THE high peak of National Hunt racing looms large next week with the Cheltenham Festival but Chris Gordon has his eyes firmly fixed on more immediate fare with two runners at Sandown’s most valuable jump meeting of the season on Saturday.

That is if the weather is not as damning as the forecast suggests.

Highway One O Two will go for the fiercely competitive Imperial Cup for which he has been introduced as low as 8/1 in the 21-runner handicap.

“A nice pot” quipped the Morestead trainer of the Grade 3 hurdle that carries a £28,000 prize but the advice is to hold back on a punt. “If we get as much rain as is thought, we will abandon the idea,” he warns.

Ironically the six-year-old should not have been under consideration for the race as he was destined for a chasing campaign after an impressive novice hurdling career last season that culminated in winning a useful race at Kempton but that has been aborted.

He did too much from the front on his seasonal debut in bottomless ground at Flos Las, ultimately falling five out, and then got no further than the second at Carlisle.

He was brought back hurdling but scoped badly after flopping at Sandown and then ran far too keen in the Betfair at Newbury last month.

The yard however will be definitely represented in the preceding European Breeders Novice Handicap Hurdle Final in which Annual Invictus is burdened with the top weight of 11st 12lbs. Unlike ‘Highway’, he will relish soft ground and the trip of two miles, three furlongs.

The six-year-old won two novice events at Plumpton and one at Lingfield before finishing fast to be beaten less than six lengths when fourth in the Betfair.

“Ideally we would have liked another two weeks with him after that race where the ground had dried up a little and he was finishing like a train over the two miles. I am not worried about the ground and he will enjoy going through it more than most. He will be ridden quietly.”

The handicap is scheduled to be his last over hurdles.

“He will go chasing next season,” explained Gordon. “He has won over two and a half as a novice but we will start him over two.”

That too should have been the agenda for Commanche Red who has been a bitter disappointment or as Gordon candidly expresses it: “He has lost his bottle.”

The 150 rated eight-year-old was strongly fancied in in a classy chase at Ascot in October but never recovered from a series of early errors and then ran dismally in two more races before being reverted back to the smaller obstacles.

He showed a glimmer of form when runner-up in a Kempton bumper in February and goes on a recovery mission at Sandown on Friday. “He would enjoy his races more if he settled better.”

Gordon has only two entries at Cheltenham, his major hope resting with On The Slopes who goes for Friday’s Grand Annual. The seven-year-old has undergone a breathing operation after Richard Johnson thought he was struggling to get up the taxing hill at Cheltenham in November.

The horse is ideally suited by better ground and with limited options because of the predominately soft going, Gordon was forced to run him in a bumper at Kempton last month.

Not the best of workers at home, he has been taken to Lambourn for a couple of gallops to sharpen him up. “Ideally we would have liked to have given him another run over fences before Cheltenham but have not been able to do so.”

His other runner at the meeting will be Can’t Stop Now in Thursday’s Boodle Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. A £7,000 purchase at the Newmarket sales in July, he finished third at Kempton and then pulled off an 8/1 surprise at Fakenham before tipping up at the last at Taunton in December.

One horse that has almost disappeared off the radar is Lord Baddesley who has been deliberately kept for a Spring campaign. “He will run sooner or later but we have nothing in mind. A handicap might be the best route for him.”

Gordon had virtually no runners at the turn of the year after the yard was bedevilled by a minor respiratory virus.

“The horses started coughing and they were struggling,” he revealed. “We had to take it easy for a while.”

But he has still bagged 25 winners bringing in more than £170,000 in prize money. Against that, he has suffered the frustration of having more than 80 placings.