Connections of Step Back are more hopeful than confident he can successfully defend his crown in the bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown.
Mark Bradstock’s charge was a 13-length winner of the traditional end-of-season highlight 12 months ago, but has not been in the same form so far this season.
After disappointing at Chepstow in October and Warwick in January, the nine-year-old cut out the running in the Grand National at Aintree three weeks ago before eventually being pulled up.
Sara Bradstock, assistant to her husband, is hoping the application of a tongue-tie will help turn Step Back’s fortunes around.
She said: “We’d like to see a bit of rain, because if there was any jar in the ground we wouldn’t run him.
“He seems in good form. He surprised us how well he came out of the National because he’s not the sort of robust horse that you would normally run again so quickly.
“We’re fairly sure he bruised his foot early on at Aintree – and because of that, he didn’t give himself a hard race.”
Step Back is towards the head of the betting followed sustained support during the week, but the gamble has surprised Bradstock.
She added: “I don’t know who has been backing him, because I hadn’t even told anyone we were definitely running him. I suppose it doesn’t look the strongest of renewals – he won the race easily last year and he’s only 10lb higher.
“He hasn’t had as good a preparation as last year. Last season this was the target, whereas this season it wasn’t.
“I can’t say I’m confident, but at the same time I wouldn’t be blown away if he was to run a big race.”
Step Back is one of two previous winners in the field, along with The Young Master.
It is three years since Neil Mulholland’s veteran saw off the Paul Nicholls-trained Just A Par in a thrilling renewal – but there is nothing to suggest his powers are on the wane, judged on recent evidence.
The 10-year-old made the most of a falling mark when registering back-to-back victories at Chepstow and Cheltenham in the autumn – and while he disappointed in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury, he bounced back to finish third in the Kim Muir at last month’s Cheltenham Festival.
“He ran very well in Cheltenham, obviously, and seems to have come out of the race well,” said Mulholland.
“He has a nice racing weight on his back (10st 8lb) – and as long as they don’t get too much rain, he must go there with a live chance.
“He’s a few years older than when he last won it. But he’s in good form, and if he runs as well as he did in Cheltenham he must have a big shout.”
Disputing favouritism with Step Back and The Young Master is the Alan King-trained Talkischeap.
“Whether he should be favourite, I have my doubts, but I hope he’ll run well,” said the Barbury Castle trainer.
“He’s fresh and well, and this has been his target for some time. We had him in the Scottish National as well, but this was always the plan really.
“It looks an open race, but it will still take plenty of winning.”
Paul Nicholls has saddled four previous winners of the race in dual victor Ad Hoc (2001 and 2003), Tidal Bay (2012) and Just A Par (2015).
On the day he will be crowned champion trainer for an 11th time, the Ditcheat maestro fires a three-pronged assault – with Bryony Frost partnering Present Man, Harry Cobden on board Give Me A Copper and Nick Scholfield riding Adrien Du Pont.
Nicholls said: “Present Man is nice and fresh, and he ran well in the race last year (finished third).
“He likes to be fresh and he wants decent ground, so he wouldn’t want too much rain. We’ve trained him for this race in particular, and we are hoping for a good run.
“Give Me A Cooper has run well at Sandown before, but he doesn’t want it too soft either – he wants goodish ground.
“He is not without a chance, because he is fresh as well. It would be a good way to end the season if one of them could win it.”
The outgoing champion trainer, Nicky Henderson, saddles top-weight Beware The Bear and Vyta Du Roc.
The former is on a hat-trick following successive wins at Cheltenham – most recently landing the Ultima Handicap Chase at the Festival.
Henderson said: “We took him out of the Scottish Grand National because the ground at Ayr was lightning quick. I’d be amazed if it was as quick at Sandown, but we’ll have to see.
“He has done nothing wrong all year – he has had a fantastic season. We have just ridden him differently, and it has helped him.
“Vyta is in good form, and Daryl (Jacob) came and schooled him on Thursday morning.”