Paul Nicholls’ popular chaser is bidding to become the first horse in history to win the prestigious handicap three times and just as he has in his two previous triumphs, he is forced to concede weight all round to his rivals.
But this is surely a hotter race than it has been in the past few seasons and with the majority of the field running under just 10st, Denman has a mountain to climb.
The Ian Williams-trained Weird Al certainly fits the bill as he is a second-season novice, a group that have fared well in this event down the years. The seven-year-old enjoyed an excellent last season, winning twice in decent affairs at Cheltenham before landing a Grade Two at Wetherby.
He was denied a return to Cheltenham for the Festival as injury intervened, but it does not appear to have done him any harm judged on his excellent reappearance at Carlisle.
Running over what is probably an inadequate trip of two and a half miles, the son of Accordion engaged in a thrilling duel with Little Josh at the Cumbrian track, with the judge being unable to separate them.
The form could not be stronger given Little Josh has since tasted Paddy Power Gold Cup glory and with further improvement expected, Weird Al can give notice he is a real player in the staying division with a big performance.
The sportingbet.com Long Distance Hurdle looks the proverbial penalty kick for top stayer Big Buck’s to make a winning return to action, while Binocular can get his campaign off to a flying start with victory in the StanJames.com Fighting Fifth Hurdle.
The Champion Hurdle winner does not have far to travel from Nicky Henderson’s Seven Barrows stable now the race has been switched following the abandonment of Newcastle and that can only be a bonus.
Not that he needs it, as JP McManus’ ace has the best form on offer. Spensley got into any amount of trouble when last seen at Kempton and still won, so is well worth following back at that track tomorrow.
James Fanshawe’s runner gets every yard of a mile and a half and might still have a little in hand of the handicapper, despite a 6lb rise for the Office Christmas Parties At Kempton Park Handicap.
In fact, his last two wins have come from difficult positions and he can be rated better than the narrow winning margins in both, particularly as he won in typically cheeky Kieren Fallon fashion on his penultimate start.