AGINCOURT goes into battle on a favourable handicap mark at Wetherby today where he is confidently expected to stake a serious claim for the Gateforth Handicap Chase.

Speed ratings are an invaluable tool when it comes to assessing current form and Agincourt (2.30) clocked a particularly fast time when scoring at Ludlow in January. He has since failed to fire at Sandown, but he was taking on far stronger company, so it's not unreasonable to forgive that effort.

Trainer John Upson seems to be of the same opinion and has dropped his seven-year-old down in grade to a level more in keeping with Agincourt's ability, a ploy likely to produce results in the three-mile-and-one-furlong contest.

The meeting starts with the Brayton "Hands And Heels" Conditional Handicap Hurdle.

As the race title suggests, use of the stick is not allowed, always sensible where young and often inexperienced riders are involved. In any case, I don't think a whip will necessarily be required to persuade Intrepid Mogal (1.55) to get his head in front.

He ran up against the high-class Paul Nicholls-trained novice Joly Bey at Chepstow six days ago, but with nothing remotely equating to the latter's excellence in this afternoon's line-up, Intrepid Mogal appears as if he's found an ideal opportunity to break his duck.

Rookie handler Richard Guest can do little wrong at present and more success looks as if it is coming his way via Able Native (3.05) in the Beal Handicap Hurdle.

Guest, on the mark with Sabi Sands at Catterick yesterday, is boasting a magnificent near 30 per cent strike-rate with his runners, having only held a public licence to train for around two weeks.

Able Native's credentials are there for all to see, running extremely well after a long absence at Hereford late last month. She'd been off course for the best part of five months prior to that outing and in the circumstances is entitled to come on a ton fitness-wise for the outing.

At Carlisle the ground is going to be a whole lot more testing than at Wetherby, which should play into the hands of the dour stayer Carnacrack (2.40).

Clive Storey's mount loves the mud, not to mention the three-mile-and-two-furlong trip, which is tailor-made for his undoubted long suit - stamina.

Mary Reveley has admitted there is a problem with coughing in her powerful yard, although she is still sending out those horses that have scoped clear for mucus on their lungs.

Hopefully Man Murphy (3.50) will not be affected by the troublesome virus and bring home the bacon in the most valuable race on the card, the Penton Novices' Chase. Man Murphy has only once been beaten over fences and like Carnacrack, is at his best when his legs are going in hock deep.

Chris Grant is enjoying a steady season and Baron Monty (5.35) has made especially pleasing progress winning his last two races.

Despite having to shoulder a double penalty, Baron Monty is still fancied to complete a well-deserved hat-trick in the closing Liddel Water National Hunt Flat Race.

* Recently-retired Bishop Auckland Grand National-winning trainer Denys Smith will be the centre of attention at a reunion party for his former staff and owners at Hardwick Hall Hotel, near Sedgefield, at 7.30pm on Saturday, March 22. Tickets, priced £20, including buffet and entertainment, are available with further details from his daughter, Susan Carson, on 01388 763432.

* Nicky Henderson reflected yesterday upon the loss of Bacchanal as his stable gears up for next week's Cheltenham Festival.

The Lambourn trainer will have his usual sizeable raiding party as he heads for a meeting where he has an admirable record.

But he admitted that Bacchanal, killed in a fall in the Pillar Properties Chase at Cheltenham this year, would have been at the forefront of any challenge his team makes for Festival honours.

''Every morning this week I have wished that I still had Bacchanal here,'' he said.

''I can absolute guarantee that those blinkers had worked - despite going the wrong way round over the seven fences that he jumped he had never been better. Mick (Fitzgerald) said that at Kempton he'd had to go for every fence but that day he was amazing.

''I really thought we'd cracked it and I was thinking about the Gold Cup after the first couple of fences. The poor old boy broke his leg and fell because of it, rather than the other way around.''

Henderson will be represented in next Thursday's Tote Cheltenham Gold Cup by Marlborough, who pleased connections in a final workout this morning.

''You would have to be very happy with him,'' Henderson said. ''If the Aon hadn't have taken place, I'd be leaping up and down and getting excited.

''Last year in the Gold Cup he finished fourth and ran the race of his life in the King George."

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