderson charge a run for her money after a decent season in similar company hurdle races last term. Her sole win last term came on heavy ground at Wincanton back in January and there must be real concerns as she returns off a similar absence to Ma Filleule today and on better ground. The one horse who’ll have no such fitness issues is the race fit Henry Daly runner Bantam. Champion jockey title-chasing Richard Johnson in the saddle may just give this horse the extra edge it needs to land the spoils here. He is race-fit following two second place efforts in his two races so far this term, but the mare was too free last time out to trouble the winner and probably did well to get second with the way the race panned out. Today he should have a much stronger pace to aim at in this field and with a bold bid expected, he is the stand out value in the market. Top weight Intense Tango would be one to take advantage in the latter stages if the race is run at too quick a pace, but there is a lot of factors that must go his way for him to take a hand here. Bantam (E/W)

14:40 Down Royal This one looks like a pretty straight forward chance for Don Cossack to strengthen his claims as one of this season’s top contenders for what promises to be a mouth-watering Cheltenham Gold Cup 2016 field come March. First up he had to blow the cobwebs away at Punchestown which he did in style to beat the re-opposing Roi Du Mee by 12 lengths and in this one his presence seems to have frightened off most of his potential rivals. Gigginstown Stud have won three out of the last four runnings of this race and it would be a shock start to the jumps season were this guy to get beat. The impressive Bryan Cooper is in the saddle for the ride and I expect the Melling Chase winner from Aintree back in April to produce a similar comfortable margin of success in this one. Should the unthinkable happen and the likely odds-on favourite does win then Rocky Creek is the most likely to pounce for the Pual Nicholls yard. He was runner-up in this last term, goes well fresh and has far more scope than Texas Jack or the aforementioned Roi Du Mee. Don Cossack (WIN)

14:50 Ascot Nicky Henderson sends Sign of a Victory back to defend his title from the corresponding race last year with ground conditions in his favour. The horse was only beaten a neck in the Scottish Champion Hurdle last April and his emphatic win in this race last year had him touted as a possible Champion Hurdle contender for Cheltenham, but efforts in between that seemed to find him out. He comes back this time some 14lb higher and he looks vulnerable to an improver. Such a threat may come from the John Ferguson novice Nabucco. A smart flat horse for the John Gosden yard, the six-year-old looked like a horse to follow when landing two novice hurdles back to back at Market Rasen and Huntingdon. This slightly shorter trip will hold no worries for the red-hot yard and there is a fair chance that the current mark that allows him to receive weight from most of his rivals today is underestimating his potential for improvement and so he is the confident pick on those grounds. Aiden Coleman is in the form of his career at the moment and partners the selection in the saddle, adding yet more weight behind his claim. However, there are a few other dangers in the field that might just make their presence felt. Jolly’s Cracked It for the Harry Fry stable won a brace of novice hurdle races over course and distance last season, but he failed to build on that in four subsequent starts. He has something to prove now at present, but a return to his very best form can see him take a hand here and he probably rates as the best of the rest. Nabucco (WIN)

15:05 Wetherby This year’s renewal of the famous chase looks set to be the most exciting and competitive in recent times with all seven runners having some sort of squeak here. The Tizzard yard line up their superstar chaser Cue Card and he was well fancied at the head of the market for this last year, but the race didn’t pan out the way he wanted. This time around the ground has gone in his favour and with his yard flying at present he will take a lot of beating in such a competitive field given his record. His final appearance last term resulted in a fine fourth of eight in the Punchestown Gold Cup and a repeat of that form would see him go close, but concerns are that he hasn’t had his head in front for some time now. The David Pipe yard come here with a powerful looking hand as both Ballynagour and Dynaste line up for this one. The latter performed with credit last season to place in the Betfair Chase at Haydock, the King George at Kempton and the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham. The shrewd trainer gave him a recent spin over the hurdles in France and so the horse should strip much fitter for that outing. He looks a real danger to all off the bottom weight here and I cannot see him being out of the first three as long as he completes the course. The yard’s other runner Ballynagour is also a very high class chaser and he proved his credentials for a race like this when was just pipped in the run in by a head to the Grade 1 winner Silvianaco Conti in the Betfred Bowl at Aintree in April. He returned this term with a Grade 2 victory over hurdles in France before running a credible fifth in the follow up Grade 1 race at Auteil. That experience should have him bang there fitness-wise for his chasing campaign and he can run a big race if things fall his way, but I expect his stable mate to be just too strong. Of the remainder of the field, a case can be made for Holywell, Menorah and Many Clouds. Menorah won the race last term in a weaker renewal, but he will find it much tougher to repeat the feat this time around, but he should still run his race. Holywell had a superb season last term and ended on a high with a fine effort in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and in the Betfred Bowl, but he mostly needs his reappearance run and may be better seen in the spring. Dynaste (WIN)

15:25 Ascot Another real conundrum of a handicap where at least six horses have a real chance on the best of their form. What A Warrior won this race twelve months ago to complete a brace of competitive staying handicaps for the Dan Skelton team. The course and distance form could be key in this one today, but there are concerns for how poorly the horse ran subsequently in both the Hennessy and at the Cheltenham festival back in March. With that being said, the horse does get some help from the handicapper as he is eased 2lb in the ratings. That will aid his cause, but he may only have place claims in what looks like a much tougher renewal this year. This time of the year seems to be the best time to catch Alan King’s Ned Stark in the winner’s enclosure. He landed back to back handicaps 12 months ago and then went onto land a grade 2 at Wetherby in the new year. He put up a brave effort at the festival without troubling the principals and he looks poised for a big run if he can once again run well fresh, but concerns lie with whether or not the horse can return to his best form of last term. Paul Nicholls’ runner Virak was a smart hurdler who converted his form to fences with a breakthrough season last year. He won a hat-trick of races including a grade 2 at Doncaster, before ending his season on a high with a nice handicap win at Haydock. The six-year-old gelding starts this term 10lb higher as a result, but the yard starting to find the winners, it would be no surprise to see his shake that off and take a hand in this one. The horse who makes the most appeal though is the Charlie Longsdon horse Pendra. The seven-year-old is still relatively lightly raced and as a result he remains unexposed at this sort of level. His last win was two years ago, but that was only because the horse was limited to just two runs last term. The last of those was an impressive showing when fifth of 24 runners at the festival back in march and it is interesting to see him run off that same mark here today for his powerful connections. Geraghty takes over in the saddle from the champ AP McCoy and with the stable in such good form as well as having the horse back to full health, he looks poised for a huge run. The rest of the field is littered with dangers in a highly competitive renewal, but previous race winner Houblon Des Obeaux and Jonjo O’Neill’s Lost Legend probably hold the best claims of the remaining runners. Pendra (E/W)

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