Hughie Morrison admits Not So Sleepy will have to find another chunk of improvement if he is to secure a £100,000 bonus by winning Newbury’s Betfair Hurdle.
The eight-year-old put himself in line for the windfall by lifting the Betfair Exchange Trophy at Ascot before Christmas, triumphing off a 17lb lower mark than his subsequently revised perch.
Morrison also has his doubts about the quality of the Ascot race, but is pleased he took a chance in sending Not So Sleepy over hurdles after a Flat campaign which culminated with fourth place in the Cesarewitch.
The Berkshire trainer said: “It was one of those lucky things that happened. The November Handicap was off, and he was going to have a winter holiday – which we felt he deserved – but we decided to go to Ascot in November, and one thing led to another.
“He has been in good form. He was in good form for the Betfair Exchange Trophy. He came on a stone between the two races at Ascot, and probably showed his best there last time. It was an impressive performance, but he didn’t have very much weight.
“We are full of enthusiasm, but we are pretty realistic in that it might not have been the greatest race. Time will tell – the second (Monsieur Lecoq) ran OK at Leopardstown on Saturday (seventh in Irish Champion Hurdle).”
He added: “He has had a huge hike of 17lb, but he won an £85,000 race – he deserved it.
“It could well be proved they have over-done it this Saturday, but 144 is not a huge rating for top hurdlers.
“He has got a lot to prove this weekend. The form book makes it look as though we have a stone to find (to be a Champion Hurdle horse).
“You don’t win a Dee Stakes (on the Flat) as a three-year-old unless you have a bit of class. Maybe he has got his confidence back.”
Nicky Henderson has won the race five times previously and he sends out both Never Adapt and Mill Green in Saturday’s renewal.
Never Adapt, who is owned by JP McManus, secured a first win for Henderson at Kempton last time out – having raced just once last term, when third in a Triumph Hurdle trial.
Her trainer said: “Never Adapt won well enough at Kempton, but she has taken an awful lot of time to settle down.
“The first time she ever ran at Cheltenham, it was horrendous – you had never seen anything like it. I would think that was the fastest mile ever covered at Cheltenham. It was crazy.
“We’ve had to get her into the idea of dropping it, and she is getting better. She was pretty good at Kempton the other day. She has done everything right so far this year, in that she has learned to race properly.
“We know they will go a hell of a gallop, because we know Hughie’s horse will go off at a million miles an hour.
“I hope they don’t let him go a hurdle in front this time. They have got to keep him in sights.
“We discussed it and we decided she was the one to run in it.”
Mill Green was also a winner last time out, taking a competitive heat at Sandown, and Henderson is pleased how the form has worked out.
The Seven Barrows handler added: “He won well at Sandown the other day and beat the horse (Eldorado Allen) that finished behind Call Me Lord on Saturday.
“He did that well and he got put up for it. He worked well on Saturday, and he would come into it.”
Evan Williams is also double-handed, with Mack The Man and Quoi De Neuf, although he expects the Newbury ground will suit one or the other rather than being suitable for both – depending whether forecast rain arrives in time.
Mack The Man sneaks in at the bottom of the weights, after winning a Sandown Listed heat recently, while Quoi De Neuf arrives on the back of an unlucky run at Ascot – where he was brought down in the race won by Not So Sleepy.
Williams said: “If we get rain it could suit one, and if we don’t it could suit the other.
“The ground will be beautiful there – but if it’s drying, it will definitely favour Quoi De Neuf, and if we got that rain on Saturday then it would definitely play heavily to the strengths of Mack The Man.
“Mack The Man would want cut, plenty of it, and Quoi De Neuf would want better ground.
“Obviously, Mack The Man’s form is working out in a very good way.
“The form, in and around every single one of his races this year – the couple he’s won – does look, in the context of his handicap mark, that he’s attractively weighted.
“Make no mistake – I’ve got a great deal of respect for Quoi De Neuf. I think he’s a smart little horse – and I thought in his run in the Greatwood, he was a very green horse then, and he’s a horse I’ve got a lot of time for.
“It is brutally difficult to say they’ve got decent chances. The reality is, they’re in the handicap – and they deserve to take their chance.”
Jamie Snowden’s Thebannerkingrebel is 4lb well in for this race, after finishing third behind the re-opposing Stolen Silver in the Rossington Main at Haydock last month.
Stolen Silver is 9lb worse off as the pair clash again, and Snowden feels a repeat of Thebannerkingrebel’s Haydock run would give him every chance.
He said: “He’s in good order – he’s come out of his Haydock race well. Arguably, he was a little bit unlucky in the Rossington Main there. If you play the race again a few times, you might come up with a different result.
“Either way, he’s only been beaten a couple of lengths – giving away a 5lb penalty – and the race was run in the same time as the Champion Hurdle Trial there the same day. He was carrying 2lb more than Pentland Hills, and 5lb more than Ballyandy.
“On a form line through that, you can see why the handicapper has put him up for his Haydock run, and he goes to Newbury 4lb well in – so he goes there with every chance.”