NICO de Boinville expects Santini to raise his game for Saturday’s Paddy Power Cotswold Chase.
Nicky Henderson’s charge was considered a serious contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup at the start of the season, having rounded off his novice campaign over fences with a narrow defeat to the currently sidelined Topofthegame in the RSA Chase at the Festival in March.
However, Santini’s odds for the blue riband actually drifted after he made a successful, but unimpressive, reappearance in the Future Stars Intermediate Chase at Sandown – scrambling home by a head from the much lower rated Now McGinty.
The eight-year-old will need to step up on that if he is to beat a much stronger field on his return to Prestbury Park on Saturday, but his big-race jockey is confident he will.
“It’s all systems go for Saturday and I’m looking forward to it,” said De Boinville.
“He’s in great order. You’d like to see him improve for that run at Sandown, but that was just the start of the year and he’s bound to have come on for it.”
The standard is set by the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Bristol De Mai, who has drawn a blank in four previous appearances at Cheltenham, but did finish a fine third in last season’s Gold Cup.
The grey came off second best to Lostintranslation when bidding for a third straight win in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November and he has been kept fresh for this Grade Two contest since.
Twiston-Davies said: “He seems in good form and I think he probably does (set the standard).
“He ran well in the Gold Cup last year and ran well at Haydock.
“The idea would be to run on Saturday and then go straight to the Gold Cup again.”
Emma Lavelle expects to have a clearer idea of where De Rasher Counter stands after Saturday’s race.
The eight-year-old was raised 9lb following his lucrative success in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in late November and connections are keen to test the water in open company to discover whether he is worthy of a place in the Gold Cup field.
“De Rasher Counter is very well. We were delighted with his performance in the Ladbrokes Trophy, but Saturday is another step up,” said the Marlborough-based trainer.
“This race is going to be key in determining whether he is a legitimate Gold Cup contender, so we need to see how he gets on this weekend.
“He worked well the other day, he stays well and is a good jumper. We are looking forward to seeing how he gets on.”
Phil Kirby is in a similar situation with Top Ville Ben following his runaway success in the Rowland Meyrick at Wetherby on Boxing Day.
Tommy Dowson takes the ride, meaning he misses out on partnering the yard’s star mare Lady Buttons at Doncaster.
Kirby said: “I was in two minds whether to run him earlier in the week, but our horses are running well at the moment and we decided we’d strike while the iron is hot.
“On ratings he’s entitled to be there and we should have a better idea of where we’re going afterwards. If he’s competitive that’ll be great and if he’s not, we’ll have to have a rethink.
“I had to make a decision where Tommy was going to go and we just felt in the end it would be better for him to ride Top Ville.”
The six-strong field is completed by Colin Tizzard’s Slate House and Mister Whitaker from Mick Channon’s yard.
Slate House steps into open company after claiming Grade One honours in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton.
Joe Tizzard, assistant to his father, said: “It’s a hot race, but Slate House is an eight-year-old and in the form of his life, so we thought we’d give it a go.
“He’s going there in great form. We’re fully aware it’s a step up, but I think we’ll learn plenty from it.
“He still hasn’t proved he stays three miles plus around Cheltenham, so hopefully we’ll have a better idea of which way we’re going at the Festival after Saturday – whether we drop back in trip for the Marsh Novices’ Chase or run in the RSA.”