Ballycasey can book his ticket for the Cheltenham Festival by returning to his very best form in the Betfair Ascot Chase the Berkshire venue.
The eight-year-old has a bit to find on the ratings with the likes of Balder Succes and Ptit Zig, but he boasts some excellent bits of form that have perhaps been a little forgotten in light of a couple of so-so efforts of late.
A very useful hurdler, Ballycasey made quite an impact in his novice chasing career last term, stepping up from a debut win at Navan in November 2013 to claim Grade One glory the following February over two miles and a five furlongs - beating leading Ryanair Chase hope Don Cossack in the process.
He finally got his trip to Cheltenham when lining up in the RSA last spring but he failed to see out the three miles and eventually finished fourth before a quickfire return at Fairyhouse’s Irish Grand National meeting failed to pay off as he fell when looking a likely winner of the Powers Gold Cup.
Ballycasey was again outstayed over three miles and a furlong when second to Hennessy hero Carlingford Lough at Punchestown so it was no surprise to see Willie Mullins start him off over two and a half miles this term.
He duly won what was only a moderate heat but failed to build on that when comprehensively beaten by stablemate Twinlight over Christmas, when a step back down to two miles and a furlong left him all at sea.
This race appears a logical option to see exactly where connections stand and while the trip and track look ideal, it is merely a question of if Ballycasey is really Grade One material.
Tea For Two destroyed the field in the Lanzarote at Kempton last month and must take all the beating in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle while Virak is the pick in the racinguk.com Reynoldstown Novices’ Chase despite being beaten out of sight by Coneygree at Christmas.
Monbeg Dude can improve on his third of two years ago as he tackles the Betfred Grand National Trial at Haydock.
The 10-year-old has taken quite a hike in the ratings since those days but he continues to hold his own in the staying division, most recently claiming fourth in the Welsh Grand National after looking like taking a hand in the finish before hitting the last fence.
He had previously filled the same position in the Hennessy when he showed that he does need these testing trips to be at his best as he stayed on all the way to the line that day.
The handicapper has let him off 2lb of late as he has not won in well over a year and while he has plenty of weight, Monbeg Dude can be relied upon to put his best foot forward.
Nicky Henderson should be in double form on Merseyside, with Top Notch likely to live up to his name again in the”Six Best Odds Races Daily” Victor Ludorum Juvenile Hurdle.
Winner of both his British starts this term, Top Notch is just one of a handful of top prospects for owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede in the juvenile division this term but he can advance his claims to be allowed to challenge in the Triumph Hurdle with a win here.
Dawalan should also be on the mark for the master of Seven Barrows in the “Still Treble Odds On Lucky 15’s” Hurdle after recent successes at Aintree and Musselburgh. This is a step up in company but his new mark of 150 puts him in the mix.
Ascot: 1.30 Tea For Two, 2.05 Virak, 2.40 Clondaw Knight, 3.15 Lyvius, 3.50 BALLYCASEY (NAP), 4.20 Vinnie Red, 4.50 Suit Yourself.
Haydock: 1.45 Top Notch, 2.20 Dawalan, 2.55 Monbeg Dude, 3.25 Aqalim, 4.00 Definitly Red, 4.30 Up And Go, 5.05 Darsi Dancer.
Lingfield: 1.25 Autumn Tonic, 2.00 Very Good Day, 2.35 Reetaj, 3.10 Barchan, 3.45 Energia Flavio, 4.15 Polar Kite, 4.45 Gabrial’s Wawa.
Wincanton: 1.20 Grand Gigolo, 1.55 Toowoomba, 2.30 Flintham, 3.05 Oscar Hill, 3.35 Irving, 4.10 Communicator, 4.40 Kings Apollo.
Double: Ballycasey and Top Notch.