Top-class staying hurdler L'Ami Serge is among 22 five-day confirmations for the £80,000 Listed Sky Bet Handicap Chase (3.15pm) at Doncaster this Saturday, January 27.
The three-mile contest is Doncaster's richest Jump race of the year and centrepiece of an excellent seven-race card that also features three Grade Two contests plus the £50,000 Sky Bet Britain's Most Popular Online Bookmaker Handicap Chase over two miles.
L'Ami Serge (Nicky Henderson, 11st 5lb), winner of the G1 French Champion Hurdle in June, has not raced over fences since finishing second to Le Prezien in a graduation chase at Exeter in December, 2016. On his most recent start, he finished runner-up in the G1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on December 23.
The six-year-old also boasts G1 form over fences, including when third behind Black Hercules in the JLT Novices' Chase at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival. He has won on two of his six chases starts and is the 11/2 favourite with Sky Bet for Saturday's competitive contest.
L'Ami Serge's regular rider Daryl Jacob, who is a Sky Bet ambassador, commented today: "L'Ami Serge is in good form ahead of Saturday's Sky Bet Handicap Chase at Doncaster.
"I schooled him over ten fences on Thursday at Nicky Henderson's and he feels in really, really good nick.
"His confidence is sky high after running over hurdles and I'm really encouraged by how he felt and schooled. He looks great too. His skin is in excellent condition.
"The ground at Doncaster should be drier than elsewhere and I think the race will really suit him. They go a good gallop and he can just mosey away and work his way into it."
Recent G2 victor Definitly Red (Brian Ellison, 8/1) heads the weights on 11st 12lb, although he also has the option of the G2 Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham on the same day.
Trainer Kim Bailey, who has captured the Sky Bet Handicap Chase with Man O'Magic (1990) and more recently The Rainbow Hunter (2014), is set to rely on the least experienced chaser among the confirmations in Thumb Stone Blues (9st 13lb, 14/1).
Thumb Stone Blues is already a course scorer at Doncaster, having taken a novices' hurdle over nearly two and a half miles by 25 lengths in March.
The eight-year-old, who carries the familiar colours of Paul & Clare Rooney, has been placed in all three of his chase starts so far this season and was last seen out when second to Delusionofgrandeur in a handicap chase over three miles and a furlong at Catterick on November 24.
Bailey said today: "Thumb Stone Blues has the option of Sky Bet Chase or the novices' chase on Friday but, looking at Friday's race, I suspect he will run on Saturday.
"He has been in good form since Catterick. We have been waiting for some nice ground and the only place you are going to get anything remotely respectable at this time of year is probably Doncaster.
"He has run well this season, but it has been slightly frustrating because he has been beaten. He is in a bit of a difficult situation in that he is not one thing or the other - he is not good enough to win a decent novices' chase and he might find it hard to win a really nice handicap."
If In Doubt, successful for trainer Philip Hobbs and owner J P McManus in 2015, is the most recent novice to win the Sky Bet Handicap Chase.
Paul Nicholls could be double-handed with Frodon (11st 7lb, 8/1), runner-up to Gold Present in a similar contest at Ascot before Christmas, and Warriors Tale (11st, 16/1) who was second behind the same rival in the Sir Peter O'Sullevan Memorial Handicap Chase at Newbury on December 2.
Another two-time winner of the race, Nigel Twiston-Davies, has two possible representatives in last season's G1 Manifesto Novices' Chase victor Flying Angel (11st 5lb, 14/1) and Bigbadjohn (10st, 12/1). Flying Angel is yet to replicate the Aintree form in three starts so far this season, while Bigbadjohn is in line for his stable debut having previously been with Rebecca Curtis.
Long House Hall (10st 12lb, 16/1) could make his belated return to action for trainer Dan Skelton. Carl Hinchy's 10-year-old has not raced since July, 2016, when he recorded an impressive victory in the Listed Summer Plate Handicap Chase at Market Rasen.
G3 Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase runner-up Wakanda (Sue Smith, 10st 12lb, 12/1) and Mustmeetalady (Jonjo O'Neill, 10st 1lb, 16/1), successful last time out over the course and distance, also remain engaged.
Doncaster's Executive Director Tim Banfield commented this afternoon: "We are delighted to see Definitly Red head the five-day confirmations for Saturday's Sky Bet Handicap Chase.
"With temperatures expected to improve this week, we are looking forward to two days of thrilling jump racing starting here at Doncaster on Friday, January 26."
Michael Shinners of Sky Bet added today: "L'Ami Serge is Sky Bet's 11/2 market leader for what is shaping up to be another excellent renewal of the Sky Bet Handicap Chase.
"Connections of top-weight Definitly Red are hoping he can lay down a marker for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, while Paul Nicholls, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Kim Bailey and Alan King are all chasing a third victory in the race."
Sky Bet Handicap Chase - Sky Bet prices:
11/2 L'Ami Serge
8/1 Definitly Red, Frodon
12/1 Bigbadjohn, Flying Angel
14/1 O Seven, Thumb Stone Blues, Wakanda
16/1 Long House Hall, Mustmeetalady, Pilgrims Bay, Vibrato Valtat, Warriors Tale
20/1 Bishops Road, Coologue, Label Des Obeaux, Tenor Nivernais
25/1 Aloomomo The Young Master
33/1 Federici, Minella On Line, What Happens Now
The other big handicap at Doncaster on Saturday is the £50,000 Sky Bet Britain's Most Popular Online Bookmaker Handicap Chase (3.50pm, 16 entries) over two miles.
Possible runners include G1 runner-up Forest Bihan (Brian Ellison), multiple G2 victor Top Gamble (Kerry Lee) and exciting novice Bigmartre (Harry Whittington).