February is the calm before the storm. In racing terms this is the month when trainers put the finishing touches to their Cheltenham preparations and punters try and gather in as many clues as possible about the events that will unfold at the Cheltenham Festival in the following month.
Sandown opens proceedings with a high-class card on February 3. The pick of several revealing races is sure to be the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase. Haydock ShedsThis grade one contest over two miles and three furlongs has been won in the past by such greats as Best Mate and the winner is always worth following.
Henrietta Knight, Best Mate's trainer, has also won this race in recent seasons with El Vaquero in 2005 and whatever horse she sends out here will be of interest. Northern trainer Keith Reveley has his eyes on the prize with his Feltham winner Ungaro and watch out too for an entry for Charlie Egerton's Mr Pointment, who should relish this trip and track.
Providing the ground isn't riding unduly heavy at the Esher track, punters should be able to watch Detroit City complete his build-up to a crack at the Champion Hurdle by contesting the Agfa Hurdle. Defeat will be out of the question and backers will be looking to the ToteScoop6 Sandown Handicap Hurdle for a more rewarding wager. This is a good race for fancied horses and every one of the last ten winners has figured in the first four in the market. Watch out for runners from the Nicky Henderson and Philip Hobbs stables. This powerful pair boasts the best of recent records.
February 10 is a red letter day for Cheltenham Festival aspirations and the roads around Newbury racecourse seem sure to be jammed with eager punters looking for confirmation or otherwise of their Festival betting plans while over in Dublin the scheduling of the Ireland and France rubgy union game on Sunday 11 means that the top-class day of Irish Cheltenham trials at Leopardstown has been temporarily moved to February 10.
Trainer Paul Nicholls is using the Newbury fixture to finalize his Cheltenham plans and all eyes will be upon Kauto Star as he embarks upon his last race before the Gold Cup in the Aon Chase. As long as he manages to avoid any jumping errors, he should win this easily and more competitive Cheltenham interest will focus upon the Game Spirit Chase, the traditional stepping stone to Queen Mother Champion Chase success.
This year's renewal could well be right out of the top drawer with Voy Por Ustedes, the current Queen Mother favourite, likely to go head to head with old adversary Foreman as well as Well Chief, Sporazene and Ashley Brook. If the former makes a racecourse appearance after a two year absence then real spice will be added to the Game Spirit mix.
The big betting race on February 10 is the marvellous Totesport Gold Trophy, which is without doubt one of the best handicap hurdles staged during the season. Class will always be the determining factor in digging out a Gold Trophy winner and two trainers in particular - Nicky Henderson and Martin Pipe - have dominated this race in recent years winning a remarkable six of the last ten runnings.
Backers should ignore this pairs' runners at their peril. Nicky Henderson's number one representative is sure to be Tarlac, who is a few pounds better off for his defeat at the hands of David Pipe's Acambo in the Ladbroke Hurdle at Ascot before Christmas. Both horses hold terrific Gold Trophy claims and if the ground is at least good then Acambo is taken to confirm Ascot form with Tarlac.
In the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Leopardstown on the same day Robert Alner's mud-loving The Listener will attempt to confirm his stunning Lexus Chase victory over course and distance with Beef Or Salmon but the pair might be outpointed by In Compliance who goes on trial for the Gold Cup after rising swiftly through the ranks this season for Michael O'Brien. He is a horse going places fast.
Over at Haydock on February 17 there's a thorough test of stamina in the Red Vodka Handicap Chase that is staged over an utterly demanding three and a half miles at the Lancashire course. Lightning may well strike twice because Ossmoses, last year's easy winner, has again been aimed at the prize en route to a crack at the Grand National in April. He should be hard to beat and could have most to fear from recent course winner Kilbeggan Blade, who has also been aimed at this race for some time.
February 17 also sees Ascot stage the Reynoldstown Novices' Chase and favourites have dominated this event in recent years. Henrietta Knight's useful stayer Aztec Warrior could be one for the spoils while in the graded Ascot Chase, Monet's Garden and Racing Demon will bid to put their seasons back on course after flops last time. A terrific day's racing is completed by the Singer & Friedlander Chase at Uttoxeter and the Kingwell Hurdle over at Wincanton while at Fontwell Park on February 18, Lucy Wadham's tough stayer United can land the graded National Spirit Hurdle at the Sussex course.
February's action concludes with Kempton's Racing Post Chase on February 24 and Henry Daly's smart stayer Alderburn looks an ideal sort for this valuable prize. He should be high enough in the weights to make an impact while any runners from the Philip Hobbs and Francois Doumen stables should also be noted. The latter has landed this race twice in the past decade and saddled a stunning one-two twelve months ago.
Elsewhere on the Kempton card there's a Triumph Hurdle trial in the guise of the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle which is the main aim of Alan King's Pouvoir while over at Newcastle the north-east course hosts the marathon Totesport Eider Handicap Chase where stout stayers such as King Killone, Kinburn and Kitski should be noted among the entries.