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Cheltenham: Fakir to test British-based Ryanair crew

With just three more weekend's after this before the Cheltenham Festival, this has the potential to be one of the final fact-finding missions before the Cotswolds showpiece next month.

The key race on Saturday is the Grade 1 Betfair Ascot Chase (15:38) and it ought to prove something of a guide towards next month's Ryanair Chase. You can follow the action via our Sports Live Streaming plartform.

Irish raider Fakir D'oudairies was second to Allaho in that contest last spring and has twice tried and failed behind the same rival this season.

If he beats up some leading British contenders now, it will only serve to heighten expectations that 11/10 Ryanair favourite Allaho is 'banker material' for many going into the Cheltenham Festival.

Fakir has plenty in his favour at Ascot

Fakir D'oudairies is 11/4 to bag the Ascot Chase for trainer Joseph O'Brien and in doing so land his second Grade 1 win on British soil. He ran out a convincing winner of the Melling Chase at Aintree last season under Mark Walsh.

He's got a strong profile and is known to handle cut in the ground, so forecast conditions are sure to suit him. He was second to Allaho at Thurles last month, in spite of a bad mistake early on, and connections will feel he's well placed to bag this £85k top prize.

Dashel Drasher is 5/1 to retain a prize he won last year, though that race rather fell apart and this looks a stronger renewal anyhow.

He was also no match for Lostintranslation over course and distance in November and even a 6lb turnaround may not help him in that regard.

Colin Tizzard's charge ran a confusing race in the King George since that win here but odds of 12/1 seem fair that he'll rebound and he is very talented on his day.

Victory in this contest might convince connections he's a Ryanair horse for next month and he trades at 25/1 for that Festival event on 17th March.

Saint Calvados was having his first run for Paul Nicholls when third in the King George on Boxing Day and the champion trainer feels there is more to come from him. Nicholls has won this contest a joint-record four times and Saint Calvados is currently 10/1 to put him out on his own.

More questions than answers these days for Waiting Patiently, but a field that also includes Mister Fisher, Fanion D'estruval and Two For Gold ensures the Ascot feature looks a mouth-watering contest.

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Thomas hoping Sky's the limit

Best known as the man that partnered Denman to Gold Cup glory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in his 2008 duel with stablemate Kauto Star, 2021 will surely be remembered as the year Sam Thomas began to break out as a trainer.

The softly-spoken Welshman is still well shy of his 40th birthday but has now been in the training ranks for six years. He has talked this term of wanting to be known as a trainer rather than as 'Denman's jockey' and he's going about that in the right way.

Thomas' record in 2021 saw him operate a 25 per-cent strike-rate with 24 winners from 96 runners and he'll be hoping Skytastic can become a torchbearer for his yard.

Winner of both bumpers starts last season, Skytastic made a flawless start to his hurdles career last month at Doncaster in winning a maiden readily. He's 11/8 to follow that up in the Novices' Hurdle (13:15) that opens the card at Ascot on Saturday.

Skytastic is rated a 20/1 chance in the market for next month's Ballymore Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham and another smooth win on Saturday could cement his ticket to the Cotswolds and see that price tightening.

Hillcrest looks for rebound

Henry Daly's Hillcrest lost his perfect record over hurdles on Cheltenham Trials Day last month in rather unfortunate circumstances as he unseated Richard Patrick after being hampered by a faller early in the race.

He's going to be aiming to bounce back in the Grade 2 Albert Bartlett Prestige Novices' Hurdle at Haydock (15:50) on Saturday afternoon.

He faces a serious rival in Green Book for the flying Venetia Williams string. He, too, was a victim of circumstance when unseating in the Lanzarote at Kempton but he got back to winning ways since at Sandown upped to 2m7½f for the first time.

The Authorized gelding is only a five-year-old and faces a tough exam now if Hillcrest is to prove as good as he looked at Cheltenham on New Year's Day. Should he land this contest on first attempt at three-miles, Hillcrest's current odds of 16/1 for the Albert Bartlett may be trimmed.

Adagio tackles Kingwell assignment

David Pipe has suggested Saturday's Grade 2 Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton (15:20) is a 'stepping stone' for 11/8 chance Adagio in his journey towards next month's Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

A Grade 1-winning juvenile last season, Adagio was second in the Triumph Hurdle and at Aintree in the spring. He's only had one run this season, chasing home West Cork in a typically hot Greatwood Hurdle in November after he which he had a minor setback.

He faces 4/5 Goshen in the Kingwell, Gary Moore's charge bidding to win this race for the second year running and now back on track after an easy win this month at Sandown.

Goshen is not bound for the Champion Hurdle this year seemingly, but if Adagio can claim his scalp at Wincanton, the 25/1 on offer for the Pond House inmate might soon dry up. Victory in this Grade 2 could see Adagio position himself as the leading British-based challenger to the mighty mare Honeysuckle in next month's two-mile Championship contest.

Trials take place at Gowran Park

The horse that beat Adagio in the Triumph Hurdle last season so impressively was Quilixios but Henry De Bromhead's charge has finished second on both starts this season.

The Gordon Elliott-trained Teahupoo beat him on both occasions and they draw swords again in the Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park (14:20) on Saturday.

There was a dozen-lengths between them at Naas in November and while that trimmed to a half-length at Limerick over Christmas, that was a race in which Quilixios moved well and led by three-lengths jumping the final flight, only for his old rival to overhaul him.

The two five-year-olds face some established older rivals in Darasso and Saldier now and it's certainly not a personal battle between Quilixios and Teahupoo, priced at 20/1 and 25/1 respectively for next month's Champion Hurdle. A clear-cut verdict for either may see them headed for that clash with Honeysuckle in a months' time with increased hope.

Later on the card at Gowran, look out for Melon in the Grade 2 Red Mills Chase at 15:30. He hasn't won since December 2019 but ran a good fourth in the Savills Chase over three-miles at Leopardstown in December after placing behind Allaho in the John Durkan on his comeback.

Melon has been second in four of his five visits to the Cheltenham Festival and is a 20/1 chance to finally register a win in the Ryanair Chase next month. He's been a very consistent performer in his career and looks well-placed to end his barren spell now.

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