The countdown to the Cheltenham Festival is very much on and with under five weeks to go, the anticipation is growing. Before the huge four days at Prestbury Park next month, there is plenty of top-quality action to keep us going, starting with this weekend at Newbury and Warwick. Here is our preview of a race from each course.

Betfair Hurdle: Mack to prove he’s The Man

The Betfair Hurdle is one of the most valuable handicaps contested in Britain, while it’s also one of the most competitive and finding the winner is always very tricky to find. Having said that, in recent years it has definitely paid to follow novices in the two-mile contest, with eight of the last ten renewals going to younger horses.

Not So Sleepy holds obvious claims after his romp in a similarly competitive handicap at Ascot before Christmas. He was very impressive that day and it’s no surprise to see him just a 6/1 chance to follow up here. However, he’s gone up 17lbs for that victory and that clearly makes his life much tougher. Given that rise, he might find it very difficult giving a stone to Mack The Man, who sneaks into this off a mark of just 130.

Evan Williams’ six-year-old is very progressive and was last seen when scoring easily in a Listed handicap at Sandown last time. He was given an 8lb rise for that one-and-three-quarter-length victory, but that could easily underestimate his true level of ability. That’s because the form of that race is working out extremely well with the runner-up, Protektorat, now rated 16lbs higher following a Listed win and a third in a Grade 2, while the third, Song For Someone, is now rated 7lbs higher.

Mack The Man displays all the assets of a horse that has plenty of improvement left and that suggests the handicapper might not have got to the bottom of him yet. He could be seriously well-handicapped and is a confident selection at 6/1.

Kingmaker Novices’ Chase: Rouge Vif can bring Whittington another Saturday winner

Trainer Harry Whittington won the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase with Saint Calvados two years ago and he can win it again with Rouge Vif this time around. The six-year-old enjoyed a good hurdling campaign which included a Grade 2 win at Kelso and a third in the Grade 1 Top Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree and has continued to improve now switched to fences. He was a good winner on debut at Market Rasen, though things didn’t quite go to plan next time at Cheltenham where he finished last of four.

He was much better at Kempton over Christmas though, where a wind operation seemed to do the trick and that performance should have put him spot on for this. Nube Negra was second in a Grade 1 last time and will be a tough nut to crack, but Rouge Vif is expected to improve again and can take the Grade 2 contest at 7/2.

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