Amy Murphy is under no illusions about the task facing Kalashnikov in a fascinating Paddy Power Handicap Chase at Cheltenham.
With a total prize fund of £70,000 up for grabs, a strong field of 12 runners have assembled for the most valuable event of the afternoon at Prestbury Park on New Year’s Day.
Kalashnikov is bidding to open his account for the campaign, having filled the runner-up spot on each of his two starts so far this season, most recently going down by just a nose to the reopposing Oldgrangewood at Newbury.
He faces no easy task under the welter burden of 11st 12lb, however, conceding weight to Dan Skelton’s Oldgrangewood, Harry Whittington’s Saint Calvados and Mick Channon’s three-times course winner Mister Whitaker, among others.
Murphy said: “It’s a proper race and it’s a big ask under that weight, but we’re looking forward to it.
“He’s in super form and it’s a chance to give him some more course experience ahead of the Festival in March.
“To be honest, I’d sooner be running in a level-weights graded race, but there just isn’t a suitable one for him left-handed, so we’ll give it a go and we’ll learn a bit more.”
Oldgrangewood is only a pound worse off for the rematch with Kalashnikov.
Skelton’s assistant, Tom Messenger, said: “It’s never been his ground when he has been to Cheltenham, so he has probably not got the best of form round there, but that is mainly ground related.
“He went up 7lb for winning the last day and is off 142, but he has won off 145 so he is still handicapped to win.
“He has got a good chance and he will stay on well up the hill, as long as the ground is not too soft.”
Saint Calvados made a successful start to his season at this venue in October before finishing last of four – but not beaten far – behind Defi Du Seuil in November’s Shloer Chase.
He steps up to two and a half miles for the first time in his career in the Cotswolds.
“It’s a hell of a race. Saint Calvados seems to go well fresh and has had a nice bit of time since his last run in November, so we’re looking forward to running him,” said Whittington.
“It’s our first trip over the trip. It’s something we’ve had up our sleeve for a while and I think it’s the right time to do it, as he’s probably reached his limit over two miles.
“He’s a bit older and stronger and if he does improve for the longer trip, hopefully we can look at some bigger and better targets.
“That’s not to say this is an easy race. There are some very good, progressive horses in the race, including Kalashnikov, who is one of my favourite horses outside of my own yard.
“We’re looking forward to it and I think we’ll learn a huge amount.”
Mister Whitaker has not been seen in competitive action since landing the Grade Two Silver Trophy at Prestbury Park last April.
Channon said: “It looks a very good race, but he’s in good form and we couldn’t be happier with him, to be honest.
“It’s his first run for a while. I hope he’ll improve for the run, but at the same time I’d like to think he’s fit enough to run well – I don’t think it will be a lack of fitness that gets him beat, put it that way.
“He loves Cheltenham, so we’ll give it a go.”
Other contenders include the Paul Nicholls-trained Magic Saint, Venetia Williams’ Cepage, Nicky Henderson’s Ok Corral and Ellmarie Holden’s Irish challenger Ex Patriot.
Magic Saint was last seen accounting for subsequent Desert Orchid Chase winner Bun Doran in late November, and jockey Harry Cobden is hoping for another bold show.
He said: “The last day he looked like he wanted two and a half (miles) and I’ve ridden him over two and a half before and he got beaten, so I’m not sure what to expect in a way.
“He has got a fair bit of weight, but I’m hoping he is only a young horse and is still improving. It would be a fair old performance if he did win off 154.”