The inaugural North West Masters takes place at Haydock Park and Aintree this weekend - Saturday, November 19 and Sunday, November 20 - with trainer Len Lungo and owner Sir Robert Ogden both looking to field teams for the lucrative two-day festival.
Lungo's raiding party could be headed by The Bajan Bandit in the two mile, seven and a half furlong, £70,000 betfairpoker.com Handicap Hurdle at Haydock - the richest handicap hurdle of its type in Britain and a contest that could also include the likes of Sh Boom, Jazz d'Estruval, St Matthew and Dancing Bay.
The Scotsman will also have Paddy The Piper and Monolith in the two and a half mile, £25,000 William Hill/Stanleybet Children In Need Handicap Hurdle at Aintree the following day.
Lungo intends to run his stalwart The Bajan Bandit at Haydock on Saturday.
The 10-year-old won over the course and distance on his latest outing in February when he drew six-lengths clear of Hirvine on soft ground.
Lungo has given his charge a break since then and reported today: "He's as fit as you can get them at home. All his wins have come on soft, verging on heavy so if they do get two or three dry days it will actually go against him. The wetter the better for him."
The trainer is considering going back over fences with The Bajan Bandit this winter.
He commented: "He's had a few back problems over the years with pulled muscles and things, but if his back stays in good shape we could possibly look at the likes of the Eider Chase and the Welsh National.
"He's got such a high rating that you've just got to find the races and the ground when you can. It's not easy to map out a programme."
Lungo also hopes to have a hand in the outcome of the William Hill/Stanleybet Children In Need Handicap Hurdle at Aintree on Sunday, with Paddy The Piper and Monolith primed for action on their seasonal bows.
He said: "I intend to run Paddy The Piper in the two and a half mile handicap hurdle at Aintree. We're happy with him. We plan to switch between hurdles and chases with him this season."
The eight-year-old gelding was a prolific winner as a novice hurdler, winning a two and a quarter mile Grade Two event at Kelso in March, 2004, but encountered problems when tried over fences last season.
"We want to see him back on the track. He was jumping to the right and we discovered that was because he had a problem in the hock. That seems to have been successfully treated and he's now on an even keel so we'll take it one race at a time."
Stablemate Monolith, last seen when fourth of five on the Flat at Carlisle in May, could join Paddy The Piper in the Aintree contest.
Lungo said of the seven-year-old: "Monolith has been off the track a long time but we do intend to run him if the ground is suitable. It's a nice place to begin the season.
"I don't want to start him on any quick ground. He got a bit jarred on very fast ground at Carlisle so we gave him a little holiday and we're back on the road with him now."
OGDEN RUNNERS AT THE WEEKEND
Like Lungo, Sir Robert Ogden also has two possible contenders engaged in the £25,000 William Hill/Stanleybet Children in Need Handicap Hurdle at Aintree. The Market Man and Iris Royal are entered, with the former the more likely starter providing the ground is not too soft, according to racing manager, Barry Simpson.
Simpson revealed: "The Market Man is in very good form, but we are looking for decent ground. Although he does go on a soft surface we believe he is a better horse on good ground, so that will influence our decision.
"He missed Cheltenham because we considered the ground was too tacky for him. He's a nice horse and we need to give him the right education. We think there's a decent handicap race in him over hurdles and he is a possible runner at this moment.
"Iris Royal has an alternative engagement in the Peterborough Chase. He has been off for a while and needs a race as a starting point, but he has a high rating over fences."
Halexy could represent the owner in the £60,000 totepool Grand Sefton Handicap Chase, over an extended two miles and five furlongs of the National course, although he is not a certain starter at this moment.
"I'll speak to Jonjo (O'Neill) and look at the entries and see who is available to ride. He disappointed last time at Haydock but ran well the time before, where he just got touched off at Cheltenham. A lot depends on the size of the field for him."
Haydock Clerk of the Course Kirkland Tellwright today reported no change to the going and the forecast looks good for Saturday.
He said: "We are good to soft, soft in places so there is no change and there is no rain forecast for the rest of the week. We are in the middle of an anti-cyclone so it's dry, bright and cold at night."
Andrew Tulloch, Clerk of the Course at Aintree, said today: "The ground remains good to soft, soft in places on both the Mildmay and Grand National courses.
"The rest of the week is forecast to be dry and it should also remain dry over the weekend."
LATEST BETFAIR PRICES ON THE BETFAIR CHASE & BETFAIR MILLION
To win the Betfair Chase - Betfair Bet: 2.06 Kicking King, 6.0 Ollie Magern, 10.5 Kingscliff, 11.5 Beef Or Salmon, 14.0 Keen Leader, 17.0 Celestial Gold, 29.0 Lord Transcend, 30.0 Take The Stand, 110.0 Royal Auclair, 370.0 Hand Inn Hand, 1,000.0 Happy Hussar.
Will the Betfair Million be won? - Betfair bet: Yes 5.7, No 1.21
Prices accurate at 3pm on Wednesday November 16 - deduct 1 for traditional odds.
The North West Masters is an innovative new two-day festival of racing staged at Haydock Park and Aintree on Saturday and Sunday, November 19 and 20 and promises to provide a feast of high-quality action with 13 races worth a combined total of over £500,000 spread throughout the weekend.
Haydock stages the initial day of the North West Masters on Saturday, November 19, and the thrilling feature is the new £150,000 Betfair Chase.
The three-mile Betfair Chase is also the initial leg of the Betfair Million, the first £1-million bonus in jump racing, which also involves winning the Stan James King George VI Chase at Sandown on December 26 and the totesport Gold Cup at Cheltenham on March 17.
Haydock also stages the most valuable three-mile handicap hurdle run in Britain, the £70,000 betfairpoker.com Handicap Hurdle, on the same seven-race card.
Aintree the next day, Sunday, November 20, has another fabulous set of races, headed by the £100,000 totesport Becher Chase and the £60,000 totepool Grand Sefton Chase, both of which take place over the world famous Grand National fences and are being staged on the same day for the first time. Thanks to the support of the tote, both races have gone up significantly in value, with the totesport Becher Chase, run over three miles and three furlongs, rising by £25,000 and the extended two mile, five furlong totepool Grand Sefton Chase getting a £10,000 boost.
WEEKEND TOURISM BOOST FOR REGION
Merseyside's tourism industry is looking forward to a bumper weekend as thousands of visitors are expected travel to the region for the North West Masters.
Liverpool and St Helens hotels have completely sold out, whilst there is only very limited stock available in Southport, as the region prepares to host the biggest new event in the British racing calendar.
Haydock Park and Aintree Racecourse have teamed up to create the event which features a full weekend of racing at two different venues.
Advance ticket sales have been strong for both racedays. The Mersey Partnership's tourism website www.visitliverpool.com has welcomed almost 1,000 unique users looking for information on the event.
Martin King, Director of Tourism at The Mersey Partnership, said: "Our hotels are full this weekend, right through Liverpool, Southport and St Helens. Merseyside has one of the finest festival line-ups in the country and the North West Masters only adds to this impressive roster. And for a brand new event the take-up has been amazing - hopefully this will become an annual fixture in our calendar."
After the North West Masters racing at Haydock on Saturday, St Helens town centre will see rock group Texas play live at the spectacular Christmas lights switch-on. Doubling as the official NW Masters party, this free event will also feature other live music, acts and entertainment, including a full set by tribute band the Bootleg Beatles.
THE NORTH WEST MASTERS PROGRAMME
Haydock, Saturday, November 19, 2005
12.45pm £20,000 Drink J. W. Lees Bitter Jump v Flat Jockeys Handicap Hurdle 2m
1.20pm £25,000 Gordon Plant Memorial Newton Novices' Hurdle 2m