Ruth Jefferson can well understand why Waiting Patiently is clear favourite to retain his Betfair Ascot Chase crown.
A setback at the end of last season, unsuitably quick ground this winter and then sheer bad luck on his return in the King George VI Chase mean Waiting Patiently has jumped just nine fences in public since his victory ahead of much-loved veteran Cue Card 12 months ago.
Jefferson knows she still cannot afford to take any chances with ground conditions for the lightly-raced eight-year-old.
But as long as she is reassured after walking a course described as good to soft for Saturday, Waiting Patiently will head a field of six which contains old rival Politologue along with his Paul Nicholls stablemate Cyrname and three more thoroughly worthy Grade One opponents.
Jefferson said: “It’s easy to see why he has been made favourite.
“Bar Politologue, he has the strongest form in the book – and he has also beaten Politologue before (in a Grade Two Haydock novices’ chase two years ago).”
The North Yorkshire trainer does cite the proviso that she must be satisfied by conditions before sending out Waiting Patiently against Nicholls’ two challengers, Kim Bailey’s Charbel, Aso from Venetia Williams’ yard and Colin Tizzard’s dual Grade One winner Fox Norton.
“We’ll have to take our chance, all being well – there are no easy Grade Ones,” she said.
“I will walk the course. He is a horse with a high knee action – as long there is soft, he will run. If we didn’t think it was right for him, then he wouldn’t.”
Waiting Patiently’s only racecourse appearance this season ended when he was badly hampered and unseated Brian Hughes on Boxing Day after Bristol De Mai fell in front of him.
He will be returning to the scene of what was an emotional triumph last year, prevailing on his first start since Jefferson took over the trainer’s licence from her late father Malcolm – and just a day after his funeral.
It was Waiting Patiently’s seventh successive victory, continuing his then unbeaten record over fences on the back of two Listed wins earlier in the campaign.
“Everything just went right there last season – it all worked in our favour,” added Jefferson.
“You never expect to win Grade Ones. But it was obviously great that he did it, and it was a great day for all of us.”
Charbel has Huntingdon’s Edredon Bleu Chase, formerly known as the Peterborough, among his two wins from five starts this season.
Bailey, however, is not fancying the eight-year-old’s chances back up to the top class.
“This is a very, very competitive race – it could easily be at the (Cheltenham) Festival,” he said.
“On form, he can’t win it. We have to raise our game hugely to win this race.
“He is the lowest-rated horse in it, but he deserves to be running. He either goes here, or to Cheltenham (next month) – and his experiences there so far have not been great.”
Bailey is content Charbel has already cashed in his best chance, having won at Huntingdon before coming up short in third on watered, “gluey” ground which was “all wrong for him” at Kempton last month.
“His ‘Cheltenham’ was probably the Peterborough Chase,” said Bailey.
“But there wasn’t a horse in that race anywhere near the calibre of what he is up against on Saturday.”
When Bailey’s Vinndication finished third in Sandown’s Grade One Scilly Isles Novice Chase this month, much was made about his absence at that level since the exploits of Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle winners Master Oats and Alderbrook almost a quarter of a century ago.
The resurgent veteran trainer is not too concerned about that statistic, though.
“We’re not doing too badly, and not complaining,” he said.
“There are lots (of very good trainers) who have not had one (Grade One).
“We have one or two, stuck away there in a cupboard – gathering dust!”
Charbel is a comparative outsider to add to them this weekend, while the bookies are more concerned about Cyrname and Politologue.
John Hales’ grey is back down to this two miles five furlongs after appearing to struggle for stamina when fourth in the King George, while Cyrname arrives on the back of an emphatic course-and-distance handicap win last month.
Nicholls said: “There is not a lot between them.
“Politologue has Grade One form, and Cyrname doesn’t – but he did look like Grade One winner waiting to happen the other day at Ascot.”
On that same card, Fox Norton marked his return from a long lay-off by chasing home the mighty Altior over two miles and one furlong – while Aso’s two handicap wins have persuaded Williams to put him in the mix for the Ryanair Chase at the Festival.
Tizzard is hoping Fox Norton’s performance points the way forward for Cheltenham.
“He had a lovely prep race against Altior, ” the trainer told Sky Sports Racing.
“He’s a lovely looking horse and he’s had three or four weeks now and we should see a better horse.
“This is prep race to see whether he’s going to stay for the Ryanair Chase or go in a race where Altior frightens off half of them (Queen Mother Champion Chase).”