Elegant Escape seeks to confirm his place in Colin Tizzard’s Cheltenham Gold Cup squad when he contests the BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase on Saturday.
The Dorset handler claimed the blue riband for the first time with Native River last March and he is set to defend his crown alongside Thistlecrack, after the pair filled out the places in the King George on Boxing Day.
Elegant Escape has not yet scaled the heights of his two illustrious stablemates – but is on the fringes of a seat at the top table after following in Native River’s hoofprints by landing the Welsh Grand National on his latest appearance.
Tizzard said: “We are going here to see he is good enough for the Gold Cup.
“He was fine after the Welsh National and for the last three weeks we have been going for this.
“You mustn’t underestimate him, as he had very good form as a novice and was second in a Ladbrokes Trophy and has won a Welsh National.
“He is not just a plodder and we will find out a bit more about him – whether he is a Gold Cup horse or not.
“Hopefully Frodon will make it a good stamina test and the Gold Cup is a bit further again. This won’t be the end of the story.
“He is a beautiful young horse.”
Elegant Escape is a best-priced 33-1 to claim the Magners-sponsored Gold Cup glory, with Native a general 5-1 shot to repeat his 2018 heroics and Thistlecrack around 14-1 to lift the crown as an 11-year-old.
The clear favourite at 3-1 is Presenting Percy, who beat Elegant Escape into third place in last season’s RSA Chase and made a winning return to action in Thursday’s Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park.
Tizzard added: “I didn’t watch the Presenting Percy race, but all the press think he is equally as good as last year, so it is all good fun.
“Hopefully we can keep all three of ours sound and go there with chances.
“For me to say I have three in with a chance in the Gold Cup would be fantastic. We would just like to get there with Native River, Thistlecrack and Elegant Escape in top form.
“There is Paul Nicholls’ horse that won the King George (Clan Des Obeaux), but Presenting Percy would be the main challenger as he has won an RSA.
“He is obviously a very good horse and I’m not going to run any of them down as they are Gold Cup horses and they are what we strive for.”
The standard is set by the Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon, who clinched his third course victory with a tremendous weight-carrying performance from the front in last month’s Caspian Caviar Gold Cup.
He is also 33-1 for the three-and-a-quarter-mile blue riband in March, but has yet to win beyond two miles and five furlongs.
Nicholls’ assistant, Harry Derham, said: “I think he definitely deserves to have a go. He’s an absolute legend of a horse and I think we can be fairly sure he’ll give his running, as he always does.
“I not going to pretend I know whether he’ll stay or not, but he loves Cheltenham and he’s not been stopping at the end of his races, so I’d like to think he will, but we won’t really know until we try.
“I don’t think we’ll be holding him up and hoping he’ll stay. I’m sure he’ll bounce out and do his usual thing and he’ll either stay or he won’t.
“If he stays, the Gold Cup will be an option and if he doesn’t, we know he’s a very good horse at two and a half miles.”
Nicky Henderson saddles the Simon Munir and Isaac Souede-owned pair of Terrefort and Valtor.
Terrefort was a dual Grade One winner as a novice over fences last season, but returns with something to prove after disappointing on his reappearance at Sandown in November.
The owners’ retained rider Daryl Jacob partners Terrefort, with James Bowen aboard Valtor, who is a fascinating contender, stepping up in class after dominating his rivals in an Ascot handicap on his British debut.
Henderson said in his blog for Unibet: “I don’t really know what to make of this race to be honest and both of these horses are unknown quantities.
“Daryl came in to school both of them and they each jumped absolutely beautifully, which made his decision extremely difficult.
“But in the end, he opted for this horse because he knows what he’s capable of from last season and we just have to put that Sandown run behind us because he was never jumping and it was a major blip.”
He added of Valtor: “James was on board at Ascot so it makes sense for him to ride again and we will know much more about whether he’s a Gold Cup or Grand National horse after this.”
Jonjo O’Neill’s 2017 Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up Minella Rocco makes his first competitive start since falling at the final fence in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last February.
O’Neill said: “He is in grand form and it will be great to get him back on track. I am looking forward to running him.
“He has been a bit unlucky in life, but he seems in good shape. He was going to run earlier in the season, but then he had a small setback and it has taken us a while to get him right.
“He is better on nice ground, so it should be lovely. I’m just looking forward to him running a nice race.
“I would say the Grand National is the plan, but we won’t really know until after this. He is in the Gold Cup as well, but I’m sure he will go for the National as that was the plan last year and I don’t see it being much different.”
Richard Hobson’s outsider Allysson Monterg completes the six-strong field.