The National Hunt season really ramps ups a gear this weekend with some great action from Ascot and Wetherby, while there is the small matter of the Grade 1 Champion Chase at Down Royal too.

Here are Nick Luck’s fancies for the nine races live on ITV.

Ascot

FALCO BLITZ (5/1) is a tentative selection of the winner of ITV’s curtain raiser at Ascot on Saturday (1.20pm). Nicky Henderson’s gelding was a course winner over hurdles last season and subsequently shaped like the second-best horse in the EBF Final: time may show that fitting that description behind McFabulous is quite an achievement. He certainly doesn’t look poorly handicapped on that basis and won’t mind any further rain.

CAPELAND can repeat Frodon’s heroics from last week by carrying a big weight to victory for Bryony Frost in Ascot’s Listed Chase (1.55pm) at 3/1. He rather fell apart in Graded company toward the back end of last season, but – on his two efforts here last year – is off a good mark, and might well be able to dominate this group. Ibleo looked a promising youngster last season and can give him most to do.

My idea of the likeliest winner of the Listed handicap hurdle at Ascot (3.05pm) is Emma Lavelle’s HANG IN THERE. He looked out of the top drawer at Cheltenham this time last year but was not so good afterwards. Even on his run when falling late behind Shishkin at Huntingdon, however, he is not badly handicapped and can improve for the removal of the hood that he wore when posting a respectable pipe-opener in soft ground at Fontwell. Lavelle’s charge is pried at 17/2.

WHATMORE might be the answer to the Sodexo Gold Cup (3.40pm) at 5/1. Not always a straightforward customer, he has been very well trained by Henry Daly and really got the hang of things at the end of last season with a string of creditable efforts – he was a bit unlucky not to finish a good bit closer at the Festival when losing a shoe. Richard Johnson has ridden him to three of his five victories, and a good test (guaranteed here) over this trip looks right up his street. There are very few improvers in this race, but Whatmore is almost certainly capable of posting a figure in excess of his current mark.

Wetherby

I’ve got a bit more confidence in Wetherby’s opener (1.35pm) than I did in Ascot’s in the shape of THOMAS TODD at 9/1. Although he is 10, he is pretty low mileage under rules, and looked as though he was still improving when last seen in the spring. His defeat of Compadre (now rated 118 over fences) makes him look quite well treated, and Adam Wedge replacing a conditional might squeeze out another pound or two.

DESARAY GIRL at 16/1 is no more than a sporting pick to upset Verdana Blue in the Mares’ hurdle (2.10pm). The favourite is very hard to oppose, but I confess to being a bit disappointed in her finishing effort at Kempton and wonder if she might be vulnerable if any more rain falls. The selection has moved to Micky Hammond, who shocked a few big guns with Cornerstone Lad last year, and there is a possibility that this mare gets loose on the lead and takes a bit of catching.

ROKSANA is the one that interests me in the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby (2.45pm) at 10/3. She receives nearly a stone from last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle winner Lisnagar Oscar yet is only rated nine pounds his inferior. What is perhaps more interesting is that she has her first run at this sort of trip since running a screamer against If The Cap Fits at Aintree the season before last. Under almost identical conditions here – and completely unexposed at the trip – she must have a good shout if cherry ripe.

VINNDICATION has been very sparingly campaigned by Kim Bailey, but this is his season to shine and he can kick off by winning the Charlie Hall (3.20pm) at 11/4. Simply, he has never run a bad race and ran astoundingly well off a huge weight and no preparation at the Festival this year. Over hurdles, he defeated Coolanly, Champ and Western Ryder, and ran Defi Du Seuil close over fences over an unsuitable trip. Now he is getting the chance to show what he can do in the discipline where he should excel – staying chases – and I fancy him to have too much finish for Cyrname, whose potential shortcomings at skinny odds have been well documented.

Down Royal

DELTA WORK is actually a pretty decent price at 7/4 to win Down Royal’s Champion Chase (2.25pm) on his seasonal debut. The buzz about his new stable companion Presenting Percy, and the presupposition that he’ll improve for the trainer switch, has made them close in the market, but last season showed Delta Work clearly the superior horse. I felt he was always facing an uphill battle against the way the race was run in the Gold Cup, and may not love Cheltenham, but expect a strong performance here.

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